James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Previously in the series, here. Original "are we going to hell?" magazine article here. Reader Joseph Britt of Wisconsin writes:
"I'm not a fan of apocalyptic thinking, and if America really were on the road to hell, tinkering with the structure of institutions that have been around for over two centuries probably wouldn't help very much.
"I would, however, offer a few random suggestions as to how to improve the functioning of institutions important to American democracy. I don't promise that they would redeem American democracy or anything so grandiose; in at least one case (the first one, below), all I can really promise is that they might help keep things from getting worse. But you asked, so...
"1. Stop electing judges. As in, any judges for any court of law in the United States. If the Citizens United ruling does result in a surge of money from corporate and union treasuries into electoral politics, judicial races will be the most easily influenced. This is because they are ordinarily low-turnout elections, held separately from November elections, and low-turnout elections are more easily swung by getting small numbers of zealous people to the polls. Electing judges is probably not a good idea anyway, seeing as how a competent judge must have a specialized legal background most citizens aren't in any position to evaluate.
"2. Stop televising the Senate. The Senate operates on comity and precedent more than it does on rules. Its norms, as with the norms of any institution, are more easily sustained if its exposure to the norms of the broader society is limited. A significant number of Senators now are basically back bench Congressmen, and they act like it; every appearance on the floor is designed to appeal to people likely to vote for them or send their campaigns money. Visual aids abound. Serious debate is avoided (it could be embarrassing if a Senator was asked questions he couldn't answer), and the temptation for Senators to address issues for which the committees on which they sit are not responsible is irresistible. So, remove the temptation. Turn the cameras off.
The front page of USA Today informs me this morning -- at my airport hotel in Calif, in Day 2 of waiting out the backlog of canceled flights back to Siberia-on-the-Potomac -- that people are turning away from some online social networks, Facebook in particular. This is because of privacy intrusions and, more fundamentally, the unwieldiness of "symmetric" social networks like Facebook's. My "actual" friends or family members might want to be connected with me on Facebook. (Or, in the case of some of them, they might not!) But if I then have a much larger cloud of professional acquaintances in the same undifferentiated "friend" status, people end up being connected or exposed in ways they didn't intend. A very useful essay on scale problems in social networks, by Tim O'Reilly last year, is here.
Given the continued growth of these networks, I realize that a story like today's can sound like the old joke about a restaurant that's so crowded nobody goes there any more. Still, I find that way too much of the traffic I get from Facebook is of the variety shown below (click for larger):
I could go through and "de-friend" the people identified as sending each of the invitations; or of course I could change my notification settings; but I could also reexamine what I am doing there at all. Before anyone else says it: yes, yes, I am aware that I am not exactly the target Facebook demographic. So, why did I join in the first place? Answer #1: I'll try almost anything that's interesting. Answer #2: I thought there could be value in connecting to people with shared journalistic, political, China- or tech- or aviation- or beer-related interests. But on balance it's not worth it -- and any lost childhood friend who wants to find me can probably figure out other ways to do that. So it is time to begin the dis-engagement process.
While I'm at it, this new piece in the NY Review of Books is very useful about Facebook's origins, strengths, and weaknesses. It is still remarkable to me that Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, so obviously stole the idea for the company from two other students that he made an out-of-court settlement of that claim for a sum usually reported to be $85 million. This is remarkable in many ways: that the sum was so "large," in normal terms; that it was so trivially "small," in terms of Facebook's current perceived worth (therefore amounting to a "great bargain"); and that it has so little apparent effect on Zuckerberg's standing or ability to get other firms to work with him. C'est la vie, as either Balzac or Richard O'Connor might have said, in somewhat different words.
I have an article on this subject in the new issue of the Atlantic (subscribe!). I had done the reporting and writing for the story long before the Google-v-China controversy broke. We had a day or so to take note of that development before the issue went to press. Welcome to life in the monthly magazine business! I think that the analysis in the story actually stands up well in light of the Google episode -- including the insiders' estimate that China is a serious source of international cyber-attacks, but not the leading source and perhaps not even the second most important. More in the article itself (illustration from this issue, below).
