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.
  • More on the undercover TSA officers

    Two days ago I mentioned the delightful story about the TSA's plan to place "behavior detection officers," or BDOs, in airports and to disguise them in ... TSA uniforms. Herewith several relevant responses.

    1) About the plan's underlying genius:

    "There are so many security officers at the airport that one no longer notices them.  It's like policemen at the US capitol building, or people wearing orange clothes at a Clemson football game.  Clothing that would be conspicuous in normal situations becomes the best way to blend in at the airport."

    2) About how it may be working in Seattle:

    "I witnessed this in action at SeaTac airport on this past Sunday morning. But I have to say the quote: "They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, does not ring true.

    "As I (a nicely dressed white middle aged woman) sat there a young woman of Asian heritage was approached and asked for her boarding pass. She complied and I didn't think anything of it but realized it was a newly established check point. Then a few minutes later another TSA agent approached the same woman and asked again. Hmmm, was she so nervous looking? Not to me, she looked like the rest of us bored and waiting to go folks. She did have a nice long conversation on her cell phone in a language I could not understand but there are thousands of people who do this. Another young white woman who was sitting to my right was shocked and said "but they just asked her". Yep. So they don't focus on nationality, race or ethnicity? I am not at all convinced and will be observing to see how this plays out." [JF note: Like all law enforcement work, this is tricky. Eg, in any sensible risk-based system people in their 20s would deserve more attention than people in their 70s or 80s. The trick of course is drawing the line between that sort of common-sense triage and blanket categorization. Let's hope TSA is working on it.]

    3) An account from inside the system:

    "I [have a relative] who is in fact one of the Behavior Detection Officers your item today mentions. She is a very nice, petite Asian woman, and she finds it pretty entertaining that she is now a BDO and gets to flag people for extra security, question them, etc.
     
    "Some of her comments to us about her job raise some questions (for me at least, I don't think she thinks this critically about her job) about how these officers are regulated, and their approach to screening.
    "One of her comments during a recent visit: "You know, those Arabs come through in groups of two or three, thinking they won't make us suspicious. But we know what they're up to...they're trying to get away with something. I'm not allowed to flag them or question them just because they look suspicious, though, they have to meet the checklist. And you know they know what the checklist is, and they're practicing their behavior so they can beat it." The checklist she's referring to is a list of "suspicious" behaviors (I gather there are like 15-20 on the list) and a person has to meet a certain threshold (# of suspicious behaviors) in order to be pulled for extra security or questioning. While I do approve of the general strategy here (assessment-driven, data-based, theoretically unbiased) it does leave me with some questions about whether someone could practice behaving in a non-suspicious way, thereby rendering these BDOs' jobs fairly useless.
     
    "Additionally, as the article/report noted, BDOs do wear regular TSA uniforms. She often stands just outside the line to the metal detectors, watching for suspicious behavior, or sometimes she roams the gate areas with a partner. She says (and I can definitely believe this) that most people think she is a slacker TSA agent, just standing around doing nothing. (I have noticed these "slackers"--now at least there is a possibility they really aren't slacking off, just doing their BDO thing.) [JF note: Yes, now that I think of it, I've seen these roving/chatting pairs of TSA agents and assumed they were just on break time.]

    "One other interesting tidbit is that she was selected for the BDO program as an existing TSA agent--she has no college degree, psychology courses, or other special training beyond the fairly short course the TSA offered to her in order to become certified as a BDO (and it really is a *certification*--she has her BDO certificate with seal and all hanging in her home office). I really do wonder how effective this training, and their observations, can be.
     
    "To be clear, I don't agree that anything the TSA does is making us any safer, despite her exhortations that "you don't even want to know the stuff we find and take away from people..."

    4) And once again about underlying genius of the plan:

    "Maybe they're just leveraging everyone's certainty that TSA agents are robotic, stupid rule-followers, and as such, nothing to worry about when they're away from their post. Given this presumption, a TSA uniform is a great disguise for someone with strong observation skills and who's actually paying attention.
    "Yeah, I'm sure that's it!"

    More »

  • A bucolic world capital

    Our back yard, 2pm yesterday afternoon, three miles from the White House in northwest Washington DC. I think this is one of the fawns from the summer, grown out of its dappled phase. It sat there thinking and observing for an hour or two, about 50 feet from our house, until a drizzle turned into a downpour and it went somewhere else. For Chinese friends, that is indeed a bamboo stand in the background. We lack pandas so make do this way.

