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.
  • Two quick updates: flu in China, 64-bit code

    Flu: Over the months, I have frequently remarked on the difference between the Chinese government's approach to H1N1/swine flu and that of many other countries. Difference in brief: the Chinese government has applied sweeping quarantine measures to try to keep the disease out of the country and then to limit its spread; many other countries have viewed the spread as more or less unavoidable and have tried to cope with the consequences.

    Thumbnail image for Quarantine.jpg

    (Photo from this previous post, about visiting Americans quarantined in Shanghai.)  In all countries the emerging view seems to be: the flu has not been that dangerous so far, during this atypical, spring time emergence (in the Northern Hemisphere). But it might be a more serious problem when it comes back in new form during the regular flu season, as the weather gets cold.

    A reader who has recently been in Beijing writes to make a point I have heard from a number of health professionals too:
     

    "I'm not an immunologist or anything remotely close.  But I wonder if China is actually hurting themselves by so aggressively stopping the spread of H1N1.  The current incarnation of H1N1 seems to be less lethal than the variants that we normally deal with.  Wouldn't it be better to let this variety of H1N1 spread so that people build up immunity to this mild version of H1N1 and then if H1N1 becomes more lethal they will already have some immunity?

    "By the way, while I was at university this summer in Beijing, a student living on the sixth floor of a dorm became ill with H1N1 and the police came with buses and removed about 60 people from that floor."

    The argument from the Chinese authorities is that in a big, poor country with a shaky public health network, they have no choice but to fight a new disease with everything they've got. Memories of the under-reaction to SARS in 2003 also have a Hurricane Katrina-style "let's not make that mistake again" effect. Given the inconvenience many people, Chinese and foreign, have already suffered in the name of flu control, I hope the hyper-aggressive early response to the flu doesn't backfire.

    64-bit code: Last week, I declared a moratorium on discussion of "huge pages" in Apple's operating systems. (Hey, it was interesting at the time.) The reply below, for nerds only, qualifies in the spirit of fair-response. A reader writes:

    "I have nothing to add to the "huge pages" discussion. I promise.

    "But I would like address Mr. [Ken] Broomfield's closing statement which, I believe, is misleading:

    More »

  • Once Again, A First-Rate Speech

    I don't know how many people stayed tuned in to watch the whole hour-plus of this speech, counting intro and so on. But, once again among his major addresses, it will bear long-term study for its range, tone, and clarity:

     - Conciliatory: You Republicans want to talk about tort reform? Let's hear your ideas.
     - Tough: When you tell lies, we will call you out.
     - Clarifying: For the first time ever, I felt as if I glimpsed a "larger idea" behind the Obama plan.
     - Big picture: The role-of-government soliloquy at the end, including the connection to the moral and social-contract histories of Social Security and Medicare.
     - Emotional, sans schmaltz: As he got ready for the end, I feared that he would tell the story of all the Lenny Skutnik figures in the First Lady's box. Instead, he told Ted Kennedy's story, with allusions only to Kennedy's Republican friends.
    - Simple performance dynamics: Well delivered, including at crucial points talking over the applause to keep the rhythm going.
    - Manners: Will it pay off for the Republicans to have booed him and, in the case of Rep. "Gentleman Joe" Wilson of South Carolina, to have yelled "you lie!" at the President? We'll see. Update: An ActBlue site supporting an opponent to Wilson raised more than $25,000 within three hours of his outburst. Via Simon Owens.

    There will come a time when Barack Obama cannot pull himself out of pinch with a big speech. And obviously we don't know how this debate will turn out yet. But he hasn't fallen short on the big-speech front yet. More tomorrow.

  • Once again, a first-rate speech

    I don't know how many people stayed tuned in to watch the whole hour-plus of this speech, counting intro and so on. But, once again among his major addresses, it will bear long-term study for its range, tone, and clarity:

     - Conciliatory: You Republicans want to talk about tort reform? Let's hear your ideas.
     - Tough: When you tell lies, we will call you out.
     - Clarifying: For the first time ever, I felt as if I glimpsed a "larger idea" behind the Obama plan.
     - Big picture: The role-of-government soliloquy at the end, including the connection to the moral and social-contract histories of Social Security and Medicare.
     - Emotional, sans schmaltz: As he got ready for the end, I feared that he would tell the story of all the Lenny Skutnik figures in the First Lady's box. Instead, he told Ted Kennedy's story, with allusions only to Kennedy's Republican friends.
    - Simple performance dynamics: Well delivered, including at crucial points talking over the applause to keep the rhythm going.
    - Manners: Will it pay off for the Republicans to have booed him and, in the case of Rep. "Gentleman Joe" Wilson of South Carolina, to have yelled "you lie!" at the President? We'll see. Update: An ActBlue site supporting an opponent to Wilson raised more than $25,000 within three hours of his outburst. Via Simon Owens.

