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.
  • Travel Chronicles, From East to West

    How the city that gave the world the very first McDonald's hamburger is trying to remake its economy, and other tales

    The very first McDonald's in America, on E Street in San Bernardino, California. I came here as a teenager, when the burgers really did cost 15 cents. This is how it looked yesterday, under rare Southern California lowering skies. (James Fallows)

    Everyone has got lots of things to think about at the end of a year. But I wanted to note things we've seen, have reported on, and are about to cover in our ongoing travels across the country.

    1. This Past Week: Deb Fallows completed her four-installment chronicle of what it is like to cross the continent at low altitude, with various surprises, rewards, and challenges along the way. If you missed them, they are:

    More »

  • The Diplomatic Life: It's Not All Striped Trousers and Sips of Tea

    "The students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs." When Warren Christopher had to deliver bad news in Taiwan.

    From the wall of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, a news photo of Warren Christopher's egg-pelted official car ( Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training )

    Yesterday I did a brief compare-and-contrast on the U.S. decision to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China, under Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter in the 1970s, and Wednesday's announcement by President Obama that the U.S. will begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.

    The normalizations were similar in both being sensible, realistic, and in America's interest—or so I contend. One difference, I said, was the level of rancor the two decisions generated.

    In the Cuban case, we've seen some protests in Little Havana (below) and heard Senator Marco Rubio's undoubtedly heartfelt (if in my view wholly misguided) avowal that "I don’t care if polls say the 99 percent of the people support normalizing relations with Cuba," he is still against it. But all signs are that this long-overdue change will soon be an accepted part of reality every place except some parts of southern Florida.

    Yesterday in Miami (Reuters)

    But 35 years ago in the Chinese case, the admirable but in this case unfortunate Warren Christopher, in his role as deputy secretary of state, was dispatched on a mission for which there is no current counterpart. He had to fly to Taipei and there inform the leaders of the Republic of China on Taiwan that the U.S. was switching its recognition to their bitterest adversaries, in Beijing, and would no longer deal with the ROC as an official country.

    Warren Christopher as secretary
    of state (Wikipedia)

    I'd paid attention to that episode because I was a junior staffer in the Carter White House at the time— and because Warren Christopher, later Bill Clinton's secretary of state and a lifelong example of steady, understated public service, was a contemporary of my parents and by chance a friend of theirs from Southern California. From all accounts I'd heard then and later, the Taiwan trip was an episode that called for sangfroid on Christopher's part, as crowds surrounded his car.

    A reader who had been in Taiwan back then said, let's keep it in perspective. He said he agreed with me on the welcome change toward Cuba. But:

    The line about "...nothing compared with the riots in Taiwan after the U.S. announcement..." did catch my eye, however.

    I was living in Taipei at the time and that feels overstated. There were some demonstrations, and yes, a smallish group roughed up Christopher's motorcade (without hurting anyone), and in a separate incident an unlucky Colombian diplomat was dragged out of his car and beaten up. But nothing you would call widespread rioting.

    Considering the suddenness and significance of the U.S. de-recognition, I thought the popular reaction was pretty restrained. Typically sothe Taiwanese can get unruly, but they're violence-averse (except for gatherings of politicians, apparently, but these were pre-democracy days). [JF note: fist fights have broken out surprisingly often in the modern, democracy-era Legislative Yuan of Taiwan.]

    None of which has much to do with the Cubans, who would probably appreciate a little less recognition from the U.S. government.

    Because I'd heard of the Christopher trip as such a dramatic moment, I went prowling around for further accounts of it. It turns out the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, based in Arlington, Virginia outside Washington DC, has a riveting account by Neal Donnelly, who was public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Taipei at just the time it was downgraded to a non-Embassy. You can read the whole thing here. Here are two samples.

    When the then-ambassador in Taipei got word of the impending change:

    That night, Ambassador Leonard Unger went to the American Chamber of Commerce Christmas party. ... A cable came in late at night saying that Carter was going to announce the normalization of China and the de-recognition of Taiwan. [An embassy staffer] immediately got a hold of Unger at the Christmas party at I think about 11:00 pm and then Unger started the wheels in motion to contact Chiang Ching-kuo who was the President of the country [and son of Chiang Kai-shek].

    Now you don’t just go to the President of the country’s house and ring the bell and talk to him, so it took a while to go through the several people that they had to and then they got Chiang Ching-kuo at, I think, slightly after two o’clock in the morning. Unger told him that we were de-recognizing Taiwan.

    I’m told that he was in shock, shocked into inaction, and really didn’t do anything until the following morning. At six o’clock in the morning I was called by the duty officer and told to get down to the office. I got there, I guess about 8:00, and the country team was in the bubble [secure meeting room]. ...

