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.
  • China v. Japan: the packed-train factor

    Superficially Japan and China are similar; in nuance and operating details they're generally opposites, as illustrated previously here. Kathy Kriger, whom I knew in Tokyo twenty years ago and who now lives in Casablanca (where she runs, no joke, Rick's Cafe), reminds me about an important difference: What happens inside a packed train.

    Japan's subways are flat-out more intensely crowded than anything I've seen in China. In Tokyo, uniformed and white-gloved "packers" are normal. The Beijing and Shanghai subways are merely "self-packed," with people crowding their way in but without that extra ratchet-up of density that only trained, professional packers can provide. In Tokyo I lived through the scene below more often than I want to recall. (Photo from Encarta.)


    Clearest sign that the photo was taken in Japan rather than China: Not the packers but the next car-load of passengers, waiting punctiliously in line!

    As I recently mentioned, a very-crowded Beijing subway provides the opportunity for petty theft. In Japan, it's more like petty... petting.  Kriger says:

    That brought back a flood of memories from Tokyo's train and subway commutes.  My most vivid were from when I lived a year in Yokohama and commuted into Tokyo first on the JNR Negishi-sen, the blue train.  The worst was the morning, crammed in and unable to move - invariably forced  to look over the shoulder of a guy immersed in a porno comic book.  When it got too much I got out and boarded the next train.  But robbery was never a problem, ever. 

    My favorite story was forgetting my purse on the upper rack exiting in Yokohama from the Yokosuka line enroute to Yokosuka - the end of the line - and going there the next morning to retrieve my handbag and sign a form verifying that everything was still there. 

    We women didn't fear the pick pocketers so much as those who rode the trains to take advantage of the crowded conditions to let their hands wander.  I think it might have been Jean Pearce [a local writer] who recounted a story when an outraged American woman, accosted on a crowded subway, grabbed the offending hand, raised it and said in Japanese, "Whose hand is this?
    The porno-comic factor was such an omnipresent aspect of Japanese public life that it drove my wife from a slow boil into outright constant rage against adult males in general, including the one who happened to be living in the same house. As for the "whose hand is this?" factor, that was so common that there is a standard term for it in Japanese (chikan, or in hiragana ちかん) and signs outside crowded stations warning "beware of subway gropers." I don't think I ever saw a sign in Japan warning against pickpockets. More here.

  • Seatmates on a plane: Iraq report

    From a long-time friend of mine, a report of his latest domestic airline flight:

    Flew from XXX to XXX seated next to a career Army sgt headed to Iraq after R&R on 3rd tour.  Fascinating conversation - and I realized that being seated next to Iraq-bound or -returning soldiers is commonplace on domestic air travel these days...

    Gratifying to me was his saying that the troops really do feel appreciated and supported by the public, and can distinguish criticism of the war from criticism of the men and women in uniform (unlike in Vietnam days).  None of the rest was gratifying at all:

    •    Surge has "worked" because Iraqis who just want to start killing one another again are biding their time.  Après nous, le deluge.
    •    No one could comprehend the waste of money in US expenditures in Iraq.  
    •    IEDs have become infinitely more sophisticated, very high tech now, and can penetrate all but one type of US vehicle.  Suicide bombers can penetrate anything they want.
    •    When an IED blows up a vehicle in a convoy, and you are two vehicles away in the same convoy, the force of the explosion is so violent you are thrown against the interior of your vehicle, you are temporarily deafened, etc.
    •    Troop morale is high because they sense they are going home, most of them.  But there is no way US can be out in five years or even ten without leaving too much equipment behind.
    •    Although troop morale is high, they universally hate George W. Bush now.
    •    Afghanistan is much more difficult than Iraq just on the basis of terrain alone.  What we have in the way of tools and weapons is far better suited to Iraq than to Afghanistan.

    It was poignant his describing the "huge" increases in pay resulting from Stop-Loss, plus Congress's efforts to help:  $500 a month.  To him, this is a really big sum, "on top of the extra $1000 per month we already get for being in combat."

    Somehow additionally poignant on income tax day.