    There will come a time when Barack Obama cannot pull himself out of pinch with a big speech. And obviously we don't know how this debate will turn out yet. But he hasn't fallen short on the big-speech front yet. More tomorrow.

  • Now this is tempting: ideas for the DHS!

    DHS3.jpg

    From a contact within the greater "Homeland Security" community, a link to the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, an interactive exercise to gather suggestions for what the DHS should start doing, and stop doing.

    Hmmmm! And hmmmmm

    The survey, which can be found here, was initially supposed to end this past weekend. But due to interest and demand, it's been extended through Wednesday, September 9 -- tomorrow as I type.

    From the registration page, here, it looks as if "General Public" is one of the category of "stakeholders" allowed to express views on the DHS's future. Who says this isn't the age of transparency and interaction?

    DHS1.jpg

     
    DHS2.jpg

    Over to you, members of the Homeland American public.

  • I was wrong (again)

    I've seen the light. No longer will I complain about the trite hackneyed vacuous portento-pious lazy comforting and beloved three-word ending for all presidential addresses since the time of Ronald Reagan: "God bless America!" I won't complain, that is, as long as the words are always presented in the style of the clip below. See especially from time 2:00 onward.

     

    From here. Thanks to Gary Puckett.

  • Remaining holiday-festival updates, #9 - 999, all in one place

    Labor Day weekend has, sigh, reached its close, and with it the feeling of summer. To clear out the list of update topics for this weekend-long festival:

    - #9 Striking gold in China. I mentioned previously my skeptical response to the story of Americans showing up in China and suddenly finding great jobs. Seems that this was pretty much the response by the expat community in China too. See this and this from last month -- plus after the jump, a reply today from someone who showed up a year ago in China and has put the  "Chinese streets are paved with gold" hypothesis to the test.

    - #10 Is China (unfortunately) starting to learn from the TSA? Secondly after the jump, an account of a new wrinkle in Chinese airport security: having passengers take off their shoes, just like in the U.S.  Not sure whether this is a local aberration or the beginning of a new policy.

    - #999
    President Obama speaks to the schoolchildren. I was all in favor of this earnest buckle-down, back-to-school pitch until I saw the way the presentation ended. Sigh. And that brings us to the end of this holiday weekend special!
    _____

    More »

  • Festival of updates #8: Chinese/US attitudes on race, flu

    These are both big, complicated topics, but to catch up on recent developments in each:

    - I mentioned many times last year that there seemed to be less excitement about Barack Obama's rise in China than in, say, Europe or Africa, and that this was due at least partly to racial attitudes.* Many Chinese people with experience in America appreciate the centrality of black-white relations in the story of America's development. For instance, in a profile of Gao Xiqing, who directs the Chinese government's vast investments in the U.S., I mentioned that he has a small portrait of Martin Luther King over his desk in Beijing. (Gao went to law school at Duke.) But in my experience, many ordinary people with little exposure outside China freely expressed anti-black racial attitudes. During the 2008 primary season, this turned up as a kind of puzzlement about whether a black candidate could plausibly have the skill, sophistication, knowledge, work habits, etc to stand up to veteran opponents like Hillary Clinton or John McCain.

    That's the context in which to read the stories about the hard times faced by a (beautiful) young Chinese model-aspirant whose mother is a Han Chinese from Shanghai and whose father was a black American. The girl, Lou Jing, is at right, and her mother at center in this picture:
    ShanghaiGirl2.jpg

    Stories from last week here, in the Straits Times in Singapore (thanks, C. Tan), and from the Shanghaiist site here. A summary (in English) of some of the harsh Chinese on-line chatter at this site, which was also the source of the picture. Discussion of parallel situations in Korea here. The ChinaSmack site, which translates a lot of blog material into English, is said to have a discussion here, but for whatever reason I can't get it to load.

