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.
  • Ivory Coast = France = Japan, in language habits at least

    In this scene from Dan Chaon's very bleak but memorable mistaken-identity novel Await Your Reply, a young American woman named Lucy goes into a hair salon in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. The country is French speaking, and Lucy is apprehensive about communicating. She addresses an African woman in the shop:

    "Excusez-moi," Lucy said stiffly. "Parlez-vous anglais?"

    She was aware of how clumsy she sounded... She remembered how, back in high school French, Mme Fournier would grimace with pity as Lucy tried to bumble her way through a conversational prompt. "Oh!" Mme Fournier would say. "Ca fait mal aux oreilles!" ... The African woman nodded at her politely. "Yes, mademoiselle," she said. "I speak English."...

    The woman's name was Stephanie, and she was from Ghana, she said, though she had lived in Cote d'Ivoire for many years now. "Ghana is an English-speaking country. That is my native language," Stephanie said. "So it's pleasant to speak English sometimes. That's one characteristic with the Ivoirians I don't understand. They turn to laugh at a foreigner who makes a mistake in French, so even when they know a little English, they refuse to speak. Why? Because they think the Anglophones will laugh at them in turn!"

    I can't help myself, so when I read this passage, I thought not so much about French and English but about Chinese and Japanese. With allowances for obvious differences, it's useful (as I've mentioned before) to think of Japan's attitude toward its national language as being similar to France's, and China's attitude as being similar to America's.

    That is: in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  Correspondingly, like the Ivoirians in this novel, Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

    The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants. In any case it was interesting to see what I am considering the French/Japanese outlook also depicted in Francophone Africa.

  • Appreciation of an appreciation (Soupy Sales dept)

    Usually my theory is: if it is elsewhere on the Atlantic's web site, you've already seen it. But in case anyone missed today's wonderful appreciation by Erik Tarloff, about Soupy Sales in his prime, I hope you will check it out. It includes a seven-minute clip of one of the mid-1960s Soupy Sales programs, but Erik's description (he's a friend) does an even better job of conveying the tone, structure, and effect of the show.

    This item also helped me understand, in an "OK, now that makes sense to me!" way, why my mother, who was then in her mid-30s and whose ideal afternoon would be to sit on the sofa reading Ivanhoe or some biography of Cromwell (she was in sunny Southern California but not of it), would usually join the kids to watch the Soupy Sales show when it came on. It's obvious in retrospect, but wasn't to me as a child, that it was not just a kids' show. In any case, worth reading.

  • Exhaustive Kindle/Nook smackdown

    Below and after the jump, an extremely detailed Kindle/Nook compare and contrast from a well-informed reader, in response to this previous comment by someone on the Nook team. This is presented in the public interest for those interested in the future of e-reading. More on the "all in one device" front later today.

    "1. Google Books linkup. It might be worth clarifying for your readers that, like the Nook, the Kindle also can be used to read many (increasingly most) books that are available in "Full" (as distinct from Snippet or Preview) on Google Books. The only limitation is that Google Books aren't accessible through the Amazon wireless link or stored in the Amazon cloud -- and I haven't been able to figure out from the Nook publicity whether that's going to be substantially different for the Nook.

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  • Background on Nook v. Kindle

    A person who was involved in Barnes & Noble's launch of the Nook sends this info about its positioning relative to the Kindle and other potential competitors. This person naturally has a bias in favor of the Nook, but this is interesting as a view onto B&N's thinking.

    "Nook advantages
    "- More open with ePub, Android OS, and lending
    "- My guess is Amazon will copy lending
    "- In store WiFi. Users can go in stores and access lots of content from entire books to free publications. Len Riggio, founder and CEO of B&N fought to have comfortable seating in the stores and has prevailed against naysayers thought it would waste valuable space. I think you'll see even more space allotted to this. There's lots of space devoted to music that will be replaced with nook areas.
    "- The color touch display really brings the ease of use to ebooks much as Apple did with iPhones.
    "- Much larger bookstore that includes Google books
    "- Holding. Easier to grip with a contoured and soft touch back. Works equally well for right and left handed."

    Again, this comes from an interested party, but it's worth bearing in mind as the product hits the market.

