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.
  • The Use and Misuse of Information Technology in Health Care: Several Doctors Reply

    One of them writes, "There is a very American tendency to look for technological fixes for significant problems.  In general, technological fixes only work in the context of appropriate institutional structures."

    Our new issue has an interview with Dr. David Blumenthal about why it has taken the medical system so long to adopt electronic record-keeping, and what it will mean when the switch occurs. (Blumenthal led the Obama administration's effort to encourage that change.) On Friday several technology experts and doctors weighed in with responses. Here are a few more.

    1) "Give us a cotton gin." Creed Wait, a family-practice doctor in Nebraska does not like the mandated shift to electronic records, at all. [I've added his name, as he sent permission to use it. Also he has moved from Texas to Nebraska.] For now, I am sharing his detailed complaint in full, rather than interspersing comments or "Yes, but" queries:

    The saying is, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. “

    The saying is not, “Build a different mousetrap, pay out nineteen billion dollars in incentives to use the mousetrap, mandate its use by law and punish those who fail to adopt it.  Then shove the world kicking and screaming against their will through your door.”

    So far, doctors have been paid $19B in incentives to buy EMRs [Electronic Medical Record systems].  No one had to incentivize the cotton gin.  It was simply a better product.

    The current EMR system is a mess because the current EMR systems in use by the majority of physicians were written in the Rube Goldberg School of Software Design and work poorly.  There is no ‘asymmetry of benefits’ as proposed by Dr. Blumenthal.  Unless, of course, what he means by this is that only the software companies are benefitting from these federal mandates.  Then, I would agree with him.  Yes, the benefits are asymmetrical.

    Build a better mousetrap and we will use it.  DVDs came out and they were better than VHS tapes.  Overnight the whole world invested in new electronics, we bought DVDs and we threw out our VHS tapes.  There was no need for $19B in incentives because DVDs were simply a better product.  Flat screen televisions came out and we stopped buying cathode ray tube televisions.  Why?  Because they were a better product.  Laws mandating the use of DVDs and flat screen TVs, bonuses for using them and punishments for failing to do so, were not needed.  The market chose the better products.

    Mandated EMR adoption requires carrots and sticks consisting of massive incentives and concomitant penalties because the products that are available work so poorly and are so severely user-unfriendly.

    Using the VA system, Kaiser, and Geisinger as examples of the successful use of EMRs is disingenuous.  These are massive systems with massive budgets and massive around-the-clock onsite IT departments.  The vast majority of physicians are not in these megalithic systems.

    Most of us are in much smaller practices.  We have IT departments but the salesmen and software engineers who sold us these magic beans are already down the road looking for the next unsuspecting rube and cannot be reached.  Our IT departments are swimming upstream trying to implement and maintain software that they do not understand while mandated changes to this software are being released before we can get the last update debugged and working.  The doctors are always screaming because the systems are down, we can’t work until the system is running and the IT guys have the harried and glazed look of caged prey.

    For the federal government to mandate the use of EMRs by every physician out there just because it works at the VA would be like telling the entire world, “OK, we made it to the moon.  Now it is your turn.  Any country that has not put a man on the moon within the next five years will be bombed.  Every country that complies with this mandate will get a check for $1B.  For those countries who fail to comply with this mandate, shelling will begin at 1:00AM, five years from today.”

    What the federal government can do with a bottomless supply of tax dollars cannot be used to reasonably mandate what happens in small offices constrained by budget limitations.

    One year ago in private practice I could see eighteen patients per day.  A transcriptionist typewrote my notes. These were typically three pages long, concise, complete and extremely useful.  Then our group bought an EMR.

    After one year I was seeing fourteen patients a day, my notes were twelve pages long, the vital signs alone required a half page and the notes bordered on being useless.

    My reimbursement per visit had increased, my face-to-face time with the patient was shorter, I was doing a poorer job, patients were less satisfied, and I was completely frustrated by trying to build each note out of dozens of pages of drop down menus.

    Before implementing an EMR I had approached each patient encounter with an attitude of, “What can we do today to improve your health, happiness and overall satisfaction with life?”  The patient and I would have a meaningful conversation about the pertinent issues.  Once an EMR was implemented, a subtle change began.  It was so gradual that at first I did not even recognize the poison.  But after a few months I realized that the visit had slowly evolved into, “Just a minute, we need to be sure that we have checked off every box on every screen and we need to be sure that a narrative of some sort has been entered into every required field.”  Then there were realizations like, “Oh, look.  If we add one more point to the Review of Systems then we can raise the billing code one notch.  Hold that thought while I click, ‘wears glasses’ under the ROS field!” 

    Well, time’s up!  The fields are all now completed and all goals have been met!  Next!

    The EMR had become the primary influence in the interview.  The dynamic had changed.  The patient and I were now both in the room to feed the hunger of the software.

    Don’t even get me started on CPOE (computer-based physician order entry systems).   Physicians used to write their orders and clerks would enter these data into the computer.  Under the new mandates, the physician is now a data entry clerk.  What’s next?  Is each hospital CEO going to be required to spend two hours a day manning the switchboard?  It is claimed that CPOE systems reduce errors.  In the real world, this is nonsense.  It is all in how one collects and reports the data.  Data collectors refuse to attribute errors to the CPOE system. Rather than blame the software, the physician is blamed for not understanding how to use the system correctly.  Just like with office-based EMRs we refuse to admit that the Emperor is naked.  I have seen physicians get past mandatory stop points during system entries, when the correct input was not an option, by inputting obviously erroneous answers so that they could keep working.  Then the physician would call the pharmacy and verbally correct the entry.  There are dozens of ‘back door’ fixes of this nature that allow physicians to keep working when a CPOE system locks up or cannot meet the needs of a unique patient.   In my own experience I estimate than a CPOE system adds 1-3 hours of work to each day.  

    I am not a typist, I never have been a typist and I never will be.  I can dictate a beautiful note.  A typist can then create an excellent document from that dictation.  There is no reasonable excuse for the government to mandate an end to this system when no one has a better product.  There is no reasonable excuse for the government to mandate that I will now be a typist.

    Now, on to the VA system.  They have a great and highly integrated information management system, with one glaring flaw.  As long as the patient stays completely within that system, it works.  As long as the patient never sees a physician outside of the VA, it works.  As long as the patient never gets a test, x-ray or is hospitalized outside of the VA, it works.  But the VA does not integrate well outside of their own system.  By the time non-VA physicians and hospitals can get records, reports or anything of value out of the VA, the patient is generally dead or cured.

    But this is exactly the problem that integrated EMR systems were touted to cure.  If the best EMR in the nation has not yet solved this one simple problem, why is the entire concept being shoved down our collective throats?

    So, you want to revolutionize data management in healthcare?  The starting point is a product that works.  Give us a DVD, a flat-screen television.

    Give us a cotton gin.

    2) The latest snake oil. More skepticism about the coming changes:

    I've been a clinical psychologist for many years, and it's long been clear to me that few patients are likely to benefit from the adoption of expensive, labor-intensive technologies, which do, indeed, make it easier for managers and other third parties to do their jobs.

    In recent years we've been seeing increasingly aggressive attempts by a variety of self-interested parties to insist that a certain change in how health care services are provided or paid for - a change which, coincidentally, would have salutary effect on their company's bottom line or their own career - is precisely the snake oil which is needed to "cure" the present system of its ills.

