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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
... 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.
1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.
And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.
It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside. (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.
Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:
In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.
But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.
I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.
2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?
This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.
Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Timesarguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline...
... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:
There will be public press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts.
This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.
When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping.
US News appreciation of John Boyd, 1997 (Pages photocopied from University of Miami library)
I mentioned last week that among the contents of its pre-2007 archives that US News had irresponsibly eliminated, without warning, was a short essay I wrote when the military strategist John Boyd died. I met Boyd in the late 1970s, described him in (and was guided by him for) my book National Defense, and stayed in touch until his death in March, 1997.
Somewhere in the attic I have my physical copies of US News from that era, when I was its editor. But I am not there to go pawing through the boxes, so I am grateful to Bill Tallman of the University of Miami, who went to the library, found that issue, and made a photocopy of the page.
Below you’ll see the page layout with a picture of John Boyd in his Korean War-fighter pilot era, followed by the text of the article. I post it here partly in thanks to Mr. Tallman; partly to give this account of Boyd’s life and influence some continuing online existence, now that it has been zapped from its original home; and partly because the latest Pentagon budget (including the decision to discontinue the A-10 "Warthog" airplane) is the kind of thing Boyd would have had a lot to say about.
More on the substance later. For now, I give you John Boyd ca. 1997, from back in the era when Dick Cheney was among the "military reformers."
A Priceless Original
True originality can be disturbing, and John Boyd was maddeningly original.
His ideas about weapons, leadership, and the very purpose of national security changed the modern military. After Boyd died last week of cancer at age 70, the commandant of the Marine Corps called him "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war.'' Yet until late in his life, the military establishment resisted Boyd and resented him besides.
Boyd was called up for military service during the Korean War and quickly demonstrated prowess as an Air Force fighter pilot. More important, he revealed his fascination with the roots of competitive failure and success. U.S. Planes and pilots, he realized, did better in air combat than they should have. In theory, the Soviet-built MiG they fought against was far superior to the F-86 that Boyd flew. The MiG had a higher top speed and could hold a tighter turn. The main advantage of the F-86 was that it could change from one maneuver to another more rapidly, dodging or diving out of the MiG's way. As the planes engaged, Boyd argued, the F-86 could build a steadily accumulating advantage in moving to a "kill position'' on the MiG's tail.
Boyd extended his method--isolating the real elements of success--while maintaining his emphasis on adaptability. In the late 1950s, he developed influential doctrines of air combat and was a renowned fighter instructor. In the 1960s, he applied his logic to the design of planes, showing what a plane would lose in maneuverability for each extra bit of weight or size--and what the nation lost in usable force as the cost per plane went up. Within the Pentagon, he and members of a "Fighter Mafia'' talked a reluctant Air Force into building the F-16 and A-10--small, relatively cheap, yet highly effective aircraft that were temporary departures from the trend toward more expensive and complex weapons.
Warrior virtues. After leaving the Air Force as a colonel in 1975, Boyd began the study of long historical trends in military success through which he made his greatest mark. He became a fanatical autodidact, reading and marking up accounts of battles, beginning with the Peloponnesian War. On his Air Force pension, he lived modestly, working from a small, book-crammed apartment. He presented his findings in briefings, which came in varying lengths, starting at four hours. Boyd refused to discuss his views with those who would not sit through a whole presentation; to him, they were dilettantes. To those who listened, he offered a worldview in which crucial military qualities--adaptability, innovation-- grew from moral strengths and other "warrior'' virtues. Yes- man careerism, by-the-book thought, and the military's budget-oriented "culture of procurement'' were his great nemeses.
Since he left no written record other than the charts that outlined his briefings, Boyd was virtually unknown except to those who had listened to him personally--but that group grew steadily in size and influence. Politicians, who parcel out their lives in 10-minute intervals, began to sit through his briefings. The Marine Corps, as it recovered from Vietnam, sought his advice on morale, character, and strategy. By the time of the gulf war, his emphasis on blitzkrieglike "maneuver warfare'' had become prevailing doctrine in the U.S. military. As a congressman, Dick Cheney spent days at Boyd's briefings. As defense secretary, he rejected an early plan for the land war in Iraq as being too frontal and unimaginative--what Boyd would have mockingly called "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle''--and insisted on a surprise flanking move.
