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.
  • Ready for this? Nukes in Burma report

    BurmaDPRK.jpg

    A friend I've known and trusted for years in the national security world sent me this report from the Bangkok Post yesterday. Obviously that means it's not "secret" material, and the report itself the result of reasoning and guess work rather than anything more definite. But the authors include Desmond Ball of the Australian National University, who is a well-established authority in nuclear weapons and strategic studies. (Nothing against the other author; I just don't know of him.) They begin their findings this way:

    "Our own starting position was one of deep skepticism, but the testimonies from two defectors forced us to consider the uncomfortable possibilities of a Burma with nuclear capability." (Photo Bangkok Post)

    The reason this would matter is that Burma has arguably the worst government in the world -- and if not the very worst, then right up there with North Korea in having its own concept of "rationality." (This was the government that would not allow outsiders to help the victims of the devastating typhoon/cyclone last year.) And the gist of this report is that North Korea has been working with the Burmese regime on nukes. To this point, the Burmese regime's destructiveness has been visited exclusively on its own country's people rather than against its neighbors. Of course, nuclear weapons can change things.

    We have seen in recent world history the danger of leaping to conclusions about which dangerous regimes have what new weaponry. But to me this was news worth putting on the worry-scope.

    Extra items from the Bangkok Post here and here. The Interpreter, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, today has a thorough rundown of the rumors and counter-arguments here. After the jump, my friend's informed gloss on the affair.
    ___

    From my friend, who has worked in various public and private roles in defense-related efforts. After he sent the report I wrote back saying, is there any reason to think this is true? His reply is below. He says Myanmar; I say Burma, as explained here:


    "Unfortunately, I do believe that the story should not be dismissed.  What is most concerning to me is the fact that it follows by just 10 days or so, Secretary Clinton's 21 July statements in which she expressed concern over the possibility that North Korea is sharing nuclear weapons-related technology with Myanmar.  NYT story here:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/22/world/asia/22diplo.html

    "At the time of that story, I thought how bizarre, how out of nowhere the Clinton accusation seemed to come.  Now, given the Ball story, I can't help but think that the Obama Administration has some intelligence indicating that the North is engaging in such activity and that they were aware that it was about to leak via the Ball story or perhaps other avenues, and that they wanted to get a jump on it, so as not to be accused of having been caught unaware.  Further underscoring my tendency to believe that there is in fact a there there is that I cannot believe that Secretary Clinton would have made such an accusation -- now echoed in the Ball account -- unless the Administration had something substantial.  They are painfully aware -- certainly the intel community -- is painfully aware of the fact that the U.S. cannot afford to be revealed as peddling false accusations.

    "As far as the content of the Ball story goes, the first and main question that I would bring to any such story in which a state is accused of laying the groundwork for a nuclear weapons materials program would be: what have they done to escape notice (the notice of eyes in the sky; the notice of foreign travelers through the country) and, unfortunately, the contention that Myanmar now has a reactor constructed in 8 different locations and an underground secret facility buried deep within a mountain -- the  Naung Laing facility -- supplies a credible response to my question.  The second question would be how can a country so desperately poor, so bereft of well, just about everything. . . but then I stop and think:  North Korea, Pakistan...

    "It's way too early for anyone to be talking in terms of "slam dunk" evidence; certainly Clinton's remarks didn't go that far and neither does Ball's.  But the bottom line is that Ball's story is technically credible in its own right and it supplies a follow-up piece to Clinton's earlier remarks that fits a little too neatly (too uncomfortably neatly) with those remarks."

    More »

  • A demur to my former Atlantic colleague Ross Douthat

    All of us at the magazine wish our colleague/alumnus Ross Douthat well in his NY Times oped-writer role. The better he does, the more his success reflects on all of us, in addition to enhancing public discourse! Part of wishing him well is offering guidance, and in that spirit I have some thoughts about his column this morning contrasting Texas ("red state" / balanced budget / positive example) with California ("blue state" / fiscal disaster / cautionary example).

    The column asserts that California's problems stem directly from its liberalism: "California, always liberalism's favorite laboratory... long a paradise for regulators and public-sector unions, has become a fiscal disaster area." Yeah, sure, about the regulations and so on. But if you write about California's fiscal problems and don't even mention the role of "Proposition 13"* or similar revenue limits and distortions, you're not trying very hard to make an honest argument.

