James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Appreciations

  • Rebecca Frankel and War Dogs at Sixth and I Tonight

    A surprisingly moving and engrossing tale of modern war

    Rebecca Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy, a friend of our family, and the author of a great new book called War Dogs. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, a man who does not lightly distribute praise, gave it a very positive review in the Post this past Sunday ("exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving"). The NYTBR wrote about the book here, and you can hear her on the Diane Rehm show here.

    This evening at 7, I'll be leading a discussion with Rebecca Frankel at the Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington. Tickets are $12, but you get two free tickets with the purchase of one of her books for $26. More details here. I am looking forward to talking with her, and I hope to see you there.

    Megan Chan
  • Books by Friends

    One about Berkeley, two about China, one more on the art and science of "information farming," and all worth checking out

    Erik Tarloff

    I give the "by friends" disclosure just for the record. I mention these books because, whether or not I'd known their authors, I would think they deserved attention. And I'll mention each as tersely as I can, both so you can discover their virtues for yourself and because if I waited to do "real" writeups I'd probably never get around to it.

    1) All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff. Erik and his wife Laura D'Andrea Tyson were friends of ours when my wife and I lived for a while in their home town of Berkeley, and when they lived for a while in our current home town of DC. Erik has been a successful screenwriter and novelist, plus a correspondent here. Two of my favorites from his oeuvre are Face-Time and The Man Who Wrote the Book.

    His newest book is a love story, heartbreak story, mystery story, cultural portrait, and character study set in Berkeley from the late 1960s through the present. It is carried by its dialogue, which I mean as a compliment, and every few pages I marked a sharp observation or witticism I wanted to remember. You will enjoy it.

    2) The Dog, by Jack Livings. I don't know this author, but I do have friends involved with the book at its publisher, FSG. The book is a collection of short stories set in contemporary China, featuring people very different from those who usually come to foreign attention. You can get an idea by reading the title short story as published in the Paris Review nine years ago.

    I am wary of harping too often on the gulf between the varied, chaotic, contradictory, simultaneously horrible-and-uplifting, vividly human on-scene realities of China, and the simplified view of either an economic juggernaut or a buttoned-up central-control state that necessarily comes through many media filters. But I'll harp on it again, because one of the rewards of this book is the range of vividly human experience its presents. Plus, Jack Livings is a very gifted story-teller.

    3) China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell It to Them, by Michael Zakkour. I do know and like Zakkour, whom I met with while in China. His book is worth reading alongside The Dog, because it depicts what seems to be an entirely different universe from the one of Jack Livings's stories, but which in fact coexists within the same national borders.

    For all the problems the "Chinese model" is now encountering, for all of the doubt about when the supposedly reformist president Xi Jinping will switch from merely cracking down on dissenters and enemies and start loosening up, hundreds of millions of people inside China are moving onto a different economic plane. This is a business-minded book about some of the ramifications of that change.

    4) The Tinderbox Way, by Mark Bernstein. This is an odd entry, in that the book is not new, and my occasion for mentioning is a podcast rather than a physical or electronic book.

    Mark Bernstein is the creator of intriguing idea-organizing Mac software called Tinderbox, which I've mentioned over the years. I have never met him but have often corresponded; three years ago, he was a guest blogger here. This week, in a podcast interview for the Sources and Methods site, he talks not so much about his software but about the larger question of how thinking interacts with the tools of the electronic age. If you find the podcast provocative, you might well be interested in the book The Tinderbox Way, which is equal parts guide to Bernstein's Tinderbox program and meditation on the right and wrong approach to "information farming." As you'll gather from the podcast and see in the book, the kind of farming he has in mind is nothing like mega-scale factory farming and very much like an artisanal plot.

    Bonus! 5) Also on the "works by friends" theme, please see John Tierney's latest American Futures dispatch, on the surprising new growth industry of, yes, meaderies in an industrial area of Pennsylvania.

    Read, enjoy.  

  • The Search for the Killer of Tom Wales Goes On

    Thirteen years ago, a federal prosecutor was murdered in the line of duty. His friends and colleagues continue a campaign to bring the killer to justice.

    Tom Wales

    On the evening of October 11, 2001, thirteen years ago today, a federal prosecutor named Tom Wales was shot and killed while he sat at a desk in the basement-office of his home in Seattle. Wales was 49 years old at the time and had been a federal prosecutor for 18 years.

    I have mentioned the case a number of times through the years (eg here and here) partly for personal reasons. I had met and liked Wales while my wife and I were living in Seattle during the two years before his death. I have come to know his children slightly, and one of his in-laws, Eric Redman of Seattle, is a longtime very close friend. But the Tom Wales case has deserved and received continuing national attention because of two of its unusual and disturbing aspects.

    One is that Tom Wales is believed to be the only federal prosecutor ever killed in the line of duty—that is, murdered or assassinated because of the work he was doing rather than as the object of a "normal" crime. The other is that local law-enforcement officials very quickly settled on a person they thought had unique means, motive, and opportunity to have been the murderer. But for complex reasons neither this person nor anyone else has been charged.

    The best summary of the motives, tangles, and tragedies of the case is Jeffrey Toobin's "An Unsolved Killing" in The New Yorker seven years ago. (Toobin himself is a former federal prosecutor.) I highly recommend that you read that story—and also the note I've just received from Michael Jay.

