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.
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.
Sheriff Andy Taylor and equipment-loving Deputy Barney Fife (Wikipedia)
If you haven't yet seen it, please read this Storify account, by Kelsey Atherton, of how veterans of real combat—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—view today's wildly over-militarized American police. For instance:
A reader on the East Coast responded to my post last night, which said that perhaps the scenes of stormtroopers among us would startle the public into realizing how far this security-state trend had gone. This reader, S.C., suggests a contrasting visual cue:
Maybe you’re right to conjecture that police-state images might horrify the country into restoring good sense about cops in combat gear, riding in tanks on streets. Here’s a thought about that. It’s not new, but it might be worth mentioning.
I’ve pasted in an image [shown at the top of this post] that may fit slantwise with your insight. It’s not what you meant, but it conveys the message in a country that still likes seeing if calm wisdom and brains can head off any need for ostentatious official bellicosity. From the old and much-loved The Andy Griffith Show, it’s Sheriff Andy Taylor, who spurns sidearms in police work, and whose face expresses all that needs to be said about Deputy Barney Fife’s comically enthusiastic wanna-be militarism.
I love it that Sheriff Taylor always allowed Deputy Fife to carry only one bullet, and required him to keep it in his pocket. Maybe you’ll want to keep this photo in yours, in case it’s needed (and assuming it’s not already there).
It’s unrealistic, of course, to try too hard to map this half-century-old sitcom onto present problems. But it’s also unwise not to recall what Sheriff Taylor stood for, and not to recognize the extent of the country’s respect for it.
Agreed. On that same theme, here is a clip from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show 50 years ago, in 1964, in which Barney Fife has a different helmet but the same enthusiasm for dress-up military gear.
That gentle, dismissive, pretense-puncturing humor—something I associated with Andy Griffith in my childhood and that my parents did with Will Rogers in theirs—doesn't have an exact current counterpart, or not one I can think of just now. Stephen Colbert is closer than Jon Stewart; in his earliest, funny-rather-than-angry days, Rush Limbaugh could sound this way. Among politicians, Ronald Reagan was actually good at it—"There you go again!"—as was John F. Kennedy in some of his press conferences. It's an effect Barack Obama strains for and sometimes achieves, for instance when poking fun at the latest Birther-style claim. (And yes, before you point it out, I'm aware that in an actual small Southern town 50 years ago, the real-world counterparts of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife would have been enforcing segregation laws.)
We would like to think that such level-headed, amused BS-detection is part of our national cast of mind. A Yank at Oxford! The Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn! The Tweet shown above, by @BFriedmanDC, may offer a glimmer of hope for its reappearance. It is the kind of comment Sheriff Andy Taylor might have made if he had seen legions of Barney Fifes dressed for war.
Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)
The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?
There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:
1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.
2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.
6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments."
7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.
This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.
"Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.
I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book.
Two first families: the Obamas and the Clintons at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's death (Reuters)
On return from a long spell away from the Internet, I was going to recommend that you read Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Hillary Clinton, and not just the setup but the transcript as a whole. But such a recommendation is hardly necessary, since for several days the interview has been making news worldwide.
There are two ways to think about the political and policy implications of Hillary Clinton’s deciding to say what she did, during this strange limbo period when she is clearly preparing to run for president but has more to lose than gain by officially saying so.
• One approach would be to think that we’re primarily witnessing a media event—journalists doing what journalists do. It's in our nature as reporters, even when representing an institution as august as a 157-year-old magazine, to highlight what has changed rather than what’s constant, what is controversial rather than what’s agreed on, the one juicy, taken-in-isolation sentence that will make people stop and say, Did you see that? And it is in nature of the political commentariat to seize on any sign of rancor or big-shot melodrama.
Therefore if our Atlantic site runs a headline suggesting that Hillary Clinton is all but blaming Barack Obama for the ISIS/ISIL menace (“Hillary Clinton: 'Failure' to Help Syrian Rebels Led to the Rise of ISIS”), or if we emphasize the few places where she departed from his policy rather than the many more where she supported it, maybe we’re just revealing the way we journalists think. When politicians start complaining that some comment was “taken out of context,” this is the point they’re trying to make. And in fairness, anyone who reads the whole transcript will find that the tabloid version of her comments—weakling Obama lost Syria!—is cushioned in qualifiers and complexities.
If this is the way the Clinton camp feels about our presentation of the interview, they are perfectly well versed in all the the formal and informal ways of getting that message across. Indeed, just this afternoon, a little while after I started typing this item (but several days after the interview ran), the first such indication appeared, in a "no criticism intended" story via Politico.
• The other approach is to think that Hillary Clinton, as experienced a figure as we now have on the national scene, knew exactly what she was saying, and conveyed to an interviewer as experienced as Goldberg exactly the impression she intended to—including letting the impression sink in through several days' worth of op-ed and talk-show news cycles before beginning to offset it with an "out of context" claim.
That impression is a faux-respectful but pointed dismissal of Obama's achievements and underlying thought-patterns. It's a picture of the president approximating that of a Maureen Dowd column. It also introduces into Democratic party discourse the “Who (re-)lost Iraq?” “Who lost Syria?” “Who lost Iran?” and “Who is losing the world?” queries that the Republicans are perpetually ready to serve up. All this is presumably in preparation for Clinton's distancing herself from a "weak" Obama when she starts running in earnest to succeed him.
If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation.
I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks.
It sinks for her, that she thought this would make her sound tough or wise; it sinks for the Democratic Party, that this is the future foreign policy choice it’s getting; and it sinks for the country, if this is the way we’re going to be talked to about our options in dealings with the world.
The easiest and least useful stance when it comes to foreign policy is: Situation X is terrible, we have to do something. Or its cousin: Situation X is terrible, you should have done something. Pointing out terribleness around the world is not even half of the necessary thought-work in foreign policy. The harder and more important part—what constitutes actual statesmanship—is considering exactly which “something” you would do; and why that exact something would make conditions better rather than worse; and what Pandora’s box you might be opening; and how the results of your something will look a year from now, or a decade, when the terribleness of this moment has passed.
E.g.: Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ? A long story in the NYT tells us that the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph himself, drew his political formation from America’s own efforts to “do something” in Iraq:
“He was a street thug when we picked him up in 2004,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “It’s hard to imagine we could have had a crystal ball then that would tell us he’d become head of ISIS.”
At every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq — most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action. And now he has forced a new chapter of that intervention, after ISIS’ military successes and brutal massacres of minorities in its advance prompted President Obama to order airstrikes in Iraq.
