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.
  • Today's Fun With Maps: Where the People Are, and the Trees

    Two powerful and fascinating interactive tools

    Synthetic Population map of the Los Angeles basin, showing race of each household. Red dots are for white households; turquoise for black; purple for Asian, etc as explained at their site.

    As John Tierney mentioned recently, and as Google's Michael Jones explained in an Atlantic interview last year ago, maps are both the most rapidly evolving and often the most useful ways to make sense of changes around us.

    Two illustrations for the day.  First, from a group called RTI, the "Synthetic Population Viewer," developed from Census data and originally intended to study disease and epidemiology patterns. That's a screen shot of one aspect of its map, above: it's greater Los Angeles, with differently colored dots representing the race of each household, against a black background. Below is how the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg area looks, with a map background and a closer-in view. In both cases the red dots representing white households, turquoise representing black households, and others you can see online for other groupings :

    Here's the comparable view of Washington DC and environs, which conveys one of the demographic realities of the area:

    The maps can also show households differentiated by income, age, and household size -- or all four at once, in the "quad view." Among the interesting things about this approach (as Emily Badger described for Atlantic Cities last fall) is that each dot represents an individual household -- not a real, identifiable one but a "synthesized" but representative one derived from the data. You can read the background here and here and explore the map on your own here. It is much more configurable and open-ended than any screen shots can convey; I found it really fascinating.

    Now, trees: Global Forest Watch, in collaboration with a large number of other organizations and companies, has an also fascinating and also fully interactive map online. It shows changes in forest cover, forest use, levels of protection for forests, and other variables around the world. Here is the complex interaction of forest expansion (blue dots) and forest reduction (pink) in the southeastern United Stattes:

    Plus good news from Chile and parts of southern Brazil and Uruguay, and bad news from much of Amazonia, here:

    Our American Futures partners at Esri are heavily involved in this project; you can read their description of it here

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  • The Vanishing US News Archives

    Why a publication's cost-cutting decision matters in higher ed

    You won't find
    these rankings online

    Jim Romenesko reported yesterday that US News, which has had a mainly online existence since 2010, had decided to get rid of its online archives prior to 2007. Since the magazine had been around in various forms but always as a serious news weekly since 1933, and had been online for a couple of decades, that's a lot of missing material.

    I was US News's editor for two years, from 1996 to 1998, until the man who was then and now its owner, Mortimer Zuckerman, got so exasperated that he fired me. (Zuckerman also owned the Atlantic then; in 1999 David Bradley bought the magazine and has made it the center of his growing Atlantic Media group.) So allow for possible bias on my part. I've steered clear of US News and its owner since then, but Romenesko asked me along with other US News veterans about this move.

    My full reply ("cheesy, surprising, and sad") is on his site, here. Let me emphasize a non-obvious part of this shift, which is what it may mean to people at colleges and universities. Here is that part of what I told Romenesko:

    There's a group that may be more concerned by this decision than people whose words, drawings, or photos ever appeared in the magazine. That would be anyone involved in higher ed, whose world has been so heavily affected, for better and worse, by the US News rankings juggernaut since the 1980s. In my view the rankings have done more harm than good, but either way they have been very important. And as far as I can tell with a quick search, the first few decades of these rankings, plus explanations of their changing methodology, have also now disappeared from the public web. I hope they still exist somewhere, but so far most of the links I've found have come up dead, for instance the previously valid ones on this page, or here or here. This U.S. News page has a list of all past-years' rankings, but none of them appears to have a valid link. Normal web searches bring up very few pre-2007 US News results at all. Try it yourself: a web search for "US News Best Colleges 2002" etc.

    A specific example: in 1999 the rankings went through a controversial change (in which I played an indirect part), resulting in Caltech temporarily shooting to the top above the normal Ivy Leaguers. You can read about that and related controversies in Slate, or the Washington Monthly (also here), or the National Opinion Research Center, but (it appears that) you can't find the surveys themselves, and their presentation of data, on the public internet. Since the magazine's identity and business model are so closely tied to rankings now, and since the rankings have been so consequential in higher ed's evolution, I hope the magazine will at least keep this part of its heritage alive.

