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.
  • Of Fear and Flying

    ... and terrorism too.

    Portion of the cover of Erica Jong's 1973 book Fear of Flying, which is linguistically but not conceptually related to the topics discussed here.

    Last night I mentioned the disconnect between things that are frightening, from sharks to airline flights, and things that are likely actually to do us harm. Several reactions worth noting:

    1) From a reader who understood the illustration I deliberately left out, to see if anyone would notice. Of course that illustration is terrorism and America's fearful response to it.

    As academics Ian Lustick and John Mueller have argued for years, along with Benjamin Friedman (formerly of MIT, now of Cato) and mere journalists, the fear of terrorist attacks, and the responses provoked by the attacks of 2001, have done far more damage to the country than even those original, devastating blows. Many more Americans died in the wholly needless Iraq war than were killed on 9/11; the multi-trillion-dollar cost of the war eclipses any domestic budgetary folly; the damage to civil liberties and American honor internationally has been profound; and so on. All this was all born of fear, often cynically inflamed, not realistic assessment of danger.

    This reader cited an online item, "You Are More Likely to Be Killed By Boring, Mundane Things than Terrorism" and added, "This is perhaps the most dramatic example of the disconnect between fear and danger." Yes, except for "perhaps."

    2) Back to airlines. From Jeremy Davis, of Seattle: 

    I suffer from panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which have put a bit of a damper on my love of aviation (I wrote about the clash of those two aspects in an Air & Space article last year). But I'm also an aeronautical engineer.

    The point I'd like to make is that, even with in-depth knowledge of the systems and structure of aircraft and aviation, fear can manipulate how we observe the world around us and skew how we interpret our senses.  

    During my first panic attack (on board a flight from LAX), my brain invented half a dozen explanations for why I was suddenly vertiginous and fighting to breathe. Some of those explanations were medical, but most were bizarre inventions about the cabin pressure supply lines being blocked or the aft pressure bulkhead succumbing to cracks.  None of these were plausible from an engineering standpoint, but the bond between my fear at that moment and the act of flying on a commercial airline was forged so well that even now (a decade later), I still can't board a commercial flight.

    So while I agree that writers tend to play on the public's unfounded fears about flying, we shouldn't discount the ways that fear can warp how we view, and subsequently recount, our experiences. Ultimately, I think it's an editor's duty to balance a writer's artistic license and honest belief in the experiences he or she felt with the publication's integrity and adherence to verifiable facts. I can only hope that my editor and I toed that line better than the NY Times.

    Of course Mr. Davis is right. Our emotions and fears are beyond rational control. That's why we call them "emotions." And his Air & Space article is very good, including its climax when a pilot-colleague helps him escape his panic attacks with a comforting ride in a small airplane.

    As I read Jeremy Davis's article, I naturally thought of Scott Stossel's memorable cover story for our magazine, drawn from his memorable book. All of these are precisely about the logical mind's inability to contain pre-logical fears. That is a big enough problem when it affects individuals. It's something else—and something that should be easier to recognize and curb—when it affects whole institutions, from journalism to national government. I know that the "should" shows me to be a quaint meliorist.

    3) Back to cars. From another reader:

    I liked the note re being scared in a normal car ride. I have often given a little monologue that goes something like this.

    Imagine for a moment that the personal automobile had never been invented. We are all riding around in trains, trolleys, busses, etc.

    Now, along comes an inventor who invents the personal automobile. He lobbies the U.S. Senate to get the government to build roads. They have a hearing. At some point, we get the following interchange.

    Senator: So, how fast will these "cars" go?
    Inventor: Oh, maybe 70 or 80 mph.
    Senator: And, how are you going to keep them from running into each other?
    Inventor: We're going to paint lines on the road.

    We would still be riding in busses. 

    4) On to the planet as a whole.

    I realize that this question is more profound than the questions related to air safety, though I've had that same thought many times myself while barreling down the highway.

    I also would apply it to the distinction between the Cold War [with its dangerous nuclear standoffs] versus the Global War on Terror with its [fear-inducing] apocalyptic imagery in the messianic sense (and that goes for the jihadists as well as our own homegrown evangelicals who are Rapture Ready.

    Is that the core conundrum facing humanity when it comes to global warming as the driver of catastrophic climate change?   Is there ANY real world experience that would shift the "fear" of an ecological disaster on a global scale into a universal acknowledgment of the clear and present "danger"?
  • You Won't Regret Reading These Essays by 18-year-olds in Mississippi

    "The little storms of life have left me doused. The wind of my parents’ perennial unemployment has blown away my umbrella."

    Memorial stones in downtown Starkville, county seat of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, and home of Mississippi State University. On the left, one honoring Confederate soldiers, erected in 2005. On the right, one honoring Union soldiers, erected in 2006.
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    In case you have missed it, please be sure to check out the latest post by my wife, Deb Fallows, from our time in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi. 

    This one is based on essays from high school seniors at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, or MSMS. It's a residential, public high school for students from every corner of the state. Deb asked them to write about what the school had meant to them. I think you will be surprised and impressed by the answers. A brief sample:

    Sometimes I believe the soul of Mississippi is as dark and bottomless as muddy rivers settling through rolling hills. These contaminated waters seek out the unique and attempt to wash away the scent of rebellion, or the hope for change. My greatest fear is to wander aimlessly into those waters, be molded by conformity, forget my passion, my compassion, and acquiesce to the current of complacency. As I dig my naked feet into the burning red clay on my middle-of-nowhere dirt road, I cannot help but feel the history of Mississippi, rich as the soil, leeching into my skin. Despite the intense heat, I shiver. Turning on my heels to give one fleeting glance to the dancing colors of the fiery sunset, I am sure of only one thing: I do not belong here. 

