Dec 13, 2013

Chipping Away at Lululemon

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Chip Wilson is bad for business. He announced earlier this week that he will step down as chairman of the company he founded in 1998 -- a yoga-themed retail chain he created to address the scourge of feminism and named to mock the Japanese.

But the news just keeps getting worse for Lululemon. Yesterday the company took a beating on Wall Street after lowering its sales projections. Shares fell 11.7%.

Under the new chairmanship of Michael Casey and with new CEO Laurent Potdevin, Lululemon will try to rehabilitate its image and stock price.

Lululemon Athletica Inc (LULU.O) named a new chief executive on Tuesday and said founder Chip Wilson will step down as chairman, as the upscale yogawear retailer tries to expand globally and put a series of embarrassing quality issues and other gaffes behind it.

The company said Laurent Potdevin, most recently president of trendy footwear brand TOMS Shoes, will replace Christine Day as CEO in January and emphasized Potdevin's role leading TOMS' global expansion.

Lululemon, in the early stages of a push into Europe and Asia, was forced to recall some of its signature black stretchy pants in March because they were see-through. The incoming CEO said quality will be a top priority when he takes the helm.

"Product and quality for any premium brand such as Lululemon is absolutely paramount," Potdevin told Reuters. "It will be a very clear area of focus for me."

One hopes not insulting the public with one outrageous statement after another figures into Potdevin's plans because that would appear to be the larger problem. Most recently, Wilson announced that  women whose thighs touch are bad for their overpriced yoga pants. You can never be too rich or too thin to be a Lululemon customer. Their stores shun the over size 8 woman, burying a minimal selection of sizes 10 and 12 in the back. And if you're over size 12, forget it. Your ass is too fat for Lululemon's bottom line. Wilson explained that the extra fabric would cost too much, ignoring the obvious fact that other companies manage to eek out a profit making larger pants for far less than Lululemon's roughly $100 price tag.

Amazingly these aren't the worst things he's ever said or done. A rundown of some of Chip Wilson's greatest hits can be found here, such as his pontification on the toll feminism has taken on women's lives and health.

"Women’s lives changed immediately [after the pill]. ... Men did not know how to relate to the new female. Thus came the era of divorces," Wilson wrote in a blog post in 2009.

"With divorce and publicity around equality, women in the 1970′s/80′s found themselves operating as 'Power Women.' The media convinced women that they could win at home and be a man’s equal in the business world.... The 1980′s gave way to Power Women dressing like men in boardroom attire with big shoulder pads. They went to 3 martini lunches and smoked because this is what their 'successful' fathers did in the business world.

"... Breast cancer also came into prominence in the 1990’s. I suggest this was due to the number of cigarette-smoking Power Women who were on the pill (initial concentrations of hormones in the pill were very high) and taking on the stress previously left to men in the working world.

"Ultimately, Lululemon was formed because female education levels, breast cancer, yoga/athletics and the desire to dress feminine came together all at one time."

Strangely, these ideas didn't go over well with the store's customer base.

Also unpopular was his plan to stem the problem of youth unemployment in the Third World. Where most of us call that exploiting child labor, the forward thinking Wilson saw it as a way for impoverished children to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Then there was his childlike glee at the unintentional hilarity of Japanese people who "try to say" Lululemon. Wilson seems almost impossibly tone-deaf.

The ironic contempt of a yoga clothier for women's bodies that stray from a largely unattainable ideal has even alienated some of Lululemon's most ardent supporters. "Luluheads" lit up social media with their outrage over Wilson's comments about thigh "pressure." And at least two Lululemon ambassadors have written public kiss-offs.

"Chip Wilson can kiss my fat yoga ass," says Alanna Kaivalya, whose long relationship with the store included twice acting as an ambassador and teaching free yoga classes in their stores.

I have taught free classes for Lululemon all across the country, and only been paid in sweat-shop-labor-made Whisper tanks. I felt like it was good exposure, and I always try to teach when it's asked of me, but eventually something didn't add up. Why wasn't I feeling good about participating in these "community building" events? Because they weren't for me, or for the students, they were for Lululemon.

I mean, it's great free advertising, right?

Get a bunch of people in a vacant store filled with nothing but Lululemon product and feed them 60 minutes of free, good quality yoga. And when they're just coming out of their yoga buzz-filled shavasana, turn on the lights and start up the cash registers. Ka-Ching!

Brilliant move. Except, the yoga teacher has just given up her Saturday and will probably go teach three more paid classes that day just to make what she needs to pay her electricity bill that week.

Word to the wise: When a business is making a profit on your free labor, you're being exploited. This is something more and more TED speakers -- and TED refuseniks -- are learning. It's something I grokked early on in the new age marketplace. People who are passionate about their non-traditional careers and interests are a very exploitable commodity. Teaching yoga is a labor of love.

