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.
  • A whole bunch more on obesity theories

    After the jump, an American-style cornucopia of observations and theories about which Americans are overweight and why. I have been fascinated to read this mail and am trying to share some of the most interesting or representative parts.

    First, why med students aren't fat, from a fourth-year med student from Indiana:

    "1)  From what I've seen, class is a massive factor when it comes to obesity.  For us, it's actually frighteningly easy to quantify class when seeing patients -- we rotate through 4 different hospitals here and the term "Wishard Patient" is a well worn code among students/doctors/nurses/etc.  Typically, it's used in the context of trauma (gun and knife club) but it's depressing how routine it is to see diabetic patients 50/100/150 lbs overweight in the populations that can least afford care.  When working in a clinic for the local indigent population I saw a whole family where I'm certain every member was at least 100 lbs overweight, and a 14 year old girl already weighed over 250 lbs.

    2)  For some reason, there are very few fat medical students or residents.  Undoubtedly some of this is class, but the number of overweight students is too low to be attributed solely to that.  This actually kind of surprised me, because I've known my share of fat doctors.  My dad was a physician and could have stood to lose 30-40 lbs for most of his life...  But I'm constantly amazed at how fit my class is.  I can think of maybe 5 people I'd call "overweight" (let alone obese) in a class of 280.  I probably work out less than the mean, and I'm 6'2, 200 lbs, lift/run sporadically but play tennis once a week minimum.  I have friends who literally look like they can bench press trucks.  Some people just never NOT go to the gym, even on their most brutal rotations (sometimes that can mean 100+ hour weeks).  That's really inspiring to me. 

    "But the moral of the story is why that's the case?  Undoubtedly some of that is self selection, but I think a lot of it is that the medical hierarchy can be incredibly cruel to the overweight.  I suspect it's much harder than an overweight candidate all else being equal to get admitted to medical school to get admitted (maybe even relative to other professional schools or graduate schools).  I've seen superiors (staff, residents) just blatantly insult the weight of subordinates -- what comes to mind in particular is a staff physician constantly berating an extremely overweight resident to his face.  And honestly, I sometimes wonder how patients would react to an obese physician -- is it tough to tell someone to quit smoking when you're a 100 pounds overweight?  I'm not sure."

    Are cars the problem,  or suburbs? A view from Austria:

    "Interesting last post about the perils of car culture. I think it's dead on, but I wanted to emphasize that it's not just cities that come out looking good. The lesson is closer to, it's suburbs that are bad.

    More »

  • Obesity and politics

    A reader notes the thematic resemblance between two maps. First, the famous NYT map showing the counties that voted more Republican in the 2008 presidential election than in 2004. The areas in red show where Barack Obama, while winning nationally, got less of the vote than John Kerry did while losing.
    ElectoralMap1.jpg


    Then, the previously-mentioned map showing the states with greatest number of people who are both poor and obese.
    Thumbnail image for ObesityMap1.jpg

    What this means, if anything, is hard to say, because of the state-versus-county difference in scale and other anomalies. Still, it's interesting. The reader says:

    "You brought up the voting map, but even before I saw your mention of it, it struck me that the obesity/median income map strongly resembled maps that showed percentages of people voting for McCain and Obama. There is a V, with its bottom point in Arkansas and extending an arm NE to West Virginia and NW to Montana, that covers both McCain voters and the poor-and-fat. So the GOP is not just the natural home now of evangelical whites but also the disproportionatlely poor and heavy? Wow. That's a lot of cultural signifiers for rednecks conservatives all rolled up into one.."

    Here, also from the NYT, is a map of the states McCain actually carried, showing the reach up toward Montana.
    ElecMap2.jpg


  • Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Besuboru dept

    Update: Just after posting the item below I learned of the death of William Safire, who for three decades wrote the NYT Mag's language column, among his voluminous other works. Sorry for a querulous-seeming note under the circumstances. On the other hand, this is the kind of distinction that Safire himself reveled in. My condolences to his family.
    ___

    There is a big risk in writing items on the lines of: "Everybody thinks X, but everybody's wrong. Actually Y is correct." The risk is that, as the corrector, you can be wrong yourself. I know! I've been there before, and no doubt will be again.