Of course everyone including Clinton “knows” that you should only do something when it’s smart and not when it’s stupid. In her books and speeches, she is most impressive when showing commanding knowledge of the complexities and contradictions of negotiating with the Russians and Chinese, and why you can’t just “be tough” in dealings with them. In those specifics, she can sound like the description I just came across, in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about some pre-World War I Balkan leaders: “It is a characteristic of the most skillful politicians that they are capable of reasoning simultaneously at different levels of conditionality. [One Serbian figure] wanted peace, but he also believed—he never concealed it—that the final historical phase of Serbian expansion would in all probability not be achieved without war.”
But in this interview—assuming it's not "out of context"—she is often making the broad, lazy "do something" points and avoiding the harder ones. She appears to disdain the president for exactly the kind of slogan—"don't do stupid shit"—that her husband would have been proud of for its apparent simplicity but potential breadth and depth. (Remember "It's the economy, stupid"?) Meanwhile she offers her own radically simplified view of the Middle East—Netanyahu right, others wrong—that is at odds with what she did in the State Department and what she would likely have to do in the White House. David Brooks was heartened by this possible preview of a Hillary Clinton administration's policy. I agree with Kevin Drum and John Cassidy, who were not. Also see Paul Waldman.
But really, go read the interview. Either way, the presumptive nominee has, under Jeffrey Goldberg's questioning, shown us something significant.
An Israeli artillery unit fires into Gaza (Baz Ratner/Reuters)
This post has been updated to reflect the IDF's updated Palestinian casualty figures, which give the non-combatant fatality rate for Operation Protective Edge at about 50 percent. [Please see update explanation at the end.]
Through this week and still for the next few days, I am out of the country and in unreliable and very expensive Internet range. So for timeliness reasons, I am now posting, without elaborate set-up, an email message that has come in from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, director of programs at the Molad think tank in Jerusalem, who was part of a memorable exchange last month with an American rabbi visiting the city.
This latest message is about the ways in which—from a progressive Israeli’s point of view—the nation’s government and military should and should not be held culpable for the destruction of houses, schools, power plants, hospitals, and other structures in Gaza, and the appalling civilian death toll there. Like his previous message, this one raises questions of “universal” versus particularistic or narrow morality and human obligations, and what standards of ethics apply in a situation like this one, where the position of the parties is so different in so many fundamental ways. I would like to engage these, plus the ethical ramifications for Americans and others far from the scene, but I can’t do it in present circumstances.
In my freedom from Internet exposure these past few days, I have instead been reading two powerful histories that cast the origins of World War I in (for me) new light: To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild, and The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. Plus The Atlantic’s own special centennial issue on the war, which I have just managed to download and will read tonight.
More, later, on how these bear on the morality of Gaza. For now, another dispatch worth reading carefully from Hillel Ben Sasson:
Before addressing the actual question of whether or not the IDF's actions in Gaza were permissible and therefore justifiable, it's important that we differentiate between the responsibilities and potential blame of the military and government, and the judgements we pass on the Israeli society with its almost consensual support of the soldiers. Let us begin with the latter group.
In my view, it is not only permissible but indeed commendable that a society whose sons and daughters are sent to fight in its name and who are paying with their lives to enable this society to continue and thrive, responds in an overwhelming wave of support and solidarity. Israelis sending anything from candy to underwear down to those on the front are a sign of social health and collective decency. (A friend of mine who was fighting in Gaza told me that as he was manning a post in Gaza, an armored tank stopped by them, dropped a pack of McDonalds burgers sent from the "back", and continued on to its mission).
The military and it's commanders in government, however, we ought to judge by a different standard, and this standard is the rules of war.
These rules are not moral ornamentals; they are the globally agreed upon laws that govern exchanges of violence between nations. They stem out of the understanding that unchecked violence is bad for everyone - today for you, tomorrow for me - and that immense power comes with considerable responsibilities for the ways of exerting it. Abiding by the rules of just war has nothing to do with anti-patriotism or pacifistic convictions. It is what prevents wars from deteriorating to complete mutual annihilation. From this elementary understanding, I draw several conclusions:
1. I can think of no military objective in the world that would justify a 50 percent non-combatant casualty rate (These are IDF numbers).* We must ask, what exactly were the specific objectives that resulted in such a horrific toll? I doubt that there's an answer which is both true and acceptable. And we must remember, it was Netanyahu and Yaalon who called the shots,
2. I have no doubt that the IDF is true to its word - there was no intentional targeting of civilians. This however, is not enough. Yes, Hamas launches rockets from densely populated urban areas; Hamas might also use Innocent Gazans as human shields. Yet the hand that pulls the trigger is the one that bears responsibility. It might be justified in pulling it, but it cannot escape scrutiny altogether.
3. A troubling issue for me is that there's no debate on the facts - IDF officials admit that innocent civilians were killed in the recent bombing of the UNRWA school in Rafah. We had witnessed in the past military operations that took a severe toll in civilian lives on the other side, but we have never seen such a resignation to accept so high of a body count simply because it serves a tactical military objective. This is worrisome to me.
Finally, I would like to remind readers in the USA that for us, Israeli progressives, this is not an abstract moral debate. It is our responsibility to address our own society with these questions, it is our role to confront our leadership with pressing and hard issues. It lies on our shoulders to bridge between the two realms, channeling the enormous forces of social solidarity into national self correction.
*This post originally used outdated IDF casualty figures showing an 80 percent non-combatant death rate on the Palestinian side.
JF addendum, August 12, 2pm EDT: As noted above, this message from Hillel Ben Sasson came in while I was on the road, in Europe, in places with no regular internet connection. On Sunday Hillel Ben Sasson sent a note saying that the IDF had updated its casualty data. The "85% non-combatant" figure he had used earlier had been replaced by one saying it was closer to 50%. My colleagues on the Atlantic's site updated the post at his request.
Artist's rendering of a high-speed train station (AP)
As a reminder, this is #7 in a series on the most ambitious and consequential infrastructure project now under consideration in our infrastructure-degraded land. It is the plan for a north-south California High-Speed Rail system, which had its genesis before Jerry Brown’s second coming as California’s governor but is now his signature project as he runs for re-election to an unprecedented fourth term. For previous installments see No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, andNo. 6
The big HSR news of this past week was a ruling from a three-judge panel of California's 3rd district court of appeals. Late on Thursday, the judges unanimously overturned a lower-court ruling that had prevented the HSR authority from selling bonds to begin construction of the system.
The issues in the case are, well, legalistic. For more about them you can check the thorough accounts from the LA Times,the San Jose Mercury News, KQED, and the Fresno Bee. The Bee's and KQED reports have embedded versions of the full text of the ruling.
