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.
  • Is the U.S.-China Climate Pact as Big a Deal as It Seems?

    Wednesday's news doesn't mean that global climate negotiations will succeed. But it means they're no longer guaranteed to fail.

    The Chinese and American presidents in Beijing on Wednesday. Apparently they got something done. (Reuters)

    I've been offline for many hours and am just now seeing the announcements from Beijing. The United States and China have apparently agreed to do what anyone who has thought seriously about climate has been hoping for, for years. As the No. 1 (now China) and No. 2 carbon emitters in the world, and as the No. 1 (still the U.S.) and No. 2 economies, they've agreed to new carbon-reduction targets that are more ambitious than most people would have expected.

    We'll wait to see the details—including how an American president can make good on commitments for 2025, when that is two and possibly three presidencies into the future, and when in the here-and-now he faces congressional majorities that seem dead-set against recognizing this issue. It's quaint to think back on an America that could set ambitious long-term goals—creating Land-Grant universities, developing the Interstate Highway System, going to the moon—even though the president who proposed them realized that they could not be completed on his watch. But let's not waste time on nostalgia.

    Before we have all the details, here is the simple guide to why this could be very important.

    1) To have spent any time in China is to recognize that environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability—even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related. (I'll say more about this connection some other time, but you could think of last week's reports that visiting groups of senior Chinese officials bought so much illegal ivory in Tanzania during a state visit that they drove the black market price to new highs. [I've changed the description of these allegations slightly from the first-posted version.])

    This was a typical view out our apartment
    window in Beijing just before the 2008
    Olympics. The air was, on average, much
    better then than it is now.

    You can go on for quite a while with a political system like China's, as it keeps demonstrating now in its 65th year. But when children are developing lung cancer, when people in the capital city are on average dying five years too early because of air pollution, when water and agricultural soil and food supplies are increasingly poisoned, a system just won't last. The Chinese Communist Party itself has recognized this, in shifting in the past three years from pollution denialism to a "we're on your side to clean things up!" official stance.

    Analytically these pollution emergencies are distinct from carbon-emission issues. But in practical terms pro-environmental steps by China are likely to help with both.

    2) To have looked at either the numbers or the politics of global climate issues is to recognize that unless China and the U.S. cooperate, there is no hope for anyone else. Numbers: These are far and away the two biggest sources of carbon emissions, and China is the fastest-growing. As John Kerry points out in an op-ed in tomorrow's NYT, reductions either of them made on its own could just be wiped out unless the other cooperates. Politics: As the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks five years ago showed, the rest of the world is likely to say, "To hell with it" if the two countries at the heart of this problem can't be bothered to do anything.

    We see our own domestic version of this response when people say, "Why go through the hassle of a carbon tax, when the Chinese are just going to smoke us to death anyway?" This new agreement does not mean that next year's global climate negotiations in Paris will succeed. But it means they are no longer guaranteed to fail.

    3) China is a big, diverse, churning, and contradictory place, as anyone who's been there can detail for hours. But for the past year-plus, the news out of China has been consistent, and bad.

    Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer. Two years into his watch, his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before. The gratuitous recent showdown with Hong Kong exemplifies the new "No More Mr. Nice Guy" approach.

    A nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone has spilled over into China's "diplomatic" dealings too. So to have this leader of China making an important deal with an American president at this stage of his political fortune is the first news that even seems positive in a long while.

    We'll wait to see the details. But at face value, this is better news—about China, about China and America, and about the globe—than we've gotten for a while.

  • How to Sign Up for Our 'American Futures' Newsletter

    "At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity."

    Inside the newspaper office in Winters, California, earlier this year (James Fallows)

    This post is to introduce a new email newsletter that I hope you’ll be interested in. It’s about the “American Futures” reporting project that my wife Deb and I have been undertaking through the past year and are ready to take in what we think will be exciting new directions.

