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.
  • 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:


    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.

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  • 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):

    Ford Tri-Motor, ca 1925:


    When American airlines (and American Airlines) were glamorous:

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

    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.

  • 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."


    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.

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  • 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:

    Scouting in the age of the permanent-security state:

  • 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.

  • Climate pushback #1, from Al Gore's office and others

    I will try to do this in two omnibus posts, rather than opening up a running weeks-long discourse. After all, that treatment is reserved for frogs,  the China Daily, "starchitecture," and similar topics, of which there is more in the pipeline.

    But in response to two recent items, here and here, on how to think about climate change, I have received a ton of email, all in one mode: ie, telling me I am wrong.

    The original reason I raised the topic was that I'd seen the latest entry in George Will's ongoing series on why global warming is a myth. In response, I mentioned a book by a UC Berkeley physicist about how to assess the evidence on climate change, and why the problem was indeed worth worrying about, if not for the reasons most often discussed.

    My correspondents barely bothered to deal with Will. They were instead upset about the physicist, Richard Muller, and by extension me for being too complacent about climate-change evidence -- and too critical of those (including Al Gore) who had warned about it most prominently.

    Below and after the jump, representative samples of this view. Later tonight, I'll put up a few more messages, and the appropriate meta-thoughts on my part. Unless I hear from Muller, or something else occurs, that will be it for now -- simply because I am well aware that detailed argument over studies, policies, and implications already occupies many sites full time. (For instance, this and this, with different perspectives.)

    First up, Joseph Romm, of the Climate Progress site and the book Hell and High Water, whom I have known for years. Because he wrote me privately, I won't go into his views of my judgment or Muller's. But here are the references he thinks people should instead read:

    -Romm has written two critiques of Muller's book, here and here.

    -According to Romm, "The 'hockey stick,' was essentially vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences, and it is almost certainly correct." Cite here.
    - "Gore's essential argument is correct and other than a very few technical quibbling with word choice, pretty every one on his major carefully crafted statements is accurate.  His Nobel Prize will, sadly, be vindicated by history." [Note from JF: 'An Inconvenient Truth' also included a particularly egregious display of boiled-frog madness, which maybe we will assign to the realm of "technical quibbling with word choice." Ie, if he had said, "if you remove a frog's brain and put him in a top of tepid water, then gradually raise the temperature..." he'd be square with the scientists.]
    - About Antarctica: "The fact that the models have underestimated the timing and speed of ice loss in Antarctica is not an argument for questioning climate science or claiming the models have been debunked. Cites here and here.Quite the reverse, it is part of a standard critique I offer that the situation is considerably worse than the IPCC states, because their models missed most of the actual feedbacks. Source here.

    Next, from reader P.J.

    "...you rarely seem uncritically to pass along information from a source, especially one that may not be in the best position to objectively frame the issue. So it was with some surprise to see your column, ostensibly dealing George Will's latest misdirection on climate change, uncritically repeat Dr. Muller's incredibly one-sided (one might say cherry-picked) presentation of the so-called "hockey stick" issue, Hurricane Katrina, etc.

    The paleoclimatic reconstruction of Northern Hemisphere temperatures over the past millennium showing some variability but an overall lower, relatively flat trend is a robust finding backed by numerous studies that have nothing to do with the statistical criticisms leveled at the 1998 Mann et al. paper. Whatever the methodological problems of that paper, its overall conclusion is not something that was in jeopardy, as the supporting evidence simply does not rest upon a single analysis by a single paper.

    I would also be interested to see Dr. Muller's evidence of claims of direct attribution of Hurricane Katrina to anthropogenic warming by any credible scientist. That wouldn't be a strawman he's tilting at it, would it? Katrina was widely cited of an example of how nations could be vulnerable to changes in climate, but that's hardly what Dr. Muller rails against. His assertion that "After Katrina, many... scientists warned that this was the beginning of a period of terrible damage from more hurricanes" which he subsequently "debunks" by citing the lack of a hurricane making landfall in the US in 2006 is as unsupported as it is itself cherry picking. I'm similarly flummoxed by his claim of "distortion" in discussing the state of Antarctica relative to anthropogenic warming, modeling results, and how the two are both in contradiction and yet reported as not. I don't have a copy of Dr. Muller's book on hand, but from what I can read through Google Books, it looks as though Dr. Muller is engaging in many of the tactics he attributes to those allegedly misleading the public about climate change. This is not to say that misleading never occurs, but rather that if one is going to bother making such claims, one should probably make sure they are based on solid footing....
    From one of Muller's fellow faculty members at UC Berkeley:
     Although I generally agree with Prof. Muller, and I have enjoyed the parts of his book that I have read, I would take him with a grain of salt.

