Ag Tech Doubles Down on Farming’s Future

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More money went into funding agricultural technology startups last year than the previous two combined, as battle lines were drawn between traditional Big Ag companies and some of the Silicon Valley venture capitalists looking to upend the multibillion-dollar industry.

Investors plowed more than $700 million into agricultural tech companies in 2017, according to research firm CB Insights, a big step up compared with the $332 million and $233 million invested in 2016 and 2015, respectively.

The spending splurge on startups using robotics or data science to make farming more efficient contrasts with the straitened financial situation in rural America.

Farm incomes have eroded since a commodity boom peaked in the early 2010s, leaving oversupply and low prices. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economic research service, the United States has now had three consecutive years of falling farm incomes.

In Broken Bow, Nebraska, Clay Govier’s relatively small arable farm of about 3,000 acres has seen revenues fall about 50 percent since corn prices began to crash in 2012. “With land prices and property taxes going up … it puts the squeeze on the little guy,” he explained. At the same time, input costs like seeds and fertilizer have stayed high, eating into Govier’s profits.

This is a situation that encourages investment that can improve the farmers’ lot and increase the efficiency of the industry, analysts say.

[Agricultural] retailers have fought tooth and nail to prevent online competition. It was already a small market and [it is] getting a lot smaller.

The significant late-stage capital increases suggest the ag tech sector is maturing, says Rob LeClerc, co-founder and chief executive of AgFunder, a specialist research company. He points to a $203 million series D fundraising round closed last month by Indigo Ag, a Boston company that wants to use microbes to improve plant health and crop yields.

 

But some startups are aiming more directly at making pricing for essential commodities such as seeds and fertilizers more transparent from the Big Ag industry.

Nearly one-quarter of 2017’s ag tech investments were made by corporations or their venture capital arms, including those of giants Monsanto and Syngenta, up 7 percentage points from 2016 — raising a question about whether Big Ag will be friend or foe to the industry’s disrupters.

One tech start-up, Farmers Business Network, which raised $110 million from investors including Google’s venture capital arm last year, says it wants to help farmers avoid being ripped off by manufacturers of chemical agricultural necessities, following a spate of consolidation that has prompted concerns of an emerging oligopoly.

The so-called “big six” agricultural chemical companies could soon be down to four, after the $142 billion merger of Dow Chemical and DuPont in September, Syngenta’s $44 billion acquisition by ChemChina, and a proposed merger of Bayer and Monsanto, which is subject to an EU antitrust probe.

Testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary in 2016, Tim Hassinger, Dow AgroScience’s chief executive, sought to reassure Washington that his company’s merger would “bring more competition to the market, not less.” DowDuPont plans to break into three companies.

An FBN study found wide pricing differences across the United States for seeds and chemicals like fertilizer, particularly in remote locations where farmers had few choices. Some farmers were paying three times more than other growers for the same product.

California-based FBN, founded in 2015 by Charles Baron, a former Google project manager, and Amol Deshpande, a former tech venture capitalist, pools data from its nearly 5,000 American and Canadian member farms and, for an annual fee of $600, analyzes the information to produce insights for farmers, from accurate pricing for chemicals to pointers about seeds and soil.

According to Baron, farmers have not had the benefit of internet pricing wars when it comes to buying seeds and chemicals. Although you can buy some agricultural products online, agricultural “retailers have fought tooth and nail to prevent online competition,” he says. “It was already a small market and [it is] getting a lot smaller. There’s naturally less choice and competition.”

FBN’s series D round was led by T. Rowe Price and Temasek, the Singapore wealth fund. Existing investors including Google’s venture capital arm GV, Kleiner Perkins and Acre Venture also invested in the latest round.

Big Ag is not waiting around to be disrupted. Bayer alone has invested $600 million to $700 million in the past 18 months in more speculative “moon shot” life sciences companies, including an ag tech project with Ginkgo Bioworks, a biotech company recently valued at over $1 billion, to create seeds pre-coated with a microbial fertilizer.

Monsanto Growth Ventures led a $30 million series C funding round for NewLeaf Symbiotics, a Missouri startup trying to use bacteria to help crops grow better. And last month, Syngenta Ventures led a $12 million series B funding round in Asilomar Bio, which uses chemistry to improve crop yields.

The Big Ag companies are also acquiring outright, as well as investing. In one of 2017’s biggest deals, Deere & Co., the Fortune 500 tractor maker, bought Blue River Technology, a Silicon Valley startup that uses machine learning to make agricultural spraying equipment more precise, for $305 million. DuPont spent $300 million to acquire Granular, a San Francisco–based company making computer software for farmers.

Ben Belldegrun, founder and managing partner at Pontifax Agriculture Technology Fund, forecasts that big companies looking to keep up with changing technology will continue to spend, likely making 2018 another strong year for ag tech fundraising.

“The interest in the sector is not going away,” he says. “The fundamentals demand innovation.”

 

You Haven’t Seen the Last of Andrew McCabe

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The triathlete outpaced his critics long enough to reach the top of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But even as Andrew McCabe was tripped up in the final stretch of his career’s race, this week’s abrupt departure as deputy director of the FBI is not the end of his time in the public eye.

McCabe remains integral to the bubbling conviction on the right — trumpeted from the president’s Twitter account — that there is a federal law enforcement vendetta against Donald Trump, and there was an effort to shield Hillary Clinton from prosecution in 2016. To the left, he’s the latest victim of Trump’s political purge of the FBI who could provide valuable testimony in an obstruction of justice case.