    Jay, a writer and author of a memoir Dog Water Free, was Tom Wales's roommate when they were undergraduates at Harvard. The main purpose of his note, apart from remembering his friend, is to underscore the ongoing search for leads and tips, and the substantial reward that is being amassed for help in the case. I turn it over to him:

    A PERFECT MURDER?

    THE FBI IS STILL SEEKING CLUES AS REWARD GROWS

    By: Michael Jay

    The National Association of Former United States Attorneys Foundation is engaged in a pledge campaign to match an existing $1Million Reward from the US Department of Justice for information leading to arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the murder of Assistant US Attorney Tom Wales, a career Federal Prosecutor who lost his life to the bullets of an assassin in Seattle, thirty days after 9/11.

    The campaign will run until December 31, 2014

    It is being piloted by NAFUSA Foundation Past-President Mike McKay, US Attorney for The Western District of Washington from 1989 – 1993.

    More than $400,000 has so far been pledged by prominent firms like Williams & Connolly, Perkins Coie, DLA Piper, as well as several NAFUSA board members.

    As most media have reported, “Wales's murder is believed to have been in retaliation for his work as an Assistant US Attorney and was perpetrated or arranged by the target of a criminal investigation,” according to the NAFUSA website.

    Be that the case, Tom Wales would be the only Federal Prosecutor in US history to be killed in the line of duty.

    “It’s a perfect murder, said one investigator. “The only physical evidence are shell casings and spent bullets…Unless someone steps up and talks, this case will never be prosecuted.”

    October 11, 2001

    Seattle Police Chief, Gil Kerlikowske, who worked the scene at 108 Hayes Street in the quiet neighborhood of Queen Anne on that night, proclaimed the death of Tom Wales an assassination.

    Avoiding motion detectors that would have set off flood lights in  the back of Wales’ home, the killer must have known the circumstances at the scene, as well as his habit of spending time in his home office late into the evening.

    At work on his computer at 10:40 pm when shots rang out, Wales managed to dial 911 before losing consciousness.

    According to public FBI reports, he was shot multiple times through a window of his basement office.

    The weapon was a Makarov 9mm semi-automatic handgun, equipped with a shiny, stainless steel aftermarket barrel, believed to have been threaded for a silencer.

    Public FBI reports state that Soviet Bloc countries manufactured the Makarov through approximately 1968 and U.S. sales of barrels of this type are rare, which gives investigators reason for hope.

    The aftermarket barrels are rifled with six lands and grooves with a left twist.

    Corporate and Individual Pledges can be made at mdm@mckay-chadwell.com attn: Mike McKay.

    Tips can be made at 1-800-CALL-FBI.

    On behalf of a courageous family that longs for closure, thank you.

  • Vic Braden

    The man who taught America tennis during the boom era of the sport

    VicBraden.com

    Through the 1970s and 1980s, when American tennis was strong and players like Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and John McEnroe were the American face of the sport on court, Vic Braden was (with Bud Collins) the face of American tennis in TV commentary. Collins called the matches; Braden popped up everywhere to give tips on how to play the game.

    The cover of one of his many instructional books

    Tennis has receded enough in popularity that no current figure quite matches his role. The closest sports-world counterparts would be some leading basketball (Phil Jackson?) or football (John Madden?) coach.

    Vic Braden appeared on late-night talk shows and even on network news shows. He wrote a popular series of books and produced instructional videos. His name and always-smiling face were familiar in ads and on the airwaves, in a way that seemed appropriate for the de-country-club-ization of tennis that, with their respective styles, Connors, McEnroe, Bobby Riggs, and Billie Jean King were bringing about.

    What I hadn't realized, until I had a chance to meet him in the 1990s, is that beneath this court-jester exterior Vic Braden was a deep and serious person, and a good one.

    Twenty years ago, when I had finished a very long book writing stint (for Looking at the Sun), I somehow talked my wife and kids into letting me go through detox via immersions in two tennis camps. First, Nick Bolletieri's, in Sarasota, Florida; then Vic Braden's, in Coto de Caza, California.

    About Bolletieri's I'll simply say: you can find someone else to tell you that he is a great guy. My stint there toughened and toned me up. Plus, I got to see a newly arrived little blond-ponytailed girl from Russia who was walloping the ball, and who I have always assumed/ wanted to believe was the just-off-the-boat Maria Sharapova.   

    About Vic Braden I will say that he seemed to be a born teacher and evangelist, and was someone I wanted to stay in touch with over the years. In the September, 1994 issue of this magazine, I wrote about going to both camps. I can't give you a link to the article, since it's from that twilight zone before our articles were on line (yet is not yet far enough into the recesses of history to put online for antiquarian purposes). In that piece I said that while Bollettieri's operation was devoted to prodigies and couldn't quite conceal its disdain for adult plodders like me, Vic Braden—who, in contrast to Bollettieri, was a huge, in-person presence at his camp—seemed excited by the idea of dealing with mediocre players, because there was so much more he could teach us.

