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.
  • On David Frum, The New York Times, and the Non-Faked 'Fake' Gaza Photos

    What they reveal about the three words that are journalists' only source of self-respect

    1. A colleague at the Atlantic made a major journalistic error this week. As he has himself admitted, in the first half of a post on our site. Of course I am talking about David Frum, who sent out a series of Tweets that flat-out and falsely claimed that the New York Times had highlighted a “faked” photo of Palestinian casualties. Frum was entirely wrong; the photo was all too real; and now Frum has apologized, to the photographers and for his snap misjudgment. 

    I am late to this discussion because I have been out of the country, in Europe, for a week (and still am) and only learned about it today. I want to say something about the case not to make further trouble for Frum, with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others and am on friendly terms. Nor do I mean to offer anything like an official statement from the Atlantic, which it is not my place to do. 

    Rather I want to emphasize a point about journalism that is often misunderstood or overlooked, especially when reporters are attempting to chronicle events as gruesome and politically white-hot as those in Gaza now. I am talking about something at the center of our purpose as journalists, which this episode highlights in the clearest possible way. 

     

    2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.

    People in this business exist to witness, and to report. Those in this business can tell themselves: As a reporter I saw people doing their work, abusing their power, helping their friends, creating their  businesses, doing this and that and whatever is significant in the world. I saw this with my own eyes. As a reporter, I heard people, with my own ears, answer questions, explain their views, avoid or embrace the truth. As a reporter, I traveled to see what a city, a prison, a factory, a war zone actually looked like, up close. All reporters get things wrong and have imperfect information and are "unscientifically" swayed by what they happen to observe or miss. But they are generally trying their best to see more. 

    Having observed all this, a reporter naturally wants to tell everyone what he has seen, and heard, and found. But the desire to tell, and be listened to, is the second most-powerful impulse among reporters. The desire to seeto hear, to experience, to ask, to attempt to knowis the most powerful of all. 

    Let me give you two examples, both involving people now at the Atlantic, and both involving the question of “faked” or real victims of violence in the Middle East.

    3. Ten years ago the man who is now the Atlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times. There was another episode between Israeli forces and Palestinians; a number of the Palestinians ended up dead. But why? And killed by whom? As a reporter Bennet went out to see the bodies. His story began:

    Set in fields of white, pink and red carnations, the giant cooler here, which usually holds vegetables or flowers for sale to an Israeli company, has been turned over to the dead.

    It was to this cooler that, inevitably, the Palestinian doctor came Wednesday morning, when, just as inevitably, the latest Israeli Army raid touched off a parallel struggle to define reality. Were there, in fact, children among the dead, as the Palestinians claimed? How many? Did they die from Israeli sniper fire or from militants' explosives?

    The doctor, Ahmed Abu Nikera, had had enough of these questions. In the dank, shadowy room, he yanked and pulled to open the bloodstained white cloth wrapping one of the bodies as tightly as a mummy.

    ''This is a child,'' he said, after he revealed the pale gray face of Ibrahim al Qun, 14. ''This is the exit wound.'' He pointed at the ragged, softball-sized black hole where the boy's left eye had been. A sniper's bullet entered at the back of the boy's head, he said.... 

    Dr. Nikara untied a cord binding the cloth around [another] child's neck, then pulled back Asma's hair to reveal a hole the size of a half dollar over her left ear -- an exit wound. She had no sign of shrapnel wounds.

    ''This is what the Israelis call an accident,'' the doctor said.

    [This child's brother] Ahmad lay in the flower cooler. He had a similar hole in his head, above his right ear, and he did not have shrapnel wounds.

     

    If you read the full story, you will see that James Bennet emphasizes the murkiness and unknowability of the situation as a whole. But he knows what he saw—the little bodies, the entry and exit wounds—and he tells us that directly, with the authority of a first-hand witness, with no “some people claim” equivocation. If someone 5,000 miles away would speculate, "You know, I bet a lot of this is fake," a reporter like Bennet could have replied: At some other times, a lot of it might be. But I was there, and you were not, and I am telling you what I saw. (For the record, I did not tell James Bennet that I planned to mention this article of his.)

    4. Now, the other example. About a year before Bennet’s piece, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun, I was in Israel, learning about another bitterly disputed death. This was the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy in Gaza who, according to many Palestinians and other Arabs, had been mercilessly shot by Israeli soldiers as he crouched in terror behind his father. The episode was so famous that the image of the frightened and martyred boy was shown on postage stamps from some Arabic states. But according to another narrative, the boy was not shot by Israeli soldiers—and perhaps had not been shot at all, the whole episode being staged to reinforce a "blood libel" against Israel for its willingness to slaughter gentile children.

    One of many images of al-Dura, from my story.

    You can read the details of what I found in the resulting article, "Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?" The similarity with James Bennet's story is that I wanted to see for myself. Not the boy, which was impossible, but as much forensic information as was available, and people who had looked into the case. My conclusion, based on what I saw and heard, was that some things were knowable: in particular, that the boy could not have been shot by the IDF soldiers known to be in the area. The physics of trajectories, sight lines, bullet damage did not match up. What did happen to the boy—still living? accidentally shot? shot intentionally by soldiers in some other location, or by someone else?—was unprovable at the time (I asserted) and might never be known.

     

    5. This last point brings us back to David Frum. Both my story and James Bennet's touch on the reality Frum raises in the second part of his post: that images of bloodshed, warfare, and atrocity have often been manipulated for propaganda ends. This has happened as long as there have been images, and it frequently happens now in the Middle East. 

    It is because of that possibility that James Bennet wanted to see the little bodies in the morgue. And because provocative imagery is sometimes faked, a few people I interviewed in Israel and the United States claimed that it must have been faked in the al-Dura case. The boy could not possibly have been shot! The whole thing was staged by the "Pallywood" propaganda film industry. 

    People argued to me then, and a decade later are still arguing via email and letters, that a Pallywood staging had to be the explanation. They thought I was naive and gullible to think otherwise. From my point of view, I was applying normal skepticism. Yeah, maybe it was Pallywood. But where's the proof? 

    Erik Wemple argues in a very tough critique of Frum's claims for the Washington Post that imbalanced, one-sided skepticism was the main problem with Frum's apology. He was willing to believe the worst about the motives and standards of the nation's leading news organization, while accepting at face value some Pallywood-style fantasies about all-fronts fakery. (Ali Gharib spoke at length with one of Frum's original sources. The results are fascinating. Bag NewsNotes also applies a convincingly skeptical view to this source. For the record, I have also seen tips from this source but didn't find them believable.)

     

    6. Now, at last, the real issue. Most of us argue about Gaza from a safe distance. Meanwhile people there are being killed, injured, displaced, and terrified—the vast majority of them of course Palestinians (more than 96% of all deaths so far) and also Israeli soldiers and some civilians. The Israeli soldiers are there because of national policy; the Palestinians of Gaza have no choice. But also there with them, exposed to danger, are relief workers and reporters, determined to see what is happening, and through their broadcasts and their photos and their articles and their interviews to convey that reality to the rest of the world.

    We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorifying the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons. 

    But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they're just making things up—this could and would drive them crazy. I'm sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately mis-diagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.

    As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world. If he were, he would have known how grave an accusation he was making, and he would not have made it without being sure. I respect him for promptly apologizing and saying that he had been wrong. And I have written this dispatch to express, and encourage, respect for the reporters in the Middle East and elsewhere now taking risks to tell us what they have seen.

  • Barefoot Running: The Videos

    "The collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system." Scientists on what can happen when you run.

    How bones, muscles, tendons, and joints absorb stress, as documented in a famous study ( Skeletal Biology Lab, Harvard )

    Over the years I've mentioned the famous and fascinating running-related videos from Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard. But I haven't done so in a while, and in the context of recent finger-shoe news it's worth highlighting them again. This is also a way of thanking people who keep sending me links to them.

    Videos like the ones below are slow-mo studies of how a runner's legs and feet look, and how the body absorbs stress, with different running styles. The main contrast is between landing on the front part of your foot, as almost anyone naturally does when running barefoot, and landing on the heel, as almost anyone naturally does while walking and which today's thickly padded shoes encourage for running as well.

    Here's one of the videos showing the biomechanics of "forefoot strike" running. Its main point is that the impact of landing and pushing off is spread out over a longer period, and buffered in force (mainly by the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and arch of the foot), compared with the sudden shock of landing on the heel.

    Here, for contrast, is the way heel-strike running looks, with padded running shoes.

    As part of the explanation on the site says:

    Our research indicates that humans were able to run comfortably and safely when barefoot or in minimal footwear by landing with a flat foot (midfoot strike) or by landing on the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel (forefoot strike)...  

    Most runners who wear standard running shoes usually heel strike, [in which] ... the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.

    Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.

    There is a lot more on the site, which I will simply steer you toward rather than trying to summarize. The larger point, again, is that barefoot-style running, and the "minimalist" shoes that encourage it, can be easier on your whole system—if you're able to adjust to run that way. The recent no-questions-asked trial offer for the best known minimalist shoe is a chance to find out whether your running style, and these shoes, are a plausible match. 

  • California High-Speed Rail: Some Views From the Valley

    People in Los Angeles and San Francisco often say that the initial links in a proposed north-south system would be "trains to nowhere." People from nowhere weigh in.

    The Fresno Amtrak station ( James Fallows )

    For those joining us late: California's controversial High-Speed Rail project is worth paying attention to, no matter where you live. While everyone moans about America's decaying infrastructure, this is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project anywhere in the country. Its outcome has a bearing on Jerry Brown's current campaign for a fourth term as governor. It also shows something about our governments' ability to undertake big, complicated efforts—and our public ability to discuss and decide on these issues.

