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 missing an airport (updated, on pilot fatigue)

    Not sure if this makes me feel better or worse. I mentioned yesterday that I had once inadvertently been steering a small airplane toward Ellsworth Air Force Base, in South Dakota, rather than the Rapid City airport a couple of miles to its side, where I really intended to land. (Pilot-world detail: Airports in the US are officially known by a four-letter identification scheme, starting with K, rather than the three letters familiar from airline tickets. Thus LAX is KLAX for purposes of filing a flight plan; O'Hare is KORD; Logan is KBOS; and so on. The airport in Rapid City is KRAP. For the record, Ellsworth is KRCA.) The two airports are close together; their runways are laid out the same way; and so on. Via SkyVector.com, here's the FAA chart of KRCA, nearer the top, and KRAP below it, with green circles on each. I was way off the lower right side of the chart when trying to find the airport.


    Now I hear from several readers that five years ago a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis-St Paul (KMSP) did what I avoided -- went all the way and landed at Ellsworth, on a flight that was supposed to end at Rapid City. In my case I think that, even if a controller had not alerted me from ten minutes out that I needed to turn slightly to the left, I would have figured it out before I actually landed at an Air Force base. For one thing, the numbers at the end of the runway, which you can see from far away, would have been a clue. (The relevant runway would say 32 in big numbers at Rapid City, and 31 at Ellsworth. You know the number of the runway you're planning to land on, and if you see something different, it would give you pause.)  For whatever reason, this NWA flight made it all the way to a landing at Ellsworth.

    Sorry for the passengers, who had to spend several hours on the ground before the five-minute flight to KRAP, and sorry for the pilots too.

    UPDATE: This story in today's LA Times goes frontally at what I suspect will be the main question in the current "ooops, we missed Minneapolis" airline incident: whether, why, and how often airline pilots fall asleep in the cockpit. Obviously that was not the case with the five-year-old Ellsworth/KRAP incident discussed in this post. I expect this is just the beginning of broad discussion on pilot-fatigue issues coming out of the Minneapolis case. Thanks to reader D.L.

  • More on Chinese air

    Following this item and this article in our new issue.

    The pictures below are from an extremely powerful exhibition by Lu Guang, a Chinese photographer, about pollution and its effects in his home country. His photos have just won a major prize from the Asia Society. While not all of China looks like what he has depicted, I have seen things exactly like what is shown in these photos, and so has anyone else who has traveled outside the big cities or visited factories and mines. Two samples from Lu Guang's work: a power plant in Inner Mongolia, then a migrant laborer in the coal regions of Shanxi province.


    These are pictures to bear in mind the next time you read a "China is an unstoppable superpower with an ability to solve all problems" story; it's worth emphasizing, as I have here and elsewhere, that there is tremendous pressure within China to change course environmentally for the survival of its own people.

    Many pending messages in the queue with more info about the measurable health effects, for foreigners and Chinese citizens, of China's environmental situation. Will get to them in due course. Thanks to many people who have sent in notes about the Lu Guang photos.

  • On the Fox News / White House dispute

    I didn't see anything on Fox from mid-2006 through mid-2009; for better or worse, it's not carried in China. (The English TV news channels you can get there are BBC, CNN International, CNBC, sometimes Bloomberg.) I have seen it since coming back this summer. And in a way, I realize that I had been seeing it all along: except for more modern production values, it's the closest thing America offers to what it's like to be exposed to the Chinese government's 24/7 internal propaganda machine. When I saw the clip below from Media Matters, as highlighted by Andrew Sullivan, I thought: make it a little more boring, put it in Mandarin, and substitute "splittists" etc for the people Fox is talking about (maybe the Dalai Lama in place of Van Jones), and I could be right back in Beijing.


