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.

James Fallows: Art

  • Some People Like the New UC Logo!

    The pepper-spraying cop as design inspiration?

    Or at least one person, and he claims not to have been part of the paid design team. We'll get to him later on. Let's build the story step by step.

    What we're talking about. Check it out below. On the left is the previous Official Seal of the University of California system. On the right, the snappy new version.

    Background on the flap. Check it out here. Summary of my argument: if you prefer the new version, you are "challenged" when it comes to visual IQ. And here is a bonanza of comments from the San Jose Mercury News

    It's not just the UC system. A reader who is a proud Carnegie Mellon alum sends this report:
    When I went to Carnegie Mellon in the 80's, they decided to update their logo with the infamous "tilted square."  It was dreadful and was universally panned, even though it cost the university a fortune. [JF note: Here it is.]
    Happily, they gave up on it in favor of a plain wordmark, and today you can barely find any remnant of it.  [JF: Here's the current version.]

    So, perhaps there is hope that UC will see the light.
    From another proud CMU grad:
    Ah, I feel better now.  When I was attending Carnegie-Mellon they decided to come-up with a new logo/branding to replace the very traditional court of arms/shield logo etc.  As I understand it, something like $2 million dollars (early 80's) were spent to have as a logo a square, tilted at 14 degrees, with "Carnegie" and "Mellon" starting from inside the box and going outside it.  Adding insult to injury they dropped the hyphenation.  I think they have since moved-on to other imagery, but your posting of what the U.C system is looking to do makes me feel much better for it makes that horrendous decision by CMU look so very much better.

    The Cal alums strike back. I have received many notes to this effect:

    Cal's fundraising letter arrived in my mailbox right after I first saw the new allegedly-pre-approved-by-alumni graphic travesty. So, I've been suggesting an easy protest to all my UC alum friends: tell UC to get rid of that hideous logo.  Run the new one by us first. Then we'll resume sending checks. 

    On the other hand, maybe this was to be expected from a school where one of the ugliest buildings on campus houses the architecture department.  [JF: Here's the building the alum is talking about, Wurster Hall at UCB.]


    . Another reader points out:

    I know it is more poignant when it strikes near home, but there has been an epidemic of bad university logos recently.

    I vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and last summer was confronted with this for the first time (on a sign on M-28).
    With no text, I might add. 

    Between this and the fiscal cliff, I fear we are doomed. [JF note: Hey, the fiscal cliff is not that bad.]

    The obvious inspiration for the new logo. A UC professor connects the dots.

    We here at Berkeley seem to uniformly hate the logo as well. I thought you might appreciate the following interpretation. A ... professor here at UC Berkeley, Mike Eisen, has added a pretty good take down of that monstrosity:


    What many readers say. Many readers had reactions like the one described here:
    As a UCLA alumnus, I read your recent post on the new UC logo with interest and shared it on Facebook with friends and family (many of whom are also UC alumni or supporters).  The consensus view was clearly negative.  My hunch was that the logo had "designed by committee for a large consulting fee" written all over it.  Other UC friends commented that the fading "C" represented diminishing educational standards or funding.  But it was my brother who voiced probably the most concise and pointed assessment:  "It looks like a toilet flush."

    I wonder if the designers didn't see what my brother perceived in mere seconds?

    . A reader with some constructive suggestions:

    The problem with the new one is the fading letter "C", and the shield-like "U" (which might be that way to suggest solidity) that doesn't obviously scan as a U.

    I think a solid "C" and a more readable "U" isn't all that bad.

    Attached are six possibilities along that line.

    And in the spirit of full-and-frank exchange of views, in tasteful after-the-jump placement we have some comments in favor of the new look.

    And, again, it's NOT just UC

    'I can live with it.' Here is the closest thing I got to a "you're being unfair" message. It's from a graphic designer who list his credentials at the end of the message. I don't agree with him -- but, hey, you realize that by now, and we might as well hear this side of the story.

    The original UC system "identity" was a seal. This is not the same as a brand identity in higher education. Most big schools have a seal (for diplomas, plaques, presidents stationary, proclamations) a brand identity (to market the place and identifier for signage, etc.), and an athletics identity (the UC Bear, the UConn Husky, etc.). But this was about the UC system. It just needed a brand identity. For the first time.

    Identity and brand design is more than just a logotype or symbol these days. It involves color, motifs, shapes, as well as type and symbols. Even sound (car exhaust tuning) and smell (retail). Showing just this one blue version in your article really does not show HOW it will be used and the variety of applications.

