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.
  • My Brush With Best-Sellerdom, Part Deux

    So near, so far. Still a book you should read.

    David Allen

    I've made my living as a writer for a very long time now, but I've kept a respectful (wistful) distance from the realm of runaway bestseller hits. The second book with my name on the cover, which appeared when I was 23 years old, eventually sold in the millions and millions of copies. Unfortunately I had hired on as a writer for a total fee I now recall as being $500, though it could have been as much as $750.  

    The book that was going to straighten out Congress
    —more than 40 years ago.

    It was the book at the right, Who Runs Congress?, the result of a Ralph Nader project, which I wrote with Mark Green and David Zwick in a summer-long eight-week burst. The bulk of the proceeds went not to the authors but to build the Nader movement, which has been mainly to the good. (Yes, I know ... ) My first book, The Water Lords, was from another Nader project two years earlier, and I believe then the pay consisted of room and board plus $250.

    After the Congress Project experience I leapt at a "real" writing job that came open, at The Washington Monthly (replacing Taylor Branch, and working with Walter Shapiro) for $8400 per year. Since then I have been grateful for whatever I could earn in journalism. I also decided after my negotiating brilliance with Who Runs Congress? that my best career prospects weren't as a deal-maker.

    Now I have a chance to ride once again in the sidecar of publishing success. More than a decade ago, I wrote an Atlantic article about the productivity expert David Allen. He is the author of a very successful book called Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and originator of what is now known as the GTD approach to life. Since then I've stayed in touch with David Allen, seen him once or twice per year, and come to think of him and his wife Kathryn as friends.

    Some readers may never have heard of David Allen; others will recognize him as a celebrity. As @GTDGuy, he has 1.2 million followers on Twitter; his GTD seminars attract large audiences around the world; and the original Getting Things Done has sold steadily in large volumes since its appearance in 2002.

    And tomorrow, the first major revision of Getting Things Done goes on sale. It's been updated to reflect the changes in world technology in the dozen years since its first publication, and also to reflect some of the life lessons David Allen has learned in that time. I know those things about the book because I had the opportunity and pleasure of reading an advance draft so as to write the Foreword to this new edition—which I did on a purely volunteer basis and as a gesture of respect, friendship, and hope that people actually read the book!

    Here is a sample from the intro, in which I try to explain why GTD seems different from the usual heap of "Be a WINNER at life!!" business tracts:

             What makes Getting Things Done different? In ascending order of importance, I would like these three qualities, each evident in nearly every chapter.

             One is its practicality, by which I really mean its modular and forgiving approach. Many self-improvement schemes work from an all-or-nothing, “everything must be different, starting tomorrow” premise. If you want to lose 40 pounds, take control of your financial destiny, straighten out your family, or have the career of your dreams, you have to embrace a radical top-to-bottom change in every aspect of your life.

             Occasionally people do make these radical leaps... But for most people, most of the time, approaches that are incremental and forgiving of error are more likely to pay off in the long run. That way, if there is one part of the approach you forget or fall behind in, you don’t have to abandon all the rest.

             David Allen’s ambitions for his readers are in a sense even grander than those of most other books. His goal is nothing less than helping people remove stress and anxiety from their work and personal lives, so they can match every moment of their existence to the purposes they would most like to pursue. Yet with a very few exceptions – for instance, his sensible insistence on developing a “capture” habit, so that you are sure to write down or otherwise record every commitment you make or obligation you accept, rather than torture yourself trying to remember them all, and the related insistence on having one central, trusted repository where you keep such data – a great advantage of his system is its modular nature. This book is full of advice that works better if embraced in its totality but is still useful when applied one-by-one....

             This is advice from a man who clearly understands that people are busy and fallible. He is writing to offer them additional helpful tips, rather than extra reasons to feel guilty or inadequate. The book is also written with an understanding that life consists of cycles. Things go better, and then worse. At some points we fall behind; at others, we catch up, or try to. When episodes occur, as they will for anyone, in which we are overwhelmed or unable to cope, the book suggests achievable day-by-day steps toward regaining a calm sense of control.

    It would be too much to say that anything really gives me a "calm sense of control." But the book is both calming and encouraging. Check it out! And congratulations to David Allen on its appearance.

  • California's Centers of Technology: Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and ... Fresno?

    How would you build a high-tech center in a vast farming zone? You might start by applying tech solutions to farming problems of water use and sustainability in all forms.

    One of Fresno's downtown murals, this one on the Econo Inn. The "Mural District" headquarters of Bitwise Industries is a few blocks away. ( Creative Fresno )

    Earlier this week I mentioned a tech company in the Mural District of Fresno's tattered-but-struggling-to-recover downtown called Bitwise Industries. It's a company we first visited one year ago and have followed ever since. In this and a subsequent post or two, I'd like to say something about the ways in which Bitwise's story sheds light on conditions distinctive to Fresno and its surrounding, hard-pressed Central Valley of California, but also about the ways in which it reflects trends we've seen in every corner of the country.

    First, the similarities. In its basic setup, parts of the Bitwise approach resemble tech-promotion and startup efforts we've seen elsewhere in non-major-metropolis America. Those others include: a software school called The Iron Yard in Greenville, South Carolina, which I wrote about last year—and its parent incubator, called NEXT. Or the Bridgeworks Enterprise Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which John Tierney wrote about last fall. Or, with a different emphasis, the Community and Economic Development Office in Burlington, Vermont. Plus others in larger cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio. I will tell you, the more you see of this activity, the more you think of the majority of America actively trying to position itself for new economic realities, rather than just being pushed around.

    The familiar elements of this tech-fostering package include: a physical space where startup companies can get going at low cost and with shared facilities; the location of that space typically in a historic downtown area, as part of a larger downtown-renewal effort; courses on relevant skills, from coding to accounting to marketing; connections with more-established local businesses plus financiers and customers; collaborative agreements with research universities, community colleges, and even K-12 schools in the region; and some more.

    Bitwise is a "normal" tech-promoting effort in those ways. Jake Soberal, its co-founder and CEO, says he doesn't like the term "incubator," since many of the businesses he works with are already well established. Still, for descriptive convenience the company's efforts resemble those of incubators elsewhere.

    But in at least three ways I think Bitwise is interestingly illustrative of its city and region. I'll talk about one of them today: what is involved in trying to create a tech economy, with the high-wage jobs and spinoff business stimulation that presumably means, in a place far removed from the dominant tech centers of the East and West Coasts. (For a previous treatment of this theme in another non-coastal part of California, see this dispatch.) We'll get to the next two—how the company is involved trying to prepare a low-skill, low-wage, high-unemployment local workforce for better tech opportunities, and how it is engaged in the future of the city itself—in follow-on reports.

    ***

    First, some background: what Bitwise is, and what it's trying to do.

    Jake Soberal (Bitwise Industries)

    The co-founders of Bitwise, Jake Soberal and Irma Olguin Jr., describe their organization as the "Mothership of Technology" in the Fresno region. In practice that means that their parent organization combines several of the start-up functions sometimes dispersed among different groups.

    The company's HashtagFresno component offers low-cost ($39 per month), tech-equipped workspaces for individuals or small teams. Its Geekwise Academy is a coding and tech-skills school, which is developing an intriguing range of specialized programs. Its Shift3 Technologies does contract tech projects for firms in the region and elsewhere, employing local developers, designers, and marketers. And its headquarters building in the Mural District contains separate offices for more than two dozen tech firms.

    Irma Olguin (Bitwise)

    Later this year the company will open a new, much larger office-and-classroom space in a long-vacant building it is remodeling in Fresno's historic downtown. (That building will also house a lab for the innovative CART school that Deb Fallows has written about.) Soberal said that some 40 tech companies will be housed there, along with more work spaces, classrooms, officers for lawyers or accountants or other allied professionals, et cetera. A Fresno Bee story on the expansion is here. (Note that the Bee has a metered paywall.)

    We'll get to the Origin Story of Bitwise another time: What Soberal and Olguin are doing here, how they agreed to work together, what they hope to accomplish for the region. For now the focus is on the improbable challenge of building a tech industry in a part of the country with an agricultural-centric economy, no major nearby research universities, and a reputation (as discussed previously) as a place that ambitious young people move away from rather than return to.

    Another downtown Fresno mural, via Creative Fresno

    ***

    I asked Jake Soberal on this latest visit, as I had earlier on, what he thought could be the business base for a tech economy that was 3+ hours' drive from either Los Angeles or San Francisco (sadly, High-Speed Rail does not yet exist) and thus would lack all the place-based advantages that came automatically to firms in SF, Boston, or New York. How could he fight the trend toward the concentration of national and global talent in a handful of hyper-expensive but also hyper-productive big centers?