    As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home, I envision the scene that awaits me.... 

    These are by high school students, from a wide range of economic and racial backgrounds, at a public school in one of the nation's poorest states. They made a big impression on me, and I think you will find them interesting.  

  • Telling the Difference Between Danger and Fear

    Bathtubs should be 365 times more frightening than sharks. So why aren't they?

    A shark alleged to have attacked four people in Egypt. He was an exception that supports an unfortunate anti-shark stereotype. (Reuters)

    A few days ago I pointed out that yet another popular news item had described how frightened an airline passenger was, about a situation that was objectively not dangerous at all."Yet another" because stories like this -- there we were, about to die! -- are journalistic staples, now as much as ever. (Two examples from the NYT, here and here.)

    In part this reflects the bone-deep suspicion that people shouldn't be sitting and reading in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground. In part, it's the famous human difficulty of distinguishing things we're scared of from things that really threaten us. On average, one American dies each day in a bathtub accident -- and one American dies each year from a shark attack. Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks, but it's the reverse. We don't have "Bathtub Week" on the Discovery Channel.

    David Ryan, who under his previous pseudonym Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here, talks about this fear-versus-danger confusion, as it shows up in his work as a charter-boat captain. After reading about airplanes that (allegedly) came within "scraping distance" of each other (actually 5+ miles), Ryan wrote:

    We use an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identification of nearby traffic and collision avoidance. Here's my "scraping distance" story. [And a recent photo of his craft, crew, and passengers en route.]

    In May of 2010 after 13 days at sea, during which time we rarely saw more than one vessel a day, on AIS or visually, we found ourselves just south of the Nantucket traffic separation zone (shipping lane) running east and west out of New York Harbor. Now, rather than one or no targets of interest, we had a dozen vessels, some very large and moving very fast, to keep on eye on.

    It was dusk and the light was fading when we ID'd a west-bound freighter on a course that would make a close pass with us as we headed north towards Montauk. 

    This is what we did:

    Using the AIS we ascertained the vessel's name, course, and speed.

    Using our VHF radio we made contact with the bridge of the other vessel and inquired whether or not they could see us. The replied they had us on radar, AIS, and visually.

    I communicated our concern that our courses might bring us closer than comfortable. Being a sailing vessel, we were the stand-on vessel, but the Law of Gross Tonnage ultimately rules. We asked the freighter if he would like us to adjust our course to ensure we took his stern.

    The freighter replied that we should stand-on and he would increase his speed to pass in front of us well before we were anywhere near each other.

    We thanked him, stood by on #16 and then watch the freighter pick up it's pace and pass in front of us about three miles ahead.

    The entire encounter was, for us, tense. We wanted to be sure there were no misunderstandings, or if there were, that we would be ready to respond sufficiently to get out the way of the much larger vessel.

    The next day I was in the front passenger seat of our family minivan taking crew to various airports and train stations so they could find their way home and I was TERRIFIED!!!

    Just 12 hours earlier I had been in a tense situation where my boat was going about 5kts, the other vessel was going about 20kts, and the distance between us was measured in 1000s of yards.

    Now I was barreling down the highway, at closings speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, sometimes with mere inches to spare. In other words, we were driving down a two land country highway at 55mph with on coming traffic. I resolved my terror by closing my eyes and going to sleep.

    In case my point is not clear, we are more comfortable with familiar sensations and risks than unfamiliar ones. Two weeks on a nearly empty ocean made the shipping lanes seem like rush hour traffic, and the "rush-hour" traffic of the shipping lanes made a drive down a country highway pure terror (I really did close my eyes and go to sleep because I couldn't just sit there flinching in horror every time we closed with another car). No doubt the  author of "I almost died" felt as scared during the plane's descent as I did as we barreled down Route 27 at 10am. The fear is real. The danger not so much. 

    We all know what he means. For me, it's the contrast I feel at the end of every trip in my small airplane. Over the previous few hours, I've been in the middle of an activity that is objectively dangerous -- but from which I could safely turn my attention for 30 seconds at a time to look at a chart or check the weather, except during the couple of minutes of approach and landing. (Or on an instrument procedure, or inside the clouds, or on takeoff, or in other "high-workload" phases of a flight.) Then when I get in the car to drive home, other vehicles are whizzing past me with very small clearance, and if anyone stops paying attention for even a few seconds, the results can be dire. Yet we all treat this as routine.

    Main lesson for writers and editors: If you want to talk about an experience that was frightening, talk about how scared you were. That's real. Not about how close you came to dying, because that probably had no relationship with how you felt.  

  • Household News: May 18, 2014

    In-house developments involving the NYT, Marketplace radio, Japanese business, and other institutions.

    Debating African-American history, at the Mississippi School for Math and Science (Deborah Fallows)

    1) Deb Fallows, best known to the world as author of Dreaming in Chinese and of a series of popular American Futures posts on language and schools (and best known to me as my wife), has a very nice story in today's NYT Travel section about what we've seen as we've gone from town to town. The online version has several great photos by Raymond McCrae Jones; if I can get permission, I will use one here. For now, check them out, and the story, at the Times's site.

    2) Deb also has another of her school posts on the Atlantic's site right now, about the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Everyone involved with the school understands where their state stands in national school rankings and other indicators of economic and social progress. They are trying hard to move up.

    3) Starting later today I'll start a series of posts about the business / industrial complement to those school efforts in the surrounding "Golden Triangle" area of Mississippi. Probably later this week, our partners at Marketplace will run their report on the shift from collapsing, old, lower-wage industries to new higher-wave factories in Mississippi. Here's a view when we were together in Columbus recently: Kai Ryssdal in the red shirt, engineer Charlton Thorp with the gear, and from the back Brenda Lathan of the (very successful) local economic development group, the Golden Triangle Development Link. I am the other person. We're standing in front of a shuttered factory, before going to a newly opened one.

