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My Dad’s Friendship With Charles BarkleyCopy the code below to embed the WBUR audio player on your sitePlayWhen Charles Barkley’s mother, Charcey Glenn, passed away in June 2015, Barkley’s hometown of Leeds, Alabama, came to the funeral to pay respects. But there was also an unexpected guest. Barkley’s friends couldn’t quite place him. He wasn’t a basketball player, he wasn’t a sports ﬁgure, and he wasn’t from Barkley’s hometown. Here’s what I can tell you about him: He wore striped, red polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and got really excited about two-for-one deals. He was a commuter. He worked as a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa. In short, he was everyone’s suburban dad. More specifically, he was my dad.“You know, it was obviously a very difﬁcult time,” Barkley told me recently. “And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’ They’re, like, ‘How do you know him?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’ “”You know, [Barkley] has a big personality,” my dad, Lin Wang, told me last year, when I recorded him talking about Barkley.My dad told me that he knew about Barkley long before he met him.“Well, yeah, he’s a top-50 player in the history of the NBA,” he said. “For many years, he was the No. 2 guy, right after Michael Jordan.“Whenever we attended dinner parties, my dad would talk about his friend Charles Barkley. The ﬁrst time my dad told the story, I didn’t pretend to know who this person was. Basketball has never been my thing.Like a good millennial, I Googled Charles Barkley. He seemed pretty famous — and definitely not like anyone who would be friends with my dad. But again, as a good millennial, I knew that people have very loose definitions of the word “friend.“About two years ago, I asked my dad if I could see their texts. My dad handed me his phone. Their texts were mostly messages from my dad that ended with an excessive number of exclamation points.I told my dad the conversation seemed pretty one-sided and handed the phone back.As I talked about the relationship with more and more people, I began to think that either my dad was one of the luckiest basketball fans ever — or this whole thing was an elaborate joke, a “Dinner For Schmucks”-type situation.But no. The friendship was real.“It was, like, one of the most random things,” Barkley recalled with a laugh.“I was on a business trip,” my dad said, “and stayed in one of the hotels and was walking in the lobby, and I saw Charles Barkley.“”I was in Sacramento speaking at a charity event,” Barkley said.“So, I just went to say hi and take a picture with him,” my dad said.“I was just sitting at the bar,” Barkley said. “And me and your dad were the only two people in there. And we just sit down and started talking.“”And, before we know it, we looked at each other, like, ‘Yo, man, I’m hungry. Let’s go to dinner,’ ” Barkley said. “It turned into a two-hour dinner. And then we actually went back to the bar and just sit there and talked for another couple of hours. And the rest is history.“My dad and Barkley saw each other again in the bar the next night. And the night after that. At the end of the third night:“Certainly, I told him I had a good time talking with him, hanging out with him,” my dad said. “He said the same thing to me, and he left the phone number. He said, ‘Whenever you’re in Atlanta, New York City or Phoenix, check out with me. If I’m in town, we’ll hang out and have a good time.’ “Over the next few years, whenever my dad was in those cities, he would text Barkley, and they would hang out.“I mean, it was just a fun time,” Barkley said. “My friends — Shaq, Ernie, Kenny — they enjoyed just meeting him.“They got dinner together.“I think I had Thai basil noodle,” my dad recalled. “It was pretty good. I had it right inside the ofﬁce.“They spent time on the set of Barkley’s TNT show, “Inside the NBA.“”He likes to clean,” my dad said. “There were several big can of cleaning wipes right on his desk. Every time he sit down, he cleaned his desk.“”Iowa lost to Maryland that day,” my dad said.I’m pretty sure they did some partying too. But that, I don’t know much about.“Your dad is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Barkley said. “I’m not just saying that — I mean, think about it: It’s fun to be with your friends, you know? ’Cause, I don’t have that many friends that I want to be around, to be honest with you. I mean, you know a lot of people. But when you go spend time with your friends, it’s a whole different animal.“Back home, my dad’s coworkers would tease him about Barkley and ask him about the story all the time. My dad didn’t mind that they didn’t believe him. He even made a slideshow of photos of him and Barkley together for our community’s Chinese New Year celebration — totally irrelevant to the holiday.I asked my dad what he thought it was about him, of all people, that made him and Charles Barkley become friends.“I think we had a good conversation,” he said. “We agree with each other [on] a lot of point of views.“You know, he grown up in the ’70s in Alabama. His father left him and his mother when he was little. He grown up with grandma and mother. And the grandma and mother cleaned up houses for somebody else to make a living.“Tough life for him. But he’s well-respected professionally. And that’s his story.““Your dad is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life.” My dad moved to Iowa from China in the ’90s. He felt that Barkley and him had similar experiences.“So, to me, as an Asian in the U.S., I felt as long as I do a good job, people will respect me,” my dad said.Barkley and my dad both worked hard — so hard, they believed, that the color of their skin didn’t matter. In Chinese, we’d say that dad sometimes would 胡说八道(hú shuō bā dào) — that meant that sometimes he was known for spewing rubbish. I know that basketball fans might say Barkley often does the same.In June 2015, Barkley’s mother passed away. When my dad heard the news, he looked up the funeral details and hopped on a plane to Leeds, Alabama.“It ain’t easy to get to those places,” Barkley said. “I’m from a very small town.“And my dad showed up for his friend. Afterward, he went to dinner with Barkley and his family.“For your dad to take the time to come to the funeral meant a great deal to me,” Barkley said.Then, in May 2016, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He had tumors in his heart.I took that fall off from school. My dad and I watched mobster movies together. Action movies. Kung Fu movies. When the credits rolled, we’d ﬂip to a basketball game. Just me and him, watching a lot of TV in our living room.Then, it was two years.My dad never told Barkley that he was sick.“I called him and got mad at him when I found out,” Barkley said. “I was, like, ‘Dude, we’re friends. You can tell me. You’re not bothering me. You know me well enough — if you were bothering me, I would tell you you were bothering me.’ “What Barkley didn’t know was that my dad watched him almost every night on TNT. And while he rested and healed, my dad was laughing along with Barkley. He kept my dad company.June 2018. NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers. My dad was staying in palliative care at the hospital. He loved the Warriors. I visited and read him sports highlights.He didn’t get to watch J.R. Smith’s late mistake in Game 1 live. I tried to get him to laugh about Smith dribbling away from the hoop because he thought his team was ahead.But it was a Sunday afternoon, and my dad was tired. The summer light ﬁlled his room. Then, the day faded, and dusk began to enter.After it was all over, I went through my dad’s phone and texted all his friends. I wrote:Hi. This is Shirley. My dad just passed away.The funeral was the day after the NBA Finals. My dad’s favorite team, the Golden State Warriors, had won the night before.“It gives me great memories and great joy to know that I was a friend of his.” The funeral was set near the outskirts of Iowa City in a house by the woods. I was talking to my childhood friend when she suddenly looked stunned. I turned to look behind me.And standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.“I had not met anybody in your family,” Barkley said. “I didn’t know anybody there.“Everyone watched, astonished, as this man — this man we only knew from TV, this worldwide celebrity — walked down the aisle, looked at us and sighed.Later, after it all, I texted Barkley and asked him: “Why my dad? Why did he matter so much to you?” And recently, I called him up and asked: “What did you even have to talk about?“”Well, I think — ﬁrst of all, clearly, he was a fan,” Barkley said. “But I think the main thing we talked about was you and your brother.“”What did you guys talk about — what did he say?” I asked.“I think it was more that he was proud,” Barkley said. “Because I’ve got a daughter, too. I’m just really, really proud of her, because I think she’s a good person. And your dad was so proud of you and your brother.“Listen: As an adult — and you’re too young to understand this now — all you want is your kids to be happy. That’s what you work for. To give your kids everything in life.“The more Charles Barkley and I talked, I realized just how close he and my dad were. Barkley knew so much about me and my life — even though this was the ﬁrst time he and I had ever talked.“It gives me great memories and great joy to know that I was a friend of his,” Barkley said. “Just hearing about him at the funeral — what he had accomplished and what he was trying to help other people accomplish, just made me even — I wished he bragged more about himself.“”So, let me get this straight: you were impressed by him?” I asked.‘I Was Blessed To Know Him’At the funeral, people shared memories of my dad and made me realize that, for example, he was not just a cat litter chemist — but an industry-changing scientist with a Ph.D. And not just an immigrant — but someone who reached out to Chinese newcomers. And not just a thoughtful guy — but someone people trusted for advice. I realized that, even after he passed away, I would continue to learn things about my dad.Before Barkley and I hung up, he had one more thing to say:“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing.“Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.“”Thank you for your time,” I said.“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?“I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.I’m so glad that now I get to share my dad’s No. 1 dinner party story.How Emily Hsieh’s Olympic Dream Led Her To Rugby Refereeing’I Should Have Done More’: Bob Cousy’s Letter To Bill RussellThe Nike Air Swoopes And The Disappearance Of Women’s Signature Shoes
Archaeologists in Egypt have made an exciting tomb discovery - the ﬁnal resting place of a high priest, untouched for 4,400 years.
Mostafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, described the ﬁnd as “one of a kind in the last decades”.
The tomb, found in the Saqqara pyramid complex near Cairo, is ﬁlled with colourful hieroglyphs and statues of pharaohs. Decorative scenes show the owner, a royal priest named Wahtye, with his mother, wife and other relatives.
Archaeologists will start excavating the tomb on 16 December, and expect more discoveries to follow - including the owner’s sarcophagus.
Facing thousands of lawsuits alleging that its talc caused cancer, J&J insists on the safety and purity of its iconic product. But internal documents examined by Reuters show that the company’s powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos and that J&J kept that information from regulators and the public.
Darlene Coker knew she was dying. She just wanted to know why. She knew that her cancer, mesothelioma, arose in the delicate membrane surrounding her lungs and other organs. She knew it was as rare as it was deadly, a signature of exposure to asbestos. And she knew it afﬂicted mostly men who inhaled asbestos dust in mines and industries such as shipbuilding that used the carcinogen before its risks were understood.Coker, 52 years old, had raised two daughters and was running a massage school in Lumberton, a small town in eastern Texas. How had she been exposed to asbestos? “She wanted answers,” her daughter Cady Evans said.Fighting for every breath and in crippling pain, Coker hired Herschel Hobson, a personal-injury lawyer. He homed in on a suspect: the Johnson’s Baby Powder that Coker had used on her infant children and sprinkled on herself all her life. Hobson knew that talc and asbestos often occurred together in the earth, and that mined talc could be contaminated with the carcinogen. Coker sued Johnson & Johnson, alleging that “poisonous talc” in the company’s beloved product was her killer.