  • Dramatic listening: passenger-pilot landing the plane

    For real-life drama fans, the air traffic control tapes of Douglas White being talked through the landing of a King Air airplane, after the professional pilot dropped dead at the controls, are riveting and, to put it mildly, admirable. An AOPA Online interview with White, including links to the recording plus the picture below, is here. The recording itself is here.


    As news stories pointed out, White had a pilot's certificate but had done his limited amount of flying in an entirely different kind of airplane -- with one engine rather than the King Air's two, with different avionics and control systems, with much slower operating speeds. Plus, he had flown previously from the left seat -- the normal seat for the pilot -- rather than the right ("shotgun"), where he happened to be sitting when the pilot died.

    In one sense landing any kind of airplane is the same, in that you're gradually slowing the aircraft as it comes closer to the ground. The most crucial information, which varies by model of plane, is the right speeds for the different stages of the approach. The speed at which you should initially descend. The speed below which you can safely lower the landing gear and the first "notch" of flaps. The speed at which you can fully extend the flaps. The "final approach" speed as you're bringing the airplane right down to the ground. The stalling speed, which you  must always keep the plane above so that it doesn't just fall. In the recording, this info is what White keeps asking of the controller -- about an airplane whose basic up/down fast/slow right/left controls he understands but whose speeds he doesn't know.

    The calm of all involved is incredible. All the more so after the emotional relief/breakdown you briefly hear from the pilot after he and his family are safely on the ground.

  • An impressive piece of explanation

    An American president can't expect a large real-time audience for an hour-long, policy-dense speech delivered in the middle of the work day. But the timing of his speech at Georgetown University just now was fine for me, around midnight in Beijing, and for the moment these real-time thoughts.

    What I liked about the speech:
    - Obama crafted the message with an intellectual thoroughness and emotional steadiness that I think will impress its real audience: not the students sitting at Georgetown or those like me watching live, but the politicians, financiers, and members of the commentariat who will read the text and respond after a little while. He showed he was aware of criticisms and was willing to state them in recognizable form before offering his rebuttal. (Think of the contrast of GW Bush or Cheney acknowledging criticism of their strategy and world view. Or even Richard Nixon.)

    Eg: People say this plan is too jumbled. In fact, here is how the pieces fit together. People say we're spending like crazy. In fact, here's why we can't cut government spending just now, while consumers and businesses are cutting too -- but why we have to cut in the longer term. People say that we're coddling the banks. In fact, here is what we don't like about what banks have done but why they're necessary to a recovery. It is SO easy in political rhetoric to assume that the audience is dumb and that you can burlesque the other side's argument. Nixon, in fact, was great at this. ("There are those who say we should cut and run...") I didn't see Obama doing this once.

    - He used analogies that were homely, accessible, and clarifying without being patronizing. Eg, "Just as a cash-strapped family may cut back on luxuries but will insist on spending money to get their children through college, so we as a country have to make current choices with an eye on the future.  If we don't invest now in renewable energy or a skilled workforce or a more affordable health care system, this economy simply won't grow at the pace it needs to in two or five or ten years down the road." These are harder to come up with than they seem.

    - Pushing just hard enough with a vivid metaphor, that of building on a rock. Viz:

    There is a parable at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that tells
    the story of two men.  The first built his house on a pile of sand,
    and it was destroyed as soon as the storm hit.  But the second is
    known as the wise man, for when "...the rain descended, and the floods
    came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house...it fell not:  for
    it was founded upon a rock."

    We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand.  We must
    build our house upon a rock.  We must lay a new foundation for growth
    and prosperity - a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow
    and spend to one where we save and invest; where we consume less at
    home and send more exports abroad.

    What I wasn't so crazy about: personal tics (of my own) in both cases.

    - Maybe it's only veterans of the Carter Administration who remember this, but "new foundations," a leitmotif of this speech, was also the motto of one of Carter's State of the Union addresses 30 years ago. The phrase didn't catch on then. Or maybe it's been three decades in gestation.