    To boil a long discussion down to two main points, his first argument was that the global centers and the regional ones could prosper together—the latter using their advantage of such dramatically lower operating costs. (Note for future article: In about six or eight big U.S. metro areas, life is ever-shaped by the unavoidable, unbelievable cost of real estate. Since these are the areas that dominate our media, entertainment, and politics, that's cast as an overall American predicament too. But it is not, at least not in most of the places we've been.)

    "The per-person total cost of a very happy mid-career developer here is $80,000 to $100,000," Soberal said. "That's half, or less than half, of the cost in the Bay Area" or other big tech centers. "If we can get a critical mass of people here in Fresno who are competent and capable, national and global companies will choose to expand their operations here. The Silicon Valley and Boston and Portland will continue to grow. And so will Fresno—and Des Moines and Wichita. Software and tech have not been a zero-sum game."

    ***

    Creative Fresno

    That is what you could think of as the "outsourcing" part of the Bitwise/ Greater Fresno tech vision. Another part was more intriguing to me, in that it matched the observation we've heard in the most successful-seeming cities across the country. That is the insistence on "knowing who we really are" in a given city or region, and choosing strategies based on an honest assessment of an area's advantages and handicaps.

    What Fresno really is, is the regional capital of one of the world's most important agricultural areas. "The economy is global, but significant strengths are local," Soberal said. "Industries tend to develop in a regional way." He went on to argue (1) that agriculture involves many of humanity's most important challenges, starting with sustainability in all its aspects; (2) that agriculture was still relatively behind in apply modern data tools to its operations; and that therefore (3) tech companies in the Central Valley had an opportunity to become the leaders in a field of ever-increasing important.

    Edit LLC's offices in the Mural District building,
    via Facebook

    "My guess is that 5 to 10 percent of the tech need of the farming industry is now being met," he said. As compared to about 900 percent of the financial services industry and four million percent of the online commerce industry. "You could build a technology industry in Fresno based on that alone, not to mention the worldwide need in agriculture." (For a previous report on high tech in agriculture, see this account by our Marketplace colleagues on our trip to Sioux Falls back in 2013.)

    What kind of unmet need? I spoke with Derek Payton, a programmer who is CTO of a company called Edit LLC, which is based in the Bitwise building. He pointed out that modern farmers had an abundance of sensors—on soil moisture, sugar levels in fruit, you name it—but relatively poor tools for combining or analyzing data. (Contrast this with a hospital's Intensive Care Unit, with displays of many important datas all in one place.) Payton's company is working on software to convert data from a wide variety of sources into a standard format so it can be used for a kind of dashboard display.

    "You think high tech, you don’t think 'growing food,' " Payton told me. "You think Bay Area, self driving cars, devices to make daily life easier. But we've got a lot of farmers here with a lot of data they don't know what to do with. It can make a big difference to collect the data and put it in usable form."

    Will this company pay off? Or others in the Bitwise community? I don't know. But I cannot help but be impressed by the growth I've seen over the past year, and the sense of both mission and community from people involved here.

    Upcoming, more about Bitwise as a guide to Fresno's educational and downtown-development efforts. For now, a last word from Derek Payton, when I asked him about a "realistic, positive ambition" for Fresno in five years' time.

    "A realistic and positive scenario..." he said. "It would be, when you think of tech in California, you'll think of the Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and Fresno. There's definitely strong tech potential here."

    The manifesto from the Bitwise site

    Thanks to Creative Fresno for permission to use their photos of the city's murals. Here is a link to another project they have underway, and one more about the organization's goals.

  • One of Our Major Newspapers Says: What the Hell, Why Not Start Another Unwinnable War?

    On the bright side, Tom Cotton now seems statesmanlike.

    Slim Pickens, as Major 'King' Kong in "Dr. Strangelove," likes this idea. (Wikimedia Commons)

    When I published my "Tragedy of the American Military" article last month, some people said: No, it's an exaggeration to claim that war is an easy abstraction that people throw around without thinking through the consequences.

    Maybe. But I give you the op-ed page of our capital city's main newspaper, which tells us:

    Why not just roll the dice?

    "Probably" the best? Grrr. No, almost certainly not. Or so people who had thought about the practicalities argued 11 years ago—when it would have been easier than now.

    Of course, I had reckoned without the strong argumentative power of this article's author, Joshua Muravchik. He assures us (emphasis added):

    Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary.

    Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.

    Right, repeated bombing raids "as necessary." What could possibly go wrong with that approach? Yes, "surely the United States could best Iran." Surely we could polish off those backward Viet Cong. Surely invading Iraq would work out great. (I haven't taken the time to see if the author was a fan of invading Iraq, but I have a guess.) Surely the operational details of these engagements are a concern only for the small-minded among us.

    How would we think about a "scholar" in some other major-power capital who cavalierly recommended war? How would we think about some other capital-city newspaper that decided to publish it? The Post's owners (like those of the NYT and other majors papers) have traditionally had a free hand in choosing the paper's editorial-page policy and leaders, while maintaining some distance from too-direct involvement in news coverage. Jeff Bezos, behold your newspaper.

    * * *

    I see from his Twitter bio that Muravchik has seven grandsons. I now have one. The idea that any of them would be involved in a "bomb as often as necessary" strategy??? Maybe the author feels differently, but for me this is appalling.

  • Next Up From Fresno: High School for Overlooked 'Kids in the Middle'

    Public schools often end up concentrating on students with obvious promise at the very top, and with obvious problems at the bottom. Here is one designed to foster opportunities for everyone else.

    After the Vietnam War, the Fresno area was a major relocation site for Hmong refugees and immigrants. A statue honoring their service is near the county courthouse. Fresno is a heavily "majority minority" community training a diverse population for the future. (James Fallows)

    We kicked off our new season of American Futures reports this week with a look at the people trying to remake the much-in-need-of-remaking city of Fresno, California.

    Today Deb Fallows has the next installment, on an innovative high school called CART, or the Center for Advanced Research and Technology. It's a public charter high school that students attend for half of each school day, spending the other half at their regular high school. While at CART they get an immersion in a variety of career skills. You can read more in Deb's report here.

    As Deb points out in this item, innovations in "career technical education" have been a recurring and positive theme through our travels around the country. This is the field that was once dismissively called "vocational ed" or even "trade school." Now it seems increasingly promising as a way to connect students not immediately bound for four-year colleges—because they can't afford it, because of family obligations, whatever reason—with the higher-skilled, higher-wage technical jobs today's economy is opening up, and that are vastly better than the minimum-wage retail/food-service alternative.

    Here are some examples from Georgia, northern California, and Mississippi to go alongside this one in Fresno. And as I'll discuss further in our next installment, these developments are a natural complement to the Opportunity@Work initiative that the New America Foundation announced yesterday. (For the record: I've been involved with New America from its start, originally as its board chairman.)

  • Welcome to American Futures 3.0

    A new season of reports on a renewing America

    Bitwise headquarters in the Mural District of Fresno (James Fallows)

    Welcome to the third season of our  American Futures series, which kicked off here in the summer of 2013 and is being relaunched with reports from around the country through the rest of this year. Philip Sopher and our other colleagues at The Atlantic have prepared the reference map you see at the top of our new homepage for our project, showing places we've visited, often with our partners from Marketplace radio and with maps from our partners at the Esri mapping firm. If you click on any city's "pin," it will take you to the posts we've done about that site. You can also track posts through the category list you see on the right-hand side of that home page.

    Our reporting colleague John Tierney has prepared a brief introductory video to help launch our new season. There's no sound (tranquil!) but lots of pictures. It describes what we're doing with this reporting series. I invite you to take two or three minutes to look at it (YouTube version here), then I'll preview some of the themes and topics we're going to explore through this coming week, in Fresno, California.


    ***

    Welcome back from the video. Now it's time for two maps, and a couple of photos, that set the stage for our reports about Fresno.

    If California were split into six states, which isn't going to
    happen but is often discussed, Central California would
    be the bluish one shown by the arrow. It would also
    be the poorest state in America. (Wikipedia)

    Fresno is the biggest city in California's Central Valley, which is simultaneously one of America's richest and poorest areas.

    It is rich in its agricultural output and potential; you name the high-value crop (other than corn or wheat), and farms through the Central Valley are likely to play a major role in world supply.

    It is poor in the usual sense: by far the highest unemployment rates in the state, lowest median incomes, highest rates of poverty, worst remaining consequences of the financial crash of 2008, most serious pollution and public-health challenges. By many calculations, if California were indeed broken into six states, as the venture capitalist Tim Draper has proposed (hint: this won't happen), the resulting state of Central California would be the poorest in the country.

    Fresno shares its region's strengths, as an agricultural center, and its challenges, of poverty and pollution. It also shares a trait with other places where we've spent time, notably the Golden Triangle of Mississippi (as explained via Joe Max Higgins here and the Mississippi School of Math and Science here) or much of the state of West Virginia (as explained by Larry Groce)or parts of South Dakota or South Carolina or Georgia or rural Maine or the Rustbelt generally.

