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.
  • After the Latest Peril-in-the-Skies Saga, Should You Be Afraid to Fly?


    Peril in the skies, from Airplane. (Wikipedia)

    [Please see update here.] I don't know Kevin Townsend, though I suspect I'd like him if I did. He's been fighting the good fight against the filibuster, and we have tech and other interests in common. Today he put up a riveting post about a frightening and, in his telling, extremely dangerous episode aboard a recent United flight. The headline gives you the idea:

    And he has gotten a lot of pickup for his tale. Eg:

    Recently I got my one-zillionth email of the day from a friend or reader asking: What with this, and the Malaysian flight, I'm getting worried. Is something going wrong with our air-safety system?

    So in case you're wondering:

    • The episode Kevin Townsend describes sounds as if it could have been genuinely frightening, especially to passengers who had no idea what was happening, and he describes it quite vividly.
    • On the facts he presents, even though this was frightening, it was nowhere close to as dangerous as it could have seemed. There was no sense whatsoever in which he "almost died." 
    • Commercial air travel remains remarkable for how extremely safe it is. Even this episode illustrates that reality, since one of many overlapping parts of the air-safety system worked rather than failed. 

    I wrote to Kevin Townsend a few hours ago to ask some questions but haven't yet heard back.  and have just heard back. Here are the main points to bear in mind.

    1) The plane got an anti-collision warning that caused it to descend suddenly, by 600 feet. This is the part that was genuinely frightening to Townsend and other passengers. While in cruise, the United flight crew got a warning from its TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, with which airliners and other large planes are in constant automated contact with other aircraft in the vicinity. 

    If the paths of two airplanes seem likely to intersect, the TCAS in each plane gives each crew a warning. If they are getting too close for comfort, the TCAS gives each of them a "Resolution Advisory" to steer them out of the other's way. One plane will be told to climb, and the other to descend. In keeping with the instrument-flying maxim that you must trust your instruments rather than going by your seat-of-the-pants sense, flight crews are told to trust and follow those TCAS/RA warnings, immediately. The United plane was told to descend right now, and its crew did. 

    2) How far is a 600-foot descent? This is what Townsend describes as the terror-filled part of the flight:

    Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning. 

    Again I am sure this was appalling, especially to people who start out with a fear of being up in the sky. But how far is a 600-foot descent? It is not very far at all. For one thing, it's about equivalent to four plane-lengths of the Boeing 757 that was flying. (That plane is a little over 150 feet long.) If an airliner descended at 600 feet per minute, passengers would probably not even notice it was headed down. If it were descending at what one manual calls a normal rate of 1,800 feet per minute, covering this vertical distance would take 20 seconds. I don't know what the 757's emergency-descent rate is, but if we say it's twice the normal rate that would mean about 10 seconds for getting down 600 feet. 

    Townsend includes a FlightAware chart of the course of that flight. Records from that date (April 25) are now behind FlightAware's pay wall, but here is the version Townsend published:

    The blue line, which is airspeed, shows a sudden reduction at the point he is describing, with the vertical red line. This could be consistent with either a sudden reduction in power or (unlikely in the circumstances) a climb. The mustard-colored line, for altitude, seems more or less steady. Flight Aware is highly fallible, but at face value this indicates the plane rock-steady at a certain altitude. (Townsend wrote to say the chart actually records the 600-foot drop. OK) 

    3) How close were the planes, anyway? The premise of this story was a hair's-breadth escape from death. Eg "Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss." And "the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history."

    To put this in perspective, the closest the planes appeared to have come to each other is at least 5 miles, and perhaps 8 miles (which is what CNN told Townsend when he appeared). If airplanes are headed directly head-to-head, distances can close fast. If each was going at top speed of 600 mph, or 10 miles per minute, then a head-to-head closing speed would be 20 miles per minute, or only 15 to 20 seconds of direct head-on flight. Still, the point is that the traffic systems in both planes warned both crews when detecting a danger, and sent them in diverging directions. A five-mile margin between planes is not "scraping distance."

    (The simpler traffic-warning system I have in my propeller plane sends alerts when planes are within 6 miles' distance. That is far enough away that usually it is very hard even to see the plane causing the alert.) 

    4) How close to the brink is the whole system? The post mentions the amazing safety record of commercial aviation, and also the irrational nature of fears involving flight:

    Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines. 

    All that is true.  But I don't agree, as the piece goes on to claim, that "the [safety] system appears broken" or that airlines are left to "self-police" for safety regulations. Anyone who has dealt with the FAA can report otherwise. And to judge by the record, when was the last time two airliners collided in the United States? Hint: it was 49 years ago, and four people of the 122 aboard died. When was the last airliner-collision large-scale catastrophe in the US? It was when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and everything about technology was different.

    Again, I think I'd agree with this author on most things, and I am meaning to be respectful about the article he wrote and the scare he endured. But people who think: first MH370, now this??? should think again. Several million  commercial airline flights have taken off and landed safely worldwide since that Malaysian flight disappeared. Including the one Kevin Townsend describes. 

    Life is full of danger, including aboard aircraft. But if other aspects of life had even half the safety-consciousness of today's commercial air travel system, we'd live in a remarkably less perilous society.

  • Basketball, NYT, Filibusters: 3 Stories Worth Reading

    No one likes Donald Sterling, but maybe there is a better answer than forcing him to sell his team. 