    Rather than making changes which would, in fact, be most likely to result in "the greatest good for the greatest number," what we've been seeing - and are almost certainly going to continue to see - are changes which reflect the outcomes of intense behind-the-scenes political maneuverings among "stakeholders," each of whom is trying to make sure that, when all is said and done, he will be among the "winners."  

    3) What the VA's experience shows, and doesn't. From a doctor in the upper Midwest: 

    I'm a practicing physician with significant experience in the VA system and at an institution that recently adopted a new EMR.  There are some significant qualifications about the potential of EMRs to improve care in the USA.

    1) The precedents of the VA system and systems like Kaiser are a bit misleading.  A very good criticism of EMRs generally being adopted in the USA is that they are fundamentally built on billing systems.  This is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the incentives to introduce EMRs are driven by reimbursement.  Systems designed to maximize patient information would be somewhat different. 

    The older, clunky but functional VA system is better in this respect than the modern EMR I use at my academic institution.  Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues are inadvertantly partially responsible for this situation because the legislation incentivizing use of EMRs had to be built around reimbursement incentives-penalties.  In our fragmented system, I don't see that alternatives were available to Dr. Blumenthal and his colleagues but realism about the results is necessary.

    2) EMRs should, as they do in the VA system, reduce costs by reducing duplication of tests and services.  This occurs only, however, in the context of relatively large, integrated systems.  I routinely waste money by ordering tests that may well have been performed previously by other physicians because I don't have access to patients' medical records.  Big Data isn't big unless it can be aggregated and used broadly.  There may well be considerable consolidation among health care providers in the near future but any market or semi-market based system like ours is an obstacle to consolidation because it encourages inefficient winner take all behavior.

    3) An analogous point is that ostensibly data-driven changes in clinical practice will not emerge without someone or something to actually analyze the data and develop optimal care approaches.  We need something like the British National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), probably on a more ambitious scale, to push appropriate reforms in clinical practice.

    There is a very American tendency to look for technological fixes for significant problems.  In general, however, technological fixes only work in the context of appropriate institutional structures. 

    4) The good, the bad, and the worse. From a reader in Jerusalem:

    Good:  I'm a long-time software engineer and was recently talking to my hematologist about computers and medicine.  She was very grateful for the change.   She remembered patients coming in to the ER that the staff recognized, but they'd have a terrible time looking for the medical records.   Multiple staff searching through mounds of folders and not finding the right one.  Previous diagnosis helps a lot in figuring out what to do in an emergency.

    Bad: On the other hand, my GP spends more time facing the computer screen than his patient.  Prescriptions come out of the computer via his laser printer, which cranks away all day.  But all the Rx are in the system, anywhere I go.

    American docs used to leave the room in the middle of the visit to look things up, rather than turn away from the patient.  Bedside manner.  Uh, deskside manner.

    On the third hand:  Hacking. 

    I have new respect for the complexity and difficulty of this change. More to come.

    Previous post

  • When a Man Is Tired of Wingsuit Videos, He Is Tired of Life ...

    The world is big and interesting, chapter 438.

    ... as Samuel Johnson might have sayeth, if he had gotten a look at these things.

    We've previously explored the wonders of wingsuit-flying in China and assorted sites in Europe (plus underwater). Now I give you Switzerland, via Epic TV* and our friends at AOPA:


    And in case you missed the flying-and-diving video the first time around, here it is again.

    Plus, for some terrifying/riveting wingsuit video. check out this.

    I love flying airplanes but would never dare try one of these wingsuit stunts. I also never get tired of seeing them. They have a dream/nightmare quality that is immediately recognizable though hard to define.

    * Tech note: Sometimes this video displays an annoying Epic TV banner announcement across its upper half through its whole duration. If that happens, try refreshing the page and viewing the video again. That seems to thwart it.

  • On the Ramifications of High-Tech, Big-Data Medical Care

    As more of medicine comes into the info age, will we get better sooner? Or simply have a more detailed idea of why we're sick?

    As mentioned this morning, in our new issue I have an interview with Dr. David Blumenthal about the paradox of modernization in the American health care system. We all know that everything about medicine is becoming technologized, in ways good and bad. On the good, see previous interview with Eric Lander about the genomic-knowledge revolution. On the bad, see Jonathan Rauch on the industrialized process of dying. But we also know that nearly every visit to a medical facility begins with the tedium of filling out forms by hand.

    David Blumenthal was in charge of the Obama administration's effort to speed the adoption of electronic medical records, and in the interview he explains why that has been hard but will be worthwhile.

    Now, responses from readers in the tech and medical worlds. First, from David Handelsman, of a health-related data company in North Carolina:

    One of the things that Dr. Blumenthal didn’t include in his response was that the health care industry needs to continue to create a culture of evidence-based medicine, beyond the activities at those organizations that are further along the maturity curve regarding electronic health records and healthcare technology. 

    The reality is that much of healthcare is administered to patients based upon the practitioner’s experience (patients he or she has seen with similar conditions), the practitioner’s ability to accurately recall the appropriate care for the patient being seen and, where time has allowed, the opportunity to stay current on healthcare research and able to then apply that research correctly to the patient at hand.

    While I have the utmost respect for health care practitioners, there’s an awful lot of room here for what I’ll call non-optimized care.  The practitioner’s experience may be incomplete – he or she may not have seen a patient “like this patient”.  They’re ability to recall the best care options for “this type of patient” may be unreliable given the vast numbers of patients in their care.   They may be lagging behind in current research and recommendations because there isn’t enough time in the day, and if they are current, they may still have the same issue of recall regarding complex health decisions.

    Evidence-based medicine aims to provide optimal recommendations regarding patient care.   When electronic data is available, the patient’s current situation can be electronically compared to other similar patients AND their respective healthcare outcomes.  At that point, a recommendation for care for “this patient”, whose profile is aligned with “all of those similar patients”, can be made based upon the recorded outcomes.   Please note that this should be considered a recommendation – the responsibility for providing care ultimately falls on the practitioner, and not an algorithm, but that practitioner should always have the best information at hand to determine the best course of care.

    From a retired MD:

    There is a rub [among many, I suspect] as seen in our personal records from digitized offices.

    To respond to insurance company demands for documentation of visits, physicians can simply cut and paste the previous visit data onto the current visit, making such changes as are necessary. Every visit looks remarkably complete!

    The volume of material viewed makes finding anything new difficult.  The record becomes a document for the insurance company, barely useful for physician's own use or physician to physician communication.

    From the academy:

    I'm a PhD student in statistics working on prediction and causal inference using health data. I'd like to comment on a quote from your (great) interview with David Blumenthal about the promise of Electronic Medical Records: 

    Dr. Blumenthal says: "This will move us into a field that is taking shape right now, that of analytics. It will help us take these data and turn them into diagnostic information—into recommendations a physician can give a patient or that patients can get directly, online."

    He seemingly conflates 'diagnostic information' and '[treatment] recommendations'.  But they actually pose fundamentally different problems from a statistical perspective, and I think EMRs will play a much more transformative role in diagnosis than treatment. This is because diagnoses live in the realm of pure prediction, while treatment decisions live in the realm of causal inference. EMR data will be observational. Using observational data for pure prediction is completely valid, but using it for causal inference is only valid under strong assumptions of no unobserved confounding.

    A common fallacy of Big Data Hype is the assumption that gathering boatloads of observational data will enable us to solve problems that are fundamentally causal in nature. There will certainly be special situations where EMR data can reliably drive treatment decisions (and this will be a big deal!), but such cases will be the minority.