    That trait is an acute awareness of being looked down on or condescended to by big-city fashionable America. I feel entitled to say that, both because it's true and because I grew up in, and still think of myself as being "from," a place in the same situation: the unloved "Inland Empire" of semi-desert Southern California. (The locus classicus of my home town as loser-land is of course Joan Didion's "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which came out when I was in high school.) That awarenessthe realization of connoting the opposite of "the Bay Area" or "Cambridge" or "Westside LA"plays a part in the drama of these areas, and, as we'll show, in their efforts at turnaround.

    ***

    Now the two maps that set up the story of Fresno. I'm not counting the "six Californias" map, since that's imaginary. The two below, which we saw in the office of Fresno's popular Republican mayor, Ashley Swearingen.

    The first is where Fresno's richer people, and its many very poor people, live. The triangular area near the bottom, where the shading is darkest and where 40 percent or more of the people are impoverished, is where all the buildings of the historic downtown are located.


    The darker the map shading, the poorer the population (City of Fresno)

    The second is where the city has grown in the 70 years since the end of World War II. The blue area shows the city's concentrated downtown growth through the end of World War II. The red is where development—mainly suburban sprawl and malls—has happened since then.


    Blue: Fresno's development up to 1945. Red: everything since then. (City of Fresno)

    "Fresno is famous as a victim of sprawl ... " I said last week when beginning a question to Mayor Swearingen; in her six years in office, she has been a big booster of downtown renewal efforts. "I'm not sure I'd use the word victim," she broke in to say. "We were the perpetrators!" She was referring to a build-toward-the-horizon policy through much of the postwar era.

    The results in the red-zone Fresno on the map above are familiar to anyone who has seen mall-and-tract-development sprawl anywhere else in America. The results in blue-zone Fresno are sobering, to put it politely. Here is a snapshot view of what was in the 1960s the pride of Fresno's commercial ambitions, the Fulton Street mall, at lunchtime on a weekday:

    Another view, during what should be prime shopping hours.

    This looks, and seems, pretty bleak. And that is why the people and groups we'll be chronicling in coming days were both surprising and impressive in their determination that downtown Fresno would be the place where they would start their companies, realize their ambitions, and help rebuild a community. This is the hardest-hit area in a hard-pressed town in a region the rest of the state relies on but generally ignores. (For instance: The opening leg of California's much-discussed High Speed Railroad, which will begin in Fresno, is referred to in coastal California as "the train to nowhere.")

    The next installment will begin with a look at Bitwise Industries, which advertises itself as the Mothership of Technology in the Fresno area — and which, over the past year in which we've been following it, has done a lot to back up that claim.


    One of Bitwise's graphics for its Fresno Tech revolution

    One of Bitwise's founders, Jake Soberal (the other was Irma Ogluin) grew up in nearby Clovis, went East for college, worked as a big-city lawyer—and then decided to come back and try to be part of an entrepreneurial revival in Fresno. He told a local business magazine that when he gave a commencement address at Clovis High, “I can distinctly remember sitting up there, this arrogant 18-year-old thinking, you know, these folks really ought to enjoy this speech because
    they’ll never see me here again.” He told us recently, "Solving problems in any place is valiant, but if you can solve them in Fresno, you can solve them anywhere." As we'll explain, he's now part of a combined effort to develop Fresno's own technology businesses, and crucially also to train its community-college, non-college, and non-high-school-degree populations with better opportunities in the tech world. "If this project can work right here, in the middle of a lot of the biggest challenges facing American cities, what might it do elsewhere?"

    Local boosterism is a familiar part of the American fabric, from the days of Mark Twain or Babbitt to Waiting for Guffman and beyond. But we think this is something different—more than just faith, as in the Fulton Street mall show below— and we'll explain why in days to come.


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  • Interesting Software Update: Tinderbox How-To, Jerry's Brain

    New looks from two old favorites

    From the new guide to Tinderbox software (Mark Bernstein, Eastgate Systems)

    It's been a while since the latest update on this front, so here is a quick mention of developments in two programs I've followed over the years.

    1) "Getting Started With Tinderbox." For the past few years, my go-to workhorse program for data organizing/software-for-thinking has been the Mac-only program Tinderbox, from Eastgate Systems in Watertown, Massachusetts. (My program for writing, as I can't mention often enough, is the absolutely unparalleled Scrivener, from Literature and Latte software in Cornwall, England.) I still love the idea-organizing program Zoot, which I first wrote about in this magazine back in the mid-1990s. But Zoot is Windows-only, and since I made the switch to the Mac world six years ago, fleeing the nightmare that was Windows Vista, I've mainly had to admire Zoot from afar.

    In an age of ubiquitous free apps, Tinderbox can seem pricey. It's $249 for initial purchase and updates for a year, and then $98 a year for ongoing updated releases. The new releases are frequent and valuable (as are those that Zoot's creator, Tom Davis, keeps issuing for his program). But if you don't care about them you can use the original program as long as you want. Tinderbox's creator, Mark Bernstein, has justified his business approach as part of a new wave of "artisanal software" or Neo-Victorian computing. You pay more for craft beer than for the cheapest swill; you may choose to pay more for organic food than the very cheapest source of calories. So too with certain kinds of software.

    The way I think about it is this: $98 a year is much less than I'd pay for one standard day of business travel, and this program's value to me through every day of the year is greater than what I gain on the standard day on the road. Judge for yourself, but I've found the investment very much worthwhile.

    The real obstacle to wider adoption of Tinderbox has been the difficulty in getting started with the program. If someone hands you a sledgehammer, you have an idea of what you might do with it. But the first time you're handed a pencil, you have no idea of the million possibilities it opens up. To help potential users over this hurdler, Bernstein has created a carefully annotated step-by-step guide, available as a PDF for download here. Worth checking out.

    2) Jerry Michalski's Brain. For years I've also loved the innovative, multi-platform program TheBrain, from TheBrain software in Los Angeles. I wrote about it in the New York Times 10 years ago, and then in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2012. It has various free or very low-cost versions; the full-strength desktop edition, for Mac or Windows, starts at $219.  

    The very most ambitious and creative user of TheBrain has long been the tech-world figure Jerry Michalski. He has been chronicling his life and thoughts via this software for 18 years now and has posted his results on the web. Now he's created an iOS app, called JerrysBrain. He sends some notes about what he's doing:

    My Brain has been openly available on the Web for many years and will remain so, at JerrysBrain.com. Now a Jerry's Brain app is available for iOS and costs a buck. Here's the direct link to it in the app store.

    It's easy for me to create permalinks to specific thoughts in my online Brain, though not to the iOS app. Here are a few useful and interesting direct links:

    I started this Brain in December 1997. It has over 257K thoughts, all put in by hand. I just ran the numbers and it's a span of 6300 days, or 40 thoughts a day.

    The top insight from 17+ years of using TheBrain is that we're an amnesic society. We have little context or memory available. A huge causal force is the business model of the media businesses, which historically needed us to watch the ads scattered in the content, so it kept the content from us.

    For further exploration, here's a screenshot from Jerry's Brain and then three posts and screencasts from Jerry Michalski on how and why he works this way:

    • Early post with 8-min screencast introduction to my Brain, the best intro
    • Post for anyone wanting to dive deeper, after a 30-min talk I gave at the Personal Digital Archiving conference.
    • Most recent post, pointing to the newly available Jerry's Brain app.

    For the record, I have no relationship with any of the companies here except as a (full-freight) paying customer. In that capacity I say: Check them out!

  • Finally I Hear a Politician Explain My Country Just the Way I Understand It

    "America is not some fragile thing." Words to live by.

    Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years later (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

    I've been in transit or offline all of today and didn't see President Obama's Selma speech in real time. I'm catching up with it now, very late at night, and had a reaction different from the good job/bad job assessment I can't help giving (as a one-time speechwriter) to most political discourse.

    I thought this was a very good job, in written presentation and in delivery, as far as I can judge via YouTube. But for me that takes second place to my overwhelming reaction of gratitude: for once, a public figure expressing exactly how I feel.

    I think this speech (official text here) will move to the front of the public statements by which Obama hopes to be remembered in the long run. Of course I'm biased because I agree with him, but the case would be this:

    Obama's career-making speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, which I happened to be in the hall to witness, was unforgettable political theater, the obvious arrival of a star, but its text is not, in fact, that impressive on re-reading. It assured Americans that they could easily move past Red/Blue tribal divisions. Isn't it pretty to think so.

    Obama's speech on race relations in America, in Philadelphia seven years ago, saved his campaign and thus was again a history-changing performance. Before that speech, it seemed possible that he would be forced from the race by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright "God damn America!" furore. But I don't think its actual discussion of race relations will be studied for enlightenment in years to come.