  • More on the "all in one device" debate

    Below and after the jump, voice of the reading public on whether various electronic devices (camera, phone, e-reader, computer, what have you) will eventually converge in one super-duper device. I say No. The readers I quote here agree! And they have facts, tech specs, and so on to back up their/my case...

    From a reader outside the US, on whether the coming pixel improvement in camera phones will be the magic moment when you no longer need a "real" camera:

    "You probably know this, but they can cram 30 megapixels into a digital phone and it won't improve the picture quality much beyond 6 or 7MP. The hard-to-surmount-with-technology issue with tiny cameras is the width of the lens (how much light can come in). Other problems are focal length (hard to build a tiny zoom lens, although my old EX-V7 did a decent job of it) and the fact that a cellphone camera is bound to have a puny flash if any.  Beyond a fairly low (well below the promised 10) threshold, adding megapixels is just a sales gimmick."

    From a reader in the Midwest, on the general problem of all-in-one-ism:

    "The are some obvious problems with the idea that there will eventually be one device that is "good enough" to replace separate phones, cameras, computers, etc.

    "One is that the separate versions of these devices will continue to improve. The pictures made with pocket cameras for example do indeed rival the best film cameras of a few years ago. And they will get better (and cheaper). A dedicated camera will always have more space for a larger sensor (sensor size, not megapixels is the critical issue) and as pocket cameras improve to the point where they can also take 720 or 1080p, 30fps video, they will maintain the performance advantages they have over phones. And if today's consumers prefer separates, why should they stop doing so when the performance of pocket cameras moves from good to superb while the cost comes down?

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  • Health-related follow up: can Asians drink? (UPDATED)

    The latest installment of the Doing Business in China series talked about the ritual of drinking-to-the-point-of-drunkness in formal Chinese "business" gatherings. This doesn't always happen, but it happens enough to be a factor in professional life. In my experience, it was even more common in the provinces than in the big cities, and most likely in "getting to know you" dinners involving big delegations. Now a reader in Philadelphia writes with a question about the practice:

    "I read your post on Doing Business in China, and I wondered to what extent the prevalence of alcohol in after-hours business gatherings is complicated by the alcohol flush reaction common to so many people of East Asian descent.  I am an American of Chinese descent with this particular genetic variation and I find that the unpleasant side effects of alcohol consumption interfere with any desire to drink until intoxication.  Given the frequency of this condition, do business people in China simply accept the situation as normal or is there a demurral from overconsumption, where someone may take one drink as a courtesy and then decline politely thereafter, so as to avoid such intoxicating effects?"

    The issue here involves an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, or ALDH2. It is part of the metabolic chain for breaking down alcohol, and people who lack it are subject to a kind of "alcohol poisoning." Their face and/or neck turns red, they sweat, they flush and may pass out. Interestingly (and to the best of my understanding), the anti-alcoholism drug Antabuse, which is supposed to make drinking so unpleasant that people are forced to swear off, works by mimicking the effect of a blocked ALDH2 enzyme.

    Caucasians rarely lack this enzyme, but as many as half the people do among some East Asian and North Asian population groups -- Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, many Native American groups in the US and Canada. (I don't know about Africans, South Asians, etc.) So at a drinking party in China, you'll typically see some faces turn bright red after a couple of sips.
     
    How do people who have this problem cope? Obviously it depends, but I've seen two main patterns. Some people politely avoid the baijiu or similar high-proof spirits. They stick to tea or hot water or soft drinks. Others plunge right ahead, as if getting drunk is the point (to promote a shared dropping of inhibitions). It's tough work but must be done. Whenever I felt sorry for myself at these rituals, I realized that there were people who were facing even greater challenges. 干杯 - Ganbei!

    UPDATE: thanks to reader M.L. a map from a paper in the Annals of Human Genetics showing with dark shade the prevalence of the genetic problem in question. Centered farther south in China than I would have guessed. Mongolia not very much affected. As for adjoining areas, M.L. reports "Central Asians - and I can back this up from direct observation, especially in former Soviet Central Asia, most certainly do not seem to be afflicted with any symptoms of alcohol allergies."GeneMap.jpg


  • The logical core of Matthew Hoh's resignation letter (updated)

    This passage from his letter is to me the heart of the argument for curtailing rather than expanding America's stake and commitment in Afghanistan:

    "I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan to prevent al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. [My emphasis.] Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened Pakistani government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals we should garrison Pakistan, not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the Madrid and London bombings, were primarily planned and organized in Western Europe; a point that highlights that the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic or political boundaries."