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  • Doing Business in China: Legalese (updated)

    Before launching a business plan in China, it's essential to understand its legal system.

    Nearing the end of our Doing Business in China clips, here's the story of a Western businessman who went to the Chinese courts for relief -- and got it. Larger point involves the uneven way that "rule of law" applies in China. Some place, yes; many places, no; but the number of "yes" zones is increasing.


    UPDATE: In introducing the previous clip, I said that there was one sentence in it I completely disagreed with, while all the rest rang true. In case you were wondering, it was the sentence saying that in Shanghai and Beijing, "it is hard to find someone who doesn't speak English." If you define "Shanghai and Beijing" as meaning, "inside a five-star international hotel in Shanghai or Beijing, among the staff trained to deal with foreign guests, when the first team is on duty," that statement is exactly right! Otherwise....The statement appears around time 1:20, so you can put it in context and see the source.

  • Placeholder on presidential rhetoric

    I agree with my Atlantic colleagues Marc Ambinder and Andrew Sullivan that Barack Obama's speech yesterday at Ft. Hood was another exceptional match of message and moment. It also highlights the forced nature of an analysis I meant to mention earlier: this past weekend's NYT "Week in Review" assertion that Obama's rhetoric has  grown stale. Saying more about this topic is next on the internal to-do list, after turning in an article later today. But I didn't want the whole of Veteran's Day to pass without a mention of this performance.

  • Great books to give as presents: kicking off the series

    Whatever your occasion for giving presents, books are the present to give. (I try like crazy to avoid the generic term "holiday," so I'll say: Christmas presents for me, Hanukkah presents for you,  Kwanzaa for somebody else, and general midwinter cheer for another person. Whatever they are, I'm going to call them "presents," and we can all get along.)

    One worth considering: The Fourth Part of the World, by Toby Lester. It's a great, absorbing, richly illustrated, makes-you-feel-smarter-and-better-for-having-read-it chronicle of the race to map what became the Americas five centuries ago. Toby Lester explains the idea behind the book in this clip:


    There's also a nice Flash-based interactive version of the influential 1507 map at the center of his story, here. Toby Lester is a friend and one-time Atlantic colleague -- but part of the reason we're friends is the sensibility and intelligence he exhibits in this book. Worth checking out.

    Lester.jpg 

  • Going undercover, TSA-style!

    I do love this story. There's good news from a report about the TSA in yesterday's Washington Post! In addition to relying purely on the screening techniques we all know so well from airport security lines, the TSA has people roaming the airports checking out travelers who give off a suspicious vibe:

    "To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.

    "They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz.

    "We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors," she said."

    Good idea! The whole complaint about rule-based, one-size-fits-all screening systems is that they're not sufficiently flexible, discriminating, or directed toward more serious threats.

    On the other hand, this charming detail from the story:

    "It's not easy to spot detection officers. Working in teams of two and clad in TSA uniforms, they blend in with those performing screening chores at the security checkpoint."

    Yes, there is no chance the bad guys will spot them! Like plainclothes cops, cleverly hidden from drug dealers etc when they are disguised as regular policemen.

    Of course, maybe this article itself is part of an elaborate cover operation, lulling plotters into thinking that the only people they have to watch for have TSA suits on. Yes, that must be it. [Thanks to D Lippman]

  • Doing Business in China: Lost in Translation

    Although unprecedented numbers of Chinese people are learning English, communication can still be challenging.

    Ah, the mysteries of language. This little clip, next in the Doing Business in China series, actually does a nice job of introducing some of the tangles and intricacies of the "what language are people speaking, when they say they're speaking English?" question. There is exactly one sentence in this clip, from an interviewee, that I completely disagree with. Will let you guess which one it is. The rest all rings true, even when people contradict one another and themselves.

  • Two language updates

    There's lot in the queue about language, all-in-one devices, slippery slopes, and other lost topics. Deferred while doing "work." To start back, two language items:

    On Presidents and verbs:
     Last month I mentioned that in Japanese the term "to Obama" -- Obamu,  オバむ -- had been accepted as a verb signifying hopefulness despite obstacles, "yes we can," etc. A reader with experience in Japan reminds me that there is a precedent:

    "I was living in Japan 97-98 at the height of the Lewinsky brouhaha.  At that time, Clinton's name became a joke of sort in the Japanese press.  They were referring to him as Bill "Furinton".  You see, in Japanese, "furin" [不倫] is the verb "to commit adultery".  So they were calling him "Furinton Daitoryo" or essentially "President Adultery."

