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.
  • 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 »

  • Background on Nook v. Kindle

    A person who was involved in Barnes & Noble's launch of the Nook sends this info about its positioning relative to the Kindle and other potential competitors. This person naturally has a bias in favor of the Nook, but this is interesting as a view onto B&N's thinking.

    "Nook advantages
    "- More open with ePub, Android OS, and lending
    "- My guess is Amazon will copy lending
    "- In store WiFi. Users can go in stores and access lots of content from entire books to free publications. Len Riggio, founder and CEO of B&N fought to have comfortable seating in the stores and has prevailed against naysayers thought it would waste valuable space. I think you'll see even more space allotted to this. There's lots of space devoted to music that will be replaced with nook areas.
    "- The color touch display really brings the ease of use to ebooks much as Apple did with iPhones.
    "- Much larger bookstore that includes Google books
    "- Holding. Easier to grip with a contoured and soft touch back. Works equally well for right and left handed."

    Again, this comes from an interested party, but it's worth bearing in mind as the product hits the market.

  • More on the "all in one device" debate

    Below and after the jump, voice of the reading public on whether various electronic devices (camera, phone, e-reader, computer, what have you) will eventually converge in one super-duper device. I say No. The readers I quote here agree! And they have facts, tech specs, and so on to back up their/my case...

    From a reader outside the US, on whether the coming pixel improvement in camera phones will be the magic moment when you no longer need a "real" camera:

    "You probably know this, but they can cram 30 megapixels into a digital phone and it won't improve the picture quality much beyond 6 or 7MP. The hard-to-surmount-with-technology issue with tiny cameras is the width of the lens (how much light can come in). Other problems are focal length (hard to build a tiny zoom lens, although my old EX-V7 did a decent job of it) and the fact that a cellphone camera is bound to have a puny flash if any.  Beyond a fairly low (well below the promised 10) threshold, adding megapixels is just a sales gimmick."

    From a reader in the Midwest, on the general problem of all-in-one-ism:

    "The are some obvious problems with the idea that there will eventually be one device that is "good enough" to replace separate phones, cameras, computers, etc.

    "One is that the separate versions of these devices will continue to improve. The pictures made with pocket cameras for example do indeed rival the best film cameras of a few years ago. And they will get better (and cheaper). A dedicated camera will always have more space for a larger sensor (sensor size, not megapixels is the critical issue) and as pocket cameras improve to the point where they can also take 720 or 1080p, 30fps video, they will maintain the performance advantages they have over phones. And if today's consumers prefer separates, why should they stop doing so when the performance of pocket cameras moves from good to superb while the cost comes down?
    "Then consider how people actually use these devices. My wife and I use our video and still cameras at home or on walks for the most part (and still and video technologies ARE merging). There is no advantage to picking up the phone over picking up one of the cameras. When we travel, we travel by road. We have no trouble finding space in the car for separates (and for the laptop). When it comes to computing, I need a near full-size, preferably physical keyboard and an OS that allows me to do everything on the road that I can do at home with no loss in speed. That means my computer can only be as small as the widest netbooks and at that size it's wildly impractical as a phone. Try to imagine running, biking or simply taking a walk with one. Weight may be important when I'm flying, but assuming each device is light enough, I don't need to carry one only device anymore than I need to carry only one shirt.

    "Then there is the problem of cost. One device sounds nice if one has nothing to begin with. If one has already purchased a computer, a camera, a phone and a video-camera as we have, one tends to upgrade them separately and at different times. My wife and I have had more phones than cameras and more cameras than laptops. Why would we stick usable items in a drawer in exchange for a single device that can at best, only equal some the performance that we've already paid for?  

    "I get the impression that the "one device" crowd thinks that everyone lives in a big city, uses public transportation and carries everything in a backpack. Having as few devices as possible may make sense if that's who you are. But the overwhelming majority of us aren't."

    I'm convinced. Oh, but wait a minute, for fairness here's an entry on the other side, from a reader on the West Coast. Inevitably all answers will turn out to be true and all varieties of device will emerge, as this reader suggests in his final paragraph.

    "Personally, my new iPhone 3GS has crossed the threshold of being a "good enough" e-reader that I will probably never go for something big and clunky like a Kindle. And its camera, at 3MP, is almost the equal of the first digital camera I bought (3.3MP), from which I have many photos that are certainly "good enough." 10MP is near overkill for most casual snapping.

