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.
  • Ideas Festival kickoff: opening "Big Ideas" session

    Along with several other members of the Atlantic staff, I am at Aspen this week for the fifth annual "Ideas Festival." If past practice is a model, the contents of most of these sessions will eventually appear in one form or another online. But as in past years, we'll try to provide slightly-longer-than-Twitter-scale real time summaries of what is going on.

    On Monday evening, the co-hosts -- our own (beloved!) David Bradley of the Atlantic and Walter Isaacson of Aspen -- introduced a session in which a series of speakers gave "brief" summaries of the one Big Idea they wanted people to bear in mind. The intros by Bradley and Isaacson are worth finding on video when they eventually go up, rather than my attempting to summarize. (Actually funny, in both cases.) The subsequent presentations were "brief" in the 差不多 sense as we used to say in China -- chabuduo, "more or less," "close enough for government work." Some poetically terse, others not so much. 

    An overall list of the speakers and their ideas is after the jump. I won't try to summarize all of them, but let me just mention three that caught my interest as reflecting angles or approaches I hadn't heard much about or thought much about before.

    From Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist at U Wisconsin, a proposition that "soon" (next 50 years? some relatively near time) human beings might be able to say, for certain, whether there was other life in the universe. Background was other fairly recent fundamental steps forward in understanding mankind's background and the workings of science. One hundred fifty years ago this year, Darwin's discoveries; 50 years ago, the first discoveries by Leakey of mankind's ancestors at the Olduvai Gorge;  40 years ago, the landing on the moon. Carroll said that he liked the chances of the answer to the "other intelligent life?" question being Yes, based on the "trillion billion" planets likely to be somewhere in the universe. ("If it's just us, what a waste of space!") And he suggested some of the implications that might come if other forms of life were more complex, older, more diverse.

    From Robert Socolow, an engineering professor from Princeton, a teaser about a new proposal intended to break the logjam between rich and poor countries in climate-change negotiations. The poor countries all say: It's unfair to make us do too much, since (a) we are poor and (b) you had so many centuries to mess things up yourselves. The rich countries say: it's unfair and ineffective to have Europe, the US, and Japan go to great lengths to reduce their emissions, if China and India are merrily steaming away. Socolow said that a paper to be released next week will propose a new ethical, diplomatic, and geostrategic way of dividing the labor of reducing emissions. It will be based on assessing duties-to-clean up on the basis of rich and poor individuals, rather than rich and poor countries. More to come next week!

    From David Fanning, producer of "Frontline," a proposal on the ever-more-agonizing question of how to keep actual reporters in business when newspapers around the world are in economic freefall.  His plan was based on a "good idea," and a "bad idea" -- both of which happened to be today's public broadcasting establishment -- which he said could evolve into a "new idea," of the public broadcasting system as the linchpin for a new sort of broadcast/print/online news establishment. What made this different from mere institutional self-serving (for a public broadcasting guy): his emphasis that the public broadcasting establishment already had two things that would be hard for some hypothesized new-media system to create from scratch. One is a very dense nationwide network of local stations and reporters; the other was an established funding model in which individuals, corporations, philanthropies, and public institutions were already used to contributing money. Details later, but an interesting start.

    Full list below. Then off to the morning's events.

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  • Toe back into the online pool

    Travel* +  time zones +  away from internet +  jet lag  = no web activity. It's a mathematical axiom known since the time of Euclid. But before sleeping off the latest long-haul trip and rejoining the crack, round-the-clock Atlantic Monthly web team reporting on the Aspen Ideas Festival effective in a few hours, two notes from opposite ends of the world.

    From China: Three months ago I mentioned that an "unofficial site" in Beijing was providing hourly Twitter readings on the air pollution element that is most threatening to health but is either not measured or not reported by the Chinese government itself. I knew then but did not say that the "unofficial" site was actually on the roof of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. I did not say it because friends at the embassy said that calling attention to it could seem provocative or thumbing-the-nose at Chinese authorities and could jeopardize the whole undertaking. A tremendous amount of "unofficial" activity goes on in China, under the hallowed principle of "one eye open, one eye shut." As long as the authorities' noses weren't rubbed in the flouting of rules, many things were possible.

