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Mark Pincus: Biden Is Even Riskier Than Trump

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A child inside Ready Set Play toy store in Hazard, Kentucky. (Stacy Kranitz for The Free Press)

Recovering Addicts Save an Opioid Town

A pocket of hope in Appalachia. Plus: Stumbling toward the White House, The Free Press in Israel, and two Zoomers duke it out over the Apple Vision Pro.

Sam Quinones has been covering America’s opioid epidemic for about a decade. He detailed the decline of Appalachia in his seminal book, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth.

But a funny thing happened when he went to the town of Hazard, Kentucky, last spring. Even though the town sits in the county most devastated by opioids in the whole of the United States, Quinones looked around and saw “pockets of hope.”

In the past few years, 43 businesses have opened in Hazard, including a bookstore, a toy store, a café, a women’s boutique, and a smoothie shop.

More than 170 new jobs have been created. And about a quarter of those new jobs are held by recovering addicts. 

In a story for The Free Press, Quinones tells how Hazard is being rescued by its locals, many of whom are rebuilding themselves at the same time. And they said they are no longer waiting for outsiders or the government or big-box stores to save them. 

“When somebody gets clean, they want to change the world,” Stephanie Callahan, a former addict and current business owner in Hazard, told Quinones. “You do something just to prove you can do it.”

After writing so much for so long about the ravages of addiction, Sam said he seized on this story of redemption.

As he told us, “It feels good to be able to write a story about American renewal.” 

Read his full dispatch here: 

Stumbling toward the White House

Do voters trust Biden on. . . anything? Why are Democrats so mean to Dean Phillips? And what will Chris Christie do next? These questions—and others—answered in our (semi-) regular report from the campaign trail.

→ A-poll-calypse now: There have been lots of bad polls for Biden lately. But there’s bad, and then there’s the set of numbers published by NBC on Sunday. Where to start? Perhaps with the big headline number: in head-to-head matchups, Biden loses to Trump by five points. (The pair were neck and neck back in September.) And then here’s what voters said when asked who they thought would perform better on a series of issues:

Ouch. The really worrying thing for Biden is that 20-point gap on the economy even with the GDP expanding, inflation cooling, jobs surging, and consumer sentiment finally improving.

And when it comes to the question of mental fitness, Biden didn’t improve matters on Sunday, when he told an anecdote about a G7 meeting in 2020 where he met “Mitterrand from Germany.” François Mitterrand was, of course, French (something Biden corrected) and died in 1996. 

→ Don’t be mean to Dean: Perhaps Team Biden will take some solace from the results in South Carolina over the weekend, where the president won with 96 percent of the vote. Those are North Korean numbers. Pyong-dang, Mr. President! 

Making light of his disastrous loss, long-shot Democratic candidate Dean Phillips posted on X when his vote tally finally exceeded 1,000: “Cracking four digits never felt so good! Congratulations, Mr. President, on a good old fashioned whooping. See you in Michigan.” 

Self-deprecating. Funny. Good stuff. But Biden World couldn’t resist some snark: “My dude, you came third in a one person race,” quipped former White House comms chief Kate Bedingfield. 

At least the Biden crew are finally acknowledging the Minnesota lawmaker’s existence. Dean, you’re living rent-free in their heads. Keep on keeping on, buddy. 

→ From the lake to the lake: Progressives in the Democratic Party, angered by the president’s staunch support of Israel post–October 7, aren’t helping. A new campaign group, called Listen to Michigan, is plotting to upend Biden’s numbers in the state’s primary later this month. Run by Rashida “River to the Sea” Tlaib’s younger sister, Layla Elabed, the group plans to spend $250,000 to persuade voters to check “uncommitted” next to Biden’s name on the ballot.

The anti-Israel left might be good at making a lot of noise—the president’s own speeches have been regularly disrupted in recent weeks—but Biden’s position on Israel is popular with most Americans. The latest Harvard CAPS-Harris poll finds that 80 percent of voters support Israel in the conflict and that two in three oppose an unconditional cease-fire, and back a cease-fire only once the hostages are released and Hamas is removed from power. In purely electoral terms, Biden is pursuing the least bad option. But collapsing support among progressives and Muslim voters could still leave him unstuck in Michigan. 

→ Christie can’t quit: Did you miss Chris Christie? No? Well, he’s back. The former New Jersey governor is tanned, rested, and ready to get back into the limelight after his quixotic GOP primary bid. In an interview with Good Morning America’s George Stephanopoulos, Christie was asked what he’d say to No Labels, the group readying a third-party challenge to Trump and Biden, if they asked him to be their candidate. “Oh, I don’t know. There’d be a long conversation between me and [my wife] Mary Pat, I can guarantee you that.” In other words: maybe? 