    When we began this project for The Atlantic in the summer of 2013, with our colleagues at Marketplace radio and the digital-mapping company Esri, our idea was to visit some of the smaller towns and cities the media tend to overlook, to see  how people were adjusting to the economic, environmental, and technological opportunities and challenges of this era.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    This was a variant on the classic road-trip approach to reporting the diverse realities of America, the variant being that we were making the journey in a little Cirrus SR-22 propeller plane. Since only a few small towns are on an Interstate, but nearly all of them have local airports—a total of 5,000 across the country—this has allowed us to range among places as far-flung as Eastport, Maine and Redlands, California, or Duluth, Minnesota and Columbus, Mississippi. In the months ahead we’re planning to travel through the Central Valley of California; to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana; to coal country in Tennessee and Kentucky, and rural Alabama; and many places more.

    By now we’ve done two articles in the print edition of The Atlantic; with our reporting colleague John Tierney we’ve done well over 200 on-line features; we’ve joined Kai Ryssdal and his Marketplace team for reports from South Dakota, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Maine, and other corners of the country; we’ve done video and audio features for The Atlantic’s site; and we’ve made speeches and presentations across the country.

    We’ve learned about tidal-energy projects, about the rise of craft brewing, about how old cities are attracting young residents to their downtowns, about the surprising role that libraries are playing in the digital age, and a dozen themes more.

    Deb has a background in linguistics and has reported on regional language patterns, as well as stories of innovative schools, refugee resettlements, arts programs, and the fun of flying. John is a former college political-science professor and has written about innovations at community colleges and research universities — and also the craft-distillery movement, neighborhood-redevelopment efforts, and the public architecture of the Great Plains. We’ve ended each day of reporting very tired, but even more excited and surprised by what we’ve learned.

    Eastport, Maine, looking across to Campobello Island

    We’ve found this project every bit as engaging as we expected, but we’ve also discovered something we hadn’t foreseen. There is a pattern that connects the individual stories we’ve reported, and that sharply differs from the tone of most coverage we read or hear. At the national level, American politics is bitterly polarized, and the mood of the country can seem fearful and downcast. But city by city we’ve seen examples of collaboration, practical-minded compromise, long-term investment in a region’s future, and a coast-to-coast resurgence in manufacturing and other startup activity.

    Deb Fallows, John Tierney, and I are producing reports for this project on The Atlantic’s site almost every day. You can find a master collection of them here: http://www.theatlantic.com/special-report/american-futures/  But with the daily surge of material appearing so often on TheAtlantic.com, we wanted to make it easier for readers who are interested to follow the reports we’re putting up. That’s why we’ve decided to start this newsletter.

    Every few days or once a week, I’ll send you an email that contains links to the latest items by Deb, John, or me from our American Futures reporting.  A typical email newsletter will be brief, with very little text, merely calling your attention to the five or six most recent new pieces, with links you can click to read more.

    I hope you’ll find this interesting and will want to continue to receive the emails. If not, there’ll be an easy-to-use “Unsubscribe” link at the bottom of each email. Click it, and we’ll bother you no more. Sign up by putting your email address in the box below and clicking "subscribe."

    powered by TinyLetter

    Here is a small sampling of pieces we've done in the past year that will give you a taste of the variety of topics and places we’re exploring.


    Online posts.

    By Jim Fallows:

    By Deb Fallows:

    By John Tierney:

    Video:

    Articles:

    • “An Intimate View of America, From Above” by Deb Fallows, in The New York Times.
    • “Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn’t,” by Jim Fallows, in The Atlantic.
    • “The Little Town That Might,” by Jim Fallows, in The Atlantic.
  • Vote Early and Often!

    "Don't vote—it just encourages them," the old saw used to go. Au contraire. Even-lower turnout is about the only thing that could make our terrible election system worse.

    This mailer arrived yesterday in Charleston, W.V., mailboxes. Nick Casey, as you will have guessed, is a Democratic candidate. (Republican Party of West Virginia, via James Fallows)

    Get out and vote! I will be doing so in D.C. later today, though not, alas, for a full-fledged senator or representative, nor an anti-leafblower ordinance, but there's always next time. I'll vote once my wife Deb and I get back to D.C. from West Virginia, latest stop on our American Futures journeys.

    What you see above is part of the mailings flooding into homes in West Virginia's Second Congressional District. It's now represented by Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, who is expected to win today to succeed Jay Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate. Alex Mooney is the Republican candidate to succeed Capito in Congress. Barack Obama Nancy Pelosi the anti-gun Michael Bloomberg Nick Casey Jr. is the Democrat.