J&J didn’t tell the FDA that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc — in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”
J&J denied the claim. Baby Powder was asbestos-free, it said. As the case proceeded, J&J was able to avoid handing over talc test results and other internal company records Hobson had requested to make the case against Baby Powder.Coker had no choice but to drop her lawsuit, Hobson said. “When you are the plaintiff, you have the burden of proof,” he said. “We didn’t have it.”That was in 1999. Two decades later, the material Coker and her lawyer sought is emerging as J&J has been compelled to share thousands of pages of company memos, internal reports and other conﬁdential documents with lawyers for some of the 11,700 plaintiffs now claiming that the company’s talc caused their cancers — including thousands of women with ovarian cancer.A Reuters examination of many of those documents, as well as deposition and trial testimony, shows that from at least 1971 to the early 2000s, the company’s raw talc and ﬁnished powders sometimes tested positive for small amounts of asbestos, and that company executives, mine managers, scientists, doctors and lawyers fretted over the problem and how to address it while failing to disclose it to regulators or the public.The documents also depict successful efforts to inﬂuence U.S. regulators’ plans to limit asbestos in cosmetic talc products and scientiﬁc research on the health effects of talc.A small portion of the documents have been produced at trial and cited in media reports. Many were shielded from public view by court orders that allowed J&J to turn over thousands of documents it designated as conﬁdential. Much of their contents is reported here for the ﬁrst time.
The earliest mentions of tainted J&J talc that Reuters found come from 1957 and 1958 reports by a consulting lab. They describe contaminants in talc from J&J’s Italian supplier as ﬁbrous and “acicular,” or needle-like, tremolite. That’s one of the six minerals that in their naturally occurring ﬁbrous form are classiﬁed as asbestos.At various times from then into the early 2000s, reports by scientists at J&J, outside labs and J&J’s supplier yielded similar ﬁndings. The reports identify contaminants in talc and ﬁnished powder products as asbestos or describe them in terms typically applied to asbestos, such as “ﬁberform” and “rods.”In 1976, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was weighing limits on asbestos in cosmetic talc products, J&J assured the regulator that no asbestos was “detected in any sample” of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973. It didn’t tell the agency that at least three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 had found asbestos in its talc — in one case at levels reported as “rather high.”Most internal J&J asbestos test reports Reuters reviewed do not ﬁnd asbestos. However, while J&J’s testing methods improved over time, they have always had limitations that allow trace contaminants to go undetected — and only a tiny fraction of the company’s talc is tested.The World Health Organization and other authorities recognize no safe level of exposure to asbestos. While most people exposed never develop cancer, for some, even small amounts of asbestos are enough to trigger the disease years later. Just how small hasn’t been established. Many plaintiffs allege that the amounts they inhaled when they dusted themselves with tainted talcum powder were enough.The evidence of what J&J knew has surfaced after people who suspected that talc caused their cancers hired lawyers experienced in the decades-long deluge of litigation involving workers exposed to asbestos. Some of the lawyers knew from those earlier cases that talc producers tested for asbestos, and they began demanding J&J’s testing documentation.
What J&J produced in response to those demands has allowed plaintiffs’ lawyers to reﬁne their argument: The culprit wasn’t necessarily talc itself, but also asbestos in the talc. That assertion, backed by decades of solid science showing that asbestos causes mesothelioma and is associated with ovarian and other cancers, has had mixed success in court.In two cases earlier this year — in New Jersey and California — juries awarded big sums to plaintiffs who, like Coker, blamed asbestos-tainted J&J talc products for their mesothelioma.A third verdict, in St. Louis, was a watershed, broadening J&J’s potential liability: The 22 plaintiffs were the ﬁrst to succeed with a claim that asbestos-tainted Baby Powder and Shower to Shower talc, a longtime brand the company sold in 2012, caused ovarian cancer, which is much more common than mesothelioma. The jury awarded them $4.69 billion in damages. Most of the talc cases have been brought by women with ovarian cancer who say they regularly used J&J talc products as a perineal antiperspirant and deodorant.At the same time, at least three juries have rejected claims that Baby Powder was tainted with asbestos or caused plaintiffs’ mesothelioma. Others have failed to reach verdicts, resulting in mistrials.J&J has said it will appeal the recent verdicts against it. It has maintained in public statements that its talc is safe, as shown for years by the best tests available, and that the information it has been required to divulge in recent litigation shows the care the company takes to ensure its products are asbestos-free. It has blamed its losses on juror confusion, “junk” science, unfair court rules and overzealous lawyers looking for a fresh pool of asbestos plaintiffs.“Plaintiffs’ attorneys out for personal ﬁnancial gain are distorting historical documents and intentionally creating confusion in the courtroom and in the media,” Ernie Knewitz, J&J’s vice president of global media relations, wrote in an emailed response to Reuters’ ﬁndings. “This is all a calculated attempt to distract from the fact that thousands of independent tests prove our talc does not contain asbestos or cause cancer. Any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.”J&J declined to comment further for this article. For more than two months, it turned down repeated requests for an interview with J&J executives. On Dec. 8, the company offered to make an expert available. It had not done so as of Thursday evening.The company referred all inquiries to its outside litigation counsel, Peter Bicks. In emailed responses, Bicks rejected Reuters’ ﬁndings as “false and misleading.” “The scientiﬁc consensus is that the talc used in talc-based body powders does not cause cancer, regardless of what is in that talc,” Bicks wrote. “This is true even if - and it does not - Johnson & Johnson’s cosmetic talc had ever contained minute, undetectable amounts of asbestos.” He dismissed tests cited in this article as “outlier” results.In court, J&J lawyers have told jurors that company records showing that asbestos was detected in its talc referred to talc intended for industrial use. Other records, they have argued, referred to non-asbestos forms of the same minerals that their experts say are harmless. J&J has also argued that some tests picked up “background” asbestos — stray ﬁbers that could have contaminated samples after ﬂoating into a mill or lab from a vehicle clutch or fraying insulation.
The company has made some of the same arguments about lab tests conducted by experts hired by plaintiffs. One of those labs found asbestos in Shower to Shower talc from the 1990s, according to an Aug. 11, 2017, court report. Another lab found asbestos in more than half of multiple samples of Baby Powder from past decades — in bottles from plaintiffs’ cupboards and acquired from eBay, and even a 1978 bottle held in J&J’s corporate museum. The concentrations were great enough that users “would have, more likely than not, been exposed,” the plaintiffs’ lab report presented in several cases this year concluded.Matthew Sanchez, a geologist with consultants RJ Lee Group Inc and a frequent expert witness for J&J, dismissed those ﬁndings in testimony in the St. Louis trial: “I have not found asbestos in any of the current or modern, what I consider modern, Johnson & Johnson talc products,” Sanchez told the jury.Sanchez did not return calls seeking comment. RJ Lee said it does not comment on the work it does for clients.Since 2003, talc in Baby Powder sold in the United States has come from China through supplier Imerys Talc America, a unit of Paris-based Imerys SA and a co-defendant in most of the talc litigation. Imerys and J&J said the Chinese talc is safe. An Imerys spokesman said the company’s tests “consistently show no asbestos. Talc’s safe use has been conﬁrmed by multiple regulatory and scientiﬁc bodies.”J&J, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has dominated the talc powder market for more than 100 years, its sales outpacing those of all competitors combined, according to Euromonitor International data. And while talc products contributed just $420 million to J&J’s $76.5 billion in revenue last year, Baby Powder is considered an essential facet of the healthcare-products maker’s carefully tended image as a caring company — a “sacred cow,” as one 2003 internal email put it.“When people really understand what’s going on, I think it increases J&J’s exposure a thousand-fold,” said Mark Lanier, one of the lawyers for the women in the St. Louis case. The mounting controversy surrounding J&J talc hasn’t shaken investors. The share price is up about 6 percent so far this year. Talc cases make up fewer than 10 percent of all personal injury lawsuits pending against J&J, based on the company’s Aug. 2 quarterly report, in which the company said it believed it had “strong grounds on appeal.”J&J Chairman and Chief Executive Ofﬁcer Alex Gorsky has pledged to ﬁght on, telling analysts in July: “We remain conﬁdent that our products do not contain asbestos.”Gorsky’s comment, echoed in countless J&J statements, misses a crucial point. Asbestos, like many environmental carcinogens, has a long latency period. Diagnosis usually comes years after initial exposure — 20 years or longer for mesothelioma. J&J talc products today may be safe, but the talc at issue in thousands of lawsuits was sold and used over the past 60 years.That point is recognized in a 2013 markup of a statement for the “Safety & Care Commitment” page of J&J’s website. The original version conveyed a blanket assurance of safety. The edited version was less deﬁnitive: “Our talc-based consumer products have always been asbestos free, as conﬁrmed by regular testing since the 1970s.”
THEN AND NOW: A 2013 markup of a statement for J&J’s website implicitly recognizes the possibility that the company’s talc could have been tainted in earlier times.
In 1886, Robert Wood Johnson enlisted his younger brothers in an eponymous startup built around the “Safety First” motto. Johnson’s Baby Powder grew out of a line of medicated plasters, sticky rubber strips loaded with mustard and other home remedies. When customers complained of skin irritation, the brothers sent packets of talc.Soon, mothers began applying the talc to infants’ diaper-chafed skin. The Johnsons took note. They added a fragrance that would become one of the most recognizable in the world, sifted the talc into tin boxes and, in 1893, began selling it as Johnson’s Baby Powder.In the late 1950s, J&J discovered that talc from its chief source mine for the U.S. market in the Italian Alps contained tremolite. That’s one of six minerals — along with chrysotile, actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite and crocidolite — that occur in nature as crystalline ﬁbers known as asbestos, a recognized carcinogen. Some of them, including tremolite, also occur as unremarkable “non-asbestiform” rocks. Both forms often occur together and in talc deposits.J&J’s worry at the time was that contaminants made the company’s powder abrasive. It sent tons of its Italian talc to a private lab in Columbus, Ohio, to ﬁnd ways to improve the appearance, feel and purity of the powder by removing as much “grit” as possible. In a pair of reports from 1957 and 1958, the lab said the talc contained “from less than 1 percent to about 3 percent of contaminants,” described as mostly ﬁbrous and “acicular” tremolite.Most of the authors of these and other J&J records cited in this article are dead. Sanchez, the RJ Lee geologist whose ﬁrm has agreed to provide him as a witness in up to 100 J&J talc trials, has testiﬁed that tremolite found decades ago in the company’s talc, from Italy and later Vermont, was not tremolite asbestos at all. Rather, he has said, it was “cleavage fragments” from non-asbestiform tremolite.J&J’s original records don’t always make that distinction. In terms of health risk, regulators since the early 1970s have treated small ﬁber-shaped particles of both forms the same.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, “makes no distinction between ﬁbers and (comparable) cleavage fragments,” agency ofﬁcials wrote in a response to an RJ Lee report on an unrelated matter in 2006, the year before the ﬁrm hired Sanchez. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), though it dropped the non-ﬁbrous forms of the minerals from its definition of asbestos in 1992, nonetheless recommends that ﬁber-shaped fragments indistinguishable from asbestos be counted in its exposure tests.And as the product safety director for J&J’s talc supplier acknowledged in a 2008 email to colleagues: “(I)f a deposit contains ‘non-asbestiform’ tremolite, there is also asbestiform tremolite naturally present as well.”
