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.
  • Placeholder for Google and China story

    For the next few hours, I'm not able to do a posting on this topic; but the announcement from Google about its latest difficulties with the Chinese government is very significant. I had followed part of this story from the Chinese side over the past year and will have more to say this evening. As a first point, credit to Google for making the initial announcement as plainly and openly as it appears to have done. More shortly.

  • On whether America is going to hell

    Thanks to many readers for thoughtful reactions to my cover story in the current issue (subscribe! just a thought). To illustrate the range, a few items here.

    First, from a veteran DC-based writer I know and respect. This is in response to my argument that while every other aspects of American society is subject to constant reinvention, the machinery of government has ossified in ways that make it very difficult to address the big, public issues of the day. A particular problem, I argued, is the Senate:

    "When the U.S. Senate was created, the most populous state, Virginia, had 10 times as many people as the least populous, Delaware. Giving them the same two votes in the Senate was part of the intricate compromise over regional, economic, and slave-state/free-state interests that went into the Constitution. Now the most populous state, California, has 69 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming, yet they have the same two votes in the Senate. A similarly inflexible business organization would still have a major Whale Oil Division; a military unit would be mainly fusiliers and cavalry....

    "The Senate's then-famous "Gang of Six," which controlled crucial aspects of last year's proposed health-care legislation, came from states that together held about 3 percent of the total U.S. population; 97 percent of the public lives in states not included in that group. (Just to round this out, more than half of all Americans live in the 10 most populous states--which together account for 20 of the Senate's 100 votes.) "The Senate is full of 'rotten boroughs,'" said James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, referring to the underpopulated constituencies in Parliament before the British reforms of 1832. "We'd be better off with a House of Lords."

    The veteran correspondent wrote back to say that this was too mechanistic a view of the big-state / small-state "rotten borough" problem:

    "Perhaps the Senate more accurately reflects a lack of character among its current members rather than the states they represent. Each on his own way, Mansfield, Simpson, Pell, Chafee and Biden, to name a few, transcended their small-state constituencies in ways that, say, Boxer and Schumer patently do not on the other end of the demographic pole."

    The list, of course, covers "rotten borough" Senators like Mike Mansfield of Montana, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee of Rhode Island, and Joe Biden of Delaware -- in contrast to Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York. Fair point. Certainly the full version of the "what's gone wrong" argument would note that we have both problems: a structurally rigged system, and individual politicians who don't try very hard to rise above it. Or rather, we have not just those two problems but about a hundred others: an electorate that rewards being pandered to, news organizations with a million problems of their own, money in politics, etc. So it's worth talking about any and all of these distorting forces to see if there's a chance of headway on any of them.

    Bonus on structural distortions: my friend Tom Geoghegan's excellent op-ed in the NYT yesterday on Sunday about the logic of getting rid of the Senate filibuster. It follows his previous argument about the filibuster last summer in the Nation, here. Gist of the op-ed:

    "[T]he Senate, as it now operates, really has become unconstitutional: as we saw during the recent health care debacle, a 60-vote majority is required to overcome a filibuster and pass any contested bill. The founders, though, were dead set against supermajorities as a general rule, and the ever-present filibuster threat has made the Senate a more extreme check on the popular will than they ever intended."

    Now, for another perspective, a letter from a reader who doesn't really identify himself, but makes an argument similar to many others I've received:

    "I recently read Your article entitled "How America can rise again".  It is a very simple solution and that is to expose Freemasonry, the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the Knight's Templar, the ancient mystical order Rosae Crucis, International Socialism, Communism, etc., etc., etc. because You will find ALL of them to be the same.  Our government is the Constitution of the United States.  If we lose what's left of that, we will lose our freedom and so will the rest of the world.  The present war we are fighting is an educational battle.  I do my part to try to make it a point exposing these deceivers and those who are bringing about a One World Totalitarian Socialist State.  By reading material published by these "Mystery Schools", we can see what is in front of us and who belongs to them by learning their language and symbols.  America will not fail, but rather Mystery Babylon will fail.  It is a system designed to fail.  "The Truth will make You free"  - Jesus Christ."

    I believe that the last two words are intended as a quote-attribution, rather than an exclamation. I offer this for the record.

  • What happened in Copenhagen, #4

    Previously here. Three more accounts today. I hope to have a report from another Inside Observer by this evening, and then it will be time to wrap things up.

    - What about Obama? From a reader in Europe:

    "A familiar situation. When all are to blame, each of the culprits tries to point the finger at the one, only, uniquely blamable fiend who spoiled it all. Personally, in this particular circumstance I found the US President's decision to arrive at the last minute and put on the pretense of saving the day as objectionable as the resistance of the Chinese to discarding Kyoto and being blamed as the main destroyers of the planet's climate balance. What about an equally penetrating inquest on the true motivations and behaviour of the US and other key Western delegations?"

    Fair question. My initial reply, subject to amendment below as noted, is: Whatever one thinks about the theatrics of Obama's last-minute intervention, there does not seem to be much mystery about his motives. He was trying to show his "relevance" and influence over world affairs -- remember, this was one week after his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; he was trying to build momentum for one of this year's upcoming and difficult legislative battles, the climate/energy bills left over from last year; he may have been trying to show that his talks with the Chinese leadership during his much-maligned Asian trip would really pay off. (The long-term tests of a Chinese-US understanding will also involve whether they are able to find common ground about Iran, North Korea, currency values and general economic rebalancing, on top of these crucial environmental/ climate questions.) I don't know of a worldwide burble of curiosity and confusion about what Obama was "really" trying to do in Copenhagen, comparable to the effort to interpret the Chinese strategy.

    - "Extreme outburst." An expat reader in Beijing writes to comment on the line from Kenneth Lieberthal's analysis, which includes this line, "The open dissent at the Friday evening meeting - including having one member of Wen's delegation shout and wag his finger at President Obama." The reader adds:

    "This really caught my attention - hard to imagine a Chinese official shouting at a foreign head of state!  

    "So, I checked and in the Chinese media it was reported that representatives of Brazil, India and South Africa were meeting privately with Wen Jiabao and the Chinese team, when Obama "impolitely" ( "失礼") [shiji - rudely, lacking manners] entered the meeting uninvited. The Director of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, Jie Zhenhua, gestured and exclaimed, "Get out!"  to Obama. Premier Wen then instructed the translator not to translate this 'extreme outburst' and personally left the room in order to speak with Mr. Obama. See http://www.chnqiang.com/article/2009/1222/mil_12610.shtml. [A nationalist-toned site called 强国网.] Sounds like Premier Wen was very diplomatic.
    "The headline for the piece suggests that at least in certain quarters, Xie's actions were viewed positively:  中国雄起:铁血解振华愤怒指着奥巴马命令其出去!  Something like "China's Might Rises Up: Valiant Xie Zhenhua Angrily Points at Obama and Orders 'Out!'"

    - No mystery to the Chinese. From a reader with a Chinese name, a similar argument:

    "I have been following your posts on the objective of the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen. It seems like you are only citing English sources. My casual reading of the Chinese media (mainly the Southern Weekly) [the relatively independent paper also called Southern Weekend in English, which did the interview with Obama during his visit, and whose editor was later punished for doing so] is that the Chinese was upset that the developed countries had been trying to go back on principles behind the Kyoto and Bali agreements. The Chinese press have played up a story about some "secret" draft the Danish host was circulating without the input of the China and other developing countries at the beginning of the conference. [This also got a fair amount of coverage in the US.] Obviously, one should not trust the Chinese press entirely. But it strikes me that in this case it might be easier to infer what the Chinese want from reading the Chinese media. Whether what they want is reasonable is a separate matter.
    "I think the notion that the Chinese is set against all deals is simply ridiculous. They are only against all deals that developed countries thrown at them. Developed countries would be against any deal too if it were the Chinese and India doing all the proposing."

    Obviously another fair point, which takes us back to the first commenter. Perhaps Obama's motives seem more obvious to me because I can effortlessly take in anything that's said or written about them in the U.S. press. Versus the slog of dealing with Chinese-language material. Or perhaps that's just part of the explanation. For now, this is additional grist for the mill.

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What really happened in Copenhagen, #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Not a promo, a public service!

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


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

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

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

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

  • Back to China and Copenhagen: what actually happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • More on Our Declining Infrastructure

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

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

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

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

  • The glamorous life of a journalist (continuing series)

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

    Thumbnail image for 201001_toc.jpg

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    - The camera is very good.

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

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

    More later.  For now, interesting.

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

  • Our new issue...

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Congrats and thanks to Malamud -- and the original film makers. This gets me in the mood for starting to fly again. These guys look suave!
    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for P47-1.png


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.



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