    Unfortunately, I think that the estimable Jack Rosenthal of the NYT, in today's "Language" column in the magazine, is there too. Most of the column is devoted to correcting widely-practiced misuses of "phantonym" terms -- "disinterested" to mean bored (wrong) rather than impartial (right), etc. I'm with him on all of these! Then he adds this multilingual note:

    "The Japanese love besuboru, reflecting the phonetic phenomenon of lallation, reversing "r" and "l." "

    Not really. Rather, in keeping with my opening note of caution: to the best of my knowledge and experience, this is incorrect. Japanese fans of the Hiroshima Carp or the Nippon Ham Fighters do indeed refer to the sport as either besoboru or, more formally, 野球, yakyu. But they don't say besoboru because they are switching Ls and Rs. They say it because the Japanese language does not have the L sound. Where English speakers would use either L or R, the Japanese language has only R.*
     
    Therefore when Japanese people speak English, they often have trouble with Ls and may even "lallate," mixing up Ls and Rs. Much as English speakers, raised in a language with no gender, often mix up le/la or der/die/das in gendered languages like French or German. But when they're speaking Japanese, they say besoboru because that's the way their language works. (And if Rosenthal meant that the change wasn't caused by lallation but simply illustrated the use of an R where there had been an L -- OK. But it's still a bad illustration, since both Ls and Rs in English will become Rs in Japanese. Saying that it illustrates lallation implies that Rs would become Ls in Japanese -- Balaku Obama, etc. That doesn't happen.)

    OTOH, a very nice homage to one of my long-time Atlantic friends and colleagues in the Cox-Rathvon acrostic in the same magazine today, and a lot of unusually elegant clues. Check it out.
    ___
    * Primer on Japanese sound system here and here. As anyone who has studied the language knows, its syllabary has the ra / ri / ru / re / ro sequence of R sounds, but nothing involving Ls.

    Foreign words are often brought directly into Japanese and and converted to Japanese phonetics -- in contrast to Chinese, where the concept behind the foreign word is often re-rendered in Chinese. Thus "computer" is konpyuta (コンピュータ) in Japanese, but dian nao, "electric brain," (电脑), in Chinese. And thus in China I had a whole invented Chinese name with little relation to my original name, whereas in Japan, within the limits of Japanese sounds, my last name became ファローズ, Fuarohzu.

  • Obesity and class: the "hotness" factor

    An additional view on the relationship among education, income, and weight:

    "I am currently enrolled in an MBA program in a large city in the South.  On the weekends, I drive 80 miles and work as a paramedic for 48 straight hours for an emergency medical service that covers a bunch of rural small towns.  I am about 50 pounds over my ideal weight.  In my classes and in my neighborhood, which is very "creative class," my weight is definitely irregular.  In a b-school class of 50 or a full trendy neighborhood restaurant, there might be one other person who is more than 20 pounds overweight.  In the more rural area where I work, however, I'm damn close to the median.

    "A couple of thoughts:
    "1. Very broadly, American culture trends to stereotype those who get good grades as unathletic nerds.  Might be true in engineering, computer sciene and the natural sciences.  But in the professional classes, the same people I went to school with who had the discipline to put in the study time necessary to get into the good law schools, med schools or grab the investment banking or management consulting jobs also had the willpower to put in the time at the gym.  I'd bet that many current 22-year-olds would consider maintaining or obtaining "hotness" as as important as career success.  D.C. is full of these types of successful grads of good schools.

    "2. Car culture is terrible for public health.  Again, I'm significantly overweight.  Always trying new exercise and diet programs that never result in sustained weight loss.  What has?  Spent two months in London without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt at dieting or exercising.  Weight loss: 22 lbs. Six weeks in NYC without car, relying on public transit and walking, no attempt...  Weight loss: 19 lbs.  D.C. also benefits from this.

    "I had a friend from my paramedic job come visit me in the city a couple months back and bring his brother and a few of his brother's friends, who all work physically demanding construction jobs.  The construction guys, who are all stocky but in various stages of growing beer guts, somehow got into a fight with this group of guys who were built like lumberjacks.  It was a draw.  I later found out that the lumberjack guys were all "Big 4" accountants - CPAs who somehow had better arms and fitness levels than those who actually used their bodies for a living."

    More in the queue.

  • FT, Economist, and me

    - Very nice brief review of my Postcards book today, by Rahul Jacob in the FT. I am grateful for his seeing just the points I was trying to make.

    - From the Economist's online site, a thought-experiment designed to show the ultimate folly of protectionism. This item has also been picked up by the Atlantic's own Andrew Sullivan.

    This isn't the place for a full discussion of the differences between the world as laid out in a first-semester ec course and the world as it actually operates. My unified field theory on the topic is in this Atlantic story, "How the World Works," from 1993.

