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.
  • Nien Cheng

    My wife just alerted me to something I had missed in the paper today: news that Nien Cheng had died in Washington this week, at 94.

    NienCheng.jpg

    Life and Death in Shanghai, her memoir of her life in China in the pre-Communist era, and then her daughter's murder and her own imprisonment and torture by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, was one of the first notable accounts of those years and remains a powerful work of modern non-fiction. Although it has been two decades since I read it, many of the scenes are still vivid. Soon after it was published in 1987, my wife and I were in Shanghai and traced the neighborhoods she had described.

    Nien Cheng never returned to mainland China after she got out in 1980, and over the past twenty years she lived mainly in Washington DC. Several times while walking my wife or I had the amazing-each-time experience of passing on the sidewalk a tiny, increasingly frail, but elegant Chinese woman whom we knew to be her. I never dared to say hello or thank her for writing the book, which I now regret all the more. None of her family is left, but her book will endure.

    Update: she had a MySpace page, which is here.

  • Doing Business in China: Who Holds the Purse?

    In Chinese families, women drive economic decisions more forcefully than men.

    You can probably guess the answer to the question above, explored in this next clip from the Doing Business in China series. But I do love the way this clip gets to the answer, via both its pre-Communist era documentary and movie footage and also its exploration of special role of the "Shanghai woman." I think you will see what I mean.

     

  • The Prius of the sky

    A contest for fuel-efficient small airplanes has a winner: a modified VariEze that gets 45 mpg at over 200 MPH with two people aboard, and nearly 100 mpg at a lower "maximum range" speed.

    fuel-efficient-plane-modified-VariEze-photo1.jpg

    Details from Wired here, Tree Hugger here, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association last year here. Just as I've always said: to get America moving again, including on the fuel-efficiency front, we've got to get more people up in the air.  (Thanks to Michael Ham.)
  • Alexander Hamilton hip-hop tribute

    Because Alexander Hamilton has always been my favorite Founding Father; because I am in the "actually writing" mode and otherwise away from the internet; because no one else on the Atlantic's team has yet called attention to this; and because it is a very diverting four-minute interlude, here is Lin-Manuel Miranda's tribute to Hamilton from the "White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" this past May. In case you have missed it.
     
    For more, you can't go wrong with Ron Chernow's great 2004 biography. Now back to, ahem, work.

  • Doing Business in China: An Eastern Perspective

    The western quest for precision is often futile in China, where facts and figures never tell the whole story.

    This clip is about numbers, and the varying ways to make sense of them in China. At one extreme the power of numbers is of obvious and unignorable importance. The opening scene of the clip, on a winter day in Shanghai, give a glimpse of the sea-of-people effect of many Chinese cities. On the other hand, neither Shanghai nor Beijing nor any other city in the mainland seems as densely packed as either Tokyo or Hong Kong. The difference with mainland China is that there are so many multi-million person cities across so huge a landmass, plus plenty of well-populated rural areas too.

    At the same time, just about any number concerning China is an approximation, from economic growth rates to literacy or environmental readings, or anything else. This clip mainly talks about the implications of that rough-and-ready statistical approach for businesses, but it has international and political implications too. 

  • A very good question

    A friend who has worked in and written about politics for nearly 40 years writes with this question about assessments of Obama's "disappointing" first year:

    "How can the MSM (what's left of it) not "get" that disappointment in Obama over "lack of change" is precisely the object of the GOP in blocking change?  Does no one remember Newt Gingrich and the GOP strategy from 1992 to 1994, which actually worked?  How can the GOP steal second and third in one play AGAIN and not get nailed this time?  I want to scream.  In any sensible society, instead of disappointment in Obama there would be intense anger at the GOP, and they'd be forced to knock it off." 

    The talk about "any sensible society" of course leads us into the realm of what is fancily known as counterfactual theorizing....

  • All-in-one, nearing the finale

    Three more views -- previously here, here, and here. Again the question is: are we going to keep carrying around a grab-bag of devices, each optimized for its own purpose? Or will convenience, technical improvement, etc mean more and more functions in fewer and fewer gizmos.

    From a tech-industry reader:

    "I think you're wrong; the vast majority of the device market in these kinds of segments will eventually go to all-in-one, "good enough" devices. Sure, people will still buy digital cameras, portable reading devices, etc., but the specialty devices will be for the 10% of uses or 10% of consumers who want special higher quality or particular features--for most people, the simple functionality in a lowest-common-denominator single device will be sufficient.