    For better or worse, and perhaps with different guidance from embassy officials, Time magazine's blog recently revealed that the site was on the embassy roof. And just now my favorite paper, the China Daily, has picked up the story. In the short run, I see that it has kicked Twitter followers for the service well up above previous levels. I hope the readings continue -- and, of course, that they eventually show healthier air.

    From America: There are lots of things my wife and I will miss about China, and lots of things that are a relief to escape. I will chronicle them systematically at some point. Here's one brief "I miss China" item for the moment: Jeez is it a pain to return to the culture of tipping. I hated the haggling in Chinese markets and preferred to shop where there were simple price tags -- and the item was worth it to me, or it was not. So too did I hate this episode on arrival in Aspen today:

    We got off an airplane and got into a van headed for the conference headquarters. We climb out at the HQ, and the driver stands in our path and announces, "Your transportation is covered by the conference, but you are perfectly free to tip." I guess he could tell we had been away.

    I know and respect the little signs saying "Gratuities appreciated" on, say, the shuttle buses taking you to airport car-rental lots. I understand the ritual supplement at restaurants, and am always "generous" in that regard. Same with hotel maids, and so on. I have worked in tip-receiving jobs. But this episode just made me think: there has to be a better way.

    I rummaged through my pockets that were still full of Chinese RMB and finally found a $5 bill. I gave it to him and thought: I do not believe that countries with a tipping culture end up having a fairer distribution of income than ones (like China) where tipping is unusual and can even seem insulting. They just end up delivering the money in a way that is more demeaning all around. The driver can't have enjoyed this exercise. I know I didn't. Please! Just add the money to the fare -- or the restaurant check or the hotel bill --  rather than having all of commercial life colored by the haggling / hostile-servile on one end / guilty-paternalistic on the other end institution of the tip. Ok, Ok, we can deal with the environmental crisis and health-care reform before that. But this is a place where the Chinese (and the Japanese and in many cases the Aussies and others) have it right.
    * Explanation of travel oddities: We left Beijing two weeks ago today; spent 72 hours in the US; were out of the country again; and are back, today, for the duration.

  • More on Chinese lack of interest in Iran

    A reader makes a point (following this post) about why the Iranian drama seems so much less compelling from inside China than it does in much of the West. There is more, well, John Bull-esque swagger to this note than I'd probably have if making the point myself. But I basically agree with this perspective. It's not all government info-control and censorship.

    "I think it's good to keep in mind that Chinese folks tend to have a certain antediluvian sense of detachment when it comes to foreign affairs, sort of almost pre-war British John Bull-esque isolationist vintage. They just don't care particularly about what happens in foreign countries. They really couldn't give a whistle if a foreign country is communist or democratic or whatever. They just want to be left alone to make their wages and buy their house and cars.

    "And I think that detachment is probably much more powerful than any silly, heavy-handed government innuendo and propaganda, at the end of the day. Everyone paid more attention to Europe and America, that's true, but Europe and America are important and rich and to be emulated in their wealth; toward the developing world, the feeling is sort of a disinterested bemusement from the average man-in-the-street.

    "So I think the best way to view the Iran coverage in China is, frankly, to ignore it. Government press might have (really stupid) agendas to pursue in relation to this, fighting the colour revolutions and so on, but the average man couldn't care less. And it's quite exactly the same thing when that clown Hugo Chavez is feted in the Chinese press; he's viewed more as a curiosity than as some glorious David, hero of the Developing World-cum-Israelites.

    "And I personally think that, for China at least, this is not an unhealthy attitude. Splendid (Sino-)Isolation ought be cause for relief for the rest of the world.

    "....Another thing I forgot, and this is I think how someone used to describe the pre-war British, is that the Chinese generally find foreigners funny. Not serious, not genuinely dangerous, not heroic and considerable (as an European might for MLK, or an American for Thatcher or both for Mandala), but nice and funny in a harmless sort of way."

    Again, while the writer is deliberately heading into campy-Orientalism by the end of the note, and while a billion-person country has exceptions to any generalization (I know Chinese people who quite clearly are inspired by Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, or Isaac Newton, or John Dewey, or....)  the basic point rings true to me. Including the "not unhealthy" part -- worth bearing in mind when you hear the next "China as master of the world" scare-lecture.

