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.
  • Xu Zhiyong released

    Just over a month ago, a well-known Chinese legal reformer named Xu Zhiyong was taken from his house in Beijing at 5am and moved to a detention facility. Background reports here and here, which emphasize that Xu, far from being some overthrow-the-government voice of radicalism, had been dedicated to defending the rights of Chinese citizens within China's own legal system. His best-known recent case was on behalf of parents of children who died or were harmed during the tainted-milk scandal last year.

    This morning comes news that he has just been released, though under the threat of follow-up prosecution. That would probably involve (trumped-up, in the view of the outside world) charges of "tax evasion," probably based on support that the Yale Law School has given to Xu's Open Constitution Initiative (Gong Meng, 公盟) project. See here and here, with details sketchy but the main fact of his release established. Later on, more about the implications of the case -- including the disappearance of Xu's assistant, as reported here in the Guardian. For now, it is better to have Xu Zhiyong out of jail than in.

  • Today's McCaughey, euthanasia, and general falsehood update

    Several more objections, clarifications, and additional bits of evidence following the much-bruited -- and to me somewhat anticlimactic -- Betsy McCaughey-Jon Stewart smackdown two days ago. (Previous reactions here.)

    On the origins of Betsy McCaughey's argumentative style:

    A reader suggests they have one obvious source:

    The reader explains:

    Cleese's character is armed with all that one could ask for: keen wit, boundless vocabulary, perfect presence of mind, and all the facts on his side. And yet, even he can be played to a draw by a liar who maintains a sufficiently unshakable facade of conviction.

    On the details of why "death panels" are so preposterous
    A reader in Maine writes:

    Another absurdity in the argument of Betsy McCaughey is her claim that there is something wrong with doctors having to follow a patient's wishes as expressed in a living will.  There are two major problems here: 1) People can always change their living will, just as they can change their will at any point.  The later living will supercedes the later one. So if a person makes a living will when healthy and sees things differently when ill, the sick person can express different wishes in the new living will.  2) Why shouldn't doctors have to respect people's wishes on end-of-life care? I have heard countless stories of living wills being ignored.  The provision on living wills is effectively an implementation provision, providing for accountability and for the wishes of the patient to be respected.

    Further on the Living Will point:
    Reader Zach writes:

    I'm surprised you didn't mention this.  McCaughy's twisted logic is basically that after you draft a living will it will be enforced ruthlessly by doctors seeking to up their quality rating even if you personally object.  Backing her up is an anecdote about her apparently hearing a woman telling her to hurry up and help as a doctor suffocated her with a pillow or something.  Her point is that, by rewarding adherence, we're making doctors stick with the patient's initial stated intent.  However, if you're conscious you can amend, annul, or otherwise do whatever you want with your will, living or otherwise, at any time you want.  If you're conscious enough to tell someone not to pull the plug, you haven't triggered your living will yet.

    More »

  • Revisiting McCaughey-v-Stewart

    As I mentioned this morning, I thought Betsy McCaughey was even more blithely disconnected from the world of reality than I had expected -- but that she was weirdly "effective" against Jon Stewart, since there was no way to shame her by pointing out that what she said was untrue. She would just smile, mug at the audience in an "isn't he cute!" way, and say, No, I'm right.

    Not all readers agreed. Below and after the jump, a sample of dissenting views, with brief retort at the end.

    Objection 1: The Audience Is In on the Joke

    ...I disagree that talking over Jon Stewart the way people do in appearances on Fox News is an effective tactic for the guest. It might be better than some of the other options, but it backfires for a weird reason, one that might be harder to see if you don't watch the show regularly.

    From its inception in 1997, the distinguishing shtick that makes the show unique is a type of edited interview segment in which the show's "reporters" interview obscure and completely crazy people. The subjects have received some local press attention for doing something bizarre and they're desperate for media attention. The reporters pretend to be mainstream press rather than comedians, and they use a deadpan style that allows the interviewees to provide most of the humor. What struck me about the McCaughey interview, and the recent interview of Orly Taitz by Stephen Colbert, was that Stewart and Colbert are clearly adapting the "crazy person" interview techniques to their live in-studio host interviews with guests that don't agree with them.