    - Obama has apparently decided to embrace, as an affirmative policy rather than an ad-libbed nervous tic, ending his big speeches with "God Bless the United States of America." It's there in the prepared text, not thrown in on scene. Oh well. Every speech has its shortcomings.

    But on the whole, a quite impressive job. No matter your view of his policies before this speech - hostile, lukewarm, enthusiastic -- reasonable people would have to be moved an increment toward a more positive view by the speech.*

    * Oddly, the speech text itself seems not yet to be available on the WhiteHouse.gov site. (When they come up with it, it will be here.) Instead, again oddly, there is a blog item about the speech, with some excerpts. Come on guys, this is Gov 1.0-era thinking.  UPDATE: The as-delivered transcription of the speech is now online here, for some reason classified under "Remarks" rather than "Speeches."

    Update 2: A reader reminds me that Jimmy Carter was far from the first to talk about "new foundations." Eg:

    No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
    Arise you slaves, no more in thrall!
    The earth shall rise on new foundations

    From the Internationale. Daniel Patrick Moynihan made that point about Carter's speech soon after it was delivered.

    Update 3
    : Ah, how the mists of time cloud these things!  The Internationale rhapsodized about new foundations, while Jimmy Carter spoke movingly about a new foundation. Thanks to my former Carter collaborator (and successor) Rick Hertzberg.

  • The new Nigeria

    What is it with the Russians?  Below, from a recent trip through the spam filter on my Atlantic email account. My Gmail spam filter doesn't show any of this -- I imagine because they have already worked out more sophisticated multi-language anti-spam tools. (Click on the image for more detailed view. And here for earlier Russian spam.):


    Now, if only they'd be considerate enough to send the spam in Chinese, so I could read the subject lines. No larger point here, but it is odd.

  • More on weirdo language school ads (updated)

    Following this from yesterday.

    From reader Sherry S in Paris: Posters there show ads similar to Wall Street English (with the tongue, reminder below).

    From numerous readers in Japan: Ubiquitous posters there for the GABA language school very similar to the English First ads in China (bondage theme). GABA below, EF reminder under that.

    From numerous professional and amateur semiologists: generally worried comments about what the imagery of these ads says about the stereotyped relationships between Asian women and Western men. I'm not going near that for the moment. But here is a reminder that the target audience for these ads is in fact young Asian people, largely women. I look forward to dissertations on this topic -- and on the subtle but clear difference in affect between the Westerners shown in the Chinese vs the Japanese tied/chained-together ads.  Thanks to, among others, Landon Thorpe and Jed Schmidt, and to this "Eikawa Wonderland" site for the GABA pic.

    UPDATE: below and after the jump, testimony from a former English teacher in Japan about why the lashed-together imagery of the ad was shrewd target marketing:

    I worked in Japan a few years ago for the now defunct Nova Corp, and Nova had an extremely strict non-fraternization policy, which was a key selling point. Nervous moms would sign their daughter up, safe in the knowledge that the wouldn't have to worry about little gaijin [foreign] babies a year down the line.
    Gaba, on the other hand, had fraternization as their key selling point. They hire generally fit, good looking western instructors who work one on one with a set client list. They are trained to develop a close connection with students, and encouraged to develop friendships with these students. It's the "whole package" approach that has earned Gaba the (slightly exaggerated) reputation as the high end escort service eikawa [English conversation school].

    In that sense, the poster entirely plays to that image

    More »

  • Now this doesn't make me feel all that great....

    As mentioned recently, the skies have been ocher in Beijing these last few days. Thanks to a tech source I've recently discovered, I now know that the conditions are actually way more dangerous than I thought. Gee, great.

    The official Chinese government air pollution readings, found most conveniently in the right hand column here, give daily average air-quality info for many big Chinese cities. The main pollutant measured in these figures is -- to the best of my understanding -- "PM 10," which covers relatively "large" particulate matter. These are particles of up to 10 micrometers in diameter, including some large enough to darken the air and what would normally be called "dust."

    What the Chinese authorities don't seem to report routinely is PM2.5. These are very fine particles, of up to 2.5 microns in diameter, which may not darken the air but are more dangerous to the lungs, precisely because they don't get filtered out in the nose or throat and instead get down deep into the alveoli. The US EPA does feature PM2.5 in its particulate measures of US air quality -- for instance, the real-time map here.

