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:

    * He came to the U.S. in 1985, after a horrific experience for his family in the Cultural Revolution. His father was a factory owner; his mother taught in a Catholic school. His brother was beaten to death by Red Guards for the offense of listening to the Voice of America. (Theme that runs through many other sessions: the Cultural Revolution as a devastating experience in living memory of hundreds of millions of people in today's China, but still too rarely discussed or dealt with. It is as if the Civil War, or slavery, were never discussed in the U.S., or the Holocaust in Europe.)

    * First impression on arrival comes at the ice cream store. "In China, we have only vanilla. In America, there are so many flavors!" The following thought may seem heretical to those who marvel at the Maserati dealerships and fancy restaurants of today's big-city China, but my wife and I have a similar impression when we go to the U.S., Europe, or even Hong Kong after a spell in China: So many things in the store! Such a wide choice! On ice cream, though, all the flavors you would want are now available in China.

    * On the environment (a huge theme in discussions of China here): when a rural dweller moves to the big city, his or her demands on the water supply increase thirty-fold. This reminds me of a statistic I heard last year in China: if the average Shanghainese resident took a shower even once a week, the city's water supply would be used up.

    * Also on the environment: When Li Cheng and his schoolmates were asked to draw pictures of "beautiful China" in elementary school, they would typically draw pictures of Tiananmen Square -- with belching black smokestacks in the background. It was not that they foresaw the air-pollution hell that is modern Beijing. "It was because Chairman Mao said that he wanted to see smokestacks everywhere as a sign of industrialization and progress."

    * A growth area for the service sector in China: psychological counseling! "These one-child families have lots of problems."

    * On the spiritual situation of modern China (another huge theme at this conference): "The absence of values is because of the legacies of the Cultural Revolution and the rapid rush to materialism. The Cultural Revolution made you believe in nothing. The rush to materialism made you believe only in money. China is very hard hit by these two events. " This rings true to me.

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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:

    AVWeb snapshot of plane with Alan Klapmeier -- Cirrus's CEO, and co-founder of the company along with his brother Dale -- at the plane's unveiling in Duluth, here:

    This is a plane that, realistically, I could never afford. But I am glad to know that it exists -- and that, theoretically, I would even be capable of flying it, since the company has been at pains to make the cockpit and control panel identical to its existing planes (with the obvious exception of engine controls).

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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.

    Vista's indexed search function is fine. It's just that I prefer another program to keep track of email, Word files, PDFs, music files, photos, and everything else on my own computer. That is X1, free at X1.com, which I've used for years and praised several times before in print. In my experience, it's faster and more flexible, with (to me) a better interface, than either Microsoft's or Google's comparable disk-search systems. It sometimes crashes under Vista, but it starts up again with little delay and no data loss.

    And since I'm not using Vista's Instant Search, I'd rather do without the multi-gigabyte index files that it keeps on my hard disk, or the constant drain on processing speed. (Any indexer hogs disk space and processor time, so I don't want to run two of them at once.) How you might disable it is not, umm, obvious from the Vista help files. Apparently switching it off will now be easier to do.

    Actually, it turns out that I am an idiot. If I'd seen this post on the techie site 4sysops.com back in February, I would have known that an IT specialist named Michael Pietroforte, of the University of Munich, had provided tips on how to tame or turn off Instant Search. How could I have been so negligent! I'm trying his approach #2 right now.

    (Update: Michael Ham, of the LeisureGuy / Later On blog, points out that X1's site has been changed to somewhat conceal the fact that there is a free version. I can't really blame them: it's a great product. Nonetheless, as Ham explains, you sign up for a free trial -- and when its over, the ability to search networks is disabled, but it still works very well in indexing and searching your own machine.)

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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.

    All in all, according to the survey, only 1% of results appeared on the front page of all four search engines.

    Now, the study was commissioned by Dogpile, a "metasearch" engine that combines results from many different engines -- and therefore has an obvious self-interested stake in the idea that no single engine produces a balanced view. But it was conducted by real academics, at Penn State and Queensland University of Technology in Australia, and it appears to be on the up-and-up. It involves comparisons of results on more than 19,000 separate search queries. (Oddly, the Network World article has no link to the study itself; via Dogpile, I found a summary of it here and the full text, in PDF format, here.)