    UPDATE: The China Smack link did finally come up, which has a lot of trenchant material, including what is claimed to be a statement by Lou Jing herself, plus this additional and additionally charming photo:
    shanghainese-luo-jing-fancy-dress-280x373.jpg

    To be clear about the context: this is not a "blame China" episode but rather one of many illustrations of the differences in day by day social realities and perceived versus ignored sources of tension in particular societies. That's all to say about it for now.

    - In the same "varying realities" vein, I mentioned repeatedly through this spring how H1N1/swine flu was being taken as a huge public-health emergency in China, leading to extraordinary gestures of what most foreigners considered heavy-handed security-theater. But inside China, the prevalent perception was that the government was taking all necessary and proper steps -- while the US was being self-indulgently and irresponsibly lax, letting infected people roam free to spread disease wherever they went. I'm judging this by what I saw in the Chinese press and by the voluminous complaint messages I received from Chinese readers.

    That is the context for this item by James Areddy of the WSJ last week, concerning an inflight-video on a Chinese airline flight explaining what a "shame" it is that flu virus has been spreading from America. As Areddy points out, the video refers to mei zhou -- 美洲, "the Americas" -- as the source of infection, rather than mei guo, 美国, "America." So maybe it's  Mexico-US-Canada NAFTA-solidarity in blame. On the other hand, the English subtitles say "America." In any case, interesting as a reminder of difference in attitudes. This will matter more, of course, if the flu comes back in a more lethal form this fall. (Photo by Areddy from his item:)

    china_pig_E_20090830075455.jpg

    ___
    * In part, it also reflected the long-standing Chinese assumption that Democrats will be tougher than Republicans on trade policy, and the preference for sticking with known figures in US politics. Hillary Clinton was much better known to the Chinese public and officialdom than Obama was, and thus she seemed the safer bet from their point of view.

  • Holiday festival of updates #3A: Back to Snow Leopard and "huge pages"

    I declare this the last posting in this venue on whether Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system does or does not support the use of "huge pages" in memory addressing, as laid out previously in Holiday Update #3 here. But for completeness, I offer this report from the other side of the operating system divide:

    "I'm a Software Engineer at Microsoft.  Apple's smart enough to see how little use 4MB pages are and I doubt they will ever implement support any time soon.  
     
    "Huge pages hurt when the other factors at play are accounted for like memory fragmentation, additional memory used, cost of reading in 4 MB at a time from the disk.  I think this has been tested on IA64 servers with huge amount of ram and it hurt not helped."

    Let's add this to the list of "how big is the universe"-style endlessly debatable questions.

    So many more updates, so few remaining holiday weekend hours.

  • Festival of updates #7: NYT hit-and-miss

    Catching up on one NYT item that rang exactly (and surprisingly) true, and another with a different effect:

    Sounds true to me: A "good news" item that stayed on the "most popular" list for a very long time. Its news was that years and years of running can actually protect and strengthen your knees, rather than inevitably pulverize and destroy them. I am here as a one-man long-term-longitudinal study to say: yessir!

    IMG_6684.jpgExcept for the past three years-of-smog in China -- lest we forget: Easter Day, 2009, in Beijing, shown at left -- I have been running many times a week for many decades. I shudder for various reasons to realize that I ran my first Boston Marathon 40 years ago. As the body-odometer has gotten into the tens of thousands of miles, I've logged problems with: Achilles tendon (too often -- hmmm, I wonder if there should be some term for a point of chronic weakness); hamstrings or calf muscles (periodically, including now); shin splints or ankle issues (rarely); etc. But knees, which I'd always been warned would be used up by running? No problems, at all. (As opposed to my dad -- who played college football and for the next 60 years coped with trick knees.) Now that actual medical research has confirmed that this is the expected result rather than a fluke, my knees feel even better.  So can yours!

    On the other hand: we have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn't find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they'd shortcut into positions of responsibility. I'm here to say: Well, sort of.

    Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so -- if they're willing to teach English. (And can get a visa -- whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it's hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it's like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

    But the idea that many non-trained grads will find "good" jobs -- eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it's realistic to go from zero to "highly proficient" in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of "land of gold!" account of today's China has a touching parallel to the "gold mountain!" accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

  • Festival of updates #6: TSA vs. the toddler menace

    No, this doesn't prove anything, but the picture is too interesting not to share. It's from a reader who describes his experience at BWI airport. It was back in 2005, before the BWI-specific improvements mentioned here, so maybe this would never happen again. But...