As all the stories make clear, the ruling does not end the legal problems for the high-speed rail program, nor the political controversy about it. But the appeals court decision was widely reported as a significant step forward for the project and a win for Governor Brown. E.g. this headline from the Mercury News:
The ruling represents the second legal victory in a week for the rail program at the appellate level. On July 24, a different three-judge panel from the 3rd District ruled in the rail authority's favor and upheld [lower court judge] Kenny's approval of an environmental impact report that selected the Pacheco Pass between Gilroy and Los Banos as the preferred corridor for high-speed trains between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley. The San Francisco Peninsula communities of Atherton and Palo Alto had challenged Kenny's approval of environmental work for the Bay Area-to-Central Valley section of the rail line.
For now, that is enough of the legalities. On to further reader discussion of the merits of the plan. First, from a reader in Southern California:
One of the arguments I keep running across is the idea that the High Speed train should run non-stop along the I-5 corridor instead of along the 99, which was only included to get legislators on board.
No, it runs along the 99 corridor to get passengers on board. There are a million people in the Fresno metro area, plus all the people in Bakersfield and a major seaport city in Stockton. Depending on how you count the borders, the San Joaquin Valley is home to nearly 4 million potential customers.
[JF note: see the Federal Highway Administration map of I-5 and Highway 99, at right. I-5 is in red and bypasses, to the west, most of the major cities of the San Joaquin Valley. Highway 99, shown in yellow, goes from city to city through the valley.]
And the San Joaquin Valley is in a natural cul-de-sac, cut off from the south by mountains and mired in a 19th century agricultural economy. One of the biggest benefits of the HSR project is reconnecting the Central Valley with SoCal to allow a modern economy to develop.
While limiting the number of stops helps keep the average speed high, providing more connections helps keep revenues high. The train has to at least serve the big five; Bakersfield, Visalia, Fresno, Modesto and Stockton; plus possibly Merced.
Asking the people of the Central Valley to drive to their destination to board the train is not going to improve the transportation options for the people who could be the key to profitable ridership.
And now, from a reader who was traveling in Europe as he sent the message. He responded a comment from a previous reader, who had said: "The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam." This latest reader, Robert Mahnke, replies:
I don’t know why this sentence really bugged me, but perhaps it’s because it reflects a mistaken belief that we are doomed to live in poorly designed cities because it’s our birthright, rather than a choice we have made.
I am in Brussels, and arrived here by the Eurostar last night after spending several days at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel in London, located on top of St Pancras station, so right now I am very much appreciating the planning decisions made around rail in Europe.
Of course, most European cities were *not* built around train stations. Londinium was the capital of Roman Britannia. Frankfurt, Hannover and Amsterdam all date from medieval times. Steam trains were a nineteenth- century innovation. To build train stations in these cities surely involved expensive, disruptive engineering projects. (Conversely, American cities like Denver, Phoenix and Tulsa *did* grow up around railroads.)
Amsterdam is an example. Amsterdam Centraal station was built in 1889. In his history of the city, the Dutch journalist Geert Mak laments the decision to build it essentially in the city’s harbor, blocking the city’s waterfront on the IJ. [JF note: I was in Amsterdam last week when I received this message; the IJ, pronounced roughly "eye," is the lake/bay to the city's north.] Since then, reclamation projects have filled in much of the IJ around the city, so modern maps make it hard to see what he means, but here is a 16th-century view of the city:
The perspective is from over the IJ — reflecting that Amsterdam’s trade was with the sea (and the Amstel River), not over the swampy land. If you look at a modern map (the IJ is to the north and west), you’ll see that the train station was built in the harbor, cutting off the city from the IJ:
So as Mak writes, it was a large and hard choice to put Amsterdam’s train station where it is.
Amsterdam Centraal is not at the center of downtown, surely because it would have been so disruptive to site it there. Typically, one doesn’t find train stations at the very center of cities. For older cities, it’s surely because the demolitions that would have been necessary didn’t make sense. So you find multiple rail stations at somewhat more peripheral locations, e.g., in London:
Which is to say that European planners confronted the same problem of building railroads into a built environment that HSR rail now faces. US cities that predate the railroad are similar. I grew up in Boston, where you go to North Station for a train to Portland and South Station for a train to New York.
Much of the reason that it feels like some of these cities were built around the train stations is that later public transit serves them so well. When I go to Amsterdam, I can take HSR from Brussels or Cologne and get onto a tram, and if I then fly out of Schiphol, there’s a fast and convenient train from Amsterdam Centraal right into the airport terminal. When I landed at London Heathrow the other day, I got right on the Underground’s Piccadilly line and got off at St Pancras / Kings Cross station, and my hotel was next door. (And not every European city does it right. When I fly to Berlin, I have to take a cab from the airport. But getting it right is not a uniquely European phenomenon. You can take the El in Chicago right to an O’Hare terminal.)
It is possible to “retrofit” cities to make this work. The Silver Line didn’t exist when I last lived in Boston. I flew back and forth from SFO to Logan on a recent weekend to bring my kids to their grandparents. I got on a Silver Line bus a curbside, and it took me via dedicated lanes to South Station, where I got right on the Red Line to Cambridge. When I went back, it worked just as seamlessly.
California’s struggles with HSR make me wonder if our political system gives too much power to those who would block public-works projects. That said, I will also say that I have been in both Singapore and Beijing recently, and in both cities it seemed to me that the political system makes bad redevelopment too easy. Two cities apparently at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but both downtowns were full of massive projects which made no sense to a pedestrian at street level but might have looked great to someone arriving in a limousine.
Still to come in the series: some reader mail critical of the project, some other international and historical comparisons, and my own "this I believe!" explanation of why on balance I think this is an investment worth making and a risk worth taking for the state.
1. A colleague at TheAtlantic made a major journalistic error this week. As he has himself admitted, in the first half of a post on our site. Of course, I am talking about David Frum, who sent out a series of tweets that flat-out and falsely claimed that The New York Times had highlighted a “faked” photo of Palestinian casualties. Frum was entirely wrong; the photo was all too real; and now Frum has apologized, to the photographers and for his snap misjudgment.
I am late to this discussion because I have been out of the country, in Europe, for a week (and still am) and only learned about it today. I want to say something about the case not to make further trouble for Frum, with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others and am on friendly terms. Nor do I mean to offer anything like an official statement from TheAtlantic, which it is not my place to do.
Rather I want to emphasize a point about journalism that is often misunderstood or overlooked, especially when reporters are attempting to chronicle events as gruesome and politically white-hot as those in Gaza now. I am talking about something at the center of our purpose as journalists, which this episode highlights in the clearest possible way.
2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.