    Let's allow the possibility that, because of Dogpile's commercial interest in exactly this research finding, some other study will come to a different conclusion. Still the general topic of how computerized "intelligence" -- in this case, the reliance on search engines to produce data people used to have to remember or look up in books -- affects "real" intelligence will only become more interesting. The implications of this report, about the separate realms of knowledge we discover via internet search, will be worth coming back to.


    I was going to add a link to a New York Times column I did on this subject three years ago, but it's now behind their firewall. For those with NYT access, it is here. The relevant passage (and I assume I have the right to quote myself) was this:

    When the computer age began, some people warned that the rise of word-processing systems would mean the decline of skillful writing. The idea was that computers would make writing so automatic and easy - yeah, sure -that fine points of thought and language would be buffed away, leaving depersonalized, machinelike prose.

    In retrospect, there was nothing to worry about. Books, articles and lectures are now as good, and bad, as they have ever been. One area that technology has obviously changed is personal communication, through e-mail and instant messaging. But there, its main effect has been positive, in reviving what had been the moribund idea that people, even teenagers, could stay in touch through written as well as spoken words.

    The broader ways in which computers will change our modes of thought and interaction are hard to predict, so any early indicator is interesting. Electronic calculators, for instance, have already eliminated one ingredient from the traditional concept of being "smart." From the invention of arithmetic until about 1970, speed and accuracy in handling numbers were a mark of intellectual distinction. Now computational skill is a parlor trick because the most gifted human prodigy cannot keep up with the cheapest hand-held device.

    A "sticky" mind, one that retains names and ideas and retrieves them on demand, has traditionally been a proxy for one kind of intelligence. But how long will that matter, as search engines grow faster and more precise? We'll know the change has come when a schoolchild with Google can knock off any "Jeopardy" champ.

    Long before that happens, another change driven by Google could have a cultural, and perhaps even political, impact...

    [And on to a discussion of the way Google's "AdSense" program could make small blogs profitable, and could make Google rich. This was a few months before Google's IPO, which I was "sensible" enough to take no part in. That looks stupid now, but not as stupid as pooh-poohing posts like this.]

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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.

    Come on, Earthlink. You can do better than this. At least you can give a blanket OK to return mail from addresses your members have already sent mail to. Right?

    (Here is what I get x times a day:)

    Hi. This is the qmail-send program at cnshasmtp3.maginet.net.

    I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.

    This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out. [Note to Earthlink: go to hell with this cheesy bogus empathy!]

    Connected to xxx.86.93.xxx but sender was rejected.

    Remote host said: 550 550 Dynamic/zombied/spam IPs blocked. Write blockedbyearthlink@abuse.earthlink.net

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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.

    All External Communication Offices, Central and Local Main News Websites:

    Regarding the Shanxi “illegal brick kilns” event, all websites should reinforce positive propaganda, put more emphasis on the forceful measures that the central and local governments have already taken, and close the comment function in the related news reports. The management of the interactive communication tools, such as online forums, blogs, and instant messages, should also be strengthened. Harmful information that uses this event to attack the party and the government should be deleted as soon as possible. All local external communication offices should enhance their instruction, supervision and inspection, and concretely implement the related management measures.

    The Internet Bureau, CPC Central Office of External Communication

    June 15, 2007

    For another time, discussion of which parts of Chinese life (media, public assembly, political challenge to the Party) remain under very tight control, and which others (commerce, most citizens' daily lives) do not. For now, and assuming this is an accurate report: another sobering reminder that just because China is becoming rich and capitalist, it is not necessarily becoming "liberal." And by the way: at the moment China Digital Times is blocked by the Great Firewall. You need a VPN or other work-around to see what it's publishing. (Update: to be clear, the Great Firewall prevents people inside China from reading reports on the CDT website, which is based in the United States.)

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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.)

