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.
  • 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.

    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:


    Closer southerly view:

    And, long shot from the Sanlitun area in the north:

    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.
    On Sunday, I took the subway into downtown Shanghai and spent most of the day visiting The Bund, Nanjing Lu and Yu Yuan (3 of the most crowded tourist attractions in Shanghai).  At four pm, I received a call on my cell phone from the health department informing me that someone sitting three rows behind me on the plane had developed symptoms of H1N1 and that I was to be quarantined. I was told to go home immediately and a medical team arrived at the house to ask me questions.

    After asking me to wear a surgical mask and gloves and disinfecting our house with some kind of spray, these men, dressed in masks and white suites like Martians, took me downstairs where another handful of men were waiting with an ambulance. Sirens blaring, I was driven through traffic to an isolated hotel on the outskirts of the City.

    I am now sitting by myself in a room, in a building full of other "suspected" H1N1 patient. I can use the internet, the phone and watch TV but there is a lock on the front door and I'm not allowed to leave my room or talk to the other "guests". Three women dressed in full gear deliver food to me three times a day (7:30, noon and 5:30 pm) and I get my temperature taken too. They confiscated my passport but there are plenty of posters and pamphlets everywhere describing precautions and horror that is H1N1.

    The funniest part about all of this? I don't have H1N1. Although the people here refuse to answer most of my questions, I was given an English document from the government describing proper procedure for the quarantine. I quote, from the section "When will you be free to leave"

    "The time to lift the medical observation depends on the diagnosis of the passenger with fever symptoms. If the diagnosis rules out the possibility of A H1N1 infection, you will be free to leave immediately...However, if the test report shows anything suspicious or needs another diagnosis, your time of staying here will have to be extended according to official notice..."

    That is what the official government notice says. "I will be free to leave immediately," yet when I asked the workers here about that statement, they claimed that I was misinterpreting the text. Clearly, my English skills have regressed rapidly. When I asked for a blood test, the official way to confirm whether or not I carry the virus, I was denied, "We only test people who look sick. You don't look sick. If you develop a fever, we will test you." 

    So I am still here in my hotel room, healthy but treated as if I have the plague. Counting down the days. One down, six more to go.

    The standard procedure, quarantine for all passengers sitting three rows in front or three rows behind someone with H1N1, seemed amusing when I first heard about it a few weeks ago. I defended it as an understandable reaction for a nation which had screwed up badly during the SARS epidemic. Now, frustrated, bored, and utterly disappointed at the demise of a trip that I had look forward to since December, the reality is no longer amusing.

    Those who know me know that I rarely lose my temper, but I lost it yesterday and many times since. I am angry because I see all of this as unfair. This hotel room feels like a prison and I'm being incarcerated for a "crime" that I did not commit with no way to prove my "innocence". 

    "Crime" is in quotation marks because, as those of us who lived through [a recent university commencement ceremony] can attest to, H1N1 is for all practical if not publicity purposes, no different from any other strain of flu. Yes people get sick from it and there is always the risk of mutation but is a 7 day isolation period the appropriate way to treat individuals who may or may not have the virus based on some artificial boundary of three rows? And if H1N1 was in fact deadly, how could have they even have allowed the suspected carrier to get off of the plane and travel through all kinds of crowded places before placing them in quarantine in the first place?

    I thought I was free to enjoy my time in Shanghai until I was tracked down at a coffee shop on Nanjing Street. Not only did they track me down, which was pretty competent in an Orwellian sort of way, they also informed many of my parents' colleagues and neighbors of our "illness". 

    A picture of my mom and her basic information was featured on the news without her knowledge of consent.  In this country, you are guilty until proven innocent and don't expect any privacy in the mean time. Ever since SARS, flu outbreaks have carried a heavy social stigma. I don't know what the implications will be for my parents whose entire circle of acquaintances and semi-acquaintances have somehow gotten news of this.  But from the withering glances (plus a lot of pointing and mothers shielding their children) that my neighbors gave me when I was being taken away in an ambulance yesterday, I can probably guess.