    "Purists and enthusiasts will always sniff about quality, just like they gripe today that MP3s sound worse than CDs (which sound worse than vinyl discs), and that the compromised speakers used in multichannel home theater setups have killed the "true hi-fi" experience.

    "All true, at least arguably, but the reality is simply that most consumers don't seem to care. Convenience wins over ultimate quality almost every time, it seems. Just look in your freezer."

    More »

  • Health-related follow up: can Asians drink? (UPDATED)

    The latest installment of the Doing Business in China series talked about the ritual of drinking-to-the-point-of-drunkness in formal Chinese "business" gatherings. This doesn't always happen, but it happens enough to be a factor in professional life. In my experience, it was even more common in the provinces than in the big cities, and most likely in "getting to know you" dinners involving big delegations. Now a reader in Philadelphia writes with a question about the practice:

    "I read your post on Doing Business in China, and I wondered to what extent the prevalence of alcohol in after-hours business gatherings is complicated by the alcohol flush reaction common to so many people of East Asian descent.  I am an American of Chinese descent with this particular genetic variation and I find that the unpleasant side effects of alcohol consumption interfere with any desire to drink until intoxication.  Given the frequency of this condition, do business people in China simply accept the situation as normal or is there a demurral from overconsumption, where someone may take one drink as a courtesy and then decline politely thereafter, so as to avoid such intoxicating effects?"

    The issue here involves an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, or ALDH2. It is part of the metabolic chain for breaking down alcohol, and people who lack it are subject to a kind of "alcohol poisoning." Their face and/or neck turns red, they sweat, they flush and may pass out. Interestingly (and to the best of my understanding), the anti-alcoholism drug Antabuse, which is supposed to make drinking so unpleasant that people are forced to swear off, works by mimicking the effect of a blocked ALDH2 enzyme.

    Caucasians rarely lack this enzyme, but as many as half the people do among some East Asian and North Asian population groups -- Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, many Native American groups in the US and Canada. (I don't know about Africans, South Asians, etc.) So at a drinking party in China, you'll typically see some faces turn bright red after a couple of sips.
     
    How do people who have this problem cope? Obviously it depends, but I've seen two main patterns. Some people politely avoid the baijiu or similar high-proof spirits. They stick to tea or hot water or soft drinks. Others plunge right ahead, as if getting drunk is the point (to promote a shared dropping of inhibitions). It's tough work but must be done. Whenever I felt sorry for myself at these rituals, I realized that there were people who were facing even greater challenges. 干杯 - Ganbei!

    UPDATE: thanks to reader M.L. a map from a paper in the Annals of Human Genetics showing with dark shade the prevalence of the genetic problem in question. Centered farther south in China than I would have guessed. Mongolia not very much affected. As for adjoining areas, M.L. reports "Central Asians - and I can back this up from direct observation, especially in former Soviet Central Asia, most certainly do not seem to be afflicted with any symptoms of alcohol allergies."GeneMap.jpg


  • The logical core of Matthew Hoh's resignation letter (updated)

    This passage from his letter is to me the heart of the argument for curtailing rather than expanding America's stake and commitment in Afghanistan:

    "I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. [My emphasis.] Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights that the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries."

    The United States entered Afghanistan -- properly and with every moral and practical justification -- to disrupt, punish, and kill groups that had planned the 9/11 attacks. It is now in a mess in Afghanistan largely because of the crucial misjudgment nearly eight years ago to shift effort and attention to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Not everything in foreign affairs can be explained by logic. But as Hoh argues, if we're serious in thinking we can now eliminate terrorist threats with our troops in Afghanistan, then logically we must also send them to Pakistan and beyond. And if we're not serious, then how can we keep them there?

    For-the-record point: resignations on principle are vanishingly rare in U.S. government practice. It's much easier to keep your head down, protect your career prospects, and when it's over say that you had been against [failed policy xx or yy] all along. Apart from the merits of his argument, Hoh deserves respect for taking this step so forthrightly. Each person who does so creates an example for others to reflect upon.

    UPDATE: A reader in Europe writes,

    "There's an interesting book (dated,may well be 30 yrs old) comparing resignations in the UK with those in the USA, showing that the British tradition allows to resign and later be appointed again because you did the "honourable thing" whereas in the US excuses like"return to the family"or "other pursuits" were mostly used to cover up."

