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.
  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #3

    More on the accumulation of blind-men-feeling-the-elephant efforts to determine whether the Chinese delegation was actually working purposefully to scuttle any climate deal (as originally claimed here), why they might have done so, and what it all might mean in the longer term. Complete Copenhagen chronicles here. Three more accounts to consider now:

    1) An article last week by two guest analysts for UPIAsia.com, here, who use the same Rashomon image that I invoked yesterday -- hey, a cliche is not really a cliche if it doesn't occur to many people simultaneously! -- but who say that the prevalent focus on China's role is wrong. A different billion-person fast-developing country deserves the spotlight, they say:

    "The big surprise was India. After sending some mixed messages before the conference, New Delhi finally made it clear that as far as it was concerned the meeting was about long-term strategic options. It questioned the good faith of the Western negotiators, with at least one Indian strategist pointing out that some of the same people involved in credit default swaps that contributed to the collapse of the global financial system were involved in setting up carbon trading. In some quarters, the financial crisis has substantially undermined trust in Western-backed financial mechanisms.

    "India didn't like or trust the proposed deal and wanted to show the West that a compliant India could not be taken for granted. Just as important, it wanted to show that, should a perceived fair deal with the West not be possible, it had other options, namely a closer relationship with China."

    Much more on the implications of an Indo-centric (or Indo-Chinese centric) interpretation in their essay.

    2) An article to be published tomorrow in the Sydney Morning Herald, billed as "the first detailed interview since Copenhagen with Western media by a Chinese official." In this version of reality, China's ambassador for climate change, Yu Qingtai, tells John Garnaut that far from China being the culprit, someone else was to blame. The real obstacle to agreement was the United States, plus rich countries in general:

    "Yu Qingtai, told the Herald that the climate change summit was "a step in the right direction", but repeatedly blamed a breakdown of trust at the conference on rich countries ganging up on China.

    " 'During and before Copenhagen there was a concerted effort by a small group of developed countries who believed that by joining hands [they could] force us to go beyond what we are responsible for or capable of,' Mr Yu said.

    " 'But Copenhagen proved that those attempts will not be successful. In fact they should have known better. So what the developed countries need to learn from this whole process is to make up their minds whether they want to pursue confrontation or co-operation with China.' "

    3) Finally, for the moment, another whole line of analysis: that the apparent sidelining of one of the well-known rising stars of Chinese diplomacy could be due to China's perception of its "failure" at the Copenhagen talks. This argument was presented last week in the Guardian here, and it involves a man named He Yafei. This is a person so well-connected in diplomatic and journalistic circles -- imagine, more or less, a Chinese version of Richard Holbrooke -- that I think I might be the only person who has lived in both Beijing and Washington DC but doesn't know He Yafei. Here he is at the conference, in Guardan photo.

    COP15-He-Yafei-Chinese-Vi-002.jpg


    Intriguingly, a counter-narrative has also emerged, holding that Mr. He will actually be rewarded for leading a staunch Chinese resistance at the Copenhagen talks. Evidence inconclusive until it becomes clear what his next job turns out to be and whether he seems to be heading, up, down, or in a holding pattern. Who said international negotiations were dull!

    Upcoming: a business-strategy analysis of China's negotiating objectives, and a view from the U.S. side. And a reminder of why this matters: quite a bit about the prospects for dealing with climate change, plus the larger prospects for China's "peaceful rise," depends on the interpretations of what just happened in Copenhagen, and why.
  • Google's Nexus One phone: trouble in paradise?

    I mentioned several days ago that, with one caveat, I am a big fan of the new Android-powered Google Nexus One phone. The caveat remains -- I still don't like typing with the on-screen touch keyboard, similar to the iPhone's -- but the more I try the phone's features, the more impressed I am. And I do recognize that on-screen touchpads are the way things are going to be, so I might as well adapt.

    - Feature that I'm just starting to use but see big potential for: Google Voice, which in addition to Skype-like free-calling aspects also can convert spoken voice-mail messages into text and send them as email. So far, the conversion system seems to do the job: names sometimes garbled, but words and -- importantly -- phone numbers rendered OK.