    Out of frustration, I complained that I was being treated unfairly. I spoke my mind and said that I felt as if my rights were being violated by the Communist government. When I said this, I sent my jailers into a frenzy, "Don't criticize China! Do not criticize China!"  Those of you who know me know that in the past, I've always tended to defend the Chinese government. Yes some of their measures were draconian but they were also efficient and effective, I said. And at the time, I truly believed that it was a fair tradeoff. Fewer rights for faster outcomes.

    I take all of that back. I rarely get angry but I am so angry now. I've never felt so keenly the disadvantages of living under a government that does not recognize the concept of personal rights. Some of that anger is personal, no one wants to spend most of their vacation alone and enclosed. But the deeper anger is directed at my sense of helplessness. I cannot do anything to extract myself from a nightmare that is out of my control and blown way out of proportion. I have no way of defending myself and have not come up with any logical justifications to soothe my anger. I am being treated courteously by the staff here but it still feels like being in prison.

    Since I have infinite time on my hands, I've been watching a lot of Chinese television. The official state media is filled with reports of the dangers of H1N1. Yesterday, an entire talk show was devoted to interviewing a healthy Chinese woman studying abroad who is refusing to visit her family in China this summer because she did not want to risk infecting them with the disease. Reporters and officials in her hometown praised her sense of "civic responsibility" and "patriotism". The piece concluded with words to the effect of, China welcomes and embraces all of her children from around the world. 

    While this type of blatant propaganda would have amused me even a week back, watching it yesterday made me sick. I've been asked multiple times to provide the names of anyone I came in contact with during my 24 hours of freedom (friends, taxi drivers, cashiers, and waitresses...). I've refused so good luck finding them and the thousands of other people "exposed" to my presence in the city.  Call me a horrible person but I refuse to help the "glorious cause". 

    Although the context is different, the political puppet show that is the H1N1 witch hunt has given me glimpses of the emotions and irrationalities which allowed the CR to happen only 40 years ago. If I had any illusions about what the government of this country will or will not do, I've been disabused of those notions. I feel sorry for the Chinese people who from watching the Chinese news, live in fear of being swamped by a deadly outbreak of H1N1 or other new forms of flu sure to arise in the future. I can no longer defend the actions of this government or look forward to living in a country where the precautionary response to H1N1 is the benign tip of the iceberg. There are many other things I want to say but I should probably censor myself from writing them in this email...

    Although the official flight details are not being released to the press, [Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans] was on the same flight as me (though I had no idea that the mayor of NO would fly economy as the three row zone of quarantine would seem to suggest). 

    I have six day left here and I'll be spending them in "quiet" reflection. I will probably make peace with this at some point though it will take a while. Maybe I will look back one day and feel instead of anger and frustration, the humor in being caught in a situation so illogical that it must not be real.  Maybe everything was too good in my life and karma was bound to catch up with me at some point. On the bright side, this is the closest I will hopefully ever get to prison though I did commit to spending the next two years in this country. If there is a silver lining, it is that I realize now that I am much more American than Chinese in my temperament and beliefs. I didn't feel any sort of emotion when I became an US citizen three years ago. In fact, I saw it as a practical decision. But now, I appreciate that privilege so much more.

    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.

    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:

    Cirrus SR-22 (with Cirrus's man in China, Scott Jiang):

    Back to packing. Loose ends soon.

  • This does not bode well

    Front page of yesterday's China Daily, my favorite newspaper, echoing stories throughout the Chinese press (for instance, here, in the English version of the leading economics magazine Caijing). I am referring to the "Exporters get sops" story.


    For the background on why this spells trouble, check out this Atlantic article from two months ago, on the risks of China's trying to defend its trade surplus when demand is collapsing around the world. After the jump, a relevant excerpt from the article. More tomorrow, in between last-minute packing and other imperatives.