    The book he is referring to is Resignation in Protest by Edward Weisband and Thomas Franck, which I have heard of but have not read. Thanks to reader P.A.

  • Tech followups: Kindle, Swiss Army Knife

    After my gripe yesterday that Amazon and Visa should work out a kink in their billing plans, I heard from a lot of readers who'd had the same problem. (Gist: Amazon charges 15 or 30 cents for Kindle-related fees; Visa flags these micro-charges as likely fraud and freezes your card.) Here's a sample reply, which also includes a sensible fix:

    "The charges are doubly surprising, because for that small rate I suspect Amazon pays more in Visa fees than it gets in money.
     
    "I'm surprised they aren't doing what Apple does in the iTunes store.  For a $0.99 purchase, Apple pre-authorizes your card for something like $10 and then, once your purchases accrue to a reasonable level, they actually run the larger charge on the accumulated purchases.  The only way they will end up running a 99-cent charge is if you buy a track and then don't buy anything more until the pre-authorization is about to expire."
    _____

    After my claim a few days ago that we were still a long way from the day of the "all in one" electronic device -- camera plus phone plus e-reader plus netbook plus personal groomer etc -- Derek Thompson elaborates on his views, and a reader writes in, to similar effect:

    "It's a debatable point, for sure, but I think your time horizon is a little short and have missed some recognition of how much the era has already arrived.

    "Only a few years ago, no digital camera could match a 'real' camera, and we're already at a point that consumer point-and- shoots rival film cameras from 5 years ago, aside from the lens flexibility that most people don't need. Give it a few more years and you'll see 10 megapixel cameras in cell phones. And while you probably will never want to put a cellphone photo of mom hanging over the mantle, we've already reached the point where cellphones are rivaling dedicated cameras and camcorders for the *volume* of photos and videos taken.
    "As Chase Jarvis will happily tell you, the best camera is the one you have with you, and it's just a matter of time before integrated cameras wipe out the consumer camera market. Remember, there are technological sweet spots on these things. Once you hit 10 megapixels or so, there's not much point of going further in the consumer space. You see the same things with audio, video, and even displays.

    "The question isn't whether it's worse to read, worse photos, worse typing, but whether it's good enough or not. This isn't limited to electronic devices either. Paperbacks aren't as easy to read as hardbacks, the paper is thin and flimsy, the type is mushy, the text runs too deep into the spine, but they're good enough - either due to their size, cost, what have you that paperbacks have become extremely successful - so much so that publishers have to curtail their entry to the market in order to keep the more profitable hardback sales up. The real question is when will these devices catch up to the paperback, newspaper, magazine, camera, dedicated GPS, etc. in 'goodenoughness'  that they eventually kill off or seriously suppress the alternatives.
     "With the recent innovations in multi-touch and miniaturization/power reduction of critical components, I think that era is much closer at hand than you might realize."

    My reaction is, We'll see -- and I say that as more than pure platitude. The nice thing about predictions of behavior is that sooner or later we'll know what actually occurs. For now I am skeptical precisely because I've heard about the impending "all in one" era for a very long time. Despite these predictions, I still see people carrying a cell phone/PDA (yes, these functions have merged), and a camera, and a computer, and sometimes a Kindle, and...  But, we'll see! And if all-in-one devices prevail, that will be good news, since it will indicate that future devices work better than I now expect.

    More »

  • Doing Business in China: Drinks and Deals

    The most important business relationships in China are cemented in the bar.

    Ah, drinking in China as part of business negotiations. Where to start... This next installment of the Doing Business in China series is a beginning. It really is true that the purpose of many "business" dinners is for everyone, Chinese and foreign, to become drunk (often on Chinese Baijiu, 白酒, vodka-ish raw spirit). In becoming drunk and lowering defenses, people prove their mutual trust, or something. In any case, it's real. Note the appearance of Chinese beer, on which I often commented during my time of residence, starting about time 0:11. Main point: this sounds like a joke or cliche but actually makes a difference.

  • This is heartwarming! (From Shaanxi to Carnegie Hall)

    This summer I mentioned the mesmerizing experience of hearing lao qiang, "Old Songs," in a middle-of-nowhere rural theater in Shaanxi province in China. The patriarch and star of the troupe I saw was Zhang Ximin, more or less a traditional Chinese counterpart to BB King:

    IMG_7395A.jpg 


    Today I see in the New York Times that he and Zhang Family Band were at Carnegie Hall over the weekend! That's Zhang Ximin in the red shirt in the NYT's picture, below.

