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.
As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.
The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.
[Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.]
It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.
The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.
12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.
1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.
The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:
[before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
[after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.
Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.
Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.
2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.
You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.
I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...
3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.
Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.
Which leads us to ...
4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.
But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:
Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.
Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.
It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.
While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the WashingtonPost's editorial page. He replies:
Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.
Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**
Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?
* To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.
** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.
Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.
WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there.
It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:
Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?
I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?
Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?
I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?
On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.
But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...
In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.
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.
For the next few days we'll be reporting from St. Marys, a tiny town in the coastal marshland of farthest-south Georgia. Immediately to the east is Cumberland Island, now a National Seashore and once the site of Carnegie family vacation mansions. Immediately to the south is the St. Marys River, which is the border with Florida. To the west is the Okefenokee Swamp, plus the woodlands that have fed Georgia's paper- and plywood-making industries. And just north of downtown is the home base for a significant portion of America's nuclear-submarine fleet, which has transformed everything about life in this town.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
When my wife and I were 20 years old, we were (with my 18-year-old sister and other teammates, all under the auspices of Ralph Nader) part of a project in St. Marys that led eventually to the revelation of murder plots, prolonged federal trials, and the overturning of what had been had been an incredibly corrupt and incestuous local political-commercial order. More about that soon.
We've come back to see the results of the jolts up and down for this town in all the intervening decades. As a first installment, a few snapshots of the Mardi Gras festival in this town of 25,000 people, and the trip there.
Nearing St. Marys, marshland in the foreground, Atlantic Ocean far away, factory in neighboring town in middle distance.
Downtown St. Marys, as we're coming in to land.
While I'm at it, one of several "controlled burns" we passed (staying upwind) en route, mainly in the Carolinas.
On the ground, the Navy leads today's Mardi Gras parade, in what has become a Navy town.
As the parade announcer said, "they're here -- both of them!"
In fact, there were more. (For the record, in 2012 Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 8 points in Georgia as a whole, and by 28 points in Camden County, home of St. Marys.)
Men marching against domestic violence....
... under the slogan that they were "man enough to walk a mile in her shoes."
Contingent from one hair salon.
And from another.
Trying to restore a downtown.
Putting the Gras in Mardi Gras.
Temperature on departure from Gaithersburg, outside Washington: 15F. By this afternoon in southern Georgia, people were complaining about the "chill" but -- see for yourself. On Sunday it will be in the mid 70s.
Stay warm in the north. (Photos by James and Deborah Fallows.)
The second-easternmost bar in America. (Photo James Fallows)
Yesterday I rashly entered the "when does west become east?" debate, involving whether Maine or Alaska can more properly claim to include the furthest-east point in the United States.
Now we hear from none other than Captain Bob Peacock, a protagonist of my story about Eastport, Maine in the January issue of the magazine, to resolve the dispute:
Sail rock off West Quoddy Head [right] in Lubec is the Easternmost Point.
Lubec is the Easternmost Town,
Eastport is the Easternmost City.
And Annabells in Lubec would be the Easternmost Bar in the country, only slightly beating out the Waco in Eastport [above] by about 30 feet.
These things truly matter in the Down East World.
And further on east/west issues, from a reader:
I agree with Mr. Godfrey ["Alaska is furthest east" in previous item], in the sense that it's a good trivia question. It's also a good way to demonstrate the extraordinary size and breadth of our largest state. On the other hand, Mr Strip ["No, it's Maine"] is more correct from an 'intuitive' sense, as you and he pointed out.
But it reminds me of another favorite 'wrong' geographic trivia question: What body of water does the east end of the Panama Canal open in to?
Here is where we have a discussion over Atlantic vs. Caribbean, or how to pronounce 'Caribbean'. But the correct answer is: the Pacific Ocean.
Mr Godfrey might say that the Pacific entrance to the canal has a more eastern longitude than the Atlantic (Caribbean) entrance. Mr Strip might argue that it is irrelevant, since a ship traveling from Pacific to Atlantic is traveling easterly, so intuitively the 'east' end of the Canal is the Atlantic side.
As shown here:
I knew this already, having been through the canal with my friend Bob Pastor at the time of its transfer to Panamanian control. But in case you didn't: Now you do!