In 1964, J&J’s Windsor Minerals Inc subsidiary bought a cluster of talc mines in Vermont, with names like Argonaut, Rainbow, Frostbite and Black Bear. By 1966, it was blasting and bulldozing white rock out of the Green Mountain state. J&J used the milled powder in its cosmetic powders and sold a less-reﬁned grade to roofing, ﬂooring and tire companies for use in manufacturing.Ten years after tremolite turned up in the Italian talc, it showed up in Vermont talc, too. In 1967, J&J found traces of tremolite and another mineral that can occur as asbestos, according to a table attached to a Nov. 1, 1967, memo by William Ashton, the executive in charge of J&J’s talc supply for decades.J&J continued to search for sources of clean talc. But in an April 9, 1969, memo to a company doctor, Ashton said it was “normal” to ﬁnd tremolite in many U.S. talc deposits. He suggested J&J rethink its approach. “Historically, in our Company, Tremolite has been bad,” Ashton wrote. “How bad is Tremolite medically, and how much of it can safely be in a talc base we might develop?”Since pulmonary disease, including cancer, appeared to be on the rise, “it would seem to be prudent to limit any possible content of Tremolite … to an absolute minimum,” came the reply from another physician executive days later. The doctor told Ashton that J&J was receiving safety questions from pediatricians. Even Robert Wood Johnson II, the founder’s son and then-retired CEO, had expressed “concern over the possibility of the adverse effects on the lungs of babies or mothers,” he wrote.“We have replied,” the doctor wrote, that “we would not regard the usage of our powders as presenting any hazard.” Such assurances would be impossible, he added, “if we do include Tremolite in more than unavoidable trace amounts.”The memo is the earliest J&J document reviewed by Reuters that discusses tremolite as more than a scratchy nuisance. The doctor urged Ashton to consult with company lawyers because “it is not inconceivable that we could become involved in litigation.”
By the early 1970s, asbestos was widely recognized as the primary cause of mesothelioma among workers involved in producing it and in industries that used it in their products.Regulation was in the air. In 1972, President Richard Nixon’s newly created OSHA issued its ﬁrst rule, setting limits on workplace exposure to asbestos dust.By then, a team at Mount Sinai Medical Center led by pre-eminent asbestos researcher Irving Selikoff had started looking at talcum powders as a possible solution to a puzzle: Why were tests of lung tissue taken post mortem from New Yorkers who never worked with asbestos ﬁnding signs of the mineral? Since talc deposits are often laced with asbestos, the scientists reasoned, perhaps talcum powders played a role.They shared their preliminary ﬁndings with New York City’s environmental protection chief, Jerome Kretchmer. On June 29, 1971, Kretchmer informed the Nixon administration and called a press conference to announce that two unidentiﬁed brands of cosmetic talc appeared to contain asbestos.The FDA opened an inquiry. J&J issued a statement: “Our ﬁfty years of research knowledge in this area indicates that there is no asbestos contained in the powder manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.”Later that year, another Mount Sinai researcher, mineralogist Arthur Langer, told J&J in a letter that the team had found a “relatively small” amount of chrysotile asbestos in Baby Powder.
NOTORIETY: Langer and Kretchmer ended up on an internal J&J list of “antagonistic personalities.”
Langer, Selikoff and Kretchmer ended up on a J&J list of “antagonistic personalities” in a Nov. 29, 1972, memo, which described Selikoff as the leader of an “attack on talc.”“I suppose I was antagonistic,” Langer told Reuters. Even so, in a subsequent test of J&J powders in 1976, he didn’t ﬁnd asbestos — a result that Mount Sinai announced. Langer said he told J&J lawyers who visited him last year that he stood by all of his ﬁndings. J&J has not called him as a witness.
TOP TESTER: Irving Selikoff, who led the Mount Sinai team that investigated asbestos and talc, was also listed among J&J’s “antagonistic personalities.” Photo courtesy of Arthur Langer
Selikoff died in 1992. Kretchmer said he recently read that a jury had concluded that Baby Powder was contaminated with asbestos. “I said to myself, ‘How come it took so long?’ ” he said.In July 1971, meanwhile, J&J sent a delegation of scientists to Washington to talk to the FDA ofﬁcials looking into asbestos in talcum powders. According to an FDA account of the meeting, J&J shared “evidence that their talc contains less than 1%, if any, asbestos.”Later that month, Wilson Nashed, one of the J&J scientists who visited the FDA, said in a memo to the company’s public relations department that J&J’s talc contained trace amounts of “ﬁbrous minerals (tremolite/actinolite).”As the FDA continued to investigate asbestos in talc, J&J sent powder samples to be tested at private and university labs. Though a private lab in Chicago found trace amounts of tremolite, it declared the amount “insigniﬁcant” and the samples “substantially free of asbestiform material.” J&J reported that ﬁnding to the FDA under a cover letter that said the “results clearly show” the samples tested “contain no chrysotile asbestos.” J&J’s lawyer told Reuters the tremolite found in the samples was not asbestos.But J&J’s FDA submission left out University of Minnesota professor Thomas E. Hutchinson’s ﬁnding of chrysotile in a Shower to Shower sample — “incontrovertible asbestos,” as he described it in a lab note.
NO DOUBT: In a lab note, a University of Minnesota professor recorded ﬁnding “incontrovertible asbestos” in a sample of J&J’s Shower to Shower talc.
The FDA’s own examinations found no asbestos in J&J powder samples in the 1970s. Those tests, however, did not use the most sensitive detection methods. An early test, for example, was incapable of detecting chrysotile ﬁbers, as an FDA ofﬁcial recognized in a J&J account of an Aug. 11, 1972, meeting with the agency: “I understand that some samples will be passed even though they contain such ﬁbers, but we are willing to live with it.”By 1973, Tom Shelley, director of J&J’s Central Research Laboratories in New Jersey, was looking into acquiring patents on a process that a British mineralogist and J&J consultant was developing to separate talc from tremolite.“It is quite possible that eventually tremolite will be prohibited in all talc,” Shelley wrote on Feb. 20, 1973, to a British colleague. Therefore, he added, the “process may well be valuable property to us.”At the end of March, Shelley recognized the sensitivity of the plan in a memo sent to a J&J lawyer in New Jersey: “We will want to carefully consider the … patents re asbestos in talc. It’s quite possible that we may wish to keep the whole thing conﬁdential rather than allow it to be published in patent form and thus let the whole world know.”J&J did not obtain the patents.While Shelley was looking into the patents, J&J research director DeWitt Petterson visited the company’s Vermont mining operation. “Occasionally, sub-trace quantities of tremolite or actinolite are identiﬁable,” he wrote in an April 1973 report on the visit. “And these might be classiﬁed as asbestos ﬁber.”J&J should “protect our powder franchise” by eliminating as many tiny ﬁbers that can be inhaled in airborn talc dust as possible, Petterson wrote. He warned, however, that “no ﬁnal product will ever be made which will be totally free from respirable particles.” Introducing a cornstarch version of Baby Powder, he noted, “is obviously another answer.”
UNACHIEVABLE: J&J research director DeWitt Petterson warned the company that producing pure talc was impossible.
Bicks told Reuters that J&J believes that the tremolite and actinolite Petterson cited were not asbestos.Cornstarch came up again in a March 5, 1974, report in which Ashton, the J&J talc supply chief, recommended that the company research that alternative “for defensive reasons” because “the thrust against talc has centered primarily on biological problems alleged to result from the inhalation of talc and related mineral particles.”
A few months after Petterson’s recognition that talc purity was a pipe dream, the FDA proposed a rule that talc used in drugs contain no more than 0.1 percent asbestos. While the agency’s cosmetics division was considering similar action on talcum powders, it asked companies to suggest testing methods.At the time, J&J’s Baby Powder franchise was consuming 20,000 tons of Vermont talc a year. J&J pressed the FDA to approve an X-ray scanning technique that a company scientist said in an April 1973 memo allowed for “an automatic 1% tolerance for asbestos.” That would mean talc with up to 10 times the FDA’s proposed limit for asbestos in drugs could pass muster.The same scientist conﬁded in an Oct. 23, 1973, note to a colleague that, depending on what test the FDA adopted for detecting asbestos in cosmetic talc, “we may have problems.”The best way to detect asbestos in talc was to concentrate the sample and then examine it through microscopes, the Colorado School of Mines Research Institute told J&J in a Dec. 27, 1973, report. In a memo, a J&J lab supervisor said the concentration technique, which the company’s own researchers had earlier used to identify a “tremolite-type” asbestos in Vermont talc, had one limitation: “It may be too sensitive.”
“No mother was going to powder her baby with 1% of a known carcinogen irregardless of the large safety factor.”
In his email to Reuters, J&J’s lawyer said the lab supervisor’s concern was that the test would result in “false positives,” showing asbestos where there was none.J&J also launched research to ﬁnd out how much powder a baby was exposed to during a diapering and how much asbestos could be in that powder and remain within OSHA’s new workplace exposure limits. Its researchers had strapped an air sampling device to a doll to take measurements while it was powdered, according to J&J memos and the minutes of a Feb. 19, 1974, meeting of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), an industry group.“It was calculated that even if talc were pure asbestos the levels of exposure of a baby during a normal powdering are far below the accepted tolerance limits,” the minutes state.In a Sept. 6, 1974, letter, J&J told the FDA that since “a substantial safety factor can be expected” with talc that contains 1 percent asbestos, “methods capable of determining less than 1% asbestos in talc are not necessary to assure the safety of cosmetic talc.”Not everyone at the FDA thought that basing a detection method on such a calculation was a good idea. One ofﬁcial called it “foolish,” adding, according to a J&J account of a February 1975 meeting: “No mother was going to powder her baby with 1% of a known carcinogen irregardless of the large safety factor.”
Having failed to persuade the FDA that up to 1 percent asbestos contamination was tolerable, J&J began promoting self-policing as an alternative to regulation. The centerpiece of this approach was a March 15, 1976, package of letters from J&J and other manufacturers that the CTFA gave to the agency to show that they had succeeded at eliminating asbestos from cosmetic talc.“The attached letters demonstrate responsibility of industry in monitoring its talcs,” the cover letter said. “We are certain that the summary will give you assurance as to the freedom from contamination by asbestos for materials of cosmetic talc products.”In its letter, J&J said samples of talc produced between December 1972 and October 1973 were tested for asbestos, and none was detected “in any sample.”J&J didn’t tell the FDA about a 1974 test by a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire that turned up asbestos in talc from J&J — “ﬁberform” actinolite, as he put it. Nor did the company tell the FDA about a 1975 report from its longtime lab that found particles identiﬁed as “asbestos ﬁbers” in ﬁve of 17 samples of talc from the chief source mine for Baby Powder. “Some of them seem rather high,” the private lab wrote in its cover letter.Bicks, the J&J lawyer, said the contract lab’s results were irrelevant because the talc was intended for industrial use. He said the company now believes that the actinolite the Dartmouth professor found “was not asbestiform,” based on its interpretation of a photo in the original lab report.Just two months after the Dartmouth professor reported his ﬁndings, Windsor Minerals Research and Development Manager Vernon Zeitz wrote that chrysotile, “ﬁbrous anthophyllite” and other types of asbestos had been “found in association with the Hammondsville ore body” — the Vermont deposit that supplied Baby Powder talc for more than two decades.
