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.
  • 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.

  • Is China Making The Smoot-Hawley Mistake?

    Several months ago in this Atlantic story, I explained what some economists thought was the biggest danger in the Chinese government's response to the world business collapse. Obviously the Chinese government had to do something to offset the tens of millions of layoffs happening all at once. Its predicament was in a way like America's at the start of the Great Depression: having had an abnormally large share of the world's manufacturing jobs and export earnings when times were good, it had more of them to lose when demand crashed. But China's situation was worse, because it is so much poorer than America was, and because exports represented a bigger share of its employment base.

    Continue reading this post by James Fallows at his blog here.

    More »

  • Smoot-Hawley redux watch

    Several months ago in this Atlantic story, I explained what some economists thought was the biggest danger in the Chinese government's response to the world business collapse. Obviously the Chinese government had to do something to offset the tens of millions of layoffs happening all at once. Its predicament was in a way like America's at the start of the Great Depression: having had an abnormally large share of the world's manufacturing jobs and export earnings when times were good, it had more of them to lose when demand crashed. But China's situation was worse, because it is so much poorer than America was, and because exports represented a bigger share of its employment base.

    So China had to do something. The danger, as with the US recovery measures now, came from the long-term implications of the necessary short-term damage-staunching measures. And here the main fears were: (a) that the government would try to maintain its huge trade surplus (through subsidies, Smoot-Hawleyesque trade barriers, "buy Chinese" rules, etc) even as foreigners were forced to cut back on their buying, thereby triggering understandable resentment and retaliation; (b) that its stimulus efforts would aggravate trade-imbalance problems in the future, since so much was devoted to new productive capacity which could further glut world markets; and (c) that the stimulus would lead to a big destabilizing bubble, since a lot of it was propelled by China's version of sub-prime loans. (Ie, shaky, under-collateralized, dubiously repayable loans to sweetheart or shady companies).

    These are problems to keep watching, and toward that end, two worthwhile resources: The first is this essay by R. Taggart Murphy, longtime investment banker in Japan and now a finance professor there. (The link opens a Word .DOC file for download.) Murphy -- for the record, a friend from my Japan days -- compares China's nascent attempt to prop up its trade surplus to what Japan did in the 1970s. He says:

    "If the parallels continue with the 1970s, what might we expect?  First, hostility directed away from the United States and towards China. ... Once your economy is so large that whatever you do affects global economic architecture, the "free rider" option [of permanent trade surplus] begins to close.  If you manage your economy in such a way as to maximize exports and trade surpluses at a time when global growth is sluggish or non-existent, you are willy-nilly forcing other countries to run trade deficits.  What happens if they refuse to go along?"

    He suggests some cautionary answers to that last question. Also, we have yet another illuminating item from Guanghua School of Management's Michael Pettis, about the pitfalls built into the stimulus package. Here. Worth reading as a complement to this week's "Strategic and Economic Dialogue."
     

  • Industrial-age glamor

    When American automakers' brand names were glamorous (click for much bigger):
    IMG_7803.JPG

    Ford Tri-Motor, ca 1925:

    IMG_7804.JPG

    When American airlines (and American Airlines) were glamorous:
    IMG_7845.JPG

    AA's "Flagship Detroit" DC-3, ca 1937:
    IMG_7844.JPG

    The Tri-Motor actually flew today, at the annual overwhelming EAA "Airventure" fly-in and jamboree in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It flew before huge thunderstorms blasted through central Wisconsin and cancelled (a rarity) the afternoon airshow.

    Tomorrow, some illustrations of modern-age and futuristic industrial glamor, of which happily there is a lot. All of this the result of an invitation from a friend with a Cirrus SR-22 (fancier version of the plane I used to own) to come out and see the show for a day. Also tomorrow, back to reality.

    OK, here's one modern glamorous illustration: Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two, which will launch craft into space, flew in before the storm. Contrary to appearances, that's all one plane.
    VirginAir.jpg

  • Climate pushback #2 (of 2)

    After the jump, excerpts from a few more readers with thoughts to add, in response to this and this, about the notorious famed "hockey stick" chart and the general state of the climate-change debate.

