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.
  • The next time you're in Shaanxi....

    LaoQiang.jpgDo whatever you can to hear the Lao Qiang -- 老腔, "Old Tunes" -- musical performance held in the small city at the foot of China's most famous mountain-climbing tourist site, Hua Shan (roughly, "Mt. China" sorry, right character- 华 - wrong etymology).

    Most forms of traditional Chinese singing, Beijing opera and the like, are easier for Westerners to "admire" than to "enjoy." When I learned that I'd be spending a couple of hours hearing songs from a 2000-year-old tradition, I was preparing myself for a bout of "admiration." In fact, it was tremendously enjoyable, and I was sorry only that the program (flyer to the left) had to come to an end.

    The lore of Lao Qiang is that these are songs from old-time rivermen, which have been passed down through the eons by a select few families. Heirs of those families are the current stars of the performing troupe -- notably the Wang family, whose head is the older performer in the first photo below, and the Zhang family, whose Zhang Ximin is the riveting, hard-to-take-your-eyes-off lead singer and string player -- the dark haired man in the second photo. According to the program, these performers spend their days as regular farmers, and practice and perform at night. Who knows about that; but as performers they're great.

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7397.jpg

    Wang Zhenzhong (王振中) above; Zhang Ximin (张喜民) below.
     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7395A.jpg

    The troupe:
     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7393A.jpg

    If the music has a Western equivalent, I would say it is something like "Muleskinner blues." Lusty, rhythmic, loud, fun. More on the topic here, here, and here in English, here, here, and here in Chinese. Of course the brief clips don't really do it justice. See it yourself.


  • Reverse angle equity, and 再见北京

    Several thousand times over the past 18 months I've posted shots out the back window of our apartment in Beijing, as ways of illustrating the air quality, or lack thereof, in the big city. For instance, this one back in March:

    For the record, here's how the same scene looks from the opposite direction. This is a shot back toward our apartment window, which is almost exactly in the middle of the frame, taken from a pedestrian walkway over a big road just murkily visible in the shot above. The low, reddish-colored, Mao-era building in the foreground of the second view is the same one in the bottom center of the first.
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7513.jpg

    And as we leave the apartment for the last time (I'm scheduling this post for the minute we get in the taxi for the airport), a clearer-sky view out the back from this past weekend. In this view it's possible to see the overpass, and a lot more -- including the arched bridge over the canal shown two days ago. Unfortunately, today the air is back to blear.http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7524.jpg

    再见北京

  • Belatedly, on the Cairo speech & Obama rhetoric in general

    Ten days ago I was writing a dispatch about Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, when the internet service where I was (in Shaanxi) cut out. The elections in Iran and general question of political change in the Middle East are a topical reminder to get back to this point:

    As I started to say earlier, here is a way to think about why Barack Obama's "big" speeches of the past 15 months seem different from normal political rhetoric. It's because they are.

    Here are the ones I'm counting as big speeches, starting with the most recent and working backward:

    June 4, Cairo: US relations with Islam

    May 21, National Archives in DC: anti-terrorism strategy, including torture, habeus corpus, etc

    May 17, Notre Dame U: clash of religious values in politics, including over abortion

    April 14, Georgetown U: short- and long-term economic strategy

    April 5, Prague: reducing nuclear weapons around the world

    March 18, 2008, Philadelphia: race and American values

    I'm not even counting convention speeches, the inaugural address, his State of the Union, or a bunch of other performances. They were all fine but more like other, normal "good" political speeches.

    These six -- including an astonishing five of them in an eight-week burst -- were different from normal rhetoric in the following basic way:

    Most of the time, "effective" speeches boil down to finding a better, clearer, cleverer, more vivid, or more memorable way to express what people already think.

    More »

  • Aviation update miscellany: good, bad, constructive

    Good. Pilot of a Cirrus SR-22 gets into trouble while flying over North Carolina but has an option. As the Mount Airy News reports, the pilot
    CirrusCAPS.jpg

    "...was at 6,000 feet when he declared an emergency, pulled the parachute his plane was equipped with, let go of the control panel and floated to the ground about one and a half miles into the woods off Still Water Lane.
    "[He] was able to walk away from the site and place a call to 911 to inform them he was searching for emergency personnel and thought he had spotted some of them looking for him."