    "Attached is a picture of my daughter (15 months old at the time) being frisked by a TSA security screener at BWI....

    "I had been carrying her through security after putting the stroller through.  Of course the metal detector detected something. You can see in the picture that I am holding my pants up with my hand rather than my belt and have no shoes on so who knows what it was.  Maybe it was her shoes - they didn't make her take them off.  I got the feeling when they called a woman over that they were going to frisk her so I called to my wife who had already gone through to get a picture.  Sure enough they gave her the wand metal detector and pat down treatment."
    129_2986.JPG

    If all of this were part of a shrewd, realistic, threat-based strategy of imposing inconvenience and occasional humiliation only when necessary, then -- great! But in reality....
  • Festival of updates #5: Wolfowitz and Iraq

    Wolfowitz.jpg

    For the rest of his life, Paul Wolfowitz will face questions about the invasion and occupation of Iraq. You can hear that realization sinking in on him during the course of his ten-minute interview with Guy Raz of NPR, broadcast this evening on on All Things Considered. Wolfowitz had come on the show to discusss his essay on foreign policy "realism" in Foreign Policy magazine -- about which more in a moment. Through the ten minutes, you can hear Wolfowitz sounding startled, then testy, then something like resigned when Raz keeps coming back to the questions he obviously had to ask, about how Wolfowitz's current theories match the record in office for which he will always be best known.

    The idea that we'll "always" be known for a moment in the unchangeable past, no matter how the rest of our lives turn out, is a proposition so fatalistic that that we all naturally resist it. (Except maybe Michael Phelps, Sandy Koufax, perhaps Tom Brady and Neil Armstrong, etc.) The earnest post-Vietnam career of Robert McNamara is a testament to how much he struggled with that reality. Remarkably and rarely, Al Gore will "always" be the man at the losing end of Bush v. Gore, but he made a new identity after that.

    In the ten minutes of his interview, whenever Wolfowitz says "Look!" what he's really signaling is: I don't want to talk about this Iraq stuff any more, so why do you keep coming back to it? The reason for coming back, of course, is that Wolfowitz does and always will occupy a unique role in the intellectual history of the decision. Dick Cheney will apparently never reveal a doubt or second thought; George W. Bush has (with some dignity) backed off the public stage for now; Colin Powell has made sure to signal that he was never that enthusiastic; and who knows what Donald Rumsfeld will come up with. But Wolfowitz was the one who from the start had the sweeping vision of the historic rationale for removing Saddam Hussein.

    The public case for invading Iraq was purely negative. ("Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Dick Cheney, speech to national VFW Convention, August 26, 2002.) But the "enlightened" case that Wolfowitz in particular had made for years in articles, interviews, and speeches involved the broader, Wilsonian prospect of bringing democracy to the Arab world, as it had largely come to much of Asia and Latin America. I did a profile of him in early 2002 that emphasized this theme. I also had a sense of its origins, having lived in Southeast Asia in the 1980s, when Wolfowitz helped swing U.S. policy against Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and then was a very popular U.S. ambassador to Indonesia. By all accounts, Wolfowitz was a prominent voice telling a rattled President Bush, during the first, nervous strategy session at Camp David days after the 9/11 attacks, that for positive and negative reasons alike he had to get to the root of the terrorist problem by moving against Iraq. (For more on Wolfowitz's role in war planning, see here and here.)

    In its way it was an honorable vision, as were most of Robert McNamara's beliefs through the early days in Vietnam. But it did not -- OK, has not so far -- turned out anything like what Wolfowitz advertised publicly and within the government. To his credit, Guy Raz of NPR played back to Wolfowitz the tape of his notorious Congressional testimony just before the invasion, in which he said "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." And "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

    It's worth listening to -- along with the full 37-minute unedited interview, here. Among other reasons, I suspect it will be a while before we hear Paul Wolfowitz in such a setting again. The first 15 minutes or so of the "long" version involve what he did want to talk about -- his new Foreign Policy article warning against excessive "realism" in America's approach to the world. Judge for yourself, but it strikes me as a concerted argument against a non-existent or straw-man foe. When an American president has given a major speech in an Arab capital saying that the U.S. needs to engage in the modernization of the Islamic world, it's hard to argue that the U.S. is showing a steely indifference to social and political conditions outside its borders.