    There is a rich literature on the US News rankings question; a good place to start is this recent item by our own John Tierney. I know that US News won't reconsider its basic approach to rankings, but it should find some way to keep the history of what it's done in this field available. 

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  • John Tierney on the Power of Mapping

    A picture is worth a thousand words; the right map, maybe more

    As I mentioned in introducing my wife Deb's very popular post on "What We Mean When We Say Hello," she and I, along with John Tierney, are all doing reports for our American Futures project, and they all show up at that project page. But now John and Deb will be doing their installments on their respective author pages (his, and hers).

    John has just put up a fascinating post on "The Power of Mapping." It explains some of the ways we're trying to use Esri maps and other visual tools in both planning and chronicling our travels.

    Here is a screenshot of one of John's interactive maps: it shows high-tech manufacturing firms across some Southeastern states. You can click on each of the dots for information about the company, zoom in and out for closer-up or broader views, pan around, and so on. Also, as John explains, you can layer these results over other variables to see patterns. This is the Greenville-Greer-Spartanburg region of upstate South Carolina.

      For more, I turn you over to John Tierney.

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  • 3 Different Topics, 3 Works Worth Reading

    The publishing industry is in terrible trouble, as we all know. But more high-quality work keeps getting published than anyone could possibly read. A few suggestions for today

    Roger Angell, via PBS

    1) You don't often read things in the periodical press and think, people will still want to read this many, many years from now. But I had that feeling when reading Roger Angell's remarkable "Life in the Nineties," in The New Yorker.

    Roger Angell has one of the longest and most distinguished writing careers in American letters, but I think this is his very finest work. You have probably heard about it by now. It is extraordinary.

    2) Angell is of course best known as a literary-sportswriter. A different kind of sports-and-society work is The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. This is hardly a darkhorse book, having been a best-seller list perennial since its appearance last year. But it is genuinely interesting on many levels, from the psychology (and physics and sociology and anatomy) of the once wildly popular sport of competitive rowing; to the class tensions and national rivalries in that sport; to the foreboding drama of the 1936 Berlin Olympics; to the particular culture of the Depression-era Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle.

    From Daniel Brown's site

    The shot above, from a promotional video for the book, shows (I am pretty sure) boats racing through the Montlake Cut in Seattle. "The Cut" is part of the canal between Lake Washington and the Puget Sound, and it is where the heroes of the tale, the nine-man University of Washington crew, were based. I assume this picture is of that boat, which means that it was taken nearly 80 years ago. The races on the Cut didn't look much different when we watched them while living in Seattle in the early 2000s.

    I could say more about the book and its obvious parallels, from The Amateurs to Chariots of Fire to Jesse Owens's story. Instead I'll just say that I'm glad to have read it and think most people will be too.

    3) I know John Judis somewhat and respect him greatly. His 1980s biography of William F. Buckley was penetrating and surprisingly sympathetic, given Judis's standing as a man of the Left. (He co-founded the magazine that became Socialist Review and wrote for In These Times.) Soon after George W. Bush became president, Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, which made a case that seemed unlikely at the time but almost too obvious now. (In brief: that demographic and educational changes were working powerfully to the Democrats' advantage on the national level.) 

    John Judis, via CEIP

    John Judis has spent nearly a decade on his new book, Genesis, the story of how Harry Truman decided to throw his and America's weight so strongly behind the creation of Israel. The book also explores what long-term tensions Truman's decisions both resolved and increased. This book has the same careful, deliberate authority, but with an edge, that has characterized Judis's other work. You can read a New Republic excerpt from it here. For instance from that excerpt:

    Truman was not a philo-Semite like Balfour or Lloyd George. He was skeptical of the idea that Jews were a chosen people. (“I never thought God picked any favorites,” he wrote in his diary in 1945.) He had the ethnic prejudices of a small town Protestant Midwesterner from Independence, Missouri. He referred to New York City as “kike town” and complained about Jews being “very very` selfish.” But Truman’s prejudice was not exclusive to Jews (he contrasted “wops” as well as “Jews” with “white people”) and did not infect his political views or his friendships with people like Eddie Jacobson, his original business partner in Kansas City. He was, his biographer Alonzo Hamby has written, “the American democrat, insistent on social equality, but suspicious of those who were unlike him.”