Zeitz’s May 1974 report on efforts to minimize asbestos in Vermont talc “strongly urged” the adoption of ways to protect “against what are currently considered to be materials presenting a severe health hazard and are potentially present in all talc ores in use at this time.”Bicks said that Zeitz was not reporting on actual test results. The following year, Zeitz reported that based on weekly tests of talc samples over six months, “it can be stated with a greater than 99.9% certainty that the ores and materials produced from the ores at all Windsor Mineral locations are free from asbestos or asbestiform minerals.” J&J’s selective use of test results ﬁgured in a New Jersey judge’s decision this year to afﬁrm the ﬁrst verdict against the company in a case claiming asbestos in J&J products caused cancer. “Providing the FDA favorable results showing no asbestos and withholding or failing to provide unfavorable results, which show asbestos, is a form of a misrepresentation by omission,” Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Ana Viscomi said in her June ruling.“J&J respectfully disagrees with the Judge’s comments,” Bicks said. “J&J did not withhold any relevant testing from FDA.”The FDA declined to comment on the ruling.Lacking consensus on testing methods, the FDA postponed action to limit asbestos in talc. Years later, it did set limits on asbestos in talc used in drugs. It has never limited asbestos in cosmetic talc or established a preferred method for detecting it.Instead, in 1976, a CTFA committee chaired by a J&J executive drafted voluntary guidelines, establishing a form of X-ray scanning with a 0.5 percent detection limit as the primary test, the method J&J preferred. The method is not designed to detect the most commonly used type of asbestos, chrysotile, at all. The group said the more sensitive electron microscopy was impractical.The CTFA, which now does business as the Personal Care Products Council, declined to comment.X-ray scanning is the primary method J&J has used for decades. The company also periodically requires the more sensitive checks with electron microscopes. J&J’s lawyer said the company’s tests exceed the trade association standard, and they do. He also said that today, J&J’s X-ray scans can detect suspect minerals at levels as low as 0.1 percent of a sample.But the company never adopted the Colorado lab’s 1973 recommendation that samples be concentrated before examination under a microscope. And the talc samples that were subjected to the most sensitive electron microscopy test were a tiny fraction of what was sold. For those and other reasons, J&J couldn’t guarantee its Baby Powder was asbestos-free when plaintiffs used it, according to experts, including some who testiﬁed for plaintiffs.As early as 1976, Ashton, J&J’s longtime talc overseer, recognized as much in a memo to colleagues. He wrote that talc in general, if subjected to the most sensitive testing method, using concentrated samples, “will be hard pressed in supporting purity claims.” He described this sort of testing as both “sophisticated” and “disturbing.”
By 1977, J&J appeared to have tamped down concerns about the safety of talc. An internal August report on J&J’s “Defense of Talc Safety” campaign noted that independent authorities had deemed cosmetic talc products to be “free of hazard.” It attributed “this growing opinion” to the dissemination to scientiﬁc and medical communities in the United States and Britain of “favorable data from the various J&J sponsored studies.”In 1984, FDA cosmetics chief and former J&J employee Heinz Eiermann reiterated that view. He told the New York Times that the agency’s investigation a decade earlier had prompted the industry to ensure that talc was asbestos-free. “So in subsequent analyses,” he told the paper, “we really could not identify asbestos or only on very rare occasions.”Two years later, the FDA rejected a citizen request that cosmetic talc carry an asbestos warning label, saying that even if there were trace contamination, the use of talc powder during two years of normal diapering would not increase the risk of cancer.In 1980, J&J began offering a cornstarch version of Baby Powder — to expand its customer base to people who prefer cornstarch, the company says.The persistence of the industry’s view that cosmetic talc is asbestos-free is why no studies have been conducted on the incidence of mesothelioma among users of the products. It’s also partly why regulations that protect people in mines, mills, factories and schools from asbestos-laden talc don’t apply to babies and others exposed to cosmetic talc — even though Baby Powder talc has at times come from the same mines as talc sold for industrial use. J&J says cosmetic talc is more thoroughly processed and thus purer than industrial talc.Until recently, the American Cancer Society (ACS) accepted the industry’s position, saying on its website: “All talcum products used in homes have been asbestos-free since the 1970s.”After receiving inquiries from Reuters, the ACS in early December revised its website to remove the assurance that cosmetic talcs are free of asbestos. Now, it says, quoting the industry’s standards, that all cosmetic talc products in the United States “should be free from detectable amounts of asbestos.”The revised ACS web page also notes that the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classiﬁes talc that contains asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.”Despite the success of J&J’s efforts to promote the safety of its talc, the company’s test lab found asbestos ﬁbers in samples taken from the Vermont operation in 1984, 1985 and 1986. Bicks said: “The samples that we know of during this time period that contained a ﬁber or two of asbestos were not cosmetic talc samples.”Then, in 1992, three years after J&J sold its Vermont mines, the new owner, Cyprus Minerals, said in an internal report on “important environmental issues” in its talc reserves that there was “past tremolite” in the Hammondsville deposit. Hammondsville was the primary source of Baby Powder talc from 1966 until its shutdown in 1990.Bicks rejected the Cyprus report as hearsay, saying there is no original documentation to conﬁrm it. Hammondsville mine records, according to a 1993 J&J memo, “were destroyed by the mine management staff just prior to the J&J divestiture.”Bicks said the destroyed documents did not include talc testing records.
MISSING: A J&J memo reveals that records of the Hammondsville mine, the main source of Baby Powder talc from 1966 until 1990, were destroyed by mine managers while J&J still owned the business.
In 2002 and 2003, Vermont mine operators found chrysotile asbestos ﬁbers on several occasions in talc produced for Baby Powder sold in Canada. In each case, a single ﬁber was recorded — a ﬁnding deemed “BDL” — below detection limit. Bicks described the ﬁnding as “background asbestos” that did not come from any talc source.In 2009, the FDA, responding to growing public concern about talc, commissioned tests on 34 samples, including a bottle of J&J Baby Powder and samples of Imerys talc from China. No asbestos was detected.FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency continues to receive a lot of questions about talc cosmetics. “I recognize the concern,” he told Reuters. He said the agency’s policing of cosmetics in general — fewer than 30 people regulating a “vast” industry — was “a place where we think we can be doing more.”Gottlieb said the FDA planned to host a public forum in early 2019 to “look at how we would develop standards for evaluating any potential risk.” An agency spokeswoman said that would include examining “scientiﬁc test methods for assessment of asbestos.”
Before law school, Herschel Hobson worked at a rubber plant. There, his job included ensuring that asbestos in talc the workers were exposed to didn’t exceed OSHA limits.That’s why he zeroed in on Johnson’s Baby Powder after he took on Darlene Coker as a client in 1997. The lawsuit Coker and her husband, Roy, ﬁled that year against J&J in Jefferson County District Court in Beaumont, Texas, is the earliest Reuters found alleging Baby Powder caused cancer.Hobson asked J&J for any research it had into the health of its mine workers; talc production records from the mid-1940s through the 1980s; depositions from managers of three labs that tested talc for J&J; and any documents related to testing for ﬁbrous or asbestiform materials.J&J objected. Hobson’s “ﬁshing expedition” would not turn up any relevant evidence, it asserted in a May 6, 1998, motion. In fact, among the thousands of documents Hobson’s request could have turned up was a letter J&J lawyers had received only weeks earlier from a Rutgers University geologist conﬁrming that she had found asbestos in the company’s Baby Powder, identiﬁed in her 1991 published study as tremolite “asbestos” needles.Hobson agreed to postpone his discovery demands until he got the pathology report on Coker’s lung tissue. Before it came in, J&J asked the judge to dismiss the case, arguing that Coker had “no evidence” Baby Powder caused mesothelioma.
Ten days later, the pathology report landed: Coker’s lung tissue contained tens of thousands of “long ﬁbers” of four different types of asbestos. The ﬁndings were “consistent with exposure to talc containing chrysotile and tremolite contamination,” the report concluded.“The asbestos ﬁbers found raise a new issue of fact,” Hobson told the judge in a request for more time to ﬁle an opposition to J&J’s dismissal motion. The judge gave him more time but turned down his request to resume discovery.Without evidence from J&J and no hope of ever getting any, Hobson advised Coker to drop the suit.Hobson is still practicing law in Nederland, Texas. When Reuters told him about the evidence that had emerged in recent litigation, he said: “They knew what the problems were, and they hid it.” J&J’s records would have made a “100% difference” in Coker’s case.Had the information about asbestos in J&J’s talc come out earlier, he said, “maybe there would have been 20 years less exposure” for other people.Bicks, the J&J lawyer, said Coker dropped her case because “the discovery established that J&J talc had nothing to do with Plaintiff’s disease, and that asbestos exposure from a commercial or occupational setting was the likely cause.”Coker never learned why she had mesothelioma. She did beat the odds, though. Most patients die within a year of diagnosis. Coker held on long enough to see her two grandchildren. She died in 2009, 12 years after her diagnosis, at age 63.Coker’s daughter Crystal Deckard was 5 when her sister, Cady, was born in 1971. Deckard remembers seeing the white bottle of Johnson’s Baby Powder on the changing table where her mother diapered her new sister.“When Mom was given this death sentence, she was the same age as I am right now,” Deckard said. “I have it in the back of my mind all the time. Could it happen to us? Me? My sister?”
Johnson & Johnson developed a strategy in the 1970s to deal with a growing volume of research showing that talc miners had elevated rates of lung disease and cancer: Promote the positive, challenge the negative.That approach was summed up by a J&J applied research director in a “strictly conﬁdential” March 3, 1975, memo to managers of the baby products division, which used the talc in J&J’s signature Baby Powder.“Our current posture with respect to the sponsorship of talc safety studies has been to initiate studies only as dictated by confrontation,” the memo said. “This philosophy, so far, has allowed us to neutralize or hold in check data already generated by investigators who question the safety of talc.”
A J&J executive laid out the company’s policy of countering negative research about the health effects of talc in a memo to managers.
Also, the memo said, “we minimize the risk of possible self-generation of scientiﬁc data which may be politically or scientifically embarrassing.”J&J’s effort to protect its iconic Baby Powder franchise by shaping research was led by physician and scientist executives. An early 1970s study of 1,992 Italian talc miners shows how it worked: J&J commissioned and paid for the study, told the researchers the results it wanted, and hired a ghostwriter to redraft the article that presented the ﬁndings in a journal.The effort entailed other attempts to inﬂuence research, including a U.S. government study of the health of talc workers in Vermont. J&J’s Windsor Minerals Inc subsidiary, one of several mine operators involved in the study, developed a relationship with the U.S. National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health researchers to “even inﬂuence the conclusions” through suggestions of “subjective interpretations,” according to a 1973 Windsor Minerals memo.Peter Bicks, outside counsel for J&J, told Reuters in an email that for the Vermont study, company “representatives acted in an ‘educational and advisory capacity’ to provide the researchers with a realistic study plan.”A 1979 article in the Journal of Environmental Pathology and Toxicology detailing the ﬁndings of the study was not good news for talc. It reported a “signiﬁcant increase” in “respiratory cancer mortality” among miners. A subsequent analysis of the underlying data published in 1988 determined that at least one of the workers died of mesothelioma, the cancer most closely associated with asbestos.The proposal to study the health of miners of the Italian talc used in Baby Powder for decades came from William Ashton, J&J’s longtime talc supply chief. Ashton had obtained a summary of miners’ medical records compiled by an Italian physician, who also happened to control the country’s talc exports.J&J should use those records “for maximum beneﬁt,” Ashton said in a May 8, 1973, letter to Dr Gavin Hildick-Smith, J&J’s director of medical affairs. “It seems to me that the Italian records give us the opportunity to fortify a position on talc safety.”At the time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was considering a limit on asbestos in talcs. In an Oct. 18, 1973, memo, Hildick-Smith advised J&J: “The risk/beneﬁt ratio of conducting an epidemiological study in these mines must be considered.”By early 1974, the study was a go. Hildick-Smith sent money to the Italian talc exporter-physician to hire a team of researchers. Hildick-Smith told the lead researcher in a June 26, 1974, letter exactly what J&J wanted: data that “would show that the incidence of cancer in these subjects is no different from that of the Italian population or the rural control group.”That is exactly what J&J got, Hildick-Smith told colleagues a few months later. At a meeting on Sept. 27, 1974, for a “Talc/powder Safety Studies Review,” he reported the Italian study would dispel the “cancer concern associated with exposure to talc.”The following spring, Hildick-Smith got a draft of the Italian study from the lead researcher. It needed work to meet the “form and style” requirements of the target journal, he told colleagues in a March 31, 1975, memo. He added that he would send it to a scientiﬁc ghostwriter “who will hold it in conﬁdence and rewrite it.”