    Pre-Prop 13 (as Benjamin Schwarz points out in his review of the great new Kevin Starr book), California dreamed big and spent big. Post-Prop 13, everything about California's fiscal situation has changed. It's not simply the cap on property taxes; it's also the legislative super-majorities and electoral contortions required to raise money for anything, which are part of a general dysfunction of government structure in the state. Proposition 13, of course, was an anti-tax "Red State" measure of the purest form. You can argue about exactly how crucial a role it plays in the current disastrous situation. But to omit any mention of the topic and pretend that California's problems reflect the outcome of pure liberalism is not trying hard or even respecting the reader.

    For contrast, we have Texas: "But flash forward to the current recession, and suddenly Texas looks like a model citizen.... Its unemployment rate and foreclosure rate are both well below the national average. It's one of only six states that didn't run budget deficits in 2009."

    Side point: "flash forward" is a prominent member of the list of journalese cliches that need killing. Bonus side point: Texas, like many states, is forbidden by its constitution to run budget deficits. What makes it unusual now is that it's doing so without raising taxes, eg as in this report. But here's the main point: to argue that state unemployment rates during a deep global recession differ mainly because of state tax rates -- and not because of different industrial structures, different banking practices, specific corporate decisions, lots of other factors -- is, again, not trying very hard. An obvious bit of proof is that the Economist, which ran a very similar California-v-Texas exercise a month ago, ended up much more equivocal about the new Texas supremacy. Eg, "To begin with, that lean Texan model has its own problems. It has not invested enough in education, and many experts rightly worry about a 'lost generation' of mostly Hispanic Texans with insufficient skills for the demands of the knowledge economy."

    There are points to draw from state experience, especially the agony of California right now. But they're important enough to be worth drawing with some care.
    ____
    * For the record, Proposition 13, passed by an overwhelming margin at the polls in 1978, put a cap on property-tax rates in California and imposed new restrictions on legislative or electoral efforts to raise taxes of any sort in the future. More here and here and here.

  • "A lot has changed. Nothing has gotten better."

    A Filipino-American friend, who works for an American high-tech firm and is now based in China, writes about the reaction to Corazon Aquino's death inside the Philippines. So much about this note brings up the powerful and opposing feelings that I have had on every experience in the country: admiration for the heart and passion of so many individual Filipinos, and pretty much outright despair at the predicament in which they all seem trapped.

    I'm in Cebu, visiting my mom and dad for the weekend. I was here the morning Corazon Aquino passed away. The outpouring of emotion and respect across the country has been tremendous. Coverage has been literally nonstop on [the main news channel] ANC (they're actually showing a live shot now of her body being prepped for transfer from La Salle Greenhills after the public viewing) and they've been replaying and reliving memories of her rise to power and the EDSA revolution....

    I was just a little kid in 1986 (I was 10), and for me, it is a very powerful reminder of how passionate the Filipino people can be and how this became such an iconic moment of democracy for the rest of the world.

    A few things struck me as quite interesting about "Tita Cory's" passing:...I thought Hu Jintao's statement of condolences was also gracious and obligatory, but colored by the idea that People Power didn't go so well in Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Media here is even citing people in Beijing shouting "Cory! Cory!" during the TS protests, but I've never heard that before).

    The fact that she will not receive a state burial befitting a former president is also fascinating. The idea that, even in death, she and her family opted to continue her life as a private citizen is a strong statement for leaders everywhere. As her family has stated (starting with Ninoy), public service is just that: Service. "After that, you're done. You're nothing," said Ninoy. [Ninoy = her assassinated husband, senator Benigno Aquino.]

    And finally, after taking my father to an afternoon of sabong (cockfighting) here in Mandaue City, we talked about the state of the country in his eyes since EDSA. He came to the U.S. in May of 1972, just four months before Marcos' declared martial law. He is a former priest who was in seminary since the age of 15 and witnessed the US routing of Japan from Sorsogon as a small boy at the end of WWII. Now he and my mother are back to live the rest of their lives in their home country. What's changed?