    Higher education is always slow on these kinds of things but, many campuses and systems have updated identities for decades. Check out the identities of Vanderbilt, UConn (which oddly, used to use the CT state seal), and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. These are some nice redesigns all done in the past 15 years by living designers. But, compared to a system as large as the UC, the objective was simpler. The UC system is more complex than even a big state campus like UIUC. The UC has many more constitancies. Many campuses and facilities. It would be impossible to please everyone. So the objective cannot be to find some magical sweet spot but rather, use a design process to work toward a solution that the UC leadership, working with the designers, chooses. You can't do design by committee or by voting.

    Before you write any more on brand identities, you need to call and talk with some experts on the subject! The head of the AIGA national office in NYC or the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum or the curator of design at MOMA or Stephen Heller of the NYTimes and prolific design book author and design writer. Maybe the head of the team who did the design! Somebody who knows the subject.

    Here is a whole site dedicated to looking at brand identity changes - for better or worse. 

    Here is the article on that site on the UC identity change:

    It shows some of the applications - scroll down (trucks! totes! mugs!) and does a good overview of the design.

    If you hire a plumber to fix a pipe or a mechanic to fix your car or a lawyer to help you in court or an architect to build you a home or a fireman to save you from a fire or a doctor to cure you, how often do you question the methods used or solutions offered and decided upon by the proper authority? In this case, the UC system chancellor and an in house team of professional, award winning designers? [JF Note: I've added emphasis here. But donnez-moi un break! The "experts" are always right? Generals never screw up wars, and financial whizzes never bring the economy to the brink of ruin? I am more likely than not to believe a doctor when she tells me what a lab test or X-ray shows. That is in the category of "things an expert knows and a layman doesn't." But when we're talking about how something looks, I am supposed to disbelieve my eyes and say that because consultants approved it I have to think it's "good"?]

    If there were ever an article to write, it is about the dangers of design by novices, the mob, or design by committee! Nothing, nothing, ever good came out of that way of designing. Look at architecture in N. Korea, and you will see one kind of design by committee.

    I am not a total fan of the UC system identity design. But there are applications where it works well. I think they missed a few things in the design process (I think the team was too young and needed an older designer to guide them a bit). A design process was followed. The old seal was really limiting and hard to brand from. As an expatriate Californian, I can live with the new design. 

    [List of standing-to-speak details from this reader, which I have slightly vagued-up to avoid Google-based discovery of this person's name:]
    Fulbright Fellow in design
    MFA Graphic Design [prestigious East Coast design school]
    BFA [prestigious West Coast design school]
    20+ years experience as a graphic designer and art director
    15+ years experience as a design professor at 5 state university design programs (one in CA, two research universities in midwest, two research universities on East coast) and two top rated design schools (RISD and MICA)
    Multiple international design award winner for individual and team design projects for print and digital media.

    Thanks to all.

    What might have been

    More »

  • More News as Art: Berlusconi Edition

    The Italian old masters saw today's crisis coming ... a long time ago

    Two and a half years ago -- it seems like a century -- I noted the picture below on the front page of the New York Times and asked which Old Masters painting it brought most distinctly to mind.


    A variety of great suggestions from readers can be found here.

    Just now reader JY sends along a photo from the front page of the Montreal Gazette, with this explanation:
    I recall you once had a great blog item/feature/observation about the Renaissance art qualities of a photo of Obama advisers. The sheer awesomeness of this photograph made me think of that post. And it's extra great because it comes from....Italy!

    Indeed. Viva l'Italia. For another great golden-oldie from the Italian culture collection, see the "Musical Christmas treat" from two years ago.
  • They're back

    Two months ago, during wrangling over the Chrysler bailout plan. Original item here.


    Today, after the GM bankruptcy declaration. Both photos by Doug Mills of the NYT.


    This gives me the overdue opportunity to announce the results of the "which Old Master tableau does the Obama team portrait remind us of?" competition, as previously conducted here. Also to see if even two months in public service has had any of the famous hyper-speed aging effects so famous from past administrations. (I started working in the Jimmy Carter administration at age 27; I was in my late 40s when I left two years later.) Also, to reflect on the change in visual dramatic tension caused by Larry Summers's absence from a group portrait.

    But none of this just now, as I am breaking the #1 survival rule for the correspondent 12 time zones away from the head office: never turn on the cell phone or look at the computer if you wake up at 2:30am. More later.

  • Last crop of political-art nominees

    Starting with a late favorite in the polling, Rembrandt's The Night Watch (two other Rembrandts among previous nominees, here). The main resonance is of course between the central figure in one scene and his counterpart in the other.



    A few more after the jump.

    Another Last Supper, this one by Jacopo Bassano.