    It took more than twenty years after Robert McNamara's departure from the Pentagon for him to begin talking seriously about Vietnam. I look forward to what Paul Wolfowitz eventually says about his war.
    ___

    In an on-air colloquy with Guy Raz after this interview, I made my own mistake. I said that a recent ruling by a panel of judges from the 9th Circuit held that John Ashcroft, former Attorney General, "was" personally liable for illegal detention of a U.S. citizen. Actually, the ruling said that he "could be" personally liable. My apologies.
     

  • Festival of updates #3: Snow Leopard and "huge pages"!

    Nerds only. I mentioned yesterday that the elegant 23-page Ars Technica review of the new Mac Snow Leopard OS should give as much tech detail as "anyone" would want. Au contraire! (Someday I will learn to avoid saying "anyone," "everyone," "no one," etc.) After the jump, a remaining question apparently left unanswered even by Ars Technica -- namely, whether the latest Mac OS supports "huge pages." An explanation of what this is and why it matters, via reader and software guy Ken Broomfield, follows. This goes into the "there are always more details" category, and is offered as a public service.

    Ken Broomfield writes:

    "ArsTechnica deserves a lot of credit for doing in-depth stuff like this that's becoming hard to find anywhere except in dry, poorly-written journal articles (though Ars has done less of this lately). But they lost me with this part, about the desirability of a 64-bit OS X kernel:
    >"Tracking 96GB of RAM requires 1.5GB of kernel address space. Using more than a third of the kernel's address space just to track memory is a pretty uncomfortable situation."<

    More »

  • Festival of updates #2: China business!

    Recently I mentioned an enjoyable discussion session at the Motley Fool, which is available in this podcast. Today there was a followup analysis here, at the Fool's site. The low-road reason I mention it is that it's very complimentary about my assessment of life and business in China. But there's a high-road reason too, which involves an aspect of making sense of China that, IMHO, needs to be stressed again and again, even if you've already stressed it a lot -- as I certainly have.

    This aspect, which indeed can never be stressed strongly enough, concerns the chaos, diversity, internal contradiction, unknowability, and general "many different countries and cultures coexisting under one name" nature of today's China. It's harder to keep track of such a confusing reality than it would be to say, "We must be afraid of China" or "The Chinese want XXXX" or  "With its new power, China will do YYYY." But it is certainly more interesting and stimulating to embrace all this contradictory reality than to stick to a monolithic view of one big, "rising," potentially menacing power. It is also much truer to life. In any case, I am glad to see the Motley Fool analyst underscoring this point. And I think the author of this item, Sean Sun, has added a very interesting born-in-China perspective. As he says:

    "I was born in China and raised in its countryside in a small, mountainous village. I've worn a suit and tie in tier-1 metropolises, donned hard hats in tier-2 and 3 cities, and marveled at the rapid growth in rural areas like my hometown. When someone wants to ask me about China, I ask: Which one?"

    Worth reading, as part of your holiday weekend fare.

  • Holiday festival of updates! #1 in a weekend-long series

    Labor Day Weekend wouldn't be the cherished American ritual it is, without cookouts, beer, one last beach weekend frequent updates on past technical, political, and aviation matters. To kick off this special all-weekend series, an airline industry insider's account on why the Transportation Security Administration condones class-war in the airport security system: Shorter lines for high-mileage passengers (like me! until my China-travel miles time out), all the longer waits for everyone else. Here's the inside view:

    "You might have already gotten this from other sources, but as a 25-year airline industry veteran, the discriminatory TSA lines are easily explained.

    "They exist because the Legacy Airlines cut a deal with senior-level political appointees in the early days of the TSA, and no one has ever challenged them, and it is set up so no one can challenge them. The airlines are, of course, not actually paying anything for the privilege of deciding which taxpayers have first-class/second-class access to federally mandated security screening. The "justification" is that airline rents and fees "pay" the costs of the airport, therefore they have the right to control how "public" spaces in the terminal are used. Neither airports or the TSA gets an incremental dollar for allowing this discrimination.

    "The floor space used to sort passengers into different queues is officially controlled by the airlines, and is separate from the space (just behind it) that is controlled by the TSA. Thus the situation is quite different from discriminatory queues you might have experienced in London and other overseas points, where the airlines actually paid money to fund separate "business-class" airside access points. All that money you paid United to earn Platinum status pays for the lounges and upgrades you get. But your preferential TSA access is a gift from the government, and a "wealth" transfer from all of us in steerage to all of your friends in business class.

    More »

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