Kaivalya had also grown increasingly concerned about the LGATs and cultishness in Lululemon stores, as discussed here. But the final straw was the non-inclusiveness of Wilson's comments about women who happen to have thighs -- an attitude that stands so at odds with the principles of yoga.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela hung up her Lululemon ambassadorship because Wilson's thigh-bashing comments starkly revealed what has long been an undercurrent of misogyny in the store's corporate culture.

In 2010 I was flown to Vancouver to attend Lululemon's inaugural Global Ambassador Summit: three days of networking, exercise, and immersion in lululand. The organizers described it as an opportunity to "create awesome" and in many ways it was. At a roundtable discussion with a senior executive, however, I enthusiastically raised the idea of focusing more deliberately on pregnant women, whom I knew loved their clothes. The answer? A bemused snicker, and an explanation that Lululemon was about "aspirational fashion -- and there is NOTHING aspirational about pregnancy." I smiled weakly, astonished at the incongruence between this arrogance and the attitudes of the lulu team back in New York.

I immediately thought of this interaction when I heard Wilson's interview. That same macho derision toward female bodies, especially heavy ones. Most of all: a repugnantly familiar misogynist tendency to reduce a woman to her body parts. This cultural malaise reaches far beyond loudmouths at lululemon. The anti-choice movement is notorious for defining women as little more than uteruses. Ardent "lactivists" are guilty as well, disdaining women who choose not to breastfeed. Even the breast cancer awareness movement has embraced a do-it-for-the-boys campaign to "save second base." Wilson's comments, in correlating a woman's worthiness to wear lululemon with the distance between her thighs, (that's an inverse relationship, FYI) partake of the same disturbing trend.

There is "nothing aspirational about pregnancy." I don't even know how to begin to process such a statement. Chip Wilson has created a company that is utterly contemptuous of women's bodies. Perhaps it can be rehabilitated under its new leadership but I'm not optimistic. Wilson will still sit on the board of directors and will no doubt continue to exert a great deal of control over the direction of his brainchild. This is probably little more than a cosmetic change. Only time and clothing sizes will tell.

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Dec 12, 2013

Strings and Things

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There have been some big doings in the world of physics, real front page stuff. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to skip the part where I try to pretend I understand any of it.

The theory of the holographic universe just got a major boost from new developments in string theory.

A team of physicists has provided some of the clearest evidence yet that our Universe could be just one big projection.

In 1997, theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena proposed that an audacious model of the Universe in which gravity arises from infinitesimally thin, vibrating strings could be reinterpreted in terms of well-established physics. The mathematically intricate world of strings, which exist in nine dimensions of space plus one of time, would be merely a hologram: the real action would play out in a simpler, flatter cosmos where there is no gravity.

Maldacena's idea thrilled physicists because it offered a way to put the popular but still unproven theory of strings on solid footing — and because it solved apparent inconsistencies between quantum physics and Einstein's theory of gravity. It provided physicists with a mathematical Rosetta stone, a 'duality', that allowed them to translate back and forth between the two languages, and solve problems in one model that seemed intractable in the other and vice versa. But although the validity of Maldacena's ideas has pretty much been taken for granted ever since, a rigorous proof has been elusive.

In two papers posted on the arXiv repository, Yoshifumi Hyakutake of Ibaraki University in Japan and his colleagues now provide, if not an actual proof, at least compelling evidence that Maldacena’s conjecture is true.

A new geometrical model simplifies quantum calculations and may bring us closer to a unified field theory.

Physicists reported this week the discovery of a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.

“This is completely new and very much simpler than anything that has been done before,” said Andrew Hodges, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University who has been following the work.
The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

“The degree of efficiency is mind-boggling,” said Jacob Bourjaily, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and an author of the first of two papers detailing the new idea. “You can easily do, on paper, computations that were infeasible even with a computer before.”

The new geometric version of quantum field theory could also facilitate the search for a theory of quantum gravity that would seamlessly connect the large- and small-scale pictures of the universe. Attempts thus far to incorporate gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale have run up against nonsensical infinities and deep paradoxes. The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity.


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Dec 9, 2013

James Arthur Ray Has a Record

One thing I learned during the James Ray sweat lodge trial was that you can't rely on mainstream media to report the unvarnished truth about the man's character or his crimes. If the recent Piers Morgan puff piece proved anything, it's that CNN is not so much a news organization as it is a PR venue for criminals. But then, the media has always been an enabler for the rogues gallery behind The Secret, ignoring one financial misdealing after another.

But there is a record. It's scattered across teh internets on blogs, zines, and message boards. The latest installment can be found on The Verge, who not long ago brought us Scamworld. In The Death Dealer, Matt Stroud offers a crash course in what went so horribly wrong on that awful day in Sedona. He also delves into Ray's autobiographical details, separating fact from fiction.