    From "China's Way Forward," the Atlantic, April 2009. It starts with a reference to Michael Pettis of the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, who noted the resemblance between China's role in the world economy now and America's on the eve of the Great Depression:

    Pettis wrote recently that China's worldwide trade surplus, "the cleanest measure of overcapacity"--factories that are running and workers who are employed only because of foreign customers--is by one measure at least as large as America's was in 1929. China today, like America then, has a trade surplus equal to about 0.5 percent of global economic output. But as a proportion of its own economic output, China's trade surplus is much bigger than America's was. In proportional terms, today's China is five times as reliant on foreign customers to create domestic jobs as America was in 1929. So unless China can find a way to keep selling when its customers have stopped buying, it will face a proportionately greater employment shock.

    That China might indeed try to keep selling is the concluding part of Pettis's cautionary analogy to the Depression era. As stock markets crashed and economies collapsed, the U.S. trade surplus nearly disappeared. American businesses, desperate to preserve markets and jobs, lobbied for passage of the infamous Smoot- Hawley Tariff,  which increased duties on a list of some 20,000 imported goods. Soon afterward, other countries retaliated with similar tariffs; world trade dried up, and the Great Depression was on. When people use the words "Smoot-Hawley" today, they usually mean them as a warning that any interference with trade, especially by the United States, could again prove disastrous.

    Pettis's point is different, and in a way more worrisome. The real damage of Smoot-Hawley, he says, was less economic than political. Other countries understood that the United States was trying to protect its trade surplus and therefore its workforce. They didn't like it as a political matter, and they struck back.

    If that were to happen again, would it be because of "Buy American" provisions or other forms of American "protectionism" editorial pages so often warn against? That's the wrong thing to worry about, according to this logic. The real counterpart to Smoot-Hawley would be Chinese protectionism--or rather, any effort by China to defend its huge trade surpluses, as the U.S. once did. China's government is unlikely to rely on outright Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs. Instead it could increase subsidies to exporters; it could try to push the RMB's value back down, after three years of letting the currency rise; it could encourage manufacturers to restrain wages; it could impose indirect barriers to imports, as with its recent pressure on China's airlines to cancel outstanding orders for Boeing and Airbus airplanes. By early this year, China's government was in fact doing every one of these things. As a result its global trade surplus, instead of shrinking as expected when the world economy deteriorated, grew dramatically. Exports fell, but imports fell much more: in January, exports declined by 17 percent and imports by more than twice as much--by 43 percent. This is an economic problem for other countries. But it could be an even more serious political provocation, if China is seen as forcing its share of unemployment problems onto everyone else. And thus, to bring this scenario to a close, the best China can expect from today's shocks might be unemployment rates higher than America's in the '30s. The worst would be for China to start a trade war that makes things even harder for itself.

    Emphasis added. More later. In the meantime, Pettis's updated thoughts on his blog, here.

    More »

  • An Airbus captain on getting into bad weather

    Regarding one of the puzzles of the Air France 447 crash -- how a professional air crew ended up in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm -- an airline pilot writes:

    As a point of reference I'm an A-320 Captain for NWA (soon to be Delta but happy to be getting a paycheck) with over 12,000 hours. While I agree that it's entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the Air France 447 crew did indeed proceed into an area that they shouldn't have I can say that if his radar isn't up to snuff or if they misinterpreted the presentation there are no other resources for them in that situation. At least over the continental US we have other aircraft reports and ground controllers who can make suggestions.

    Most civilians (non aviators would I guess be a better term) are quite surprised to find that they have better access to up to date weather resources while sitting at home on the computer than I do. Once I'm airborne it's just the radar and who I can talk to on the radio (ATC, other aircraft, my dispatcher). While I'm told that modern business jets have satellite links to provide views and weather from various vantage points we who carry the most people do not. At main stations I can pull up numerous local and regional radar presentations which are very helpful. However when operating out of small stations this isn't always possible and once I get into my aircraft I'm blind except for the radar in the nose of the jet. It works well but it isn't foolproof, if I could see the same things airborne that I can while at a computer terminal we, my aircraft and passengers, would all benefit.

    If any good can come of this accident I hope it will lead to a discussion and implementation of better weather resources for the airline industry. I'm proud of what we do and our overall safety record but this is one area where we could make great advances.