    I was in a gym just now where Snow Falling was on the big-screen TV. A crucial early scene comes just after Pearl Harbor, when the hero-journalist played by Sam Shepherd (essentially Atticus Finch, in a different line of work) writes an editorial chastising fellow citizens in his small San Juan Islands town for turning indiscriminately against their issei and nisei Japanese-American neighbors. His son (Ethan Hawke) pounds it out onto a Linotype machine and reads it aloud as he types:

    Let us live that, when it is over, we can look each other in the eye. And know we have acted honorably.

    Now wouldn’t that be a useful thought to hear from time to time from our national leadership? I can think of three times since September 11, 2001, when leaders have tried to express anything of the sort:

    • When George Bush invited American Muslim leaders to the White House for an end-of-Ramadan ceremony in 2001;
    • When David Petraeus told his troops in Iraq last month that adherence to high moral standards is what “distinguishes us from our enemies.”
    • When Colin Powell said early this month “If it was up to me, I would close Guantanamo. Not tomorrow, but this afternoon.”

    Of the three, Petraeus deserves the most credit. Unlike Bush, he has said it within the last five years. Unlike Powell, he made the point while he was in a position of authority.

    To know we have acted honorably — that is a feeling Americans wouldn’t mind these days. Check out the flick.

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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.

    Early this year I saw some of the features in embryonic form, during a visit to my friend Yumin Liang and his research team in Hangzhou, China. (Subject for another time: the shift of some “real” research work by international firms, not just “localization” work for the Chinese-language audience, to sites in China.)

    These features, and more, are now available on the revamped Ask.com site. The crucial concept here is presenting a lot of different kinds of information on one screen. You search for, say, the Atlantic Monthly on Ask, and you get pretty quickly a central column of normal search results. But over the next few seconds the rest of the page fills in. On the right side of the page, images, blog links, encyclopedia entries. On the left, ways to narrow or expand your search — narrow it by asking about the magazine’s history, expand it by also learning about, say, the New Yorker. It’s worth giving a try.

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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.

    (As Adam Minter has noted, the China Daily is always careful to refer to the latter as the “cultural revolution” — in quotes, lower case, one of many indications of official discomfort with any discussion of that era.) This article and slide show, by Howard French in yesterday’s New York Times, gives an indication of what is being lost here in Shanghai as the land developers run wild.

    The newspaper ran a quote from Vice-Minister Qiu in a separate, highlighted box. As China razes the old and rebuilds the often-featureless new, he said, “It is like a thousand cities having the same appearance.”

    I still have about 980 cities to go before I could say for sure, but based on what I’ve seen he’s right. I hope the vice minister’s words indicate actual adjustments in policy — not just a signal to foreign readers that the government is aware of a problem it knows the outside world is upset about.

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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?

    There is an answer, and it involves one strange way in which China is less directly open to foreign influence than, say, Japan. In general, China seems more easy-going and matter-of-fact about incorporating foreign ideas, customs, and people than Japan is. The why and how of this assertion is for another day. But when it comes to adopting foreign words, China seems for some reason more restrained than Japan.

    Japan has a special phonetic alphabet used largely (but not only) for writing foreign-derived words. This is katakana, and much like the use of italics in this very sentence, it often indicates a word that’s been appropriated from another language. Since the sounds of katakana are so easy to learn, and since so many of the imported words come from English, English speakers can very quickly make sense of some crucial parts of the written Japanese around them. You’re looking for Carrefour in Tokyo? It’s spelled カルフール, pronounced ka ru fu ru, close enough to let you guess. Carrefour has been a commercial failure in Japan, but that’s not the point for now.

    You want to buy a computer in Japan? You look for コンピュータ, pronounced kon pyu ta, again not that hard to figure out once you get with the system.

    China instead takes the French approach – borrowing the foreign concept but re-creating it in its own domestic terms. You want a computer in China? You need to find a 电脑, pronounced dian nao. It means “electric brain” in Chinese, so that makes perfect sense – except that there’s no way to guess at the pronunciation, or even tell quickly, as you can with Japanese, which of the characters indicate the foreign term.