    Here's what a local Republican received yesterday. It gives a flavor of how local races are being "nationalized."

    We're not here on a political-reporting swing—it is amazing how much more interesting it is to see the country doing something other than watching campaign rallies—but it's election day, after all.

    The other big item on the local ballot is a levy to support improvements in the Charleston public library. On Halloween, Larry and Sandra Groce, about whom you'll be seeing more in this site, decorated their entire house on the theme of: You know what would be scary? No library! There's a nice story about them and their house in The Charleston Gazette; here is the way the house looked in the stark autumn light yesterday, which gives a rough idea:

    Vote!

  • The Under-Appreciated Genius of Mark Zuckerberg in China

    "Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!"

    Results of attempts to reach Facebook from various sites in China. Was this the long-run soft-power strategy Facebook's CEO employed? ( GreatFirewallOfChina.org )

    I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.

    Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)

    Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:

    Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.

    Now the details:

    Big Shot's Funeral via Wikipedia

    I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.

    Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".

    Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:

    -- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.

    -- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)

    -- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.

    -- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!

    -- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?

    -- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."

    The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."

    Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.

    We can only imagine...
    Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
  • 'A Foreigner Speaking Chinese—That's Scary!'

    Finale on the Zuckerberg-in-China saga

    Here's how it can look when children in Shanghai learn English in public elementary school. A young American named Kyle Taylor was their teacher a few years ago. (James Fallows)

    Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.

    A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]

    1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:

    While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.

    More »

  • Isaac Stone Fish With More on Zuckerberg's Chinese Language Show

    "Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s. But I will never be able to satisfy the request to do so in front of millions of people."

    Mark Zuckerberg and his then-fiancee Priscilla Chan on a visit to Shanghai two years ago. (Reuters)

    Two weeks ago Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself doing a speech and Q-and-A session in China, in Chinese. Soon thereafter, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy, whose friends had asked him how Zuckerberg's Chinese was, responded "terrible." He did an item called "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old." Yesterday I posted a critical-review-of-that-critical-review, by Kevin Slaten, plus some other thoughts about language learning.

    Since then I've received an avalanche of interesting letters, and I plan to share an assortment of them tomorrow. For now, Isaac Stone Fish deserves a clear shot to reply to Kevin Slaten's criticisms. I turn the floor over to him:

    Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful post, and for giving me the chance to respond, and Mr. Slaten, thanks for your contribution.

    After Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin, several news outlets claimed his Mandarin was fluent. That is incorrect. There’s a difference between speaking unstandard Mandarin -- which, as Mr. Slaten correctly pointed out, is what that Mao and Deng spoke -- and speaking broken Mandarin with mangled tones, which is the way Zuckerberg spoke.

    The problem with Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was not just his pronunciation; he also made many grammatical errors. You’re right that a seven-year-old native speaker -- even if his mouth was full of marbles -- would not make the tonal or grammatical errors that Zuckerberg made. It was the best analogy I could think of to describe the quality of his Mandarin: any other suggestions for analogies would be much appreciated.

    Learning Chinese was great fun, and very helpful to me in my career; I strongly recommend it to people who want to work in China. But it’s very time-consuming. Even if it would be encouraging, I am not going to pretend that a beginner can study Chinese part-time for a few years and suddenly learn to speak excellent Mandarin.

    In the end of his piece, Mr. Slaten writes, “Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world.”

    I must admit defeat. Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s, especially if I prepared for the topic, as Zuckerberg seemed to have done. But I will never be able to satisfy Mr. Slaten’s request to do so in front of millions of people. Why? Because only an exceedingly small number of people actually care about the level of my Mandarin. Take my former Chinese teachers and my parents out of that equation, and that number drops dangerously close to zero.

    Thanks to Isaac Stone Fish for his good-humored response, to Kevin Slaten for his stimulus for this discussion, and to everyone else who has written. Tomorrow it will be your turn.

  • Mark Zuckerberg Speaking Chinese: Brave, Foolish, or Both?

    你什么意思?What are you trying to say?