    This is an important area where, strangely, small airplanes are actually better equipped for safety than most airliners. (Airliners are safer in just about every other way, from crew training to redundant backup systems, and despite the recent disasters are amazingly safe overall.) Starting in the early 2000s, handheld or tablet-sized displays capable of showing near-real-time Nexrad weather came onto the aviation market. They got the data via satellite services like XM/Sirius and could display info about storms, winds, and airport conditions that was only a few minutes old. Here's how a popular recent tablet model, the Garmin 696, looks. Its display screen is 7" diagonally, large enough to be very useful.

    It can match the airplane's path to nearly-current radar information (as with the storms shown in central Florida, above). Everyone emphasizes that such displays are for "strategic" rather than "tactical" guidance -- giving you a general idea of places to avoid, rather than tempting you to try to slalom your way around the worst parts of a storm.

    Other displays are mounted right on the panel and show how the plane's path matches the surrounding terrain and any other planes in the vicinity, along with the weather. This is a Cirrus cockpit, a fancier and more modern version of the kind of small plane I used to fly, with the weather (plus route, traffic, terrain, etc) displayed on the right-hand screen.


    I don't know how much good these displays would do over the open ocean -- where, after all, there are no ground-based radar stations to support Nexrad-style displays. But more info, and more recent info, is always better -- and the captain is right about this literal blind spot for most airliners, which should be corrected.

  • Getting used to China, in two pictures

    Two ads right next to each other at Beijing's Capital Airport on Monday night, part of an ongoing "Fly more" campaign.

    First, this one:

    About ten feet away, this one: http://i142.photobucket.com/albums/r96/jfallows/IMG_7447.jpg

    How I convert this into an "are you used to China?" test:
       1) You have to not wonder, "what does this mean at all???" Ie, "leaping depend on vision."
       2) You have to not wonder, "how could they have noticed an English grammar problem in one but not bothered to fix it in the other?"  [The one-character difference in the Chinese versions has nothing to do with the one-letter difference in the English renditions.]

    I just thought, "Huh, look at that," rather than wondering why, what, or how. I guess I'm finally acclimated.

  • Two aviation updates

    First, about the battered but durable small-airplane, point-to-point travel movement, chronicled frequently over the past ten years (here, for starters), a retrospective from Bruce Holmes, long time "extrepreneurial bureaucrat" from NASA. Holmes was one of the three heroes of my 2001 book Free Flight  and later a force behind the promising-but-doomed company DayJet. (Below, Holmes a few years ago, in a NASA photo.)

    HOlmes.jpgHolmes recently returned to his NASA-Langley stomping grounds to give a basically positive "lessons learned" discussion about the DayJet experience. Brief article about his presentation here; his summary below.

    [DayJet] was a case of "the operation was successful, but the patient died," but it was only a start, Holmes said. It was a glimpse into an aviation future in which, he added:

    --"We need to get to carbon neutral (aviation operation),

    --"We need to halve the operating cost and

    --"We need scalable airspace capacity."

    Godspeed on all fronts.

    Second, about the unresolved question of why the Air France 447 crew found itself in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm, this from Bill McHugh, a private pilot in Louisiana:
    You may or may not remember some years ago that a 737 flown by TACA Airlines made an emergency dead-stick landing on a narrow levee near the NASA Michoud facility in eastern New Orleans (Google "taca airlines levee landing"). It had lost both engines due to hail ingestion while flying through a severe storm on approach to MSY [the main New Orleans airport]. The landing was successful, with no loss of life or injuries. The captain was hailed as a hero by the passengers and in the press (frankly, I was more impressed by the Boeing test pilots who got the thing back off the ground a few days later).
    A couple of years after the incident I was attending one of those FAA safety courses at NEW [New Orleans Lakefront airport]. This course was about weather, and one of the speakers was a guy who had worked the NEW and MSY towers for many years. He told us that he had been working the tower the day of the TACA incident, and that he had personally warned the TACA captain no less than three separate times that the storm ahead of him was severe (can't remember what level it was, but it was high) and that it probably contained embedded hail, but that the captain had ignored the warnings and had flown directly into the storm.
    Point of the story: Even seasoned, professional pilots do stupid things on occasion.
  • Last two about June 4

    Numerous previous items (here, here, here, here, and others) have addressed the Chinese government's success in erasing June 4, 1989, from the collective memory of their country's next generation. Two more accounts, both from foreigners who have recently raised the issue with young Chinese people, and each of which shows some of the drama associated with the issue here.