    The United States entered Afghanistan -- properly and with every moral and practical justification -- to disrupt, punish, and kill groups that had planned the 9/11 attacks. It is now in a mess in Afghanistan largely because of the crucial misjudgment nearly eight years ago to shift effort and attention to Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Not everything in foreign affairs can be explained by logic. But as Hoh argues, if we're serious in thinking we can now eliminate terrorist threats with our troops in Afghanistan, then logically we must also send them to Pakistan and beyond. And if we're not serious, then how can we keep them there?

    For-the-record point: resignations on principle are vanishingly rare in U.S. government practice. It's much easier to keep your head down, protect your career prospects, and when it's over say that you had been against [failed policy xx or yy] all along. Apart from the merits of his argument, Hoh deserves respect for taking this step so forthrightly. Each person who does so creates an example for others to reflect upon.

    UPDATE: A reader in Europe writes,

    "There's an interesting book (dated,may well be 30 yrs old) comparing resignations in the UK with those in the USA, showing that the British tradition allows to resign and later be appointed again because you did the "honourable thing" whereas in the US excuses like"return to the family"or "other pursuits" were mostly used to cover up."

    The book he is referring to is Resignation in Protest by Edward Weisband and Thomas Franck, which I have heard of but have not read. Thanks to reader P.A.

  • Tech followups: Kindle, Swiss Army Knife

    After my gripe yesterday that Amazon and Visa should work out a kink in their billing plans, I heard from a lot of readers who'd had the same problem. (Gist: Amazon charges 15 or 30 cents for Kindle-related fees; Visa flags these micro-charges as likely fraud and freezes your card.) Here's a sample reply, which also includes a sensible fix:

    "The charges are doubly surprising, because for that small rate I suspect Amazon pays more in Visa fees than it gets in money.
     
    "I'm surprised they aren't doing what Apple does in the iTunes store.  For a $0.99 purchase, Apple pre-authorizes your card for something like $10 and then, once your purchases accrue to a reasonable level, they actually run the larger charge on the accumulated purchases.  The only way they will end up running a 99-cent charge is if you buy a track and then don't buy anything more until the pre-authorization is about to expire."
    _____

    After my claim a few days ago that we were still a long way from the day of the "all in one" electronic device -- camera plus phone plus e-reader plus netbook plus personal groomer etc -- Derek Thompson elaborates on his views, and a reader writes in, to similar effect:

    "It's a debatable point, for sure, but I think your time horizon is a little short and have missed some recognition of how much the era has already arrived.

    "Only a few years ago, no digital camera could match a 'real' camera, and we're already at a point that consumer point-and- shoots rival film cameras from 5 years ago, aside from the lens flexibility that most people don't need. Give it a few more years and you'll see 10 megapixel cameras in cell phones. And while you probably will never want to put a cellphone photo of mom hanging over the mantle, we've already reached the point where cellphones are rivaling dedicated cameras and camcorders for the *volume* of photos and videos taken.

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  • Doing Business in China: Drinks and Deals

    The most important business relationships in China are cemented in the bar.

    Ah, drinking in China as part of business negotiations. Where to start... This next installment of the Doing Business in China series is a beginning. It really is true that the purpose of many "business" dinners is for everyone, Chinese and foreign, to become drunk (often on Chinese Baijiu, 白酒, vodka-ish raw spirit). In becoming drunk and lowering defenses, people prove their mutual trust, or something. In any case, it's real. Note the appearance of Chinese beer, on which I often commented during my time of residence, starting about time 0:11. Main point: this sounds like a joke or cliche but actually makes a difference.

  • This is heartwarming! (From Shaanxi to Carnegie Hall)

    This summer I mentioned the mesmerizing experience of hearing lao qiang, "Old Songs," in a middle-of-nowhere rural theater in Shaanxi province in China. The patriarch and star of the troupe I saw was Zhang Ximin, more or less a traditional Chinese counterpart to BB King:

    IMG_7395A.jpg 


    Today I see in the New York Times that he and Zhang Family Band were at Carnegie Hall over the weekend! That's Zhang Ximin in the red shirt in the NYT's picture, below.

    ZhangNYT.jpg

    This should support some new version of the "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" joke, but I can't think of one at the moment.
  • The only thing I will ever say on this subject (Redskins)

    I highly recommend Steve Coll's mini-screed on the New Yorker's web site right now. Like Coll, I enjoyed playing offensive line back during (briefly) the Peewee Football/Pop Warner stage of life. Unlike him, I was not a childhood fan of the Redskins -- the L.A. Rams, as then existed, had their summer training camp in my home town, and my brother and I lived for the moments when we could watch them up close and get autographs on the practice field. But you can't raise sons in DC, as my wife and I have done, without having the Redskins be the common bonding experience, topic of phone calls on Sunday afternoon, and all-purpose cultural touchstone for a lot of people in DC.

    Unfortunately the Redskins of the Dan Snyder era, which is now a decade long with no sign of relief, are simply a cause of heartache, nausea, and depression. The only reason I've been able to watch this year is the stylish and stalwart Chris Cooley, who tonight apparently has been injured in the soon-to-be completed loss to the Iggles. Jeez.

    Back to Steve Coll. He has won every journalistic prize, been a power at the Washington Post, now runs the New America Foundation, etc. But the words he may always be proudest of are those he's written about what has happened to the city's team:

    "The issue is not the team's performance on the field, dismal as that is. It is the culture created by the owner--one of greed, expediency, and mean-spiritedness. The general atmosphere around the team suggests Zimbabwe--a failed state, an intractable dictator, and an impotent and suffering populace."
  • More on the Minneapolis "overflight"

    According to numerous accounts in the last hour -- AP here, Reuters here, WSJ here -- the current story from the Northwest flight crew that forgot to land in Minneapolis is that they were so absorbed in using laptops in the cockpit that they neglected to talk with air traffic controllers for more than an hour and didn't get around to descending.

    I hate to say this about people with enough other problems already, but: that's simply impossible to believe.

    Flying an airplane is different from driving a car, in that it doesn't take constant second-by-second attention to the mechanics of where you're going and how you're handling the controls. If you type out a text message while you're driving a car, you really are putting yourself and others in danger.  But if you take a minute in an airplane to check a detail of the routing, or a weather report, or anything else that comes up, in most phases of flight nothing bad is going to happen. The plane will cruise along with its autopilot, and most of the time no other planes are anywhere nearby. (Obviously this doesn't apply in takeoff and landing, in busy airspace, etc.)

    That's why some of the stories tut-tutting the pilots for breaking company rules by opening laptops during flight are beside the point. That's a for-form's-sake only rule whose violation may be"wrong" but is not intrinsically dangerous.

    The difficulty for the pilots is that the version of the story they're resisting -- that they simply fell asleep -- is less damning for them than any alternative version. If they fell asleep, that's bad, but they could argue some kind of force majeure. But if their "heated conversation" (previous story) or intense laptop use (current story) kept them from remembering their most elemental responsibility as pilots, that really is beyond the pale. The closest comparison would be, say, to an operating-room team that got so interested in watching a football game on TV that they sliced open a patient but forgot to take out his appendix. Forgetting where you are going is incredible enough on its own. And not having any back-of-mind nag saying, "Wait a minute, we haven't heard anything on the air-traffic control frequency for a while" also is outside any known experience of the professional flight-crew world.

    I say this not to rub it in for people who have lots of trouble ahead -- and who, to their credit, did get their passengers down safely. I mention it to underscore how much an outlier the apparent failure in this case is -- and to emphasize the trouble they're creating for themselves with the "conversation" and "laptop" alibis. If they fell asleep, that's embarrassing. If they were awake, it is far, far worse.

  • Maybe Amazon and Visa should talk?

    Packing for an airline trip. My wife online booking the next family trip. Keeps trying to confirm and pay for the tickets -- cheap advance purchase deal! System keeps rejecting the Visa card number she feeds it. Hmmmm. Am I going to have trouble using the card on the upcoming trip?

    I continue to pack. She holds on the phone with Visa. Suddenly the answer is there: card has been frozen because of suspicious tiny transactions. One for thirty cents, one for forty-five. Just the kind of "probing" charge that credit card thieves attempt to see if a card number is good -- and that, for the same reasons, credit card companies block.

    But wait a minute. These charges -- shown below -- were for the fifteen-cent conversion fees that Amazon charges when you mail it a .PDF or .DOC file to be sent to your Kindle. I was sending several files so I could read them on the plane. (The $1.25 charge is for my monthly Kindle version of the world's finest magazine -- better on paper, but this is a nice backup.) You can get files converted for the Kindle for free, but it means manually transferring them via your computer. I thought it was worth the seventy-five cents to skip that phase.

    VisaKindle.jpg
    I can't be the first person to use a credit card for tiny Kindle charges. Maybe a little coordination to be worked out here, guys? Another opportunity for the Nook?


  • McChrystal as Obama's savior?

    I mentioned recently William S. Lind's argument that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has, intentionally or not, done the Obama Administration a favor with the bleakness of his report on the prospects in Afghanistan. In response to the recent Australian analysis of the McChrystal report, cited here, a reader writes with a view complementary to Lind's:

    "I suspect that the news media and blogosphere has overplayed the tension between McChrystal and the Obama administration.  As your recent post on the Afghan Rorschach test suggests, McChrystal has given an unvarnished assessment of the state of play, and a fairly unvarnished assessment -- or at least a shockingly high assessment -- of the numbers of troops he needed to 'turn the conflict around.'

    "In short, he made his troop request high enough to be fairly easy to reject, and his report pessimistic enough to rule out an Obamaesque middle course   He can't be expected to craft a report that would make withdrawal seem easy, but it is to his credit that he (unlike Westmoreland) has made a good faith effort to make increased commitment seem hard.
    "One of the problems with civilian commentary on Afghanistan is that civilians have been much slower than the military to learn the lessons of Vietnam."
  • More on the Afghan Rorschach test

    A friend in Australia pointed me to the transcript of a speech in Canberra last week by Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald, who has reported extensively from Afghanistan over the past eight years. The war in Afghanistan has been a bigger matter for a longer time in Australia than in the US, in part because Australian troops have suffered many more casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq. McGeough's speech is coruscating, and it uses Gen. McChrystal's report in a way I haven't seen applied anywhere else: as a radically honest reporting document, which in its very honesty reveals why its recommendations would not work out.

    I mean these few samples to whet interest rather than to substitute for reading the presentation as a whole. Although he is tough on the Obama Administration, McGeough offers no support to the likes of Dick Cheney and his recent criticisms. As McGeough says in the final words of the speech, referring specifically to the Bush Administration's choice to switch manpower, money, and attention from Afghanistan to Iraq starting in late 2001:

    "By the way, a recent American intelligence estimate put the insurgency's full-time fighting strength at at-least 25 000, up 25 per cent on the previous year. There should never have been a debate about how strong the insurgency is. They were on the run in 2001 - and they came back, only because they were allowed to."

    Below and after the jump, other samples of his reasoning. But please do check it out. First, on the similarity between the Soviet and American wars.

    "After eight years, Washington finds itself in the same position that the Soviet Union was in Year 8 of its occupation of Afghanistan, seemingly having learnt nothing from history - until McChrystal's bombshell assessment.

    "I want to read from a defence official's letter dated August 17. He calls for an honest admission of failure after eight years, citing the squandering of huge material resources and considerable casualties and a failure to stabilise the country - militarily or politically. Most of the population has lost trust, because the campaign is bogged down and a strategic breakthrough is unlikely.

    "The experience of the past years," he continues somberly, "clearly shows that the Afghan problem cannot be solved by military means only. We should decisively reject our illusions and undertake principally new steps, taking into account the lessons of the past, and the real situation in the country..."

    "That might have been a note to General McChrystal as he prepared his report - but the date was August 17, 1987. And the author, Colonel K. Tsagalov, was addressing the then newly appointed Soviet defence minister, Dmitry Yazov."

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