    - Related feature that still has my attention: voice-recognition internet search. This morning I said into the phone "weather duluth minnesota" -- where I'll be tonight -- and four seconds after I stopped speaking, the screen showed that the temperature in Duluth was 10F, with a 15mph wind. (Hmmm, maybe I should say into the screen "tickets to someplace warm....") I didn't have to push an enter button or otherwise touch the screen in this process (after hitting the "voice search" icon). I do realize that voice-enabled Google search also works on iPhones and most BlackBerries. But I hadn't used it before, and I find (unsurprisingly) that it is well-integrated with the Google phone and (surprisingly) that it works well enough to be practical. Main reason I'm stressing this is that the quest for really reliable voice recognition software has long seemed as if it would never reach that point of real reliability. (Eg, see this report from nine+ years ago -- or an eternity ago in tech terms.) Systems that allow one user to "train" the software to recognize his or her individual voice have been improving; "speaker independent" voice recognition is obviously much harder but evidently has made big steps. I think this is one payoff of Google's control of "big data" -- having so much information on what people are likely to search for, and what terms most likely go together, and what range of sound patterns people use, that its systems can make plausible guesses -- and, again, at least for me it's surprising.

    On the other hand: I just got a note from an American friend during our time in China who like us has recently moved back to the U.S. He pointed me to this thread on the Google support forum about complaints over the Nexus's 3G connectivity on the T-Mobile network.

    The specific issue here concerns the 3G question itself. (Summary of the 400+ comments on the thread: some people report that in exactly the same physical location, on exactly the same T-Mobile network, often using exactly the same SIM card swapped between an older phone and a Nexus One, they get worse signal-strength and data speed with the Nexus than on the other device. Antenna issue? Firmware issue? False positive? Not yet known.) I have not had this problem, but a number of users have and are on the warpath.

    The broader issue involves the can of worms that Google may have opened for itself by going into the direct-retail business, in a way it never has before. As mentioned earlier, part of the drama of the Nexus One's approach is breaking the connection between buying a phone and choosing a mobile network provider. Although there is discount pricing for T-Mobile customers, in theory anyone can buy the phone and then use it on any network. But one consequence of this approach is to bring to the mobile business an unappealing part of the personal computing experience. All along the the Apple model of personal computing has been, We make the hardware, we make the software, you've got a problem, talk to us. (Actually talking to them is a different issue, but still...) The PC model is, One company makes the hardware, another makes the software, another makes add-ons, and if the customer has a problem those companies often point the finger at one another.

    Coming as a "bundle," mobile phones so far have mainly followed the Apple model for support. But the un-bundled Nexus One approach has given rise to comments like the following in the complaint thread:

    "Well, this is where this is going to get interesting.  Given the retail model for this phone, we're going to get a lot of the following:

    "TMobile:  Talk to HTC [Taiwanese manufacturer], as they made the phone
    "HTC:  Sorry, its the TMobile network

    "The only way this will get fixed is if there is a mass uprising...Google is probably in the best position to cause action here.  After all, if they don't be proactive this model is going to fail miserably." 
    And, a similar account:
    "This is ridiculous, I've had bad CS [customer service] before but HTC takes top notch. Let's see I call twice.
     
    "1st person tells me the phone doesn't support t-mobile's 3g bands. I hang up and call back.
     
    "2nd person says it's not their department, and to call technical
     
    "Technical says it's warranty's problem.
     
    "Warranty doesn't know what the hell is going on and says it's the network and couldn't possibly be the phone.
     
    "I called earlier in the day as noted, and was told it couldn't be the phone.
     
    "Are you serious?  Congrats Google, you're about to have a PR nightmare with this CS."

    I see that last night T-Mobile put up a notice saying that, along with Google, it was investigating the issue. This will be interesting as Google's baptism in the nightmare of dealing with actual retail customers, in large numbers, already so well known to the airlines, the retail industry, and so on. Now on to Duluth.

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #2

    Previously here. The idea of this and the next few installments, all with the Copenhagen category tag, is to lay out some of the various Rashomon* accounts of what the Chinese delegation did, and why, in appearing to torpedo an agreement at the world climate talks last month.

    Two additional accounts to consider. The first is by Alex Wang of the Natural Resources Defense Council office in Beijing, with two colleagues. It came out this week and is here. Whereas the account by Mark Lynas in the Guardian that kicked off most discussion claimed that the Chinese delegation was dead-set on blocking a deal, both to show it could throw its weight around and to thwart any impediment to its industrial growth, Wang says there is a more benign explanation for the Chinese approach:

    "China's reported actions could be seen to reflect its disagreement with developed countries on how future mitigation burdens should be allocated considering historical responsibilities, rather than a flat-out desire to block any long-term deal as Lynas suggests. [Ie, the US and Britain have been polluting for centuries; why shouldn't China have the same chance?]...  These are substantive differences among the countries that need to be worked out, and we do not get any closer to resolving these differences with accusations of bad faith. In any case, China and the rest of the world will have an opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their commitment to addressing climate change in the coming year..."