    ZhangNYT.jpg

    This should support some new version of the "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" joke, but I can't think of one at the moment.
  • The only thing I will ever say on this subject (Redskins)

    I highly recommend Steve Coll's mini-screed on the New Yorker's web site right now. Like Coll, I enjoyed playing offensive line back during (briefly) the Peewee Football/Pop Warner stage of life. Unlike him, I was not a childhood fan of the Redskins -- the L.A. Rams, as then existed, had their summer training camp in my home town, and my brother and I lived for the moments when we could watch them up close and get autographs on the practice field. But you can't raise sons in DC, as my wife and I have done, without having the Redskins be the common bonding experience, topic of phone calls on Sunday afternoon, and all-purpose cultural touchstone for a lot of people in DC.

    Unfortunately the Redskins of the Dan Snyder era, which is now a decade long with no sign of relief, are simply a cause of heartache, nausea, and depression. The only reason I've been able to watch this year is the stylish and stalwart Chris Cooley, who tonight apparently has been injured in the soon-to-be completed loss to the Iggles. Jeez.

    Back to Steve Coll. He has won every journalistic prize, been a power at the Washington Post, now runs the New America Foundation, etc. But the words he may always be proudest of are those he's written about what has happened to the city's team:

    "The issue is not the team's performance on the field, dismal as that is. It is the culture created by the owner--one of greed, expediency, and mean-spiritedness. The general atmosphere around the team suggests Zimbabwe--a failed state, an intractable dictator, and an impotent and suffering populace."
  • More on the Minneapolis "overflight"

    According to numerous accounts in the last hour -- AP here, Reuters here, WSJ here -- the current story from the Northwest flight crew that forgot to land in Minneapolis is that they were so absorbed in using laptops in the cockpit that they neglected to talk with air traffic controllers for more than an hour and didn't get around to descending.

    I hate to say this about people with enough other problems already, but: that's simply impossible to believe.

    Flying an airplane is different from driving a car, in that it doesn't take constant second-by-second attention to the mechanics of where you're going and how you're handling the controls. If you type out a text message while you're driving a car, you really are putting yourself and others in danger.  But if you take a minute in an airplane to check a detail of the routing, or a weather report, or anything else that comes up, in most phases of flight nothing bad is going to happen. The plane will cruise along with its autopilot, and most of the time no other planes are anywhere nearby. (Obviously this doesn't apply in takeoff and landing, in busy airspace, etc.)

    That's why some of the stories tut-tutting the pilots for breaking company rules by opening laptops during flight are beside the point. That's a for-form's-sake only rule whose violation may be"wrong" but is not intrinsically dangerous.

    The difficulty for the pilots is that the version of the story they're resisting -- that they simply fell asleep -- is less damning for them than any alternative version. If they fell asleep, that's bad, but they could argue some kind of force majeure. But if their "heated conversation" (previous story) or intense laptop use (current story) kept them from remembering their most elemental responsibility as pilots, that really is beyond the pale. The closest comparison would be, say, to an operating-room team that got so interested in watching a football game on TV that they sliced open a patient but forgot to take out his appendix. Forgetting where you are going is incredible enough on its own. And not having any back-of-mind nag saying, "Wait a minute, we haven't heard anything on the air-traffic control frequency for a while" also is outside any known experience of the professional flight-crew world.

    I say this not to rub it in for people who have lots of trouble ahead -- and who, to their credit, did get their passengers down safely. I mention it to underscore how much an outlier the apparent failure in this case is -- and to emphasize the trouble they're creating for themselves with the "conversation" and "laptop" alibis. If they fell asleep, that's embarrassing. If they were awake, it is far, far worse.

  • Maybe Amazon and Visa should talk?

    Packing for an airline trip. My wife online booking the next family trip. Keeps trying to confirm and pay for the tickets -- cheap advance purchase deal! System keeps rejecting the Visa card number she feeds it. Hmmmm. Am I going to have trouble using the card on the upcoming trip?

    I continue to pack. She holds on the phone with Visa. Suddenly the answer is there: card has been frozen because of suspicious tiny transactions. One for thirty cents, one for forty-five. Just the kind of "probing" charge that credit card thieves attempt to see if a card number is good -- and that, for the same reasons, credit card companies block.