    But the place where people are already paying closest attention is California's Central Valley, where the first links in the north-south chain would be laid. As everyone in the state knows, the broad valley that runs from near Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south contains some of the world's most productive agricultural territory. It also contains many of California's most distressed communities. If the recent suggestion to split California into six separate states ever took effect, which it won't, the new state of Central California would likely become the nation's poorest, replacing Mississippi. People in many of these communities also cope with the nation's most polluted air. As a reminder, from a chart I've used before:

    No place in America is remotely as polluted as the big cities in China. But six of the seven most-polluted communities in America are in California's Central Valley. (Chart originally from Washington Post.)
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    Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority explained early in this series that for legal, technical, and financial reasons the construction would not begin in the population centers of LA or San Francisco. Instead it would start by connecting points within the San Joaquin Valley, which is the part of the Central Valley running from the Sacramento area south toward Bakersfield. Some farmers there are bitterly opposed to the project, saying that it would cost too much precious farmland. Richard and others contend—convincingly, from my point of view—that more farmland will get chewed up by road-building and sprawl if the state does not develop a viable rail option. For now, let's hear from some readers in and around this part of the state.  

    1) The benefit will be greatest in areas that really could use the help. From a reader who works in Fresno, the largest city on the inland north-south route:

    I recently read part 5 of your series on the California High-Speed Rail project and noted a glaring omission - no reader was from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).   

    This matters to me because I live in the SJV (reside in Tulare, work in Downtown Fresno) and I believe that one of the most compelling arguments for the project are the huge benefits HSR will have on SJV, one of the state's fastest growing regions. The current population of the SJV is just under 4.1 million, which by itself exceeds the population of 25 other states in the country.

    Most of the readers that do not support HSR in your piece, and a popular topic among critics, mention the L.A to S.F commute. Now, while Prop. 1A mentions the non-stop requirement from L.A to S.F, the greatest utilization of HSR, in my opinion, will be the much shorter trips (i.e. Fresno to S.F, Bakersfield/ Palmdale to L.A).

    The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state's major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it's agriculture based economy.

    The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here's a perfect opportunity to get noticed.

    For me, this is the main reason why I believe that the California High-Speed Rail is vital and necessary to California's future.

    Screenshot of the interactive UC Davis / Esri map, showing the planned first phase of construction, starting north of Fresno and running down to Bakersfield. The colors show economic and environmental stress, with orange and red for the most beleaguered communities. You can see the live version of the map here.

     

    2) Isn't California going to need some big new transport anyway? From a reader in the home city of the University of California's latest branch:

    I live in Merced, with strong ties to both the Bay Area and San Diego. A couple of things that I'm curious about, that I think would make a big difference in this debate

    1) Airports. How much more growth can Bay Area and Southern California airports support before we need to spend billions of dollars on some type of infrastructure project? Are existing intrastate flights crowding out connections with Asia? It seems like that could have huge ramifications for the California economy.

    2) Central Valley demographics. People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites...but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don't take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what's already driving Amtrak's California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?

    And many of the people writing in seem confident that Central Valley jobs are so diffuse that no train station could be conveniently located for commuters...but is that actually the case? I honestly have no idea where most people work in Merced, but a lot of major offices seem to be located downtown. 

     

    3) Rail travel time is "good" time. Travel by car or air is not. From a reader in the SF Bay Area:

    As a CA resident, [these exchanges are] changing my thinking about the value of HSR. Still concerned about many of the obstacles presented, but the point about leveraging land development near the stations and right-of-way rights along the route was new to me.

    One relevant aspect that I don't see being included is an assessment of relative productivity between the travel options. As a former resident of San Luis Obispo I often took AMTRAK to LA and San Diego when its schedule happened to align with mine (not nearly as often as I'd have liked due only one trip a day without getting on/off a bus connector) and now as a resident of NORCAL I often commute into SF via the ferry from Vallejo.

    In both cases I found my productivity during the travel to be very high -- comfortable seats, tables available, able to walk/stretch periodically, food service, WIFI (not-so-much on AMTRAK but iPhone hotspot solves that shortcoming), not to mention pleasant scenery going by -- that what appears on paper to be a long commute is transformed into a "What? At my stop already?" highly productive and enjoyable experiences. There's no comparison to the level of productivity when traveling by car or commercial airliner.

    As before, I'm mainly quoting readers rather than arguing or annotating along the way. But let me underscore the final point in this reader's note.

    Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you're going. But in reality they're entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is "bad" time. You're in a cab on either end, you're waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today's airline experience. If you're driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you're not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is "good" time, even allowing for the cattle-car experience of waiting to board at New York's godawful Penn Station.

    From another reader on just this point:

    I have for years commuted on the Amtrak San Joaquin from the Bay Area to my home near Yosemite.

    Got no complaints.  WiFi works. People are nice.  Serviceable bus connection to Mariposa/Yosemite at Merced.  No complaints.  The bullet train will not really cover that route, but I don't care. 

    And still on this point:

    I took the Tokyo to Osaka "bullet train" in 2000, and this week, I took the DB ICE train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart.  If the LCD display hadn't shown our speed (240 Km/hr), I wouldn't have known it -- the ride was that smooth. 

    The post-WW II explosion of the suburbs really complicates intra-metro light rail, but we certainly have a case (IMO) for more inter-metro high speed rail to reduce ground and air traffic congestion. 

    Amtrak train at Fresno station, from Wikimedia Commons

     

    4) "We've effectively paralyzed ourselves." To round things out for now, a reader outside California on the larger political questions the project raises:

    I think one thing that stands in HSRs way, not just in California but nationally, is that our system has too many intentional and unintentional choke points, so that we've effectively paralyzed ourselves.

    Eminent domain proceedings are expensive (as is the land that the project will sit on) and time consuming, and there are enough ways for community organizers of both the positive and negative sort to kill most projects via NIMBYism or on other grounds.

    While we've pulled off several impressive civil engineering feats recently, we haven't, as far as I can remember, done anything really new, in the sense of expanding capacity, in perhaps the past twenty years. Most of the major civil engineering projects have been replacements or augmentations of existing (pre-1980) infrastructure, along with some infill development to expand capacity on pre-existing things.

    As I say, I think a large part of this is because we have too many kill points built into our system, so that it's almost impossible to achieve the consensus necessary to build a truly new project. However, there are two other important factors that I think also explain our lack of "new" infrastructure.

    First, we already have picked a lot of low hanging fruit. China and the rest of the developing world can absorb a lot of new highways and the like, because they're building from scratch. We already have a well built highway system, with Interstates that extend to even the most remote areas of the Dakotas and Montana, linking all of our major and most of our minor cities. Our rail system is terrible for passenger traffic, but for freight, it's second to none in terms of efficiency, thanks in part to our large loading gauges.

    Secondly, disruptive infrastructure is more disruptive when it's disrupting something valuable, and we have a lot of money tied up in existing infrastructure, to the point that it's prohibitively expensive to reroute things.

    Consider the Tappan Zee bridge, which was originally located where it was in order to circumvent the Port Authority's jurisdiction on trans-Hudson bridges. The replacement bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2018, stands right next to the original, because trying to use the more efficient southern routing was deemed too expensive and disruptive, so they just repeated the mistakes of 50 years ago.

    Indeed, this is a large part of why the CA HSR project is supposed to go to the city limits, rather than the city center. Starting to tear up houses and apartments at $1M and $2M a pop gets very expensive very quickly, especially when you have people who are fighting it in court... 

    Finally, I think there is some justified skepticism about how the government, especially at the state and federal level, contracts and supervises these projects, especially in terms of cost control, though this problem isn't unique to those levels of government, or to civil infrastructure projects in general... Perhaps the new overachievers in local government that you referenced in one of your prior posts will be able to make headway on this.

    Nonetheless, I do think you're right that large infrastructure projects are often criticized more harshly than perhaps they should have been, particularly in terms of their societal merit, since most infrastructure projects don't capture the full value of the benefits that they create (nor should they).

    For the record: This post is No. 6 in a series. See also No. 1No. 2No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5.  Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri. 

  • Interesting News on the Finger-Shoe Front

    The company at the center of recent lawsuit news has a plan to get more people to try its unusual shoes. Run in them for six weeks, and if you don't like them, you can get all your money back.

    These are a newer, fancier version of the shoes I've used for years. ( Vibram )

    I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes, as I have made clear every so often. I was wearing my trusty Vibrams when I passed the "Haynesworth Test" four years ago. I've worn them as I evolved past an uncomfortable era of Achilles tendon problems into a time of happily injury-free running. Two months ago I was among those saying that a highly publicized court settlement, in which Vibram set aside $3.75 million to compensate people who felt they'd been misled about health benefits of the shoes, showed more about our legal system than it did about this footwear. 

    The point about these shoes has always been: they're exactly right for some people, and wrong for others. It all depends on running style. If you naturally run with a "forefoot strike"—that is, landing on the front part of your foot, as nearly everyone does when running barefoot—or if you can adjust to run that way, the shoes are great. If you run with a "heel strike," landing on the back of your foot, which is the style that heavily padded modern running shoes encourage and which some people cannot change away from, then finger shoes don't make sense. You'll feel like you're breaking your heels.

    Along with one of my sons, modeling our birthday gifts of Five Finger shoes a few years ago

    But how can you know for sure, without trying? That has been Vibram's challenge all along—or so I know after an out-of-the-blue conversation with the company's U.S. CEO, Mike Gionfriddo, and his associates. (Vibram is based in Italy; its overall CEO is Antonio Dus. Readers with experience in the U.S. military will know the Vibram name in another context, since it produces outersoles for U.S. combat boots.)

    Gionfriddo and his Vibram team pointed out that the company dominates its category, that of minimalist shoes, but the category itself is perhaps 1% of all sports-shoes sales. Their aim is to get more people to give finger shoes a try.

    So they said they had a new plan. For the rest of this year, all shoe sales via their web site will come with an unconditional full-refund offer, if for any reason you turn out not to like running in them. To quote a  message I got from the company:

    We believe in our product and think that those who try the minimalist approach will become believers as well. To show our commitment, we’re making a guarantee: for anyone who purchases a pair of FiveFingers from July 22 until the end of the year through the website (VibramFiveFingers.com) and aren’t satisfied after six weeks with the experience – for any reason – we’ll take the shoe back and return a full refund.

    I asked what they'd do with returned shoes. They said they would clean them up and donate them to organizations that might use them. Then I asked how and when they planned to publicize the offer. They said, "Well, we are making the announcement to you now."