    "A lot has changed. Nothing has gotten better." And he's right.
    While the financial and metro centers have burst with commerce and flash, there's still such an incredible disparity here between the rich and poor, moreso than I've seen in China, or any other place I've been, for sure. The government is still dealing in graft and corruption (something my father is actually working against here, via the Catholic diocese) on GMA's watch. There are still scores of young girls prostituting themselves. And there is still violence in Mindinao and elsewhere stemming from New People's Army factions and Muslim extremists.

    What's really changed?

    "Here is a land in which few are spectacularly rich, while the masses remain abjectly poor..." It's 2009! [The quote is from Ninoy Aquino about the Philippines under Marcos.]

    The cockfighting is still the same. There are still "villages" with high walls and razor wire. But now there are SuperMalls settled in next to tin-and-cardboard squats and internet cafes littering even the most destitute parts of town, with some barrios even siphoning power from the local mainlines.

    From my perspective (and my father's) Filipinos are very much about symbolism, less about concreteness. There's this idea, as you mention in your Cory Aquino article, that while a regime change in 1986 may have been a monumental symbol for the country, it has still struggled to make concrete, fundamental cultural changes for the overwhelming better ever since. As you mention, it might be a nationalized codependency issue. My father thinks it's actually a mix of that cultural "neutering" and an overdependence on the Catholic faith to carry people through. The churches are standing-room only, yet there is still a sense of self-protection and insularity that seems to dam the notion of brotherly love and supporting one another, at least in my observation. People will still cheat the meter, officials still take bribes and see prostitutes, and people feel like that's just the way it's done. My dad thinks he even got scammed at the cockpits yesterday.

    However, the pomp and circumstance of this weekend's coverage has been inspiring to me, personally. I'd like to see how it might affect my outlook or my art. I do admire Ninoy and Corazon Aquino for their integrity and heroics to promote what was right about democracy. I'd like to see how their legacy of determined nationalism affects the Filipino people from here on out. Or is this just another symbol to savor, but then move on with life?

    As I write this, thousands of people are gathered on Ayala Ave. now, the sky filled with a blizzard of yellow confetti as Tita Cory's body arrives in Makati. "They say that People Power is dead," said a correspondent. "But haven't seen anything like this since 1986."

    More »

  • More on the detained Chinese lawyer

    Not being on-scene in Beijing, I don't have fresh info myself. But as a reference for anyone wanting to follow the case of Xu Zhiyong, the Chinese civil-rights lawyer who was taken from his home at 5am last week and has not been heard from since, here are some relevant sites:

    Xu in 2004, in a photo from the China Media Project in Hong Kong.
    xu.jpg


    - China Digital Times summary of the event and coverage;
    - CDT on the recent crackdown on other legal-aid groups;
    - Evan Osnos dispatch for the New Yorker on "Where is Xu Zhiyong?"
    - The Chinese Media Project story;
    - Xu's personal blog, in Chinese;
    - Blog account in Chinese of tax charges against Xu and his response;
    - English version of similar response;
    - English account by one of Xu's colleagues, Teng Biao, of his own "kidnapping" by the police.

    Check those sites for updates. The minor point that comes through these accounts is the excuse for the arrest of Xu. His legal-defense center, the Open Constitution Initiative, had been receiving support and grants from Yale Law School -- one of many instances of Western legal groups working to expand the rule of law in China. The authorities have found a way to declare that this support was improperly reported for tax purposes.

    The major point that comes through is that Xu and his colleagues are the farthest thing from overthrow-the-system radical subversives. On the contrary: he files suit in Chinese courts, he bases his claims for protection on the Chinese constitution, and he has even been a successful candidate in a local election. (China has elections at the local level.) He is what real radicals would dismiss as a "liberal" and "inside-the-system reformer," but now his and similar efforts are beyond the pale.

    Over the 20 years since Tiananmen Square, and certainly during the three years I could observe first-hand there, rule of law and civil liberties made a steady if uneven expansion in China. This and related recent crackdowns are a setback, whose significance we can judge depending on what happens next.

    Consistent with the policy that the US should view China as a partner and friend in the many areas where collaboration is necessary and fruitful, but should speak up for its own values when they differ from Chinese government practice, US officials should say that they are watching this case. Not interfering in Chinese affairs, not telling the Chinese government what to do -- but watching, to see how the government respects its own citizens' rights.
     