    Obama's speech today, again declaring my bias in agreeing with him, differs from those of most other national figures, most of the time, in stating with concise complexity what is indeed exceptional about this American experiment.

    I first lived outside my native country at age 21, when I went to graduate school in the superficially similar setting of England. Those next few years began for me the process that has continued ever since, when living in the U.S. or abroad: that of recognizing how exceptional the American ambition is, and how much my own tribal identities start with being American.

    These are the parts of Obama's speech that rang truest to me, after spending much of my life thinking about the country from afar, with emphasis added:

    And yet, what could be more American than what happened in this place? ...

    What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

    And:

    The American instinct that led these young men and women to pick up the torch and cross this bridge, that’s the same instinct that moved patriots to choose revolution over tyranny....

    It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.  

    That’s what makes us unique.

    And the riff near the end, with its artful repeated emphasis on we:

    We were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights....

    Look at our history.  We are Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea, pioneers who braved the unfamiliar, followed by a stampede of farmers and miners, and entrepreneurs and hucksters.  That’s our spirit.  That’s who we are.

    We are Sojourner Truth and Fannie Lou Hamer, women who could do as much as any man and then some.  And we’re Susan B. Anthony, who shook the system until the law reflected that truth.  That is our character.

    We’re the immigrants who stowed away on ships to reach these shores, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free –- Holocaust survivors, Soviet defectors, the Lost Boys of Sudan.  We’re the hopeful strivers who cross the Rio Grande because we want our kids to know a better life.  That’s how we came to be.  

    We’re the slaves who built the White House and the economy of the South.   We’re the ranch hands and cowboys who opened up the West, and countless laborers who laid rail, and raised skyscrapers, and organized for workers’ rights.

    We’re the fresh-faced GIs who fought to liberate a continent.  And we’re the Tuskeegee Airmen, and the Navajo code-talkers, and the Japanese Americans who fought for this country even as their own liberty had been denied.

    We’re the firefighters who rushed into those buildings on 9/11, the volunteers who signed up to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.  We’re the gay Americans whose blood ran in the streets of San Francisco and New York, just as blood ran down this bridge.

    We are storytellers, writers, poets, artists who abhor unfairness, and despise hypocrisy, and give voice to the voiceless, and tell truths that need to be told.

    We’re the inventors of gospel and jazz and blues, bluegrass and country, and hip-hop and rock and roll, and our very own sound with all the sweet sorrow and reckless joy of freedom.

    Political speeches are masterworks of base-touching references to different icons and interest groups. This list in this speech is different from what most politicians would offer — you'll know that the GOP is serious about competing for non-white votes and thus for the presidency when you can imagine one of its candidates presenting a similar list — and it is one that matches my sense of what I love about my country. That is who we are. That is our character. That is how we came to be.

    Obama is obviously not the first person to formulate this thought. The continual re-making of America was a central theme for Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and also Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the founders of our magazine. Twenty-five years ago, I even wrote what is essentially a book-length version of this speech, called More Like Us. And when our American Futures series re-launches on Monday, similar themes will be central to it. But the appeal to American exceptionalism via embracing our capacity for renewal, self-criticism, and inclusiveness is one I haven't heard this clearly from a public figure in many years. (See the Atlantic's Matt Ford on these themes.)

    And near the end:

    That’s what America is.  Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others.

    We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past.  We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.  America is not some fragile thing.  We are large, in the words of Whitman, containing multitudes.  We are boisterous and diverse and full of energy, perpetually young in spirit.

    The political tribalism of this moment means that Democrats are mostly welcoming today's speech, and Republicans and Fox News mostly condemning it. But these days Martin Luther King Jr. is quoted respectfully even at right-wing gatherings. When the political passions of our time have passed, people of all parties will quote this speech as expressing an essence of our American creed.

  • Could This Video Save China?

    "I just don't want to live like this," a prominent Chinese journalist says about the environmental hell that her country has become. We are witnessing a very important moment for China's future, and for its effect on the world.

    Chinese journalist Chai Jing, in her runaway Internet success "Under the Dome," about the pollution catastrophe in China ( YouTube )

    Hundreds of millions of people in China have watched this 103-minute-long video just in the past week. There's never been anything close to its success in the English-language Internet world. Everyone in the China-policy community is aware of it and discussing it. I'm mentioning it here for several reasons.

    First, it's just now available in a version with English subtitles for the whole length. The crowd-sourced translation effort is its own fascinating tale—you can see the crowd-sourcing page, mainly in Chinese, here—but for the moment the point is that English speakers can follow the whole thing, below.

    Beyond that, this documentary, an expose of China's profound pollution problems by prominent journalist Chai Jing, has the potential to be one of those creations that serves as a before-and-after marker in a society's development. For America, before-and-after Uncle Tom's Cabin or How the Other Half Lives or The Feminine Mystique or Silent Spring. For France, before-and-after J'accuse. For China, potentially, before-and-after Chai Jing's 穹顶之下, Under the Dome.

    Sustainability it all forms is the greatest threat to China's own continued growth, and the greatest challenge China's emergence presents to the world. That's according to me (and here), but if you look at this video, or consider Alan Taylor's stunning series of photos on our site yesterday (and two years ago), you'll see that it's not some oddball conceit. Here, for instance, is Alan's comparison of the exact same view in Beijing on a clear day and a smoggy one in the past few weeks.

    The way it often looks

    Versus

    The way it sometimes looks—this is the exact same view as above.

    I stress the potential effect of Under the Dome because how the Chinese government will continue to treat it is of enormous importance, and is in real-time flux. Through the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government still seemed to be in denial about the country's pollution problems. The opaque skies that persisted until the very day of the opening ceremony were described in the government-controlled press as "mist." But within two or three years, the problems had become so undeniable that the government repositioned itself as the champion of public health and a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable China. Thus its allowing this documentary to be seen at all.

    How will it react, now that this documentary has become the most widely viewed "serious" program in the nation's history? You can see a fascinating back-and-forth about the implications from a range of China experts here, on ChinaFile. If you're interested in the politics of environmental protection, or in China, or in both, I cannot recommend this exchange highly enough. Adam Minter of Bloomberg, my onetime comrade in Shanghai who now lives in my other former home of Kuala Lumpur, makes a positive case about China's ability to wrestle with its problems. Michael Zhao, also in ChinaFile, argues that the air-quality disaster has reached a tipping point at which clean-up can no longer be deferred.  

    Here's one other implication. Spend a minute or two looking at the passage in the video starting at around time 18:00, when Chai Jing talks about how her own awareness of pollution problems emerged. Or the part just after that, when she explains why the desperately poor China of the 1960s and 1970s welcomed every new smokestack. Or in most concentrated form just the passage from time 21:08 to 22:20. Or the passage an hour later, starting around around 01:20:00, when Chai Jing interviews British coal miners about their country's shift away from coal.

    Watch any of these and then join me in wondering about this: Modern China is full of the kind of people you see in this video—the ones who researched and produced this program, the ones listening in the audience, the ones who have so avidly sought it out online. How can the leaders of a country such as this, full of hundreds of millions of people eager for information about their futures, imagine that they will survive or their people will prosper if the current effort to wall China off from the world's information flow goes on?

  • How Air-Traffic Controllers Sound When They Have to Close the Airport

    Since most things about the modern airline experience are so unpleasant for most of the traveling public most of the time, it's worth noticing how smoothly these professionals do their work.

    The path of Delta 1086 this morning ( FlightAware )

    It's obviously good news that no one appears to have been hurt when a Delta Air Lines flight skidded off a runway this morning at LaGuardia airport. Here's an aspect of the whole process I find enlightening:

    Reader and aviation buff Ari Ofsevit sent a link to the LiveAtc.net recording of transmissions from the LaGuardia control tower while the episode was underway. It's not embeddable, but you can listen to an MP3 of the recording here. A listener's guide to what you'll hear:

    At about time 2:15, the tower controller clears a different Delta flight, number 1999, to land on Runway 13. The controller also reports that there is a noticeable but by no means hazardous 12-knot crosswind on landing, and that after a recent landing another airliner had reported "braking action good." Getting the wind report is a routine part of the landing process; the "braking action" information would be added only in slippery conditions like these.

    Here's the FAA plate showing LaGuardia's layout, with arrows added by me. The red arrow shows the landing path to Runway 13. The blue arrow shows the approximate direction of the wind.

    At around time 2:40, the controller starts calling for the airliner that ran into trouble, Delta 1086, which presumably had just landed. He doesn't get any answer.

    About 30 seconds after that, the shift into emergency mode begins. A ground vehicle, "Car 100," checks in with the tower to say that there's a problem. By time 4:00, or barely one minute after the controller was calmly sequencing planes in for landing, one of the busiest airports in North America, with dozens of airplanes inbound for landing, is immediately ordered closed, as the ground crews try to assess how bad the problems are.