Though his departure has been painted as a victory for the president, McCabe could represent a time bomb for Trump.

In this sense, he seems almost to resemble a fictional runner. A high school friend last year marveled to the newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, where McCabe was a state track star, how McCabe’s investigative career had put him at history’s doorstep: the Boston Marathon bombing, Benghazi, the 2016 elections. “He’s been sort of like Forrest Gump,” Richard Fannin told The Florida Times-Union.  

 

If so, it’s more by determination than happenstance. A graduate of Duke and Washington University School of Law, McCabe, 49, joined the FBI in 1996, getting his start investigating organized crime in New York. He rode a shift in how the bureau did business following the 9/11 attacks, with centralized power in headquarters rather than in the field offices. “As the counterintelligence and counterterrorism branches were built up, a shifting power structure inside the agency began to develop,” former FBI supervisory special agent James A. Gagliano wrote Tuesday in The Hill. “McCabe was on the leading edge of this movement. Right place, right time.”

He was also sharp, impressing higher-ups with thorough briefings as he assisted on high-profile cases and climbed through the ranks. McCabe shuttled between the Washington field office and bureau headquarters, sometimes commuting by bicycle from his home in the outer Virginia suburbs he shared with his pediatrician wife, Jill McCabe, and their two children.

In 2015 Jill McCabe, a political newcomer, ran for the state Senate as a Democrat. Then-governor Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee gave her bid nearly $500,000, as she was in one of several key races that determined control of the Senate. Jill McCabe lost. Three months later, Andrew McCabe was promoted to deputy director, where he supervised the probe of Clinton’s handling of classified information. In October 2016 The Wall Street Journal splashed the donation from McAuliffe — a longtime pal of the Clintons — on the front page, and just like that the McCabes became a Trump talking point.

“Andy” also came up in the much-scrutinized text messages of two former FBI investigators who were fired from the Russia investigation for alleged bias against Trump. The final straw clinching McCabe’s abrupt Monday announcement that he would go on leave ahead of an expected retirement in March appears to be a looming inspector general’s report into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton case. “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific aspects of the IG’s review right now,” FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote in a message to bureau employees obtained by NBC News discussing McCabe’s departure. “But I can assure you that I remain staunchly committed to doing this job, in every respect, ‘by the book.’ I will not be swayed by political or other pressure in my decision-making.” The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the inspector general is investigating why McCabe delayed action on the Clinton case at the height of the campaign.

Though his departure has been painted as a victory for the president, McCabe could represent a time bomb for Trump as their interactions leak to the press and become fodder for Special Counsel Robert Mueller. For example, shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May, he brought in McCabe, the new acting director, for an introductory Oval Office meeting. Trump reportedly asked McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election. (He didn’t vote in the general election, but is reported to have cast a ballot in the Republican primary, potentially making the McCabes the Washington equivalent of a black rhino: a bipartisan couple.) NBC reported Monday that Trump berated McCabe for allowing Comey to return from Los Angeles to Washington on an FBI plane after he’d been fired, and then suggested McCabe ask his wife how it feels to be a loser. McCabe replied: “OK, sir.”

In McCabe’s infrequent public appearances as one of the nation’s most scrutinized law enforcement officials, he came off as dutiful and dry — with an occasional flash of self-deprecating wit. Testifying before Congress, he stood up for close ally Comey and the Bureau’s independence, and he refused to pass judgment on Trump when goaded by Democrats. “You look like a smart man,” Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) told the bespectacled law enforcer during a hearing in June. McCabe allowed himself a quick laugh and then: “Looks can be deceiving.”

The Questions Trump Didn’t Answer in His State of the Union

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As I watched President Donald Trump bask in the applause from the political establishment ringing off the marble-and-gold gallery of the U.S. Capitol and endure stone-faced silence from his liberal critics, I thought back to a frigid night 10 months ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

It was 2 a.m. and I was smoking with Moe Alkhateeb at his hookah lounge. A Jordanian immigrant who had moved to Indiana, married an American woman and started this small business, he was concerned by the president — namely by the then-recent executive order restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. But he was also curious: Could Trump possibly help? 

I know I hear all about the stock markets, but businesses like mine are shrinking. It’s been our worst year.

Moe Alkhateeb

After all, Trump had promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better. Alkhateeb had watched his family’s health insurance costs triple in just a few years. The father of two’s deductible was so high he never spent enough to meet it. He had as much a reason to be wary as anyone. But he was willing to give the controversial president a chance, far from the only one amid the hundreds of people I interviewed while traveling the nation for OZY last year. 

On Tuesday, as Trump gave his first State of the Union address, he lauded surging stock markets and a tax cut expected to benefit four-fifths of Americans. He listed companies that were keeping jobs in America and praised the value of standing for the national anthem. He took a victory lap on beating back ISIS and al-Qaida and took aim at North Korea next. He praised reform of the Veterans Affairs department, claimed to have ended the “war on beautiful clean coal” and took credit for getting “the Motor City revving its engines once again.” But on the issues most on American minds, he tellingly left more questions than answers. 

 

Trump declared “the individual mandate is dead” but provided no avenue to decreasing costs and improving health care — one of the major issues for Ray Reynolds, a photographer in Martinsville, Virginia, who backed Trump after his mother and daughter passed away amid complications with their insurance under Obamacare.