In Harmonic Wealth Ray describes sitting in the front row of his father’s church as a child. There he first heard that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." He describes how angry he felt, how that Biblical verse made him question his family’s situation — even question God. His parents didn’t have money to buy nice clothes, or own a home — they had to live next to the church. Rather than pay a barber, his mother would cut his hair. From his upbringing he concluded: "Here’s what I know: it’s a sin to be poor." That belief stayed with him for the rest of his life.

"I was the kid with the big Coke-bottle glasses and buckteeth who everyone made fun of," Ray writes, painting himself as a stereotypical nerd, mocked for his gangliness and lack of athleticism. Later, a classmate told the Arizona Republic that, like much of his "rags-to-riches" biography, Ray’s tale of an impoverished, socially outcast childhood contained embellishments if not outright lies. He dressed well and carried himself with confidence, said the former classmate. "It depends on what you call poor, but his dad made more than my family made."

Yes, Ray has both under and over estimated his net worth throughout his career -- his financial picture has always been more narrative than balance sheet driven. But more to the point, it's a sin to be poor?! Words matter. To Ray, poverty and illness are not simply unfortunate, they're spiritual failings -- even indicators of moral turpitude. Except, somehow, when it's Ray who's in financial trouble.

For a man who knows "how the universe works" Ray's fortunes, on every level have fallen, yet Piers Morgan mysteriously deduced that his misfortune would make him a still better self help leader.

Ray is recasting himself as something even more frightening than a wannabe shaman and purveyor of pop spirituality. The more I think about his recent appearance, the more disturbed I am. Ray's disdain for Christian poverty consciousness aside, he has never stopped being a preacher's son. There have always dog whistles aimed at a Christian audience and his latest reinvention is no exception. Twice by my count he told Piers Morgan that his four years of struggle felt like forty. What kept popping into my head was Jesus Christ Superstar:

Listen surely I've exceeded
Tried for three years
Seems like thirty
Could you ask as much
From any other man?

My husband heard a different tune. Moses led his people through the wilderness for forty years. It wouldn't be the first time he obliquely compared himself to Moses, as Matt Stroud points out.

In Harmonic Wealth Ray describes taking a self-imposed exile from his wealth because "a warrior doesn’t have or need anything." He began "by seeking out a wise kahuna in Hawaii and a Peruvian shaman." He writes unspecifically of his studies, which culminated in 2005 with an epiphany at the summit of Mount Sinai. "I was the only one there all night long, shivering from the cold on top of the mountain, and hovering over a tiny candle flame. This is where it all came together for me," he writes, "where the final pieces of Harmonic Wealth and the quantum physics material I had studied for over a decade took form for me in a kind of rapid download into my journal." According to his book, in the same cave where Moses received the Ten Commandments, James Arthur Ray received his own universal laws.

And how long was Moses at Mt. Sinai? That would have been forty days and nights.

The only thing more nauseating than Ray's self-pity over deaths he caused are the veiled allusions to martyrdom, sacrifice, and acquired wisdom.

Watch him. Watch carefully as he flounces about with his new Jesus coif and revisionist mythology. And just remember that, as the Salty Droid reminds us, we are watching, too. The bloggers, the authors, the survivors, the grieving families. We are watching. And we keep records.

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Dec 2, 2013

The Remarkable Vision of Jimmy Nelson

I don't like the title of this book. It sounds fatalistic to me, as if the attrition of these indigenous cultures is inevitable. But it is also a warning, a reminder of what a treasure they are, a call to protect what's left of humanity's origins.

These are truly remarkable photographs. Jimmy Nelson devoted 25 years of his life gaining the trust of these tribal peoples, so much so that they were willing be documented by a Westerner.

Looking at Nelson’s photographs, it’s difficult to imagine how a British man could gain this kind of access. “I never, ever take out the camera right away,” Nelson says firmly. “I didn’t know their language, but we connected as people.”

Because each tribe has its own particular dialect, there was only so far a local translator could go. The rest was up to Nelson. He says he used body language to convey ideas. By way of demonstration, he stretches his eyes wide, puts his hands on his face, makes an expression of awe and ‘ooos’ and ‘aahs.’

“It’s all about vanity and empathy,” Nelson says. “You literally go onto your knees and you beg them… You put them on a pedestal and you say until you can’t hear yourself anymore, ‘You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful. You’re important.' And eventually people feel that.”

And they are beautiful -- so, so beautiful.

Nelson's story reads a little like a shamanic initiation. At age 16 all his hair fell out. This trauma set him on a course of spiritual discovery that sent him to Tibet where he explored the lives of Buddhist monks through the lens of his camera.

He went on to travel the globe and gain access to the hidden world of largely forgotten peoples. The result is a breathtaking compendium of images of very diverse cultures connected only by a set of principles.

The cultures Nelson visited spanned continents, worshipped different gods and had histories and mythologies all their own. But Nelson says all of the communities had two things in common: a sense of balance between the physical and spiritual, and they placed a heavy importance on family.

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