I have not yet seen, but I heard many admiring previews of, a PBS Frontline show tonight (just minutes from now, on the East Coast) about last year's Colgan crash in Buffalo and the related problems of low-budget regional airlines. If you miss it, as I will in real time today, it will be available online starting tomorrow here. It is narrated by Miles O'Brien, known to the world as a long-time CNN figure and to me as a fellow pilot of Cirrus airplanes.
On the more positive side of recent aviation news, in case you have not yet heard enough about "Captain Sully" and the remarkable safe landing last summer of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson, this site, by Exosphere3D in Denver, has some equally remarkable recreations of the event. My favorite is the one below (best viewed in full-screen), matching all the comment of all the controllers involved with a moving map of the plane, birds, etc. But there are lots more at the site:
Reader Michael Stoogenke, a geospatial analyst (who is not part of Exosphere3D), says this about the representations:
"Given the sophistication of the
simulation, it's easy to overlook an important point -- the level of
detail in the background mapping is very sophisticated. ExoSphere3D
probably acquired the maps, aerial photos, and 3D buildings in the
public domain or for relatively low cost. This type of thing would not
have been possible 10 years ago (3-5 years for the 3D buildings). If the
crash occurred between 2000 and 2007, ExoSphere3D would have had to
dole out thousands of dollars to obtain this level of detail in their
sims. In the age of Google Earth, we now take this for granted. Indeed,
we've come to expect it."
In response to my long article in the January "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, on whether America was finally, now, really going straight to hell, I received more mail than in have in a very long time. More than I've been able to answer; much more than I've been able to take note of on this site; and way more than we'll eventually be able to use in the print-magazine "Letters" section.
So I'm kicking off a "Going to Hell" series of interesting correspondence -- some with ideas about how to deal with structural problems in American governance, some with signs of hope -- or doom -- that my article missed, some with support for or challenges to the views I set out.
"Going to hell" policy: This is a supplement to rather than a replacement for the "real" letters section in the magazine. In most cases, I'll just quote the message, saving replies for the magazine's letters section -- except, of course, when I decide otherwise. If someone writes directly to me, using the "Email JF" button to the right, and says "You may use my name," I'll use the name. The same is true for letters that went originally to the magazine's Letters section, which requires real names and addresses. Otherwise I will not use names.
To start us off, a message from Joseph Bracewell, a contemporary and long-time friend, who was raised in Texas in a political family. He writes:
"My father was a politician (State
Senator) for 10 years when I was a kid, then a lawyer/lobbyist the rest
of his career. The State Legislature in Texas used to meet for 120 days
(January-April) every other year. My Dad said his principal regret in
politics was voting to air condition the State Capitol (thereby enabling
the Legislature to meet longer and/or more often and accomplish more
mischief). The point I take from this is that small changes could make a
difference, and that there ought to be an action plan somewhere between a
constitutional convention and "muddling through."
"With that in mind, here are a few random ideas that could be on the
"1. I think some kind of national service requirement makes sense. Maybe
some private non-profit work could be made to count also. I had a job
summer working for Coca-Cola, and now I never order Pepsi.
Background here and here. After showing the "used yoga mats for Haiti" sign for intrinsic comedy value and as a vignette of la vie San Franciscienne*, I quoted the person behind the campaign as to its benign intent. For the record, here is an opposite perspective, from reader Sharon Shewmake of UC Davis:
"I thought it was a particularity stupid way to donate, especially after everyone pointed out that shoes-for-Haiti is wasteful and stupid....
"I think that one of the reason people like to give things instead of money to charity is because they feel a connection, and the more specific the item the more of a connection. It's nice to think that someone in Haiti will enjoy my old yoga mat, but if it's not what they need then it's an irresponsible gift. Keep your old yoga mat (why do people have old yoga mats anyway?) and donate the $50 you would have spent on a new one to the Red Cross. I think the sign about donating the yoga mats is really arrogant. I appreciate they are trying to help, but it's a stupid and arrogant way to do so."
The sides having been heard, I declare the debate closed, or moved to other venues (like this yoga-related site). For the record, my wife and I have given cash donations but not goods after this disaster and others of its type (the Sichuan earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Katrina, etc). To all I say, Namaste, and on to other subjects. ____ *I am inventing this translation. If it's wrong, excusez-moi!
