James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Language

  • 'Mistakes Were Made'

    Those were not General Custer's last words at the Little Big Horn. But if he were a modern politician, they probably would have been.

    It is quite possible that mistakes were made in 1937. ( Gus Pasquarella/Wikimedia )

    “There were mistakes made in Iraq for sure.” Jeb Bush, yesterday, in his foreign policy speech. Nearly all of which, by the way, could have been delivered by his elder brotherwhich is as it should be, given how many members of the Bush #45-aspirant brain trust have Bush #43 or Bush #41 experience.

    Previously in this ignoble series:

    1973: "Mistakes were made in terms of comments." Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, on the lies he had told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their Watergate stories.

    1986: "Mistakes were made." Then-VP George H.W. Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal and the administration's lying about it.

    1987: "Serious mistakes were made." Ronald Reagan, on the same topic in his State of the Union address.

    1991: "Some mistakes were made." White House chief of staff John Sununu on his abuse of travel policies.

    1997: "Mistakes were made." Bill Clinton not on the topic you might guess but on administration officials discussing banking policy in front of fund-raisers.

    2002: "It is quite possible that mistakes were made." Henry Kissinger, on human-rights complaints about U.S. intelligence activities in South America.

    2006: "The biggest mistake that's happened so far," George W. Bush on the Abu Ghraib torture scandals. "That's happened" is a nice variation on "was made."

    2007: "Mistakes were made." Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, on the politicized firing of some U.S. Attorneys.

    2014: "Mistakes were made." NJ governor Chris Christie on the GW Bridge scandal in his State of the State address.

    1946: "Mistakes were made," Albert Speer at the Nuremberg trials.

    No, sorry, this last one is not real. Nor is AD 33: "Mistakes were made," Pontius Pilate; nor 1912: "Mistakes were made," Capt. Smith of the Titanic.

    For wrapups on this pernicious, passive-voice, accountability-avoiding approach to public life, see On the Media; the Maddow show blog; The Washington Monthly; the NYT; CBS; Wikipedia; the NPR blog; MetaFilter; etc. The late William Safire wrote about the circumlocution in 2003, also arguing at the time (mistakenly) that the invasion of Iraq would not prove to be a mistake.

    Please, God, let us bring a halt to this three-word affront to logic and language. Other 2016 candidates, please learn from the mistake that was made in Jeb Bush's speech.

  • The Under-Appreciated Genius of Mark Zuckerberg in China

    "Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!"

    Results of attempts to reach Facebook from various sites in China. Was this the long-run soft-power strategy Facebook's CEO employed? ( GreatFirewallOfChina.org )

    I promise, this is it. But I think I can also promise that this is worth it. Earlier today, I posted a summary of the back-and-forth about Mark Zuckerberg's decision to do a 30-minute session in Chinese, and what that meant for the psychology of language learning.

    Now Paul Duke, an American proficient in Chinese who explains his bona fides below, weighs in with the last word. (Unless I hear from Zuckerberg himself...)

    Let me give you the short version of my view, then I'll explain:

    Zuckerberg's interview in Chinese was a brilliant move from a business perspective. To go to China -- where Facebook is blocked! -- and make the gigantic gesture of respect of speaking Chinese (whatever the quality) for half an hour, scored more positive publicity for Facebook than any other imaginable strategy. My hat is off to Zuckerberg as a brilliant businessman.

    Now the details:

    Big Shot's Funeral via Wikipedia

    I've been studying Chinese for more than 20 years, and have worked over the past 17 years on and off in and around the Chinese movie industry, as a producer, subtitler, liaison generale, and most entertainingly (for me) as translator for Donald Sutherland and Paul Mazursky during production of the Chinese film Big Shot's Funeral, directed by China's most successful comedy director, Feng Xiaogang (who speaks no English other than a handful of swear words), and funded by Columbia Pictures, back in 2001.

    Whenever you mention your old apartment in Beijing, the air quality in Beijing, etc., I know exactly whereof you speak. From 2011 to 2013 I lived just a little ways from where you used to live, in the apartment complex called "Richmond Park".

    Here's what I think about Zuckerberg and his Chinese which has been missed in every commentary I've seen:

    -- Mark Zuckerberg is by all accounts an extremely shrewd businessman. The movie The Social Network portrayed this in a very entertaining and, I gather from reading about the real Mark Zuckerberg, genuinely insightful way.

    -- China and its closed market for social media (ie, no Twitter, and no Facebook, as you well know) is possibly the biggest business threat to the current global domination of Facebook. Putting it simply, if someone in China creates a social media network on the web that matches the power of Wechat on smartphones, then Facebook may never be able to truly dominate social media in China the way it does in the US. In fact, a popular (in China) Chinese competitor to Facebook is at the moment the only truly imaginable serious business competition for Facebook. (Of course, one has to admit the caveat that everything can change fast on the web, etc etc, as newspapers and magazines know well!)

    -- Zuckerberg, being an extremely shrewd and ambitious businessman, is looking to use every tool he possibly can to break into the Chinese market and make sure Facebook is not bested by a Chinese competitor, in China or worldwide.

    -- His appearance at Qinghua and his ability to speak half-decent Chinese after just a few years of study struck a publicity home-run for Facebook IN CHINA which cannot be overstated. Facebook is blocked in China, but Chinese media and social media was aflame with the story of the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook who speaks Chinese!

    -- As you yourself well know, even in today's exceedingly practical and expedience-minded Chinese society, face, politeness and respect still matter quite a bit. For Facebook to be blocked by the Chinese government, and for Zuckerberg to nevertheless put hundreds and hundreds of hours into studying Chinese is an amazing act of respect. How many Chinese people do you think were saying to themselves and their friends, "Wow, we block this guy's website and cost him billions in advertising and he goes out and learns our impossible language!"?

    -- I've already gone on too long, but I'm just going to wrap this up by saying: Zuckerberg has, with one half-hour interview, put the Chinese government on the defensive -- at least from a "face" and "politeness" point of view. At this point, he has shown tremendous respect toward the Chinese, and many millions of Chinese are saying "this guy isn't so bad, maybe Facebook isn't so bad, our government should really loosen up."

    The next step -- for Zuckerberg's Chinese proficiency and for his PR campaign -- would be to announce he's going to spend a year in Taiwan in one of those immersion programs at a university there. He could say: "I'm convinced from all the feedback I've gotten that I need to be full-time in a Chinese-only environment, and much as I love China, I can't run Facebook from there because I can't get to the website! But China is only a 90 minute flight away and I'll be visiting regularly."

    Well, maybe the PR part would backfire, but all of us who have struggled with Chinese know this is the only way to make the leap from not-bad textbook-and-tutor Chinese to really feeling comfortable in the language, and more importantly, using the vocabulary and sentence structures which native speakers use.

    We can only imagine...
    Thanks to all for comments, and to Paul Duke for this astute wrapping-up.
  • 'A Foreigner Speaking Chinese—That's Scary!'

    Finale on the Zuckerberg-in-China saga

    Here's how it can look when children in Shanghai learn English in public elementary school. A young American named Kyle Taylor was their teacher a few years ago. (James Fallows)

    Two days I described the disagreement on whether it was brave or crazy for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, to do a public session in Chinese, and the larger issues of language-learning the controversy brought up. Yesterday Isaac Stone Fish, author of an item for Foreign Policy saying that Zuckerberg hadn't done very well, explained why he had made that case and answered criticism from another student-of-China named Kevin Slaten.