    He is by no means the most authoritative research on climate change available, even on the Berkeley campus. Like Al Gore, he has now become a popularizer, and that task has inherent risks, as Muller himself is aware.

    I provide below some links to more background on the issue of Michael Mann's hockey stick. Muller's point (at least in the reference you cite) is one that, like many statistics instructors, I stressed back when I taught at Berkeley as a grad student--correlation does not imply causation. [The links are here and here.]

    However, I think it is a pretty safe assumption that the rise in green house gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution is forcing climate change, and that change that may prove to have devastating consequences. [Note from JF: Nothing in Muller's book seems at odds with this last sentence.]

    Finally, a representative of Al Gore's office in Tennessee wrote to object that I had not contacted them before quoting a passage from Muller's book critical of Inconvenient Truth -- and to clarify the origin of the much-debated "hockey stick" chart used in that book and movie. The version of that chart that has been most heavily questioned, including by Muller, is from a scientist whose name I'll leave out right now, since I'm not going to the trouble of contacting him at the moment. According to Al Gore's representative:
    The graph that former Vice President Gore refers to in An Inconvenient Truth (which you can verify on pages 63, 64 and 65) was produced by Dr. Lonnie Thompson, one of the country's top glaciologists, not the image that you published in your article...I'd urge you to speak with Dr. Thompson--he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2007--our nation's highest honor for science.

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  • Well, I have a new favorite newspaper

    Move over, China Daily. I don't know how long The Onion can keep up its running version of how it will look after acquisition by the Yu Wan Mei fish salvage company (鱼完美, yu wan mei, "perfect fish"). Background on the sale here.

    But as long as it lasts, it is a tour de force. I suspect that some veteran of the China Daily or allied Chinese "information" organs in English must have defected to the Onion and guided this exercise. It's as good an imitation of the original as are the standard Onion "area man" versions of American news.

    Original (these are real China Daily headlines):


    Improved version:



    My general policy is: if something is already On The Internet, no need for me to mention it too, unless it is in some cranny where many people might overlook  it. But the artistry here forces an exception to the policy. After the jump, an early indication of the Onion's prowess in the "learning from China" field.

    UPDATE: It is worth going to the Opinion page, as illustrated below, and clicking on the "Internet allows free exchange" story.


    The famed "100 Widow Smog Dance," from the Onion's celebration of China's emergence as the #1 polluter in the world. For the "correct" view on China's efforts to deal with pollution, see the real facts here. Still, the video is very funny.

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  • Update on Antarctic ice and global warming

    The point of the previous item about how scientists think about public policy, which referred to Richard Muller's book Physics for Future Presidents, was that many scientific issues are too complex to be resolved in op-ed columns. Or even Atlantic website posts!

    But several people have asked for elaboration of this sentence I quoted from Muller:

    "An example of distortion is the melting of the Antarctic ice -- something that actually contradicts the global warming model but is presented as if it verifies them."

    What's the logic there? My main answer is, read the book! But to be more responsive, here's the reasoning in a nutshell (my paraphrase, alongside USGS map of Antarctica):


    Higher temperatures (ie, "global warming") would mean more evaporation from the oceans. That would mean more clouds, which over Antarctica would mean more snow. (The air over Antarctica would be warmer, but on average still well below freezing.) More snow would mean more Antarctic ice, not less. Yet the Antarctic ice cover is decreasing, not increasing.

