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: Mac

  • I Stand Corrected, Part #23,752 (Running Mac Programs on a PC)

    Yes, you can.

    I mentioned several days ago that with a virtualization program like VMware Fusion, "I can happily run any Windows program on a Mac, but things don't work the other way around."

    In accord with the timeless principle that the surest way to generate readers' corrections is to state something categorically, it turns out that what I said is not quite true. You can make the Macintosh operating system run on a Windows computer. It's just not easy -- and, according to Apple, it's not legal either. Reader Hal O'Brien explains:

    Google the term, "hackintosh." Basically, you get a copy of OS X, apply patches to it, and either a) use as the base system for, say, a netbook, or b) run it in a VMWare window, same as any other OS. Here's a picture of when I did this on my own [which shows Linux, Mac OS X, and Win XP all running on a Dell, with VMware]:


    Apple's official position appears to be, it's completely in violation of the license agreement. OTOH, they don't appear to be enforcing claims against violators to date, and they're fairly open about it (see earlier Google search, pointing to some transparent domains). 
And here's a pair of pointers to mildly boggle the mind: here and here.

    This is all a consequence of when Apple decided to go to the Intel architecture. As long as they were using Motorola/PowerPC, it just wasn't possible. Rather, clearly one *can* virtualize Motorola/PowerPC on an Intel platform. But it's a lot *easier* when the code is native for Intel, as OS X is these days -- and that's a clear consequence of the chip switch Apple made.

    One of the curious upshots is it allows comparisons to the "true" demand for Mac vs PC, by looking at torrent sites and seeing how many downloads are going on. On a major site, the most popular torrent of OS X has ~150 downloaders just now. For Windows 7, it's in the high 600s. Which implies roughly a 20% share of demand. [Versus normal estimates of Mac OS market share being somewhere in mid-single-digit range, eg this or this.]

    I don't think I'll ever try this, but in theory it can be done. FWIW.

  • Fair and balanced bug reporting

    I've loved every one of the 40 or 50 computers I've owned through the decades, starting with the Processor Technology SOL-20 I got in 1978. Actually, all of them but one. I won't rub it in, but the Vista-burdened Lenovo ThinkPad T60 I bought in 2006 caused me so much grief, for so long, for hardware and software reasons alike, that starting 18 months ago it switched me from career ThinkPad allegiance over to the Mac side.

    Having aired my grievances about that benighted machine month by month, for equal-time purposes I should record the first significant hardware problem with any of the three Macs I now own: an sudden intense whine from my three-month-old MacBook Pro's fan, so loud and piercing that I can't stand to use the machine any more until it's fixed. I put on my active-noise-reduction headset while making sure all its files were safely backed up in The Cloud.

    Apparently this is an all too well-known issue, but one of the established solutions (deleting any queued item from the printer device - go figure) didn't help, and I don't feel like opening up the system's housing to re-seat the fan myself (another recommended fix). On to the Apple store for my first repair experience there. Just for the record.

    And for antiquarian purposes: how the SOL-20, still looking quite sprightly in our basement, appeared in its youth. Only known computer with rich walnut-wood case! No, it didn't come with a "monitor." People were tough in those days.


  • Holiday festival of updates #3A: Back to Snow Leopard and "huge pages"

    I declare this the last posting in this venue on whether Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system does or does not support the use of "huge pages" in memory addressing, as laid out previously in Holiday Update #3 here. But for completeness, I offer this report from the other side of the operating system divide:

    "I'm a Software Engineer at Microsoft.  Apple's smart enough to see how little use 4MB pages are and I doubt they will ever implement support any time soon.  
    "Huge pages hurt when the other factors at play are accounted for like memory fragmentation, additional memory used, cost of reading in 4 MB at a time from the disk.  I think this has been tested on IA64 servers with huge amount of ram and it hurt not helped."

    Let's add this to the list of "how big is the universe"-style endlessly debatable questions.

    So many more updates, so few remaining holiday weekend hours.

  • More than you probably want to know about Snow Leopard


    I expect to have a Mac OS X 10.6 / Snow Leopard install disk on hand for amusement over the Labor Day weekend. Between that and getting TV service re-connected -- after a month, we finally gave in -- it should be a full and satisfying few days.* What is this program they talk about, called "The Daily Show"?** And this man "Conan"?