    A slew of mail from people who have worked the frontiers of language has arrived, and to wrap up this mini-series you'll find an assortment below. [Update: I've just received a very interesting note on the business, as opposed to linguistic, ramifications of Zuckerberg's talk, which if I can work out some details I'll put up as a post-finale bonus later today.]

    1) "The audience really couldn't tell what he was saying." Thomas Rippel, an Austrian who is fluent in English and who has lived and worked in China, writes to defend Isaac Stone Fish:

    While the title of Isaac Stone Fish's article is ill chosen, I agree with most of it. Zuckerberg's Chinese sounded awful.

    More »

  • Isaac Stone Fish With More on Zuckerberg's Chinese Language Show

    "Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s. But I will never be able to satisfy the request to do so in front of millions of people."

    Mark Zuckerberg and his then-fiancee Priscilla Chan on a visit to Shanghai two years ago. (Reuters)

    Two weeks ago Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg posted a video of himself doing a speech and Q-and-A session in China, in Chinese. Soon thereafter, Isaac Stone Fish of Foreign Policy, whose friends had asked him how Zuckerberg's Chinese was, responded "terrible." He did an item called "Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Chinese Like a Seven-Year-Old." Yesterday I posted a critical-review-of-that-critical-review, by Kevin Slaten, plus some other thoughts about language learning.

    Since then I've received an avalanche of interesting letters, and I plan to share an assortment of them tomorrow. For now, Isaac Stone Fish deserves a clear shot to reply to Kevin Slaten's criticisms. I turn the floor over to him:

    Thanks Mr. Fallows for your thoughtful post, and for giving me the chance to respond, and Mr. Slaten, thanks for your contribution.

    After Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin, several news outlets claimed his Mandarin was fluent. That is incorrect. There’s a difference between speaking unstandard Mandarin -- which, as Mr. Slaten correctly pointed out, is what that Mao and Deng spoke -- and speaking broken Mandarin with mangled tones, which is the way Zuckerberg spoke.

    The problem with Zuckerberg’s Mandarin was not just his pronunciation; he also made many grammatical errors. You’re right that a seven-year-old native speaker -- even if his mouth was full of marbles -- would not make the tonal or grammatical errors that Zuckerberg made. It was the best analogy I could think of to describe the quality of his Mandarin: any other suggestions for analogies would be much appreciated.

    Learning Chinese was great fun, and very helpful to me in my career; I strongly recommend it to people who want to work in China. But it’s very time-consuming. Even if it would be encouraging, I am not going to pretend that a beginner can study Chinese part-time for a few years and suddenly learn to speak excellent Mandarin.

    In the end of his piece, Mr. Slaten writes, “Speaking of Chinese fluency, Mr. Stone Fish, we didn't catch that link to your own 30-minute Chinese-language speech in front of millions of people around the world.”

    I must admit defeat. Yes, I could give a 30-minute Chinese-language speech much better than Zuckerberg’s, especially if I prepared for the topic, as Zuckerberg seemed to have done. But I will never be able to satisfy Mr. Slaten’s request to do so in front of millions of people. Why? Because only an exceedingly small number of people actually care about the level of my Mandarin. Take my former Chinese teachers and my parents out of that equation, and that number drops dangerously close to zero.

    Thanks to Isaac Stone Fish for his good-humored response, to Kevin Slaten for his stimulus for this discussion, and to everyone else who has written. Tomorrow it will be your turn.

  • 'Where Do You Go to Church?' The Video and Mapping Versions

    More ways of taking the measure of this vast country.

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    Last month Deb Fallows did several popular posts -- here, here, and here -- about regional variations in the question you ask someone when you've first been introduced. "Where do you work?" "Who are your people?" "How long have you lived here?" and so on.

    I mention it now for two reasons. One is to tout the wonderful video that Katherine Wells, of the Atlantic's video team, has made about answers to just this question. She phoned people from around the country and recorded their responses, building on leads from Deb's items. I find it haunting and will be surprised if you don't think it worth a look. The direct link is here, and it is embedded below.

    This video also ends with a lovely presentation on the opening question that I have used when meeting people for as long as I can remember.

    Reason two is to highlight another Esri map that John Tierney has made to illustrate a linguistic/sociological point. Earlier, Deb reported that a standard opening question in St. Louis was "Where did you go to high school?" John's map showed why the question had such resonance there.

    In Greenville and surrounding upstate South Carolina, a standard opening question is "Where do you go to church?" This new map by John Tierney gives an idea why:  

    You can use the Plus and Minus keys to zoom in and out of the map; you can click on the Legend button to see how the color-coding matches the denomination, and you can click on any specific church to get more information about it. The background colors refer to the socio-economic "Tapestry" segmentation, so if you click on any neighborhood you'll get a popup about its social makeup. Of course there's at best a loose connection between neighborhood character and type/density of churches, since people don't necessarily attend services where they live. But the patterns are surprisingly interesting.  (This is a Greenville-specific church map, as the school one was St. Louis-specific, because of the hand-coding involved on John Tierney's part.)

    Now, a bonus third reason, which connects this to some previous posts. In my article on Greenville I mention that the surrounding county was the last one in the state, which itself was the last one in the union, to observe Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. Over the weekend I posted a note from Knox White, long-serving mayor of Greenville, saying that the city itself had voted for MLK long before the more-conservative county did. It turns out that there is an entire academic study of just this point. It is "Religious Interests in Community Conflict: The Case of Martin Luther King Jr Holiday in Greenville, South Carolina," by four scholars from Furman University in Greenville. It is interesting, especially about the complexities of class-based and race-based politics, and you can read it here. Thanks to John Tierney for recommending it.

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  • The Surprising Geography of Everyday Talk

    A familiar voice in a new location

    People moving in and out of Austin, source here.

    On her own new section of this site -- they grow up so fast! -- Deb Fallows has a very interesting post with reader reaction on the topic she raised last week: the conversational cues and questions people use to find out about others they have just met. These range from "What's your parish?" in Chicago (as it happens, her native city) to "What are you?" in Philly (as it happens, mine), the latter inviting an answer of "Polish," "Italian," etc.  

    I'm mentioning it here both on its merits and for housekeeping reasons. All of our posts, plus John Tierney's, from our ongoing-though-temporarily-snowbound American Futures series will appear together on the AF project page. But now Deb and John will have their own items in their own author-channels, rather than having them show up here in potentially confusing hybrid-byline mode. Please go to Deb's and check this out! 


    Update Deb's post is about a range of first-meeting conversational ploys. One of the readers she quotes mentions the approach I've used over the years. "So, what's your story?" Everybody has one.

    A more cynical media-centric option is one that Erik Tarloff, my friend and birthday-mate, employed in his novel Face Time. That is to begin any talk with anyone in the DC or NY media by saying, "Love you work!" Or "that was a great piece" or "You've been on a roll." Sigh. Probably works in LA too, or anywhere.

    Back to the high road: When you know someone's general field of work, but haven't followed what he or she has been up to recently, there is the always-dependable "So, what are you working on?" or "What's your current project?" Again, this is not cynical: it's a way to get people talk about what they're interested in -- which is when most of us are most interesting.

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  • So, Where Do You Live? What Do You Do?