    There are other recent developments involving Cirrus. (Positive: increasing production rate and recalling workers as worldwide sales pick up. Negative: found partly liable by a Minnesota jury for millions in damages after a crash in which a non-instrument rated pilot took off before dawn in bad weather and was killed, along with his passenger. The NTSB traced the probable cause of the accident to the "pilot's improper decision" to attempt the flight at all. More on these another time.) . Beautiful and elegant Beaver float plane crashes while attempting takeoff near Anchorage last week. (Via Eric Redman.) Not-so-bad aspects: No one apparently hurt, and remarkable minute-long YouTube video shot by unbelievably gutsy young cameraman.



    Constructive: In response to an airline pilot's observation, here, that he typically has less up-to-date weather info available in the cockpit than pilots of modern small planes like the CIrrus do, former FAA and DOT official Andrew Steinberg writes to say:

    "What strikes me on reading this discussion is that the slow pace of implementation of the NextGen air traffic system -- here and in Europe -- means that we don't prevent these preventable accidents (if it turns out that weather caused the demise of this [Air France 447] flight).   As you may remember, providing integrated weather displays to pilots, as well as controllers, is a key part of the Next Gen effort.  It's absurd that commercial pilots don't have these tools.   An article describing how the weather product fits into Next Gen is attached."

    The article in question is here. As for the difference this might or might not have made to the Air France flight itself, which got in trouble over the open sea, another correspondent says:

    "You know what we (meteorologists) call the oceanic regions?
    "The big blue data void.
    "It is hard to explain that to people who only look at CONUS." [Continental US, which has radar stations and other monitoring tools wherever you look.]

    And another airline pilot writes in to say:

    Your point on higher-tech and more real-time weather information being available for GA ["general aviation," small private plane] pilots versus airline pilots is well taken, but disregards an important advantage us 121 [airline] pilots have over aircraft with these XM weather uplinks....

    I fly for a Northwest, now Delta, regional and we have access to the same ACARS delivered weather updates as the big boys. [ACARS is an automated data-collection service that shares info among planes in the air.]   Granted they are delivered in text and require manual plotting, but once done they are very accurate and enormously effective.  Base and/or composite reflectivity radar maps can be very deceiving to a pilot flying at FL370, since a lot of the weather depicted on those maps is very low.  ACARS coordinates and altitude of cell tops is often much better information, especially when considering whether to pick your way through a line at night or take a long detour. In addition the dispatchers themselves [airline employees who monitor the flights from the ground], being another human in the loop with even more information, can be invaluable in saving your bacon.  Between myself, my FO [first officer], and my dispatcher, I've got three eyes on the problem- which I'd take over any Nexrad/XM maps any day of the week.
     
    Now I admit I'm spoiled flying as I do mostly over the continental US.  Transoceanic would be somewhat trickier given, as you say, the dearth of other traffic over the same route serving as guinea pigs.  That said, given what I know about the resources available to the Air France pilots, I am at a loss for why they found themselves on the midst of such a violent storm.

    Also constructive: Carl Malamud, the inveterate crusader for making "public" information truly available to the public, has put online a variety of Federal videos related to aviation, here. This is part of his larger FedFlix effort to digitize films and videos produced by the government, and his even larger PublicResource.org campaign for opening up public data.

    Not so good

  • About the internet, the Atlantic, and Iran

    In coverage of Iran over the past week and especially in these last few days, Andrew Sullivan has on his site illustrated the way the internet and related technologies have permanently changed journalism for the better. So have a number of other people at other sites, which have made themselves clearinghouses for information coming out of Iran in emails, blog posts, camera-phone and ad hoc video transmissions, and other forms including, yes, Twitter feeds. Collectively they've let the outside world know more about what is happening in a would-be sealed-off country, and given people inside that country a place to share and compare news as they could not possibly have done even a few years ago.

    This fact is worth noting its own right, as a moment when we see that something truly new and positive has occurred. It's also worth observing in light of the many seemingly-permanent changes for the worse in journalism that have coincided with the internet era, whether or not they've been caused by it.

    If I'm not mentioning anything about Iran at the moment, it's not because I think the news unimportant but rather because I have no contacts in the country and nothing to add to the discussion. As we follow developments there it's worth recognizing the different era in communications that has begun.

  • Coincidence? Paranoia? Virus?