     4) Also in today's NYT Book Review, I have a piece on David Pilling's very interesting book on Japan, Bending Adversity.

    5) If he were still around, we would be celebrating my dad's 89th birthday today. He is not still around, as I chronicled at the time, five and a half years ago. This was a wonderful picture my sisters and brother and I saw only after our parents' deaths. It's of our mom and dad in their early 20s, soon after they'd gotten married. He was in medical school, she had just finished college and was working as a school teacher, and I was on the way.

     

  • Beer Notes From All Over, Mississippi to Beijing to Washington, D.C.

    Things are tough around the world, but not in the world of beer.

    The bounty of the Magnolia State (and environs), hand-carried back to DC.

    The world is full of sorrows, but it is also full of ever-better beer. To wit:

    1) My friend Adam Minter with a report from Beijing, "If you can't breathe, drink." It is about one of the new craft breweries in town, Capital Brew or 京-A (Jing-A, or "Capital A.") I haven't yet been there, although I've loved the pioneering Great Leap brewery, and its Shanghai counterpart Boxing Cat. China has been the land of very terrible beer for a very long time. The future looks bright. Update: I should also have mentioned Slow Boat Brewery, which I have heard about but not yet visited.

    2) Mississippi.The picture at the top shows, working outward from the center:

           - In the middle, both in cans, we have two beers from SoPro, or Southern Prohibition Brewery, which was founded last year in Hattiesburg, in the southern part of the state. On the right in blue, Suzy B Dirty Blonde Ale. On the left, Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale.
          - Flanking them, two from Yalobusha Brewing in Water Valley, near Oxford in the northern part of the state. Yalobusha, in case like me you didn't know, is the name of a county. On the left, River Ale, an American Pale Ale. On the right, Copperhead, an American Amber.
          - Next, working outward, two from Lazy Magnolia brewery in Kiln, near Biloxi. On the left, Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. On the right, Southern Hops'pitality IPA.  

          - The outermost pair are not technically from Mississippi--but they're from the vicinity, and I found them in the phenomenal The Smoke Stack  smokes-and-beer store in West Point, Miss. (That's also where I got the commemorative glass shown below, with the insignia of the Golden Triangle Brewers of Mississippi.) On the left, the beautifully labelled Cocodrie from Bayou Teche Brewery in Arnaudville, Louisiana. On the right, from Yazoo Brewery of Nashville, a porter with the simple name SUE.

    The craft-brew movement is new to Mississippi, but (unlike the Chinese) people there have a good excuse for taking so long. Until July 2012, it was against the law even to possess a brew with alcohol content higher than 5%. Bud Light, Coors, and Corona all qualified under that standard, but just about no beer you would consider "good" did. (Interesting alcohol-by-volume chart here.) Now, under its new law, Mississippi is making up for lost time. And lest we forget, none other than Jimmy Carter was the man who brought a similar change to the nation as a whole. In all the local Kwik-E-Marts in Mississippi the main national-brand craft brew I saw was Samuel Adams "Rebel IPA." It's excellent beer, but this is an interesting brand for the Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams, to feature in this part of the country.

    3) America as a whole: English writer Geoff Dyer with a very nice WSJ weekend essay (paywalled) on how America as a whole has gone from being a beer wasteland to becoming the beer garden spot of the world. Eg:

    These days the U.S. is not only a world leader in beer, it's a beer destination. Where once the tired and huddled masses arrived in the hope of breathing free (but with no hope of a decent IPA), now it's the thirsty, and they're here for the beer.

    4) America's capital, Washington DC. One week ago, the beautiful Building Museum in Washington was the venue for the spiritually beautiful SAVOR Craft Beer festival that gathered brewers from all across our great land. It had brewers as well-known as Lagunitas ...

     

    ... and as on-the-rise from a national perspective as Nebraska Brewing, of La Vista, Nebraska, which (like nearly all the companies there) had some excellent new beers.

    Again, there are troubles in the world, but not in the world of beer.

    Tomorrow, my wife Deb Fallows has a great new story in the NYT also about Mississippi. Stay tuned. 

  • Why the Latest Air-Scare Shows How Safe Airline Travel Is, Not How Dangerous

    The flying world's counterpart to your car's airbag and anti-skid brakes.

    Yesterday I mentioned a widely circulated web account from an author who felt he had narrowly avoided being part of what would have been history's worst airline disaster. Indeed, that was the headline on Kevin Townsend's post on Medium: "Two Weeks Ago I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever."

    While the episodea sudden if brief descent by a United air crew over the Pacific, to be sure it stayed out of the path of another planemight well have been frightening, the hundreds of passengers on the two planes never faced any danger of a mid-air crash. The quick descent indicated the safety of today's air-travel system, not its brink-of-disaster shoddiness.

    Think of the analogy of car airbags. When an airbag goes off in a car, I am sure it scares the bejeezus out of anyone on board (I've never experienced it), plus possibly bruising them and, for infants in the front seat, doing real damage. But that detonation, frightening as it is, is part of a system that has made car travel safer rather than more dangerous. Something similar is true with anti-skid braking systems—they can frighten you, but they help protect you. And the same goes for today's aircraft collision-avoidance technology.

    I mention this to introduce a note I have gotten from someone with first-hand experience with "TCAS," the automatic collision-avoidance system that ordered the descent on Kevin Townsend's flight:

    I work in the aviation industry as an engineer, and have gotten more and more familiar with FAA requirements for aircraft design. I wish the flying public understood how precisely-engineered each piece of critical avionics must be in order to satisfy FAA regulations for a "safety of life" application

    TCAS -- and its successor,TCAS-II -- is one such piece of avionics hardware. By all accounts in the Townsend post, TCAS did its job in resolving airspace issues between what is known in FAA jargon as two cooperative aircraft. And the pilots did what they were supposed to do in taking the correct action.