    Are Maddow and Olbermann on MSNBC comparably relentless and "biased"? Of course they are. But no one pretends their shows are "real" news operations or are "fair and balanced." And certainly they have become what they are as a market and political response to Fox's success. Indeed, the general polarization and spectacle-mindedness of the news ecology in part is homage to what Fox has figured out as a business and political model. Any fair person also has to acknowledge the better production values Fox brought to TV news over the past decade: it's lively, it's fast, it's interesting, the women on screen (to a shocking degree, if you've been away) set a new standard in physical looks, the whole thing gets your attention.

     But a crucial part of this clip, and of the White House complaint, is that it's not just the out-and-out commentators on Fox -- the Hannities and O'Reillies who begat Maddow and Olbermann -- who supply a one-note politicized world view. It's the texture of the overall operation. I can think of honorable exceptions among correspondents and anchors, like Major Garrett (whom I do know) and Shepherd Smith (whom I don't). But this clip suggests the seamlessness of the Fox News outlook, which has impressed me on watching it. Again something it shares with China Central TV.

    Main point: I disagree with my journalistic colleagues who are huffy because the Obama White House is treating Fox differently from the way it is treating other news organizations. Fox is different. As a practical matter, saying so could backfire on the White House. But as a matter of observing and stating reality, they're right.

  • Win 7, Nook, and other tech follow ups

    Windows 7: My wife will get it for the HP laptop she bought when we returned from China, since that qualifies for a free upgrade. Don't think I will myself. My original-Vista-blighted ThinkPad T60 is having so many other problems that I am keeping it alive purely for organ-farm purposes, serving as an extra hard disk on the home network. My three Macs (early 2008-vintage Air and Mini, new MacBook Pro) are all running WinXP in the Windows half of their brains, under VMware Fusion. Since installing Win7 on an XP machine involves backing up and removing all data, installing the OS from scratch, and then reinstalling all programs (the real stopper -- where are those install CDs?), making the switch does not seem worth it. Net result of three years of terrible experience with early Vista+ Lenovo-era ThinkPad: putting me onto a path that may keep me from ever seeing what's good with Win7. That's not quite true. Some day I'll get around to creating a Win7 "virtual machine" under Fusion and give it a try.

    The advance reviews are all positive, eg this from Wired. (It must be said: Vista was supposed to be good too.) Most interesting Win7 review I've seen is this one from Philip Elmer-DeWitt.


    Nook and Kindle: Via Chinese manufacturing- world contacts, I have known this was coming for a while. Looks nice (left), and even if it looked bad it would be a huge plus for the industry, the reading public, and the publishing world to have competition for Amazon and its Kindle. I say that as a member of a two-Kindle household who has spent a lot on e-books. I'll see if I can rationalize a "need" for the Nook at some point.

    All e-readers apparently need to have somewhat weird names that include a "K."  I suggest "Kewpie" for whichever one comes next. Or maybe "Amok." Keokuk? (Which has a charming little airport where I have landed.)

    On the social-benefit potential of e-readers in general, David Rothman, who has been on this case since long before the Kindle was invented, has a new argument here.

  • In case you were wondering.... (Updated)

    ... the Northwest Airlines flight that apparently "missed" the Minneapolis-St Paul airport today and overshot it by 150 miles did not make an ordinary mistake, like missing Exit 32A on a busy freeway and having to get off on Exit 32B.This is more like ... well, it's hard to think of a comparison, because it's pretty startling.

    Once when I was flying westward toward the Rapid City airport in South Dakota, I found myself lining up 25 miles away instead with the much bigger runway of Ellsworth Air Force Base nearby. I must not have been the first one to do so, because the controller said in a routine way, "What you're probably heading for is Ellsworth. You want to turn your head ten degrees to the left and look for a little airport that's closer. That's where you want to go." This was embarrassing enough, and it was just my wife and me, not a bunch of paying passengers. (Below, Google Earth's view of what caused my problems. The runways have similar orientation, and Ellsworth is the first one you see from a distance. And this is from straight overhead! I was looking from a slant, into a setting sun, from a relatively low altitude, way off in the distance. It's a miracle I saw either of them!)