    Perhaps this is a statistically improbable, but sometimes-it-happens, no-reason-for-it anomaly.  But for the record:

    Within a two-hour period this evening, as we pack to head to the airport tomorrow, (1) my wife's HP laptop, running WinXP, suddenly froze while she was using it, and since then has been entirely unresponsive on repeated attempts to boot up; and then (2) exactly the same thing happened to my ThinkPad T60, running (sigh) Win Vista, which I have used for the past year strictly as a storage and backup machine, for photos and similar high-volume stuff. Identical symptoms: failure to boot, black screen on startup, not even any hard disk sound. (Exasperation with Vista, and with the craplets Lenovo has added to my long-beloved ThinkPad line, made me switch my working platform to Mac + VMWare Fusion running WinXP early last year.)

    Could be that both of them are flat worn out after three years here. And collapsing with the end hours away. Just like, ahem, us. Could be. But if it turns out that some new Windows- based virus is making its way around the world, H1N1-like, you can consider this Patient Zero. Would be strange if it affected two different releases of Windows on two different kinds of machines. But pure coincidence would be strange too. Both had AVG Avast! anti-virus up and running, and both using VPNs at time they were struck down.

    FWIW, MacMini and MacBook Air still chugging along. (This is not a product point, simply describing the situation.) And THANK HEAVEN for SugarSync, which has full backups of all four of our computers nestled safely in the Cloud. Time to finish that last bottle of Yanjing beer, Beijing's answer to REEB, and get ready for tomorrow's flight.

  • Updates: education, quarantine

    As mentioned two days ago, Mike Su was taken off to quarantine in Beijing after someone on his flight from America turned out to be sick. Today Su has posted a richly (and fancifully) illustrated account of "Life in the Big House" at his quarantine hotel. .

    And from another foreigner who has been teaching English in a rural area:

    Apropos of the thread about the Chinese testing system, several of our very best students earned very high marks in the English section of the recent 'further study' battery that determines whether or not a student may continue their higher education. In spite of their excellent performance in their major subject, they are crippled in their attempt to attend any Chinese college or university for post graduate work because they were a few points deficient in the politics portion of the examination.

    No matter how well one does in other parts of the test, failure to pass the politics (read 'indoctrination certification') portion disqualifies a student from any further education except under very diminished circumstances. Imagine the flowing tears and heartbreak surrounding graduation 2009. Even our Chinese colleagues are incensed.
     
    That grinding sound you hear is enamel coming off my teeth.

    I have examples of the content of these "political" courses, which are among the most visible holdovers of Marxism in today's China, but not available right now. More later.

  • Our wacky government, chapter 21,472 (updated!)

    A friend preparing to enter the foreign service was looking through the official list of "hardship" posts and the extra pay that goes with them. Some are obvious -- Kabul! I have no idea what embassy life is like there, but 35% seems only reasonable.

    AfghPosts.jpg

    Same presumably true of Iraq, no matter how much "calmer" things may be getting there.

    IraqPosts.jpg

    But... China?

    ChinaPosts.jpg

    Yeah, yeah, I've griped about pollution and traffic in Beijing, and maybe 10% is fair, all things considered. (Hey, Atlantic head office, just a hint!) But half again as much "hardship" to be in Shanghai??? Paris of the Orient, and all of that? And while Shenyang has its bleak side and Wuhan and Nanjing are two of the famous "Three Furnaces of China," it's intriguing that they should be seen as constituting nearly as much hardship as Kabul. Maybe just a reminder of the oddities that come when you try to quantify things that really aren't similar. (Hardship in Kabul: actual risk to life and limb. Hardship in Shanghai: making do with REEB beer.) On the other hand, we have a friend soon heading off for several years' diplomatic service in Wuhan. As far as we're concerned, she deserves every cent.


    UPDATE: Many FSOs and other public employees have written in to say that "hardship pay" is only part of the story. There is also "danger pay," which obviously is higher in a place like Kabul than one like Wuhan, and other supplements. One representative note:
    I'd like to point out that the hardship differential is not designed to compensate Foreign Service Officers for dangerous duty. The hardship differential is paid for a variety of reasons: if the duty location is heavily polluted, or if it is very isolated, or if it is in a very poor area and amenities are hard to come by, and so forth.  It's basically an incentive for FSOs to bid on tours in places where life will be very uncomfortable.  I don't know about the air in Beijing, though I've heard it's very bad; I do know about the air in Cairo, which is so bad that it does the damage of smoking several packs of cigarettes a day.  Hardship pay basically compensates FSOs in places like Cairo for sacrificing their health to serve their country.