    A misunderstood Neanderthal family. See bonus item #4. (Reuters)

    Three stories worth your time:

    1) Why Donald Sterling Shouldn't Be Forced to Sell. A contrarian but convincing argument by Anthony Yannatta for a better way out of the Sterling debacle. No, Yannatta is not saying that the benighted Sterling family should keep the Clippers franchise. He has a better idea, which I also wish would apply to the D.C. NFL team. (For the record: The author's parents are friends of ours.)

    2) A To-Do Item for the Newest NYT Exec Editor. Jay Rosen's Press Think column, on an inexplicable false-equivalence tic from the country's leading news organization, was written three days ago. That is, it came before Wednesday's startling news about a shake-up at the top of that organization. Maybe the new boss of Times journalistic operations, the seemingly universally liked Dean Baquet, could read this post and add its recommendations to the (short) list of things he thinks need changing at the Times.

    It turns out that nearly all of the NYT's false-equiv framing comes out of its D.C. bureau. You don't see its education reporters writing, "Supporters claim that Western universities like Harvard and Oxford embrace the principle of academic freedom, but Chinese spokesmen say their universities are just as good." Or their science correspondents writing, "Geologists claim that the Earth is four-and-a-half billion years old, but Biblical scholars maintain that it was formed six thousand years ago." Or their foreign-affairs reporters writing, "Chinese sources claim that Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in Nanjing in the 1930s, but Japanese officials say this was just a big misunderstanding." Or, they might report these differences as showing the extent to which some perspectives depart from agreed fact. But the Times's science (etc.) correspondents don't assume that the "real" answer is some mid-point between two claims. That's left to the D.C. team, as Rosen points out. 

    3) Lest We Forget the Filibuster! A National Journal/Atlantic piece by Norm Ornstein on why this really, truly has become a problem for democracy.

    Bonus point 3A: An eye-opening report by Common Cause on what it calls "the New Nullification." You'll see why they use this term, and why I'm using the photo at right.

    Bonus 4: More truth-squadding on the crucial unfairness-to-Neanderthals front. On why I take this personally, check here.

  • How a Small Plane Crash Looks When Passengers Are About to Survive Rather Than About to Die

    Seventeen seconds of video that explain why one brand of small aircraft has become the most popular in the world.

    Let me explain the background of the amazing video below, shot two days ago in Australia.

    It's been 15 years since the Cirrus SR20 made its debut as "the plane with the parachute." At the time of its introduction, and in some grizzled-aviator circles even now, the idea of a parachute for the entire airplane met hoots of derision. After all, "real" pilots should always be ready to glide an airplane to a landing if its engine failed or something else went wrong. Handling a "power-off approach" is part of regular pilot training. So isn't a parachute like a crutch, or training wheels, for flyers who really need to up their game?* 

    But people other than those grizzled aviators generally had an "Are you crazy???? Of course you'd want a parachute!" reaction. What if the pilot passed out? Or it was nighttime and you couldn't see where you were going? Or you were over mountains or forests will no smooth landing site? Or the pilot hadn't practiced power-off landings for a while? Or any of a dozen other concerns.

    Because of questions like these, the original SR20 and later, higher-powered SR22 have become the best-selling aircraft of their type worldwide. My book Free Flight, and this Atlantic article taken from it, describe the modern-day-Wright-brothers saga of the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, who created Cirrus and made it a very successful business in Duluth, Minnesota. The cover, at right, showed a Cirrus under parachute during one of its pre-certification tests. My book China Airborne describes, inter alia, how and why the Cirrus plant, still in Duluth, is now owned by the Chinese government via one of its aerospace ministries. 

    The first Cirrus parachute-pull came nearly 12 years ago, under circumstances in which Charles Lindbergh, Patty Wagstaff, and Bob Hoover together would have had trouble gliding the plane safely down. (Because of a maintenance error, one aileron came loose, making the plane essentially uncontrollable.) Since then the ~6000 Cirrus planes around the world have been involved in about 50+ parachute descents. You can see the full list here, at a site  maintained by Rick Beach for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, COPA. After nearly all the episodes, the pilot and passengers have walked away unhurt.

    The latest parachute pull happened this past weekend, in Australia, over a suburb west of Sydney. Someone was on hand to capture its descent for an enlightening YouTube video, as shown below. 

    This video is only 32 seconds long, and if you watch the section starting at time 0:15 you will have a dramatically clearer idea of the difference these parachutes can make. As a story in the Australian paper The Age put it, 

    The Cirrus planes are the only light planes in the world to come with their own parachute system, something that has helped it become the most popular piston engine plane in the world.

    “If they [the passengers] had been in any other aircraft they wouldn’t be going home tonight to their families,“ said a staff member at Regal Air, which sells and does maintenance on the aircraft from its headquarters at Bankstown Airport.

    For more details of the episode and pictures of the plane and passengers on the ground see reports from Australian Broadcasting, Sky News Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, plus The Age

    The YouTube video also dramatizes why, during the ~1200 flying hours I have spent in Cirruses since buying a very early-model SR20 in 2000, it has been a back-of-the-mind reassurance to know the parachute is there, even though I've never come remotely close to circumstances where I felt I should consider using it. Also you will see why for non-pilot passengers, starting with my wife, its presence makes such a difference in peace of mind. In many small airplanes, there really is no reassuring answer to the question: OK, what if the pilot passes out? I've never come remotely close to passing out, either, but that's not a fully convincing answer. The parachute creates a very important Plan B option.