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    When we were in Greenville SC recently, I was surprised to learn that a very common follow-up to the greeting of “How do you do?” or “Nice to meet you,” is the question “Where do you go to church?” I wrote about it here.

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    Lots of you wrote in about this question,  “Where do you go to church?” Some of you considered the question to be intrusive and even offensive. From a reader in Washington DC: "If someone asked me 'Where do you go to church?' I'd be flummoxed at least and offended at worst." Others were not at all flummoxed, and wondered why I would be surprised. And on a web forum at city-data.com discussing just this question, writers from places as distinct as rural Maine and Kentucky said this expression is commonly heard.

    Many more of you reported other queries that you would be likely to say or hear in your own hometowns. So far, I would say that your suggestions fall into 3 different categories: social orientation, work, and neutral territory. (And to be clear here, I’m ruling out pickup lines; that’s another topic. I am referring to general conversation openers that aim for a sweet spot between impersonal and too personal, between vapid and too pungent.)

    Image via this blogspot

    Social orientation:  The two women I met in Greenville SC, interpreted the real meaning of “Where do you go to church?” as something to orient you socially, like “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” A New Yorker who posted on the city-data forum echoed this and suggested the socially orienting analogy there might be pizza: “It's just like someone asking you what grocery store you go to or what pizzeria (New Yorkers love pizza) you go to,” she wrote.

    Readers far afield have other candidates. One reader from Hawaii writes that among those who grew up on Oahu, the question is: "Where did you go to high school?" Same from a reader from New Orleans. “Where’d you go to school?” he clarified, means high school, not college. (This plucky reader also said a close second is, “Who’s your mama?” but I think he was pulling my leg.)

    In Boston, a reader says “Where do you live?” elicits a single name from the 351 towns around Boston. “If you live in Somerville, you say Somerville; you would never say 'near Cambridge.'” I’m guessing that in Boston, people are fishing for the same kind of information as in my hometown of Washington DC. Sometimes we look for geography, but more often, I think, our mental maps outline the culture and lifestyle of suburbs or neighborhoods.

    Image from here

    Work: “So, what do you do?” wrote another reader from Washington DC. I heartily agree that in Washington DC, this is the default question. Everyone here knows that it is a not-so-veiled way of assessing power and connections, the currency of the town.

    Interestingly, in Burlington VT, people said this same question actually means “What do you do for hobbies?

    A bi-coastal resident writes that in the Bay area as well as Manhattan, the version of the work question is a fill-in-the-blank: "And you’re with… ?"  And lest you misinterpret, she writes, “this refers not to the person who brought you to the gathering, still less to your spouse or companion, but to your work affiliation.”

    Image from here

    Neutral-ground: There is the totally tame: “How ‘bout this weather!” Or the slightly more risky: “How ’bout that game!” A version from the small-town south: “How you getting along?” And from a larger town, where everyone doesn’t know everyone: "So how do you know [the host]?" One big-city reader suggests this question is not so innocent, but can actually be a useful probe: “We're a networking city and even small events are often big.”

    A resident of VT explained a Burlington-specific question, “How did you get here?” This isn’t meant to be prying, she said, it’s rather that so many people have a back story of how they finally landed in Burlington. But it’s also a little tricky, a question you would warm up to, instead of one you ask right off the bat. Interestingly, when we were in Alaska last year, people told us that you never ask that question, since the backstory could be sketchy.

    Finally, one weary-sounding man who has lived all over the south, southwest, and even the east wrote in:  "It never occurred to me … that Hello/How Do You Do might have any formulaic follow-up.  So, to answer the question, in my experience the answer is 'Nothing.'"

    We’d like to hear from you, to help fill in the grid of who says what where. Please email me, with your geographic coordinates, at Debfallows at gmail.

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  • 2 Reasons to Have Watched the Pre-Opening Night Sochi Broadcast

    "For Russians, if our hockey team wins, nothing else will matter. And if they lose, nothing else will matter."

    I never think I'll end up watching these oddball winter events, and yet... The payoff last night:

    1) Jun Miyake. If you watched, you know that American figure skating champion Jeremy Abbott had a rough night. It was the more painful because, when not falling, he is so obviously elegant in carriage and movement. Silver lining of his heartbreak: if you watched, you heard him skate to this music, "Lillies of the Valley," from Jun Miyake, which was new at least to me. The video below is a different kind of elegance, more David Lynch-hypnotic, but the music is the same.

     

    2) Vladimir Pozner! Here is the only thing that's been missing in Reagan-era verisimilitude, from the otherwise delectable FX series The Americans: No cameos of Vladimir Pozner. For those who weren't around in the 1980s, it is difficult to convey how weird it seemed to have this urbane character smoothly laying out official Soviet agitprop on Nightline and other programs -- and sounding as if he'd grown up in New York City, because in fact he had. The picture below is how he looked back in the day. (You can see him, circa 2000, talking with a surprising young-ish and less tedious Rush Limbaugh, here.)

    I tell myself that native-sounding accents shouldn't really matter in our assessment of people; that it's all about the accident of where you happened to be during those crucial phoneme-developing elementary-school years; and that actors, if they're good enough, can pass themselves off as almost native. (Hugh Laurie of House, Dominic West of The Wire, both Brits passing as Americans; Meryl Streep passing as anything.) Still, listening to Pozner during the Cold War was truly strange.

    And now, thanks to the Sochi Olympics, he is back! Apparently in Russia he's never gone away. But last night he was on NBC, in an improbable segment with David Remnick (yes) and Bob Costas, on Russia, sport, resentment, and more. Among other things, Pozner let us know that for the host country, it was all about the national hockey team. "If we win, nothing else [that goes wrong in Sochi] will matter. And if we lose, nothing else will matter." On homophobia: "I would say that 85% of Russians are homophobic, not just in disapproval but to the point of physical violence. This is a very homophobic country."

    I'll be watching for him, and will be disappointed if the next season of The Americans doesn't work him in.

    Olympic bonus point #3, following on Pozner's observation: yesterday's Google Doodle. Understated in design but unmistakable in its stand.

    And the logo on the Google Chrome search box:

    Let the games begin.

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  • As We Switch From Superbowl to Sochi ...

    When in doubt, try French.

    For several days I am holed up finishing an "American Futures" article for the next issue of the magazine. Later this week, more web dispatches will be coming about The Upstate of South Carolina. In the meantime, don't miss Deb Fallows's two very popular reports about innovative public schools in Greenville: the Elementary School for Engineers, and the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities. And, among many other great recent items on our site, Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay on "The Champion Barack Obama" and Derek Thompson's on Philip Seymour Hoffman

    Now two transition notes. First, about over-correction in language. A reader writes:

    I read with great interest your articles on the "Frenchified" pronunciation of Beijing as Beizhing during the 2012 Olympics. A similar phenomenon appears to be affecting announcers talking about Sochi this year. I've heard several referring to "Soshi", the latest being the ATC TV critic Eric Deggans just this evening (just a little after 5pm EST). [JF note: didn't hear it the first time through, but link is here and embedded below. In the intro you hear the host, I believe NPR's Audie Cornish, say Sochi. Then about a minute in we get Soshi.]

    Does the softer fricative just sound more "foreign"? In the case of Sochi, there can be no confusion based on spelling! 