    And if you’re looking for Carrefour in Shanghai, it turns out that what you want is 家乐福. The characters mean family, happiness, wealth, so that is nicely auspicious. But they’re pronounced jia le fu – which I couldn’t guess as “Carrefour” until I saw them, and which the guard didn’t guess from what I said. (To be fair, this was mainly his fault. I can’t have been the first foreigner to be looking for the store that was five feet away from his duty station. This is one of many indications that Chinese education is not necessarily the all-conquering genius-creating marvel often described in the West.)

    Similarly, when trying to get by taxi to a Sheraton hotel, I had a much easier time once I realized that “Sheraton” was written 喜来登 and pronounced xi lai deng. If you’re ever tempted to think that the world is becoming too similar as it becomes more modern, my word for you is: Carrefour. Rather, jia le fu.

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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.”

    (That is from a rendering in 1935. The modern version is below:)

    Not every Atlantic reader will recognize the phrase, but anyone who has taken the train between Washington and New York will have seen the bridge and probably stared at it at least briefly during the train’s stop at Trenton station.

    The slogan was adopted by the Trenton Chamber of Commerce nearly 100 years ago in honor of the countless small manufacturing firms in the area during America’s manufacturing boom of the early 20th century. One of these companies was for a while run by my grandfather, Joseph Wilkes Mackenzie. Through the 1920s, the Mackenzie ceramics works thrived by producing the small ceramic insulators seen everywhere on power lines and telephone poles.

    The company’s story has an unhappy ending. My grandfather died in a car crash in 1930, when my mother was three. Soon afterwards the company failed in the Depression, and my mother and her two older brothers had a rough upbringing (though she had a very happy later life). The larger saga of mid-Atlantic manufacturing took a similar downward course a few decades later. That sad story — what we’d now call a de-industrialization — is told by the derelict factories of New Jersey and Pennsylvania now visible along the same railroad line.

    Other parts of the world are now in the booming, confident, “Makes - Takes” stage of development, most notably the Pearl River Delta region of southern China, which is the subject of my current article. The slogan on Trenton’s bridge can now be seen as campy, defiant, charming, retro, wistful — or as just about anything except “realistic” any more. Trenton, while not the richest city in America, is vastly richer than any place in China. Still, the slogan shows how important manufacturing is to an area’s, a nation’s, or a family’s sense of pride and purpose. Because the motto is so powerful, within my family, in evoking one industrial moment, I thought it particularly fitting for this new moment in China.

    (Appreciation to a site honoring another lost New Jersey small manufacturing site, Stangl Pottery, for these illustrations.)

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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.


    You can understand why President Bush has to argue this case. To do otherwise would be to concede that his foreign policy has been a failure not just of execution but of fundamental concept.

    You can understand why a lot of people argue that now, largely because of the disastrous U.S. occupation, Iraq has indeed become a center of world terrorist organization against the United States – and that this fact makes all the worse America’s bad-enough-to-begin-with predicament in figuring out when and how it can leave. (My view remains: It’s only getting worse the longer we stay, so while it would be terrible to start leaving now, it will be more terrible the longer we wait.)

    You can understand how tempting it would be for the Democrats to change just a little part of this statement: “It’s unthinkable that you would leave Osama bin Laden in charge of al Qaeda and be able to fight the war on terror.” Which would kick off a discussion of all the ways in which the switch to Iraq let bin Laden and his cronies wriggle away.

    What you can’t understand, or at least what I have a hard time with, is why somebody who is not lumbered with responsibility for the Iraq war — didn’t help plan or execute it, didn’t even have to vote for it in Congress — would voluntarily link himself to the war in this way. And without even relying on the most respectable explanation. (”Everyone thought he had weapons of mass destruction. We did, the Brits did, even the French did. And if I’m going to be wrong, I’d rather be wrong on the side of defending America from madmen with bombs!” etc.) It’s not simply that the judgment of the military, intelligence, and academic worlds now stacks up so overwhelmingly against the “fight them there so we don’t fight them here” delusion. The public has turned against it too.

    I flatly do not believe that Giuliani knows something the rest of us don’t know about the dynamics of Iraq, al Qaeda, or Islamic extremism in general that justifies his view. So he must think he knows something about the long-term political dynamics in the United States. Or just short- term ones. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I think I’ll view my enforced distance from much of this stuff as another plus of being in China, not a minus.

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The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



From This Author