People in this business exist to witness, and to report. Those in this business can tell themselves: As a reporter I saw people doing their work, abusing their power, helping their friends, creating their businesses, doing this and that and whatever is significant in the world. I saw this with my own eyes. As a reporter, I heard people, with my own ears, answer questions, explain their views, avoid or embrace the truth. As a reporter, I traveled to see what a city, a prison, a factory, a war zone actually looked like, up close. All reporters get things wrong and have imperfect information and are "unscientifically" swayed by what they happen to observe or miss. But they are generally trying their best to see more.
Having observed all this, a reporter naturally wants to tell everyone what he has seen, and heard, and found. But the desire to tell, and be listened to, is the second most-powerful impulse among reporters. The desire to see—to hear, to experience, to ask, to attempt to know—is the most powerful of all.
Let me give you two examples, both involving people now at TheAtlantic, and both involving the question of “faked” or real victims of violence in the Middle East.
3. Ten years ago the man who is now TheAtlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for TheNew YorkTimes. There was an episode between Israeli forces and Palestinians; a number of the Palestinians ended up dead. But why? And killed by whom? As a reporter Bennet went out to see the bodies. His story began:
Set in fields of white, pink and red carnations, the giant cooler here, which usually holds vegetables or flowers for sale to an Israeli company, has been turned over to the dead.
It was to this cooler that, inevitably, the Palestinian doctor came Wednesday morning, when, just as inevitably, the latest Israeli Army raid touched off a parallel struggle to define reality. Were there, in fact, children among the dead, as the Palestinians claimed? How many? Did they die from Israeli sniper fire or from militants' explosives?
The doctor, Ahmed Abu Nikera, had had enough of these questions. In the dank, shadowy room, he yanked and pulled to open the bloodstained white cloth wrapping one of the bodies as tightly as a mummy.
''This is a child,'' he said, after he revealed the pale gray face of Ibrahim al Qun, 14. ''This is the exit wound.'' He pointed at the ragged, softball-sized black hole where the boy's left eye had been. A sniper's bullet entered at the back of the boy's head, he said....
Dr. Nikara untied a cord binding the cloth around [another] child's neck, then pulled back Asma's hair to reveal a hole the size of a half dollar over her left ear -- an exit wound. She had no sign of shrapnel wounds.
''This is what the Israelis call an accident,'' the doctor said.
[This child's brother] Ahmad lay in the flower cooler. He had a similar hole in his head, above his right ear, and he did not have shrapnel wounds.
If you read the full story, you will see that James Bennet emphasizes the murkiness and unknowability of the situation as a whole. But he knows what he saw—the little bodies, the entry and exit wounds—and he tells us that directly, with the authority of a first-hand witness, with no “some people claim” equivocation. If someone 5,000 miles away would speculate, "You know, I bet a lot of this is fake," a reporter like Bennet could have replied: At some other times, a lot of it might be. But I was there, and you were not, and I am telling you what I saw. (For the record, I did not tell James Bennet that I planned to mention this article of his.)
4.Now, the other example. About a year before Bennet’s piece, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun, I was in Israel, learning about another bitterly disputed death. This was the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy in Gaza who, according to many Palestinians and other Arabs, had been mercilessly shot by Israeli soldiers as he crouched in terror behind his father. The episode was so famous that the image of the frightened and martyred boy was shown on postage stamps from some Arabic states. But according to another narrative, the boy was not shot by Israeli soldiers—and perhaps had not been shot at all, the whole episode being staged to reinforce a "blood libel" against Israel for its willingness to slaughter gentile children.
You can read the details of what I found in the resulting article, "Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?" The similarity with James Bennet's story is that I wanted to see for myself. Not the boy, which was impossible, but as much forensic information as was available, and people who had looked into the case. My conclusion, based on what I saw and heard, was that some things were knowable: in particular, that the boy could not have been shot by the IDF soldiers known to be in the area. The physics of trajectories, sight lines, and bullet damage did not match up. What did happen to the boy—still living? accidentally shot? shot intentionally by soldiers in some other location, or by someone else?—was unprovable at the time (I asserted) and might never be known.
5. This last point brings us back to David Frum. Both my story and James Bennet's touch on the reality Frum raises in the second part of his post: that images of bloodshed, warfare, and atrocity have often been manipulated for propaganda ends. This has happened as long as there have been images, and it frequently happens now in the Middle East.
It is because of that possibility that James Bennet wanted to see the little bodies in the morgue. And because provocative imagery is sometimes faked, a few people I interviewed in Israel and the United States claimed that it must have been faked in the al-Dura case. The boy could not possibly have been shot! The whole thing was staged by the "Pallywood" propaganda film industry.
People argued to me then, and a decade later are still arguing via email and letters, that a Pallywood staging hadto be the explanation. They thought I was naive and gullible to think otherwise. From my point of view, I was applying normal skepticism. Yeah, maybe it was Pallywood. But where's the proof?
Erik Wemple argues in a very tough critique of Frum's claims for The WashingtonPost that imbalanced, one-sided skepticism was the main problem with Frum's apology. He was willing to believe the worst about the motives and standards of the nation's leading news organization, while accepting at face value some Pallywood-style fantasies about all-fronts fakery. (Ali Gharib spoke at length with one of Frum's original sources. The results are fascinating. Bag NewsNotes also applies a convincingly skeptical view to this source. For the record, I have also seen tips from this source but didn't write stories about them because I didn't find them believable.)
6. Now, at last, the real issue. Most of us argue about Gaza from a safe distance. Meanwhile people there are being killed, injured, displaced, and terrified—the vast majority of them of course Palestinians (more than 96 percent of all deaths so far) and also Israeli soldiers and some civilians. The Israeli soldiers are there because of national policy; the Palestinians of Gaza have no choice. But also there with them, exposed to danger, are relief workers and reporters, determined to see what is happening, and through their broadcasts and their photos and their articles and their interviews to convey that reality to the rest of the world.
We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorify the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons.
But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they're just making things up—this could and would drive them crazy. I'm sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately misdiagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.
As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world. If he were, he would have known how grave an accusation he was making, and he would not have made it without being sure. I respect him for promptly* apologizing and saying that he had been wrong. And I have written this dispatch to express, and encourage, respect for the reporters in the Middle East and elsewhere now taking risks to tell us what they have seen.
* Several readers have noted that the apology came six days after the original tweets, so I shouldn't have written "promptly" the first time. The rest of the sentence stands.
Also Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes has written to ask that he be given full credit for the original demolition of the "source" on which Frum wrongly relied. Even though this isn't really the subject I was writing about, I know how frustrating it can be to have broken a story and not get credit for it, so I am happy to point readers to Shaw's original post.
"The collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system." Scientists on what can happen when you run.