    "An anecdote: circa 1998, I was working on cryptography for mobile devices (my career also includes Apple, and I'm currently an engineer at [famous internet company]. I had a meeting with a number of very senior engineers at Motorola, and this convergence question came up. One engineer pooh-poohed the idea of convergence, and when I asked him explicitly, he asserted that yes, people would carry a cell phone, a pager, and a PDA to solve those specific problems (I envisioned Batman's utility belt).

    "You can't even buy a PDA anymore, as far as I know--it's a feature integrated into phones. Pagers are rare and for particular on-call specialties. I now know a number of people who carry a Blackberry for email and a cell phone for calls, but I'm certain that bifurcation is also doomed. I regularly now check my email from my phone, rather than bother to open my laptop, even if it's in the same room."

    Another reader in New York writes:

    "I agree with you (mostly, as I think that some convergence is inevitable) that no device can be everything to everybody. But here is another counterexample I'm not sure you mentioned - phones and GPS devices: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/technology/companies/29gps.html

    "I'm not a big GPS user (I don't even have a car here in NYC), and I am a big Google maps fan, but here I do have to wonder.  If the Google Maps for Mobile is going to depend on a good data connection, then I don't really see how it can match a dedicated GPS device which only needs "sightlines" to satellites (assuming of course that there is no brownout... hey, convergence of two of your tech threads!).  When we were camping in Acadia National Park this summer, my wife's Google phone had no phone signal, never mind 3G....

    "I think Maps for Mobiles is great in densely populated areas, but if I were planning a long trip with lots of detours in rural areas, I don't see how this could be a dedicated GPS with the maps data downloaded previously to the device."

    _______
    After the jump, one more very long but detailed and interesting pro-convergent case.

    "The arguments presented against convergence seem to be focused on ways in which the convergent devices don't live up to standalone ones,overlooking places where they actually improve upon them. The Kindleis a convergent device - it includes a keyboard and cellular connection. That's what allow you to buy books on the road, search,bookmark, and so on. It's not as convergent as an iPhone, but it's a lot more convergent than earlier ebook readers, and the benefits of being able to buy any book or magazine while sitting in an airport terminal are a significant improvement over every alternative.

    "Sure the iPhone and other smartphones don't take as good pictures as a standalone camera, but we're now seeing photo editing apps showing up for the mobile platforms - pretty good ones, in fact: http://www.philcoffman.com/blog/photography/iphone-photography/ Now we have a platform that allows you to take a picture, edit it, color correct it, crop, and so on while you still stand before your subject, able to retake the shot if you want, and upload it to your photo album without ever having to visit *or even own* a computer. There are apps that will stitch together your panorama shot while you stand there ready to retake a shot if needed: http://www.technosanity.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/img_0441_2.jpg

    "Now we're comparing $199 iPod touch for a casual photographer - say a 15 year old - to a dedicated camera, computer, and image software - $500 or more just to get started. The convergent device can't do as much in a discrete sense as the individual devices, but it can also do more in an integrated sense. For example, I can't imagine a real-estate agent using anything other than a convergent device in the future because it allows them to take photos, adjust them, stitch them together, upload them, and verify that everything is in order before they ever leave the property. Even though the photo quality is worse (but good enough), the overall outcome is generally better....

    "What works most in favor of the convergence devices is the cost to incorporate new elements. Cameras have become so cheap that Apple included a video camera in the $149 iPod, just to justify the price point against the $199 iPod Touch. It's much, much cheaper to add new elements to a convergent device to try and overcome its limitations than it is to build new services on top of dedicated devices. Adding a better camera to a iPhone is trivial, because all the interfaces are already in place, but adding cellular services and the interface to upload photos to a camera is very difficult because those interfaces were never considered. It's just a matter of time before high resolution color screens hit a price floor and the screen technical difference between an iPhone and a Kindle vanish. The devices with the most software and interface flexibility are going to win out, simply because they can adjust to the marketplace much, much faster. That was the whole point of the iPhone - to build a platform with that flexibility. All of the other technical bits would naturally show up in time. That's why general purpose computers won out over stand alone adding machines, typewriters and stand-alone word processors, and so on. Remember, computers were the convergent devices of their time, and they won flat-out - except in the mobile space.