    But this is the place to point out the basic logic error in the "thought experiment." Here's what the Economist's site said:

    "But the idiocy of the whole idea [of tariffs and protectionism] can be understood with a simple thought experiment, which I haven't seen used elsewhere.

    "If tariffs are such a good economic idea, then why stop at national boundaries? If they make everyone richer, why not have customs posts between New York and New Jersey? Cars entering and leaving the Lincoln tunnel would have to pay, on top of the toll, a surcharge on all the goods they contain. Why not, indeed, make New York and New Jersey self-sufficient in all their needs, making all their own cars, growing all their own food etc?"

    Here's the difference between commerce involving New York and New Jersey, and commerce involving, say, the U.S. and China. New York and New Jersey are in the same country. Why does this matter? Let's try a little thought experiment.

    Suppose you grow up in New Jersey. By the time you're looking for a job, the flow of capital, ideas, and innovation may mean that the best opportunities are in New York. Or Idaho, Or California. Sentimentally, perhaps you'd rather not move away from home. But in a pure economic sense, it doesn't matter in where the action is. You're free to move there. Within the national borders of the United States, there are only trivial, incidental impediments to citizens moving wherever they want. All "factors of production" -- money, material, people -- can flow freely throughout the country, for maximum efficiency. That's what the ec textbooks call for, and that's how it can work within a given country, or a free-movement zone like in Europe.

    But it's not the same between countries. If you grow up in New Jersey and the real opportunities are in Shanghai, you can't necessarily move there. You may not be able to move there even if you grow up in Qinghai province, China. People do move across national borders, legally and illegally. Immigration is America's distinctive strength, so I'm glad as many move here as do. But in general, people's economic well-being depends very heavily on the industries and opportunities in the country where they are born.

    Pointing this out doesn't prove protectionism right -- or wrong, as a strategy for developing a national economy. I'm on record as arguing that open Chinese-US trade has been good for both sides. But it does mean that the "thought experiment" makes no sense. There's a first-order difference between the flow of factors within a country and the flow between countries. I suspect this is the reason we haven't seen this powerful analogy "used elsewhere."

  • From Sudan, the Arctic, Shanghai: last takes on obesity

    ... at least for a while. Previously here, and with backward-reaching links here. Today's themes:

    Role of psychological factors, beyond class and geography:

    "Earlier this year, I spent a month in Southern Sudan. Returning to the US has many culture shocks - overpowering media environment being one. But the most striking was the preponderence not only of obese people, but people of all classes who were clearly overweight.

    "I live in Rochester, upstate NY which I consider a small midwestern city. The class lines referred to in your post are easily visible and confirmed. But I'd add one other possible obesity factor that likely traverses class lines: depression. No data, but I would guess that people who are depressed or anxious most often turn to food to soothe those beasts. Perhaps there's also a subtle factor of reaction to our Calvinist, repressive cultural history when it comes to sensual pleasure; food is allowed."

    The Eskimo angle:

    "I live in a predominantly Yup'ik Eskimo part of the world, where education levels are typically lower and the consumption of junk food has led to rapidly increasing rates of diabetes.Overweight and obese are the norm here, and not just among Yup'iks....

    "Another indicator from here: the used-clothes boutique has literally tens of feet of rack space for large, large clothes, about one foot or less for what one would consider small sizes.A doctor friend says the medical community has to redefine normal, since official normal does not represent most people...

    "I recently took a trip to Kansas City - which appears periodically in those lists generated somewhere of most-obese cities - and was struck by how few overweight people I was seeing. In fact, it was notable to me how fit most people looked, whereas here it is just the opposite. I was surprised."

    From a British friend in Shanghai:

    "I'm not surprised you are surprised not to see so many obese people. The world is enjoying the conversation about an 'obesity epidemic' and technically America tops the scales which gives the rest of us a chance to enjoy a seeming superiority. Whether or not that situation has changed in America and whether or not the situation for the rest of us has changed (in Europe, China or wherever getting fatter) doesn't matter. It's become a truism that Americans are fatter in greater numbers. This belief is held on to by both a) foreigners who like to have a dig at the US whenever we get a chance and b) ex-pat Americans who take the ex-pat view of all ex-pats that the country they come from has gone to the dogs since they left it. As you've been mixing with both foreigners and ex-pat Americans for several years in China you've probably let your guard down a bit and allowed it all to seep into your consciousness as it sort of seems right. Therefore when you return and are re-immersed in American life your unconscious assumption made while overseas is challenged.