    Over the next few minutes, the tower controller first tells planes in the landing process to "go around," that is to abort their approach and climb away from the airport, and then sequences them to ... wherever else they will end up. The bad weather and flight cancellations today meant that the New York-area airspace was less jammed than normal. Even so, fitting extra traffic, at one minute's notice, into the flow for JFK and Newark (or airports farther away) is no simple feat.

    FlightAware's depiction of airline traffic shortly after LaGuardia was closed today. Compared with normal days, there are fewer planes overall, because of the bad weather—and none are headed into the usually very busy LGA airport in the center of the screen.

    This action continues with some intensity for the next few minutes. You can get a sample starting at 4:45, when another Delta crew checks in with everything-is-normal calmness only to hear that they are not allowed to land.

    At about 5:40, another air crew reports that the disabled Delta 1086 is leaking fuel. The tower controller passes on that info. After that come long periods of radio silence, when the controllers are on the telephones or talking with people other than air crews, and then bursts of instructions to airplanes that were about to take off but can't (for instance, around time 15:00 and 20:45), sending inbound airplanes somewhere else (and out of one another's way), and managing the turn-on-a-dime closure of this normally very busy terminal.

    ***

    Why do I mention this? One reason is that real-time responses to crisis are just plain interesting—and you can enjoy the drama with clear conscience in a case like this, in which (apparently) no one was hurt. But the major reason is to emphasize a point that my wife Deb wrote about here, and that most air travelers never get a chance to witness. That is the remarkable unflappability of air-traffic controllers in circumstances that would leave most people very flapped.

    When this LaGuardia controller first hears that the active runway is closed, and then that the entire airport has been closed, his voice rises in pitch. But at that moment he has no way of knowing whether this was a minor mishap or whether a planeload of people had just died on impact. He goes on to juggle a complete re-ordering of plans very quickly and in relative calm. Compared with the way most people in most roles handle the unexpected, air-traffic controllers are amazingly steady—as are the flight crews too. Since most things about modern airline travel are unpleasant for most of the traveling public in most circumstances, it's worth being reminded of how these professionals do their work.

    ***

    Update: here is further relevant info from Ofsevit, which explains what you see below in the FlightAware track of Delta 1999, the plane just about to land when the airport is closed. The loops in its flight path are holding patterns and other delaying turns it had been instructed to make.

    One other thing to note: disaster was averted by under a minute.

    DL1999 reported an altitude of 700 feet when it was told to go around. It's possible it went even lower. At that time, it was going 139 knots (160 mph), and located at 40.8000, -73.9167. (And, no, the lack of more decimal places here is irrelevant, a plane's length and wingspan is 0.0003 degrees.) It was about 2.25 miles from the threshold of runway 13, and would have touched down 50 seconds later. Had it landed, it would have been a very close call whether it would have clipped the skidded plane, or the evacuees, or rescue equipment, which given the visibility it would not have seen until close in. And that's why we have specific landing slots at airports like LGA.

    The pilots must have executed the operation cleanly, too; it's impressive how quickly they responded and changed course (they may have heard the previous chatter on the channel and been prepared). Considering that DL1999 had made four loops circling west of LGA, the passengers probably weren't happy about a go around at the time. But it certainly was the only option.

  • On the Use and Misuse of History: The Netanyahu Case

    "I take the Iranian threat seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpfuland if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.
" A historian on the current state of debate.

    Elie Wiesel, next to Sara Netanyahu, being introduced to receive an ovation at Tuesday's speech (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

    Previously in this series on Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is It 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," "On Existential Threats," and yesterday's roundup of reader mail.

    1) "The historical equivalent of hollering." From a history professor at a university in the Southwest:

    I am no fan of Bibi's, but I'd also like to note that this ahistorical use of the past makes historians' teeth itch. (I'll just blithely speak for the whole profession.) More centrally, both our political leadership and Israel's desperately need to develop a wider grasp of that past.

    History offers up a depressingly vast number of small states perceiving danger from larger, well-armed, unpredictable neighbors. It provides at least that many examples of threats to continued Jewish existence in a given region. The constant reiteration of this particular event [the Nazi-era Holocaust] achieves little more than dumbing down the discourse: it's the historical equivalent of hollering.

    To paraphrase Levi-Strauss, the Holocaust is not particularly good to think with. Its extremity serves as a bludgeon. Its use is nearly always intended to cut off debate or critique, to seize the moral high ground, and ideally to incite panic. I don't know the best response to the Iranian threat, which I take seriously. But I suspect hysteria is unhelpfuland if that's true, so is raising the specter of the Holocaust, as Netanyahu does every time he discusses this topic.


    
Ask your average historian whether the past repeats itself. She'll tell you it doesn't -- only that it sometimes rhymes. The past can be a rich source of insight, surely. But much of what we ask our students to do centers around analyzing the complex causes of immensely complicated events. There are almost always at least three solid ways to interpret any given historical question. In short, the past is not a simplistic instruction manual for the present. It almost never provides any kind of predictive template. 


    
There are other good reasons to argue with Binyamin Netanyahu beyond his misuse of the past. But since his perception of Iran is based at least in part on that misuse, I stand by my reason. 


    2) The modern history that got left out of the speech. Gary Sick, of Columbia University, has studied Iranian politics and policy for more than 40 years. After Netanyahu's speech he wrote an assessment, including its strength as a "barn burner of a campaign speech" for the Israeli elections, but also its weakness as a studiously misleading description of the real state of negotiations with Iran.

    You don’t want to include anything that will detract from your central purpose [of campaigning in Israel, where the speech came on at 6pm local time]. So, what did Netanyahu leave out of his speech?

    1.       Iran has dramatically reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Remember Bibi’s cartoon bomb that was going to go off last summer? Well, it has been drained of fuel, and that will probably continue to be true indefinitely. No mention.

    2.       Inspections will continue long after the nominal 10-year point, contrary to his claim that everything expires in ten years. No mention.

    3.       The heavy water reactor at Arak will be permanently modified, so it produces near zero plutonium. Not only did he not mention it, but he listed the reactor and plutonium as one of his threats.

    4.       His repeated assertion that Iran is actively seeking nuclear weapons ignores the judgment “with high confidence” of both American and Israeli intelligence that Iran has taken no decision to build nuclear weapons. It also contradicts the repeated findings of the IAEA that no materials have been diverted for military purposes.

    5.       All the major countries of the world are co-negotiators with the United States, so a U.S. congressional intervention that killed the deal will not only affect us but all of our major allies. If we stiff them, there is no reason to believe the international sanctions will hold for long. No mention.

    Are these simply oversights in the interests of time? Why did he leave out only the facts that cast doubt on his central thesis?

    Read all of Gary Sick's piece; compare it with Netanyahu's end-days warnings about the emerging "bad deal"; and while you're at it think back to people who were telling you in 2002 and early 2003 to be skeptical of the end-days warnings about Saddam Hussein's imminent and existential threat to the world.

    3) "It will always be 1938." From a reader in Massachusetts who identifies himself as Jewish:

    Here is a simpler answer to your "Central Question" [of whether it's 1938 again] Bibi is basically stating that it will always be 1938 for Israel and the Jews of the world.

    Here's the thing:  I cannot but see that Rabin understood this when it came to the relationship of Israel with its neighbors, while Sharon came to appreciate it in terms of internal demographics, so each took tremendous risks to rebalance these unsustainable circumstances in a meaningful and durable way. Just to be clear, I don't think that Sharon was as constructive as Rabin, but he was probably sincere in his calculus.

    When has Netanyahu ever done anything that comes close to this?

    In Bibi's mind, does Israeland do the Jewish peoplelose a significant aspect of their ("our") place in the world if the threat of annihilation is not present?  He can say that "they" would like to live in peace with all the other peoples of the world, but what would it take from Iranor Egypt (or Russia, for that matter)in order to permanently eliminate the sense that Israel is potentially facing an Existential Threat?  In my humble opinion, nothing could.

    4) This note comes from a reader in Germany, and I am presenting it with original spelling. In context it's relevant to point out that Germany has wrestled with its own cataclysmic Nazi-era history much more earnestly than Japan has dealt with its Imperial-era record, China with its Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, or the United States with its treatment of Native American populations and its ongoing racial injustices.  He writes:

    I want to add the following thought:

    (I am German)

    What does the Netanyahu statement(s) about the possible prospect of Iran developing a nuclear military capability tell us? I understand, that the ruling political elite of Israel can’t imagine to live peacefully with it’s neighbours, including Iran, Iraque, if Israel does not have the military dominance including the option to annihilate a perceived opponent. If there might develop a situation in which a country, f.e. Iran, has the same nuclear option against Israel, this would be seen as inacceptable and an existential threat.