    On la vie Francophone:
    Background here, with my assertion that Japan = France when it comes to dealing with outsiders who try to handle their language, whereas China = the United States. A reader writes:

    "I just wanted to share my experiences of living, though briefly, in Francophone cultures.  A year ago, I spent a couple of months living and working in Belgium.  Where I lived, Brussels, is decidely Francophone.  With that said, most of my attempts to use French within the city were politely but quickly rebuffed as the person I would be speaking to would switch to mostly flawless English.

    "Although I was staying in Brussels, my work was at an office twenty miles north in Mechelen, which is decidely Flemish.  Most of my coworkers there were Flemish, spoke three languages (Dutch, French, English) fluently and often a fourth one (German) fluently as well.  As I got to know them I would try speaking French with them as well, since I did not know any Dutch.  They would compliment me on how well I spoke French; which I interpreted as an exaggerated compliment reflective of the expectation that few Americans can speak anything other than twangy English.  They would humor me for a couple of minutes then state "I don't like to speak French" which would usually be followed by an unloading, in perfect English, of their resentment of the Francophone population (Walloons") within Belgium....
    "Over the years I have actually spoke more French up in Quebec City and even Montreal than I did in a two-month period in Brussels.  The "Quebecois" would still tend to gradually switch to a cutely-accented English, and one told me that is often done after they make sure I am not another Canadian, as the use of French is a matter of nationalist identity there.  But I felt the attempt, though seemingly clumsy, to speak French and to try and understand the Quebecois dialect, was much more appreciated among the Quebecois than the Bruxellois."

    Bonus: Swedish!
    Might as well extend the broad-brush perspective to more nations and languages. Three updates in a two-update item! A reader writes:

    "My wife is Swedish and at various times over the years when visiting her family, I have made some attempts at the language. In some ways this is silly - pretty much every Swede takes English from grade-school on and thus will almost always have a basic level of English - but you like to feel like your making an effort in matters of the heart. But I have found an interesting phemonmenon. I will say a phrase or word in Swedish and NO ONE will be have any idea what I am trying to say. To my ear, it will sound perfect, but they will be clueless until I explain what I am saying. They will then laugh and say "oh you mean..." and then pronounce it EXACTLY the same way I did (at least to my ear).

    "For a while, I just assumed that I had a terrible ear for language and that Swedish, as a tonal language is particularly difficult to master. But then someone else who had experienced the same thing told me another theory. Outside of some immigrants, almost no one ever learns Swedish as an adult. As a result, so his theory goes,  Swedes pretty much only hear "pure" Swedish, and have no experience at all hearing "broken" Swedish, so the slightest variety on the language just doesn't compute for them."

    On the phenomenon of locals having NO IDEA what you are saying because of a difference of tone -- after the recent years in China, don't get me started....

    Extra bonus! German and Dutch!

    No reason to hold back now. Number four:

    "A variation on your and your readers' comments on different countries' attitudes.  I studied German in school, and can get around in Germany; I lived in The Netherlands for three years and picked up a fair bit of Dutch.  But it was the reaction of shopkeepers in both countries that I found interesting.  In The Netherlands, I would go into a shop and ask for something in Dutch, and the shopkeepers would invariably reply in English.  In Germany, we would speak German unless I had to say I didn't understand something.

    "The difference, I discovered, lay in the fact that the Dutch, like the Scandinavians, took great pride in knowing English.  They could tell I was not only a foreigner, but a native English speaker by the way I spoke Dutch.  (Once I lost my German accent on my Dutch, which isn't the best thing to have -- long memories, there.)  So rather than being considerate, by speaking Dutch I was undercutting something - the ability to speak English - that was ingrained into the Dutch as a national advantage.  Conversely, I've found in both business and personal travel that many, many Germans do not know English."

    More »

  • What has happened to the F-35?

    Seven years ago I wrote in the magazine about the genesis of the F-35 fighter plane, known back then as the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF. ("Uncle Sam Builds an Airplane," June, 2002.) At the time, the JSF was supposed to be the solution to one of the modern military's worst problems: relentless and "unexpected" cost growth. Year after year, ships, missiles, tanks, etc go up "surprisingly" much in unit cost, so year after year the numbers in the inventory go down. The JSF was explicitly designed to break the cycle. In three complementary models, it was supposed to suit the differing aviation needs of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Like a car or computer meant for a broad global market, it was intended from the start to fit the needs of a large number of allied militaries.

