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.
  • Very interesting flu-quarantine diary

    Will Weissert, an AP correspondent based in Havana, traveled with his wife to China for a wedding -- and ended up spending a week in quarantine. His account of the quarantine, here and with pictures beginning here, is very interesting on the nuts and bolts of how the system works. It's not a complaint, though there are some complaining details. Mainly a chronicle, with details I hadn't seen elsewhere.

    Here is his wife in the quarantine-hotel room, as Chinese officials take notes on her condition.

    And here is the intro to his account of how they ended up in this situation:

    My wife and I are in perfect health, but after flying to China for my college friend's wedding we're being quarantined in a remote hotel for seven days. The reason: Our flight from our home in Havana included a layover in Cancun, and China is taking no chances with swine flu.

    Never mind that we were in Cancun for only two hours, that we didn't leave the airport and that Mexican doctors with electronic thermometers checked us for fever on arrival and departure. Never mind that when our Continental Airlines flight from Newark touched down in Shanghai, we and everyone else on board were not allowed to leave our seats until health workers clamored aboard and pointed a blue beam at our foreheads to take our temperatures.

    The Mexican stamps in our passports -- my wife is Chilean, I'm American -- are enough for authorities to pull us out of line at immigration and send us to a medical room where attendants in white lab coats take our temperature yet again and give us surgical masks...

    After 3 1/2 hours, a man in uniform -- speaking by phone with a communist official everyone calls "the leader" -- announces we will be confined to a hotel room for seven days.

    We say we'll simply fly back home. He tells us that isn't possible.

    Worth reading the rest. (Thanks to Daniel Lippman.)

  • Cross cultural exchange

    Above-the-fold picture on China Daily special weekly business supplement. Caption says:

    "The official dance troupe of the Dallas Cowboys (a US National Football League team) perform with local elderly at a downtown park in Shanghai."

    How it looked on the page:

    In the circumstances, the "local elderly" don't look that bad! Must be the morning tai chi.

  • More Chinese education! Or, is it really "Chinese"?

    Previously in our series, the complaint has been that the Chinese school system pushes students too hard and in too rote-memorization a way, leaving the victors undeniably tough but maybe drained of their spark and inventiveness. Along the way, many contrary views and debates about the role of the Chinese nationwide university-admission exam, the gaokao.

    Now, two bits of testimony more or less on China's behalf. First, from a Westerner now teaching in Japan, who says that these problems are hardly confined to China. Then from an American (of Chinese ancestry) about an American counterpart to gaokao-style training.

    First, the Westerner teaching at a university in Japan.

    China, Eastern Europe, Japan, it's all the same story. No, it's not a legacy of Communism. The saying here in Japan is similar to the one mentioned by the teacher in Eastern Europe: "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down."

    I cannot get my students to voice an opinion for love nor money. They do not want to call attention to themselves; stand out from the crowd, or be different in any way. This is the Japanese way. If, by chance, they do have an opinion, they keep it to themselves.

    As a result, they are totally incapable of creative/critical thinking or problem solving abilities.

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  • I'm joining the GOP

    First Al Gore, buffeted Democratic champion ca. 2000, propagates boiled-frog ignorance in his (otherwise laudable) An Inconvenient Truth

    Now Barack Obama, victorious Democratic champion ca. 2008, relies on bogus boiled-frog imagery in a Newsweek interview (as my comrade Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out).

    Did you consult any former presidents or celebrities about the fishbowl effect in raising the girls?
    Well, you know, the truth of the matter is that the campaign was the equivalent of me being the frog in the saucepan of water and the temperature slowly being turned up. By the time the inauguration had taken place, we had pretty much gotten accustomed to it.

    Say what you will about the linguistic habits of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin; but at this moment I don't remember any of them talking about boiled frogs. The image of young Dickie Cheney in 8th grade science lab with a frog, though, is one to force from the mind. And if these people did in fact talk about boiled frogs, I'll have to join the Greens.

    What should they be talking about instead? The kitty-litter box analogy, as so brilliantly laid out by Don Rose in the Chicago Daily Observer a few months ago. You have cats in your house; you think everything is great; then visitors walk in through the door, reel back in horror, and say, "What is that godawful smell?"  And I say this as a lover of cats. Or as Rose put it, in a column about the colorful ex-governor Rod Blagojevich:

    Out of towners often ask me how it is that folks in Chicago and Illinois put up with all the hanky and panky that goes on in our political snakepits.