This new video by Stephy Chung, shot over the past few days of worse-than-ever airpocalypse in Beijing, is worth noticing for several reasons:
- If you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll recognize many of the scenes and even more of the details and moves. A high proportion of the people shown are foreigners, along with young Chinese dancing the way people would in any country. But the stretch from 1:10 to 1:20 is a little distillation of Chinese-style public dance and movement. On walks in Beijing I have stopped to watch the very people shown in this passage, and I've talked with the elegant woman who pops in at 1:15 (just before the pink-haired girl with Mickey Mouse sweater). Plus, where else do you see such enjoyment of haw-on-a-stick? (The red things starting at 0:47) And the heavy tarpaulins at subway and store entrances, and the little ceramic pots of yogurt, and lots more.
- The clip also shows the hunkered-down nature of winter in big city China -- the bulky coats, the hats and gloves, the general discomfort. And of course the air, which I won't belabor except to say that all the messages I've received from friends in Beijing this week center on the unendurable new level of pollution. And the willed denial of those circumstances that is necessary to get through the day.
++ Bonus policy point: In the largest sense, "sustainability" is obviously the challenge for any society or economic system. But in a very immediate way, environmental sustainability is by far the largest and most urgent challenge for China. The country's blackened skies, poisoned lands and waters, and untrustworthy food are a public health menace; they are an emerging political threat to the government; they are the main challenge that China's rise creates for the world as a whole. ++
- The video is obviously a planned and staged production, but it both portrays on purpose and captures by accident some of the individualistic spontaneity and chaos of Chinese life, which for me is an enormous part of the appeal of the place and its people.*
- It's also a complement to the Pomplamoose version of the same song I mentioned recently. If you didn't see that before, you should see it now: it's embedded once more down below.
On the other hand: yesterday the latest offering from the state-controlled China Daily arrived inside the WaPo at our house. The pages look a little wrinkled here due to exposure to yet another dose of the unending polar-vortex snow:
I've always joked that the China Daily was my favorite newspaper, because it so often rivals The Onion in the earnest preposterousness of its views.
The joke is wearing off for me, because of the crackdown on international and domestic reporters underway this past year in China. It's harder and harder for outsiders even to get visas there. (On my latest trip three months ago, I got no word about my visa until literally the day before departure, and this for a gathering that the Chinese government itself had authorized. The visa was for a single entry only, and ten days' stay.) It's riskier for domestic reporters to look into "sensitive" matters, above all involving the personal fortunes of the rulers' families. Last month, civil-society advocates in Hong Kong were alarmed when the editor of a leading independent newspaper there, Kevin Lau of Ming Pao, was fired after his paper had undertaken some muckraking investigations of the mainland leadership. A few days ago in Hong Kong he was stabbed, in a still-unexplained but ominous attack. (I discussed this yesterday on Here and Now, along with Shirley Yam of Hong Kong.)
So drollery about "my favorite newspaper" doesn't seem as droll any more. And although I understand all the logical reasons why China Daily should be able to piggyback on the Washington Post -- it's a free country, the material is marked as a special supplement, closing down info is never a good answer, the WaPo needs the money -- the contrast is grating. At a time when China is trying to keep foreign reporters from even entering its country, it's injecting a direct shot of Chinese-government perspective into our capital-city papers. This is not "dangerous" in any way, but it's annoying.
Bonus point one, the Pomplamoose cover of Pharrell Williams's Happy.
*Bonus point two, a passage from China Airborne that is relevant in weighing the always-mixed news out of that country.
The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.
Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky.
Thanks to Lawrence Wilkinson, @samsteinhp, and @bgavio for pointers to screenshot above and this installment in the ongoing saga.
Hypothesis undergoing long-term testing: Under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch, the "harmonization" of the Wall Street Journal shows up not on its editorial page, which was already the right-wing counterpart to Pravda, nor in the actual content of its articles, still the products of a generally first-rate reportorial staff.
Instead it turns up in headlines, story play, and immediate Rorschach-test moments like this. Tonight's results once again fit the hypothesis.
For previous steps down the harmonization road, see previous installments one, two, three, and four.
While I'm on the subject of the press, this update about US News. Lucy Byrd Lyons, a friend and former Atlantic colleague who now is communications manager for US News, wrote asking me to clarify my latest item about the magazine's zapping of its pre-2007 online archives. As part of the peroration I said, "The place where most people had assumed their work would 'live' for search and retrieval purposes, the magazine's own site, had been removed for the first 74 years' worth of the magazine's existence."