    It is vital that pilots trust their instruments because the avionics driving those instruments (and their design requirements) are engineered with that in mind.

    Believe me, I know. I've spent the bulk of my career designing, writing software for, and testing the integration of, avionics. If TCAS says "go up", there are thousands of hours of engineering behind that system making sure that "up" is the right decision.


    Let me clarify, too, that I am not picking a fight with Kevin Townsend, with whom I've had a pleasant and mutually respectful exchange of messages. He wrote a post on a genuinely frightening experience withoutas he has pointed out to me in emailthe benefit of subsequent info on how far apart the planes had actually been (at least five miles, probably eight) or other technical analyses of what was going on.

    I thought the original headline on his item was an enormous reach ("I almost died"), plus the idea that the planes were in "scraping distance" of each other. But, as he has also pointed out to me, if he had foreseen how widely this would be picked up in "peril in the skies" coverage, he would have been more statesmanlike in telling the story. (Plus, he is doing the Lord's work on the filibuster.) This is very different from a flat-out fake air-peril story last year in the NYT Magazine, and another over-hyped one in the same paper.

    Why am I going back to this story? The immediate reason is because Townsend's account has generated another flood of email from newly re-frightened fliers. The larger point is one that Patrick Smith has often emphasized at Ask the Pilot. Something deep and primal in human beings, namely the fear of unnaturally being up in the air, easily spills over into something with no rational basis behind it: namely, the belief that airline travel is riskier than normal life, when it fact it is vastly safer than driving, biking, or walking across the street.


    Update: Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate software (and one-time guest blogger here), writes about an unforgettable part of Kevin Townsend's account. That was during the zero-G descent when he was "weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me." Bernstein writes:

    ….back of the envelope suggests that a zero-g descent gets you down 600' in just about 6 sec.  And I expect that one would not pull negative G's in a passenger flight, especially without warning, given any alternative. Surely the writer would have remarked on the experience of negative G's with stuff (and people) flying everywhere.  So that's a boundary. 

    In fact, I believe we get to the normal descent rate, 1800'/min, with a second of zero g. 

    The point here, again, is not to nit-pick the original account but to underscore the difference between subjective experience of frightening events, and the objective reality of what is going on.

    A month or two ago, I was flying into a small airport in the South when, at about 500 feet up on the final approach for landing, there was a very strong wind gust from the right. At the time I "felt," and actually told another pilot I saw after I'd landed, that the gust had "almost upended" the plane. I'm sure if there had been a film it would shown nothing remotely close to that. Probably at most a momentary 45-degree bank to the left, which I'd offset within a second or two. So it is with anything involving the unnatural act of human beings up in the air: our senses tell us one thing, and our minds (when they can act calmly) tell us something else. The calm-mind view of air travel underscores its safety, whatever else our senses may tell us.

  • After the Latest Peril-in-the-Skies Saga, Should You Be Afraid to Fly?

    No.

    Peril in the skies, from Airplane. (Wikipedia)

    [Please see update here.] I don't know Kevin Townsend, though I suspect I'd like him if I did. He's been fighting the good fight against the filibuster, and we have tech and other interests in common. Today he put up a riveting post about a frightening and, in his telling, extremely dangerous episode aboard a recent United flight. The headline gives you the idea:

    And he has gotten a lot of pickup for his tale. Eg:

    Recently I got my one-zillionth email of the day from a friend or reader asking: What with this, and the Malaysian flight, I'm getting worried. Is something going wrong with our air-safety system?

    So in case you're wondering:

    • The episode Kevin Townsend describes sounds as if it could have been genuinely frightening, especially to passengers who had no idea what was happening, and he describes it quite vividly.
    • On the facts he presents, even though this was frightening, it was nowhere close to as dangerous as it could have seemed. There was no sense whatsoever in which he "almost died." 
    • Commercial air travel remains remarkable for how extremely safe it is. Even this episode illustrates that reality, since one of many overlapping parts of the air-safety system worked rather than failed. 

    I wrote to Kevin Townsend a few hours ago to ask some questions but haven't yet heard back.  and have just heard back. Here are the main points to bear in mind.

    1) The plane got an anti-collision warning that caused it to descend suddenly, by 600 feet. This is the part that was genuinely frightening to Townsend and other passengers. While in cruise, the United flight crew got a warning from its TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, with which airliners and other large planes are in constant automated contact with other aircraft in the vicinity. 

    If the paths of two airplanes seem likely to intersect, the TCAS in each plane gives each crew a warning. If they are getting too close for comfort, the TCAS gives each of them a "Resolution Advisory" to steer them out of the other's way. One plane will be told to climb, and the other to descend. In keeping with the instrument-flying maxim that you must trust your instruments rather than going by your seat-of-the-pants sense, flight crews are told to trust and follow those TCAS/RA warnings, immediately. The United plane was told to descend right now, and its crew did. 

    2) How far is a 600-foot descent? This is what Townsend describes as the terror-filled part of the flight:

    Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning. 

    Again I am sure this was appalling, especially to people who start out with a fear of being up in the sky. But how far is a 600-foot descent? It is not very far at all. For one thing, it's about equivalent to four plane-lengths of the Boeing 757 that was flying. (That plane is a little over 150 feet long.) If an airliner descended at 600 feet per minute, passengers would probably not even notice it was headed down. If it were descending at what one manual calls a normal rate of 1,800 feet per minute, covering this vertical distance would take 20 seconds. I don't know what the 757's emergency-descent rate is, but if we say it's twice the normal rate that would mean about 10 seconds for getting down 600 feet. 