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The article that appeared in 1976 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported results even better than J&J had bargained for. The study found fewer lung cancer deaths than expected, a result that the authors said supported “the thesis of no cancerogenic effect attributable to pure talc.”It also found no mesothelioma, the signature cancer of asbestos exposure. There is no evidence J&J manipulated or misused the data. Experts for plaintiffs have testiﬁed that the Italian study was too small to draw any conclusions about the incidence of such a rare cancer. J&J’s expert witnesses have concluded the opposite.Bicks noted that the Italian study has been updated three times — in 1979, 2003 and 2017 — “conﬁrming the lack of association between exposure to asbestos-free talc, lung cancer and mesothelioma.”J&J got a lot of mileage out of the study. It was cited in a review article titled “The Biology of Talc,” published Nov. 1, 1976, in the British Journal of Industrial Medicine. In addition to dozens of published studies, the review cited unpublished research, including one experiment that used a doll as a proxy for infants and that supported the company’s position on the safety of talc. It didn’t disclose that J&J had commissioned the unpublished research.The author of the review article concluded that the “concern that has been expressed about the possible health hazard from consumer exposure to cosmetic talc is unwarranted … There is no evidence that its normal use poses a hazard to health.”The author was Hildick-Smith, the J&J physician executive who had overseen the Italian study and played a key role in the company’s talc safety research. The article did not disclose his J&J connection, identifying him only as a Rutgers University clinical assistant professor. Hildick-Smith died in 2006.
For the entirety of my working life, I’ve been poor. I currently make sandwiches for a living and my last job was making smoothies. Before that, it was washing dishes. Even though I went to college—following that myth that a degree is a career guarantee—some might say I was destined to be poor: I was a latchkey kid raised by a single, working-class mother who moved us all over California, jumping from apartment to apartment to trailer in the middle of the desert. My only source of nutrition was the free lunch program at school.
Now, I’m on Medicaid. Last year I worked as much as 60 hours a week split between two part-time food service jobs just to make ends meet. Alongside those jobs, I worked side gigs when I could get them. I made about $23,000. It sucks enormous chunks.
Sometime last year, I started frequently googling “why am I poor” and “how do I stop being poor.” Every result insisted the problem is I go out too much (I don’t go out, I’m too tired), I don’t have a savings account (I don’t have enough kick around cash to open a savings account), or I’m not planning my money right (I plan to pay my rent and then cry in a corner until my next paycheck, does that count?).
According to popular thinking, if you’re poor, it’s your fault and therefore your responsibility to ﬁx things. It’s not your employer paying you less than a living wage. Or your local ofﬁcials approving the building of luxury condos in your neighborhood. It’s not the skyrocketing cost of living. It’s not anti-union efforts across the country’s largest companies. No, dear sandwich maker. The reason you’re broke is because you decided to buy yourself a latte between 16-hour workdays. Shame on you.
Here’s the thing: Not only is it okay to spend on yourself, but for low-income people, it’s an entirely normal coping mechanism.
If you’re among the 39.7 million Americans living in poverty or the millions more who struggle to make ends meet, the real reason you’re bad at saving or you feel you’re spending too much on non-essentials is something I call “poor person brain.”
Allow me to elaborate. “Poor person brain” is when you’re just about out of your mind stressed about how you don’t have enough to get by. Despite the fact that I currently have $45.90 in my bank account to last through next week, it’s not uncommon to treat myself to a burger after a particularly grueling week. It’s a habit that I see both as an egregious failure to save my money and as a necessary expenditure to ﬁnd the will to keep grinding away.
Ne-Yo puts it best in his song “Time of Our Lives”:
I knew my rent was gon’ be late bout a week ago
I worked my ass off, but I still can’t pay it though
But I got just enough
To get off in this club
Have me a good time, before my time is up
I recently spoke with Linda Tirado, who wrote Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, which details her experiences with (and misconceptions about) low-income life. Trying to align with the standard expectation of how to interact with your money when you’re low income, she tells me, is useless: “You are adapting to your circumstances, thinking in the short term. It would be maladaptive for a low wage worker to set even middle class ﬁnancial goals. It doesn’t make sense to maintain a savings account if you can’t pay your rent.” Lots of recent research on the topic backs her viewpoint.
As Tirado explains, “if you’re working low wages, the whole concept of saving and investing goes away because you don’t have the luxury of that long term; it’s hypothetical.”
I often ask myself: how come I’m working all the time, my body is breaking down, I’ve cut and tightened every way I can think of, and despite how much I’m sacriﬁcing, I still can’t manage to make rent? It’s at this point that poor person brain blossoms: I’m still going to struggle whether or not I buy a bag of chips, so I might as well buy the chips. As Tirado puts it, “there’s no reason to put anything off for the long term if there is no long term that will be better than today.”
Buy the chips. Have you a good time, before your time is up. The immediate necessity for psychological survival negates the bogus narrative that you just have to work harder, and it’ll get better when you know it won’t.
The way I see it, being poor is like having cancer: You can’t bootstrap your way out of having cancer. You can seek medical assistance to ﬁght the cancer (Medicaid). You can seek spiritual guidance to give you mental fortitude to power through the cancer (Jack In the Box two for $1 tacos, a manicure, seeing a movie). You can get surgery and radiation to remove the cancer (loans). But ultimately, you have still had cancer, there’s no guarantee it won’t come back, and your efforts to ﬁght through it have permanently altered your genetic code and brain structure.
I’m just going to say it: All the ﬁnancial advice out there tells us the only way to resolve our ﬁnancial pressures is by following speciﬁc guidelines because all that advice is founded on a homogenized perspective that appeals predominantly to a shrinking middle class.
If you’re not low income, you have more wiggle room to be less stringent about how you use your money. Maybe you buy a new iPhone every year. Maybe you take a vacation that temporarily puts you in credit card debt. Maybe you don’t have a separate savings account because staring at all those sweet, sweet zeroes in your checking account gets you hot. And so, the ﬁnancial advice is geared toward the ﬁnancially stable who make bad ﬁnancial choices, like investing in bitcoin this year or getting bangs after a breakup.
Meanwhile, these guidelines reinforce negative stereotypes about low-income people and inspire heaps of criticism for those who inherently can’t follow them: You’re living in poverty because you sometimes buy snacks. You’re on the verge of eviction because you, minimum wage worker, simply aren’t trying hard enough. As if trying harder is what cures cancer.
And with that, maybe the best ﬁnancial advice for those struggling is none at all. You know your ﬁnances better than anyone, because you’re constantly ﬁghting against income that’s not commensurate with how much work you do. You know what you need to do to survive until next week. And you know the difference between buying to survive and splurging to purge what could be saved.
Maybe the best thing we poor person brainers can do is embrace it. Embrace your ﬁnancial woes, regain the autonomy that the status quo thinks we don’t deserve, if only to spite those who think we are less than for having less than. I’m poor and I like doing face masks to cheer myself up. I’m poor and I like to eat a meal I didn’t have to make when I’m too tired to keep going. Bite me.
If you’re poor, take a day off every few months and use it to heal and recharge. If a huge bag of McDonald’s fries is what’ll give you a mental tuneup to keep going, to push back, you go to McDonald’s, buy that unhealthy, greasy fast food, and you chow down on those bad boys with pride. You know how much money you have. You know how you’re spending it. Own your need to survive. Turn it into a decision to live for right now and laugh. Laugh loudly, with your mouth full of fries, at anyone who tries to criticize you for it.
A U. S. bankruptcy court on Friday reportedly approved Sears’s request to pay as much as $25.3 million in bonuses to the company’s top executives and high-ranking employees, just months after the company ﬁled for bankruptcy.
The company behind Sears, Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sears Holdings Corp., argued it needed to give employees such a ﬁnancial incentive to encourage them to remain with the company as it works to rebuild, despite it reporting nearly $1.9 billion in losses in the ﬁrst three quarters of this year, CBS News reported.
“Under these circumstances, it would be understandable if many key employees are asking themselves whether they should be seeking other opportunities,” the company said in a court ﬁling in November, according to the publication.
But the company “cannot afford this uncertainty — however understandable it may be,” the ﬁling also reportedly states.
The company’s proposal will reportedly offer bonuses to 19 executives amounting to up to $8.4 million over the next six months if the company is successful in hitting certain ﬁnancial goals.
The employees would also be eligible for more money in bonuses if the retailer is in a position to hit those ﬁnancial targets when sold, an attorney for the company reportedly said at the hearing.
Sears announced in October that it was forced to ﬁle Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which allows it to restructure its ﬁnances, after it failed to pay a $134 million debt payment that was due at the time.
Although the economy saw new peaks in 2018, not all Americans report reaping the beneﬁts. The majority of workers say they saw no salary increases this year, according to a new survey.
More than 60% of Americans said they didn’t get a pay raise at their current job or get a better-paying job in the last 12 months, according to a survey released Wednesday from ﬁnance site Bankrate.com. Meanwhile, executives have seen a surge in compensation, according to an August study from the Economic Policy Institute. The average chief executive ofﬁcer at the 350 largest ﬁrms in the U. S. received $18.9 million in compensation in 2017, the study showed, a 17.6% increase over 2016.
Despite those disparities, 91% of Americans say they have the same or greater conﬁdence in the job market than they did one year ago, according to Bankrate.com.
Don’t miss: Americans have a lot to feel conﬁdent about, so why are they feeling so nervous?
The survey ﬁndings suggest not all Americans are experiencing the modest pay growth that occurred this year, a welcome end to nearly decade of stagnant wages.
“The result of trickle-down economics is plain to see in this survey,” Melissa Boteach, senior vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, said. “The people at the top are getting richer and richer and everyday working families are not getting their fair share.”
Though several states — and some companies including Amazon
— have moved to increase the minimum wage, the federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009. Studies show a $15 wage is the minimum amount needed to keep low-wage workers out of poverty. The cost of living has increased in recent years, with consumer inﬂation hitting a 6-year high in July 2018.
