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: Boiled-frog

  • I Trust This Is Meant Ironically

    Can the frog jump before the water boils?, wonders a New York Times headline about China's political scene.

    Headline from the NYT just now:


    Good to have our leading paper using this fresh imagery!

    In other words, Chinese politics is full of pragmatists, like anywhere else, and the next decade will show if the frog gets boiled alive or if it hops out of the pot.

    Now, back to work. Thanks to DL.

  • The (Apparent) Return of Xi Jinping, Plus West Coast Live Update

    A missing Chinese figure returns to the scene.

    I have been either traveling to meet people to interview, or interviewing them, for the past 60 hours, and therefore not in a position to weigh in on political, global-disruption, tech-world, or China-related themes. Thus a brief placeholder entry on several points:

    1) Apparently Xi Jinping, the successor-presumptive to Hu Jintao as president of China, has finally been seen, in person, after two weeks of totally unexplained absence from scheduled events and regular news coverage. It's good to know that Mr. Xi is apparently not dead, suffering from a stroke or heart attack, or otherwise physically removed from the political playing field -- as many Chinese and international observers have wondered with increasing urgency through each passing Xi-free day. According to the official news agency Xinhua, here is how the hale and cheerful Xi looks as of September 15, 2012, on "Science Popularization Day." That's him in the zipped-up black jacket, in the foreground second from right.


    As I start looking I see dozens and dozens of essays on what it means for the most populous country on Earth, with the world's second-largest economy, that its presumed successor-to-power could vanish for nearly two weeks with no official word on what had become of him. I hope to get back to these. For now, please check an essay in the FT by Jonathan Fenby, and this in the WSJ, and, with a different tone, one in Beijing Cream. Most FT articles are paywalled, and if you don't read the full thing here is a sample of Fenby's case:

    [W]hen something like Mr Xi's absence comes up, a tidal wave of speculation ensues, underlining how little the Chinese people are told about how their nation is really run. That further undermines trust in the authorities, which affects everything from food safety to official corruption....

    The opacity of the system is such that no date has been announced for the party congress. When it is held, voting for the politburo by the central committee will be secret. We do not know if the standing committee is to be reduced from nine to seven members or whether Hu Jintao, the outgoing party secretary and state president, will hang on to the third highest-ranking job, chair of the military commission....

    Secrecy may be par for the course in China, but it is increasingly unhealthy for a country where social change is a far greater challenge to the political status quo than calls for democracy.

    2) Boiled frogs: They're not just for the Anglosphere any more. Wang Yang is the Communist party boss of Guangdong province, center of China's outsourcing industry, who was often seen as a rival to the now-cashiered Bo Xilai. This week he wrote an essay explaining to his countrymen why it could sometimes be difficult to take the necessary steps toward political reform. A good way to think of the problem, he explained, was to imagine a frog placed in a pot of lukewarm water...

    If you've ever wondered how to write "boiled frog" in Chinese, here you go: 煮青蛙. You're welcome. Here is the original article in Chinese, with the headline below:

    汪洋称不改革就像温水煮青蛙 等清醒已无出路

    Here is a translation of the central point by reader WY [this WY is different from Wang Yang]:

    "Wang Yang said that everyone who is unwilling to try, who is unwilling to make a thrilling leap are just like a frog that boils when the temperature of the water is not high. If we wait for sober action, then there will already be no way out. Wang Yang stressed that reform is the fundamental way out. Facing the difficulties of reform, we shouldn't be afraid of any risks, confused by any obstructions, but must continue with utterly fearless courage on the path of socialist market reform, and not at all waver from our advances on every kind of reform."

    3) West Coast Live. I've mentioned before, starting six years ago, how much I love and admire the public radio show West Coast Live, produced from San Francisco with host Sedge Thomson. And now that I check, I see that I said something similar two years ago.

    I am delighted to say that tomorrow morning -- Saturday, September 15 -- I'll be on the show again, from San Francisco. If you're at the SF Ferry building on the Embarcadero, I'll see you there. Otherwise, please listen!

