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.
  • 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
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    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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

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  • Ukraine and Malaysia Airlines: Why Cable News Should Be on a 24-Hour Delay

    The best reactions to breaking news are rarely the first ones.

    Malaysia Airlines 777, at Kuala Lumpur airport ( Wikipedia photo )

    I have been offline most of these past few days and thus not weighing in on daily developments. But let me mention three items whose similarity concerns cast of mind.

    1) Adam Gopnik on Crimea. This is several days old in The New Yorker but very much worth reading if you have missed it. For instance:

    With Ukraine and Crimea suddenly looming as potential [WW I-style] Sarajevos, the usual rhetoric of credibility and the horrors of appeasement comes blaring from the usual quarters. People who, a week ago, could not have told you if Crimea belonged to Ukraine—who maybe thought, based on a vague memory of reading Chekhov, that it was Russian all along—are now acting as though the integrity of a Ukrainian Crimea is an old and obvious American interest. What they find worse than our credibility actually being at stake is that we might not act as though it always is.  

    As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we "have" to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay. Maybe there has been a case in which immediate reflex-response to big news has seemed wise in the long run. Right now I can't think of any.

    Naturally this reminds me of an adage from the piloting world: In most emergencies, the crucial first thing to do is ... nothing. Take a deep breath, calm down, steady your nerves, count to 10, and then "fly the airplane" as you begin applying knowledge rather than panicked instincts to the options at hand. Which brings us to:

    2) Patrick Smith on Malaysia Airlines. At Ask The Pilot, airline pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith makes the frustrating but unavoidable point about the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight: We have no idea what happened, and it may be a long time (if ever) before we do.

    Here are the tactical points involved in this argument:

    • Commercial airline flight is now statistically so safe that when something does go wrong, the causes are often mysterious by definition. That is because the non-mysterious risks for airlines have been buffed away. The most famous recent exception was the Asiana crash at SFO last year. It looked from the start like a simple case of pilot error, and that is where all subsequent evidence points. But many other tragedies have taken months or years to sleuth out. 
    • The first reports after a crash should be viewed with great suspicion, because experience shows they're probably wrong. What the NYT says in its current headline about Malaysia Airlines applies to most disaster coverage:

      For this reason it  would be great to have a 24-hour tape-delay on most disaster coverage as well. 

      This goes in spades for any coverage on the lines of, "This latest tragedy proves that [theory X] is true." Most instant-analyses of this sort I can think of were grossly wrong; when they're right, that's often due to luck rather than insight. This principle applies not only to air crashes but also to mass shootings, bombings, episodes of suspected terrorism, and similar tragedies for which people crave an explanation.
    • Might the Malaysian plane have broken up in flight? Yes. Might it have been hijacked? Perhaps. Might both pilots have conked out? Maybe. Could there have been an on-board bomb? Perhaps. Does this show a problem with the Boeing 777? Likely not. Does it have anything to do with the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco? Hard to imagine how it could. Did the stolen passports matter? Conceivably. Might the plane have been hit by a meteor? Or undone by pilot suicide? I suppose anything is possible. But these are all in the realm of "would King Kong beat Godzilla?" until there is more evidence, which can take a long time.

    The strategic point is: We do crave explanations, especially for bad news. Pilots are more prone to this tendency than anyone else. If you pick up an aviation magazine, you'll see that half the stories concern disasters, usually with the theme: Here is why bad things happened, and how to keep them from happening to you. But sometimes bad things happen for reasons no one can explain. Let's hope there is at least an instructive explanation, eventually, for this one. 

    Update: I am sorry to see that the usually excellent Foreign Policy has gone in for speculation-ahead-of-facts in a big way, e.g. here and, with the caveat that it is reporting on speculation, here.

    3) Jim Sleeper on the New Cold War. In an item about Leon Wieseltier for The Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper gives another instance of what I'm suggesting is a larger point: that rushing, quickly, to larger self-confident, self-righteous stands is usually a source of error. He reminds us of what a group of "strategists" told the public a few days after the 9/11 attacks:

    [E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.

    People who react this way have the right temperament for cable talk shows but the wrong one for decisions about the national interest. Cable pundits are in business to say, "The evidence is not yet in, but we know this means [xxx]." Give us leaders (and accident investigators) willing to say, Calm down. Breathe. Let's wait a minute, and think.

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  • The Malaysian Airlines Flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing

    No firm news, but the indications are grim

    As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.

    The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.

    Flight log, from Flight Aware

    [Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.] 

    It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.

    The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.

    12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.

  • Friday Update: Filibuster, Surveillance State, Political Macho, and Other Hardy Perennials

    A word we should use more frequently ("filibuster"), and one we should use less ("tough")

    1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

    The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:

    [before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

    [after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.

    Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.

    Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.

    2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.

    You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.

    I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...

    3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.

    Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.

    Which leads us to ...

    4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.

    But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:

    Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

    Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.

    It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.

    While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the Washington Post's editorial page. He replies:

    Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

    Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**

    Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?


    * To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.

    ** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.

  • Today in Security Theater, Air Force One Edition

    Thank you, Secret Service. But ... at airports?

    Wikimedia Commons
    Flight Aware, via Ari Ofsevit

    Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.

    WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there. 

    It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:

    Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?

    I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?

    Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?

    I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?

    On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.

    But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...

    In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.

  • Chinese Media: The Bad and the ... Puzzling

    黄皮白心”的香蕉人" and other great moments in international understanding. Bonus: the person Megyn Kelly should meet on her next trip to Beijing.

    Gary Locke on the job in China. ( AP photo, via NPR )

    1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.

    Banana Man character from Adventure Time

    And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.

    It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside.  (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.

    Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:

    In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.

    But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.

    I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.

    2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?

    This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.

    Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Times arguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline... 

    ... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:

    There will be public  press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts. 

    This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.  

    When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping. 


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