    An article I wrote two years later, called "Throwing Like a Girl," is online and talks about Vic Braden's concept of the "kinetic chain" as the key to many successful athletic movements, from golf or baseball swings to tennis strokes to throwing any kind of ball. I got the feeling around him that he loved teaching tennis as a subset of his love for teaching in general, which in turn was a subset of his fascination with looking into how people could make the most of their opportunities and potential.

    As you will have guessed by this point, I am saying all this because I have just heard that Vic Braden died two days ago, at the age of 85. He was a genuinely accomplished, deep, influential, loving and loved man, who deserves to be noted by people who were not around during his media heyday, and to be taken more seriously by people who are aware only of his corny on-air routines. You can read some tennis-world appreciations of him here, here, and here. Although I haven't found any of his 1970s-80s TV appearances on line, these instructional videos give a feel for his style. The third is about his approach as applied more broadly than just to tennis technique.

    On the low volley:

    On the forehand backswing:

    On changing the backhand, but really about change in general:

    And, why not, a surreal moment from a Davis Cup match in Ecuador featuring Arthur Ashe:

    My sympathies to his family, and my gratitude for having known him.

  • Hugh Calkins

    An example of applying energy, abilities, and leverage to the public good. We can't have enough of these examples.

    I learned recently that Hugh Calkins, a lawyer and educational-reform leader, had died early this month at age 90. He was very well known in Cleveland, where he raised his family and spent most of his career, but I think his achievement and character deserve wider notice.

    Calkins's early years were as complete a sweep of meritocratic successes as you can imagine. He was born in Newton, Mass., and went to Exeter and then Harvard. He studied engineering, was president (editor) of the Harvard Crimson, graduated early, and enlisted in the Air Force. When he was out of the service, he went to Harvard Law School, where (like Barack Obama many years later) he was president of the Harvard Law Review. Then he was a law clerk, first for Learned Hand on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and later for Felix Frankfurter on the Supreme Court. Not yet married, he decided to move to and start his career in Cleveland, on the hunch that he would find it more satisfying to be fully engaged in the life of a "large representative city" like this.

    A tribute from Calkins's law firm, Jones Day, gives an idea of his day-job accomplishments as a long-time partner and head of the firm's tax practice. A site set up by his family lists more of his range of achievements, notably including his 61 years of marriage to Ann Clark Calkins and raising their four children.

    Hugh Calkins (Courtesy of the Calkins family)

    I met Hugh Calkins, and came to admire him, in strange circumstances. In the late 1960s, when Calkins was in his mid-40s and I was in my teens, he rose to sudden prominence at his alma mater, Harvard. I had just become president of the Harvard Crimson when he was chosen as the newest–and youngest, and first Midwestern, and by a million miles most "progressive"–member of the Harvard "Corporation." The Corporation, formally known as the President and Fellows of Harvard College, is the ultimate governing authority for the world's brand-name university. (I see that Harvard's official site now embraces the body's name, saying that "The oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere is the Harvard Corporation.") Now it is larger, but then it had only five members, so one forceful new person could make a big difference.

    The university at the time, like many others institutions and like much of the country, was all but blowing up. Poor Harvard president Nathan Pusey, a distinguished leader with the sensibility of a bygone age, had absolutely no idea how to deal with student and faculty protest over the war in Vietnam and other sources of turmoil. Hugh Calkins—who had opposed the Vietnam war and earned a place on Nixon's enemies list, who was serving on the Cleveland school board, and who had been involved in a long effort to improve finances and standards in Cleveland's over-crowded schools—represented something entirely new. Yale already had the smooth president Kingman Brewster; soon Harvard would have the smooth new president Derek Bok. But for a while in 1969 and 1970, the closest thing this institution had to a smooth conciliator was Hugh Calkins of Cleveland.

    The Crimson ran a profile at the time, "Who Is This Man Hugh Calkins?" I think I wrote it, and I know I did the reporting and interviewing of Calkins, but it's all a sixties-era blur. What I remember is the difference he made. It is embarrassing to quote oneself as a teenager, but for the record:

    In the first week of the strike, Calkins talked about dissent and ROTC and all the other issues for two straight nights on television. He ate breakfast with students in the Houses and told them about ROTC. When he saw posters in the Yard giving some students' version of what he said, Calkins trotted over to the Crimson to type out a reply and explain why the poster version was a distortion.

    With a somewhat disturbing energy and bounce, Calkins has spoken in House dining halls and appeared with SDS members on panel discussions. A few other Corporation members have tried the same thing on a smaller scale. But now, at the beginning of May, there are probably no more than five or six undergraduates who could give an accurate description of what any of the other Fellows looks like.

    Who is this man Hugh Calkins, and why is he now so present on our campus?

    That era passed, for the university, for the country, for Calkins himself. By 1984, when he was 60, he had become the senior figure on the Corporation and reached the end of his term. Through much of the rest of his career, his passion—apart from his family—was public education. He taught math in inner-city Cleveland middle schools. This former president of the Harvard Law Review went back to John Carroll University to get a teaching credential after retiring from Jones Day, and continued his teaching work. Eventually he founded a charter school and ran an organization called Initiatives in Urban Education. In the words of his son Andy, from an email letting me know about his father's death, "He cared deeply about injustice, poverty, the rule of law, and the right of every child to a high quality education." 