    There were two aspects of Truman’s upbringing and early political outlook that shaped his view of a Jewish state. Truman grew up in a border state community that had been torn apart by the Civil War. That, undoubtedly, contributed to his skepticism about any arrangement that he thought could lead to civil war. And Truman, like his father, was an old-fashioned Democrat. His political heroes were Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, and he shared Jefferson’s insistence on the separation of church and state. He blamed Europe’s centuries of war on religious disputes, which, he said, “have caused more wars and feuds than money.” That, too, contributed to his skepticism about a Jewish state.

    When Truman assumed office in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he had little knowledge of Palestine and even less of what Roosevelt’s policies in the region had been. What immediately concerned him was what to do about the Jewish refugees, the survivors of the Nazi’s final solution, most of whom were stranded in ramshackle displaced person camps in Central Europe, and some of whom wanted to migrate to Palestine. Truman was deeply sympathetic to the Jews’ plight and defied the British, who still controlled Palestine and were worried about the Arab reaction, by calling for 100,000 Jewish refugees to be let in.

    I mention this book both because I learned a lot from it, and because it was the object of a churlish put down on (surprise!) the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. For instance, and incorrectly, "Genesis reduces [Truman's] tortuous deliberation into a simplistic tale of Jewish bullying."

    You can read what strike me as more accurate, though sometimes critical, assessments in the Jewish Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The American Prospect, and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

    "The press" is in trouble, as we always hear. But more high-quality work keeps appearing than anyone could possibly read.

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  • The Parks and Recreation Theory of America's Future

    What we discuss at the national level has surprisingly little to do with startup decisions. Some provocative data about where America is growing, and why.

    I have an article about Greenville, South Carolina, and some other cities, just being wrapped up for the April issue of the magazine. Whenever the snow and wintry storms stop rolling through the eastern half of the country, which should be soon, we'll resume our travels, again headed south.

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    The watchword for this America-by-small-plane journey has been: there's no place we "have" to be, so there's no reason to take off when there is weather to worry about.

    Low-altitude flight in good weather can seem almost magical (as Deb Fallows has described). In bad weather, it's unpleasant at best and foolishly dangerous at worst. Here is the kind of forecast map, retrieved just now from the National Weather Service's wonderful Aviation Weather Center site, that makes me think: Well, I have a lot of writing to catch up on anyway. It's forecast icing severity early tomorrow as the latest snow storm comes through, at the altitudes we'd be likely to fly headed south. The red hashmarks are for "Supercooled Large Droplets," which are worse than they sound and can mean trouble for even big, powerful jet planes. 

    So for the evening, two intriguing bits of data on the main question we're pursuing in America as we once did in China: why certain communities are proving resilient in tough times, and whether their successes are purely idiosyncratic or offer clues that might be applied elsewhere.

    The first item is the interactive map you see at the top of this post -- not the discouraging icing-forecast chart but the one centered on Greenville and surrounding upstate South Carolina. This map was prepared by Jim Herries at the mapping firm Esri, our partner in this project, and it offers a very fine-grained look at expected "population pressures" over the next few years.

    Pressure comes in two varieties: rising, and falling. The green dots on the maps are the neighborhoods and cities expected to grow rapidly by 2017; the blue shows "average" growth rates; and the magenta dots show areas that people are leaving. You can zoom the map in and out and pan to any part of the country, to find patterns that I find extremely interesting. For instance, here is a screenshot of the big-picture view, showing what is happening especially in the settled areas east of the Rockies.

    Again, the pinkish dots are counties or neighborhoods that are static or losing population as the whole nation grows, and green is the reverse. If you zoom in on the interactive map at top, you will find a lot of instructive regional patterns, about which we'll have more to say.

