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.

James Fallows: Sports

  • 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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  • 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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  • Now This Is Team Spirit

    What the Wright Brothers have wrought. 

    I am taking no sides in The Big Game this weekend. I don't care.* 

    But I have to admire the combination of team spirit, precision flight planning, and disregard for practicality shown by the group at Boeing that produced this flight yesterday in solidarity with the Seahawks' "Twelfth Man" concept. Here is the radar record of the flight track, via Flight Aware.

     If you'd like to replicate the route, here are the waypoints, also courtesy of Flight Aware:

    SEA SEA146051 KS06G 4625N 12000W 4625N 11945W 4725N 11945W 4725N 12000W 4743N 12000W 4800N 11945W 4800N 11925W 4625N 11925W 4625N 11910W 4600N 11910W 4600N 11850W 4653N 11850W 4712N 11830W 4712N 11800W 4737N 11800W 4737N 11825W 4725N 11825W 4725N 11850W 4743N 11850W 4800N 11830W 4800N 11753W 4743N 11733W 4707N 11733W 4649N 11753W 4649N 11825W 4625N 11825W 4625N 11800W 4635N 11800W 4635N 11730W 4600N 11730W 4600N 11850W 4600N 11910W KS06G SUMMA SEA 

    It's up to you to find your own 747 to match** what Boeing flew.

    Update Here's the plane itself! Thanks to many readers in the Hawks diaspora who pointed me to stories about it (and this company photo).

    Update-update A reader who examined the Flight Aware charts adds this:

    Check the detailed flight data. They flew the 747 at 15,000 ft at 200 kts. In a way, that impresses me even more. Imagine flying your SR-22 at 1,500 ft and 80 kts for six hours straight.

    Yes, for an airliner this is quite low and slow -- comparable to early stages of an arrival/approach as an airliner is getting near an airport. For some other installment, what would be easier and harder about flying this way.

    * I grew up with the LA Rams: no más. My kids grew up with the DC NFL team: at this point, its continued flailing is not even interesting, the 15-year achievement of the league's worst ownership and management. So I decided that henceforth the community-owned Packers would be my team. For them, maybe next year.

    ** You'll probably also need to line up an RNP-style navigation system to plot out and follow this exact track, despite the powerful and variable jetstream winds blowing at those flight altitudes. I described the way some American-designed RNP systems were used for a different national-pride purpose, getting Chinese airliners into remote valley airports in Tibet, in China Airborne.  

  • Found Art of the Day: How Not To Be Alone

    They didn't meet in the finals, but they do on the page, or screen.


    Lots of other, weightier things going on, but this was too day-appropriate to pass up. Thanks to reader (and subscriber!) SC in London.

    I always like to see Federer win, because he looks just like one of our sons, and (by the way) he plays the sport with unique beauty. But well done Nadal -- and Serena Williams, with a charming speech all in French at the end of her match.
  • Throwing Like an American, Throwing Like T-Rex

    The surprising meanings of a deceptively simple act.

    Thumbnail image for trex.jpg

    In response to this recent item, plus this, and my original Atlantic article on "Throwing Like a Girl," many readers have weighed in.

    As a reminder, the original contention was that throwing a ball, like riding a bicycle, is a skill that nearly anyone (male or female) can learn, but that everyone has to learn or be taught, since the movements and coordination involved are not innate. Gender differences tell us why the strongest male can throw faster than the strongest female. But the male-female gap in average throwing skill really has to do with the fact that little boys are more likely to spend their time throwing rocks and balls. Now, let's go to the readers. The illustration is explained in due course.

    Maybe it's one more chapter in the long saga of American exceptionalism.

    It's some support, I think, of the idea that throwing is learned, and culturally determined, that many European men -- or anyone, really, who grows up playing soccer -- throw like girls.  In fact, cricket bowlers throw with a different motion than baseball players (or, say, Americans tossing a tennis ball off a court).  The fastest bowlers are a little slower than the fastest pitchers, but not by much.  Moreover, cricket fielders throw slightly different than bowlers, but not quite like American fielders, either.

    What's odd is that you would think the act of throwing was something so basic that we were built for it; in this way it's not quite like riding a bicycle.  It's more like, say, running, even kicking (there's no such thing, I don't think, as "kicking like a girl", or if there is it's not as noticeable).  That is, you would think that the motion was more or less natural -- capable of being improved upon, certainly, but roughly inherent.

    Curious problem.

    More on the curse of the soccer-playing cultures.

    This is a topic I'm interested in because my daughter is a high school softball player who throws very well, and because I spent some time teaching her and other girls on her little league softball teams how to throw.  I have also spent time teaching her younger brother and his baseball teammates.  Based on my experience, I would say that throwing is a skill that can be learned equally well by either sex, and that even boys who have picked it up through trial and error (as I did) can improve through repetition of drills that isolate various parts of the kinetic chain and then put it back together. 

    Also, fathers aren't throwing in the back yard with their kids enough, at least in my town.  I've seen boys as old as 12 who throw a baseball like they are shot putting an ostrich egg.  At some point, I'm going to start revoking man cards.
    Watching the Argentine video of men throwing with their off hands was very interesting. [It is here, and if you missed it the first time, be sure to check it out.] They don't throw like girls as much as they throw like people who've never tried to throw anything at all before.  I've often wondered how well boys or men who grow up in soccer dominated countries throw compared to Americans.  We take it for granted that boys will grow up throwing balls as well as rocks, but in most of the world they grow up kicking them instead (I once read an article by a Frenchman extolling the wonders of soccer who asserted that if you give an infant a ball, the first thing it will try to do is kick it - not over here, Pierre, I thought - an American baby will pick it up and throw it).  You are much better travelled than I - how do you think these guys would have done with their dominant hands compared to the average American male?  How well do men throw in China? Have you seen any comparative studies?

    I have not seen such studies. But come to think of it, I have not seen that many people in mainland China throwing, as opposed to kicking, balls. Japan and Taiwan, on the other hand, have big baseball traditions and lots of accomplished throwers.

    Now, from a Westerner in China here is more on the ever-popular US-China angle.

    I wrote a short poem after seeing the Dodgers and Padres play on March 16, 2008, two days after the Lhasa Uprising, in Wukesong. [JF note: this was in the buildup in to the Olympics, at the baseball stadium where the Olympic baseball games were played.] The teams had played on Saturday, the15th, though the PSB [Public Security Bureau] was in a full flutter and had turned the pre-game activities into a disaster; they were worried sick that a gathering of Americans and other international expats would turn the event into a pro-Tibet rally, not understanding that this was baseball. The 16th was a bit more relaxed. And Jet Li was on the mound to throw out the first pitch. I wrote a short poem on his toss.
    "The Second Major League
    Baseball Game in China

    When I saw Jet Li
    throw out the first pitch
    I thought, man, he throws
    just like my sister
    the night she hurled
    the rock at my head
    and took out
    the living room clock.
    I was lucky.

    I kept my mouth shut
    Jet Li.jpgI happened to snap a photo of Mr Li's pitch: . His form is not bad, though his left arm isn't fully extended, and his release timing was off    - an "inside the elbow" as you explain in your piece - producing a low velocity arc that barely made it to the catcher. With his natural athletic abilities, I expect that with a few quick lessons Mr. Li would have been throwing quite well. But it drove home the fact that throwing a baseball is a learned skill, one that often pre-dates our memory to recall the actual process. I suspect that my father had the greatest influence on how I ended up learning to throw a ball.

    Another soccer casualty.

    I read your latest post and agree completely that throwing and most other things can be taught and it often takes a long time to develop the skill that we tend to take for granted because as boys we started very early. When I was in the service in the 60s and still able to associate with guys that has been in WWII and Korea, I was told that the German Potato Masher grenade was designed that way because European sports didn't involve a lot of throwing, and that made sense to me.

    The T. Rex angle, from a reader in Florida.

    I don't know if this is a localized euphemism, but among various baseball teams on which my 9-year-old boy has played, the term for low-elbow, no-body-rotation throwing has become "throw like T-rex." I've taken to using it myself now that I'm coaching. And I spend a lot of time trying to teach kids to throw. I think you'll agree that's a much better phrase -- more accurately descriptive, harmlessly funny for the kids, and even educational in its way.

    I love this woman's point [from this post] about feeling the joy of a body in motion. That's why the hell we do this for our kids/ and to our kids. I have a stutter, and one of the ways I developed confidence as a kid (actually the main way) was I got to be quite good at catching, throwing, and shooting. And I love to this day shooting, catching, throwing -- with anyone. By myself. Went out and took a bunch of jump shots today all alone. I've met more friends through pickup hoops than almost anything else. Athletic confidence, which my parents didn't really have, almost certainly altered my life for the better. If they had not pushed into sports at a young age, who knows how my life would have suffered?

    And one the great byproducts of coaching I've found is how much just a little bit of attention can help an awkward kid. A lot. And what incredible fun that is to see happen. You see an awkward kid that you've worked with make a shot or catch a rebound when they could hardly hold the ball when they first started, and it's fantastic. And then getting those kids to compete (and I am pretty competitive) with the bigger, stronger, more coordinated kids and believe in themselves a little is just as gratifying. Forget the score; it's the competing on honest terms that matters. Self-respect.

    So you're right and she's right. Anybody can be taught to do these things well enough to enjoy them, well enough to feel themselves getting better. If more coaches cared about competing with the kids they have and helping them get better rather than team-stacking so they can be elite at 9, we'd all be happier.

    Coaching has showed me why people still teach despite all the crap that comes with it.

    From a mother of a daughter.

    I didn't think twice about marrying a guy who throws like a girl because I threw very well and would be the go-to athletic coach parent.

    I didn't count on coming down w/ inherited autoimmune arthritis.  I gotta pop some tylenol and teach my girl how to throw.

    Thanks for giving me the motivation. She throws even worse than my husband, and I didn't think it was possible for anyone to be worse.  ;-)

    From a father of a daughter.

    I've been paying attention to the throwing issue. Girls with no brothers tend to throw better than girls who have brothers. Dads with boys spend most of their coaching time with the boys. Dads with only girls spend their coaching time with girls. Very few moms teach kids of either gender how to throw. The big exception: willful girls in mixed-gender families that are madly obsessed with participant sports.

    My observations aren't scientific, but I'm near certain anyone who carefully measured would come to the same conclusion.

    From another father of a daughter.

    I read today's blog entry with great pleasure, as almost nothing raises my hackles as quickly as that loaded phrase. My daughter, you see, plays baseball. Not, as she frequently has to assert, softball. Both spring and fall, she has been the only girl in a 150-player Little League division. She started playing at six because she wanted to follow her brother. At her first practice, she simply refused to throw overhand. It wasn't comfortable, it wasn't natural, and she knew perfectly well she could throw the ball the 15 feet to the coach by tossing it underhand. She also wouldn't even try to catch a gentle return toss, just letting it drop and then retrieving it. Two years later, she throws like a gunslinger and delights in egging me on to throw it ever harder when I send it back at her. So what happened?

    The same thing that happens to every other Little League kid. Many of the boys I've coached over the past three years didn't have a lot of baseball exposure at home. Their models, if they have any, are big league players they've seen on TV. When they start, most of them throw "like a girl" (the ones not trying to throw sidearm like a 3B barehanding a groundball).

    We don't call it that, of course; we tend to call it "the shotput motion," with the elbow tucked under the throwing hand, the step with the throwing-side foot, and a predictable high arc to the throw. Getting proper mechanics to stick takes roughly two seasons, on average, with wide variability sourced in both athletic and listening ability. The same, I'd imagine, applies to throwing a football, another sport from which girls are typically excluded. Small wonder that many women have horrible throwing mechanics.

    The gender essentialism assumption -- that girls just can't throw properly -- does raise its head in Little League at times, sometimes with gratifying results. In one game this past spring, an opposing player hit a clean single to my daughter in right field. As the runner approached first, she had already scooped up the ball, but the first base coach sent the runner to second. Rebekah had plenty of time for a mystified double-take before throwing a rope to second base that easily beat the poor runner, who didn't even bother to slide. Sometimes it's a good thing to be underestimated.

    However long she keeps playing baseball, she'll spend the rest of her life occasionally smirking at some poor sap whose assumptions got the better of him. Hopefully enough young men will read your piece that there'll be fewer saps around to be caught out.

    That's a limited sampling of what's come in; more after a while. Thanks to all.

  • Back to 'Throwing Like a Girl'

    Most females 'throw like girls,' but not for the reason you think.


    I was traveling so didn't get on the much- commented-upon Washington Post feature about "throwing like a girl" when it first appeared. I am reminded by Andrew Sullivan that the topic is still bouncing around, so here goes:

    1) I am weirdly heartened to have other people treat this as a "real" subject. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the article I've most enjoyed doing in my Atlantic career was one called "Throwing Like a Girl," from some 15 years ago.

    2) As you'll see if you compare my piece and the Post's, we come to somewhat different conclusions. We both agree that there is a such a thing as the throwing-like-a-girl motion. We disagree on its fundamental cause.

    3) The Post piece talks about a variety of differences between the genders. Eg, "[a professor of psychology and women's studies] found what she defined as a 'very large' difference in only two skills: throwing velocity and throwing distance." I ended up being convinced that, apart from obvious gaps in size and strength, the only difference that mattered between men and women is that more males than females have spent time learning how to throw.

    4) Learning how is the crucial concept, because throwing a ball "correctly" is like riding a bike, in this way. Virtually anyone can learn to do it, but virtually no one starts out knowing how. Once people learn, gender differences in strength take over. The average male bike rider will be stronger than the average female; the strongest male ball-thrower, like Randy Johnson, above, will throw faster than the strongest female. But they all can ride bikes the same way, or throw balls the same way, once they learn how.

    5) Check my article for details (and this follow up), but here's the simplest try-it-right-now proof that throwing motion is a learned rather than an innate skill. Pick up a ball with your "off" hand -- for me, the south paw, since I am right-handed. Throw the ball with that hand. You will throw it "like a girl." And it will take you hundreds, probably thousands, of throws before you feel as if you can do it naturally. As part of my article research, I threw left-handed with my sons and my wife. It was revealing and character-building.  UPDATE! Here is a fabulous Vimeo clip of men throwing with their "off" hands. Every one of them throws like -- well, see for yourself. [Thanks to reader ER.]

    6) Now we get to the other realm of gender differences. For whatever reason, most little boys spend more of their early years learning how to throw than most little girls do. They get better at it -- as they would be at bike riding, if only boys rather than girls were taken through the inevitable shakiness and falls of those first few rides. But that's where the boy/girl difference emerges -- from the thousands of instances of a boy picking up a rock to skip it across a pond and learning how the "kinetic chain" of a throw feels, while a girl, for whatever reason, is doing something else.

    Below, as discussed in another item, is a great super slo-mo video with the Giants' Tim Lincecum, showing the "kinetic chain" of an effective throw. And after that, continued after the jump, is a note that came in just now on the very topic of learned rather than innate skills.

    Now, below and after the jump, a touching letter that has just arrived, on this very topic. It is long but to me very interesting:

    I loved your article, "Throwing Like a Girl." it.  I loved that you even dared to point out this stinging little "euphemism"  and all that it implies.   I am personally guilty of using the expression (along with "you scream like a girl") and I AM a girl.
    I think the part of this article that interested me most, however, was not that  you pointed this out, but that  you pointed out that throwing properly is something that can be learned by adults - and more importantly to me, by children. 

    I'm sure the reason my husband brought this article to my attention was to sooth my worried and inherently UN-athletic soul.  I have managed to pass this inherent lack of athleticism down to my oldest son, despite ALL of the opposite genetic material encoded in my husband and his side of the family.  It runs deep and strong on his side, but apparently not deep and strong enough. 

    When I realized that my tall and naturally strong boy, a boy who even looks graceful in repose, was not actually gifted with any grace when it came to running, throwing or hitting, I got very sad about it.

    More »

  • On the Sophistication of Sports-Talk Radio, Featuring Noam Chomsky and Armando Benitez

    Next up on The Fan: Noam 'The Perfesser' Chomsky!

    Thumbnail image for armando benitez (2).jpg

    Following previous items here and here, a reader in New York writes:

    I remember a caller on WFAN (sports radio station in New York City) not long after the 9/11 attacks.  The awful closer for the New York Mets had blown his second save eliminating the Mets from any possibility of the post-season.  The caller said to Mike and the Mad Dog:  "First let me express my sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones at the World Trade Center, but that Armando Benitez, he has got to go."

    Anyone who remembers the ... suspense ... of watching Armando try to hold a lead and finish a game, as my sons and I do all too clearly from his time as an Oriole, knows just what the caller was talking about.

    Chomsky.jpgAnother reader provides this apposite quote from Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power, ten years ago. Emphasis added:

    You sometimes find in non-literate cultures [the] development of the most extraordinary linguistic systems: often there's tremendous sophistication about language, and people play all sorts of games with language.

    What all these things look like is that people just want to use their intelligence somehow, and if you don't have a lot of technology and so on, you do other things.

    Well, in our society, we have things that you might use your intelligence on, like politics, but people really can't get involved in them in a very serious way -- so what they do is they put their minds into other things, such as sports.

    You're trained to be obedient; you don't have an interesting job; there's no work around for you that's creative; in the cultural environment you're a passive observer of usually pretty tawdry stuff; political and social life are out of your range, they're in the hands of the rich folks. So what's left? Well, one thing that's left is sports -- so you put a lot of the intelligence and the thought and the self-confidence into that. And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions it serves in the society in general: it occupies the population, and keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter.

    A prize to the first sports-talk host who devotes a segment to Noam Chomsky. LaVar Arrington, I'm looking at you!

  • Labor Day Special Part Deux: 'Ooops!' in Four Acts

    Tennis players, politicians, robots, and Canadians -- all gone wild.

    1) Things I wish I didn't know from the weekend papers.
         - Andy Murray, answering readers' questions online, as relayed by the NY Times:

    Andy! Say it isn't so! I speak for all your fellow Scots* in saying, Well done at the Olympics, but this is not a plus for ethnic pride. Scots are supposed to be thrifty, freckled, somewhat ornery, and literary. Or at least literate.

    2) Another thing I wish I didn't know, or that wasn't true, from the weekend papers.
       - From front-page NYT profile of Valerie Jarrett, President Obama's closest confidante. Emphasis added:
    Ms. Jarrett cuts an elegant figure in the West Wing, with her pixie haircut and designer clothes. Aides say she can be thoughtful in little ways that matter, enlisting the president to rally staff members after political or personal setbacks. But she can also be imperious -- at one event ordering a drink from a four-star general she mistook for a waiter -- and attached to the trappings of power in a way some in the White House consider unseemly for a member of the staff.

    A case in point is her full-time Secret Service detail. The White House refuses to disclose the number of agents or their cost, citing security concerns. But the appearance so worried some aides that two were dispatched to urge her to give the detail up.

    She listened politely, one said, but the agents stayed.
    Oooof. I'd spell out why this is a bad sign (hint: imperial presidency -> imperial staff), except apparently some of her colleagues in the White House figured that out already but were unable to do anything about it. [Update: I have changed my mind about this, as explained in the last item here.]

    3) Things that seemed like a good idea at the time.
        - Having robots play a lead role in this weekend's Hugo Awards event. Thanks to many people who sent in leads to the coverage in io9: We Come from the Future. I'll let you follow the rest of the droll saga for yourself.

    4) Our wacky neighbors to the north.
      - A policy expert in Alberta has put out a new book:
    Thumbnail image for BoilingFrogCanadians.png

    For those joining us late: real-world frogs will indeed behave the way we expect from the "boiling frogs" of myth, but only if you have first surgically removed their brains.

    Happy Labor Day. (*And within our family, happy-birthday wishes on what would have been my mother's 85th birthday, and also the September 3 birthday of her brother Roland and their aunt Jean. All had the family name Mackenzie and all would have joined me in urging Andy Murray to hit the books.)
  • What Is on Much of Greater Washington's Mind Today

    Hope springs eternal, before it is squashed.

    Yes, the Nationals bandwagon is truly exciting, especially after the decades of misery with ill-managed laughingstock local pro sports franchises. Thanks, Dan Snyder! Thanks, Peter Angelos! And I understand that the Olympics are still underway, plus all this politics stuff.

    But for many people in the DC area, the real drama begins this evening, in Buffalo, in Game I of the Age of RGIII. I have no idea who "Rev Redskin," the guy in the robes in the video below, really is, but he is great, and he expresses one important part of the regional id.

    Naturally we'll be watching to see whether local favorite Chris Cooley is back in shape to be on the other end of RGIII deliveries. Thanks to TAJF for the tip.

  • Unsung Heroes of the Olympics: Ted Robinson

    Hmmm, where is this NBC announcer really from???

    Thumbnail image for Robinson.jpegAttentive readers could possibly have noticed my mentioning, a time or two or twenty, the tendency of NBC Olympic announcers to refer to the site of the 2008 games as Beizhing, with an artsy Frenchified zh- sound, rather than plain old "Jingle Bells"-style Beijing.

    But wait! When calling yesterday's prelims, semi-finals, and finals of the men's 3-meter springboard diving, our man Ted Robinson -- that's him at right -- talked time and again about Beijing. His co-announcer, ex-diver Cynthia Potter, didn't take the hint and kept on Beizhing-ing. But we noticed here at home.

    More amazing still, Robinson did a creditable job during his many references to the defending Olympic champion in this event, He Chong of China. Mr. He's family name (He, or ) is a sound that doesn't really exist in English. It's like some combo of hehh and huhh, but farther back in your throat -- as I say, for us it's not a normal sound. But there was Robinson, saying it again and again. (Cynthia Potter was going with "Hay" or "Ay," rhyming with "day.")

    I am the last person in the world to be prideful about foreign pronunciation, since I sound like a Yank whatever language I am supposedly trying to speak. And I certainly am not saying that the job of an announcer in one language is to try to parrot all the sounds and names of another language. U.S viewers would rise as one in protest of any NBC newscaster who showily said "Paris" or "México" the way the locals do. But having piled on much of Team Peacock for this anomaly I wanted to note the exception.
    And, hey, maybe this all actually matters. This dispatch just in from a Sinophile reader:

    THANK YOU for taking up the issue of how to pronounce "Beijing." PLEASE continue to push this: The soft "French" pronunciation is a national (USA) DISGRACE.

    I am a China scholar [from an Ivy League university] who has been studying China for 50 years, with an ex-wife who was Chinese, a Mandarin teacher who was Beijingese, numerous Sinological publications, and so on. During the Beijing Olympics, I was astounded that the American networks couldn't absorb the simple fact that any northern Chinese or CORRECT standard Mandarin speakers with whom they were interacting pronounced Beijing like Jingle Bells.. Those were, after all, the BEIJING Olympics! Not getting THAT right was simply inexcusable.

    I really don't know whether this ongoing linguistic atrocity reveals (1) some fatal linguistic ethnocentrism on the part of ALL Americans, or (2) some overall anxiety about confronting a "rising China," or (3) simple incompetence on the part of specific network functionaries in 2008, since perpetuated by similarly incompetent network functionaries (including sometimes on NPR!). I DO know that, in an increasingly symmetrical relationship between the USA and PRC, one country's systematically mispronouncing the name of the capital of the other -- mediated by mass media -- augurs poorly for the mispronouncing country. If the media can't adopt an attentive attitude toward THIS, toward WHAT can we count on their being attentive?    

    To repeat, THANK YOU for raising this issue. Doing so challenges our media to attend to more than just issues of pronunciation.

    I feel emboldened! But I may now let this go for a while.

  • College Sports: The Horse Feathers Factor

    'Where will the students sleep?' 'Where they always sleep, in the classroom!'

    For a momentary diversion from politics, beer, global disaster, and China, let's round out a discussion thread from last week.

    As a reminder: a Harvard alum said that things were hideous at Penn State but wouldn't bear close scrutiny at a lot of other places too. Then a Michigan alum replied that the college-sports spirit actually did more good than harm.

    Final round. A scientist at a famous football school (OK, it's OU) writes:

    Thumbnail image for oklahoma-sooners-wagon.jpgAs a college professor,and a football fan, I am hugely ambivalent about college sports. Student athletes include some of the best time managers and most mature students for their age. But there are also those that see classwork only as a necessary evil while they pursue their dream of excelling in sport. Most, especially those in money-making sports, see the hypocrisy of the word "student athlete", where graduation rates of basketball players and football players, even with a huge infrastructure meant to help them along, is shamefully low.

    It seems the best solution, in lieu of flat out payment, is to guarantee athletes working for the university, or the family members, an additional 2-4 years of free education (an increasingly pricey prize) when they choose to devote their time to study.

    From another Wolverine:

    Although this might make me a heretic as a Michigan alum, the whole build up about "Michigan Men" and athletics is a giant facade. Like every other school, the middle-aged men at top of the athletic department have no problems collecting their six- and seven-figure salaries while the "student" athletes got paid nothing (stuck subsidizing a bunch of other sports played by rich kids) and got no real education.

    The Ann Arbor News conducted an in-depth investigation a few years ago dismantling the idea that the school's image matches reality. The outrage from the fans directed at the newspaper was embarrassing--like most fans, they care about their own enjoyment, not the well-being of the kids.

    If you want further proof about the rot of big-time athletics, talk to James Duderstadt--a former UM President!--that has written an entire book about the invidious commercialization of college sports.

    I have no problem opening up opportunities to those that otherwise wouldn't have them--although why they should go to athletes rather than poor math geniuses or artists I don't know--but we should make sure our schools actually fulfill their duty to those kids. I'm not sure Michigan does that any better than any other school, regardless of what the reputation of the "leaders and best" says.

    The indecipherability of college sports:

    I'm a sports fan, but ... I have zero interest in collegiate sports - I don't know who any of the players are, there are too many leagues and conferences and they rank them in a bizarre subjective fashion I find completely corrupt. So I enjoy professional sports, and literally pay no attention to the college games.

    So to me, with no investment in the sports side, it's simple to just think "this isn't about sports, this was a crime, a horrific crime that damaged a bunch of kids, taking advantage of their most vulnerable traits for a kind of sick predatory satisfaction.  It is not about college, not about sports, it is about violent crime".

    So while I can see how being deeply invested in the concept of college sports would allow a human to have a kind of a "yeah, but..." moment, but just as how a commitment to an ideology can bring people to believe blatant lies, I have to think that this smacks of willfully blurred vision.  No matter what, or how much, good school sports have done, they were also the vehicle for locating and exploiting vulnerable kids, and too many people decided to remain silent in order to protect the "integrity of the institution".

    Nope.  Ask anybody who doesn't care one way or another about college sports, and they're going to be unanimous that the entire structure has the appearance of being corrupt and unhealthy...
    Thumbnail image for marx brothers horse feathers 6.jpg

    And finally, the Darwin/Huxley angle:

    No big surprise that even prestige colleges are obsessed with sports; thus was it ever. Remember the 1932 Marx Brothers' film Horse Feathers? Groucho Marx, (playing Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of Huxley College) was pondering how to buy shamateur football players in order to defeat arch-rival Darwin College.
    Groucho: Where would we be without football? Have we got a stadium?
    Trustees: Yes!
    Groucho: Have we got a college?
    Trustees: Yes!
    Groucho: Well, we can't support both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college.
    Trustees: But, Professor, where will the students sleep?
    Groucho: Where they always sleep, in the classroom!
    Obsession with sports has been an American fixture at least since the days of Grantland Rice and the Four Horsemen. I haven't been to Europe for years, but I doubt there are many Frenchmen with a decal on the back window of their Peugeot that proclaims "Sorbonne" or "Ecole Polytechnique." Likewise you could go a long time, I'll bet, before you encountered a German wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with "Max-Planck-Institut" or "Göttingen." So who is the outlier, us or the rest of the world?

    American exceptionalism: undiminished even now. Thanks to all.

  • From a Wolverine: The Case for College Sports

    Think college sports is one big corrupt racket? A Michigander begs to differ.

    Taylor Branch delivered the roundhouse punch to the NCAA and its hypocrisy/standards last year in our pages. Louis Freeh et al delivered a damning judgment on Joe Paterno's Penn State earlier this week. Yesterday I quoted a Harvard graduate on the Ivy League's problems in the same regard.

    A reader writes in to make the contrary case, on the character-building traits of college sports etc. I can imagine the followup arguments pro and con and won't keep this going indefinitely, but in fairness here is the other side.

    Wolverine.jpgAfter reading the note from your Harvard alum, I felt it's important to ask what the value of higher education is? I'm an alum of Michigan-a very good school with a very good football program. In 1997, we won a national championship in football, and had the Heisman Trophy winner. Obviously many of the members of that team went on to have long, successful NFL careers. But what of the majority of the players who ended up not going on to the NFL?

    It's only one year from one school (and after Penn State, I hesitate to point our it's known for doing things "the right way,") but the vast majority of those players have gone on to successful careers. Many of them owned their own businesses. All had jobs. I'll try to find the link on MGoBlog tomorrow*, but a Michigan blogger caught up with those players around 2007 and found out that they were all doing all right - more than all right, actually.

    Yale Football 1879 2.jpgNow again, this is a small sample size - but usually folks who deride the term "student athlete" use anecdotal evidence, as does your Harvard alum. A sample size of one is stronger than that. And again, Michigan is known for doing things "right," and is also a good academic school with a strong football program. But then, so are Texas, USC, Georgia Tech, Stanford and Notre Dame.

    In this country, as in most of the world, universities are used to turn boys and girls into future leaders. They evaluate their recruits mostly by grade point averages and standardized tests, the latter of which many educators feel is a poor way to measure their students. A minority are let in with lower GPAs because they demonstrate excellence in another realm - arts, music, and yes, sports.

    And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with opening up opportunities to kids who wouldn't otherwise have them because they demonstrate excellence differently than the traditional way? Maybe it's because Harvard, and Michigan, do actually give a damn at giving these kids a chance, both on the field and in the classroom? After all, Michael Oher [from Michael Lewis's The Blind Side] ended up as a valedictorian in his class, after barely qualifying for school in the first place.

    In another country, these same kids would get stuck in some "minor leagues" for a few years before finding out that they weren't going to ever cut it in the big leagues. And then they have to decide what's next. Here? They go to college, get an education while playing ball, learn more about teamwork, leadership, and dealing with success and failure. And then they get a degree and decide what to do next. I imagine the reason they recruit those non-revenue sports in schools like Harvard is to give excellence an opportunity to develop in the collegiate environment. And they teach them to become future leaders, in and off the field.

    Isn't that the point of an education?

    Hail! To the Victors, Valiant!

    * He sent a followup note with more data:

    Here's the link to the Michigan blog that found followups on the 1997 team:


    It was made after Jim Harbaugh called out his alma mater. We may call ourselves classy college football fans - but we're still college football fans.
  • Penn State: On the News!

    What happened at Penn State is horrific, but the mundane role of athletics in higher education raises broader problems.

    From the website of Penn State's president just now. Good to know that the most newsworthy item for university leaders is the excellent shoulder surgeon at Penn State Hershey.


    But to put Penn State news in perspective, this message comes in from a reader who is himself a Harvard alumnus and has many other family members who have graduated from, been faculty members at, or have otherwise been involved with Harvard, Yale, and Princeton:
    When we think about the issue of jock schools, we usually think about schools like Penn State and Texas.  But interestingly, the biggest jock schools in the US are the smaller, very selective liberal arts colleges.  For example, schools like Williams reserve 25% of their freshman class for athletes.  Harvard and Princeton, which are larger, around 18%.  Of course, some of the athletes are fully qualified.  But it's also true that the parents of kids who emphasize athletics, with travel teams, etc. are right that it's by far easier to get in if  you are a decent athlete. 

    The question to me is why schools like Harvard actually care as much about fielding teams as they do, especially for sports like football, where they aren't good.  I've learned that most administrative decisions come down to money, as the one main theme in our top universities is the increasing corporate mentality.  So the answer could be that they feel good sports teams make alumni contribute more.

    But how can you explain Harvard asking [a prominent prep school] to make a hockey-playing junior a senior so they could take him one year sooner, when he was a barely passing student that they weren't sure could handle [a not-very-good state university]?  (The Headmaster did it and he went off a year early to star at Harvard.)  Or the Princeton basketball coach guaranteeing [a young woman] a spot, saying her application was a formality, since she was one of the top high school basketballers in [her state]? 

    It seems to me that our connecting of sports to learning institutions is problematic in the end.  At the very least, it's made me much less inclined to support Harvard, as they pound their chests telling alums how great they are, while the  hockey coach is telling promising Canadian junior hockey players to "go to a PG year at a good prep school, then get an ivy league degree."  I listened to this pitch one time, to the parent of a great defenseman.  "All he has to do is pass all his courses, then he can still make the NHL and, if not, we'll get him a job in NYC so he can make good money on Wall Street..."

    To the extent this all bears on the question of equal opportunity and (metaphorically) level playing fields, you can (loosely) classify this as another installment in the annals of casino capitalism.

  • More Good News: Chinese Hoops, Aussie Hops, 'Interesting' Software

    News got you down? Here are some other things to think about

    Winter is coming, as they would say in Game of Thrones land. By which I mean not the actual season but grim-toned political discussion ahead. So again let's pause to look on the bright side with:

    1) Chinese hoops. Here is a very nice brief video, courtesy of reader AK and SB Nation, of Stephon Marbury joyously celebrating with his Beijing Ducks teammates after their victory over the Guangdong Southern Tigers to win the Chinese Basketball Association championship. Really, this is heartwarming in about twelve different ways -- and a partial balm for this season's untimely end to Linsanity.


    2) Aussie beer. The promised full retrospective report is still to come. But as a guide to anyone who wonders whether Australia's brewers, long famed for blah watery lagers, could produce something more ambitious, here are another two signs of progress.

    One is the Stow Away IPA entry in the James Squire line of craft brews, shown below in its natural setting in a James Squire brewpub in Hobart. (The company itself is based in Sydney -- and is owned by Kirin, which in turn is part of the Mitsubishi combine.) Stow Away is the purple one on the left and is about the closest thing I've found in the Antipodes to the current American-style IPAs.


    Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for TasmaniaBrewpub.jpgHere is how it looks in action at the brewpub, at right, showing its convincing rich hue. It's the one being held; the other is the Four Wives Pilsener. Be warned that until the Aussie palate becomes fully evolved and moves the market with it, this still seems relatively hard to find. Many "bottle shops" that stock the rest of the James Squire line seem not to know about Stow Away.

    The other candidate: from the Malt Shovel Mad Brewers (a James Squire subsidiary), a short-term summer seasonal offering called "Hoppy Hefe." I wouldn't have picked this out as a Hefeweizen, since it doesn't look cloudy or taste particularly of wheat. But it certainly is full of hops, which makes it unusual locally and for which I am grateful. It's also full of alcohol: 7% (like Supplication and some others from the famed Russian River line), so a little goes a long way. This southern-hemisphere summer season is ending rather than beginning, and so is this beer's run, so if you see a bottle, don't miss the chance. Side note: beer is expensive in Australia, largely because of taxes, and this is extra-premium priced, at roughly $10 for a 640ml bottle, about the size of two "normal" bottles. Close-up shot of the bottle, so you can recognize it, below.

    Thumbnail image for MadHefe.jpg

    3) Interesting software. Over the years -- really, decades -- I have ended up playing working with the same set of "interesting" programs for storing info, classifying it and moving it around, and generally observing the relationship between software and thought. The perennial favorites include Zoot, Windows-only, which I've used for nearly 20 years and is recently available in a whole new version; Tinderbox, Mac only, a more recent favorite;  Mind Manager, Windows and Mac, which I find useful for outlining (as I do OmniOutliner, for Mac and iPad); and among others (including the indispensable Mac duo of Scrivener and DevonThink) there is also Personal Brain, for Windows, Mac, and Linux. I won't take the time to lay out the whole theory of this idiosyncratic but seductive program. I will say that a new version, The Brain 7, is out in beta, and I've been using and liking it. If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, you will be interested in this.

    Thus endeth the uplift for now.
  • Meaning of Lin

    All your questions answered, in one mega-post

    Last from me on this topic, until Jeremy Lin is MVP of the NBA Championships, followed by leading the U.S. to an Olympic win this summer. For maximum drama, the gold medal game should be against the team from China. Until then:

    1) From a cultural, social, business, and individual perspective, every aspect of Jeremy Lin's identity adds to the fascination. That he's Asian; that he's Christian; that he's from Harvard; that overnight he became a star. It's legitimate and natural to dwell on each of these elements, including his race.

       1A) On the cultural front, David Brooks's observed about Lin this morning that "we shouldn't neglect the biggest anomaly. He's a religious person in professional sports." This observation is ... surprising. Brooks might want to spend a little more time watching athlete interviews ("I want to thank Jesus for helping me on that field goal") on ESPN.

       1B) Non-surprisingly, the Daily Show trumps all in cultural-social-racial coverage.

    2) When it comes to his athletic performance (as opposed to cultural significance), I strongly believe that none of those "identity" elements means anything. I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that what matters about Lin's basketball achievements is that he is exceptional as an athlete. Many commenters on TNC's post explain the shock of having known people who had made it as pro athletes: these people are different. They're different not in being black or Asian or Christian or anything else, but in being faster, stronger, better coordinated, better conditioned than the rest of us.
    My story: in high school, I was a bad member of a tennis team whose #1 player won the national under-18 championship that year (the Kalamazoo tournament). He was just playing a different game from ordinary people -- and was faster, stronger, better coordinated, better conditioned. (Even so, he wasn't a big success in the pros, because there was a level above his of speed, coordination, durability, etc.)

    Jeremy Lin is showing us his athletic skill now. Not his Harvard book-learning, his oriental heritage, his Silicon Valley optimism, or anything of that sort. Here he is doing his two-hand dribbling drill. Can you do this? No matter what your race?

    3) Because a number of serious writers have based their theories of "Asian" behavior on the same social-science experiment, it is worth going into exactly what that experiment showed. Mark Liberman lays it out at Language Log, but here is the crucial chart. It tracks where different groups of people directed their attention when shown a set of pictures:

    Nisbett2005Fig4.jpgTo simplify, the difference between "Asian" and non-Asian perspective  is the gap between the red and blue lines. Among other things, the chart shows that on initial, "at a glance" perspective, for the first half-second or so, there's virtually no difference. Everyone is looking at the same things. For a point guard, or a fighter pilot, that first half-second would be what matters. This chart is the basis of the "Asian different perception" arguments you're hearing. Again see Language Log for more.

    4) Alan Paul, former resident of Beijing and author of Big in China, tells about his experience with the Chinese hoops world.

    5) Another reader who knows the Asian basketball scene writes:

    As a long-time hooper and resident of Taiwan maybe I can add something to this.  Unlike in the US, where many more kids get coaching in rec leagues or basketball camps, in Taiwan the athletics path is limited to a small number of kids.  This is not so much due to 'the system' but rather because most parents view sports as a waste of time / distraction from studies (which as you know, compared to US schooling, is gruelling).  The result is that most people playing in the average pick-up game have never been drilled in the fundamentals, so mostly what they do is imitate what they see on TV / Sportscenter highlights.
    As for why China hasn't produced an NBA point guard, well China has only had a handful of NBA players and they've pretty much all been big men.  One possible explanation is that big men who can play are rarer than little men who can play - if you're 6'2, you are competing against many more people (locally and worldwide) for the limited number of spots than if you are 7' - so the best Chinese big men are naturally more in demand than the best guards.

    After the jump, one more bit of eyewitness testimony.

    More »


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