    For the record: I have no relationship with the Cirrus company other than as a two-time customer and a journalistic chronicler. I'm on friendly terms with many of the company's current and previous officials. I bought an early SR20 in 2000 and flew it for six years until we moved to China, at which point I sold it. On return four years ago I bought a new-to-me 2006-model SR22. We're traveling in that for our American Futures journeys.

    * Reader A.H. in Texas writes about this attitude:

    That sounds very much like British RAF in the last months of World War I, when German pilots began using the first early parachutes. The British supposedly refused to adopt them because they were convinced that pilots in a crippled machine would "lose their nerve" and jump, rather remain fully committed to saving the aircraft. Appalling, in retrospect.

  • Those Vibram Shoe Refunds? I'm Not Claiming One

    Think that these odd finger-shoes are "bullshit"? Think again.

    I gather that there is much gleeful stomping on the grave image of Vibram and the weirdo/chic "finger shoes" it has popularized, because the company has settled a suit claiming the shoes offered no health benefits. That's me and one of my sons, modeling Vibram shoes, in the picture above. I'll let you figure out the extremities. 

    That picture comes from four years ago. I'd been running regularly for many decades before that, but since the early 2000s I'd been vexed by one wear-and-tear problem after another. Never involving the knees, miraculously; most frequently afflicting the Achilles tendons.

    Then, as I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than "running through" the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.

    All of these amounted to a blow to the pride, perhapsone of many as the years roll on. But, for now, through the Vibram age nothing has gone physically wrong with my running infrastructure. Whether merely coincident with or perhaps helped by these same funny-looking shoes, I scored my memorable success in the "Haynesworth Test" a few years back and kept on going.

    So what about this new Vibram debunking? I say: Pshaw. What I reported when I first tried them is what I still think now. If you already run in the way these shoes favor, or if you're able to shift your gait to a "forefoot-strike" style, they're great. And if not, not.

    For instance, a (fair-minded) Washington Post writer noted:

    I tried the FiveFingers in 2009 and knew within a quarter mile that they were not for me. Yes, they forced me up onto the balls of my feet, where running coaches want you, because smacking your heels on asphalt roads without any padding to protect them will [make you] do that.... 

    Running that way didn't make sense for the writer. For me, it was the way I'd always runin part because the primitive, unpadded shoes available in the 1960s, when I started, strongly discouraged any runner from landing on the heels. So the shoes wereareright for some people, including me, and wrong for others. It's a big world.

    What the shoes are not, is "bullshit," which was the churlish judgment of the proudly "data-driven" (and generally admirable) but in this case snarkily hyperbolic Vox, with this headline: 

    If they're wrong for you, then wear something else! For its part, Vibram shouldn't claim they're right for everybody. Andsuch are the wonders of our legal systemif people actually bought these shoes for promised health benefits, then perhaps it's fair for them to get their $94-per-pair back. (What does this augur for the Belly Burner Weight Loss Belt? Or for Axe? You mean, thousands of bikinied women are not going to mass around any man who buys a can? Zounds!)

    But Vibram shoes are right for some people, and bullshit they are not. I would send a picture of my current pair, here with me in Mississippi, but they are too battered and use-worn, most recently today, to be presentable.

    Update: Thanks to those who pointed out that The Wire, which is affiliated with the Atlantic, had a microscopically-less-snarky report on the finger-shoes controversy. Eg, "In the event that you had a temporary lapse of judgement and bought these heinous toe shoes, you can get your money back (just not your dignity.)" Again, if you're a heel-strike runner, as many people who learned in the era of fatly padded shoes are destined to be, these are not the footwear for you. But for people who run the way these shoes are designed for, or can learn, they're neither bullshit nor heinous but very good. 

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  • Emancipation Day Commemoration in Eastern Mississippi

    "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing."

    Voices in Harmony chorus from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, performing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in historic Sandfield cemetery.
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    Over the months Deb Fallows has reported on a variety of impressive and innovative public schools around the country. For instance: the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont; the Grove School in Redlands California; the Shead School in Eastport, Maine; several English immersion schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina; the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, also in Greenville; and the Camden County High School near St. Marys, Georgia. 

    Recently she has spent a lot of time at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, Mississippi. MSMS is a public, residential high school for students from across the state, about which Deb will be reporting in detail soon. But before the day ends, we wanted to note a moving presentation by MSMS students this evening in a historic cemetery in Columbus.

    MSMS students Ben Gibbons (l) and Mamadou Fadiga enacting a discussion about a late-19th-century African-American entrepreneur, Jack Rabb.

    The Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863. But in this part of Mississippi, the 8th of May has been celebrated in the black community as Emancipation Day. It was on May 8, 1865, that Union troops arrived from across the state line in Alabama and effectively put an end to slavery. 

    For the last few years MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough (above, center, talking with his students before tonight's performance) has organized 8th of May presentations in Columbus's historic Sandfield cemetery, where many of the area's prominent black residents were buried. This evening's program alternated songs by the Voices in Harmony choir from MSMS, with re-enactments of African-American political, religious, and business figures from the decades after the Civil War.

