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.
  • "No Uighurs Need Apply"

    From Shannon Kirwin of Beijing, this photo of a "Help Wanted" sign outside the Postal Hotel (邮政宾馆) in Kashgar in China's Xinjiang region a few days ago. Click for larger.


    Here's the significance of the sign: It's an advertisement for restaurant staff at the hotel, in roles from cooks to supervisors. Kashgar, of course, is a historic trading town on the extreme western frontier of China, much closer to Lahore, Kabul, and New Delhi than to Beijing. The original population there would be of Uighur or other Turkic ethnicity, rather than Han Chinese. But the last line of the advertisement says, "This offer is for Han Chinese (汉族) only, ages 18-30."

    Shannon Kirwin writes,

    "I completely agreed with Glenn Mott's analysis of the riots as a variation of the same race riots we have experienced in the US.  In large part the frustration with the Chinese regime that many Uighurs expressed to us throughout our travels in Xinjiang seemed to stem from everyday insults and degradations such as the one pictured here.  We were also told by people in several different cities that there is an unofficial policy of denying ethnic Uighurs passports until they reach retirement age, particularly if they are applying to visit Mecca. 

    "Just to describe the scene a little more, the hotel, the 邮政宾馆, is located on a major street corner that is a neighborhood gathering spot for fruit peddlers, motorcycle taxi drivers, and residents.  The sign is enormous and impossible to miss."
  • Next in the Gehry/public place series: view from Rome

    Previously here, and with related backward links. This note is from an architecture professor in Rome who also happens to be my brother-in-law:

    I read with fascination the story of Gehry in Aspen and its sequel - Gehry's unexpected message.

    I am a great admirer of Gehry's work. It's brilliant, imaginative, preposterous. Gehry is one of the truly great architects of our age, and I think that shelving his Guggenheim project for Manhattan was a tragedy. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being gracious public figures; and Gehry has a perfect right not to be one. He is a designer, not a performer. 

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  • If you would like to get REALLY deep into details about AF447

    Yesterday I mentioned one informed hypothesis about the accident-chain that brought Air France 447 down into the Atlantic Ocean: pitot-tube trouble, leading to autopilot trouble, leading to manual control of the airplane, leading (perhaps) to overstressing of the plane's tail structure during severe turbulence. Details at the previous post. AF 447 rudder, below.

    A330Rudder.jpgAfter the jump, two long and very detailed contrary arguments by people well informed in this field. I'm not going to go through and translate all the abbreviations in these analyses, because if you've gotten that far you already know (or can look it up yourself). Here we go:

    Contrary analysis #1:

    "a) Yes, losing airspeed data does disable rudder limit protection, but not in the way you describe -- the Airbus disables *active* rudder limit protection.  Normally, rudder movements are limited in various steps (6, I think) depending on airspeed.  Once the PRIMs disable themselves and rudder limit protection is inactivated (which we know happened in AF447 from the ACARS messages), the rudder is still limited at the exact same degree of deflection the system ordered at the time of last known good airspeed data.  In fact, that deactivation is designed to *protect* the rudder limiter from improperly responding to lower airspeeds and increasing allowed deflection, so it does the exact opposite of what you imply in the last update.  Past a certain amount of time with bad data (I don't know it off hand), the aircraft will not come out of alternate law and return to normal law even if data seemingly returns to normal, and the rudder protection limit will not reactivate based on airspeed.  The rudder limiter will only increase the amount of allowed deflection upon deployment of slats, flaps, or gear (and it then releases to full deflection, 31.9º if memory serves).

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  • More on Frank Gehry, public spaces, etc

    I used to think that a topic like -- oh, let's see, US-China friction -- was controversial, or climate change, or Google-v-Microsoft, or McNamara-v-Rumsfeld. That was before I innocently stepped into the crossfire concerning the effect of "star-chitects" like Frank Gehry on the urban landscape. For those joining us late, background here, here, and here.

    Many interesting and even titillating tales and perspectives have arrived, which I'll dole out and which will eventually force me back to the long-intended topic of big-city urban design in places like China. But as a start, here is an "equal-time" statement from Fred Kent, the man I described as the "insistent character" who challenged Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He writes:

    As the questioner from the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival seeking Frank Gehry's views about public spaces, let me take my turn to comment about what unfolded. I have been working to improve public life in cities around the world for almost 40 years, and I am disappointed but not surprised at the reactions of both Gehry and his champion Thomas Pritzker. That Gehry was dismissive of the subject itself and so self important in his response shows just how far removed he and other proponents of "iconic-for-iconic-sake" architecture are from the reality of urban life today. Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects.