    None of this is new, including the PM10 / PM2.5 omission in Chinese monitoring. What is new to me is that an unofficial monitoring station in Beijing puts out, via Twitter, hourly measures of PM2.5 readings. And after checking out the readings for earlier today I say...   gacckkk, ccougghhhhh, haccckkkk.... In the columns below we have: date and time; PM2.5 reading for that time; Air Quality Index on the US scale (321 in the first one); air quality classification on US scale; and average figures for the day.


    Note that the US classification system, here, does not even allow for readings above the 300 range, which it lumps together as "hazardous." As I check the real-time map just now, virtually every reporting city in the US has an AQI reading below 50 ("good"), and one or two miscreants are around 70. The reading through most of today where I live has been above 300. Hmmmmm.

    Action plan for me: I decided to skip going to the gym for a breathe-hard workout today. Action plan for US and China: no joke, working on environmental, climate, and energy matters is the most important thing that will happen during this new U.S. Administration. More on this front when I catch my breath.
    Note: to avoid causing problems for some people inside China, I have slightly changed this posting from an earlier version. Anyone who notices the difference, please keep it to yourself.

  • Brilliant advertising imagery? Or.....

    Two current Beijing subway ad campaigns for two well-known English schools, Wall Street English and English First. (Sorry for subway glare+reflection in both pics):


     Both are a little strange, but to me the first one is strange/eyecatching, whereas the second is closer to strange/creepy. The theme of the second, bondage-toned ad is having a 24-hour always on-call private English teacher. On the other hand, this campaign seems to have been running for years in subway, taxis, billboards, etc, and the English First school is a big success. So I guess it must work with the target demographic, which does not include me.

  • Alan Klapmeier on hope for general aviation

    One of the heroes of my book Free Flight, and of this excerpted Atlantic cover story, was Alan Klapmeier, who with his brother Dale founded and ran the Cirrus Design aircraft company of Duluth, MN. Ten years ago, when I was spending time with them in a mainly-vacant hangar in Duluth, they had not delivered the first airplane to the first customer and were in promising-startup mode. Through most of the years since then, their mainstay SR-22 propeller plane has been the most popular single-engine plane in the world. More than 4,000 of them are in service in North America, Europe, South America, Australia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and other places too. Like all airplane companies from Boeing on down, Cirrus has had to cut way back in the past year.

    Manufacturing people are not always eloquent about their work and its implications. Alan Klapmeier is a dramatic exception. He is an interviewer's dream: able -- and all too willing! -- to talk for hours about why he made this decision versus that one, why he believes in his work, what his vision of the future is and how he plans to get there.

    Klapmeier is still chairman but no longer CEO of Cirrus, for reasons I'd know more about if I were on scene to talk with him. But via the Cirrus owners' site I found this link to a speech he delivered recently at the Atlanta Aero Club. Index of Aero Club speeches here; direct link to video of Klapmeier's appearance here. From the video: 


    People who are interested in aviation will be interested in the whole hour-plus presentation. Klapmeier talks about the real-world barriers to the expansion of general aviation; Cirrus's upcoming models including its new jet; the problem of icing in small planes; and many other topics.

    People who don't care about aviation but are interested in human nature, innovation, technical progress, and the kind of advances on which future U.S. prosperity depends might want to watch at least a few minutes. I think they give exposure to an impressive person who can not only "do" but also talk engagingly about what he is doing. We're used to encountering this kind of person in. say, the biotech or software world. This is a sample from the world of producing tangible, highly-complex physical objects -- working, by the way, in the only manufacturing category (aerospace) in which the U.S. has long produced a significant trade surplus.

    The first eight or nine minutes, in which he discusses why small aircraft became an oddball specialist taste, give an illustration. (Forgive the first 45 seconds, in which he is fiddling with the projector.) From about minute 20 through minute 30 he talks about the problem of icing and pilot safety. From minute 30 onward, he talks about Cirrus's new "personal jet." From minute 45 onwards, an entrepreneur's perspective of Wall Street, derivatives, etc. But right at minute 37:00 through about 43:00 you get a full view of the entrepreneur's passion that I encountered when I first met him. This may give a little taste of why I thought I had come across an interesting story after that first visit to Duluth.