  • Beer call aftermath

    Reader suggestions for offerings the next time President Obama hosts a beer summit in the Rose Garden:

    - From a resident of one of his home states, Hawaii, the Mehana line:
    Mehana.jpg

    Another Aloha State possibility: Kona


    - Representing his more recent home state, Chicago's fine Goose Island line:
    GooseIsland.jpg


    - Since this was after all a Beer Summit, T. D. Mischke of St. Paul, broadcaster and beer pitchman, suggests one of the Summit Brewing Company's great beers.*
    SummitBeer.jpg 

    - And many from Boston write in to say: fine for Sam Adams, but what about Harpoon?
    Harpoon.jpg

    - Finally, one wag suggests that if any of the participants had dared ask for a Dos Equis, on the strength of its preposterous "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad campaign, in this kind of gathering the others would have been under big losing-face pressure to do the same.

    I've had all these except Mehana, and they're all worthy candidates. (Although, Dos Equis: more impressive as an ad theme than as a beer.) Mr. President, don't say that you lack actionable intelligence for the next summit meeting.
    ___
    * The only on-air commercial I've ever done was for Summit Beer, on one of Tommy Mischke's AM radio broadcasts. It impressed me with how hard it is not to sound like a jerk when doing a testimonial.

  • Corazon Aquino

    Cory_Aquino_-_Woman_of_the_Year.jpgI am sorry to hear of the death yesterday of Corazon Aquino -- former president of the Philippines, widow of the assassinated senator Benigno Aquino, heroine of the "EDSA Revolution" of 1986 that drove Ferdinand Marcos from power.

    In 1987 I wrote an article about Aquino and the Philippines arguing that the removal of Marcos was sadly not likely to correct the deeper problems of political corruption and economic inequality in the country. The article was called "A Damaged Culture" and was extremely controversial in the Philippines at the time, and to a degree still now. The article as originally published is available here. Some if its references from 22 years ago now seem dated. Unfortunately many others do not. And in any reference to the Philippines, it is always important to mention the works of the great Filipino novelist F. Sionil "Frankie" Jose, whom I wrote about in the Atlantic in 1995 here and visited in Manila early this year, as described here.

    From the original article, about Corazon Aquino's prospects:

    "Because previous changes of government have meant so little to the Philippines, it is hard to believe that replacing Marcos with Aquino, desirable as it doubtless is, will do much besides stanching the flow of crony profits out of the country. In a sociological sense the elevation of Corazon Aquino through the EDSA revolution should probably be seen not as a revolution but as the restoration of the old order. Marcos's rise represented the triumph of the nouveau riche. He was, of course, an Ilocano, from the tough, frugal Ilocos region, in the northwest corner of Luzon. Many of those whom he enriched were also outsiders to the old-money, old-family elite that had long dominated the country's politics. These elite groups, often referred to in shorthand as Makati (the name of the wealthy district and business center of Manila), regarded Marcos the way high-toned Americans regarded Richard Nixon: clever and ambitious, but so uncouth.

    "Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, is part of this landowning elite...."

    RIP.

  • Discouraging news out of Oshkosh

    For previous cheerier news, see here, here, and here.

    The most absorbing drama in the small-plane world these past few months has been the separation between Alan Klapmeier, who with his brother Dale founded the now highly-successful Cirrus aircraft company; and the company itself. (For background on the Klapmeier / Cirrus saga, see Free Flight and this article. To see a recent sample of Alan Klapmeier in action, go here.)

    The simplest way to think of it is this: Cirrus has essentially been the Apple of the small plane business. A "think different" approach compared with the rest of the industry -- for instance, the famous whole-airplane parachute that lets the craft and passengers drift to the ground in case of trouble. Very attractive design. Attention to nice little details. Using technology to make things simpler rather than more complex. And, with its SR22 models, an iPod / iPhone level of worldwide market success.

