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.
  • Nien Cheng

    My wife just alerted me to something I had missed in the paper today: news that Nien Cheng had died in Washington this week, at 94.

    NienCheng.jpg

    Life and Death in Shanghai, her memoir of her life in China in the pre-Communist era, and then her daughter's murder and her own imprisonment and torture by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, was one of the first notable accounts of those years and remains a powerful work of modern non-fiction. Although it has been two decades since I read it, many of the scenes are still vivid. Soon after it was published in 1987, my wife and I were in Shanghai and traced the neighborhoods she had described.

    Nien Cheng never returned to mainland China after she got out in 1980, and over the past twenty years she lived mainly in Washington DC. Several times while walking my wife or I had the amazing-each-time experience of passing on the sidewalk a tiny, increasingly frail, but elegant Chinese woman whom we knew to be her. I never dared to say hello or thank her for writing the book, which I now regret all the more. None of her family is left, but her book will endure.

    Update: she had a MySpace page, which is here.

  • Doing Business in China: Who Holds the Purse?

    In Chinese families, women drive economic decisions more forcefully than men.

    You can probably guess the answer to the question above, explored in this next clip from the Doing Business in China series. But I do love the way this clip gets to the answer, via both its pre-Communist era documentary and movie footage and also its exploration of special role of the "Shanghai woman." I think you will see what I mean.

     

  • The Prius of the sky

    A contest for fuel-efficient small airplanes has a winner: a modified VariEze that gets 45 mpg at over 200 MPH with two people aboard, and nearly 100 mpg at a lower "maximum range" speed.

    fuel-efficient-plane-modified-VariEze-photo1.jpg

    Details from Wired here, Tree Hugger here, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association last year here. Just as I've always said: to get America moving again, including on the fuel-efficiency front, we've got to get more people up in the air.  (Thanks to Michael Ham.)
  • Alexander Hamilton hip-hop tribute

    Because Alexander Hamilton has always been my favorite Founding Father; because I am in the "actually writing" mode and otherwise away from the internet; because no one else on the Atlantic's team has yet called attention to this; and because it is a very diverting four-minute interlude, here is Lin-Manuel Miranda's tribute to Hamilton from the "White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word" this past May. In case you have missed it.
     
    For more, you can't go wrong with Ron Chernow's great 2004 biography. Now back to, ahem, work.

  • Doing Business in China: An Eastern Perspective

    The western quest for precision is often futile in China, where facts and figures never tell the whole story.

    This clip is about numbers, and the varying ways to make sense of them in China. At one extreme the power of numbers is of obvious and unignorable importance. The opening scene of the clip, on a winter day in Shanghai, give a glimpse of the sea-of-people effect of many Chinese cities. On the other hand, neither Shanghai nor Beijing nor any other city in the mainland seems as densely packed as either Tokyo or Hong Kong. The difference with mainland China is that there are so many multi-million person cities across so huge a landmass, plus plenty of well-populated rural areas too.

    At the same time, just about any number concerning China is an approximation, from economic growth rates to literacy or environmental readings, or anything else. This clip mainly talks about the implications of that rough-and-ready statistical approach for businesses, but it has international and political implications too. 

  • A very good question

    A friend who has worked in and written about politics for nearly 40 years writes with this question about assessments of Obama's "disappointing" first year:

    "How can the MSM (what's left of it) not "get" that disappointment in Obama over "lack of change" is precisely the object of the GOP in blocking change?  Does no one remember Newt Gingrich and the GOP strategy from 1992 to 1994, which actually worked?  How can the GOP steal second and third in one play AGAIN and not get nailed this time?  I want to scream.  In any sensible society, instead of disappointment in Obama there would be intense anger at the GOP, and they'd be forced to knock it off." 

    The talk about "any sensible society" of course leads us into the realm of what is fancily known as counterfactual theorizing....

  • All-in-one, nearing the finale

    Three more views -- previously here, here, and here. Again the question is: are we going to keep carrying around a grab-bag of devices, each optimized for its own purpose? Or will convenience, technical improvement, etc mean more and more functions in fewer and fewer gizmos.

    From a tech-industry reader:

    "I think you're wrong; the vast majority of the device market in these kinds of segments will eventually go to all-in-one, "good enough" devices. Sure, people will still buy digital cameras, portable reading devices, etc., but the specialty devices will be for the 10% of uses or 10% of consumers who want special higher quality or particular features--for most people, the simple functionality in a lowest-common-denominator single device will be sufficient.

