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.
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.
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Last week, in the "50 Greatest Breakthroughs" story from the current issue, our panel of experts decreed that the printing press was the #1 most important technological advance since the wheel.
Last month, as part of our chronicles from Burlington, Vermont, I quoted Paula Routly, the co-editor of the (successful!) local weekly there, Seven Days, on the virtuous cycle that she thought had kept the paper going:
"People look at our paper and it makes them happy and interested to be here. That motivates them to do something, and participate -- which makes it more a community, and gives us something to cover. It’s a cycle that works."
Throughout this trip --in Michigan, in South Dakota, in Wyoming, in Vermont, and now in Maine -- we've been struck by the power and importance of "local patriotism" as expressed in efforts to strengthen downtowns, school systems, civic culture, local arts, and the other elements that make life more livable.
Now a reader on the West Coast ties this all together:
Regarding the comment from the Seven Days editor about "a cycle that works"
This reminded me of Benedict Anderson's book, Imagined Communities. To greatly oversimplify, Anderson argues that the rise of the concept of the nation state was driven by the printing press and by the spread of newspapers, which both unified areas around the vernacular language and -- significantly here -- gave readers a sense that they were part of a community defined by the news they were reading.
I have many, many things to say about where newspapers have gone wrong, but one of the foremost is that so many of them have paid less attention to local news than to other things.
Since I lived in the District until a few years ago, I'll take the Washington Post as an example. Its market power has been that it was the newspaper for the DC metro area. But I think it's pretty clear that its reporters were much more interested in the national news, and that the metro desk was not treated as a priority. When printing presses were expensive, the Post (like other papers) could afford to ignore this, so I suspect many people there have so internalized the status hierarchy on the reporting side that they have completely lost touch with the role they play locally.
I live in San Jose now, and wish the Mercury News had the same attitude as Seven Days.
The various strategies through which people define and sustain communities, imagined and real, is a theme we keep being exposed to, keep trying to learn about, and keep viewing as more and more significant. It is part of a different and more encouraging kind of America than the one our national-level political news usually conveys.
I am sure there is a quote from Democracy in America that would work well here. I will fish it out when I have the book at hand.
A week ago at this time, my wife and I were in Eastport, Maine -- and I was flying the hour-long ferry route down to Portland, Maine, to pick up Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace and his engineer, Brendan Willard, and take them back to Eastport.
That day along the coast of Maine was clear but very windy. When I was coming into Portland, by myself, that was no problem. The runways there are big, one was aligned with the wind, and I could sink very smoothly toward a "have we touched down yet? I didn't feel anything" landing. Of course that was with no one else aboard to witness it and no cameras running.
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It was a different story back in Eastport. The wind was getting stronger and gustier, it was a little off the alignment of the (only) runway, and -- the biggest challenge -- the Eastport airport has no weather-reporting equipment to let you know before landing the wind's direction and strength and (if you were on an instrument approach) how high the ceiling was.
The videos below show our approach to Eastport, from two perspectives. The first is from inside the cockpit, filmed by Marketplace's Brendan Willard in the back seat. The chatter you'll hear between Kai Ryssdal and me has to do with the in-cockpit readings we got a few minutes before landing, showing that the crosswind at 3000' altitude was more than 50 knots, which is very strong. We could tell -- by looking at the ocean surface, at the trees, at flags -- that it was nowhere near that strong at ground level. That was good in preparing for a landing, since we would never have tried to land in a 50-knot wind. But it was bad in that it guaranteed "wind shear," or an abrupt change in wind velocity and/or direction, somewhere between 3000 feet and ground level.
So here is how it looked from inside the cockpit. As I explain on the Marketplace site, this was a "good" landing only by the standards of the grizzled piloting slogan: A good landing is one you can walk away from. And a great landing is one where you can use the plane again! By any other standards it is one I would not have chosen to be filmed -- but hey, this is reality journalism. You can see the plane bouncing around as we try to adjust to the wind on the way down. About 500 feet up you'll hear me asking Kai whether we can see any see any flags or big-leafed trees near the runway to judge the wind we were headed for. Right before touchdown there was a big gust from the right, pushing the plane hard to the left. This meant getting things settled before we landed -- and remembering another old slogan, which is that you have to fly the plane every inch of the way down to the runway.
And, the sea gull (at time 1:55)! That really would have been a mess.*
Now, here is how the same last minute looked from ground level in Eastport, where my wife Deb and Marketplace's Bridge Bodnar were watching us come in. This makes the last-second wind gust less obvious, and for reasons of perspective makes it seem as if the approach was lower and more "dragging it in" than it was.** But the sound gives you a sense of the wind, and the environs give you a sense of Eastport. There's a flash at around time 0:32 that, for a big plane, might be a puff of smoke as the tires hit the pavement. In this case it's just sun glinting off the wing.
Next up: more of what happened after we got out of the plane.
* Large-scale bird strikes, as we know from the case of "Captain Sully" and US Air Flight 1549, can be a problem even for big airplanes. For a small airplane, hitting a single bird isn't necessarily a safety problem -- especially in a case like this, when we were already on the ground. But it is an enormous mess, apart from being very hard on the bird, and can damage the propeller, the windshield, and other parts of the plane. This has happened to me only once, more than a dozen years ago, with a poor pigeon near Boeing Field in Seattle.
** The guideline for landing this kind of plane is to establish an 80-knot speed on final approach, at a 3-degree angle of descent. Because of the gusty wind, we kept a slightly higher approach speed, and I started out above the 3-degree path and then tried to join it except when bounced off by the wind. In calm or steady winds, you basically get things set up and can glide/coast your way down. With bumpy winds like this, you're mainly trying to make frequent small adjustments to offset whatever the wind is doing.
Going on a trip tomorrow. Of the countless United flights I've taken over the aeons, for many millions of miles all around the world, not one has ever had Wi-Fi coverage. Unlike Alaska, Delta, American, much of US Air, etc. Just now the message above arrives. There is something I would actually be working on, online, during the daytime long-haul flight tomorrow if this actually functions. Will do an update on this post some time tomorrow to register results -- in flight, between noon and 6pm EDT if it is functional, sometime after that if not.
Here is United's chart about how Wi-Fi progress is going. To be clear, most of the time I welcome the opportunity to be dis-connected -- to read a book, to watch a movie, to think -- during a long flight. But there are times, like tomorrow, when it would be a plus. We'll see.
Update from aloft: To my surprise, I am sitting at 34,000 feet in a United A320 that has both Wi-Fi and one of those "EmPower" power outlets. Our modern world.
Update-update: At least on this flight, unfortunately the service doesn't work well enough to be to worth the $13 price. For about one hour of a five-hour flight, the United Wi-Fi worked at high speed. The rest of the time it was off line or so overloaded/troubled that most pages timed out before they loaded. For the record.
Thomas Perry, an artist and designer living in Osaka, sends this timeline companion to our current cover story on the 50 most significant breakthroughs since the discovery of the wheel. He explains his approach:
I spent a couple of hours creating a timeline in a class I teach on basic design to interior, product and graphic design students in Japan. I agree with a point you made on your blog that the changes at that time had a much more jarring impact on day-to-day life compared to the present, although dispersed into general society at a slower pace compared to recent inventions.
A few explanatory points:
* I start the 20th century at the sinking of the Titanic - all of the promise of recent technology with the dark hint of what`s to follow. A case could be made that electrification starts the 20th century but my guess is that it did not truly penetrate (western) society until after 1912, more likely not until the `20s. I close the 20th century at the airing of the Apple "1984" Mac commercial and the beginning of the digital age on a commercial level. An explanation of Orwell`s book is also necessary.
* on occasion I use 2 dates to mark an invention, for example, photography: 1827 for the introduction of the first daguerreotype and then the early *1900`s as the vague starting time for general use. When I ask the students to fill in the timeline from the list of inventions that we draw up, I emphasize that they should pick dates when the item truly becomes relevant to general society, otherwise electricity and automobiles first make their mark in the 1600`s.
*interesting how certain events can be dated to the day, airplanes and WW 1, but most have a vague time span, automobiles, the starting point of WW 2 in Asia, the cell phone, email, etc.
* I noticed in your article you put refrigeration as starting in the 1850`s, I place it at 1927 and the introduction of the electric refrigerator for home use .... the freezer does not make it into the home until the 40`s according to my brief research on the internet...
Now, other reactions from readers. First, what about the threshing machine?
While I could quibble with some of the rankings, etc., the biggest flaw is the combine harvester [#50 on our list]. While important, this was merely an improvement over the real leap forward, the invention of McCormick threshing machine. Before that, grain had to cut by hand with a sickle (which was itself probably a pretty important invention). More so than the moldboard plow, this is what really made large scale farming feasible and started the movement of people off the farms into the cities.
What about the semaphore?
The quote about the telegraph ("Before it, Joel Mokyr says, “information could move no faster than a man on horseback.”) is incorrect. As early as 1795, messages from London to Deal (about 75 miles) were regularly being sent in about one minute. Other European cities probably were doing it even earlier.
The Semaphore Line, invented and developed by various Europeans in the late 18th century, was so quickly and throughly eclipsed by the electric telegraph that it is largely forgotten today. But for several decades it could send messages quite quickly across great distances, assuming the cooperation of weather and finicky machinery.
What about the horse collar? From a reader in Zurich:
Clearly there would have been great diversity in the lists presented by each panelist, but I would be curious to know if anyone had mentioned the horse collar (possibly as early as the 3rd century AD.) [JF note: I don't recall anyone suggesting this, but I'll check again.]
Years ago in an undergraduate history course, we were made aware that this invention enabled man to use a more powerful animal to plow, expand production from subsistence level, and, ultimately, enable the formation of cities. It still sounds pretty important to me.
What about baskets?
But before I read down to the details of the piece I stopped myself and wrote my own choices for the list. Such lists, though, are troubling because they strive to be unconditional: the Gutenberg press is fine alone, except what about cheap paper? Ooops, and the alphabet? So, like your correspondents, I varied the list into clusters of like objects, each of which made something else possible. That became my criterion: the power of what is made possible by the invention or innovation. The great mind may be a combinatory mind.
So: wheel is fine. Wheel + axle is better because it seems to show more possibility in its genius. Hammer-stone, cutting-stone, stone scraper, stone spear, atlatl, are all the same, because they permitted human beings to plan for things like hunting, prepare things like food and clothes, and make shelters. Higher intellect begins for me in planning, preparing and making -- and then replicating these activities in an adaptive way. We could add controlled fire + cookery to the list, probably, and the adaptation of materials for tools, weapons, shelters, and food as well. (Also, some kind of primitive balanced meal must have allowed robust survivors to emerge with expanded brains.)
Maybe a shorter list of processes is needed as well: not just invention but also adaptation, combination, cultivation, imitation, experimentation, evaluation, differentiation, judgement. Welcome, people, to complexity and ambiguity.
An insight I had at the American Museum of Natural History in 1983 or 1984 made me add baskets to my list ("a world with a basket is better than a world without a basket," that was my thought when contemplating the native people of the American Plains). But that thought has to be broadened to include all kinds of containers and vessels made of glass, pottery, metal. Imagine a world without portable storage, cooking containers, drinking gourds.
What about justice for Eli Whitney? A reader whose last name is Whitney writes:
For my own selfish reasons, I was pleased to see that Eli Whitney made the list by virtue of the cotton gin. However, I feel he was slighted by not being given credit for the introduction of the assembly line, described as starting in 1913 and having "Turned a craft-based economy into a mass-market one."
As I recall from a long-ago history course, Eli Whitney pioneered the idea of the assembly line when, around 1790, he got a contract from the US government to produce the Whitneyville musket. This weapon was revolutionary in that it was made from interchangeable parts. Previously firearms were hand-crafted; the individual gunsmith had to machine each part to fit into the weapon he was making. By introducing interchangeable parts, an unskilled workman could assemble the musket rather than having to rely on a skilled craftsman. Without interchangeable parts, the whole idea of the assembly line would never have been workable.
After the jump, one more message on the hits and misses of our survey.
Exposure to modern China leaves you with an endlessly expanding list of specific questions*, plus one unchanging Big Question. That big question, in various forms, is where this whole high-speed juggernaut is headed.
Do the past 30 years of growth mean (as many credulous Westerners, and a few assertive Chinese, have assumed) that China is soon destined to dominate everything, everywhere? Or is the real worry whether growth and progress can be sustained at all? Is the Chinese system too strong? Or too weak? Or both?
Will the newest crop of leaders realize, as Deng Xiaoping did 30-plus years ago, that if China is to stay Communist-run, then Chinese Communists will have to relax controls as fast as they can? Or will they keep pumping out slogans about “reform” without doing anything serious to clean up the structural imbalances, the crony-capitalist/communist corruption, and the needless intrusions (like Internet censorship) that threaten the country's ability to move up to fully modern "rich country" status? My attempt to wrestle with all of these questions, especially the last, is in the form of my book China Airborne. [Below, Beijing on my latest visit a few months ago.** I feel unsporting posting pictures like this, but they're part of the reality.]
The more confident people sound in answering the big Whither China? question, the more skeptical I've become of them and their views. On a day when the news out of China includes the still-unexplained multi-fatality crash of a Jeep into a crowd in the governmental heart of Beijing at Tiananmen Square, here is a sample of the attempts to answer questions big and small:
1) “One Big North Korea?”John Craig is an analyst based in Queensland, Australia who produces an idiosyncratically formatted, and very long and detailed, set of reports on Asian and global affairs. He has put up a new one in response to an (overexcited, IMHO) U.K. article saying that the Chinese leadership is taking instruction from the Kim family of Pyongyang. Worth reading.
2) Will Creative Destruction be more creative, or destructive, for China? The latest online discussion from our friends at the ChineFile site of the Asia Society, involving a number of my real-world friends, considers whether China should be considered unusually supple in dealing with world economic surprises, or unusually brittle.
3) “Unhinged in China.” From the always elegant and insightful Ian Johnson, a NYRB piece that seems particularly suited to today's Tiananmen Square news. China has achieved an undoubted GDP miracle over the past generation; like previous pell-mell rushes to industrialization, it has come at considerable human cost. Check his article for more.
4) On the bearish front, What about those millions upon millions of empty apartments? A cautionary report in Forbes by Anne Stevenson-Yang. See this parallel report today in our China channel about the risk of a Chinese version of the Lehman collapse.
5) On the anti-bearish front, see this in Bloomberg on why the Chinese economy keeps heading for a fall, but keeps not falling.
6) Two of my best-informed economics-world friends in China—Michael Pettis, of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing; and Andy Rothman, the chief economist for the brokerage firm CLSA in Shanghai—keep turning out convincing, but differing, assessments of the strains on the Chinese economy. Pettis has been among the earliest, strongest voices warning about unsustainable distortions in the Chinese economy; Rothman has consistently pointed out the system's ability to make adjustments just in time and repeatedly work its way out of jams and corners.
You can find most of Pettis's dispatches on his site, for instance recently this about the rebalancing of China's economy from export/infrastructure- dependence to consumer-led growth: “I believe that 3-4 percent average annual growth rates is likely to be the upper limit for China during the adjustment period [of around ten years] ... If the adjustment period is much longer than ten years, perhaps ... because political opposition is fiercer than expected, growth rates might be a little higher on average in the first few years but the period of stagnant growth would last longer than ten years and there would be a much higher risk of an economic collapse.”
Rothman's analyses come mainly through his in-house newsletter and email list—whose latest entry, for example, said this about the ongoing Chinese “slowdown” (quoted with his permission):
China’s 3Q macro data offers little to worry about. As long as you are comfortable with the idea that growth rates will continue to slow gradually. Fortunately, the Party leadership seems comfy with that, and is more focused on longer-term structural change. GDP growth of 7.8 percent in 3Q and 7.7 percent YTD, compared to 7.7 percent last year, provides plenty of room for change ...
China remains the world’s best consumer story, with retail, new home and car sales healthy and inflation modest. Restructuring is well under way, with private firms, not SOEs [state owned enterprises], driving growth in investment, employment and profits, and with, for the first time, the tertiary sector overtaking secondary as the largest share of GDP ...
It is also important to recognize that, unlike in many developed countries, wages continue to rise rapidly for China’s low-income workers. Wages for the migrant workers who hold the majority of manufacturing and construction jobs in Chinese cities are up 13 percent this year. In our view, strong income growth at the lower end of the pay scale, along with rising government spending on health care and education, is far more important than the wide gulf between rich and poor.
It's not false equivalence, or mere courtesy to friends, for me to point out that both the cautionary and the more confident analyses are very much worth following, and both could in different ways be true. We may need a concept of “false contradiction” when it comes to China: recognizing that incompatible-seeming observations may all be accurate. The slangy way of putting this: everything you might say about China is true—somewhere.
8) The New York Times's online presentation of yesterday's Magazine story "A Game of Shark and Minnow," on nationalistic tensions in the South China Sea, deserves the praise and attention it has received. It is an amazing piece of work.
9) Last week, we ran an item by Eric Fish on the firing of a prominent Peking University professor, Xia Yeliang. There are two contending interpretations of his dismissal: Was it one more step in an ongoing wave of retribution against political dissidents in China? Or was it because students and colleagues didn't like the way he taught? Our previous item laid out the case for the “teaching problems” view. In a WSJ interview a few days later Prof. Xia explains why he thinks this was because he was an original signer of the “Charter 08” appeal for civil liberties and political reform. Check them both out.
* Example of the specific questions: What is the business model for so many fruit-and-nut vendors from the farthest western extremes of China, often ethnic Uighurs, having so many identical push-carts heaped with dried fruits and "nut cake" through major eastern cities thousands of miles away? Who actually runs the pirate DVD business? Who, exactly, is underwriting the costs for those Armani/Prada luxury stores in which you see lots of sales clerks and no customers?
** I am supposed to make my next trip in a few weeks. But my latest visa has expired, and in a standard “this is China” moment one state-sponsored research organization has invited me to a conference in Beijing—while the local Chinese embassy seems highly skeptical about renewing my visa.
Similar things happen all the time in the U.S., of course, especially since 2001. A federally sponsored research organization will invite foreign scientists or researchers to a conference, but consular officers won't let the foreigners in. In their case, and mine, I think the explanations are the same: over-reach by each government's security organizations, and lack of coordination between them and other parts of the sprawling, bureaucratized state.
We took off from KGAI -- the Montgomery County Airpark, our home airport outside Washington DC -- early on a Friday afternoon, with big plans to look for the fall foliage en route to Eastport, Maine. The flight would be about 3 1/2 hours, even less if the expected strong tailwinds prevailed. [Above: Sunrise over Campobello Island, once we got to Eastport.]
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We were climbing initially to 2500 feet, which I think of as the Norman Rockwell altitude. If you look down, you can spot yellow school buses stopping in front of white picket fences and see smoke curling out of chimneys. Just after we took off I heard Jim, my husband and pilot, say “Damn,” before I noticed the small “no communications” light on one of the electronic screens. This was a big word from a mild-mannered guy, but he immediately reassured me with, “Well, the worst that can happen is that we turn right around and try to rent or borrow a plane.”