    By contrast, statistical algorithms should be able to almost always make excellent, reliable predictions about what conditions a new patient is likely to have or acquire given her own health history and the health histories of millions of other patients. These predictions, which are probabilistic diagnoses in themselves, can also guide decisions about which diagnostic tests to perform on which patients.

    From someone in the tech industry:

    This question in particular interested me:

    "JF: In the broadest sense, what difference will better information technology make in our lives and health?"

    And this part of the answer:

    "DB: This will move us into a field that is taking shape right now, that of analytics. It will help us take these data and turn them into diagnostic information—into recommendations a physician can give a patient or that patients can get directly, online."

    That’s where the future lies, and of course people want the benefit of it right now. Before, there was no market to make this sort of analytic product. Now that we have a growing electronic infrastructure for health information, there is a surge of traditional capitalist interest in turning that information into valuable knowledge, and selling it back to patients and doctors. That will happen. But it could never have happened until we got the data into digital form.

    To which I would add three things:

    1. Put simply, the short-term benefit is efficiency (easier/cheaper management of data for existing processes). The long term benefit is effectiveness (making people healthier)

    2. YCombinator (the #1 tech incubator, based in SV) yesterday put out their 'Request for Startups -- Breakthrough Technologies', which included a section on health, notably:

    "We’re especially interested in preventative healthcare, as this is probably the highest-leverage way to improve health.  Sensors and data are interesting in lots of different areas, but especially for healthcare."

    So certainly corroborating the "surge of traditional capitalist interest in turning that information into valuable knowledge." More here:

    3. I share YC's view that preventative care holds huge potential returns. In general, I see "Health Care" being too focused on the "care" (e.g. I can get an appointment with an expert at John Hopkins within a week;  they have all the latest equipment;  the hospital is a nice building). And not focused enough on "health" (e.g. sixty year olds being in good enough shape to enjoy traveling and grand children; young people not being taken out of the work pool for a lack of basic medicine). Using data for preventative care could be a key component to redressing this - of course, it could also exacerbate it...
  • Why You Still Have to Fill Out All Those Paper Forms at a Doctor's Office ...

    ... and whether that might ever change.

    David Blumenthal MD

    In the new issue of the magazine (subscribe!) I have an interview with Dr. David Blumenthal. He is now head of the Commonwealth Fund, but during the first few years of the Obama administration he was in charge of moving America's medical-records system away from tedious paper-based filing to the digital age.

    I am biased, in that David Blumenthal and I have been friends since we were teenagers, but I think he does a very good job of explaining why it has taken so agonizingly long for medical records to catch up with the rest of our digitized life -- and what the payoff will be when the impending switch takes place.

    Please check it out. I've already received some retorts from other doctors (and insurance-company people), and will post in due course. 

  • The Glamorous Life of a Journalist, Couples-Getaway Edition

    Addressing America's infrastructure crisis, while people are staying right in the infrastructure.

    Downtown Winters, California, today. (James Fallows)

    For previous Glamorous Life installments, check here and related links.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    As my wife Deb and I have traveled around the country, we've stayed with friends, in daring motels, and once in a windowless, converted shipping container, which fortunately had a ventilation system. It's all worth it for the cause.

    Last night in Davis, California -- closest place with a hotel to our recent target-city of Winters -- we enlarged our experience by staying in a place while, unannounced in its online literature, it was in the middle of being demolished/ improved. The arrow points to our strategically positioned room.

    Fortunately, if there had been some emergency in the night, quick access to a dive for safety was just outside our door. All we had to do was leap.

    Ah well.  On the other hand, a few miles away the agricultural scenery around Winters was of surpassing beauty. These are nut trees.

    Orchards outside Winters, California, on March 20, 2014.

    More about the place and its people tomorrow. If you want tips on where not to stay in Davis, come to us.

  • Greenville, Burlington, and American Futures

    "I loathed it with the heat of a thousand million suns."

    The Reedy River in Greenville, S.C. a few weeks ago (James Fallows)

    The new issue of the magazine is out. (Subscribe!) Among the articles is one by me on some of the cities we've seen on our American Futures project. These include Greenville and Greer, South Carolina, and Burlington, Vermont, all of them -- despite their obvious differences, and including Duluth, Minnesota -- illustrating parts of American public life that actually work, despite the general paralysis of politics at the federal level.

    In the Okefenokee Swamp early this month (J Fallows)

    Through the past month, Deb Fallows and I have been traveling a lot, through writing and broadcasting very little, as part of this project. We've been in southernmost Georgia -- Saint Marys, Kingsland, the Okefenokee (right), and adjoining areas of Florida -- and just now, via United Airlines rather than our Cirrus, in the fertile-but-troubled Central Valley of California. 

    Over the weekend, we met a group of California mayors and city-council members to hear about their stories, and since then we have been to, and will report on several, including Fresno, with extremely serious downtown and other problems but with people trying to cope with them, and tiny Winters, outside the university city of Davis.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    Here is a marker for the next series of posts my wife and I plan to put up about these cities and their lessons. There are many traits that distinguish communities that seem alive, in the broadest, sense, from ones that don't. Locally based wealth, as I've mentioned before. Inventive approaches to schooling, as Deb has described in several cities -- and as we'll discuss for both St. Marys and Fresno. A civic self-image, or public narrative, that gives shape to the successes (and failures) in the city's past and guides people to useful decisions for the future.

    And, very significantly, a sense of "us"-ness in the city -- a form of what I've called local patriotism, and which is one of the most strikingly repeated notes in our travels around the country. This evening, in pop-7,000 Winters, California, we heard people explain why this was the only place they'd ever wanted to live, and how it had a magic they wanted to preserve. It was the more touching because we'd heard things so similar three thousand miles away in Eastport, Maine, and in between in Holland, Michigan, and in Greenville and Burlington and Redlands and Sioux Falls and elsewhere.

    The world of Bowling Alone has nothing in common with what we've seen and heard.

    But: any us implies a them. Someone told us this afternoon that "the best thing about Winters is also the worst, which is that everyone knows everything about you." Best: people watched out for one another. Worst: life in a fishbowl.  

    Very popular Buckhorn restaurant in Winters, Ca.

    Balancing the positive of community (the mutual responsibility, It's a Wonderful Life) against the negatives (constraint, conformism, Babbitt) is a long-term challenge for a society that tries to be both dynamic and rooted. We've kept stressing the community we've found, because so much American diagnosis of the moment assumes that we're a rootless, atomized culture.

    But in awareness of the balance, we've tried to remember the other side. After we'd mentioned all the good, community-minded projects that were underway in the small western Michigan town of Holland, several former residents weighed in about the claustrophobic effects of that same, tight community. And on the day when an article largely admiring of Greenville and upstate South Carolina appears, I should similarly quote a dissenting view. After reading a number of upbeat reports on "the upstate" of South Carolina, a former Greenville resident wrote:

    I've never been to Sioux Falls, SD, but I had the misfortune to live
    in Greenville, SC [for four years in the 1990s].

    Here's what I bet won't happen to you in SD, but did happen to a close
    friend of mine in SC. She's a white woman, a native of Ireland who
    speaks English with no appreciable accent of any kind except she
    doesn't sound Southern.

    She walked into a Post Office to inquire whether they would be open on
    the following Monday, which happened to be MLK day. The white postal
    worker, after glancing around to see if he was within hearing distance
    of any one black said, "we're closed, it's Martin Luther King day.
    Maybe if we kill more niggers we'll get more time off."