    "Or, maybe you just need glasses!

    "Seriously though, it is interesting how many myths, stereotypes and assumptions you make about your own society while out of it for even a relatively short time.

    "Therefore the question is not really what happened to America's weight, good or bad, but what happened to James Fallows while he was away!"

    Ah, that last line opens up some questions that reach far beyond the obesity theme...  For now I'll say that I will return shortly to the ever-pressing boiled frog and slippery slope debates. And I will add, after yesterday's set of obesity maps, that a wonderful site for visualized data in general is FlowingData.com -- eg with this set of charts about making sense of flight delays. Nothing to do with body weight but interesting nonetheless. Thanks to Parker Donham for this lead.

  • More on obesity, geography, and class

    Gary Chapman, of the University of Texas, has created this way of envisioning the relationship between income and obesity. Concept: the shading varies with the obesity rate divided by median household income. This is a not-immediately-obvious way to present the data, in order to highlight one particular phenomenon: The darker the shade, the likelier you are to find people who are both poor and obese. Map created via Datamasher.org.

    ObesityMap1.jpg


    And here is a map of simple state-by-state obesity rates, from the Centers for Disease Control, highlighting among other things Colorado's claim to be trimmest state in the union.

    ObesityMap2.jpg

    Obviously, state-by-state comparisons are crude at best. The real sociological differences are within states -- county by county, neighborhood by neighborhood, as we see in Red/Blue voting maps. Still, as with voting there are large-scale state-by-state variations, and here the difference between Mississippi and, say, Vermont or Utah says something about racial mix, income and education levels, etc.
     
    After the jump, another map and a few more hypotheses.
    ____

    More »

  • Weight, class, and Wal-Mart

    From a friend in Boston, a note that gives an extended version of a theme in many responses I've received. Background here and here. Charts and data on this point shortly. The argument here -- that, along with smoking, obesity has become a class-bound marker and problem in America -- is hardly surprising, but the power of the connection is what many people emphasize.

    "i wonder if your seeing fewer overweight people than you expected when you got back to the states might be, at least in part, a function of class. this is a point i'm somewhat uncomfortable making, but it shouldn't be ignored. people who, just as a for instance, run and listen to npr and read (not to mention write for) the atlantic are both likelier to be fit and likelier to associate with people of the same ilk. (as a nation, we've not only gotten fatter but also, as you know, much less likely to mix with people who don't share our educational or cultural background.)

    "i remember walking  through harvard yard back in 1986 during the university's celebration of its 350th anniversary. the place was awash in alums, and there was something noticeably different about most of these people. it wasn't that they were expensively dressed or looked like preppies, i realized. it's that almost everyone was so *trim.* none of  these people would likely be found shopping in wal-mart, where waistlines look a lot different.

    "as an aside: i've long thought it would be an interesting commentary on the stratification in this society to have political candidates asked during a debate if they'd ever shopped at a wal-mart. i have to think that very few could honestly answer yes--and the higher the office the fewer the yeses. to think that a democracy's leadership class should  have no connection (other than owning stock--or, in hillary clinton's case, being once on its board) to the biggest corporation in the country, how strange! back when the biggest corporation was gm or exxon, even the wealthiest people likely had *some* dealings with it, even only being chauffered in a cadillac."

    To answer the last question: I'm not a political candidate, but I have not only shopped in W-Ms around the US but have also been to many outlets inside China. That's a story on its own -- the one in Shanghai has whole pig carcasses suspended by hooks right inside the front door, and tanks full of live carp, which the shopper-housewives let flop around on the floor to see which ones look best for the evening's dinner. No one will ever convince me that W-M doesn't know how to globalize/localize.

    But I digress. To sharpen my friend's question: a candidate should be asked when was the most recent time he or she enjoyed Every Day Low Prices.

  • Reactions on Chinese tires

    In this item two days ago, I mentioned that most of the mainstream economics press had gone (predictably) berserk in overreacting to the shock-horror nightmare of the Obama administration's tariff on imported Chinese tires.

    First point: I neglected to mention the honorable exception of Andrew Peaple, reporting in the WSJ and playing down "Oh no! Smoot Hawley!" hysteria from the start. The online version of his initial story:

    "WSJA(9/15) Heard On The Street: Tires, Chickens, Common Sense
       (From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA)
       By Andrew Peaple
    "Fought over the likes of bras and bananas, trade wars always give off a whiff of the absurd.