    The normal host interviews vary a lot but they are always a two-way conversation with some socially well-adjusted give and take. In these two recent interviews, as the guest acts more unstoppable and enthusiastic unhinged when discussing "their" topic, the interview slides into the familiar "crazy person" style. That's a cue for the show's regular audience to frame the discussion and the interviewee in a very different way.

    Objection 2: It Worked for Betsy, but It Won't Work for Others

    I expect you are very right about this being an interview that will be studied by right wing operatives for some time to come. However, I feel like you overlooked a couple important pieces which may make this scenario unrepeatable (particularly if those at the Daily Show are paying attention).

    More »

  • McCaughey on the Daily Show

    Well, my TV-owning neighbors were all away last night, so I couldn't watch the McCaughey-Stewart showdown by peering through their windows and had to see it just now on the web. Clips below, starting with the first segment of the interview as broadcast. Three conclusions:

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Betsy McCaughey Pt. 1
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    Conclusion one: I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey. Even when conferring on her the title of "most destructive effect on public discourse by a single person" for the 1990s. She is way less responsible and tethered to the world of "normal" facts and discourse than I had imagined.

    Conclusion two: The exchange is significant, because it demonstrates that there is indeed a way to "handle" Jon Stewart. You simply have to ignore what he says, interrupt and talk over him, and keep asserting that you're right. You even can try to usurp his role as host by mugging at the audience and rolling your eyes in a shared "there he goes again!" joke with the viewers.

    In retrospect, this is the crucial weakness that in their different ways both Bill Kristol and Jim Cramer revealed in their appearances on the show. They listened to Stewart and -- even Kristol!!?! -- revealed through their bearing that they recognized there was such a thing as being caught in an inconsistency or presented with an inconvenient fact. McCaughey did none of that. She is just making it up, as anyone who has followed her work over the decades will know. She was not even minimally prepared for her appearance on the show, flipping aimlessly through the giant briefing book (of legislative clauses) she brought on stage. But  she didn't let it bother her. The exchange demonstrated that if the guest reveals no self-awareness or does not accept the premise of factual challenge, Stewart can't get in his normal licks. Future guests will study this show.

    Conclusion three: A good point Stewart made, albeit not registered by McCaughey, concerns the unbelievable inconsistency of attention to "incentives" built into health care systems, today's and tomorrow's.

    That is: when McCaughey admits that there is no literal "death panel" provision in the new health care provision, she goes on to say something similar to what other conservatives, most recently Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post today, contend: that the very act of reimbursing doctors for a  discussion about "living wills" and end-of-life care will have a subtle bias in favor of an euthanasia-like outcome.

    On the merits of this claim, I vehemently disagree. Having had, along with my siblings, first-hand, extended, and very painful experience with this process during my own father's decline and death last year, I would put reimbursement schemes for living-will discussions at the very bottom of the list of factors that make such decisions so wrenching for everyone involved.

    But let's assume I'm wrong (though you'll never convince me of that) -- and that there is some third-order ripple-effect bias that comes from paying doctors for these every-five-year discussions. Why is the potential skewing effect of that payment the only thing we notice -- and not the thousand other life-and-death, rationing-and-queuing incentives that are built into every detail of the medical system now? And that David Goldhill -- no supporter of the Obama plan -- goes into so thoroughly in his cover story in this month's magazine? Yesterday I spent more than an hour on the customer "service" line for my own health insurance company, trying to get the answer to a simple "is this covered?" question. At the end of the hour, when I'd reached the queue to talk to a human agent, I got this recording: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, your call cannot be completed at this time. Please call again later." This has a kind of rationing/skewed incentive effect of its own -- even for someone fortunate, like me, to have good health insurance coverage. So, yes: I will listen to arguments about the hypothetical, subtle, psychological biasing effect of encouraging discussions about end-of-life decisions -- but only if they're in the context of the far more blatant, perverse, and destructive incentives built into today's system.

    But see for yourself.

    Second part of McCaughey's interview as broadcast.

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
    Betsy McCaughey Pt. 2
    Daily Show
    Full Episodes
    Political HumorHealthcare Protests

    Extended interview, with outtakes, part 1, is here; extended interview part 2 is here.

  • Tonight on the Daily Show: McCaughey v Stewart!

    Now I'm sorry I still don't have a TV. Elizabeth "Betsy" McCaughey, whose role in public life I have so often marveled at, has agreed to go on the Daily Show this evening.