    Alex Pasternack of the Treehugger blog, in a post ten days ago here, offered a complementary analysis, which also stressed (a) how the "fair chance to develop" situation looks from China's perspective, including their expectation that the US will do much more than it already has, and (b) what it may take to get practical progress, whether or not now-developed countries agree with the Chinese "it's our turn to pollute now" logic. Parts of his "what it all means" takeaway, with emphasis in the original:

    "- The world treated COP15 like a trade treaty, not a peace treaty. Every country, not just China and the U.S. came to the conference to debate on terms and needs specific to their own country, even though the effects of global warming are distributed globally... If the world needs the biggest emitters, not every country, to sign onto cuts to launch a global low-carbon economy, perhaps much of the work on a climate treaty should be left up to talks at the G20...

    "- However powerful China may now be -- or however powerful people wish to perceive it --the most powerful actor on the climate stage is the United States, led by President Obama.... But his role in the future will be determined in no small part by the success of climate legislation in the U.S. If he can succeed at convincing the United States that a low-carbon economy is a sustainable economy in every sense of the word, he will be able to make the U.S. a leader at climate talks and assure an American economic advantage...

    "- The fragile sense of trust exposed in the aftermath of Copenhagen cuts both ways. For a good-faith deal to come about, the West and China specifically both need to work on improving not just their relationship, but more fundamentally, how they perceive the other. The summit has illustrated China's ascendance to world power, even as it reinforces the country's role as leader of the developing world. We owe it to China to keep the pressure on, as they are the world's largest polluter, and maintain big expectations commensurate with their strength. But we also need to keep reality in mind, recognizing not only the country's limitations but its suspicions that the developed world wants to limit China's growth.

    " - The leaders of the developing world have a lot to do. The developed world has to do more. If the US and rest of the developed world can cap emissions and innovate to meet new standards, they will not only be addressing their historical responsibilities and kick-starting a global low-carbon economy. They could well be assuring their own economic futures. New standards would lead to technologies they could sell to rapidly developing countries like China, which will need such solutions as their own standards increase."

    And there's a lot more. For the moment, these two additions to the analysis; later, we'll pull the threads together and see what they suggest about what happened last month and what should happen in the months to come.

    Bonus: for the completely opposite perspective, a blunt dismissal of the "it's our turn to pollute" claim from China and India, from Willem Buiter in the FT last summer, here. Offering it now in the Rashomon spirit; sorting-out later on.

    _____
    * I have learned to spell out all allusions. On the implications of Rashomon, here.

  • Not a promo, a public service!

    I have no business connection of any kind* to the company that makes the LiveScribe Pulse pen. Therefore it is solely out of a public-spirited desire to improve the lives of my fellow beleaguered reporters, students, meeting-attenders, and so on that I have repeatedly touted the thing, starting six months ago here. (Photo below taken when I first used the pen in China.)

    IMG_7876.JPG

    I mention it again because I just got this note from a friend who writes for a major newspaper:

    "For Christmas I received the Pulse Livescribe Pen you described on theAtlantic.com blog last year. As you report this is change-your-life good. I cannot believe I had not discovered this technology, or it wasn't invented before."

    More in the same vein from other writers and reviewers at the company's "press clips" site.

    Here is why I consider myself especially public-minded and self-sacrificing in passing along this info to others who might benefit from using the pen. This is still a niche product. Therefore most people I am interviewing don't recognize the pen or realize what it is -- and therefore aren't really aware that, while I appear to be just scrawling down notes, I'm actually recording the whole conversation in high-quality audio. Of course I would never be so ignoble as not to say, "I would like to record this to be accurate, is that OK?" etc.  Perish the thought!! But I am just observing that people who don't see a recorder in their presence tend to forget it is there. 
    ____
    * A year ago, a friend who is connected to the company gave me a sample of the pen and said, Try this. I did -- and, consistent with my policy of "pay for anything you're going to write about or actually use," I promptly sent the company a check for the price. A few months later, while I was still in Beijing, that original pen developed an odd defect. It would simply stop recording from time to time. The Beijing branch of the company swapped that for a replacement model, which has worked fine ever since. Now I have a reliable recorder-pen  -- whose on-screen info is in Chinese, providing a daily refresher course in character-reading.