  • Iran in China

    I have been out of China for a week and away from internet contact most of that time, including the last day-plus. So I am behind the curve on the Iranian drama in general, and the way it's playing in China in particular. But in response to a number of requests for tips on how to judge the reaction of China's officialdom, media (controlled by officialdom), and populace, here are some guidelines.

    1) Never underestimate the ability of the Chinese media to steer attention toward -- or away from -- stories both domestic and foreign. Over the past six weeks, as H1N1/swine flu has been waning as a front-line concern in most countries, it has been end-of-days news inside China. And right now -- Monday evening, June 22, China time -- when Iran's fate is dominant news in much of the world, it's a second- or third-tier item in the official Chinese media. The current front page of People Daily (in Chinese, here) has Iran as a fairly minor news item. English version of People's Daily Online, here, currenty shows the same understated play.

    2) It is worth remembering that the elements of the Iranian story that give it such drama and importance in much of the world are less automatically resonant in China.
       One part of the narrative -- a massed populace standing up against state power -- is obviously anathema to Chinese authorities. And many of the other themes are also less immediate and compelling to ordinary people in China than they would be in North America, Europe, or parts of the Islamic world.
          To most Westerners, everything about this story matters. It involves a people's struggle to make their voices heard; it follows other "color revolutions" in former Soviet territories and indeed popular movements for democracy and rule of law in Asia and Latin America from the 1980s onwards; it potentially marks a crucial moment in the evolution of modern Islamic society; it can have war-and-peace implications for US foreign policy and Israeli actions; and so on. Ordinary members of the Western viewing audience feel a connection to these themes. I assert that they seem more distant to ordinary people in China -- even if the themes were featured on the news. People's own problems, and their business problems, and the country's problems, are enough to worry about.

    3) The Chinese publications that are explicitly aimed at foreign readers, the redoubtable China Daily and its new complement Global Times, have taken a predictable but still interesting line. Right now the China Daily is, like the People's Daily, underplaying the story altogether. The new Global Times, generally seen as taking an edgier and more adventurous approach to advancing telling China's "soft power" presentation of its official perspective worldwide, went with this as its lead item today:


    The themes of "outside interference" and "victimization by Western powers" are comfortable, reflexive positions for the Chinese government's foreign policy establishment to take, so are the natural positions here.

    4) I don't think anyone in the foreign media has any clear idea of what the Chinese leadership really is thinking about Iran and its implications.

    5) I have lacked online time to follow up on the Chinese blog world but welcome submissions by readers, which I will share.

  • Political education

    Several days ago I posted an account of the distorting effect of the "political" component of Chinese higher ed -- essentially, the need to parrot back parts of Marxist analysis and the  dictums of past leaders. This is apart from all the other concerns about the incentives and emphases of the educational and testing system itself, as thrashed out in many postings here.

    [For application of political nostrums in an amusing way, see Simon Lewis's recent violent-noir novel Bad Traffic, about a regular non-English-speaking tough-guy Chinese cop who finds himself in England trying to track down his missing daughter. In the middle of gun fights or when wincing after blows to the head, he steadies himself by reciting boilerplate from his political classes. "His ears rang from the [gun] blast and that din added to a sense that he had stepped outside time. He hauled his mind back into the present. The contradiction between the working class and the peasant class in socialist society is resolved by the method of collectivization..."]

    Now, from a young Chinese person who has recently graduated from college in Beijing and is headed to grad school in the US, a startling account of another sort of political effect on higher education: the levee en masse of university students to participate in political ceremonies, notably those in October commemorating the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

    ALL freshmen of our school are mandated to join the 60 Anniversary National Day parade. They will be taken to a special training ground set up outside of Beijing where training will continue from early July (after final exams) till Oct. 1st. Those who are tall and fit will be selected to march; those who are not selected will have to be trained as volunteers. Students are threatened by their Party Advisers with not being able to graduate if refuse to join the National Day parade.

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  • More on Beijing air (updated)

    As chronicled in the months leading up to last summer's Olympics, the air in Beijing was alarmingly dense and opaque as the Games drew near. In the end, it remained bad right through the opening ceremonies and the first full day of competition. Then, a powerful cold front blew through from the northwest, with clear, dry air behind it. And for the rest of the competition, and indeed much of the ten months since that time, the air has seemed far better than before. For day by day photos of Beijing's sky before and after the Games, see this wonderful site by Michael Zhao of the Asia Society. For sample shots of recent "Paradise Beijing" circumstances, see here.