“People are living in precarious ﬁnancial situations because wages have not kept pace with cost of living,” Boteach said. “If a car breaks down or a child gets an injury, families can spiral downward quickly.”
Arkansas and Missouri voted to pass increases in minimum wage in the 2018 midterm elections. Boteach noted that the majority of Americans (75% according to a 2015 survey by Hart research) support raising the minimum wage.
To get raises, employees should leverage the tight labor market and move to better-paying jobs, the Bankrate.com survey suggested. Full-time employees are almost twice as likely to get pay raises and/or better-paying jobs than part-time workers. Older baby boomers (ages 64-72) had the highest incidence of reporting neither a pay raise or a better paying job, at 79%. Younger millennials (ages 18-27) were the most likely age group to get a promotion or new job responsibilities that resulted in a pay raise.
“Pay raises and landing a higher paying job continue to be the exception rather than the rule, even in a strong economy with low unemployment,” Greg McBride, chief ﬁnancial analyst for Bankrate.com said. “Households seeking income growth are increasingly ﬁnding it ‘the old fashioned way — they earn it’ to quote an old TV commercial, usually by working more hours rather than being paid more per hour.”
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As the director of elaborate fantasy epics like the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, Peter Jackson has become known for meticulous attention to detail. Now he has put the same amount of care into making a documentary.
With “They Shall Not Grow Old,” Jackson has applied new technology to century-old World War I footage to create a vivid, you-are-there feeling that puts real faces front and center and allows us to hear their stories in their own words.
The documentary, which will screen nationwide Dec. 17 and Dec. 27, concentrates on the experiences of British soldiers as revealed in footage from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Jackson and his team have digitally restored the footage, adjusted its frame rate, colorized it and converted it to 3-D. They chose not to add a host or title cards. Instead, veterans of the war “narrate” — that is, the ﬁlmmakers culled their commentary from hundreds of hours of BBC interviews recorded in the 1960s and ’70s.
The result is a transformation that is nothing less than visually astonishing.
Facial recognition is cropping up everywhere. From shopping malls to the workplace, it’s likely something is scanning your face every day. But rather than invade your privacy, facial recognition on smartphones is supposed to protect your digital life from snoops.
If you’re an Android customer, though, look away from your screen now. We tested four of the hottest handsets running Google’s operating systems and Apple’s iPhone to see how easy it’d be to break into them. We did it with a 3D-printed head. All of the Androids opened with the fake. Apple’s phone, however, was impenetrable.
Two heads are better…
The head was printed at Backface in Birmingham, U. K., where I was ushered into a dome-like studio containing 50 cameras. Together, they combine to take a single shot that makes up a full 3D image. That image is then loaded up in editing software, where any errors can be ironed out. I, for instance, had a missing piece of nose.
Backface then constructs the model with a 3D printer that builds up layers of a British gypsum powder. Some ﬁnal touch-ups and colourings are added, and the life size head is ready within a few days, all for just over £300. You’re then the proud owner of an uncanny, almost-spectral version of your own visage.
For our tests, we used my own real-life head to register for facial recognition across ﬁve phones. An iPhone X and four Android devices: an LG G7 ThinQ, a Samsung S9, a Samsung Note 8 and a OnePlus 6. I then held up my fake head to the devices to see if the device would unlock. For all four Android phones, the spoof face was able to open the phone, though with differing degrees of ease. The iPhone X was the only one to never be fooled.
There were some disparities between the Android devices’ security against the hack. For instance, when ﬁrst turning on a brand new G7, LG actually warns the user against turning facial recognition on at all. “Face recognition is a secondary unlock method that results in your phone being less secure,” it says, noting that a similar face can unlock your phone. No surprise then that, on initial testing, the 3D-printed head opened it straightaway.
Yet during ﬁlming, it appeared the LG had been updated with improved facial recognition, making it considerably more difﬁcult to open. As an LG spokesperson told Forbes, “The facial recognition function can be improved on the device through a second recognition step and advanced recognition which LG advises through setup. LG constantly seeks to make improvements to its handsets on a regular basis through updates for device stability and security.” They added that facial recognition was seen as “a secondary unlock feature” to others like a PIN or ﬁngerprint.
There’s a similar warning on the Samsung S9 on sign up. “Your phone could be unlocked by someone or something that looks like you,” it notes. “If you use facial recognition only, this will be less secure than using a pattern, PIN or password.” Oddly, though, on setting up the device the ﬁrst presented option for unlocking was facial and iris recognition. Whilst iris recognition wasn’t duped by the fake head’s misted-over eyes, facial recognition was tricked, albeit with a need to try a few different angles and lighting ﬁrst.
The Note 8 has a feature to turn on “faster recognition,” which by the manufacturer’s own admittance is less secure than the slower option. It didn’t matter in this case as the head unlocked on both settings, though it did take a little more effort with lighting and angles with the slower option. The same went for the slower versions on the S9 and the LG, the latter proving trickier to break into. (A Samsung spokesperson told Forbes: “Facial recognition is a convenient action to open your phone — similar to the ‘swipe to unlock’ action. We offer the highest level of biometric authentication — ﬁngerprint and iris — to lock your phone and authenticate access to Samsung Pay or Secure Folder.“).
The OnePlus 6 came with neither the warnings of the other Android phones nor the choice of slower but more secure recognition. And, despite some sci-ﬁ style face scanning graphics when registering a face, the phone instantly opened when presented with the fake head. It was, undoubtedly, the least secure of the devices we tested.
A OnePlus spokesperson said: “We designed Face Unlock around convenience, and while we took corresponding measures to optimize its security we always recommended you use a password/PIN/ﬁngerprint for security. For this reason, Face Unlock is not enabled for any secure apps such as banking or payments. We’re constantly working to improve all of our technology, including Face Unlock.”
No such luck with the iPhone X, though. Apple’s investment in its tech - which saw the company work with a Hollywood studio to create realistic masks to test Face ID - has clearly paid off. It was impossible to break in with the model.
Microsoft appeared to have done a ﬁne job too. It’s new Windows Hello facial recognition also didn’t accept the fake head as real.
Little surprise the two most valuable companies in the world offer the best security.
Use your head, not your face
Anyone worried about anyone having their device compromised with a fake head, either through our method or others’, should perhaps consider not using facial recognition at all. Instead, use a strong alphanumeric passcode, recommended Matt Lewis, research director at cybersecurity contractor NCC Group.
“Focus on the secret aspect, which is the PIN and the password,” he added. “The reality with any biometrics is that they can be copied. Anyone with enough time, resource and objective will invest to try and spoof these biometrics.”
TL;DR: Due to serious ﬁnancial misconduct at the factory that makes the Model 01, keycap sets that we believed were in the mail to you have yet to be shipped. We’re working to resolve the problem, but it may take us a while. The past few weeks have been stressful but Keyboardio is in good shape. Curious about what happened? Read on.
In happier news, the Model 01 is back in stock for immediate shipment at https://shop.keyboard.io
“I’m not saying anything else without a lawyer present.”
There’s basically no situation in which these words indicate that things haven’t gone badly, badly wrong.
These are the words someone says after they get caught.
These are the words that our account manager from the factory that makes the Model 01 said at about 6PM on Tuesday, November 27, after we’d ﬁnally ﬁgured out how much she’d stolen.
A month ago, we were pretty sure that this backer update was going to be the last update about the Model 01. We thought we were going to be able to report that all the keycaps you’ve ordered had been shipped, and that most had already been received. We had thought that we were going to be able to report that our initial contract with our factory had been (mostly) successfully completed with the delivery of the MP7 shipment of keyboards, and that we were in discussions about whether to move production to a new supplier or to continue production with them now that we’d solved most of the manufacturing issues.
This is not that backer update. And we’re pretty sure it won’t be the last substantial backer update.
This is not a backer update that makes us look good.
This is not a backer update that makes the factory look good.
This is not a backer update that makes our account manager look good.
This is a backer update that has been hard to write.
This is a backer update that includes details we’re hesitant to share.
This is a backer update that doesn’t include all the details we’d like to share.
The situation we’re writing about is not yet resolved. It is unlikely that it will be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Before writing about this situation, we had to check with our lawyers. There is a chance that writing about this situation may inﬂuence the outcome, but we’ve decided that we’re willing to take that risk. From the start, we’ve tried to be as up-front with you as we can about the trials and tribulations about low-volume manufacturing in China. We’re not about to stop now.
Whatever the outcome of this situation, we still expect to honor all of our commitments to you.
One of the reasons we chose the factory we ended up using for the Model 01 was that the account manager seemed a little bit more engaged and collaborative than her peers at many of the other factories we met with. (In previous updates, we’ve sometimes referred to her as our “salesperson”, as that was the department she was in, although her role encompassed a lot more than that.) Her English was good. It seemed like she fought hard for what her customers wanted and that she was committed to managing the full production process. She told us that because the factory’s regular project management team didn’t speak English, she’d be our point-person throughout the manufacturing process. She seemed like a little bit of a control freak. It was nice that she was the “Director of Overseas Sales” and seemed to have significant pull inside the organization. In contrast, our sales contact at our second choice factory was so new and had so little internal inﬂuence that she couldn’t get us even a single customer reference.
What we didn’t know at the time was that our account manager had been with the company for only a few months, and that we were her ﬁrst project with them.
We paid the initial deposit for the tooling and the keyboards directly to the factory and got started.
Right from the beginning, there were problems. The factory started making injection molding tooling before we’d approved the ﬁnal design. That caused months of delays. The factory outsourced the injection molding to partners without telling us (despite assurances to the contrary in the contract). Small communications issues caused outsized delays. Throughout this process, our account manager kept in constant contact with us, to the point of nightly calls on both weekdays and weekends. We genuinely believed she was working hard on our behalf.
There were occasional “weird” things that felt like they might be lies, but every time we independently veriﬁed one of them, it checked out. As time went on, we talked to a lot of folks who’ve been manufacturing hardware in China. It became clear that small companies doing business in China just run into weird problems. However, if you’ve read our backer updates over the past few years, you will be well aware that we’ve run into more than our share of weird problems. In the words of one industry veteran we talked to, “every problem you guys have run into is something that happens. But nobody has all the problems.”
It was only much later that we would realize how prescient this comment had been.
When it came time to pay for the ﬁrst mass production run, our account manager sent us an invoice that included bank details that differed from those on the initial invoice. When we asked her about this, she said that the new account belonged to one of the factory’s partners.
This is not entirely unheard of, but immediately set off alarm bells. We asked the account manager to conﬁrm in writing that this change was 100% correct and above-board. When she did, Kaia forwarded this conﬁrmation onward by email to the factory owner. The factory owner didn’t get back to us and we were already desperately late to get these keyboards shipped. The total amount of the invoice was relatively small compared to the deposit we’d already paid the factory. And Jesse was physically present in China while this was happening. So we paid.
We didn’t think too much more about that alternate bank account because, well, all the right things appeared to happen.