    Item two is a report earlier this month from the Endeavor organization, which supports entrepreneurs around the world. It surveyed people who had started and built high-growth, usually high-tech new businesses -- the same kind of people we've been looking for and describing in Vermont and South Dakota and inland California and South Carolina. It tried to identify why they built their businesses where they did.

    You can read the whole results here (and Richard Florida's analysis for Atlantic Cities here). The point that resonated with me is that the main variables had almost nothing to do with what we usually discuss at the national level, from tax rates to regulatory breaks. Instead they were overwhelmingly about the features we've heard time and again from mayors, chambers of commerce, newspaper editors (yes, they still exist and are informative), and school superintendents. These are: whether a city is an attractive place to live, whether young people want to move there, whether they will find other people like them there, whether they will want to stay there as they start families. People think of Parks and Recreation (for the record, I am a fan) as a putdown of flyover life. But according to this study, it's closer than much Beltway talk to what matters about our future.

    The study's executive-summary portion was:

    • Entrepreneurs at fast-growing firms usually decide where to live based on personal connections and quality of life factors many years before they start their firms.
    • These founders value a pool of talented employees more than any other business-related resource that cities can offer.
    • Access to customers and suppliers is the second most valuable business-related resource that cities can provide, according to these entrepreneurs.
    • The founders in our study rarely cite low tax rates or business-friendly regulations as reasons for starting a business in a specific city. 

    The whole thing is concise and provocative, and corresponds to what we've heard on our trips so far.


    If we were planning on flying tomorrow morning, I wouldn't be up this late, and I wouldn't be having a beer right now. The endless winter has some benefits. 

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  • Happening Right Now: Gliding Attempt Across the Mountains, Nevada to South Dakota

    Wind power in action

    Flight Aware track of today's transmontane glider flight ( Flight Aware )

    This morning a glider plane was launched from Minden, Nevada -- in the Sierra Nevada east of Lake Tahoe, very close to the California state line -- in an attempt to fly all the way during daylight today* to Rapid City, South Dakota.

    Glider progress at of 1:30pm EST, via the live-tracking site.

    In the flight's favor: very strong winds from the west, as explained in great detail (and with lots of the weather graphics pilots look at when planning flights) at the site of Walter Rogers, a retired National Weather Service forecaster. 

    As a challenge for the flight: mountains, as shown on the Flight Aware planned route for the journey. They're not attempting to cross the heart of the Rockies, in Colorado, but the terrain in Utah and Wyoming is plenty high. This screen shot, showing its progress, was just a few minutes after the one above:

    KMEV, at the beginning of the trip, is the Minden-Tahoe airport. KRAP is Rapid City's, which we visited a few months ago. (In aviation parlance, most U.S. airports have the K prefix -- KJFK, KLAX, KDCA, etc.) 

    To follow the action, you can check this map based site, run by one of the pilots; the Flight Aware track; and Walter Rogers's posts. Thanks to my friend Michele Travierso, himself a glider pilot, for the tip. Good luck!

    *5:30pm EST update: I am actually not sure they intended to make it during daylight, and in any case that looks difficult at this point. Again, good luck.

    Midnight update: They made it to Casper, Wyoming. Flight track here. Explanations and background here. Glad all are safe.

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  • The Surprising Geography of Everyday Talk

    A familiar voice in a new location

    People moving in and out of Austin, source here.

    On her own new section of this site -- they grow up so fast! -- Deb Fallows has a very interesting post with reader reaction on the topic she raised last week: the conversational cues and questions people use to find out about others they have just met. These range from "What's your parish?" in Chicago (as it happens, her native city) to "What are you?" in Philly (as it happens, mine), the latter inviting an answer of "Polish," "Italian," etc.  

    I'm mentioning it here both on its merits and for housekeeping reasons. All of our posts, plus John Tierney's, from our ongoing-though-temporarily-snowbound American Futures series will appear together on the AF project page. But now Deb and John will have their own items in their own author-channels, rather than having them show up here in potentially confusing hybrid-byline mode. Please go to Deb's and check this out! 


    Update Deb's post is about a range of first-meeting conversational ploys. One of the readers she quotes mentions the approach I've used over the years. "So, what's your story?" Everybody has one.