    In contrast, from the air you really cannot miss a big, busy, international airport. It's unlike anything else you see -- especially when controllers are talking you every step of the way, as they are required to with airliners. Rather, I guess you can miss it, but it's a surprise.

    Glad everyone is safe. Will be interesting to hear the pilots' account. I have my own hypotheses, but it's fairer to wait.

    UPDATE: To avoid being coy about my "hypothesis," it's hard to imagine how this could have happened if the pilots were awake. There is too much going on in the last 45 minutes of a flight -- with procedures for arrival, approach, and landing, many checklists -- just to be "distracted." So most likely either they both fell asleep in the normal sense or, weirdly, were both disabled in a way they then recovered from. After a cockpit crew on Go! airlines fell asleep for fifteen minutes in Hawaii last year while their plane was headed out toward the open ocean, one of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's readers offered this possible explanation:

    "Aliens I say. They took the pilots to their spaceship, then put them back in the plane. They were gone for 2 weeks, but only 15 minutes Earth time." 

    Bonus analysis point: on top of the Colgan crash in Buffalo early this year, plus that previous Hawaiian sleeping-pilots problem, we are bound to see more serious political attention to the question of work rules, fatigue, pilot training, etc under the new operating realities of the airline industry. Thanks to M. Griffith for the Go! tip.

  • Bad news, good news on the air-traffic beat

    Bad news: further evidence that the worldwide GPS system, which is run by the US government and on which everything from airline navigation to iPhone mapping apps relies, is at risk of "browning out." Earlier mention of the problem, back in May, here, based on this government report. Update this month, from Avionics magazine, here. Talk about your deteriorating critical infrastructure! Headline below gives you the gist.

    "Fixing GPS

    "Almost half of the current constellation of GPS satellites are at or approaching 'single thread' operation, where a critical system failure could render a satellite inoperative. What are the options for replacing GPS satellites?"

    Now, the better news. Assuming that the GPS network gets tuned up in time, Scott McCartney, of the WSJ, explains some of the potential for better, more efficient, and safer airline navigation -- including over the vast oceanic "big blue data void" into which Air France 447 disappeared. The "NextGen" navigation systems McCartney describes have their strong supporters and critics, when it comes to specific configurations and timetables for the program. But a shift to some version of the new system is as inevitable, and McCartney explains clearly what the benefits can be.

  • A Rorschach test on Afghanistan

    The NYT op-ed page that has just gone up, for tomorrow morning's paper, has as concise a paired description of options in Afghanistan as anyone could want. Each of the articles is by an American writer with experience in the region. One says we should send more troops; the other says that would be a mistake. Each is clearly written with a brief passage that distills the outlook and sensibility.

    One says:

    "The United States was born of our ancestors' nationalistic resentment of a foreign power whose troops we saw as occupiers, not protectors. The British never fathomed our basic grievance -- this was our land, not theirs! -- so the more they cracked down, the more they empowered the American insurgency....
    "We have been similarly oblivious to the strength of nationalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly among the 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border there. That's one reason the additional 21,000 troops that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year haven't helped achieve stability, and it's difficult to see why 40,000 more would help either."

    And the other says:

    "During 10 days spent in Afghanistan at the invitation of Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, I observed that a difficult task has been further complicated by the checkered results of the Afghan election. But what seems to be conspicuously absent from the conversation in the United States is the realization that Afghanistan's corruption problem, like its security problem, can be best addressed by additional troops.

    "Given what I saw and heard on my visit, I believe it is indeed possible to get Afghanistan's politicos to do a better job -- you just have to watch them closely.... Poor governance is an argument for, not against, a troop surge. "

     The writers' identities are after the jump. I'm concentrating on the arguments themselves because I think they represent an extraordinarily pure Rorschach test. There are cases where you can listen to various sides and think, "Well, they've all got good points." But in this case, I bet most people will think: one of these perspectives rings true, and one sounds tragically deluded. Certainly that was my instant reaction -- and for that clarifying power I am grateful to both authors. Read, react, reflect.

    More »

  • I don't know the author, but...

    ... I am biased in favor of this book:


    Chris and Monique Fallows are a naturalist-photographer team based in Cape Town, South Africa, who produce documentaries and conduct adventure trips in hopes of protecting marine life, especially sharks. I don't know them, but there are not that many of us with the same name, so we have to stick together. I bought one of their books when I saw it at the bookstore of the wonderful Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town several years ago. I'll get this new one too. Maybe they'll do the same for mine!

    Another of his shark pics, from their site.
    Thumbnail image for SharkPic2.jpg

  • First-hand experience with Chinese air, pro and con

    Following this item yesterday, about this article in the current issue on the health effects of living in China, good-news and bad-news reports from American friends with long experience in Asia.

    First, the bad news.

    "I check the BeijingAir Twitter every time I'm headed there for work. I thought I'd report an anecdote from a friend who has worked in China since the 1970s and lived there for many years (though moved back partly to raise children in a more healthy environment!). She had MRIs performed on her lungs some time ago and they indicated significant scarring and other damage, despite the fact that she has never been a smoker. She has never complained of any symptoms or health problems but clearly some damage was done."

    FWIW, I heard similar stories from a variety of people who had been in and out of China since the 1980s, but I don't know of any systematic data. Maybe I'll have another data point two weeks from now, when my appointment with my own doctor for a welcome-home physical exam finally rolls around. Only has taken three months to get on his schedule! Good thing we don't have Canadian-style socialized medicine in this country, what with its long waiting lists and rationing-by-delay etc.

    Now, the better news:

    "We were back in China for a couple of weeks this past summer to visit my former students in Beijing and then to travel in Hunan for a week or so.  I think the air has improved.  It was mostly blue skies, even in Beijing, which I rarely saw when we lived there for 10 months in 2003-04.  I think you are right to conclude that expats do get over the problems once they leave.  At least we haven't had lasting health problems -- at least not yet."

    As a side note, based on my experience anyone who wants to visit Beijing in particular should go in October. Even though the current BeijingAir Twitter reading is deep into the "unhealthy" zone, this seems reliably the nicest time of the year.

  • The air over there

    In the new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) I have a short article about a topic I discussed constantly with Chinese and foreign friends over the past few years: how dangerous it is, really, just to live in China. To breathe the air,  drink the water, eat the food. Won't spoil the suspense about conclusions in the article itself. But the note below is from a reader whose experience is similar to mine:

    "I just returned to the US after a four-year tour in Shanghai. I major reason for returning was that I knew that living over there was terrible for my health. I always told myself that I couldn't live in that poor environment for five years. Aside from the terrible air quality, I did four stints in hospitals for food poisoning.

    "But since I have been back, I have found that recovery has been easier than expected. I am now running about four to six miles four times a week. I think it may have been like living at high altitudes - you body gets used to being deprived of oxygen and becomes more efficient. 

    "Plus, just having the space and good weather adds to the motivation. As I am sure you know."

    For perspective, here is today's real-time air pollution map for the US, emphasizing the dangerous small-particulate pollution (PM2.5) plus ozone (O3). Green "good" areas have readings below 50; the yellow "moderate" areas are 51-100; and the little spot of orange "unsafe for sensitive groups" air, near Pittsburgh, is 101-150. Maybe they're reopening the steel works? Most times when I look at this map, it's virtually all green.


    Meanwhile, readings earlier today from Beijing, taken by the clandestine "Beijing Air" monitoring station I describe in the article:

    The point is that the Chinese readings would be in the red "unhealthy" (151-200) or magenta "very unhealthy" (201-300) zones if they were mapped. Like anyone in Beijing, I've breathed my way through a large number of purple "hazardous" days, with readings over 300.