    Here is student Terence Johnson, in the role of Robert Gleed, who served in the Mississippi State Senate during Reconstruction, fled to Texas with his family to avoid persecution for his political prominence, and was eventually buried back in Columbus at this same cemetery.

    Johnson and other student re-enactors and singers after the performance.

    Student Mamadou Fadiga, who is headed this fall to Vanderbilt, by the grave of the person he portrayed, entrepreneur Jack Rabb, and Rabb's wife Gillie.

    Student and choir director Tylicia Grove, opening the presentation with her poem, "An American Thing." Its refrain was, "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing." It's our thing.

    Back to the school after the show:

    Our partners from Marketplace were there for the performance; I hope and assume they'll have some of the music and sound for their report. It was an American thing. 

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  • What Mississippi Catfish Farms Look Like From Above

    Plus, noting one more shift in online journalism

    Or at least that is how some of them looked yesterday, from 2500 feet up over the Mississippi Delta. (The triangular white area is window reflection.) For another view, which gives an idea of how strangely brown much of the Delta area looks—this was near Clarksdale, as I remember—at this time of year:

    Mississippi is the leading catfish-producing state; the clay-rich soils of the Delta are part of the reason why extensive ponds are so suitable here. The map below is a decade-plus out of date but still conveys the main idea.

    Map from Auburn University

    I don't care that much about catfish—though there's an intriguing story here about the odd role that Bangladeshi catfish farmers have played in recent travails of the U.S. industry (not the one you would expect). Plus last night my wife and I enjoyed our fill of catfish, hush puppies, deep-fried jalapenos, and more at the monthly Fish Fry held at the small and friendly Lowndes County airport, in Columbus, and hosted by Billy Scarborough of Tri-South Aviation

    Preparing for an on-airport fish fry. That's the runway in the background, and deep-fat fryers in the foreground.

    Instead I mention this mainly for a regional and a journalistic-procedural reason. The regional one is that for the past few days we've been in Louisiana, East Texas, and now back in Mississippi, seeing wildlife refuges, downtowns struggling to recover, and—as mentioned last month about Mississippi's "Golden Triangle"—the surprising heavy-industrial boom in this part of the state. Our partners from Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal et al, are here in town to talk about the buffets to one of the poorest parts of the country, and the efforts of some determined local people to change their prospects. We spent this afternoon with one of those people, Brenda Lathan, and will go out tomorrow with another, Joe Max Higgins.

    (By the way, if you're looking for heavy-duty footage of the steel-mill technology I wrote about previously, and that we'll visit again tomorrow, I suggest the video below. It's in German, but the pictures get the message across in any language.)

    If you start at around time 2:00, you'll see some of the highlights. Thanks for this tip to Tim Heffernan, who usefully notes: "A trick for finding great industrial videos is to find the German word for the piece of equipment in question and use that as the search term. German firms really make an art of their promos!"

    The journalistic-procedural reason for this post is yet another shift in the conventions of digital-age journalism. Twenty years ago, when the Atlantic launched its "Atlantic Unbound" site, we put things online mainly when we thought they would not stand the delay until print-magazine publication. That evolved into today's very popular Atlantic.com site.

    When I shifted my own little home-made site to be part of the online Atlantic eight years ago, my main intention was to do what my then-Atlantic-colleague Andrew Sullivan described in his "Why I Blog" cover story. That is, to chronicle developments I found interesting or important—and, ideally, to engage an audience in an incrementally unfolding "thinking in public" exercise of refining views. As Sullivan explained, the incremental part was important: you experimented with observations, heard responses, and adapted. My friend and colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates is justly celebrated for applying this thinking-out-loud approach.

    The momentum of Internet traffic is shifting—as everything in journalism and technology ceaselessly does. There's more emphasis, at all sites including ours, on the standalone post (or chart or list or video) optimized for social-media sharing, and vanishingly less assumption of any incremental or unfolding attention. This is inevitable, in a digital abundance/overload era in which there is more of everything than anyone could read. It may also return journalism to something like its fundamentals, in which writers constantly juggle the balance among: what matters to them, what they think should matter to the world, what will get the most attention, and what they think will get any attention at all. (I have an article coming up in the print magazine on the latest twists of this attention-shortage question.) But it's a shift to note.

    As affects our current travels, this shift in internet styles means that my wife and I are doing less "here's where we are, and why it's interesting" incidental posting, and saving up for more concerted, "produced" pieces—in the magazine, via videos, using maps, with our radio partners—about the trends and places we've seen. Thus we've posted little or nothing yet about some of the truly impressive and interesting places we've visited, from Winters, California and nearby cities in the Central Valley, to Greer, South Carolina, to Caddo Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border, while storing up for bigger productions. Ten years ago, in the pre-prevalent-blogging age, this would have seemed natural: It takes a long time for things to appear in print. Now I'm sure it seems a little odd to people who have taken time to show us around.

    This too may be journalism returning to its natural equilibrium: You ask people's attention only when you've produced a completed thought. That is how our magazine has operated through most of its time. (At various stages in its history, it did function as a kind of in-print blog, but that's for discussion another time. See, this is an incremental pointer!) Again, it is a shift, which I note, largely for myself. On to the factories tomorrow, and a radio report soon.