Over the years I've mentioned the famous and fascinating running-related videos from Daniel Lieberman's Skeletal Biology Lab at Harvard. But I haven't done so in a while, and in the context of recent finger-shoe news it's worth highlighting them again. This is also a way of thanking people who keep sending me links to them.
Videos like the ones below are slow-mo studies of how a runner's legs and feet look, and how the body absorbs stress, with different running styles. The main contrast is between landing on the front part of your foot, as almost anyone naturally does when running barefoot, and landing on the heel, as almost anyone naturally does while walking and which today's thickly padded shoes encourage for running as well.
Here's one of the videos showing the biomechanics of "forefoot strike" running. Its main point is that the impact of landing and pushing off is spread out over a longer period, and buffered in force (mainly by the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, and arch of the foot), compared with the sudden shock of landing on the heel.
Here, for contrast, is the way heel-strike running looks, with padded running shoes.
As part of the explanation on the site says:
Our research indicates that humans were able to run comfortably and safely when barefoot or in minimal footwear by landing with a flat foot (midfoot strike) or by landing on the ball of the foot before bringing down the heel (forefoot strike)...
Most runners who wear standard running shoes usually heel strike, [in which] ... the collision of the heel with the ground generates a significant impact transient, a nearly instantaneous, large force. This force sends a shock wave up through the body via the skeletal system. In forefoot striking, the collision of the forefoot with the ground generates a very minimal impact force with no impact transient.
Therefore, quite simply, a runner can avoid experiencing the large impact force by forefoot striking properly.
There is a lot more on the site, which I will simply steer you toward rather than trying to summarize. The larger point, again, is that barefoot-style running, and the "minimalist" shoes that encourage it, can be easier on your whole system—if you're able to adjust to run that way. The recent no-questions-asked trial offer for the best known minimalist shoe is a chance to find out whether your running style, and these shoes, are a plausible match.
For those joining us late: California's controversial High-Speed Rail project is worth paying attention to, no matter where you live. While everyone moans about America's decaying infrastructure, this is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project anywhere in the country. Its outcome has a bearing on Jerry Brown's current campaign for a fourth term as governor. It also shows something about our governments' ability to undertake big, complicated efforts—and our public ability to discuss and decide on these issues.
But the place where people are already paying closest attention is California's Central Valley, where the first links in the north-south chain would be laid. As everyone in the state knows, the broad valley that runs from near Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south contains some of the world's most productive agricultural territory. It also contains many of California's most distressed communities. If the recent suggestion to split California into six separate states ever took effect, which it won't, the new state of Central California would likely become the nation's poorest, replacing Mississippi. People in many of these communities also cope with the nation's most polluted air. As a reminder, from a chart I've used before:
Dan Richard, chairman of the High-Speed Rail Authority explained early in this series that for legal, technical, and financial reasons the construction would not begin in the population centers of LA or San Francisco. Instead it would start by connecting points within the San Joaquin Valley, which is the part of the Central Valley running from the Sacramento area south toward Bakersfield. Some farmers there are bitterly opposed to the project, saying that it would cost too much precious farmland. Richard and others contend—convincingly, from my point of view—that more farmland will get chewed up by road-building and sprawl if the state does not develop a viable rail option. For now, let's hear from some readers in and around this part of the state.
1) The benefit will be greatest in areas that really could use the help. From a reader who works in Fresno, the largest city on the inland north-south route:
I recently read part 5 of your series on the California High-Speed Rail project and noted a glaring omission - no reader was from the San Joaquin Valley (SJV).
This matters to me because I live in the SJV (reside in Tulare, work in Downtown Fresno) and I believe that one of the most compelling arguments for the project are the huge benefits HSR will have on SJV, one of the state's fastest growing regions. The current population of the SJV is just under 4.1 million, which by itself exceeds the population of 25 other states in the country.
Most of the readers that do not support HSR in your piece, and a popular topic among critics, mention the L.A to S.F commute. Now, while Prop. 1A mentions the non-stop requirement from L.A to S.F, the greatest utilization of HSR, in my opinion, will be the much shorter trips (i.e. Fresno to S.F, Bakersfield/ Palmdale to L.A).
The cost-benefit of this project is much greater for the SJV cities. They will be connected like never before to the state's major metropolitan areas. Tedious drives with a roundtrip travel time of 6-8 hours will be reduced to 3 hours. Neglected city cores will be redeveloped, new businesses will move in, residents will have the opportunity to seek new job opportunities in S.F/L.A, and most importantly all of this will be the game changer the SJV needs to diversify it's agriculture based economy.
The SJV, even during good times and in wet years, suffers from chronic high unemployment, usually double-digits. In order for California to succeed, this region of 4 million people also needs to succeed. HSR provides that opportunity through the new long-term jobs that will be sparked by HSR and the stations located in the city cores. The SJV usually gets neglected in Sacramento and here's a perfect opportunity to get noticed.
For me, this is the main reason why I believe that the California High-Speed Rail is vital and necessary to California's future.
2) Isn't California going to need some big new transport anyway? From a reader in the home city of the University of California's latest branch:
I live in Merced, with strong ties to both the Bay Area and San Diego. A couple of things that I'm curious about, that I think would make a big difference in this debate
1) Airports. How much more growth can Bay Area and Southern California airports support before we need to spend billions of dollars on some type of infrastructure project? Are existing intrastate flights crowding out connections with Asia? It seems like that could have huge ramifications for the California economy.
2) Central Valley demographics. People envision High Speed Rail as a pet project for liberal elites...but between Bakersfield and Modesto, it seems like the greatest demand would be from people who don't take car ownership for granted, and definitely not one car for every adult member of a family. Is that what's already driving Amtrak's California routes to be some of the most heavily used in the country?
And many of the people writing in seem confident that Central Valley jobs are so diffuse that no train station could be conveniently located for commuters...but is that actually the case? I honestly have no idea where most people work in Merced, but a lot of major offices seem to be located downtown.
3) Rail travel time is "good" time. Travel by car or air is not. From a reader in the SF Bay Area:
As a CA resident, [these exchanges are] changing my thinking about the value of HSR. Still concerned about many of the obstacles presented, but the point about leveraging land development near the stations and right-of-way rights along the route was new to me.
One relevant aspect that I don't see being included is an assessment of relative productivity between the travel options. As a former resident of San Luis Obispo I often took AMTRAK to LA and San Diego when its schedule happened to align with mine (not nearly as often as I'd have liked due only one trip a day without getting on/off a bus connector) and now as a resident of NORCAL I often commute into SF via the ferry from Vallejo.