    First, from someone now teaching in a major manufacturing city in China. (Yes, I know, this really narrows it down.):

    Today [several days ago], a few other foreigners and I were looking at an MSNBC retrospective (miraculously, not blocked) of the important day that happened recently, and just of reveling in the amazing photos and videos with lots of "wows" and stunned silences. 

    A 23-year old Chinese girl we know very well was sitting next to us and peered over, and said, "What's that?  What's going on?"  We tried to dissuade her; since in many ways it's not in her or our best interest for her to see, but she forced herself into our huddle and was looking, and noticed all the Chinese people wearing headbands, the blood, the violence, the shouting at the police, and so on.  So she started asking, shocked by the fact that this had to be somewhere in her homeland, "What is this!? What's going on!? Who are these people?!  Where is this?!"  She was just awestruck and horrified.
    So we told her the whole story from the W perspective, making diplomatic but honest allowances since most of us don't truly believe that "things" are generally that bad at all; certainly not here and now.  But she just listened to us, staring at the videos and pictures, and none of us could see her face, which was bowed intently at the computer screen and veiled by her long hair.  All of a sudden, she started weeping.  Just weeping.  She had had no idea that it had ever happened. 
    It can be really hard to live here, but it's something like this that makes me love this country and these people, especially here in my city of residence.  Where others might see darkness, sadness and ignorance, it's often possible to see hope, beauty in the struggle, and real, unedited life.

    The second account:

     I am currently living in Shanghai, a recent US college graduate and English teacher (born in '84). I have a Chinese girlfriend (born in '89), and since we began dating some months back I have mentioned TAM to her a few times.
    After getting over my initial shock at her near-complete lack of knowledge on the subject, even when I knew that would be the case, I have tried to talk to her about it or show her media related to it. She has been general receptive to my prodding on the subject, but has uniformly come down on the side of the government. She is by no means nationalistic, or political (she in fact general loathes political discussion), but she seems to still find the government's decision to be the "right" one - or at least not one that must have some explanation (even if that is, "But look at all the good things that have happened since 1989!").

    I am writing all this, though, because as this day has gotten ever closer, she has become more and more interested. Of course, I have been looking at more and more stories and retrospectives about TAM, but she has also been asking more questions. However, her real explosion of frustration and interest came a few days ago when Twitter was blocked.

    She has, over the past few months, become a user of the service and found it quite enjoyable. She had even warned me a week or so before that she expected it to be blocked soon, as many of the people she follows (95% of whom tweet in Chinese) were discussing things that would normally be blocked on the internet. All the same, when it really did become blocked she was surprisingly angry.

    Since then, the flood gates really have been open. She read Yu Hua's NYT piece with great interest (she loved Brothers and mentioned numerous times how both Yu and she are Zhejiangese). Last night we sat together and watched various YouTube videos of clips from the period. Today I came home to show her the pictures from the HK vigil and she was amazed. So tonight, as we left for dinner, she, for the first time, asked me, "Tell me about Tiananmen?" I started to tell her the same thing I always had (a general late May/early June summary), but she stopped me and backed me up, her questions coming fast.

    "Tell me about how it started. Tell me why they were protesting."

    So I did.

    More »

  • For more information about Air France 447

    I have been preoccupied, or out of range, in the week since this disaster occurred and so hadn't read up on it. But here, for anyone who doesn't know about it, is a source that establishes beyond question one crucial point about the accident, and points to informed discussions of the many other aspects that are for now unknowable.

