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.
  • John Boyd, From US News

    Appreciating "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war"

    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.


  • On the Road Again: St. Marys

    Starting the Mardi Gras festivities early in southernmost Georgia

    Happy Mardi Gras! (Deborah Fallows)

    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.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    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.

    More traditionally.

    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.) 

  • East, West, and Points in Between

    Where the Pacific Ocean is east of the Atlantic

    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:

    West Quoddy Head light

    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!  

    Previous post

  • Happy and Unhappy in China

    Laughing through the airpocalypse, no longer laughing at a familiar joke

    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.

    Previous post                                                                        Next post

  • Why We Read More Than 1 Paper, Cont.

    The WSJ harmonization watch goes on.

    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.  

    Previous post                                                                          Next post

  • There's a Reason They Call It 'Eastport'

    East is east, and west is west, and the twain can meet -- sort of.

    If you head east from any place in the US, this is where you end up. Eastport with green marker, Lubec with red. ( Esri map )

    The Atlantic is all about the uplifting clash of contending ideas. Thus our current print issue -- yes, subscribe! -- carries a "correction" to my article in the January issue, about the beleaguered but plucky little town of Eastport, Maine:

    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.

    John Godfrey
    Beverly, Mass.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    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.

    Previous post                                                                   Next post

  • The US News Editor on the Disappearance of Its Online Archives

    “There was no 'plan' to discontinue the pre-2007 stories.” How it happened.

    Back before the Internet

    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.

    Previous post                                                                   Next post

  • A Whole New Way to Think About House of Cards: 'Throwing Like a Girl'

    What "The West Wing for werewolves" tells us about political satire

    To avoid spoilers, I won't tell you why Kevin Spacey is standing here, or what comes next. ( MLB.com )

    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.

    Ian Richardson, the original FU, with his
    trademark line

    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.

    Men Throwing Rocks With The Other Hand from Juan Etchegaray on Vimeo.

    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.

    Previous post                                                              Next post

  • What We Mean When We Talk About High School

    The deeper significance of Jeff Spicoli 

    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.

  • State of the Pomplamoose Report, 2014 Edition

    This will have to hold you until February, 2015

    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.

    Previous post                                                             Next post

  • Today's Fun With Maps: Where the People Are, and the Trees

    Two powerful and fascinating interactive tools

    Synthetic Population map of the Los Angeles basin, showing race of each household. Red dots are for white households; turquoise for black; purple for Asian, etc as explained at their site.

    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:

    Our American Futures partners at Esri are heavily involved in this project; you can read their description of it here

    Previous post                                                                   Next post

  • The Vanishing US News Archives

    Why a publication's cost-cutting decision matters in higher ed

    You won't find
    these rankings online

    Jim Romenesko reported yesterday that US News, which has had a mainly online existence since 2010, had decided to get rid of its online archives prior to 2007. Since the magazine had been around in various forms but always as a serious news weekly since 1933, and had been online for a couple of decades, that's a lot of missing material.

    I was US News's editor for two years, from 1996 to 1998, until the man who was then and now its owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, got so exasperated that he fired me. (Zuckerman also owned the Atlantic then; in 1999 David Bradley bought the magazine and has made it the center of his growing Atlantic Media group.) So allow for possible bias on my part. I've steered clear of US News and its owner since then, but Romenesko asked me along with other US News veterans about this move.

    My full reply ("cheesy, surprising, and sad") is on his site, here. Let me emphasize a non-obvious part of this shift, which is what it may mean to people at colleges and universities. Here is that part of what I told Romenesko:

    There's a group that may be more concerned by this decision than people whose words, drawings, or photos ever appeared in the magazine. That would be anyone involved in higher ed, whose world has been so heavily affected, for better and worse, by the US News rankings juggernaut since the 1980s. In my view the rankings have done more harm than good, but either way they have been very important. And as far as I can tell with a quick search, the first few decades of these rankings, plus explanations of their changing methodology, have also now disappeared from the public web. I hope they still exist somewhere, but so far most of the links I've found have come up dead, for instance the previously valid ones on this page, or here or here. This U.S. News page has a list of all past-years' rankings, but none of them appears to have a valid link. Normal web searches bring up very few pre-2007 US News results at all. Try it yourself: a web search for "US News Best Colleges 2002" etc.

    A specific example: in 1999 the rankings went through a controversial change (in which I played an indirect part), resulting in Caltech temporarily shooting to the top above the normal Ivy Leaguers. You can read about that and related controversies in Slate, or the Washington Monthly (also here), or the National Opinion Research Center, but (it appears that) you can't find the surveys themselves, and their presentation of data, on the public internet. Since the magazine's identity and business model are so closely tied to rankings now, and since the rankings have been so consequential in higher ed's evolution, I hope the magazine will at least keep this part of its heritage alive.

    There is a rich literature on the US News rankings question; a good place to start is this recent item by our own John Tierney. I know that US News won't reconsider its basic approach to rankings, but it should find some way to keep the history of what it's done in this field available. 