In both cases I found my productivity during the travel to be very high -- comfortable seats, tables available, able to walk/stretch periodically, food service, WIFI (not-so-much on AMTRAK but iPhone hotspot solves that shortcoming), not to mention pleasant scenery going by -- that what appears on paper to be a long commute is transformed into a "What? At my stop already?" highly productive and enjoyable experiences. There's no comparison to the level of productivity when traveling by car or commercial airliner.
As before, I'm mainly quoting readers rather than arguing or annotating along the way. But let me underscore the final point in this reader's note.
Three hours door-to-door for a plane flight, versus three hours on a train, sounds like the same time-cost for getting where you're going. But in reality they're entirely different experiences. Much of your time for air travel is "bad" time. You're in a cab on either end, you're waiting in an infinity of lines in between, you have all the other charm-free elements of today's airline experience. If you're driving, it can be more enjoyable, but you're not supposed to be reading, typing, etc. By contrast, nearly all of your time on a train trip is "good" time, even allowing for the cattle-car experience of waiting to board at New York's godawful Penn Station.
From another reader on just this point:
I have for years commuted on the Amtrak San Joaquin from the Bay Area to my home near Yosemite.
Got no complaints. WiFi works. People are nice. Serviceable bus connection to Mariposa/Yosemite at Merced. No complaints. The bullet train will not really cover that route, but I don't care.
And still on this point:
I took the Tokyo to Osaka "bullet train" in 2000, and this week, I took the DB ICE train from Frankfurt to Stuttgart. If the LCD display hadn't shown our speed (240 Km/hr), I wouldn't have known it -- the ride was that smooth.
The post-WW II explosion of the suburbs really complicates intra-metro light rail, but we certainly have a case (IMO) for more inter-metro high speed rail to reduce ground and air traffic congestion.
4) "We've effectively paralyzed ourselves." To round things out for now, a reader outside California on the larger political questions the project raises:
I think one thing that stands in HSRs way, not just in California but nationally, is that our system has too many intentional and unintentional choke points, so that we've effectively paralyzed ourselves.
Eminent domain proceedings are expensive (as is the land that the project will sit on) and time consuming, and there are enough ways for community organizers of both the positive and negative sort to kill most projects via NIMBYism or on other grounds.
While we've pulled off several impressive civil engineering feats recently, we haven't, as far as I can remember, done anything really new, in the sense of expanding capacity, in perhaps the past twenty years. Most of the major civil engineering projects have been replacements or augmentations of existing (pre-1980) infrastructure, along with some infill development to expand capacity on pre-existing things.
As I say, I think a large part of this is because we have too many kill points built into our system, so that it's almost impossible to achieve the consensus necessary to build a truly new project. However, there are two other important factors that I think also explain our lack of "new" infrastructure.
First, we already have picked a lot of low hanging fruit. China and the rest of the developing world can absorb a lot of new highways and the like, because they're building from scratch. We already have a well built highway system, with Interstates that extend to even the most remote areas of the Dakotas and Montana, linking all of our major and most of our minor cities. Our rail system is terrible for passenger traffic, but for freight, it's second to none in terms of efficiency, thanks in part to our large loading gauges.
Secondly, disruptive infrastructure is more disruptive when it's disrupting something valuable, and we have a lot of money tied up in existing infrastructure, to the point that it's prohibitively expensive to reroute things.
Consider the Tappan Zee bridge, which was originally located where it was in order to circumvent the Port Authority's jurisdiction on trans-Hudson bridges. The replacement bridge, which is scheduled to open in 2018, stands right next to the original, because trying to use the more efficient southern routing was deemed too expensive and disruptive, so they just repeated the mistakes of 50 years ago.
Indeed, this is a large part of why the CA HSR project is supposed to go to the city limits, rather than the city center. Starting to tear up houses and apartments at $1M and $2M a pop gets very expensive very quickly, especially when you have people who are fighting it in court...
Finally, I think there is some justified skepticism about how the government, especially at the state and federal level, contracts and supervises these projects, especially in terms of cost control, though this problem isn't unique to those levels of government, or to civil infrastructure projects in general... Perhaps the new overachievers in local government that you referenced in one of your prior posts will be able to make headway on this.
Nonetheless, I do think you're right that large infrastructure projects are often criticized more harshly than perhaps they should have been, particularly in terms of their societal merit, since most infrastructure projects don't capture the full value of the benefits that they create (nor should they).
For the record: This post is No. 6 in a series. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri.
These are a newer, fancier version of the shoes I've used for years. (
I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes, as I have made clear every so often. I was wearing my trusty Vibrams when I passed the "Haynesworth Test" four years ago. I've worn them as I evolved past an uncomfortable era of Achilles tendon problems into a time of happily injury-free running. Two months ago I was among those saying that a highly publicized court settlement, in which Vibram set aside $3.75 million to compensate people who felt they'd been misled about health benefits of the shoes, showed more about our legal system than it did about this footwear.
The point about these shoes has always been: they're exactly right for some people, and wrong for others. It all depends on running style. If you naturally run with a "forefoot strike"—that is, landing on the front part of your foot, as nearly everyone does when running barefoot—or if you can adjust to run that way, the shoes are great. If you run with a "heel strike," landing on the back of your foot, which is the style that heavily padded modern running shoes encourage and which some people cannot change away from, then finger shoes don't make sense. You'll feel like you're breaking your heels.
But how can you know for sure, without trying? That has been Vibram's challenge all along—or so I know after an out-of-the-blue conversation with the company's U.S. CEO, Mike Gionfriddo, and his associates. (Vibram is based in Italy; its overall CEO is Antonio Dus. Readers with experience in the U.S. military will know the Vibram name in another context, since it produces outersoles for U.S. combat boots.)
Gionfriddo and his Vibram team pointed out that the company dominates its category, that of minimalist shoes, but the category itself is perhaps 1% of all sports-shoes sales. Their aim is to get more people to give finger shoes a try.
So they said they had a new plan. For the rest of this year, all shoe sales via their web site will come with an unconditional full-refund offer, if for any reason you turn out not to like running in them. To quote a message I got from the company:
We believe in our product and think that those who try the minimalist approach will become believers as well. To show our commitment, we’re making a guarantee: for anyone who purchases a pair of FiveFingers from July 22 until the end of the year through the website (VibramFiveFingers.com) and aren’t satisfied after six weeks with the experience – for any reason – we’ll take the shoe back and return a full refund.
I asked what they'd do with returned shoes. They said they would clean them up and donate them to organizations that might use them. Then I asked how and when they planned to publicize the offer. They said, "Well, we are making the announcement to you now."
And I, in turn, am making the announcement to any interested readers: If you'd been tempted by the idea of these odd-looking finger shoes, you now have a way to try them at no economic risk. Over to the Vibram web site for more.