  • 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.)
  • At Last! Good News on the Boiled-Frog Front

    If you drop some frog eggs into a pot of boiling water, they hop right out. But put them in a nice pool of pleasantly warm water...

    Who says it's always depressing to read the newspapers? It turns out that frogs actually like being in lullingly warm water.... At least in certain circumstances:


    Thanks to Carol Reiter of the Merced Sun-Star for this report (and Konstantin Doren).
  • I Know That PIMCO's Bill Gross Is Supposed to Be Smart And All ...

    A savant uses a fresh and accurate metaphor


    ... and we even have a story about him (Atlantic photo, right) in the current issue (subscribe!).

    But, merciful heavens, is there no limit to "smart" people's credulous ignorance, to say nothing of lax cliche-mindedness, about amphibian metaphors? From the "astute" newsletter he has just put out:

    >>Put a frog in a kettle of boiling water and he'll jump out faster and further than any of those blue ribbon winners at the Calaveras County jumping frog contest. Put him in a pot at room temperature, however, slowly turn up the temperature to boiling, and you'll have frog legs for dinner. This latter, more unfortunate toad temporarily adapted to his external environment, which seemed like a practical thing to do, until - well, until he reached 212° at which point he was cooked.
    Today's bond investors are experiencing a similar fate with nary a "ribbet" of complaint....<<

    This "original" and "perceptive" way of thinking makes me extra respectful of the insights that it introduces. I'm really listening now, Mr. Gross!

    Maybe henceforth I'll take my bond advice from the inimitable Tom Tomorrow. And, you're right: what really offends me here is the hackneyed nature of the expression. If this is the way people reason and assess evidence in a field I happen to know about, then...


    (I know there is other news going on, but so many people wrote in that, for the record, I needed to note the event.)

  • The Greatness of Tom Tomorrow, Chapter 514

    A reminder of why pictures, and even drawings, are worth so many words

    Back in 1998, in what now seems an unimaginable parallel universe, I was the editor of US News and World Report, which was then a weekly magazine. I dared hire "Tom Tomorrow" (aka Dan Perkins), who was and is a great, sophisticated cartoonist, to do an every-other-week feature for the magazine. That was after Tom Toles, another great and sophisticated cartoonist, had lost support at the Ownership Level of US News for seeming too lefty. (How to tell the two Tom T's apart: Tom Toles, based for years now at the Washington Post, usually does one-panel cartoons; Tom Tomorrow's specialty is the multi-panel faux-serious narrative. Yes, I know, there are many other differences in drawing style, type of humor, etc.)

    Not long after that, I was gone from the magazine because of my own problems at the Ownership Level, and Tom Tomorrow was too, and life went on. But I remain a fan of both cartoonists and have to pay tribute to today's offering from Tom Tomorrow. I won't spoil the joke or hijack the clicks by reproducing the whole thing, which you'll find at Daily Kos. Here's part of it:

    Good to see him (and Toles) still in form. Thanks to many readers who have written in.
  • Carl Pope and the Boiled Frogs

    When looking for an animal-themed metaphor, down with the boiled frogs, and up with the scorpions!

    Yesterday I mentioned that Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club, had taken the boiled frogs' name in vain as part of his Earth Day appeal. He (graciously) writes back:

    >>Mea culpa--I stand herpetologically corrected. I am happy to stipulate that frogs--unlike humans--will not sit still to be poached, and promise never to use the analogy again. In doing so, however, I disprove the charge of "liberal birtherism," since an intrinsic feature of birtherism is that it is impervious to evidence or alteration.