     I'll let these speak for themselves -- and also let them wrap up the discussion in this space for the time being.

    But a note about a point that could use re-assertion What attracted me to Richard Muller's book "Physics for Future Presidents" and still does, despite varied complaints about parts of its argument, is that it tries to do something that too few experts and specialists bother with. It attempts to explain the way scientists approach complex issues of public policy. How they weigh evidence. What they're skeptical of and convinced by. How they think about data that never perfectly fits -- and how they try to discern general trends even when particular details are messy. I was using this in contrast to a George Will column breezily asserting that a decade of flat temperatures (a claim that itself is disputed, to put it mildly) said something significant about longer-term climactic trends.

    How many other experts even try to do this? Explaining their manner of thinking -- which is more valuable than their judgment on any particular point? Rather than simply asserting that they are right on the basis of their expertise. Historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May -- both unfortunately now dead, both men I admired greatly when taking their classes -- notably did so in their book Thinking in Time, which tried to explain how historical analogies could inform --  mislead. I have not yet read Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think, but the title is certainly promising in this sense. I have read The Art and Science of Politics, by Harold Varmus, and it's a fine example of this approach. Atul Gawande's justly celebrated New Yorker report (on why medical costs were so much higher in one Texas city than another) was great because he applied his knowledge as a physician to explain how other doctors did their work. The Galbraiths -- John Kenneth, and now his son James, especially with Predator State -- earned the suspicion (and envy) of many fellow economists by trying to explain what was right and wrong about economic reasoning to lay readers. To avoid the risk of offending by omission, I'll stop here (rather than talking about lawyers, engineers, biologists, teachers, etc.

    The entire purpose of Richard Muller's book was to convey how people trained in the hard sciences make their way through the contradictory signals from the real political world. That is worth noting, no matter what you think about his view on the "hockey stick."

    Reader comments after the jump.

    ___________

    From a Canadian scientist

    Since you posted regarding the now-infamous Mann et al. "Hockey Stick", I thought I'd forward you the summary of the report "Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years" written by the National Academies. [Here]

    This report was compiled at the request of Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) in order to clarify the issues surrounding climate change and the Hockey Stick flap.  To summarize that report, let me simply quote from a AAAS Newsletter:

    "At Chairman Boehlert's request, the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed this issue. In a report released on June 22, entitled Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years, the Academy concluded that, while Mann's statistical procedures weren't optimal, the procedure did not unduly distort his conclusions, which the Academy reinforced. "The basic conclusion of Mann et al. was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years." Due to the degree of uncertainty in the temperature estimates from many centuries ago, the Academy did not support Mann's specific claims that the 1990s was the hottest decade and 1998 the hottest year in the past millennium."

    ClimateChart1.jpg

    Obviously, the Hockey Stick episode did nothing to help the climate science community's case.   That said, the Mann study wasn't very far off the mark.

    ---

    A scientist in Zurich writes:

    I just wanted to point out a simplification of a simplification in your post about Antarctic ice. While it is true that higher temperatures lead to higher humidity and higher snowfall, you have to be careful with equating snow with ice, and assuming that storage increases.... higher fluxes into the system mean that there also higher fluxes out of the system and if you replace snow (or firn) with ice then the density difference leads to non-trivial losses in absolute mass. Loss is absolute mass within the ice sheet is a gain to the oeans, hence sea level rise without a loss in the *area* of the Antarctic ice sheet. Furthermore, something that isn't discussed very much is that slightly warmer temperatures can lead to very dramatic differences in the speed that the ice is moving off of the continent (due to melting at the base of the ice sheets in contact with bedrock)....

     ---

    In this PDF file of a paper called "Science Advice as Procedural Rationality," Michael Feuer, of the National Academy of Sciences, talks about the general problem of incorporating expert advice into public/political decisions.

    ---

    From reader Brian Filipiak

    You may have read Michael Crichton's book: "State of Fear". I have enjoyed Crichton for years, and I had to force myself to pick up this book and read it. I didn't want to read it because it was supposedly "against" global warming.