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  • 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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  • The China Story You Should Pay Attention to, and the One You Should Ignore

    Skip past anything that talks about a coming dawn of the Chinese Century. Go straight to stories on the complications of China in the here-and-now.

    The New Number 1? Actually, no. ( Wikimedia commons )

    First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago. 

    The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the worldand thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.

    The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believedand therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.

    Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:

    Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:

    Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figuresfreedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastropheare also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is. 

    Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFilewhose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this  installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:

    ...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....

    Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.

    There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:

    • As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
    • Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
    • Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costsepidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable landChina's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
    • And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this senseas Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.  
    • Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.

    China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloombergcome on.

    Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here

    No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.

    Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading. 

    At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:

    Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read. 

    Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.” 

    Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work. 

    But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."

    It is long past time for someone senior at Bloombergthe former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firmto do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up. 

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  • Bad News, Good Headline

    The importance of one verb and one noun

    On the New York Times site just now:

    What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."

    On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.  


    Poorly done, Senate Republicans; nicely done, NYT.

    Update: The headline on today's story was better than the article itself, whose second paragraph read as follows:

    The vote was 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

    For "advance the measure" read "break a threatened filibuster."

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  • Today's Reading Tips: Donald Sterling, 'Apartheid Israel,' False Equivalence

    What the NBA furor tells us about the Supreme Court

    Donald Sterling, center, flanked by his wife Rochelle and the actor George Segal, both white (Reuters)

    These writers are well-known enough not to need any pointing-out from me, but the insights in their pieces are strong and clear enough that I still want to highlight them.

    1) Jeffrey Toobin on Donald Sterling—with crucial cameo from Chief Umpire Justice John "I just call the balls and strikes" Roberts. 

    Because John Roberts has decided (in Citizens United and McCutcheon) that money cannot corrupt politics except when conveyed in brown paper sacks and stored in the freezer, we are en route to having no campaign finance laws. And because John Roberts has decided (in Shelby County) that the main problem in American race relations is affirmative-action laws and similar race-conscious legislation, we are en route to dismantling voting-rights protections that an elected Congress has repeatedly deemed necessary. For previous items on Roberts as one-man-legislature, see this and this.

    On the New Yorker site, Jeffrey Toobin connects Roberts's rulings with the social indicators of the past week involving Cliven Bundy and now Donald Sterling. Short and worth reading. E.g.:

    Bundy and Sterling represent an ugly corner of contemporary American life, but it is one that is entirely invisible in recent Supreme Court rulings. In the Roberts Court, there are no Bundys and Sterlings; the real targets of the conservative majority are those who’ve spent their lives fighting the Bundys and Sterlings of the world.

    2) Paul Krugman on False Equivalence. In a NYT web item, Krugman introduces the term "centrist echo chamber" to describe the lazy but all-but-irresistible press instinct to match any case of real extremism from one party with an assumed or asserted equal nuttiness on the other side. There are times when the two parties are more or less equidistant from a split-the-difference centrist position. There are other times, like now, when they are not—and Krugman's item is one more bit of evidence to add to the growing heap.

    3) Jeffrey Goldberg on Apartheid Israel. It's a fact of life that certain kinds of debate are acceptable "within the family" and unacceptable from outsiders. I can complain about my relatives, but you'd better not do so. The same is true, and natural, within a nation, within races and ethnic groups, among friends, and in any other situation where people recognize a difference between "us" (who can bicker and criticize) and "them" (who should butt out).

    Thus everyone understands that debate on Israel-Palestine issues within Israel is freer-swinging and wider-ranging than what is acceptable within the United States. Thus Haaretz in particular routinely publishes reports and opinions that would have Abraham Foxman on high alert if they appeared in the U.S. press.

    And thus too John Kerry has had to issue an artfully hedged non-apologetic "wrong words were chosen" statement for stating the plain truth. Namely, that unless Israel and the Palestinians can work out a two-state solution, eventually Israel "winds up either being an apartheid state with second-class citizens—or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state." The point is frequently made within Israel, sometimes including the word apartheid; but it's awkward for any outsider to make, especially when the outsider holds Kerry's current job.  

    Jeffrey Goldberg—a friend and Atlantic colleague and office neighbor—isn't constrained by representing the U.S. government, and he has an insider/ outsider status in assessing Israeli politics. In a Bloomberg item today he uses the Kerry episode as a reminder that a single word—apartheid—can keep people from hearing any words that come after it.* (We can think of other words that have that power.) So Goldberg says that he doesn't use the term any more. Nonetheless, he says, the real-world prospects are as Kerry described, because of the continuing-and-expanding occupation in the West Bank: 

    The settlers who entangle Israel in the lives of Palestinians believe that they are the vanguard of Zionism. In fact, they are the vanguard of bi-nationalism. Their myopia will lead to the end of Israel as a democracy and as a haven for the Jewish people. The regime they help impose on Palestinians is cruel, unfair and unnecessary. Rather than label this regime in an incendiary fashion, I now prefer simply to describe its disagreeable qualities.

    But if Kerry, following [Ehud] Barak’s lead, wants to warn about a possible apartheid future for Israel, I’m not going to condemn him as anti-Israel. Israeli leaders must open their minds to the possibility that he has their long-term interests at heart.