    "Examine some of the unexpected iPhone apps. Multiple insurance carriers have created apps that allow you to submit claims right from the phone - including those crappy photos that you probably didn't expect to need to bring your camera for. TomTom has and Google is developing turn-by-turn software for the iPhone. Why buy both a phone and a GPS? Fitness apps that map where you ride or run, how fast you go, how far you go, how many calories you burn, and so on. Barcode readers that use the iPhone camera so you can a book and get the Amazon listing for it. What's more, Amazon offers a service where you can take a picture of an item that you see - maybe a toaster at your friends house - and someone at Amazon will try and match it to a product that they sell. There are apps that allow your friends to share their location data so you can find out if one of them is physically nearby - discovered one of my best friends was given tickets to a baseball game I was at. Since you've written about on-demand air travel, Zipcar has an app that will locate the closest car to your location, reserve it, and when you go to pick it up, will let you honk the horn and unlock the car from the iPhone.

    "And you can do all of these things from one device that you probably always have with you. What's more, if you happen to find yourself at your friends house staring at that toaster, you can buy and install that app and add the functionality while you are standing there. You didn't even need to plan ahead, which is always the excuse for discrete devices:

    "There is no advantage to picking up the phone over picking up one of the cameras." Well, yes there is an advantage - you don't need to know ahead of time which thing you want. Sometimes you know, sometimes you don't. How many times have you found yourself in situations, unexpectedly, where you wish you had thought to bring your Kindle? or your camera? or any other device or bit of information?"

    One or two more in the queue, then I will declare this closed for my purposes -- and wait to see what happens with the devices! 

    More »

  • Are we naked in the cloud?

    A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against "unreasonable search and seizure" apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read -- or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party -- Google, Yahoo, et al -- is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

    As that post describes, the legal comparison-drawing goes in many directions. Is "giving" an email to Yahoo like putting a package in a public storage locker? Is it like putting an envelope in a regular mailbox? Does it matter if the message is encrypted? Etc. But the reader's point is less about the ins and outs of this ruling than about the broader legal/privacy implications of storing information "in the cloud." When you're working in Google Docs, as opposed to using a spreadsheet or document that lives on your computer, have you essentially surrendered custody and control of that information? What if you rely on online "cloud" systems -- Carbonite, SugarSync -- to back up or sync your files? Have you given up custody of those files too? The reader writes:

    "Based, in part, on your fondness ["your" referring to me, JF] for storing your documents in "the cloud" via third-party services like Sugarsync, Google Docs, etc., I thought you would this link interesting. [It concerns an opinion] concluding that email messages - even if they are entitled to 4th Amendment protection - can be retrieved by federal law enforcement authorities WITHOUT NOTICE TO THE SUBSCRIBER. The court's rationale - that the ISP is a "third party" rather than a file cabinet inside the target's "home" - would seem to apply perfectly well to documents stored in the cloud.

    "My concern about such matters is one big reason I do not rely much on "cloud" services of which you are so fond. It's not that I have much about myself that is all that interesting to third parties. It's that, as a lawyer, I have an ethical obligation to protect client confidences. And - if [this] reasoning prevails nationwide - this becomes impossible to do if I were to receive no "notice" from the ISP that they had received a search (or already complied with) a warrant for my clients' personal stuff.

    "To be clear, my clients are mostly indigent disabled people rather than individuals accused of criminal conduct, but - still - these sort of "big picture" issues are what a lawyer thinks about when he or she is deciding whether to make a wholesale migration to Sugarsync or Google Docs. And, for what it's worth, it is why I think Google and Sugarsync would be well served in joining together to lobby FOR a federal statute imposing strict privacy protection on documents stored in the cloud.

    "There is no way I'm putting my business docs permanently online until this issue is clearly settled in favor of privacy. It would, in fact, be unethical for me to do so.... While having copies of all your stuff stored in the cloud may be vastly more convenient than having it in your home-office file cabinet - it is a vastly less safe "place" from a privacy standpoint."

    I am not equipped to say more about the legal aspects here. But as a matter of politics and policy, I think the reader's recommendation is exactly right. All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing -- Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name -- should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn't mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there's a big scandal or problem.

  • How I Survived China
    Ashley Cooper/Aurora Photos

    How I Survived China

    Our man in Beijing returns home, with lungs only somewhat the worse for wear.

