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.
  • 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.


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


    But... China?


    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:


    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:

    Looking west, in toward the Second Ring Road (same bridge, from different sides, in both shots):

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.


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