    Even if the picture of Nazi-Germany in 1938 obviously does not apply, one might be inclined to look for some parallel in history. With my limited knowledge, I can only find the late 1940s and the political and military opposition of USA and the Sowjet Union. There was a time where the USA had a –proven- nuclear capability and the SU did not. Yet it did not immediately blow the world to pieces, when the Sowjets also developed the nuclear option. The military capabilities were just leveled.  Cold war started and more than once came very close to become a hot onebut both learned and knew to avoid it, finally.

    A leveled military stand-off is unacceptable for Israel? Well, then what? To my knowledge, there is not a single serious analyst, who would state, that a nuclear Iran immediately will start a lot of missiles to destroy Israel completely. Israel (and Iran) would “only” have to adopt a similar political process at eye-level – that would be the “unacceptable” new experience.

    This view of Israel’s relationship to it’s neighbouring countries by the present political leadership is deeply troubling. South Korea is accepting the situation of a nuclear threat certainly for the sole reason of the nuclear umbrella provided by the United Statesotherwise I would guess it would take long for South Korea to establish some nuclear option as well.

    Why should the nations around Israel permanently accept the nuclear threat of Israel with no option on their sidesince there certainly is no nuclear umbrella whatsoever for them, neither by USA, Russia, China, India nor Pakistan ?

  • Readers on Netanyahu, Iran, and Existential Threats

    A powerful speech, received in very different ways by different audiences

    The campaign goes on in Israel, as the campaigner comes to the United States (Reuters)

    These responses follow these recent pieces about Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech: "Is it 1938?", "The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster," "The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On," and "On Existential Threats."

    1) "What kind of existential threat is this, if it won't change policy on the West Bank?" From a reader at a U.S. defense-related organization:

    Let me add a couple more thoughts on Iran as an existential threat to Israel, or to be more precise, whether Netanyahu thinks Iran is an existential threat to Israel.  I say, no he does not.  Obviously, no one can read his mind, but we can see how he acts, and he does not act like a national leader possessed by such a belief.

    A leader who truly believes there is an existential threat to his nation organizes his actions to counter that threat.  In particular, he prioritizes his goals.  Things which would otherwise be valuable to him have to take a backseat, and maybe even be dispatched with, if it harms or insufficiently aids him in countering the existential threat.

    In Netanyahu’s case, what would that include?

    It would mean forming stronger alliances against Iran that would buttress Israel’s position against their nuclear program, even at the cost of harming other interests close to Netanyahu’s heart.  Principally, that would mean being more accommodating towards the Palestinian Authority (even if not Hamas).  This would serve to remove an unnecessary irritant with the Obama administration, conceivably even with the European states imposing sanction on Iran.  It would help open doors to the Sunni Arab states that Israel desperately needs to be publicly on its side on the Iran issue, and not just expressing their agreement in private.  (Indeed, reports are that Israel wooed these states’ ambassadors to attend Netanyahu’s speech, but was turned down.

    Does Netanyahu want to thwart development of an Iranian bomb?  Surely.  Is it worth any concessions on the West Bank?  Apparently not.  What kind of existential threat is it when maintaining Israel’s position on the West Bank supersedes rational actions to counter Iran?

    So indeed let’s compare Netanyahu to Churchill.  We can just mention briefly that Churchill’s main goal from at least May 1940 on was to stay on the best possible terms with the American president, which obviously could serve as a lesson to Netanyahu.  But that was an easy one for him.  Other things were a lot harder.  Selling off parts of the British Empire to the Americans.  Making deals with the devil named Stalin, allying himself with any and all partners to defeat Hitler and Germany.  *That’s* what you do when you face a true existential threat.

    I didn’t know Churchill and he wasn’t a friend of mine, but Netanyahu sure as hell isn’t a Churchill.

    2) "This is where we disagree." A reader responds to this line from me, contrasting 1938 and 2015: "Nazi Germany had a world-beating military, and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel." The reader replies:

    This is where we disagree. Iran is close and militarily strong, much stronger than any military Israel has faced before. Iran is as far away as Syria and Lebanon. In other words, on the Israeli border. Iran is much larger than Israel and has much larger manpower. While Israel spends more and has more military equipment, it is not that much more and, as stated before, Iran is likely stronger than any military Israel has ever faced before. Hezbollah did very well in its recent wars with Israel.

    A war against Iran would be devastating for Israel, or at least that is what many Israelis believe. There is no handwaving "we'll crush them" belief, as you try to portray it.

    3) "If it's really 1938 ..." That is the subject line on this reader's note:

    The expanding empire that blames a minority  (gays) for its problems is Russia, not Iran.

    Iran is just a buffer state to Putin.  See also Syria.

    The best hope for world peace and nuclear proliferation would be joint US and Iranian military operations against ISIS.  Second best is a good nuclear deal.

    Instead of attacking Iran, we should be quietly moving tens of thousands of troops, tanks and aircraft to all three Baltic countries and Poland.

    Even if Iran gets nukes it lacks the air force or navy to invade and hold a country.  The same can't be said about Russia.

    Several other readers wrote to say that they would have liked the speech better if it were about Putin and Russia.

    4) A political shift. From a lawyer on the East Coast:

    Netanyahu’s choice to embrace the Republican Party offers what may be a historic opportunity.  Henceforth we will have one party, the Republican, asserting as it has for some time that the United States must follow the lead of Israel in all things—the “no daylight” cliché that has become Republican orthodoxy.

    This creates an opportunity for the Democratic Party to tell voters something different.  How about this: “We wish the people of Israel well.  On many issues the interests of Israel and the United States are the same, and we will work together to advance those interests.  But there may be times when we conclude, even after honest dialogue with Israel, that the interests of our two countries diverge.  When that happens we will work to advance the interests of the United States rather than the differing interests of Israel.”

    In the context of U.S.-Israel relations this sounds like a radical idea, but it expresses our view of every other country in the world, and there is no reason Israel should be different.  This would perhaps put Democrats out of the running for Sheldon Adelson’s money, but they’re not likely to get any of that anyway.

    5) "You are wrong." From a reader I know in the tech industry:

    Unfortunately, you're wrong about Bib's fighting words.

    You may or may not be right that Iran is fundamentally unlike Nazi Germany or that Iran's leaders are not suicidal. In the spectrum of risks, it's a big chance to take. Israel's population is 8.3M vs Iran's 77.2M vs USA 320.2M, so your statement "any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths" isn't all that reassuring. Is it possible that you do not appreciate the thinking of suicide bombers or Jihadis.

    More importantly, Iran neither has to actually use the bomb nor use it directly to intimidate the free world. There are plenty of anonymous popular fronts who unfortunately would happily deliver an atomic suitcase to downtown DC. Oops. What are you going to do? Start a war?

    I personally did not support Netanyahu's speaking to Congress, but the scariest quote in the 3rd Jeffrey Goldberg piece you linked to: "The deal that seems to be taking shape right now does not fill me—or many others who support a diplomatic solution to this crisis—with confidence." David Horovitz, the thoughtful editor of [The Times of Israel], put it this way: "Netanyahu so wrong in confronting Obama, so right on Iran".

    It's not about preventing any deal. Deep down, doubt it though you may, Netanyahu actually does go to sleep and wake up "genuinely believing that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership." And many many Israelis share what you must consider his "paranoia."

    My Dad's [a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald] quote still stands, "When someone threatens to kill you, just believe him." Americans may find this hard to appreciate because of (1) superpower strength, (2) strategic size and depth, and (3) the doctrine of M.A.D. [Mutually Assured Destruction, a.k.a. nuclear deterrence] with relatively rational adversaries for the last 70 years.

    I envy your inability to consider the E-word. [Existential]

    6) What about the speech, as a speech? From another lawyer on the East Coast:

    We can agree to disagree about 1938, protocols, etc., but given your role as former speechwriter, I was really more interested to read what you thought of the speech in terms of delivery, language, rhetoric, structure, etc.

    I wasn't listening to it so much in those terms, or taking notes on phrasing and stagecraft. But overall as a speech, I thought it was very good. (Transcript from WaPo here.)

    It was crystal-clear: "My friends, for over a year, we've been told that no deal is better than a bad deal. Well, this is a bad deal. It's a very bad deal. We're better off without it."

    It was well and powerfully delivered, by someone who knows how to wait for and ride crowd approval, of which there was a lot.

    It had a number of noticeable phrases that stayed just on the effective side of the effective-verging-toward-cutesy continuum. (I.e., I thought these were good, not too cute.)  For instance, "It doesn't block Iran's path to the bomb; it paves Iran's path to the bomb." And "Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. ... In this deadly game of thrones, there's no place for America or for Israel." And "when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy."