    We got there and Unger, still in his tuxedo and red bow tie [from the previous night's party], told us what Carter was going to do and we should call our families and tell them to listen to the radio, the armed forces radio station in Taiwan which would broadcast the message. And to tell our families to keep the kids home from school and things like that. So we did.

    Then the announcement came and, of course, people were very upset.

    After Warren Christopher arrived, he addressed the people of Taiwan. A senior Taiwanese diplomat, Chen Fu, introduced him at a press conference:

    Chen's introduction was not “Ladies and gentlemen of the press, this is the Deputy Secretary of State. He has a short statement and then he’ll take your questions.” It was nothing like that at all. It was a condemnation of the act of normalization, and the Taiwan government negotiating position on normalization, from which they would not retreat. ...

    It went on for about five minutes, after which, Warren Christopher read this very bland statement ... [in which he said he was] “look[ing] forward to meetings which will reflect the goodwill and understanding that has existed between us.”

    Obviously there wasn’t any goodwill or understanding. (laughs) …

    We went out then and got in the motorcade and started out. By the time that we got outside the gates, the students, I don’t know how many there were, several thousand, surrounded the cars and began to pelt them with eggs and rocks and to jump up on top of the cars and stamp on the roofs. …

    A student came with a flag pole and shoved it through the window and broke the window. I was covered with glass and cut a little bit. Ambassador Unger was driving with one of the admirals, I think. He was mildly cut and his glasses were knocked off. He had the Seventh Fleet commander with him, I think. ...

    Our car was badly damaged. They kept us for a long, long time in that motorcade; wouldn’t let us go through. Just pounded the cars and breaking the windows. No one was hurt badly and I’m told by a young friend of mine who was a military officer — a young Chinese friend — that the soldiers were told to don civilian clothes and make sure that none of the students got too wild. He said he himself wrestled down a student who was going after the Ambassador’s car with a hammer. So they were prepared.

    To round this out, two other reader notes. First on the longer-term politics of Cuban policy, from a reader in California:

    By beginning the process to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama may have actually helped the GOP in one small way with the Hispanic community.

    Many Mexican-Americans that I've talked to over the years resent the way Cuban-Americans have always been given a special status as refugees. So while Cuban-Americans are definitely part of the larger American Hispanic community, many Mexican-Americans feel Cuban-Americans are treated better.  Normalizing relations with Cuba removes the refuge aspect.

    Of course, if Cuban-Americans no longer provide any particular influence, the GOP could start ignoring them as well. Maybe Marco Rubio becomes just another GOP Senator.

    And on comparing U.S. policy toward the one-party Communist government in China with policy toward the one in Cuba:

    The spring after 9/11, I spent several weeks traveling around the back roads of the U.K. by myself, and almost invariably in chatting with people I met along the way, after they realized I was an American and we'd agreed on George Bush (bad) and Bill Clinton (good), the next question would be something along the lines of (imagine a rural northern Scottish road crew member leaning on his shovel), "Can ye tell me then, wot's it with you people and Cuba?"

    A standing joke when I was living in Beijing is that there was exactly one steadfast, true-believer Marxist among the billion-plus residents of China. That was the Cuban Ambassador in Beijing. We'll see how long that goes on.

  • Obama Just Ended the Stupidest Part of U.S. Foreign Policy

    Turns out "don't do stupid shit" is an underrated guiding principle for a president

    Some residents of Little Havana are upset about President Obama's decision today to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Tough. (Reuters)

    For at least 35 years, the U.S. embargo on diplomatic or commercial dealings with Cuba has been the single stupidest aspect of U.S. foreign policy.

    Not the most destructive: that title would go to the decision to invade Iraq, plus the ongoing ramifications of the age of torture, open-ended war, and the security/surveillance state.

    But the Cuba policy has been the stupidest, because there have been absolutely zero rational arguments for its strategic wisdom or tactical effectiveness. Jeffrey Goldberg, who has traveled in Cuba and interviewed Castro, more tactfully calls it "ridiculous." In my impetuous youth a few years ago, I called it not the stupidest part of U.S. policy but the "most idiotic." Take your pick.

    I choose "at least 35 years" as the demarcation point for undeniable irrationality because that is when the U.S. fully normalized its relations with mainland China. If successive Republican and Democratic administrations could see the merit of trying to engage (rather than exclude) a one-party repressive communist-run state, even when that state had four times as many people as the U.S. did, and is nuclear-armed, and is a regional rival of several U.S. allies, how much more obvious is the case for a tiny little island practically within eyesight of the American mainland and certain to fall under the sway of U.S. cultural and economic influence if given a chance?

    Not to mention that recognizing the People's Republic of China meant cutting off America's relationship with the people and government of the Republic of China on Taiwan, which itself has twice the population of Cuba and nearly 10 times as large an economy. There is no comparable tit-for-tat cost for the U.S. in normalizing relations with Cuba. As shown by the photo above, there are protests in Little Havana today. That is nothing compared with the riots in Taiwan after the U.S. announcement, which Warren Christopher braved when traveling there in 1978 to deliver the official news that the U.S. no longer considered Taiwan a real country.