    While we're on animal metaphors, I was trying to make the point in my blog post that the American political system can't even act in self-defense after a catastrophe--the Macondo blowout, for example. We're already back to drilling for oil in deep Gulf waters. There is a serious question about whether we should worry more about slow-heating crises like carbon pollution (poached frogs) or seemingly improbable catastrophes like the Japanese tsunami and nuclear failure (black swans). The answer may lie in another zoologically suspect fable, the frog that is persuaded to ferry a scorpion across a river. The frog believes it is safe because it would not be in the scorpion's self interest to sting it midstream. The scorpion does so anyway, saying "It's my nature." Current conservative theory assures us that we can trust markets to avoid oil gushers in the ocean, nuclear meltdowns on our coastlines, and climate catastrophe for our children. But we'll still get stung, because when corporations see a profit, they just can't help themselves.


    Carl Pope <<

    Research scientists have proved again and again that the "It's my nature!" tale of the scorpion is absolutely true, so I am glad to end on this note of accord. Happy Earth Day.

    And, for the Chinese angle on the boiled frog conundrum, please check out (former Guest Blogger) Brian Glucroft's entertaining report from Dunhua, Jilin province.

  • The Liberals' Equivalent of Birtherism ...

    If you throw an environmentalist into a convention of Birthers, he'll storm right out. But if you gradually start whispering Birther theories...

    ... yes, it's our old friend the boiled frog. You might just possibly have come across mention of the poor hot frogs previously in this space. But just in case: the story's not true!! A frog won't, in fact, sit there and let himself get boiled. Unless you've removed his brain. And if you throw him into a pot that's already boiling... well, you don't want to know about the results, though you will if you keep reading.

    But comes now the chairman of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, to speak to us about Earth Day. In search of a fresh, arresting image to convey the idea that sometimes we get used to slowly-developing problems until it's too late, he leads off his important Earth Day appeal this way:


    Disappointingly, the header "The Pursuit of Ignorance" appears to be a link to some other entry on the site.

    I declared cease-fire in my anti-boiled frog campaign several years ago and now mainly mention new instances to illustrate the persistence of cliche. With maturity I have come to realize that, as with the Birther belief, boiled-frogism is impervious to such forces as "factual disproof." But if you were, quaintly, in the market for the "facts," here's the latest word from science-land, as conveyed by the new issue of the excellent Conservation magazine:

    >>First, a frog cannot jump out of boiling water. Remember the last time you dropped some egg white into boiling water: the proteins coagulated into a mess of thin, white strands. Unfortunately, the proteins in the frog's skinny legs would do the same thing. So the frog in boiling water could not jump anywhere. It would die a nasty death.

    Dr. George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Professor Doug Melton of Harvard University both agree on this point. Second, a frog would notice the water getting hot....  So real-life experiments show that the frog-in-boiling-water story is wrong. If only this fact could make it into real life, too.<<

    If only. For those still with me, Conservation also mentions that there is a scientist at the University of Oklahoma whose research specialty is (yes!!) "the physiological ecology of thermal relations of amphibians and reptiles." That is, how they behave when hot. And this scientist, Prof. Victor Hutchison, has described an experiment in which a frog is put in a pot of water that is slowly heated up. What then? Well, let him tell it:

    "As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water."

    Happy Earth Day. To celebrate, an old favorite, from the otherwise impeccable Tom Toles:

  • Animals in the News Dept: Boiling Frogs, Rapping Pandas

    Someone figures out the boiling frog conundrum

    1) For years I have lamented the difficulty of finding a substitute for the ever-popular but scientifically ignorant "boiling frog" parable. At last there's hope! In his latest excellent Supreme Court dispatch, Garrett Epps shows the way to use the image, with all its familiar resonance, without doing violence to hundreds of years of development of the scientific method. The item begins as follows as is worth reading in full:

    >>As everyone knows, if you put a frog into a pan of cool water and heat the water very very slowly on the stove, there will come a moment when the frog says, "Croak me, this is HOT!" and will hop away--thereby demonstrating again, if further proof was needed, that amphibians are smarter than humans. As for us, during times radical but incremental change, we tend to sit around flipping our lips with our fingers without noticing a thing.<<

    2) Last week I mentioned Taiwan's NMA studios as the up-and-coming Asian challengers to Jon Stewart, the Onion, etc in comedy stylings on the news. Their latest installment is a Rap Battle video explaining the oncoming currency negotiations at the G20 meetings. This one pits a gangsta-style Barack Obama against Hu Jintao and a posse of ominous rapping pandas, who contend over the proper valuation of the Chinese RMB, who's really responsible for economic crises, etc. I don't agree with every bit of the economic message -- after all, this is a posse of rapping pandas -- but it's undoubtedly more informative about the basics than most American news items on this topic:


    Bear in mind (so to speak) that NMA comes from Taiwan, so can afford to be disrespectful to both sides of a US-PRC tussle in a way that its mainland Chinese counterparts could not.

    3) Bonus animal point: because this is a family-rated website, I will offer no more than a vague allusion here. If you happened to be following tabloid sports news out of Australia yesterday, especially personnel issues for the Canberra Raiders of the National Rugby League, you could not help but wonder whether Rick Santorum was a prophet ahead of his time. [Update. Le me spell this out, since some readers have written in with hurt feelings: The preceding sentence is written in sarcastic mode, and I did not and do not endorse the Santorum "slippery slope" argument. Sorry to have left any room for misunderstanding in what was just a lame joke. Ah, the language barriers that occur even within one language.]

  • I Agree With the Underlying Political Point, But....

    What would boiled frogs say about the "Ground Zero mosque"?

    ... maybe another way to illustrate it? Mike Luckovich's cartoon for today:


    In Luckovich's defense, most of the time political cartoonists, like political speakers, are working with the stock array of images/concepts already in people's minds. Only the best -- cartoonists or speakers -- in their best moments introduce new images that really stick. You can't expect that from anyone, in any field, on a daily basis.

    On how Paul Krugman might have altered this cartoon, here; for the special circumstance in which the boiled-frog metaphor is true, here; for why boiled frogs are like WWE-style pro wrestlers, here; from Wikipedia, here. Complete boiled-frog collection here.

    CNN/Fortune lapsing in the same way, here. Interesting discussions of how and whether to use an image you know is not literally true -- like "ostrich with its head in the sand" or "camel's nose under the tent" -- but that gets a point across, here (from Mark Liberman of Language Log) and here (from Kevin Drum of Mother Jones) and here (from Joe Romm of Climate Progress).

    A reader in England writes with a suggestion for a substitute image that is more factually defensible. (Hint: based on the unforgettable opening scene of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love. If you've read the book, you know the image.) More on that soon -- plus! a reader's nominee for the next most inaccurate and overused rhetorical image.  Coming soon. For now, the main point of Luckovich's cartoon is right. Thanks to reader J.S.
  • It Never Ends: The Boiling Frogs

    The two latest occurrences of a fictitious but irresistible cliche

    I'm not waging a crusade here any more. Just noting the persistence of a cliche.* 

    Thomas Friedman, NYT, June 20 2010:

    Up to now, Erdogan has been very cunning, treating his opponents like frogs in a pail, always just gradually turning up the heat so they never quite knew they were boiling. But now they know.

    Canadian journalist Don Newman, June 17, 2010:

    But will most Canadians recognize that importance and the sacrifices and adjustments they may have to make? Or will they continue to accept a slowly declining standard of living vis-a-vis the U.S. and many other emerging counties? At this point, we are rather like that frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. At first the warming water is pleasant. By the time it comes to a boil, it is too late for the frog to do anything about it.

    If you're going to talk boiled frogs, how you should do it, via Paul Krugman, here. Why I gave up my crusade (but still notice cliches) here. Back from when I was on the crusade here. Policy point: while this homily isn't "true," it will become true-ish by usage, since apparently it fills such a narrative need. That is all.