Unbeknownst to us, our account manager had gotten the factory to ship out our order of keyboards, even though they hadn’t received any payment from us. Much later, we learned that she’d lied to the factory owner, telling him that we were broke and needed to sell that batch of keyboards before we could afford to pay for them. She held onto our money for a while and then paid it out to the factory.
This was how she started to poison the factory against us.
At around the same time, she started telling us about how poorly managed the factory was, but that she was running interference, solving problems on our behalf. At one point she told us about how gullible the factory owner was and that he got taken advantage of by his workers all the time.
If this were a novel, the foreshadowing would have been a little heavy-handed.
Over time, she told us lies about serious moral failings on the part of everybody at the factory we might approach to talk about the problems we were having. At the time, the things she said sounded believable. Much later, we’d realize that they were part of a plan to ensure that she was the trusted gatekeeper for all interactions between us and the factory.
When it came time to ship the second mass-production run of keyboards, Jesse had a meeting with our account manager and the factory owner in the factory’s conference room. The ﬁrst part of the meeting was in Chinese and then the factory owner had another commitment. After he left, the account manager told us that the project had been dragging out and the factory was out of pocket for raw materials, many of which had increased in price since we signed the contract. She said that the factory owner demanded we pay a little more up front and that this would reduce the amount we needed to pay for the remainder of the shipment. We’re nice people who wanted to have a good relationship with our factory. And the money was going to the factory eventually. We knew that the bit about raw materials getting more expensive was true—China’s been on a major anti-pollution kick, which has caused a lot of prices to spike. All in all, it felt a little bit funny, but we agreed.
You can probably guess most of what happened next. The account manager held onto all of our money for as long as she possibly could. When we started to get frantic about shipping, she paid the factory owner just enough money to convince him to release the shipment. When we met a couple weeks ago, the factory owner said that she paid this money in Chinese RMB. When he expressed concern about this, since we’d agreed to pay in US Dollars, she told him that, again, we were broke. She said that she was loaning us the money for this shipment, so we could try to recover our business.
Similar situations played out for subsequent shipments of keyboards. To us, the factory seemed moderately incompetent and disorganized. To the factory, we seemed like a small-time deadbeat client who might never make good on their promises to pay.
Over the course of 2017, Jesse made several extended trips to Shenzhen to work with the factory to solve a variety of design, manufacturing, and supply chain issues. When he was on the ground at the factory, issues got solved far faster, but that itself wasn’t a huge red ﬂag. Our relationship with the account manager seemed pretty good. Before one of the trips, she asked if Jesse could bring American prenatal vitamins, as she and her husband were trying to have a baby. She even commissioned a portrait of our son from an artist at the famous Dafen Artist Village in Shenzhen. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, while she sent us photos of the portrait, she never sent the actual portrait.)
Sometime in 2018, the account manager started telling us that she was planning to quit working for the factory once our project was over. She said that she’d actually started a factory with some partners and that they were already making mice and planned to expand to keyboards in the near future. She even tried to get us interested in investing in her new factory.
Keyboard shipments in 2018 happened. They weren’t on time. They were not without issues. But they happened. Well, up until we got to the MP6 shipment, which was supposed to happen at the end of August. The account manager told us that due to scheduling issues, they wouldn’t start assembly until early September. And then things kept dragging out by days and weeks. Finally in the middle of October, the account manager told us that we would need to prepay for MP6 and MP7 or the factory would refuse to complete the assembly.
Jesse actually came close to getting on a plane at this point, but we had some unmoveable family commitments and already had a trip to Shenzhen on the books in December to talk to factories about our next product.
We ﬁgured that this was part of a ploy on the part of the factory to get us to break the contract, so they could quit. Jesse told the account manager this. She swore that she would not quit her job at the factory until this project was successfully delivered.
We were upset. This was a straight up violation of the contract and of normal standards of business. The account manager told us that the factory was having cashﬂow issues and that if we didn’t prepay, there was no way we were getting our keyboards. Since we had over 100 customers who’d bought these keyboards when we’d been promising that they’d ship in August or September, we bit the bullet and agreed to pay for MP6 before delivery. MP7 would complete our order with the factory. We said we couldn’t possibly pay in full, as we’d have zero leverage if the factory failed to deliver. The account manager took a day to “negotiate” with the factory and said she’d gotten them to agree to accept half of the remaining amount due as a gesture of good faith. She wrote into the payment agreement that the factory would return the payments if they did not hit the committed delivery dates.
When we paid this money, we knew the MP6 keyboards existed—we’d already had our third-party quality control agent check both the assembly line and the assembled keyboards. On October 26th or so, our account manager committed to get the keyboards shipped out ASAP. That should mean that keyboards arrive in Hong Kong the same day they were shipped. More typically, that means that keyboards will arrive at our warehouse in Hong Kong within 48-72 hours. Three days later, they still weren’t there.
Our account manager said that she was in Malaysia and would dig into it when she was back in town in a couple days. She told us that she’d visited the trucking company and that they’d agreed to expedite our shipment. Two days later, the keyboards still hadn’t arrived.
We were ﬂipping out. We had daily calls with our account manager explaining just how bad it would be if these keyboards didn’t arrive at our warehouse before Black Friday. She told us that she understood entirely and that she promised that the factory would compensate us USD1000 per day for every day they were late, going all the way back to October.
Over the course of 3 weeks, excuses included:
* The factory has not paid their bill with the shipping agent, so all of the goods shipped by the factory have been impounded
* Two of the factory’s biggest customers didn’t pay their bills, so the factory hasn’t met their contractual minimums and the shipping agent won’t do anything until this is resolved
* The shipping agent has agreed to ship your keyboards, but they’re fully booked up today
* Your keyboards are on a truck! The truck is in Hong Kong. But it will arrive after the warehouse closes. (In this case, our account manager called the warehouse and got their staff to wait around for a couple hours after work.)
* The factory has taken the keyboards back from the trucking agent because they’re incompetent. They need to redo the customs paperwork and then send them to a new trucking company.
* The new trucking company hadn’t ﬁnalized their contract with the factory so refused to send the goods to Hong Kong
* The new trucking company has handed the goods off to their Hong Kong partner. They will be delivered tomorrow morning.
“Tomorrow morning” was, by now, the day before Thanksgiving. This was beyond the pale. We were absolutely livid. It was clear that something was very wrong, though we couldn’t begin to guess at the magnitude of the problem. We sent our on-the-ground manufacturing consultant to the factory to meet with the factory owner, without our account manager present. The factory owner was angry, too. The conversation went something like this:
“Why the heck haven’t Keyboardio’s keyboards been delivered?”
“I’ve told the account manager over and over: Those keyboards will never leave our warehouse before Keyboardio pays for them.”
“But Keyboardio has paid for them. Here are the wire transfer conﬁrmations.”
“Well, we haven’t received any of the last four payments.”
“What about the 5000 sets of keycaps Keyboardio ordered?”
’You mean the 2700 sets they ordered? They’re ready, as soon as they pay for them…”
“It sounds like there’s a big problem.”
“Yes, it sounds like there’s a big problem. We’ve not received at least USD30,000 that Keyboardio think they’ve paid.”
Our manufacturing consultant reported all of this to us while we were in the middle of hosting Thanksgiving dinner.
He also shared an additional anecdote with us: The account manager had apparently been notorious for borrowing money (up to around USD1000 at a time) from coworkers and had been spotty about paying them back on time. The problem had become so bad that the factory owner had forbidden his staff from loaning her money. (To this day, she still owes at least one of them.)
36 hours later, Jesse was on the way to the airport, en route to Shenzhen.
Monday morning, Jesse and our manufacturing consultant were due to meet with the factory owner, but he wasn’t answering his phone. The account manager told us that she was unavailable until the afternoon, as she had to go visit the factory working making replacements for the keycaps that “got lost in the mail” again. (More on that later.)
After lunch, Jesse and the manufacturing consultant showed up at the factory to ﬁnd the factory owner in the middle of a heated conversation. The manufacturing consultant told Jesse that they were discussing commission. The account manager was asserting that they’d had an oral agreement about her commission (as a percentage of factory proﬁt.)
That’s when we learned that she was no longer an employee of the factory. Remember how we said she’d promised not to quit until this project was ﬁnished? That was a lie. It turns out she’d quit 18 months prior. The factory had allowed her to keep our project as an independent “sales agent.” This, at least, is not uncommon when doing business in China. What did surprise us was that the account manager had kept such tight control of our account that other people at the factory were afraid of angering her by speaking to us directly. The last time Jesse had been in Shenzhen, the factory owner had tried (unbeknownst to us) to take Jesse to lunch. Our account manager had refused to allow it. Folks at the factory said that they were worried that any direct contact with us would be seen as trying to steal her client.
During the ﬁrst day of meetings, the account manager agreed to pay the remainder due to ship the MP6 keyboards on Tuesday morning, and that Jesse could come to the factory on Wednesday morning to watch them depart for Hong Kong on a truck.
Throughout the ﬁrst day of meetings, all of the discussion of fraud and embezzlement was in Chinese. Eventually, the account manager left, supposedly to go arrange payment.
When Jesse discussed this with the factory team with the account manager out of the room, they told him that they were trying to allow her to save face, as they thought this was the most likely way to recover the stolen money.
On Tuesday morning, Jesse and our manufacturing consultant sat down with the factory’s management team to discuss what had really happened and what needed to happen going forward. The ﬁrst thing they did was to compare, in detail, what we’d paid and what the factory had received. The discrepancy wasn’t USD30,000. It was over USD100,000.
We started looking at how the number could have gotten so big.
Part of it was the amounts the account manager had told us we needed to prepay, which she pocketed.
Part of it was the order for 5000 sets of keycaps we’d placed in January (along with shipping costs for 2700 sets that the factory was supposed to send directly to you.) As it turned out, she’d doctored the invoices she sent to us and to the factory. She’d dramatically inﬂated the unit cost of the keycaps and associated packaging on the invoice presented to us. At the same time, she’d halved the size of the order she sent to the factory. And those keycaps that the factory shipped out in August and October? They simply never existed. Total fabrication. At this point, Jesse took a break to walk into the factory’s warehouse, where he found pallets of thousands of QWERTY, Unpainted, and Black keycap sets literally gathering dust. They’d been sitting there for months. The factory said they needed to get paid before they’d release the keycaps.
And, it turns out, part of the discrepancy was due to the fact that the account manager had negotiated aggressive discounts and price breaks on “our” behalf and not passed them on to us.
When we asked if our account manager had done this to any of her other clients, the factory owner told us that we were the only customer she’d brought in before she’d quit.
Having come to understand the scale of the fraud, we told the factory that we were worried that she might try to disappear. We asked if someone at the factory could call her husband to see if he could tell us what was going on. That resulted in some pretty confused looks from the factory team.
It turns out she’d lied about that, too.
At this point, we were pretty sure that nobody was ever going to see our account manager again. Boy were we surprised when the account manager agreed to show up at the factory to continue our discussions that afternoon.
You’re probably asking yourself “why didn’t they call the police?” Jesse was asking himself the same thing. When he asked the factory team the same question, their response was both understandable and somewhat unsatisfying: “It’s not enough money to destroy her life over. We think we can solve this without the police.”