    I mention this because Hugh Calkins was a person of enormous talent and opportunity, who kept deciding to apply his energy, his abilities, and his leverage to the public good. It is an example worth noting. Sympathies, and admiration, to all of his family—including one of his daughters, who by chance* is now the principal of the public elementary school our children attended (before her time) in Washington D.C.

    Taking up art very late in life, with a portrait of his wife Ann.

    There will be a ceremony celebrating Hugh Calkins's life and achievement in Cleveland on September 13. My wife and I hope to be there. 


    * Although we did not realize this connection until long afterward, by chance we sort-of owe our marriage and thus the existence of our children to the indirect influence of the Calkins family. My wife Deb and her sister Sue grew up in a very small town on Lake Erie. Ann Clark Calkins was interviewing candidates for Radcliffe/Harvard from northern Ohio and ended up steering them there, which is the only way my wife and I would ever have met.

  • Richard Rockefeller, MD

    What would you do, if you could do anything? An inspiring answer to that question.

    Richard Rockefeller examining a child in Niger. (Doctors Without Borders)

    My wife Deb and I were shocked and heartbroken to learn that our friend Richard Rockefeller had died this morning in an airplane crash. He is in the news because he is a Rockefeller, and because of the tragically dramatic way in which he died. He should be remembered for the kind of person he was and the example he set.

    We met Richard decades ago in college, I because I'd learned about his photography via mutual friends on the student paper, Deb because at the same time she and I were getting to know each other Richard was dating (and later married) one of her dorm mates and best friends. Then and now there is no avoiding the pluses and minuses of the name Rockefeller, obviously mostly plus. Richard coped then in a minor way by having his photo credits list his middle name rather than his last name, to avoid possible distraction. In a much deeper and lifelong way he exemplified how we would like to think that people of privilege would use their advantages.

    He was personally unassuming, modest, and gracious; professionally accomplished and respected, as a local doctor in Maine and later a health-care strategist and analyst; and intellectually inventive and omni-curious. When we visited him at his house in Maine, he would explain the fisheries and coastal geography and patterns of arrowheads we might find. When he visited us in Washington and elsewhere he would talk increasingly about his work around the world with Doctors Without Borders and at home with victims of PTSD, and the difference that small investments in public health or preventive care could make. I don't know his cousin, longtime West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller, as well as I knew Richard. But I will say that Jay Rockefeller's reputation as someone who works steadfastly without claiming the limelight is the better known public-affairs counterpart of the life we saw Richard Rockefeller live.

    People often speculate about what they would do "if they could do anything." Richard could have done anything, or nothing—such were his resources and options—and what he chose to do was be of service, to his friends and family and community and eventually his country and the world.  

                                                                 ***

    A topic I loved discussing with Richard was aviation. He took up flying very young, he advised me when I was first doing my training, and he took Deb and me with him in his plane for a tour of the coast of Maine. He also recommended to me a very valuable book called The Killing Zone, about the highly perilous first 200+ hours of most pilots' flying experience, before a tragic imagination evolves of how many things can go wrong and the consequences of rashness or miscalculation. Richard was highly experienced with airplanes, conscientious about his recurrent training, and cautious in his approach to an activity that he also loved.

    What exactly happened this morning, when the weather near the White Plains airport was very bad but evidently not more than Richard thought he could deal with (and likely had before), is for sorting-out later on. For now I offer sincerest sympathies to his family and friends, and hopes that the reputation of Richard G. Rockefeller, MD, lives on not for the advantages he began with but for the use he made of them.

  • Welcome Tide Fallows

    A member of the next generation makes her debut.

    There are updates from Mississippi and Minnesota in the queue, but for now let me mention the wonderful news that is foremost in our minds. Please welcome Tide Fallows, who made her debut on Sunday morning, June 8, a week or two ahead of schedule, in San Francisco. Here she is not long after her arrival, resting and holding onto her father's hand.

    Back on March 15, 1977, Jody Powell, who was then the White House press secretary, began his daily list of announcements with news of the first child born to the Carter Administration's then-young staff. This was Thomas Mackenzie Fallows, our first son, who had arrived very early that morning at George Washington University hospital in D.C.

    These years later, Tom's mature finger is the one you see in the picture above, in the grip of his newborn daughter and first child, Tide Mackenzie Fallows. The parents, Tom and Lizzy Bennett Fallows, love and live around the water; as it happens, Tide was born on World Oceans Day.  

    She is a beautiful baby, and our second grandchild. Her cousin, nearly three-year-old Jack Fallows, lives at the other end of California, in Corona del Mar. Mother, father, and baby daughter in the San Francisco family are all doing very well—as are mother, father, and son in Southern California too. Loving congratulations to the new parents, and a joyous welcome to young miss Tide—who as the first girl in our lineage in a while will have a lot to teach us all

  • 3 More Good Books: Ignatius, Budiansky, and (Again) Nader

    A timely spy novel, an enlightening biography, and a positive rather than negative approach to current politics.