    Here is the NPR player:

    I think there is something to the theory that when in doubt, Americans instinctively class up a foreign word by making it sound "French." I am no expert in the Slavic world, but through the magic of this delightful site I will assert that сочи, the name of the Olympic home city, is pronounced with what sounds to English speakers like more a ch- than a sh- sound. Listen for yourself. It's on the Internet, so it must be true.

    Second, and on an entirely different scale, an update about Robert Gates. Last week, as part of an Iran-sanctions reader, I linked to Mike Lofgren's criticism of Gates's tenure at DOD and his book. A professor at Texas A&M, where Gates was president for four years before he came back to DC to succeed Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, writes in to disagree. This note comes from John Nielsen-Gammon, who is the Regents Professor at A&M and also the Texas State Climatologist; I've quoted his scientific views before. Since he is criticizing Lofgren by name, and Lofgren was directly criticizing Gates, it seem fair to use Nielsen-Gammon's name too (as he agreed). Here goes:

    Been busy and just now saw your reference to Mike Lofgren's piece on Robert Gates.  I followed the link and was reading the piece with a combination of alarm and skepticism, unsure of how much I should take Lofgren's words at face value (having not read Gates' side of it yet), when I came to this paragraph:

    [Lofgren writes:] "In between the two Bush presidencies, Gates became – quelle surprise! – dean of the newly-minted George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. Later he was president of that university. This is not the place to exhaustively examine the subject, but Gates's tenure at Texas A&M is another example of the corrosive effect of the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system. While these persons' fundraising prowess based on their extensive network of rich contacts as well as their ability to wangle federal education grants may benefit the university in the short run, the intellectually corrupting influence of such operatives, along with the growing dependence of universities on a cadre of politically motivated government elites, poses a long-term threat to the academic independence of higher education. One need only look at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the bleaching tub of the self-perpetuating American political oligarchy, to see the danger."

    [Back to Nielsen-Gammon:]   At last something of which I have personal knowledge, with which I could gauge Lofgren's credibility.  I've been on the faculty of Texas A&M University since before Gates arrived.

    Gates was surely designated the first Dean of the Bush School (no "George") of Government and Public Service because he was both a friend of the George Bush family and a veteran of governmental affairs.  His appointment was met with understandable concern among the faculty there, who saw the political appointment of a man with no higher education experience.  

    However, in his  two years as Dean, he showed himself to be a fine academic administrator and one of the best Deans in the University at working with faculty to further the academic mission of the School.  

    Robert Gates, Aggies, "senior boots." C/o Aggie Insurgency.

    When it was time to hire a new President in 2001, it came down to two men.  The overwhelming preference on campus was for Robert Gates, based on his track record at the Bush School.  However, many on the governor-appointed Board of Regents were in favor of sidestepping the search committee's recommendation in favor of sitting Sen. Phil Gramm, a former economics professor at Texas A&M.  In this instance, Gramm would have represented "the revolving door between political operatives in government and the American university system".  Eventually, in a split vote, Gates was chosen to be President, and the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief that we had avoided having the office of President of the University become politicized.

    As President, Gates inherited a broad but ambitious plan to move the University forward into the top ten of public universities by the year 2020.  He chose to focus on four key objectives, including "elevating the faculty", and was responsible for expanding the size of the faculty by over 400 members at a time when public spending for higher education in Texas was becoming a hard sell in a conservative state.  He oversaw the beginning of construction of the campus's first building dedicated to liberal arts amid outside suspicion of what "liberal arts" stood for.  His continued focus on the quality of the education Texas A&M provides its students and his strength of character to fend off harmful political interference, contribute to him being widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of Texas A&M University. 

    Offered for the record. Also on the subject of Texans in the news, congratulations to my friend and one-time employer* Rep. Lloyd Doggett. He is a Democrat who was elected from Austin in 1994 (after losing a U.S. Senate race to the same Phil Gramm and being elected to the Texas Supreme Court) and has survived a series of hostile gerrymanders since then. Now he is leading a House effort against the poison-pill Iran sanctions bill. Greg Sargent has the story here. Good for Rep. Doggett and those working with him.


    * Back in the mid-70s, when the 20-something Lloyd Doggett had just won a seat in the Texas State Senate, and my wife had just begun linguistics graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin, I worked as an aide/gofer on Lloyd's legislative staff. I wasn't there long, before joining the then-startup Texas Monthly, but nonetheless I take credit for, or at least pleasure in, his subsequent attainments.

  • SOTU in 8 Thought Drops

    The first seven are in different ways encouraging; number eight, less so.

    Ronald Reagan, back in the days of yore. Read on to discover why I am using this photo. (Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

    Not doing an annotated version this year, for mainly technical reasons. Thus this bullet-point version. (Plus, discussed the speech this morning on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, and last night right after the event on Charlie Rose.)

    1) Theme: it had one. The curse/burden of writing State of the Union messages, and the challenge in listening to them, is that their entire point is to be encyclopedic. It's the president's main shot at listing all the things he's hoping to do. Thus their standard "Turning now to foreign affairs ... " creaky-transition structure, and thus the difficulty of discerning any main theme.

    But this one had a theme, and a narrative-argumentative structure. That theme was: things are getting better -- and so, my colleagues in government, let's stop screwing them up. The positive part of the theme allowed Obama to make his version of a morning-in-America presentation: manufacturing up, energy imports and carbon emissions down, health coverage expanding. It also allowed him to make the must-do-more part: inequality and uneven opportunity are the main challenges to doing better. So let's deal with them.

    2) Bearing: Obama's mattered. The news of the past few months has all been of a diminished, aloof, estranged, premature-lame-duck Obama. If the man we'd seen last night had resembled the beaten-seeming Obama of the first 2012 Romney-Obama debate, the out-of-it verdict would have solidified. That wouldn't have moved him into permanent figurehead status, because "expert" judgments about politicians are notoriously fickle. (Bill Clinton is now viewed on all sides as a kind of sun king of political dexterity. After the defeat of his medical-care bill, a crushed-seeming President Clinton had to mewl at a press conference that he was "still relevant.") But it would have made things that much harder.

    So, all judgments are fluid. But—as he has time and again with "big" speeches—Obama improved his standing by seeming sunny, confident, relaxed, and engaged.

    You could say, "Reaganesque," by which I mean: seeming sunnily confident himself, seeming similarly confident about the country, and seeming (most of the time) amused and unflustered by the realities of political division, rather than embittered or scolding about them. 

    3) American Futures—the speech. It was considerate of the president to begin with a litany of local manufacturing start-ups and community public-private development efforts very much like the ones we've been chronicling in recent months. If he ever tires of Air Force One, there is a seat for him in our Cirrus.

    4) Inequality—the shrewd way he positioned it. The news before the speech was that Obama was going to dwell on the worst economic reality of the times, in the United States and virtually all other countries: things are getting better overall, but not for all or even most people. And his opponents were gearing up for a "we are shocked, just shocked by this descent into 'class war' " lament. 

    So when he talked about strictly economic issues, Obama kept carefully to a "growing pie" tone. It's great that rich people have done so well. Let's help everyone prosper. And when he worked the class-war beat, it was on a front where the Republicans dared not (sanely) oppose him: arguing that today's economy is unfair to women. I.e., to most Americans.

    5) Nicest deviation from prepared text—the missing "er." The official text of the speech had this passage about symbols of American opportunity:

    Here in America, our success should depend not on accident of birth, but the strength of our work ethic and the scope of our dreams.  That’s what drew our forebears here.  It’s how the daughter of a factory worker is CEO of America’s largest automaker; how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House; how the son of a single mom can be President of the greatest nation on Earth. 

    What Obama actually said about John Boehner was, "the son of a barkeep." A tiny difference that was ineffably charming. Boehner himself was manifestly charmed. And the sequence of examples here—first female head of General Motors (which, nudge-nudge, the government helped rescue); the son of a barkeep sitting here behind me; and only then the son of a single mother standing at the podium—put Obama's own story, which is (of course) tremendously important but which (of course) we all already know, in a broader "all in this together" frame.  

    Son of a barkeep acknowledges son of a single mother. Son of a used-car salesman applauds. Via Washington Post.

    6) Back to vintage-2008 Obama. On the substance, sentences I was very glad to hear: 

    So, even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks—through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners—America must move off a permanent war footing .... And with the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay—because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by  

    7) Laying down the law, in the right way—about Iran. Also very glad to hear these lines:

    Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.  For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed...  If Iran’s leaders do seize the chance, then Iran could take an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.

    And:

    If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

    Exactly. For later discussion, the way effective (finding bin Laden) and excessive (drone/surveillance) aspects of Obama's records should insulate him from the need to "prove" his toughness.

    8) Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. About the service and sacrifice of this brave man and other men and women like him, we cannot say enough. As Obama emphasized, Sgt. Remsburg's grave injury came on his tenth deployment. I do not doubt that Obama, like his wartime predecessors, is genuinely seized by both anguish and admiration about the people he has sent into harm's way. Even when, and perhaps more so when, like Obama he has been trying to withdraw those troops.

    And no one can doubt the drama and power of the speech's closing minutes.

    But while that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg, his family, and others similarly situated; and while I believe it was genuinely respectful on the president's part, I don't think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014. It was a good and honorable moment for him and his family. But I think the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.

    The vast majority of us play no part whatsoever in these prolonged overseas campaigns; people like Sgt. Remsburg go out on 10 deployments; we rousingly cheer their courage and will; and then we move on. Last month I mentioned that the most memorable book I read in 2013 was Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. It's about a group of U.S. soldiers who barely survive a terrible encounter in Iraq, and then are paraded around in a halftime tribute at a big Dallas Cowboys game. The crowd at Cowboys Stadium cheers in very much the way the Capitol audience did last night—then they get back to watching the game.

  • Dadgum! Katy, Bar the Door! Speaking Your Mind in South Carolina

    by Deborah Fallows

    South Carolina. Image via SCPRT

    Greenville is located in the heart of The Upcountry of South Carolina. Colloquially, most people now seem to call this The Upstate. It's not simply geographically upstate, as in "upstate New York," but a moniker with strong cultural and historical references. The Upcountry or Upstate was the heartland of South Carolina's now-diminished textile industry, and by their own description, the people are scrappy and hard-working. Besides referring to The Upstate, people in Greenville generally divided the rest of South Carolina into the Midlands, which includes Columbia, the capital; the Pee Dee, in the northeast and named for the native American Pee Dee tribe, and the Low Country, home of plantations and historic Charleston. It's a smaller state, #40 of the 50 by size, but with a lot of internal variation.

    I went to Greenville listening for what kind of southernisms I might hear. I wasn't disappointed:  the accent is alive and well, classic words and phrases abound, and best of all, the conversations are comfortably padded with folksy, southern expressions. You won't regret watching the video below.

    Regionalisms: A look at my favorite Harvard dialect study confirmed that I could count on the obvious: South Carolina is “y’all” country. Some 72% of South Carolinians say that, compared with 14% in the US overall.  Even the strong national pull of “you guys”, which my husband Jim, a Californian, swears originated in California and moved out from there, can’t take over from y’all in the South. Only 13% of South Carolinians use “you guys”, so far at least. In one modern moment, when I was talking with a Greenville native, she said y’all to me. Then, her regional linguistic self-awareness kicked in and she hesitated, tracked back, and offered up a clarifying “you”.

    Harvard Dialect Survey, overall nationwide responses.

    And here is something really bizarre. Again from the dialect study is question #80: “What do you call it when rain falls when the sun is shining?” Well, over half the people in the country don’t even have an expression for this. But in South Carolina, over 43% of people say  “ the devil is beating his wife”.

    HDS, nationwide responses.

    One question the survey didn’t ask, but I wish it had, is about greetings and introductions. In my own personally-conducted linguistic survey in Greenville (read: I asked around), several residents reported that the follow-up you’re likely to hear after “Hello” or “How do you do?”  is “Where do you go to church?” I suspect this isn’t confined to the South.  When I asked about the intention of this phrase in Greenville, two women I met went back and forth about its real meaning. They settled on some version of “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” That makes sense to me. If you have your own nomination for this after-you-say “How do you do?” question, send it along to me (contact details below) with your location, and we’ll make our own nationwide map.

    Pride and Surprise: We had many conversations with residents of Greenville about the story of the town center’s revitalization as an exciting, attractive, busy place. All sorts of people talked with us: city officials, developers, educators, artists, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, journalists, students, parents of students, and wage earners. Two sentiments about the town prevailed: pride and a sense of surprise.

    The first we almost expected. Of the more than half dozen towns where we have spent time over the last several months, I would say they all share the trait of having intense pride for investing in, among other things, the revitalizing of the downtown space. This was true in Sioux Falls, Holland MI, Burlington VT, Rapid City, Eastport ME, and Redlands CA. This same sense of pride came through clearly in the thousand or so responses we received in the “nominate your town” request to suggest places we could visit. (Here was the original nominating page, still open for new suggestions.) People love their hometowns and what they are building there.

    Downtown Greenville. Photo via MASC.

    The second was unique, so far, to Greenville – the surprise from residents at how quickly and broadly their town has improved.  Greenville reports on itself that it had a long way to go. The vision of  Mayor Max Heller in the 1970s to rebuild the town after the collapse of the textile industry to one of culture, recreation, and commerce was beginning to see some results after a long decade. But even into the 1990s, people recounted to us, there were not many reasons to go to Main St., and there were a lot of reasons not to. There were few restaurants and lots of empty storefronts.  The now elegantly-restored Westin Poinsett Hotel was “the tallest crackhouse in town” hitting its nadir after its demise from a grande-dame hotel to a retirement home to abandonment.  The general warning from residents to each other was about the derelict nature of the southern edge of downtown, including the traffic bridge that crossed the Reedy River above its natural falls. “Don’t go near the bridge,” people today said that people used to say. Now, people generally marvel at the changes over the last 15 years.

    Folksy language: You know you’re somewhere when people say, “Katy, bar the door!” in the middle of a conversation.  And you know it’s a place where people don’t cautiously spoon out their language, wary of soundbites.  Here is an example:

    One piece of the plan for rebuilding Greenville included demolishing the traffic bridge over the Reedy River, a bridge that hid the view of the falls beneath it, and for prettying up the space around the falls with a park complex. Fifteen years of controversy roiled over an idea that was embraced by some and met with strong resistance by others. “Why take down a perfectly good bridge?” asked a group of people who were happy to let things be, and who didn’t see river revitalization as an attractive proposition. “The River, Yuck!” as it was “all kudzu and poison ivy.” By today’s retelling, these folks were all about “Katy, bar the door!”

