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: Leafblower Menace

  • Why YouTube Was Invented

    Technology lets us share how-to knowledge.

    Ah, the Internet. Yesterday morning I made a throw-away comment about wondering whether hammers or explosives would work better for a preventive strike on leafblowers. A few hour later, a reader had put together a thoroughgoing strategic analysis about the ethics and practicality of such a move.

    Now, via Tim Heffernan, evidence that, as always, YouTube is ahead of us. I love the go-to-the-source panache, plus the commitment to experimental science, displayed by this guy. If you see nothing else, skip to time 0:50 and start there.

    If you prefer a less kinetic approach to the problem, I offer this not-all-that-useful guidance from Consumer Reports:

    And here is a debunking of a "quiet" gas-powered blower:

    The guy linked but not embedded here is in an (understandably) surly but NSFW mood. Thus no embedding. (I love the detail that he is cussing out the leafblower menace in front of his little toddler.) And if you would like a Zen-tranquility-style soft-sell approach to what I consider (and will argue some other time*) is the most pointless externalized nuisance American society now routinely tolerates, check out this little tone-poem:

    *Again, the full thesis is for another time, but consider: Dogs have more social utility than leafblowers, but dog owners aren't allowed to leave their pets' droppings everywhere. Even cigars have a finer human history than leafblowers, but you can't smoke them where their odor might reach anyone else. Because of the nuisance to neighbors, I can't open up a liquor store, build a bonfire, run a chicken coop, burn tires, etc in my backyard. Airplanes and airports are noisy, but in almost all cases the airport was there before the neighbors moved in -- and each generation of planes and engines is quieter than its predecessor. Then there is the notable exception of the leafblower: a tool meant for agricultural/industrial use that made its noxious way into neighborhoods. I'll leave it on that sunny note for right now.

  • Preventive Destruction of Leafblowers: The Moral Imperative, the Practical Implications

    The surprising 4GW power of the ball-peen hammer


    Recently I likened an "analysis" of the bomb-Iran options -- one that mainly dealt with whether the US or the Israeli air force was a better choice for the job -- to my asking whether plastic explosives, or a ball-peen hammer, would be a better option for destroying my neighbors' leafblowers.

    An astute reader writes:
    With respect, I believe your reference to a dilemma regarding the destruction of neighorhood leafblowers is more nuanced than perhaps you concluded in your most recent post. Skipping over all of the ethical issues inherent in the necessity for leafblower destruction (Can the leafblowers be brought to a negotiating table? Can they be silenced through sanctions? Are they clearly identifiable as leafblowers, or might they be disguised as other lawn maintenance implements, perhaps weed whackers? Should we target hard-to-capture leafblowers with signature strikes, and if we do how do we address the accidental targeting of say, small industrial-strength fans?) and assume that yes, the leafblower presence does indeed pose a threat to neighborhood peace and security (that Godawful whine! The indiscriminate diaspora of debris!) and must be, as they say in the business, neutralized.

    What is ill-defined in your initial query, of course, is the scope of the term 'effective.' Surely one would presume that plastic explosives are more effective at destruction in any case, rather than ball-peen hammers - They're high-yield, highly controllable, generally very precise for explosives. But there is a significant investment in time and expertise in the use of high explosives of any kind, not to mention a technically advanced form like detonator-fired C-4. The explosives must be set properly, and they must be handled by an EOD or some such explosives professional. Perhaps garages around the neighborhood need to be targeted, which has a high probability of leading to collatoral damage to other more civil (one might say civilian) lawn implements, which would in turn certainly damage local public tolerance of our incursion.

    Consider instead the use of a ball-peen hammer. A single infiltrant can seek out the offending leafblowers, and with enough knowledge of their anatomy can render them permanently incapacitated, perhaps leaving them in the open for a covert airlift of the bodies out of the affected space. Gas leafblowers, for example, many times have exposed engines and spark plugs that can be efficiently destroyed, quickly and at minimal cost (hammers are a dollar at the hardware store, after all). I believe any safety concerns with placing a pair of hammer-wielding boots on the ground (metonymy? synecdoche?) are minimal, as it is quite impossible for the inanimate leafblowers to defend themselves or organize a resistance or insurgency. Plastic explosives, on the other hand, of course have an inherent danger to life and limb regardless of the level of resistance - another inefficiency.

    It cannot be ruled out, however, that complete destruction of the leafblower insurgency is required on-site. In this case, of course, a simple ball-peen hammer would present a significant time investment, as it's pretty hard to pulverize even a hard plastic leafblower casing with just a hammer. Not that I've tried. So, while generally I would choose the hammer route, I grant that there are circumstances that would render it ineffective.

    Come to the Atlantic for your high-end strategic analysis. If the writers don't provide it, the readers will. (Photo info from here.)


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