  • Language politics: Germany, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire

    Following this item about how China and America had one attitude toward foreigners trying to speak their language, while Japan, France, and (arguably) the Ivory Coast had a different view, some assent, dissent, and elaboration. These are long but if you're interested in language, then the detail is interesting.

    About German speakers:

    "Vigorous agreement on the American attitude towards foreigners speaking English, as contrasted with (in this case) German-speakers. My mother, an Austrian, always used to watch as my dad, an American, inevitably got mocked in her homeland for his imperfect German accent, and, indeed, imperfect German (which was still pretty good). She notes this would never happen in America -- it is rare for Americans to actively mock a foreigner's accent. When they do, it's usually in a way that somehow includes the foreign speaker. (We have a young family friend who sometimes says a word or two in "Churman" to make fun of her -- but he doesn't know any language but English -- he isn't lording any linguistic superiority over her -- knowing 2-3 languages to him is like ESP, a genuinely remarkable capacity.) Mom always says that the most common American reaction to her accent is a genuinely curious and open, "You have such a nice accent -- where are you from?"
    "Those German-speakers aren't being malicious -- something about the relative difficulty of the language instills this attitude in them. It's just hard for a foreigner to avoid mistakes that every educated German-speaker learns to avoid at the age of five. Also, note that in German there is a sharp distinction between "Hochdeutsch" and the vernacular German that the unlettered masses speak, meaning that a fairly substantial percentage of the population isn't even really trying to speak German correctly. English doesn't really recognize any such division -- we're all speaking English, one way or another. (Also, it fascinates me that the dictionary in German is known as the "Fremdwörterbuch" -- the book of foreign words -- you know, those hard Latinate words that you sometimes need to look up -- everyone knows the core German words. Mongrel English treats all words the same, regardless of origin.)

    "My mother, whose English in the meantime is excellent (but with an accent), observes that the thing about English is that the first stages of learning the language are easy -- anyone can learn it. And then comes the huge chasm to true fluency. English's vast vocabulary creates endless nuance in expression, which is just damnably difficult to master. But the first stages are easy, a linguistic open-door policy."

    About Japanese:

    "I agree with your comments about the Japanese language. I am a 2-year resident of Tokyo with fairly strong Japanese skills. [After some university study in Hiroshima and London] I mastered the language not by learning it from textbooks, but doing it on my own will-power. So, by speaking to people in Japanese almost non-stop, by reading books and newspapers in Japanese, watching Japanese television programs and listening to Japanese music and the radio, and by making requests by emails and fax for work in Japanese. Dating a Japanese girl for 3 years who only spoke Japanese, helped too. (we're no longer together, but I am grateful to her for the hours we spend talking together) I'm still learning day-by-day, but I am approaching the upper-intermediate level."
    "When a Japanese person and I talk to each other, one of the first things they say, is that my Japanese is good and natural. ("Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!) Especially they say I sound like a Japanese person. (Nihonjinmitai desu ne!" / "Hatsuon ga Nihonjin to onaji mitai desu ne!") Sometimes, on the phone, they mistake me for being Japanese! ("Ah! Nihonjin da to omotta!")  Occassionally people who I have known for a long time, still note the same thing. Like they fall back on a habitually set-pattern of behaviour.

    "It seems that they can't place a foreigner approaching a level of fluency similar to that of a native speaker in the appropriate box. It matches the belief that things should be done according to a set way. All there is left for them to do, is compliment.

    "It's one way to reduce risk."

    About various languages in Cote d'Ivoire:

    "I lived in Ivory Coast for a couple of years, back in the early '70's.  That was a while ago, so maybe I'm way out of date, but:

    "The reason they still call it Côte d'Ivoire is that there are lots of local languages-- you hear estimates between 60 and 80, so if you name the country in one language you piss off the other 59 or 79 tribes.  So it is linguistically as diverse as the US and maybe China.

    "There are lots of ways of speaking French in Abidjan, from the crude common pidgin on up to a few people with French metro grammar and accents.

    "There is a commercial patois that almost everybody can get along in, Dioula, named after a tribe related to the Malinké, which have strong enclaves around the country and functions something like the Lebanese or maybe Jews, or like Indians in South Africa or the overseas Chinese I've heard about.  So anyone you're liable to run into in Ivory Coast is comfortable using at least three languages, two of them probably pretty badly.