  • Back to China and Copenhagen: what actually happened?

    Two weeks ago, just after the Copenhagen talks wrapped up, I mentioned the very provocative article in the Guardian contending that Chinese officials had intentionally and alarmingly torpedoed the prospects of a deal, which included going out of their way to thwart Barack Obama's last-minute personal intervention. (Original post here; follow up here.)

    Sorting through the contending accounts to understand what exactly the Chinese delegation did, why they did it, and what it means matters quite a lot. It will reveal things about the Chinese government's mood and intentions in its current phase of economic success. (Has it become triumphalist? Has an overbearing stage begun? Or was this the result of mis-reading the circumstances and overplaying its hand?) It will reveal things about the future prospects for dealing with climate issues. It will have implication for the next steps in US-China and world-China relations more broadly.

    A lot of material has turned up over the past two weeks; today and over the weekend, I'll point out some of the leads, evidence, and interpretations that seem most interesting. To kick it off, here is an account published two weeks ago, soon after the conference, by Ken Lieberthal of Brookings, that does a very deft job of sketching out the evidence pro and con -- and indicating why there is so much curiosity about the way the Chinese team behaved. As he says: 

    "Chinese diplomacy at this meeting overall was somewhat puzzling. Second-level Chinese officials showed up at critical meetings of heads of state on Friday afternoon - the kind of clumsy tactic that Beijing is usually far too smart to employ. The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's [premier Wen Jiabao] delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama - suggests that Wen had lost control over his own negotiating team (Wen told the translator not to translate this official's initial outburst and then simply ignored him the second time he raised his voice). Was Wen going beyond the limits of his negotiating authority? Were members of his negotiating team protecting their personal flanks back in Beijing? Whatever the explanation, this initial Chinese foray into the middle of a global conference with extremely high stakes highlighted that Beijing still has some work to do as it assumes more central roles in global negotiations on financial, nuclear and other issues."

    Lieberthal concludes on a tone I'll paraphrase as "it wasn't bad news overall, considering how bad it could have been." He applies that both to the future of climate negotiations and the prospects for US-China relations. Eg, "The Copenhagen 'failure' may in fact have put the world on a more effective, practical approach to addressing the core issue of constraining future greenhouse gas emissions."

    More to come through the next day or two. This is a good place to start.

  • More on Our Declining Infrastructure

    In my current cover story in the magazine, I quote an observation about the genealogy of America's physical infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water and sewer systems:

    "Stephen Flynn points out that the physical infrastructure of big East Coast cities was mainly built by the 1880s; of the industrial Midwest by World War I; and of the West Coast by 1960. "It was advertised to last 50 years, and overengineered so it might last 100," he said. "Now it's running down. When a pothole swallows an SUV, it's treated as freak news, but it shows a water system that's literally collapsing beneath us." (Surface cave-ins often reflect a sewer or water line that has leaked or collapsed below.)"

    From reader R.B., in Canada, this very nice WatermainBreak clock, which shows how widespread the problem actually is. Also, a YouTube video, here and below, of what happened in Baltimore last month when the water lines gave way: 



    Unbeknownst to me, my longtime friend and even longer-time China hand Orville Schell has been writing an article on the parts of America that are falling behind the rest of the world. It appears today in the LA Times. Let's get this country fixed up!

  • The glamorous life of a journalist (continuing series)

    On a TV show this morning to discuss my cover story in the current issue, about how America looks -- for better and worse -- when you've been looking at it from afar. The host very graciously introduces me, and says, "Our next guest moved away to Canada for several years and is writing about how it feels to be back in America."

    Thumbnail image for 201001_toc.jpg

    Hmmm! Co-host graciously does a segue, "Actually, that was China, and... "  But it got me thinking; Imagine how I could have cut down on back-and-forth travel costs if I had done the "Let me tell you how America looks from a foreign perspective" schtick this whole time from, say, Vancouver, or perhaps PEI, rather than Chengdu or Ya'an! And how much better the beer (and air quality) would have been....

    Not to suggest that I am anything other than fully grateful for any broadcast opportunity to spread the Atlantic's gospel. And, by the way, I hope you find the article interesting.