    Townsend includes a FlightAware chart of the course of that flight. Records from that date (April 25) are now behind FlightAware's pay wall, but here is the version Townsend published:

    The blue line, which is airspeed, shows a sudden reduction at the point he is describing, with the vertical red line. This could be consistent with either a sudden reduction in power or (unlikely in the circumstances) a climb. The mustard-colored line, for altitude, seems more or less steady. Flight Aware is highly fallible, but at face value this indicates the plane rock-steady at a certain altitude. (Townsend wrote to say the chart actually records the 600-foot drop. OK) 

    3) How close were the planes, anyway? The premise of this story was a hair's-breadth escape from death. Eg "Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss." And "the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history."

    To put this in perspective, the closest the planes appeared to have come to each other is at least 5 miles, and perhaps 8 miles (which is what CNN told Townsend when he appeared). If airplanes are headed directly head-to-head, distances can close fast. If each was going at top speed of 600 mph, or 10 miles per minute, then a head-to-head closing speed would be 20 miles per minute, or only 15 to 20 seconds of direct head-on flight. Still, the point is that the traffic systems in both planes warned both crews when detecting a danger, and sent them in diverging directions. A five-mile margin between planes is not "scraping distance."

    (The simpler traffic-warning system I have in my propeller plane sends alerts when planes are within 6 miles' distance. That is far enough away that usually it is very hard even to see the plane causing the alert.) 

    4) How close to the brink is the whole system? The post mentions the amazing safety record of commercial aviation, and also the irrational nature of fears involving flight:

    Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines. 

    All that is true.  But I don't agree, as the piece goes on to claim, that "the [safety] system appears broken" or that airlines are left to "self-police" for safety regulations. Anyone who has dealt with the FAA can report otherwise. And to judge by the record, when was the last time two airliners collided in the United States? Hint: it was 49 years ago, and four people of the 122 aboard died. When was the last airliner-collision large-scale catastrophe in the US? It was when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and everything about technology was different.

    Again, I think I'd agree with this author on most things, and I am meaning to be respectful about the article he wrote and the scare he endured. But people who think: first MH370, now this??? should think again. Several million  commercial airline flights have taken off and landed safely worldwide since that Malaysian flight disappeared. Including the one Kevin Townsend describes. 

    Life is full of danger, including aboard aircraft. But if other aspects of life had even half the safety-consciousness of today's commercial air travel system, we'd live in a remarkably less perilous society.

  • Basketball, NYT, Filibusters: 3 Stories Worth Reading

    No one likes Donald Sterling, but maybe there is a better answer than forcing him to sell his team. 

    A misunderstood Neanderthal family. See bonus item #4. (Reuters)

    Three stories worth your time:

    1) Why Donald Sterling Shouldn't Be Forced to Sell. A contrarian but convincing argument by Anthony Yannatta for a better way out of the Sterling debacle. No, Yannatta is not saying that the benighted Sterling family should keep the Clippers franchise. He has a better idea, which I also wish would apply to the D.C. NFL team. (For the record: The author's parents are friends of ours.)

    2) A To-Do Item for the Newest NYT Exec Editor. Jay Rosen's Press Think column, on an inexplicable false-equivalence tic from the country's leading news organization, was written three days ago. That is, it came before Wednesday's startling news about a shake-up at the top of that organization. Maybe the new boss of Times journalistic operations, the seemingly universally liked Dean Baquet, could read this post and add its recommendations to the (short) list of things he thinks need changing at the Times.

    It turns out that nearly all of the NYT's false-equiv framing comes out of its D.C. bureau. You don't see its education reporters writing, "Supporters claim that Western universities like Harvard and Oxford embrace the principle of academic freedom, but Chinese spokesmen say their universities are just as good." Or their science correspondents writing, "Geologists claim that the Earth is four-and-a-half billion years old, but Biblical scholars maintain that it was formed six thousand years ago." Or their foreign-affairs reporters writing, "Chinese sources claim that Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians in Nanjing in the 1930s, but Japanese officials say this was just a big misunderstanding." Or, they might report these differences as showing the extent to which some perspectives depart from agreed fact. But the Times's science (etc.) correspondents don't assume that the "real" answer is some mid-point between two claims. That's left to the D.C. team, as Rosen points out. 

    3) Lest We Forget the Filibuster! A National Journal/Atlantic piece by Norm Ornstein on why this really, truly has become a problem for democracy.

    Bonus point 3A: An eye-opening report by Common Cause on what it calls "the New Nullification." You'll see why they use this term, and why I'm using the photo at right.

    Bonus 4: More truth-squadding on the crucial unfairness-to-Neanderthals front. On why I take this personally, check here.

  • How a Small Plane Crash Looks When Passengers Are About to Survive Rather Than About to Die

    Seventeen seconds of video that explain why one brand of small aircraft has become the most popular in the world.

    Let me explain the background of the amazing video below, shot two days ago in Australia.

    It's been 15 years since the Cirrus SR20 made its debut as "the plane with the parachute." At the time of its introduction, and in some grizzled-aviator circles even now, the idea of a parachute for the entire airplane met hoots of derision. After all, "real" pilots should always be ready to glide an airplane to a landing if its engine failed or something else went wrong. Handling a "power-off approach" is part of regular pilot training. So isn't a parachute like a crutch, or training wheels, for flyers who really need to up their game?* 

    But people other than those grizzled aviators generally had an "Are you crazy???? Of course you'd want a parachute!" reaction. What if the pilot passed out? Or it was nighttime and you couldn't see where you were going? Or you were over mountains or forests will no smooth landing site? Or the pilot hadn't practiced power-off landings for a while? Or any of a dozen other concerns.