    "Does the decrease in ice mean that the model is wrong -- that global warming is not taking place?" Muller asks. "No, not at all. It simply shows the inadequacies of the model. Even with global warming, local weather (even for a whole continent) can cause behavior that deviates from the computer calculation. One result is certain: the melting of Antarctica provides no evidence whatsoever in favor of global-warming predictions." He then goes on to discuss other evidence that does support the predictions. To be 100% clear about it: Muller is not at all a "denialist" about climate change. Eg: "Global warming is real. It is very likely caused by humans. By the end of the twenty-first century it will (if caused by humans) grow enough to be disruptive." He is just urging readers and policy makers to be precise about what the evidence shows and doesn't show.

    You know where to go for more.

    UPDATE: this site, from NASA, allows you to create your own maps showing how much the average temperature in different parts of the world has risen over any interval you choose since 1880. For instance, this map, below, shows surface temperature differences in June, 2009 versus a 1951-1980 average baseline:


    More here from Michael Goodfellow of Free the Memes.
  • Pictures from Urumqi

    Before disappearing offline last week, I posted a number of items from Uighur, Han, and foreign observers in XInjiang during the ethnic violence there. Alistair Thornton, a young researcher / scholar I knew in Beijing, has just returned from Urumqi (largest city in Xinjiang) and posted a number of photos of the way it has looked recently. They are on the always-interesting "The Interpreter" site of the Lowy Institute in Australia. Here's one; more, and narrative, at the site.


  • Welcome, Erik Tarloff; so long, UCB

    The Atlantic's roster of new online Correspondents has become quite formidable; updated list here. I've mentioned (admiringly!) a few of them and their posts previously. Let me say something about the latest arrival, Erik Tarloff, a screenwriter and comic novelist who posted his first essay this week. 

    I mention Erik's debut here for three reasons: as a reminder for anyone who hasn't yet prowled through the Correspondents section; because Erik is a long-time friend, who also happens to join me (and Lawrence Wright and Caleb Carr and the composer Greg Tornquist) in the loyal band of writers/artistes who share a birthday; and because I agree so much with the subject of this first essay.

    It's about the demise of a great, proud public institution: the University of California at Berkeley, accelerated by today's California budget disaster but underway for a long time. Erik, who went to college at UCB and lives nearby, says:

    For decades, legislatures and governors of both parties viewed the University of California as a special jewel in the state's crown, worthy of nurture and protection.  This pride in what the state had wrought paid dividends:  Cal has long been regarded as one of the greatest universities in the country, and in the world.  A remarkable, and unique, achievement for a public institution.
           But it now looks as if those days are over.  It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen completely.  But absent an unlikely, massive injection of private funding, the university is on an inexorable glide path downward....It's not the only tragedy [in California now], nor even necessarily the worst tragedy, but it's a very great tragedy.

    My brother went to Cal; I've taught there and felt an informal part of its community for years; even though I grew up in the USC/UCLA fan zone, I rooted for the Golden Bears as a kid. When arguing about America's strengths and weaknesses in my years overseas, I've often used "Berkeley" as a shorthand reference for the glories of America's and California's commitment to public education and research. And now... read the rest of what Erik says.

    Bonus note: Erik Tarloff is married to the economist and Clinton administration official Laura Tyson. My brief video Q-and-A with her at the Aspen ideas festival is here.

  • Compare-and-contrast reading on climate change

    This morning George Will offered another in his series of reassuring columns about the "overstated" threat of climate change.  Today's version:

    "When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon 'young Americans' to 'get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon,' another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: 'If you're 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you're graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade.'

    "Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon. And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying."

    Will presented the lack of youthful clamor as a sign of wholesome common sense. If you would like another way to think about the evidence, this one provided not by a columnist but by a physicist at UC Berkeley who has won a MacArthur grant, I recommend Richard A. Muller's book Physics for Future Presidents. I happened to read most of it on a long plane flight yesterday, so I was all set for Will's column today. So you can be ready before his next one appears, I recommend ordering the book now.