    As part of the story said:

    "The JSF matters because of both its scale and its conceptual ambition. The planners at the Pentagon and at Lockheed Martin imagine that as many as 6,000 of these airplanes may be bought, at a total cost of as much as $200 billion, over the next twenty-five years. If all goes according to plan, about 3,000 of the JSFs will go to the original "investors" in the program--the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, plus the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy in Britain. All have shared the cost of developing the plane. The other 3,000 are supposed to go to customers in the rest of the world."

    That was then.

    lockheed-martin-joint-strike-fighter-f-35-lightning-ii.jpgIn this new column at Military.com, Winslow Wheeler -- part of the group of defense thinkers I mentioned yesterday -- talks about what has happened to the JSF as it has evolved into the F-35. Main plot line: cost has gone up, reliability has gone down, capabilities have fallen short of promises -- all of these "unexpected" changes forcing the planned number of purchases down, which in turn has pushed unit cost up further still. Check out the full account at Wheeler's column. And consider this part of the original article in light of what has happened seven years into the project: 

    "The ambitious idea behind the JSF is to address several chronic problems of U.S. military acquisition policy simultaneously. If it succeeds, it will put military procurement on a more affordable, more effective track. If it fails, it will underscore how deep those problems are."
  • The other shoe drops at Caijing

    According to Ian Johnson in the WSJ just now, Hu Shuli, the founder and editor of Caijing magazine in China, has finally resigned, along with her deputy Wang Shuo. This is Hu, at the magazine's big annual conference last year in Beijing. (I didn't take this picture but was at the event. Update: WSJ story now has co-byline with Sky Canaves.)
     
    hushuli.jpg


    At Johnson explains in his story, tension at Caijing had been rising for some time. Also see previous links, including to Evan Osnos's profile of Hu in the New Yorker, here. The reason this news matters is that Caijing, a business/finance magazine that had in its 11 years become the main vehicle for independent reporting and criticism of all sorts, has been the very important exception to the rule about the strictures and limits on the Chinese domestic press. "Yes, the press is subject to tight controls, but at Caijing..." For instance, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, Caijing played an important role in questioning the government's story that everything was under control. (Disclosure: one of my sons was an intern at the magazine then.)

    The potential silver lining, in character for the irrepressible Hu Shuli, is that she is apparently already planning to launch a new magazine. More to come on this topic, but news of the change itself is worth noting.
  • Mad magazine takes on the birthers

    I don't know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they're still around, here's an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

    A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its "Strangely Believe It! Strangely True" series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley's Believe It or Not. It concerned -- well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore. [Thanks to reader JS for title catch.]

    MadMag.jpg


    The punch line -- hardee har! -- is that news of the baby girl's birth had to be telegrammed to her mother, who had missed the plane on which the surprise birth occurred.

    What's the connection to the birthers? If Barack Obama had actually been born in Kenya, then his mother would have to have been in Kenya too! I don't think anyone has dreamed of suggesting that his mother was other than the one he has always claimed, Stanley Ann Dunham. Presumably somewhere in the passport records of the United States or Kenya is information about whether his mother (a) left the United States, or (b) entered Kenya in 1961 when her son was born. If she didn't leave the United States, including the fully-fledged state of Hawaii, in the summer of 1961, then by definition her child has to have been a natural-born U.S. citizen.

    I recognize that if this were a matter of -- how do we say? -- "reality" or "facts," it would have been settled long ago, as it has been for everyone except the birther stalwarts. But this is an interesting additional angle worth considering; plus, it's great to see these detailed old Mad drawings. FYI, you can see a zoomable full-page version of the "Strangely Believe It!" illustration, by Wallace Wood, if you click on the smaller image below.

    MadMag1.jpg

  • Press deadline detail (updated)

    The House passed the health-care reform bill last night at 11:15pm. I was watching (I mean, on CSPAN)! This morning, the Sunday New York Times that was waiting outside at our house in northwest DC had a headline about the passage and a wrapup of who had voted which way, and why.

    IMG_8139.JPG


    The Washington Post that was sitting alongside it had a story about the likely result in the vote, and a little box saying that the vote had happened too late to be covered in the paper.
     
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    No major point here: just interesting that the newspaper of politics, the newspaper of Washington, apparently has an earlier deadline for events in the capital than the out of town paper does. May just have been a fluke and signifying nothing, but mildly a surprise.