    Anything is possible, and perhaps Jon Stewart will for once fall down on the job as an interrogator. But at face value you have to wonder: has she ever seen the show? Perhaps the episode with James Cramer?

    Maybe I'll go stand outside a neighbor's window this evening and listen real carefully. (And yes, yes, I know I can see it on the web not long afterwards.) Talk about must-see TV; this is it.

  • More reassuring news: new life for Eclipse?

    This news has been brewing for weeks, but it appears to have reached a critical point. The assets of the ill-fated Eclipse Aviation company, whose rise is described here and here, and demise here and here, may be sold at auction today to a new group of investors doing business as Eclipse Aerospace. The head of the new company, Mason Holland of South Carolina, was a deposit-holder for an Eclipse jet when the company went under. (He also owned and flew a Cirrus propeller airplane, and I know him slightly through the Cirrus pilots' organization.)

    The Eclipse jet was to be the backbone of a new small-jet air-taxi network. Operating on what is often known as the "second mouse gets the cheese" principle, Holland appears to be interested in retaining what was valuable about the airplane's design, after the wreck of the original company's finances. More background on the sale here, here, and here. Interviews with Mason Holland here and here. Good luck!

  • About that "ominous" building in Burma

    Two weeks ago, I posted this photo, with accompanying expert commentary about the possibility that the malign regime in Burma was using North Korean aid to build a nuclear facility:


    Subsequent commentary knocks down that speculation and comes to the (reassuring!) conclusion that it is very likely just a big industrial plant. Eg, Mark Hibbs of Nuclear Fuel, quoted on Arms Control Wonk, says this:

    According to some information that sources said has been made available to Western governments and the IAEA, the "box" in the photos is likely not a reactor but a nonnuclear industrial workshop or machinery center.

    That determination, the sources said, follows from the absence of certain "overhead signatures" for a reactor in the photos and from specific information derived from firsthand knowledge of the site and its activities, deemed to be highly reliable.

    'We can conclude that it's not a reactor with near certainty," the Western analyst said.

    And from Arms Control Verification.org, via The Interpreter in Sydney, extra photos and commentary supporting the same "less than meetings the eye" conclusion. Eg:

    We learned from two sources, independent from each other, that the box-like building has been under scrutiny by the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] Department of Safeguards for quite some time, and that the department is nearly certain that the building does not serve any nuclear programme. An official, associated with a Western intelligence agency, later told us that, "we've been looking at that site for years, since construction started. You cannot hide a reactor in a low building without a basement level". A relatively recent visit to the facility has reportedly confirmed with '99 per cent confidence' that it is a machine shop..

    We'll take our reassuring news where we can find it.

  • Can't get enough Felix!

    Felix_the_Cat_sumka.jpgI think this really could be the end of the Felix the Cat saga, most recently chronicled here and here. Next few items will concern software, China, and of course frogs. But before we turn the page, let us consider Felix's implications for: US-China relations; differences between England and America; and the proud heritage of New Jersey.

    I. Felix as distinguished son of the Garden State
    Walter Maier, curator of the "Famous New Jerseyans" web site, gives Felix a prominent place among the state's honorees. As he points out, "Felix was born in New Jersey." Go here for details.

    II. Felix in the context of Chinese reformers
    Taking an admirably post-racial stance, one reader writes in to say: "Surprised you haven't quoted Deng's 'It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.'!"
    ("不管黑猫白猫,捉到老鼠就是好猫." If I were king, the standard version in English would be "Black cat, white cat -- as long as it catches mice it's a good cat.") Bottom line: if Deng Xiaoping were writing the notorious "Obama reminds me of Felix" essay, he would have begun, "It doesn't matter whether a president is black or white, so long as he fixes the economy."

    [Deng, left, not with Felix but with another fine American]

    III. Felix as lens for Anglo/American contrasts
    A reader writes:
    Just a stray observation, which may be outdated by now, based on initial Peace Corps experience meeting with Brit expats in Ghana during the late sixties, but remaining fairly intact after 40 more years of sporadic relevant dialogs with random but typically well educated British folks at home and abroad.

    I'm consistently (nearly 100%) struck by the difference between white British and liberal US perceptions of what we both call "racism" or "racialism."