    The stupid policy persisted because of inertia, and because there actually was a counterpart to the Cold War-era "China Lobby" that pressured against dealing with Mao's Beijing government and in favor of Chiang Kai-Shek's Taiwan. This was of course the emigre Cuban community concentrated in Florida. Let's round up to say that perhaps 1 percent of the U.S. population has modern family ties to Cuba. That's not many people. But enough members of that 1 percent would work hard enough, in a concentrated enough political sphere, with enough resources and intensity behind them, that they were able, NRA-style, to make this a line just not worth crossing for most politicians. Very few members of the remaining 99 percent of the electorate were going to switch their votes based on Cuba policy. Why should politicians take the risk of infuriating the minority that cared?

    Thus even though people out of electoral office—Richard Nixon as an ex-president, William F. Buckley, even (bravely!) Paul Ryan before his vice-presidential run—have urged opening up to Cuba, for people in office, or considering a run, the ramifications in Florida have made such a move not worth the risk and bother. Every sane person knew the Cuba policy "would" and "should" change. But it didn't.

    Until now. It is unwholesome for U.S. democracy that so little now happens through normal "bill becomes a law" procedure, and so much depends on executive action. But in this case the executive is doing manifestly the right thing. Congratulations, thanks, and it's about time. "Don't do stupid shit" may have limits as a worldview, but it is an improvement over continuing a path of folly.

  • Fascinating New Ways of Depicting the Motions of the Air and the Seas

    Modern data-based graphics meet the timeless mysteries of the globe.

    If you'd like to see a moving version of these ocean currents, go to NASA's site. ( NASA )

    Yesterday I mentioned a fabulous site for envisioning the swirl and flow of winds around the world. Seriously, if you haven't seen it, and if you have any interest in the geophysical world, take a minute now to check out the Czech-originated site Windyty.

    Okay, glad to have you back. Here are several followups:

    1) Oceans have currents, too. From a professor at a major state university who specializes in fluid dynamics:

    As a working scientist whose curiosity was sparked by the New York Times science section in high school, I greatly appreciate seeing more science-related content in venues read by “laypersons."

    NASA has done a similar thing with the ocean currents that is truly amazing. It may be worthwhile to share with your readers.

    Indeed it is! This NASA project is the source of the image at the top of this post. I don't see a way to embed its videos, but if you go to the NASA site here, you'll be able to see a range of fascinating high-res, high-amazement representations of ocean flows.

    2) Flows go up and down, not just side to side. From a Ph.D. meteorologist with NOAA:

    With respect to those visuals of rivers of air, it's worth being aware that there is one dramatic simplification at work in such figures, namely that the motion is portrayed as only horizontal. It is, of course, not just horizontal, and not just because of the flow over mountains.

    At any given time, there is probably 1 cm/sec large-scale vertical motion on average a few thousand feet above the ground. While that may not seem like a large quantity, suppose the typical wind a few thousand feet up is order 10 m/sec. This means that for every 1000 m (1 km) traveled, that air will change in height by 1 m, and thus for every 1000 km the air will change in height by 1 km, if the vertical motion is consistent along the trajectory of that air.

    So, on a diagram like the ones you showed, in actuality an air "parcel" that you might be tracking from Hawaii may end up whisked away at 10 km altitude, with a very different speed and direction than at the surface, by the time it reaches the west coast of the U.S. And similarly, the surface air along the West Coast may have come from somewhere very different than implied by such a diagram.

    And thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for those vertical motions, for that's what brings us the rains and snows (on ascent) or what clears out the smog after the passage of a cold front (the descent of clean air from high aloft).

    3) Envisioning the layers of the atmosphere. The weather is way more interesting to me now than it was before I was spending time planning flights through it. Not weather as in, "Nice day today," or, "Hot enough for you?" But weather as in, "How low will the ceiling be?" Or in the wintertime, "Where is the icing risk?" Or in the summer, "Where are the thunderstorms?"

    A radically useful tool for answering these questions is something known as a Skew-T Log(p) chart, a sample of which you see below. It represents soundings from weather balloons, which measure changing temperature, dew point, wind speed etc. as they ascend toward the stratosphere. As I say, these charts are very useful, but to put it mildly they take some getting used to. You can find introductory material here and more advanced material here The Skew-T chart below basically tells you: If you fly between altitudes of about 10,000 and 20,000 feet, you're likely to be inside a cloud at temperatures just below freezing, and therefore in danger of airframe icing.

    What this charts tells you is that clouds are likely starting at an altitude of about 10,000 feet—and that the temperature will be below freezing there, so airplanes between that altitude and around 20,000 feet are in danger of icing conditions.