    And I, in turn, am making the announcement to any interested readers: If you'd been tempted by the idea of these odd-looking finger shoes, you now have a way to try them at no economic risk. Over to the Vibram web site for more. 


    For the record: I have no connection with the company whatsoever except as a satisfied repeat customer. I'm passing on the information not as an advertisement, though obviously I like my shoes, but because it's a significant development in controversies about this type of shoe. Also, no matter the subject, reporters always enjoy having a little scoop. 

    Update Broader perspective on the whole "minimalist shoe" question at Runner's World.

  • California High-Speed Rail: 10 Readers With 10 Views

    A solution looking for a problem? A genuine leap forward? The best we can expect from messy political half-measures? Or something truly brave? Take your pick.

    Projected Southern California reach of HIgh-Speed Rail Project ( UC Davis and Esri )

    As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.

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    He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.

    In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1No. 2No. 3, and No. 4

    Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:

    1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.

    Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:

    1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains. 

    2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be. 

    Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.

     

    2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars

    I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.

    I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).

     

    An earlier era's ambitious infrastructure program: The Last Spike, by Thomas Hill (Wikimedia)

     

    3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.

    Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory.  I love the idea of high speed rail.  I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.

    In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state.  For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc. 

     

    4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:

    Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.

    Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out.  Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.

    $81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying. 

    This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.

    I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.

    Aspirational high-speed rail map, via Federal Railroad Administration

     

    5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":

    As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ...  for different reasons:

    Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...

    Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to  There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.

    Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:

    1)      The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.

    2)      Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.

    It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour .... 

    I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.

     

    Federal Railroad Administration.

    6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"

    I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...

    The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside.  (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)

    But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of.  If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure.  Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers.  The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes.  See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?

    Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads.  So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways.  (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...)   Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service.  Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement.  See also air service in the regulated era.  The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang.  And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.

    By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network?  It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail.  The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service.  And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market,"  you can have it.  We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.

    Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force.  Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.

    The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself.  (Correction.  I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.)  Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover.  Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries?  Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX?  You betcha.  I'll have more of that thank you!

    High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!

     

    7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"

    I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.

    I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.

    Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:

    -get to LAX and park

    -allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening

    -check in, screening and boarding

    -flying time

    -rent a car at SFO

    -drive to your destination in SF area

    Total time: 6 hours

    Driving time: door to door if  you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours

    How is the high speed rail going to make this faster?  Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.

    Door-to-door transit time is what counts.  I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.

    Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports.  And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF.  I would still drive.

    And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego.  No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service.  It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.

    A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.

     

    8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations." 

    Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.

    (A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.  

    With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes."  Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech: 

        •    EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74

        •    XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%

        •    FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77

        •    BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%

        •    FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%

        •    TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%

        •    KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.

        •    XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt  

        •    VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%, 

        •    CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%

    But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.

    I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)

    (B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.

    If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.

     

     

    9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."

    Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle. 

    First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.

    Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?

    A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.

     

    10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:

    Thank you for your work on the California HSR system.  I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work.  I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing.  If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us.  I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.  

    Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly.  Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around.  It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be.  There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California. 

     

    For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1No. 2No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.

  • You Think Your Summer Travel Plans Are Rough? Spare a Thought for People in China

    Whenever the People's Liberation Army Air Force decides it's time to practice, millions of passengers sit in the terminal or on the taxiway and fume.

    Old but still functional Chinese biplane on the ramp at Zhuhai International Airport, two years ago. Around the corner are the very modern, but very often delayed, aircraft of China's commercial fleet. (James Fallows)

    The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.

    Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.

    Chen Yan, one of China's female aviation pioneers,
    in magazine cover on the wall of her cafe in Zhuhai.

    Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and othersbut all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)

    Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.

    China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.

    All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat. 

    But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.

    China Daily news on the coming delays.

    Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily (above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.

    Young security officers at Zhuhai airport

    Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.

  • America Going to Hell, in 1 Sentence

    Personally, I will be focusing on honoring my sloth and desire to drink beer.

    In-airport yoga room at the Burlington, Vermont airport, used here just for atmospheric purposes ( The Atlantic )

    A woman I know in Washington asked her local health club why the "good" yoga teacher, who was usually scheduled for Saturday mornings, seemed not to be there any more and was replaced by subs.

    The emailed reply today from the manager:

    Sadly [the teacher] is giving up her Saturday class because she is focusing on honoring her weekends more.

    !!!!

    Previously in the "America's fate as documented through yoga" series, please see "There Will Always Be a San Francisco."


     

    (To save you the effort of writing in, I like and respect yoga! And I know that people need a break. I just thought "focusing on honoring her weekends" was an amusing way to put it.)

  • From Inside and Outside the Iron Dome, Once Again

    "If you continue looking up to the sky, you will not notice that the house is already burning from within." A reader in Jerusalem on the real threat to his country.

    Reuters

    I have received lots of mail on the technical aspects of the "Iron Dome" system: its origin, performance, strengths, and potential weaknesses, plus comparisons with its Patriot predecessors. Watch this space for follow-ups as more information becomes known.

    But I intend this to be the last installment on the string begun with the powerful note from an American rabbi in Jerusalem, about his gratitude for Iron Dome protection as Hamas rockets were falling. I have received enough mail since then to be reminded that there is an inexhaustible supply of passionate but irreconcilable, and familiar, statements of who is "more to blame" for the escalating violence and who originally wronged whom. 

    For a sobering example, consider this recent CNN exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett. I have heard from people in Israel, America, and Europe who say that Bennett is speaking tough, plain, necessary truths. I have heard from others in those same places who think, as I do, that Bennett sounds appallingly callous about other people's loss of life—in this case, the deaths of the four little boys on the beach. Wolf Blitzer himself seems taken aback by what he is hearing. It's worth noting that Bennett features this clip on his own YouTube site

    I know that Bennett is not "representative," and that his fiercest critics are within Israel itself. I can name lots of American public figures I agree with even less. I know that there are plenty of people in the region and elsewhere who hatefully urge death to Israelis or Jews. But I mention this video because watching it reminded me, through its absence, of the quality of moral breadth, compassion, and bravery that distinguishes people willing to take risks for peace.

    As a young staffer on the periphery, I saw this quality from both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at the Camp David negotiations in 1978 (not to mention Jimmy Carter's role, as recently portrayed by my friend Lawrence Wright in the play Camp David). The lasting tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination (like Sadat's) is that he also had great courage and breadth, and unassailable credentials as a patriot who was strong enough to compromise. I am no one's idea of a Middle East expert, but I see no such figures on any side now.

    With that, two further messages about the political and social ramifications of Iron Dome, both from people in Jerusalem.

    First, from a woman who agrees with the rabbi:

    I have lived in Israel for 21 years and in Jerusalem for the past 14.  I long for peace and would vote tomorrow to give up the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state that would accept the existence of Israel and live in real peace with us.
     
    I (literally) cry over the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians.  But your reference to "rocket exchanges" obscures the fact that the Hamas - an Islamic terrorist group whose stated goal is to drive out (or worse) the Jews living in the entire territory of Israel - including the area within the Green line - started firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel's response was defensive. You can argue about the intensity of the response, but not about the need for a response and a forceful one.
     
    As for Iron Dome, I too am grateful to all who designed, funded, built and operated it and I know that the Hamas leaders are in luxury hotels in Doha and Cairo or in underground bunkers while they leave their people exposed to Israeli air strikes.   

    When you write that many "vastly more Palestinian families have been killed..because of differences in offensive weaponry and defensive systems and other factors" you might mention that the "other factors" included the Hamas government's refusal to build shelters and defensive systems to protect their people, as well as their use of civilians as shields to hide behind when they shoot rockets at Israeli civilians.
     

    Now, from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson of Jerusalem, who has explicitly asked me to identify him. ("I indeed wish to be mentioned by name, as I believe in the veracity of my claims and am willing to defend them.") He is director of programs for Molad, an Israeli think tank.  

    His message is personally very critical of the rabbi, which I know will be wounding. But since I have kept his (the American rabbi's) identity confidential, and since Dr. Sasson is taking responsibility for his critical views by name, and mainly since his statement is so powerfully argued, it seems fair to give him his say.

    Hillel Ben Sasson writes:

    Reading the words of the anonymous rabbi in recounting his fear in face the warning sirens alerting Jerusalemites of Hamas rockets, I was both enraged and ashamed. 

    I was enraged by the lack of comprehension he showed to the situation in which we - Israelis and Palestinians - have been living for as long as we remember. I was born in Jerusalem in 1979 and lived here for most of my life. An officer in the IDF still fulfilling my reserve duty, I have lived through three wars (Lebanon I - 1982; Gulf I - 1991; Lebanon II - 2006), two Intifada uprisings of the occupied Palestinians (1987; 2000) and three military operations in Gaza (Cast Lead - 2008; Pillar of Defense - 2012; Protective Edge - 2014). Some of these I experienced in uniform. I am also raising two young children in Jerusalem. 

    For us living here, the current military operation and the ongoing drizzle of rockets are neither unbearable nor threatening in an existential way. Iron Dome has enabled Israelis to continue with their normal lives neither terrified nor terrorized. While the Gazans are rained with high-precision ton-heavy bombs falling with no sirens or alert system, we in Jerusalem have heard three sirens in the past nine days, and witnessed no rocket falling.

    When the siren went off in that Saturday afternoon mentioned by the rabbi, I was sitting with my family in a park right across to the Shalom Hartman Institute, compared in his narrative to an U-Boat under attack. From the park where we were picnicking, as it happened, I could see the rocket being intercepted several miles south to Jerusalem, above Hebron, and in contrast to the rabbi's Dresdenian depiction.

    In a cross check with a senior Haaretz correspondent, it turns out that none of the rockets even got close to central Jerusalem - hits were located only around Hebron and Ramat Raziel (a village miles to the west of the city) probably a result of shrapnel from Iron Dome's interceptions. This gets nowhere near WWII (the very comparison is preposterous if not offensive to survivors of that terrible war). 