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  • I stand corrected (chapter 2,374,612)

    After quoting Mark Feeney's recollection of seeing the late Robert McNamara in a mundane traffic jam, and mentioning that in the 1990s I once sat down on a DC metro car and was startled to see that the dignified gent in the next seat was McNamara, I agreed with Feeney's claim that modern counterparts like Rumsfeld and Cheney were not likely to expose themselves so freely to the general public.

    At least about Rumsfeld, turns out that is wrong. Or has been wrong at least once. Four months ago (when, in fairness, I was somewhere in western China, so I missed it) the Firedoglake site reported on Rumsfeld's adventures while riding a DC metrobus. Details here. Wasn't clear from the item whether he'd likely ride one again. Thanks to reader DF.

  • Cornucopia of updates #7: Great Firewall

    Everyone on the China beat already knows this, but for bystanders curious about how China's internet-filtering system adjusts to breaking news, see this report from China Digital Times. It's an intercepted (and, to me, legitimate-sounding) new memo from state propaganda authorities about the items that search-engine companies must block from their results. The memo is of course in Chinese, with CDT's translation. Brief samples:

    Please screen out the following keywords, no relevant search results. Effective starting 7 pm today [July 8, 2009].....
    "冲突 汉维""维冲突 汉族" "维族冲突 汉族" "维族冲突 汉人" "维族冲突 汉族人" "维族冲突汉族同胞""维狗冲突 汉族" "维族狗冲突 汉族" "维族狗冲突 汉人" "维族狗冲突 汉族人" "维狗冲突 汉族同胞" "维族狗冲突汉族同胞" "新疆人冲突 汉族" "新疆人冲突 汉人" "新疆人冲突 汉族人" "新疆人冲突 汉族同胞""新疆狗冲突 汉族" "维族狗冲突汉人" "新疆狗冲突 汉族人" "新疆狗冲突 汉族同胞"
    "conflict, Han and Uighur" "Conflict, Han and Uighur people" "Conflict, Han and Xinjiang people"
    "Conflict, Xinjiang dogs and Han compatriots" "Conflict, Xinjiang people and Han compatriots"

    For background on the Great Firewall, try here. In some other update, it will be worth talking about the Chinese government's press strategy during this emergency, which so far is strikingly different from past practice. During the Tibet turmoil early last year, the government tried its best to keep foreign reporters and outsiders in general away from the action. This time, it is conducting press tours of Xinjiang for foreigners. Rapid-adaptation to changing circumstances has been a hallmark of Chinese economic policy but not so much of its international diplomatic stance. We'll see how big a change this is.

  • Cornucopia of updates #6: a theory on AF 447

    This recent post and preceding items mention the still-ambiguous mix of data concerning the crash of Air France 447 into the Atlantic six weeks ago. The plane's presence in a tropical thunderstorm was almost certainly the trigger for the problems. And what happened then?

    From a reader involved in aviation, a hypothesis that it was a thunderstorm -> pitot tube -> autopilot -> rudder chain of events. Almost all airline disasters involve an "accident chain," a sequence of cascading failures that, if interrupted at any point, would not have led to a crash. In this view:

    1. The plane got into a thunderstorm, where the updrafts and downdrafts are extremely powerful and where unusual conditions apply -- including the possibility of the plane being covered with ice;

    2. Storm-related ice may have blocked the pitot tubes -- small probe devices that measure the force of the oncoming air. When compared with other data, pitot data lets the pilot derive the plane's airspeed. If the small openings at the front of the pitot tubes are blocked by ice or anything else, the pilots don't know the plane's speed, which is the most important single piece of info for keeping an airplane under control;

    3. When the sophisticated, computerized, highly-redundant autopilot system detected bad readings from the pitot tubes -- or readings from some of the tubes that differed from the others -- it disconnected the autopilot and returned control to the captain. This is a safety measure to prevent an automated system from following bad data all the way to the ground;

    4. When the human pilot took over, the absence of the autopilot gave him full control over the airplane's rudder. The autopilot and computerized guidance system included a "yaw damper," which limited sudden or severe movements of the rudder (which place strain on an airplane's tail);

    5. While in the storm under manual control, the violent forces on the plane and perhaps movements of the rudder may have broken off the tail and sent the airplane down.