    Greenville falls. Photos via MASC

    Well, the bridge did get demolished, the new Falls Park area with the elegant pedestrian Liberty Bridge was dedicated in 2004. And so much more was developed or restored:  the Swamp Rabbit Trail along an old rail bed for runners, walkers and bikers, the Peace Center for the arts, old textile mills, the restaurants and brew pubs, specialty shops selling everything from Jerky to ice cream, the ice rink, the Fluor Field, the in-town baseball stadium which is now a bookend to the west-end (which is actually to the south) development. “It used to be a mile’s a ways out,” but now walking that distance to the field suggests that expansion is going to continue a ways beyond that.

    As for the fruit of the huge redevelopment effort, “Dadgum if we didn’t do it!”  summed up a revered town elder.

    Newcomers and young returnees to Greenville vouch for its current coolness. One 20-something entrepreneur, Eric Dodds, whom Jim wrote about in a post on the start-up culture of Greenville,  who had grown up in the town, left in a hurry for college, returned home on a visit and uttered a “Holy cow!” upon seeing the change. He has moved back.

    Many people told us the stories of recruiting outsiders to Greenville for jobs in education, tech, and business of all sorts. The typical outsiders’ reaction, residents reported in a way that you know precedes a punch line, was always “Greenville, South Carolina? Are you kidding?” The finale was always something like: “Well, within a week, they had called a realtor and bought a house.”

    The earthy language of Greenville has given me heart that American English has not become homogenized, and that regionalisms are alive and well.


    To contact the author, including with more suggestions about American regional English, write DebFallows at gmail.com.

  • 'Springbok, Cleared for Landing': More on the Language of the Skies

    By Deborah Fallows.

    Real Time Flight Tracking via Flightradar24. Sunday 10:30 AM ET, Dec. 8, 2013

    By Deborah Fallows.

    [See update* below.] On our recent flight home in our small plane from Eastport ME, to Washington DC, we were listening, as we often do, to the air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking back and forth with various aircraft in the usual manner:

           Pilot: New York Center. American 935. fifteen thousand feet.

    And the air traffic controller’s response is: Acknowledgment. Altimeter reading (necessary gauge for determining altitude)

           ATC: American 935. New York Center. New York altimeter  30.14.

    Then a little while later, we heard a callsign I had never heard before: Brickyard. It was an exchange something like this:

            Pilot: Washington Center. Brickyard 215. nine thousand.

            ATC: Brickyard 215. Washington Center. Washington altimeter  30.10.

    I wondered about Brickyard, and learned that it belongs to Republic Airlines, a regional supplier that operates flights for major national brands. I know that airline as one that sometimes flies the daily nonstop as US Airways Express between Washington DC, where I live, and Sarasota FL, where my mom lives. Republic also operates service for a number of other airlines, like American Eagle and Frontier.

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    But Brickyard? Well, according to Funtrivia.com, Republic is the regional airline out of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nicknamed The Brickyard.

    A few weeks later, I read my husband, Jim’s, post about the enormous 747 “dreamlifter” cargo airplane that landed at the wrong -- and much too small -- airport in Kansas.  I heard on the recording between the ATC and the pilot that the big plane had the callsign Giant. Fitting, I thought, when I learned that Giant is the callsign for Atlas Air.

    Many of the major airlines use callsigns of  their standard company names, like American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Delta. But then there are the other creative and curious ones, which we hear regularly along the east coast through New England and MidAtlantic states. Ones like Citrus, Cactus, and Waterski.

    Cactus? US Airways merged with America West Airlines, and based out of Tempe AZ, home to so many saguaro cacti.

    Citrus? AirTran Airways, headquartered now in Dallas, but at one time in Orlando.

    Waterski? Trans States Airlines, another regional airline which operates for United Express and US Airways Express. It was originally Resort Air, which ferried vacationers (and presumably waterskiiers) to Lake of the Ozarks.

    So that got me wondering about all the callsigns. Who are they? What are their etymologies? Do they fall into categories? I did some digging and here’s what I discovered:

    First, this can get overwhelming very quickly! As I look right now, I see live tracking of every airplane in the air. Delta has 388 planes flying. United has 351. Southwest has 345, and American 205, and on down the list of hundreds of individual airlines. Their callsigns are right there, too. And if that isn’t enough for you, go here to see a complete list of airlines, beyond those that have planes in the air right now. I can’t even count the total.

    As a way to get a handle on this, I decided to see if I could find any interesting categories or patterns among the callsigns. Here is a makeshift taxonomy:

    Animal names: Of course, bird names are well represented, but there are lots of other land creatures as well.

    Speedbird, British Airways

    Eagle Flight, American Eagle

    Flying Eagle, Eagle Air from Tanzania

    White Eagle, White Eagle Aviation from Poland

    Twin-Goose, Air-taxi from Europe

    Kingfisher, Kingfisher Airlines from India

    Rooster, Hahn Air from Germany (Hahn is German for rooster!)

    Jetbird, Primera Air from Iceland

    Bird Express, Aero Services Executive from France

    Polish Bird, Air Poland

    Bluebird, Virgin Samoa

    Songbird, Sky King from the US

    Nile Bird, Nile Air from Egypt

    Nilecat, Delta Connection Kenya

    Flying Dolphin, Dolphin Air from UAE

    Deer Jet, Beijing Capital Airlines

    Dragon, Tianjin Airlines from China

    Longhorn, Express One International from the US (Texas, I suppose)

    Springbok, South African Airways

    Bambi, Allied Air Cargo from Nigeria (At least I like to think it references Bambi)

    Simba, African International Airlines

    Go Cat, Tiger Airways, Singapore

    Polar Tiger, Polar Air Cargo, Long Beach

    Sky Themes, with many evocative references to space flight and fantasy:

    Flagship, Endeavor Air from Minneapolis

    Blue Streak, PSA Airlines from Ohio

    Star Check, Air Net from Ohio

    Air Thunder, Thunder from Canada

    Sky Challenge, Challenge Aero from Ukraine

    White Star, Star Air from Denmark

    Mercury, Shuttle America from Indiana

    Archangelsk, Nordavia from Russia

    Something about the Country of Origin:

    Glacier, Central Mountain from Canada

    Shamrock, Aer Lingus

    Iceair, Icelandair

    Bearskin, Bearskin Lake Air Service Ltd. from Canada

    Sandbar, Mega Maldives

    Gotham, Meridian Air Charter from Teterboro NJ

    Vegas Heat, Corporate Flight International

    Lucky Air, Lucky Air from China

    Viking, Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia

    Great Wall, Great Wall Airlines

    Fuji Dream, Fuji Dream Airlines

    Jade Cargo, Jade Cargo International from China

    SpiceJet, SpiceJet from India

    Salsa, SALSA D’Haiti

    Delphi, Fly Hellas from Greece

    And just for fun:

    Lindbergh, GoJet from Missouri

    Wild Onion, Chicago Air

    Rex, Regional Express from Australia

    Suckling, Scot Airways from the UK*

    Yellow, DHL Aero Express from Panama

    There are many, many more. But these alone are reason enough for passengers on commercial planes to request listening in on the chatter between the ATCs and the pilots.


    To contact the author, write DebFallows @ gmail.

    * UPDATE A reader fills in the background of the callsign Suckling:

    ScotAir's mom-and-pop parent firm, before a lot of corporate chopping and changing, was a couple named Suckling. It's a common name in East Anglia. Sir John Suckling, poet and inventor of cribbage, came from those parts.

    They ran off of a grass strip in Ipswich, to Edinburgh and Manchester. The in-flight meals were cooked in their kitchen and driven to the plane. A wonderful story, and a BBC documentary. But 9/11 and a bunch of mergers ended that. In Apri1 2013 the entity disappeared and its call sign went with it.
  • Flying Up Down East

    By Deborah Fallows

    By Deborah Fallows

    We took off from KGAI -- the Montgomery County Airpark, our home airport outside Washington DC --  early on a Friday afternoon, with big plans to look for the fall foliage en route to Eastport, Maine.  The flight would be about 3 1/2 hours, even less if the expected strong tailwinds prevailed. [Above: Sunrise over Campobello Island, once we got to Eastport.]

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    We were climbing initially to 2500 feet, which I think of as the Norman Rockwell altitude. If you look down, you can spot yellow school buses stopping in front of white picket fences and see smoke curling out of chimneys. Just after we took off I heard Jim, my husband and pilot, say “Damn,” before I noticed the small “no communications” light on one of the electronic screens.  This was a big word from a mild-mannered guy, but he immediately reassured me with, “Well, the worst that can happen is that we turn right around and try to rent or borrow a plane.”

    In a moment, the “traffic sensor failed” light came on, identifying the problem.  Even I knew this wasn’t really important; the traffic sensor detects nearby airplanes and displays them on an animated screen, along with their altitude and direction. It is a bonus rather than a necessity for flight safety. The most amazing part of the system to me is the loud, metallic, electronic voice that warns “TRAFFIC! TRAFFIC!” when another plane is near you. (Technically, or so I'm told by Jim, this is when the plane is within 1000 feet above or below our altitude, and 2 miles horizontally.) I think the voice must be optimally designed for pitch, stress, amplitude and general surprise value. I don’t like it, but that is probably the point.

    This is the screen that should show the traffic sensor. If you look hard you can see the little yellow indicator of “traffic FAIL” on the middle left of the right-hand screen.

    Requesting “flight following” from the air traffic controllers  (ATC) would substitute for the sensor system, which we did. Along the way, the ATC would periodically call us with something like “435 Sierra Romeo. (our call number) Traffic.  3 o’clock. One mile. Southbound, a G4 at 4000 feet.” We would look for the plane and inform the ATC “in sight” when we spotted it. Jim then stated a fact that I already knew: “Obviously, I’m gonna be watching this like a hawk.”

    The leaves were still very green over Maryland; they were turning a mild yellowy-brown over Pennsylvania. The had barely even changed over one of my favorite flyover markers, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which sits proudly on a bluff over the Hudson with its expansive emerald green sports fields and marching grounds.

    About that time, Jim mentioned he was looking for the updated weather report from the eastern Maine area, which was supposed to be clearing during our flight but was overdue on its hourly refresh. He played around with a few dials. I was still looking for leaves when he pointed out the major screen, the one showing all the gauges and important stuff like altitude and airspeed, began flickering. That was occasional. Then the flicker turned to longer flutters. Then it would go blank for seconds at a time. I could see the redundant manual dials were normal, and Jim said, “We’re fine; this is exactly why I did all that extra training during the spring. That's why I was doing those simulated-panel-failure drills, with all the screens turned off."

    You won’t be surprised to hear that we decided to make a precautionary landing in Portland, the closest big airport (as Jim has previously described). It seemed beyond foolish to keep flying an extra hour north to the Eastport airport, which has no tower, no weather station, and no mechanics or repair shops. Jim told the controller that we were “changing destination because of non-emergency equipment problems,” a phrase I hadn’t heard before. He also requested a change from "Visual Flight Rules," under which we flew whatever course we chose, to an Instrument Flight Rules plan, in which ATC would guide us to the destination. The ATC responded without a breath’s delay. "November 435SR is cleared to the Portland airport via direct, maintain 3,000 feet. Let us know if you require assistance."

    We landed in Portland, and stayed overnight with friends we had been long trying to visit. Through the magic that Jim described, we were on our way north to Down East Maine by noon.


    That geographic nomenclature – Down East – was puzzling to me. I could understand the East, since Maine really sweeps out there into the Atlantic Ocean. The Down, I learned, apparently dates back to the olden days, when prevailing winds sent ships from Boston sailing downwind (hence down) to head north along the coast of Maine. Or maybe it's some other reason.

    We flew over the upscale enclaves of Mount Desert Island, and Bar Harbor, and many small private islands inhabited by either the wealthy or the reclusive—or sometimes one and the same. We swung around over Campobello and other Canadian islands for our landing to the west at Eastport, with its charm offensive of church steeples and clapboard houses. As we came in on our final approach, only a few hundred feed above the ground, a big green lawn-mowing tractor pulled out onto the runway. That was a surprise! So we "went around," climbing back to 1000 feet above ground (and ocean) and setting up for another approach, by which time the tractor had spotted us and pulled off the runway.

    The small airport was deserted. We were unloading and heading for a red Honda in the parking lot. The amazing Linda Godfrey, who is one of the dynamic forces for change in Eastport, had picked up the ball when she got word we were coming for a visit, and anticipated needs I didn’t even know we would have: “There are no car rentals here. I’ll find you one to use.”

    Then a car drove up. “I heard you coming in,” greeted Captain Bob Peacock, one of two pilot boat captains who guides the enormous cargo ships into the deepwater Estes Head pier at Eastport. Amazing that he found us, I thought. We were one day and one detour late. This proved to be the first of about a dozen times we ran into Bob Peacock during the next several days. And also his friend Dean, and also Linda Godfrey, and many other people of Eastport who were all out and about on the streets. They seemed to have an uncanny anticipation of just what we would need and when we would need it. Cap’n Bob, as I fondly began to think of him, directed us to town (turn right and follow the road about a mile to the water) and said he would catch up with us later.

    [Our plane in the background, another plane in the foreground, gasoline tanks at the end of the pavement, red Honda just out of view on the left, Eastport all around.]

    It all felt comfortable and familiar to me. I grew up in a small town in the midwest, on the Great Lakes. Everyone knew everyone. Kids didn’t have playdates; we just showed up at a friend’s house or at the corner lot to play. And parents always knew where to find us.

    The next morning, Sunday, I got up and dressed early. I had a feeling I should be ready for whatever might happen. Sure enough, Cap’n Bob showed up at the back sliding glass door.  “Hope it’s OK, “ he said, “The front door was locked.” Yeah, I thought to myself, I probably didn’t need to lock that door. Cap’n Bob began telling yarns – true ones – of the stories and characters of Eastport. Stories of Eastport rebuilding  – in industry, in commerce, in architecture, in culture, and in spirit, which had been bruised and buffeted by decline, disappointments, and broken deals, but which was poised for a comeback.

    We were already learning the first lessons of Eastport. It is a town that is very far away from the rest of the US; it is tiny; and it is surrounded by cold, deep water. Eastport residents turn those givens around to be wholly positive: Eastport, they describe, is close to the rest of the world, commands the engagement of all who live there, and understands the promise of the water.


    To contact Deborah Fallows:  DebFallows at gmail.com

  • EATNN TTUNA SNWCH - hold (at) MAYYO: More on the Secret Language of the Skies

    "The approach fixes, in order, are TRAMP, FLOZY, SILKY, and JAKOR. I'm sensing a pattern here but would love to know the back story."

    Recently Deb Fallows, aviation veteran and linguist, did a popular item about the strange and whimsical patterns of naming aviation waypoints, plus other aspects of flying-speak. She has gotten a lot of interesting response about why the system works the way it does, and she will follow up soon on some linguistic aspects she's learned about. For now, she has asked me to handle the messages that address the "National Airspace System" itself, so here goes.


    Mustang Ranch

    Your call for interesting waypoint names brought back memories of flying out of Mather AFB near Sacramento, CA.  Crews from the surrounding AFBs of McClellan, Travis, and Beale would construct “training” missions dialing in the MUSTNG VORTAC for recreation at the eponymously-named Ranch of ill repute.  Then times changed and it was given the less-controversial nomenclature of RENO which it bears today.  While you’re in the area It is worth checking out some locally-flavored waypoints such as PYGOW and BLKJK.


    Hold the mayo (as shown above)

    I always enjoy the inventiveness that folks at the FAA are able to use in making up instrument waypoints. My favorite is the RNAV (GPS) approach to runway 1 at NPA [Pensacola] - omitting the [several waypoints], we get:

    EATNN TTUNA SNWCH - hold (at) MAYYO.


    Nathaniel Hawthorne, Andy Griffith

    Consider: WITCH and WAXEN in the vicinity of Salem, MA.

    Last year I was enroute from White Plains to an airport outside of Atlanta, and happened to pass by Mt. Airy NC.  Being somewhat bored at the time, I pulled up the approach charts and was thrilled to see the Andy of Mayberry cast of characters immortalized there:  ANTBE, OPBEH, BOMRR, OTISE, ANDEI, TALRR, FIFEE, BRNEE, etc.


    Take that, LeBron

    I wanted to point out one intersection over here in Cleveland that has fallen on hard times. "LEBRN" was named after LeBron James, the superstar Cleveland Cavalier who left abruptly for the Heat in 2010 among much local angst.  I have been told - somewhat tongue in cheek - that local controllers started pronouncing it "Layburn" shortly after he left.


    There must be a back story

    As I understand it, these are chosen by the local air route traffic control center (ARTCC) in collaboration with the "big FAA" folks who design approaches, SIDs, and STARs. For example, I remember (but couldn't find a citation) that the local folks named the BAXTR intersection near Beaumont, TX after Gordon Baxter, the well-known columnist for Flying magazine and long-time Texas radio personality.

    My favorite is the ILS 36R to Orlando (MCO). The approach fixes, in order, are TRAMP, FLOZY, SILKY, and JAKOR. I'm sensing a pattern here but would love to know the back story.


    Say again

    I chuckled when I saw the discussion of "say again" in Deb's latest post. I'm not a pilot, but back in 1981-82, when I was barely a year out of law school, I worked at the firm that represented PATCO during the air traffic controllers strike, and in the aftermath of the strike we represented lots of fired controllers in their appeals. As a result, I spent a lot of time talking to controllers, and I picked up the "say again" habit, which I still have more than 30 years later.


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    How the system works. These last two messages go into the details of how the FAA comes up with the names.

    I am a controller at Chicago Approach Control.  I've been here for 23 years and the number of way-points in our airspace has increased by an order of magnitude over the last few years.  With the increase in the use of GPS approaches the trend will continue.

    I don't know your history in aviation but I'll try to explain the history of aviation navigation and waypoint naming.

    You mention the VORs and they were the bedrock of the navigation system for decades.  [VOR stands for VHF Omnidirectional Range; you can learn more here.] We still use them although they are mostly used for non GPS aircraft, instrument approaches, and pilot training.... The airways all had intersections on them with the 5 letter names although they weren't as creative in the naming back when they were designed.

    Many of the names were created when the original STARS [more here] were designed years ago.  You mentioned BEARZ and KUBBS.  They have been here longer than I have and they are each about 40 miles from O'hare, KUBBS to the northeast and BEARZ to the southeast near Gary....

    When the RNAV and GPS approaches [landing procedures based on GPS signals rather than radio beams] were first designed about 10 years ago the FAA had a computer generate the names used for the fixes.  This was an unmitigated disaster and many of the the names were unpronounceable....

    Because of the computer generated name disaster in the GPS approaches, the local Procedures staff were allowed to name these way-points and they got creative in doing so.  They had certain rules to follow such as no duplicates nationwide, 5 letters, nothing considered offensive, etc...

    Some are named for places they are near:  PLANO is near Plano, IL,  FARMM is over or near Harvard, lots of farms out there.  NUELG, near Elgin, NAPER is near Naperville, etc.  Look at a terminal airspace chart to see them.

    There are many named for retired controllers.  Most of these are fixes on the ILS approaches into ORD.  Just to name a few:  GRABL, MISCH, CHSTR, FNUCH.

    SIMMN intersection west of Dekalb, IL is named for Senator Paul Simon, a great champion of aviation.

    We have the following STARS into ORD:  ROYKO, PATON, ESSPO, BULLS.  Can you guess who they are named for?

    We will be getting some interesting fixes early in 2014.. A number of them will be named for local football, baseball and hockey players.  These are new GPS approaches into MDW.  I remember seeing CUTLR and DITKA....

    And after the jump, one more detailed explanation.

    More »

  • China, The Atlantic, and the Foibles of Big Data, All in 1 Post

    "Mr. Serving Dishes" comes to San Francisco and offers American manufacturers new hope.

    LiamChina.png

    Act One: Late last year I revisit my friend Liam Casey, the Irish entrepreneur deeply involved in the global outsourcing-industrial complex, at the headquarters of his PCH International  company in Shenzhen, China. I do an an update on his views of the shifting trends in world manufacturing, in an Atlantic story called "Mr. China Comes to America" -- source of the photo above, showing him and one of his factory lines.

         Act One-and-a-Half: Liam tells me to watch for word of his opening a new design center in San Francisco, emblematic of the Bay Area's taking on an expanded role in the ever-faster branding-design-manufacturing cycle.

    Act Two: TechCrunch runs a nice story last week on the opening of the new SF design center. The title of the story is "Mr. China Goes to San Francisco," with gracious references to the ongoing Atlantic chronicles of the activities of Mr. China. It also explains Casey's current ambitions for the center, and in general:
    A teetotaling Irishman, the inexhaustible Casey ostensibly lives in a hotel [JF: the Four Points Sheraton] in downtown Shenzhen but is nearly always in the air. He and his cross-cultural team make nearly all the accessories you can imagine for multiple vendors. You couldn't point a finger in a Best Buy without hitting a product PCH builds.
    He envisions his new building as a gateway to China and a way to help clients - and the public - understand the vagaries of mass manufacturing.
    Those are the China-related and Atlantic-related parts of this item. Now, we come to Big Data part:

    Act Three: A number of auto-translate bots convert the TechCrunch story to Chinese -- and then evidently back out again. Here is the way it looks when it has made the round trip from English to Chinese and then to English. The headlines, from a site tracking pickup of our articles, will give you the idea:

    MrPorcelain.png
    Liam Casey has both enjoyed and been mildly embarrassed by the jokey moniker "Mr. China." Let's see how he likes becoming "Mr. Serving dishes." All this is in the ongoing category of "big data making us smarter, sort of."

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