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, China Airborne, was published in early May. 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 US 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 two most recent books, Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009), are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
[W]hen something like Mr Xi's absence comes up, a tidal wave of speculation ensues, underlining how little the Chinese people are told about how their nation is really run. That further undermines trust in the authorities, which affects everything from food safety to official corruption....
The opacity of the system is such that no date has been announced for the party congress. When it is held, voting for the politburo by the central committee will be secret. We do not know if the standing committee is to be reduced from nine to seven members or whether Hu Jintao, the outgoing party secretary and state president, will hang on to the third highest-ranking job, chair of the military commission....
Secrecy may be par for the course in China, but it is increasingly unhealthy for a country where social change is a far greater challenge to the political status quo than calls for democracy.
"Wang Yang said that everyone who is unwilling to try, who is unwilling to make a thrilling leap are just like a frog that boils when the temperature of the water is not high. If we wait for sober action, then there will already be no way out. Wang Yang stressed that reform is the fundamental way out. Facing the difficulties of reform, we shouldn't be afraid of any risks, confused by any obstructions, but must continue with utterly fearless courage on the path of socialist market reform, and not at all waver from our advances on every kind of reform."
Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious -- at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter -- and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.Oooof. I'd spell out why this is a bad sign (hint: imperial presidency -> imperial staff), except apparently some of her colleagues in the White House figured that out already but were unable to do anything about it. [Update: I have changed my mind about this, as explained in the last item here.]
A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.
She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed.
>>Put a frog in a kettle of boiling water and he'll jump out faster and further than any of those blue ribbon winners at the Calaveras County jumping frog contest. Put him in a pot at room temperature, however, slowly turn up the temperature to boiling, and you'll have frog legs for dinner. This latter, more unfortunate toad temporarily adapted to his external environment, which seemed like a practical thing to do, until - well, until he reached 212° at which point he was cooked.This "original" and "perceptive" way of thinking makes me extra respectful of the insights that it introduces. I'm really listening now, Mr. Gross!
Today's bond investors are experiencing a similar fate with nary a "ribbet" of complaint....<<
Yesterday I mentioned that Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, had taken the boiled frogs' name in vain as part of his Earth Day appeal. He (graciously) writes back:
>>Mea culpa--I stand herpetologically corrected. I am happy to stipulate that frogs--unlike humans--will not sit still to be poached, and promise never to use the analogy again. In doing so, however, I disprove the charge of "liberal birtherism," since an intrinsic feature of birtherism is that it is impervious to evidence or alteration.
While we're on animal metaphors, I was trying to make the point in my blog post that the American political system can't even act in self-defense after a catastrophe--the Macondo blowout, for example. We're already back to drilling for oil in deep Gulf waters. There is a serious question about whether we should worry more about slow-heating crises like carbon pollution (poached frogs) or seemingly improbable catastrophes like the Japanese tsunami and nuclear failure (black swans). The answer may lie in another zoologically suspect fable, the frog that is persuaded to ferry a scorpion across a river. The frog believes it is safe because it would not be in the scorpion's self interest to sting it midstream. The scorpion does so anyway, saying "It's my nature." Current conservative theory assures us that we can trust markets to avoid oil gushers in the ocean, nuclear meltdowns on our coastlines, and climate catastrophe for our children. But we'll still get stung, because when corporations see a profit, they just can't help themselves.
Carl Pope <<
Research scientists have proved again and again that the "It's my nature!" tale of the scorpion is absolutely true, so I am glad to end on this note of accord. Happy Earth Day.
And, for the Chinese angle on the boiled frog conundrum, please check out (former Guest Blogger) Brian Glucroft's entertaining report from Dunhua, Jilin province.
>>First, a frog cannot jump out of boiling water. Remember the last time you dropped some egg white into boiling water: the proteins coagulated into a mess of thin, white strands. Unfortunately, the proteins in the frog's skinny legs would do the same thing. So the frog in boiling water could not jump anywhere. It would die a nasty death.If only. For those still with me, Conservation also mentions that there is a scientist at the University of Oklahoma whose research specialty is (yes!!) "the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles." That is, how they behave when hot. And this scientist, Prof. Victor Hutchison, has described an experiment in which a frog is put in a pot of water that is slowly heated up. What then? Well, let him tell it:
Dr. George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Professor Doug Melton of Harvard University both agree on this point. Second, a frog would notice the water getting hot.... So real-life experiments show that the frog-in-boiling-water story is wrong. If only this fact could make it into real life, too.<<
"As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water."Happy Earth Day. To celebrate, an old favorite, from the otherwise impeccable Tom Toles:
>>As everyone knows, if you put a frog into a pan of cool water and heat the water very very slowly on the stove, there will come a moment when the frog says, "Croak me, this is HOT!" and will hop away--thereby demonstrating again, if further proof was needed, that amphibians are smarter than humans. As for us, during times radical but incremental change, we tend to sit around flipping our lips with our fingers without noticing a thing.<<2) Last week I mentioned Taiwan's NMA studios as the up-and-coming Asian challengers to Jon Stewart, the Onion, etc in comedy stylings on the news. Their latest installment is a Rap Battle video explaining the oncoming currency negotiations at the G20 meetings. This one pits a gangsta-style Barack Obama against Hu Jintao and a posse of ominous rapping pandas, who contend over the proper valuation of the Chinese RMB, who's really responsible for economic crises, etc. I don't agree with every bit of the economic message -- after all, this is a posse of rapping pandas -- but it's undoubtedly more informative about the basics than most American news items on this topic:
Up to now, Erdogan has been very cunning, treating his opponents like frogs in a pail, always just gradually turning up the heat so they never quite knew they were boiling. But now they know.Canadian journalist Don Newman, June 17, 2010:
But will most Canadians recognize that importance and the sacrifices and adjustments they may have to make? Or will they continue to accept a slowly declining standard of living vis-a-vis the U.S. and many other emerging counties? At this point, we are rather like that frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. At first the warming water is pleasant. By the time it comes to a boil, it is too late for the frog to do anything about it.