  • Happy Easter from Beijing

    The view at 11 am on this springtime Sunday morning:

    It was glorious just one week ago, and in the six+ months since the Olympic games, skies have generally been far clearer than in the previous six months. The economic slowdown / factory shutdown / decline in electricity use (and therefore combustion of coal to create power) has to have been part of the answer. Maybe this is an early sign that the Chinese economy is indeed coming back? Green shoots in an ironic brown guise? In any case joyous Easter wherever you are.

  • More on petty crime

    Thanks to many who wrote in after my recent brush with a pickpocket gang in the Beijing Metro. Main themes that emerge:

    - There's a lot of this going on in China, as in fact was predicted in the wake of recent large-scale factory and construction layoffs.

    - There's always been a lot of this going on all around the world. From reader Pietro, who has lived in Europe, Africa, and North America:

    There's more artistry in Africa. Once I stopped to take a look at a group of people surrounding a poor old man lying senseless on the pavement. My sadness was compounded by the feeling, seconds later, that his friends had consoled themselves with my wallet. Artsy setting, soft touch. Times have changed.

    - The particular tactic I mentioned is time honored: confederates who create extra jamming and confusion in already-jammed circumstances, while the legerdemain artists do the snatching.

    - Below and after the jump, an account from Charles Dukes, a Texan now of Beijing, about similar encounters.

    - Legal sequelae: Within the few hours after we canceled our credit cards, someone tried to use them (and was turned down, with different cards) at what seems to be a fine-art dealership, for big ticket purchases. Nobody on that subway car particularly looked like an art hound, but who knows.

    Dukes's account begins:

    In the days before there was a huge highway called Xizhimenwai, there was a wonderful two lane street with bike lanes.

    A friend and I got on the 360 bus to go to Xiang Shan.

    Somewhere past the Beijing Zoo, I noticed a little guy standing at the stop waiting for a bus. I don't know why he caught my eye, but he did.
    He got on at the front of the bus.

    As we lumbered along heading to the next stop, he worked his way toward us in the crowded bus, usually with one hand steadying himself with the overhead bar.

    Finally, as we approached the next bus stop, he stopped and stood just in front of me on the step down, waiting for the door to open.

    Just as the door opened, he turned to me, smiled and showed me five wallets he'd pilfered in the one-Beijing-block span of travel.

    The door closed.

    I asked my friend what we should have done about it. She asked me if he'd taken anything from me. I said, "No." Then she said, "Forget about it."

    And this brings me to my favourite subway tale.

    With my friend again, we got on the #2 Line subway at Yonghegong heading to Xizhimen. Back then (and maybe now as far as I know) the train often lingered at Jishuitan to adjust the train's route timing. (I guessed.)

    A young woman, maybe a student, rushed to get on the train before the doors closed. In her hurry, her high-heeled foot slipped between the train and the platform, which at the time was quite close. Off balance because of the high-heeled shoes she was wearing, she fell down past her knee. Then the door closed once like they often do and she was still stuck.

    I instantly looked left and right in the lightly loaded cabin and saw no one was going to do anything to help the woman. So I leaped up, grabbed the woman under her arms, lifted her up and spun her enough for her foot to be freed, like taking an old key out of a door lock, just as the door closed again and the train took off.

    After ensuring she was okay and helping her sit down, I turned around, and realized that every eye in the train was on me. No one was smiling; in fact, there was no emotion at all.

    My friend looked at me sternly and whispered, "What were you doing?"

    The people were simply amazed that I did what I did. My friend explained that my getting involved could have made me responsible; therefore, I had acted irresponsibly and had, in fact, greatly embarrassed the woman I assisted, who never so much as said xiexie.