    Hardship pay is separate from danger pay, which is paid for tours where life and limb are risked.  There are also COLAs for tours in countries where cost of living would be very high; this could be a tour in a very wealthy country, where everything costs an arm or a leg, or in a country where a terrible exchange rate wipes out a good chunk of every pay check, or in a country where everything has to be imported and therefore costs a fortune.  There is also separation pay, which an FSO can receive for an unaccompanied tour that entails
    separation from one's family.  An FSO could, in theory, earn multiple compensations for going on a poor, isolated, polluted, dangerous tour.
    Sorry to tell only part of the story the first time through. By the way, this is an interesting little illustration of the weaknesses and also strengths of online reportage. For the print version of the magazine, I would never have published something without calling around to several people to say: OK, let's hear more about this foreign-pay schedule. What's the rationale? What else is involved? And whether or not I'd done that that, Sue Parilla or Yvonne Rolzhausen or some other member of our crack fact-checking team would have done it too. So, this kind of chart without the extra info would not have made it into the magazine.

    On the other hand, in print I would never have had the chance to hear from people around the world within minutes of pushing the "save" button -- and make a correction as soon as I saw their comments when I next got email. Different media, different roles, different vulnerabilities and strengths.
     
  • OK, one mystery solved (updated)

    I mentioned last night my puzzlement about why and how the dramatic new CCTV tower, whose entire point was the stark simplicity of its design (by Rem Koolhaas), had been junked up by an inexplicable and unignorable wart on its roof line. This is in keeping with the theme of last month's Atlantic article, about the tendency of many projects here to turn out almost right.



    I am grateful to readers who wrote in suggesting that it was a window-washing platform, which would move along rails around the perimeter (no, it's always in the same place); or perhaps a giant satellite dish (no, as is obvious from other views).

    The dispositive comment came from Jim Gourley, who reminded me that he had pointed out last year on his Rudenoon blog that it was indeed a helipad; that something similar had been in the works for a long time; but that the original idea was for something much more contained and concealed that would do less to destroy the overall look of the structure, as has now occurred. From his Flickr picture of the earlier plans:

    cctv1.jpg

    And Jeremy Goldkorn, of Danwei, had pointed out just before the Olympics began that "The iconic new CCTV building designed by Rem Koolhaas has had its clean lines ruined by the addition of a helicopter landing pad on the roof." Now I know. If only there were ever any helicopters in sight above Chinese cities.... (Separate topic.)

    To round out the CCTV theme, a very nice FT story by Kathrin Hille quotes Tong Bing, a Chinese journalism professor, on what's wrong with the (state-controlled) network's mainstream news show:
    "Currently, the programme has three parts: political leaders' activities for the first ten minutes, other news for second ten minutes, and international news for last ten minutes," said Mr Tong. "During the first part, people tend to watch commercials. They use the second part to go to the toilet. Only for the third part will they come back to listen."  >
     >(Thanks to D. Lippman >)

    Update: via Micah Sittig, info that Tong Bing's observation is a cleaned up version of a standard joke. For rendering of the joke in Chinese, see comments #24 and #29 at this site. English version, per Sittig, "Evening News classic summary. First 10 minutes: the (national) leaders are busy; middle 10 minutes: the Chinese people are prospering; last 10 minutes: the rest of the world is living in chaos and hardship." Commenter #29 points out that he often amuses himself on foreign travels observing said chaos and hardship.

  • Journal of the plague year, #2

    A second-day installment from the Chinese-American person now quarantined in Shanghai. First installment here. In this episode, a family member who has just been to the United States is diagnosed with... the H1N1 flu! Some additional thoughts from inside the quarantine site at the end of the dispatch.

     My mom was on all the major news outlets yesterday... "Woman has been diagnosed as a  confirmed case ..."  She had a slight cold which she caught at [a college graduation ceremony she just attended in the US] but was all better by the time she got on the plane. She had no fever, no cough, no physical symptoms of the flu. However, during one of the numerous times they measured her temperature while she was in quarantine, she was found to have a "fever" of 0.2C above normal.

    More »

  • Paradise Beijing, final edition

    Previously in the Paradise Beijing series: here, here, and here.

    Most accurate air-quality reading today: not "dangerous for sensitive groups" or "hazardous," but "good"! Temperatures balmy, winds light, skies clear. Time for a final run along the canal.