    In this comparison, Cessna would be the PC equivalent -- staid, steady, established -- and Alan Klapmeier would be the Steve Jobs counterpart. Dramatic, attention-drawing, sometimes impossible, visionary, beyond doubt the personality of the company. Naturally better at explaining the disruptive potential of new technology than working through a spreadsheet to cut costs in tough times. I should say that I think of him as a good friend. (Below: Alan Klapmeier and the jet, earlier this week at Oshkosh, photo from Lane Wallace's post from the air show.)

    IMG_0437-thumb-500x375-12071.jpg

    So in the current downturn, as the company dramatically cut back to survive, Alan Klapmeier left as CEO of Cirrus. But he has been talking recently about raising money to continue development of the Cirrus Vision personal jet that had been his, well, vision since the time I first met him in Duluth ten years ago, and certainly long before that. From the Cirrus company's point of view, where his brother Dale and many long-time comrades are still major figures, selling the jet project to Alan Klapmeier would have both pluses and minuses. Plus: it would free the company of the heavy development costs but still keep the jet as an allied, fraternal project rather than letting it go to a real competitor. Minus: Cirrus would turn into a piston-airplane-only company, and although its piston/propeller planes are the market leaders, that would limit its potential. From the outside world's perspective, the main plus of any deal would be re-engaging Alan Klapmeier's energies in the business -- again, something like bringing Steve Jobs back into the main arena after his time at NeXT.

    Just now the invaluable AVweb site reported that the deal had fallen through. I am biased in favor of all parties to this interaction and hope that something can work out. But for now, the news is that it hasn't.

  • My new favorite gadget: Livescribe Pulse pen

    Where was this thing when I got started in journalism many eons ago??? Yes, yes, I know, the electric typewriter was the frontier of writerly technology back then; and being able to use this device as of 2009 is a lot better than never having found it at all. But if you're in any line of work that involves recording what you're hearing or seeing around you, give this serious consideration.

    IMG_7876.JPG

    Here's how it works: The somewhat plump looking, cigar-sized item, propped on a pack of special notebooks above and below, is both a ballpoint pen -- and a very sensitive, high-quality, high-capacity tape recorder. I find it better than the digital recorders I've previously used in picking up voices in real-life circumstances, including interviews in crowded restaurants, auditoriums, airport tarmacs, etc. The pen I have holds up to 2GB worth of recordings -- many many many hours' worth.


    LiveScribe1.jpg

    But in addition to recording sound, the pen also includes a very small camera at its tip, which many times per second takes pictures of whatever you are writing in the special notebooks. You don't have to use the notebooks or write anything at all, and can just treat the system as a normal recorder. But if you do write something in the notebook, the pen registers exactly what sound you were hearing at exactly the moment you are writing a certain word, letter, or doodle. Then when you want to hear the recording, you can point the pen to that word and hear what was being said at the time. More on how it works here.

    What does this mean in practice? Suppose you're having an hour-long interview, in my case -- or listening to an hour-long lecture as a student, or sitting through an hour-long business meeting. When something comes up that you want to remember, you can write a note at just that point ("Interesting point about Poland") and later go back to get just that part of the conversation. You do so by touching the pen's tip to the relevant phrase in the notebook, or moving your cursor to it on a stored online image of the page. No searching through the whole hour's recording; no need to make sure you write down every detail in real time. I have used this often enough over the past two months to know that it really works, and to rely on it.

    I shouldn't say too much about another aspect of the system, but still: people who see you using the pen will know that it looks a little funny, compared with normal pens. But they might not know that it's a functioning tape recorder. Unless you tell them, as I have been careful always to do. So far.

    Seriously, check it out. Windows and Mac; archives your recordings on your computer and/or in the cloud. My 2GB version retails for $199; models and prices here.

     Tech explanation, if you're interested: pages of the special notebooks, which cost $5 and up in various configurations, are covered with virtually-invisible microdots. The pen's camera maps the exact dot it is over with the corresponding exact moment of sound recording. Later when you point at that word -- with the pen in your notebook, or with a mouse on a stored online image -- it immediately comes up with the associated part of the recording. For the record and because this often needs to be pointed out in the world of tech journalism: I paid for the system. Also: the pen I originally had developed tech problems and would unexpectedly stop recording partway through a session. The company said it had never heard of such failures before, fwiw. In any case they replaced it with a new one, which has worked faultlessly.