    I am enraged because the rabbi is presumably a tourist in my city and country, yet in the name of his spiritual and cultural connection to the holy land he feels free to act as its spokesman. By generalizing his personal sense of fear and acting as a spokesman for those who actually carry the burden of living in Israel, the rabbi grossly exaggerated the impact of Hamas terror on Jerusalem and portrayed it with unduly epic dimensions. In so doing, he distorts the actual power imbalance in this tragic situation, in addition to victimizing me and my fellow Israeli citizens.

    As a society, we are a (powerful) side in this conflict, not a helpless victim. To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I am far from disregarding the fear and anxiety felt by many Israelis who are in the line of fire day after day. Writing about Jerusalem however - a city that witnessed three sirens and not even one hit of a rocket - in the way that the rabbi adopted is simply absurd. This absurdity might indicate that his experience is influenced less by concrete reality and more by his already existing perception of victimhood. And this brings me to shame. 

    The blinding victimhood embodied in the rabbi's comments is shameful because it points at an abject moral, spiritual and leadership failure. In the very same Jerusalem and on the very same days, young religious Jews have burnt alive an innocent Palestinian teenager, in the name of national revenge. In this very city, racist Jewish hooligans are marching every night, seeking Arab scapegoats, cracking down on other Jews who dare answer back to them, shouting slogans such as "death to the Arabs" and "A Jew has a Soul, and Arab is a son of a whore".

    Where is the cry of this anonymous rabbi against these far more worrisome threats to our existence and future? How dare American rabbis who keep silent these days continue and call themselves religious shepherds? As an observant Jew, I am ashamed at how few were the courageous voices who took into heart the words of Rabbi A. J. Heschel who marched at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr.: "Few might be guilty - but all are responsible". 

    The rabbi's anonymity, it turns out, is but a metaphor for his inacceptable silence on the real enemies of the Jewish society in Israel - the extremist hateful enemies from within. 

    No, rabbi, you got it wrong. The rockets are not really scary nor are they a true existential threat. Racism, radicalism, and religious intoxication from brute power has become an imminent danger to our old and beloved peoplehood. When people are accustomed to hearing that they are perpetual innocent victims of Palestinian aggression, they eventually translate they frustration into rage and start seeking justice in revenge. If you continue looking up to the sky, you will not notice that the house is already burning from within. 

     

     

  • Don't Blame Malaysia Airlines

    Four other airlines flew along this Ukrainian route more frequently than the beleaguered flag carrier of Malaysia did. Would we make the same assumptions about negligence if the rocket had hit a Lufthansa airplane? The people to blame here are the ones who brought the plane down.

    I have an op-ed in Saturday morning's NYT, whose title gets across its point: "Don't Blame Malaysia Airlines."

    Short version: Airlines rely on regulators and national and international bodies to tell them about airspace they should avoid. Absent such warnings, airspace is presumptively legal and safe for transit. MH17 was following the rules by staying out of no-fly and warning zones. A terrible crime and disaster occurred, but that is not Malaysia Air's fault.

    Shorter still: According to Spiegel (German version here), while some airlines, including Air France, had changed their routes to avoid Ukraine, most did not. Many other airlines took a path similar to the one on which MH17 was shot down, notably including Lufthansa. Here is Spiegel's chart of how many planes had gone this way in the week before yesterday's disaster;
     

    Airlines that have recently flown most often across Ukraine. Four others come before Malaysia Air.

    Lufthansa, as flag carrier for that paragon of efficiency, Germany, had taken the route more often than did Malaysia Air. So too (according to Spiegel, with data from FlightRadar.com) with Singapore Airlines, famously high-end and responsible airline. Any of them could have met the fate that tragically befell the 298 people on MH17. Indeed, also according to Spiegel, some other first-world airliners were not far from MH17 when it was shot down. Somehow I suspect that if it had been a Lufthansa plane that was attacked, there would be fewer starting-point assumptions that the carrier had somehow been cutting corners at the cost of its passengers' safety. (Thanks to Chua Chin Hon of the Straits Times for noticing this graphic.)

    Malaysia Airlines and its home country, where all of the flight crew and more than 40 of the passengers came from, are among the damaged parties in this case, not among those doing damage. Sympathies to them and all others affected by this catastrophe.

    Update see the remarks from the always-sensible Patrick Smith at Ask the Pilot. Among his points:

    It is fairly routine for civilian jetliners to overfly areas of conflict. Dozens of airline flights pass each day over Baghdad, for example (many of them land there). I’ve personally piloted flights over eastern Ukraine, close to where the Malaysia Airlines 777 met its fate on Thursday....

    In a lot of respects these tragedies are less about air safety than they are about dangers and conflicts on the ground. If a government or rogue faction shoots down a commercial plane, is that really an “air safety issue”? 

  • The FAA's Notice Prohibiting Airline Flights Over Ukraine

    The U.S. government did its best to keep civilian airliners away from the region.

    FAA "Special Notices" section ( FAA )

    [Please see two updates below.] Many crucial questions about the tragic/disastrous apparent shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight in Ukraine are still unanswerable. Who did it? Why? With what warning? Or repercussions? 

    But at this point one question can be answered: Did aviation authorities know that this was a dangerous area?

    Yes, they most certainly did. Nearly three months ago, on the "Special Rules" section of its site, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out an order prohibiting American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and everyone else over whom the FAA has direct jurisdiction, from flying over southern parts of Ukraine.

    Here is how the "who this applies to" part of FAA NOTAM 4/7677 looked, in the ALL-CAPS typeface of many FAA communications and in the language the FAA uses to say "this means YOU!"

    A. APPLICABILITY. 
    THIS SPECIAL FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATION (SFAR) APPLIES TO THE FOLLOWING PERSONS:

    1) ALL U.S. AIR CARRIERS AND U.S. COMMERCIAL OPERATORS;

    (2) ALL PERSONS EXERCISING THE PRIVILEGES OF AN AIRMAN CERTIFICATE ISSUED BY THE FAA, EXCEPT SUCH PERSONS OPERATING U.S. REGISTERED AIRCRAFT FOR A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER; AND

    (3) ALL OPERATORS OF U.S. REGISTERED CIVIL AIRCRAFT, EXCEPT WHERE THE OPERATOR OF SUCH AIRCRAFT IS A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER. 

    And here is how the "these are the areas to stay out of" part of the order was written, everything specified as Longitude/Latitude coordinates:

    (D), NO PERSON DESCRIBED IN PARAGRAPH (A) MAY CONDUCT FLIGHT OPERATIONS IN THE PORTION OF THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) FIR WITHIN THE FOLLOWING LATERAL LIMITS: 454500N 0345800E-460900N 0360000E-460000N 0370000E-452700N 0364100E-452242N 0364100E-451824N 0363524E-451442N 0363542E-451218N END PART 1 OF 4. 23 APR 22:30 2014 UNTIL 1504270001. CREATED: 23 APR 22:16 2014
     
    FDC 4/7667 (A0012/14) - null AIRSPACE SPECIAL NOTICE UKRAINE 0363200E-450418N 0363418E-445600N 0363700E-443100N 0364000E-424400N 0361600E-424700N 0340000E-424800N 0304500E-434100N 0303200E-441500N 0302400E-444600N 0300900E-455400N 0322500E-454900N 0324700E-455400N 0330600E-455600N 0332700E-455900N 0332900E-THEN ALONG THE CRIMEA BORDER TO 454500N 0345800E.

    Until only a few years ago, most FAA notices—of restricted air space, of special weather hazards, of other areas-of-concern—were promulgated in this same indecipherable Long/Lat form. Now the FAA distributes most information on U.S. airspace via easily understandable graphical overlays. For instance, its Special Use Airspace site, which you are supposed to check before every flight, gives you a color-coded illustration of all active military airspace, restricted zones, etc, at any given time. Here is how part of it looks right now, mainly showing active "Military Operations Areas" in the South. This is a screen shot, but on the real map you can click on each one to see its vertical limits. For instance, those large ones over northeastern Mississippi go from 8,000 feet upward, so we were able to fly under them in our recent visits to the "Golden Triangle" cities in the same area.

    I have not yet seen a map that plots the Long/Lat points of the Ukraine no-fly order onto the route the Malaysian plane flew, and where it was apparently shot down. When I learn of one, I will provide an update. (Credit to Jad Mouawad of NYT for seeing this notice before I did.) 

    UPDATE This FAA notice appears to apply mainly to Crimea and the areas immediately to its north, all of which are south of the reported crash zone. So this rule would apparently not have prevented flights over the exact area of the crash, but it certainly was a sign of a general trouble zone. Thanks to Joel Koepp and other readers for plotting out the Long/Lat readings.

    The point for the moment: the FAA "Special Rules" section tells U.S. pilots and aircraft not to fly over trouble spots ranging from North Korea to Yemen to Syria to Iraq. And since last April it has told them not to fly over certain parts of Ukraine.

    Update-update Thanks to readers who have pointed me to another, later NOTAM, which warned planes about hazards in broader areas of Ukraine, apparently including those the Malaysian airliner flew across. The hazard this NOTAM warned against was possibly conflicting Air Traffic Control instructions from Russian and Ukrainian controllers. A sample of that NOTAM is shown below, with text here. For more information, try this site.

     

  • The Gaza Impasse, in 2 Notes

    "I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians." More from the American rabbi in Jerusalem.

    Last night I posted three reactions from people in Jerusalem to debates about the effectiveness of the "Iron Dome" air-defense system. The first, longest, and most detailed was from an American rabbi who has been in Israel during the latest exchanges of fire. He reported on the stoically tense mood inside a Jerusalem bomb shelter, which he likened to a scene from a WW II submarine movie in which the crew waited out depth charges without knowing when one might hit. He also described tender scenes of parents trying to protect their children.

    After quoting his message, I said that from past correspondence I knew the writer to be a person of broadly universalistic, rather than narrow, human sympathies. Although he had sent his note before the latest horror of the four Palestinian boys killed while playing on the beach, I said that I knew he must be aware of the fear and grief on both sides—with the great disproportion of the recent death and grieving occurring among the Palestinians.