    Thus in this context of overall improvement, two recent reports are sobering. The first, by Tini Tran of the Associated Press, says that a joint US-Chinese governmental study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, has concluded that the air during the Beijing Olympics was far dirtier and unhealthier than in other recent Games. The Yahoo news version of the story is here; unfortunately, it contains no links to the scientific study itself, which I don't yet see on the Env Sci &Tech journal's site. [Update: study now on line here.] Among the study's findings, according to the AP:

    Researchers found that particulate air pollution did drop by about one-third during the two-week Olympic period. But coarser particulate matter, PM 10, exceeded levels the WHO considers safe about 81 percent of the time, while the smaller particulate pollution PM 2.5, which can cause more serious health consequences, exceeded WHO guidelines 100 percent of the time.

    The second development is the ongoing failure of the Chinese government to report any readings of, and perhaps even to measure, the PM 2.5 small-particulate level in its big cities' air. This matters because the smaller particles, which go deep into the alveoli, are more damaging to the lungs than the larger ones (background and links here) -- and because, by many accounts, their level in Beijing is once again rising. Earlier this week, the readings from a non-Chinese PM 2.5 monitoring station (background here) again reached the "hazardous" level, as had happened several times previously this spring. Glenn Mott sent me this photo taken at Tsinghua University during the "hazardous" day.


    Minor conclusion: perhaps one more indication that China's manufacturing economy is recovering, with factories and power plants up and running again? Major theme: if you needed more convincing that environmental and climate issues in China are a first-order challenge for the world as a whole, perhaps this will help. (Background in the magazine here.)

  • Sigh, out of range again

    I am no longer based in China, but am not yet actually based anyplace else. So this might be the last dispatch for the next week, and it's on the fly from yet another airport wi-fi site. Sketchy for-the-record remarks:

    1) After 60+ hours in America (and on the way out again): Life is so abundant! Even in a downturn -- and, yes, in Washington, not Flint. Everything looks so comfortable and lush! The air is so clean! (Today's reading in Beijing: "Hazardous.") And the cell phone coverage is so crappy! I can barely recall a moment in China when I was out of signal range. Today alone in Washington, half a dozen dropped calls. Yes, yes, I know the reasons for this. But the difference is impressive.

    1A) Bad part of my character as revealed by travel (part 2,847): When approached by spare-change panhandlers I have to bite my tongue to avoid giving the "do you know what people put up with in China?" speech. Yes, yes, I know why this is wrong.

    2) Positive aviation development of the week: flight of a new all-electric plane, here.

    3) Negative journalistic development of the week: the Washington Post's insane decision to fire its media-political blogger Dan Froomkin. (I know Froomkin only through his work, not personally.) We all have heard the reasons that the press is under pressure by forces not of its making. This is an example of a self-inflicted wound. Are papers like the Post under suspicion for being too insidery and old-media-y? How does it make sense get rid of an independent minded, new media, presumably not-that-expensive, non-Washington-cliquey voice on politics and the media and leave... well, the full opinion and media lineup the Post is sticking with? Some people tell me that it's a mistake to say that the Post's editorial page (and the weight of its op-ed lineup) has "become" neo-con and establishment-minded under its current editor, Fred Hiatt; the argument is that this is the Post's long tradition, which its anti-Nixon crusade concealed. I don't know. But I would have liked to have heard the argument about why Froomkin was the necessary next person to cut. More later.

    4) "There will always be a China" anecdote of the day. This comes from a Chinese friend I know and trust but, for this person's own sake, will not identify. My friend asked a CCTV producer (whose name I also know) about the mystery I mentioned last week: what on earth the weird ... thing on top of the otherwise-clean CCTV tower was. Reminder:

    Here is the report from my friend, recounting a conversation with the producer:

    Me [my friend]: Do you know what that huge round thing protruding on the top of the main CCTV building is?
    Producer: What?
    Me: It looks like either a misshaped radar or a helicopter landing pad...
    Producer: Why are you asking?
    Me: Just curious.
    Producer: Well, don't be curious. You know it's a very sensitive period here at CCTV, because of Fang Jing's "spy-gate" incident. Don't ask such sensitive questions.
    Me: Why is it sensitive? That huge thing is right there on the very top of your landmark. Everyone could see it, even from far away. You've never thought about what it is? Nobody asks about it?
    Producer: No... No one. Seriously, stop asking about it!