    Pitot tube, on the underside of a plane's wing, pointed forward:

    As the reader sums up the sequence:

    My personal opinion about what happened is as follows - one or both pitot tubes iced over, which means that the air data computers are getting airspeed indications more than 5 knots apart.  In that case, the autopilots disconnect, and the aircraft reverts to basic flight mode - which may be thought of as a limp mode - and among other things the yaw damper is turned off.  Now the pilot has full rate authority on the rudder and the stab.  The airbus has a known weak tail [he cites this Wikipedia entry about the crash of American Airlines flight 587] -- they got into some turbulence and it broke off.  the airplane tumbled and came apart... which explains no mayday call and the diagnostic message about loss of cabin pressure.

    I note with interest that the rudder on both 447 and AA 587 were both found intact. 

    After the jump, a note from an Airbus pilot who, on a very recent flight in Asia, reported problems that would exactly match this hypothesis for the Air France crash.


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  • Cornucopia of updates #5: Frank Gehry

    In two recent entries, here and here, I mentioned my chagrin at the architect Frank Gehry's haughty dismissal of a persistent questioner at the Aspen Ideas Festival -- and Gehry's subsequent very gracious apology.

    Both were about the manner of the event -- not the substance of the disagreement, which concerned whether "iconic" buildings like many of Gehry's famous buildings also succeeded as attractive, accessible public spaces. The questioner said they didn't; Gehry said they did.

    I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now. I will say that the "fairly insistent" questioner I described as challenging Gehry has been identified on various web sites as Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. (I know that's who he is, but I didn't originally use his name.) I heard him speak at the Aspen festival several years ago; he is a known figure in the field. And for a statement of the argument he was making against Gehry, see two posts, here and here, from David Sucher's City Comforts site. More when I know more.

  • Cornucopia of updates #4: Xinjiang

    Following this selection yesterday of pictures of Uighur students in Xinjiang.

    - On why this eruption, violent as it and its suppression have been, is unlikely to shake the government's control of or support in China, my friend Russell Leigh Moses of Beijing, in this op-ed in the NYT today, makes the right points and presents a convincing argument. Gist:

    "The state apparatus has become dizzy with success in dealing with unrest. This gives little hope that further mass outbreaks will not be violently crushed. It also demonstrates that social upheaval will not pave the way to democracy. The party is too strong and confident to allow change from below."

    The contrast between the Chinese state's continued ineptness in appealing to international opinion and its very effective control of opinion and knowledge within China is worth remembering at all times, and especially during crises like this. From the outside, these may look like challenges to the survival of the regime. From the inside, to most people in China, they're new occasions for national fortitude and solidarity.

    - On the roots of the conflict, Glenn Mott of the Hearst Corporation (also a friend), who has been in Beijing as a Fulbright lecturer at Tsinghua University, sends this report:

    "What we saw this week should be familiar to us as Americans. This was a race riot, not a political insurrection. It is what a young Chinese engineer I had lunch with today called an ethnic "brawl" with Uighurs and Hans throwing rocks over the heads of police in between. We should notice there is progress at the central government level--foreign journalists are in fact being given some access to Urumqi--though social networks have been cut, and Xinhua is carefully editing for fullest grim effect on the Eastern Chinese psyche.

    "But with no public space in the media to cultivate a civil society, to debate and discuss grievances, and none on the horizon, the Han and Uighur of Xinjiang are caught in a hopeless deficit for information about each other's grievances. This is the same all over China (between developers and farmers, and between local government and petitioners, for instance) lacking a public space for civil discourse, lacking rule of law, lacking release and resolution except in private conversations and ultimately, into the streets they go."

    He attached a recent photo of the storied Uighur trading city of Kashgar, which is being razed so it can be rebuilt in a "safer" way.

    - On fiction-list suggestions, I have mentioned many times this past year a spy-thriller novel by the British writer Charles Cumming, called Typhoon. It is about a Uighur uprising in Xinjiang -- in the novel's case, abetted by outside agents. I will have serious/non-fiction reading tips later, but this is the most relevant thriller.

    - On general introduction to the Uighurs and their situation, this brief video by the Stanley Foundation has a lot of useful information, including an interview with Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur emigree blamed by the Chinese government for much of the upheaval. It also includes an interview with a very tired-looking me after a trip to Xinjiang.