    Bonus 4) While I'm at it, this New Yorker essay by my longtime friend Michael Kinsley is very much worth reading. It's about the cognitive effects of Parkinson's disease, with which he was diagnosed 20 years ago, when he was in his early 40s—and about the larger prospects for his (and my) Baby Boom generation as it contemplates the actuarial inevitability of Alzheimer's disease and widespread other "cognitive deficits." An extremely difficult topic, handled with grace and skill. This item is subscribers-only, but with any good magazine you should subscribe.

    * My one-time employer Jimmy Carter learned this lesson. At the Camp David meetings in 1978, he did as much as any modern figure to advance the security of Israel (and Egypt) by guiding Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin to an agreement that until the last moment seemed impossible, but that has endured. Lawrence Wright's very good play Camp David is about the emotional and policy distance all three leaders had to travel to reach an accord. I was there at the time, albeit in a spear-carrier staff role, and everything I saw matches the version presented by Wright, including Carter's perseverance and insight in changing Sadat's and Begin's minds.

    But eight years ago Carter's book Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid made him a pariah to many in Israel—even though his arguments are very similar to those routinely made by the Israeli left. 

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  • The Man Who Thinks He Has Solved the MH370 Mystery

    ... but hasn't.

    Dr. M has not lost his edge. (Reuters)

    Anyone familiar with modern Malaysia—and hey, that should include almost everybody in this era of MH370 coverage—knows the name "Dr. Mahathir." For more than two decades, Mahathir Mohamad, originally trained as a medical doctor, was prime minister of Malaysia. To put it in perspective for Americans, this was a span that included all of Ronald Reagan's time in office, plus that of the first George Bush, plus all of Bill Clinton's, plus much of George W. Bush's first term.

    "Dr. M" first came to political prominence with a famous/notorious book called The Malay Dilemma, which argued that the country's more-numerous, less-prosperous ethnic Malays deserved special favors from the government, because eons of life in their lush tropical paradise had made them less fit for economic competition than the hard-driving Chinese minority. (Mahathir was head of the dominant ethnic-Malay political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.)

    To say that Dr. M is prickly undervalues that term. While serving as prime minister, he once got into what we'd now call a flame war with a 10-year-old schoolboy in England.* When Mahathir had a heart operation in the late 1980s, the local joke was that the point of the operation was to give him one (a heart). For decades Dr. M governed with a giant chip on his shoulder, and even out of office he's retained his trademark style, as he shows with his views on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

    Are most people puzzled by what happened to the plane? Do nearly all fault the Malaysian government's handling of the situation? They should shut up, Dr. M has explained. It's actually Boeing's fault. As he put it on his personal blog, picked up yesterday by the Malay Mail online:

    I am very upset over MAS [Malaysia Airline System] employees being held hostage in Beijing by the relatives of the passengers of MH 370. I am upset because they are blaming the wrong people. The loss of the plane is due to the makers Boeing.

    How can Boeing produce a plane that is so easily disabled? [And so on.] ...

    MAS is not at fault, lax security or not. MAS flew a plane fully expecting it to perform the task. But the plane has somehow behaved differently. Who is responsible? Not MAS but certainly the makers of the plane — Boeing Aircraft Corporation.

    The perfidy of the West knows no bounds. Meanwhile, even as Dr. M is solving the mystery, airline pilot Patrick Smith, of the Ask the Pilot blog, says that it is farther than ever from explanation:

    Count me among those who feel that this is how ends: a mystery. The plane is out there somewhere, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and in all likelihood we’re not going to find it....

    While I am not ruling anything out, my hunch is that a malfunction, rather than foul play or a pilot suicide mission, brought the plane down. A poorly handled decompression, for example, caused by a structural problem or windscreen failure. Or a catastrophic electrical failure combined with smoke, fire or fumes that rendered the crew unconscious. Granted that doesn’t totally jive with the evidence, but none of the theories do.

    That's what makes the situation an enduring and perhaps permanent mystery. No explanation makes sense. Except, of course, Dr. Mahathir's. 

    * While we were living in Malaysia in the 1980s, a British schoolboy wrote to Mahathir lamenting the destruction of the rain forest, mainly for conversion to palm-oil plantations. Dr. M took the time to write a blistering personal note back to the boy, lambasting the hypocrisy of Western hand-wringers and their late discovery of environmental concerns. "They should expel all those people all the people living in the British countryside and allow secondary forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears etc., before studying tropical angles." The man had an edge. I described this episode and the general Malaysian situation in Looking at the Sun.

    The more consequential side of his approach was his long legal persecution of his one-time protege, Anwar Ibrahim. For background see this. We loved living in Malaysia, but a notable item on the minus side of the ledger was the Mahathir-era governing style.

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  • The Electronic Medical-Records Email(s) of the Day, #3

    "There is a cultural element at work here; a particularly American ethos which sees technology as the solution to any challenge. Couple that with finance which dictates what happens in our health care system. You could call that ethos the real 'software' that has shaped and will, sadly in my view, continue to direct American health care delivery."

    For background on the EMR saga, see this original article and previous installments one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight. Our series went on hiatus while I was on the road in Mississippi. Now let's dig into the pros and cons once more.

    1) If libraries can do it, why can't doctors too? A reader in the tech industry writes:

    When libraries began to transition from 3 x 5 catalog cards to online catalogs the Library of Congress and leading libraries developed MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) records.  See information about these standards at the Library of Congress website.