    One of the features of the great Czech Windyty site mentioned earlier is that it presents some of the same underlying information on a local basis (with analysis from meteoblue in Switzerland). For instance, here's the way it shows likely cloud layers over Chicago this week. The middle row, which I've highlighted, shows likely altitudes of cloudy and clear layers, as the week wears on. The Skew-T has its function, but so does this.

    Windyty and meteoblue

    4) Your tax dollars at work. David Ryan, who under his nom de blog Tony Comstock was a guest blogger here back in 2011 and who in his role as charter-boat captain pays attention to the weather, writes:

    It might be worth mentioning that the data for that and (nearly) all other private weather outlets comes from government sources. Here's the one I use: https://www.fnmoc.navy.mil/wxmap_cgi/index.html. And here's the European consortium:

    The visualizations are cool, but they aren't possible without the data!

  • Envisioning a River of Air

    Prediction: If you spend a little time on these sites, you will start looking at weather forecasts in an entirely different way.

    Surface-level wind flow around the world this morning, color progression from magenta to green showing increasing speed. In case you can't make it out, that's the North American continent in the center of the view. ( WIndyty.com )

    By the classification rules of the world of physics, we all know that the Earth's atmosphere is made of gas (rather than liquid, solid, or plasma). But in the world of flying it's often useful to think of air as a fluid.* Landing with crosswinds in an aircraft has some similarities to tacking in a sailboat. The turbulence created by high winds over rough terrain is easiest to understand if you think of it as the counterpart to the whitewater rapids created when water flows over stones. [*Thanks to physics-world friends who have written in to emphasize that both gases and liquids can be fluids. I'm meaning to emphasize the visible-flow nature of air streams that these sites highlight.]

    This is my way of introducing an absolutely fascinating site that depicts wind flows around the world as visible currents. It's called Windyty, it is a non-commercial project by an avid kite-skier and pilot in the Czech Republic, and the link is here.

    The image at the top of this item is a static screenshot. If you play around with the site, as I predict you'll want to, you will see that you can pan and zoom all over the place, you can choose different color overlays to show different values—wind speed, moisture etc.—and you can see how things look at different altitudes. For instance, the opening image shows surface-level winds. Here is the view at 20,000 feet, dramatizing the increase in wind speed as you go up (with North America still at the center of the shot):

    Wind flows at 20,000 feet, also giving an idea of how the jet stream works. (Windyty.com)

    The real breakthrough of this site, for non-weather-professional viewers like me, is depicting atmospheric flows as if they were movements of liquids. Once you see the movement and currents depicted here, you'll think of the big H's and L's on weather maps in a new way. You can also click on specific locations on the map to get very interesting-looking local forecasts. Here is a video from Ivo, the adventurer and programmer in Prague who has created Windyty:

    Windyty, wind forecast from Ivo on Vimeo.

    And one more: If you'd like to see a similar animation presented on a globe, try this site, from the Earth community. Here's a sample:

    Storm brewing right now in the northern Pacific, near Alaska (Windyty.com)

    Thanks to Mike McCoy, of UC Davis and the California Strategic Growth Council, for pointing these out.

  • That Winning Bid for California's High-Speed Rail: Is It Suspiciously Low?

    "No one should have the illusion that this phase is going to be completed for $1.2 billion. This is a political number." So says a critic of the surprisingly low successful bid. The rail system's chairman begs to differ.

    What they're trying to build ( Esri and UC Davis )

    Yesterday I noted two seemingly positive developments in the California High-Speed Rail saga. That was installment No. 14 1/2 in the series. For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, No. 14, and then No. 14 1/2. Today's item is officially No. 14 3/4. Number 15 is still to come!

    The two bright spots were that reelected Governor Jerry Brown will spend the first full day of his fourth and final term at a groundbreaking ceremony in Fresno for the first leg of the system, indicating both that the project is getting going and that he remains committed to it; and that the winning bid for construction of the second leg had come in substantially under estimates. The high-speed rail authority's estimate had been $1.5 billion to $2 billion for this leg. The winning bid was $1.2 billion.

    More »

  • California High-Speed Rail: It's Happening

    Three weeks from now, a groundbreaking ceremony on the most important infrastructure project now underway in the United States

    I've used this image before and will probably use it again. (Wikimedia)

    This doesn't count as the long-awaited No. 15 Finale in the California High-Speed Rail series. (For previous episodes see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3,No. 4,No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8, No. 9, No. 10, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13, and No. 14.) All readers will be relieved to hear that No. 15 is still to come. Instead this is to announce, as No. 14 1/2 in the series, some actual news. It's best understood in this sequence:

    1) A little more than a month ago, Jerry Brown won his (unprecedented) fourth term as governor of California. One of the campaign issues was Brown's commitment to build a north-south high-speed rail (HSR) system as his signature project for the state.