    It wasn't. It was "against" public-opinion science. He brought a level of questioning to the debate that had not been applied in a large, popularized way, before. Doing so, he took a *lot* of heat for it.

    He did a nice interview with Charlie Rose, and touched on it during that discussion. Interview here: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/1 

    About 19:50 into the discussion. He describes himself: "I am not a catastrophist."

    For me, reading this book helped me further learn to question things, and if Muller simply is trying to accomplish the same thing with his book, then I'll be sure to read it.

    ---

    From reader Leslie Forman

    I am a UC Berkeley alumna, now living in Beijing... I'm writing to chime in to the discussion about Richard Muller's Physics for Future Presidents course.  I took it three years ago, in my final semester, to fill a graduation requirement.  My take-aways from the course were (A) science is relevant to public policy  (B) admitting that, unfortunately, doesn't make political decision-making easy  (C) energy policy is interesting!  I recall that his lesson on nuclear power attracted especially passionate questions from the crowd. 

    In many ways, I think this class was a microcosm of my Berkeley education -- so many perspectives to consider, so many sets of conflicting facts, such a strong imperative to make sense of them in a personally compelling way.  I think I've often explained to my Chinese students that the central question of my college education was, "what do you think?"  This question is far less common in Chinese schools.

    --

    A topic that combines frogs, Chinese education, Michael Crichton, and other longstanding concerns -- plus matters of real importance! Thanks to all.

    More »

  • Civil(ian)izing 'Homeland' Security

    In the current issue of the magazine, I argue that creating the ungainly amalgam known as the Department of Homeland Security was a mistake in the first place. (A mistake in concept, in that it was part of the panicky "do something!" reaction after 9/11. And a disappointment in execution, in that many years later there's little evidence of money being allocated more sensibly, overlaps being eliminated, or "stovepipes" of information really being combined.) And if it's too late to do any good by pulling the pieces apart again, at least we could try to buffer its worst, permanent-security-state implications, starting with its wholly un-American name. The piece is only a little longer than this paragraph, but it has a few more details and leads.

    A reader has written in with a tangible suggestion:

    BootsBloused.jpgYes, the name "Homeland Security" is simply horrible, but the clothes may be the real problem.  This may sound frivolous, but I don't think it is.  The issue is boots.  Combat boots.  Boots with pants tucked in and "bloused."  Black boots with thick soles.  Swat teams wear them, and now Border Patrol folks routinely do.  Coast Guard folks wear them, when they used not to.  I believe that wearing military-type boots instead of shoes tends to make the wearer feel more military and therefore more aggressive.  Customs agents used not to take undocumented people off ferries that don't cross international borders, but they took people off internal Washington State ferries last year.  Coast Guard personnel used to be regarded as people who helped boaters, but now they wear boots and talk like fighters.

    One great way to civilize Homeland Security would be to confiscate the boots and reissue shoes.

    To see what the reader is talking about, here are pictures from a startling NYT article by Jennifer Steinhauer from this past spring, which I missed while in China. It is about how Explorer Scouts are being trained for future "Homeland Security" duties, starting with realistic uniforms (complete with boots) and gear. I was once an Explorer Scout, and we spent a lot more time pitching tents and sucking rattlesnake venom out of puncture wounds than doing this. (In fairness, we did get to spend several days on a Navy aircraft carrier in San Diego wearing sailor gear.) Photos by Todd Krainin in this slide show.

    Practice border-control work, by scouts whose trousers are bloused into their boots:
    NYTBorderBoots.JPG


    Scouting in the age of the permanent-security state:
    Explorers2NYT.JPG

  • Climate pushback #1A, via Brad DeLong

    J. Bradford DeLong, of the once-proud edifice known as UC Berkeley, has provided as much info as any reasonable consumer might want on the global-warming "hockey stick" fracas. His post is not 100% flattering to moi-meme, but he gets extra points for working in frog references and for an account of an actual discussion with his UCB colleague Richard Muller. A fact-check on the recent claim from Al Gore's camp, too. It's all here.

    Promised second climate-pushback dispatch later on.

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