    Now library automation vendors have to provide ways to import and export MARC-format records to and from their versions of a library’s online catalog.  In addition, library vendors can make it easy for users of their software to query the databases of other libraries based on using the MARC standards.

    HealthIT.gov is working in the area of electronic medical records.  It would seem that standards for medical records can be developed so that health records could more easily be shared.  It would be easier to change to a better software vendor without having to re-enter all the data. Vendors who develop a better interface would find it easier to attract customers to their product.  It would be easier for primary care physicians to exchange patient information with specialists, even if they use different software packages

    2) The market mentality "is the real software of American health care." From a reader in New York state:

    As a communications consultant to two local health networks, I see first hand different perspectives not only on EMR implementation but other changes driven by or attributed (rightly or not) to the ACA. 

    For example, corporate administrators  harping on provider "productivity" (see more patients, get more $) tout EMR as an efficiency tool. Providers (physicians, NPs, RNs) vary in their responses but the majority would side with your "Commodore 64" doc's comments. They welcome tools that work and improve communication, especially shared, useful clinical info vs.billing codes and data that they deem irrelevant to quality medical care.

    To me, the EMR hoohah reflects more than the predictable "software elephant" designed by engineers without serious input from actual end users and sold by hook and crook to administrators who then impose that particular system on their network practitioners and providers. 

    There is a cultural element at work here; a particularly American ethos which sees technology as the solution to any challenge. Couple that with finance which dictates what happens in our health care system, seen and operated as a "market."  

    You could call that ethos the real "software" that has shaped and will, sadly in my view, continue to direct American health care delivery driven by non-providers: insurance, bio-tech, pharmaceutical and yes, IT companies aided and abetted by politicians and Wall Street. This element is no doubt a major reason why American health care is the most expensive with lower quality outcomes than France, Sweden and other developed nations.

    And as a bonus #(3), how out of touch Americans are. A reader begins with a quote from this previous exchange, and then replies:

    [Quote] "I've long thought what we need is a card that is programmable, the size of a credit or insurance card, that you swipe through a reader, punch in a security code, and it downloads the info to the new doctor's system. Why no one has implemented this I have no idea."

    This comment, from a reasonably informed reader, is illustrative of just how out of the loop people are in the United States.    Many countries have already implemented medical ID cards.   In France, the cards contain one's complete medical history.  The last I heard, the German cards were limited to the users insurance information and they were looking at going further. 

    More in the queue, thanks to all. I went to my doctor today, for a routine checkup. Everything's fine! I've been grateful to him ever since he figured out the only serious health problem I've ever had, nearly six years ago, which led to surgery effecting its cure.

    On the Hmmm! side about today's visit, I had to sit for a while filling out paper forms on a clipboard when I first arrived. (Me: "All this info is already on file. Why do I have to fill it out again?" Person at desk: "For insurance purposes," today's irrebuttable claim.) On the positive side, the doctor had all my past records available in a little laptop as we talked -- but looked right at me through the visit.  

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  • I've Got the Next Great Story Lead for CNN

    Maybe a former finance minister of an African nation was also on the flight?

    Black hole? Bermuda Triangle? Now another possibility for Team CNN. ( Mediaite )

    If you're anything like me, you're already worried about how CNN will keep going, once even they recognize that there is no conceivable extra angle to wring out of the sad mystery of MH370. What new questions will Don Lemon have for his daily six-expert panel of analysts? What will those panelists do with their evenings? What will "breaking news" and "developing story" refer to at the bottom of CNN's screens? This air disaster really is sad, and it really is mysterious, but even the saddest, most puzzling, and most dramatic sagas eventually drift from the center of attention.  (For instance: the 1980s "dingo baby" tragedy in Australia. Now there was a dramatic and mysterious story, and while it gave rise to many good books plus one of Meryl Streep's Oscar nominations, nowadays entire years can go by without it being mentioned on the news.)

    Therefore I perked up when I saw this item in the morning's mailbag. I pass it on gratis to CNN's bookers and producers. It's from a very nice-sounding young woman in China, and I see lots of possibilities for CNN here.

    Dear new friend,

    I am a Chinese, 20 years old girl and will like to need your advice over my parents’ property. My father is Chinese as well as my mother. They own two big businesses, one is an electronics warehouse in China and another one is a garment factory in Cambodia. 

    Recently, my parents are still missing in Malaysian airplane because they were flying back to Beijing to celebrate their 28thanniversary of marriage. 

    Now I am studying business management in Cambodia and I hope I will be helping my father’s business after my studies. But after hearing this big shock for me about the missing airplane so I want to sell my father’s garment factory in Cambodia. Because of instability in garment business in Cambodia, I decided to sell this factory $23,000,000.00 but the government agreed to pay me US$17,000,000.00 out of money after deducting salaries for factory workers, environmental damages and other costs. 

    I really need a guardian to help me to manage this big amount of money and the warehouse in China as I am just a university student. I want to move out of this country and start refresh in a new country with you. Please reply me back out of pity on me and help. 

    After I receive your caring and supportive reply, we will talk more in details to make things work faster for both of us. 