    A more cynical media-centric option is one that Erik Tarloff, my friend and birthday-mate, employed in his novel Face Time. That is to begin any talk with anyone in the DC or NY media by saying, "Love you work!" Or "that was a great piece" or "You've been on a roll." Sigh. Probably works in LA too, or anywhere.

    Back to the high road: When you know someone's general field of work, but haven't followed what he or she has been up to recently, there is the always-dependable "So, what are you working on?" or "What's your current project?" Again, this is not cynical: it's a way to get people talk about what they're interested in -- which is when most of us are most interesting.

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  • As House of Cards Resumes

    The sun never sets on the empire of British political drama/satire

    Kevin Spacey in the season-opening episode, via Netflix.

    I've seen only Episode One of Season Two of the U.S. version. So no spoilers from me about that first hour, and I'll try to avoid them from others about the 12 hours still to come. I will say that the beginning of this new season underscores my earlier tip that it's worth checking out the original 1990 version from the BBC.

    Two followups for now. First, about the well-known Gray Poupon mustard ad which, as mentioned earlier, features the same Ian Richardson who portrays the Iago/Richard III-like Francis Urquhart of the BBC series. Many readers wrote to fill in part of the background I hadn't been aware of. For instance:

    I remember the Grey Poupon commercial but was struck watching the embed in your column that this was actually an encounter between two quite celebrated fictional PM's - Francis Urquhart meets Jim Hacker of Yes, Prime Minister fame (Paul Eddington).

    Now if only there were some way for the two of them to have an encounter with that other great PM, Harry Perkins (the incomparable Ray McAnally in A Very British Coup).  [below] Mind you, he was a committed socialist, so probably no fancy cars, but that encounter would be something to relish!
     

    If you haven't seen A Very British Coup, see if you can find it - I think it's a brilliant take on British politics. A bit dated today (it's from 1988) but  well worth watching. It's based on a novel of the same name which is also worth reading, though (quasi-spoiler) the book and the TV versions end very differently.  And if you happen to be a Downton Abbey fan, then you'll enjoy seeing the butler, Mr. Carson, playing one of the cabinet ministers.) 

    Here is another Gray Poupon ad, with the two as-seen-on-TV PMs:

    Similarly:

    You didn't mention that the other actor in the Grey Poupon ad is Paul Eddington, who played Jim Hacker in the classic comedy series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister -- another terrific British take on the political process.

    BTW, most Grey Poupon ads portray a brotherhood of the one percent ("but of course"), but these two former pretend PMs talk right past each other. 

    And just for completeness, here is Eddington in a well-known Yes, Prime Minister clip:

    The other followup is about the political content of the UK and US versions of House of Cards. A reader makes this astute point:

    I heartily endorse your comments on the original House of Cards. Here's one more belated thought...
     
    I think another big difference is the political context. It's a decade or so since I watched it, so take this with a grain of salt, but as I recall the original FU was a Thatcherite careerist, and the policies he forced through were all typical of that (privatizing public resources, cutting off aid to poor people, that sort of thing). My impression was that this was essential to the satire: FU was, in a sense, a personification of post-Thatcher conservatism--sociopathic policy represented as an individual sociopath. (As I said, it's been a long time; I could well be overstating or even imagining this point.)
     
    While I enjoy the American version, it seems kind of toothless to me, because it's untethered from any broader political commentary. The bills Kevin Spacey is pushing may be fatally compromised, and he may be pushing them purely to reinforce & expand his own power base, but they aren't really *malignant*. Spacey's character happens to be a Democrat, but he isn't presented as a commentary on his party or his politics; his party is just kind of an arbitrary part of the plot.
     
    IMO, they could have made a much more interesting series by focusing on someone more like Ted Cruz, whose personal nihilism matched the nihilism of his politics. But that's not generally how American mass media approach politics (false equivalence isn't just the province of the press corps). Seems to me the British are much less reluctant to take sides in their fictional depictions of politics. (For another excellent example of this, see A Very British Coup.)

    I hadn't even known of A Very British Coup, but it moves up on the to-view list. 