  • The Google Nexus One: an initial report (updated)

    I've used this thing for about ten days now.* Like the (many) other people whom Google let see the phones in advance, I was sworn to secrecy until the formal launch yesterday. I'll leave for another time some of the "meta" issues about what it means that Google is getting into the hardware business, or that mobile-phone customers will at last have a choice about buying a phone, separate from the choice about which carrier to sign up with,

    NexusOne.png

    or the full implications of the Google Voice service, which seems quite significant but which I'm just starting to use. There's a good set of overview links from the Atlantic Wire here and the Atlantic Business Channel here and here, with extra from the WSJ here and the NYT here. The main Google site about the phone is here

    Instead, here are a few user reactions. In one way -- really, one and a half -- I am ideally positioned to react favorably to the phone. The main way is that I'm already a T-Mobile customer. (Great coverage and data service if you spend a lot of time outside the U.S.  In America, T-Mobile coverage seems only so-so.) While the Nexus One isn't tied to any carrier, the initial price is much cheaper for T-Mobile customers. All I did was pull the SIM card out of the back of my T-Mobile Blackberry Curve, on which I've sent and received email all around the world, and snap it into the Nexus One. (Query: why isn't this just called the Google Phone?)

    The half-factor in my favor is that I've never used the Apple iPhone, so I found some of the Nexus visual features more gee-whiz than iPhone veterans might. The half-factor working the other way involves the reason I haven't used an iPhone: for me the BlackBerry's keypad is easier to punch out messages on, compared with the iPhone's on-screen touchpad. The Nexus also has an on-screen touchpad, which is the main thing about the phone I don't like.

    Apart from that, here are the mainly positive initial impressions:

     - The thing is very handsome, to look at and to hold. The screen is much more attractive, high-rez, and deeply colored than the (real-size) image above conveys. As some other reviewers have mentioned, the animated screen-savers are surprisingly interesting to see.

    -  It is very well integrated with Gmail -- go figure! -- and makes cruising through those messages much faster than it is on a Blackberry.

    - It seems fast, compared with my BlackBerry (which is, of course, working off the same carrier) -- able to load applications and switch from one to another with a kind of peppiness. As a tech-specs matter I understand that its processor is faster than the iPhone's, but I can't speak about the difference first-hand. I also understand that it's "multi-threaded" in a way computers are and most mobile devices aren't, so it can run processes in the background and let you have a couple of things going on at once. This does seem true compared with my BlackBerry.

    - It also is well integrated with Google Maps -- go figure! -- and must have a GPS receiver, since the on-screen real-time map was showing my precise location while driving down streets on places outside the US, where I've been recently. My BlackBerry's on-screen map only gives approximations, based on cell-tower location.

    - Its "voice search" feature has the potential to make me a believer in something about which I've always been extremely skeptical. Among the many kinds of technology I wish existed, but don't, is a reliable voice-into-text system. That way, I could make recordings during an interview, and have them instantly converted into transcripts. Hah! But one of the apps on this little phone allows you to speak a search engine query, rather than type it in -- and so far I have been more surprised by its successes than its failures. Examples from this evening: I heard a radio report about Democrats deciding not to run for reelection, including in Colorado. I picked up the phone and said to it, "colorado governor ritter" -- and within seconds the first hit was for the Wikipedia entry on Governor Bill Ritter, and the second hit was for his official colorado.gov.governor site. I then said "denver mayor hickenlooper," in normal tones, and had similar success in finding out about Mayor John Hickenlooper. Later my wife and I were seeing a DVD of the (sleeper, and very good) movie Sunshine Cleaning, with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. I was wondering, what was that last odd sleeper movie in which we saw Emily Blunt? I picked up the phone, said "movies with emily blunt," and got the IMDB listing of her films. (Answer: The Great Buck Howard.) I'm not recommending this as a way to behave in company, but technically it's impressive.

    - The camera is very good.

    - There are lots of apps already available, many free, including one about which I've already bored my wife to tears, so I won't mention it here. But I'll mention it next time. (Hint: Google Sky Map.) Another: a feature that scans any SKU-style bar code you point it toward, and quickly does a search for that product, its specs, and the range of prices. And a wonderful English-Chinese translation utility. (Where was this when I needed it?) And...

    What's not to like? Minor inconvenience: the BlackBerry feeds several of my email accounts into one big inbox sluice, so I can see them all at once. The Google Phone won't do that on its own without some tinkering. Also: you can zoom to change the text size of web pages but not email messages, which sometimes is an issue. Battery life is OK, not remarkable. Then again, the only device that is remarkable for its Methuselah-like battery endurance is the Kindle. Larger inconvenience: I really don't like typing on this on-screen touchpad. And, the phone is expensive unless you go with T-Mobile.

    More later.  For now, interesting.