    - On America's stake in Xinjiang, it is a lasting error and embarrassment that after 9/11 the U.S. won Chinese government support by agreeing that Uighur separatists -- formally, the East Turkestan Liberation Organization -- should be seen as part of the world terrorist threat. After all, they are Muslims.

  • Cornucopia of updates #3: AF 447

    Yesterday I mentioned that (unsurprisingly) there was not yet any definitive word on the cause of the Air France flight 447 crash over the Atlantic off Brazil. It turns out that there has been this recent interim report from the French BEA, Bureau d'Enquetes et d'Analyses, about the basic facts of the disaster. Link is to a 72-page PDF in English. Nothing definitive, but this passage from the "Initial Findings" section reinforces previous hypotheses. For aviation and disaster buffs, lots of interesting detail. (Thanks to Neil Gordon.)


  • Cornucopia of updates #2: Robert McNamara

    I mentioned yesterday that, while having followed Robert McNamara's decisions and legacy for many decades, I had never dealt with him personally. Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe, who wrote the paper's obituary of McNamara two days ago, sent this recollection of his own encounters:

    I briefly interviewed him on the phone, twice, the first time in regards to "The Fog of War." The most amusing thing about that conversation was how flabbergasted he was by the price of movie tickets. The fact he wasn't trying to be funny made it all the more amusing.

    My most memorable McNamara experience didn't involve direct contact. This would have been the summer of 1978 [when Feeney was in college] on Martha's Vineyard. I was standing on the main street in Edgartown with a couple of friends, and there was a car waiting at a stop sign. I don't recall if I recognized that the driver was McNamara or only realized that's who it was after hearing the question I'm about to relate. It came from a middle-aged white guy (clearly not a summer resident) standing by the car. "Hey, are you Secretary McNamara?" he asked through the open passenger-side window. Before there was an answer, the man added, "You're one of my heroes. Let me shake your hand." He then reached in and shook hands with McNamara.

    What made the scene so memorable was McNamara's response. He visibly flinched; his face just collapsed. It was horrible to see. One could easily imagine numerous similar confrontations--few, if any, ending so cordially. Here was someone who, a decade and a half earlier, had been one of the three or four most powerful men in the world reduced to fleeting agony by an innocuous question. Brief though the moment was, I've never forgotten it.

    I can't imagine Donald Rumsfeld either being so publicly available or responding in such a way. Neither fact speaks well of the man.

    The last point bears emphasis, and is one I wish I'd made yesterday. If we thought that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or for that matter George W. Bush would eventually reflect as deeply on the consequences of their decisions as Robert McNamara clearly did, they would deserve the respect for moral seriousness that the McNamara of "The Fog of War" era had clearly earned. My guess is that, Nixon-like, all of them (and certainly Cheney and Rumsfeld) instead scorn McNamara for giving in to doubts and doubters.

  • Cornucopia of updates #1: "regreening"

    Last week I mentioned the impressive and even (somewhat) encouraging presentation by Thomas Lovejoy and David Hayes at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on the topic of "regreening." Their argument was that the earth's own natural biological processes could do a lot more to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere, if forests, wetlands, agricultural areas, and even deserts were protected and managed in a different way.

    Via Lovejoy, here is a link to the PDF of a new 68-page report from the UN Environment Programme (sic), that goes into the hows, whys, and at-what-costs of "biosequestration" -- that is, improving the natural ecosystem's ability to absorb carbon. Interesting and worth reading, and again at least somewhat encouraging. Its exec-summary begins this way:


    After the jump, a reader's response on the importance of having people like David Hayes inside the federal government. (He is now the #2 official at the Department of Interior.) We take our encouragement where we can find it.

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  • Uighur faces

    Tomorrow, more on the substance of the racial violence in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in northwest China. For the moment, small glimpses of what some people there look like.

    Three of the students below are ethnic Uighurs -- ethnically Central Asian, generally Muslim, raised speaking a Turkic language rather than Mandarin -- on the first day of class in the fall of 2007 at 新疆大学, Xinjiang University in Urumqi. They had come from remote parts of Xinjiang and, when my wife and I saw them, were buying "Mandarin as second language" textbooks in the university book store. The man on the right of the picture, a Han Chinese, was their teacher.


    The Uighur father on the right below, who wore the same expression of wistful pride my wife and I did when we took our children to college, had come a long distance from the countryside to bring his daughter, on the left, for her first day at the big-city university. He is holding the math and Mandarin textbooks he has just bought for her.

