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: Europe

  • The Zipper Streets of Ikebukuro

    Those tricky Dutch! Their secret to success in zipper-street operations.

    When showing a picture of the "zipper streets" of Amsterdam, I mentioned that Japan was the only other place where I'd seen such an effort to carry out "tidy" infrastructure improvements. Happily, a reader who has worked in Japan sent a picture taken on the west side of Tokyo several years ago that illustrates the point :


    The reader says:

    >>The attached photo was taken on the Meiji Dori between Shinjuku and Ikebukuro in Tokyo, Japan while I lived there during a long term contract. It appeared to be a structure that allowed trucks and equipment to be lowered from street level down underground work areas, perhaps a new subway line. I marveled at how clever it was. There was little equipment noise and even less impediment to the traffic flow.

    I was trekking up to Ikebukuro because my Dad, who had served as an MP at Sugamo Prison in Ikebukuro after WWII, wanted me to make the last visit there he knew he would not be able to make. Of course, the prison is gone and there was little recognizable left for him in the photos I took, but he seemed satisfied. He guarded Tojo in his last days.<<
    And, to the previous question of why the Dutch are so good at "zipper street" skills, another reader explains:
    >>After spending a good chunk of the last five years in Rotterdam, I note that the Dutch have two big advantages over the rest of the world when it comes to digging up streets:  most of the country is built on sand, not dirt (a result of their ongoing reclamation of the North Sea as usable land), and it is easy to dig through.  And for the most part, their utilities are under the sidewalks, not the streets, so its usually just pedestrians and bike traffic who have to work around it, not cars and trucks.

    One more thought: the Dutch tradition of working hard at hand labor exceeds most countries: the culture really expects (and celebrates) hard work.  Their work crews put American equivalents to shame.  I'm always amazed at how hard they're working, and how quickly the work is done.<<

    After the jump, zipper streets in Italy, Hong Kong, and elsewhere.

    From a reader in Italy:

    >>Zipper streets are a standard in Rome, Italy. But italians tend to raise the level... sometime we don't fill the holes after the first work is over. Someone is going to need to dig sooner or later...<<

    The Singapore aspect:

    >>The Economist published an article a few years ago which compared countries' policies on street openings.  I seem to recall that the upshot was that those with advance notice requirements and substantial fees (like Singapore) had fewer openings and the use of tunnelling robots.  Those with lax requirements (like England) get torn-up streets and masses of construction workers whose mothers never taught them to wear belts with their trousers.<<

    And from a friend in Hong Kong:

    >>Regarding your posting on Dutch civility here are some snaps taken outside of my office on Conduit Road in Hong Kong.

    Zipper? It's more like a compound fracture.<<




    More »

  • The Zipper Streets of Holland

    Ah, those tidy Dutch

    A reader in California responds to the report of "zipper streets" in Shanghai -- thoroughfares that are continually dug up, paved over, and dug again for (seemingly ill-planned) maintenance:

    >>It's by no means an exclusively Chinese phenomenon. My San Francisco office is on the ground floor a hundred feet from the intersection of Battery and Washington Streets. That intersection was completely ripped up and repaved three times between early 2009 and mid-2010, with weeks of jackhammers each time.<<

    And from a friend in Holland, reports of a tidier version of the same process there:

    >>In Amsterdam we just witnessed them dig up the street THREE times in front of [a friend's] house on 3 separate days, and there it works like a dream. The streets and sidewalks are all red bricks, and they just pick out a line of bricks, dig down into the dirt, lay whatever pipe, and then fill it up the hole again and replace the bricks.  It is kept looking beautiful all the time!   Almost no noise.<<

    She included pictures from her window today. This is "after," as the work is being wrapped up:


    "Before" shot, and another Amsterdam pic, after the jump.


    And across the canal to similar orderly infrastructure work:

    Japan is the other place where I've seen street repairs carried out with the same "let's keep this as prim and orderly as possible" policy as we're hearing about Holland. In China, as mentioned previously here, it's more the rough-and-ready, "get the job done and worry about being 'prim' later" approach that has let the country do so much so fast.

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  • More on foreigners and their exotic tongues

    Two reader reactions to my bemusement about Germans taking me for one of their own:

    1) From Ward Wilson, of Trenton, NJ:

    My friend Richard - a wonderful big Mississippian with a civil-war beard
    and a slow drawl went to Paris to play classical saxophone. You know
    they always say that thing about "If you just /try/ to speak their
    language, they'll appreciate it and everything will go so much more
    Richard went into a corner patisserie or something and said to the
    beefy, angry-looking Frenchman behind the glass case: "Ave vous . . . un
    . . . croisant du . . . chocolat?
    " You have to imagine this done
    haltingly in a heavy Mississippi drawl.
    The big Frenchman leans toward him, hands on the glass case and says, "Spick Anglish! Do nut /waste/ mah tahm!"

    2) From Mike Schilling, of the East Bay area in NoCal:

    True story: I was out for a walk in Amsterdam and discovered that I was a bit lost. I stopped a passerby to ask directions to the Rembrandt museum.
    “Excuse me, do you happen to speak English?”
    (*very* irately) “Of course! I went to school!”

    Something I like about the Chinese approach to their own language is that it resembles America's approach to English - and differs from the French (or Japanese) attitude about their respective languages. The French and Japanese, in my experience and in general, are prideful about the special elegance of their language, and the unlikelihood that outsiders can communicate effectively in it, let alone elegantly.

    Americans are much more utilitarian in their view toward English: they've heard a million versions of it within their own borders (Brooklyn, Alabama, Little Havana, Nigerian emigrants, etc) and expect that everyone should give it a stab. Something roughly similar applies in China. People have heard a million versions of Chinese; often the regional variations make it hard for people to understand each other; but they expect that outsiders should make a stab. So, try we do.

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  • Two anthropological thoughts on Germany

    With all the expertise that comes from a full two days in country, en route to Beijing.

    1) These people are tall! For my purposes, human beings come in two sizes: Taller than me, and any other height.* I can't help noticing that many more Germans fall into the first category than I am used to encountering -- and don't get me started on the giant Dutch. I had followed the whole academic/journalistic discussion of the fact that Americans are no longer, on average, the tallest people on earth. It's hard to appreciate this when in China, where people are larger in all ways than they were twenty years ago but on average nowhere near as tall, big, or heavy as the typical Yank. In Western Europe you see that the phenomenon is real.

    2) I had better start thinking of Germans as a distinctly good-looking people, because apparently they're how I look. In most places where I don't belong, culturally or linguistically, my outsiderness is obvious at a glance. In Asia or Africa: naturally. Even in France -- maybe it's the clothes, maybe the lack of a Gallic je ne sais quoi, but for whatever reason no one ever approaches me there and starts speaking French.

    In Germany, they come up all the time and start speaking German. It's happened every time I've been there, and it happened often this time. My point is not: "people in Germany are always speaking German." What I mean is, "people in Germany are always speaking German to me." Which I can't speak back.

    It's quite a strange feeling to be assumed to belong -- as someone asks quickly for directions on the street or a shopkeeper starts making colloquial banter, in the quick informal tone you use only with native speakers -- and then have to explain, haltingly, that in fact you have little idea of what's being said. In Germany (or Holland or Sweden), the speaker then usually apologizes and switches to a cultured variety of English, which completes the humiliation. This gives me a glimpse into the experiences of my Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Korean-American friends who show up in their ancestral homeland without knowing the ancestral tongue.

    * Ask me if someone is closer to 5'6" or 5'10" and I'll say, I'm not sure. Ask me if someone is 6' 1 1/2" versus 6'2" and I'll know exactly, since that's the critical zone.

  • The modern ecology of news: Berlin edition

    I love Berlin, and in the late 1990s I wrote a very brief item in the Atlantic's travel section with some reasons why. (Link here; the item in its terse totality is after the jump.) At the time I wrote, I hadn't been back to Berlin since its reunification, and I worried that its smoky, feverishly-doomed evocative nature might have disappeared along with the Wall.

    In several visits since then, I've found I had little reason for concern. The place is spiffed up and modernized, but it is still plenty noir! Yesterday it was Berlin as I imagined and remembered it: raw, overcast, pouring rain, the noontime sun very low in the sky as it headed toward twilight at 4:30 and pitch blackness at 5. As we walked through the rain and wind and blear on Unter den Linden, I was thinking: This is so atmospheric! My wife, the reality-based member of our household, was thinking and finally came out and said: This is so miserable!

    So we ducked into the nearest dry structure, the Deutsches Historiches Museum. (The difference between visiting Europe and visiting Asia: any English speaker can guess what the name of this structure means. Its counterpart in China, which would be called something like 中国历史博物馆, is more of a stretch.)

    This proved to be Berlinish serendipity. We spent several hours inside the museum, fascinated by, among many other things, a display of early-Nazi-era propaganda art. The guard told me to stop taking pictures only after I'd seen this Village of the Damned-style poster of a wholesome Aryan family.


    The little boys' eyes make the picture, of course:


    There is also a wonderful display of artifacts from the threadbare life of old East Germany, including a "pioneering" Robotron personal computer introduced years after the Apple II and IBM PC. This section was presented with the bittersweet tenderness of the movie Goodbye Lenin.

    But here was the news value of the visit. On the way out, as visitors concluded their immersion in the last millennium-plus of German history, the museum offered them up-to-the-second news. Four large-screen computer terminals offered them four sources of news, two in English, two in German. They were, in English:
    - the New York Times online;
    - AlJazeera.net

    And for German sources of news:
    - Der Spiegel online; and
    - Google News Deutschland.

    The contemporary ingredients of a balanced news diet. Life is full of surprises.

    Here is the original "I love Berlin" item, from a collection of short essays on "books about interesting places" in the magazine's travel section:

    The real Berlin can be sunny -- in August even warm. But the Berlin I love in books is always dark at four-thirty on a November afternoon, chill wind on the Kurfürstendamm, everything damp, the light oily through the fog. In Brussels such conditions would merely be clammy. In Berlin they call up a melancholy decadence that makes the city irresistibly romantic and sad.
    The wartime horror of course shapes this sense of doom and mystery, but most of the appealing Berlin literature is set just prior to or after the war. Otto Friedrich's Before the Deluge, a prose equivalent of George Grosz cartoons, made me want to see the remnants of the flickering Weimar-era life -- the Bauhaus quarter where Walter Gropius's buildings still stand, the gritty Wedding suburb that inspired Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Lotte Lenya, "Mack the Knife." Thomas Berger's underappreciated series of "Reinhart" novels begins with Crazy in Berlin. This book, published in 1958, is much funnier than a John LeCarré novel -- yet it also set the tone of cheerless, tattered Cold War spying that brought LeCarré fame five years later with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Charles McCarry's The Secret Lovers and The Last Supper use the postwar Berlin of black-market cigarettes and hasty de-Nazification to much the same literary effect. Taking the U-Bahn to the deserted Olympic stadium, I could picture Hitler watching the black American track star Jesse Owens at the 1936 Games, and also Berger's and McCarry's furtive characters of the 1950s meeting in the shadows to trade secrets.
    I have not seen the city again since reading Philip Kerr's trilogy of wartime detective novels, Berlin Noir,or John Marks's recent novel about reunification, The Wall -- or, for that matter, since the Wall itself came down. No doubt the reunited Berlin is a cheerier, less complex and brooding place. But I suspect that as dark falls, in the cold, the mystery is still there.

    More »


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



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