    Next, A Burial at Ornans, but Gustave Corbet.


    One more with Messianic overtones, though not a Last Supper: Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch.


    And, to end patriotically, a Revolutionary-themed scene presumably featuring Patrick Henry, but whose title and author neither I nor the person who suggested it seem to know. More to say about the suggester in another context soon. [UPDATE: thanks to Joshua Beatty, I now know that this is an 1876 Currier and Ives lithograph of Patrick Henry, with more info here.]


    Shortly: what this whole sequence shows about heroic portraiture, news photography, and anything else I can think of. Thanks to all for provocative suggestions.

    More »

  • More political artwork

    We're nearing the end here. Four more proposed Old Master precursors for the memorable Obama group portrait. Previous candidates here. Probably one more crop to come, then the exciting lessons of our brief look at art.

    First, Governors of the Wine Merchants Guild, by Ferdinand Bol. I won't pretend that this was the Old Master I was thinking of, since I'd not aware of having seen it before.  But still:


    Next, a detail from Raphael's School of Athens, featuring the raised-finger gesture we see from Obama.

    After the jump, two more with the raised-finger motif.

    The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David.

    And, for regional balance, a raised-finger Buddha, by Chang Sheng-wen.

    More »

  • Three from Frans Hals

    I'm going to start moving through these more briskly now. A pattern is emerging in the elements that make the Obama group portrait seem Old Masterish.  Previously here. For now, three from Frans Hals. First, Regents of the Old Men's Almshouse -- as with The Anatomy Lesson, thematically strangely appropriate for the Chrysler-bankruptcy team.


    If all but six people were removed from the Obama portrait, leaving only (from left)  Geithner, Summers, Obama, Browner, Rattner, and Bernstein, they would match the positions and angles of the six Regents surprisingly well.* Though Carol Browner probably wouldn't be wild about the one matched with her.

    Next, Officers and Sergeants of the St. Hadrian Civic Guard

    And, the famous Meagre Company, apparently so named because the figures are all thin. On this basis, the Obama group portrait should be called Somber Company.

    More coming.
    * Geithner, Summers, and Obama you know. The woman is Carol Browner; Steve Rattner is behind her with round glasses; Jared Bernstein is just in front of him with gray hair. 

  • News as art, continued

    Back to the "what does this scene remind me of?" category, previously here, while still looking into further flu news in China. Many nominations for this painting, usually with apologies for the larger Messianic implications:



    After the jump, for greater clarity of detail, an early non-Leonardo copy of the painting as it once may have looked. Plus another version not by Leonardo. More to come, with eventual wrap-up thanks to all contributors.



    And, on the raised-finger gesture of Obama in the photo and of the disciple Thomas in the paintings, this from an informed reader:
    The image of Obama speaking struck me as very davinciesque, especially the finger pointing upward. It is supposed to point out to the person watching the painting either that John the Baptist was a great guy or alternatively that the fingers represent fire and water, which for Hermetics symbolizes purifying fire that transforms true believers from ?man? into ?super man?. It is called the "John gesture" among Da Vinci mysticists. See  http://www.philipcoppens.com/johngesture.html

    More »

  • Another nominee from Rembrandt...

    ...in the "art prefigures" life category, previously here and here. The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Some obvious differences in composition. But some nice similarities. In the role of the instructive Prof. Tulp we have the instructive Pres. Obama. In the role of the cadaver, we have the Chrysler Corporation, though out of view. (Yes, yes, I have owned several Chrysler cars and know it will be stronger than ever after the restructuring, etc.) More to come.



  • The Syndics of Pennsylvania Avenue

    The nominees are coming in for the Fine Arts precursor to yesterday's news photo of the Obama auto-industry task force, as explained here, with several plausible contenders. First up: Rembrandt, with Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, 1662.  More nominees on their way. And in the meantime, on the general phenomenon of Fine Arts precursors to current images, see Lawrence Weschler's Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, with excerpt here.



    I like some of the matchups of Tim Geithner and Gary Locke with their Amsterdam counterparts. Also, a fact worth mentioning to viewers of the second picture: surprising as it might seem given this picture, Lawrence Summers is actually quite a good athlete. The more I look at this picture, the richer it is.

  • News as art

    From my misspent years in DC, I believe I can identify every person in this photo (just now, from Doug Mills of the NYT):


    But why didn't I take more Fine Arts classes in college? Then I would know exactly which Old Master tableau this lineup so powerfully reminds me of. The human dramas suggested by these faces. This is an impromptu work of art.


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion


What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.


Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."


How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital


The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life


The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?



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