    "It always appeared to me that in the Côte the main interest in any exchange in any language or confusion of languages was understanding what everyone had to say, and there was zero mocking, although a reasonable amount of privately-shared savoring of flavorful phrases or accents. Even the French, who were then everywhere, seemed to skip language-based mocking, and to get mostly a kick out of the local accents and the murdering of French that went on.  Low-life Ivoirian French was necessary and easy to speak.

    "We were far up-country from Abidjan, true, but knew that town somewhat, and the idea of anyone mocking a tourist's French, even if there were non-French-speaking tourists to practice on, would have seemed pretty bizarre.  As would refusing to speak English for fear of being mocked. I'm guessing that the Ghanaian hairdresser in the story was speaking fantasies out of the writer's imagination rather than explaining anything about the Ivoirian attitude toward language. I'm also having a hard time imagining that someone from Ghana would call English her native language.  I know an Ivoirian wouldn't call French hers, unless she was one confused Ivoirian. [JF note: Having lived in Ghana at the same time this correspondent was living in Ivory Coast, I agree about the role of English there. Most educated people spoke it, but most would claim an African language -- Twi, Fante, etc -- as their mother tongue.]

    "Full disclosure:  I don't think I've ever heard even a Frenchman mock anyone's French, so It's possible that I am just deaf to the practice.  I think it's one of those things people just believe because they've heard about it a lot, like the one about people spitting on returning Vietnam GI's.  I've seen or experienced plenty of Frenchmen not understanding wrong French, but don't remember any of them mocking it."

    On this last point, the "spitting on vets" question is a whole separate controversy. As for French people with their language, I have seen enough eye-rolling and little smirks, or 'Pliz just spik ze English madame' to think that the mockery is not just an urban myth.

    More »

  • All-in-one post on all-in-one devices

    Below and after the jump, highlights from many interesting dispatches on the "all in one" question: whether cameras, computers, e-readers, etc will naturally converge into one multi-purpose super-device -- or whether people will continue to carry separate cameras, laptops, e-readers, and so on. This is long but is meant as a wrap-up survey of views. (Update: in fact, there are a few more items for one more installment soon.) Thanks to many readers for their thoughts.

    From a reader in Vietnam:

    "If your all in one device crashes, then all your devices have crashed. If your cell phone crashes, only your cell phone has crashed. If your all in one is picked out of your pocket by a thief, they are all gone..."

    From a reader in the US:

    "In a sense, the all-in-one debate began with the laptop. The laptop bundles processor, hard drive, screen, keyboard, mouse, microphone, speakers, and webcam, all of which are inferior to their desktop relatives. Yet, laptops are extremely popular, certainly not eliminating desktop computers, yet replacing them much more than had been expected.
     
    "One of the significant factors in that evolution is that the limited laptop is happy to be extended into greater desktop fullness. Some of the most elaborate and delicious desktop systems out there are extensions of laptops, such that, when the room full of hardware becomes an immobilizing anchor, the user can walk away with the all-in-one that everything plugs into. That kind of extensibility is the real next step in smart phones, one that we're only getting hints at, now. Yes, we will use specialized devices to take pictures, write books, watch full large screen movies, etc., but those devices will more and more be extenders of the all-in-one devices that will always be in our pockets, allowing us to do the full range of functions in small form when their extensions, for whatever the reason are not handy."

    From a reader in the US on the Kindle-v-Nook point (yes, off topic, but on point):

    "The main reason I have chosen not to buy the Kindle is Amazon.  I view Amazon as a threat to something I value almost as much as books.   

    "If I have to choose between Amazon's device or B&N's, I will choose the latter.  I want to support a company that maintains brick-and-mortar bookstores.   These kinds of business help to make neighborhoods lively and livable.  Moreover, only in real bookstores do I discover so many books that I never would have thought to look for.   

    "Whereas Amazon's business model diminishes communities, Barnes and Noble makes a neighborhood  better."

    From a reader whose wherabouts I do not know!

    "I think the discussion of what tradeoffs consumers will accept vary greatly between function to function. Cameras will always stand alone.

    "Consider:
    "Sports cars won't exist much longer because some of today's economy cars already perform better than a lot of sports cars from just a few years ago."

    "It's a bit of a ridiculous statement because it totally ignores why people buy sports cars in the first place. Similarly, anyone who says that cell phone cameras will ever replace high end point and shoots (much less SLRs) have a fundamental misunderstanding of the market and the technology trends. As your other readers have stated, sensor size and lens size matter a great deal more than megapixels.