    Two weeks ago I mentioned five good books that all happened to be by people I knew and that I thought very much deserved attention. As a reminder, three were about China: Louisa Lim's The People's Republic of Amnesia, about the organized forced-forgetting of the Tiananmen Square repression 25 years ago this week; Evan Osnos's Age of Ambitionabout the very human (and often humorous) face of China's simultaneous opening-up and closing-down, its idealism and its crassness; and Howard French's China's Second Continent, about the extension of the Chinese model and Chinese vision into Africa. Plus Ken Adelman's Reagan at Reykjavik, which is a vivid backstage view of the meeting that in many ways was the beginning of the end of the Cold War; and Ralph Nader's Unstoppable, on which I am about to say more.

    Now, three more good books—actually, two new mentions, plus an augmented description of the Nader book from the earlier list. As was the case previously, these are all by people I know but are books I'd recommend anyway. As a bonus in today's installment, I'm including recent reviews or article that highlight some of these books' strengths. 

    The Director, by David Ignatius. Newspaper readers know David Ignatius for his columns and reporting from around the world. Book readers know him for a series of elegant spy novels over the past two decades, starting with the wonderful Agents of Innocence and continuing now with The Director. I've known David through both kinds of readings, and as a good friend since our teenage years.

    David Ignatius's novels have always been a clef in the best sense: closely connected to, and very revealing and insightful about, the trends and tensions in the news. His previous Bloodmoney, for instance, remains one of the best guides to the moral complexities of drone-era warfare and the future problems America is now thoughtlessly creating for itself. Before that, The Increment was about Iran's nuclear ambitions, as seen on the Iranian side as well as in the U.S. His latest book, The Director, is not explicitly about Edward Snowden or the NSA, but it is all about the technological, commercial,  governmental, and journalistic world in which that news is unfolding. As well as being the usual page-turning read. On NPR Alan Cheuse had his very positive review here. (Cheuse also covers a spy book based in modern China, Adam Brookes's The Night Heron, which I've bought but not yet read.)

    Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky. Budiansky, a friend from our time working together at US News, is the closest thing modern nonfiction writing has to a genuine polymath. He was originally trained in chemistry and applied mathematics. His early journalistic work was about science-and-technology policy and national defense. At practically a book-per-year rate over the past 15 years he has produced a series of erudite and entertaining works on topics that range from the psychology of horses (and dogs, and cats), to the science and history of code breaking, to the history and sociology of post-Civil War terrorism in the South, to the evolution of civilian and military air power. He does all this from a small, working farm in Virginia—where, for the record, he and his family were for a while custodians of our late beloved Mike the Cat and his littermate WhiteCap.

    Budiansky is also an accomplished musician. His latest book Mad Music, on the eccentric composer Charles Ives, is as effortlessly informed and enlightening as his other works. Here I refer you to two recent positive reviews, one by Jeremy Denk in the NYRB and one by Sudip Bose in the WaPo.

    Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. In my earlier item I mentioned that Nader's latest book was informal, jokey, and positive-spirited in a way that might come as a surprise for many readers. Timothy Noah's recent enthusiastic-but-realistic review in the WaPo is an occasion for stressing one further point about Nader's case.

    Since his famous and consequential run for president in 2000 (which, for the record, I opposed), Nader has obviously been identified with an attempt to move beyond our two established parties. Usually we think of a beyond-party movement in a wholly negative sense: These established groups are both so corrupt, there's not a dime's worth of difference between them, and so on. That tone was obviously a notable part of Nader's early runs.

    But as Noah's review indicates, the whole premise of Unstoppable is Nader's emphasis on the positive similarities between the parties, and the associated "conservative" and "progressive" sensibilities. He says that there is a lot to like about the small-c conservative nature of American neighborhood life. And there is a lot (he says) that those conservatives should ally with in the "everyone deserves a fair shake" impulse of many "liberal" policies. It's an approach with obvious appeal but with surprisingly few other advocates on the national scene right now. It's worth reading the book if only to see the way he applies this "convergence" sensibility to a range of economic and social issues.

  • Five Good Books

    On sale now!

    A good side of the writing/journalistic life is that many of your friends end up being people in the business. Well, most of the time that's a good side. It's also the set-up for the news I'm presenting here: the arrival of five books worth your attention, all by people I happen to know. They're books I'd recommend anyway—just as I would urge that you read Ta-Nehisi Coates's new piece even if he weren't a friend and colleague.

    Here goes:

    Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War, by Ken Adelman. 

    As director of U.S. arms-control policy under Ronald Reagan, Kenneth Adelman was on the scene in Reykjavik as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their dramatic talks that, Adelman argues, were the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The line from Reagan intimates and admirers over the years has been that the Gipper, beneath his casual and even befuddled-seeming exterior, was a shrewdly observant strategist. This is the impression conveyed by Phil Hartman's immortal SNL sketch about "Mastermind Reagan." Ken Adelman's view of Reagan is highly admiring (in the view of David Hoffman in the WaPo, too much so), but the book is full of color, details, vignettes, and drama that buttress Adelman's view and made me glad to have read his account. It's also a very useful refresher on a reality now easily forgotten: how stressful and genuinely dangerous those Cold War years were.

    The People's Republic of Amnesia, by Louisa Lim. Over the past few years in China, there has always been some "special" circumstance that required an "unusual" tightening of censorship, surveillance, and vigilance against protest. If it's not the "Twin Meetings" it's the visit of a foreign dignitary or an important anniversary. Right now, the increasing tumult and anti-civilian terrorist violence in Xinjiang have further ratcheted up security.