    The source is this long and extraordinarily detailed dispatch by Tim Vasquez, of Weather Graphics in Oklahoma. Vasquez is a meteorologist, and his post is full of "SKEW-T" charts and other arcana that make me nostalgic for the rituals of "weather planning" from my flying days. But even for those baffled by the details, his sequence of charts -- based on very ambitious matching of flight-track data with a variety of innovative weather re-creations -- make this fact clear: AF 447 was passing directly through a large and powerful tropical thunderstorm when it stopped transmitting data (and presumably crashed).

    This is Vasquez's Figure 12, showing the plane's likely path through Vasquez's recreated radar model of the storm. He requests on his site that some other charts, including the very clarifying Figure 13, not be copied elsewhere, because they "represent too much original work." Fair enough. Check for yourself.


    An emphasis on the weather as the proximate factor in the crash is important in deflecting attention from some early speculation about meteors, inherent wiring problems in the Airbus, and so on. But it leads to two other major areas of uncertainty, which might be resolved if the "black box" is recovered or might never be known for sure.

    One is why the plane ended up inside the thunderstorm. Even big, powerful airliners do everything they can to avoid flying through thunderclouds. Radar problems? (Onboard radar gives a useful but imperfect view of oncoming weather.) Some other reason? No one knows now.

    The other is how, exactly, the storm may have brought the plane down -- since most airliners survive such encounters, hard as they try to avoid them. Structural breakup, caused by extreme turbulence? (Imagine ocean liners or freighters having their hulls cracked by hitting huge waves in just the wrong way.) Devastating hail destroying the multiple "pitot tubes" -- the devices airplanes use to measure their airspeed, without which neither the autopilot nor the real pilots can function normally, in turn leading to catastrophic failure of guidance systems? Lightning doing damage in some unusual way, since airplanes are usually designed to withstand it? Some other factor? All this is now unknown. But the Vasquez site will point you toward as much extra discussion as you want. (For even more, the AF447 discussion thread here, on the generally entertaining Professional Pilots' Rumor Network, or PPRuNe.)

    Thanks to Parker Donham for the Vasquez lead.

  • June 4 report #1: Beijing (long)

    I left the city this morning for a long-planned reporting trip 600 miles to the southwest, in Shaanxi province. As I implied yesterday, I was glad to have the option to leave Beijing. But updates I have received from various sources fall into these categories:

    1) Several people have written to say that the going was surprisingly easy. For instance, this account from a Chinese-American man in his 20s whom I know in Beijing:

    We were tourists and took many many photos, even asking the plainclothed police who were keeping their eye on us to take one or two. We didn't get hassled; in fact, aside from the ridiculous numbers of cops, obvious and otherwise, there seemed to be no difference from when I was there two weeks ago, showing friends around. Time: 8am. Persons: myself, another Chinese-American, and two white guys. Just wanted to add that data point to your blog, especially in light of the note of caution you posted.

    2) For fully authorized foreign TV news crews, the problem of the day was not so much frontal confrontations with security officials as -- well, you have to see the pictures to believe it. The Shanghaiist site has a roundup of photos and videos of the ever-so-suave "umbrella trick" as practiced on news crews from CNN, BBC, and AFP. This is the kind of thing that makes you hold your head and say: Rising major power in the world?

    3) Speaking of the CNN/BBC blackout difference I mentioned previously, it's possible that our apartment house is getting its BBC feed through some outside-normal-systems satellite connection. I hear from other people in China that the normal, authorized (ie, subject-to-censoring) foreign satellite feed cut off CNN, BBC, as well as French TV 5 at all the predictable points.

    4) My wife, lacking the excuse of travel to Shaanxi, and equipped with the multiple tools a woman can use to alter her appearance from one day to the next, went back to Tiananmen Square today looking like a different person from the one whose presence the authorities had noted the previous night. Her report on the day's activities is here and after the jump.