    I was told nearly every week by a white woman of a certain age --
    usually the wife of a colleague of mine at [a university in the region]  -- that
    Greenville was "the buckle of the Bible Belt," said with an accent
    that dripped honeysuckle and magnolia and a great deal of pride.

    A few very brave students started a [P]FLAG group, and had t-shirts
    made. I was told in all seriousness by the Chair of my department, a
    Greenville native, that I ought not wear the shirt around town or I
    might be shot... 

    This wasn't in 1950 or in 1960 or in 1970 or in 1980. This was in the
    early 90s.

    I loved my students a lot. The Catholics who wept in my office after
    their peers had explained, sincerely and with pity that they weren't
    really Christians. The Northerners who stumbled in shell-shocked by
    the blatant racism they'd never heard or seen before. The handful of
    black students who were fortunately primarily from the South so had
    seen and heard it all before.

    I loathed Greenville with the heat of a thousand million suns. I'm
    grateful beyond measure I was able to get out.

    I have no illusions about the fact of Northern and Western racism (and
    all the rest). I maintain, however, that it matters that white people
    in Greenville think they're immune from censure when they speak as the
    post office worker did. It matters that religious prejudice spoken
    aloud is acceptable. It matters when slurs count as polite public
    conversation. There are pockets and places outside the South where
    this is true, no doubt, but it's not the default assumption anywhere
    else. Not then and not now.

    It will take more than Michelin and BMW and whomever else comes to
    town to rid the town of its toxicity.

    As I note in my article, Greenville was the last county, in the last state, to recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a holiday. But when I asked people in Greenville, black and white, about this analysis, most of them said: Things have changed.

    I don't presume to wrap up the topic right now, late at night. I will say that the good parts of American community-consciousness seem, in many places, stronger and better than we anticipated. And we are asking and reporting about the other parts too. More to come: for now, I hope you'll check out this issue.

    Previous post

  • As the Australians Announce Their (Possible) MH 370 Finding

    A clue that offers less hope for a safe recovery of passengers and crew, and possibly more hope for understanding what went on.

    Australian Search Map ( SBS Australia )

    Main point: sympathies for the tremendous strain on the families involved -- Chinese, Malaysian, and others from around the world.

    Secondary point: as I write it's not clear whether the Australian satellite sightings actually involve this flight. Short of the passengers being found live and safe, which unfortunately is hard to imagine nearly two weeks in, the most useful news would offer certainty about what actually happened. Let's hope that this sighting, unlike some previous ones, offers a real clue.

    Insanity watch: I hope someone will look back on this and similar episodes for revealing lessons about individuals' and institutions' reactions in the face of mystery and uncertainty. Terrorism experts have immediately traced this to terrorism; Rupert Murdoch said one day after the flight's disappearance that the episode "confirms" a new jihadist attack on China. Last night Michael Oren, who until recently was Israel's ambassador to the United States, was soberly warning on CNN that the plane could well be headed for Israel on an attack mission. Cable news experts have been absolutely sure of one explanation one day, and sure of another the next.

    When I noted yesterday that Oren's theory could be a mark of peak nuttiness about this flight, I got a stream of huffy messages like this one:

    My original suspicion, which seemed to be quite obvious by last week, is that MA 370 was stolen by Iranian operatives (They don’t seem like terrorists, they’re just Iranians spending huge money flying all over the world on stolen passports, nothing terrorist-like there.) to take home to Iran. Of course, those agents would have needed to get access to the cockpit, assuming they didn’t have at least one pilot compromised, how could they gain access? Oh yeah, these pilots have a rep for letting pretty girls into the cockpit. Some pretty girls flirt with pilots at the airport, get in the cockpit, pilots incapacitated and agents in that fast.

    Iran needs export controlled guidance parts from the 777 for their nuclear missile program.  The 777 was fueled up enough to get to Beijing, which means it had plenty to fly across the Indian ocean cut north and land in Iran, not go to the Andaman Islands. The only country who might have noticed, once the satellite transponder was cut, would have been Oman. I’m sure you’re aware Iran was visiting Oman just last week. I think it will also be clear that a certain number of high level officials in Malaysia were bribed/ ideologically motivated to help this along. The interesting question is what Iran intends to do with 220 or so Chinese citizens (and assorted others). The default would be for the bodies to never be found.

    BTW. As you harrumph. It just happened. You also harrumphed about the idea of jets being flown into buildings before 9/11. Don’t deny it , you did. [JF note: News to me.]

    2nd BTW. As I understand the guido parts in question, they wouldn’t be for the nuke headed towards Tel Aviv, they would be for the nuke headed to NYC. Why anyone thinks Iran’s second nuke isn’t for NYC just baffles me?

    Meta-point #1: responses to a mysterious episode constitute a sobering reminder that only so much "debate" or "discussion" involves what you could think of as evidence or facts. People see what they're going to see.

    Meta-point #2: modern airlines are so extraordinarily safe that when something goes wrong, the full story is usually by definition unusual. It is probably too much to expect that this will have a happy outcome, but I hope the outcome is known soon, among other reasons for quelling the nuttiness.

    I will try my best to make this the last dispatch on the subject in this space, until something is known for real.

    Previous post                                                                            Next post

  • Why Cities Work Even When Washington Doesn't
    Peter Frank Edwards
  • Why Doctors Still Use Pen and Paper
    Alváro Dominquéz

    Why Doctors Still Use Pen and Paper

    The healthcare reformer David Blumenthal explains why the medical system can’t move into the digital age.

  • Are Transponders the Main Problem? In a Word, No

    On my list of aviation safety- and security- measures, this reform comes pretty far down.

    Data blocks reporting transponder info on an Air Traffic Control screen ( From Don Brown's 'Get the Flick' site )

    My friend and colleague Gregg Easterbrook has an op-ed in the NYT today saying that one big lesson of the 9/11 attacks, which should be re-learned because of the Malaysia 370 mystery, is that pilots should not be able to turn off the transponders in their planes.

     (I suspect that most people have no idea what a transponder is or what it looks like. Here is an image of the same kind I have in my Cirrus SR-22. What you'd find inside an airliner would look different but is functionally the same. You enter "squawk codes" via the number keys along the bottom, and you control the other functions via the other buttons you see, including the one that says "Off.")

    As Gregg knows, because I've told him, I think that focusing on transponders is mis-directed effort, Ms. Emily Litella-style. Here is why.

    1) Does turning off a transponder make a plane invisible to radar? No. It means that that the plane still shows up as a "primary radar return" -- the famous blip, on a radar screen -- rather than reporting detailed information about its identity, altitude, and destination. As you might imagine, military radar system in particular are designed to track planes even when they don't want to be detected. And even when they're on, transponders are far from foolproof -- controllers often report that they can't pick up transponder reports when you're over mountains, too low, or too far away. 

    2) Why would you switch a transponder off, in the first place? Because every bit of electric equipment in an airplane is designed to be controllable, with a switch or a circuit breaker, so a flight crew can shed load selectively during an electric failure, or isolate the rest of the system if one piece of equipment acts up. Worldwide, we've had two episodes out of the millions of flights through the past dozen-plus years in which turned-off transponders arguably created a problem. Electric problems that potentially threaten flight safety are vastly more common.

    3) Would an always-on transponder make a big safety difference? NO, it wouldn't. To understand why, let's take a minute to review how transponders are used.