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  • A Vibrant American Musical Career, far From America's Cultural Capitals

    What Larry Groce discovered by launching a national radio program from an out-of-the-way location

    A program with one host since its debut in the 1980s ( Mountain Stage )

    In the early 1970s, a young singer-songwriter named Larry Groce was launching his career in the music business. He had grown up in Texas, moved to Los Angeles, started recording albums, and in 1976 had a Top Ten hit with the novelty song "Junk Food Junkie."

    After that song came out, Dick Clark invited Groce onto his American Bandstand show. You can see a clip from that below—and down at the very bottom of this item, a different clip of Groce singing the "Junk Food" song. But what Clark mainly asks about in this clip is Groce's recent role as a "musician in residence," sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in rural areas of West Virginia.

    More »

  • The More Americans Who Read the Torture Report, the Better

    U.S. policy has often shifted in the wake of big reports from official bodies. Let's hope the new Senate report has that effect.

    President Lyndon Johnson receiving copies of the "Warren Commission" report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy from Earl Warren and other commission members. ( Government Printing Office )

    Thick, footnote-laden reports from official government bodies have played a surprisingly important role in shaping American policy and public opinion. To give a few examples from my conscious lifetime:

    • The Warren Commission report in 1964, on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, argued strongly that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and without any outside guidance or collaboration. Agree, disagree (to me it's always seemed implausible, but I have no convincing other interpretation), it remains the central document for discussions of the topic.
    • The Kerner Commission report in early 1968 examined the race riots of the previous few years and concluded that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." It was an immediate national bestseller. Martin Luther King said that the report was "physician's warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life." Six weeks later he was shot dead.
    • The Church Committee reports of 1975 and 1976, which were technically reports of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, laid out a wide range of abuses and excesses by the CIA and U.S. intelligence agencies. These included targeted assassinations of foreign leaders and widespread and previously unknown surveillance programs. Afterwards some intelligence officials claimed that their hands had been tied, etc., but it was a mammoth and necessary airing of excesses.
    • The Hart-Rudman Commission in 2001, technically the Commission on U.S. National Security/21st Century, was the one that warned the incoming George W. Bush administration of the likelihood of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
    • The 9/11 Commission report of 2004, technically the "Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States," was another immediate bestseller that examined the sins of omission and commission that predated the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

    There have been others that made news and focused attention: the Grace Commission, the "Nation at Risk" Commission, the report on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the Moynihan report, plus more early in the 20th century (e.g. this). The point is, these big, ponderous official studies are often the way the United States has dealt with big, ominous issues.

    The Torture Committee report of 2014 should have the same effect. I say "should" in an exhortative rather than necessarily predictive sense, though I hope both apply. You should read this document, and you should demand changes and accountability.

    Technically the report is known as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program. You can read the 500-plus pages of the "executive summary" and other working papers at this WaPo site or this from the NYT or elsewhere. It should—and I say this in the predictive sense—henceforth be known as the Torture Committee report.

    One way to put its findings is: Whatever you thought was out of control and abusive about the all-fronts approach to the "global war on terror," it was worse than that. Another way is: Whatever damage you thought the United States was doing to its own values, its standing in the world, and its system of checks and accountability, it was doing more.

    Read it yourself. There is no other way to absorb the scale and relentlessness of the abuses it chronicles. And this is from the heavily "redacted" version, with working papers presumably to follow. Start reading.

    The architects of America's self-destructive over-response to a shocking and unprecedented attack will always bear the responsibility for the path they set the country on. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Rice, Tenet, Bremer, Franks, and others including, yes, Powell will always be the ones who launched America into a war it should not have fought and who embraced tactics that, in the long run, have damaged America more profoundly than the original, profoundly damaging assault did. (Before you ask, these are not convenient retrospective judgments on my part but points I was arguing at the time. For instance in 2002, in early 2004 and in late 2004, and in 2006.) Although the 2000 presidential election was more an affront to the norms of democracy, as five Supreme Court justices stepped in to declare a winner, the 2004 election was more consequential for the United States internationally. By the margin of fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio, the world's oldest democracy decided to return to power the leaders who had started the Iraq War, the results of which were already in ashes, and had run Abu Ghraib.*

    Democracy depends on accountability, and accountability depends on knowledge. The Torture Committee report is potentially an enormous step forward. But only if people read it.


    * This post originally stated that the margin in Ohio was fewer than 100,000 votes. We regret the error.

  • The Tragic Airplane Crash in Gaithersburg, Maryland

    No answers, some possibilities

    Fire trucks on the scene of a fatal crash yesterday near Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland (Reuters)

    Yesterday afternoon, after flying with my wife in a small propeller airplane up through the Central Valley of California (for today's Atlantic Navigate conference in San Francisco), we heard the terrible news that a small jet airplane had crashed into a house near the Gaithersburg airport in the northwest suburbs of DC, killing all three people on the plane and a mother and two children inside the house. This is a disaster on a smaller scale than an airline crash but in a way, more horrible, with the deaths of young family members as they went about their normal lives at home.