    I'm looking forward to hearing the panelists's views—or a one-on-one with Richard Quest, as the bereaved young lady guides him on a tour of her family's factory in Cambodia. Her contact details available if you ask.


    To answer the obvious question: If I think this coverage is so nutty, why do I watch it? I don't really. But several times per day I want to click over to CNN to make sure they're still on the story. And they still are!

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  • The New Industrial Belt: The Deep South

    Does America still "make things?" Come take a look ... in Mississippi.

    Inside the Russian-owned Severstal steel mill near Columbus, Mississippi. ( Severstal company video )

    It's been a long, and fascinating, but long—but also fascinating!—series of days in and around the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi. Fascinating enough that we'll be back for another visit and more interviews in a little while, with our friends from Marketplace. And I'm tired enough from flying back late today that for now I just want to get out one note before beginning more systematic chronicles shortly.

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    The note concerns factories and manufacturing. As I mentioned throughout the years in China, I found factories unfailingly valuable guides to life there. And whether you're in China or anyplace else, you can never go wrong seeing another factory. 

    When we got to the Columbus/Lowndes County airport in Mississippi this past weekend and found it surrounded by old, abandoned, derelict former low-wage factory sites, I hadn't realized how many enormous new higher-tech, higher-wage factories had opened up near the newer Golden Triangle airport on the other side of town.  

    At the Lowndes County airport, away from the region's new industrial action and surrounded by the shuttered factories of yesteryear.

    I spent much of yesterday inside those new factories—including the one represented in the shot at the top of this item. That is the Russian-owned Severstal steel mill, where scrap metal is heated to 3000 degrees F and rendered into new sheets, coils, and bars for use in car factories and elsewhere. Inside the mill it is hot, deafening, dramatic, and similar to many Chinese factories in reminding you of the gargantuan-scale feats of engineering on which the conveniences and lightweight, elegantly engineered details of modern life depend.

    Here's how the plant looks from above—I took a similar picture from the plane today, but this one from the company's website is less jiggly. It's worth remembering that this vast industrial expanse is surrounded by fields, woods, the meanderings of the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterways, and other touches of the underdeveloped rural South.

    There will be more to say about that factory, and the strategy and incentives that led Russian industrialists to invest some $1.4 billion in a plant in one of the poorest areas of the United States—and the effect it and its neighbors have had, for better and worse, in the environs. It's too late at night to get into it now.

    Downtown yesterday evening, in the nearest city to these huge plants.

    The main point is the vivid reminder of the shifting locus of America-based manufacturing plants—now to the American South. The endless cycles of industrial rise and fall have kept pushing industry to sites with lower costs and less regulated (and less unionized) operations. Two hundred years ago, that meant part of New England; one hundred years ago, the fast-developing industrial Midwest. Through the early and mid 20th century, it meant parts of the West Coast, the general Sunbelt, and the coastal South. It is dramatic to see what this has meant recently for a place like Mississippi,  

    John Tierney prepared an Esri map today showing some of the major industrial installations, not little craft works, that have gone into Mississippi. If you click on the dots you can learn more about each one. The cluster in the Golden Triangle are the dots to the left of Birmingham, Alabama.

    And here is a company video that gives you an idea of what it is like inside the Severstal mill. Seriously, if you have any interest in regional development, or industrial growth, or how the underpinnings of modern technology actually look, you will find this worth watching. The part starting at around time 1:50 captures an experience that in real life is on the edge between fascinating and terrifying. 

    I'm not trying to cover all pluses and minuses of this trend right now. I'm mainly saying: for anyone who cares about worldwide shifts in manufacturing, and even for those already familiar with the saga of car plants opening in Tennessee and Kentucky, what is happening in this part of Mississippi is eye-opening.

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  • Beer Notes From All Over, Starkville Edition

    This is the new America.

    If you were in Starkville, you could go here tonight.

    Here we see the on-draft menu from the Beer Garden in Starkville, Mississippi -- the kind of place where recently you might have expected to find Bud, Bud Light, and Corona.

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    You probably can't read the beer list, so I'll clarify that on draft it offers beers from: Crooked Letter brewery in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg; Bayou Teche/ LA 31 brewery in Louisiana; and Yazoo Brewery in Nashville, Tennessee. Plus Sierra Nevada and Green Flash from California. This is the new America.

    Also, as a big IPA fan, I note (following this item) that few of the craft beers on the extensive listing are the too-alcoholic, super-hopped Double- or Triple-IPAs. From a reader in California on this trend: 

    My observation lately has been that the trend of the last decade or so toward heavily hopped beers has plateaued. Retail options cover a wide spectrum, with sours and farmhouse saisons noticeably occupying more shelf space.

    Perhaps this is a function of my geographical location, Berkeley, California. Still, I saw the same array early this year in NYC at Grand Central Station in a tiny boutique featuring a remarkably large and varied supply of beers, some from the Northeast, and some from my neck of the woods. Trader Joe's in Southern California, by the way, sells Hangar 24's marvelous double IPA for $1.50 less per 22 oz. bottle than I see it where I live.

    Another trend, sadly, is the rise in price. This is due perhaps to a hops shortage or to increasing demand for funky new craft beers. Painfully, I have had to reduce my intake to maintain a budget. I might have to solve the problem altogether by joining still another trend, the home brewing hobbyist.

    That is all. Except the other half of the research team, at work.

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How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.



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