    This morning I got two notes from Americans in the region. First, from the rabbi himself, who objected to my comments. I quote him in full:

    I was taken aback by your juxtaposition of my comment to your reporting of the deaths of the Palestinian children the next day. Those deaths were beyond horrible and tragic. But I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians on the other.

    The death of those innocents lies at the feet of Hamas who began this terror offensive and continued it despite the Israeli government's agreement to adhere to a cease fire.

    If Hamas had not begun to fire indiscriminately thousands of rockets at Israeli cities (and Palestinian ones like Bethlehem and Hebron, and even at its own power electric power station on the Strip), if it had not filled its hundred of underground tunnels with rockets and other munitions instead of using them to provide shelter to its citizens, if it had not encouraged it residents to remain in their homes and not to seek shelter after they received "knocks" text and cell calls from the IDF warning of an impending attack, if Hamas eschewed to the very same Jewish doctrine of the sanctity of life that Islam adopted from Judaism, then those precious, innocent lives and the other precious, Palestinian lives would not have been lost. But the loss of life will continue because of Hamas' warped death theology, and the more you and other commentators continue to perpetuate the "cycle of violence" narrative, the more they and other terrorists will believe that their approach is an effective one.

    The other note is from another American who has lived and worked outside the United States for many decades and in the Middle East for several years. He says:

    Thanks for your comment after the transcript of the rabbi's thoughts, that similar things are happening in Gaza and the Gaza folks don't enjoy the same weaponry as the Israelis.

    I have a few Israeli sympathizers among my friends who rant and rage about the "terror" from the Palestinians but don't acknowledge that there is "terror" also from Israel toward their subjects in Gaza and West Bank. It's nice to see when writers can show a balanced (but not "false equivalent") perspective on this mess.

    Draw your own conclusions. My thanks to both writers.

  • From Inside the Iron Dome

    "I am very grateful for the Israeli 'know how' that created it, the effective AIPAC lobbying that ensured its funding, and the Congressional and Presidential support that made it available to the citizens of Israel." So writes an American rabbi from a bomb shelter in Jerusalem.

    Israeli "Iron Dome" interceptor being launched last week (Reuters)

    On Wednsday I contrasted The Washington Post's front-page story about Israel's "Iron Dome" protective system—"Highly Effective Missile Defense," as the headline put it—with much more skeptical coverage from tech-oriented publications like Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Technology Review. 

    I said that I didn't know which view was right, but that there was a very long record of high-tech military systems being hailed in immediate reports that were later deflated or debunked. One famous illustration involves the Patriot anti-missile system during the first Gulf War. While the fighting was underway, the Patriots were said to have knocked as many as 80 percent of Iraqi Scud missiles out of the sky. A careful congressional investigation after the war lowered the "strongest evidence" kill rate down to 9 percent. (More info here, from Frontline.)    

    So perhaps Iron Dome will end up seeming as impenetrably effective as immediate heat-of-battle reports have claimed it to be. Perhaps not. For the moment, a range of reader reactions from Israel and elsewhere. 

    1) "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world." From an American rabbi now in Israel:

    I have been in Israel since before the Hamas terror offensive began. I was caught outside when the first azaka (Red Alert siren) went off in Jerusalem. And I have also made a run for the miklat (bomb shelter) in the apartment building where I am living when the siren sounded on a Sabbath afternoon.

    On one occasion, I was walking to the Shalom Hartman Institute for a meeting when the siren sounded while I was just  a few feet from the Institute's gated entrance. A father walking with his very young son on the street panicked as the siren went off. I called and waved to him to follow me into the Institute. I ran, along with faculty, administrators, and participants in a Hillel Directors program to the bomb shelter located underneath the Institute's Beit Midrash (study hall where over the years thousands of Rabbis, Jewish educators and lay people from around the world have studied). All the while, I could hear the breath of that father as he ran behind me holding his son in his arms.

    Within the bowels of the bomb shelter we could hear the Iron Dome missiles intercepting the Hamas rockets overhead. The scene was reminiscent of what you might recall from motion pictures about life in a WWII U-boat or submarine when depth charges are dropped from a above and the booms of their explosions sound like they could rattle the teeth out of your head. We counted with our lips and fingers . . . One .  . Two . . . Three.

    In all, five rockets where fired into densely populated Jerusalem. Three were destroyed over our neighborhood and within half a mile of where we were (when we emerged topside we could see the white wisps that remained from the Iron Dome missiles). Two more Hamas rockets were allowed to fall in an empty field adjacent to the neighborhood of Arnona. Had there been no Iron Dome those rockets would have landed in the midst of apartments buildings, houses, schools, and parks.

    My religious tradition claims that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world. So, as one of thousands who are now living with the threat of terror from the skies, I am interested little in the academic/ theoretical musings related to the so-called ineffectiveness of the system. I am very grateful for the Israeli "know how" that created it, the effective AIPAC lobbying that ensured its funding, and the Congressional and Presidential support that made it available to the citizens of Israel.

    Best wishes from Jerusalem,

    The rabbi sent this note before the horrific recent episode of four little boys, ages 9 through 11, being killed by Israeli shelling as they played on a Gaza beach. I have corresponded often enough with this reader over the years to know that he means his "if you save one life" thoughts to be universal rather than sectarian. So I am sure he understands that there are also fathers and mothers in Gaza holding their little children in their arms—and that because of differences in offensive weaponry, defensive systems (including Iron Dome), and other factors, vastly more of those Palestinian families have been killed through the rocket exchanges. (According to the NYT as I write, so far 214 deaths in Gaza during the recent violence, and 1 in Israel.)

    2) Proximity fuse does the job. From another person in Jerusalem, who starts out with an exchange I quoted between Ted Postol and Robert Siegel on All Things Considered.

    "SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

    POSTOL: That's correct. "

    Actually, I strongly suspect that Siegel - and Postol for that matter - are incorrect, quite incorrect.

    To the best of my knowledge the Tamir interceptor uses a proximity fuse such that it only has to get "close enough" (and I don't know how that is defined) for it to detonate and destroy the incoming rocket.  As to its overall effectiveness, a crude, but useful measure is how much damage from Hamas rockets is actually occurring on the ground. 

    In this campaign Hamas has fired far more rockets, and more powerful rockets, than in the previous two, and more critically, more rockets into areas of greater population and building density, most notably metro Tel Aviv.  In addition, Hamas has been firing many more simultaneous salvos which increase the likelihood of a hit in a dense region like Metro Tel Aviv.  Nonetheless, there has been far less damage than in the previous two Hamas campaigns.  One would not expect this result if the Iron Dome effectiveness were in the 5% or even 20% or even 50% range.

    The original allegations that Iron Dome is a sham or near-sham came from an Israeli anti-missile systems expert (or perhaps "expert") who, in the aftermath of "Pillar of Defense", dreamed up all kinds of criteria of marginal relevance (I don't recall the details) to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Iron Dome system.  He was responded-to by the developers of Iron Dome, within the limits of the understandable secrecy surrounding the details of the system's performance (any defensive system has its weak points and you don't want to inform your enemy what are those weak points).  In addition, there is a "sour grapes" aspect to this.  Way back when, this original Israeli critic had submitted his own proposal for developing an anti-rocket interception system but his proposal was turned down.

    Finally, with all due respect to the experts cited in the various sources you cited, they are judging the system from a great distance, with a lot of assumptions and missing a lot of info, unless they are privy to secret IDF Iron Dome performance data.  And somehow or another, I am skeptical that they are on the distribution list for those memos.

    3) "I was skeptical. Until last week." From one more reader in Jerusalem:

    I live in Israel and was very skeptical of the ability of the Iron Dome system. Like you write, the military establishment likes to tout and over rate themselves to impress the possible enemy. That was until last week.

    I live in Jerusalem and was going to check for mail when I heard the sirens, so instead of going to a shelter like an intelligent person, I went to see if anything was flying. I looked up and saw two rocket coming towards my location. So instead of running I took out my camera and before I could take a picture, I saw two poofs, no sound, just poofs like a pillow opening up in midair. (I heard the booms about 20 seconds later.)

    I was totally amazed by the ability of the Iron Dome to take out the rockets, there were actually 4 not the two that I originally thought I saw.

    4) "All about convincing Israelis that their government is doing the job." On the other hand, from a reader not in Jerusalem:

    I'm probably super-cynical about anything I read in the mainstream media about Israel, but the Iron Dome stuff is, in my view, all about convincing Israelis that their government is in fact doing the job they desire. 

    I'm sure you know, this, but in the past 75 or so years the success of most military campaigns (and often new technologies) has, with careful retrospective study, proved to have been grossly overstated. [JF note: Agreed.]

    I can't recall the details perfectly, but the Serbian-Bosnian turmoil was supposedly brought to a conclusion by the introduction of a USAF?NATO bombing campaign. Post-conflict NATO expended considerable effort to quantify the accuracy and impact of the bombing campaign, and they in fact concluded that the bombing campaign had been almost entirely ineffective. This conclusion flew in the face of what USAF wished to believe, and not surprisingly it worked long and hard to ensure the NATO conclusions were discredited and/or buried.

    As a country that enjoys such a tight, emotionally-inflammable relationship with the US, Israel and its American affiliates (for lack of a better word) will paint whatever picture most effectively advances its cause, facts be damned. It's interesting that the US just committed another $500 million to Israel's Iron Dome program. How we reconcile that whilst simultaneously working hard to erode social programs escapes me. 

  • Iron Dome—Savior, or Sales Job?

    When the fighting is over in Gaza, one of these stories is going to look strange.

    Washington Post front page, July 15, 2014

    In its lead story this morning, the WaPo tells us that Israel's famous "Iron Dome" air defense system has been a huge technical success that has changed the realities of battle. The system, for the record, was developed in Israel, is produced by U.S. and Israeli contractors, and is mainly funded by the United States.

    That's the Post's front page you see above, with details here. Eg:

    “I can’t even explain with words how great it is,” said Sivan Hadad, 32, who has lived her entire life in Ashkelon and had grown accustomed to staying indoors when the rockets started flying. “Now I can go out. I still get scared, but not like before.”

