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.
  • Boiled Frog Does a Surreal Meta-Backflip

    A scientist tells us that it's hard to separate fact from fiction these days. How right he is!

    It's probably a mercy in this case that the "Categories" feature of our old web site has not yet been ported over to the new design. That means I can't at the moment provide a link to all the countless old entries in the "Boiled Frog" saga. Summary for those joining us late: It's not true!!!! The frog in the slowly-heated pot of water will do his best to escape once things get too hot, and a frog thrown right into a pot of already-boiling water will be scalded, wounded, or worse before he gets out. Exception: if the frog's brain has been removed, he'll sit in the pot and let himself be slowly cooked. See this by Michael Jones for more.

    Imaginary frogs, in fools' paradise:
    boiling_frogs1.jpg

    Real-world frog, doing his best to escape. Yes, those seem to be lily pads in the background, but you get the point:
    boiling-frog.jpg


    When Paul Krugman discussed the metaphorical frog in a column last year -- and emphasized that it was only a metaphor, since real frogs didn't behave this way -- I figured that my work on this topic was done. I have stored up other instances but not mentioned them.

    But now we have a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School doing an "ideas" essay for the Boston Globe about the difficulty of separating truth from fiction in public discourse -- and resting his case on the parable of the boiled frog! Eg, "But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn't realize that things are getting warmer, until it's been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information... "

    Such is my respect for Harvard Medical School, which was my late dad's alma mater, and its postdoctoral fellows that I have convinced myself that the title of the essay, "Warning: Your reality is out of date" must be a slyly knowing wink. Perhaps to me! Because otherwise, in an essay by a well-pedigreed scientist about how hard it is to recognize real facts,  it would mean....
  • Tech Update Fiesta #1A: On Nexus Phone as 'Phone'

    A snazzy new smartphone is only so-so as a phone-phone. Who's really to blame?

    Last week, as part of a soon-to-be-revived Tech Update Fiesta series, I mentioned that the Google Nexus One had held up very well in all of its "smartphone" features. Navigation, entertainment, email, web browsing, photography, telekinesis, etc. But when asked how it was at the "dumbphone" basics of making and receiving calls, I said that it was only so-so. I added that I couldn't be sure whether the problem was the phone itself, the specific carrier I was using (T-Mobile), or the overall shoddiness of US mobile phone coverage, compared with most other countries'.

    Two readers respond to say that it's probably not the phone: more likely either the national grid or the specific carrier. First, the argument that it's T-Mobile's fault:

    I hear all the stories about how crappy iPhone service is through AT&T, and now your post about the problems with the Nexus and T-Mobile. Just wanted to say that I can't remember the last time I had a dropped call on Verizon.

    Have to admit that praising a phone company makes me shudder. My usual take on them is about the same as James Coburn's in The President's Analyst. Or Lily Tomlin's.

    Now, the argument that it's America's fault. Or, more precisely, that the U.S. is in a quality race with Indonesia on this score:

    Further corroboration on how perception of the Nexus' call quality really depends on network quality: I've been using the phone in Indonesia for a month, where phone coverage is dismal across the board, and have gotten disconnected even in the middle of the CBD area. Data coverage often drops from 3G to E or even G (!!) and oftentimes stalls out. Sometimes the signal is strong but it looks like too many customers try accessing the Internet at the same time and the network could not route all the requests through!

    As part of my move to Germany, though, I am in Singapore yesterday and today, and lo and behold, the phone works just well. Never dropped more than 1 bar even when underground in the MRT (subway). I wonder how many other cities boast the same facilities for cell phone users -- I believe you mentioned the same is true of the Beijing subway? [Yes -- in elevators and coal mines too.]

    I'll soon -- couple of weeks -- be able to verify if that holds in Nuremberg, Germany too.
  • Tommy Mischke on the phone

    The subject of a September 2000 Atlantic profile is back with more of his surreal Midwestern real-life humor. This time, the pathos of bill-collectors during hard times.

    Ten years ago I did an Atlantic profile of T.D. "Tommy" Mischke, a late-night AM radio humorist from St. Paul who kept me amused on many dark drives from The Cities to Duluth, for a book I was working on. Below, Mischke in action, then on KSTP-AM.

    mischke.jpg

    Over the years I've reported some of Mischke's changing on-the-air activities. On a fan's lovingly curated Mischke Madness site, he has put up another collection of spontaneous bizarre humor. I have just listened to these (OK, in the "background," while doing "work") and considering that they are real-time improv, they show us something quite remarkable and striking about Mischke's genius and about our odd world.