    Words to live by. With that, I leave you to my Atlantic colleagues for a week.

  • More on Obama and "educational" rhetoric

    Several days ago I argued that what made Barack Obama's "big" speeches sound unusual was that they attempted something that among politicians is indeed rare: Not expressing our preexisting views with new clarity and edge but instead asking us to change our minds. I also said it was no accident that Obama had saved these ambitious speeches until he was in the White House, since a campaign was a time for troop-rallying rhetoric rather than asking people to think too hard.

    Herewith one message in agreement and one in dissent. First, from Eric Redman, author of The Dance of Legislation (and longtime close friend of mine) who had been a devotee of Richard Neustadt's famous presidential-power analyses in college and eventually delivered a eulogy for Neustadt and contributed to a memorial volume about him. The turn in Obama's rhetoric after the election, Redman says,

    made me think of Neustadt's enigmatic advice in 1968 when I was about to take time off from school to go write speeches for Senator Magnuson. Dick had written campaign speeches for President Truman. His writing was finely worked, highly polished. I asked for advice in the craft.  He frowned and thought carefully. Then he said, "Remember, a campaign is not a good time to educate the public." I puzzled over that for 35 years, and repeated it, partly for a laugh (which it produced), in my eulogy at his memorial service. 

    It was not until I was doing the research for "Neustadt in Brazil" [in the memorial volume] that I listened to him on tape explain (in response to a questioner criticizing Lula [da Silva, prez of Brazil] for not living up to his campaign promises) that the time to educate the people (impliedly with speeches) is when you are in office. Neustadt was not only recommending that Lula do it, he was explaining why it would work. Then it all made sense to me, and I was even able to explain to some who had heard the eulogy and, like me, been puzzled ever since hearing the original advice.

    Now, and after the jump, dissent from Carlyn Meyer, who thinks I am under-valuing the content of Obama's stump speeches through the campaign:

    While I appreciate your annotation of the five big speeches since his election (plus the race speech), I have to disagree that the basic stump speech differed in quality.  If anything, he used it to test out his broad concepts and way of speaking to people.  Here's why:

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  • If you've been wondering about BiggieSu

    His Beijing quarantine saga, previously mentioned here and here, has now come to its end. May have been a nuisance for him, but highly entertaining for the reading public -- especially with this taxonomy of "The Seven People You'll Meet in Hotel Quarantine." Full chronicles here.

    After two dispatches, I received no further updates from the Chinese-American person being quarantined in Shanghai (and whose mother apparently developed H1N1.) I am assuming that all is well there and the person decided that more attention would be a minus rather than a plus.

    On leaving Beijing airport a day and a half ago, my wife and I found that all the government officials we encountered -- security screeners, passport stampers, general standing-around staff -- wore medical-type masks over their faces and in many cases surgical-style gloves, testament to constant vigilance against the dreaded flu. On arrival 13 hours later in the US, we saw a little sign in front of the US immigration desk, saying that if we felt feverish or fluish, it would be a good idea to avoid close contact with other people -- but that was that. I have a theory about what the resolute Chinese government response to this so-far-not-very-powerful disease says about "security theater" in the Chinese context. But that's for later.

  • The next time you're in Shaanxi....

    LaoQiang.jpgDo whatever you can to hear the Lao Qiang -- 老腔, "Old Tunes" -- musical performance held in the small city at the foot of China's most famous mountain-climbing tourist site, Hua Shan (roughly, "Mt. China" sorry, right character- 华 - wrong etymology).

    Most forms of traditional Chinese singing, Beijing opera and the like, are easier for Westerners to "admire" than to "enjoy." When I learned that I'd be spending a couple of hours hearing songs from a 2000-year-old tradition, I was preparing myself for a bout of "admiration." In fact, it was tremendously enjoyable, and I was sorry only that the program (flyer to the left) had to come to an end.

    The lore of Lao Qiang is that these are songs from old-time rivermen, which have been passed down through the eons by a select few families. Heirs of those families are the current stars of the performing troupe -- notably the Wang family, whose head is the older performer in the first photo below, and the Zhang family, whose Zhang Ximin is the riveting, hard-to-take-your-eyes-off lead singer and string player -- the dark haired man in the second photo. According to the program, these performers spend their days as regular farmers, and practice and perform at night. Who knows about that; but as performers they're great.