    Before you take off on an instrument flight plan, or at other moments in flight, as a pilot you get this instruction from an air-traffic controller (ATC): "Airplane 1234, Squawk 3547." When you hear that, you enter 3547 in place of the 1200 shown at the top of this page. And from that point on in your flight (until you land, "cancel IFR" or "cancel Flight Following," or are given a different code), ATC uses the "Mode C" reports from transponder 3547 to calculate airspeed, altitude, position, etc, and match that with information for the airplane assigned that code. 

    Suppose you were a hijacker, or a pilot bent on sabotage. If all transponders were replaced with new models, you might not be able to turn them off. But nothing could keep you from entering a code different from the one you're assigned. You could enter 3457 instead of 3547. Or another special code indicating that a plane has been hijacked. Or 1200, meaning a generic visual-flight-rules plan. Or any number at all. Or change them as frequently as you liked.

    So if you wanted to thwart detection, the absence of an "off" switch would barely slow you down. Unless, of course, all civilian planes were re-designed to be controlled, like drones, from ground installations, which would create security and safety issues at least as bad.

    All this is why, on my own list of safety and security improvements for air travel, removing "off" switches for transponders would not be in the top 10 and probably not in the top 25. Money and effort spent here would have bigger payoffs elsewhere.

    What we're really looking for here is improvements in and faster adoption of a technology known as ADS-B. This is essentially a way for each airplane, with a unique identifier, to broadcast information constantly to ATC and to other planes about its location, direction, altitude, and other traits.  I'm in favor of that -- for safety, efficiency, and security reasons (as I explained in Free Flight). I'll join Gregg in a pro-ADS-B rather than an anti-Off Switch campaign.

    Meanwhile, check out Gregg Easterbrook's The King of Sports, which I gave my sons for Christmas.

    Previous post

  • Malaysia 370, Day 10: One Fanciful Hypothesis, and Another That Begins to Make Sense

    Did the airplane hide in a "radar shadow"? Probably not. Did the flight crew act like heroes? Possibly so.

    Tintin and a disappearing airplane ( Tintin Wikia )

    I rejoin the Internet after a day away to find no additional hard evidence about the fate of Malaysia Air flight 370, but a number of new rumors and possibilities. To run through a few:

    1) The "Radar Shadow" Hypothesis. Many, many readers have sent in links to a post early today by Keith Ledgerwood. He suggests that the Malaysian plane might have avoided radar detection by sneaking up on and deliberately flying right next to another 777, so that radar operators would see only a single blip from this ad-hoc formation flight.

    You can read the intriguing details for yourself, but the crucial points are:

    • The other plane, a Singapore Airlines flight en route to Spain, would not have known the Malaysia flight was right behind it, because its onboard collision-warning system (called TCAS) senses other aircraft by their transponder signals. Since MH 370 had its transponders turned off, the Singapore TCAS system would have nothing to work with -- and would get no warning from ground-based radar operators, who would not realize they were looking at two planes.
    • Meanwhile, MH 370 could creep very close to the Singapore plane without crashing into it, because the Singapore transponders were still working, and would broadcast its position to the Malaysian plane. (Plus, in the night sky the Malaysia pilots could see the other plane's green, red, and white navigation lights as it flew along ahead of them.)
    • After going as far as it wanted in the Singapore airplane's shadow, MH 370 could peel off at some point and head toward its intended destination.  

    Is this possible? At this point, when no normal expectations have panned out, I suppose almost any conjecture must be entertained.

    Is it likely? Or even plausible? Neither, in my view.

    Apart from the general rococo-ness of the plotting, this interpretation rests on a piece of evidence that I view in a very different way from what's implied in the post. Keith Ledgerwood notes that the two planes followed exactly the same course across a series of aerial way points ("intersections" with 5-letter names like IGREX and VAMPI) at very close to the same time. Isn't this suggestive of something strange?

    Actually, not. On many heavily traveled air corridors, planes will be sent along exactly the same sequence of way points at intervals of a few minutes. (If you listening to Air Traffic Control near a major airport, you'll hear one plane after another receive the same routing instructions.) I view it as routine rather than exceptional that planes might have crossed the same sequence of intersections.

    So maybe this will turn out to mean something -- and if so, all respect to Mr. Ledgerwood. My bet is that this will be another interesting-but-fanciful interpretation, and that the cause will prove to be something else. 

    2) The Pulau Langkawi possibility. Over the weekend Chris Goodfellow, an experienced pilot, offered via Google+ a very different sort of explanation. Far from carrying out an elaborate scheme, he says, the pilots may have been caught by surprise by an inflight fire, a major systems failure, or some other genuine emergency. At that point they called on the reflex nearly all pilots develop: the constantly updated awareness of where the nearest airport is, if they should suddenly need to get back to the ground. As he puts it:

    We old pilots were always drilled to always know the closest airport of safe harbor while in cruise. Airports behind us, airports abeam us and airports ahead of us. Always in our head. Always. Because if something happens you don't want to be thinking what are you going to do - you already know what you are going to do.

    When trouble arose, Goodfellow says, the pilots tried to head for what they knew to be the nearest very long runway, with an unobstructed over-water approach, on the Malaysian island of Pulau Langkawi. (Pulau means "island.") Here's the Google Earth idea of how the Langkawi runway might look in daylight, although the plane was of course approaching at night. That runway is 13,000 feet long -- enormous.

    But they never made it. Before getting the plane down, Goodfellow suggests, the pilots could have been incapacitated -- and the plane would fly on until it ran out of fuel. This view is notable for the light it casts on the MH 370 flight crew. Far from being villains, schemers, or the objects of a hijacking plan, he says they were in fact heroes, struggling until the last to save their aircraft, themselves, and the 237 other souls on board. Referring to the senior pilot, he says: 

    This pilot did all the right things. He was confronted by some major event onboard that made him make that immediate turn back to the closest safe airport.... 

    Fire in an aircraft demands one thing - you get the machine on the ground as soon as possible....

    Smart pilot. Just didn't have the time.

    Goodfellow says he is certain this is what happened: "No doubt in my mind."  I think there's doubt about everything concerning this flight. But his explanation makes better sense than anything else I've heard so far. (And he has updated it in light of developments since his original post.) It's one of the few that make me think, Yes, I could see things happening that way.

    3) Flight 714. Many readers have written in to say that the best fictional reference for the mystery of this plane is not Thunderball, nor You Only Live Twice, nor any other part of the James Bond oeuvre. Instead it's Tintin, as a reader in Los Angeles explained:

    I can go the Thunderball reference one better…the comparison I make is to the plot of the Tintin story “Flight 714”, in which a rich man’s jet is hijacked by part of the crew and crash landed on a deserted island in the java sea. 

    The numerous parallels are quite interesting…it’s a crew takeover, they drop out of sight of radar, it all takes place in the same general part of the world…and the scene in which they show how the plane lands (on a hastily constructed airstrip, which is then dismantled) could explain a lot.  Frankly at this point, you’d be better off reading Flight 714 than watching the cable news reports.

    Previous post                                                                       Next post

  • Where Malaysia 370 Might Have Landed: An Interactive Map

    Want to find a runway that is 7,000 feet long, and in Burma? You have come to the right place.

    Map by David Strip

    Recently I mentioned WNYC's map of airports where Malaysia Airlines 370 might theoretically have landed, considering how far the plane might have flown and how large a runway it would have required. The map, I said, was great but just short of perfection, since it was static rather than interactive.