    Even without these latest events, China would have been on lockdown for the next few weeks, because of the impending 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and resulting crackdown, on "May 35th," 1989. (Chinese censors tend to block out references to "June 4," giving rise to the "May 35" workaround.) Louisa Lim—well-known to US listeners for her NPR reports, and a friend and colleague when I lived in Shanghai and Beijing—has revisited the story with an emphasis on the nationwide depth and seriousness of the uprising in 1989—in contrast to what was usually portrayed as a Beijing-centered phenomenon—and the thoroughness of the government's effort to remove it from public memory. That's one more reason it's worth reading as a counterpart to Ta-Nahesi Coates's piece on what's been effaced from American public memory.

    Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. I first met and worked for Nader when I was 19 (and when he was a nationally famous figure in his mid-30s). I have kept in touch with him over the years, even though—like many of his one-time colleagues and supporters—I strongly disagreed with the way he continued his presidential run in 2000 and was at odds with him for a time after that.

    Whatever your view of the Ralph Nader of 2000, or the 1960s, or other eras, I think you will be intrigued and impressed by the case and face he is presenting now. In a recent C-Span hour with Brian Lamb, Nader was relaxed and jokey. I will say more in another installment about the parallels between Nader's arguments in this book and the practical-minded successes my wife Deb and I have been seeing and writing about in our recent travels. (Eg, in comparing Burlington, Vermont, and Greenville, South Carolina.)

    For now I'll say: at the national level, a pox-on-both-their-houses, all-politicians-are-crooks outlook on politics can be nihilist and destructive. We have two national parties; one or the other is going to hold power; and there are  big and growing differences in their values. But at the local and state level, a lot more is possible. So Nader argues, in a book and with a style that I think can broaden his appeal. Also, he's arguing for a right-left convergence to challenge corporate overlordism, something that neither of the major parties is positioned to pull off. Worth checking out.

    China's Second Continent, by Howard French. Four years ago in the Atlantic, Howard French—long of the NYT, now of Columbia Journalism School—had a great story about how Chinese interests and the Chinese government were extending their reach into Africa. It was a process that both resembled previous Western imperialism and differed from it—including, importantly, in the absence of gunboats and colonial administrators. 

    French's new book is on this same theme, and the wonderful aspect about it is its reportorial vividness. "Modern China" can sound boring in the abstract, to say nothing of "Modern China's relations with still-developing powers." But the actual human beings and organizations who make up modern China—with their dreams, their excesses, their dramas, their achievements and failures—are very interesting, and these are the stories French tells on-scene.  

    Age of Ambition, by Evan Osnos, of the New Yorker. My friends and family are sick of hearing me say that this is the golden age of writing about China—but that's still true, and Evan Osnos's book is another great illustration. It's the golden age because so many foreigners (and Chinese) are prowling around the country and learning about it; because there are so many facets of the country's story to tell; and because so many writers have found ways to make all the big points about the country's past, present, and future through novelistic or picaresque tales or memoirs.

    Evan Osnos applies this universal-in-the-particular approach very well in this book. It is wryly funny throughout, laughing with rather than laughing at the absurdities of daily life in China; without being too obvious about the point, it conveys how contradictory and sometimes out-of-control the contending realities in China are; and it gives a clear sense of the mixed nature of China's modern "rise." Plus it's fun to read.

    Make allowances, if you will, for the fact that I'm talking about books by my friends. Then, after making the allowances, dig in.

  • Household News: May 18, 2014

    In-house developments involving the NYT, Marketplace radio, Japanese business, and other institutions.

    Debating African-American history, at the Mississippi School for Math and Science (Deborah Fallows)

    1) Deb Fallows, best known to the world as author of Dreaming in Chinese and of a series of popular American Futures posts on language and schools (and best known to me as my wife), has a very nice story in today's NYT Travel section about what we've seen as we've gone from town to town. The online version has several great photos by Raymond McCrae Jones; if I can get permission, I will use one here. For now, check them out, and the story, at the Times's site.

    2) Deb also has another of her school posts on the Atlantic's site right now, about the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Everyone involved with the school understands where their state stands in national school rankings and other indicators of economic and social progress. They are trying hard to move up.

    3) Starting later today I'll start a series of posts about the business / industrial complement to those school efforts in the surrounding "Golden Triangle" area of Mississippi. Probably later this week, our partners at Marketplace will run their report on the shift from collapsing, old, lower-wage industries to new higher-wave factories in Mississippi. Here's a view when we were together in Columbus recently: Kai Ryssdal in the red shirt, engineer Charlton Thorp with the gear, and from the back Brenda Lathan of the (very successful) local economic development group, the Golden Triangle Development Link. I am the other person. We're standing in front of a shuttered factory, before going to a newly opened one.

     4) Also in today's NYT Book Review, I have a piece on David Pilling's very interesting book on Japan, Bending Adversity.

    5) If he were still around, we would be celebrating my dad's 89th birthday today. He is not still around, as I chronicled at the time, five and a half years ago. This was a wonderful picture my sisters and brother and I saw only after our parents' deaths. It's of our mom and dad in their early 20s, soon after they'd gotten married. He was in medical school, she had just finished college and was working as a school teacher, and I was on the way.