Lucy Lyons reminds me that for most of the period after the magazine's founding in 1933, there was no Internet and thus no online version of its contents. Fair point! Even though many publications including the Atlantic have been investing for years in digitizing olden-days articles to bring them online.
Still, if anyone thought I meant that archives from the FDR or LBJ eras were being purged, sorry for the confusion. I didn't mean that. I meant that the first dozen-plus years of the magazine's online existence had, with no advance word, been eliminated. And while I'm at it, a representative message of the many I've received from the info-tech world:
As someone who has been in IT technology for decades, the decision shouldn't be whether US News can afford to migrate the older archives into the new content management system (CMS) and if not, to remove them.
If it doesn't make economic sense to migrate them, then just leave them as is and have the new CMS provide a hook to the old system. With the low cost of servers and storage these days, running the old archive on a separate system would be cheap, although they may still have to maintain old software licenses. It may not be elegant but the new/old combination would work just fine, especially if there hasn't been a strong demand for the older archives. Access is key, performance is secondary.
Here endeth the US News archive saga as far as I'm concerned. Although if anyone happened to store the USN appreciation I wrote of retired Air Force colonel and still-influential military theorist John Boyd when he died in 1997, I'd be glad to have it. I can't seem to find it online any more.
I would like to correct a geographical inaccuracy: the easternmost point in the U.S. is not in Maine at all; it is in Alaska. The 180th meridian of longitude divides east from west and runs through the Aleutian Islands. So, in Alaska, one could stand facing north with one’s left foot on the easternmost point in the U.S. and one’s right foot on the westernmost. The dateline, however, zigzags, to keep political subdivisions in the same time zone. Thus, although Maine is not the easternmost place in the U.S., it sees the sun before Alaska on any given day.
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I know that a person as punctilious as this correspondent will be grateful for even further refinement of his point. Toward that end I offer this rejoinder just now from reader David Strip, of New Mexico.
While John Godfrey is correct that the point in the US with the easternmost longitude lies in Alaska, I find this irrelevant to the notion of finding the extreme point in a given direction.
Most reasonable people would find the easternmost point of a contiguous landmass by a process mathematically equivalent to drawing a line of longitude through the landmass and sweeping it in an easterly direction until it touches a single point. That would be the easternmost point.
The problem is slightly complicated when the country in not contiguous, though in that case I suspect most people would pick the starting point of their sweep to be either the center of mass of the country (if you're mathematically inclined), or at some point inside the largest component of the country. The fact that Godfrey himself points out that the easternmost point lies to the west of the westernmost points out the absurdity of his claim.
I am with Mr. Strip. If you start at any point in the United States and, contrary to the advice of Horace Greeley, keeping heading east, the coastal reaches of "Down East" Maine are where you'll end up. And the only possible contender to Eastport as the place at which you could make no further progress east would be the neighboring town of Lubec, which is microscopically closer to the watery boundary with Canada. Eastport is in green below, Lubec in red.
A zillion miles to the west, we have the extremities of the Aleutians, where they are so far west that they switch from West to East longitude. Sensibly, the International Date Line swings out at this point to include those in the furthest-west time zone of the United States and for that matter of the world.
Emboldened by the date line, I'm sticking with Eastport for the easternmost crown.
If you'd like to play around with lat-long yourself -- and, as a bonus, if you'd like to explore further the "Tapestry" sociological mapping of every neighborhood in the United States, feel free to dig into the zoomable, searchable, interactive map from Esri, below. It starts out in Eastport but can take you anywhere in the country.
This is like the one my wife included in her recent "Why We Never Get Over High School" post. As a reminder, you click on the colored segments, which become more refined as you zoom in, to see the pop-up description of the demographics of each area. Some temporary performance problems made the Tapestry segments unavailable for a while, so if you missed it before this is another chance. A standalone full-screen version of the Tapestry map is here.
Last week Jim Romenesko first reported that US News—a major print newsweekly from 1933 through 2010, an online publication since then—had in effect erased its online archives for any time before 2007. I weighed in on the topic here.