    For the benefit of Chinese readers, let me say for the millionth time that to stress this comparison is not to put down China's successes, underestimate the difficulties of dealing with these problems, deny that a high-pollution phase is part of every move toward industrialization, etc. China's situation is tough, and a lot of forces within the country are working to improve it, as laid out at length here. Instead it's worth emphasizing that the people of China themselves are the ones with most at stake in improving its environment. And because of global effects of climate, as I've also said a million times, it's crucial for the US and China, the two biggest-emitting countries, to work together on energy and pollution issues. Indeed, this is the historically most important business for the two countries to take up.

    In the meantime, it's a nice day in DC, so like my correspondent I'll plan to take another run.

  • More on US presidents as Japanese words

    Several readers, plus my raised-in-Japan Atlantic colleague James Gibney, have reminded me that Barack Obama is not the first American president whose name has been converted into an ordinary word in Japanese. After the first President Bush fell ill and vomited on Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa at a state dinner in Tokyo in 1992, the term Bushu-suru -- ブッシュする, "do a Bush" -- became a joke staple of Japanese slang. Bush understood how Montezuma must have felt about having his name appropriated for gastrointestinal use.

    Real time picture, via Wikipedia, of Barbara Bush and PM Miyazawa coming to the aid of the stricken president (behind napkin):

    Via Google Books, an account from the Encyclopedia of Political Communication of the meaning of Bushu-suru, though I prefer my own "do a Bush" English version.

    I don't know whether doing "a Clinton" -- クリントンする --  came to mean anything in Japanese.

  • "To Obama" in Japanese

    Last week the NYT ran a story about how Barack Obama's version of spoken English has become a huge hit in Japan, emerging as the new standard for language-learning. This rings true to the fad/blockbuster nature of many commercial and cultural phenomena in Japan. And, we can all think of worse versions of English for them to emulate. (Carville? Stallone?)

    But I thought that this item from the Ampontan blog, written by a foreigner in Japan, was more fascinating. It is about the way the invented verb Obamu -- オバむ, "to Obama" -- has gained currency among some Japanese youths. Explanation:

    "obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think "Yes we can, Yes we can," and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

    "[Japanese bloggers] give the following example:


    "Or, "Hey, why are you so down in the dumps? Cheer up, cheer up!"...

    "One more Japanese-language citation is from a Twitter tweet, which defines it simply as believing you can accomplish something.

    "Those familiar with the language will understand immediately that such a coinage would sound very natural, and that it is typical of Japanese creativity and their sense of humor."

    The absorptive-and-transforming power of the Japanese language is indeed one of its charms. It will be a good sign for Obama if his name continues to be used in this mainly-positive context.

  • This is good news

    I emerge briefly from writing-induced blog exile to celebrate a well deserved honor for a comrade: our own James Bennet, editor of the Atlantic, being selected as AdAge's "Editor of the Year."

    I have worked for five editors during my time at the Atlantic: Robert Manning, William Whitworth, Michael Kelly, Cullen Murphy, and now James Bennet. They have been different people with different styles dealing with different challenges in different times.  But all have been absolutely committed to the idea that this kind of magazine, with its determination to deal with serious issues in as interesting and news-making a fashion as possible, has a role in national life and can find an audience that will value what we do. I feel very fortunate to have been part of this institution for so long -- and I know that what makes it special are people who really do think all the time about improving the magazine. That describes everyone on the staff -- now, and over the years.

    Industry "honors" like this are highly unscientific, hit-and-miss propositions. But when they work out, that's worth celebrating, as I do now.

    If you feel like joining in, a subscription always makes the ideal gift! I'll save the full pitch for another time. (Andrew Sullivan has made his case here.) But, seriously, in the long run, enterprises like this have to figure out how to pay for what they do, and subscriptions make a big difference. Plus, the layout and pictures make magazines much better to read in print. Meanwhile, as members of the extended Atlantic family, please enjoy this nice bit of news.


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