    I am so sorry for everyone affected by this crash.

    Only because I have some relevant local knowledge about this site—having flown in and out of Gaithersburg airport over the past 16 years and having based my small Cirrus airplane there for more than ten years—I am writing this post to add some basic facts.

    1) Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, known as KGAI in aviation terminology, is a "small" airport but not small enough that its runway size or geographic position is likely to be a factor in this crash. Its runway is 4,200 feet long and 75 feet wide. For perspective, most big commercial airports have runways with lengths of 8,000 feet and longer. But small jets and turboprops go in and out of Gaithersburg all the time. On an average day, it has well over 100 takeoffs and landing. It is an active place.

    2) The neighborhood where the crash occurred is very close to the airport, by national standards. This shot, from Google Earth, shows the place where the crash occurred, on Drop Forge Lane. The red line, which I've added, is the final approach course for Runway 14 at Gaithersburg, which the airplane would have been following.

    Red arrow shows normal approach to Runway 14 at Gaithersburg. Blue arrow shows normal Runway 14 departure. Green arrow shows the recommended noise-reduction departure from Runway 32 at Gaithersburg (taking off on the same runway but in the opposite direction), to avoid flying over the neighborhood where the jet crashed yesterday.

    The area of the crash was less than a mile from the runway threshold, again close by national standards. On a normal approach airplanes would be somewhere between 500 and 1000 feet above the ground at that point in their descent.

    3) None of the subdivisions or commercial areas that now surround KGAI were there when the airport was built in the late 1950s. They have expanded as this part of the close-enough-to-be-commutable, far-enough-to-be-affordable part of the DC suburbs has grown. Technically, developers built there and purchasers bought there knowing an airport was nearby, but of course no one expects to have their home destroyed and their family killed by a plane.

    4) Airport operations show an awareness of this neighborhood's concerns and existence. The "preferred calm wind" runway is this same Runway 14, so that planes would whenever possible take off headed away from this neighborhood—as shown by the blue arrow in the graphic above. When winds favor takeoff in the opposite direction—on Runway 32—pilots are supposed to turn to the right as soon as possible precisely to avoid flying over the neighborhood in question. That is what the green arrow shows. (Every runway is known by two names, depending on the direction the plane is going. The names are based on their compass heading and always differ by 180 degrees. If a runway goes straight east-west, planes headed to the east will be flying heading 90 degrees and using Runway 9. When taking off or landing in the opposite direction, they will be flying on a 270-degree heading and using Runway 27.)

    5) The weather at the time of the accident was not perfect but was benign enough not to seem an obvious cause of a crash. The winds were light. The ceiling was around 3,000 feet—which means that the jet would have been flying under instrument flight rules through most of the flight and would have followed an instrument approach to the airport. (Rather than just picking it out visually.) But once it descended below 3,000 feet it would have had the runway in sight.

    6) The location of the crash is not a usual site for either mechanical failures or the most familiar type of loss-of-control crashes near an airport. As a plane slows and descends for a landing, the main mechanical problems would be if the landing gear did not come down or the flaps (which allow the plane to keep flying at a slower speed as it prepares to land) did not extend. But the pilot would have been aware of those problems and would have mentioned them in radio transmissions, which he did not.

    The usual loss-of-control accidents near an airport occur when a plane makes too tight a turn when flying the rectangular "traffic pattern" in preparation for landing. The FAA image at right shows the "base to final" turn before landing. If a pilot mismanages that turn, the plane can stall (lose lift) and fall to the ground.

    But in this case, the jet would have been following an instrument approach (probably RNAV 14) to Gaithersburg, which would have given him essentially a 10-mile long straight-in approach to the runway, with no need for this last minute turn. Also, Runway 14 has a "VASI," a set of red and white lights to give an incoming pilot a guide to the proper descent slope to follow. If you see all red lights, you're too low; all white, you're too high. Both red and white, you're on the right path.

    7) To summarize #5 and #6: None of the usual weather-related, mechanical, or traffic-pattern problems that explain crashes seem to apply in this case.

    Update 7A) The recording of radio traffic on the KGAI frequency contains several references to large number of birds around the runway. In my experience that's not rare, but it is conceivable that a bird-strike could have disoriented, distracted, or even disabled the pilot; or that maneuvering to avoid birds could have led to a loss of control; or that a bird going into an engine could have been the beginning of the plane's problems. The recording is here. [Update-update: see NTSB briefing below, which finds no evidence of bird strike or "bird ingestion."]