    I tell them about my cat litter box.

    Currently I have two cats--once I had nine. In any case, I used to think I kept their potty clean and odor free. Then, every so often someone would come to the door, sniff the air and whisper in confidence, "I think your cat box needs changing."

    They were right, of course. They came from cat-free environments and could sense a drop of urine at 30 paces, while I had grown so desensitized to the aroma that my schnozz would tell me I was romping through a fresh pine forest.

    So it is with the denizens of our city and state.

    And so it should be with us all. As recently as a few hours ago, I was impressed by Obama's use of language. And now....

  • On eloquence vs. prettiness

    Based on its transcript -- here at the Washington Post site, oddly not yet in any obvious place at WhiteHouse.gov [Update: it's now on the White House page, here]-- Barack Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech was another extraordinary performance. "Extraordinary" meaning that it was like his speech last year in Philadelphia about race relations, his speech last month in Prague about nuclear weapons, and, only slightly less impressive, his speech last month at Georgetown University laying out his long term economic plan. Or, on a small scale, his answer in Strasbourg about "American exceptionalism."

    What made these presentations extraordinary was not any single phrase or sentence, nor any paragraph-long flight of fine language. Indeed, I can hardly remember any phrase or sentence from any speech Obama has ever given. (Phrases or sentences are to be distinguished from campaign slogans, like "Yes we can" or "not 'red states' or 'blue states' but the United States of America.") Instead the power of those speeches comes from the quality of their thought -- from the ideas and truths the speaker is trying to grapple with:

    In the case of the race speech, the different burdens and resentments Americans of all background held, and why we had to face and work through them. In the nuclear speech, the dangers that remained long after the Cold War had ended, and America's special opportunity and responsibility to find a solution. In the Notre Dame speech, the difficulty of resolving, in an open democracy, differences of moral certainty that are fiercely held on all sides. And so on. A passage from this latest speech after the jump.

    This kind of eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.

    At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."

    The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.

    Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.

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  • US no-show at Shanghai Expo: the hows and whys (updated)

    Last month Adam Minter of ShanghaiScrap, did our initial Atlantic report on the looming self-inflicted embarrassment of America's no-show status at the 2010 Shanghai Expo / World's Fair.

    The strands of the story are tangled, to put it mildly, and have been hard to follow in scattered press reports. So Minter's latest detailed backgrounder is very useful in explaining how things reached this point, why it matters, and what if anything could be done. Among the points he clarifies, in a list of problems that have affected the proposed US pavilion:

    A.  Cost. Shanghai Expo 2010's [one of the US contenders] $61 million pavilion budget - down from an earlier $84 million budget - is inordinately expensive, and surely the most expensive national pavilion after the elaborate Chinese design.  "For that kind of money [$61 million]," an experienced American businessman in Shanghai told me. "You could build a thirty-story residential tower on that site and still have money left over. But these people want that money for a two story pavilion." In comparison, Germany's elaborate pavilion design is projected to cost US$40.8 million; Norway's elegant structure, a comparatively minor US$22 million. And even those might be overpriced. At the Beijing 2008 Olympics, major commercial pavilions were built for around $1000 per square meter - that is, less than US$5 million. So far, Shanghai Expo 2010, Inc., has failed to provide a detailed public accounting of how it plans to spend its proposed US$61 million, leading to wild and unsubstantiated speculation among experienced China hands in Shanghai.

    [UPDATE: I hear from informed sources that there is some controversy about the importance of whole cost issue, with some other pavilions costing more than this US figure -- and the real question being whether the US can spend this much money in a sensible way with so little time to go. More details as they come in.]

    One image of the proposed US structure Minter is referring to, from this site:

    Full set of images of other countries' structures here. One example I like from that site: the Israeli pavilion, with components of the Whispering Garden, the Hall of Light, and the Hall of Innovations. Israel is a tiny country and this is a relatively small structure, but FWIW Israeli's entire budget for the expo, including construction, is $6 million.


    And here is Italy's (no budget listed). The story is worth following.