For the record: I have no connection with the company whatsoever except as a satisfied repeat customer. I'm passing on the information not as an advertisement, though obviously I like my shoes, but because it's a significant development in controversies about this type of shoe. Also, no matter the subject, reporters always enjoy having a little scoop.
Update Broader perspective on the whole "minimalist shoe" question at Runner's World.
As a reminder: California's plan to build a north-south High-Speed Rail (HSR) system is the most ambitious and important infrastructure project now being contemplated anywhere in the United States. It has also become one of the most controversial. Jerry Brown, now running for an unprecedented fourth term as governor, has stuck with HSR as his signature/legacy project.
He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Representative Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Majority Leader, who is trying to deploy federal leverage against the plan, as described in this NYT piece. He has also run into resistance from his own lieutenant governor, the former mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom. (Both are Democrats, but this is very much a Jerry Brown rather than a Brown-Newsom administration. Newsom, in his mid-40s, is part of the generation of politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort of statewide officials, now ages 73 through 81, to move on.) And there is resistance on a variety of other fronts.
In four previous installments, we've heard: some of the rationale for the plan; some of the most frequent criticisms; and some of the responses from the man Jerry Brown chose to oversee the project. For reference they are No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4.
Today, 10 views from 10 readers. Actually, there are a lot more than 10 views in what you'll see below! This is a small sampling of the mail that has come in, which I've chosen to reflect main or recurrent themes. Here we go:
1) "Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward." From a reader in the tech industry in the SF Bay area.
Earlier this year I took EuroStar from London to Paris—my first time doing so since I moved to the US seven years ago. Two moments I remember vividly:
1) I checked the times and prices on their website, internalized them, opened a new tab in Chrome, and then realized that there was nothing to type. I'm so accustomed to having a myriad of choices when flying within the US that my brain instinctively says "OK, option 1 understood, now let's look at option 2". But there is no alternative to eurostar when traveling from central London to central Paris, unless you have lots of time to spare. So I booked the eurostar—the price was reasonable, and the schedule had hourly trains.
2) Seeing the English countryside woosh by, being in the tunnel only twenty minutes, and then being delivered to the heart of Paris. I was in awe of how pleasant an experience travelling between two cities can be.
Putting these together: I see that I, as a consumer, value choice and competition, but when lack of choice/competition is the necessary cost of undertaking very ambitious projects then I'll happily accept that compromise. Highly ambitious projects leap civilization forward, whereas choice and competition let me save a few percent at checkout.
2) Let's leap forward, but to self-driving cars.
I'm a fan of Brown's high-speed train system, but the thing that will make the most difference in CA (I'm living in San Jose now) will be self-driving cars—not purchased by individuals, but rented by individuals for the time necessary to get them where they want to go.
I've been pushing the notion of an 2024 Olympics bid for the Bay area that would replace light rail expansion with thousands of self-driving cars. We've got Google; we've got Tesla. It's about time to get amateur drivers off the streets (i.e., all of us).
3) In theory, yes. In practice, no.
Just my two cents on your discussion about California HSR. I agree with your correspondent who said they support it in theory. I love the idea of high speed rail. I just have strong doubts given the cost and implementation strategy for exactly the reasons that person stated.
In addition, I just think if the goal is to reduce traffic congestion, the State could get a much better return for less money by investing in expansion and improvement of the existing rail services across the state. For example, the Metrolink commuter rail service in the LA region is very popular, but due to limited funds can only expand very slowly even though there is proven demand. Same with the LA metro-rail program, the Amtrak California service etc. etc.
4) Will it pay off in door-to-door travel? From a reader now on the East Coast:
Lived in both SF and LA for a total of 8 years combined and have taken the flight between them more times that I can remember.
Just looked on Kayak—$134 R/T from Oakland to Burbank, 4 weeks out. Both easy airports to use, arrive at the airport 1 1/2 hours ahead of your flight and the total travel time is 2 hours 45 minutes.
$81 billion to provide a service that will be much slower and more expensive than flying.
This particular HSR proposal is not only a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist, it is the mother of all pork barrel projects – lots of high paying jobs for something that no one needs, wants or will use.
I'm not going to comment on most of these, but here I'll add: this doesn't seem to be the right cost-and-time comparison. Air fares obviously rise when you change plans at short notice, and rail fares generally don't. Thus for a lot of business trips the air cost would be higher. And the "total" travel time leaves out the overhead of getting to and from the airports.
5) "Political ossification that prevents real vision":
As a frequent commuter to LA from Sacramento, I’ve had deep questions about the financial viability of the HSR. People choose their travel mode to LA from the Bay Area and Sacramento ... for different reasons:
Airplane: speed and convenience, with some pricing advantages in some cases. This is the true place for market share competition with HSR. These travelers are without a car when they arrive as they would be in the HSR. However LA is so decentralized and the mass transit system too complicated for a periodic visitor/tourist to use, so a downtown HSR doesn’t confer a real advantage over arriving at Burbank (the experienced travelers’ preference) or LAX. (Note also that the vaunted Bay Area transit system is only robust in the northern half—it’s as difficult as LA’s in San Jose environs.) Southwest Air seems able to meet any price challenge, and can be less costly than driving alone. Boeing’s recent foray into bio jet fuel indicates that airplanes may be able to reduce their GHG emissions even more significantly...
Auto: cost, spontaneity and convenience on arrival. Avoiding rental car costs of nearly $50/day is an important consideration, and traveling in a group is always less expensive than an airline ticket. The HSR will have almost NO penetration into this market—I have not seen an financial projections that show ticket prices competing with driving instead of airplanes. And if EVs are as successful as the ARB AB 32 Scoping Plan envisions, driving costs will drop precipitously, so the HSR is even less likely to There is currently little congestion outside of the Bay Area and the LA Basin (and that HSR riders will be driving around means there will be no relief there) and if congestion arise in the Central Valley, expanding I-5 and Hwy 99 from 4 to 6 lanes (or creating a separate truck-only road along I-5) will quickly address that problem.
Which brings me to two key issues I have not yet seen discussed:
1) The real pollution problem in the Central Valley is not auto travel between the Bay Area and LA. Trucks making the I-5 trek are a much bigger source, and agriculture, oil production and local traffic probably overwhelm the Bay Area/LA traffic stream, particularly since autos emit less criteria pollutants per mile at freeway speeds. I don’t see the HSR will make a real dent in the overall emission levels.
2) Viewing the HSR in isolation from EV penetration and airline bio jet fuel use illustrates a much larger problem in California: The failure to analyze the interplay among different emission reduction strategies. The Scoping Plan was a mess this way—it was clear that reductions in one sector would reduce the potential emissions in another, but the Plan failed to account for this effect. The HSR probably is not cost effective when compared to other measures in this manner, and the GHG allowances probably could be used much more effectively in other ways (e.g., mitigating AB 32 price increases on low income consumers). A comprehensive, holistic analysis is completely missing.