    But wait a minute. These charges -- shown below -- were for the fifteen-cent conversion fees that Amazon charges when you mail it a .PDF or .DOC file to be sent to your Kindle. I was sending several files so I could read them on the plane. (The $1.25 charge is for my monthly Kindle version of the world's finest magazine -- better on paper, but this is a nice backup.) You can get files converted for the Kindle for free, but it means manually transferring them via your computer. I thought it was worth the seventy-five cents to skip that phase.

    VisaKindle.jpg
    I can't be the first person to use a credit card for tiny Kindle charges. Maybe a little coordination to be worked out here, guys? Another opportunity for the Nook?


  • McChrystal as Obama's savior?

    I mentioned recently William S. Lind's argument that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, intentionally or not, done the Obama Administration a favor with the bleakness of his report on the prospects in Afghanistan. In response to the recent Australian analysis of the McChrystal report, cited here, a reader writes with a view complementary to Lind's:

    "I suspect that the news media and blogosphere has overplayed the tension between McChrystal and the Obama administration.  As your recent post on the Afghan Rorschach test suggests, McChrystal has given an unvarnished assessment of the state of play, and a fairly unvarnished assessment -- or at least a shockingly high assessment -- of the numbers of troops he needed to 'turn the conflict around.'

    "In short, he made his troop request high enough to be fairly easy to reject, and his report pessimistic enough to rule out an Obamaesque middle course   He can't be expected to craft a report that would make withdrawal seem easy, but it is to his credit that he (unlike Westmoreland) has made a good faith effort to make increased commitment seem hard.
    "One of the problems with civilian commentary on Afghanistan is that civilians have been much slower than the military to learn the lessons of Vietnam."
  • More on the Afghan Rorschach test

    A friend in Australia pointed me to the transcript of a speech in Canberra last week by Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the past eight years. The war in Afghanistan has been a bigger matter for a longer time in Australia than in the US, in part because Australian troops have suffered many more casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. McGeough's speech is coruscating, and it uses Gen. McChrystal's report in a way I haven't seen applied anywhere else: as a radically honest reporting document, which in its very honesty reveals why its recommendations would not work out.

    I mean these few samples to whet interest rather than to substitute for reading the presentation as a whole. Although he is tough on the Obama Administration, McGeough offers no support to the likes of Dick Cheney and his recent criticisms. As McGeough says in the final words of the speech, referring specifically to the Bush Administration's choice to switch manpower, money, and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq starting in late 2001:

    "By the way, a recent American intelligence estimate put the insurgency's full-time fighting strength at at-least 25 000, up 25 per cent on the previous year. There should never have been a debate about how strong the insurgency is. They were on the run in 2001 - and they came back, only because they were allowed to."

    Below and after the jump, other samples of his reasoning. But please do check it out. First, on the similarity between the Soviet and American wars.

    "After eight years, Washington finds itself in the same position that the Soviet Union was in Year 8 of its occupation of Afghanistan, seemingly having learnt nothing from history - until McChrystal's bombshell assessment.

    "I want to read from a defence official's letter dated August 17. He calls for an honest admission of failure after eight years, citing the squandering of huge material resources and considerable casualties and a failure to stabilise the country - militarily or politically. Most of the population has lost trust, because the campaign is bogged down and a strategic breakthrough is unlikely.

    "The experience of the past years," he continues somberly, "clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country..."

    "That might have been a note to General McChrystal as he prepared his report - but the date was August 17, 1987. And the author, Colonel K. Tsagalov, was addressing the then newly appointed Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov."

    On seeing the truth too late:

    "In assessing the insurgency, McChrystal declares it, or them, to be sophisticated, organised, adaptive, determined and nuanced across all lines of operations ... with, he goes on, the capacity to exhaust the coalition and to prevent Kabul from governing the country. Much of his report leads to a conclusion that it is the very opposite that applies to Karzai and the Coalition's operations...

    "Right now, I'm frightened for Afghanistan - I read McChrystal and I look back over 20 or more assignments in the country since just before 9/11 and my fear is that he has missed the boat.

    "The Taliban is stronger, more violent and more in control than at any time since it was dislodged from Kabul in 2001. Foreign forces, mostly American, are dying at a greater rate and hundreds of billions of dollars are being squandered for no apparent return. Public and political support for the war has peaked and now is declining in the U.S. and in other coalition countries. As Hamid Karzai continues to demonstrate with his election fraud and his response to its exposure - the Kabul Government is rotten from the top....