Trump promised to “embark on reforming our prisons” and help former inmates “get a second chance,” a nod to criminal justice reform that has seen bipartisan support, from folks like Julie Emerson, a Republican lawmaker from Louisiana, and Sarah Catherine Walker, a Black lobbyist in Minnesota. Yet in the same breath, he vowed to get “much tougher” on drug dealers and pushers, a hard-on-crime method that has been proven to neither help the criminal justice system nor the drug epidemic. 

True fixes were conspicuously missing on those issues — in part because the Art of the Deal author couldn’t declare victory on them. After years of Republican promises, health care reform didn’t pass the Senate, resulting in a gutted health care model, not a good one. Painkillers and heroin continue to hurt communities from Dayton, Ohio, to Burlington, Vermont, while Trump’s 24-year-old drug czar recently had to resign after The Washington Post reported he had fibbed on his résumé — calling into question the seriousness of Trump’s commitment to curing addicts, despite the lip service he paid Tuesday night. The continued investigation into Russian interference in his election, which he did not address, has hovered over his triumphs.

The economy has looked strong, with low unemployment and major companies announcing bonuses for employees after tax reform passed. Typically that would lead to high approval ratings, but Trump’s have remained low — around 39 percent in a recent NBC News poll, the lowest for any modern president in his first year of office. He attempted to make peace with his critics, offering an “open hand” to “members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed.” But judging by the many Democrats who remained seated during his proposed plans on immigration and infrastructure, he isn’t any closer to bridging this divided nation.

Against the backdrop of his promises, many of which he had made from the campaign trail before, it was hard not to think of Alkhateeb, who a year later is not better off despite being willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. “I know I hear all about the stock markets, but businesses like mine are shrinking. It’s been our worst year,” Alkhateeb told me Tuesday night. “The government health care, we can’t afford it. It’s so expensive. And it really is a pain.”

Trump can’t be expected to solve the problems he campaigned on in one year. But by celebrating stock market gains and regulatory rollbacks that benefit a relative few while ignoring or glossing over the deeper problems that remain, he has yet to make good on the greatness he promises again and again. 

Why Cape Town’s Crippling Water Crisis Isn’t All Bad

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Don’t get me wrong. My city’s water crisis is not good sh*t. Thanks to an unprecedented drought (and a few man-made factors), the taps in Cape Town are expected to run dry on April 12, after which all 4 million residents will have to stand in line to collect daily rations. If things go badly, “Day Zero” could come sooner. If things go (very) well, we could be saved by the winter rains that should kick in around May. It’s caused untold economic upheaval, but also psychological damage. Try not using a toilet in the conventional manner for four months and you might begin to understand.

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Patricia, Queen of the Desert

But the water shortage has also been a force for good. Because it’s making residents rethink how we use precious H2O. The Facebook group Water Shedding Western Cape has been offering up countless water-saving, recycling and harvesting tips to its 116,000 members and beyond. Like flushing a No. 2 with a quarter of a pail of recycled washing machine water or showering a family of four with a 1-gallon pesticide sprayer — think about that one for a moment. There’s also plenty of much needed “dry” humor.  My favorite? The Patricia Queen of the Desert meme featuring our mayor, Patricia de Lille.

“We have saved millions of liters of water every day through the Facebook page alone,” says Deon Smit, a retired fireman who is heavily involved in both the Facebook page and the nonprofit Water Shortage South Africa — an organization that has just secured 28,000 liters of bottled water for distribution to old-age homes in anticipation for Day Zero. It was paid for by donations from members of the public and transported free of charge by local truckers. The community response to “the crisis has made me proud to be South African,” says Smit. 

Crisis creates opportunity.

Kevin Winter, lead researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute

The water crisis is also forcing the municipality to rethink where the water comes from. “No amount of academic pleading could have had the same impact,” says Kevin Winter, lead researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute. “Crisis creates opportunity.” Traditionally, Cape Town has relied on surface reservoirs — which doesn’t make much sense in a place with low rainfall (even in good years) and evaporation is sky-high. But now, says Winter, they’re finally doing the things that cities like Perth, in parched western Australia, have done for decades. (It took a crippling drought for the penny to drop there too.) Cape Town’s efforts might be too late to avoid Day Zero, but the projects do point to a long-term solution that should mean “we no longer have to limp from one summer to the next by the seat of our pants,” observes Winter. 

 

The prospect of Day Zero is terrifying. Disease could spread like wildfire and there’s a very real possibility that the desperate circumstances will create violent tension in our very unequal city. But when it’s all over, I know I won’t return to my wasteful pre-crisis ways, although I won’t miss having to “wash” my hair with corn flour! And I like to think that the frenzy of the past six months will make residents and municipalities all over the world think about how much water they use and where it comes from. Guess I’m just a glass half-full kind of a guy.

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If the Eagles Win the Super Bowl, Does Their Injured QB Lose?

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When Carson Wentz went down with a torn ACL in Week 14, Super Bowl LII was the last thing on any Philadelphian’s mind. Talk of a curse resurfaced on radio waves, and the Eagles’ new starting quarterback, Nick Foles, was ridiculed by even the most loyal of fans. But after two Foles-led playoff victories, confidence is in surplus in Philadelphia. The city has rallied behind their new leader, with “In Foles We Trust” billboards dotting Route 30 and I-95.

“The energy around town has picked up, obviously,” says Brent Celek, the longest-tenured Eagle at 11 years. “But I think the energy inside this team has been different all year. We’ve noticed it from the beginning.”