    More »

  • Wrapping up the Felix tale

    myspace layout codes

    Previously here. From a reader in California:

    A point that has fallen through the cracks in the contretemps is that Ferguson's characterization of Felix the Cat is just plain wrong -- he's not lucky, he's plucky and resourceful.  His characteristic pose in the early cartoons is pacing back and forth, hands behind his back, deep in thought as he ponders his way out of the fix he's gotten into.  Then he brightens, and snaps his fingers -- he's thought of a way out.  There's a gag that refers to Felix's trademark pose in Buster Keaton's Go West, which should show you how far back the character goes.  Also parodied on The Simpsons, where the earliest Itchy and Scratchy cartoons adopt the style of silent Felix the Cat cartoons.

    [Felix pacing and pensant, in 1930:] FelixPacing.jpg

    [Felix post-pacing, having figured out the answer:]

    From a reader in Shanghai:
    Mr. Fallows, Mr. Ferguson, it sounds like *somebody* needs a beer summit!

    1930s Felix from here; animated-pacing Felix here.

  • Ferguson, Obama, Felix the Cat -- and Pluto

    Let me tell this one in order:

    On August 11, last Tuesday, Niall Ferguson wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times whose theme was that Barack Obama reminded him of Felix the Cat? Why? "Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky."

    Later that day, I did an item marveling at the column. Its final line was, " I look forward to Ferguson's discussing this over a beer with his Harvard colleague Henry Louis Gates."

    Two days later, on August 13, I got an irritated note from Ferguson. Its subject line was "Rubbish." It included a quote from H.L. Gates saying that there was no problem with the Felix line -- the reported quote from Gates was "What a load of rubbish" -- and it ended with a request that I publish it. To be exact, a challenge: "I shall be interested to see if you post this on your blog."

    Soon thereafter, I did indeed publish it. I sent Ferguson a note saying that I had done so, with the explanation that I took his note as a request that I share his views.

    An hour later, he wrote back and requested that I remove the item from the Atlantic's site so that he could check further with Gates. Within minutes I did that, putting up this placeholder announcement instead. Since the original had been up for a while, it survived in many search caches. But I saw no reason to be difficult  -- or to pretend I didn't get Ferguson's "please take it down" note; so I complied.

    Over the weekend, I didn't hear from Ferguson, and on the "life is short" policy resolved to let the matter drop.
    Then this afternoon, I received a followup note -- sent jointly to me and Paul Krugman, who had written in a similar vein. In its entirety it says:

    Dear Paul and James,

    As you both took exception to my comparison of the President with Felix the Cat, my favorite cartoon character, implying it was racist and recommending I consult Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I have now done so. He has taken the trouble to consult others in the field of African-American Studies, including our colleague Lawrence D. Bobo, the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, and has written to me as follows:

    "None of us thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used.  Felix's blackness, like Mickey's and Minnie's, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin color. ... You are safe on this one."

    As he has made clear, you are free to publish this on your blogs. I hope that you will, and that you will also add an apology to me for the imputation of racism as well as, in Paul's case, the gratuitous and puerile accusation of "whining" (i.e., defending myself against a slur). I remain of the view that you took this line to avoid engaging with my central points that President Obama's administration has no visible plan for stabilizing the finances of the federal government even over ten years, and that Congress will likely impede whatever steps he may take in this direction.


    Niall Ferguson.

    On the requested "apology": Sadly, No. I don't think and didn't say that Niall Ferguson is a racist. Probably like him, I lament the way indiscriminate use of that label -- or  "sexist," "anti-Semite," now "socialist" -- can shut down discussion. But there's no getting around the clumsiness of what he wrote. If Felix the Cat's blackness is a barely noticeable aspect of his identity, why on earth would anyone begin a comparison of Obama to Felix by saying "Felix was not only black"? Thought experiment: Suppose I wrote a column about Jackie Chan -- or Cabinet members Steven Chu and Eric Shinseki, or Yo-Yo Ma, or new PGA champion Y.E. Yang -- that began exactly the way Ferguson's did. "Jackie Chan reminds me of Pluto. One of the best-loved characters from the Disney studio, Pluto was not only yellow. He was also very, very likable."


    I could go on to discuss policy aspects of Jackie Chan's controversial comments about democracy in China -- as Ferguson goes on to discuss Obama's problems with the budget deficit. But 99% of the readers would think, What the hell? And if asked what I was doing, I would not try to relitigate the case, as Ferguson is now doing in several venues, but would recognize that I'd blundered and back off. But apparently that's just me.