    The calls are all from bill collectors, who are looking for people who used to have the phone number that Mischke is now using. The interactions among their hyper-earnestness; and the little cracks of real-personness behind their work personae; and the sequence of odd send-ups Mischke gives them, is both funny and, ultimately, touching. The fact that he can convince the callers (some of whom are obviously in India) that he is a woman, or named Rashad, among other feats, is impressive. At a moment when so many collection calls are being made across the country, there is real power to many of these recordings. Especially the incredible and disturbing final one ("this is my last day on Earth," "well, I would not comment on that sir. Can you tell me how you got behind on the payments?") -- though as Mischke recommends, it's best to hear them in order.

    After the jump, Mischke's note about the calls -- and also a quote from my profile about a similar spontaneous moment from his broadcast. These new calls are worth downloading from his site and hearing while you're walking or driving around or otherwise in the mood for a sustained listen.

    More »

  • Redesign Fever: Welcome China Daily!

    The author's favorite newspaper has a "stunning" new look.

    The NYT and WSJ have their places in the firmament, but my favorite newspaper will always be the China Daily. State-controlled, English-language, always touchingly earnest in its surface demeanor but often with a different message underneath. See after the jump for a few illustrations. Sometimes these gracenotes seem to have been added by slyly mutinous Aussie or Brit language "polishers." Sometimes they seem to have no explanation other than surplus earnestness itself. Eg, from today's front page:

    CHinaDaily1.png

    The important news is, there's a new look and concept to the China Daily! And it's stunning in its effect, if the paper does say so itself:
    ChinaDailyRedo.png


    If you go here, you'll see a 90-second video presentation, from which the screenshot above is taken. I especially love the representative international reader who shows up around time 1:02. Unfortunately it doesn't go into the charming sports-page headline also shown in the shot above. Two more CD classics after the jump.

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  • Web Site Paradise Restored!

    A new (old) look and feel for the Atlantic's personal-blog pages.

    My sincere thanks to my colleagues Bob Cohn, Betsy Ebersole, and Scott Havens, plus their comrades on our tech team, for an unbelievably fast re-design of last Friday's major website re-design, which has restored the "personal" blog pages to their former look and feel.

    (The Atlantic's edit and web teams, shown together in our offices this afternoon:)
    716px-edward_hicks_-_peaceable_kingdom.jpg


    Seriously, this has been an unexpectedly hectic couple of days here in Atlantic-land. But it says something important -- and true -- about the character of our organization, and the commitment of all its different branches to pull together, that Bob, Betsy, Scott, et al were so were so willing to reconsider the effects of a very long-in-gestation strategic shift in web architecture, and to make large changes in less than one full business day. And meanwhile to retain all the other smart, attractive, and necessary improvements of this new design. 

    Congratulations, and thanks. And soon, back to talking about .PSTs, airplanes, and beer.
  • Cyber Warriors
    Marcos Chin

    Cyber Warriors

    When will China emerge as a military threat to the U.S.? In most respects the answer is: not anytime soon—China doesn’t even contemplate a time it might challenge America directly. But one significant threat already exists: cyberwar. Attacks—not just from China but from Russia and elsewhere—on America’s electronic networks cost millions of dollars and could in the extreme cause the collapse of financial life, the halt of most manufacturing systems, and the evaporation of all the data and knowledge stored on the Internet.

  • The RSS Feeds Are Now Fixed

    Thanks to our web team. And if you click on the title bar of this item -- I promise, this is the last time I'll ask -- you'll see a comment I posted on Ta-Nehisi Coates' site trying to explain what has happened to the "personal" pages, and why. That is all.

    Thanks to our tech team. And if you click on the title bar of this item -- I promise, this is the last time I'll ask -- you'll see a comment I put on Ta-Nehisi Coates' site trying to explain what has happened to the "personal" pages, and why. That is all. 

    More »

  • Yes, We Know That the RSS Feeds Are Broken!

