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.
  • Arizona and China: Compare and Contrast

    What the TSA can teach the Border Patrol.

    In response to this item two days ago, several eagle-eyed readers noticed that there perhaps there was the slightest teensy difference between the likely workings of Arizona's new immigration law and the realities of daily life inside Communist China.

    You got me! I was actually trying to make a small joke -- and half mockingly, but half seriously too, point out that American life was about to acquire an element familiar in much of the rest of the world, the authorities' request to "show me your papers." And that the comparison holds despite the zillion obvious differences between the two situations. (China is a country hard to get into, and where it's easy to spot foreigners once they're inside. The US is a country easy to get into, and where it's hard to spot foreigners once they're inside. Etc.)

    Now two comments: one from a reader who gets the item's intent and goes on to propose a brilliant practical solution; and another from a reader who wants to point out the China/Arizona differences but still argues that Arizona's law is a bad idea.

    First, from reader R. Grace in Tokyo:
    You compared the situation Hispanics in Arizona are soon to face, with the advent of the new immigration law there, with daily life for foreigners in China, being required to have proof of immigration status available on demand. Here in Japan, as you know, we foreigners are also required to carry our passports or registration cards, though I've been stopped and asked to produce mine only twice in the fifteen years I've lived here.

    I feel certain that your sardonic point - that liberty-worshipping Americans will soon be able to look up to China as a comparatively more enlightened society with regard to civil liberties - will be widely misunderstood. The responses will likely fall into two main categories: 1) People who think you're saying that it's perfectly reasonable to expect all civilians to be prepared to prove their immigration status on demand, especially since it's only Hispanics that really need to worry about it - these people will either congratulate you for agreeing with them or be furious with you for saying such a thing; and 2) People who detect the irony in your last paragraph but patiently explain that the Chinese authorities would be more assiduous about examining foreigners' papers if illegal immigration were really a concern there. 

    Of course, in most places in China (and almost everywhere in Japan), marching around demanding to see proof of immigration status would be a very inefficient way of finding illegal immigrants, since it's so difficult to get in and stay in the country from just about wherever everyone else in the world is from, but the same technique would be much more efficient in a border state like Arizona.

    What I hope will happen is that the Arizona law is enforced with the same single-mindedness of the TSA's approach to airport security. Once all Arizonans are required to present their papers daily to every law enforcement officer that crosses their path, will people wonder whether this cost is worth the "benefit" of a society that is free of undocumented foreigners? Will Arizonans who feel that they are "obviously" not illegal aliens begin, I don't know, sporting American flag lapel pins at all times, or wearing a sign around their neck saying "I AM AN AMERICAN"? It won't work, of course, because such accessories will quickly become popular with bona fide illegal immigrants as well. Maybe Arizona could pass a new law requiring American flag lapel-pin suppliers to verify the immigration status of anyone who buys one, or maybe we'll have to carry a special permit that entitles us to wear lapel pins or signs around our neck. It sounds pretty awful, but that's the price of liberty.

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  • Housekeeping Note: Categories, Comments

    A philosophy of "comments."

    In the two months since our site's redesign, I've mentioned more than a few times that the "categories" feature of our previous layout would someday be restored. Now it is in fact back. My thanks to our web/tech team. This means that, for instance, if you wanted to see all postings about the Icelandic volcano eruption earlier this month, you'd click on the "volcano" category, here. Full list of categories at lower right side of this page.

    This past weekend, because of a tech error of unknown origin, the "comments" feature of this site was turned on. The reason I consider that an error, and asked to have it turned off again, is explained after the jump, which is a recapitulation of a point I originally made in (yes!) the comments section of Ta-Nehisi Coates's site. A good comments section -- and TNC's is great -- requires attention, tending, and discipline; and I am so often away from the Internet, and so short on "real" writing time even when connected, that I don't want to take on that responsibility. These past few days are an example. Because of travel and other headaches, I have been mainly offline through the 48 hours since putting up this previous item, likening Arizona's new civil-liberties policy to China's. You can't supervise a comment section that way.

    While I did want the comment function to be turned off, I did not intend that the comments already posted should be removed. But because of another tech error, they apparently have been. My intention was to answer them. I do realize that it's not in keeping with the Web Spirit of Transparency to remove things once they have appeared. In any case, this is a periodic reminder of the rationale behind the no-comment policy. I will, in a few minutes, try to answer some of the mail I've received about that Arizona item. Thanks for your interest and attention.

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  • The Arizona Law: Taking Civil Liberties Lessons from China

    What the Beijing Municipal Police can teach the Arizona Highway Patrol

    If my forebears were from Mexico, Honduras, Peru, I would have one way of imagining how the new Arizona immigration law might affect me. How could a policeman be sure, on sight, that I hadn't just sneaked across the Sonoran desert from Mexico? Why shouldn't he ask for my papers, just to find out?