    8) Gaithersburg is an "uncontrolled" airport, with no control tower. As the recent midair collision near Washington showed, control towers don't eliminate all traffic-conflict problems. But at Gaithersburg, pilots judge their position relative to one another through announcements on the CB-style common radio frequency. "Montgomery County traffic, Cirrus XXX is nine miles to the northwest, will make 45-degree entry to right-downwind for Runway 32." "Montgomery traffic, Cessna XXX is turning base to final for Runway 32." Etc.

    9) Gaithersburg is very active as a training airport. On good-weather days (and yesterday was good enough to qualify) its environs usually contain a number of planes doing takeoffs and landings as part of their drill. Often they fly "closed traffic": taking off, flying the rectangular traffic pattern, landing, and doing it again. By definition, many of these are less-experienced pilots. A lot of them are non-native speakers of English, which means that it can take them longer to report their position and plans on the frequency, and sometimes to be less accurate about it.

    10) The combination of points 8 & 9 can complicate the final stages of approach to landing at KGAI, in the following way: If you're coming in on an instrument approach, from ten miles out you're on a straight line for Runway 14. But the closer you get, the more you're alert for student (or other) pilots taking off, landing, or flying around in the pattern. I've kept count, and in recent months on about half the approaches I've made, I've had to make close-to-the-airport adjustments because of traffic in the pattern or whose location I wasn't 100 percent sure of. Sometimes this meant "going around," putting in power, climbing, and circling around for another landing attempt. Some times it means slowing down or making delaying maneuvers, usually "S-turns" to draw out the arrival process and sometimes full 360-degree turns. It's an expected rather than startling aspect of operations at this airport.

    On the probabilities, I can imagine something similar happening as the light jet neared the airport: traffic the pilot hadn't expected meaning he had to adjust his plans, and then something going wrong from that point onward. There is nothing inherent in a delaying turn that would make it dangerous—S-turns involve a shallower bank than right-angle turns in the traffic pattern. But obviously something, as yet unknown, made the pilot lose control of the plane. Traffic in this area is all carefully monitored, as part of the special security rules in the DC area. So it should become apparent which aircraft were where, and when.

    11) As a matter of public record, the pilot of the plane, who with his two passengers was killed, had been involved in a different loss-of-control landing accident in a different airplane four years ago at the same Gaithersburg airport.

    Sincere sympathies to all on this terrible event.


    News update 6:20pm EST The Aviation Safety Network has relayed this additional information, which bears on some of the possibilities mentioned above. I'll just post this now and do further explanations later:

    The following preliminary findings -all subject to be validated- were reported in an NTSB press briefing on December 9:

    - Flight time from Chapel Hill to Gaithersburg: 57 minutes
    - En route altitude: FL230 [approx 23,000 feet]
    - Captain (ATPL rated) seated in left hand seat [ATPL=Air Transport Pilot, an advanced-proficiency rating]
    - Passenger seated in right hand seat
    - Flight was cleared for RNAV GPS runway 14 approach
    - 46 Seconds before CVR [cockpit voice recorder] recording ended: Radio Altimeter callout of 500 feet
    - 20 Seconds before CVR recording ended: Audio stall callout, which continued to the end of the recording
    - Flaps were extended and gear was down
    - Lowest recorded airspeed by FDR [flight data recorder]: 88 knots
    - Large excursions in pitch and roll attitude were recorded by the FDR
    - 2 Seconds after lowest airspeed was recorded, the throttles were advanced
    - No evidence of engine fire or failure or bird ingestion
  • The Past Is Never Past: Slave Labor in the West Virginia Salt Works

    "It is not fair to the men who were forced to work in this industry to celebrate the salt without celebrating them as well."

    The cabin in Malden, West Virginia, where Booker T. Washington lived from age 9 until he left for Hampton Institute seven years later ( Booker T. Washington, An Autobiography: The Story of My LIfe and Work (1901) )

    Last week I mentioned in two posts (here and here) the revived "artisanal salt" industry that a brother and sister, Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns, are creating on the site of the family's very successful 19th-century salt factory in the little town of Malden, West Virginia. Malden, just outside Charleston, was previously known as Kanawha Salines, after its dominant industry. Its greatest source of fame, apart from though related to the salt works, is as the boyhood home of Booker T. Washington. (More current source of fame: the football phenom Randy Moss grew up in an adjoining hamlet.)

    Washington's family, who were slaves, had left a farm in Franklin County, Virginia, when they were freed by the arrival of Union troops in the spring of 1865. (I am drawing from an official narrative by Louis R. Harlan for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.) They made their way to the Kanawha valley of the relatively new state of West Virginia, and there the 9-year-old Booker was soon put to work in the salt furnaces, where brine was boiled down to make commercial salt. From the state narrative:

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  • Another Look at Salt-Harvesting in West Virginia

    Combine ancient ingredients with a modern sensibility, and a new business takes form.