  • Europe, America, China respond to the flu

    From Kevin Miller, of the University of Michigan, an observation on why the differing European, American, and Chinese approaches to the current spread of flu might be explained by the respective health threats the areas face:

    I have a colleague, a native German, who went to Germany last week and reported that the general attitude was that Americans were being crazily hysterical about this. It makes sense to me that a) the Chinese are really being hysterical, b) Germans are calm, and c) we're somewhere in between.

    If you look at the medical safety net in each country, this makes perfect sense (plus the big worry that this could combine with bird flu, which they have in China. H1N1 seems to be easy to catch but rarely serious; bird flu is hard to catch but often fatal; flu viruses seem good at swapping DNA within host nuclei. If the same person had both bird flu and H1N1, this could lead to something really bad).

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  • Finale on Colgan / Buffalo crash

    I recognize that it is both heartbreaking and potentially cruel to keep going into details of what exactly led to the commuter-plane crash in February that killed all 49 people aboard the airplane and one person on the ground.  (Previously here.)

    But this story in The Buffalo News, based on the previous week's Federal investigative hearings, clears up one question and raises others about the flight crew's performance.

    The newly answered question is why the plane's airspeed had decreased so much that an automatic "stick-shaker" warning was triggered, indicating that an aerodynamic stall was imminent. Because the earliest reports mentioned that the accident took place in cold and cloudy conditions, I had assumed that ice on the wings and airframe was slowing the plane down.

    But according to NTSB evidence, the effect of icing was minimal. Instead, the flight crew had deliberately or inadvertently slowed the plane themselves, by pulling the throttle back to nearly the "flight idle" position -- and leaving it there. Reduced power is normal when descending or deliberately slowing for an approach, but apparently the power was left too low for too long as the plane's speed decayed to a dangerously low level.

    The extraordinary NTSB animation of the flight's last 2 minutes and 39 seconds dramatizes how it happened. At time 1:40, the plane begins slowing from its cruise speed of about 185 knots. By 2:04 -- with the autopilot holding a constant altitude and the power setting still low -- it had slowed all the way down to 140 knots. That is where the power should have come back in, because the plane had reached its proper approach speed and shouldn't safely go much slower. But the crew left the power at idle, and within four seconds the plane was slowing below 130 knots - at which point the "stick shaker" gave its warning and, tragically, the pilot reacted in exactly the wrong way. The animation shows how quickly this all could happen, and what it looks like when a plane goes into aerodynamic "stall."

    The effect of the pilot's wrong reaction to the stall warning has been frequently discussed in the wake of these hearings. The inattention to approach speed is in a way more puzzling, since it was not an instantaneous, instinctive thing.

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  • More Gaokao: a Chinese "red-diaper" perspective

    Lots of fascinating testimony has piled up, on the topic previously covered here. (Gaokao = nationwide university-admission exam in China.) Will parcel it out soon. Here is one from a reader who wishes not to be named. I have omitted only a few comments about people who have written before, using their real names. He starts with his bona fides:

    I have been following the discussion on your blog, on the subject of Chinese gaokao, with interest. Now, before I go on, I feel compelled to state the facts: I had taken the SAT, and received 2400 on it (Yes, one of the less than few hundred a year ones with this result. It is utterly insane in my opinion.) So, I do want to make it clear that this isn't a loser's rant against meritocracy.

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  • Visas in the time of flu

    If you're thinking about coming to China from the US, you should know that visa rules have recently tightened up dramatically, as they did before the Olympics last year. Here's why.

    Inside China, the detected flu cases have doubled, from one person to two, and the quarantine-and-tracking efforts are stepping up. Newspaper charts have shown the infected people's progress through the country and reported the efforts to find and quarantine everyone who was, say, riding in the same railroad car. A report I saw this morning said that most of the people who had been on the same Beijing-Jinan train with Victim #2 were still "at large."


    [Reader R. Skinner points out the inventive West-to-East rendering of the Toronto->Vancouver-> Beijing flight.]
    Meanwhile, in mail from Chinese readers and in Chinese and English news sources I've seen more and more frequent mentions of the need to crack down on the "real" source of the problem: the United States. Both of the infected people had, after all, come on flights originating in the US (flights from Mexico having been cancelled for quite a while.)  Eg this lead editorial in yesterday's Global Times, the new state run voice to the outside world. 