Since early fall, this Eagles group has demonstrated unique resiliency. Wentz, the breakout star on pace for an MVP award, dominated headlines, but equally important was his team’s ability to overcome injuries. When All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters and linebacker Jordan Hicks went down in October, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Dannell Ellerbe filled the void. “That’s what [Eagles head coach] Doug Pederson has been able to sell his team about the injury to Carson Wentz,” says ESPN host Trey Wingo. “He told them, ‘Look, we’ve been through this before and come out fine.’ They’ve embraced that.”

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Injured quarterback Carson Wentz (No. 11) walks off the field with Bryan Braman after the coin toss before the game against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 31, 2017.

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Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, the Eagles’ long-term future relies on a reconstructed left knee. And the thrills of Philly’s surprise Wentz-less run will hang over their quarterback’s return and shape his career. “Everybody knows that as soon as Wentz is healthy, Foles will be the backup,” says Wingo. “I don’t think there’s any debate about that.” But what is up for debate is when, exactly, Wentz will be healthy. 

 

Speaking at Super Bowl LII Opening Night on Monday, Wentz remained positive while admitting that his injury is more severe than originally believed. In addition to the ACL, Wentz tore his LCL too. He’s still working to return for Week 1 of next season, but the LCL casts more doubt on whether that’s realistic. Knee injuries generally take nine months for full recovery. But setbacks happen often. “It’s hard to talk about timetables, because they’re always fluid,” said Wentz, whose trainers have reassured him that the LCL injury won’t necessarily alter his rehabilitation process.

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Wentz is planning on returning for Week 1 of next season.

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No one would have blamed the Eagles for folding when Wentz went down, but Foles went 3-1 to close the regular season, posting numbers that “were literally what Carson Wentz had done all season,” says Wingo. And so far in the postseason, Foles became the second quarterback ever — alongside Joe Montana — to complete over 75 percent of his passes in back-to-back playoff games

Too often in the NFL we’ve seen promising passers like Robert Griffin III, Sam Bradford and Daunte Culpepper derailed by repeated knee injuries. Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill are currently dealing with this too. What makes Philadelphia’s situation unique is its perfectly sustainable roster structuring. Foles is signed for another season at $7 million, Wentz has two more years on his club-friendly rookie deal, and all but one starter remain signed through next season. The salary cap has been spread around the roster, providing the perfect balance of young talent and veteran presence that has birthed this epic Eagles season. “That’s why Howie Roseman is the executive of the year,” says Wingo. “He’s done an amazing job not only developing a team but keeping it together.”

If Wentz’s injury concerns linger, would Roseman risk paying the quarterback upward of $20 million — thus limiting the rest of his roster? It’s a question Philadelphia’s famously tough fans will be asking if Wentz stumbles early next year. But the young QB does not plan to let it come to that. “I’m going to use this as a learning experience and motivation,” said Wentz, eager to escape the sea of reporters that engulfed his seat in Minnesota’s Xcel Energy Center. Wentz watched as his healthier teammates walked freely on the floor below. He can’t wait to get back to work.

For added inspiration, Wentz need only look across the sideline on Sunday. Tom Brady — who calls Wentz “a stud” — tore his ACL in the 2008 opener, and missed that entire season. You can’t expect Wentz to lead a similar Kelly-green dynasty, but one look at Wentz suggests he’ll be back on this stage before long — without crutches.

Every Dog Has Its Holi-day: The Rise of Pet Travelers

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At first, I never meant to travel with my dog, Ruby, a white-and-brown shih tzu, who I got in 2013 when I was moving to Los Angeles. I was hoping she would force me — a globe-trotting travel writer — to focus on writing more locally.

But traveling with Ruby has gotten only easier every passing month. She has visited New York City, Denver, Puerto Rico, Los Cabos, San Diego, San Francisco, Baltimore, Santa Fe, Sedona, Cancún, Miami, Key West — the list goes on. Traveling since she was 4 weeks old, Ruby — who has an Instagram account — has gotten accustomed to little jaunts, furiously wagging her tail every time I bring out my suitcase. That’s been made possible by a dramatic shift in attitude within the travel industry.

Ruby isn’t alone. According to the 2017–2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 68 percent of U.S. households (or 85 million families) own a pet (89 million dogs, in particular), an increase of 56 percent since 1988. About 37 percent of pet owners travel with their pets every year, up from 19 percent a decade ago. And more and more travel companies are bowing to that growing demand.

We were seeing it as a nationwide trend.

Lisa Marshall, Wisconsin Department of Tourism

JetBlue first welcomed travelers with pets through its JetPaws program launched in 2008, offering fewer restrictions, accessories like TSA-approved carrier bags, extra frequent-flyer points and even the ability to book pets online. But now, airlines across the country have slackened restrictions for in-cabin pets, many launching pet programs like Virgin America’s Flying Paws. Delta, Southwest and United have dropped their requirement to book pets over the phone.

 

Hotel chains like Ritz-Carlton, Aloft, Viceroy Hotel Group, Hotel Indigo, Ace Hotel, Best Western, Loews, Virgin Hotels and Four Seasons have joined Kimpton Hotels — pioneers who have run pet-friendly hotels since 1981 — in welcoming four-legged guests, with a range of facilities and treats. Even governments are responding. Since January 2015, the Department of Transportation has required every airline to report the loss, injury or death of an animal during transport, pointing to a growing emphasis on onboard safety — while Wisconsin is advertising itself as pet-friendly in order to draw tourists.