    "An anecdote: circa 1998, I was working on cryptography for mobile devices (my career also includes Apple, and I'm currently an engineer at [famous internet company]. I had a meeting with a number of very senior engineers at Motorola, and this convergence question came up. One engineer pooh-poohed the idea of convergence, and when I asked him explicitly, he asserted that yes, people would carry a cell phone, a pager, and a PDA to solve those specific problems (I envisioned Batman's utility belt).

    "You can't even buy a PDA anymore, as far as I know--it's a feature integrated into phones. Pagers are rare and for particular on-call specialties. I now know a number of people who carry a Blackberry for email and a cell phone for calls, but I'm certain that bifurcation is also doomed. I regularly now check my email from my phone, rather than bother to open my laptop, even if it's in the same room."

    Another reader in New York writes:

    "I agree with you (mostly, as I think that some convergence is inevitable) that no device can be everything to everybody. But here is another counterexample I'm not sure you mentioned - phones and GPS devices: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/technology/companies/29gps.html

    "I'm not a big GPS user (I don't even have a car here in NYC), and I am a big Google maps fan, but here I do have to wonder.  If the Google Maps for Mobile is going to depend on a good data connection, then I don't really see how it can match a dedicated GPS device which only needs "sightlines" to satellites (assuming of course that there is no brownout... hey, convergence of two of your tech threads!).  When we were camping in Acadia National Park this summer, my wife's Google phone had no phone signal, never mind 3G....

    "I think Maps for Mobiles is great in densely populated areas, but if I were planning a long trip with lots of detours in rural areas, I don't see how this could be a dedicated GPS with the maps data downloaded previously to the device."

    _______
    After the jump, one more very long but detailed and interesting pro-convergent case.

    More »

  • Are we naked in the cloud?

    A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against "unreasonable search and seizure" apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read -- or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party -- Google, Yahoo, et al -- is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

    As that post describes, the legal comparison-drawing goes in many directions. Is "giving" an email to Yahoo like putting a package in a public storage locker? Is it like putting an envelope in a regular mailbox? Does it matter if the message is encrypted? Etc. But the reader's point is less about the ins and outs of this ruling than about the broader legal/privacy implications of storing information "in the cloud." When you're working in Google Docs, as opposed to using a spreadsheet or document that lives on your computer, have you essentially surrendered custody and control of that information? What if you rely on online "cloud" systems -- Carbonite, SugarSync -- to back up or sync your files? Have you given up custody of those files too? The reader writes:

    "Based, in part, on your fondness ["your" referring to me, JF] for storing your documents in "the cloud" via third-party services like Sugarsync, Google Docs, etc., I thought you would this link interesting. [It concerns an opinion] concluding that email messages - even if they are entitled to 4th Amendment protection - can be retrieved by federal law enforcement authorities WITHOUT NOTICE TO THE SUBSCRIBER. The court's rationale - that the ISP is a "third party" rather than a file cabinet inside the target's "home" - would seem to apply perfectly well to documents stored in the cloud.

    "My concern about such matters is one big reason I do not rely much on "cloud" services of which you are so fond. It's not that I have much about myself that is all that interesting to third parties. It's that, as a lawyer, I have an ethical obligation to protect client confidences. And - if [this] reasoning prevails nationwide - this becomes impossible to do if I were to receive no "notice" from the ISP that they had received a search (or already complied with) a warrant for my clients' personal stuff.

    "To be clear, my clients are mostly indigent disabled people rather than individuals accused of criminal conduct, but - still - these sort of "big picture" issues are what a lawyer thinks about when he or she is deciding whether to make a wholesale migration to Sugarsync or Google Docs. And, for what it's worth, it is why I think Google and Sugarsync would be well served in joining together to lobby FOR a federal statute imposing strict privacy protection on documents stored in the cloud.

    "There is no way I'm putting my business docs permanently online until this issue is clearly settled in favor of privacy. It would, in fact, be unethical for me to do so.... While having copies of all your stuff stored in the cloud may be vastly more convenient than having it in your home-office file cabinet - it is a vastly less safe "place" from a privacy standpoint."

    I am not equipped to say more about the legal aspects here. But as a matter of politics and policy, I think the reader's recommendation is exactly right. All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing -- Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name -- should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn't mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there's a big scandal or problem.

  • How I Survived China
    Ashley Cooper/Aurora Photos

    How I Survived China

    Our man in Beijing returns home, with lungs only somewhat the worse for wear.

  • Language politics: Germany, Japan, Cote d'Ivoire

    Following this item about how China and America had one attitude toward foreigners trying to speak their language, while Japan, France, and (arguably) the Ivory Coast had a different view, some assent, dissent, and elaboration. These are long but if you're interested in language, then the detail is interesting.

    About German speakers:

    "Vigorous agreement on the American attitude towards foreigners speaking English, as contrasted with (in this case) German-speakers. My mother, an Austrian, always used to watch as my dad, an American, inevitably got mocked in her homeland for his imperfect German accent, and, indeed, imperfect German (which was still pretty good). She notes this would never happen in America -- it is rare for Americans to actively mock a foreigner's accent. When they do, it's usually in a way that somehow includes the foreign speaker. (We have a young family friend who sometimes says a word or two in "Churman" to make fun of her -- but he doesn't know any language but English -- he isn't lording any linguistic superiority over her -- knowing 2-3 languages to him is like ESP, a genuinely remarkable capacity.) Mom always says that the most common American reaction to her accent is a genuinely curious and open, "You have such a nice accent -- where are you from?"
    "Those German-speakers aren't being malicious -- something about the relative difficulty of the language instills this attitude in them. It's just hard for a foreigner to avoid mistakes that every educated German-speaker learns to avoid at the age of five. Also, note that in German there is a sharp distinction between "Hochdeutsch" and the vernacular German that the unlettered masses speak, meaning that a fairly substantial percentage of the population isn't even really trying to speak German correctly. English doesn't really recognize any such division -- we're all speaking English, one way or another. (Also, it fascinates me that the dictionary in German is known as the "Fremdwörterbuch" -- the book of foreign words -- you know, those hard Latinate words that you sometimes need to look up -- everyone knows the core German words. Mongrel English treats all words the same, regardless of origin.)

    "My mother, whose English in the meantime is excellent (but with an accent), observes that the thing about English is that the first stages of learning the language are easy -- anyone can learn it. And then comes the huge chasm to true fluency. English's vast vocabulary creates endless nuance in expression, which is just damnably difficult to master. But the first stages are easy, a linguistic open-door policy."

    About Japanese:

    "I agree with your comments about the Japanese language. I am a 2-year resident of Tokyo with fairly strong Japanese skills. [After some university study in Hiroshima and London] I mastered the language not by learning it from textbooks, but doing it on my own will-power. So, by speaking to people in Japanese almost non-stop, by reading books and newspapers in Japanese, watching Japanese television programs and listening to Japanese music and the radio, and by making requests by emails and fax for work in Japanese. Dating a Japanese girl for 3 years who only spoke Japanese, helped too. (we're no longer together, but I am grateful to her for the hours we spend talking together) I'm still learning day-by-day, but I am approaching the upper-intermediate level."

    More »

  • All-in-one post on all-in-one devices

    Below and after the jump, highlights from many interesting dispatches on the "all in one" question: whether cameras, computers, e-readers, etc will naturally converge into one multi-purpose super-device -- or whether people will continue to carry separate cameras, laptops, e-readers, and so on. This is long but is meant as a wrap-up survey of views. (Update: in fact, there are a few more items for one more installment soon.) Thanks to many readers for their thoughts.

    From a reader in Vietnam:

    "If your all in one device crashes, then all your devices have crashed. If your cell phone crashes, only your cell phone has crashed. If your all in one is picked out of your pocket by a thief, they are all gone..."

    From a reader in the US:

    "In a sense, the all-in-one debate began with the laptop. The laptop bundles processor, hard drive, screen, keyboard, mouse, microphone, speakers, and webcam, all of which are inferior to their desktop relatives. Yet, laptops are extremely popular, certainly not eliminating desktop computers, yet replacing them much more than had been expected.
     
    "One of the significant factors in that evolution is that the limited laptop is happy to be extended into greater desktop fullness. Some of the most elaborate and delicious desktop systems out there are extensions of laptops, such that, when the room full of hardware becomes an immobilizing anchor, the user can walk away with the all-in-one that everything plugs into. That kind of extensibility is the real next step in smart phones, one that we're only getting hints at, now. Yes, we will use specialized devices to take pictures, write books, watch full large screen movies, etc., but those devices will more and more be extenders of the all-in-one devices that will always be in our pockets, allowing us to do the full range of functions in small form when their extensions, for whatever the reason are not handy."

    From a reader in the US on the Kindle-v-Nook point (yes, off topic, but on point):

    "The main reason I have chosen not to buy the Kindle is Amazon.  I view Amazon as a threat to something I value almost as much as books.   

    "If I have to choose between Amazon's device or B&N's, I will choose the latter.  I want to support a company that maintains brick-and-mortar bookstores.   These kinds of business help to make neighborhoods lively and livable.  Moreover, only in real bookstores do I discover so many books that I never would have thought to look for.   

    "Whereas Amazon's business model diminishes communities, Barnes and Noble makes a neighborhood  better."

    More »

  • Ivory Coast = France = Japan, in language habits at least

    In this scene from Dan Chaon's very bleak but memorable mistaken-identity novel Await Your Reply, a young American woman named Lucy goes into a hair salon in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. The country is French speaking, and Lucy is apprehensive about communicating. She addresses an African woman in the shop:

    "Excusez-moi," Lucy said stiffly. "Parlez-vous anglais?"

    She was aware of how clumsy she sounded... She remembered how, back in high school French, Mme Fournier would grimace with pity as Lucy tried to bumble her way through a conversational prompt. "Oh!" Mme Fournier would say. "Ca fait mal aux oreilles!" ... The African woman nodded at her politely. "Yes, mademoiselle," she said. "I speak English."...

    The woman's name was Stephanie, and she was from Ghana, she said, though she had lived in Cote d'Ivoire for many years now. "Ghana is an English-speaking country. That is my native language," Stephanie said. "So it's pleasant to speak English sometimes. That's one characteristic with the Ivoirians I don't understand. They turn to laugh at a foreigner who makes a mistake in French, so even when they know a little English, they refuse to speak. Why? Because they think the Anglophones will laugh at them in turn!"

    I can't help myself, so when I read this passage, I thought not so much about French and English but about Chinese and Japanese. With allowances for obvious differences, it's useful (as I've mentioned before) to think of Japan's attitude toward its national language as being similar to France's, and China's attitude as being similar to America's.

    That is: in France and Japan, the deep-down assumption is that the language is pure and difficult, that foreigners can't really learn it, and that one's attitude toward their attempts is either French hauteur or the elaborately over-polite and therefore inevitably patronizing Japanese response to even a word or two in their language. "Nihongo jouzu! Your Japanese is so good!"  Correspondingly, like the Ivoirians in this novel, Japanese people (to generalize) often seem self-conscious about potential errors in English. Of course, French speakers of English are marvelously non-self-conscious, even jauntily willful, about retaining their French accents, especially the trademark "z" sound for "th." " Zees ees what I mean..." (Yes, I am aware that the fricative th phoneme is the most difficult sound in English for non-native speakers, our counterpart to r's in French.)

    The American attitude towards English is: everyone should get with the program, there are a million variants and accents of the language, all that really matters is that you can somehow get your meaning across. Because there are so many versions of Chinese in use within China, my impression is that the everyday attitude of Chinese people toward language is similar: You're expected to try to learn it, no one will spend that much time mocking your mistakes, mainly they are trying to figure out what you are trying to say. Probably both the U.S. and Chinese attitudes reflect the outlook of big, continental nations that encompass lots of internal diversity -- and in America's case, absorb huge numbers of immigrants. In any case it was interesting to see what I am considering the French/Japanese outlook also depicted in Francophone Africa.

  • Appreciation of an appreciation (Soupy Sales dept)

    Usually my theory is: if it is elsewhere on the Atlantic's web site, you've already seen it. But in case anyone missed today's wonderful appreciation by Erik Tarloff, about Soupy Sales in his prime, I hope you will check it out. It includes a seven-minute clip of one of the mid-1960s Soupy Sales programs, but Erik's description (he's a friend) does an even better job of conveying the tone, structure, and effect of the show.

    This item also helped me understand, in an "OK, now that makes sense to me!" way, why my mother, who was then in her mid-30s and whose ideal afternoon would be to sit on the sofa reading Ivanhoe or some biography of Cromwell (she was in sunny Southern California but not of it), would usually join the kids to watch the Soupy Sales show when it came on. It's obvious in retrospect, but wasn't to me as a child, that it was not just a kids' show. In any case, worth reading.

  • Exhaustive Kindle/Nook smackdown

    Below and after the jump, an extremely detailed Kindle/Nook compare and contrast from a well-informed reader, in response to this previous comment by someone on the Nook team. This is presented in the public interest for those interested in the future of e-reading. More on the "all in one device" front later today.

    "1. Google Books linkup. It might be worth clarifying for your readers that, like the Nook, the Kindle also can be used to read many (increasingly most) books that are available in "Full" (as distinct from Snippet or Preview) on Google Books. The only limitation is that Google Books aren't accessible through the Amazon wireless link or stored in the Amazon cloud -- and I haven't been able to figure out from the Nook publicity whether that's going to be substantially different for the Nook.

    More »

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