    When listening to Ronald Reagan, I often disagreed with the policies he was presenting but respected his skill in presenting them. Same with Benjamin Netanyahu today.

  • The Central Question: Is It 1938?

    If today's world resembles Europe on the eve of invasion, carnage, and the Holocaust, then Netanyahu's warnings are prudent and wise. But what if the analogy is wrong?

    Prime Minister Netanyahu is no slave to the TelePrompTer (Reuters)

    After Benjamin Netanyahu's speech let me point you toward Jeffrey Goldberg's analysis. Let me also suggest, again, that differences on Iran policy correspond to answers to this one question: Whether the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to, or different from, the world of 1938.

    I've gone into the 1938 question before, here and here, but in light of the theme's centrality to this speech I'll do so one more time. No parallel from history is ever perfect, as Ernest May and Richard Neustadt so memorably argued in Thinking in Time. But as that book also demonstrated, the idea of recurring historic episodes has a powerful effect on decision-making in the here and now. Disagreements over policy often come down to the search for the right historic pattern to apply.

    Over the years Benjamin Netanyahu has very explicitly said, "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany." For instance, see the the first minute of the clip below. Netanyahu said he was asked to give a young man a one-sentence summary of the world situation. Netanyahu answered with those six words.

    In less explicit form, the idea that Europe on the eve of the Holocaust is the most useful guide to the world in 2015 runs through arguments about Iran policy. (Ted Cruz made the explicit comparison after the speech.) And if that is the correct model to apply, the right "picture in our heads" as Walter Lippmann put it in Public Opinion, then these conclusions naturally follow:

    The threatening power of the time—Nazi Germany then, the Islamists' Iran now—is a force of unalloyed evil whose very existence threatens decent life everywhere.

    That emerging power cannot be reasoned or bargained with but must ultimately be stopped and broken.

    "Compromisers" are in fact appeasers who are deluding themselves about these realities—Neville Chamberlain then, Barack Obama now—and increase danger for the world by wasting time before the inevitable showdown. The tellers of harsh truths—Winston Churchill then, Benjamin Netanyahu now—are trying to spare the world far greater dangers by encouraging action before it's too late.

    1938, the first time around (Wikimedia)

    • The appeasers' blindness endangers people all around the world but poses an especially intolerable threat to Jews. Six million of them were slaughtered because Britain, France, and especially the United States took too long to confront Hitler or even open their doors to refugees. Today's 8 million residents of Israel could be at existential risk if a mad regime, committed to their destruction, gains nuclear weapons. If a national leader says he intends to kill you, you take that seriously.

    • As a result of all these factors, no deal with such an implacable enemy is preferable to an inevitably flawed and Munich-like false-hope deal.

    That's what follows if the most relevant history is pre-Holocaust, pre-World War II Europe, and nearly everything in Netanyahu's speech can be read in this light. Also, and crucially, it means that the most obvious criticism of the speech—what's Netanyahu's plan for getting Iran to agree?—is irrelevant. What was the Allies' "plan" for getting Hitler to agree? The plan was to destroy his regime.

    * * *

    If, on the other hand, you think that the contrasts with 1938 are more striking than the similarities, you see things differently. As a brief reminder of the contrasts: The Germany of 1938 was much richer and more powerful than the Iran of today. Germany was rapidly expansionist; Iran, despite its terrorist work through proxies, has not been. The Nazi leaders had engulfed the world in war less than a decade after taking power. Iran's leaders, oppressive and destructive, have not shown similar suicidal recklessness. European Jews of 1938 were stateless, unarmed, and vulnerable. Modern Israel is a powerful, nuclear-armed force. Moreover, the world after the first wartime use of nuclear weapons, of course by the United States, is different from the world before that point. That is, all of humanity has faced an existential threat from nuclear warfare through the past 60 years. Eliminating the weapons is the only lasting protection; while they exist, deterrence has been the only way to keep them from being used.

    So if it's not 1938, then other models of negotiation can apply, like those the United States used with the Soviet Union through the decades of the Cold War, or with China from the 1970s onward. Iran is then another problematic state, rather than a uniquely Nazi-style menace. (Recall that before the Iraq War Netanyahu made similarly absolutist claims about the undeterrable threat of Saddam Hussein.) Negotiations will therefore include, as they have with other states, a combination of carrots and sticks; a recognition of interests on all sides; and an understanding that negotiated progress is long, halting, and imperfect, but better than the alternative of no progress at all.

    And if it's not 1938, analyses like this one, from the Arms Control Association after today's speech, have weight:

    [Netanyahu] argues that the agreement-in-the-making would make it a near "certainty" that Iran pursues nuclear weapons because it would retain a nuclear program. This is just plain wrong.

    The reality is that the agreement the P5+1 are pursuing would increase Iran's theoretical "breakout" time to amass enough enriched uranium gas enriched to bomb grade from today's 2-3 months to more than 12 months, and it would do so for over a decade. It would block the plutonium path to weapons.

    * * *

    Here's what I understand the more clearly after these past few weeks' drama over Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech. These differences in historic model are deep and powerful, and people with one model in mind are not going to convince people with the other mental picture. (Indeed after I rashly used the "is it 1938?" theme in a tweet, there was a little storm of responses in this vein: "@trueholygoat Serious question: Why do you hate Jews so much? ")

    Unless Iran's behavior worsens in ways we have not yet seen, to me and others in the not-1938 crowd it will seem more comparable to other difficult states, for instance the old Soviet Union, than to Hitler's Germany. And unless its behavior improves in ways we have not yet seen, to Netanyahu and many others it will seem like the old threat in a new form, all the worse because of the nuclear element.

    That is one more reality for negotiators to deal with. As Jeffrey Goldberg notes at the end of his post-speech report, Obama's task in trying to broker a deal is hard in the best of circumstances, and there's a reasonable chance that after this speech it has become harder.

  • The Mystery of the Netanyahu Disaster, and a Possible Explanation

    At face value, this speech makes no sense. But there may be a deeper logic to the Israeli prime minister's determination to speak to Congress.

    Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC (Reuters)

    Why is Benjamin Netanyahu going ahead with his speech to Congress in a few hours' time, despite complaints from all quarters about the damage it is causing? It's a trickier question than it seems.

    Was it simple tin ear on his side, and Ambassador Ron Dermer's? Based on the idea, as Netanyahu has preposterously claimed, that he "didn't intend" any affront to the sitting U.S. president and was surprised by all the ruckus? Were they that ill-informed, naive, trapped in a bubble, or plain dumb?

    I find that hard to believe, from a leader who prides himself on his U.S. connections and an ambassador born and raised in the U.S. and schooled by Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. If Barack Obama addressed the Knesset and said he had a "moral obligation" to criticize Netanyahu's policies, would he then say he "didn't intend" any offense? Please.

    Was it crass election-year politicking on Netanyahu's part, based on the need to get through this month's election in Israel and the faith that eventually things would sort themselves back out with the United States? All politicians know that if they don't hold office their platforms don't matter, and most convince themselves that what is good for them is good for their country. So maybe he rationalized that getting through this election was worth whatever bruised feelings it might cause.

    On this I defer to the reporting of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, here, here, and here about the tensions between Netanyahu's electoral incentives and long-term U.S.-Israeli relations. From my point of view, this would be the most benign explanation. Countries act in their own self-interest, and so do politicians.

    Was it because Netanyahu has been such a prescient, confirmed-by-reality judge of real-world threats that he feels moral passion about making sure his views are heard?

    Hardly. I can't believe that he's fooled even himself into thinking that his egging-on of war with Iraq looks good in retrospect. And for nearly two decades Netanyahu has been arguing that Iran was on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. When you're proven right, you trumpet that fact—and when you're proven wrong, you usually have the sense to change the topic. Usually.   

    Was it because Netanyahu has a better plan that he wants Congress or the United States to adopt in dealing with Iran? No. His alternative plan for Iran is like the Republican critics' alternative to the Obama healthcare or immigration policies. That is: It's not a plan, it's dislike of what Obama is doing. And if the current negotiations break down, Iran could move more quickly toward nuclear capacity than it is doing now—barring the fantasy of a preemptive military strike by Israel or the U.S. As Michael Tomasky put it in the Daily Beast:

    Netanyahu is creating a much bigger problem here. Ultimately, he wants war with Iran. And American neoconservatives want it, too. ... Think about it. What is the alternative to negotiating with Iran? Well, there is only one: not negotiating with Iran. And what are the possible courses of action under that option? At the end of the day, there are two. Number one, let Iran do what it wants. Number two, ultimately, be willing to start a war to block Iran’s nuclear ambitions.


    Was it because Netanyahu actually believes what he is about to tell Congress: that his country faces an "existential threat" if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? These are fighting words on my part, but: I don't really believe this can be so.

