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.
  • Where the Flights Aren't Going

    Force of nature vs. modern technology.

    Via FlightRadar24.com, a real-time view of the airliners in the skies over Europe right now. If you have seen one of these in normal circumstances, you know that it's basically all airplanes. Today you can see traffic headed in and out of Istanbul, and Milan, and Rome, and... that's it. No Heathrow, no Charles de Gaulle, no Frankfurt, no Schiphol.
      EuroSkies2.png


    For comparison, from a Dutch site, a thumbnail view of normal circumstances below. This is becoming quite an amazingly profound effect, at least in the short term.

    airtraffic1.jpg

  • Installment #2 of "China Today" Conversations

    Those enormous Chinese loans to America: how do they shift the balance of power between the countries?

    Following this first installment earlier in April of the "China Today" series of conversations between me and Damien Ma, of the Eurasia Group, a second has just gone online. It is here, with embedded version below.

    The main theme of this second conversation is which country has the leverage over the other, via China's enormous loans to and investments in the United States. Ma and I see this more or less the same way -- but in quite a different way from what you'd think based on mainstream coverage of the topic or, especially, US talk shows or political speeches. Judge for yourself.

  • FAQ on the Volcanic Ash Mess

    Why North Atlantic air traffic has come to a halt.

    About the volcanic eruption in Iceland that has brought a halt to air traffic over the North Atlantic and much of Europe, this morning's ten-minute set of links and tips.

    - Is this a known issue in aviation weather, aviation safety, and so on?
     
      Yes, indeed. Among the list of weather-condition abbreviations that pilots are supposed to know in order to read METARs (don't ask, a readout of local weather conditions) , is "VA," for Volcanic Ash. A description of the oddity of METAR abbreviations  is here, including why "BR" means Mist (Americans are taught to remember, "Baby Rain," but that's not the reason) and "GR" means Hail.
      For the basic USGS background on the problem, see here and here; for a conference on the topic, here.

    - Why does it matter in theory?
      The reasons laid out in newspaper stories worldwide in the past 24 hours are actually true! The volcanic ash particles are extremely fine bits of pumice with tremendous abrasive potential. Even in concentrations too low to be visible as a big threatening "plume," they can in theory cause big problems for: the turbine power plants (aka jet engines) of modern airplanes, operating at tremendous speeds and pressures with very fine tolerances among all the moving parts; the leading edges of the wings, whose precise contours affect the flow of air over the wing and therefore the plane's ability to fly; pitot tubes (for gauging air speed) and other external devices; the plane's paint job; and windows in the cockpit, conceivably making it impossible for the pilots to see.

    - Why does it matter in practice?
      The best known early cases happened over Indonesia in 1982, when several airliners flying through what they later realized was an ash plume were damaged. In one famous case, a British Airways 747 lost power in all four engines and had to glide nearly all the way to a landing (it eventually got some of the engines restarted). The USGS description of a similar incident over Alaska says:

    In 1989, a wide-body passenger jet destined for Anchorage airport flew into the volcanic ash cloud generated by Mount Redoubt, Alaska and lost thrust all 4 engines. The plane entered the ash cloud at 25,000 feet, accelerated, and then rapidly descended to 13,000 feet. The pilot was finally able to restart its engines. The Alaska Range in the area where the plane lost power has peaks from 7,000 to 11,000 feet, so this was an extremely close call. In 1992, the effects of volcanic eruptions on aviation were felt well beyond Alaska when a volcanic ash cloud from the Mount Spurr (Alaska) eruption drifted across the continental U.S. and Canada, shutting down airports in the Midwest and Northeast two days after the eruption. The Spurr cloud affected citizens who are normally not concerned about volcanoes. 

    - Why is this one causing such widespread problems?
     Because the ash is drifting into such busy traffic lanes. Here is the latest chart from the British weather office showing the plume's predicted spread. (Click for larger. I think the red area indicates the spread at altitudes of about 20,000 feet and below; dotted green line, the spread between about 20,000 and 35,000 feet.)

    Thumbnail image for AshMapp.png

    - Is the mammoth flight-cancellation and attendant disruption a big overreaction?
      Really, no one can be sure right now. The charts above say, "Ash concentrations within indicated area are unknown." Odds are that it will look in retrospect like an overreaction, and it will be clear that more planes could have figured out a way to fly more routes sooner. But at the moment, what is the plausible alternative to precautionary overreaction? No government, airline, pilot, or passenger can afford to say, "Hey, I'm feeling lucky" for now. 

    - What does this show about the press?
      Widely available reports have been accurate, informative, and non-alarmist. Who says journalism is headed straight down?

    - What does it show about global warming?

     Topic for another time.
  • Aviation Followups: Prozac Pilots, Russian Airplanes

    The virtues of Russian aircraft, the wisdom of an FAA ruling.

    I mentioned last week the (realistic and overdue) FAA ruling that people who take some kinds of prescription anti-depressants would no longer face an absolute, no-exceptions ban on serving as pilots, including as private pilots. (Technically, prescriptions for these drugs disqualify applicants from getting either a 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class FAA medical certificate, which in effect means they can't fly. You need both a pilot's certificate and a current, valid medical certificate to act as a pilot legally.) Instead they will be able to apply for case-by-case consideration, which would require detailed assessments by their doctors, at least 12 months of demonstrated freedom from side effects, and so on. More from Aviation Week here.

    Yesterday I heard from a reader about the way the changed policy will affect him. He calls himself Prozac Pilot and is chronicling his experience at his site of that name. He also says that he has been interviewed on camera by CNN, and that when the segment runs it will reveal his identity and discuss his medical and flying background. He writes:

    I read the article you did regarding pilots with depression and the recent policy changes of the FAA. I grounded myself two years ago when I went on antidepressants. During the last few months I have been posting a blog, www.prozacpilot.com.

    When the FAA released its news CNN found my blog. I am "coming out of the hangar" on CNN this Friday. Hopefully, I will be able to let others in my position know they are not alone. I am looking for other media outlets to help reaching those who need treatment. I would like to let them know there is hope. 

    Next, the aviation tragedy in Poland last week and the reflexive guessing in much of the media that "aging Russian aircraft" must somehow have been to blame. Below and after the jump, comments from a reader with a lot of experience with and in these planes. (Previously here and here.) The reader writes:

    I also am sick of hearing negative comments about Russian planes!

    I am an engineer with a great deal of experience with American and Russian aircraft.  I have worked 15 years in Russia and have flown many times with Tupelov 154 and 156, Ilushin 86 and  others.  I have found them to be sturdy and reliable aircraft.  In early days, as the only western passenger, I was invited into the cockpit several times and was impressed with the English communications capabilities of both the Russian ground controllers and the Russian pilots.
    It is also a fact that the age of a plane is not counted in years but in the number of times that it has taken off and landed.  In addition, this plane had been recently completely refurbished.  I am tired of hearing about old Russian rust-buckets!  Aeroflot, thanks to wise investment of currency outside Russia, has been flying Boeing 737s for at least 20 years!

    Previously I flew frequently with the Russian military and found them excellent in their flying capabilities, although former Mig pilots have a tendency to fly straight up and straight down.  Their maintenance was impressive and their engineers have retained the capability of making a part locally if it is not readily available.  I have used this creative capability in many of my Russian projects.

    Finally, I have to agree that if the Russian controllers believed that it was too dangerous to land in the fog, THEN IT WAS TOO DANGEROUS TO LAND.  If the Polish politicos pressured the pilots, they have only themselves to blame!  If the pilots chose to take the risk, they made a decision that was impossibly foolish!  In a previous year flying with Air France's commuter from Paris to Le Havre, we arrived over Le Havre to find the airport totally invisible in fog.  I was sitting behind the pilots, watched them get out the manual and heard their discussion of the risk of landing or returning to Rennes.  Thankfully, we returned to Rennes and were met by a bus for Le Havre.  This decision impacted greatly our schedule of meetings at Le Havre, but at least we landed alive!

    More »

  • New Evidence: Aussies Smarter Than Yanks

    Our newest national crisis: the "fazed" shortage.

    Or at least better spellers.

    From the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday:
    Faze.png

    The same story, as summarized by a U.S. aviation-security newsletter I receive, which linked to that very SMH article:
    PhaseFaze.png
    Ie, one of the Yank editors looked at the Australian article and decided to "improve" its spelling. Or perhaps make it more genteel. I would wrap up here with the requisite joke about the decline of American education or the collapse of journalistic standards or the unintended long-term cognitive effects of exposure to "Set phasers to stun!" commands from Captain Kirk, but any of those would be too obvious. So I'll just move on.
  • I'm Not Going to Be in DC on June 8....

    Heavyweight championship bout, rhetorical division: are we exaggerating the "cyber-security" threat?

    ... but if I were, I would be sure to go to this debate, by the US branch of the Intelligence Squared debate organization, on the proposition that "The Cyber War Threat Has Been Grossly Exaggerated."

    A few months ago, just as cyber-security was starting to pop up as a major media and political theme, I published this article in the Atlantic about the reasons to take the issue more seriously than most people had until then. Shortly after that, I noted the reasons to wonder whether appropriate concern about info-security was turning into self-generated panic -- and into that old Washington staple, "threat inflation" to build big defense-contracting budgets.

    Four of the people I'd most like to hear engage that exact question will be doing so in the June 8 debate:
       Mike McConnell, retired Navy Admiral and former Director of National Intelligence and head of the NSA (and now an executive with Booz Allen), whom I quoted in my article and who is probably the most visible proponent of the "cyber-threat is real" theme;

       Bruce Schneier, Mr. Security, who will argue that the concern has indeed been grossly overblown (my recent conversation with him here);

      Jonathan Zittrain, of Harvard Law School, arguing on McConnell's side; and

      Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center, arguing on Schneier's.

    These are all very able people and fully capable of engaging the other side's claims directly. Intelligence Squared conducts audience polls before the debate -- and then afterwards, to see if any minds were changed. Going in, I would count myself "in support of the motion." That is, my experience in Washington and with the politics of security makes me feel that the cyber war threats are indeed in the process of being grossly overblown. But I would like to hear what McConnell and Zittrain say in response.

    If I weren't planning on being in China at just that time, where whether I want to or not I'll be exposed to other sorts of cyber-security concerns, I would be in the front row. Go if you can.

  • Congratulations to Liaquat Ahamed and Gene Weingarten

    The Pulitzer committee makes some good choices with its awards this year

    The Pulitzer prizes, like most professional awards, are a real grab-bag by any real-world standard of merit. Half the awards make you think, "Of course!" The other half, "Huh???"

    The choice today of Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance as the prize winner in history was resoundingly in the "of course!" and "well deserved!" categories. I mentioned my enthusiasm for the book a year ago here. Probably more important is the sample mentioned here of the luminous and vivid explanation that makes the book such a success. As a reminder (quoting myself):

    As the world financial crisis spread after the 1929 stock market crash, the flow of gold became highly unbalanced. The United States, with its undamaged industrial-export base (and its determination to collect on wartime loans to the Allies) was piling up gold. So were the French, for various reasons of their own. This meant big trouble most of all for England, which was losing gold and therefore had to imposes a domestic credit squeeze. You could put it that way -- or you could write this:

    "Unknown to most people, much of the gold that had supposedly flown into France was actually sitting in London. Bullion was so heavy -- a seventeen-inch cube weighs about a ton -- that instead of shipping crates of it across hundreds of miles from one country to another and paying high insurance costs, central banks had taken to 'earmarking' the metal, that is, keeping it in the same vault but simply re-registering its ownership. Thus the decline in Britain's gold reserves and their accumulation in France and the United States was accomplished by a group of men descending into the vaults of the Bank of England, loading some bars of bullion onto a low wooden truck with small rubber tires, trundling them thirty feet across the room to the other wall, and offloading them, though not before attaching some white name tags indicating that the gold now belonged to the Banque de France or the Federal Reserve Bank. That the world was being subjected to a progressively tightening squeeze on credit just because there happened to be too much gold on one side of the vault and not enough on the other provoked Lord d'Abernon, Britain's ambassador to Germany after the war [WW I] and now [1930s] an elder statesman-economist, to exclaim, 'This depression is the stupidest and most gratuitous in history.' "
    This paragraph is from Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance, recommended here previously. There are many touches I love in this passage, from the "small rubber tires" detail and mot juste "trundling" term, to the vivid real-world description of how grand policies worked in practice, to the perfectly used quote at the end. No larger point here; just worth noticing admirable examples of explaining the world.

    Well deserved, author. Good choice, prize committee!
    __
    UPDATE: I have just seen that the prize for feature writing went to Gene Weingarten, for an article in the Washington Post magazine. As I have mentioned before in footnotes here and here, this is the most haunting and, in its way, horrifying magazine article I have ever read. You can find it here. Congratulations is not the right word for a project of this sort. It commands respect.

    And congrats to ProPublica for its prize too.

  • Significant "Cloud" Improvement: Nested Labels in Gmail

    Cloud computing comes to one man's life.

    I've meant for several weeks to close the circle on the biggest change in my own computing life in many years. This is my shift to virtually all-cloud operation, as prefigured here. Full chronicling some other time. Symptoms of the shift are: I haven't loaded Outlook in nearly two months, after moving my old PST files into Gmail*; and I haven't thought about which of my computers had the "current" version of a file, or copied files from one to another, in about as long.

    The two indispensable enablers of this change have been:

      - The marvelous and utterly reliable SugarSync, which means I can get any of my files from any device, whether netbook or laptop or desktop or mobile phone, while also knowing that the files are all safely backed up. For later, why I think this is better and more flexible than alternatives like DropBox, and how to make it work with Mac programs like Scrivener and DevonThink, whose files are tricky to sync.

     - Gmail rather than Outlook as the ultimate repository for my mail, which I can then get at, via IMAP connection, from any of my computers in a variety of ways. I can use Thunderbird, Apple Mail, Outlook if I want, normal online Gmail on the web, offline Gmail via Google Gears (details and quirks of offline use later). No matter how I get at them, the messages themselves show up in the right classifications -- still-to-be-answered, nagging-but-never-will-be-answered, archived, etc -- from any machine.

    About a month ago SugarSync announced a major new feature (details here), which I meant to mention at the time. I am piping up now because Gmail has just introduced a significant improvement: "Nested Labels," which allow you to create a sophisticated organizational structure in the vast swamp of info that is your Gmail message repository. Information here; illustration below.
    _____
    GmailNest.png

    Often there is no point to "organizing" messages; you just assume that you can search for what you want when you want it. But at other times it's handy to classify some info, and at those times labels are far superior to "folders," since a single item can have many different labels.** The nested, or hierarchical, label system is one more step toward Gmail's being a main base of one's computing life, a la Outlook of yesteryear for me. More later, but that's the news for now.
    ____
    * Yes, I retain all the PST files for backup. The difference is that I don't have to re-archive them every day, because of Outlook's habit of marking a PST archive file as "changed" every time it's opened under Outlook, even if not a single byte is different.

    ** The combination of IMAP and Labels is slightly odd, in that IMAP systems seem to create a duplicate mail item for each Label a message is assigned to. This is theoretically inelegant but in practice it works fine. Labels are the way to go. Again more later.
  • Two Important Speeches (updated)

    Robert Gates and Richard Trumka make morally tough and politically important presentations.

    Neither of them by a President or aspirant to the White House. Therefore all the more worth noticing.

    1) By Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense, to students at the Air Force Academy earlier this month. Gates' topic was "leadership," a theme that often provokes unbearable platitudes. After talking about leadership in combat he made this potentially platitudinous point:

    But there is another kind of courage beyond the battlefield I want to focus on today and that is the willingness for you to challenge conventional wisdom and call things as you see them to subordinates and superiors alike.

    He went on to back it up with some examples of genuine challenges to conventional military wisdom, winding up with this:

    There is also the story of John Boyd - a brilliant, eccentric, stubborn, and frequently profane character who was the bane of the Air Force establishment for decades.  As with Mitchell, tact wasn't Boyd's strong suit - and he certainly shouldn't be used as a model for military bearing or courtesy. After all, this is a guy who once lit a general on fire with his cigar.

    As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat and earned the nickname "40-second" Boyd for the time it took him to win a dogfight. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10.  After retiring, he developed the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War.

    It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell, Arnold, Schreiver, and Boyd and their travails was not that they were always right. What strikes me is that they had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed.  They understood the implications of that change, and they pressed ahead in the face of incredibly fierce institutional resistance.

    Background on Boyd starts here, with links to many other items. It is difficult to convey how astonishing it is to hear a Secretary of Defense recommend that future Air Force officers study Boyd as an exemplar. "Incredibly fierce institutional resistance" barely begins to describe what Boyd faced. I recall seeing Air Force generals of the 1980s live out the cliche of uncontrollable rage -- faces turning red, sputtering in their speech -- literally at the mention of his name. It was not so much that he challenged their judgment about weapons or tactics. They knew that he was at a deeper level challenging their ethics, especially the quest for promotion above all. Careerism will never die, in the military or elsewhere. But it really is a change to have the head of the Defense Department talking about it this way. See the rest of the speech for more.

    2)  By Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, at the Institute of Politics at Harvard last week. Transcript here, from Time.com. The title was "Why Working People Are Angry, and Why Politicians Should Listen," and it was the clearest statement I've seen of the connection between a polarized economic structure and a polarized and hate-filled political system. For instance:

    Mass unemployment and growing inequality threaten our democracy. We need to act--and act boldly--to strike at the roots of working people's anger and shut down the forces of hatred and racism.

    We have to begin the conversation by talking about jobs--the 11 million missing jobs behind our unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

    Now, you may think to yourself, that is so retro. Jobs are so twentieth century. Sweat is for gyms, not workplaces.

    For a generation, our intellectual culture has suggested that in the new global age, work is something someone else does. Someone we never met far away in an export processing zone will make our clothes, immigrants with no rights in our political process or workplaces will cook our food and clean our clothes.

    And for the lucky top 10 percent of our society, that has been the reality of globalization--everything got cheaper and easier.

    But for the rest of the country, economic reality has been something entirely different.

    The speech goes on to explain what that something different is, and what the alternative might be.  UPDATE: YouTube video of Trumka's speech here:



    The two speeches differ in topic but are similar in their deliberately and appropriately moralizing tone. A useful tone at the moment. Both addresses worth reading and publicizing.

  • What Kind of Country Would Let Its President Fly On a 20-Year Old Plane?

    Something terrible happened at the Smolensk airport yesterday, but it probably had nothing to do with the age of the airplane.

    (If you're tempted to get mad about this item, see update below.)
    The tragedy for Poland is profound, but as for the risks of flying officials in "aging" aircraft:

    Thumbnail image for AFOne.Jpg


    The current versions of Air Force One entered service under President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Thanks to reader DM.

    UPDATE. Note to the next 200 people tempted to send huffy notes and point out that "aging" airplanes are continually refurbished, that our B-52 fleet is "older" than virtually anyone in the armed forces, that it is a cheap shot to suggest that AF1 is not airworthy, etc: If you will take the one second required to click in the link at the start of this item, you will see that I am actually aware of these facts! This item follows two others -- first here, then here -- saying that the press should be slow to rush to conclusions about the "aging" airplane involved in the terrible Smolensk crash. Again, for convenience, the links are here and here. Note to the 200 who have already written huffy notes: Apologies accepted, even if you haven't gotten around to offering them.
  • Mammoth Dylan-in-China Motherlode, #1

    Why isn't Bob Dylan going to perform in China? An emerging whodunnit.

    Early this week, before I was distracted on other business (check your upcoming June issue of the Atlantic; check your bookstores next year) I was looking into the surprisingly complicated question of why Bob Dylan is no longer going on a concert tour of China -- if he was ever going to do such a tour in the first place. Most recent item here, with links back to preceding items in the Dylan series.

    A ton of interesting testimony and analysis has come in since then. Here is a sample installment to get going. Probably two more installments to come. The emerging theme is that whatever "really" went on with this now-scrubbed concert tour, it probably wasn't the version trumpeted around the world a week ago, and that I initially believed: namely, that the Chinese authorities had turned down the tour for fear of a Bjork-like embarrassing comment by Dylan. As I mentioned, this is a spillover cost of any kind of censorship policy: when people know you've shut down some kinds of expression, they're willing to believe you've shut down others even when you haven't.

    But let's get to the evidence. First, from someone close to the music scene in China right now:

    Dylan's people probably had little/ no idea about the real reasons they were being denied access to China.  The only thing they are guilty of is accepting a ridiculous offer from BBH [the Taiwan-based tour promoters who were handling the tour]  and allowing them to try and sell on/ guarantee the shows in mainland China.  This is actually quite common practice (US/ UK agents are happy to take the money and run), but if the wrong partners are chosen, it opens the door for "flipping", which the balance of evidence suggests happened here.

    It's painful to see, but unfortunately probably the future.  The withdrawal of Ticketmaster, Livenation and AEG means there are no recognized/ regulated promoters left here.  There will (more than likely) be a lot more of this in the future.

    Meta-point here: for all of the excitement, joys, and rewards of operating in China these days, "transparency" concerns, from the concert-booking business on up, are a major reality of life for Chinese and foreign firms alike.

    Next, with more on-scene info, reader Luke Mitchell:

    I live in Shanghai and heard / read about this saga a few weeks ago.

    Then, a couple of weeks ago I met the people who run one of Shanghai's music promoters. As a Dylan fan, I asked them about what was happening.  They weren't involved directly but obviously knew people and had heard things, and their direct account squared with what I'd seen elsewhere.  To wit: a Taiwanese promoter landed the rights for Dylan's Asian shows, at a reputed cost of about RMB 250,000 per show.  They then prematurely announced a slew of tour dates, including on the mainland, presumably to drum up publicity.  They then shopped the rights for the mainland shows around - but hiked the price to RMB 400,000 per show (just appearance fee).  Not only is that just an outrageous margin for the Taiwanese promoter, it kills the economics of the show - you'd have to sell 2,000 tickets at RMB 300 and up just to break even.  So every mainland promoter turned it down.
    This is a pretty big loss of face for the Taiwanese promoter, both to Dylan and his people, who had probably been assured of mainland shows, and to all the journalists, ticket agencies etc who had also been assured there would be a show.  The easiest way to cover this?  Blame the government.  They probably told Dylan the same thing as the press, and hence he hasn't contradicted it (how would he know any different?).  And it's an easy cover - I, like I think very many others, assumed when we heard about the shows that they'd never happen, because of censorship.  It also mitigates the "Dylan doesn't cancel shows" and "his tickets are usually reasonable" points from your other readers - it's a badly behaved local promoter and Dylan's people are probably flying blind on the whole thing.

    In sum, I think this is not only a case of, as you said, the government getting blamed because of its reputation, but also the way in which business practices here can be incredibly short-sighted if one party believes there's an easy opportunity to exploit, the way that can torpedo otherwise promising deals, and the importance afterwards of avoiding blame.

    Now, from a reader I believe to be Chinese, responding to my point that it is a sign of weakness/ defensiveness rather than strength for the Chinese government to restrict expression -- as it certainly does in many cases, whether or not it did with Dylan:

    I agree with you that Bod Dylan should be allowed to perform in China. But I disagree in the interpretation of the zero-tolerance policy. Things like banning Bjork or Dylan does not necessarily mean the Chinese government is extremely weak, as pundits like to allege in the popular media these days. Shouting "Tibet" after a song of "Declare Independence" would no doubt incur a harsher punishment in Mao's era than in the current era---does that mean Mao would be more afraid of Bjork than the current government? Of course not. Sometimes banning something just means one does not want to deal with the associated trouble/hassle, not that one is afraid.

    Of course this is just a technical discussion and is not intended to refute your main point that China should be more open. But I do think technical discussions are important, especially since they weigh heavy in pundits' discussions in the popular media too.

    Finally for now, another kind of first-hand testimony, from George Conk of New York. (Policy reminder, I will assume that I can quote or use anything someone sends in, unless stated otherwise; but I don't use anyone's name without specific OK to do so.)

    I live in Washington heights and walk my dog each night about 11.  So do my neighbors who also have a Labrador Retriever.

    [My neighbor] is Bob Dylan's road manager.  I bumped into him Tuesday night.  He just came back from touring in Japan and Korea with Dylan.

    He says there never was a China trip planned.  the whole thing is a story concocted by a promoter and that Dylan had nothing to do with planning any China tour.

    Stay tuned for more.

    More »

  • An Airline Pilot on Those "Old" Tupolevs

    Why a 20-year-old airliner is different from a 20-year-old car.

    It seems that every time an aviation accident occurs involving an airplane more than about fifteen years old, media reports focus on the airplane's age, when in fact this has little or nothing to do with the accident. (Witness the headlines breathlessly announcing that the Tu-154 was -- gasp -- TWENTY YEARS OLD!)
     
    As a retired American Airlines Captain, I just have to roll my eyes and shake my head a bit. I have an informal affiliation with a fearful flier program, so I'm familiar with peoples' concerns; a common one is that the airplane might be old, and therefore about to fall apart. I have to repeatedly assure them that a) they're probably assuming, incorrectly, that because an automobile of a given age can be considered "old," the same applies to an airplane of the same age, and b) an airplane can be maintained in airworthy condition for many decades, so its age is immaterial, anyway.
     
    Many of the MD-80s I flew at AA, by the time I retired, were over twenty years old. (And before I was hired by AA, I rarely flew an airplane that was newer than twenty.) [JF note: Until I got a small Cirrus-SR20 airplane in 2000, I had flown only rented Cessnas and Pipers built from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.] 
     
    You commented that Category III approaches and landings are automatic. That is mostly true, but there are exceptions. I also flew the Boeing 737-800 for a few years, and it uses a Head-Up Display (HUD), for hand-flown Cat III approaches and landings. Personally, I prefer that to autoland. (The -800, of course, is autoland-capable, but AA elected to use the HUD instead.)
    I mentioned earlier today that while the heartbreaking Polish aircraft tragedy might take a long time to be fully explained, initial worried speculation about the "aging" Russian Tupolev-154 aircraft was probably beside the point. Reader Steve Fisher, a long-time professional pilot, writes to say:
  • The Polish Leadership Air Disaster: It Probably Wasn't the Airplane

    Initial evidence from the tragic Polish airplane crash fits a sadly familiar pattern.

    We can hardly imagine the ramifications for Poland of the loss of so many of its political and military leaders in one disaster. All sympathies for a country and people with enough other challenges at the moment. (And, in obvious painful symbolism, to have the loss be part of a commemoration at Katyn.)

    As mentioned many times before*, it takes a very long time to be sure about the "accident chain" that led to any given aviation disaster. This is an term of art for describing the whole cascading sequence of bad judgment, bad circumstances, and bad luck that eventually leads to a disaster. It is called a chain because breaking a link at any point will usually avert the tragedy.

    But here is a line of initial speculation that I bet will lead nowhere and should be played down: suggesting that the airplane itself, a Russian-made Tupolev-154 that will probably be described as some aging rustbucket overdue for replacement, was the "cause" of the crash. Eg, a lead item from the BBC just now:

    Tupolev.png

    Maybe there will prove to have been something wrong with this airplane. But here is why that seems unlikely:

    Suppose you heard about a fatal car crash that happened at 3 am during a freezing rainstorm. And on a twisty road, with poor lighting, on a Saturday night, with a teenaged driver at the wheel. Your first thought might conceivably be, "I bet the car was defective." But you would be more likely to think of a lot of other tragically-familiar risk factors that could have played a part.

    Based on initial reports, this crash appears to be the aviation counterpart to that 3am freezing-rain case. I say that because:

       - According to initial reports, the Smolensk field in Russia was subject to heavy fog at the time of the crash. (For details, check this Weather Underground site.)  To spell out why this matters, see below.**

      - If this were an airport in the US or most of Western Europe, I could quickly look up an approach plate online and see what kind of "precision approaches" were available. The world's busiest civilian airports often have "Cat III" approaches, which can allow an airplane to land safely (by autopilot) even if the pilots never see the ground at all. I don't see any listings that show whether the Smolensk airport had instrument-landing procedures of any sort,*** but it is very hard to imagine that it offered Cat III, zero-visibility guidance.

    - Initial reports suggest that the accident happened not by a very small civilian airfield south of Smolensk but near a larger military base north of town. Aerial view of the base, via Google Earth, below. Click on the image for a somewhat larger view; go here in Google Maps for the actual scene, which you can then zoom to very high resolution.

    Smolensk.png

    The significance of the close-up photo -- assuming this is the airfield involved -- is that the runway-ends and overall airport area do not show the signs of lighting systems and other equipment you would see even for "normal" precision approaches, for instance an ILS. These would allow an airplane to land with limited (but not zero) visibility and a ceiling a few hundred feet above the ground.

    - According to some early reports, the crash occurred not on the first attempt to land but on a later one after the pilot had aborted earlier attempts and "gone around" for another try. Other reports say that the Russian air traffic controllers told the plane to divert instead to Minsk. The aviation cliche term "get-there-itis" refers to the external pressures that induce a pilot to undertake a flight -- or attempt a landing -- when he knows he shouldn't. The presence of the country's entire leadership on a plane, heading for an important commemoration, would no doubt have increased pressure on a flight crew to show their skills by getting the plane onto the ground.

    So: this is a terrible, terrible tragedy. And the details, as always, will take a while to fully sort out. But as with the 3am road crash during an icestorm, there is a pattern of past tragedies this one fits. RIP. (Footnotes after the jump.)

    ____
    * Links when our "categories" feature returns.

    ** The fundamental problem with landing in fog is that you can't see the runway as you descend. Except for the fully-automated Cat III-style landings described above, everything about landing an airplane involves the "sight picture" as you bring the airplane down, in three-dimensions, toward the runway. Under Visual Flight Rules, you're looking at the runway during the whole descent. Under Instrument Flight Rules, the variety of different approaches are really distinguished by how close the electronic guidance can take you to the ground before you see it with your own eyes for the last stages of descent and landing. If you can't see the runway, you're in the same predicament as someone driving 100mph on a twisty road in dense fog -- you're headed for destinations you can't see.

    *** Over the decades, a wide variety of instrument-approach systems have evolved to get pilots in a position to land even if they have to descend through a layer of clouds or deal with other limits to visibility. But many, many airports around the world have no instrument guidance at all; in theory, you can't legally (or safely) land there if you can't see clearly all the way in. I don't at the moment see any listings of what instrument approaches, if any, applied at this airport.

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  • Backlog: WikiLeaks, Dylan in China, and So On

    More WikiLeaks reactions, including links to a large number of other videos.

    The nightmare of, sigh, "work" means that I have done nothing with large numbers of interesting and important responses about a number of open topics, especially the WikiLeaks footage of the shooting of civilians in Baghdad three years ago, and, on a whole different plane of implications, the mystery of why Bob Dylan will not be making a concert tour of China. (Previous items on WikiLeaks start here and here and here. You know what I'm going to say next! Will have a general link when our site supports "categories" again.) The complexity of the first is obvious; in the second case, there are a lot more Rashomon aspects than I could have imagined.

    For the moment, several more WikiLeaks reflections on the rules of engagement, what is inevitable and what is avoidable during urban war, and what if anything can be learned from this grim episode.

    1. Unit Leadership Matters.
    A reader writes:

    In your posts you speak of a string of responsibility. I notice that within that string, the all-important role of unit commanders is almost never mentioned. It's either bad apples at the bottom, or Bush/Cheney at the top.

    The problem with cover-ups is not just that people get off scot-free. It's that the lie has to be absolute. If every dead civilian is branded an insurgent, or a terrorist, then logically you have to give a medal to the soldier who killed  them - or at least a pat on the back. You certainly can't discipline him. This creates a terrible incentive structure wherein war crimes actually have to be rewarded - or else the cover-up fails.

    From the Winter Soldier testimonies I gathered that it made all the difference what unit soldiers belonged to. In the worst units it was apparently expected of soldiers that they kill civilians - and they were congratulated when they did it. In others, the opposite. I don't think the Bush administration ever gave the order to kill "amazing numbers" of civilians. But they did make clear that they didn't really mind, either. And so units and their commanders were free to develop their own policies, in a skewed situation where - because of the cover-up culture - they knew beforehand that every war crime would be branded a heroic deed.

    2. There Can Be No Excuse. From another reader:

    Neither the 'context' nor the specific situation seem to justify the trigger happiness I've observed.  And I've reviewed a few videos of pilots in combat -I've never seen anything close to this - except where the operating area was plainly hostile territory and virtually anything that moved was considered an enemy (as in the first wave of the first gulf war as well as the 'turkey shoot' on the retreating Iraqi army at the end.)  While it's easy enough for us to say 'that's a camera' vs. their ID of an AK-47 and while the crew did have reports of small arms fire that I suppose led them to that location in the first place, they plainly did not feel that they were threatened or under attack and could have orbited and observed for a long time.

    3. Why Aren't We Noticing All The Other Grisly Videos? Below and after the jump from reader Chip Moore, details of similar footage that has long been available online. I have checked the links to see that they are real (ie, not RickRoll etc) but have not yet watched to see what they reveal:

    What a 30mm cannon does to a human body is brutal. What surprises me is that most people writing about this video did not say that footage like this is available and easy to find online, including official video from American gunships. No one has mentioned combat porn in anything I have read or heard about the wikileaks video. Of course, these videos usually do not include journalists being splattered, but nothing else is unusual. The radio transmissions are similar. The results of the gunfire is similar. The point of view of the American combatants is similar. 
    (The TV networks do a reasonable job of keeping copyrighted material off youtube and other such sites. Material I produced has been removed from Facebook because it contained copyrighted music. I assume FB have some automated method of finding DRM tags. Why the DOD does not do likewise is surprising, to say the least.)

    In 2006 I started to make a short animated film using some audio a friend recorded in Iraq in 2004. I wanted some Iraq footage for rotoscoping. I thought if I was lucky I might find a little, and I was very lucky. The internet is awash in combat video from Iraq and Afghanistan, shot from both sides.

    Most American combat groups seem to have a resident video hobbyist shooting unit action. This shows up as raw footage or produced, with considerable skill, as music videos documenting their activity. These videos are actually fun to watch by and large. There is a lot of movement and shooting, but not much on screen killing. They provide some sense of combat and what goes on in a small combat groups.

    There is also official combat footage from attack aircraft of various sorts. The footage contains the radio traffic for the action. This stuff is often quite graphic. The videos usually begin with a gunship lurking over some site watching the ground. There is much radio discussion about whether to engage. After a while, the crew is cleared to engage and there is a brief period of pretty graphic violence. More lurking follows with discussion about who is dead and who is wounded and what do do about any wounded individuals. The crew is eventually cleared to reengage, with the expected result.

    (Presumably the people on the ground can hear or see the American gunships. I suppose they believe they are too distant to be a danger.)

    On the other side, a videographer often joins an ambush to document IED and RPG attacks on American units. These videos tend to be shorter and cruder. One such video showed two American soldiers standing by a HumVee on a city street. A rocket is fired from the lower right corner of a frame. The HumVee is hit. There is a large explosion. The HumVee is badly damaged and the soldiers just disappear.

    I don't know if the journalists writing about the wikileaks video do not know about online combat video, or just chose not to mention it. Other gunship video online does demonstrate that the actions of the wikileaks gunship crew, reasonable or not, are typical and ordinary.

    In any case, if you are interested, here are a few links. Youtube and archive.org are not the best sources for combat video, but they do demonstrate how easy it is to find. The last two links are pretty ugly to watch.

    Footage of nighttime action in some Iraqi city.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-AJgtceVMg

    Footage of nighttime action in Iraq. This may be part of the same operation as the above video.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yob78XCgBXE

    Music video of unit in action in Mosul.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHTjjZo1PbE

    Very graphic gunship video of killing of three men with a weapon. This is widely distributed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3V27DeVcME

    Very graphic video of RPG attack on HumVee in Iraqi city.

    http://www.archive.org/details/AsaebAhulHaqqRpg

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  • Good News, Aviation Dept.

    It's not all runway delays and detained smoker-diplomats.

    As always, we take our good news about aviation, the aerospace industry, and the general fun of flying wherever we can find it. This is in part an attempt to offset the distinctly non-fun aspects of flying that now make the very term "airline travel" an occasion for despair. (Links to past good-news-in-the-sky items when "categories" function is restored, which will be .... any day now, I am told.) Here is the recent harvest:

    1)  The Eclipse airplane company, whose ups and downs are described here, is back in business, sort of. The original firm had a spectacular rise in the early 2000s and equally spectacular financial collapse last year. The innovative (if anything, too ambitiously innovative) very small jets it produced probably still have a future. That at least is the bet of the new Eclipse Aerospace company that took over the assets last year. Its latest activities, including maintenance of the existing fleet of several hundred EA500 jets, are described here.

    2) Yesterday the all-solar-powered, zero-emissions Solar Impulse airplane completed its first full-fledged test flight, in Switzerland. It stayed aloft for an hour and climbed to nearly 4,000 feet. Several months ago I mentioned its tentative, barely-off-the-runway first trial run. (Solar Impulse, AP photo via FastCompany:)

    Solar-Impulse-First-Flight_APPhotoKeystone_Dominic-Faver-9.jpg

    3) In the same vein, check out this Colorado-based initiative for cleaner, greener aviation possibilities, with more coverage here.

    4) The Federal Aviation Administration recently said it would relax its longstanding blanket ban on even considering pilot certificates for anyone who takes prescription anti-depression drugs. Now, on a case-by-case basis, it will consider applications from people who take Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, or Lexapro and their generic counterparts. The flat ban meant that any pilots (certainly more than zero) who were on the drugs had to lie about their situation; it also of course implied an old-fashioned stigma about mental health issues and the widespread problem of depression. The Wall Street Journal story had this "let's face reality" observation from affected parties.

    The Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, backed the move. "This policy change should improve aviation safety and pilot health," it said in a statement.

    The FAA says it can't estimate how many pilots might come forward but believes pilots' depression rate doesn't differ much from that of the general population, about 10%.

    As for what this might mean to individuals, I got this note from a reader who had enjoyed flying (I believe as a private pilot), with the subject line, "Imagine my joy":

    I've been grounded for 20 years because of chronic depression which has been controlled very capably and without side-effects.  I'd resigned myself to the kinetic memory of flying as all that would be available to me.  And now, if I could only afford it, I can go back up.

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