    To Israeli security officials, the success of Iron Dome is akin to that of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which they say helped bring an end to an onslaught of suicide bombings in the early 2000s.

    The Iron Dome system has rendered rockets so ineffective that Hamas and its allies have, in recent days, been attempting more-creative ways of attacking Israel. 

    Here's why this is interesting. The effectiveness of Iron Dome has been much discussed in the technical press recently, and with a very different emphasis. Five days ago, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, John Mecklin called Iron Dome "the public relations weapon," because it was always touted during battles for results that did not stand up on later inspection.

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 10, 2014

     

    A story that same day in Technology Review had a similar skeptical take:

    Technology Review

     

    An NPR segment on July 9 quoted the same technical expert, Ted Postol of MIT, featured in the other stories and was similarly cautionary.

    Part of Ted Postol's exchange with NPR's Robert Siegel:

    POSTOL: We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all. It - my guess is maybe 5 percent of the time - could be even lower.

    SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

    POSTOL: That's correct. And when you look - what you can do in the daytime - you can see the smoky contrail of each Iron Dome interceptor, and you can see the Iron Domes trying to intercept the artillery rockets side on and from behind. In those geometries, the Iron Dome has no chance, for all practical purposes, of destroying the artillery rocket.

    SIEGEL: By way of contrast, when the Israeli Air Force strikes at targets in Gaza, is the weaponry substantially more accurate than these rockets?

    POSTOL: When you're talking about an airstrike from an aircraft, especially with the very, very highly trained pilots Israelis have and, of course, the very advanced equipment that they're using, you're talking about precisions of tens of meters - very, very high precision.

    ***

    Why such a difference in emphasis?

    One possibility is the Post has new information that offsets this raft of skeptical analyses, even though it doesn't mention any of these critiques. If so, that will be very interesting in technical and military terms.

    Another possibility is that when we eventually know what happened in these missile exchanges (and of course I hope no one on either side dies in any further attacks) , this story, and its lead-the-paper play in the Post today, may seem to be another illustration of Mecklin's hypothesis: that militaries hype the performance of high-tech systems during the heat of battle, and by the time the real results are in the press is onto something else. 

    I don't know which is the case, though I will say that there is a very, very long track record of the pattern Mecklin describes. And here is an intriguing journalistic detail that could be either insignificant, or a clue:

    The "Highly Effective Missile Defense" story has the featured, top-of-the-news position in this morning's print paper. Yet a few hours later on the WashingtonPost.com web site, there is no mention of it whatsoever on the home page. No link, no summary, no "see also," no "in other headlines." This is unusual enough—a story that leads the paper being nonexistent on the home page—that I saved a PDF of that page to be sure I wasn't misreading it.

    I called the Post this afternoon to ask if the story's absence from the home page was mere happenstance, or if for some reason the paper was distancing itself from it. The person I was eventually transferred to, a woman on the media relations team, said she understood the question and would get back to me. I'll update this when I hear more.

    Update Someone who asks to be identified as a Washington Post spokesperson sends this reply:

    The story you are referencing (Israel’s ‘Dome’ changes the fight) was featured in the lead position on The Washington Post’s homepage yesterday. The homepage has since been updated with the latest news.

    So perhaps I just didn't see it in time, although I can't help noticing that many other stories from today's print-paper front page are, unlike this one, still featured online. I appreciate the clarification, and we'll see how the Iron Dome story unfolds.

  • 7 Ways in Which High-Speed Rail Would Help California, According to Its Chairman

    For your reference, a detailed pro-and-con about the most ambitious current attempt to change America's transportation infrastructure

    Los Angeles-basin electric-streetcar map a century ago, during the state's previous foray into rail expansion ( California Digital Library )

    This is a follow-on to the post earlier today, in an ongoing series about the most important infrastructure project in America today, the attempt under Governor Jerry Brown to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system for California. This project is the subject of mounting controversy in California but has received much less national attention than it should. For the record, the installments so far are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, with this as No. 4.

    Since today's two posts are quite long, I'll let them sit for digestion before resuming the discussion in a few days. But since these two posts are related in outlook and source, it seemed worth getting them out during the same reading cycle.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
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    Last week, a California writer named Chris Reed took me to task for naiveté when it came to HSR. ("7 Ways James Fallows is Wrong About the CA Bullet Train") His real object of criticism was of course not me but the plan itself, of which he is a long-time opponent. What follows in this post is the gist of his seven-point critique, with responses from the same man I quoted earlier today: Dan Richard, head of the High-Speed Rail Authority.

    I'm presenting them with the goal of letting a worthy exponent of each side lay out his case. And I'm presenting them in full-length version on the assumption that anyone who doesn't care can skip right over, while anyone who does may want to know the detailed back-and-forth. Each of Reed's critiques is in itals, followed by Richard's responses. In the exchanges, Dan Richard directly criticizes Chris Reed's logic and evidence. But what he says is milder than judgments Reed offered about the plan's creators, or about me, so I figure it's fair to leave those remarks in.

    [Reed starts his list of seven complaints]

    1. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be paid for. There is at most $13 billion in state and federal funding for a project that has a price tag of $68 billion (a price tag that no one really believes is accurate). There is no prospect for further federal funding in an era in which discretionary domestic spending is being squeezed as never before. State funding of $250 million a year from fees from California’s nascent cap-and-trade pollution-rights market begins this budget cycle. But that is a pittance, and if they’re off the record, no state lawmaker will admit to wanting taxpayers to foot the entire bill. So why can’t the private sector come to the rescue? Because …

    [Richard replies] Chris Reed’s funding analysis is simplistic and deeply flawed. First and foremost, virtually no project knows where all the funding is coming from at the outset. When we started BART to SFO, we were supposed to have $750 million in federal funding. We had virtually none for years and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and I walked out of Sen. Mark Hatfield’s office in 1994 with the first $25 million, which was a pittance. In the end, we received all $750 million and that was after Republicans took control of the Congress and 1994 and we were assured we wouldn’t get another dollar of federal monies. The California High-Speed Rail program has been held to a standard that no other program has had to face, which is to address calls for how the entire system will be funded, in advance. Nevertheless, here’s a broad outline:

    • Cap and Trade dollars could provide billions for the project. The state talks of our allocation in terms of percentages because to speak of specific dollars would send signals to the carbon traders about what the expected the price of carbon credits. Still, the $250 million in first year funding is considered a modest amount compared to what future dollars would bring. Moreover, the cap and trade dollars, as more experience is gained, allow us to finance the construction of certain legs and build simultaneously, thereby reducing costs. Our $68 billion estimate includes inflation at 3% per year. Not only has inflation been below that amount, but for every year we cut off the construction time, we save about $1 billion dollars.
       
    • Private Sector—Yes Virginia, there is strong private sector interest. People who talk about the lack of private sector involvement generally have no clue how the private sector works. Among other things, one should not want the private sector investment to occur at the outset, because the private sector prices risk and the risk would be highest then. However, our ridership estimates, which have been scrubbed by everyone from two independent peer review groups to the GAO, show that the system, as it is built out, will generate billions of dollars in excess of operating costs. Like the Japanese and other systems, our business model is to sell the rights to operate on our infrastructure to the private sector. We believe the NPV of the excess revenues will be between $12 billion for the initial operating segment and $20 billion for the line from LA to SF. At $20 billion, that would mean the private sector would be putting up about 1/3 of the system costs, doing that along the way to help us build out the full system.
       
    • Development Potential—In Japan one-third of the revenues earned by Japan Rail East, one of the private sector operators of the Shinkensen comes from real estate development around the stations. We have not even begun to explore how to maximize that potential. In Arlington Virginia, station area planning resulted in such a dramatic explosion of mixed use development, generating such enormous property tax increments that the county was able to lower its other property taxes (source: Bob Dunphy, formerly with Urban Land Institute, now teaching at Georgetown). Senate President Darrell Steinberg proposed last year a bill that would allow for tax increment financing of any development within one mile of a high speed rail station. Sharing those tax increments with local communities would be appropriate, but we’d still be able to develop an enormous funding base.
       
    • Use of the infrastructure—Again, we’re just beginning to look at maximization of the infrastructure we’d be building. Leasing the right-of-way (ROW) for fiber optic cable, as we did at BART, would generate significant revenues. Energy development in our ROW would be another money maker.

    The point is that this is a long-term program. Our cap and trade funds are actually one of the more stable transportation funding mechanisms around (especially compared to the current situation of the Highway Trust Fund).

    Finally, I do believe there will be additional federal support over time. Experience shows that to be the case, especially if legs of the system are up and running and it's a matter of closing gaps, etc.


    2. All the wonderful things the train allegedly does don’t matter if it can’t be built legally. No private sector investors have emerged despite years of promises from the administrations of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown because Prop 1A included a provision that there could be no operating subsidies, whether the rail system was run by the state government or a private operator. No investor wants to partner with a suspect entity like the state of California without revenue or ridership guarantees that are tantamount to promises of subsidies if the project doesn’t meet expectations.

    Prop 1A isn’t just susceptible to the NIMBYism that routinely hobbles big projects. The only lawyers who believe it is legal under the terms of Prop 1A work for the rail authority or for political entities that support the project. It’s already been blocked by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on the grounds that it has inadequate financing and insufficient environmental reviews to begin construction of its initial $31 billion, 300-mile link. That’s because of yet another Prop 1A safeguard: the requirement that construction couldn’t begin unless there is all necessary money in hand and completed environmental reviews for an entire rail segment that could be economically viable even if the statewide system were never completed.

    I’ve had this argument with Chris before. Yes, there was an adverse judicial ruling. We think it was wrong and it’s on appeal right now. But regardless of the outcome of that, his analysis is again flawed.

    The bond act says that we must build “useable segments.” The judge, looking at a preliminary plan produced by the Authority, concluded that the usable segment synonomous with what we called the “initial operating segment” a 300 mile long stretch from Merced to LA and said that we needed to show all the permits and funding for that.