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  • American Futures Update, Nanook Edition

    The climate is getting warmer, the local weather is getting colder, and we're waiting for the thaw

    Happy Valentine's Day!
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    Our rediscover-America caravan was set to be back in the Carolinas and Georgia this past week. But they are still snowbound, and so are we, and so is the airplane. Instead we are rediscovering the winter-sports potential of our neighborhood in DC. That is Deb Fallows, inspired by Olympic coverage and preparing for her Slopestyle run down our street. Myself, I'm a traditionalist and will stick to the luge.

    Eventually the thaw will come, our host cities will have dug out, and we'll be en route again. Meanwhile, Happy Valentine's Day, starting with the little winter Olympian you see above.

     

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  • George Wilson

    A military reporter for whom combat was never an abstraction

    George Wilson

    I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.

    Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:

    George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

    Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

    George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out. 

    Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.

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  • Snow Day Update on Original House of Cards

    What Grey Poupon mustard, Richard III, and Prince Charles have in common

    February 13, 2014, Washington DC.

    As I mentioned yesterday, you really do want to see Ian Richardson's rendering of Francis Urquhart, in the vintage-1990 original BBC version of House of Cards, before Kevin Spacey shows us what he has in store for Season Two tomorrow. Both are on Netflix. And for many people in the Eastern part of the country, external circumstances favor snow-day viewing (that's our back yard just now).

    Bonus points:

    1) As many people have written in to note, the original four-episode BBC series was only the first part of a trilogy.  Part two is To Play the King, and three is The Final Cut; details here. I haven't yet seen them but have them queued up.

    2) From a reader who skipped the Kevin Spacey edition:

    Have not watched the U.S. version because I was convinced there was no way to improve upon the UK BBC version. Have sent my copy to friends deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan so they can enjoy a great DVD you don't find in the normal collections.

    You might point out that Richardson's Francis is much better known as "the Grey Poupon mustard commercial aristocrat in the limo."
     

    The ad is shown below. Which is a segue to the next note.

    In the ad, Ian Richardson, the one without the mustard, comes across as a feckless Lord Grantham-style twit. As Francis Urquhart he leaves a very different impression. Reader #3 points out:

    In the US version, I come away somewhat bemused and amused at how they always manage to take Frank Underwood [Spacey] 2 or 3 steps farther into his intrigues than my imagination can project.  He is a master at manipulation, something that I would never be able to master, even if I tried.  

    In the British version, I came away feeling queasy.  Urquhart is pure evil. 

    4) I mentioned the continuity between F.U., as he is known in the original, and other figures from the British literary imagination: Iago, Uriah Heep, "Lucky Jim" Dixon. Recently James Cappio, at the Blogging Shakespeare site, made the more obvious connection: the drama is Shakespearean, and FU is Richard III (with certain grace notes to Lady Macbeth). Eg:

    Any resemblance to a certain crookback King is strictly intentional. The first episode opens, like Richard III, with an extended address to the viewer; drawing us into complicity with his villainy, Urquhart’s soliloquies become a signature element of the series.

    Very much like Richard, Urquhart so thoroughly seduces us that we root for him in spite of ourselves. That is largely due to Ian Richardson’s indelible performance. Richardson, one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation, had just played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company before taking the role of Urquhart; by letting Richard influence him, he created one of the most iconic characters in all of British television. Urquhart’s signature phrase—“You may think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”—is still widely recognized in Britain even today.

    5) Confirming Cappio's final point, this note from a reader:

    I was visiting London a little over a week ago and heard the following on the BBC News TV Channel:

    ‘You might very well think that – I couldn’t possibly comment.’

    What was Francis Urquhart doing on the news?

    It turned out it was Prince Charles during a visit to a flooded area of the country blowing off a question asking him to comment on the government's actions.

    Sure enough, if you watch the BBC video here (not embeddable, and with a long pre-roll ad), Prince Charles rattles off that famous line at time 0:15, entirely deadpan. Either he has absorbed this part of popular culture without realizing its origin or he is a more hip character than we think.

    6) And, on the broader question of whether some irreducible American core of optimism and a kind of memento mori / reveling in decline on the UK side accounts for a gulf in satire, standup comedy, political rhetoric, and so on separating the Old and New Worlds, a reader I assume to be a Brit writes:

    I was reminded somewhat of Stephen Fry on the difference between
    American and British Comedy [below].

    As a data point I'd also say that a lot of Brits actually found Ricky
    Gervais' character a lot more sympathetic than Steve Carell's
    precisely because he ended up as such a tragic figure, whereas
    Carrell's figure just came across as very annoying after a while.

    Thanks to all. That's it on this theme from me, until I see more of the old UK trilogy or the new US production.

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  • Before You Watch the New House of Cards, Do Yourself a Favor and See the Original

    In which I (reluctantly) acknowledge the superiority of the British style of satire.

    Ian Richardson, the one person Kevin Spacey should fear in head-to-head matchups. ( From British Cinema Greats )

    I'll watch anything Kevin Spacey is in, so I'll be among the early downloaders of the second installment of House of Cards, which will be out via Netflix touchingly on Valentine's Day. 

    But now I've done something I should have done earlier, and that will put Spacey-style House of Cards 2, 3, any others in a completely different light. Recently I watched the four-episode original BBC House of Cards series from 1990. It's on Netflix too, and, seriously, if you are interested in either  politics or satire, this is not to be missed.

    June Thomas of Slate, originally a Brit, made this point a year ago, and our own nonpareil Christopher Orr plans to write about it at length some time soon. But let me make the point right now: Kevin Spacey is great, but the late Ian Richardson, as Parliamentary Chief Whip Francis Urquhart, is doing something else altogether. It's like a Judd Apatow movie vs. the bottomless bleakness of Evelyn Waugh (eg A Handful of Dust). Here's how the whole saga of revenge and plotting begins:

    The comparison between the U.S. and U.K. versions of this program shows something about why I feel so profoundly American (rather than British), but also why the Brits excel at just this kind of thing. There are lots of tough breaks in Kevin Spacey's House of Cards, but in the end there is a jauntiness to it. People kill themselves; politicians lie and traduce; no one can be trusted -- and still, somewhere deep it has a kind of American optimism. That's us (and me). USA! USA!

    It's different in the UK version. Richardson's Francis Urquhart reminds us that his is the nation whose imagination produced Iago, and Uriah Heep, and Kingsley Amis's "Lucky Jim" Dixon. This comedy here is truly cruel -- and, one layer down, even bleaker and more squalid than it seems at first. It's like the contrast between Ricky Gervais in the original UK version of The Office and Steve Carell in the knock-off role. Steve Carell is ultimately lovable; Gervais, not. Michael Dobbs, whose novel was the inspiration for both the U.K. and the U.S. House of Cards series, has told the BBC that the U.S. version was "much darker" than the British original. He is wrong -- or cynically sarcastic, like Urquhart himself.

    I could go on, but I will leave that to Chris Orr when he does the full-length version. For now, do yourself a favor and check this out.


    Explanation for the sub-head on this item: I am not a subscriber to the "Oh, the Brits do it all so much more suavely" school. But in this case I tip my hat.

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  • So, Where Do You Live? What Do You Do?

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    When we were in Greenville SC recently, I was surprised to learn that a very common follow-up to the greeting of “How do you do?” or “Nice to meet you,” is the question “Where do you go to church?” I wrote about it here.

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    Lots of you wrote in about this question,  “Where do you go to church?” Some of you considered the question to be intrusive and even offensive. From a reader in Washington DC: "If someone asked me 'Where do you go to church?' I'd be flummoxed at least and offended at worst." Others were not at all flummoxed, and wondered why I would be surprised. And on a web forum at city-data.com discussing just this question, writers from places as distinct as rural Maine and Kentucky said this expression is commonly heard.

    Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory. (And to be clear here, I’m ruling out pickup lines; that’s another topic. I am referring to general conversation openers that aim for a sweet spot between impersonal and too personal, between vapid and too pungent.)

    Image via this blogspot

    Social orientation:  The two women I met in Greenville SC, interpreted the real meaning of “Where do you go to church?” as something to orient you socially, like “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” A New Yorker who posted on the city-data forum echoed this and suggested the socially orienting analogy there might be pizza: “It's just like someone asking you what grocery store you go to or what pizzeria (New Yorkers love pizza) you go to,” she wrote.

    Readers far afield have other candidates. One reader from Hawaii writes that among those who grew up on Oahu, the question is: "Where did you go to high school?" Same from a reader from New Orleans. “Where’d you go to school?” he clarified, means high school, not college. (This plucky reader also said a close second is, “Who’s your mama?” but I think he was pulling my leg.)

    In Boston, a reader says “Where do you live?” elicits a single name from the 351 towns around Boston. “If you live in Somerville, you say Somerville; you would never say 'near Cambridge.'” I’m guessing that in Boston, people are fishing for the same kind of information as in my hometown of Washington DC. Sometimes we look for geography, but more often, I think, our mental maps outline the culture and lifestyle of suburbs or neighborhoods.

    Image from here

    Work: “So, what do you do?” wrote another reader from Washington DC. I heartily agree that in Washington DC, this is the default question. Everyone here knows that it is a not-so-veiled way of assessing power and connections, the currency of the town.

    Interestingly, in Burlington VT, people said this same question actually means “What do you do for hobbies?

    A bi-coastal resident writes that in the Bay area as well as Manhattan, the version of the work question is a fill-in-the-blank: "And you’re with… ?"  And lest you misinterpret, she writes, “this refers not to the person who brought you to the gathering, still less to your spouse or companion, but to your work affiliation.”

    Image from here

    Neutral-ground: There is the totally tame: “How ‘bout this weather!” Or the slightly more risky: “How ’bout that game!” A version from the small-town south: “How you getting along?” And from a larger town, where everyone doesn’t know everyone: "So how do you know [the host]?" One big-city reader suggests this question is not so innocent, but can actually be a useful probe: “We're a networking city and even small events are often big.”

    A resident of VT explained a Burlington-specific question, “How did you get here?” This isn’t meant to be prying, she said, it’s rather that so many people have a back story of how they finally landed in Burlington. But it’s also a little tricky, a question you would warm up to, instead of one you ask right off the bat. Interestingly, when we were in Alaska last year, people told us that you never ask that question, since the backstory could be sketchy.

    Finally, one weary-sounding man who has lived all over the south, southwest, and even the east wrote in:  "It never occurred to me … that Hello/How Do You Do might have any formulaic follow-up.  So, to answer the question, in my experience the answer is 'Nothing.'"

    We’d like to hear from you, to help fill in the grid of who says what where. Please email me, with your geographic coordinates, at Debfallows at gmail.

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  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

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  • In Honor of the Olympics, Let's Talk Filibuster

    What's the word I was looking for—the one that starts with "F" and applies when a bill gets 59 votes? Oh, yes, now it comes back to me: "Fail."

    Stop me if you've heard this one before:

    A large majority of the U.S. Senate votes in favor of a measure—in this case, senators representing nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population*. A minority threatens a filibuster to stop it. The majority falls just short of the supermajority needed to get its way. And our leading journalistic institutions tell us that ... the measure "failed."

    Yes, you have heard this before. But for the record, come on New York Times (source of the breaking-news flash above, and the story below, and which did get the word "filibuster" into the end of the second paragraph):

    And come on CNN (which did not manage to include the word filibuster):

    And come on Boston Globe—which in its defense was using the NYT story, though it presumably could write its own headlines:

     

    On the other hand, nicely done, Reuters!

    And welcome Politico!

     

    __

    *Fun fact for the day: By my ballpark count, the 59 senators who voted for the bill represented states with just less than 70 percent of the U.S. population. The 41 who voted no represented just more than 30 percent of the population. With only 70 percent support, no wonder the bill "failed."


    The nightmare of article-writing nears the end of its cycle, at least for this issue. Coming soon, more reports from up-and-coming parts of America, plus what I learned by watching the pre-opening night of the Winter Olympics.

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