    Although my forebears are instead from Scotland, England, Germany, I can still imagine a little of what it would be like. I just have to think back to being in China.

    The situations are different in one obvious way. In contrast to law-enforcement officers in Arizona, the Chinese authorities didn't have to waste time wondering whether I was a citizen. One glance told them where I stood. (I understand that there are some Caucasian-looking Chinese citizens, but they are scarce.) The only judgment call was whether they should bother to check whether, well, my "papers were in order," in the phrase we all know from WW II movies.

    If they had checked very often, I would have been in trouble. In theory, foreigners are always supposed to carry their passports (as Chinese citizens are supposed to carry their identity cards). In practice, I almost never did. When checking in for a flight or registering at a hotel in China, sure: Without a passport, you couldn't do either thing. But when at "home" in Shanghai or Beijing my wife and I kept our passports in our apartment's safe. The theoretical risk of being asked for documents was outweighed by the truly dire potential consequences of our passports getting lost or stolen.

    Once, this policy led to minor embarrassment.* Once, it nearly got us into a serious jam.

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  • Two Recommendations

    Worthwhile reading, from the newsstand and the book store

    1) Usually when I mention an item in a new issue of The Atlantic, I make sure to add "subscribe!" Half schtick, half serious - and the remaining half serious too. This month, I'll say for variety: check out the newsstand version of our May issue. 

    This issue is about twice as fat as normal because in addition to the "regular" contents it has our annual Fiction issue with several powerful short stories, plus an essay by Joyce Carol Oates and an interview with Paul Theroux. I won't go through the whole lineup but will just say that the three feature-length "well" pieces in the issue really deserve attention for their variety of narrative and reportorial strengths. Marc Ambinder's personal-and-policy account of what it might take to deal with America's obesity epidemic, David Freed's whodunnit about the very public persecution of an unlovable but innocent man, and Howard French's vivid and original analysis of what China's new form of non-gunboat colonialism will mean in Africa -- these are illustrations of what journalism can do. I am never objective about the Atlantic, but I can be more or less arm's-length about this issue because I don't have an article in it. Check it out.

    2) I mentioned several weeks ago that when I met Karl Marlantes in graduate school in the early 1970s, he was talking about his recent service as a Marine in Vietnam and his intention to write about it some day. Through most of the intervening years, he has been working on his novel, Matterhorn.


    It's a long book, which I have read obsessively this past week. It is truly a magnificent work.

    As almost every review has mentioned, the book's first few pages are somewhat labored, introducing a cast of characters (who after first mention are last-name-only through the rest of the book) and doing organizational setup. They do not suggest the narrative velocity and emotional and moral richness of what comes after that. I predict that if you get twenty pages in -- to roughly the episode with the unfortunate Marine named Fisher and the leech -- you will want to keep on until the ending, 500-plus pages later. 

    This is certainly one of the most powerful and moving novels ever written about Vietnam, and its description of combat rivals anything I have read on the topic -- by Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Webb, John Keegan, Paul Fussell, anyone. I've mentioned before that my personal test for the quality of fiction is whether I find myself remembering a book -- characters, scenes, choices -- months or years after I've put the book down. I expect to remember this one.

    Matterhorn is in a strict sense apolitical but can be read as a complete indictment of the Vietnam War in concept and execution (the action concerns the taking, abandonment, and devastatingly bloody re-taking of a hill that doesn't matter to either side) -- and also as the most moving description of heroism and sacrifice by men at arms. It richly deserves the acclaim it is receiving.
  • The Onion Shows the Path to Quality Journalism

    What's behind all those US-China rivalry stories.

    The China Daily will always be my favorite newspaper. But after the jump, for reasons of taste (mild profanity), is one more reminder of why The Onion will always be in contention. I think the story really captures the essence of the US-China rivalry, especially as seen by the rest of the world.

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  • More Emmy News (updated)

    An Emmy win for Bob Schapiro & company.


    Back in February I mentioned how great it was that Bob Schapiro and his team had received two NY Emmy nominations for the "On the Frontlines: Doing Business in China" series that Bob had worked on and invested in for years. We ran many segments from the series on this site last summer. They are all in the "Doing Business in China" category of posts, and as soon as the "category" function is restored to our site, I'll be able to link to them as a group. For now, take my word for it that they were surprisingly enlightening and informative inside looks at  factories, offices, department stores, peasant markets, and all the other aspects of China's economic life that are so often discussed in the abstract in the rest of the world.

    This past weekend, the series was the winner in one of its categories! After the jump, the official list of all members of Bob Schapiro's team. I am not a completely disinterested observer, having been the on-camera co-host of the series (with Emily Chang) and then joining the NYT's Joe Nocera for "what it all means" discussions after each segment. But Bob Schapiro, Dovar Chen, and others had done so much filming and interviewing before I got involved that I can dispassionately give congratulations to them.

    If you're interested in seeing this now-award-winning series in the comfort of your own home, just click this box this corrected link, which allows you to see clips and offers a discount. Makes the perfect Mother's Day gift too.

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  • OK, There Actually Is More to Say About Volcanic Ash

    The Icelandic volcano has been busier than we thought.

    It seems that the evocative plane-versus-volcanos graph I mentioned yesterday was not exactly correct. An update today indicates that the estimate of how much CO2 the Iceland volcano was putting out was low by, ummmm, a factor of ten. The revised graph:


    Explanation of the changed estimate from the original source, InformationIsBeautiful, here. Embarrassing -- as the site's authors put it, "some shame for us"-- but to their credit they're going fully public with the correction.

    While we're at it, reader Colin Seftor, an atmospheric scientist who helped develop the "TOMS" monitoring system mentioned below, has another improvement to suggest for the USGS ash-fall map that I mentioned here (and ran a previous comment on here):
    The map from the USGS is a rather odd one.  I suppose it shows the area of direct ash fall from the 1980 eruption, but it doesn't indicate the area affected by ash clouds lofted high into the atmosphere (and that could, therefore, be hazardous to airplanes).  [And of timely interest right now.]
    Over the last twenty years or so, techniques have been developed to detect (and track) volcanic ash from satellites.  One such technique uses measurements from satellite sensors designed to determine the amount of ozone in the atmosphere (such as the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer, or TOMS). An example of TOMS data used to detect and track the movement of ash clouds from the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens can be found here: [after the jump] 

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  • Last Ash Update for a While

    Some planes start flying above the ash plume.

    I don't know what the European aviation authorities will do tomorrow, but here are two interesting developments:

    The British weather office is reporting "no significant ash above FL350." FL350, or Flight Level 350, is about 35,000 feet. (For another time: why it's not exactly 35,000 feet.) Not sure how they can be confident of this, but it's significant especially for planes flying over Europe en route some place else. The latest map, containing the altitude info. Click for larger.

    Thumbnail image for VAG_1271634757.png

    Also, our old friend FlightRadar24 is showing some airline flights in progress over Europe, at altitudes around FL350. For instance, a little while ago, this United flight en route from Dubai to Washington Dulles. (Click to see in detail.) That's the plane with the dark blue trail. The light blue crosses are airports. The other activity is, of course, centered on Istanbul.

    Screen shot 2010-04-18 at 11.29.47 PM.png

    So, who knows what tomorrow brings. That's it on this topic from me for a while. Back to "real" work. Thanks to Krishna Kumar, watching these developments at the same time I was.

  • Three Reader Critiques: On Ash, CO2, спам

    The Internet shows its self-correcting powers yet again.

    1) A reader begs to differ with the USGS ash fall map mentioned here:

    The USGS map that you post shows the 1980 Mt. St. Helens ash plume as floating East across Washington and Idaho, and essentially stopping at the Montana border.  As someone who was a 16-year old high school student in Missoula, MT, at the time, I'd like to say that this is inaccurate. 

    Missoula and the areas around it were deluged by between .5 and 1 inch of fine ash, which covered everything.  The entire town ground to a halt, because nobody knew what was in the ash, and because the air pollution readings (Missoula is one of those mountain towns that suffers from frequently poor air-quality due to temperature inversions) were exceeding the highest levels on the charts by a factor of ten.  Even the local schools closed (and this is Montana - you don't close school for any normal "weather" conditions).  I can remember literally hosing off the street outside my house with my siblings, all wearing surgical masks, which the local hospitals were giving out to those brave/foolhardy enough to venture out into the eerie and silent city.  

    2) Another dares raise the question: what are the CO2 implications of this whole volcano/ aviation mess? Since like me he is an aviation buff, he has mixed feelings about the results shown by InformationIsBeautiful, here:


    3) Reader George Bazhenov, in Russia, answers this item with the reassuring news that the Nigerian spammers are still doing fine:

    I read your subject article with interest because some time ago my spam box looked very much like yours but now it shows a lot of spam in English. I have no explanation of this. By the way, most Russian-language letters shown on the screenshot that you published offer inexpensive mail distribution, i. e., more spam.

    Secondly, the Nigerians are now operating in Russia - two of my friends who do not speak English have recently asked me to translate letters from Nigeria which they received via email.
  • Your Morning Volcanic Ash Update

    Volcanic ash: not our friend.

    A useful fact sheet from the USGS on the wonders of volcanic ash. (Thanks to reader MG in Hawaii.) Graphic of the ash fall from the Mount St. Helens eruption thirty years ago, and likely ash patterns of past eruptions in the western United States:

    On effects of the ash as it drifts down:

    Volcanic ash can cause internal-combustion engines to stall by clogging air filters and also damage the moving parts of vehicles and machinery, including bearings and gears. Engines of jet aircraft have suddenly failed after flying through clouds of even thinly dispersed ash....Cars driving faster than 5 miles per hour on ash-covered roads stir up thick clouds of ash, reducing visibility and causing accidents.

    Ash also clogs filters used in air-ventilation systems to the point that airflow often stops completely, causing equipment to overheat. Such filters may even collapse from the added weight of ash, allowing ash to invade buildings and damage computers and other equipment cooled by circulating outside air. Agriculture can also be affected by volcanic ash fall. Crop damage can range from negligible to severe, depending on the thickness of ash, type and maturity of plants, and timing of subsequent rainfall. For farm animals, especially grazing livestock, ash fall can lead to health effects, including dehydration, starvation, and poisoning.
    Meanwhile FlightRadar24.com shows practically no action for airports north of Istanbul, except for what are presumably two low-altitude relocation flights in northern Europe, as mentioned yesterday. Flight Radar says it's so overwhelmed by viewer traffic that it can no longer provide detailed information about each flight, including altitude and heading.


    Today's big-picture point: the reminder that a development no one would have included in a "problems to worry about" or "events that will shape the news" list for 2010 may end up having profound economic and other effects.

    : An interesting hour-by-hour animation of the plume's initial dispersion, from the European Space Agency, here. Thanks to reader RG. Also my discussion yesterday with Guy Raz, on Weekend All Things Considered, here.
  • The Wonders of the Spam World

    Learning to love спам.

    I mentioned in my recent cyber-security article that, despite all the news about internet threats coming from organizations or individuals in China, people who know the field do not consider China the number-one source of such attacks.

    As I looked at the Gmail spam filter today I was reminded of the consensus pick as the world's leading source of cyber-crime and related activity (click for larger):


    As a tech note for another time, it's interesting to think of the forces that could lead to this result, in which 14 out of 19 spam messages arrive in Russian. Is that much more spam really produced in Russia than anywhere else? I have always assumed that most spam is rejected by lower-level screening before it gets anywhere near the spam filter that users check for their email accounts. Is there an anomaly in the spam-filtering software that allows Russian спам to get past the early barriers and make it this far? I don't know but find the trends in spam interesting.

    I kind of miss the Nigerians. I hope they're OK.
  • Live Link to the European Air Traffic Monitor (updated)

    All quiet in the skies over Western Europe -- except for BER669P!

    As mentioned yesterday, the real-time link to FlightRadar24 is here, and it is full of interesting info. For example, here is how the skies over Europe looked as of 11am EDT on April 17 (click for much larger - but to be clear, this is a static shot of conditions as of twenty minutes ago):


    Some aspects of this drastically-reduced airline traffic are, by now, "expected." No planes at all over England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, even now Italy; usually there would be hundreds or thousands in the air at the same time. Still a good time to go to Istanbul! Of course, any time is a good time for a visit there.

    And what's that plane over Germany? The system lets you click on any little airplane icon to get Air Traffic Control info about that flight. In this case it says:

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  • Of Clouds and Clouds

    Cloud computing as an answer to the cloud-borne travel shutdown.

    A reader in Geneva writes about the sweeping shutdown of European air travel (previously here and here) :

    I oversee a number of international committees developing technical standards, and a large number of them were planning to meet this week. The conferences have been planned (and paid for!) months in advance and now almost none of the European participants can travel abroad to attend, while nearly all the meetings over here are only accessible to those who can come by train.

    It's times like these where one really comes to appreciate easy to use and instantaneously available web/teleconferencing. I am now officially a fan of "the cloud."

    I guess it takes a cloud to save us from a cloud...

  • Where the Flights Aren't Going

    Force of nature vs. modern technology.

    Via FlightRadar24.com, a real-time view of the airliners in the skies over Europe right now. If you have seen one of these in normal circumstances, you know that it's basically all airplanes. Today you can see traffic headed in and out of Istanbul, and Milan, and Rome, and... that's it. No Heathrow, no Charles de Gaulle, no Frankfurt, no Schiphol.

    For comparison, from a Dutch site, a thumbnail view of normal circumstances below. This is becoming quite an amazingly profound effect, at least in the short term.


  • Installment #2 of "China Today" Conversations

    Those enormous Chinese loans to America: how do they shift the balance of power between the countries?

    Following this first installment earlier in April of the "China Today" series of conversations between me and Damien Ma, of the Eurasia Group, a second has just gone online. It is here, with embedded version below.

    The main theme of this second conversation is which country has the leverage over the other, via China's enormous loans to and investments in the United States. Ma and I see this more or less the same way -- but in quite a different way from what you'd think based on mainstream coverage of the topic or, especially, US talk shows or political speeches. Judge for yourself.


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A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


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The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


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We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


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