    Evaporation rooms in J.Q. Dickinson artisan-salt works in Malden, West Virginia (Photos Bob Coffield)

    Last night I described our fascinating and surreal trip to a successful "artisan salt" factory outside Charleston, West Virginia. The fascinating part is I hope obvious; the surreal part is that the people running the J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works are letting brine from a half-billion-year-old subterranean sea burble up to the surface, and then gently evaporating it down to its crystalline salt essence. They are doing this at a site where for millennia animals had gathered around salt licks formed where the brine came to the surface.

    Bob Coffield, a lawyer and civic enthusiast in Charleston, took us to the salt works and spent more time and care taking pictures than we did during the visit. Here are a few more, for the sake of completeness.

    In the photo at the top of the post, you see the austere, Japanese shoji-looking elegance of an evaporating room. I make the Japan allusion both on the merits and because one of the salt works' commercially important side products is nigari, the Japanese term for very bitter magnesium chloride flakes that among other uses serve as a coagulent in making tofu. The magnesium chloride can be separated from the normal sodium chloride (salt) as the brine evaporates.

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  • Artisanal Salt From an Ancient Sea

    A different kind of underground wealth is the source of a new business in West Virginia.

    Lewis Payne standing in one of the solar-powered evaporation rooms at the J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works, which he runs with his sister Nancy Bruns (Photos by James Fallows)

    Fair warning: I am not going to try to strap any Larger Policy Significance onto this report. It was just one of the more interesting things we've seen on our travel, and we wanted to let others know about it.

    Our story starts some 600 million years ago, when a body of water now known as the Iapetus Ocean lay beneath what is now the eastern coast of North America. That's about as much geology as you're getting from me. For more, you can start here, but I will tell you where the ocean's name comes from:

    The modern Atlantic Ocean was named after the mythological Greek god Atlantis.... In Greek mythology, Iapetus was the father of Atlantis, so the older ocean is named after the older mythological figure. (The Iapetus Ocean disappeared as continental plates shifted around and recombined as Pangea. After Pangea broke up, a younger ocean - the Atlantic - formed between Africa and North America.)

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  • China Catches Up

    And in the worst possible way

    It has come to this (Brian Glucroft)

    My friend Brian Glucroft, who over the years has done memorable photography and reportage about the vivid, diverse humanity of daily life in China, sends the picture above, taken a few days ago in Shanghai. He writes:

    On Changping Road in Jing'an, Shanghai, I just heard saw / heard something I think you could appreciate. It reminds me that some of the criticism China hears from Westerners is motivated by a hope China can do better in areas where the West has failed.

    Yet again, "oh well".

    Then a little while later, he sent the two pictures below and this followup note:

    Later in the day I saw two street cleaners less than a block away on the same road. A man swept the leaves off the sidewalk into piles on the road, and then a woman bagged them. No leaf blowers required. Their handmade brooms constructed from bamboo, branches, & leaves, still commonly used by street cleaners in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, worked just fine — plus quieter, cheaper, and environmentally friendlier. It's one way in which Shanghai and many other cities in China don't need to go green but already are.

         Brian Glucroft

    The motorbike with the British design (seen many of those across China recently) and both people wearing face masks in the 2nd photo are bonuses.

    Brian Glucroft

    These bottom two pictures resemble what I saw during our years in Shanghai, Beijing, and other big Chinese cities. But of course the country has "progressed" since then.

    For an American take on this development, I direct you toward a measured assessment from Bill Radke in Seattle. And for more views of the variety of life in China, do visit Brian Glucroft's site. Its opening-spread picture gives an idea of its spirit:

    Brian Glucroft
  • On the Politics of American Resilience

    One reader urges me to embrace my inner conservative. Other readers say: Not so fast!

    Small-town life can be charming—and imperfect. But what do its virtues tell us about big-time national issues? ("The County Election," by George Caleb Bingham) ( St. Louis Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons )

    It's been four weeks since the U.S. election day. Through most of that time I've been offline and underwater (or in the air), finishing one big project and beginning another. Starting this week, my wife Deb and I will be in the West for an extended period of American Futures reporting that fortunately coincides with the extended period known as "winter" in the East. To kick that off, a word about the connection between what we're seeing town-by-town and the larger politics of the country as a whole.

    Election Day brought a lot of results I was sorry about, from Maine to Florida to Colorado to Alaska, but also a few glimmers on the bright side:

    • Next year's class of freshman representatives will include two mid-30s Democrats who scored upset wins. One is Pete Aguilar, the mayor of my ancestral home town of Redlands, California, whom we met and interviewed as part of our reporting in Redlands last year. Republicans have held this district for most of my lifetime, but Aguilar made it through on a big Republican night by a 51-49 margin. The other is Seth Moulton, who upset long-time incumbent Representative John Tierney (not our John Tierney) in the Democratic primary and then beat his Republican opponent easily in the general. You'll hear more from Moulton, among others, in my magazine story next month.

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