  • Important and negative Chinese human rights development

    I am remiss in not mentioning the news from earlier today that Xu Zhiyong, a prominent citizens-defense lawyer in China, was taken from his home at 5 am in Beijing and has not been seen since.  Xu has been a major figure in a group called the Open Constitution Initiative, or Gong Meng (公盟), and is well known for representing groups and individuals against corporations and the state. For instance, last year he represented families whose children had been poisoned during the Sanlu tainted-milk scandal.

    The official rationale for taking Xu is that he was suspected of income-tax irregularities. This claim is not believed anywhere outside the public-prosecutor's office and probably not by many inside it. A number of similar legal-rights organizations have been closed in the last few days and other lawyers detained. As one Chinese associate of Xu's wrote me today,

    Ever since the first indictments came, I have feared something like this would happen, but to know they actually detained Dr. Xu, a highly respected lawyer and a people's representative of Haidian District [the northwest university/tech district of Beijing], just as they do to any other petitioner is just shocking. This means that nobody is safe from random detainment, or free from the fear of it.

    Stories about the case here, here, and here, and statement from the Chinese Human Rights Defenders organization here (in Chinese here). If this had happened two days ago, during the generally upbeat "Strategic and Economic Dialogue," US officials could not decently have avoided commenting on it directly to their Chinese counterparts. They should say something publicly now.

    This whole crackdown is being presented inside China as part of the tightening necessary before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic this fall. What a commemoration.

  • Rose Garden beer call

    From a purely beer-oriented point of view, mainly missed opportunities. (PS: the Atlantic has ample other commentary on this crucial issue.)

    Pres. Barack Obama: Bud Light. Oh, please.

    Prof. Henry Louis Gates: Red Stripe. Bud Light with a more interesting label and pedigree. Without the label, not many people could tell this from the watery Tsingtaos and Yanjings that were until recently the bane of my existence. Truth of the modern age: lagers the world round whose brewers go easy on hops and malt have a certain je ne sais quoi nothingness.

    Sgt. James Crowley: Blue Moon Wheat Beer. OK. Faux-microbrew. I don't like wheat beer, but at least it's an identifiable flavor.

    VP Joseph Biden: Non-alcoholic Buckler. Can't criticize that.

    What would have seemed the obvious, gimme choice for the host: Sam Adams. Respectful to the Boston guests. All-American. Patriotic. Available in many styles. Beyond reproach on flavor.

    Backup choice: From the Veep's own home state, anything from the imposing Dogfish Head line. Delaware is tiny but, on the strength of this brewery, the Pocket Hercules of beermakers.

    Update: H.L. Gates goes for Sam Adams Light on the second round. Well done!

    By the way, on the "life is unfair" front, I still cannot get over the fact that, after scrounging across Asia these past years for the rare bottle of hop-flavored beer, in America I can walk into the neighborhood Safeway and walk out with (on deep-discount sale) ...
    IMG_7789.jpg
     

    or go into the nearest deli and find:
    IMG_7781.jpg

    USA! USA!

  • Col. Timothy Reese on Iraq

    Since, atypically, this appears not yet to have been mentioned by any of my on-the-news Atlantic.com colleagues, let me refer anyone who has not seen it to the full text of Col. Timothy Reese's memo urging a rapid exit from Iraq, "It's Time for the U.S. to Declare Victory and Go Home." I first saw it this morning at the Washington Independent site, here, and recommend the full thing to anyone who has read only news summaries.

    Opinion has always varied widely within the professional military about the prospects and best options for America's presence in Iraq. So this obviously does not represent a new military "consensus." But it makes a big difference to have this case argued by a senior U.S. military officer on the scene. Well worth reading.

  • Atlantic obesity debate: let's go to the pics (updated)

    As the Atlantic's tribe of online voices has expanded, it naturally supports a range of views, opinions, subject matter, personal obsessions, styles of argument, and so on. Sometimes we have unintended overlap -- as when Lane Wallace and I were independently impressed by the same innovations on display at this week's Oshkosh air show. Sometimes we have  straight-out differences of opinion, as here and here, and now between Marc Ambinder and Megan McArdle on whether obesity is a real public health problem or another instance of nanny-state moralizing. McArdle's posting is here, and Ambinder's reply is here.