    Because of questions like these, the original SR20 and later, higher-powered SR22 have become the best-selling aircraft of their type worldwide. My book Free Flight, and this Atlantic article taken from it, describe the modern-day-Wright-brothers saga of the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, who created Cirrus and made it a very successful business in Duluth, Minnesota. The cover, at right, showed a Cirrus under parachute during one of its pre-certification tests. My book China Airborne describes, inter alia, how and why the Cirrus plant, still in Duluth, is now owned by the Chinese government via one of its aerospace ministries. 

    The first Cirrus parachute-pull came nearly 12 years ago, under circumstances in which Charles Lindbergh, Patty Wagstaff, and Bob Hoover together would have had trouble gliding the plane safely down. (Because of a maintenance error, one aileron came loose, making the plane essentially uncontrollable.) Since then the ~6000 Cirrus planes around the world have been involved in about 50+ parachute descents. You can see the full list here, at a site  maintained by Rick Beach for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, COPA. After nearly all the episodes, the pilot and passengers have walked away unhurt.

    The latest parachute pull happened this past weekend, in Australia, over a suburb west of Sydney. Someone was on hand to capture its descent for an enlightening YouTube video, as shown below. 

    This video is only 32 seconds long, and if you watch the section starting at time 0:15 you will have a dramatically clearer idea of the difference these parachutes can make. As a story in the Australian paper The Age put it, 

    The Cirrus planes are the only light planes in the world to come with their own parachute system, something that has helped it become the most popular piston engine plane in the world.

    “If they [the passengers] had been in any other aircraft they wouldn’t be going home tonight to their families,“ said a staff member at Regal Air, which sells and does maintenance on the aircraft from its headquarters at Bankstown Airport.


    For more details of the episode and pictures of the plane and passengers on the ground see reports from Australian Broadcasting, Sky News Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, plus The Age

    The YouTube video also dramatizes why, during the ~1200 flying hours I have spent in Cirruses since buying a very early-model SR20 in 2000, it has been a back-of-the-mind reassurance to know the parachute is there, even though I've never come remotely close to circumstances where I felt I should consider using it. Also you will see why for non-pilot passengers, starting with my wife, its presence makes such a difference in peace of mind. In many small airplanes, there really is no reassuring answer to the question: OK, what if the pilot passes out? I've never come remotely close to passing out, either, but that's not a fully convincing answer. The parachute creates a very important Plan B option.


    For the record: I have no relationship with the Cirrus company other than as a two-time customer and a journalistic chronicler. I'm on friendly terms with many of the company's current and previous officials. I bought an early SR20 in 2000 and flew it for six years until we moved to China, at which point I sold it. On return four years ago I bought a new-to-me 2006-model SR22. We're traveling in that for our American Futures journeys.


    * Reader A.H. in Texas writes about this attitude:

    That sounds very much like British RAF in the last months of World War I, when German pilots began using the first early parachutes. The British supposedly refused to adopt them because they were convinced that pilots in a crippled machine would "lose their nerve" and jump, rather remain fully committed to saving the aircraft. Appalling, in retrospect.

  • Those Vibram Shoe Refunds? I'm Not Claiming One

    Think that these odd finger-shoes are "bullshit"? Think again.

    I gather that there is much gleeful stomping on the grave image of Vibram and the weirdo/chic "finger shoes" it has popularized, because the company has settled a suit claiming the shoes offered no health benefits. That's me and one of my sons, modeling Vibram shoes, in the picture above. I'll let you figure out the extremities. 

    That picture comes from four years ago. I'd been running regularly for many decades before that, but since the early 2000s I'd been vexed by one wear-and-tear problem after another. Never involving the knees, miraculously; most frequently afflicting the Achilles tendons.

    Then, as I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than "running through" the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.

    All of these amounted to a blow to the pride, perhapsone of many as the years roll on. But, for now, through the Vibram age nothing has gone physically wrong with my running infrastructure. Whether merely coincident with or perhaps helped by these same funny-looking shoes, I scored my memorable success in the "Haynesworth Test" a few years back and kept on going.

    So what about this new Vibram debunking? I say: Pshaw. What I reported when I first tried them is what I still think now. If you already run in the way these shoes favor, or if you're able to shift your gait to a "forefoot-strike" style, they're great. And if not, not.

    For instance, a (fair-minded) Washington Post writer noted:

    I tried the FiveFingers in 2009 and knew within a quarter mile that they were not for me. Yes, they forced me up onto the balls of my feet, where running coaches want you, because smacking your heels on asphalt roads without any padding to protect them will [make you] do that.... 

    Running that way didn't make sense for the writer. For me, it was the way I'd always runin part because the primitive, unpadded shoes available in the 1960s, when I started, strongly discouraged any runner from landing on the heels. So the shoes wereareright for some people, including me, and wrong for others. It's a big world.

    What the shoes are not, is "bullshit," which was the churlish judgment of the proudly "data-driven" (and generally admirable) but in this case snarkily hyperbolic Vox, with this headline: 

    If they're wrong for you, then wear something else! For its part, Vibram shouldn't claim they're right for everybody. Andsuch are the wonders of our legal systemif people actually bought these shoes for promised health benefits, then perhaps it's fair for them to get their $94-per-pair back. (What does this augur for the Belly Burner Weight Loss Belt? Or for Axe? You mean, thousands of bikinied women are not going to mass around any man who buys a can? Zounds!)

    But Vibram shoes are right for some people, and bullshit they are not. I would send a picture of my current pair, here with me in Mississippi, but they are too battered and use-worn, most recently today, to be presentable.