    Previous post                                                                      Next post

  • John Tierney on the Power of Mapping

    A picture is worth a thousand words; the right map, maybe more

    As I mentioned in introducing my wife Deb's very popular post on "What We Mean When We Say Hello," she and I, along with John Tierney, are all doing reports for our American Futures project, and they all show up at that project page. But now John and Deb will be doing their installments on their respective author pages (his, and hers).

    John has just put up a fascinating post on "The Power of Mapping." It explains some of the ways we're trying to use Esri maps and other visual tools in both planning and chronicling our travels.

    Here is a screenshot of one of John's interactive maps: it shows high-tech manufacturing firms across some Southeastern states. You can click on each of the dots for information about the company, zoom in and out for closer-up or broader views, pan around, and so on. Also, as John explains, you can layer these results over other variables to see patterns. This is the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg region of upstate South Carolina.

      For more, I turn you over to John Tierney.

    Previous post                                                                       Next post

  • 3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading

    The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today

    Roger Angell, via PBS

    1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.

    Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.

    2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.

    From Daniel Brown's site

    The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.

    I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.

    3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.) 

    John Judis, via CEIP

    John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:

    Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

    There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

    When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

    I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."

    You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

    "The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.

    Previous post                                                             Next post

  • The Parks and Recreation Theory of America's Future

    What we discuss at the national level has surprisingly little to do with startup decisions. Some provocative data about where America is growing, and why.

    I have an article about Greenville, South Carolina, and some other cities, just being wrapped up for the April issue of the magazine. Whenever the snow and wintry storms stop rolling through the eastern half of the country, which should be soon, we'll resume our travels, again headed south.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    The watchword for this America-by-small-plane journey has been: there's no place we "have" to be, so there's no reason to take off when there is weather to worry about.

    Low-altitude flight in good weather can seem almost magical (as Deb Fallows has described). In bad weather, it's unpleasant at best and foolishly dangerous at worst. Here is the kind of forecast map, retrieved just now from the National Weather Service's wonderful Aviation Weather Center site, that makes me think: Well, I have a lot of writing to catch up on anyway. It's forecast icing severity early tomorrow as the latest snow storm comes through, at the altitudes we'd be likely to fly headed south. The red hashmarks are for "Supercooled Large Droplets," which are worse than they sound and can mean trouble for even big, powerful jet planes. 

    So for the evening, two intriguing bits of data on the main question we're pursuing in America as we once did in China: why certain communities are proving resilient in tough times, and whether their successes are purely idiosyncratic or offer clues that might be applied elsewhere.

    The first item is the interactive map you see at the top of this post -- not the discouraging icing-forecast chart but the one centered on Greenville and surrounding upstate South Carolina. This map was prepared by Jim Herries at the mapping firm Esri, our partner in this project, and it offers a very fine-grained look at expected "population pressures" over the next few years.

    Pressure comes in two varieties: rising, and falling. The green dots on the maps are the neighborhoods and cities expected to grow rapidly by 2017; the blue shows "average" growth rates; and the magenta dots show areas that people are leaving. You can zoom the map in and out and pan to any part of the country, to find patterns that I find extremely interesting. For instance, here is a screenshot of the big-picture view, showing what is happening especially in the settled areas east of the Rockies.

    Again, the pinkish dots are counties or neighborhoods that are static or losing population as the whole nation grows, and green is the reverse. If you zoom in on the interactive map at top, you will find a lot of instructive regional patterns, about which we'll have more to say.

    Item two is a report earlier this month from the Endeavor organization, which supports entrepreneurs around the world. It surveyed people who had started and built high-growth, usually high-tech new businesses -- the same kind of people we've been looking for and describing in Vermont and South Dakota and inland California and South Carolina. It tried to identify why they built their businesses where they did.

    You can read the whole results here (and Richard Florida's analysis for Atlantic Cities here). The point that resonated with me is that the main variables had almost nothing to do with what we usually discuss at the national level, from tax rates to regulatory breaks. Instead they were overwhelmingly about the features we've heard time and again from mayors, chambers of commerce, newspaper editors (yes, they still exist and are informative), and school superintendents. These are: whether a city is an attractive place to live, whether young people want to move there, whether they will find other people like them there, whether they will want to stay there as they start families. People think of Parks and Recreation (for the record, I am a fan) as a putdown of flyover life. But according to this study, it's closer than much Beltway talk to what matters about our future.

    The study's executive-summary portion was:

    • Entrepreneurs at fast-growing firms usually decide where to live based on personal connections and quality of life factors many years before they start their firms.
    • These founders value a pool of talented employees more than any other business-related resource that cities can offer.
    • Access to customers and suppliers is the second most valuable business-related resource that cities can provide, according to these entrepreneurs.
    • The founders in our study rarely cite low tax rates or business-friendly regulations as reasons for starting a business in a specific city. 

    The whole thing is concise and provocative, and corresponds to what we've heard on our trips so far.

    If we were planning on flying tomorrow morning, I wouldn't be up this late, and I wouldn't be having a beer right now. The endless winter has some benefits. 

    Previous post                                                             Next post


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



From This Author