    Portraits of Mark Zuckerberg by Chinese artist Zhu Jia, at gallery in Singapore last year (Reuters)

    About ten days ago Facebook's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself giving a speech and handling a Q&A with students at Tsinghua University in Beijing — and doing it in Chinese. You've probably seen it already, but here it is again just in case.

    A few hours later, Isaac Stone Fish of FP posted an item with his answer to the question that most Westerners who've been in China had been asked by their friends. Namely, How did Zuckerberg sound? And his answer was harsh. It began:

    I've gotten several emails asking about how Zuckerberg's Mandarin is. In a word, terrible.

    The piece was titled "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Mandarin Like a Seven-Year-Old," and it went on to explain why Stone Fish thought so.

    Not everyone agreed.

    More »

  • Political News From Maine: Latest Shifts in the Race for Governor

    An independent candidate deals with a "what-if?" question

    Incumbent Republican governor Paul LePage of Maine in the center of the photo though not of the political spectrum, flanked by Independent Eliot Cutler on the left and Democrat Mike Michaud on the right, at a debate last week. ( WMTW via YouTube )

    Four years ago, when Republicans were sweeping the boards in many midterm contests, the Tea Party faction had one of its biggest and strangest victories in Maine. Biggest, in that the Tea Party Republican candidate who became Maine's governor, Paul LePage, is arguably the most right-wing governor in the country, serving in what is far from the most right-wing state. Strangest, in that he eked out a victory not over the Democratic candidate, who faded badly in the last weeks of the campaign, but over the independent Eliot Cutler.

    That race four years ago was full of what-ifs. What if the Democrats, when it became clear that their candidate (Libby Mitchell) was sinking to a distant third, had explicitly or implicitly thrown in the towel or backed Cutler—similar to what is happening now in the Senate race in Kansas? What if fewer people had voted early, before it became clear that the real race was between Cutler and LePage? What if the Maine moderate/centrists who have sent the likes of Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and Angus King to Washington had a clearer picture of how hardline LePage was going to be in office? What if the dynamics had shifted a few days earlier, so that Cutler had caught up in time? In the end LePage beat Cutler by 10,000 votes, with Mitchell another 100,000 behind.

    As I wrote back in 2010, Eliot Cutler and his wife Melanie are close friends of ours; their daughter Abby, who is now a doctor, once worked for The Atlantic. That meant I wasn't a dispassionate observer, but also that I knew Eliot well enough to be enthusiastic about what he could have done as governor.

    This year two things are similar: LePage has been running as a Republican, and Cutler as an independent. The big difference is that the Democrats have unified earlier, and more powerfully, behind a stronger candidate than last time. This is Representative Mike Michaud, from Maine's northern—and poor, and rural—Second Congressional District.

    Two months ago, I noted that Angus King, who won statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate as an independent, had endorsed Eliot Cutler. Since then, the race has fallen into a pattern with Michaud and LePage closely matched at just under 40 percent support, with Cutler below 20 percent, even after strong performances in a recent string of debates.

    Yesterday two significant press conferences occurred. First, Eliot Cutler said that if people supported him but thought he could not win, they had his blessing to vote strategically—that is, to act as if it were a run-off between the other two candidates, even though he was staying in the race.

    Then, his crucial supporter Angus King said that, in effect, he would be voting strategically, and switched his endorsement to Mike Michaud. As King put it (via a Politico story):

    “Eliot Cutler is a fine man who would make a good governor of our state,” King said in a statement. “But, like Eliot, I too am a realist. After many months considering the issues and getting to know the candidates, it is clear that the voters of Maine are not prepared to elect Eliot in 2014 .… The good news is that we still have a chance to elect a governor who will represent the majority of Maine people: my friend and colleague, Mike Michaud.”

    These moves obviously change the nature of the race, and they avoid another potential what-if: What if a clear majority of Maine's voters wanted not to have Paul LePage for another four years, but got just that because of a split in the liberal-centrist vote?

    This also heightens the importance of what Eliot Cutler said yesterday, after saying that his supporters should feel free to pay attention to the polls when considering their vote:

    For those voters who have been seized with anxiety and who don’t want fear to become an indelible hallmark of politics in Maine I have a single request: Regardless of whether you vote for me or someone else, please join me in supporting the proposed citizens’ initiative on ranked choice voting and sign a petition at the polls on November 4 to bring ranked choice voting to a vote of the people in a referendum.

    The machinery of democracy is already flawed in enough ways, inadvertent and intentional, and the match between party alignment and popular wishes is already sufficiently askew, that we need to seize any opportunity to fix easily correctible errors. So if I were in Maine, in addition to considering "strategic" voting, I would sign that petition. People of Maine, over to you.

  • What a Wandering Airliner Says About China's Prospects

    A Chinese plane was not allowed to land at some Chinese airports. Why that matters.

    The meandering path of China Eastern airlines flight 750 four days ago ( All maps from FlightAware )

    The South China Morning Post has a fascinating story about the flight of a Chinese-owned airliner that eventually got its 200 passengers safely to the ground, but not before some misadventures.

    The screenshot above, used with permission from FlightAware, shows the route the plane had to take before Chinese controllers allowed it to land. Here's a larger view of the trip, the track of which picks up a little while after its departure.

    Highlights were:

    The plane, an Airbus flown by China Eastern, started out in Asahikawa on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido;

    It was headed for Beijing's Capital Airport, shown as ZBAA/PEK on the screen above. But it couldn't land there because the visibility was too low. Planes abort landings because of low ceilings or limited visibility all the time; knowing how and when to execute a "missed approach" safely is part of normal IFR (instrument-flight rules) skills. There are circumstances where some airliners can land with no visibility, but let's ignore them for now. Usually the problem is fog, clouds, and so on. In this case, it was because the pilots couldn't see through Beijing's polluted air. According to the SCMP, some 60 flights were diverted from Beijing that day because the air was opaque.

    If a plane, especially an airliner, can't land at one airport, it just goes somewhere else. This too happens all the time, as weary frequent flyers know. But the controllers at the nearby Jinan and Qingdao airports in Shandong province said, "Unt-uh." You are not cleared to land. This is very much not the way the aviation world usually works. Remember, too, that this wasn't some threatening alien craft but an international flight by one of China's mainstay airlines.

    • Unable to land in Beijing, and not approved to land anywhere else, the plane just circled around in holding patterns, as you see above.

    Eventually and inevitably, it ran low on gas.

    At this point the pilots reported to the controllers that they were in emergency circumstances and needed to land now. The controllers in Qingdao finally said, OK, now that it's an emergency, you can land. According to the SCMP account, the plane had so little fuel left over when it touched down that the final approach to Qingdao was all-or-nothing. There wouldn't have been enough fuel for another "go around."

    Here is how the flight looks on a normal day:

    This story has everything: Signs of China's growth, prosperity, and strength—planes full of tourists to Hokkaido, shiny new airline fleets. On the other hand, the inescapable consequences of pollution. And, perhaps most important, the distance still to go in developing the complex, resilient, trust-rather-than-command-based networks that are necessary to operate the highest-value modern organizations in the right way.

    Universities can't (in my view) operate well in a climate of press censorship; high-tech startups are hindered when there is doubt about contract rights and rule of law; and things like an aviation network don't work well when people are afraid, or unwilling, to adapt and take local initiative rather than waiting for commands. Yes, I do realize how adaptable and de-centralized most of China usually is. But the reason that high-end modern industries like aerospace, bio-tech, and info-tech are such important bellwethers for China's development is that their success depends on a combination of clearly understood standards and delegated authority and decision-making. These modern systems can't work if everyone is waiting for explicit instructions from headquarters or mainly worry that they'll be punished for exercising on-scene judgment.

    There is a larger point to make here, about why these top-end, "soft infrastructure" developments will be harder for China (though still perhaps possible) than the hard-production miracles of the past generation. In fact there's a whole book on the topic! I will be interested to hear from my friends in the Chinese aviation world and who will be blamed for what after this event.