    Looking east, toward the Fourth Ring Road and beyond:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7508.jpg

    Looking west, in toward the Second Ring Road (same bridge, from different sides, in both shots):
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7510.jpg

    Fishermen, bicyclers, drunks and idlers, young romantics, and school kids were out enjoying the paradise too. Carpe diem, as we say in Beijing.

  • Departing questions

    When I first arrived in China, I wrote an Atlantic article about various mysteries I hoped to explore. I've learned about some, still puzzled about others. Keep reading for further hypotheses!

    But more mysteries arise as I near departure. One involves the famous CCTV tower, which has been going up a a few blocks from our apartment during the three years we've been in China and the past 18 months we've been in Beijing. Here's how it is supposed to look, in a MOMA pre-construction, heroically glamorous rendering as seen more or less from where we live.
    CCTV.jpg


    Precious little seems to have happened to the building over the past 18 months (setting aside the fire that destroyed the adjoining Mandarin Oriental hotel in February). A year ago at this time, we thought there was a race to get it ready before the Olympics. Nope. Through all this time, my wife and I have constantly wondered what was going on with the very top of the building. Here's how the roof line actually looks as of today, starting with a long shot from the south:

    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7505.jpg

    Closer southerly view:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7504A.jpg

    And, long shot from the Sanlitun area in the north:
     http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7519A.jpg

    For a long time, we thought hoped this was some kind of construction staging pad. But the rooftop cranes came and went, and this thing stayed. Helipad? Who knows. But I wonder whether this was quite what Rem Koolhaas had in mind when he drew the tower's stark, dramatic lines. It has, umm, a somewhat noticeable effect on the building's profile. Another reason to come back soon and see how it, like so many other parts of China, looks when it's "done."

  • Journal of the plague year (Shanghai edition)

    An extraordinary statement from someone now being quarantined in Shanghai is below and after the jump. First, a bit of context:

    The World Health Organization has of course now declared H1N1 a "pandemic," while emphasizing that its effects so far are mild. You can look long and hard at the WHO's main site about the disease (nerds will note that the site's URL retains its original basename "swineflu" rather than the less porcophobic current term) without seeing any recommendations for widespread quarantine programs or closing of national borders etc.

    To put the disease's toll in perspective: of the 30,000 cases reported so far all around the world, about 150 people appear to have died from this variant of flu. And in many "though not all" of these cases, according to the WHO, the victims had "underlying chronic conditions." For comparison: since the time I woke up this morning, about 150 people have died of tuberculosis in China alone.* Estimates vary, but "normal" seasonal flu typically kills around 1,000 people per day worldwide.

    [*TB math: According to the UN, China's average annual death rate from tuberculosis is about 15 per 100,000 population. For a Chinese population of 1.3 billion, that would mean about 195,000 TB deaths per year, or about 535 per day.] 

    Of course any new disease strain raises new concerns about potential mutations. And of course a big, poor country like China has different public health considerations than, say, Switzerland might. But bear in mind the dimensions of this current disease threat relative to other real concerns while reading this account from earlier this week, by a person currently quarantined in Shanghai. The writer is originally Chinese but now with U.S. citizenship. It is quite long, but you will not regret reading to the very end. It begins:

    When I landed in Shanghai on Saturday afternoon, a team of medical officials wearing white bio-hazard suites boarded the plane with heat wands and measured everyone's temperature. All passengers were required to remain in their seats while they went around to each individual to check them for physical symptoms of H1N1. These measures had become standard protocol in China due to fears of a H1N1 outbreak. We all passed the inspection and were let off of the plane. I thought I was free to enjoy my two weeks in China.

    More »

  • Winding up

    I'm aware of a ton of loose threads to be gathered up (about Air France updates, Obama's speaking style, urban design in China, design in software, boiled frogs, you name it). Soon.

    But three years in China have now come down to three days; the movers arrive in nine hours; and I've happily spent my last reporting day -- at least of this stint in China -- in an uplifting fashion, at a tiny airport outside Beijing on a spectacular blue-sky day. Its managers and organizers have the dream of bringing convenient flight to remote communities across China.
     
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7463.jpg

    I like the many dreamers and visionaries I have met in China, so I liked these people. And I liked that, in addition to their legacy aircraft (first pic),  they were building their fleet with the same Cirrus airplanes I had known in the United States.

    Legacy fleet:
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7452.jpg

    Cirrus SR-22 (with Cirrus's man in China, Scott Jiang):
    http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7456.jpg

    Back to packing. Loose ends soon.

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