    * Wrote this item late last night and had set it for delayed posting this evening, to avoid an unseemly pile-up of posts. But I'd already gotten so many helpful messages about the Tom Friedman column by 9am this morning that the time seemed right. Also, with the boiled-frog now having appeared in NYT columns by Gail Collins, Krugman (with important caveat that it's a myth), and now Friedman, I'll start an NYT Op-Ed Boiled Frog Bingo card, which I'll fill in as Brooks, Herbert, Dowd etc take their turns. I confess that I'll worry if Verlyn Klinkenborg devotes one of his nature essays to frogs in a pot. 

  • This Is Gruesome, but....

    A tragic and unintended human case study of what happens if living things are plunged into a cauldron of boiling water. Do they jump right out, like the famous "boiled frog"? Unfortunately, no.

    If you're looking for more evidence that simply plunging a living being, frog or human, into an already-boiling cauldron will stimulate that creature to bounce out self-protectively, unharmed, consider this recent sad news from Russia:


    I will now give this theme a rest again for a while. Really it's my common sense that is offended here, as even trained scientists keep using a boiled-frog metaphor they would realize couldn't possibly be true if they thought about it for one minute. Oh well. On the other hand, I personally believe the moon is made of green cheese. 
  • Boiled Frog Does a Surreal Meta-Backflip

    A scientist tells us that it's hard to separate fact from fiction these days. How right he is!

    It's probably a mercy in this case that the "Categories" feature of our old web site has not yet been ported over to the new design. That means I can't at the moment provide a link to all the countless old entries in the "Boiled Frog" saga. Summary for those joining us late: It's not true!!!! The frog in the slowly-heated pot of water will do his best to escape once things get too hot, and a frog thrown right into a pot of already-boiling water will be scalded, wounded, or worse before he gets out. Exception: if the frog's brain has been removed, he'll sit in the pot and let himself be slowly cooked. See this by Michael Jones for more.

    Imaginary frogs, in fools' paradise:

    Real-world frog, doing his best to escape. Yes, those seem to be lily pads in the background, but you get the point:

    When Paul Krugman discussed the metaphorical frog in a column last year -- and emphasized that it was only a metaphor, since real frogs didn't behave this way -- I figured that my work on this topic was done. I have stored up other instances but not mentioned them.

    But now we have a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School doing an "ideas" essay for the Boston Globe about the difficulty of separating truth from fiction in public discourse -- and resting his case on the parable of the boiled frog! Eg, "But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn't realize that things are getting warmer, until it's been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information... "

    Such is my respect for Harvard Medical School, which was my late dad's alma mater, and its postdoctoral fellows that I have convinced myself that the title of the essay, "Warning: Your reality is out of date" must be a slyly knowing wink. Perhaps to me! Because otherwise, in an essay by a well-pedigreed scientist about how hard it is to recognize real facts,  it would mean....
  • Airplane noise, senior-citizen driving: replacements for frogs

    Suggestions on replacements for the boiled-frog metaphor:

    "The cat litter box is a good substitute and there are plenty of similar examples if one considers sounds. A succinct example of this is from the movie the Blues Brothers. After Elwood picks up Jake from prison, they go to Jake's apartment in Chicago. Right after an El train rattles by, Jake asks Ellwood, "How often do the trains come by?". Jake responds, "So often, you don't even notice."

    "A similar situation occurred with my grandmother. She and her husband bought a house near LAX in the 50s, when I'm sure the occasional airplane flying over was a pleasant distraction. At the time of her death in the 90s, LAX had 4 runways and their house was bombarded by the noise from constant aircraft that seemed to be flying just a few feet overhead. Anyone walking into her house would have wondered why the TV was so loud, until the next takeoff or landing occurred.

    "Two more frog equivalences. Ever work on another person's computer and find that it operates brutally slowly? No one ever seems to notice that almost day-by-day loss of performance themselves. Easy to understand, but I can't think of a catchy shorthand.

    "So finally, my nomination for the replacement, an old person driving. They never notice the degradation in their driving skills until some unsuspecting passenger or pedestrian has a (hopefully only) near death experience."

    More to come.


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