    Update: Thanks to those who pointed out that The Wire, which is affiliated with the Atlantic, had a microscopically-less-snarky report on the finger-shoes controversy. Eg, "In the event that you had a temporary lapse of judgement and bought these heinous toe shoes, you can get your money back (just not your dignity.)" Again, if you're a heel-strike runner, as many people who learned in the era of fatly padded shoes are destined to be, these are not the footwear for you. But for people who run the way these shoes are designed for, or can learn, they're neither bullshit nor heinous but very good. 

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  • Emancipation Day Commemoration in Eastern Mississippi

    "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing."

    Voices in Harmony chorus from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, performing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in historic Sandfield cemetery.
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    Over the months Deb Fallows has reported on a variety of impressive and innovative public schools around the country. For instance: the Sustainability Academy in Burlington, Vermont; the Grove School in Redlands California; the Shead School in Eastport, Maine; several English immersion schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, South Carolina; the A.J. Whittenberg Elementary School for Engineering, also in Greenville; and the Camden County High School near St. Marys, Georgia. 

    Recently she has spent a lot of time at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS), in Columbus, Mississippi. MSMS is a public, residential high school for students from across the state, about which Deb will be reporting in detail soon. But before the day ends, we wanted to note a moving presentation by MSMS students this evening in a historic cemetery in Columbus.

    MSMS students Ben Gibbons (l) and Mamadou Fadiga enacting a discussion about a late-19th-century African-American entrepreneur, Jack Rabb.

    The Emancipation Proclamation officially took effect on January 1, 1863. But in this part of Mississippi, the 8th of May has been celebrated in the black community as Emancipation Day. It was on May 8, 1865, that Union troops arrived from across the state line in Alabama and effectively put an end to slavery. 

    For the last few years MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough (above, center, talking with his students before tonight's performance) has organized 8th of May presentations in Columbus's historic Sandfield cemetery, where many of the area's prominent black residents were buried. This evening's program alternated songs by the Voices in Harmony choir from MSMS, with re-enactments of African-American political, religious, and business figures from the decades after the Civil War.

    Here is student Terence Johnson, in the role of Robert Gleed, who served in the Mississippi State Senate during Reconstruction, fled to Texas with his family to avoid persecution for his political prominence, and was eventually buried back in Columbus at this same cemetery.

    Johnson and other student re-enactors and singers after the performance.

    Student Mamadou Fadiga, who is headed this fall to Vanderbilt, by the grave of the person he portrayed, entrepreneur Jack Rabb, and Rabb's wife Gillie.

    Student and choir director Tylicia Grove, opening the presentation with her poem, "An American Thing." Its refrain was, "It's not a black thing. It's not a white thing. It's an American thing." It's our thing.

    Back to the school after the show:

    Our partners from Marketplace were there for the performance; I hope and assume they'll have some of the music and sound for their report. It was an American thing. 

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  • What Mississippi Catfish Farms Look Like From Above

    Plus, noting one more shift in online journalism

    Or at least that is how some of them looked yesterday, from 2500 feet up over the Mississippi Delta. (The triangular white area is window reflection.) For another view, which gives an idea of how strangely brown much of the Delta area looks—this was near Clarksdale, as I remember—at this time of year:

    Mississippi is the leading catfish-producing state; the clay-rich soils of the Delta are part of the reason why extensive ponds are so suitable here. The map below is a decade-plus out of date but still conveys the main idea.

    Map from Auburn University

    I don't care that much about catfish—though there's an intriguing story here about the odd role that Bangladeshi catfish farmers have played in recent travails of the U.S. industry (not the one you would expect). Plus last night my wife and I enjoyed our fill of catfish, hush puppies, deep-fried jalapenos, and more at the monthly Fish Fry held at the small and friendly Lowndes County airport, in Columbus, and hosted by Billy Scarborough of Tri-South Aviation

    Preparing for an on-airport fish fry. That's the runway in the background, and deep-fat fryers in the foreground.

    Instead I mention this mainly for a regional and a journalistic-procedural reason. The regional one is that for the past few days we've been in Louisiana, East Texas, and now back in Mississippi, seeing wildlife refuges, downtowns struggling to recover, and—as mentioned last month about Mississippi's "Golden Triangle"—the surprising heavy-industrial boom in this part of the state. Our partners from Marketplace, Kai Ryssdal et al, are here in town to talk about the buffets to one of the poorest parts of the country, and the efforts of some determined local people to change their prospects. We spent this afternoon with one of those people, Brenda Lathan, and will go out tomorrow with another, Joe Max Higgins.

    (By the way, if you're looking for heavy-duty footage of the steel-mill technology I wrote about previously, and that we'll visit again tomorrow, I suggest the video below. It's in German, but the pictures get the message across in any language.)

    If you start at around time 2:00, you'll see some of the highlights. Thanks for this tip to Tim Heffernan, who usefully notes: "A trick for finding great industrial videos is to find the German word for the piece of equipment in question and use that as the search term. German firms really make an art of their promos!"


    The journalistic-procedural reason for this post is yet another shift in the conventions of digital-age journalism. Twenty years ago, when the Atlantic launched its "Atlantic Unbound" site, we put things online mainly when we thought they would not stand the delay until print-magazine publication. That evolved into today's very popular Atlantic.com site.

    When I shifted my own little home-made site to be part of the online Atlantic eight years ago, my main intention was to do what my then-Atlantic-colleague Andrew Sullivan described in his "Why I Blog" cover story. That is, to chronicle developments I found interesting or important—and, ideally, to engage an audience in an incrementally unfolding "thinking in public" exercise of refining views. As Sullivan explained, the incremental part was important: you experimented with observations, heard responses, and adapted. My friend and colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates is justly celebrated for applying this thinking-out-loud approach.