It all got pretty weird. The factory owner posted guards at the factory’s front gate to make sure that she didn’t simply walk out and disappear. At one point, Jesse found himself standing in a dark stairwell to make sure she didn’t sneak out the back when she said she had to go to the toilet.
Tuesday afternoon’s discussions were…somewhat more frank. Jesse was very clear with the account manager that he knew she had been lying about everything from the beginning and that he did not believe she still had the money. He asked her to prove it by showing bank balances to him or the team at the factory. She claimed that her Hong Kong account had been “blocked” due to an issue with the bank. Astonishingly, most of the people in the room seemed to take both this explanation and the claim that she was withholding the money as a bargaining tactic about her commission at face value.
A couple times during the afternoon, while arguing with the factory owner, the account manager called a friend or compatriot of some kind to get “advice” about the negotiation.
Wednesday morning, Jesse met with our new lawyer to discuss our options. He told her that we’d like to resolve the situation by making sure that the theft was an internal matter between the factory and their former employee and that we’d like to maintain good relations with the factory. The lawyer explained that we could pursue both civil and criminal options, but that the civil option was more likely to lead to a positive resolution, wherein the money was recovered and our relationship with the factory was preserved. She said that the criminal penalty for what our account manager had done ranged from ten years to life in prison. She said that as soon as we called the police, the account manager would be unable to travel internationally or to buy plane or train tickets. More importantly, she said that once the police were involved, they’d have full control of the investigation and that there’d be very little we could do to get an outcome we wanted. She did agree that it was our ultimate fallback and that it was important that the account manager be aware of how severe the penalties for her actions are.
Wednesday afternoon, Jesse contacted our wood supplier to make sure that he didn’t engage with our account manager. When Jesse told him a bit about what was going on, he revealed that a couple months back, our account manager had called him up to say that she was travelling internationally, had lost her wallet and needed him to loan her some money so that she could get a ﬂight home. When Jesse asked if he’d paid, the wood supplier said that he told her that it was wildly inappropriate to be asking a suppliers for personal loans, and that she ought to ask a close friend or family member instead. He may be the only person in this whole story who didn’t get conned by our account manager.
Thursday, Jesse, our lawyer, the factory owner, and the account manager sat down at the factory to hash out a new legal agreement between all the parties. Everyone agreed that we had paid everything we thought we had. The account manager conﬁrmed in writing that she had received all the money we sent and agreed to repay it to the factory. Everyone agreed about the products (and quantities) we’ve ordered. We agreed to new delivery dates for everything that hasn’t yet shipped. The factory agreed in writing that we own all the tooling we’ve paid for and that they will make it available for us to move to another factory if we want to.
The meeting didn’t come to quite the resolution we’d hoped it would, but it turned out dramatically better than it might have.
Our lawyer has advised us not to go into more detail about the rest of the agreement or the shipping and delivery schedule we agreed to. At this point, we need to let things play out a bit more. We expect to have an update on keycaps and MP7 by mid-January at latest.
Saturday, Jesse and our manufacturing consultant sat down with the factory team. We knew our account manager had tightly controlled all information about the Model 01, so we wanted to make sure they had all the details they’d need to ﬁnish the work they’ve agreed to.
What we found…probably shouldn’t have shocked us. In August, we’d sent 20 defective circuit boards back to our account manager at the factory, so she could give them to the engineering team to study and improve future production runs. In September, she’d conﬁrmed receipt and said that the engineering team had been studying the failures. Nobody at the factory had heard anything about this. Jesse went strolling through the warehouse to ﬁnd where everything from the account manager’s ofﬁce had been shelved. There was our box of defective circuit boards. Unopened. Jesse physically handed them to the manager of the R&D department.
We talked about the kinds of problems we’d seen in the ﬁeld with the Model 01. Jesse was trying to reassure the factory when he told them that we weren’t going to hold them responsible for the 100 defective wooden enclosures from the ﬁrst mass production run, and that we understood that the problems for that, at least, mostly rested with the original supplier. This all had the opposite effect of what Jesse had intended. It turns out that the account manager had never bothered to tell the factory management about the defective enclosures, either.
It became clear that just about every conversation she’d reported having with the factory on our behalf over the past 18 months had been a total fabrication.
Finally we got to the point of talking about the future. Jesse explained that a few weeks before, Keyboardio had been dead-set on moving production to a new factory as soon as the keyboards we’d paid for were shipped. Now that we had a better understanding of what’s going on, he said, we’re happy to treat this as an opportunity to reboot the relationship. So long as the new agreement is honored and things ship on schedule, we effectively have changed factories.
Our account manager was a poor project manager and a poor salesperson, but she was a pretty skilled con-artist. It’s not 100% clear if it would have protected us in this instance, but we’ve now learned (the hard way) that one should never pay an invoice from a Chinese company unless it’s been stamped with the company’s ofﬁcial “chop” or seal.
Going forward, our new account manager at the factory has asked that all correspondence be CC’ed to the factory owner, the factory’s CFO, her, the junior sales assistant, Jesse, Kaia, and our manufacturing consultant. Similarly, when discussing things on WeChat, we should use a group chat where everybody sees everything. Most importantly (to everybody), future payments, if any, should only ever be to the factory’s primary bank account. And that we never again pay an un-stamped invoice.
So, that’s most of what’s new with us.
Is this catastrophically bad news? Yes and no.
On the one hand, there’s a lot of money missing. We think there’s a decent chance that money has vanished never to be seen again. Products that we said we sent you…simply never existed. We’re genuinely sorry about that.
And of course it never feels good to realize that you got scammed.
On the other hand, Kaia pointed out to Jesse the other night that this actually makes her more conﬁdent about our ability to manufacture products in China in the future. When that industry veteran told us that all of these problems never happen to the same company, it turns out that they were right. All those uncontrollably crazy problems and delays we had? While many of them had a grain of truth, the vast majority of the issues we thought we had.. simply didn’t exist. And, indeed, when we’ve worked directly with other suppliers for replacement wooden enclosures, travel cases for the Model 01, and on other bits and pieces, everything has gone a good deal more smoothly.
We’re hopeful that we have a stronger, better relationship with the factory than we’ve had in the past. If worst happens and the new agreement with the factory falls apart, we’re still potentially out a lot of money, but it’s not enough money to kill the company. The part of the agreement that says we own all the tooling for the Model 01 has the force of law. (And yes, it’s stamped with the corporate seal.) We are, of course, hoping that everything works out with our current factory, but if we need to, we can to move the tooling to a new factory, and to produce and ship your keycaps and more Model 01s.
Oh. We do have a little bit of good news. The company that’s making the Model 01 travel cases ﬁnished the second production run of cases a couple weeks early. We reported to them that one case from the ﬁrst production run had a stitching error, so they threw in 10 extra cases, just in case any other issues get discovered. This second production run of travel cases arrived at our Hong Kong warehouse on Tuesday. On Thursday, we asked the warehouse to ship out cases to every Kickstarter backer who’s ﬁlled out the backer survey. We expect most of them to arrive on your doorsteps before the end of 2018. In the coming weeks, we’ll make cases available for sale on https://shop.keyboard.io.
Sometimes a person, creature, or thing really resonates with you. That sense of “vibing” may be more than a ﬁgure of speech, it turns out.
In a Dec. 5 post in Scientiﬁc American entitled “The Hippies Were Right: It’s All About Vibrations, Man!” lawyer and philosopher Tam Hunt explains a new theory of consciousness he developed with his colleague, psychologist Jonathan Schooler, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Hunt is a philosopher of mind, biology, and physics, while Schooler is a professor of brain science, and together they’ve been working on answering one of the world’s most perplexing questions: “What physical processes underpin mental experience, linking mind and matter and creating the sense of self?”
In other words, what natural laws govern our perception of existence? This search for the rules that relate mind and matter (pdf) is often referred to as the “hard problem of consciousness.” And no one has really solved it, but there are various theories.
Hunt and Schooler suspect that every physical object, including you, is vibrating and oscillating. The more synchronized these vibes are, the more complex our connection with the world around us, and the more sophisticated our consciousness. The “resonance theory of consciousness” they present posits that synchronized vibrations are central not only to human consciousness but to all of physical reality.
“All things in our universe are constantly in motion, vibrating,” Hunt writes. “Even objects that appear to be stationary are in fact vibrating, oscillating, resonating, at various frequencies. Resonance is a type of motion, characterized by oscillation between two states. And ultimately all matter is just vibrations of various underlying ﬁelds.” When different oscillating things are close together for a time, they begin to vibrate in sync. That applies to neurons in brains, ﬁreﬂies gathering, the Moon and Earth, and much more. This phenomenon is called “spontaneous self-organization.” The synchronization is a kind of physical communication between entities.
Hunt argues that the more complex the synchronization is, the more complex the consciousness. So, for example, the billions of neurons that ﬁre in the brain together to make a decision and form our experience of the world are extremely sophisticated, yielding a rich and dynamic sense of self. He refers to this sense of self as perception.
The degree of perception possible for any thing or being varies widely. Still, even seemingly inanimate objects, like boulders or piles of sand, have a rudimentary level of consciousness according to Hunt’s definition of perception, which is simply an object “receiving information from the world.”
Each grain of sand is an object in relation to the world and therefore it is also a subject that “experiences” existence, albeit to a much more limited extent than humans do, according to Hunt. He calls this a “micro-consciousness.” In a 2011 paper in the Journal of Consciousness Studies (pdf), Hunt explains:
[L]iterally every life form and every speck of dust down to the smallest subatomic particle is inﬂuenced by the world through the various forces that act upon it. An electron is inﬂuenced by charged particles close enough to have an impact, and from objects that exert a gravitational pull—and the electron behaves accordingly. To exist, to be in the universe, means that every particle in the universe feels some pull and push from the various forces around it—otherwise it simply doesn’t exist. Thus, the electron perceives, as I have deﬁned this term, and the electron is a subject.
What humans have is a “macro-consciousness.” But that more complex awareness that gives us our rich sense of self, the experience of existence, Hunt argues, is based on “a shared resonance among many micro-conscious constituents.” Basically, all of the relatively simple vibrations and oscillations that occur individually in various physical aspects of the brain, working together, become extremely complex and provide our self-awareness. “The speed of the resonant waves that are present is the limiting factor that determines the size of each conscious entity,” Hunt writes. “As a shared resonance expands to more and more constituents, the particular conscious entity grows larger and more complex.”
This resonance theory of consciousness tries to provide a uniﬁed framework for understanding mind and matter that includes neuroscience, the study of human consciousness or subjective experience, neurobiology, and biophysics. It offers an explanation for the differing degrees of consciousness in various physical systems. “It is all about vibrations, but it’s also about the type of vibrations and, most importantly, about shared vibrations,” Hunt argues.
This view that he and Schooler have that all things are conscious to a greater or lesser extent is called panpsychism, and it’s relatively widely accepted among consciousness researchers. Their work builds on centuries of thinking about perception by philosophers and many decades of work by scientists on the physical underpinnings of this process.
However, their theory that vibrations explain how perception is created at varying degrees of complexity, resonating to a more or less sophisticated extent, has yet to be proven deﬁnitively. It’s a possible framework that could solve the “hard problem of consciousness” and lends credence to the sense long expressed by spiritual types that it’s all about the “vibes.”