    * Update: Because some people have asked, let me spell out how I got the phone. For weeks Google has been distributing the phones among its own staff and to people in the general tech world, subject to embargo on public comments until the formal product announcement on Jan 5.  A friend in the company gave me one -- free. When I decided (a) that I would write about the phone and (b) that I liked it enough actually to use it, I bought it from the company, at list price. This is my general policy on software and tech gadgets. If people send me demo copies of devices or programs, I'll use them -- it wouldn't be practical to pay full price for everything someone wants me to try. But if I end up using the program or device in real life, I make a point of paying for it. And I try, when writing about tech items, to make clear whether I've bought something or am just trying out a demo. I say all this in a "for the record" spirit.

  • Our new issue...

    ...is full of great stuff. Please subscribe! That way you can read these articles as they're meant to be read -- with pictures and illustrations, in nice fonts and with glossy ads -- and, not incidentally, that way we can keep putting out such issues for another 153 years.* Or at least another ten or twenty. Seriously, this is one of the best, most varied issues in quite a while -- which I would say even if I didn't have a very long article in it. Read, enjoy, subscribe.

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    * Atlantic Monthly: Founded 153 years ago.
  • More on "interesting" software: InfoQube

    Following previous dispatches here and here about the endless, quixotic search for the ideal outlining program, many people wrote in to sing the praises of a Windows-based program I had not been aware of: InfoQube, or IQ. (Hardee-har!! I get it!) Sample testimonial note from someone who identifies himself as "a highly satisfied user" and who doesn't appear to be connected to the company:

    "I'd like to let you know that InfoQube (IQ), while still a bit unknown and not out of beta yet (but soon to reach v1.0 ), is a very powerful Outliner too!

    "In my humble opinion, probably the most powerful and flexible out there. Really. I have been using it for the last 2 years, doing incredible things with it... Not only does it do outlining, but it also has a calendar, Gantt charts, pivot tables, etc.

    "It's not your typical software : it takes an open mind and a bit of reading (not that much!) to understand its principles. These small initial efforts are quite rewarding, that's for sure!
    Have a look at it (Download), and feel free to ask questions on our friendly Forum. ["Our" = user community, not speaking for the company itself] Pierre Paul Landry, our IQ talented, dedicated and friendly developer, answers many questions himself."

    Here's a thematic illustration from the company's site, on the "Qube" theme. (Click for bigger.) Disappointingly, the actual program is confined to normal 2-D computer screen displays. I have not yet tried InfoQube myself, but I received enough mail from people who have that it seemed worth mentioning.

    InfoQube2.jpg


    While I'm on the subject of satisfied users, I have mentioned several times the modestly-priced, Mac-based writing program Scrivener, on which I am relying for more and more of my work. An impressive list of writers (mainly novelists) who have become devotees is here. Worth considering.
  • Finally the Internet is worthwhile: "How to fly the P-47"

    Thanks to Carl Malamud's PublicResource.org project, which takes material prepared by public agencies and makes it available free online, you too can get basic info on flying the P-47 "Thunderbolt." It comes courtesy of these films, produced for pilot-aspirants in 1943 by the War Department. [Fixed link to Public.Resource -- had been wrong.]

    (Yes, children, there was a "Department of War" all through American history, until the creation of the "Department of Defense" in 1947. More was involved in creation of the DOD than the change in name; but in retrospect "Department of War" seems a breathtakingly and admirably honest term. I think we should change the Pentagon's name back to "Department of War," and re-assign "Department of Defense" to the organization that now bears the loathsome name "Department of Homeland Security." But I digress.)

    As you'll see if you watch, the films do get into some technical aspects. But they ease into it with some, umm, cultural material -- especially the first few minutes of the film below. It's #2 in the series, covering normal operations of the airplane.



    Here's the first in the series, general pilot familiarization with the P-47:



    And the third, on high-altitude flight and aerobatics:



    Congrats and thanks to Malamud -- and the original film makers. This gets me in the mood for starting to fly again. These guys look suave!
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  • More on GrandView, Thinklinkr, and other "interesting outliners"

    I mentioned recently a new free, collaborative, cloud-based outliner called Thinklinkr, which is a worthy new contender in this troubled field.