  • Hip in the Heartland

    It's not just Brooklyn and the Bay Area any more

    Life-sized wall painting in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus (Deborah Fallows)

    This week Claire Cain Miller of the NY Times reported on an interesting migration trend. The young, college-educated, professional-and-entrepreneurial class we expect to see concentrating in Brooklyn, the SF Bay Area, DC, Seattle, and three or four other usual-suspect big cities is also now showing up in medium-sized and small places. The story was based on a new study, "Young and Restless," from City Observatory.

    This is exactly in parallel with what we've been seeing and reporting on, in locales as non-usual-suspect as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, or Greenville, South Carolina, or Holland, Michigan, or Redlands, California. Now Deb Fallows has a report on this same phenomenon in the capital city of her home state: Columbus, Ohio.

    More »

  • Today's Mid-Air Collision Outside Washington

    "This reminds us how vulnerable we all are." Lessons from a tragedy

    Photos of 1990s tests of "ballistic parachute" for Cirrus aircraft, over the Mojave desert (Cirrus Aircraft)

    There was a tragic mid-air collision this afternoon near Frederick airport, KFDK in aviation talk, about 40 miles north of Washington DC. A helicopter, initially reported as a four-seat Robinson R44, collided with a four-seat Cirrus SR-22 airplane as the Cirrus was preparing to land. Three people aboard the helicopter are all reported to have died. The two aboard the airplane were (at current reports) released from the hospital with minor injuries.

    Frederick Airport is well known in the aviation world, as the home base of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, AOPA. This accident is obviously a tragedy for all involved, and one close to home for me. I took my private-pilot exam at Frederick Airport; I've landed there maybe a hundred times, on training exercises or to get my plane repaired or to meet people at AOPA. Also, the plane involved is the same year and model (a 2006 SR-22) as the one we have been flying for our travels.

    Points about this episode, starting and ending with sympathies for those involved.

    1) Although the most famous airline mid-air collision happened in the middle of nowhere, over the Grand Canyon, nearly 60 years ago, in non-airline flying the main place where this is a risk is right around airports. Flying cross country, you can go for very long periods without coming within a dozen miles of another airplane. But since airplane flights need to wind up at airports, the closer you get to one, the more likely you are to see other planes.

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  • Why You Shouldn't Get Your Hopes Up for the Self-Driving Car (California High-Speed Rail No. 14)

    "Would you prefer a system where you can be instantly teleported from SF to LA? Of course. But that doesn't mean it's going to happen."

    GM's Firebird II, an Eisenhower-era prototype of a self-driving car ( Wikimedia commons )

    Over the weekend, in No. 13 from the Ulysses-scale saga* of California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system, a reader from the Silicon Valley tech industry said that his state should just forget about railroads—normal, high-speed, maglev, or whatever. Instead it should embrace the future represented by self-driving cars. (For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4,No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, and No. 13. Today's is No. 14.)

    Almost no one who's written in since then agrees. Here is a sampling of the case made, in dozens of messages, against self-driving cars as a realistic transport hope. Let's start with reader D.G. in the Maryland suburbs near Washington D.C.:

    I have been reading your HSR series with great interest, even though I live on the wrong coast, since, as you point out, the decision California makes here will strongly influence the direction the rest of the country takes. I have no expertise in this area, only a strong interest in planning issues, as they relate to quality of life, climate change, safety, and other public policy concerns.  

    I am moved to respond to the message from your info-tech reader regarding the relative virtues of self-driving car technology and HSR.

    First, I observe that the reader's view embodies two infuriating and too-common tendencies when considering any public policy issue.

    More »

  • Rebecca Frankel and War Dogs at Sixth and I Tonight

    A surprisingly moving and engrossing tale of modern war

    Rebecca Frankel is an editor at Foreign Policy, a friend of our family, and the author of a great new book called War Dogs. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, a man who does not lightly distribute praise, gave it a very positive review in the Post this past Sunday ("exceptionally interesting and surprisingly moving"). The NYTBR wrote about the book here, and you can hear her on the Diane Rehm show here.

    This evening at 7, I'll be leading a discussion with Rebecca Frankel at the Sixth and I Synagogue in downtown Washington. Tickets are $12, but you get two free tickets with the purchase of one of her books for $26. More details here. I am looking forward to talking with her, and I hope to see you there.