    Paul Krugman on the same subject here.

  • Omnibus news catch-up #1: Hudson River air crash UPDATED

    Concerning Saturday's front-page story in the NYT about what the Teterboro air traffic controllers were doing just before the airplane-helicopter collision over the Hudson:

    Obviously this doesn't look good for the controllers (that one of them was on a "non-business-related phone call" just before the crash), and the National Transportation Safety Board will eventually pronounce on how much, if anything, that had to do with the crash.* The NTSB's special update on what it has learned so far about the controllers' behavior and other factors is here.

    There's one main reason to think that none of the controllers, including the one in the Teterboro airport tower who was on the phone, should principally be "blamed" for the crash. The reason is that by definition controllers are never principally responsible for "traffic separation" when planes are operating under "Visual Flight Rules," or VFR. The pilots themselves are responsible, like the drivers of cars.

    When the weather is clear and pilots are operating under VFR, they are free (within limits) to choose their own course and altitude; but they -- not the controllers -- bear legal and practical responsibility for staying clear of terrain and not running into anything else in the sky. Everyone involved in the system understands this. The big divide in aircraft operations is between VFR and IFR, "Instrument Flight Rules." Under IFR, the pilots have to go where the controllers say -- but the controllers bear legal responsibility for keeping one plane away from others. Virtually all airline flights operate under IFR, so non-pilot public assumes that controllers are supervising flights of every kind. They're not.

    Also, based just on the facts now released, there's something to be explained about the airplane pilot's actions.  Soon after the plane had taken off, the Teterboro tower controller told the airplane pilot to switch to a Newark "departure" controller on another frequency. This is purely routine and is something you expect once airborne from an airport with a control tower. ("Airplane XXX, contact departure on [ XXX frequency]".)** Usually you know ahead of time what frequency you'll be switched to, and you have it pre-loaded into your radio. When instructed, you activate that new frequency by pushing one toggle switch.

    In this case, the pilot acknowledged the "contact departure" request but then never spoke to the new controller. "Never" covers the 54 seconds between the request to switch frequency and the actual crash. That's a pretty long time not to "check in" with the next controller. Usually you enter the new frequency (a few seconds); listen a few more seconds for a chance to talk; and then announce yourself to the new controller. In extremely busy air-traffic areas, like New York most of the time, you may have to wait quite a while for a break in transmissions so you can check in. Was the pilot waiting all that time? The tapes will show whether he had a chance.

    Now we come to the area of murk and "responsibility" in other than a strictly legal sense, which the NTSB will try to sort out. The NTSB announcement says that the second controller, in Newark, was eager to reach the pilot to warn him about the helicopter and suggest that he turn to avoid its path. Obviously that warning never get across. Was it just because the frequency was too busy? That would seem odd: when a controller really wants to reach a particular plane, he can tell other pilots to be quiet and put out a call to the plane he needs to reach. It's not unusual to hear such instructions. ("Piper XXX, if on frequency, acknowledge; all other traffic stand by....") Did the controller ever put out such a call? The NTSB doesn't mention it, but says that the Newark controller telephoned the one in Teterboro to mention the problem. Of course that Teterboro controller could no longer reach the pilot, whom he had instructed to switch away from his frequency.

    The lore of aviation disasters, often discussed here, is that they very often involve an "accident chain" that could theoretically have been broken at any link. If the Teterboro controller had not been on the phone, maybe he would have seen the same impending problem that the Newark controller did -- but maybe not, because his radar scope may not have covered the same area. If the pilot had been able to check in quickly with the Newark controller, maybe he would have gotten the warning and turned. If the Newark controller had tried to reach the pilot, maybe that would have paid off.  If the pilot and passengers had been looking in a different part of the sky, maybe they would have seen the helicopter in time. We'll know more about this eventually, although the whole tragedy may never be fully explained.

    Main point for the moment: it would be natural for non-flying readers to hear about the controllers and conclude: Obvious negligence! They should have been at the scope keeping those planes apart! That's been the implication of some recent coverage of the crash. It is indeed possible, based on what's known now, that controllers might, through extra vigilance, have averted this disaster. The one in Newark apparently tried. But this is different from a situation in which, say, a controller neglects his duty to keep airliners safely separated and allows them to collide. Here what we know so far is that controllers may have missed a chance to go beyond normal duty and save the pilots from error. More when the NTSB speaks.

