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, China Airborne, was published in early May. 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 US 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 two most recent books, Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009), are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
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:
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:
Just before leaving China last month, I showed up in the pre-dawn haze (referring to my state of mind, not the weather) at the Shanghai Media Group TV studios for an interview with Jeff Brown, of the Lehrer News Hour, about the nature of Chinese factory life. Streaming video is here; RealAudio here; MP3 here; transcript here.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
It started two weeks ago: drinks on a beautiful Shanghai evening with a visiting American couple at Barbarossa, a surreal Arabic-themed indoor/outdoor restaurant right in People’s Square. The husband was a doctor, here for a consultation on product-safety issues. “I’m a dermatologist, and so….” I stop listening to the sentence at that point but corner him as we’re leaving. “Funny you should mention you’re a dermatologist. Would you mind taking a look at….?” People ask me this kind of favor all the time, and I usually say yes. (Will I read Cousin Sally’s book manuscript? Can I suggest a publisher for a collection of poems?) In the cycle of karma, it was my turn to ask advice.
According to a Shanghainese friend (whose name I’m omitting because, really, how much good can it do a Chinese citizen to be seeing discussing anything fighter-plane related with a foreign journalist?), the planes I saw zooming overhead recently were probably just on a training mission from a local air field.
Sure enough, a quick check with Google Earth shows an obviously- military airfield just north of town, on Chongming Island at the mouth of the mighty Yangtze.
Last fall, in an Atlantic cover story called “Declaring Victory,” I discussed the one big advantage the United States held over most European countries when it came to dealing with Islamic terrorists: the loyalty and assimilation of America’s Muslim and Arabic-origin populations. The two categories are not identical — many U.S. Muslims are from Pakistan, India, Iran, or other non-Arab countries; many Arab-Americans are non-Islamic, especially Lebanese Christians — but they are similar in overall success in America and resistance to extremist views. For instance (from that article):
“The patriotism of the American Muslim community has been grossly underreported,” says Marc Sageman, who has studied the process by which people decide to join or leave terrorist networks. According to Daniel Benjamin, a former official on the National Security Council and coauthor of The Next Attack, Muslims in America “have been our first line of defense.” Even though many have been “unnerved by a law-enforcement approach that might have been inevitable but was still disturbing,” the community has been “pretty much immune to the jihadist virus.”
I’ve read Stephen Amidon’s Human Capital only now, three years after it came out. My main question is why people hadn’t been telling me about it before. OK, the operational explanation may well be that it got dismissive “not quite up to snuff” handling in the all-powerful NYT. For instance, right near the top of Michiko Kakutani’s “we are not amused” review was: “The novel never lives up to its Dreiseresque ambitions…And those larger aims sometimes clash with the author’s more commercial impulses to write a made-for-the-movies thriller.” Etc.
I've spent most of my life in places with lots of airborne activity to notice and watch. I grew up near a major Air Force base. We heard sonic booms every day on the school playground and learned how far to "lead" the sound's origin when looking at the sky, so as to spot the jet traveling much faster than its sound. The base was also a center for B-52 operations. During the Vietnam War years, I'd see news footage of the unmistakable "Stratofortress" silhouette over a jungle and think, Yes, that's just how it looked over our house.
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|Blind into Baghdad||Boiled-frog|
|Brave little USB||Budget|
|China Airborne||China Daily|
|China Menace||China Today|
|Copenhagen||Crisis of the press|
|Doing Business in China||Dreaming in Chinese|
|Going to hell|
|Ideas 2009||Ideas 2011|
|Obama||Obama in Asia|
|Occupy Wall Street||Olympics|
|Public health||Reader comment|
|Security Sanity||Security Theater|
|Self-pity and its discontents||Small Business|
|Volcano||Walk like an American|
|Wine||Year end pensee|
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