If you're going to talk boiled frogs, how you should do it, via Paul Krugman, here. Why I gave up my crusade (but still notice cliches) here. Back from when I was on the crusade here. Policy point: while this homily isn't "true," it will become true-ish by usage, since apparently it fills such a narrative need. That is all.
* Wrote this item late last night and had set it for delayed posting this evening, to avoid an unseemly pile-up of posts. But I'd already gotten so many helpful messages about the Tom Friedman column by 9am this morning that the time seemed right. Also, with the boiled-frog now having appeared in NYT columns by Gail Collins, Krugman (with important caveat that it's a myth), and now Friedman, I'll start an NYT Op-Ed Boiled Frog Bingo card, which I'll fill in as Brooks, Herbert, Dowd etc take their turns. I confess that I'll worry if Verlyn Klinkenborg devotes one of his nature essays to frogs in a pot.
"The one I've always used for this kind of thing is the male pattern baldness combover. Makes sense at first, but when do you decide that today is the day you now look like an idiot."Thematically-related contribution from The Onion here.
"The cat litter box is a good substitute and there are plenty of similar examples if one considers sounds. A succinct example of this is from the movie the Blues Brothers. After Elwood picks up Jake from prison, they go to Jake's apartment in Chicago. Right after an El train rattles by, Jake asks Ellwood, "How often do the trains come by?". Jake responds, "So often, you don't even notice."More to come.
"A similar situation occurred with my grandmother. She and her husband bought a house near LAX in the 50s, when I'm sure the occasional airplane flying over was a pleasant distraction. At the time of her death in the 90s, LAX had 4 runways and their house was bombarded by the noise from constant aircraft that seemed to be flying just a few feet overhead. Anyone walking into her house would have wondered why the TV was so loud, until the next takeoff or landing occurred.
"Two more frog equivalences. Ever work on another person's computer and find that it operates brutally slowly? No one ever seems to notice that almost day-by-day loss of performance themselves. Easy to understand, but I can't think of a catchy shorthand.
"So finally, my nomination for the replacement, an old person driving. They never notice the degradation in their driving skills until some unsuspecting passenger or pedestrian has a (hopefully only) near death experience."
"Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.
"I tell them about my cat litter box.
"Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."
"They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest."
And I bet we could even work in some slippery-slope reasoning here!
So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true -- and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.
*On the cat-fancier theme: to demonstrate that I am a friend of all animals involved in these image controversies, the hapless frogs as well as the reeking cats, herewith a photo of the now quite elderly Mike the Cat, in his prime. He has been in loving adopted care, since our departure for China. Then and now, no odor came from his litterbox -- according to us.
"I think there are some good uses of slippery slope arguments. One example is the general constitutional idea of safe harbor, which I became acquainted with while reading the transcripts and decision in Reno v ACLU, where it became clear that the law was written in such a way that there were large number of sites which would not be considered to be pornographic under the normal understanding of pornography but which the statue would allow to be prosecuted. The prosecution (in Reno vs ACLU) essentially argued, "Oh, we don't intend to prosecute those cases" and the court in effect said, but the law doesn't allow anyone to be sure they are doing the right thing."Back to the search for real-world examples soon.
Goltz work inspired George Henry Lewes--actor, philosopher, friend of Dickens, bigamous partner of Marian Evans (George Eliot) and of note, literary critic--to extend the slowly-boiled brainless frog oeuvre
by slowly-boiling frogs with partial brains or with their spinal cords
severed at various locations. Lewes published his findings four years
and many frogs later as Sensation in the Spinal Cord in Nature, Dec. 4, 1873. He summarized the story this way:
"Goltz observed that a frog, when placed in water the temperature of which is slowly raised towards boiling, manifests uneasiness as soon as the temperature reaches 25° C., and becomes more and more agitated as the heat increases, vainly struggling to get out, and finally at 42° C., dies in a state of rigid tetanus. The evidence of feeling being thus manifested when the frog has its brain, what is the case with a brainless frog? It is absolutely the reverse. Quietly the animal sits through all successions of temperature, never once manifesting uneasiness or pain, never once attempting to escape the impending death.".
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|Blind into Baghdad||Boiled-frog|
|Brave little USB||Budget|
|China Airborne||China Daily|
|China Menace||China Today|
|Copenhagen||Crisis of the press|
|Doing Business in China||Dreaming in Chinese|
|Going to hell|
|Ideas 2009||Ideas 2011|
|Obama||Obama in Asia|
|Occupy Wall Street||Olympics|
|Public health||Reader comment|
|Security Sanity||Security Theater|
|Self-pity and its discontents||Small Business|
|Volcano||Walk like an American|
|Wine||Year end pensee|
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