    The racial tension was palpable when we traveled around Xinjiang. More on the consequences soon. After the jump, several other pictures from Xinjiang U.

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  • An email from Frank Gehry

    Last week I mentioned my surprise at what I considered a high-handed performance by Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when he dismissively shooed away a questioner whose line of persistent inquiry he didn't like.

    Just now, I was at least as surprised to see in the email inbox a message from Frank Gehry, which with his permission I quote below:

    Dear Mr. Fallows -

    Fair enough - your impression.  I have a few lame excuses.  One is that I'm eighty and I get freaked out with petty annoyances more than I ever did when I was younger.  Two, I didn't really want to be there - I got caught in it by friends.  And three - I do get questions like that and this guy seemed intent on getting himself a pulpit.   I think I gave him an opportunity to be specific about his critique.  Turns out that he followed Tommy Pritzker [the moderator of Gehry's session] around the next day and badgered him about the same issues.  His arguments, according to Tommy, didn't hold much water.  I think what annoyed me most was that he was marketing himself at everyone's expense.  I apologize for offending you.  Thanks for telling me.

    Best Regards,

    Frank Gehry

    To state the obvious, this reply is classy in the extreme and makes me feel better in many ways. As coda to this episode, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, below. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

    WaltDisneyConcertHall Wikipedia.jpg

  • On Robert S. McNamara

    1) I never had any kind of in-person discussion with him. The closest I came was during the Vietnam era, when he was making what he thought would be a routine visit to Harvard -- and to his enormous surprise was engulfed by seas of protestors who immobilized his car and yelled "Murderer!" at him. I was a newly arrived freshman and was walking down to sports practice when I found the street full of people and police surrounding a big black limo. Thirty years later, I ended up sitting next to McNamara on a DC subway car and decided not to say anything.

    2) I know some of his relatives and in-laws. They loved and also respected him, and I am sorry for the loss of their father and grandfather.

    3) In 1995, when McNamara published his In Retrospect memoir of the Vietnam War, I reacted very harshly in an NPR commentary. My argument was that he had missed his chance for a respectful hearing for his admission that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. If he hadn't done anything about that war when it could have made a difference, then there was no reason to, in effect, ask for public sympathy and understanding for his belated recognition of error. (Quotes after the jump.)

    My tone then was harsher than I would be now. Perhaps that's just because I'm older; perhaps because McNamara has now died; perhaps because he had fifteen more years to be involved in worthy causes, mainly containing the risk of nuclear war or accident. But mainly I think it is because of Errol Morris' remarkable 2003 film The Fog of War, which portrayed McNamara as a combative and hyper-competitive man (in his 80s, he was still pointing out that he had been top of his elementary-school class) but as a person of moral seriousness who agonized not just about Vietnam but also the fire-bombing of Tokyo during World War II, which he had helped plans as a young defense analyst.

    4) In an interview with Sam Stein of Huffington Post, Errol Morris talks about McNamara's moral seriousness and Morris' ultimate respect and sympathy for him. He also echoes the main grounds of my attack on McNamara from the time In Retrospect was published:

    "I share one thing with McNamara's critics. As a friend of mine said to me, I can forgive him for Vietnam. I can forgive him for this. I can forgive him for that. But I can never forgive him for not speaking up about the war in the years following his resignation as defense secretary. I kind of agree that was his most significant failing."

    5) The greatest defense of McNamara's life and works will, I suspect, rest not on his poverty-alleviation projects as head of the World Bank but instead on his consistent efforts, from the Kennedy administration onward, to reduce the risk of accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons. This included his role during the most dangerous moment of of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.*  

    6) Among many reasons to mourn David Halberstam's death in a traffic accident two years ago is the loss of the opportunity to hear his retrospect on McNamara. In The Best and the Brightest Halberstam wrote the passage that framed understanding of McNamara for years to come, which wound up this way:

    He did not serve himself or his country well. He was, there is no kinder or gentler word for it, a fool.

    7) Among many reasons to be grateful for Walter Pincus' continued presence at the Washington Post is this appreciation of his friend McNamara.

    * Update: In Slate, Fred Kaplan presents the evidence that McNamara actually took a more bellicose stance during the Cuban Missile Crisis than he later claimed.
    RIP -- a more freighted wish than in most cases, given McNamara's troubled recent decades. Harsh passages after the jump.

    More »


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