    Reader David Strip, of New Mexico, has graciously moved us closer to perfection on the mapping front. He has used runway data from OurAirports to populate a map, in a way that represents two big steps forward. First, the runways are color-coded by length. As mentioned earlier, a 777 could, in a pinch, get itself down on one of the tan-colored runways, which are 4,500 to 7,000 feet long. But it would prefer to find a runway that was red, purple or green, with lengths of 7,000 feet and up.

    Second, if you click on any of the individual dots on this map, you'll see popup information about the site -- runway length, location, elevation, etc.

    You can also zoom in and out of the map, and pan around, for a closer look at places you are interested in.

    Strip worked from the same assumptions about airport length and travel directions as in the WNYC map; assumptions and information about the airplane's route may have changed since then. (He also used Google Fusion Tables, rather than our usual Esri map tools; hey, it's a free country.) But this map is a very useful and clarifying addition, for which I thank Strip and invite you to try it out.

    Update: To be clear, as mentioned before I think that if the plane had actually landed at any of these sites, we would know it by now. But as an intellectual and cartographic exercise this map is interesting, and it's offered in that spirit.

    Previous post                                                                      Next post

  • Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More

    Has the plane landed at a secret site? Probably not; here's why.

    Dr. No, who had a hidden island command center ( via Glamstruck )

    Update: See previous articles at the bottom of this post.

    The ongoing Malaysia 370 investigation coincides with my being in transit, with family, and away from the Internet most of each day. (Writing this from the passenger seat of a car on a four-hour drive, hoping that my TMobile hotspot via Samsung Galaxy III holds up.) Here is a quick update on some of the developments since the inflight dispatch yesterday:

    1) Derek Thompson sums up recent news for the Atlantic. You can see it here.

    2) Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What's most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight -- whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.

    It's possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word "confirms," before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful "journalistic" figure in the world is ... well, it "confirms" a lot of judgments about Murdoch.

    3) What about those cellphones?  We all know that cellphones can minutely track our movements as we walk or bike through cities or drive through the countryside. So why aren't they being used to track this flight?

    One answer: We don't know whether all the phones were seized and disabled, if this was a hijacking. Another: phones can track us in our normal life because we're operating right at ground level, and in places designed to offer phone coverage. At airliner-flight levels, 35,000 feet in the case of this plane, and at airliner speeds, there usually is no coverage. (Try to make a call from 30,000+ feet on your next cross-country flight.) At any altitude there is usually no coverage over open water or in remote, jungle, mountain, or desert areas, which describes most of the path of this flight. More in a good AP explainer here

    4) What about some other runway? Buried in our collective memory is the image from You Only Live Twice, or even Dr. No** (which I mention as an excuse to use the poster above),  or other fantasy movies of a hidden, secret runway that magically opens up just long enough for an airplane to land, and then disappears or is covered over again. Sadly I do not see such an image on the Internet right now.

    Based on the facts as now understood, it is conceivable that the plane, rather than crashing, was deliberately flown to some remote side. (In another Tweet, Rupert Murdoch said it would be somewhere similar to Osama bin Laden's Af-Pak hideout.) 

    The main challenge here is that a Boeing 777 is a big airplane, which needs a big, flat space on which to safely land. This Boeing technical manual suggests that in normal circumstances, you'd want 7,000 feet or more to land a plane full of passengers and have margin for error. Slate quoted a 777 pilot who said that if the plane was on fire (ie, the worst kind of in-flight emergency), he would try to put it down on anything above 5,000 feet. 

    WNYC has produced a map showing the 5,000-foot runways within conceivable flight range of the plane. Sample here:

    Theoretically possible landing sites, via WNYC

    Congrats for the work that went into this  -- and I mean to sound supportive rather than churlish in hoping that the next version of the map will have popups giving the names of the relevant airports, plus elevation and runway length. My guess is that only a small fraction of those shown would be suitable -- by terrain, location, elevation, and other factors -- as a deliberate diversion site. And even if all of them were feasible, it's a finite list. Most airports that big would have control towers; in that part of the world, many would be military-run; and spy satellites can easily pick out mile-long runways from above.

    My claim: if the plane had landed at a runway big enough to handle it, we would know that by now.

    5) What about the 45,000-foot altitude claim, and the 40,000-feet-per-minute descent? Reports since last night speculated that the plane had climbed very high, and then descended very fast, perhaps indicating: an incompetent/amateur pilot; a professional pilot bent on disorienting the passengers or destroying the plane; or something else strange. 

    To put this in perspective: in normal airline flights, you have rarely if ever been above 40,000 feet. Most airliners operate in the high-20s through the high-30s, in thousands of feet. Assuming that pressurization systems still worked, passengers wouldn't necessarily have noticed a difference at 45,000.

    They certainly would have noticed a 40,000-fpm descent. In normal airline flights, you've rarely if ever felt a descent of more than 2,000-fpm. Most of the time, airliners go down by 1,000 - 1,500 fpm. Descending 20 or 30 times that fast would mean that the plane was pointed more or less straight down, with engines running. 

    So if this happened, it would have been remarkable, and terrifying. And among the problems would be pulling out of the dive without subjecting the plane (and crew and passengers) to G-forces beyond what any of them were designed to tolerate.

    6) What about the Chinese role? There will be a lot more here, but for now, before we head into an area where my little hotspot will give out, here is a note from a reader making good points:

    Since you're one of the few people left who think of aviation as part and parcel of a national identity, the Chinese reaction has been fascinating as well.   

    1.  The highly responsible and flexible response by the Chinese leadership

    2.  The obvious panic by the public and family members who are not being kept in the loop and may (or may not) have easy access to information.

    3.  The inability of said Chinese leadership to 100% control their own people (the satellite leak,etc).

    The now default American security response (Terrorists!  Coming to get us!) is pretty weak as well.  Although one would hope the NSA can get away from Yahoo Chat for a few minutes to do something useful.

    Signal is flickering out. More when back on line.

    Previous posts on Malaysia 370:

    1. The first grim indications

    2. Why cable news should be on a 24-hour news delay

    3. How airplanes report their data while flying and more

    4. Why a better black box won't help and more

    ** My Atlantic colleague and movie guru Christopher Orr writes in to set the record straight:

    This is Thunderball, where the pilot's twin brother takes his place, hijacks the plane, and lands it on the bottom of the ocean. 

    Though the purpose is less clear in this case, given that MA 370 presumably wasn't carrying nukes.

    Previous post                                                                           Next post

  • Today's Malaysia Airlines 370 News: What It Means That the Plane Apparently Kept Flying

    An explosion now is much less likely; deliberate destruction, by crew or attackers, more so. 

    How airplanes report their data in flight ( Rockwell Collins, via John Shepley )

    Overnight the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that the Boeing 777 flying as Malaysia Airlines  370 was transmitting data about its location for five hours after its transponders stopped functioning and it disappeared from normal Air Traffic Control coverage. Thus the forensic mystery I mentioned last night -- that there was no evidence that the plane did keep flying, and no evidence that it didn't -- is clarified. It leaves the disturbing mystery of why and where the plane would have been flying incognito.

    This is my Annie Hall/ Marshall McLuhan moment for discussing the topic. At the moment I am sitting aboard a United Airbus A320, which (a) is equipped with WiFi, the third such WiFi moment I've ever had in my thousands of hours and millions of miles on United over the years, and where (b) I am sitting next to a dead-heading United pilot, who is telling me what he has learned and thought about Malaysia 370. 