    As far as wallets go, there's a reason why Beijing gals wear their backpacks up front. The thieves on some of the crowded buses can get dozens of wallets without people realizing they're gone in a trip, say, from Guomao to Tongzhou. In one case, shown on TV, the thieves used razor blades to access some amazing places in clothing and bags to get what they wanted and none of the victims realized they'd been had until later.

    What's worse: in times like these, some people, far from getting very angry, "understand" it. Still, if you look carefully, you will see a lot of defensive behaviour taken by people, especially on crowded buses and subway trains.

    We are definitely not in Dallas.

    More »

  • "It could have been the Kindle..."

    My wife's consoling comment the other day -- that I had lost all my credit cards and cash, but at least I still had my own Electronic Reading Device -- brings up two relevant updates. One is about the evolution of the device; the other, about the ergonomics of reading.

    First, Kindle 1 versus Kindle 2. Below, a compare and contrast from the Kindle labs here at the Beijing HQ. On the right, in brown, the original, time-tested Kindle Classic, with an add-on leather cover from M-Edge. On the left, in black, the updated Kindle 2, in the standard-issue Amazon-logo'd leatherlike cover (though it doesn't come standard with the Kindle -- you have to buy it separately. I now have an even fancier add-on cover):

    Same two items, in opened-and-readable view. Each shows the screen saver that comes on if you haven't been turning pages for a few minutes. Old on the bottom, new at the top, ever-handy Chinese-English dictionary in the upper left just for a color highlight:

    What's the difference between old and new? Screen slightly brighter on new version, but old is plenty clear. Battery life also somewhat better, but plenty long in original version -- days and days. New has easier navigation; NextPage/PreviousPage keys better designed to avoid accidental pressing of keys; and a much svelter look and feel (below):

    All in all the new Kindle seemed the ideal machine for ... my wife!, who initially scoffed but now is a devotee. Plus, sticking with the doughty Kindle Classic shores up my credentials as an outstanding husband. It's probably worth noting that the K1/K2 contrast is of purely antiquarian interest, since the original models are no longer sold.

    Next, future of books. My friend Jacob Weisberg, of Slate, has rashly ignored my advice on how to avoid becoming a Kindle bore and published his paean to the device several weeks ago, here. I'll solidify my non-bore status by mildly dissenting from his view. Jacob tells us that:
    The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.
    I say: sort of.

    The Kindle -- a generic term for all subsequent e-reading devices -- turns out to be great for works in which only the words matter. I find it to be perfect for reading novels -- although what's the surprise there? People have never cared whether they read a great tale in hard back, in paper back, or via Books on Tape. The story is what carries them. My wife has also pointed out that it's useful for reading "difficult" material, since you can concentrate on each little screenful rather than being overwhelmed by a long imposing block of type on a page.

    But a lot of printed material involves more than the words. If layout adds anything whatsoever to the reading experience, the Kindle -- so far -- is distinctly inferior. No doubt I'm professionally biased, but I feel that magazines are far better to read as actual, physical magazines than on-screen. You see the illustrations; you see the graphics and the pull-quotes; you can take advantage of the very highly-refined art of presenting words and pictures on the page. (By the way, subscribe!) As a topic for another time, I also feel that the actual layout of broadsheet newspapers allows for a far quicker and more sophisticated scan of contents (and grasp of relative importance) than clickable links on a computer screen can. In the long run, someone will figure out how to replicate the sophistication of newspaper design on electronic "paper."

    So: feel comfortable reading your fiction and your homework on a Kindle-like device; pray that newspapers survive long enough to allow you to read them on some nice e-paper layout; and in the meantime, cherish your paper magazines.

    More »

  • Where was that subway SWAT team when I needed it?

    Yesterday, in the morning rush hour, I was puzzled by the presence of three fully-tricked-out SWAT team members carrying automatic weapons at the Dongdan station on Beijing's line 1.

    Today, in the afternoon rush hour, I could have used the stern hand of the law. At 5:30 pm, the eastbound line 1 between Jianguomen and Guomao was so crammed with humanity that it brought to mind the glory days of the Tokyo subway when we lived there. There is a distinct feeling of having pressure on every surface of the body that I associate mainly with rush hour Asian-capital subways. I don't particular fear it (or love it), but it's part of the sensory package of Tokyo, and of Beijing's lines 1 and 2.