    The momentum of Internet traffic is shifting—as everything in journalism and technology ceaselessly does. There's more emphasis, at all sites including ours, on the standalone post (or chart or list or video) optimized for social-media sharing, and vanishingly less assumption of any incremental or unfolding attention. This is inevitable, in a digital abundance/overload era in which there is more of everything than anyone could read. It may also return journalism to something like its fundamentals, in which writers constantly juggle the balance among: what matters to them, what they think should matter to the world, what will get the most attention, and what they think will get any attention at all. (I have an article coming up in the print magazine on the latest twists of this attention-shortage question.) But it's a shift to note.

    As affects our current travels, this shift in internet styles means that my wife and I are doing less "here's where we are, and why it's interesting" incidental posting, and saving up for more concerted, "produced" pieces—in the magazine, via videos, using maps, with our radio partners—about the trends and places we've seen. Thus we've posted little or nothing yet about some of the truly impressive and interesting places we've visited, from Winters, California and nearby cities in the Central Valley, to Greer, South Carolina, to Caddo Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border, while storing up for bigger productions. Ten years ago, in the pre-prevalent-blogging age, this would have seemed natural: It takes a long time for things to appear in print. Now I'm sure it seems a little odd to people who have taken time to show us around.

    This too may be journalism returning to its natural equilibrium: You ask people's attention only when you've produced a completed thought. That is how our magazine has operated through most of its time. (At various stages in its history, it did function as a kind of in-print blog, but that's for discussion another time. See, this is an incremental pointer!) Again, it is a shift, which I note, largely for myself. On to the factories tomorrow, and a radio report soon.

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  • The Most Exciting 1,231.4 Miles in Sports

    A string that started when Lyndon Johnson was president and Barack Obama was a schoolboy in Jakarta still goes on.

    This is the actual winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, but Bennett Beach achieved an equally impressive goal. (Reuters)

    OK, we've all just seen the most exciting 2 minutes in sports, from Churchill Downs. Congrats to California Chrome.

    Before it recedes too far in the past, let me note an amazing achievement last week in the 2014 Boston Marathon. Not just the first American male winner in a very long time. Nor simply the "Boston Strong" inspiration from the race, inspiring as it was.

    On top of all that, Bennett Beach made history by starting and finishing his 47th consecutive Boston Marathon, which at 26.2 miles apiece is a total of 1,231.4 miles. No one had ever done that before.

    I paid attention on general reverence-for-history groundsbut also because I had run alongside Ben in the 1969 and 1970 Boston Marathons, when we were friends on the college newspaper. As he described those days in a nice item for WBUR:

    “In 1968, you showed up at Hopkinton Junior High School, and some guy would put a stethoscope on your chest to confirm that you were healthy enough to run it and hand out your number, and you were on your way,” he said. “It’s just a different world.”

    Back then, he said the athletes were rewarded at the finish line with beef stew and showers at the Prudential Center. But, then again, back then, there were only about 1,000 runners.

    Ben had in fact started in 1968; it was his description of that first race, which he said required hardly any preparation, that got me interested the following year. And while I had my fill of marathoning (including some more with Ben) by the early 1980s, Ben has been there every single year since 1968.

     —In 2012, he tied the record for most consecutive Boston Marathons. 

    —In 2013, when he was running to set the record, he had passed the halfway mark when the bombs went off and the race was cancelled. Runners who had gotten more than halfway were deemed to have "completed" the race, but Ben felt this was not a clean way to get the record.

    —This year, he had leg and dehydration problems late in the race, on top of some longer-term health issues, and had to walk the final stretch. But he got across the line in time and now, uniquely, has a 47-consecutive-finishes string. In addition to an astonishing 17 finishes at 2:40 or below, which means averaging close to 6 minutes per mile for the entire race. The fastest I ever did, in a Marine Corps Marathon in DC, was 3:02, or an average of 7-minute miles.

    Congratulations to Ben Beach, his wife Carol, and their family. Also please see this great story in the Boston Globe by John Powers, our contemporary and friend on the college paper, which includes a very nice picture of Ben. I don't know many people who have achieved more in a certain category than anyone else, ever, so I am all the prouder of what Bennett Beach has done.

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  • The China Story You Should Pay Attention to, and the One You Should Ignore

    Skip past anything that talks about a coming dawn of the Chinese Century. Go straight to stories on the complications of China in the here-and-now.

    The New Number 1? Actually, no. ( Wikimedia commons )

    First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago. 

    The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the worldand thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.

    The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believedand therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.

    Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:

    Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:

    Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figuresfreedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastropheare also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is. 

    Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFilewhose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this  installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:

    ...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....

    Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.

    There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:

    • As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
    • Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
    • Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costsepidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable landChina's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
    • And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this senseas Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.  
    • Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.

    China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloombergcome on.


    Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here

    No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.

    Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading. 

    At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:

    Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read. 

    Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.” 

    Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work. 

    But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."

    It is long past time for someone senior at Bloombergthe former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firmto do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up. 

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  • Bad News, Good Headline

    The importance of one verb and one noun

    On the New York Times site just now:

    What is very good, and accurate, about this headline: the verb "blocks" and the noun "filibuster."

    On why those two words are important—in contrast, say, to the word "fails" in the headline below from the same paper (and same reporter) in similar circumstances less than three months ago—see this compendium of items on reporters' and editors' discomfort in using the plain word "filibuster" to describe what is going on.  

     

    Poorly done, Senate Republicans; nicely done, NYT.

    Update: The headline on today's story was better than the article itself, whose second paragraph read as follows:

    The vote was 54 to 42, with 60 votes needed to advance the measure.

    For "advance the measure" read "break a threatened filibuster."

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