     

  • The Most Exciting 1,231.4 Miles in Sports

    A string that started when Lyndon Johnson was president and Barack Obama was a schoolboy in Jakarta still goes on.

    This is the actual winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, but Bennett Beach achieved an equally impressive goal. (Reuters)

    OK, we've all just seen the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, from Churchill Downs. Congrats to California Chrome.

    Before it recedes too far in the past, let me note an amazing achievement last week in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Not just the first American male winner in a very long time. Nor simply the "Boston Strong" inspiration from the race, inspiring as it was.

    On top of all that, Bennett Beach made history by starting and finishing his 47th consecutive Boston Marathon, which at 26.2 miles apiece is a total of 1,231.4 miles. No one had ever done that before.

    I paid attention on general reverence-for-history groundsbut also because I had run alongside Ben in the 1969 and 1970 Boston Marathons, when we were friends on the college newspaper. As he described those days in a nice item for WBUR:

    “In 1968, you showed up at Hopkinton Junior High School, and some guy would put a stethoscope on your chest to confirm that you were healthy enough to run it and hand out your number, and you were on your way,” he said. “It’s just a different world.”

    Back then, he said the athletes were rewarded at the finish line with beef stew and showers at the Prudential Center. But, then again, back then, there were only about 1,000 runners.

    Ben had in fact started in 1968; it was his description of that first race, which he said required hardly any preparation, that got me interested the following year. And while I had my fill of marathoning (including some more with Ben) by the early 1980s, Ben has been there every single year since 1968.

     —In 2012, he tied the record for most consecutive Boston Marathons. 

    —In 2013, when he was running to set the record, he had passed the halfway mark when the bombs went off and the race was cancelled. Runners who had gotten more than halfway were deemed to have "completed" the race, but Ben felt this was not a clean way to get the record.

    —This year, he had leg and dehydration problems late in the race, on top of some longer-term health issues, and had to walk the final stretch. But he got across the line in time and now, uniquely, has a 47-consecutive-finishes string. In addition to an astonishing 17 finishes at 2:40 or below, which means averaging close to 6 minutes per mile for the entire race. The fastest I ever did, in a Marine Corps Marathon in DC, was 3:02, or an average of 7-minute miles.

    Congratulations to Ben Beach, his wife Carol, and their family. Also please see this great story in the Boston Globe by John Powers, our contemporary and friend on the college paper, which includes a very nice picture of Ben. I don't know many people who have achieved more in a certain category than anyone else, ever, so I am all the prouder of what Bennett Beach has done.

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  • Michael Janeway and The Atlantic

    A man who played a large role in shaping the magazine you see today.

    I was sorrier than I can say to have learned today that Michael Janeway, a friend who influenced many journalistic institutions but probably most of all The Atlantic, had died of cancer.

    The Boston Globe, where Mike held a sequence of editing roles including that of editor in chief, ran a wonderful appreciation by Joseph Kahn, which is true to the range of achievements and complexities in his life and career. I mention it both in hopes that you'll read Kahn's article and as an excuse to offer a screen shot of the Globe photo by Stan Grossfeld that accompanied the obit, which is of Michael Janeway in his mid-40s and captures him at his sunniest.


      


    Mike Janeway is known in journalism for a series of influential roles: at the Globe, where he fostered talent and invented or revitalized sections before a stormy period as head editor; then as a book editor at Houghton Mifflin; then as dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, where he foresaw and discussed many of the trends all of journalism is now coping with; then as a professor at Columbia Journalism School; and as an author, including of a history-memoir of the New Deal-and-afterwards policy intelligentsia.

    This last (The Fall of the House of Roosevelt) was cast as memoir because Mike's parents, the economist Eliot Janeway and the novelist Elizabeth Janeway, were in the middle of this group, and Mike grew up hearing stories about them and meeting luminaries around the house. It also turned on Mike's difficult relationship with his then-quite famous father, as you can see from the book itself or via Michael Beschloss's fine review in the NYTBR. Among the Janeways' New Deal contacts had been the rising Congressman Lyndon Johnson. As a teenager Mike had a summer job working on Capitol Hill for Senator Johnson, and he remained deeply interested in the grandeur and the tragedy of the ultimate Johnson saga: the ambitions for a Great Society and a "we shall overcome!" civil-rights movement, the disaster of Vietnam. The circle of people grappling with the contradictions of Johnson -- of whom Robert Caro is best known now but that also includes Billy Lee Brammer, Bill Moyers, Doris Kearns Goodwin, James C. Thomson, Harry McPherson -- very much included Mike Janeway.

    That's the journalism world in general. His influence on the Atlantic specifically was profound. In 1967, five years out of college, he joined the magazine as a staff editor. Robert Manning had just become editor and was shifting the magazine toward coverage of the great upheavals of that time -- race relations, wealth and poverty, Vietnam, all the rest. On their watch the magazine published probably the best real-time assessment of what was going wrong in Vietnam, James C. Thomson's "How Could Vietnam Happen? An Autopsy" -- and a long sequence of other journalism that stands up nearly two generations later. In 1968, when Mike was 28, he and Manning co-edited an influential book of writing about Vietnam, called Who We Are. The magazine you see today is an extension of what Manning, Janeway, Richard Todd, Louise Desaulniers, Michael Curtis, and others (including Elizabeth Drew, the Washington correspondent) created in those years.