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  • Twitter-scale reaction on new ambassador to China

    I am at a computer for about 90 seconds until late tonight, but:  the reported selection of Utah's Republican governor Jon Huntsman Jr as the Obama Administration's new ambassador to China is an interesting and surprising choice -- and at face value, a shrewd one. Huntsman is reportedly fluent in Mandarin, based on his time as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan; has an adopted Chinese daughter (plus another from India, in addition to biological children); is experienced in Asia, as a boy-ambassador to Singapore (at age 32) during the first Bush administration; and -- so I gather -- is on the modern-science as opposed to the flat-earth side of the debate about the environmental + climate issues that constitute the most important impending business between the US and China. More later, but on first impression a clever choice from American-interest point of view (completely apart from what it means for internal party politics in the US). Will also give the Chinese leadership something to think about: why the new Democratic president has appointed a rising Republican politician. Sign of bipartisan US views toward China? Etc?

    Subject to revision if there is something important I don't know about Huntsman and his record!

  • Not sure exactly which Chinese people Paul Krugman met...

    ... before writing his column today in the NYT, but:

    While his conclusion -- that China has to be part of global efforts to control carbon emissions -- is obviously correct and important, his premise -- that no one in China admits this -- does not square with my observation over these past three years.* As it happens, I spent this very day at a conference in Beijing where the first five presentations I heard were about emissions-reductions and sustainability in one specific domestic industry. (Also, I wrote in the magazine, a year ago, about Chinese people and organizations making similar efforts in a variety of other fields.)

    If blunt-instrument outside pressure like this column makes it more likely that Chinese authorities will keep making progress, then as a pure matter of power-politics I say: fine. But my guess and observation is that it is just as likely to get their back up -- and encourage the ever-present victimization mentality that makes it less rather than more likely that Chinese authorities will behave "responsibly" on the international stage.

    As I've written a million times (most recently here and here and generally here), arguably the most important thing that will happen on Barack Obama's watch is reaching an agreement with China -- or not -- on environmental and climate issues. We'll see what's the best means toward that end.
    * Krugman says:

    "Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world's largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today's wealthy nations. And they're right...But that unfairness doesn't change the fact that letting China match the West's past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it."

    I've heard that Chinese response too many times to count. But it's mainly a throat-clearing prelude to talking-turkey discussions about what the country will and can do, and under what circumstances.

  • The CIA vs. Sen. Bob Graham: how to keep score at home

    It's easy! If the CIA says one thing and former Sen. Graham says another, then the CIA is lying. Or, "in error," if you prefer.

    (Background here and here, in which Graham says that some of the briefings in which he was allegedly filled in about waterboarding and related techniques never occurred. This matters, because the CIA's claims are part of the same argument that Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress had known about and acquiesced to waterboarding all the way along.)

    Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty. In my eyes he has a specific reputation for very good judgment: he was one of a handful of Senators actually to read the full classified intelligence report about the "threats" posed by Saddam Hussein. On the basis of reading it, despite a career as a conservative/centrist Democrat, he voted against the war and fervently urged his colleagues to do the same. "Blood is going to be on your hands," he warned those who voted yes.

    More relevant in this case, Graham also has a specific reputation for keeping detailed daily records of people he met and things they said. He's sometimes been mocked for this compulsive practice, but he's never been doubted about the completeness or accuracy of what he compiles. (In the fine print of those records would be an indication that I had interviewed him about Iraq war policy while he was in the Senate and recently spent time with him when he was on this side of the world.)

    So if he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.

  • In defense of the 高考: Chinese, foreigners rally to its support!

    Yesterday, two reader-arguments (here and here) that the gaokao or 高考, the standardized, nationwide college-admissions exam for students in China, plays a central role in the parts of Chinese education that people inside and outside the country dislike. (On that larger debate, here.)

    Since then, a flood of correspondence from people generally offering a "Yes, but..." defense of the gaokao. Yes, it's not connected to "real" education. Yes, it makes students' lives hell. Yes... But: it has other advantages. Or, the obvious alternatives would be even worse -- especially given widespread Chinese fear that any more "subjective" system would certainly be rigged. 

    Here is a sampling. Judge for yourself -- and be convinced, at least, that allocating educational opportunity in a country with the scale and extremes of China is a complicated business.