    Thanks for many, many notes saying that RSS and Reader feeds are coming through with no text. Uncle! That's a bug, not a redesign "feature," and is being addressed. New blog page layout is a different kind of bug that is also being addressed. See you back here once that's fixed.

    Thanks for many, many notes saying that RSS and Reader feeds are coming through with no text. Uncle! That's a bug, not a redesign "feature," and is being addressed. The new layout of blog pages, discussed here, was on purpose but in truth is also a bug that is being addressed. See you back here once that's fixed. No fun writing blog haiku.

  • Emmy nominations for Bob Schapiro!

    Last year our site ran a large number of clips from the multi-CD series "Doing Business in China." At the moment I can't link to any of them, because of issues with our new web design. But I can say that Bob Schapiro, the director and guiding spirit, has (along with the rest of us) just been nominated for two NY Emmys for this series. Really impressive one is for "Best Documentary," in a field with 1600+ submissions. [Please click for more.)

    More »

  • Shorter Version of Previous Post, on Our New Design

    In the item below, I compliment the magazine's tech and business team on most aspects of the Atlantic.com's new design. But I also point out, in a part you wouldn't have seen if you didn't click through, that I consider the new layout of "personal" blog pages to be a serious step backward, since it makes all sites look the same and drains them of personality and visual interest, plus making them much harder to read. I hope, and think, that this part of the design will be re-visited.

    In the item below, I compliment the magazine's tech and business team on most aspects of the Atlantic.com's new design. But I also point out, in a part you wouldn't have seen if you didn't click through, that I consider the new layout of "personal" blog pages to be a serious step backward, since it makes all sites look the same and drains them of personality and visual interest, plus making them much harder to read. I hope, and think, that this part of the design will be re-visited.

  • The Atlantic.com Gets a New Look (updated)

    As you just possibly might have noticed, as of today there is a new look, feel, and layout to the Atlantic's website. The late nights and technical ingenuity that went into the relaunch and redesign deserve a lot of respect and public praise. A magazine that through the decades has applied that kind of maniacal effort to its main, printed product is fortunate to have a tech team just as committed and painstaking. I really admire what the developers and designers led by Bob Cohn, Betsy Ebersole, and Scott Havens have done, especially in these past few weeks. Small example: what tech-world people call "performance" -- how fast things happen on a site -- seems a lot better with this new system. You notice performance only when it's bad, but it's worth deliberately noticing the overall improved load- and response- time of this site and thinking of the surprisingly hard work that was involved.

    For the magazine as a whole, I think the new "Channel" organization makes sense, and the new site is an important step forward. As you also just might have heard, magazines need to make money, and the architecture of this site should help build our audience and therefore increase our chances of being around for another 153 years. (No, not talking about myself. Rather: The Atlantic Monthly, founded 1857.)

    But it is no secret within our organization that I think the new design creates problems for the magazine's "personal" sites, like the one I have been running here these past few years. In particular, the new layout scheme -- in which you see only a few-line intro to each post but no pictures, block quotes, or other amplifying material -- unavoidably changes the sensibility and tone of personal blogs. It drains them of variety and individuality, not to mention making them much less convenient to read. Only now that it is gone do I realize how important the placing of photos has been to my own sense of what I wanted to convey, along with the ability to alternate between longer and shorter posts on a "landing" page, or to deliberately save some material for "after the jump" placement. One way to be reminded of the value of that approach is to visit Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, which retains the previous layout with all of its design flexibility and visual flexibility.

    Over the weekend I will deploy some  ready-to-go posts on all the familiar topics -- .PST files, new small planes, the Copenhagen negotiations, and so on -- and will also be thinking about what is possible within this new format, and talking with our tech team about how changeable the new design may be. As ever, I am optimistic. [Update: I am optimistic that this will change, but find the new approach such a straitjacket that I won't even try to work within its constraints until it is fixed.]

    This is probably the right time to say that I appreciate the attention of all who have found their way here over the years, starting in the mid-1990s when tech-oriented friends helped me start my own stand-alone personal site. For their help at various stages in the site's pre- Atlantic.com evolution I once more thank David Rothman, Chet and Ginger Richards, Jonathan Kibera and Tom Fallows, and James Cham,

    Although my "real" work remains writing magazine articles and books, about which I remain passionate, I have tremendously valued the flexibility of a blog to mention things that are in the news today (for instance, a political speech) or that I'm never going to write a book about (for instance, my favorite beers). Even more I have valued the opportunity to be in touch with a modest-sized but interesting community of similarly quirky-minded people. Thank you for reading and writing. We'll see where this all leads. Meanwhile, congrats to our digital team on the overall achievement of the new site. 