    Muller is not at all in the most-alarmist group of climate scientists; indeed, he spends a lot of time explaining why he thinks Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth exaggerated the threat in several ways. You can see the beginning of his dissection of Gore's famous "hockey stick" chart of rising temperatures, which begins on page 292 of Muller's book, through a Google book-search excerpt here. (The hockey stick, below)

    Muller says that the evidence behind the hockey-stick chart is wrong. (Read it yourself to see why.) "In fact, much of what the public 'knows' about global warming is based on distortion, exaggeration, or cherry picking," he says, adding:

    "An example of distortion is the melting of the Antarctic ice -- something that actually contradicts the global warming model but is presented as if it verifies them. Exaggeration includes the attribution of Hurricane Katrina to global warming, even though there is no scientific evidence that they are related.  Cherry picking is the process of selecting data that verify the global-warming hypothesis but ignoring data that contradict it."

    The real purpose of his book is to set out as clearly as possible the way scientists approach the inevitably-conflicting evidence on big public policy issues like climate change (or the real risks of terrorism, or dealing with nuclear waste). Before the Iraq war, it would have been useful for intelligence officials to set out the way they balance their version of inevitably-conflicting and always-incomplete facts. Muller sets out the way climate scientists weigh the evidence pro and con concerning climate change and the probabilities for each explanation.

    By the end of the process he has forcefully re-established the principle that real scientists view propositions as most convincing when all the doubts, caveats, and contrary bits of evidence are admitted -- whereas politicians and the public want to hear an all-or-nothing verdict with no hems or haws. Consistent with this approach, it is all the more powerful when Muller concludes that there really are reasons to worry about man-made climate change. He also provides guidelines about sensible and fanciful ways to deal with the problem. I am not equipped to judge this argument on purely scientific grounds; but the book is addressed to lay readers and is convincing in what it says about the process of scientific reasoning. If this latest George Will opus serves to drive readers to Muller's book, it will have done some good.

  • Two articles from Counterpunch (updated)

    Two of my friends of longest standing (note how I avoid saying two of my "oldest friends") have articles online at counterpunch.org  that deserve notice.

    Eamonn Fingleton, who has been based in Japan for years and has been both contrarian and right in emphasizing the residual strength of Japanese manufacturing (even as the Japanese financial system collapsed), now has an article about the American media's coverage of Detroit. It is mainly a corrective to the automatic sneer at U.S. automakers that characterizes much political and press commentary about them. The article says:

    As press commentators have generally spun it, the Detroit story has been a simplistic  morality tale of "incompetent executives," "lazy workers," and "intransigent unions." Detroit in other words has richly deserved its fate and, in the opinion of many of the more callous observers, the sooner it is put out of its misery the better.

    The real story is a complex one in which the American auto industry has often been more sinned against than sinning.         

    The article is very heavy on US-Japanese auto competition; for the record, I disagree with Eamonn on a few of the harpoons that he hurls. But the simple rarity of arguments on the automakers' behalf makes the article worth considering. Update: Another illustration of its approach, from the beginning:
    To see how well -- or rather how badly -- you understand the background, try this quiz:           

    1. What was the Detroit companies' share of the Japanese market in 1930? (a) About 90 per cent. (b) About 20 per cent. (c) Less than 4 per cent.
    2. How many models do the Detroit corporations currently make with the steering wheel on the right (the standard configuration for Japan)? (a) More than 40. (b) 12. (c) 3.           

    3. What was the combined share of all foreign makers - American, European, and Japanese - in the Korean car market in the last decade? (a) Less than 2 per cent. (b) Around 15 per cent. (c) More than 70 per cent.           

    The correct answer in each case is (a).           

    If you flunked, don't feel bad. Just cancel your newspaper subscription.           

    I don't buy Eamonn's "cancel your subscription" advice, since newspapers are just behind carmakers in their overall distress. But his overall pitch is significant.

    Also we have Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, whose name is familiar to anyone who has read or thought about American defense policy over the last generation. Based purely on his study of conflict through the ages, last year Spinney made a call about Obama-McCain campaign tactics that proved far shrewder than that of many political "experts" at the time.

    In his new article, he makes a call about President Obama's expanding commitment to Afghanistan that is convincing to me and should be alarming to anyone who reflects on what the U.S. is getting itself into. Both articles very much worth a look.


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