    I was in college then, and I would rush out to the newsstand -- yes, that's how it worked in those days -- to get the new issues of The Atlantic, and Harper's, and the nascent Rolling Stone.I barely dared imagine then that I could eventually write for one of these publications, and that I managed to write for the Atlantic is due to Mike Janeway.

    After I heard the news about Mike today, I stopped to reflect that a small group of people (outside my family) gave me crucial opportunities, support, and direction at important early moments in my path. One, perhaps improbably, was Ralph Nader, under whose auspices and at whose prodding I ended up writing two books very soon after leaving college. Another was, of course, Charles Peters, whose role in training generation after generation of reporters and writers at The Washington Monthly is well-known at least within the business.

    Another was Michael Janeway. After I had finished my Washington Monthly stint and was trying to get a start as a free-lancer based in Texas,he entertained one proposal for an Atlantic story. After he nursed me through that one, there was another, and another. Years later, when he was at Houghton Mifflin and I had run into trouble with a different publisher with my idea for a book, he took it over and guided it to what I found a very satisfying conclusion. (This was More Like Us.) When he was dean at Medill-Northwestern, he invited me to give a speech that became the outline and impetus for my book Breaking the News. All of this doesn't matter to anyone else, but it mattered a lot to me, and his example (plus others') is in my mind as I think about dealing with people now trying to get a start. 

    As Joseph Kahn's excellent Globe story conveys, Michael Janeway was not always an easy-going man -- toward others, or on himself. I am glad for the reports that he became more contented in his latest years. I am sorry that I did not think to tell him directly how much he had meant to his profession, and to this magazine, and to me, but I wanted to say it to his family members now.

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  • What an Autopilot Could Never Do

    Fun with flying, extreme crosswinds edition.

    Last week I posted a video of airliners whose pilots skillfully executed the "crab into kick" technique for landing in a crosswind. As a reminder: the airplane approaches the runway at a "crab" angle, to offset the wind and keep its heading lined up with the runway. Then, when the wheels are just a few feet above the ground, the pilot "kicks" the airplane's own axis into alignment with the runway (so sideways force doesn't shear off the wheels when they touch down), with pressure on the rudder.

    Now some illustrations of how things look if the wind is even stronger and gustier. These take-offs and landings, and numerous "go-arounds," were filmed this winter at Birmingham airport in England, under what were evidently extremely gusty conditions. The wind's strength is one challenge. The continual changes in strength -- the gusts -- are the real problem.

    Whoa. This is the kind of thing no autopilot could ever handle. Thanks to reader BB for the tip.

    And great camerawork, by the way. Also, I know that the camera angle foreshortens things, so it can look as if the planes are descending helicopter-style. Still, that runway is impressively hilly. For instance, as shown in the approach starting at time 6:00. 

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  • The Freedom and Risk of Wingsuit Flying: Sean Leary

    When a man is tired of wingsuit videos ... 

    The "exit" of a flight ( Great Book of Base )

    I mentioned last week that I was admiringly fascinated by wingsuit videos but could never imagine leaping off those cliffs myself.

    In the video below, Sean "Stanley" Leary, a very well-known figure in the field, describes the exhilaration and freedom he has found in this pursuit. "The best part -- well, there's a lot of best parts, but the first best part..." he says late in this clip.

    Sean's Freedom from Chad Copeland on Vimeo.

    What he is describing sounds dangerous, and is. Earlier this month Sean Leary was killed, at age 38, during a wingsuit flight at Zion National Park in Utah. You can read more about his story here and here.


    The video above is of course all the more poignant in light of how his deliberate embrace of risk ended. But it is also very eloquent, just on its own. For instance, compare Leary's description, during the first minute of this clip, of the "exit" or moment of leaping off and beginning flight, with what you see starting at time 1:40 in the well-known clip below.

    Or with what you see starting at time 0:15 of this terrifying one, from Italy.

    This is posted to close the loop after previous wingsuit mentions, and to note the outlook with which Leary and his colleagues approach these risks, and with great sympathies for his wife, who is now pregnant with their first child.

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  • When a Man Is Tired of Wingsuit Videos, He Is Tired of Life ...

    The world is big and interesting, chapter 438.

    ... as Samuel Johnson might have sayeth, if he had gotten a look at these things.

    We've previously explored the wonders of wingsuit-flying in China and assorted sites in Europe (plus underwater). Now I give you Switzerland, via Epic TV* and our friends at AOPA:

     

    And in case you missed the flying-and-diving video the first time around, here it is again.

    Plus, for some terrifying/riveting wingsuit video. check out this.

    I love flying airplanes but would never dare try one of these wingsuit stunts. I also never get tired of seeing them. They have a dream/nightmare quality that is immediately recognizable though hard to define.


    * Tech note: Sometimes this video displays an annoying Epic TV banner announcement across its upper half through its whole duration. If that happens, try refreshing the page and viewing the video again. That seems to thwart it.

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