  • Clash of the Titans: Holy Father vs TSA

    Maybe this is widely known, but I hadn't heard until recently that Benedict XVI had joined the ranks of critics of the TSA:

    PopeTSA.png

    Details here. Now perhaps I can dare hope for an Encyclical about the inanity of the repetitive "current threat level is Orange" robo-broadcasts, or even a Papal Bull addressing the deeper illogic of today's airport-screening exercise in security-theater.

    "Your pallium and zucchetto must be off and in the bin. I'm talking to you, sir! All velvet or satin slippers must be on the belt, not in a bin. And this flask -- does it hold more than four ounces of anointing oil? Please step over here..."

    [If you're tempted to write, no disrespect meant toward any religious figure mentioned here. I have a different sort of criticism in mind.]

  • Oh, that. (Nexus One followup)

    In response to last night's report on the Nexus One phone, a reader asks:

    "Thanks for the update.  One question.  How is the Nexus One as a . . . uh. . . phone?  The iPhone does a poor job of holding a signal.  Nexus One?"

    It seems just OK as a "phone" (quaint concept), but I don't really know who's to blame. The phone itself? The T-Mobile network, which I've used for years (because of international data plans) and which is the initial launch partner for the Nexus One, but which seems to have very shaky coverage in the US? (For instance: barely reaching to my house in DC.) America's unimpressive cell-phone performance in general, relative to most other countries? I dunno. I am hardened to a life of often-dropped calls as part of the repatriation process.  

  • Tech update fiesta #1: Nexus One phone

    Have a long queue of tech items to catch up on -- before returning to "Going to Hell," China-US relations, new small-plane developments, beer, and, yes, "work." First up on the tech front: Nexus One phone, as previously mentioned here.

    NexusOne.pngI could try to be fancy in introducing my comment, but why bother: This thing is great. It's now been eight weeks since I switched my SIM card from a perfectly good Blackberry Curve to the Nexus One to see how it worked. I've never thought of switching it back and no longer have any idea where the trusty little Blackberry might be. (Sorry, BB! It's not your fault.)

    My one big complaint remains: typing on the on-screen "soft" keyboard, like an iPhone's, just is a nuisance. On the other hand, the voice-recognition software is usable enough that more and more I rely on it instead of typing -- for Web searches, to dial phone numbers, to give map and navigation instructions. Medium complaint: the battery makes it through a full day of use, but just barely. On the other hand, the battery is easily swapped out, unlike an iPhone's, so in theory you could take a charged spare. Small weird complaint:  most users I've spoken with mention that it's surprisingly hard to figure out how to keep the phone-call ringer ON while turning the email notification ringer OFF. Yes, there's a way -- it's just not obvious.

    In other aspects, this is great and better the more I use it. Seamless integration with Gmail, Google search, and Google's calendar, task, maps, and voice functions -- as you might expect.  Somewhat more surprisingly, a full and sharp version of Google Earth; plus, a voice-powered Google Translate function that spans a very large number of languages and, on the ones I have tried, works better than I would have thought. (You say a phrase in English and it gives you, say, the Chinese version -- in characters. Hasn't worked so well when we try to speak Chinese into it! Maybe that shows it actually is working....) Also integrated with, gasp, non-Google functions: Pandora, NPR and NYT news, lots more.

    The "Navigate" function, with spoken-out driving directions, led me astray once -- the first time I used it. I was heading to the airport in Duluth, a route I actually knew, and it steered me onto a road it didn't realize had been closed. Since then, flawless.

    After the jump, a recent paper from inside Google about other aspects of the phone. It's important to note again that I never used an iPhone so can't do head-to-head comparisons. But on its own this is a real contender.

    More »

  • FDL / JF

    For the record, this afternoon I was on a live 90-minute Book Salon session on Firedoglake.com.  Transcript of 100-odd comments is here. Topics included Ralph Nader, Senate reform, my "going to hell" article, the desirability of a new American revolution, and the fact that many FDL denizens were not sold on my premises or conclusion in that article.

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