    "Here are some photographs taken with Canon's 10D, a 6 megapixel "prosumer" SLR released in 2003 and discontinued in 2004. 5 years later, I have yet to see any point and shoot match the quality that the 10D is capable of:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/toma01/4034166407/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/22963627@N05/4040769022/

    "The iPhone, one of the best cameras in the cell phone world, still suffers from fundamental problems. A lot of the pictures look pretty good, but when you try to take a photograph with low-light conditions, the noisiness and the blurriness will completely overcome the picture.
    Here are some examples:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexchabot/4019973506/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/aniulka_znad_baltyku/4046320126/ (note the blue specks in the black sky)

    "Simply put, technology will never overcome the limitations of the signal-to-noise ratio when dealing with such small quantities of photons are available to focus onto a tiny sensor with a tiny lens. After a certain point you're running into some pretty formidable walls in particle physics.

    "So the PDA and MP3 player and the cell phone are pretty much a single device now. But those were the lowest hanging fruit, and it will be difficult to go further from here.

    From a reader in Western Massachusetts:

    "I think you can make a reasonable argument that we are heading towards single-device convergence in each of three spheres of desire - that of portability, ease of use, and quality experience. As another reader noted, the iPhone already satisfies most people's requirements for purely portable use, and will continue to improve. That's one convergence of an internet connection, phone, e-reader, and PDA. However, we spend most of our lives in situations where we aren't traveling, and don't need the extreme portability of such a small device. It's silly to imagine office workers all sitting in cubicles, typing away at their new Blackberries. I would argue that for easy of use, especially in communicating via video chat, typing messages such as this, and being able to watch things on a large enough screen make today's laptop the endpoint of the ease-of-use convergence. Lastly, large TVs and home stereo setups will combine the needs of people looking for a quality experience.

    "The interesting thing is to to imagine how these devices will get better and better at communicating. Thus, it might be that my data and applications are stored in an online cloud, available to me through any Internet-enabled device through my cellphone. My home TV might store it's settings on my iPhone, such that the channels I have preset literally stay with me.

    "Families might get by with one laptop that loads up different software and documents depending on the user, all linked to their mobile device. That doesn't mean we've reduced everything to a single little screen, but it does mean that people can easily get by with ownership of a single, all-in-one device that enables our use of other technology."

    One more installment ahead. Again, thanks to readers -- more interesting ramifications than I would have guessed.

    More »

  • Ivory Coast = France = Japan, in language habits at least

    In this scene from Dan Chaon's very bleak but memorable mistaken-identity novel Await Your Reply, a young American woman named Lucy goes into a hair salon in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. The country is French speaking, and Lucy is apprehensive about communicating. She addresses an African woman in the shop:

    "Excusez-moi," Lucy said stiffly. "Parlez-vous anglais?"

    She was aware of how clumsy she sounded... She remembered how, back in high school French, Mme Fournier would grimace with pity as Lucy tried to bumble her way through a conversational prompt. "Oh!" Mme Fournier would say. "Ca fait mal aux oreilles!" ... The African woman nodded at her politely. "Yes, mademoiselle," she said. "I speak English."...

    The woman's name was Stephanie, and she was from Ghana, she said, though she had lived in Cote d'Ivoire for many years now. "Ghana is an English-speaking country. That is my native language," Stephanie said. "So it's pleasant to speak English sometimes. That's one characteristic with the Ivoirians I don't understand. They turn to laugh at a foreigner who makes a mistake in French, so even when they know a little English, they refuse to speak. Why? Because they think the Anglophones will laugh at them in turn!"

    I can't help myself, so when I read this passage, I thought not so much about French and English but about Chinese and Japanese. With allowances for obvious differences, it's useful (as I've mentioned before) to think of Japan's attitude toward its national language as being similar to France's, and China's attitude as being similar to America's.

    That is: in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  Correspondingly, like the Ivoirians in this novel, Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

    The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants. In any case it was interesting to see what I am considering the French/Japanese outlook also depicted in Francophone Africa.

  • Appreciation of an appreciation (Soupy Sales dept)

    Usually my theory is: if it is elsewhere on the Atlantic's web site, you've already seen it. But in case anyone missed today's wonderful appreciation by Erik Tarloff, about Soupy Sales in his prime, I hope you will check it out. It includes a seven-minute clip of one of the mid-1960s Soupy Sales programs, but Erik's description (he's a friend) does an even better job of conveying the tone, structure, and effect of the show.

