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.
  • If you're in Seattle-land

    I will be on KUOW's Weekday program today, 9am-10am PDT, talking with Steve Scher about (guess!) China. I was supposed to do this one week ago, but had such a paralyzing case of laryngitis, based on having yelled over the noise of jet engines at the Oshkosh air show earlier that week, that I couldn't say a word and had to bail out.

    Update: audio of show is available here. It was a lot of fun. Got to talk about my visit to the Shanghai Skin Diseases and Sexually Transmitted Diseases clinic, as a patient.

    Side note: again I notice as a recent arrival on American shores the value that NPR public-affairs talk shows around the country bring. When I lived in Seattle, I often listened to Scher's show -- or to Michael Krasny's Forum on KQED when I was living in Berkeley,  or Larry Mantle's AirTalk on KPCC when I was visiting my parents in southern California, or Kathleen Dunn on Wisconsin Public Radio when I'm in that part of the country. And of course in many cities you can hear Tom Ashbrook's On Point from WBUR in Boston and  Diane Rehm on WAMU in DC. I'll stop with the list before getting into the risk of "offense by omission"; the point, again, is that at a moment of justified concern about the chaos and deterioration of the media, it's worth noting that this particular kind of program -- locally-run NPR talk shows -- is an area of increasing quality and strength.

  • A reminder that we've left Beijing

    I open the front door this afternoon, at our recently re-occupied house inside the District of Columbia barely three miles from the White House, and I see:

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    And my first thought is: this is not what you'd see three miles from Zhongnanhai [seat of power] in Beijing. Actually, that was my second thought. The first one was, "where is the camera?" -- and the deer were blase enough to stick around while I got it.
     
    Yes, yes, I know that deer are the new rats of American cities, graceful but nonetheless troublesome supersized vermin. Still, the stark difference in circumstances of daily life in the two capitals -- the background sights, the routine nuisances and pleasures that shape consciousness -- makes it remarkable that officials of the two governments can communicate about issues as well as they do. Here is what I would see when I walked out my front door in  Beijing, about as far from Zhongnanhai as my DC house is from Pennsylvania Avenue:

    IMG_5151.jpg

    Yes, sure, I could find something similar in a three-mile radius of the White House too. But you couldn't find anything in Beijing like a deer-filled front yard. (I have seen people in Chinese cities trapping ducks and pigeons to eat. How long would venison on the hoof last?) I put up these pictures mainly for the benefit of readers in China. It is hard to convey to people who have lived only in one of the two countries how different everything about daily life can feel in the other. I'm still in that fleeting stage where I notice. But that will pass.

  • Notes on repatriation (recession, media depts)

    It would be too overwhelming to try to list all the things my wife and I miss about three years' immersion in China, and all the things we enjoy about returning to the house where we've lived, off and on, since the early Reagan era. Items in the first category boil down to the daily sense of amazement at some improbability we'd seen on the street in Beijing or Urumqi or Lanzhou. Our standard evening conversation was, "You won't believe it, but..." Items in the second category have a lot to do with the physical comforts of daily life in a rich rather than a poor country. Yes, I mean starting with the air.

    But here are three things we can't help but notice.

    1) The service sector. I think the US consumer economy would still be in free-fall if we hadn't come back. We show up from China needing new of everything. Clothes. Camera. Two computers, plus monitors and backup drives. Housewares. Shoes. At least one fridge, probably a stove. Radios/sound system. TVs. You name the item, and the version we have is road-worn, obsolete, broken, or gone. (Sadly for Detroit, not cars: Our two, vintage 1999 and 2000 respectively and stored with friends, still seem just fine. Sorry!) Our house needs to be repainted-- and re-roofed, and re-drivewayed, and its trees trimmed. That's just a start. Good thing we saved up in those days of 20RMB noodle/dumpling dinners. And, yes, many of the items we're getting were made in China. You just can't buy them there.

    Here's the surprise: We call to get service appointments, and people show up right away. Air conditioning not working in 90-degree DC swelter? We make a call one evening, and the next day it's all fixed. Plumbing clogged and leaky? A few hours later, it's not. Need the car looked at, after three years in the shed? Call the service place and the only question is: do I want to bring it in this afternoon? Or wait till tomorrow? On a Sunday, we see that a tree is dying in the back yard. By Monday afternoon, it is converted into neatly stacked wood.

    These are all people and services we'd dealt with before, but in those days we learned to plan weeks in advance for service calls. America still looks incredibly rich and lush. But this little indicator suggests lots of slack in anything considered a discretionary purchase. Not startling in principle, but impressive to encounter first-hand.

    Only exception: I call to get an appointment for a physical exam with our doctor -- a good but "normal" doctor, not some fancy physician to the stars. First available slot, mid-November. I have no theory for this anomaly.

