Friday, January 22, 2010

James Fallows on American Decline

James Fallows has published an article in The Atlantic (Jan/Feb 2010) entitled "How America Can Rise Again". As usual, Fallows provides a thorough and considered report on the topic. He points out that concerns about American decline are as American as apple pie, and the tradition goes back to the founding of the republic. He dubs the attitude "declinism". He makes a number of salient points, most interestingly, about China. Fallows has been living and reporting from China for the last couple of years, so his insights bear some serious consideration. The short summary: the rise of China, in many ways inevitable, actually can work to America's interest (ditto India). In fact, in a point that I agree with him more and more, our greatest challenge lies in the failure of our political system. He believes, as I do, that it's not working at all well. Although he doesn't cite it, the health care problem is a prime example. We have a very clear majority of Congress who support some core reforms (badly needed), and yet it's fate languishes because a Cosmo-type centerfold dude has been elected senator from Massachusetts. It also languishes because of individuals like Joe Lieberman, who has made himself into a party of one. Congress remains stuck in a culture of rotten boroughs (corrupting, old, and unrepresentative political system) that would make the 19th century blush. I recommend the article for the thoughtful consideration of the concerns and the not necessarily pessimistic conclusions that Fallows reaches.

Gawande: The Checklist Manifesto

I've finished Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto (2009, 175 p.). Yes, I read a whole book about the humble checklist. Yet, as one would expect from someone who is a regular New Yorker contributor, it's very well written. The basic premise is simple: with increasingly complex undertakings, no person can keep the necessary mental notes needed to do everything that must be done when it should be done. This includes surgeons and their staff, airline pilots, contractors, and yes, even lawyers. (I give myself credit for professional reading on this one.) Gawande gives us a tour of how something as complex as a skyscraper gets built, and built right. He takes us to Boeing to see how simple checklists operate airplanes and save lives. He also takes us into surgery with him and his peers to see how they deal with these problems. Many of his accounts, especially of surgical and airline emergencies, are fascinating and scary. His own challenges getting a working checklist into his OR makes for interesting reading as well. In sum, it's a short, fascinating account of how a simple, rather old-fashion device can do a lot of good. Cooks use them all the time: they call them recipes.

Taleb on Walking & the Paleo Life

A couple of my regular blog reads posted this from my man Nicholas Taleb, the author the The Black Swan, one of my favorite books. This particular link, from Taleb's website ( appears to be a portion of an upcoming book. In any event, it's a peek into his current fitness regiment, which he credits Art Devany and Doug McGuff (Body By Science). Of course, I got into Devany after reading Taleb's Fooled By Randomness, where Devany got a shout-out not only for his economics work, but also for his fitness regiment, what Devany dubs as "evolutionary fitness". Since I came across this in 2007, I've read and followed Devany's line of thinking, and I've discovered other like-minded thinkers. (I've let my paid subscription to Devany lapse, but he's supposed to be publishing a book before too long.) So what's all this got to do with Taleb and his black (or gray) swans? Randomness, robustness, variation: all themes in Taleb's work are applied to fitness. In any event, read Taleb's piece and check out some of this information, as I think Taleb, Devany, McGuff, and their ilk are on to something.