    Then, as the train rolled into Guomao, most of this vast throng wanted to get off, including me. All were yelling at once, including me,下车! 下车! -- xia che! xia che! (getting off! getting off!) -- and had to push through a band of young country-looking men who stood inside the car right in front of the door. I finally popped out on the other side of them, as if from a rugby scrum, reaching the platform as the car's doors were closing behind me. At that second, with human pressure suddenly removed from all sides of my body, I instantly realized that my wallet wasn't there. I was wearing a business suit, with my wallet in a place it wouldn't have left by accident. There had been a distinctly manhandled sensation in fighting through the line at the door.

    A planned routine by the squadron that was forcing all debarking passengers to clambor through them? Something that had happened earlier when my arms were pinned against my side? Who knows, and there is no point in wondering. Until you've seen a thronged Chinese subway station at rush hour, with a departing train pulling out, you don't realize the futility of trying to locate a culprit.

    Immediately start calling the credit card companies in the U.S. Cancel the first one, no problem. The second, a Bank of America Visa card, "And we're showing that your most recent charge was for $5.16 at a Starbucks in Beijing." "Well, no...." "Yes, it was at 6:05 am" -- "That's 6:05pm here, which was ten minutes ago..." Now if only Beijing didn't have a couple hundred Starbucks outlets, I'd be on the guy like a hawk.

    A subway pickpocket who then goes to Starbucks? This is an unpredictable place. And apart from the nuisance, it could have been worse. Not my passport. Not a lot of cash. Nothing of real sentimental value (apart from my FAA pilot's certificate! And my United 1K card, earned through many bitter trips back and forth to California last year). As my wife just said, consolingly, "It could have been your Kindle!"

    I remember offering her support in similar loving tones when she was knocked down and injured (but not permanently) a few months ago by a motorbike that was going full speed the wrong way down a freeway-like, eight-lane, one-way section of the major thoroughfare Jianguo Lu. Silly her: she was looking in the direction the rest of the traffic was coming from. Land of adventure.

  • Bomb security: Israel v China

    After seeing yesterday's picture of the "Suspect Bomb Container" in the Beijing Metro (previously here), reader Alex wrote:

    In Israel there are thousands of explosion containers, but they are just holes in the ground, roughly one foot deep, lined with some metallic or plastic sheet. The Hebrew name is "bor bitahon" (you'd pronounce it "Bawr Bee-tuh-HONE") literally "security hole". The logic would be that the good Earth will do the job of containing a significant proportion of the impact, with people feeling just a tremor. (A Chinese metal box could be blown to dangerous flying smithereens if the explosion is loud enough.) The Israeli version is also cheaper if you must deploy it everywhere, including schools, malls, streets, parks, etc.

    Probably the other important difference is that Israel has a serious bomb threat to worry about and so can't just fool around with "security theater."

  • This too is puerile but pretty funny

    On my tombstone it will say, "He dealt with Clippy." Ten years ago, during an (enjoyable!) six-month stint at Microsoft, I was supposed to be providing a "writer's perspective" on editing features being added to what became Word XP. These mainly involved the track-changes functions, plus embryonic hopes for what is now OneNote. In my spare time, I was inveighing against the maddening feature generally called Clippy -- or TFC* to insiders -- that would pop up and say "You seem to be writing a letter!" whenever you typed out "Dear Mr. ..."

    Soon Clippy was turned Off by default (rather than On), and then it was completely deep-sixed.  We all leave a mark on the world.

    I am therefore particular delighted to see the homage to the original Clippy provided by this mildly subversive new program. You install it on a "friend's" computer -- and until he or she figures out how to turn it off, it pops up every 60 seconds with Clippy-worthy tips like these:



    Download site here; info, including how to turn it off, here. I loaded this onto a backup computer and was able (I think!) to stop and completely remove it when the hilarity was done. But why take a chance? Put it on someone else's computer, not your own.  Thanks to R. Manzetti.
    * TFC = The F... Clown


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