In a moment, the “traffic sensor failed” light came on, identifying the problem. Even I knew this wasn’t really important; the traffic sensor detects nearby airplanes and displays them on an animated screen, along with their altitude and direction. It is a bonus rather than a necessity for flight safety. The most amazing part of the system to me is the loud, metallic, electronic voice that warns “TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!” when another plane is near you. (Technically, or so I'm told by Jim, this is when the plane is within 1000 feet above or below our altitude, and 2 miles horizontally.) I think the voice must be optimally designed for pitch, stress, amplitude and general surprise value. I don’t like it, but that is probably the point.
This is the screen that should show the traffic sensor. If you look hard you can see the little yellow indicator of “traffic FAIL” on the middle left of the right-hand screen.
Requesting “flight following” from the air traffic controllers (ATC) would substitute for the sensor system, which we did. Along the way, the ATC would periodically call us with something like “435 Sierra Romeo. (our call number) Traffic. 3 o’clock. One mile. Southbound, a G4 at 4000 feet.” We would look for the plane and inform the ATC “in sight” when we spotted it. Jim then stated a fact that I already knew: “Obviously, I’m gonna be watching this like a hawk.”
The leaves were still very green over Maryland; they were turning a mild yellowy-brown over Pennsylvania. The had barely even changed over one of my favorite flyover markers, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which sits proudly on a bluff over the Hudson with its expansive emerald green sports fields and marching grounds.
About that time, Jim mentioned he was looking for the updated weather report from the eastern Maine area, which was supposed to be clearing during our flight but was overdue on its hourly refresh. He played around with a few dials. I was still looking for leaves when he pointed out the major screen, the one showing all the gauges and important stuff like altitude and airspeed, began flickering. That was occasional. Then the flicker turned to longer flutters. Then it would go blank for seconds at a time. I could see the redundant manual dials were normal, and Jim said, “We’re fine; this is exactly why I did all that extra training during the spring. That's why I was doing those simulated-panel-failure drills, with all the screens turned off."
You won’t be surprised to hear that we decided to make a precautionary landing in Portland, the closest big airport (as Jim has previously described). It seemed beyond foolish to keep flying an extra hour north to the Eastport airport, which has no tower, no weather station, and no mechanics or repair shops. Jim told the controller that we were “changing destination because of non-emergency equipment problems,” a phrase I hadn’t heard before. He also requested a change from "Visual Flight Rules," under which we flew whatever course we chose, to an Instrument Flight Rules plan, in which ATC would guide us to the destination. The ATC responded without a breath’s delay. "November 435SR is cleared to the Portland airport via direct, maintain 3,000 feet. Let us know if you require assistance."
We landed in Portland, and stayed overnight with friends we had been long trying to visit. Through the magic that Jim described, we were on our way north to Down East Maine by noon.
That geographic nomenclature – Down East – was puzzling to me. I could understand the East, since Maine really sweeps out there into the Atlantic Ocean. The Down, I learned, apparently dates back to the olden days, when prevailing winds sent ships from Boston sailing downwind (hence down) to head north along the coast of Maine. Or maybe it's some other reason.
We flew over the upscale enclaves of Mount Desert Island, and Bar Harbor, and many small private islands inhabited by either the wealthy or the reclusive—or sometimes one and the same. We swung around over Campobello and other Canadian islands for our landing to the west at Eastport, with its charm offensive of church steeples and clapboard houses. As we came in on our final approach, only a few hundred feed above the ground, a big green lawn-mowing tractor pulled out onto the runway. That was a surprise! So we "went around," climbing back to 1000 feet above ground (and ocean) and setting up for another approach, by which time the tractor had spotted us and pulled off the runway.
The small airport was deserted. We were unloading and heading for a red Honda in the parking lot. The amazing Linda Godfrey, who is one of the dynamic forces for change in Eastport, had picked up the ball when she got word we were coming for a visit, and anticipated needs I didn’t even know we would have: “There are no car rentals here. I’ll find you one to use.”
Then a car drove up. “I heard you coming in,” greeted Captain Bob Peacock, one of two pilot boat captains who guides the enormous cargo ships into the deepwater Estes Head pier at Eastport. Amazing that he found us, I thought. We were one day and one detour late. This proved to be the first of about a dozen times we ran into Bob Peacock during the next several days. And also his friend Dean, and also Linda Godfrey, and many other people of Eastport who were all out and about on the streets. They seemed to have an uncanny anticipation of just what we would need and when we would need it. Cap’n Bob, as I fondly began to think of him, directed us to town (turn right and follow the road about a mile to the water) and said he would catch up with us later.
[Our plane in the background, another plane in the foreground, gasoline tanks at the end of the pavement, red Honda just out of view on the left, Eastport all around.]
It all felt comfortable and familiar to me. I grew up in a small town in the midwest, on the Great Lakes. Everyone knew everyone. Kids didn’t have playdates; we just showed up at a friend’s house or at the corner lot to play. And parents always knew where to find us.
The next morning, Sunday, I got up and dressed early. I had a feeling I should be ready for whatever might happen. Sure enough, Cap’n Bob showed up at the back sliding glass door. “Hope it’s OK, “ he said, “The front door was locked.” Yeah, I thought to myself, I probably didn’t need to lock that door. Cap’n Bob began telling yarns – true ones – of the stories and characters of Eastport. Stories of Eastport rebuilding – in industry, in commerce, in architecture, in culture, and in spirit, which had been bruised and buffeted by decline, disappointments, and broken deals, but which was poised for a comeback.
We were already learning the first lessons of Eastport. It is a town that is very far away from the rest of the US; it is tiny; and it is surrounded by cold, deep water. Eastport residents turn those givens around to be wholly positive: Eastport, they describe, is close to the rest of the world, commands the engagement of all who live there, and understands the promise of the water.
To contact Deborah Fallows: DebFallows at gmail.com
Six months ago, President Obama said that the fearfulness and over-reaction of the 'GWOT' were doing far more harm than good. He was right then, and still is. So why hasn't he matched his -- our -- policies to his words?
Seven-plus years ago, I argued in a cover story that the open-ended "war on terror" was damaging American interests and American values more than the (still-real) threat of terrorist attack had or ever could.
This wasn't some big leap of insight or imagination on my part. I was mainly citing military strategists and historians who had demonstrated, over time, that the reaction provoked by terrorist attacks was always more damaging than the original assault itself. Extreme illustration: the nationalist-anarchist assassination of two people in Sarajevo in 1914 leading to the deaths of tens of millions in The Great War. (Hyper-vivid death-car recreation at left, via Smithsonian.) The damage done by an over-reactive response to terrorism seems almost a ho-hum point now, but it wasn't prevailing opinion at the time, and I will always be grateful to James Bennet, then just installed as our editor, for sticking with it as his first cover story
Thus I was glad when, earlier this year, President Obama announced that it was time to "define our effort not as a boundless 'global war on terror' - but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America."
But as with various other aspects of the Administration and of this era, we've learned that it's one thing to announce "change!" and something else to bring it about. The drone war goes on, the NSA programs go on, surveillance increases and detentions continue -- and the damage mounts up faster than we reckon. There's immediate damage to the objects of these programs, of course -- but broader and longer-lasting damage to American institutions, interests, and ideals. (As you've read from Conor Friedersdorf, Andrew Cohen, and other Atlantic writers over the years.)
This is all by way of directing you to David Rohde's latest installment in this vein, "Our Fear of Al-Qaeda Hurts Us More Than Al-Qaeda Does." Exactly so. And he speaks with the credibility of someone who knows about the direct damage terrorists can do, having been kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban for nine months in Afghanistan.
Read it, and let us see whether our government can change a policy that the president himself has stated is damaging the world in general and us as well.
Update: For the corresponding effects on European politics, and US-European relations, please see this item by Michael Brenner, on Chuck Spinney's The Blaster.
My wife and I have exactly one frustration about the series of cities we've been visiting over the past two months. It is that we have been seeing things, meeting people, asking questions, getting answers, and overall being surprised-and-informed at roughly ten times the rate at which we've been able to describe any of this on line.
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Yes, we realize that in the journalism business, as in life, this is a very fortunate sort of problem to have. But it's a challenge nonetheless, which we're continuing to address in several ways. Soon we'll be augmenting our web posts -- and Esri geoblogs, and reports from our friends at Marketplace -- with a sequence of articles for our print magazine. I'm writing one now for the January issue -- November's the one that's just appeared. (Say it with me: Subscribe!)
And when it comes to Eastport itself, where over the course of a week we had such a surprising range of interactions, with such a variety of people, drawn from such a minuscule community, I thought it might be useful to list the kinds of things we learned about and intend to discuss. I do this partly for journalistic transparency reasons; partly as a signal to people who generously spent time with us that it wasn't for naught; and mainly to hint at the density of effort, imagination, and commitment to community we were exposed to during just one week. Items on the upcoming-features list include:
The "Women of The Commons" and the gamble they have made to try to revive part of the historic downtown, which not long ago was largely boarded-up;
The ups and downs of the "aquaculture" business, and what it looks like to stand on a pen in which 25,000 salmon are being fed -- right next to other pens that together hold half a million fish;
Why it is the best, and worst (but mainly best), of times for local lobstermen;
What that garish fisherman statue, shown in the photo at top, is doing in the middle of town -- hint, the answer involves Fox TV;
How an economy and community work when most people assume they will need to hold 3 or 4 or 5 simultaneous jobs (a theme of yesterday's Marketplace report);
The role of the nearby Maine Maritime Academy, one of several ways in which the town that is short on young people is trying to entice more of them to stay;
The startling ambitions of the Ocean Renewable Power Corporation;
The also-startling but different ambitions of the local Port Authority, as they involve products ranging from live cattle to "torrefied" wood -- and how the turmoil in Syria has affected them;
The role of one local family in developing a (viable!) print newspaper, run by one brother and his wife, while the other brother has developed a city museum, begun a nascent set of artist studios, and restored derelict buildings. All of this within the confines of the four-block-long downtown;
Why one experienced local mariner and big-ship pilot runs a global fish business from his home in Eastport, and another runs his manufacturing yard in the city;
What a local co-op is doing to revive the scallop fishery, and shift the fishermen to a much more advantageous place on the value-added chain;
How an Eat Local movement brings together local farmers, residents, and restaurants;
The economic, cultural, educational, and other interactions between the town and the adjoining Passamaquoddy reservations;
What Eastport's 120-student Shead High School looks like;
Some of the special language planning and usage of Eastport;
How three restaurants, a coffee shop, a theater company, and an orchestra eke out an existence here;
The battle to bring back the railroad; and
The importance of location, location, location, as illustrated below.
Plus a lot else. All of this with the theme of people in the middle of what they universally recognize as a struggle for a town's survival. Again I am piling these up in a list not for spoiler purposes but to indicate the same thing we repeatedly encountered in China: the density and surprise of local experience, and its connection to larger national and global trends.
A final note on location. As mentioned yesterday -- and as cited non-stop by local port authorities -- Eastport has the deepest natural harbor in the continental United States, at 60+ feet. Its siting, "remote" from the rest of America's perspective, is also a potential strategic plus. The maps below are via the handy online Great Circle Mapper. They're not exact renderings of sea routes, but they give you the idea that Eastport is the closest U.S. location to ports in Europe:
And perhaps more surprisingly, also those in Africa, as shown first with sample routes to Casablanca:
And then Dakar:
And, while it's harder to show with this kind of map, Eastport also becomes by far the closest Eastern Seaboard location to Asia, through the warming Canadian arctic route.
More ahead. You can see why we are excited, and also the fortunate sort of frustration that we feel.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, my wife and I were meeting people and asking questions in Eastport, Maine, along with Kai Ryssdal and his colleagues from Marketplace, Bridget Bodnar and Brendan Willard. What you see above is the view from the back seat of a Cirrus SR-22, where Brendan Willard was sitting, toward the front seat with me on the left and former naval aviator Kai Ryssdal on the right, Kai doing the radio work as we neared the little airport in Eastport.
Last evening, as mentioned here, Marketplace had a very nice short feature on one of the surprising, surviving industries of a very small and economically battered town: a century-old family-run mustard works. In just a minute it will have a longer feature about the ways in which the city is making major bets on connections to the global economy as its source of long-term economic hope. You can read about it on the show's site, here.
Much of this strategy -- as you'll hear on the show, and as we'll elaborate in days to come -- involves making use of natural feature shown on the map below. (This map is a static screen shot -- as soon as I post this item, I'll do a live version in which you can scroll and zoom on our Esri geoblog site.)
The map indicates water depths at major sites along the U.S. coast. Eastport, in the far northeastern corner, is the deepest of all ports in the lower 48 states, with a mean low water depth of more than 60 feet. (Valdez, in Alaska, is also very deep.) Moreover the seabed here is rock, rather than sand as in many sites in the Gulf Coast, so the depth is constant -- rather than changeable or in need of frequent dredging.
As you'll hear, a group of ambitious people in the city are trying to use the port's unique capacity -- and its proximity to Europe, and its potential proximity to Asia as northwest passages through a warming Canadian arctic become more frequent (they are already happening) -- as one foundation of its hoped-for economic revival.
It's just one of several foundations, whose stories we'll be telling here -- and in an article for our print magazine very soon. For the moment I will sign off with a reminder to tune into Marketplace. Among other things, you won't want to miss hearing the actual voices we heard in town.
1) Pacific Standard magazine, based in Santa Barbara, has an excellent new issue out. You can read it in print if you subscribe, at the link above -- or you can wait as the articles come from behind the paywall over the next couple of weeks. (Everyone in our business is experimenting with web-revenue schemes*; this is an interesting one.)
For the record, Pacific Standard is edited by Maria Streshinsky, formerly managing editor here at the Atlantic, and many of the articles are by people in the Atlantic or Washington Monthly force-fields. But even if I didn't know anyone involved, I would have read this cover to cover, and enjoyed it. You can do that too if you subscribe.
2) The New York Review of Books is out with its 50th anniversary issue. Year in and year out, through now an impressive series of decades, the NYRB has sustained an amazingly high level of quality and sophistication. (Minor disclosure: I wrote frequently for the magazine in the 1980s and 1990s, back before the advent of online journalism eliminated the concept of "free time.") This issue is also full of great articles, many of them behind a paywall that is lifted if you subscribe.
Congratulations to Robert Silvers and his colleagues on what they have created and maintained over the years.
3) The Atlantic's new issue is also on the newsstands and should be in subscribers' hands.
Most other people at the magazine naturally see all its components as they are coming together in the weeks before each issue's "ship" deadline. My practice has long been to wait and see the whole thing when it arrives in the mail. That way I know little or nothing about the back story of each issue -- which stories worked out easily, which were author-handling (or fact-checking) nightmares, which tradeoffs we made in mix and emphasis. I just see the results, as a reader would. And on that basis I think this month's is very strong, in its range and quality.
Obviously I knew all about the cover essay, which I wrote -- and which I had a lot of fun doing the interviews for. But I hadn't even realized that among our list of current-day tech innovators celebrated by their peers was Jack Dangermond, a longtime home-town friend and the founder of the Esri company that is (with Marketplace) our partner in our current American Futures project. One of many positive surprises on opening this issue. Check it out and ... subscribe!
* As I argued several years ago in this piece, most veterans of the tech world think that "will people pay for information on the web?" is not even an interesting question. Of course they will, as we pay for everything else, once a sensible and unobtrusive pricing and payment system evolves. Every experiment with pricing and paywalls, whether it succeeds or fails, takes us closer to discovering the right iTunes-like, EZPass-like, cable-TV-like payment system. In the meantime, just pony up! None of these involves that much money.
[Tech update: if you cannot see the images in this item, please click here. Our system for handling images changed yesterday, with some transition issues we're still working out. ]
What you see above is the view from Eastport, Maine, looking toward the famed Campobello Island in Canada, yesterday morning. Eastport is where my wife and I have spent most of the past week, on the most unusual and one of the most rewarding parts of our American Futures travels. We've just returned from a long (and very bumpy) small-plane flight back.
This evening our partners at Marketplace had a very nice intro report on Eastport, featuring the 100-year-old Raye's Mustard works -- which has survived far beyond its original business reason for existence, as the Marketplace report explains. We are fans of Raye's and its products -- and will soon conduct, with our colleagues in Atlantic-land and other passers-by, a taste-test of the 20 different mustards we collected at the HQ this week. There are 21 rather than 20 bottles shown below, for cheerleader-pyramid-style symmetry. You will pick out the dupe.
Tomorrow evening Marketplace will have an extended report, and my wife Deb and I will kick off a series of our reports too. Two things are immediately obvious about this town:
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First, given how small it is (our beloved Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is more than 100 times as large) how much is going on -- from the community production of The Glass Menagerie we saw on our first night there to the large-scale infrastructure efforts.
Second, how conscious people there are of their community's place on the historic cycle of decline and recovery. A century ago, the town had at least four times as many residents as it does now. Everywhere you go, there is an account of the wharves, the factories, the jobs, the businesses that used to keep the community going.
Most of the other places we've visited are able to look back on a big bet, a turning point, that shifted their fortunes in a positive direction. Sioux Falls, with its attraction of the credit-card industry 30 years ago; Burlington, with its salvation of its lakefront-downtown; Holland, with its own effort to defend its downtown against suburban malls; even La Jolla, with the big bets that drew the bio-tech and super-computing industries there. Eastport, which has endured a number of disappointments through the decades, seems plainly to be in the middle of placing a number of such bets, as we'll try to describe. Seeing people who are trying very hard, but who can't yet look back and tell a tale of success, has its own drama. "We're a startup," one of the people we interviewed this morning said. "Really, the whole town is a startup."
We'll get into that starting tomorrow, from the ambitious plans for the port and aspirations to lead in clean-energy generation, to the building-by-building plans for restoring a downtown. For a moment, here's a look at the process this evening's Marketplace report described. That yellow stuff, flowing down the ramp in the foreground, is mustard, as it comes out of the century-old grinding wheels at the Raye works:
And this is one of the ancient grindstones, outside the shop.
More on this starting as soon as we sleep off the latest round of travel. We met a significant share of the town's population, and we thank them for their approachability.
Much of the town, from above, as we came in a few days ago.
[Tech update: If you cannot see the image in this item, please click here. Yesterday we changed the way we handle images, and there are some transition details still to be worked out.]
Yes, I can read this -- written characters are my friend, spoken Chinese with its tones and its indistinguishable q/x/sh fricatives is my foe -- and I know that it is a security warning about someone trying to log into an Apple account with my email ID. I think I received it (and not the English counterpart) because I bought the equipment in question earlier this year at an Apple store in the Wangfujing district of Beijing.
Still, I couldn't help doing a double-take on getting a security warning in this form. And, perhaps irrationally, wondering if it was phishing. To be safe, I went to the English-language Apple site (and not the linked Chinese site) and changed the relevant passwords. No larger point, but to me an interesting little document about our connected-for-better-and-worse world.