    UPDATE: According to this AP story, as of Monday night the NTSB revised a previous claim that the Teterboro controller (the one with the phone call) could have seen the impending collision. The new info suggests that the helicopter did not show up on that controller's screen until immediately before the crash. Main reminder: it will take a while to sort out what really happened.

    *Side note: for all the care and thoroughness of the NTSB, its final reports can be weirdly tautological. If a plane has crashed on takeoff, the finding of probable cause may talk about the "pilot's failure to maintain proper terrain clearance." When it eventually reports on this Hudson crash, the conclusions will probably include both pilots' "failure to maintain proper separation from other traffic." Still, it does careful, exhaustive work, and its reports end up containing as many crucial facts as can be found.

    **Why is a pilot talking with controllers at all, if he is flying VFR? There's a very long answer, but the short version is: at airports with control towers and in certain categories of airspace, a pilot must be in radio contact with air traffic control and obey their instructions -- even if operating VFR. So even if this pilot was planning a VFR trip out of New York, which meant that he would choose his own course after he got away from the city and would be responsible for seeing and avoiding other planes,  he needed to talk with controllers in these early stages of the flight.

  • One more on the selling of "death panels"

    A reader writes:

    "I'm not sure if it has been pointed out yet, but the whole "Death Panel" bullshit is especially ironic given that the ability of insurance companies to grant/deny access to healthcare is effectively a death panel. Can't afford a plan? Tough luck. Not eligible for whatever reason? Tough luck."

    This illustrates the biggest change in the rhetoric of health care reform over the past year. Last summer, during the campaign, Obama succeeded in focusing attention on the real problems of the patchwork insurance-and-care system as it actually exists: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. Now, various opponents of a reform plan have succeeded in shifting attention to the imagined problems of a post-reform system: rising costs, bureaucratic inflexibility, perverse incentives, inevitable delays and de facto rationing, implicit decisions about life and death. It is an achievement to ponder.

  • Kenneth Bacon, 1944-2009

    The extended Atlantic Monthly family lost one of its members yesterday, with the death from cancer of Kenneth Bacon, at 64. His daughter Katie was for a decade a crucial editor on our staff, including playing a large part in establishing our web site in the 1990s.

    Her father Ken was a well-known and universally respected figure in the journalism and policy worlds. First as an accomplished reporter, serving for many years with the Wall Street Journal; then as public-affairs spokesman for the Defense Department in the Clinton Administration, when he was distinguished by telling the truth even in difficult circumstances; then as president of Refugees International. I knew him in all those roles and particularly admired his efforts before, during, and after the Iraq War to mitigate the damage to civilians in the area. Only three weeks ago, he wrote a trenchant essay in the Washington Post about what his dealings with melanoma had taught him about reform of the health care system.
    Sympathies to his family. Our public life is much better for his role in it.

  • Why the "death panel" claim is working

    In this recent item about the apparent triumph of the McCaughey/Palin/Grassley/ Limbaugh tribe in keeping the false "death panel" idea going, I said I had been wrong to think that the modern blogosphere could act as a truth squad. Here are several reader hypotheses about why things are panning out this way, starting with the one that's most vivid and convincing and ending with a truly constructive suggestion.

    Theory #1: Triumph of the 'Sticky' Image

    Your last blog post sure was depressing: not that you could be wrong, but that the new media ecosystem still doesn't have the tools to keep lunacies like McCaughey's "death panels" from becoming part of the political debate.

    That said, if you're familiar with Chip & Dan Heath's book "Made To Stick" (www.madetostick.com), you can see that the death panel idea is probably too "sticky" to be debunked, defused, and delegitimized.  In their view, the six key principles behind sticky ideas (like the NYC sewer alligators, or the kidney thieves that drug you and leave you in an ice-filled bathtub [or boiled frogs, JF note]) are:

    - simplicity
    - unexpectedness
    - concreteness
    - credibility
    - emotions
    - stories

    The death panel story contains virtually all of these elements.  It's a simple, concrete concept that anyone can picture.  It's certainly unexpected, it stirs emotions, and it's easy to tell -- or make up -- stories.  (My grandma has Parkinson's, and I won't have a government bureaucrat telling me she's got to die!") 