    This item also helped me understand, in an "OK, now that makes sense to me!" way, why my mother, who was then in her mid-30s and whose ideal afternoon would be to sit on the sofa reading Ivanhoe or some biography of Cromwell (she was in sunny Southern California but not of it), would usually join the kids to watch the Soupy Sales show when it came on. It's obvious in retrospect, but wasn't to me as a child, that it was not just a kids' show. In any case, worth reading.

  • Exhaustive Kindle/Nook smackdown

    Below and after the jump, an extremely detailed Kindle/Nook compare and contrast from a well-informed reader, in response to this previous comment by someone on the Nook team. This is presented in the public interest for those interested in the future of e-reading. More on the "all in one device" front later today.

    "1. Google Books linkup. It might be worth clarifying for your readers that, like the Nook, the Kindle also can be used to read many (increasingly most) books that are available in "Full" (as distinct from Snippet or Preview) on Google Books. The only limitation is that Google Books aren't accessible through the Amazon wireless link or stored in the Amazon cloud -- and I haven't been able to figure out from the Nook publicity whether that's going to be substantially different for the Nook.
    "Anyhow, apart from the Nook venture, Google Books is in the process of providing downloadable epub versions of all their Full (out-of-copyright) books as part of their normal Google Books features. Until recently, Google Books only provided txt or non-searchable (image only) pdf files of their Full books for download. Those didn't play nicely with Kindle at all. The amount of bad OCR in the txt files made them virtually unreadable. And the pdf image files didn't convert cleanly if at all.

    "With Google Books now providing the epub format as an option, however, it's a piece of cake to download the epub file for a Full book to your computer and convert it to a mobi file (the free/shareware Calibre does the conversion work for you). Then transfer the mobi file to your Kindle. Voila.

    "So I don't see where the Nook connection with Google Books is a big feature. Kindle can handle non-DRM epub files such as Google Books (with a quick extra conversion step). Even if Nook can be used to search/access Google Books, that still wouldn't be a plus for me. Finding a specific out-of-copyright book on a particular subject or by a particular author, and then finding the right edition of that book (especially older pre-20th century books that were published in multi-volume sets), is a specialized and time-consuming Googling skill that uses my full browser's broadband speed and flexibility. Especially since Google Books' metadata is notoriously unreliable or inadequate. It would be a nightmare to try to manage that process on an ereader's necessarily clunky web interface.

    2. Business models and potential points of competitive advantage.  To put my following remarks in perspective, the majority of the things I have on my Kindle aren't books purchased from Amazon (though I do buy a lot of fiction for the Kindle). They're pdf work documents that I convert to Kindle using Amazon's email (I have a Generation 1 Kindle which doesn't directly handle pdfs like the new DX model does). Also I use the Kindle for Project Gutenberg books, which are increasingly available in "experimental" mobi format that's directly readable on the Kindle. But even before the mobi files were available, Project Gutenberg's txt or html files converted to Kindle without a hassle. And as noted above, I'm increasingly taking advantage of Google Books in epub format. [Note: A lot of what I have on my Kindle 1 is also PDF/DOC stuff I have emailed myself to read on airplanes or somewhere other than at the computer.]

    "Any other non-DRM'd etexts of books and articles on the web are increasingly in epub among other formats, so they now work on Kindle with conversion. But even when a downloadable file isn't available in an epub or mobi format, the text on a website can usually be copied and saved by your browser as txt, rtf or pdf for conversion to Kindle. So basically, with a few quick steps, any free etext content on the web is readable on the Kindle.

    "In the non-Amazon book-buying realm, Kindle has started to shift some publishers' behavior. More specialty epublishers are making books available in non-DRM epub or mobi formats that are readable on multiple devices including the Kindle (see for example the site Fictionwise, where I've noticed the portion of books from specialty epublishers that are available without DRM has been increasing significantly).

    "So with that background of what's already available and what's not for the Kindle, here's how I see the competition between Kindle and Nook playing out. The big bottleneck in the expansion of the ereader public -- and the competition among ereader devices and retailers -- is being driven by the incompatibility of various DRM formats for books that people want to fork out money for (new releases and active backlists), not inaccessibility of free content.