John Boyd laughed often, yet when he turned serious, his preferred speaking distance was 3 inches from your face. He brandished a cigar and once burned right through the necktie of a general he had buttonholed. He would telephone at odd hours and resume a harangue from weeks before as if he'd never stopped. But as irritating as he was, he was more influential. He will be marked by a small headstone at Arlington Cemetery and an enormous impact on the profession of arms.
1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.
Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.
2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.
The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.
I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.
3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.)
John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:
Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”
There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.
When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.
I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."
I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.
Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:
George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.
Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon. And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance. Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill. But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon. It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.
George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out.
Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.
It seems hard to remember, but four months ago the United States was on the brink of launching cruise missiles and intervening directly in the Syrian civil war.
Just a few days before President Obama made his dramatic decision to involve Congress in this choice, which itself was a few days before Vladimir Putin came up with his plan to avert a showdown (though not of course to end the killing) via international control of Assad's chemical weapons, Robert Pastor wrote an article in this space. It was called "There Are More Than Two Options for U.S. Policy in Syria." In it he argued that direct U.S. military involvement -- which, again, at that moment seemed all but inescapable -- would be a grave mistake; that there were more options to consider than either doing nothing or sending troops; that diplomacy offered better prospects than intervention; and that it was time to involve the Russians, even if this made the U.S. lose face.
His analysis was not what you were reading in the standard op-ed piece. And it was -- in my view, and as I think subsequent events confirmed -- correct. In both ways it was typical of other things Pastor had written during his time as a participant in and analyst of international affairs.
Bob Pastor, a good friend of mine since the late 1970s, died last night, at age 66, nearly four years after he was told he had only a few months left because of cancer. We first met during the embattled days of the Carter Administration, when I was a speechwriter and he was the National Security Council's expert on Latin American affairs. We often sat together on trips, when he would reel off endless tales of his adventures a few years earlier as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia. He was stationed in a district rich in durian trees -- whose bowling-ball-weight, spike-covered fruit posed a lethal threat as they fell from branches on high. Bob said that he dealt with this peril by routinely wearing a football helmet as he went about his Peace Corps duties.
Bob's diplomatic and academic achievements will be noted elsewhere. He was an original and influential thinker about relations within the Americas; he did valuable work on improving the mechanics of democracy -- in the United States as well as in other countries; he worked with Jimmy Carter in Atlanta at Emory and at the Carter Center, and then was a senior figure at American University in DC. When Bill Clinton came to office, he nominated Bob as his ambassador to Panama -- where Bob was a well-known and -liked figure because of his work on the Panama Canal Treaty. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved him on a 16-3 vote; but then Jesse Helms, poison-toad-like, used his Senatorial "privilege" to prevent the nomination from coming up for a full Senate vote, ever.
Despite his professional achievements, for me Bob Pastor's most distinctive traits were always his warmth, energy, and subversive humor. One of many times I got a scowl from foreign-policy bigshots in the Carter days was when I couldn't stop laughing, at a Serious meeting, about something Bob had just said to me as an aside. Before my wife and I moved to China, he gave us an expensive-looking piece of Chinese lacquer ware -- which on the back said in big letters, "Best Wishes for Mutual Prosperity from Jiangsu Province Industrial Development Commission." He had received it on an official trip there and knew it reflected the spirit of modern China.
Bob is survived by his siblings, his wife Margy and children Kip and Tiffin, plus other relatives; and is fondly remembered by a very large number of friends.
Happy New Year! And one reading tip for starting off the year is the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, which is shown at right and has a lot of great stories.
I could go on about them in detail. For instance, a very good report, from an understandably pseudonymous author, about the "Disneyfication" of Tibet. Another very good report by Tim Murphy, which the cover appropriately bills as "Another Reason to Hate Dan Snyder," on the entirely non-football-related way in which the owner of the Redskins has earned his place as the most widely reviled person in the capital. Other great reports about the medical system, various higher-ed rackets, surprising changes in the West, and so on.
But I mention the issue principally because of the last paragraph in one of its best-known features, the "Tilting at Windmills" column by my friend and first magazine-world employer, Charles Peters. He talks in the column about his work for Sargent Shriver in the original Peace Corps, before Charlie started the Monthly in 1969. (I began working there three years later.) Then he ends the column this way:
Until we meet again
As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column.
When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.
I've written about Charlie and his journalistic influence over the years -- most recently here, on the premiere of Norman Kelley's movie about him. For now I'll just say that I hope you read his column and the rest of this issue. If you're thinking of a way to express appreciation for the mark he has made, you could consider subscribing to the magazine he started (The Washington Monthly) and others he has influenced (ahem, this one); or contributing to the foundation he established (Understanding Government). Or writing him care of the Monthly to say thanks.
It's probably just a coincidence that this shares a date with our American Futures kick-off day. Probably. But I would be remiss in letting much more of August 1 go by without noting that this is the Third Annual IPA Day. Yes, I know, you could argue that every day is IPA Day. But we're talking official status at the moment.
If you click on the CraftBeer.com calendar page before the day ends, you will see listings of (approximate count) one zillion events at brewpubs and brew houses around the country in honor of this occasion. Other research resources for you:
- A very nice appreciation by Jim Galligan on the Today.com site. That is also the source of the illustration above, originally from featurepics.com. Galligan's column has this wonderful and obviously true lead:
I hate the way people will pick a random date on the calendar and proclaim it a special day, unless it's celebrating something I enjoy. Then it's a great idea.
- While I'm at it, it's worth checking out this story on the indispensable role craft brewing is playing in American economic recovery. I'm not sure I'm convinced, but for today I'll assume it is true. Here's a similar economic-vitality item recently from HuffPo.
The heartening spread of craft breweries across the nation is naturally one of the trends we plan to explore in our upcoming project. For now, celebrate August first in the appropriate way.
The reading public knows Katie Hafner for the technology-and-society stories she has written through the years in the New York Times and elsewhere -- or for her books, the previous one of which was A Romance on Three Legs, an elegant examination of Glenn Gould through the tale of his search for the perfect piano. I have been fortunate also to know her as a friend. A dozen years ago, when my wife and I were living in Berkeley, Katie and I co-taught a course on article-writing at the UC Berkeley Journalism School, which was having a great run under the deanship of Orville Schell. Our families have stayed in touch since then. (And, you're right, it was just a week ago that I was recommending a book by Orville Schell and John Delury.)
I say all this to acknowledge that I started reading Mother Daughter Me out of comradely solidarity but sped through to the end with an increasing sense of fascination, admiration, and engrossed wonder at tale she has laid out. If reduced to a plain list of facts, Katie Hafner's experiences might seem unendurably traumatic and harsh. As a child she was bounced from home to home and school to school, mainly because of her mother's alcoholism. As an adult daughter, wife, sister, and mother she withstood a long series of shocks any one of which on its own would tempt most people to self-pity. Yet her tone as memoirist is not quite chipper, which would imply self-delusion, but resolutely upbeat and hopeful, plus beautifully observed. Through all the tragedies and challenges she remained fully functional in her journalistic life and as sole parent for her now-college-aged daughter.
For more on the details of the book and Katie Hafner's adventures, I refer you to this NY Times article about the book, under the headline "The Best Memoir I've Read This Year." Below, in a video from her site, she answers some questions about the book. I think you will find it a memorable read.
With the city bankruptcy news, a reminder of the best Super Bowl commercial ever -- yes, including '1984.' From two years ago, with Eminem.
I hardly know anything first-hand about Detroit, but this ad succeeded in making it seem indelibly American. In the automotive spirit, and while noting that Detroit's municipal bankruptcy filing came on the same day that the Dow Jones average hit an all-time high, I am also reminded of this passage from John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society:
"The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, lighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground....
They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius?"
Indeed. And that was 55 years ago.
Update: Want to know who the fabulous narrator of the "Imported From Detroit" ad is? It's this guy, Kevin Yon. Congratulations and thanks.
Five years ago, I had an article in the magazine about the latest startup scheme by Ed Iacobucci -- who by that time, in his 50s, had a long string of startup and other tech-world successes behind him. He was a co-founder of Citrix; he had been a major figure at IBM during its undervalued OS/2 era; and when I met him he had started a company called DayJet, designed to offer a not-just-for-plutocrats alternative to the hell of normal commercial air travel. You can read many more of Iacobucci's thoughts on technology and innovation in the article.
I learned just now that Ed Iacobucci had died, of pancreatic cancer, at age 59. Perhaps the greatest reward of the reportorial life is the people you meet along the way. I really enjoyed getting to know, and learning from, Ed Iacobucci. I encourage you to read more about his achievements and legacy here, here, here (source of the photo above) here, here, and elsewhere. He was a remarkably creative, determined, and big-hearted man. Best wishes to his family. And, here is a photo from my Atlantic article, of Ed Iacobucci at the white board as he refined plans for his DayJet company:
I am still mainly off the grid but wanted to note these items:
1) How things should not work, part 1. I knew Michael Hastings slightly and liked him a lot. As with most people who either knew or knew-of him, I was shocked and saddened to learn of his sudden death at age 33. He was still growing as a writer. The loss to his family and friends is obvious; the loss to the public is the stories, revelations, and sensibility we will not have from him, as his growth went on. Condolences to his family and colleagues.
If you would like to read one thing that puts Michael Hastings's death (and life) in a larger perspective, I suggest "Enough with the news-reader apps - it's time to support media that really matters," by Hamish McKenzie, in Pandodaily. He contrasts two news items that crossed his screen at about the same time: one about the Hastings crash, and another announcing $40 million funding for a news-aggregator app. You'll see the powerful and important conclusion he draws from the contrast.*
2) How things do work, part 2. I highly recommend Isaac Chotiner's excellent interview, in the New Republic, with the editors of Politico, John Harris and Jim Vandehei. Plus this followup by David Karol at The Monkey Cage. The best interviewers encourage or lure their subjects to reveal and express themselves in ways they might not have intended; Chotiner has done that. A lot of the story of modern Washington journalism can be wrung from these two items.
3) Home notes. (a) The latest issue of the Atlantic is out! My contribution is a brief but heartfelt item on what I was doing a year ago at about this time, on the other side of the world (where the photo at top was taken). And if you were to subscribe, you would see in the actual print issue a photo not included on line. It is of the moment I describe in the beginning of the piece, when I faced a classic journalistic dilemma: whether to let my wife know that a wallaby was sneaking up behind her to steal her food -- or whether instead I should just keep the camera going and let the drama unfold.
3 (b) The issue also contains a short article by this same Deborah Fallows, who fortunately survived the wallaby attack. It concerns what linguists know, or suspect, about how the process of language-acquisition may change, when so many of the people spending time with babies and toddlers are talking not to the child in front of them but to someone else on a smart phone.
3 (c) While I'm at it, Deb will also be doing an online chat this afternoon with Sandra Tsing Loh, well known to Atlantic readers and many others, on various aspects of Chinese language, based on Deb's book Dreaming in Chinese. It will be 5pm-6pm EDT today, details here.
* OK, this will give you an idea of the case McKenzie is making, as he considers the latest well-funded aggregator startup:
Finding content on the Web is not a serious problem. It's a leisure problem - as in, it's only really applicable to someone who has too much leisure time. If someone ever comes to me to say, "Oh, I can't find anything decent to read on the Internet while I'm killing time waiting for my Uber," I'm just going to slap them.
And this is where the contrast to Hastings is so painfully evident. Hastings was doing work that, in part because of digital media, is becoming less financially viable by the day (even though he was employed by BuzzFeed, a digital media startup). His brand of hard-hitting, deeply researched investigative journalism is proving increasingly difficult to sustain for media companies that are now more used to cutting budgets than they are to investing in quality reporting. But that's a problem that tech is not doing much to solve.
Instead, because software people think in terms of efficiencies and scalability, we get this surfeit of applications that deal in repackaging other people's content in a highly personalized and streamlined fashion. The concerns that are given most attention are distribution and discovery, not the promotion of civic-minded independent journalism, and certainly not any way to make it a more profitable enterprise. ..While these news aggregation companies often claim to democratize media and improve access to information, they simultaneously eschew the real problem inherent in today's media business: monetization.
I am not suggesting that the dwindling fortunes of the media business is the tech industry's issue to solve. But if the likes of Rockmelt and its well-funded ilk are serious about solving difficult "change the world"-type problems, they ought to look at reporters like Michael Hastings and ask themselves, "How can we support work like that?"
I happened upon this and found it tremendously, unexpectedly moving.
It came to me from a reader in Singapore; I predict that this will "go viral" within China, where it may also have a very significant emotional effect.
- Negative emotion: even our hardest-working Chinese students can be exposed to the violence of America. (A young woman from Shenyang in China's hard-bitten northeastern industrial zone, who was doing graduate work at Boston University, was of course one of the three people killed in the Boston Marathon bombing.)
- Much more powerful positive emotion: just look at that photo.