    UPDATE: Thanks to reader J.M., I see that the Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, has recently commented on the effect of earlier deadlines at the Post. Unfortunate effect that he highlights: gap between the quality and polish of articles on the web site and those that make it into the paper. Alexander said:
    "[A reader] put his finger on a primary cause [of grammar errors]: tighter deadlines. It's the same problem I wrote about last week in explaining why up to 185,000 Post readers were no longer getting late game coverage of the World Series, the Redskins' Monday night game or the Wizards' exciting season opening victory in Dallas.

    "The need to cut costs forced The Post to close its College Park printing facility some months ago and consolidate operations at its other printing plant in Springfield. That, coupled with the need to deliver papers to subscribers who now begin their commutes earlier due to worsening traffic congestion, has resulted in deadlines being moved forward."
  • West Point, Phillips Collection: two very different YouTube clips

    West Point: Over the decades I have sung the praises of defense thinkers broadly associated with or inspired by the late Air Force colonel John Boyd. More on this general outlook to national strategy here. One prominent figure in this group is Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and prolific author. Recently he was invited to West Point, his alma mater, to address cadets on the realities of military life and military thinking. His full address, broken into a series of YouTube clips, starts here.


    Mostly for specialists, but for those interested in the effort to shape a sustainable U.S. military strategy, this is worthwhile. Macgregor's latest book is here.

    Phillips Collection: This very elegant small museum/gallery near DuPont Circle in Washington now has has a display by the sculptor and artist Barbara Liotta (a close friend of my wife's).  This brief clip she shows how she installed her piece "Icarus" at the Phillips. This is interesting to me in showing the combination of elementary manual skills -- like tying knots around the small stones she is suspending -- with an original vision of how strings and stones can create a powerful 3-D structure. She has another gallery show in Washington here. Detail of suspended stone below; then, the YouTube clip.

    LiottaRock.jpg


    Meta point: the value of YouTube in showing two committed people from completely different realms of endeavor intensely at their work.

  • November 7

    This seems like ancient history and it seems like only yesterday, but it was one year ago that my father, James A. Fallows MD, died at his home in California. I can't help mentioning him, and my late mother Jean, today.

    JAF1107.jpg

    I saw this picture, thanks to my siblings, only after his death. I think this is from his late 40s or early 50s. Thanks to many people who wrote a year ago, after I mentioned what he and my mother had meant to their small community and their children. For reasons of distraction, volume, and general life chaos I never responded to most messages, but I appreciated them.
  • In defense of the TSA

    On the "man bites dog" front, and in the spirit of fairness, here are two items on behalf of the TSA. Or at least in opposition to some lines of criticism (like this recent one from me).

    First: I can't believe that I've learned only now that the TSA has its own chatty blog, which takes up various criticisms, especially from web sites, and gives the TSA's answer. For instance, if you want to know their response to this famed cartoon from XKCD.com, check here.
     
    bag_check.png

    The wonderful headline on another item at the blog: "Response to 'TSA Agents Took My Son.'"
    I won't say that I am tremendously convinced by their rebuttals, but I do (seriously) admire the effort, and the flair. (I learned about the blog via Bob Collins of Minnesota.)

    Next, below and after the jump, a reader's message in response to the recent GAO critique of TSA, mentioned here.

    "While agreeing with the spirt of your attack on TSA, I'm not sure the jab is well centered. 

    "The GAO report is about TSA funding new technology.  Clearly that is a botched job -- the withdrawal of the "puffer" machines is a demonstration that TSA is not good at funding R&D.  But it has nothing to do with TSA screening tactics -- which I agree are not "risk based". And on the larger level, I'm not sure a blanket risk analysis is an effective tool for deciding where to put R&D dollars.
    "I could fault TSA for placing too much value on screening passengers rather than looking at airport security and/or baggage security.   They have to keep up the security theatre.   But making TSA less intrusive, stupid and customer friendly would seem to be better strategic guidance than making it analyze "risk."

    "For example, what if better baggage screening led to RFID tags that would lead to less lost luggage?  Or TSA screening was better integrated into checkin saving passengers time?
     
    "In terms of risk, I thought this discussion was more helpful,  http://www.hlswatch.com/2009/10/15/"do-i-have-the-right-to-refuse-this-search"/ which [I found at] Bruce Schneier's blog here."

    As always, judge for yourself, especially after checking out the TSA blog. 

    More »

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