    However, the final plan that we presented to the Legislature defined the initial construction in the Central Valley as a useable segment and demonstrated that is was so because of the immediate beneficial impact of enhancement of existing rail service. The federal Surface Transportation Board, in approving that project, said it was doing so because the Central Valley portion had immediate utility.

    As for the statement that no lawyers other than ours believe our project is legal, apart from noting that our law firm is the Attorney General of California, Chris overlooks the fact that the Legislative Counsel, the Legislature’s lawyers, were asked by Senators opposed to the project whether what we were proposing comported with the requirements of the Bond Act and the Leg Counsel said it did.

    So, we do believe we’ll have access to the bond funding at some point, but we have sufficient federal and other funds available now begin key construction, which is getting underway right now


    3. What the state of California wants to do isn’t even a high-speed rail project under the definition established in state law. Fallows somehow has missed the harsh critique of former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, the father of the bullet train idea in California, who opposes Brown’s plan to build a really fast train from San Jose to the northern edges of the Los Angeles exurbs. Kopp says—correctly—that Prop 1A promised a two-hour, 40-minute trip from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco. That’s not in the realm of even theoretical possibility if riders have to spend an hour getting from San Francisco to San Jose and then an hour getting from northern L.A. County to downtown L.A. on regular trains.

    We are building a train that precisely meets the requirements of the bond act to be designed to achieve a 2 hour 40 minute travel time from LA to SF. That is true even though the 50 mile portion from San Jose to San Francisco will share tracks with Caltrain. You don’t have to take our word for it. The independent Legislative Peer Review Group looked at the planning and concluded that at present, our design would allow for that trip to occur in 2 hours and 32 minutes, well within the design parameters. Project critics have seized upon the “blended approach” to state anecdotally that they believe it means we could never meet the travel times. Actual engineering analysis demonstrates otherwise.

    For 90% of the track we’re building, we’ll use brand new, dedicated rail. For the remaining 10%, in urban areas, we share track. This has no material impact on speeds (it may affect ultimate capacity, but we’ll have plenty enough capacity to meet our ridership projections).

    Going back to plans published by the High Speed Rail Authority in 2008, long before Governor Brown’s team came on the scene, system maps showed that in urban areas the train would operate at slower speeds, more like 120 mph. This is consistent with experience around the world. The speed is determined by track geometry, i.e., the radius of the curve limits the safe speed. In urban areas, even if one is building entirely new track, trying to lay that in with long sweeping curves becomes prohibitive in terms of land use impacts. So, on those narrower corridors, the speeds are reduced. That is true whether one is using dedicated track or shared track.

    We were asked by legislators, citizen groups and the independent Peer Review Group to consider using blended track in urban areas. We concluded we could do so and still meet the performance standards, but save billions of dollars for the next several decades.


    Now it’s time for four more reasons that are a little more subjective but that Fallows still has no effective way to counter:

    4. The Fallows case for the bullet train builds on information he was provided by the state and its paid consultants. Unless he is the most naive man in the world, he should be hugely suspicious of information provided by those pushing the project. Why? Because here is the short list of some of the many important things they have deceived the public and the media about since 2008:

    The project’s cost (used to be $33 billion, then $98 billion, now allegedly $68 billion); annual ridership forecasts (117 million people, or three times as many riders as Amtrak, which operates in 46 states); jobs created; pollution reduction; and cost of fares.

    This is a phony cost comparison. Project costs have increased to be sure, though not as much as people think when the comparison is done on a constant dollar basis. You can’t compare an estimate done in 2006 dollars with one done in 2013 dollars and claim they are directly comparable.

    What’s much worse, however, is that critics took our efforts at transparency and turned them against us; we began to describe the project in both current year dollars and in fully inflated “year of expenditure” costs. So the $68 billion figure refers to the fully inflated cost of the project over its construction life. We’re the only people who describe projects that way. It’s like seeing the fine print showing that your $400,000 mortgage will cost you $900,000 over its 30 year life. Both numbers are “true” but you can’t mix them up unless you’re trying to make a polemical argument.

    Chris Reed ignores the fact that it was Governor Brown and his team who came in and said the costs would be higher. We have been the ones to be honest about the costs. We also assessed whether the higher costs still justified the project and we concluded they did because (a) alternative means of providing that level of mobility would cost 2-3 times as much (an analysis reviewed by the GAO which found it reasonable) and (b) because once built the project would still operate without an on-going subsidy.

    Governor Brown’s team also scrubbed the ridership projections to the point where independent experts believe they are reasonable. Our current ridership projections are about 29 million per year. Not sure where Chris got his number. Our number has again been reviewed by multiple peer review organizations and the GAO.


    5. The public no longer backs the project. It won narrowly in 2008. Now polls show nearly two-thirds of voters are opposed. Costly projects surrounded by controversy and scandal—and lacking funding—need public support if they are to be completed.

    Well, there are polls and there are polls. Some of the most respected polling in California is done by the Public Policy Institute of California. Here’s an excerpt from a note I sent to s a reporter on this very subject, along with an extract of the PPIC polling. If anything, support has been consistent or growing slightly.

    “The issue I wanted to call out was your phrase about the "increasingly unpopular high-speed rail system." All journalists have a tendency to describe the project this way and it’s become part of the narrative. In fact, that statement isn't consistent with polling data. Support for the project has been pretty steady over the years, despite controversy, lawsuits, some unfavorable court rulings and the lack of visible progress (i.e., "seeing dirt fly" as Nancy Pelosi likes to say). The most recent reliable polling shows that support has actually increased slightly overall, with a significant jump in the Central Valley. When I say "reliable" polling, I'm ignoring some Republican polls out of Orange County and really pointing to the PPIC poll, which also has the virtue of having asked the same question over the last three years.

    I've included a table that shows the tracking of responses to the PPIC questions. [JF note: These are shown below.] For starters, the ballot measure won by something like 52-48 in 2008. Not surprisingly, the public is wary of big infrastructure projects in general. Since that time, support dipped a bit on occasion, but not by a huge amount. This year, the numbers are up a little; probably one could say that the numbers have been more or less even in terms of statistical significance.

    What's most interesting to me are the responses to the question of whether high speed rail is very important or somewhat important to the state. Combining those two categories, as pollsters do in my experience, presently about 2/3 of all voters see the project in a positive light. In looking a cross-tabs and deeper questions, one sees in the polls that if the public believes the costs can be kept under control or come down, this number actually rises further.

    You will also note that support is stronger among "all voters" than among likely voters. My unscientific analysis of that difference is that it displays a generational split. We all know that younger adults are less likely to vote than their seniors. Anecdotally, I've yet to meet anyone under 30 - Democrat, Republican, Progressive or Conservative - who isn't excited about the train. I'm sure there are some out there, but literally (using the word in its literal meaning) I have not met them.


    6. Many Democrats in the state Legislature have lost faith. The incoming Senate president, Kevin De Leon of Los Angeles, even said it was stupid to begin the project in the Central Valley instead of the state’s most populated regions. And the most dominant special interests in Sacramento are public employee unions, not the building-trades unions which love the bullet train. These unions are extremely wary of another big mouth at the state trough. An enormously expensive bailout of the state teachers pension system has just gotten under way; a similar bailout of a program for retiree health care for state employees is still badly needed; and temporary income-tax and sales-tax hikes are expiring in coming years. These factors add up to a grim coming era in which there will be a perpetual dog-eat-dog fight for every dollar in the Legislature. These are the fights that the teacher unions in particular win year after year. There is no reason to think teacher unions will use their clout to help the bullet-train project as opposed to trying to enervate it.

    Chris’ political thesis hasn’t played out. The State Building and Construction Trades and the State Labor Federation (which represents all labor organizations, including public employee unions) are all fully supportive of the project. Yes, some Democrats have come out against the project. For the most part, that opposition has been tied to spending money in the Central Valley, which is disappointing to see, but not unexpected parochialism. At the same time, we have the support of key Republicans, like the Mayors of Fresno and Palmdale, both of whom see the tremendous value of the project for their cities, along with the head of the Orange County Business Council and other GOP business leaders. They join with the Mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Anaheim, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Fresno Economic Development Commission, Bay Area Council, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, etc. etc. in supporting the project. Of course, we also have the strong support of the Governor, our two U.S. Senators, former House Speaker Pelosi and the majority of California congressmembers. No project will ever have unanimous support. We have terrific and deep support among leaders in California for which we’re very grateful.


    7. The idea that trains dependent on conventional 20th-century engineering are the key to getting people around in 21st-century California is farcical to anyone who pays attention to the enormous building wave of transformative transportation technology. Driverless cars are only one example.

    Driveless cars and other technologies are exciting, but have nothing to do with the high technology, high speed train we are building. Driverless cars may be how you get from downtown LA to where you’re going, but they really aren’t the way to get you from LA to San Francisco. Japan, China, Russia, Taiwan and a dozen other countries are investing in rail technology and there is plenty of innovation in the newest generation of trainsets, railcars, signaling and controls.


    Fallows’ goal seems to be shoring up a project he perceives in trouble. But unless he moves out of his vacuum-based view of high-speed rail’s glories and addresses its California realities, he’s not even going to be a factor in debates over the bullet train—at least in the Golden State.

    That’s because here, we’ve already heard all the happy talk. And we’ve noticed how little it meshes with reality.

    I like Chris personally. We met once and we’ve exchanged notes a few times. However, he’s rabidly against the project and will remain so. We’re building a project that is consistent with the realities in California. It isn’t easy. The reality is that neither was the state water project, the state highway system, nor were building the world’s largest privately owned hydroelectric and geothermal systems. Californians weren’t daunted by those challenges. When did we lose confidence in our ability to overcome obstacles and make progress for the future?

    For the record, here are some of the Public Policy Institute of California polls that Dan Richard refers to. The date column refers to asking the same question in March 2014, March 2013, and March 2012. If the print is too tiny to make out, the point is that the levels are more or less constant through that period. First, overall support:

    Now, "how important to California's future?" with variation between "all voters" (including young) and "likely voters" (older/whiter/richer).

    Finally, "how important?" by region of the state.

    That will hold us for a little while. When we resume: readers' views; other supporters and critics; what history tell us; and why I am still on board.