    Wang Zhenzhong (王振中) above; Zhang Ximin (张喜民) below.

    The troupe:

    If the music has a Western equivalent, I would say it is something like "Muleskinner blues." Lusty, rhythmic, loud, fun. More on the topic here, here, and here in English, here, here, and here in Chinese. Of course the brief clips don't really do it justice. See it yourself.

  • Reverse angle equity, and 再见北京

    Several thousand times over the past 18 months I've posted shots out the back window of our apartment in Beijing, as ways of illustrating the air quality, or lack thereof, in the big city. For instance, this one back in March:

    For the record, here's how the same scene looks from the opposite direction. This is a shot back toward our apartment window, which is almost exactly in the middle of the frame, taken from a pedestrian walkway over a big road just murkily visible in the shot above. The low, reddish-colored, Mao-era building in the foreground of the second view is the same one in the bottom center of the first.

    And as we leave the apartment for the last time (I'm scheduling this post for the minute we get in the taxi for the airport), a clearer-sky view out the back from this past weekend. In this view it's possible to see the overpass, and a lot more -- including the arched bridge over the canal shown two days ago. Unfortunately, today the air is back to blear.http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7524.jpg


  • Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general

    Ten days ago I was writing a dispatch about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, when the internet service where I was (in Shaanxi) cut out. The elections in Iran and general question of political change in the Middle East are a topical reminder to get back to this point:

    As I started to say earlier, here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are.

    Here are the ones I'm counting as big speeches, starting with the most recent and working backward:

    June 4, Cairo: US relations with Islam

    May 21, National Archives in DC: anti-terrorism strategy, including torture, habeus corpus, etc

    May 17, Notre Dame U: clash of religious values in politics, including over abortion

    April 14, Georgetown U: short- and long-term economic strategy

    April 5, Prague: reducing nuclear weapons around the world

    March 18, 2008, Philadelphia: race and American values

    I'm not even counting convention speeches, the inaugural address, his State of the Union, or a bunch of other performances. They were all fine but more like other, normal "good" political speeches.

    These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:

    Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.

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  • Aviation update miscellany: good, bad, constructive

    Good. Pilot of a Cirrus SR-22 gets into trouble while flying over North Carolina but has an option. As the Mount Airy News reports, the pilot

    "...was at 6,000 feet when he declared an emergency, pulled the parachute his plane was equipped with, let go of the control panel and floated to the ground about one and a half miles into the woods off Still Water Lane.
    "[He] was able to walk away from the site and place a call to 911 to inform them he was searching for emergency personnel and thought he had spotted some of them looking for him."

    There are other recent developments involving Cirrus. (Positive: increasing production rate and recalling workers as worldwide sales pick up. Negative: found partly liable by a Minnesota jury for millions in damages after a crash in which a non-instrument rated pilot took off before dawn in bad weather and was killed, along with his passenger. The NTSB traced the probable cause of the accident to the "pilot's improper decision" to attempt the flight at all. More on these another time.) . Beautiful and elegant Beaver float plane crashes while attempting takeoff near Anchorage last week. (Via Eric Redman.) Not-so-bad aspects: No one apparently hurt, and remarkable minute-long YouTube video shot by unbelievably gutsy young cameraman.

    Constructive: In response to an airline pilot's observation, here, that he typically has less up-to-date weather info available in the cockpit than pilots of modern small planes like the CIrrus do, former FAA and DOT official Andrew Steinberg writes to say:

    "What strikes me on reading this discussion is that the slow pace of implementation of the NextGen air traffic system -- here and in Europe -- means that we don't prevent these preventable accidents (if it turns out that weather caused the demise of this [Air France 447] flight).   As you may remember, providing integrated weather displays to pilots, as well as controllers, is a key part of the Next Gen effort.  It's absurd that commercial pilots don't have these tools.   An article describing how the weather product fits into Next Gen is attached."

    The article in question is here. As for the difference this might or might not have made to the Air France flight itself, which got in trouble over the open sea, another correspondent says:

    "You know what we (meteorologists) call the oceanic regions?
    "The big blue data void.
    "It is hard to explain that to people who only look at CONUS." [Continental US, which has radar stations and other monitoring tools wherever you look.]