    I went to the square at noontime, expecting to see pretty much what we saw last night: the square off limits, people walking along the roadside or staring at the flag and Mao's giant portrait.
    I was really shocked to see the square itself open to the public during the day. Or, as I realized later,  open to the "public." There were thousands of people on the square, but there was something odd about the scene.  I realized by the end of the afternoon that this crowd was deliberate, and the casual afternoon at Tian'anmen was as orchestrated as the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic games.

    Everyone going into the square was funneled through a security tent, just like for the Olympics. A young woman scrounged through my purse, looking closely (in contrast to the subway screeners' half-asleep attitude) at my wallet, my phone, my brush... She asked for my passport, and I showed her the photocopies of the name page and the current visa page.

    I moved to the metal-wanding line. But then a very stern, no-nonsense, non-English-speaking guard again demanded my passport (I feigned ignorance and said in English that I already showed my passport). A little scuffle later, he looked at my papers, called his superior over, scoured my purse again, and finally begrudgingly let me through.

    Once "inside", it looked really weird. There were collections of people in yellow shirts, pink shirts, purple shirts, turquoise shirts. There were more groups holding like-patterned umbrellas. It seemed like everyone had umbrellas, men and women alike. But the Chinese do like umbrellas on sunny days! There were formations of green uniforms marching around; police trucks driving slowly around the edges, an occasional car blustering through (as usual) the crowd. There were lots of solitary undercover police, just like last night. Many wore black, others in their own street clothes.

    Lots of groups were obviously deputized young men who stood around watching, staring, following people like me at least 3 on 1 at any given moment. There were no women in this capacity.  There was a clear absence of the usual "oblivious" quality of Chinese crowd movement, where people bump into you, brush against you, or cut in front of you if you happen to be in the path of where they're going. Everyone milling about was acutely aware of everyone else in his space. They seemed to have assigned space.  Some deputies also wore group-colored shirts, all wore "badges" with the Chinese flag surrounded in gold, Many looked like the kids who volunteered at the Olympics. Clearly nationalistic. All young. I wondered if they were paid for the day.

    I would guess about 85% of people on the square were there officially. You could tell that because the security lines were basically unpopulated, while all the "deputies" just walked around the screeners without being checked. There were very few tourists, foreign or otherwise. There were mostly uniformed and non-uniformed police. Some foreigners were taking pictures, seemingly unmolested. Any footage and photos will be dull-looking; the shots would look "normal". It was just the feeling of intense orchestration and deliberate crowd-building that gave it away. And also a distinct sense of high-tension, which carried around the front of the Forbidden City, but evaporated just around the corners.

    The rest of the city was oblivious. Crowds, shopping, shoving, everything perfectly normal, as far as I could see.

    Perfectly normal too at the Beijing airport when I departed, and the one in Xi'an when I arrived, and out in Shaanxi province in the small town (whose population I now see listed as five million -- or maybe one million, on another web site) where I am tonight. And so the anniversary passes, mainly "just another day."

    More »

  • On the Islam speech

    More about this in a few hours: literally have five minutes left at an internet place in Shaanxi province (long-scheduled trip away from Beijing this afternoon) (More about Beijing on this June 4 later too).

    The main point is: this was yet another in the series of speeches that individually and as a group really are out of phase with anything we have known in contemporary political rhetoric. I mean a sequence that began most noticeably with the "race and America" speech in Philadelphia 15 months ago and has continued with five or six clear high points since then (most recently at Notre Dame, as discussed here) and no obvious flop. I did not see or hear coverage of this speech but based only on the text, which I've just read, I have a hypothesis about the trait that makes this discourse unusual and welcome.

    The five minutes are up, so To Be Continued a few hours from now.

  • Today in Beijing

    I am guessing that you will see no real-time TV reports from the Tiananmen Square area today, and little or no photography. This is based on personal experience there last night, China time, which also leads to personal advice for anyone in Beijing thinking of going there today.

    During my time in Beijing over the past year and a half, I've often seen the square itself totally closed off to visitors, as it is at the moment. There are always plenty of security forces around -- soldiers in green uniforms, various kinds of police in blue uniforms, and "plainclothes" forces who are pretty easy to pick out, like strapping young men in buzz cuts all wearing similar-looking "leisure" clothes. But I have not seen before anything like the situation at the moment.