Thanks to the impressive science behind this story:
The whole story is worth reading, but this is my favorite part:
"Hops were the stars of the beer ingredients, showing as much as four times more silicon than was found in malt. The downside: Hops make up a much smaller portion of beer compared with grain. Some beers, such as IPAs are hoppier, while wheat beers tend to have fewer hops than other brews, the researchers say."
Now I have science on my side when I look for those well-hopped ales! Thanks to TAJF for this lead, and thanks to Fox for being "fair and balanced" where it matters.
In response to a large volume of wounded, testy, quizzical, or simply hurt responses to this post yesterday, showing a sign I saw on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighborhood, a few extra words:
1) Am I making fun of yoga? No indeed. Although this is not a featured part of my public identity -- compared with the beer-lover part, the aviator part, the interested-in-China part, and so on -- I enjoy and value yoga and particularly respect good teachers. I am not very adept at it so appreciate their patience all the more.
2) Am I making fun of this particular enterprise, The Pad? No. As I have heard from many sources today, it has a very good reputation. If I lived in the neighborhood, and if I could register under a fake name, I would sign up.
3) Am I making fun of the idea of helping disaster victims in whatever way is possible? No. Several people wrote to say that mats could be a comfort to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets in Haiti.
4) But, come on, some things are just funny.
Update. Here is a note I have received from Leila Burrows, of The Pad Studios, whose sign was in the picture. I quote it with her permission. I mean her and her team no disrespect and -- stipulating point #4, above -- regret any hurt feelings I may have caused.
"I do not follow your feed, however, we have received some rather
irritated email communication since you posted a photo of our A-frame,
sandwich board, inviting people to donate their old or used yoga mats to
be sent to Haiti and used in the overly crowded hospital beds. I'm only
sorry the intention of this drive was unclear to you. Actually, our
drive was a part of a bigger organized effort spear headed by the
founder of JADE yoga mat, during the weekend of the annual San Francisco
Yoga Journal Conference. JADE asked studio owners, teachers, students
alike to give up their old or used mats so that the thousands of
suffering people in Haiti may have somewhere softer the ground to
"You may also know that my business
partner and I run donation events on monthly basis to contribute 100% of
the program earnings to people in need. Most recently we raised $3200
to fund the education of 15 students in Ahmedabad City, India.
we all contribute in one way or another to help ease the tremendous
suffering that continues in Haiti."
About the mid-air collision near Boulder, Colorado, it now appears that the two planes involved -- a Cirrus SR-20, and a Piper Pawnee that was towing a glider -- actually ran into each other. Early reports suggested that the Cirrus had hit the line connecting the Pawnee to the glider. In either case, the Cirrus apparently lost most of one wing. More on this later today.
About the exemplary Buffalo News coverage of the Colgan regional airline crash in Buffalo, I had written: "I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce." A reader who is familiar with the Buffalo News and some better-known regional papers writes:
"The Buffalo News is one of the few newspapers of any size not owned by a chain. It's owned by Berkshire Hathaway, has been profitable, and remains at least relatively profitable (caveat, Warren Buffet has stated recently that newspaper ownership may not be rational). It's a very decent newspaper, with a much better than average web site, at this point, far outshining the N&O [Raleigh News & Observer], something I would have been shocked to even think a decade ago...
"One clear factor or interest; while the N&O has been mightily affected by the general downturn in the fortunes of newspapers, by far the greater impact in recent years flowed directly from the stupendous debt resulting from the McClatchy / Knight - Ridder merger. Both the N&O (former McClatchy) and the Charlotte Observer (former KR)... have been profitable, albeit much less so than in past years, during the huge shrinkage of staff, news hole and number of pages. The dramatic layoffs have resulted from cost cutting which were, in turn, driven by the overwhelming debt (something like 4 billion, of which lots remains) paid for a property now worth ... well, you couldn't get even one billion for the whole thing now, needless to say. The other driver was and is the giant bleeding represented by a few major properties (the Miami Herald, for example); most of the cuts at the N&O and Observer were apparently made to throw money down those deep, deep holes. While ad revenue shrinkage is certainly a factor at these papers, free of the debt represented by the buyout (and, in the case of McClatchy, free of the Herald, which came over in the KR deal), there would have been a decade in which to deal with 'what's to become of the paper?' Instead, there's this mess. The N&O still has its moments, but they are few and far between."