    And another airline pilot writes in to say:

    Your point on higher-tech and more real-time weather information being available for GA ["general aviation," small private plane] pilots versus airline pilots is well taken, but disregards an important advantage us 121 [airline] pilots have over aircraft with these XM weather uplinks....

    I fly for a Northwest, now Delta, regional and we have access to the same ACARS delivered weather updates as the big boys. [ACARS is an automated data-collection service that shares info among planes in the air.]   Granted they are delivered in text and require manual plotting, but once done they are very accurate and enormously effective.  Base and/or composite reflectivity radar maps can be very deceiving to a pilot flying at FL370, since a lot of the weather depicted on those maps is very low.  ACARS coordinates and altitude of cell tops is often much better information, especially when considering whether to pick your way through a line at night or take a long detour. In addition the dispatchers themselves [airline employees who monitor the flights from the ground], being another human in the loop with even more information, can be invaluable in saving your bacon.  Between myself, my FO [first officer], and my dispatcher, I've got three eyes on the problem- which I'd take over any Nexrad/XM maps any day of the week.
    Now I admit I'm spoiled flying as I do mostly over the continental US.  Transoceanic would be somewhat trickier given, as you say, the dearth of other traffic over the same route serving as guinea pigs.  That said, given what I know about the resources available to the Air France pilots, I am at a loss for why they found themselves on the midst of such a violent storm.

    Also constructive: Carl Malamud, the inveterate crusader for making "public" information truly available to the public, has put online a variety of Federal videos related to aviation, here. This is part of his larger FedFlix effort to digitize films and videos produced by the government, and his even larger PublicResource.org campaign for opening up public data.

    Not so good

  • About the internet, the Atlantic, and Iran

    In coverage of Iran over the past week and especially in these last few days, Andrew Sullivan has on his site illustrated the way the internet and related technologies have permanently changed journalism for the better. So have a number of other people at other sites, which have made themselves clearinghouses for information coming out of Iran in emails, blog posts, camera-phone and ad hoc video transmissions, and other forms including, yes, Twitter feeds. Collectively they've let the outside world know more about what is happening in a would-be sealed-off country, and given people inside that country a place to share and compare news as they could not possibly have done even a few years ago.

    This fact is worth noting its own right, as a moment when we see that something truly new and positive has occurred. It's also worth observing in light of the many seemingly-permanent changes for the worse in journalism that have coincided with the internet era, whether or not they've been caused by it.

    If I'm not mentioning anything about Iran at the moment, it's not because I think the news unimportant but rather because I have no contacts in the country and nothing to add to the discussion. As we follow developments there it's worth recognizing the different era in communications that has begun.

  • Coincidence? Paranoia? Virus?

    Perhaps this is a statistically improbable, but sometimes-it-happens, no-reason-for-it anomaly.  But for the record:

    Within a two-hour period this evening, as we pack to head to the airport tomorrow, (1) my wife's HP laptop, running WinXP, suddenly froze while she was using it, and since then has been entirely unresponsive on repeated attempts to boot up; and then (2) exactly the same thing happened to my ThinkPad T60, running (sigh) Win Vista, which I have used for the past year strictly as a storage and backup machine, for photos and similar high-volume stuff. Identical symptoms: failure to boot, black screen on startup, not even any hard disk sound. (Exasperation with Vista, and with the craplets Lenovo has added to my long-beloved ThinkPad line, made me switch my working platform to Mac + VMWare Fusion running WinXP early last year.)

    Could be that both of them are flat worn out after three years here. And collapsing with the end hours away. Just like, ahem, us. Could be. But if it turns out that some new Windows- based virus is making its way around the world, H1N1-like, you can consider this Patient Zero. Would be strange if it affected two different releases of Windows on two different kinds of machines. But pure coincidence would be strange too. Both had AVG Avast! anti-virus up and running, and both using VPNs at time they were struck down.

    FWIW, MacMini and MacBook Air still chugging along. (This is not a product point, simply describing the situation.) And THANK HEAVEN for SugarSync, which has full backups of all four of our computers nestled safely in the Cloud. Time to finish that last bottle of Yanjing beer, Beijing's answer to REEB, and get ready for tomorrow's flight.


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