I was editor of US News for two years in the late 1990s. Many people I'd worked with then—reporters, editors, photographers, cartoonists and graphic designers—plus people from other US News eras have written in to ask whether, since the change was apparently very recent, the archive might still be opened temporarily so they could collect and store copies of their work. Versions of the text of the stories exist in the (expensive) proprietary LexisNexis and EBSCO systems, and some libraries may still have bound copies. But the place where most people had assumed their work would "live" for search and retrieval purposes, the magazine's own site, had been removed for the first 74 years' worth of the magazine's existence.
Tech interlude: a few articles still show up via the wonderful Internet Archive Wayback machine, whose ambition is to provide an ongoing, permanent record of the Internet. Unfortunately, as this screen shot shows, the Wayback machine has nothing at all for US News before 1997 and only spotty coverage until late 2004. (Each vertical entry in the chart indicates an issue it has captured. There's only one for 1998.)
I wrote to Brian Kelly, the magazine's current editor, about the decision to eliminate the archives without any advance notice, given that even a few days' warning would have cost the magazine nothing and allowed people who cared to find and store their past work. Here is his reply just now:
There was no “plan” to discontinue the pre-2007 stories. It was a result of a migration to a new content management system. The stories in that pre-2007 window are in multiple formats and rarely if ever searched. They still exist, just not as conveniently. We understand individuals and institutions may want access to these articles and that is why we direct them to database services [EBSCO and LexisNexis] where those stories are archived.
Before I sign off, I do want to pass along one thought about your previous reporting on this matter. You suggested that the transition to our new system changed the way archival college, graduate school and other ranking data appears on our site.
In fact, we have never provided archived academic rankings and data on usnews.com. We only provide the current year, as has been our policy since we started publishing the rankings on usnews.com. In our experience, the higher education community keeps good records of their rankings and information. We give them access to their current information and archival information going back a year, and we charge for compiling additional years. Bob Morse, Director of Data Research and I also personally work with members of the media to provide historical comparisons. While I’m not seeking a correction, I wanted to make you aware of this.
I agree that there may be an interesting story in the state of old web copy as technologies migrate. I don't think it's a simple problem to solve.
On the point about archived rankings, I appreciate the clarification—which, even as a one-time editor, I had not known—that previous years' rankings had never been put online. But I do know that in addition to the charts, each year's "Best Colleges" issue contained accompanying articles describing ranking trends, changes in methodology, changes at the schools, and so on. For instance, in 1999 the college issue had articles on what it meant for the ranking system, and for American higher ed, that Caltech had suddenly leapfrogged to become Number One. Before, you could find those articles online. Now, you can't.
I am grateful to Brian Kelly for answering; I know the rigors of his job; and I agree with his last point, that this is a harder problem than it seems. Here's where we probably differ:
As publications work out their solutions to the economic/technological challenge of online archiving, I suspect that the US News approach, that of making decades' worth of material unavailable with no advance word, will be studied as an example of what not to do.
To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you why Kevin Spacey is standing here, or what comes next. (
This post will end with the significance of how Kevin Spacey throws a baseball --in real life, and on screen (above). But it will take a little while to get there, and I hope you'll bear with me along a twisty trail.
1) A contrast in styles: drama versus melodrama. I'm watching the original U.K.-BBC version of House of Cards, and its U.S.-Netflix remake, more or less in sync. Right now I've seen about half of Season Two of the U.S. version, and three of the four episodes of To Play the King, which was Season Two for the BBC.
I like them and recommend them both and will be sorry when I reach the end of either. But as time goes on, the contrasts between them become more evident.) For previous comparisons, see installments one, two, and three.
One difference is simply scale: Netflix offers more than three times as many episodes per season, 13 versus 4, and about ten times as many plot twists, sub-characters, shifts of scene, and so on. It's just bigger in every way, symbolized by the modern HD color that makes the original seem like black-and-white. The sex scenes are far more numerous and explicit. (Which is also a 1990s-broadcast vs 2014-non-broadcast shift.) The characters are louder, broader, and less subtle. Michael Dobbs, who wrote the British novel that begat this whole dramatic lineage, and who worked as a consultant on both renditions of the shows, has described the Netflix version as "The West Wing for werewolves." If you've seen them both you know what he means.
Which leads to the other, related difference, that of tone. If I say it's drama (BBC) versus melodrama (Netflix), that sounds like a put-down but isn't. And remember, I am the farthest thing from a knee-jerk "Oh, the Brits are so classy!" guy. It's a difference in the palette with which the characters are drawn. Ian Richardson, as the British politician FU—Francis Urquhart—is a study in cold, controlled malice. As Frank Underwood, the American FU, Kevin Spacey is by comparison hamming it up and camping it up in every scene. For me, he is too obviously having fun—or so I thought until last night.
2) A weak character: defect, or diabolically clever design? By a million miles, the least convincing character in the American House of Cards is the supposed President, Garrett Walker (played by Michael Gill—a capable actor who I assume is taking direction). Movie-and-TV presidents have varied widely, like their real-life models, but except in farces all of them have projected a sense of there-ness, in the Gertrude Stein definition. Martin Sheen's President Bartlet in West Wing and Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer in 24 are the clearest examples: you see these characters and think, OK, I understand how he got elected, and why the people around him defer to his judgment. Garrett Walker? Unt-uh. This guy is a peevish assistant-secretary type.
I had considered that this was a weakness in the show, or a sign of its melodrama-rather-than-drama aspirations. But I have begun wondering whether I'm selling their producers short. It's all because of the "Frank Underwood Learns to Throw" sequence midway through Season Two, which I've just seen and is where the picture at the top of this post comes from.
3) "Throwing Like a Girl," redux. Back during Bill Clinton's first term, I wrote an Atlantic article called "Throwing Like a Girl." I had a wonderful time reporting it, since that involved: interviewing the actor John Goodman (a former athlete who had learned to throw with his left had for his movie role as Babe Ruth); sitting with the tennis coach Vic Braden to watch bio-mechanics videos about the "kinetic chain" that leads to a proper throwing motion; and learning the simple trick that can make almost anyone "throw like a girl." You'll have to check out the article to see what that was.
The article began when I saw side-by-side front-page photos of Bill and Hillary Clinton throwing out the first pitch at season-opening baseball games and wondered why they threw so differently. The obvious-when-you-think-about-it conclusion I came to was this:
Throwing is a motion nearly anyone can do, but that no one starts out knowing how to do. That is, it is not like crawling or walking -- which children innately figure out -- and is like riding a bike, which anyone can do but only with opportunity and practice. (If you've never seen a bike, you're not going to be able to ride one. The first dozen times you try, you are going to fall down.) For whatever reason, the typical 12-year-old boy has spent more of his life throwing balls, stones, and sticks than the typical 12-year-old girl. Thus more boys than girls learn how to throw, and more girls than boys throw the way you do if you don't know how.
(If you've read this far, I'll reward you with the secret: the way to prove this to yourself is to throw a ball or stone with your "off" hand -- the left, if you're right- handed. Most people have no practice throwing that way, so generally they will "throw like a girl." That's what John Goodman did when he practiced throwing leftie -- it took him a year to get ready to do it in front of the camera -- and is what I did when "researching" my article.)
Update! Thanks to reader KG, here is a fabulous video, via Kottke.org, of men throwing with the "off" hand. The French music background makes it special.
4) Which brings us back to Kevin Spacey. In a Season Two episode I've just seen, Kevin Spacey throws on-screen, and he is terrible. I would use a video clip if I saw one from Netflix online, but take it from me.
"Bad" throwing means: having your torso face the target head on, rather than being turned at an angle; having your elbow below your shoulder as the throw comes through; pushing the ball, with bent elbow as you release it, rather than hurling the ball with your elbow whipping to a straight position as you let go; and so on. Every one of them you see from Spacey's Frank Underwood. The muddy little screen grab at right understates the problem.
When I first saw this I thought: Spacey's kidding himself! He in inside his own information bubble and doesn't realize how bad this looks on screen, just as he hasn't realized how weakly written or weakly acted the saga's President Walker is, and how overdrawn some of the others are. To be fair, I gave the writers credit for the ball-throwing homage to the brilliant opening passages of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes (a very mild spoiler on my part).
Then, through the magic of the Internet, I started prowling around for other pictures of Kevin Spacey engaged in ball sports. And I discovered that the real-life Spacey had thrown out a first pitch at a real-world major league ball game. He did so last summer at Camden Yards, before an Orioles game. And—well, read the Charm City headline for yourself:
So a person who in real life can throw perfectly well, is for dramatic purposes all-too-convincingly pretending that he can't. And what if ... this means something about the series as a whole?
5) Which really means coming back to Verbal Kint. Suddenly I was thinking of Spacey in the final few minutes of his breakthrough role in The Usual Suspects—when we see that pitiful Verbal Kint, shuffling and stuttering, is capable of a whole lot more than he has let us know. And suddenly, with this TV series as in that movie, you're looking back at the old evidence through a different lens.
Maybe the President and other politicians come across as two-dimensional figures not because the writing and acting are bad—but because they're good, and the impression of two-dimensionality is what the series means to convey. Maybe Spacey's FU, unlike Ian Richardson's FU in England, is an exaggerated hambone villain not because he's self-indulgent but because he's being precise. That's how he sees, or wants to present, political leaders—and their consorts, like Robin Wright, and before her Kate Mara, as soap-opera villainesses?
That's as far into the weeds as I can go right now. Any TV series that can make you wonder what it means has done something valuable, and by that standard both FUs have proved their work. On to more episodes this evening.
Deb Fallows has a very interesting and popular post on her own site, about all the layers of pressure and significance that go into the question, "And where did you go to high school?" We can't directly ask "How important are you?" or "Where do you rank?", so city-by-city, as she explains, there are indirect codes and dodges for establishing these facts.
Her post is also built around the classic bit of Americana shown in the picture above, and it includes a fascinating interactive Esri map to let you see the sociologists' assessment of the areas where you grew up, live now, and went to high school. Worth checking out.
No more fighting the Pomplamoose wars for me! If you're wondering what I'm talking about, you can start the background trawl here. In short: Some people love the indie group Pomplamoose. But some people really hate them. Worse, as I have learned, some of these same people cruelly mock me for not joining in their disdain contumely.*
My approach to the disagreement is to visit the topic no more than once per year. Since it has been just over a year since the previous update, let me thank supporters and mockers alike for pointing me to the newest Pplm release, above. When considering it, remember that it comes endorsed by no less than Cory Doctorow.
And in my view, no person of good will can help at least liking Pomplamoose's cover version of Earth, Wind, and Fire's September, below:
It's a big world, and I will give this a rest until at least one year from now.
*And, yes, thanks for asking, I do try to use "contumely" once a year as well. I am waiting for Frank Underwood to work in into House of Cards, drawing out all four syllables; we'll get to that in the next HOC update. UPDATE: Oops, a reader has helpfully pointed out a recent occurrence. On the Freudian-slip angle, this one also had to do with reader reaction. Will give this a rest too -- after an oldie bonus clip of Mister Sandman.
As John Tierney mentioned recently, and as Google's Michael Jones explained in an Atlantic interview last year ago, maps are both the most rapidly evolving and often the most useful ways to make sense of changes around us.
Two illustrations for the day. First, from a group called RTI, the "Synthetic Population Viewer," developed from Census data and originally intended to study disease and epidemiology patterns. That's a screen shot of one aspect of its map, above: it's greater Los Angeles, with differently colored dots representing the race of each household, against a black background. Below is how the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg area looks, with a map background and a closer-in view. In both cases the red dots representing white households, turquoise representing black households, and others you can see online for other groupings :
Here's the comparable view of Washington DC and environs, which conveys one of the demographic realities of the area:
The maps can also show households differentiated by income, age, and household size -- or all four at once, in the "quad view." Among the interesting things about this approach (as Emily Badger described for Atlantic Cities last fall) is that each dot represents an individual household -- not a real, identifiable one but a "synthesized" but representative one derived from the data. You can read the background here and here and explore the map on your own here. It is much more configurable and open-ended than any screen shots can convey; I found it really fascinating.
Now, trees: Global Forest Watch, in collaboration with a large number of other organizations and companies, has an also fascinating and also fully interactive map online. It shows changes in forest cover, forest use, levels of protection for forests, and other variables around the world. Here is the complex interaction of forest expansion (blue dots) and forest reduction (pink) in the southeastern United Stattes:
Plus good news from Chile and parts of southern Brazil and Uruguay, and bad news from much of Amazonia, here: