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: Dispatches

  • American Exceptionalism: The Shootings Will Go On

    The worst way in which America is unique

    Insane rampages are, sadly, not confined to the United States. One happened this very day in China, where a cruel madman attacked a group of children at school.


    Twenty-two children injured. Versus, at current count, 18 20 little children and nine eight other people shot dead. That's the difference between a knife and a gun.

    Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again. You can look it up.

    No one has been killed on American soil through what we define as an act of "terrorism" in more than a decade, but countless elements of our life are still shaped and warped by the open-ended "war on terror." (Or, if you count the Ft. Hood shooting as "terrorism," 13 people have been killed.)

    Thousands of people die every year from gun violence, an unspeakable number at schools, and -- we mourn and "move on." "Nothing to be done."

    For parents, siblings, and families whose lives have been forever changed (or ended), deepest sympathies. For us as a nation .... I don't know what to say.
  • One other Aspen/China session

    This also resurrected from previous post on (somewhat-insiderish) Aspen blog site:

    There have been so many discussions about China that I can't keep track even of those I've been involved in. But I managed to take notes at one involving Li Cheng, a Shanghai native now at the Brookings Institution, who in a very droll way (under questioning by Orville Schell) made a number of interesting points.

    Li's stated Big Idea theme was "China's Future: A paradox of hope and fear." I won't try to convey the arguments there, but here were a few of the apercus:

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  • Free Flight update (kicking off a series)

    The book I had most fun writing was Free Flight, which came out six years ago. At the time, the hub-and-spoke nature of the airline system was driving passengers crazy with inconvenience and delay. Also at the time, a variety of entrepreneurs and innovators -- some in little garage-scale businesses, some within the federal government itself -- were dreaming up a system of decentralized, flexible, point-to-point air travel based on radically more efficient and less expensive small aircraft.

    For a while after the 9/11 attacks, some people thought that nothing other than air-marshal-laden airliners would ever again be allowed in the sky. But the innovation continued, and the crowding, hassle, and inconvenience of the hub-and-spoke system have become worse than ever. Many of the projects that were gleams in the eye when I wrote the book are now going enterprises: for instance, Cirrus Design, which was then a little family operation, is now by far the most popular maker of small piston-engine planes in the world. (Disclosure: I bought one of Cirrus's earliest planes, at list price, after writing the book -- and sold it, for not that much less than I paid, on the used market when I moved to China last year. As reported earlier, my one experience in flying a plane in China was so chastening that I will not try that again.)

    A whole string of other updates awaits. To begin with: the news last week that this same Cirrus company has entered the "personal jet" market with a new model of its own. More details from Cirrus here and from AVWeb here. Official portrait below:

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  • Microsoft, Google, and desktop search (updated, after jump)

    Too much is still unclear about the latest Google-Microsoft staredown (over Vista's "Instant Search" disk-search function) to hazard any larger opinion about its implications or merits. It got my attention for this simple reason: it reassured me that I wasn't going crazy. At least not in this particular way.

    Under the reported terms of the settlement, Microsoft will change Vista so that users can turn off the search function that now comes built-in and turned on. For several months I have been driving myself crazy and feeling like an idiot because I had such trouble doing just that.

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  • This strikes me as an important search engine story

    Via Network World, a report that appears to validate something I have long suspected: what you find, when you're searching the web, depends very heavily on which search engine you use. That is, rather than Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Live, Alta Vista, Ask, etc providing overlapping views of the central data repository that is the World Wide Web, each returns a particular sampling of that data, which can differ to a startling degree from the other samples.

    For instance, the study compared the first-page searches from major engines and found that on average:

    • 69.6% of Google’s [first page results] were unique to Google.

    • 79.4% of Yahoo’s were unique to Yahoo.

    • 80.1% of Live’s were unique to Live.

    • 75.0% Ask’s were unique to Ask.

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  • I'm mad at Earthlink. Or maybe it's mad at me?

    Here's the scenario:

    1) Someone with an @Earthlink.com email address sends me a message. [Correction: I mean @Earthlink.net]

    2) I write back.

    3) I get a charming, mock-affable message from the Earthlink spam filter saying that my reply has been blocked. (Sample, with identifying details removed, at end of post.)

    I assume this is because my IP address shows that I'm in China. Or because I'm using a wi-fi system with dynamic IP address assignment. Or something. Whatever it is, other email systems are able to cope with it. This bounceback happens whenever someone from @Earthlink.com sends me mail. It does not happen (so far) with anyone else.

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  • How media "guidance" works in China

    The local Chinese- and English-language press has carried many stories about the Shanxi province brick kilns in in which large numbers of people, many of them children, had been captured and forced to work in slave-labor conditions. These are horrifying stories, and the state-controlled media, rather than trying to rationalize them away, has generally moved into muckraker mode with hunts for the malefactors.

    But a translated document on China Digital Times, from UC Berkeley, is as sobering in its own way. The site carries what it says is a translation of a memo from the Communist Party's Central Office of External Communication, which offers this guidance about the unsettling news.

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  • Surprise post-9/11 movie tip

    I liked the book but was in no hurry to see the movie version of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. As Pacific Northwest atmospherics it was great; as a mystery it was very good; as a story of star-crossed love it was not that interesting to me; and as a reminder of the racial injustices against Japanese-Americans in World War II it was worthy but I thought already got the point.

    Now I realize: that was pre-9/11 thinking. (The movie came out in 1999.)

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  • Worth checking out: the new Ask.com

    I love Google. Everyone loves Google. But I’ve also had a long secret fondness for Ask.com, nee AskJeeves.

    The original AskJeeves concept of trying to figure out what questions users might eventually ask, and preparing answers for them, had some obvious limitations. (Same ones that are evident in the typical FAQ file.) But over the last year or two Ask’s search system has introduced enough features and tweaks to be worth visiting along with Google. For instance, I’ve found that its image search gets more quickly to what I’m looking for than most alternatives.

    Recently Ask rolled out the new search page it has been working on for quite a while.

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  • You say Pataki, I say Pataca

    I am in Macau again, another southern Chinese haunt I’ve seen nearly as often as Shenzhen.

    I know it is wrong, very wrong — and ignorant, too! — to judge this way, but: Macau will seem more august when its currency is called something other than the “pataca.” “That will be 2,000 patacas, please.”

    Or maybe it’s not that wrong. Maybe Macau’s Chinese-speaking majority agrees! The Portuguese words printed on Macau banknotes (this was, of course, once a Portuguese colony) say cinquenta patacas, etc. But the Chinese characters on the pataca bills list the currency as 圓 — our old friend yuan, the same name used throughout the Chinese mainland on People’s Republic of China banknotes. (There it takes the “simplified” form 圆.) Here is one case where oddly-translated Western words are actually a blessing.

  • Words of Wisdom from a Chinese official

    No, not about the Sopranos. Didn’t see any of this season; don’t want to hear or read about the finale; will get the whole-season boxed set for $5 or so from the local dealer when it’s ready in the next few days.

    According to today’s (English-language, state-controlled) China Daily, the vice-minister of Construction, Qiu Baoxing, has noticed that non-stop bulldozing, paving, and skyscraper-building have been less than ideal for China’s cultural and architectural patrimony.

    Indeed, he goes so far as to compare the cultural/architectural effects of today’s gilded age construction boom to those of China’s two outright catastrophes of the past half century: the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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  • No wonder I can't find anything

    Several days ago I was looking for the entrance to one of the big Carrefour outlets in Shanghai. This is the French-based retailer that is second to Wal-Mart in overall global sales but is far more successful than Wal-Mart in China. A Wal-Mart official once told me that he thought hostility to recent U.S. foreign policy had been a drag on the firm’s brand-image in China. Who knows — that certainly hasn’t slowed down McDonald’s, Apple, Dell, Buick, or Starbucks.

    On a sidewalk I asked a security guard, in Chinese, where the store might be. The “could you tell me where” part of the question seemed to come across serviceably. But the store’s name, as I phrased it, led to a look of utter bafflement on the guard’s face. I used the Chinese sounds I thought most comparable — ka ri fu ah — and added the words for department store, but I got nowhere.

    Then I stepped back and looked up, and saw that the guard and I were standing right in front of Carrefour’s main entrance. I thanked him and stepped into the store, only to wonder: how can this be? I mean, apart from cognitive failure on the guard’s side, and linguistic on mine?

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  • A personal note about manufacturing

    The title of my latest article in the Atlantic is “China Makes, the World Takes.” The title wasn’t my idea– I believe it came from Corby Kummer, who edited this article as he has nearly everything I’ve written for the magazine in the last 25 years. But the instant I heard it I thought: yes, that’s right. It exactly suits the argument of the article. And as a bonus, it has great family and emotional resonance for me.

    The title of course is a play on the famous slogan spelled out in neon lights over the Delaware River bridge in Trenton, New Jersey: “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.”

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  • What is Rudy Giuliani talking about???

    This is what I am denied, or spared, by being trapped in Chinese factories or hospitals and getting only intermittent glimpses of real-time Campaign 2008 rhetoric:

    Rudy Giuliani’s answer to the first substantive question of the debate. Knowing everything we know now, good idea or bad idea to have invaded Iraq?

    Absolutely the right thing to do. It’s unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror. And the problem is that we see Iraq in a vacuum. Iraq should not be seen in a vacuum. Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States.


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Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming



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