    2) The dispensability of TV. The first night we were in our house, three weeks ago, no internet! By the next afternoon, we'd solved that emergency. Phew. (That day I was driving around the neighborhood with a laptop, looking for no-password wifi signals from some neighbor's house.) But that first day, also no TV. Cable, satellite, and TiVo services had all timed out. Of course no broadcast signal, after the digital switch-over. Each day since then, we've looked at the list of next-most-urgent chores for getting re-settled. And each day, getting the TV going -- figuring out the right service, making the appointment calls -- has not quite made the cut for that day's to-do list.
     
    A few times I've thought, It would be nice to turn on the TV. Like, during Obama's evening press conference last month. And I am sure we'll eventually get it going again, before football season and all. Probably the US Open tennis matches will be the trigger. But after many decades of living in a swirl of TV signals, I am surprised by how livable life is without it. For now.

    3) Media. We're getting real paper newspapers and magazines again. NYT and Washington Post, and soon again the WSJ. And all our complement of magazines. Leafing through the papers is a nice ritual in the morning -- even when I've read a lot of the stories the night before online. Don't worry: I'm not even going to start down the road of comparing online/print economics or ergonomics, even though I'm impressed at how differently I read the news on a page versus on a screen.

    Instead what I notice is the change within the papers I'd read before. The NYT, for all its travails, is a recognizable version of the publication I'd previously known. Personality, depth, world-view, tone. The poor Washington Post is not. Laying off -- that is, buying out -- so many reporters who knew so much about their topics has had a more profound effect than I would have guessed. (Locus classicus: Tom Ricks on defense.) And the resulting paper seems more obviously desperate to try anything that will draw attention in this new age.

    To me, that was the real meaning of the unfortunate recent "Mouthpiece Theater" commotion that has accompanied my re-introduction to the Post. (And for which Chris Cillizza wrote a gracious apology.) Not the flap over the final "bitch" episode but the existence of the thing at all. Experimentation is great and necessary in journalism, always and especially now; mistakes are a natural price of that; and everyone in every field needs to make his or her work as entertaining and attractive as it can be. But trying to compete for attention on sheer yuks is a step toward the brink. "Real" entertainment will always be more entertaining -- that's how it got the name. Anyone hungry for more on this theme is invited to check out the whole chapter on the death-spiral of infotainment in Breaking the News. And I think it's why the parody-reply to "Mouthpiece" on YouTube, below, was so genuinely funny and stinging. It wasn't mocking the segment so much as the paper's overall predicament.

    WaPoPosted.jpg

    I've thought of the Post as my hometown paper for years and feel as if I've come back to see a family member looking suddenly very ill. I still have good friends doing good work there. Also, good work by people I don't even know! As with two Style-section pieces this morning, on Thomas Pynchon by Michael Dirda and on the Obama/Joker/Socialism posters, by Philip Kennicott. But if someone asked, what do you notice that's changed, the Post would be high on the list.

  • Beer summit for Birthers

    Kenya-Tusker.jpgIt's President Obama's birthday! For those still convinced that the happy event took place 48 years ago not in Hawaii, as recorded on the birth certificate and reported in the local paper and confirmed by other sources in the world of "facts," but instead on the outskirts of Nairobi, there's only one way to celebrate: With a nice frosty mug of Tusker, Kenya's beer.
     
    I've had Tusker in its homeland, and it is indeed refreshing. It also has a motto that would have suited the original Rose Garden beer summit well.
     

    Tusker: Makes Us Equal.

    Has No Equal.


    Would be nice to think of that as a standard-fixture banner to hang over any beer-mediated discussion of political issues, especially those involving race.

    And for those convinced that the president's "real" home is Indonesia, I hesitate to mention that country's flagship national beer -- Bir Bintang, or "Star Beer." It is an all too faithful adherent to the Tsingtao/Yanjing/REEB/Tiger/Anchor tradition of no-hop, faint-taste light Asian lagers. But on the Indonesian island of Bali, the new Storm Brewing company has brought the hop/malt/Pale Ale tradition to the archipelago. I've had this too in its homeland, and it's very good. (BeerCamp photo.)

    BaliStorm.jpg

    This is the third and last installment in a series of special reports on Beer and the Presidency. Parts one and two here and here.  Thanks to Paul French and others.

  • More Burma nuke background

    In this item, yesterday, from Jeffrey Lewis's Arms Control Wonk website. It discusses the implications of the feature shown below on the Burmese landscape, taken (I assume by Lewis) from a Google Earth shot.
    BurmaNuke.jpg


    And, as several readers have written in to suggest, thought experiment: Might this development have something to do with Bill Clinton's sudden trip to North Korea?

    On a related topic, the implications of ever more-complete and higher-rez coverage form Google Earth, as in pic above, are only beginning to sink in. A friend mentioned yesterday that extremely fine-grained coverage of a number of places had just gone up in GE, including of my recent hometown of Beijing. I can now see the individual windows of the apartment building from which I used to take "Beijing air quality photos." Will put that up at some point.

  • 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.
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    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.

    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.
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    - 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.)

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    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!

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