    "With a measure of good sense, a spat between the U.S. and China involving tires and chickens won't devolve into a trade war as well."

    Unfortunately, the version of the story that is now online has a much more alarmist headline, though the common-sense content of the article itself is still the same. Here's the new headline:
    WSJChicken.jpg

    Next, from someone with on-scene experience, making a point left out of most of the reflexive, "Oh no! Smoot Hawley!" original coverage

    "I was a senior International Trade consultant with 2 major firms in China 2003-2007.   Approximately one third of the over 100 projects I managed during that four year period involved assisting foreign companies (US, EU, some Japanese) in defending themselves against either investigations by, or anti-competitive practices perpetrated by, the Chinese Customs authorities. 

    "I believe that I can safely say that without fail, each project of this type that I was involved in was predicated by a distortion or willful misunderstanding of both Chinese and WTO/WCO trade law and operational norms by the Customs authorities.  Nor were these actions limited to provincial backwaters (though the most egregious did take place there); many of our projects involved Shanghai or Beijing Customs entry ports.  Practices such as demanding improper HTS classification of goods (HTS classification determines applicable duty rate) or arbitrary valuation of goods (the Customs declared value upon which duty and VAT are assessed) are practiced daily throughout the country and cost foreign companies substantial amounts.

    "I very seldom see this issue addressed in any article concerning China trade and thought I would bring it to your attention."

    Main point: this is a far more complicated issue, with a far longer and more tangled history, than 95% of the western-press reaction would indicate. I urge everyone to keep up with this "China Financial Markets site before expressing heated opinions on the subject.

    Update: there's actually no material after the jump; original posting included some background notes, by mistake. But our system retains the "continue reading" link even with nothing there any more.

    More »

  • Are we fat?

    Assents, dissents, and elaborations -- well, actually no assents -- to these two earlier comments that I have not noticed the American obesity epidemic as much as I expected, after a few years away.

    "You need to get out more."
    A note representative of many I received:

    "You are in Washington.  Too many urbanites who buck the trend.  Spend a week off the coast - In Cincinnati, Columbus, St. Louis especially in the suburbs and you will see it."


    Ripple Effects:

    "Your comment about not seeing as many obese Americans as you expected to has prompted me to write. I teach product design in the college of engineering at [a major public university in the Midwest], and am currently working on a project to help the hospital technicians who do X rays, sonograms, CT scans, etc. It turns out that many of these folks suffer quite serious injuries at work, and by far the major cause of these injuries is the obese patients they deal with on a daily basis.

    "It appears that most of these technicians are women who are often required to move patients who outweigh them by several hundred pounds. In fact, one of the techs we interviewed in our study pointed out that when she performs vaginal sonograms on very large women, each of the patient's legs often weighs more than she does. I've often read articles about the growing obesity problem in the US, but I've never come across anything concerning this large and growing problem, if you'll pardon the pun. 

    "I find myself wondering, when I read about the growing cost of obesity in the US health system, if anyone is looking at the cost of injuries to the people who are responsible for treating these folks?"

    More refined view of the regional difference:

    "My personal, unscientific evaluation of obesity is that it's lower in big cities than small.  I live in Chicago, but have friends and family throughout the Midwest.  My impression is that I see more "volume abundant" people in the smaller and rural towns.  A little Googling gave that a bit of support, but it is related to property values:  titled "Zip Codes And Property Values Predict Obesity Rates."  I don't know where you were making your observations, but that may be a big contributor.

    More »

  • Airplane noise, senior-citizen driving: replacements for frogs

    Suggestions on replacements for the boiled-frog metaphor:

    "The cat litter box is a good substitute and there are plenty of similar examples if one considers sounds. A succinct example of this is from the movie the Blues Brothers. After Elwood picks up Jake from prison, they go to Jake's apartment in Chicago. Right after an El train rattles by, Jake asks Ellwood, "How often do the trains come by?". Jake responds, "So often, you don't even notice."

    "A similar situation occurred with my grandmother. She and her husband bought a house near LAX in the 50s, when I'm sure the occasional airplane flying over was a pleasant distraction. At the time of her death in the 90s, LAX had 4 runways and their house was bombarded by the noise from constant aircraft that seemed to be flying just a few feet overhead. Anyone walking into her house would have wondered why the TV was so loud, until the next takeoff or landing occurred.

    "Two more frog equivalences. Ever work on another person's computer and find that it operates brutally slowly? No one ever seems to notice that almost day-by-day loss of performance themselves. Easy to understand, but I can't think of a catchy shorthand.

    "So finally, my nomination for the replacement, an old person driving. They never notice the degradation in their driving skills until some unsuspecting passenger or pedestrian has a (hopefully only) near death experience."

    More to come.

  • America's newest shortage: the obese

    In response to my observation that I hadn't encountered as many very heavy Americans as I thought I would on return from three years away:

    "My wife (who is Australian and green card-holding) and I ( who was born in England but am now naturalized) were married this summer in Washington DC. Naturally her Australian family and some English relations of mine came to the wedding; for all of them it was their first time in the States and they combined their trip to DC with the usual American tourist visits (Disneyland, NYC, etc). On separate occasions both the Australians and the English said to me more or less what you wrote: "There are not as many fat people here as we expected".

    "As far as I understand it the rest of the Anglophone world is not so far behind the US in terms of obesity rates so maybe their stereotypes about America haven't caught up with the new, fatter reality in their own countries..."
  • Once and for all with the frogs

    Now that varied components of the online world are bearing down on the boiled-frog problem (Glenn Beck; Andrew Sullivan; Kevin Drum; the ever-useful Linguistics Log etc), here is the state of play:

    1) Consensus that real frogs don't actually do what the cliche (and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and countless others) say they do. Consensus unfortunately has not reached the otherwise- beyond-reproach Tom Toles of the WaPo, whose cartoon today is:
    TolesFrog.gif

    2) Consensus that one kind of frog actually does behave this way: these are frogs with their brains removed. Details here. Thanks to Michael Jones for the science on this one, and congrats to Joe Romm for putting the revised image to use.

    3) Consensus that the metaphor itself is useful. See here and here.

    4) Allegations that there are no substitutes. OK, here's one, as mentioned early this year: the "cat lady" litterbox problem. You have cats in the house (I speak as a cat fan*) and you don't notice the mounting smell. Then someone walks in the door, involuntarily steps back, and says, "My God! What is that reek?" Here is the classic formulation, as laid out by Don Rose here, regarding the Gov. Blago scandal:

    "Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    "I tell them about my cat litter box.

    "Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    "They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest."

    And I bet we could even work in some slippery-slope reasoning here!

    So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true -- and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.

    ___

    *On the cat-fancier theme: to demonstrate that I am a friend of all animals involved in these image controversies, the hapless frogs as well as the reeking cats, herewith a photo of the now quite elderly Mike the Cat, in his prime. He has been in loving adopted care, since our departure for China. Then and now, no odor came from his litterbox -- according to us.

    MikeonCouch.JPG


  • A few more random return-to-the-homeland notes

    I will never do this systematically, so I'll keep jotting them down at random. As I repatriate, I notice:

    - Not as many very fat large Americans as I was expecting. Am I looking in the wrong places? So propagandized into thinking that all of my countrymen are obese that expectations are off? Something gone wrong with my visual judgment? Something gone right with public health? I don't know. Just telling you what I have (not) seen.

    - In a number of airports the past few days. I can't help noticing the moronic, utterly rote and meaningless announcements that begin, "The Department of Homeland Security has determined that the threat level is Orange. Please be alert..." The way you can tell that I'm still not fully acclimated is that I notice the announcements at all. For everyone else, they are 100% white noise. Is there a stupider aspect of national policy at the moment than these formulaic "threat level" announcements, which are always orange and which give no useful info whatsoever? Okay, I'm sure there's something stupider, but for rhetorical purposes I'll say that I can't think of one right now.

    evilbag.jpg

    - When I am king: I will outlaw "wheelie"- style rollable bags for carry-on luggage. Wheels and a handle on a big, heavy suitcase meant to be checked? Perfectly reasonable. But if you're going to carry something onto the plane, the law should require you actually to carry the thing, all the way to your seat. Why do I care? The wheelie triples or quadruples the floor space occupied by any one person, and the people tugging them don't look behind. I get my revenge by kicking the bags as they're being dragged across my path and tripping me. Then I act like it was an "accident."

    - But even before that I will outlaw: leafblowers. God in heaven, do I hate that noise. Unfortunately, the neighborhood abounds in households that love hiring crews for the all-out leafblower experience -- they stagger their days, so it happens pretty much nonstop. I realize that the Beijing approach (below) is probably not practical in the U.S. But, hey, I actually have used a rake in my time. Part of the new Clean Energy policy for America?

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    As is obvious, I'm auditioning for Andy Rooney's role as public crank.

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