The Mysteries of Barack Obama: Cervical-Thoracic Edition

Here's one good reason to Subscribe!: it keeps us in business. Another: for our current issue, which really is good*, many subscribers got their in-the-mail issues a few days before the magazine went online or appeared on newsstands. As a rule it's nicer to read long articles on a page than on a computer screen. And, the clinching argument, in this month's physical magazine (or iPad subscriber version) you get to see the unusual photo below, on page 67.

It was taken a year ago, at the White House, and it shows President Obama next to President Hu Jintao of China. I invite your attention to the side of President Obama's neck.

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The effect is more puzzling in print than it appears here. On paper it looks as if the president's neck has somehow levitated past the boundaries of his collar. Or, alternatively, as if a triangular section of his neck has disappeared.

We went back to our production house, which assured us that they had done no digital retouching of the photo whatsoever. They in turn asked Reuters, original source of the photo, about its bona fides. The editor there replied, "Thanks for checking but no retouching or manipulation was done. It's really just neck flab draping over his collar!"

If you look at the picture really carefully, you can see the source of the illusion. Having studied it carefully enough, I now understand what I'm seeing -- but as soon as I stop concentrating on what's "really" there, my mind instantly switches back to considering it odd. I guess that is the trademark of a good optical illusion. But to get close enough to study it, you'll need the paper copy -- or the iPad subscription, as shown below. The choice is yours.

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* If you don't want to dig into one of the long articles or essays in this issue, by all means start with Tim Heffernan's "Iron Giant," a wonderful brief evocation of one of the biggest machines in the world.

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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.

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