“We were seeing it as a nationwide trend,” says Lisa Marshall, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. “Personally, I think the pet-friendly travel trend reflects a bigger trend in pet ownership and how dogs are treated like family members.”

The demand is hard to ignore for businesses. Consider TripAdvisor’s “traveling with pets” survey, in which 53 percent of 1,000 respondents said they travel with pets, and 52 percent said they would stay only at pet-friendly locations — no business wants to alienate customers. Travel Wisconsin’s 2016 TV ad followed a family and their two dogs playing on the shores of Lake Superior in Bayfield.

Many major U.S. airports — like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport and Houston International Airport — are now offering pet relief areas and facilities inside the terminal. Even Amtrak, a notoriously un-pet-friendly rail network that’s allowed only service animals in decades past, is changing. In October 2015, Amtrak tested a pets-on-board pilot program, which turned out to be successful. Amtrak signed the Pets on Trains Act of 2015, and it now allows pets up to 20 pounds on most routes up to seven hours (though they must be in a pet carrier and booked only in coach class). More than 2,700 pets had traveled with Amtrak along the Northeast Corridor by February 2016, an average of 675 pets a month. And newer planes introduced in the past decade have made it possible for travelers to bring pets on board — many aircraft pre-2005 did not have seats where pet carriers could fit underneath.

There’s big money involved. Most airlines charge between $100–$150 per pet for a one-way flight, and hotels can charge up to $200 per stay for an in-house pet. Amenities vary at every hotel (some offer pet massages, in-room dining menus for dogs and pet itineraries). The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, offers branded dog liver treats and is, obviously, in front of Central Park, which is added incentive for a traveler with a pet to stay there. The new Viceroy Chicago has both a Pets Are Welcome program and a partnership with Orphans of the Storm, a local nonprofit that rescues orphaned dogs for adoption. An army of door staff equipped with treats greets guests. And staff take pets out for walks when the guest is away.

But a love of pets also drives some businesses. Bill Kimpton, the founder of Kimpton Hotels, had a miniature collie. The chain believes pets are part of the family (there is no pet fee) and has a simple policy: If they can fit through the hotel doors, they’re welcome. Kimpton also provides water bowls, treats, pet beds and toys, all for free. “As of today, we have over a quarter-million loyalty guests who have registered a pet with us,” says Nick Gregory, senior vice president of hotel operations at Kimpton Hotels.

For many travelers, the costs of traveling with pets are in any case far outweighed by the benefits. New York–based club owner Daniel Nardicio frequently travels for work and pleasure, and in 2015, he got a companion: Butterball, a 12-pound Pomeranian. Given his frequent travels, he admits he never would have gotten Butterball if pets weren’t already widely accepted. Butterball’s jaunts already have included New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale and Los Angeles. “People don’t know, but you can pretty much go anywhere with a pet now,” Nardicio says.

Could This Lonely California Republican Tame Rocket Man?

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When Andrew Grant served as a Marine on a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, he and his fellow task force members came upon a curious phenomenon. Albanians returning to their previously occupied homes often burned off the roof, refusing to live under the same roof where a Serb once did — even if that meant exposing their families to a harsh winter. Grant recalls community meetings where he pleaded with the Albanians: “I know how strongly you feel, but somebody has got to turn a cheek here and show some grace.” Grant tells the story as he explains what it’s like to be a California Republican in this scorched-earth political era.

Running for Congress in a district outside Sacramento where Republicans see a rare opportunity to knock off a Democrat, the first-time candidate is considered a star recruit in Washington GOP circles: a youthful-looking 46, smart and serious, with a résumé straddling the military and intelligence worlds. The problem: California is Resistance HQ, Hillary Clinton won the district by 11 percentage points and people at times shut him out or “think I’m a jerk because I’m a Republican,” he says. Still, Grant seeks those folks out. Rather than hit the GOP club circuit, he’d prefer to meet with union members or left-leaning social justice groups to try to find common ground between America’s warring tribes. “I’m very comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says.

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Political newcomer Andrew Grant is challenging a third-term Democrat who has survived some of the nation’s closest races.

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Born in 1971, Grant wasn’t raised in a military family (his father worked as an attorney), but he caught the bug in high school as a member of the Devil Pups — which he recalls as a quasi boot camp overseen by Marines and Navy corpsmen. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served as a Marine intelligence officer in the Pacific before moving to Washington to work for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later at the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department. Grant became an expert on North Korea and started the first office to combat weapons of mass destruction terrorism. “He’s kind of one of those scholar-warriors,” says Monte Hawkins, who worked with Grant on an implementation plan for the National Counterterrorism Center, and was impressed with his personable style and driving work ethic.

 

Grant learned the ways of the opaque Kim regime, as well as the warrens of Capitol Hill, where he occasionally briefed members and staff on classified and unclassified matters. He was frequently disappointed by the people making critical decisions on the future of the armed forces who seemed to lack basic military knowledge and thought only of short-term politics.

Trump makes everyone’s life in politics more complicated right now, but I don’t think he makes my life harder.

Andrew Grant

He has no eureka idea to bring to Congress on how to contain Kim Jong Un, Grant says, but he understands the tricky regional balancing act among China, South Korea and Japan, and can lead on policy. He says Congress should get tougher in squeezing China for accepting North Korean exports, and the U.S. should get on the same page with South Korea — where a new liberal president has adopted a friendlier stance toward the North, undermining President Donald Trump’s tough approach.