    1. From a reader in China:

    I just read your posts on the nationwide college-admissions exam, the gaokao.  While I agreed that this system did focus too much on memorizing books and exam preparation, it cannot be replaced for the current sociaty.  The advantage of this universal exam system is relative fairness.
    Yes, there are much unfairness in the exam system, i.e. Beijing and Shanghai got too many quotas for the colleges entries, minority groups got extra points, and some can get in based on their privilege and wealth.  However, this system is the most fair and practical one compared to all other alternative systems.  The American system including essays, reference letters, community service experiences...all too subjective and easy to manipulate in China.  The privileged ones will benefit even more from American system and squeeze the poor talented ones out of the best schools. 
    I am all for a reformed education system to promote innovation.  But the first thing the education should achieve is fairness: the best students can be selected to get the best education. 

     2) From Ella Shengru Zhou, a Chinese student who has just finished college in Beijing and will enroll in a Harvard graduate school this fall. She has worked with me as a interpreter and assistant.

    Officially done with my college study today, I feel I just have to say something about the discussion on China's education. I don't think gao kao is the problem in China's education.

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  • Aftermath on Buffalo / Colgan crash

    About the public hearings on the terrible crash in Buffalo three months ago, in which 50 people died:

    - Authoritative wrapup of the situation here by Andy Pasztor of the Wall Street Journal, who has had well-informed stories on this topic from the beginning.

    - This more-complete information supports the hypothesis Pasztor raised early on, as discussed previously here, that the cause of the crash was  a basic and fatal failure of airmanship. That is, at a moment when saving the airplane would have required pushing the plane's nose down -- to regain airspeed and avert an aerodynamic stall -- the pilot apparently fought the autopilot, which was trying to push the nose down, and succeeded in pulling the nose up. This further reduced airspeed and, apparently, put the plane into a full stall, at which point it stopped flying and fell to the ground. If you're not 100% confident on the difference between aerodynamic "stalls" and normal stalls, see the note after the jump.*

    - The complete transcript of over-the-airwaves transmissions and in-cockpit chatter, available in PDF from the WSJ site here, has the intrinsic horrific fascination of any document of this sort. You know you are observing the routine preoccupations and chit-chat of people who don't realize, as you do, that they are in their final moments of life. I don't share the total astonishment of some commentary about how much of the en route talk is "unprofessional" -- about career plans and family problems and the rest. Given how things turned out, any banter whatsoever now looks very bad. But none of it would have mattered save for the one horrible error in judgment and reaction. Had the pilot pushed forward on the stick rather than pulled back, in all likelihood it would have been another normal flight -- albeit in rough winter conditions -- and he and everyone else would now be going about their regular lives.
    - Of course the big question is how much the loosey-goosey atmosphere in the cockpit had to do with that awful error. Miles O'Brien, a pilot and ex-correspondent for CNN, has his thoughts on the subject here.

    - This is NOT crash related, but for a way to see what it is like to descend into a cloud bank on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) landing, check out this YouTube video taken from inside the cockpit of a Cirrus SR-22 in the last three minutes of its approach to runway 16R at Van Nuys airport. (The Cirrus is a four-seat single-engine plane of the type that, as it happens, Miles O'Brien flies and that I used to own and fly before coming to China.) The shot does not concentrate on the instrument panel during the descent, which is what the pilot is obsessively scanning when he can't see anything outside the window. Also,the propeller appears to "stop" or move jerkily at times, just because of a strobe effect with the camera. But the beginning and end of the clip conveys something most passengers never see: how it looks to enter the clouds, and then finally to see the runway -- in this case, underneath quite a low cloud ceiling. Really, watch this and you'll have an idea of the mantra drummed into your head a million times in instrument-flight training: that you've got to watch the instruments and trust the instruments, because there is no other guide to where you're headed.

    (UPDATE: YouTube appears to be getting Firewalled again in China, as happens from time to time. I posted this link while using a VPN, as I do most of the time to get around the firewall. But after hearing complaints from others, I turned the VPN off and couldn't reach YouTube from Beijing. Oh well.)

    - Speaking of runway 16R at Van Nuys Airport, here is the site for a movie called One Six Right, about that very runway and the activity that surrounds it. It's for sale on DVD rather than free download, but it is visually very rich, eye-opening, and fascinating to watch. It also talks about all the routine safety measures that are normally built into aviation, and which in this Buffalo case didn't prevent a huge tragedy.

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