    Megan Chan
  • 'Of No Party or Clique' at The Atlantic

    The big-tent principle applied to a former U.S. senator and a current U.S. adversary

    Signatory page from report on the importance of negotiation with Iran ( The Iran Project )

    "Of no party or clique" was the founding motto of our magazine, 157 years ago next month. In practice this mainly means that we should aspire to present each article or argument on its merits, and not as expressions of some other agenda. (Though of course we all have our larger worldviews, blind spots, favorites, etc.) Sometimes it means there are disagreements in the arguments presented in our pages or on this site.

    For the record I want to note two recent disagreements, one about a journalistic tone and one about a diplomatic goal.

    1) Gary Hart. Last week I wrote that I found Matt Bai's All the Truth Is Out to be valuable and worth reading in full, perhaps especially if you'd read the interesting but not-quite-representative excerpt in the NYT Magazine. The book as a whole considers the real career, achievements, and, yes, "character" of former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart, including his original and decades-long work as a defense reformer—and it contrasts that with the smirking shorthand of press references to Hart as a man forced out of politics because of Monkey Business.

    Yesterday The Atlantic ran a short news item about Hart that demonstrated the smirking shorthand tone. Indeed, I thought the item had little point except as an occasion to mention Hart this way—that is, it probably wouldn't have been written if some other former senator was going on a diplomatic mission. It began:

    Gary Hart hasn't made a whole lot of headlines in the quarter-century since the outing of his extramarital affair cost him a shot at the presidency and, arguably, changed American politics forever.

    But less than a month after a new book thrust him back into the news, Hart has a new job, and it comes courtesy of a fellow member of the semi-exclusive club of presidential losers, John Kerry.

    This is just too easy, and there's just too much of it in political media. I'm sorry that we added to the supply. Before you ask, I have discussed this with the item's author, Russell Berman, and I know that he never meant to leave the impression I am talking about. But that's all the more reason to note it in public, as an illustration of the tone we often take by reflex, without meaning to or thinking about it—and because we are talking about real people.*

    2) Iran. Over the past month, David Frum has written several articles warning that the U.S. is being tricked or lured into a bad nuclear deal with Iran. Notably "Why Is the U.S. Yielding to Iran Now?" and "How Iran Scammed America Out of a Nuclear Deal." He also published a reader's response here.

    My view all along has been more or less the opposite: that the greatest opportunity for the United States is re-integrating Iran into normal international relations, and the greatest risks for American interests and the world would come from Iran's continued isolation under extremist leaders. For background: Ten years ago I argued in a cover story that a military "solution" to Iran's nuclear ambitions was a fantasy. It hasn't gotten any more realistic since then. Last year I wrote about the ways in which re-integrating Iran resembles and differs from the Nixon-era accommodation with China. Because it's relevant to the Iran question, I should also mention that David Frum is generally credited with having come up with the line calling Iraq, Iran, and North Korea the "axis of evil" in George W. Bush's State of the Union Speech in 2002. On the 10th anniversary of the speech, Frum wrote that the phrase stood up well.

    By all means read these latest pieces by Frum. Then please consider this detailed report by "The Iran Project," which argues (as I would) that the risk/reward calculation of long-term dealings with Iran favors more active attempts at engagement.

    The people running The Iran Project are about as august a group of experts as you could find, largely former ambassadors or security advisors from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The image at the top is a screen-grab of a signature page showing some of their names. One member of the panel, longtime CIA official Paul Pillar, has explained its implications this way:

    A premise of the report is that a successful nuclear agreement, by resolving the issue that has so heavily dominated for years the U.S.-Iranian relationship in particular, is likely to have other repercussions in the Middle East. This is partly because it would open up opportunities in the U.S.-Iranian relationship itself to address other problems of mutual concern. It is also because, given the importance of the United States to many states in the region, there are apt to be secondary effects involving the relations of those states with Iran.

    Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO (and a colleague and friend of mine back in the Carter administration days), made a similar case as negotiations neared a deadline this summer, in "The Hopes and Fears of an Agreement With Iran."

    Read them all, decide for yourself, and remember the big-tent spirit we aspire to here.


    * For some reason, this old standard comes to mind: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest."

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