    "McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late - for Afghanistan and for Washington... The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

    Not having been in Afghanistan, I can't judge this first hand. But it is a powerful case. Also please consider this complementary argument by William S. Lind, which finds a similar tactics/strategy mismatch in McChrystal's report. Just as McGeough says that McChrystal has unintentionally made the case against deeper commitment in Afghanistan, Lind says that the report has unintentionally offered the Obama Administration a way out.

    More »

  • Nook, Kindle, Raz, NPR

    On today's All Things Considered a hands-on comparison of Nook vs Kindle -- something I have not been able to do myself. (More from the interviewee, Gizmodo's Matt Buchanan, here.) I am agnostic about which is better -- or whether something by Apple or somebody else will ultimately be "the" right electronic reader. The one certainty is that the appearance of a new, attractive product from a strong competitor is good for everyone. Even, in an enlightened self-interest sense, for Amazon/Kindle itself, since real competition is likely to make this whole market larger and more viable.

    Two more points on which I'm not agnostic are: Is this good for publishing? And, will we get used to reading this way? The answers are Yes, and Yes. Anything that makes it easier to spend money on books, as the Kindle undeniably does, has to be good in the long run for publishing and writers, despite some in-the-meantime disruptions. And I already find it as natural to read on the Kindle's screen as from a paperback. I still like the heft and feel of real books in the right circumstances, and magazines are night-and-day preferable to read in print. But these devices are clearly a step forward overall.

    (PS: I disagree with the interesting post by the Atlantic Business Channel's Derek Thompson, who looks at the new e-readers and says that we're headed for a Swiss Army Knife-style combination of many different functions in a few all-purpose electronic gizmos. I'm skeptical because of the dozen previous times through the computer era in which that prediction has not panned out. "Real" cameras are still much better than in-phone cameras; the right device to carry in your pocket, as a phone or PDA, will always be worse to read on than a device with a bigger screen, which in turn is too big to fit in your pocket; keyboards are simply better than little thumbpads for entering more than a few words, and any device with a real keyboard has to be a certain size. So, sure, some things will be combined, but the all in one era is not at hand, and won't be.)
     
    I was also on today's show in a "news analysis" spot, as I've done several times in recent weeks with the host, Guy Raz, this time talking about errant airplanes, Fox News, Baby Einstein, etc. I very much like the savvy and cultural mix of the show, and happily serve in the "someone has to dish up the liver and vegetables" capacity.

  • From an Airbus captain, about recent flight errors

    A reader writes:

    "I just thought you might like to know that while the airplane overflying Minneapolis received major headlines, the Delta airplane which landed on a taxiway in Atlanta earlier this week received minimal coverage. As you can imagine the taxiway landing is much more of a close call (that is a greater chance of casualties) than overflying an airport at altitude. As I've come to expect from the press there is no perspective on the relative danger of either incident. Somewhat similar to focusing on shark attacks while we kill approximately 40,000 every year on our roads.

    "As an A-320 captain I don't mean to throw stones at either crew (there but for the grace of God...)... As to the Atlanta taxiway incident there were multiple factors including a long overnight flight, a sick check airman who was in the back, and a change of runway inside the marker [well into the plane's final descent, shortly before landing] to a runway without approach lighting... But it is interesting that one incident is totally ignored while the other gets major media play."

    Google Earth view of approach to runway 27R at Atlanta. Where they should have landed is the runway at center of this view, with the chevron markers on black background pointing towards it. Where they actually landed was the taxiway just to its right. This happened in the dark. At night the taxiway would have blue lights and the runway white lights.

    KATL.jpg

    Why a taxiway landing is potentially much more dangerous: another airplane could theoretically be turning onto the taxiway just as the incoming plane was touching down, raising the prospect of a repeat of the deadliest accident in aviation history, the collision of two fully-loaded 747s on the runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1977. Why the current "overflight" incident, despite its safe conclusion, has gotten attention: for what it may show about pilot-fatigue and work-rule questions (plus the melodrama factor of passengers sitting, reading, dozing innocently while things in the cockpit are not as they should be; plus the melodrama factor of controllers, hearing nothing from the plane, not knowing whether it was another hijacking/terrorist episode). Why news coverage does not follow statistical risk of danger: this is life.


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