    Here are several reactions from readers in light of the overnight news. They began with references to the expert I quoted yesterday, Michael Planey, who argued that there would be no point in requiring live-streaming of "black box" data.

    Executive summary before we go further: This latest information obviously works against possibilities that the plane vanished from radar coverage because it blew up -- via bomb, some structural failure, missile strike, meteorite, what have you. The fact that the plane kept flying, with its transponders turned off, also works against any "pilot hypoxia" assumptions. (The idea that the pilots somehow both lost their oxygen supply and passed out, as happened in different circumstances 15 years ago in the Payne Stewart crash and in a crash in Greece in 2005.) If two pilots were simultaneously nodding off at the controls, there is no reason why their last conscious act would be to disable the transponders -- rather than radioing for help, descending into thicker air, reaching for the emergency oxygen bottles, etc. Possibilities involving deliberate destruction -- by the flight crew on its own, or by attackers who got control of the plane -- thus become more likely.

    Now, the details. I am erring on the side of leaving in all the arcana, since cases like this often turn on precise interpretation of specifics. 

    1) On how the whole reporting system works. Reader John Shepley, who has experience in the data-reporting business, writes in to say:

    Mr. Planey's analysis is mostly correct, but it was written before the knowledge we now have - that the plane did have electrical power as indicated by the registration 'pings' that the ACARS transmitter periodically sent to the satellites, even though the transmissions did not contain any data.  (The operation is similar to the way that cell phones periodically transmit a registration signal to the nearest cell tower, even if the user is not using the phone at the time.  That's how inbound calls can find the mobile phone.)  

    The satellite transceiver, such as the Rockwell Collins SAT-2100 is a metal box that sits in an avionics bay - not accessible from the cockpit.  It receives the information that it transmits over a data bus from a control unit that is a similar box.  A panel in the cockpit provides control functions, allows the pilots to tune the various radios and manages the many functions that the system performs.

     A typical system looks like this:

    Rockwell Collins, via John Shepley

    It's likely that there is no power switch in the cockpit for the Satellite Radio or the VHF datalink radios.As seen in the diagram the CMU-9000 boc collects the data fro the GPS and other sensors and formats that data and sends it to the selected transmitter(s).

    Commercial airliners don't typically carry HF radios which have a very long range, and are used mostly for polar regions.  The VHF data radios would have an antenna on both the top and the bottom side of the aircraft, allowing line-of-sight transmissions even of the plane is in a steep bank or dive.  The satellite radios would have an antenna on the roof of the aircraft that would certainly lose coverage if the plane were in a very steep bank or dive.  While cockpit-accessible devices such as the transponder and messaging / control unit have power switches and can be turned off, the out-of-the way boxes are probably powered up whenever the aircraft's engines are running..

    The voice recorders can provide more information than just the conversations in the cockpit.  Several audio streams are recorded: One each from the pilot's and first officer's headset microphone, one or more wide field microphones that would pick up the ambient noise in the cockpit, and any radio or intercom communications.  The ambient sounds can be particularly useful and can be used to determine an approximate origin of a loud noise.  For example, if an engine compressor exploded in the right-side engine, the sound would reach the first officer's microphone a tiny bit sooner than it would reach the captain's microphone.  These sounds and the subtle differences as recorded by each microphone can be analyzed and provide useful clues to events on the aircraft.

    Given that we now know that the satellite radio did periodically ping the satellites and therefore, the plane continued flying for 4 hours, my bet is on the idea that someone took control of the cockpit and turned off the transponder and other cockpit equipment.

    Ben Sandilands, of the Australian site Crikey, is also of reliably good value in explaining this case and other aviation issues. As is, of course, Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot.

    2) "It would at least tell you which ocean to be looking in." From another person in the industry:

    I'm a former ARINC engineer, still working in the business of aircraft communications and wanted to correct a lot of disinformation out there, some of which made it into your most recent article.

    Michael Planey makes some good points but he doesn't seem to understand the types of communications systems that a modern airliner has and the different types of satellite links available.

    1.  ACARS data can be transmitted automatically off an aircraft one of four ways: VHF ACARS operating at low speed data to line of sight ground stations, VHF ACARS at high speed using VDL Mode 2 to line of sight ground stations, ACARS over Iridium satellite using short burst data, and HF ACARS where the data is transmitted by ionospheric propagation to one of several ground stations around the world.

    2.  Iridium satellites operate in low Earth orbit, and links to them do not require high gain directional antennas that are aimed at a particular spot in the sky.  A low gain nondirectional antenna on the aircraft would still likely be able to reach an Iridium satellite regardless of the aircraft attitude (ok, maybe, maybe not if inverted).  An aircraft in a dive would almost certainly still be able to reach one of the several Iridium satellites overhead.

    3.  It would be trivial to have all airliners send out a NMEA-coded GPS position report at periodic intervals (1 minute, 2 minutes, 10 minutes? whatever you want) on any of these links if an airline wanted to (or was required to) and transmit them to the airline operations centers or to an en route air traffic control facility (this is what will be coming with newer controller-pilot data link technology).

    4.  This isn't done because of the cost, not because of the technology.  Airlines don't see a need for this and are reluctant to pay for it.  That's really it.  It is all about the economics.  99.9999+% of aircraft make it on these routes without incident and no companies want to pay costs for communications across the board that don't help their bottom line.  Contrast this with how eager they were to know precisely when aircraft lifted off and set back on the runway so they could track crew flight hours (the original business case for ACARS) or tracking engine performance data so they can fix problems early before they become serious and costly.  Now, if someone else paid for it they would probably do it.

    One thing that would be interesting would be to see that if there had been any ACARS over Iridium messages whether they included any routing information (headers?) that would give the time of the message transmission and the identity of which Iridium satellite originally received it.  Since these are LEO satellites that each cover a small part of the Earth, knowing which satellite and what time would allow us to know where that satellite was at the time and its coverage area and potentially narrow down the search area.  It would at least tell you which ocean to be looking in.

    3) Similarly, in a note that came in before the latest news.

    Planey says:

    "In that [Air France] case, some system failure reports and warnings were transmitted via ACARS [JF note: a data transmission system linking in-flight airplanes with ground stations] in the last moments before the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic."

    then later:

    "In the current case of MH 370, the same type of location data is available, but the search has been fruitless. " 

    That's not true.  There is no way to know when MH370 crashed into the ocean, or even if it did.  While they may not have known exactly where the wreckage of AF 447 was,  I think people were certain it crashed into the Atlantic.  The same can not be said for MH 370; we don't even know if it crashed into the ocean... 

    Planey assumes the only way for a plane to transmit data when out of range of land-based communications equipment is via satellite, and that that medium may not always be available in disasters.  First of all, not all crashes would be preceded by satellite-disabling failures, so there would still be value in having access to that information.  Also, I think there could be other ways for planes to transmit information, just like a radio station or shortwave radio.  We would just need receivers scattered around the world continuously recording broadcasts of the relatively low bit-rate data.  I don't think that would cost billions of dollars.

    But I do agree with your headline, this is profoundly mysterious. 

    4) More robust flight tracking. From a reader who agrees with Mr. Planey's main argument: that there would be no point in requiring live-streaming of "black box" data.

    I agree about the streaming of black box data. It would be hideously expensive, and black boxes are (at least until now) invariably found.

    But I hope this episode (regardless of how it ends) leads to more robust flight tracking. It really is not acceptable that airplanes can vanish over water any more; there are simply too many flights over water, and the incidence of catastrophic events on such flights seems to be once every few years, if this and AF447 are any guide. It does not appear that the combination of ELTs and underwater pingers is nearly reliable enough to dependably locate the site of crashes into large bodies of water.

    The structure for such tracking is largely in place with all large modern transports fitted with ADS-B; the remaining tasks seem to be around the robustness of the tracking.

    5) On Malaysia. Disasters often have entirely unforeseen political and social effects. Chernobyl, Katrina, the Fukushima nuclear breakdown -- these all became shorthand for points about institutions in those countries and their newly revealed vulnerabilities. A reader in Asia introduces a point that's been on my mind, especially considering my oft-pronounced and sincere enjoyment of Malaysia and its people in the years my family lived there. The reader says:

    I've lived/worked there 2X.  I like it.  the people, country, and most of all, food.

    But they have serious problems.  In two decades, they're falling behind in the region.  To me, its 'crony capitalism', which exists in Indonesia as well (lived/worked there for almost 2 yrs)

    This is going to be a millstone around their necks for the immediate future.  And it was all preventable-if they had just been honest WITH THEMSELVES.

    There is a lot this last note implies that needs to be more fully explained for people unfamiliar with Malaysia's strengths, weaknesses, and similarities and differences with Indonesia. That will have to wait for the next time. Thanks to all who wrote in (and thanks to United for ever-so-slowly closing the WiFi gap with Delta, Alaska, and other airlines).

    Previous post                                                                 Next post

  • Why Malaysia Airlines 370 Remains So Profoundly Mysterious, and Why a Better Black Box Wouldn't Help

    The absence of data about this flight is itself a significant data point.

    Track of Malaysia Air 370 on March 7 ( Flight Aware )

    (Please see update with the March 14 news.) Here is the heart of the mystery over what has happened to Malaysia Airlines flight 370:

    • If the airplane did keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that fact  -- at a minimum through "primary radar returns," blips on civilian or military radar screens showing that something was in the air even if the plane's transponder was not sending back specific identifying info.
    • If the airplane did not keep on flying, presumably there would be evidence of that -- through wreckage on the ground, oil slicks or debris in the sea, satellite detection of a flash or explosion at the relevant time. 

    As of now, six days later, there is no clear evidence of either type. Or other evidence to suggest difficulties with the weather (in contrast to Air France 447 -- and I'll have more on this soon), suspicious actions by passengers or attackers, problems with the flight crew, a pattern of failure with this kind of airframe, or any of the other usual components of the "accident chain" in aviation disasters. As I mentioned earlier, airline travel is now so amazingly safe that when something does go wrong, the cause usually turns out be some previously unforeseen triple-whammy combination of bad-luck factors. Air-safety experts refer to this as the "Swiss cheese" factor: the odd cases in which the holes in different slices of Swiss cheese happen to line up exactly, letting the improbable occur.

    But so far MAS 370 is in a category of its own, in the shortage of useful data and the mismatch of what is known with most imagined scenarios. This is a source of additional heartache for affected families, anxiety for some in the traveling public, and embarrassment for the Malaysian officials clumsily running the search. (As mentioned, I am a fan of Malaysia-the-country and of Malaysia Airlines, but Malaysian safety officials are looking bad.) Yet it is the frustrating reality. The closest comparison would be the crash of TWA flight 800 18 years ago. The absence of data is itself a surprising data point.

    Now, about one common pundit claim: If only we had better "black boxes," and more real-time streaming of black-box data, we'd be spared mysteries of this sort. Michael Planey, a Washington-area consultant who has worked for several airlines and did air-safety investigations for the Air Force, writes in to explain why this is a false hope. 

    I'm quoting his message in full detail, since in cases like this the details matter. If you don't want to deal with all the specifics, his main point is: the disappearance of this airplane remains profoundly mysterious, and would probably remain so even if one much-discussed "remedy" had been in place. I turn the floor over to Mr. Planey:

    Would realtime streaming of black box data end the mystery of what happened to MH370? Probably not.  Here’s why.

    As the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 continues in earnest, many have called for the implementation of realtime streaming of black-box data.  It is an understandable reaction to an inexplicable event:  that a modern airliner could simply vanish without a trace.  The thinking is that real-time black-box data would make it possible to locate the aircraft more quickly; to understand what had happened to the aircraft causing it to lose contact with air traffic control; to perhaps prevent an aircraft safety incident through monitoring of aircraft systems and highlighting suspect or anomalous data.  But is that really the case with this aircraft and this flight?  Unfortunately, I suspect not.

    The last loss of a commercial airliner in trans-oceanic flight was Air France Flight 447 on June 1, 2009.  In that case, some system failure reports and warnings were transmitted via ACARS [JF note: a data transmission system linking in-flight airplanes with ground stations] in the last moments before the aircraft crashed into the Atlantic.  This data was useful in the preliminary understanding of the event, but it was not enough data to paint the complete picture of the complex system failures and flight crew actions that led to the crash, nor prevent it from happening.

    In that case, the data transmission was of no particular use in locating the debris field.  Rather, traditional air traffic control and radar data was used to pinpoint the last known location of Flight 447 and the search began at that point.  The aircraft wreckage was located by the next day in the expected area.  In the current case of MH 370, the same type of location data is available, but the search has been fruitless.  This opens the up possibilities of the aircraft’s fate to scenarios where data-streaming would again be ineffective.

    Given that the Boeing 777-200 aircraft on this flight had been recently inspected and operated without incident over the prior ten days, there are no red flags leading to a likely cause of the disappearance.  Even though this aircraft was equipped with an ACARS system like the Air France flight, no relevant data transmissions were made.  This reasonably points to a thoroughly unforeseen, catastrophic event (such as TWA Flight 800) or perhaps a deliberate action such as hijacking, terrorist action or even flight crew suicide.  

    In the case of the immediate, catastrophic event, data streaming would likely cease at the moment of the event.  Either a complete loss of electrical power would disrupt the data stream or a mechanical break in the aircraft systems would prevent data transmission.  Further, if an aircraft was in an out-of-control attitude such as a steep dive, a spin or a hard roll, maintaining a direct link with a satellite would be nearly impossible, thus again breaking the data stream and rendering the system incapable.

    If the demise of MH370 is due to a deliberate action, realtime data-streaming is again unlikely to yield definitive answers.  If hijackers were sophisticated enough to completely cut-off all communications (radios, ACARS, transponder, ADS-B) then it would stand to reason that the data link would be cut off in the same manner.  Further, the detonation of a bomb would not show a prior indication of the event in the flight data-stream.  Perhaps, the very slight chance of aircraft depressurization or loss of fuel volume would be detected at the moment, but it is unlikely that such a signal could be successfully transmitted before the communications system was rendered useless.

    It is important to note that the “black-box” is actually a pair of boxes.  The Flight Data Recorder secures information from a host of flight systems and the flight management computer.  The Cockpit Voice Recorder captures the last 30 to 60 minutes of dialogue in the cockpit and adds significant context to the FDR data.  In the investigation of AF447, the CVR was critical to understanding why the flight crew took the actions they did, even as the data could show what those actions were.  Capture of both information streams would be necessary for a full picture of what was happening at the critical moment.

    If days of intensive air and sea search efforts have yielded no clues, it is hard to believe that the aircraft and its crew were capable of providing any more useful information at the time the aircraft disappeared.

    Previous post                                                                                 Next post 


A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



From This Author