While on the road since Tuesday night have missed the blizzard and other events in DC -- my wife is also on the road, so I can't watch her do the shoveling unlike last time -- but have also missed time near a computer for intended updates on politics, US-China friction, and other topics. Herewith a catchup process begins with two sad items, concerning a small-plane collision today and the aftermath of a airline crash a year ago.
The small plane crash occurred this afternoon, just north of the Boulder, Colorado airport, when a Cirrus SR-20* SR-22 apparently hit the rope or wire connecting a powered airplane to the glider it was pulling up to its gliding altitude. The glider was apparently far enough away from the impact that it could free itself from the tow line and glide safely to a landing. The tow plane crashed to the ground and those aboard were killed. The Cirrus did not crash, but its occupants nonetheless died. A local video captured the Cirrus descending underneath the parachute that is a trademark part of Cirrus' safety system. Over the past decade, many people have been saved by this "ballistic recovery" parachute system that allows the whole airplane to float down to a survivable landing. In this case, the cockpit appears to be on fire as the plane comes down, so that the parachute cannot help the people inside. (This video is four minutes long, but the aviation part of the footage is the same several seconds repeated over and over.)
Initial surmises about plane crashes are often misleading. Still, here is what seems to be known at this point: Hitting a taut rope or wire at nearly 200 mph could be enough to rip a wing from a plane, as appears to have happened to the Cirrus under the parachute. The wings are where the plane's gas is stored, so damage there could account for a fire. I have flown a Cirrus airplane several times from and around this airport and know that in good weather (especially on weekends) it is a busy center for glider activity. Operating near glider airports is tricky, because you have to watch for both the tow plane and the glider some distance behind it. Many modern small airplanes have traffic-detecting anti-collision warning systems, but they probably wouldn't register the thin line connecting the glider and its tow plane. Condolences to all affected by this tragedy.
[*UPDATE: A later photo showing the tail of the plane that crashed makes clear that it was a Cirrus SR-20 rather than a SR-22 airplane. The planes look practically identical, but the SR-22 is a faster, more powerful, and in other ways more advanced model. The photo, here, is gruesome but clearly shows the airplane's model number.]
A year ago, 50 people were killed when a Colgan regional flight crashed as it prepared for a landing in bad weather near Buffalo, NY. This week the National Transportation Safety Board released its report about the crash. Consistent with much previous discussion of the case (eg here and here), the NTSB found that the flight crew's basic errors of judgment and airmanship led to the crash. More striking was its warning about air crew standards more generally, and the reliance of big-name national carriers on worse-funded regional lines like Colgan:
"This accident was one in a series of incidents investigated by the Board in recent years - including a mid-air collision over the Hudson River that raised questions of air traffic control vigilance, and the Northwest Airlines incident last year where the airliner overflew its destination airport in Minneapolis because the pilots were distracted by non-flying activities - that have involved air transportation professionals deviating from expected levels of performance. In addition, this Fall the Board will hold a public forum on code sharing, the practice of airlines marketing their services to the public while using other companies to actually perform the transportation. For example, this accident occurred on a Continental Connection flight, although the transportation was provided by Colgan Air."
For the record, Colgan's reply is here. Consistent with my previous mention of impressive works of reportage that deserve more attention than they might have received, the reporters and writers of the Buffalo News have done an outstanding job of investigation, analysis, and explanation about this tragic occurrence. For instance, this story about the training errors that might have led to the crash and this large collection of reports. I assume that the Buffalo News, like most newspapers, has all sorts of financial problems; therefore it is all the more worth recognizing the valuable info that professional reporters produce.