    On expository as much as purely technical grounds, I have to say something complimentary about the new 23-page-long review of Snow Leopard by John Siracusa at ArsTechnica. It has technical analysis that should satisfy anyone so inclined. Eg, this diagram and accompanying discussion of Snow Leopard's use of the LLVM approach (Low Level Virtual Machine) and more generally the explanation of how the operating system is designed to do "more with more," that is, making use of the vastly-increased processing power of modern computers.


    But the review also includes much more accessible discussion of the difference this system will make to ordinary users. The Go/No-go advice, which comes on page 23 of the review, is that for most users of Intel-based Macs it's an obvious Go, even though there will certainly be some bugs in this initial release. My main point for the moment is not to give advice one way or another about software upgrades but to note an impressive piece of technical writing.

    UPDATE: Install disk was there when I got home; applied to one computer, MacBook Pro; finished in about 40 minutes with no problems or complications and appears to have freed up many Gigs of disk space.

    UPDATE 2: After repeated attempts, the new OS has not installed on the MacBook Air, after easy handling of the MacBook Pro. This is no doubt due to the fundamental design compromise built into the MBA. To make the system unbelievably light and elegant, a lot of "basic" features were left out, like its own DVD/CD slot. So it installs programs or plays music only from "remote" discs, namely those on other machines in the same local network. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. I'll try tomorrow with hard-wired rather than Wifi connections.

    UPDATE 3: Well, it looks like the failed-install to the MacBook Air had a silver lining. Have tried out all my normal programs and utilities on the Pro; all seem to work without problem on the new OS. Except, I just now learn, the beloved "K4" -- the Adobe-based production software we use to edit, lay out, and put together every article in the magazine. Hmmmm. Maybe I'll pretend I did get Snow Leopard installed on all my computers, so I have an excuse to miss the next few deadlines. Or not bother to install it on the MBA, and stick with that for actual work.

    *For the record, Snow Leopard will go on the household's three Macs, which are also running Windows XP under VMware Fusion; the poor ThinkPad T60 that was blighted with the original, unworkable version of Vista will be left in tech hospice to sputter out its last days; and my wife's new HP laptop, replacing one that died on our very last day in China, not only has the much-less-objectionable latest release version of Vista but also an upgrade certificate for Windows 7, which will be applied in due course.

    ** Just a little joke. I know it's on summer hiatus; even in China I could see it on computer, though boy does the Great Firewall slow down video feeds.

  • Non-politics, non-depressing: nice software updates

    In the "look on the bright side" spirit, a word about two pieces of software, both previously mentioned but now in new releases, that I appreciate, admire, and rely on all the time.

    - SugarSync, by Sharpcast. Several months ago I noted that I found the product's name slightly creepy but was intrigued by its features. I've used it daily since then and have only better and better things to say.

    Its purpose is to keep files in sync among a number of computers. It does that in a way so effortless that you stop even thinking about the program's presence. SugarSync easily connects PCs and Macs and, in some circumstances, handheld devices. Meanwhile, it doubles as an online backup for all the files in your computer, which is of course useful if you have a crash but also if you are in one part of the world and realize that file you want is on the computer back at your office or house. It has recently introduced several new features, including one that lets you safely edit files that "live" on your home computer from any internet-connected computer anywhere. Really a smooth product, by whatever name.

    - Fusion, by VMware. I have previously praised this software ad nauseam. Its point is to let you run any Windows-based program, driver, system software, you name it, on an Intel-based Macintosh -- and, unlike the Mac's own Boot Camp utility, to do so right alongside native Mac programs, cutting and pasting from one to the other. I've mentioned it before because it has been practically bulletproof. As a side note for later discussion, in general it allows Macs to run Windows programs better and faster than most ordinary PCs, mainly because it supports a "pure" version of Windows rather than one burdened by the horrible, unwanted, pre-installed features known as "craplets" that have made so many PCs so unpleasant to use.*

    A new version 2.0 of Fusion has been released, as a free upgrade for users of earlier versions. This new release has eliminated the one problem I'd ever had with Fusion (a screen-corruption issue, discussed here) and has many other enhancements.

    The similarity that connects SugarSync and Fusion is that each represents another step toward freeing users from purely practical concerns -- did I remember to copy that file? do I want to work on it with a PC or a Mac? -- so they can concentrate on the actual ideas and work they want to deal with.

    One further bit of cheer: If you use either Gmail or Google Chrome and have not committed to muscle-memory the extensive keyboard shortcuts for each of them, you're working harder than you need to. Gmail keyboard tips here; Chrome's, here.
    * If you start with a Mac and buy Fusion, you also need to buy a copy of Windows, ideally XP, which you then install in the Fusion part of the Mac. Since you buy this copy of Windows as a standalone CD/DVD, not as something pre-installed by Dell or HP or whomever, you get it in pure form, not encased in all sorts of other junk that comes on most PCs now.

    I'm increasingly convinced by the argument that Windows Vista seems so terrible in part because it mainly comes on newer machines that groan under an intolerable burden of these craplets. I am sorry to say that my once-beloved ThinkPad brand seems, under Lenovo, to be tarnishing itself in this way. Turn back before it's too late, Lenovo! More on this later.

  • Nerds only: very impressive new beta of VMware Fusion

    Recently I mentioned that I was having a video-corruption problem with a Beta 1 version of VMware's Fusion. (For those late to the story: Fusion let's you run Windows programs on an Intel-equipped Macintosh, right alongside the normal Mac programs. Parallels software does the same thing, but I like Fusion better.)

    I'm still having that video problem with the new Beta 2 of Fusion. Perhaps that will make my compliment all the more sincere when I say that the new release is a truly phenomenal piece of engineering. I hope VMware fixes the bug that is annoying me -- and that, according to VMware, is in fact a flaw in Apple's own video drivers for the MacBook Air. But even with the bug, which is work-aroundable since it shows up only in Fusion's "unity" view, I highly recommend this program.

    The earlier incarnations of Fusion already went far toward making the Mac a useful platform for those who don't want to relearn all their computing habits or cut themselves off cold-turkey from the vast world of Windows-only software. I have been using it for several months, on a MacMini and a MacBook Air, to run my workhorse Office2007 programs (Outlook, Word, Excel) plus a number of Windows-based favorites, like Zoot and BrainStorm.

    The new Beta 2 release includes, among many other things, three big features that matter to me: , so you can make a Mac produce keystrokes that its own (deficient, IMHO) keyboard lacks. For instance, the equivalents to Ctl-Home and Ctl-End in Word, to get to the beginning or end of a document, on Mac portable keyboards that don't have those keys -- or PrintScreen, or Insert, or a slew of others. You can assign any command that's missing from a Mac keyboard, or that your fingers are used to producing in a way the Mac doesn't normally allow, to keys it does have;

    keyboard mapping

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  • Trouble in paradise: VMware Fusion + MBAir + Firefox

    I've mentioned previously my admiration for  Firefox 3, VMware Fusion, and the MacBook Air -- the last with some limits, since its elegantly stripped-down design makes it great for traveling but too limited (in disk space and ports) to be a "main" computer.

    These three elements are very good individually and even better together, with one exception. Since the release of Firefox 3, I've found that running it at the same time I'm running Windows programs under Fusion, on the MBAir, frequently leads to a video-corruption problem that makes  the screen look like this:

    It doesn't happen if I'm using Firefox without Fusion, or using Fusion without (native Mac) Firefox. Unfortunately, Firefox and Fusion (which allows you to run any Windows program) are two programs I use all the time. When they're running at the same time and I am switching from one to another, sooner or later I will have this problem. It doesn't cause lost data, but it means a tedious chore of closing down and backing out of programs when you can't see what's on the screen. The menu bars still are visible, and work, but you have to guess-remember what the on-screen dialogue box is saying as you close each program.

    VMware claims this is an (acknowledged) Apple video bug in the MBAir, and that Apple will some day fix it.  I haven't asked Apple's side of the story. I mention it just for the record, as the one and only serious instability issue I've had with the MBAir, and as part of the continuing quest for de-bugging our technological lives.

  • Mac nerds only: becoming a believer on the battery front

    I mentioned earlier that I was using a pricey (~$300) battery extender, from QuickerTek, to make up for one of the MacBook Air's biggest limitations: that you can't swap its battery out. The device in question is the square thing on the left in the photo below. And, yes, that's the Windows XP welcome screen, running very nicely on the Mac under VMware Fusion. If you squint, you can even see the icons for Zoot and Brainstorm, my trusty PC programs. Outlook and X1 are in there too.


    Latest data point: during travel yesterday I used the MB Air away from an electric plug, but with this battery extender, for ten straight hours and was nowhere close to using up the power. Details after the jump, but my experience is: for a price, this is a way to eliminate all questions about whether you can get enough working time out of the MBA.

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  • The next three points about MacBook Air

    As promised recently, the ongoing MacAir report will unfold in compact, digestible three-point installments. (Index to previous installments here.) Today's three points:

    1) Is the MacAir suitable as your "real" computer? No.

    OK: that's a spoiled-sounding thing to say. What I mean is that this machine is optimized for ease, convenience, and elegance as a portable computer, at the expense of features that would make it better for day-in, day-out stuck at the office use.

    Most obvious illustration: this is one of the very few modern computers with no CD/DVD drive at all. (Unlike its closest PC counterpart, the new Lenovo ThinkPad X300.) You can work around that with a convenient utility to read from another machine's DVD drive, over a network -- but that means you have to have another machine. Similarly: you can work around the absence of an Ethernet port (with a separate dongle), and the presence of only one USB port, and the absence of a microphone jack. But they are workarounds, and there is no getting around the limit on the hard drive, which holds a maximum of 80GB. Not a huge amount, by today's desktop computer standards.

    The MacAir remains elegant and beautiful; it has stood up well to travel (protected by this neoprene sleeve); I have no complaints about fit or finish or any other mechanical feature. But just as some resort properties are suitable mainly for those who can consider them "second homes," this is suitable mainly for people who can consider it a second computer. Though a nice one....

    2) What about that battery life?

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  • My three computers (MacBook Air saga, cont..)

    Three months into my use and ownership of both a MacBook Air and a Mac Mini, and nearly 30 years into my use and ownership of computers in the CP/M -> DOS -> Windows lineage, I keep waiting for the moment to give a "complete" and panoramic view of the pluses and minuses of each approach.

    That moment will never come. So I will resume the piecemeal descriptions offered before (here and in previous installments).

    For reference: my three-working-computer setup here at Beijing HQ, in a posed but not entirely unrepresentative configuration. On the left: venerable Thinkpad T60 running Vista and a zillion Windows-style programs. On the right: the MacBook Air in all its svelteness. In between, a Mac Mini, connected to a big flat-panel display and a Mac-style aluminum keyboard.


    I still use all of them, through day by day the trend is, ratchet-like, in the Mac direction. I wouldn't be embarrassed to have a multi-system life for quite a while ahead, since each has its strengths --and since I don't regard this as a religious or cultural all-or-nothing decision. As soon as I even think about trying to present the ins and outs of each system, I get nervous about what a long chore that would be. (Also, I know that David Alison's excellent blog has over the last few months chronicled in exquisite detail every shift, surprise, irritation, how-to, and satisfaction he has gone through during his switch to the Mac.)

    So I'll make this manageable by doling out three or four points per post, which cumulatively may someday represent the complete Mac/PC almanac so many people dream of.

    Today's three points:

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  • The MacBook Air chronicles #4: success with VMWare

    As reported a few days ago, my new MacBook Air -- while undeniably svelte and beautiful, and while having surprisingly good battery life, and while generally performing in much snappier fashion than my Vista laptop -- was giving me trouble in one big way. I had been trying to install either VMWare Fusion or Parallels, the two systems that let you run Windows programs (on an Intel-powered Mac) side by side with Mac OS X. Or that's what the two programs are supposed to do. I couldn't get either of them actually to start up a session of Windows XP. (Was I going to load Vista? Let's be serious.)

    Problem now solved! And it proved not to have been VMWare's fault. I don't know about Parallels -- even though I bought that program for full $80 retail at the Apple store in New York last month (it being the only one available), I never heard back on my requests to its tech support line. But VMWare, which I downloaded as a free 30-day trial product, did reply and gave me the right answer. (Details below.*) I will with relatively good cheer pony up my $80 to register the product -- or $50, after a $30 rebate for previous purchasers of the rival Parallels.

    MacBook Air running WinXP, under VMWare, with "dock" of Mac program icons at the bottom:

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  • MacBook Air #3: Some performance comparisons

    Eventually we'll get to whatever philosophical differences separate computing on the fancy new MacBook Air ultra-light machine from computing on a classy high-end ThinkPad T60 running Vista with its latest updates. (Hint: differences less profound and sweeping than many people assume.)

    Also, some of the practicalities involved in shifting the center-of-gravity of your work from one platform to another. (Hint #1: If you have a lot, lot, lot of info stored in Microsoft Outlook .PST files, as I do, a full shift is not as easy as you've been told. Hint #2: At least for me, neither VMWare Fusion nor Parallels, the two programs that let Intel-powered Macs run Windows programs, has been all that simple to configure and get running -- though I remain hopeful that I'll get one of them to work!)

    Let's talk today just about numbers: ones that have gotten my attention. They involve the lost-time overhead a computer imposes on you while you wait for it to work. What I've found:

    Putting the computer to 'sleep' (so you can save battery power when you step away for a while). Time from issuing command till end of disk activity and screen display, three trials:
    Thinkpad T60 / Vista: 12 seconds, 13 seconds, 15 seconds, average about 13 seconds. I am excluding as an anomaly the first time I ran this test, which took 80 seconds.
    MacBook Air / Leopard: 3 seconds, 2 seconds, 3 seconds, average about 3 seconds.

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  • MacBook Air #2: batteries etc

    I’ve only just now begun installing “real” software on my newly acquired MacBook Air.* So until now, I’ve been using the Air exclusively for online activity – and haven’t been giving it the full long-airplane-flight test to see how much time it takes to run the battery down while doing real work.

    Instead, I’ve done indirect tests, like setting the Air up to play nonstop streaming audio from internet radio broadcasts while running on battery power. That way, I know that it’s continually drawing power to work the WiFi and run the speaker (yes, the speaker -- just one, and not that good). The screen, though, self-dims in a way it wouldn’t if I were sitting there typing.

    Still: this has been enough to give an impression. Battery life on this machine seems “pretty good,” and the time it takes to recharge the battery is not bad at all.

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  • MacBook Air: first of a series

    I didn't expect to return from my latest trip to the U.S. with a brand-new MacBook Air in my hand, but for various surprising reasons that's what I brought back.*

    I have not given it a full workout yet, and the reason is related to one of the quirks of this machine: it has no CD/DVD reader and is designed to install software wirelessly, either from the Internet or via a connection to another Mac or PC. I have not yet gone through the process of installing the programs I'd like to use on it, so all I've done with it is work online. Collect email, check out the news, and, yes, compose and post this message.

    More reactions to come later, about the aspects of this machine that have raised most questions. How good is the battery, really -- considering that unlike most laptops, but like iPods etc, you can't change it yourself or bring a second to swap in during a plane flight? Is its 80GB hard disk big enough for modern computing life? How well does its wifi-only approach actually work, given the absence of a CD drive and an Ethernet port? Will the remote installation process let me put Parallels or VMWare on the system, so I can run the Windows programs I really care about? All this, as I say, for another day.

    For today, an aesthetic and emotional reaction: This is an astonishingly successful work of industrial design. Even industrial art. Its case is very small and thin, and seems even smaller and thinner. It is very light, and seems lighter than it is. (Maybe adrenaline rush to the arm muscles?) By the specs, the processor is not tremendously fast, but the computer feels agile and responsive -- all the more so in contrast to my Vista ThinkPad. The screen is bright and big (maybe related to battery life?), and the keyboard is full-sized and convenient. It is as beautiful a piece of machinery as I have seen in a long time.

    Later: how it works when I'm trying to do something more than reach web sites. Maybe the shock of aesthetic appreciation will have worn off -- somewhat -- by then.

    * To spell it out: these reasons do not include any baksheesh, "demo copies," or other favortistic efforts by Apple or other companies.


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