    There are more representatives in all categories -- soldiers, police, obvious plainclothesmen -- than I recall seeing even during the Tibet violence in early 2008 or through the Olympic games. Also many people whom you would normally classify as fruit vendors, tourists from the Chinese provinces, youngish white collar workers male and female, and skateboarder-looking characters wearing cargo shorts and with fauxhawk haircuts, were last night walking up and down the sidewalks with their eyes constantly on visitors and drifting up next to people who were holding conversations.

    The way to avoid their attention is keep moving briskly along the sidewalk rather than stopping as if you think there is something particular to look at in the square today. The way to draw it is to stop and look around, to pay attention to the security forces themselves, or to have a camera in your hand. If the camera comes out, it may be pointed at one of the scenic highlights in the center of the square. A nighttime glamour shot of the Great Hall of the People, taken from across the Square with a glowing Monument to the People's Heroes in the middle ground (and no actual people in the square) is within bounds. This is how it looked last night:

    A view down toward Mao's Mausoleum, again across an emptied square, is also OK.


    But to point a camera in any direction not shown in these shots is to ask for immediate trouble. In particular if security forces in any of the categories above are in the field of view. I say this with first-hand certainty, based on experiences I will describe later when I am living someplace else.

    Two other, related notes: As reported yesterday, CNN is still blacked out whenever words like "In China today...." or "Twenty years ago in Bei...." come across the airwaves. Whereas BBC TV is airing uncensored footage of tanks in the square twenty years ago and repeatedly using the phrase "Tiananmen massacre." And just as I type, the admirable Quentin Somerville of the BBC is talking, live from Beijing, about the "ruthlessness at the heart of the Communist government." (And just this second, in a Borges-worthy moment, Somerville said that international coverage was being blacked out across China -- so I got to see him saying that I was not able to see him. Still, the general point is true.)

    Second note: Hillary Clinton's official "Message on the Twentieth Anniversary of Tiananmen Square," here, was necessary, appropriate, properly phrased, and -- even though it will have no effect inside China -- exactly the right thing to have done. More on this theme shortly.

    Back to practicalities: if you in Beijing and are near the square, be careful. Seriously.

  • June 4 news coverage update

    As many people have reported, Twitter has been blacked out in China for the past few days (also, I hear, Flickr and Hotmail), apparently for June 4-related reasons.

    BBC TV, weirdly and perhaps temporarily, is being let through loud and clear with quite startling and gruesome footage of tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square 20 years ago this evening, plus an interview with one family whose child was shot dead that day, plus with the photographer who took the immortal "tank man" picture.

    CNN, on the other hand, goes black-screen for several-minute periods, starting a few seconds after the words "In Beijing twenty years ago..." or "At Tianan...."  The censors are just fast enough, or slow enough, to reveal what they are doing -- very much like last year, during the violence in Tibet, when you'd see an opening shot of Lhasa followed by black screen.

    As nearly always in Chinese government management of the media, the apparent logic of these steps is hard to figure out. (a) Why hard-line on CNN and tolerance for BBC, which is one click away via the TV remote? (b) Why bother with English-language foreign media at all, since 99% of anyone who might be watching them already knows what happened 20 years ago? Memory-control has worked remarkably well inside China with Chinese language media. I have no explanation for the censors' decisions, just reporting the situation as of early June 3 in Beijing.

  • Edward R. Murrow can have his job back

    Thanks to the many readers who have written to alert me to the latest bit of boiled-frog idiocy, this from the otherwise totally admirable Bob Woodruff*, which will be featured Tuesday night in an ABC special and which was endorsed last night by Jon Stewart. Thus after a three month incumbency, Stewart gives up his role as the new Edward R. Murrow.


    I have a new approach in mind to this topic. Stay tuned.
    * Factlet tying together the themes of several recent posts: twenty years ago this week, Woodruff was in Beijing working with CBS on its coverage in Tiananmen Square.


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