    Two bits of extra info for the outline-curious. First, a spectacularly thorough and provocative post by Stephen Zeoli on the "Welcome to Sherwood" site, here, on the reasons why so many buffs consider the orphaned, antique, DOS-only program GrandView the best outliner ever invented. (Gentle hint to Thinklinkr crew and others: read that post, and shamelessly copy!) GrandView screenshot, from the review:

    gv-outline11.png

    Then, below and after the jump, selections from a message from Jason Tillery, one of the two-man crew responsible for Thinklinkr, about the idea behind its development and future plans. I wrote asking him, What should I know about this program? Parts of his reply follow. The ellipses are for the more overtly corporate-PR sections; I've left the material that explains the development strategy:

    "Outlining software has been around since the 60's, but until now there were no real web-based offerings.
    "There's a surprisingly large group of people who use outlining software on a regular basis, and many of them have been clamoring for something like Thinklinkr for a long time.... Being web-based your outlines are available everywhere, you don't have to install anything, you get automatic revision history, and you can collaborate with other users in real-time....

    "My partner, Vishu Ramanathan, and I started Thinklink LLC in January of 2008. We spent the last two years working on building web applications that, like Thinklinkr, feel as usable and responsive as their desktop counterparts. The first product we built, Mocklinkr, is a tool that helps designers share mockups with their clients....

    "In coding Mocklinkr we were able to extract a framework for developing other similar applications. We call this framework Rio and we used it to build Thinklinkr. The significance of extracting the framework rather than imagining it up front is that Rio solves the real problems that we actually encountered and identified as repetitive and generic. These problems represent the majority of the work that you will encounter if you try to build a desktop-like web application. As such, about 80% of the code behind Thinklinkr is part of Rio....

    "Even if you somehow avoided using outlines in school, people inherently understand the core concepts. Concepts like "inclusion", "hierarchy", and "precedence" are naturally mapped in an outline and as such we can share an outline with someone without spending any time describing the document's structure. What's really surprising is that people don't often use outlines to collaborate. [Their program aims to change that]...

    "Getting people to collaborate with outlines instead of free-form documents or even emails is not actually as difficult as it sounds. We've found that the biggest reason that people don't do this already is that there is just too much friction. Everyone can open up a Word document make some changes and email it back, but if you send someone an OPML file they won't know what to do with it....

    "While ultimately we think that everyone could benefit from using outlines, a couple of uses we are focusing on, in addition to personal organization, are meetings for business users and lectures for students....

    "We're still in beta and we have yet to sort out the premium features that will someday define a pay version of the application... Outlines will become scriptable, giving users the ability to customize the behavior of the application. Linked images and videos will render right in the outline. Users will be able to link outlines together, including them inline. We'll add support for columns and styles and the last few features from our desktop counterparts. And finally we are going to explore the ways we can use an outliner as the foundation for other, more specialized, applications like project management, GTD, and bug tracking."

    The more activity in this field the better. Good wishes to all developing such products!

    More »

  • Krugman, protectionism, and the RMB

    This is the next installment in a catching-up-with-the-week's-events series, as advertised here. Today's topic: US-China relations, economic imbalances, and the value of the Chinese RMB.

    In his NYT column yesterday, Paul Krugman discussed the Chinese government's refusal to let the RMB rise against the dollar, which (since the dollar is falling versus most other currencies) means that the RMB is rapidly sinking in value against the Euro and yen, even as China runs up huge trade surpluses. This, Krugman said, was a "predatory" policy that should and would provoke retaliation from the rest of the world.

    My reaction on reading the column was, Matte mashita!, roughly "I've been waiting for this!", the phrase that audiences at Japanese kabuki performances may yell at the appearance of a favored character or famous line. For nearly a year, I have been watching the economic press in anticipation of just this kind of article.

    It was about a year ago, in the devastation of China's manufacturing-export business that followed the world economic collapse, that I spoke with the financial-markets expert Michael Pettis, at Guanghua School of Business in Beijing. I wrote about his views (and others') in this article last spring in the Atlantic.

    The heart of Pettis's argument was that China's economy in this past year was like America's in the early 1930s. Each had been the workshop of the world in the preceding decade; each had piled up huge trade surpluses and financial reserves; and -- the underappreciated part -- each suffered big job losses when its foreign customers could no longer buy its excess production. Having had more than "its fair share" of the world's manufacturing jobs in the 1920s, the US had more of them to lose in the 1930s. So too with China as demand fell around the world last year. Relatively more of China's people had depended on foreign customers for their jobs, thus relatively more of them were at risk than in Europe or the US. And indeed, tens of millions of Chinese factory jobs disappeared last year, especially in the southern part of the country.

    The crucial part of Pettis' analysis was the next step: whether China would respond to this loss the way the U.S. had in the 1930s. Back then, desperate to protect American factory jobs, the U.S. Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, with levies on thousands of product categories. In itself, that tariff was not the cause of the world Depression (contrary to the implications of "Smoot Hawley" in the standard political speech or op-ed column). But as other countries retaliated, the cascading failure of demand intensified the hard times worldwide.

    To bring this back to Krugman and China: Pettis concluded that the natural result of last year's economic slowdown would be the shrinkage of China's export economy and global trade surplus. Anything else would delay the "rebalancing" of economies that was necessary worldwide. If China tried too hard to prevent this, then that step would be the modern Smoot Hawley equivalent. As I put it in the article:

    "The real damage of Smoot-Hawley, [Pettis] says, was less economic than political. Other countries understood that the United States was trying to protect its trade surplus and therefore its workforce. They didn't like it as a political matter, and they struck back.

    "If that were to happen again... the real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley would be Chinese protectionism--or rather, any effort by China to defend its huge trade surpluses, as the U.S. once did. China's government is unlikely to rely on outright Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs. Instead it could increase subsidies to exporters; it could try to push the RMB's value back down, after three years of letting the currency rise; it could encourage manufacturers to restrain wages; it could impose indirect barriers to imports, as with its recent pressure on China's airlines to cancel outstanding orders for Boeing and Airbus airplanes. By early this year, China's government was in fact doing every one of these things."

    That is the context for Krugman's article, in my view. Political leaders around the world talk about the need to "rebalance" their economies; this means more saving and less overconsumption in the United States; but it also means less under-consumption in China, in the sense of relying less on foreigners as customers. As long as the Chinese government holds the line on the RMB, it is doing its best to resist and thwart that balancing process. As I argued in another article, the value of the RMB is not at all the main reason for China's manufacturing success or the shift of world jobs to China. But the refusal to let that value change will become a major impediment to the global economic adjustment that China's leaders (with all others) say is necessary.

    The bottom line of Krugman's column is: if China's government doesn't change this policy, it is inviting trouble for itself and everyone else. To me this seems obviously right.

  • Happy New Year! Starting off right with "interesting software"

    While out of range for the past week, I've not weighed in on a lot of subjects I would normally have a view on, from the Nigerian would-be suicide bomber, to the nature and function of the TSA, to the implications of press and judicial developments within China, to the latest twist in China's policy on the RMB.

    I will plan to catch up, on each and all, in the next day or two. For the moment ... how about a promising entry from the world of "interesting" technology?

    What I have in mind is Thinklinkr, a free, "cloud"-based outlining program that very much deserves attention. Since the dawn of the personal computing age, outlining programs have constituted a fascinating but often heartbreaking product category. Fascinating because they are an essential component of electronic "thinking tools." (Another essential component: systems for collecting, organizing, and retrieving info. And ideally one more: something to do the actual thinking and writing. So far, no dice.) Heartbreaking because several of the best entries have atrophied or been orphaned, and others are minority tastes.

    Perhaps it's mainly rosy retrospect, but I still think the classic DOS outliner GrandView was the best I've ever used. Background on GrandView here. Those I use and like these days include the elegantly minimalist BrainStorm (PC only); the intriguing-in-many-ways PersonalBrain (PC, Mac, LInux); the also-intriguing MindManager (PC, Mac); OmniOutliner (Mac); plus the outlining functions in the wonderful Mac-only writing program Scrivener; plus the outlining functions in the upcoming Version 6 release of the wonderful PC-only "idea processor," Zoot. (Zoot 6 is in late beta.) And some others I am forgetting right now.

    I give that long warmup to say that I've always cared about this field, and I find Thinklinkr a worthy new contender,as a very fast, very flexible online outlining tool. Its basis in the "cloud" means that you don't have to worry about Mac/PC issues nor about synching among your different machines. You do, of course, have to be online. It also keeps track of previous versions of an outline, and allows users in differently places to collaborate in real time. Worth checking out. (Partial screenshot below, and further info below that.)

    ThinkLInk.png

    Reference section: For a history of the outlining field in general, start here; for a later "rediscovery" of outlines, go here. For my previous perspectives on and judgments about other "thinking" systems, see this about Zoot; this about BrainStorm; and this about Personal Brain. For a blog by the designers of Thinklinkr, see a sample entry here and main page here. I have written to the company to ask about the ideas behind the program and will post the answers shortly. Thanks to Michael Ham for the lead.

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