    I am 100% with Ambinder on this one, and would be 1000% with him if that term weren't assumed to be sarcastic. It is notable, though not noted in the original item, that the obesity-skeptic Paul Campos with whom Megan McArdle conducts an extensive, sympathetic interview is a law professor rather than a doctor, public health official, epidemiologist, etc (which of course doesn't disqualify his views but should be mentioned); and that the word "diabetes" does not appear in the discussion in which he pooh-poohs the public health effects of obesity.

    If you've been around the US as long as I have (ie, if you're as old), you have seen very significant aspects of public-health behavior change in your own lifetime. When my dad went to medical conventions in the 1950s and 1960s, most of his fellow doctors smoked. By the time he retired in the 1990s, very few of them did. For better and worse, smoking has become a class-bound phenomenon in America: better for the people who don't smoke any more, worse as one more disadvantage of being poorer and less educated. The difference is startling and obvious if you spend time in, let's say, China, where many more people of all classes smoke. As individuals, Americans have the same human nature as they did 40 years ago, and the same nature as people in China. Will power, compulsions, addition-seeking instincts, etc. But their overall behavior about smoking has changed. Some individuals did not or could not change their behavior. (One of my grandmothers, who had started smoking as a flapper in the 1920s, died of a horrible case of emphysema, sneaking cigarettes on her last conscious days.) But average behavior changed dramatically. In my view, no sane person can deny that public anti-smoking campaigns have made a huge difference.

    What I also know first-hand is that the average physical size of Americans has changed in my lifetime. Go look at some old clips from 1950s versions of The Honeymooners and check out Jackie Gleason. At the time, he was famed for being an enormous fatso. That was part of the joke when he came on screen. Here is the gargantua who drew those laughs:
    1950s-honeymooners-set1-80.jpg

    Similarly with Alfred Hitchcock, whose portly silhouette on his 1960s TV shows was the definition of impressive girth.
    Hitchcock.jpg 

    Or the tubby Raymond Burr as Ironside in the 1970s:
    Ironside.jpg

    (To spell out the joke, just in case: none of these people would draw a second glance now.) If you've spent any time in the rest of the world, you know -- first hand, for real, and no doubt -- that Americans, along with Germans, really are heavier on average than other people, and that this is significantly more so than it was 25 years ago.

    Our basic nature as human beings can't have changed in that time. Nor can our genetics. If you've lived in Asia, you know that Japanese and Chinese people are on average taller and much heavier than they were a generation ago. I have met old women in China who looked barely four feet tall. In Beijing or Tokyo 25 years ago, I was always the tallest person on the subway or in a crowd; now, I usually see a few young men over 6'2". But in these countries there's an obvious explanation: poor nutrition artificially limited people's growth before, and the limit is being removed.

    Exactly what this means in policies is beyond my time or ambition here. Basically I agree with Marc Ambinder's statement below. I chime in on the issue mainly to express this view: denying that America's obesity situation has changed; or that it has harmful consequences; or that it could, like smoking, be affected by public policies strikes me as antifactual denialism.

    From Ambinder's reply:

    "McArdle is right that it it's not fair for government to lecture people about weight loss and exercise, but she's right for the wrong reason: policy choices -- ag subsidies, zoning laws, education and budget priorities -- create a flow that, absent any intervention, are sweeping many young kids, particularly poorer kids of color, into obesity. Government's role isn't to scold; it's to make better policy choices. She's wrong about the interventions, too: some, like a physical education project in Somerville, Mass., seem to be working. Taking fast food vending machines out of schools and weighing children at least once a year has arrested the obesity growth rate in Arkansas.  Nationally, the obesity growth rate also seems to be be slowing."

    Update: I will go 1001% with Marc Ambinder's second-round post.

  • Industrial glamor for the future

    I mentioned earlier the beautiful old airplanes from the glamor days of air travel on display at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual "Airventure" show in Oshkosh. That was yesterday; what about tomorrow?