    "As long as most publishers are insisting on DRM, the choice of an ereader device locks you in to your primary retailer -- in short, am I going to want to buy most of my books from B&N or from Amazon or from a variety of smaller ebooks websites (both retailers and publishers). If B&N can meet Amazon's convenience for book buying via wireless (which Sony hasn't managed to approach), then Nook will compete with Kindle on two basic elements: (1) inventory availability on B&N vs Amazon (and if Amazon can negotiate more international distribution rights now that Kindle is going international, that alone will be an enormous leg up for Amazon), and (2) price (of the proprietary ereader device and of the books themselves). The other bells and whistles (Nook's color covers or a slightly expedited way of getting to free web content like Google Books) aren't going to make any significant difference.

    "Nook and Kindle aren't grossly different cost-wise. So for me, the only reason to switch to the Nook (or if I were a virgin ereader, to buy the Nook rather than the Kindle) is if I thought I'd get a wider selection of the sorts of books I'm likely to buy for my Kindle at a better price from B&N than from Amazon. Since B&N's non-ebook web-retail hasn't, through product availability, convenience or price, lured me away from Amazon for my regular (non-ereader) book buying, that suggests to me that B&N has its work cut out for them.

    "I think the only thing that would change the above calculus is if the Nook had a major additional or qualitatively better feature on the ereader device itself (and color covers don't count as a major feature). Frex -- ability to use the screen to take handwritten notes that are portable in txt files to your computer --- but that sort of handwriting recognition feature probably is going to require a powerful multi-function device like the (?)Apple Tablet(?).

    "Or if the Nook offered a significant bundle of minor improvements over the Kindle that added up to noticeably enhanced functionality (the stuff Kindle already knows from user feedback should be included in next generations) -- e.g. a combo of a more refined search functions (such as search just within the document you're reading, not your whole library and the web), a folder system to be able to organize one's personal library, an ability to edit the metadata on each book (frex books by the same author are arbitrarily sorted sometimes by first name, sometimes by last, so they don't show up together under the "by author" sort), and a better way of being able to work with notes and highlights outside of the Kindle.

    "Amazon also needs to make their "sharing" arrangement better -- limiting it to Kindles that are registered to your own Kindle account (which means that anyone whom you register can buy using your credit card and can browse through and download everything you've ever bought for your Kindle from Amazon) isn't terribly attractive. There ought to be a "per book" arrangement whereby over, say, three years, you can share a book with up to a certain number of registered ereader devices. If B&N can come up with an attractive and flexible sharing arrangement, that would be a major competitive advantage over Amazon.

    "The various basic features that I think Kindle is missing (or has poorly implemented) suggest to me that Amazon is too wedded to the synchronized cloud feature, which is nifty for Amazon-purchased books but useless for all the other ways the Kindle can be used. Prioritizing the cloud seems to have set limits on other functionalities that should have been designed into the Kindle's system for basic usability from the outset. But hey, so far Amazon's focus is getting a critical mass of customers buying ebooks, first in the US and now international, so I understand why they've chosen the path they have.

    "That being said, if Amazon wants to maintain competitive position, they ought to start looking at the Kindle more as a multi-purpose ereader, not just a tool for buying and reading Amazon-purchased books. And no, being able to access blogs or magazine articles on the Kindle isn't a killer app -- that's not where they should focus energy on new features/usability (see frex the highly revealing feedback from Josh Marshall's TPM readers when asked about TPM for mobile platforms -- even the Kindle aficionados said "don't bother" with the Kindle).

    "The TPM feedback reinforces what I've long concluded -- Amazon should work on making the Kindle the preferred long-form reading device for all the stuff that's long enough that it gets tedious on computer screens and is awkward on small iPhone-type displays -- texts you otherwise want in physical print (either book or printed-out document) but that aren't so dependent on a visual experience (loaded with graphics, photos etc) that only physical print or a large, high-quality computer display will do. The link to purchasing from Amazon should remain a highly attractive convenience feature that biases a user to choose Amazon as retailer-of-choice, but not the driver of the Kindle's future.

    "From the foregoing, you'll understand that I'm of the school that multi-function devices won't represent the demise of dedicated ereaders. Some folks will go multi-function -- especially if Apple Tablet eventually delivers most of the dream-functions that have been rumored. But there are lots of pros to having a reading device that's designed specifically for reading and working with long-form text. So I expect there will be many folks who will continue to prefer a dedicated ereader, and I expect I'll be among them."

    More »

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