ICYMI: We’ve released the first in a series of videos from Bari and more of my Free Press colleagues’ recent trip to Israel. In it, Bari talks to family members of the hostages still being held in Gaza, including Rachel Goldberg, whose 23-year-old son Hersh is still in captivity. Of her daily struggle, she told Bari: “I say before I get out of bed, ‘Now pretend to be a human.’ ” 

Watch the full video here: 

Fight Club: Apple Vision Pro Edition 

Apple released its Vision Pro goggles last week. The $3,499 headset, which merges digital apps into users’ real-world surroundings, is the tech giant’s biggest innovation in more than a decade. Footage of early adopters wearing their new goggles in the wild looks like a sci-fi movie: just check out this guy sporting them while driving his Tesla Cybertruck, another user courtside at a Celtics game, and another on the subway.

Is this a glimpse of the dystopia we’ll all soon be living? The biggest productivity upgrade since the smartphone? A toy for rich tech obsessives that’ll never catch on? To decide, we asked Free Press Zoomers Julia Steinberg and Kiran Sampath, who were just twinkles in their parents’ eyes when the first iPod was released. They both tried out the goggles, and duke it out below: 

First up, Julia makes the case for Apple’s new gadget: 

Did it feel a smidge dystopian putting on goggles that can, with the turn of a dial, transform your immediate surroundings into the moon or the ocean or a mountaintop? Absolutely. But, faux space travel aside, trying on Apple’s Vision Pro felt like stepping into a future where the digital world is better connected to the real world. 

To pessimists, “mixed reality tech” like the Apple Vision Pro means neglecting your friends and family to, say, watch projected porn or MrBeast videos (or both at once, if that’s your thing). But virtually all consumer technologies have negative use cases. I was excited to experience the upside. Though I tried the Vision Pro only for a few hours, it was easy to brainstorm positive uses, like creating digital art while standing in a breathtaking landscape, or fully enjoying cinematographically impressive films (the Vision Pro has a higher pixel count than a 4K television), or conversations with friends across the country that feel like they are there with you—video calls on the headset feel much more immersive. 

While demoing the Vision Pro, I tried the Encounter Dinosaurs app, which projected me into the Mesozoic Era, where I felt like I was walking the earth millions of years ago, when really I was just in a college dorm. I was both in the future and the past at the same time.

And with its ability to project multiple browsers and apps into your field of vision all at once, the Vision Pro could even boost productivity. I used the headset to type an essay while looking at different texts, and it was far easier than doing the same thing on a laptop. 

Critics say the Vision Pro will create a Ready Player One-style opt-in reality where we can all tune out of the real world. But I’m not worried. New technologies, from novels to headphones, have faced this same criticism for centuries. And after all that innovation, humans still participate in society. Besides, the Vision Pro is not too different from an iPhone or a laptop. If anything, by merging the real and the virtual and allowing us to do so much on a headset, without needing bulky screens, these goggles mean our real-world spaces won’t be so dominated by tech.

And now Kiran gives a big no to the Vision Pro: 

In case you were getting your ADHD for free, Apple’s selling it to you for the cost of a vacation. And who needs to travel if you have the Apple Vision Pro, which merges the material world with the virtual, putting messages, emails, videos, a web browser, and more in your field of vision at all times. (Don’t worry: there’s also a mindfulness feature.)

At first I was amazed by the Vision Pro experience. With a pinch of my fingers, I was at my first baseball game. Then I was standing on an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean. In seconds, I’d ticked two things off my bucket list—and felt terrified. It’s hard to see how this gadget won’t push us further into the digital realm. And I doubt this magic device will make us happier, more connected beings. 

I was relieved to learn from Apple’s demo video that you can still make eye contact with others while wearing the headset. But then I watched the guy next to me pop them on and discovered the emptiness of the word contact. Two slightly blurred eyes looked back at me, but were we really connecting? I couldn’t tell. 

For the time being, the Apple Vision Pro is an expensive gadget for die-hard tech geeks. But with Apple, you know this is the first iteration of a device that will someday be as sleek as the sunglasses in The Matrix. It’s pretty cool that you can brush your teeth in Yosemite and floss them in space, but you know what else is great? Being where you are. It might not be heaven, but being unable to opt out of reality is also the only thing that’s going to make us want to improve it. 

Who are you with, readers? Are you a techno-optimist like Julia, or do you agree with Kiran the Doomer Zoomer? Tell us in the comments. 

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman

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