    Without getting into all the details -- I was only there for a day, I'm already fantasizing about the the full ten-day session one of these years --  here are a few:

    The Terrafugia flying car -- or, more precisely, drivable airplane. Back in March, the Terrafugia took its first test flight:
    Terrafugia_Takeoff.jpg

    Here's how it looks on the ground:

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7822.jpg

    And, in a company video, in land-bound mode:
    IMG_7825.JPG


    Another flying car, the Maverick, from a missionary/explorer named Steve Saint who is teaching indigenous Amazonian people to fly it to bring in supplies or get medical help.
    ItecSteveSaint.jpg
    More on Saint and his jungle flying projects here and here.

    Honda's personal jet:
    IMG_7849.JPG



    Cirrus Vision personal jet (Cirrus officials doing the polishing)
    IMG_7799.JPG

    A potential customer and his airplane, cruelly separated by a million dollars or so.
    IMG_7798.JPG


    Electric-powered made-in-China airplane, the Yuneec. (Get it?!?)
    yuneec-e340-electric-aircraft-post.jpg
    This one I didn't actually see myself: photo and more info here.

    Questionable adverising strategy:
    IMG_7835.JPG
    The same talisman Amelia wore! Hmmm....*

    More slyly charming advertising strategy, for a plane in the "light sport" category from a Czech aircraft works.**
    IMG_7852.JPG

    There's way more  but this will do for now.

    UPDATE
    : I was typing this up this morning, went away for a while to ail from swine flu or some similar malady, and come back to see that my colleague Lane Wallace has just now mentioned many of the same airplanes and same companies! So you now have independent verification from two sources of the interesting-ness of these innovations. Lane is a "real" aviation writer, too, so her judgment is probably more credible.
    _
    * Note to the young: Amelia Earhart was lost in the Pacific in 1937. ** Note to the old: the Czechs are playing off their country's role as source of other kinds of models who might incite jealousy.

    More »

  • Tech notes: Bing v Google

    SInce its debut a few weeks ago, Microsoft's search engine Bing has received a lot of respectful press attention, from sources that range from David Pogue of the NYT to Derek Thompson of our own Atlantic Business Channel.

    I agree about the attractive potential of many Bing UI features. But in the last while I've tried using it as a tool for actual work, and have found one consistent result: It doesn't cover as much data, or comparably fresh data, as Google does. An illustration that came up just now:

    For reasons I won't get into, I wanted to track some recent comments by one-time NY Lt. Governor Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey about the Obama Administration's health care proposals. Ms. McCaughey has had three big moments in the spotlight in talking about medical care. One happened in the early Clinton years, when she was a prominent (and, as I argue here, completely misinformed and destructive) voice opposing "Hillarycare." Another was early this year, when she again launched a willfully misinformed attack, this time on "Obamacare." The third is just this month, when she has come up with another wild assertion about provisions of Obama's plan.

    I wanted to track what she'd been saying recently, so I went to both Bing and Google and entered "Betsy McCaughey Obama health care proposal." The side-by-side results are below, from the very useful Bing-vs-Google site. Click for legible full-screen version:

    BingGoogleMcCaughey.jpg
     

    What you'd see if you could read these listings -- and what you'll probably see if you run the same search for yourself -- is that on Google all of the first screen and most of the next few are about McCaughey's recent comments. The top hit was 8 minutes old when I ran the search. But the lead items on Bing and most of the first screens are about her comments back in February. The first item there is from February 9, and there isn't much at all about what she's said this summer. (If you run the search again now, Bing might have caught up.)

    I have found this in other searches too. Bing's approach is interesting and can be useful. But it just doesn't seem to cover as much stuff. I'm always skeptical of the significance of "total results found" in any search engine. But the different you can see on the screenshot above -- 24,700 for Bing, versus 426,000 for Google -- feels about right as a gauge of the difference in the two systems' scope.

    Yes, yes, too much information can be as bad as too little. Yes, Bing is presenting itself as a "decision" tool rather than a pure search engine. But most of what I do is outright searching, and for that it does not yet seem a real contender.

    (Offsetting disclosures: I once worked at Microsoft; I have good friends both there and at Google.)

  • Speaking of industrial glamor

    Or at least technological glamor, there may be new hope for Microsoft among the hip.



    Thirty seconds in is the part that makes it all worthwhile to me. No, not any frogs involved, but the next best thing. Thanks to Dave Proffer.

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