  • California High-Speed Rail No. 3—Let's Hear From the Chairman

    It's time for broader national attention to the most expensive and ambitious infrastructure proposal in America today.

    Plan for the California high-speed rail system when completed ( UC Davis and Esri )

    First, a word about the roadmap for the series I have in mind here. Last week, in installment No. 1, I tried to put California’s proposed north-south high-speed rail (HSR) system in perspective, and preview why I’ve become a supporter. Then, in No. 2, I summarized and quoted some of the critics and opposition, including an article pointing out in loving detail my (alleged) naiveté.

    Why give so much space to the topic in the first place, in those installments and some through this coming week? 

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    • Because California is our most populous, most productive, and (depending on the measure) both our most environmentally progressive and our most polluted state. Whatever it does on the transportation front matters.
    •  Because this initiative is the most expensive and ambitious, and as best I can tell the most important, infrastructure project under consideration in the country as a whole. If it were happening on the East Coast, I promise you it would be in the NYT and the national TV news all the time. If someone has a nominee for a more ambitious/important U.S. infrastructure project, please let me know about it.
    • Because HSR is the signature and now politically embattled project of Jerry Brown, who is in the middle of his bid for an unmatchable fourth term as governor of California. (Last year he passed Earl Warren to become the longest-serving governor in California history. No successor will have a chance to beat his record, because they will be subject to a two-term limit enacted in 1990, after Brown had served his first two terms.) And ...
    • Because, in my view, the decision-process about this project will show a lot about the way our prosperous-but-unequal, environmentally-concerned-but-skeptical-of-spending American society can undertake big public endeavors.

    ***

    Dan Richard, with California Secretary of Food
    and Agriculture Karen Ross, in Shanghai last
    year as part of Jerry Brown's delegation. One of
    the stops was a Chinese high-speed rail station.

    More from me later on. Today, as installment No. 3, I give you Dan Richard, who as chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority is Jerry Brown’s designate to oversee the project. He has a long background in finance, utilities, and public works. He started at NASA, served in the first Jerry Brown administration, was an official at PG&E, co-founded an energy consulting firm called MRW & Associates, and was twice the president of the board overseeing BART, the SF-area transit system. For the record, I had not known him until we met in Merced this spring so I could interview him about HSR. Also for the record, he turns out to be a fellow active Cirrus pilot, and flew himself to Merced in his four-seat SR22.

    We’ll hear again from Richard in at least one more upcoming installment. For the moment, if you’d like to get a sense of how he sounds, and why he’s spending his time on the project, you could listen to a podcast of his recent address at the Commonwealth Club about what the project can mean to the state. The Commonwealth Club, for those who don't know, is (along with the newer and fast-growing Zócalo) California’s functional equivalent to C-SPAN plus the D.C. think tanks.

    For the rest of this installment, here is Richard's response, via email, to the critical letter I posted from a reader who liked the idea of high-speed rail but had soured on the specifics of this project. Passages from the reader’s message are in itals, followed by Richard’s response. In this installment I'm giving Richard his uninterrupted say, as I did with the opponents previously.

    Aspirational version of the HSR station of the future, from the High-Speed Rail Authority

    [Reader]: First off, I am very supportive of a high speed rail network in theory; very few people I have talked to are not.... 

    However, the actual execution of the high-speed rail plan is what has gone and lost my support.  While a high speed land connection between Los Angeles and San Francisco would certainly make money, the high initial investment is obvious.  Shorter segments between San Francisco and Sacramento, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles and San Diego would make money almost immediately.  However, none of those things is what they are building.  Instead, they are building the line between Bakersfield and Merced, with the further extensions only in later phases at undetermined dates.

    [Dan Richard of HSR] I can understand this frustration. To a certain extent, we're playing cards we were dealt. The bond act established a first phase of the project between LA/Anaheim and San Francisco. It put San Diego and Sacramento into a Phase II, which we cannot fund until we complete Phase 1. If someone asked whether it would have been better to build the first leg between LA and San Diego, I'd be hard pressed to dispute that.

    However, having said that, I do believe that as difficult as it is, there are ample reasons to begin in the Central Valley. Here are several:

    • We can lay the most track-miles per dollar there, which means we can get a good jump on the project.
    • It's one of the only places where we can test the trains at their maximum speeds of up to 250 mph. You can't do that between SF and San Jose or between LA and Anaheim.
    • There is no existing corridor there. Securing transportation corridors should be one of the earliest things done.
    • The Central Valley is growing at the fastest rate in the state. Already, we may have to buy and tear down a four year old apartment complex in Bakersfield that wasn't there when project planning started.
    • The economic stimulus effect in the Valley would be very great, given poverty and unemployment. The Valley is left behind economically and needs to be connected to the great urban areas.

    Politically, I've seen over the last two years, that urban lawmakers—of either party—simply don't want to spend money in the Valley. There will always be an insatiable need for local transportation projects and without forcing the construction of the project spine, I fear it would be a long time before anyone wanted to actually try to connect the whole state.

     

    The line between these two cities [Bakersfield and Merced] would be, basically, useless; to attempt a simile to another part of the country, this would be as if the Acela didn't go between DC and Boston, just between Trenton and Newark... 

    Even though our first construction segment will not be full high speed rail, it will not be useless. The bond act says we must build useable segments and this segment will be.

    Right now, the Amtrak route down the Central Valley is the fifth busiest in the nation. California has three of the top five Amtrak routes. Sacramento is the 7th busiest Amtrak station in the U.S.! The ridership on that line tops 1 million trips per year and is growing at double-digit rates. The trip takes five hours to Bakersfield from Sacramento or Oakland, over a lousy rail bed much of the way, etc. The track is shared with freight, which means that it is subject to speed restrictions of passenger trains, constraining them to 79 mph.

    We will be building 130 miles of brand new, passenger-only track. While we will not begin high speed service on that immediately, the current Amtrak trains, rolling onto our track at Madera, will be able to open their throttles and go 110-120 mph with existing equipment, shaving 75-90 minutes off the trip. Moreover, we will be tying in the very popular ACE train service that currently goes from Stockton to San Jose. The point is that we will be building up a network of improved rail service as we "vertically" improve to full HSR levels. I wish we had the money to build everything at once but without a national commitment, what we are doing is building a foundation, using the structure for immediate good purposes and preparing for full HSR.

     

    Building this section first, without connecting any major population center to any other, therefore seems like an investment with no hope of a return.  In the  meantime, the people already opposed to the system (which are particularly numerous in the Central Valley) will be joined by those opposed to government waste in general, who will point to a train that has already cost billions of dollars and still connects nowhere to nowhere, and say, "enough, pull the plug, this has been a waste of money."  Once that happens, the political realist in me has to acknowledge that there is no way promises of "but if we extended it further, it would actually work" would get any traction, and the idea would be dead. 

    As I have remarked with my friends, only half-jokingly, if they wanted to kill the idea of high speed rail in California forever, they couldn't have gone about it much better than this.

    The federal GAO looked at our project at the behest of Congressional Republicans. They concluded that our biggest risk is the lack of full funding—a widely quoted statement in their report. I have been prone to quote their next sentence which was that we have developed a reasonable risk mitigation plan by building the project in segments, with each segment having immediate value. Would it be better to build everything at once? Yes. You have to start somewhere. This is a beachhead.

     

    To this pessimistic political outlook, I could also add the accusations of mismanagement of the funds already spent, and the compromises that are watering down the project as it moves along (portions of the line are now not even going to be high-speed), but those are already documented by actual journalists.  My main feeling, though, is that if they wanted this to work, they should have gone about it any other way than what they have.

    I have to simply reject these statements. Most importantly, we have not made compromises to water down the project. It's an unfortunate myth.   We are maintaining fidelity to the bond act requirements of a 200+ mph electric train designed to get from Los Angeles to downtown San Francisco in less than 2 hours 40 minutes. Ninety percent of the track will be new, dedicated high speed rail track. For the other ten percent, in the urban areas where trains don't operate at line speeds anyway, we will share the track. The passengers won't see any significant difference.

    Ultimately, someone may upgrade those last sections, but in the meantime we save billions of dollars, provide early investments to upgrade popular commuter systems on those lines and still meet our performance standards and ridership projections.

    Maybe the program was mismanaged, but it is not now. Maybe it was a clown show for a number of years. Not now. Not at all. In fact, the the GAO report found that our cost estimates and ridership estimates largely complied with best practice.

    When Jerry Brown came in, the HSR program was rife with problems. The organization was at half-strength, the board was dysfunctional, there was a high level of criticism from independent groups evaluating ridership and plans. 

    All of that has turned around. The board is highly cohesive and professional. The staff is now at full strength with a highly capable day-to-day CEO, top flight engineering, risk management and program leadership. We have the most sophisticated risk management program likely to be found in any public infrastructure program. Our cost data and risk assessments are now presented publicly on a regular basis at our board meetings and are in accessible form on our website. Our CEO put in excellent local project leaders and former critics have lauded the openness and responsiveness of that team. 

    Here's a quote from the Independent Peer Review Group, established by the California Legislature. The PRG was highly critical of past plans. No more:

    "We believe that the Authority has made manifest progress in all areas of planning and management since the Revised 2012 Business Plan. This assessment applies to risk management, demand forecasting, operating and maintenance (O&M) cost modeling and the analysis of the impact ofHSR on California's greenhouse gas emissions.

    "We particularly compliment the inclusion in all of the upcoming financial and economic analyses of probabilistic assessments based on Monte Carlo simulation techniques so that future reports will more accurately report the range and likelihood of potential outcomes. The Authority also expects to incorporate their cost experience in real time at every stage so that future plans will more and more be based on results rather than expectations. As noted by the U.S. GAO, the Authority'S steps to take uncertainty into account are appropriate for this stage in the project. With this said, we also emphasize that essentially all of the Authority's plans and budgets so far necessarily remain based on estimates rather than experience, causing all of the plans to have a wider range of uncertainty than might be the case 5 to 10 years from now. "

    It's a big decision, that matters. Watch this space for more. 

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