    Let me explain. No person, nation, or community can define what some other person (etc) "should" consider threatening. And after I argued last month that a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable for the world but not an "existential" threat to an Israel with its own large nuclear-weapons arsenal, I received a flood of mail summed up by one message from a man in Connecticut: "If you were a Jew, you would understand."

    There is no answer to an identity-based argument; no one can completely stand in someone else's shoes; and the Holocaust is obviously the memory that trumps all others in discussing Israel's security. So if the voters of Israel want to define Iran's ambitions not as a problem but as an "existential threat," that's up to them.

    But from the U.S. perspective I can say that the "existential" concept rests on two utterly unsupportable premises. One is that Iran is fundamentally like Nazi Germany, and the world situation of 2015 is fundamentally like that of 1938. Emotionally you can say "never forget!" Rationally these situations have nothing in common—apart from the anti-Semitic rhetoric. (To begin with: Nazi Germany had a world-beating military and unarmed Jewish minorities within its immediate control. Iran is far away and militarily no match for Israel.) The other premise is that Iran's leaders are literally suicidal. That is, they care more about destroying Israel than they care about their country's survival. Remember, Israel has bombs of its own with which to retaliate, so that any attack on Israel would ensure countless more Iranian deaths. As another reader, who also identified himself as Jewish, wrote:

    Questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu (and his supporters)

    Question 1: How does Iran survive the consequences of a nuclear attack of any scale on Israel?
    Question 2: There is no question 2.

    That Iran's current leaders are zealots is easy to demonstrate. That they are suicidal? For that premise there is literally zero evidence, as Peter Beinart recently wrote and as Israel's own security-services report.

    * * *

    Maybe I am giving Netanyahu too much credit. Maybe he genuinely believes everything listed above—that he's been right all along, that we need to hear his message, that Obama and his administration will take no offense, and that this is a life-or-death existential issue because of a suicidal Iranian leadership.

    Maybe. But I think he is smarter than any of that. And thus the explanation that rings truest to me is one offered in The National Interest by Paul Pillar, a veteran of the CIA. It's relevant to note that Pillar was as presciently right about Iraq, concerning both the hyped nature of the threat and the disastrous consequences of the invasion, as Netanyahu was spectacularly wrong.

    Pillar's assessment is that the ramped-up "existential" rhetoric is a screen for the real issue, which is a flat contradiction between long-term U.S. and Israeli national interests as regards Iran. It is in American interests (as I have argued) to find some way to end Iran's excluded status and re-integrate it with the world, as happened with China in the 1970s. And it is in Israel's interests, at least as defined by Netanyahu for regional-power reasons, that this not occur. As Pillar writes:

    The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

    That is, as long as Netanyahu keeps the attention on nukes and "existential" threats, he's talking about an area where the U.S. and Israel might differ on tactics but agree on ultimate goals. Inflammatory as that topic is, it's safer than talking about re-integrating Iran as a legitimate power, where U.S. and Israeli interests may ultimately differ. As George Friedman wrote in a Stratfor analysis just now:

    This is the heart of Israel's problem. ... Israel does not want to be considered by the United States as one power among many. It is focused on the issue of a nuclear Iran, but it knows that there is no certainty that Iran's nuclear facilities can be destroyed or that sanctions will cause the Iranians to abandon the nuclear program. What Israel fears is an entente between the United States and Iran and a system of relations in which U.S. support will not be automatic.

    From this perspective, Netanyahu's bull-headedness makes sense, even beyond its short-term electoral value back home. He can be willing to endure complaints about breach of protocol and partisan alignment, if in so doing he can prevent the deeper divergence in national interests from becoming apparent. And if this episode has any value on the American side, it may be to promote freer discussion of the many areas where U.S. interests align with Israel's, and those where they diverge. We'll see if that starts with the planned response by a number of Democratic representatives just after the speech.

  • Talking With Dan Richard About High-Speed Rail

    The chairman of California's costly and controversial infrastructure project explains why (in his view) it actually will get built—and whether its champion, 77-year-old Governor Jerry Brown, is likely to be able to take a ride.

    What California is planning to build (UC Davis and Esri)

    For the past 10 days my wife Deb and I have been mainly on the road in California, visiting cities for the new season of American Futures that launches in this space a week from today.

    But last Wednesday, in Sacramento, I had a chance to interview Dan Richard, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, about what I keep calling the most significant infrastructure project underway anyplace in America. This was part of a "Bold Bets" conference on transportation challenges, which was run by AtlanticLIVE and underwritten by Siemens.

    You can see an index to the past year's High-Speed Rail series here, and again in this post after the jump. It included two installments, No. 3 and No. 9, in which Dan Richard responded to financial, technical, and environmental criticisms of the project. My approach for the interview below was to say: Obviously you (Dan Richard) are in favor of this project. And over the months, as I've written, I've become a supporter too. So instead of talking about the pluses I'm going to take you through the major criticisms and complaints about the project, to hear how you address them. Then if I have left out any complaints, I'll give members of the audience their turn.

    You can see the results in the video above. (Video from the conference as a whole is here.) You'll see Richard talking about specific complaints—cost overruns, potentially outdated technology, inefficient routing, "last mile" challenges of connecting with local transport networks—and also larger political and philosophical questions of how to assess investment in costly civilian infrastructure. I thought this was an interesting and instructive half hour and hope you find it worthwhile as well.

    More »

  • Sobering News Out of China, Part 4 Million

    "Pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss." Chronicles of a country walling itself off

    Getting through the Chinese Internet firewall is something like getting through this gate into the Forbidden City (Wikimedia )

    Last week I mentioned the latest chapter in the Chinese government's efforts to seal the country off from the rest of the Internet—and what I considered an out-of-date report in The Guardian about the situation. The Guardian report was based on the palmy-in-retrospect era a few years ago when the government censored attempts to organize protests, but otherwise let people have their say.

    No more. From a foreign reader in Shanghai:  

    The Guardian article you linked to cited some interesting research, but they're pretty out of date, and they missed the point/reality of the firewall pretty badly for an article claiming to tell us the "fascinating truth" about the situation here. ...

    I've been living in Shanghai for almost two years, so the censorship started tightening not long after I got here. It was ironic because right after I arrived I read a newsletter from the American consulate here saying that the local government was considering lightening the firewall in Shanghai as a "special zone" style experiment, including unblocking Facebook. Obviously, that report was either false or else the plan got shot down by hardliners higher up the food chain.

    But things have definitely gotten worse lately. The Guardian didn't mention the self-censorship that most media companies have to go through, but I recently sent a WeChat message to a friend (in English) that was mildly critical of the government. The message didn't go through, and for the first and only time in more than a year of constant use I was booted from the system on all my devices. This is just an anecdote, and it could be a coincidence, but it definitely goes against the "criticism is ok as long as you don't try to mobilize" philosophy.

    The other thing they're missing, and that doesn't get discussed enough, is the social engineering part of the Party's censorship project. Just because a website isn't "blocked" doesn't mean they want you to use it. Part of this is their war on Google: many (maybe most) websites these days use Google Fonts. In practice, this means that millions of websites include a call to Google's servers when you try to load their page. I've noticed that this call hangs a lot of the time, causing the page to load excruciatingly slowly. Again, I can't prove this, but I've noticed it with many sites that are completely non-political and technically unblocked.

    Even without Google, they throttle their international connections here. I play around a lot with Ping, and as a totally non-scientific example, pinging Baidu without a VPN takes 17ms on average with 0% loss; pinging the Atlantic without a VPN takes 350ms and about 40% loss. With a VPN, both are about 250ms with 0% loss. This is why I often need to use a VPN even for sites like xkcd, which has nothing to do with anything that the Party cares about but which is so slow it doesn't render properly.

    The goal of this is obviously to nudge (maybe too gentle a word) people towards the Chinese internet/intranet. I'm sure you had this experience here as well: Youku loads like a dream here, and it's the best streaming video site in the world as far as I'm concerned (and mostly free!). Baidu, QQ Music, WeChat, Taobao ... everything the government wants you to use is fast, free, and for the most part beautifully designed.

    One of your earlier posts quoted a businessman in China pointing out that the internet in China just "doesn't work." This isn't quite true. The Chinese part works very, very well ... it's only when you try to access overseas content, no matter how innocuous, that you start tearing your hair out.

    Further in this vein: A report from WantChinaTimes.com—which, bear in mind, is based in Taiwan—about foreign-owned businesses finding it harder to do business in China. And a valuable discussion in ChinaFile on "Is Mao Still Dead?" Spoiler: maybe not.

    As I've written a million times, I'm overall a big fan of China and hope for its continued emergence. But as I've written almost as often, these past two years of crackdown under hoped-for "reformer" Xi Jinping have been discouraging to put it mildly, and we'll hope that at some point we can look back on them as a nasty phase.

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