    It's true that to a rational, dispassionate listener the idea of a death panel does strain the bounds of credibility.  However, the complexity of health care reform, the sheer size of the legislation, and the history of bizarre government policies that have been twisted by special interests, does leave room in the imagination for, well, the incredible.

    So, to your point: does the new media ecosystem have a greater ability to stop charlatans?  Clearly yes.  But I wonder if any ecosystem could have stopped such a "sticky" idea.

    Other theories after the jump, plus somebody who embraces the whole idea.

    More »

  • SugarSync + Android

    As I've mentioned many times (start here and follow links), SugarSync has become one of those tools I rely on 24/7. Over the past year, I've used it as a kind of personal-scale "cloud" letting the three Macs and two PC/laptops in our household share and sync the same files. I work on a Word or Excel file* on a desktop machine in my office. When I'm done, I save the file on that machine. Then I use any of my other machines, anyplace else, and I can open up the current version of that same file, without ever manually transferring anything. (The computers do need a network connection to sync up, but they don't have to be connected at the same time.)

    For the last few months, this has worked with the BlackBerry too. I revise an article in the evening. The next morning, on the street, I can look at the current version of it on the BlackBerry. I've never actually done that, but in theory I could. And I have actually come to take for granted that all my machines will always have the latest version of the work I've done on any of them. Many times I have edited my own files from someone else's computer or a public computer at a net cafe, connecting to my own little cloud. There are other services that can do some comparable things, but this is the easiest one I'm aware of.


    Late last month, SugarSync announced that the system would work on Android devices. (Android = Google's free operating system for phones and other mobile devices.)  For example, if you had photos on your office computer and wanted to show them to someone when you were traveling, you could see them via the phone, in either small or large versions. That's what the photo to the left, from the SugarSync site, shows. Or you could check the actual content of many kinds of files from your phone.

    I mention this news for three reasons. First, on karmic principles. Products that work deserve not just to be taken for granted but also to be recognized.  Second, the Android market is itself potentially interesting. As "netbooks" -- cheap, simple computers designed to work in the cloud rather than storing much data themselves -- become more popular, the significance of free operating systems will grow. If a "normal" computer costs around $1000, another $50 or so for the operating system (ie, Windows) is not that big a deal -- a 5% add-on. For a $300 netbook, it's a much bigger hit. So whether netbooks really catch on, and what OS the manufacturers put on them, will matter a lot to Microsoft and everyone else.
    Third, the all-fronts onrush of the "cloud computing" age, illustrated by the very existence of products like SugarSync and Android, highlights the one big exception to that movement. This is also the one big reason why I, at least, still have to spend time thinking about what parts of my data are on what machines.

    That exception is Microsoft Outlook, and the enormous .PST files it generates. PST files amass all email, appointments, contents, and tasks you are dealing with in Outlook. The correspondence I have in my Gmail accounts and the appointments in Google Calendar exist separately from whatever machine I am using. The same is now true of .DOC and .PDF files -- and in fact everything, except for PSTs, which are hard to keep anyplace except on your own machine. Their scale is one factor: very quickly they reach into the tens or hundreds of MB size. More important is that every time you use Outlook, all of the .PST files you have open are all marked as being "changed," even if you have altered a single byte. It is as if every time you loaded Word, every .DOC file was marked as being changed and had to be newly backed up.

    The combination of huge file size, and constantly re-written status, means that virtually no "cloud" system can really handle .PSTs. It would be stuck in an endless loop of re-backing up and syncing them. So what I do is keep track of which .PSTs I have actually changed in any given session (usually the active one, and a main archive file), and copy only those from machine when I have to travel.  Yes, I know very well that there are utilities that would let me convert all my archived .PSTs from the past dozen years into Gmail or something else that could live in the cloud. Some day I will do that and leave Outlook altogether, now that Gmail has a works-most-of-the-time Offline feature. But on any given day, it hasn't seemed worth the bother.

    Why do I mention this? I don't think it's an intended part of Outlook's design, which was conceived long before the cloud era. But whatever the intention, at the moment it's a powerful lock-in / sea-anchor factor resisting the movement to operations purely in the cloud.
    * or one from Personal Brain, or Scrivener, or Zoot, or DevonThink, or any of the other programs I actually use 24/7 to do my work. For another time: more about how they work separately and together.


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