This is further on the question of what Barack Obama and the Democrats
can do about an opposition that is disciplined
to vote No on all major issues, and that thwarts "bipartisan
compromise" because there is no plausible item that could be added to a
stimulus or health reform bill that will swing one of those votes to
Yes. A reader writes:
"I have been waiting for someone somewhere
to relate the current Congressional impasse to the 'Turnip Day' special
session that Truman called in his acceptance speech at the 1948
Democratic Convention. Some Republicans believed they should complete
some unobjectionable legislation in the session, but Leader Robert Taft
was adamant that they would yield nothing to 'that son of a bitch the
President'. Taft succeeded in making the session an utter failure, but
Truman succeeded in demonstrating that the Republicans were
obstructionist and he won the campaign meme of the 'Do-Nothing
Congress'."This experience of the American electorate punishing rabid
partisanship seems too poignant to disappear into history, don't you
Agree! The official US Senate history of Turnip Day is here; the text of Truman's Democratic Convention speech is here, courtesy of the Miller Center's excellent presidential archives. As the Senate history says about the moment:
"At 1:45 in the morning, speaking only from an
outline, Truman quickly electrified the soggy delegates. In announcing
the special session, he challenged the Republican majority to live up to
the pledges of their own recently concluded convention to pass laws to
ensure civil rights, extend Social Security coverage, and establish a
national health-care program. "They can do this job in 15 days, if they
want to do it." he challenged. That two-week session would begin on
"what we in Missouri call 'Turnip Day,'" taken from the old Missouri
saying, "On the twenty-fifth of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry."
"Republican senators reacted scornfully. To
Michigan's Arthur Vandenberg, it sounded like "a last hysterical gasp of
an expiring administration." Yet, Vandenberg and other senior Senate
Republicans urged action on a few measures to solidify certain vital
voting blocs. "No!" exclaimed Republican Policy Committee chairman
Robert Taft of Ohio. "We're not going to give that fellow anything."
Charging Truman with abuse of a presidential prerogative, Taft blocked
all legislative action during the futile session. By doing this, Taft
amplified Truman's case against the "Do-nothing Eightieth Congress" and
contributed to his astounding November come-from-behind victory."
Yes, the subject line is a lame reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which the creepy-voiced computer, HAL 9000, hears that Keir Dullea / "Dave" is planning to turn it off -- and takes aggressive action. Below, Keir D fending off HAL:
I think my version of HAL - that is, Outlook -- overheard me saying that I was planning to move messages out of it and into the cloud, via Gmail. Apparently it is taking matters into its own hands! Over the past 24 hours, I get this error message when trying to get into my main current-correspondence Outlook file (click for larger):
Or, for elegant variation (click for larger):
And this one when I run Outlook's previously-reliable SCANPST.EXE program to repair .PST files.
This is what we call in tech-land a "reproducible error." Same result after reboots, resets, you have it. Entirely inaccessible .PST file. Large-scale data loss! Many hundreds of messages marked "to follow up" or "to answer"! Another reason to move the rest of the data into the cloud, before something screws it up.
Gee, Outlook, was it something I said? Despite my irritation, I find it somehow touching that Outlook is fighting to maintain its "relevance," playing the part of HAL in these lines:
Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
What's the problem?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
What are you talking about, HAL?
This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid
that's something I cannot allow to happen."
On the bright side, now I have an excuse: if I haven't answered your email, "it was in that corrupted file..." And in a hard-bitten way I can't help admiring Outlook's refusal to go quietly.
That's President of the United States on Filibuster of the United States Senate.
"So the problem here
you've got is
an institution that increasingly is not adapted to the demands of a
competitive 21st century economy. [Good point! JF] I think the Senate in particular, the
challenge that I gave to Republicans and I will continue to issue to
Republicans is if you want to govern then you can't just say no. It
just be about scoring points. There are multiple examples during the
course of this year in which that's been the case.
"Look, I mentioned the filibuster
record. We've had scores of pieces of legislation in which there was a
filibuster, cloture had to be invoked, and then ended up passing 90 to
80 to 15. And what that indicates is a degree to which we're just
to gum up the works instead of getting business done.
"That is an
problem. In the Senate, the filibuster only works if there is a genuine
spirit of compromise and trying to solve problems, as opposed to just
the place down. If it's just shutting the place down, then it's not
At another point, addressing the Democratic senators and congratulating them on the work they had done:
"You did all this despite facing enormous procedural obstacles that are
unprecedented. You may have looked at these statistics. You had to
cast more votes to break filibusters last year than in the entire 1950s
and '60s combined. That's 20 years of obstruction packed into just
one. But you didn't let it stop you."
Good to see some direct attention to this issue from the top. Consistent with the "shame strategy" analysis put forward by the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder here.
From Barack Obama's comments this morning at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee conference in Washington. Emphasis added: