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: Brave little USB

  • I don't quite believe this, but... (USB finale+1)

    This really is the last chapter in the saga of the brave little USB stick. (Multi-part background here.)

    To helpful friends writing in to say that it is time to give the poor thing a rest, leave it on the shelf in its treasure box, don't risk shorting out the whole laptop, and for God's sake use some of the other USB memory devices sitting around the house, I say: Thanks! Got it! Already put this plan into effect!

    But before it goes away for good, this final USB achievement to note. Yesterday, one day out of its WD-40 bath, the USB stick would properly store and list files, but apparently had something wrong enough with it that it could not pass the integrity test for Windows Vista's "Ready Boost" function.

    Today, it passes that test. Proof in the Vista screen shot below. The ReadyBoost cache is the next to last file listed, 4GBs in size. I won't say "USB Stick, heal thyself!," but something happened.

    And as soon as that shot was taken, the plucky device was "Safely Removed" from its slot and placed in its satin-lined box, where it watches over the rest of the tech establishment. Talk about going out on top.


  • USB: Finale

    It is time to revisit our friend, the brave little USB.

    As previous accounts have described, it has been a difficult couple of months for this blameless device. Two inadvertent trips through a Beijing washer and dryer, each followed by restorative dunks in WD-40; loss of protective carapace, rotted away by this same WD-40 or perhaps the local air; and most recently and alarmingly, a heart-stopping pop, spark, and instant shutdown when drops of Chinese beer "somehow" got on it the USB's naked circuitry while it was plugged in and operating.


    This morning, after a weekend's thorough laving and drying, I plugged it in once again, expectations low. I powered up the computer, and -- see for yourself, this time on a Mac:


    Different-angle live action shot:

    In case it's not obvious, the red light in the middle shows that the USB is still working. For further proof, here's a screen shot of the files on USB stick, done just after I created a new file with today's date and saved it directly onto the USB. If I had a live-audio feature, you could confirm that I am now playing "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" from the MP3 file shown:

    So, what have we learned from this heartbreaking, inspiring, and unavoidably embarrassing set of mishaps? Relevant questions and answers after the jump.

    More »

  • Nerds-with-a-heart only: the passion of the USB

    Poor little USB!  Previous chapter here, which includes links back through the whole trail of tears. When last sighted, the USB had been through a Chinese washer and dryer twice, had been resurrected through the miracle balm of WD-40, and was now chugging along in a working computer, minus any protective shell.

    (Reminder picture here:)

    Let's not get into the details, but ... while operating in that exposed state, the little USB got some, ummmm, beer all over it. It made a snazzling sound, there was a little spark, and suddenly there was no more "Removable Drive F:" on the computer. The beer was only Yanjing, the Beijing area's answer to Shanghai's REEB, so it was as benign and watery a splash as it could be. Still....

    Powered down the computer, and started the USB on a long, long soak in WD-40. Now the extensive drying out process begins (below, fresh out of the WD-40, on a napkin from a local eatery). When the vapors of WD-40 have dissipated in a day or two, we'll see just how much this tough little device can take.

  • This is impressive, and yet sort of sad (USB immortality dept)

    Over the last three and a half months, I have recounted the travail of my brave little USB stick:

    First an unanticipated trip through the washer and dryer. Then, miraculously, it survives and still works! Then, a warning from a tech savant that corrosion is already setting in. Then, a bath in WD-40 as salvation. Then, another trip through the washer and dryer. And another WD-40 dunk. And all the while...  still chugging along.

    Here is how it looked after the first ordeal:

    Yesterday, I grabbed it to switch it to another machine, and the plastic housing simply fell off. Post-traumatic stress effects of the washer and dryer? Of WD-40? Of general abuse? Who knows. Yet even in this naked, skeletal condition ....  still it works. Though here is how it looks these days: The bare green circuit board, shown plugged into a ThinkPad, is what's left of the USB stick. It's hard to see in this picture, but its red LED light is flashing, showing that it's actively doing something. (Click for closeup.) The castoff plastic housing, like a shed skin, is beneath it, in two halves.


    I will rename my USB stick "Hawking," signifying a being that, as its corporeal shell has suffered and been diminished, has been distilled to its pure thinking essence.

  • Immortality update (USB department)

    As recounted previously here and here my doughty little 8GB USB stick has now survived two inadvertent but complete trips, two months apart, through the washer and dryer. After a day-long bath in WD40 and a thorough air-drying process, it is now back in duty... and again working like a champ!

    I had been sobered by the expert view that, despite its brave initial recovery from the trauma,  the USB was already doomed because corrosion of its tiny circuits had begun. It was bound to fail in four to eight weeks. Then another expert said that WD40 could reverse the process...

    It's now 10+ weeks since the first wash-dry cycle. Every four weeks or so I'll report on its health -- until I get bored, or I have to report its demise.

    Meanwhile, I have received a note about a kind of "Survivor" USB stick designed to go through the washing machine -- and nuclear winter, and whatever other torture test you have in mind. I'll try to take this in the right spirit -- and not as if I were a diner in a restaurant being offered a bib after repeatedly dripping food all over myself. Thanks, I think, to Dave Proffer for the tip.

  • New hope for the dead (USB dept.)

    Ten weeks ago, I revealed the heartening news that a little PNY Optima Attache USB stick had gone through the wash-and-dry cycle in a pants pocket, and had come out working fine.

    Or so I thought. Several correspondents soon pointed out that the tough-seeming device was actually on a terminal watch. The corrosion had started, and it was a matter of time -- maybe four weeks, maybe eight -- before the circuits rusted all the way through and the device simply stopped. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "in the midst of life we are in death."

    Then another reader suggested that a bath in WD-40 could hold off the inevitable... maybe indefinitely! I got a friend to bring me some from the US, and about a week after swimming in hot, soapy washing machine water the USB stick was being gentled laved with the balm of WD-40.

    That cure seemed to work for ten weeks, until today, when - for reasons still being litigated here in the Beijing HQ -- the same stick went through the washer and dryer AGAIN.

    When it came out -- amazingly -- it worked AGAIN. But taking nothing for granted, I have plunged it immediately an inch-deep pool of WD-40 and will put it through a careful resurrection process. If it's still alive in two months, I will report this achievement. Or I'll report its demise.

    * To spare the usual readers the effort of sending the usual email: Yes, I do realize that USBs are inanimate objects and therefore can't technically be "dead." This is similar to my being aware that, despite making a light reference to Marie Antoinette, there are significant differences between my situation and that of an 18th century queen of France destined for the guillotine. Every now and then I recklessly employ the concept of "whimsy" or "a minor joke" in online posts.

  • Dead men walking, USB-stick variety

    "In the midst of life we are in death," as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. Every faith has a way of conveying the same idea.

    The technology world's version is the sad recognition that any device starts becoming obsolete the instant you buy it. But there perhaps should be a specific line or verse referring to USB sticks. I mentioned recently that one of mine (a PNY Optima Attache model) had survived a trip through the washer and dryer and still worked fine. Reader Gary Allen Vollink brings the unsurprising but sobering news that all is transience even with the hard silicon of USBs:

    The corrosion starts once they get wet. There's no stopping it. It will die suddenly and unexpectedly. It will probably take between 4 and 8 weeks.
    Sadly, I've done this with THREE already, and one of them was also an Attache. They all reacted - pretty much the same way.

    That is -- back up your backup.

    Book of Common Prayer: "Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower." Tech world: "Back up your backup." It comes to the same thing.

    Update: this does nothing about the human "in the midst of life" problem, but reader Matthew Wilbert reminds me that soaking the USB stick in WD-40 can do wonders against corrosion. "That's (more or less) why it was invented." FWIW.

  • Endurance champ (flyweight division)

    Yesterday I mentioned that because I couldn't find a USB stick, I had rigged up a clumsy ad hoc network just to transfer one file.

    It turns out that the USB stick wasn't actually lost. It was.... only resting, deep in a pocket of some pants that had gone into the wash. The pants have now come out of the wash -- in specific, a trip through the washing machine and the dryer, though not the ironing board. Of course only after all that was the USB stick discovered.

    With a sense of doom, I tried it -- and it still works fine! All the files that were on there before are on there now, and perfectly readable. I just used it to make another file transfer: no problem. It even passes the performance tests for "ReadyBoost" service as temporary RAM under Vista.


    So if you're looking for the USB stick that, in the words of the ancient Timex slogan, takes a licking and keeps on ticking, I say: look no further than the PNY Optima Attache 8GB model. This genuinely surprises me. And think of the seconds you'll save not having to empty your pockets.

    PS the reddish background in the picture above is not some lush grosgrain but the back cover of Bowl of Cherries, a racy recent comic novel about teenaged lusts, the war in Iraq, modern college life, etc. It is the first novel from Millard Kaufman, who was born in 1917. He is said to be at work on his second. Endurance champ of a different sort.


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