Grant returned west with his family to work for the Department of Homeland Security before leaving government in 2010 to become an executive with Raley’s Supermarkets. He then spent 18 months at the helm of the Northern California World Trade Center, promoting the region’s businesses, before deciding to run against three-term Democratic incumbent Ami Bera, who has survived some of the nation’s tough congressional races before. 

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Grant, who lives in Folsom, California, and voted for Donald Trump in 2016, names health care, foreign policy and tax reform as the key themes of his campaign.

Source Courtesy of Andrew Grant

Bera’s backers say he’s politically battle-tested after pulling off a narrow win last year despite his father’s imprisonment for funneling Bera illegal campaign contributions. (Investigators did not find evidence that Bera knew of the scheme.) Though Grant is hyped in Washington, his $165,000 in early fundraising is “just OK” in the estimation of Kyle Kondik, an election forecaster at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Ultimately he’ll need Clinton voters to want to send a Republican to Washington to reinforce President Trump in Congress,” says Kondik, who rates the race as “leans Democratic.” “That’s a hard sell, and the opposite of what midterm voters generally want to do when the president is unpopular.”

Grant says he has rejected advice to attack Bera for his father’s sins. He’d rather stack up their records, arguing that Bera has been too soft on North Korea and should not have backed the Iran nuclear deal. 

Over breakfast at a diner in Elk Grove, where rural communities collide with suburban sprawl, Grant reveals he is not one for pithy sound bites. When asked whether he would have voted for the tax reform bill, he says, “I don’t know,” because he wants a lower corporate rate but has concerns about limiting deductions for Californians paying high state and local taxes. He’s the kind of guy who reads three newspapers a day and craves depth, who gets animated talking about how Congress has ceded war-powers authority to the executive branch. He wants to delve into the National Flood Insurance Program, lamenting that he can’t find a news outlet to run his op-ed on its shortcomings.

Married with three children, the thoughtful, measured candidate who devoted much of his life to government and military service professes a decidedly non-Trumpian moderate Republicanism, friendly to free trade, immigration (though with a stronger border) and gay marriage. “Trump makes everyone’s life in politics more complicated right now, but I don’t think he makes my life harder,” Grant says. “I’ve served my country for longer than Trump’s been in office, quite frankly.” The question is whether enough people in enough uncomfortable places will hear him out.

Why Dirty Hits Should Be Considered Workplace Violence

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New England is in the Super Bowl again, but what if Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had served his original three-game suspension for his illegal hit on Buffalo Bills defensive back Tre’Davious White? The big game might have had a very different matchup.

Gronkowski served only one game — the same punishment that Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster received that same week for his helmet hit on Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Every season, NFL fans question how punishments are issued by the league and why they often lack consistency. And much of that criticism is aimed at Commissioner Roger Goodell, the man who enforces the NFL’s personal conduct policy.

If you’re a poster child of the NFL, they can’t afford to keep you off the field.

Keenan Burton, former L.A. Rams wide receiver

This is more than sports talk radio fodder. The NFL is exposing itself to legal liability with its inconsistent policies, as the Gronkowski hit can be seen as a form of workplace violence, as defined by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Given all the hits Goodell has taken for inconsistency, why not bring in someone who has experience delving into questionable decision-making within a powerful American institution? I nominate Robert Mueller as a new NFL enforcement czar. The league and the NFL Players Association should hand the former FBI director complete control to hand out punishment — once he’s done with this whole Russia investigation, of course — without having to answer to Goodell or the union. Democrats and Republicans have given bipartisan backing to the special counsel’s probe so far, so there’s no reason to think he can’t bridge the NFL’s divide on dispensing justice and deliver rulings that would hold up in court.

 

Under the current system, the NFL and the NFLPA select arbitrators, but they are only used at Goodell’s discretion under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. And the league has faced lengthy court battles over its enforcement of off-field conduct (domestic violence allegations against Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott) and on-field cheating (Tom Brady’s allegedly deflated footballs). Regulating on-field violence cuts to the heart of football itself, and is even trickier.

Appearances matter, says former ESPN legal analyst and law professor Roger Cossack, who argues that the current system “should be improved to give off a sense of fairness and equitability.” Recently, there have been high-profile inconsistency issues with punishments. For example, Burfict was given a three-game suspension on an illegal hit on Steelers receiver Antonio Brown during a 2015 playoff game. One might assume that Gronkowski would serve the same amount of time, but …

“I feel like Roger Goodell shouldn’t be making the decision about these things,” says former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Keenan Burton. Fans, apparently, haven’t been too keen on Goodell’s performance. A Harris Poll in November found that 56 percent of hardcore NFL fans disapprove of the job Goodell is doing. He is routinely accused of bias and favoritism. In Burton’s view, it seems as though punishment decisions depend upon a player’s standing in the league. “If you’re a poster child of the NFL, they can’t afford to keep you off the field,” he says.

Past efforts at justice reform have failed, Cossack says, “because the league is very happy with the way it is now. It’s in their interest to control the discipline process.” An enforcement czar would have to be approved in the next collective bargaining agreement in 2021, but those negotiations tend to revolve around health care and pensions. Those issues concern all union members, and not just the active players who are affected by the current NFL personal conduct policy. Thus, the policy may not get the much-needed attention and reform it deserves.

Gronkowski himself is recovering from a concussion suffered in yet another dirty hit. With the world watching the big game on Sunday in Minneapolis, Gronk’s presence only underscores the need for the league to solve its inconsistent policing of a violent workplace.

A Delicate Story About Super Pussy

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It’s 1 a.m. in Bangkok’s Patpong neighborhood. Ten of us — eight women, me and another guy; six of us Aussies, the remainder Americans — have gone beyond the Thai tourist wrangle of floating markets and temples and straight to Patpong 1. Which is to say, right into the heart of an even more tourist-trappy, market-like alleyway swarming with college-aged bros in tank tops.

Did I mention that the street was also slick with vomit? This, in literary terms, is what we call foreshadowing. Especially as we were also drunk. Drunk enough that when some Thai guys, let’s call them “promoters,” made a pitch for popping into their bar, the piquantly named Super Pussy, all we could think to say was: Why would we want to go to a place called Super Pussy?

The promoters were very direct: good times, hot girls and a live show that involved what the bar was named after.

Tickets were 600 baht, or approximately $20. We paused, and he countered with 100 baht per person. Plus a free beer each. We did the drunk math under the neon flash of the Super Pussy. We had cash. We had time. We were already there. The Super Pussy sign itself was bright and fun! How bad could it be? 

And before we got too deep into evening-altering ramifications, a short Thai woman who couldn’t have been less than 60 years old appeared and ushered us in, after we paid, up the dark stairs to the bar. I had to use the glow of my cell phone to see where I was going. 

My whole entourage was mostly female, so I wasn’t sure how this was going to work …

Our chaperone — let’s call her Sunny — sat us at the bar, which faced the stage. All of which smelled like sweat and alcohol, with a sort of unabashed dampness in the air, and if smoke from smoke machines can smell old, this one did. Young Thai ladies moved toward us as we sat, and with our eyes finally adjusting, we saw the place was empty of customers outside of two white dudes sitting in a booth. And there were at least 10 booths.  

 

It felt suspicious for a Saturday night.

“Buy now.” “We take dollars.” “Drink? Drink?” 

It seemed like Sunny ran the place, but while everyone enjoyed their free beer, Sunny started nagging me to buy a drink. I ordered a shot, which was 100 baht. The male bartender brought over my shot, though it was Sunny who was in charge of the transaction. I gave her a 1,000 baht bill. She returned with 400 baht. I told her it was the incorrect change. This annoyed her, so she threw in another 100 baht. This annoyed me, so I screamed loudly over Super Pussy’s techno music, “More! more!”

This pissed her off. She threw in another 100 baht, insulted. At this point, I just said thank you, while she did something equivalent to a mom cheer with her fist in the air. Next up? The bikini-sporting, makeup-laden performers hit us up. The aforementioned promise of “hot girls” had, it seemed, been a slight overexaggeration, as the transgendered Thai lady who approached me was neither hot nor a young girl for that matter. She was an escort who held out her palm.

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Would you want to go to a place called Super Pussy?

Source Gerhard Joren

When she saw I wasn’t going to give, she scowled, stomped her foot, then continued down the line to my friend Jen sitting next to me. My whole entourage was mostly female, so I wasn’t sure how this was going to work, and while I was figuring it out, the bartender tapped me on my shoulder. With a huge smile on his face, he said, “You buy me drink!”

Not wanting to engage, I fake-laughed, pretending he said something funny. Over the loud music, he actually made the international gesture of drinking a beer, then smiled hugely: “You buy me drink!” I knew exactly what was happening here. I was no longer that drunk. I put a hand to my ear and shouted: “Haha! I can’t hear you!” Then I pretended to have my attention swayed by a performer making her rounds so that he would think the bar would get money some other way.

Super Pussy had sounded fun. Like it would make a unique travel story to bring back home. This was not that …

And they tried every other way until they eventually got on the stage and did an un-choreographed dance routine to Chumbawamba. The girls were blasé, bored and not into it. I was mesmerized for all the wrong reasons, especially when two dancers giggled for a good two minutes during a Tone Lōc song. There was no upside in this situation. The entire show was fascinatingly tragic, a massive train wreck.

Finally, the music lowered, the lights stopped flashing and a few new girls came onstage. By all indications this was it. I was just waiting for it to be over and so was excited that we were close to the end. But the main attraction was now, according to Sunny, going to be performers popping Ping-Pong balls out of their vaginas. Also known as an almost immediate reason to flee the premises. I tried to make eye contact with literally any of my friends at this point to get the hell out. They were all involved in conversations, not paying attention.

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A few words of caution …

Source Photo courtesy of Jimmy Im

Super Pussy had sounded fun. Like it would make a unique travel story to bring back home. This was not that, and when one girl came out and lay on the stage, spread-eagle and naked, we almost didn’t believe what happened next was going to happen, until a white Ping-Pong ball popped out of her, right at the wall. And another. And another.

The next girl stuck a Magic Marker inside of herself and, squatting real low, wrote my friend Jennifer’s name on a piece of paper on the floor. To clarify, she used her vagina to hold the marker and perfectly write “Jennifer” with the movement of her hips. She handed her artwork to Jen as a gift. When another girl fired a pussy-powered dart at a balloon on the wall, popping it, we had had enough.

I couldn’t figure it out, or why we had even come in the first place. Were we entertained and, more significant, was this entertainment? I didn’t know, but I’m sure it wasn’t entertainment. Entertainment is 10 tourists sobering up fast and leaving even faster. 

Was I traumatized? Yes. But then a realization: The only thing that could have been worse than being there was working there. Now why did we come again?

Meet the Newest Correspondent of ‘The Daily Show’

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Whether you were planning to join us in New York’s Central Park, or are enjoying OZY from across the globe, we still want you to celebrate the talent and bold ideas we had in our lineup — and that make our annual festival of ideas so powerful.

Dulcé Sloan stuck to her guns when it came to comedy. The Atlanta stand-up kept the focus on herself, using wit and bravado to tackle topics ranging from awkward interactions with gay men and white women to grocery-store flirting to $100 bras. Intensely personal fodder that generally steered clear of the chaotic political climate.

That all changed in September when the 34-year-old was tapped to be the newest correspondent on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah — and moving to New York City wasn’t the only adjustment she had to make.

“A lot of my stand-up is things that happened to me, more socially focused. The show is very political. So I had to figure out how to combine those two,” Sloan tells OZY. “Some comics really talk about politics. That’s the meat and potatoes of their set. With me, it’s how things in politics affect me.”

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Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, and his team of correspondents.

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Joining the self-proclaimed “Best F#@king News Team Ever” has been an eye-opening transition for Sloan, starting with a deep dive into the fragmented and turbulent world of cable news and social media’s outrage chamber. Analyzing that vitriolic landscape has been The Daily Show’s M.O. for more than two decades, which means Sloan wasn’t a stranger to the forum, but engaging with it from a national platform with close to 3 million viewers was akin to a crash course after coming up in Atlanta’s local comedy scene.

 

Growing up in a suburb of the city, Sloan hadn’t even considered a career in comedy. But she had a flair for performance, which led to studying theater at nearby Brenau University. It wasn’t until after graduation that she discovered Atlanta’s Laughing Skull Lounge and was quickly taken under the wing of local comedian Big Kenney Johnson, who became her mentor.

“What I first remember about Dulcé is she definitely has a great look and a good attitude,” says Marshall Chiles, the founder of Laughing Skull, where Sloan was taking comedy classes just seven years ago. “As the years went on, I knew she had a chance of making it when she bought a van in order to drive people around to comedy shows to get more stage time,” Chiles continues. “That’s the level of commitment that it takes.”

America is exactly the same for me. America is scary to white people now. It’s always been scary to me.

Dulcé Sloan

In 2015, Sloan was fixing a tire on the side of the highway after a gig in Nashville when she got the call announcing she’d won NBC’s stand-up diversity showcase. The following year, she won the Big Sky Comedy Festival. But her big break with The Daily Show changed everything.

“I was never fully immersed in the 24-hour news cycle until I got here,” Sloan says. “It made me pay a lot more attention to local politics. Especially with Alabama.”

“Alabama” is shorthand for the wildly contentious Senate runoff in which Democrat Doug Jones upset Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign was beset by allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior toward underage women. That Dec. 12 runoff took place three months after Sloan’s Daily Show debut. And with African-American women projected to be a crucial voting bloc in the Alabama special election, Sloan took center stage.

“This happened because of us, Black women,” Sloan said as part of a “victory lap” on the show that aired the night after Moore’s defeat. “You’re welcome, white people, you’re welcome. But let’s be honest. We didn’t do it for you, we did it for ourselves. … So if you really want to thank us, how about y’all change the laws to make it easier for us to vote. Or sing our praises by giving us raises. Or at the very least cancel winter. You know only white people like snow.”

And just like that, The Daily Show had an assertive new voice pointing out the patently obvious and accelerating past simplistic analysis. In other words, Sloan fit in seamlessly with the first name in political satire.

“Our project these days to some extent is to be kind of an antidote or at least alternative to the sheer outrage that so dominates a lot of social media and more and more of conventional media,” says Steve Bodow, the show’s executive producer. “We’re still looking to do comedy and jokes. That’s what we’re really here for and what the audience is here for. That’s why we look to somebody like Dulcé.”

Sloan’s new gig has catapulted her into the comedy stratosphere, but it’s one for which she feels uniquely suited. Long before Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency started churning out more material than comedians could digest, Sloan was delivering the kind of biting social commentary that brought her to the attention of The Daily Show producers.

“Nothing new happened. That’s the interesting thing,” says Sloan. “America is exactly the same for me. America is scary to white people now. It’s always been scary to me. … Trump is the white man I always heard about growing up. He’s not a new person to me.”

Back home, Sloan hadn’t needed bombastic politicians or cable news to feel infuriated about what was happening in the U.S. She just had to look around.

“I’ve seen people get deported before. Put in a van, pulled out of a house and sent on their way,” she says, turning somber. ”So I know it’s a scarier climate for them than it used to be.”

Nor is it lost on her that the color of her skin matters, whether or not it should: “I know that everything I do and everything I say represents Black women when I should be allowed to be an individual. So I know a lot of times when I speak, I’m speaking for every Black woman that crosses the planet.”

Fair or not, that responsibility is magnified now that she’s a member of The Daily Show. But all indicators suggest she’s up to the task.

”Even if she is worked up about something, she still has a joy about her that is unmissable. That’s what makes her a good fit for The Daily Show in 2018,” Bodow tells OZY. Fellow executive producer Jen Flanz adds, “We knew from her audition that the audience would connect with her. She is authentic and she has a real voice.”

A voice that doesn’t pander or bully but comes at you straight. With a chaser of joy.

Correction: The original version of this feature mistakenly said Sloan debuted on The Daily Show three weeks before the Alabama special election. It was three months, not three weeks.