It’s also naïve to think that there will be any train ridership between Fresno and Bakersfield for the first leg just at one reader noted. There’s no advantage for train travel because there is parking shortage in either place and no real traffic congestion except briefly at rush hour ....
I’m afraid that California is going to kill HSR just as it did electricity restructuring and GHG cap and trade programs. I generally supported both of those, but the state’s execution reflects the growing political ossification that prevents real vision.
6) "Infrastructure is the real thing. Yet we are behind ... even the French!"
I'm so glad you've taken up this issue. I do hope that it broadens into a deeper discussion of the need for infrastructure investment throughout the country...
The word "infrastructure" gets thrown around like so many metaphors which become mindlessly absorbed into a kind of bureaucrat-ese; they make the speaker sound knowledgeable and on the inside. (Like referring to hotels and movies as "properties" as if speaking clinically about such things elevates the speaker to the dispassionate management elite.)
But "infrastructure" is as close to a literal metaphor as anything I can think of. If you look at the development of this country, the movement west, the development of commerce throughout the interior of the country; it was all of it hung on the firm grounding of infrastructure. Initially the infrastructure was natural—Pittsburgh arose at the confluence of three great rivers. The Erie Canal brought commerce and development to interior NY state, eastern Ohio and the Great Lakes. See also the St. Lawrence Seaway. Would Duluth, Cleveland, Detroit, etc., have become anything without it?
Railroads made possible all of the great agricultural activities in the country's interior; so many towns arose simply because of the railroads. So many centers of commerce arose simply because of the interstate highways. (And so many in downtown cores were lost because of those same highways...) Regulated telecommunications made sure that the hard-to-wire regions of the interior nevertheless got reliable telephone service. Consider the questionable viability of all of the small towns in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, etc. had telephone service to them not been a regulatory requirement. See also air service in the regulated era. The level of commercial and domestic development on the interior of the country could not have happened had it not had all of that publicly financed or mandated infrastructure upon which to hang. And all of it depended in one form or another on public investment and subsidy. Even the railroads.
By comparison, look at us now. Whatever happened to the vast Greyhound and Continental Trailways bus network? It used to be possible to go most anywhere by passenger rail. The de-regulation of the airlines has caused the cessation of commercial air service to large numbers of smaller, but significant, centers of commerce. Interstate highways still provide access, but it's necessary to have an inefficient and expensive automobile to use it, absent some commercial service. And high-speed internet still remains elusive to rural areas that are not commercially viable on their own. If this is the result of the "free market," you can have it. We moved from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution specifically to have greater support for our national commerce.
Infrastructure is a real thing, and without it, the skin and the muscle and the sinews have nothing to hang onto, no grounding against which to leverage its force. Human activity won't go anywhere if there's no way for it to go.
The Reagan and neo-Reagan political era have brought with it a kind of auto-immune (clever pun?) disease in which government investment is reviled, and the country eats away at itself. (Correction. I guess we still find the benefit in public investment in our sports stadiums.) Our attitudes of public and regulated private investment for the benefit of the whole have to change, or we will, as we are, decay to a level from which it may not be possible to recover. Why can't we chant "USA! USA! USA!" and actually accomplish something other than tearing apart third world countries? Two and a half efficient and convenient hours from SFO to LAX? You betcha. I'll have more of that thank you!
High-speed rail technology has been available for 50 years. It is an embarrassment that we are so far behind ... even the French!!
7) "Why not start someplace more modest?"
I have lived in Southern California for most of my life except for a few college years in the Bay Area. I have driven and flown between the two metro areas more times than I could count over the past 50 years.
I remember the days when we would park a car at LAX on a Friday after work, walk into the terminal, buy a ticket and walk on the plane, then rent a car at SFO and be in downtown San Francisco in time for dinner.
Today, for a trip to SF you can figure an hour for each of the following:
-get to LAX and park
-allow an extra hour for delays in airport screening
-check in, screening and boarding
-rent a car at SFO
-drive to your destination in SF area
Total time: 6 hours
Driving time: door to door if you live north of downtown LA : 7 hours
How is the high speed rail going to make this faster? Eventually high speed rail stations will become giant messes like todays airports.
Door-to-door transit time is what counts. I would never think of flying to Las Vegas even though i live minutes from Orange County airport. And driving, is, of course much cheaper.
Rather than the HSR we should focus on the urban transportation infrastructures of getting people between airports and their homes; and, improving the nightmarish 'people-processing' situation at our airports. And, what the heck, go ahead and impose a $50 toll on single occupancy vehicles driving between LA and SF. I would still drive.
And, why not start with something more modest: build decent rail transport between Los Angeles and San Diego. No one flies between those two urban areas. You would displace a lot of auto traffic by building good rail service. It doesn't even have to be `high speed'. Current Amtrak, Coaster and Metrolink service is pathetic. Double track the entire distance between Orange County and San Diego; separate track usage between passenger and freight trains.
A brief reply here: the chairman of the HSR project, Dan Richard, explained in a previous round why the bond act authorizing the project required the first phase to go northward from Los Angeles toward San Francisco, rather than southward toward San Diego.
8) "The Valley is skewed toward short-term expectations."
Two thoughts: (A) the expectations from the Bay Area; (B) my concerns about access to stations.
(A) I think the [Silicon] Valley is skewed through short-term expectations from the tech startup world as well as instantaneous payback and financial self-support within 5-7 years. "How will it ever pay for itself" often only looks at the short-term revenue-from-tickets divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain—and not the ratio of industrial-impact divided by cost-to-build-and-maintain.
With Tech IPOs and mergers and acquisitions fueling a large percentage of people who live in the Bay Area, I heard few bankers saying: "I will pay a much higher price for the stocks because in 15-20 years this will create tons of jobs and prevent us from many mistakes." Furthermore, I'd like to remind people on the recent "star" IPOs and deals in Tech and BioTech:
• EPZM - market cap of 1bn, EV/EBITDA of -395.74
• XON - market cap of 2.3bn, operating margin of -213.13%
• FEYE - market cap of 5.16bn, operating margin of -118.94%, EV/EBITDA of -20.77
• BNFT - market cap of 300m, operating margin of -132.73%
• FUEL - market cap of 800m, EV/EBITDA -47.11, but an ok operating margin of -6.82%
• TWTR - market cap of 22bn, EV/EBITDA -32.67, operating margin of -92.54%
• KIN - market cap of 305m, no revenue.
• XLRN - market cap 836m, operating margin of -18.43%, $20m debt
• VMEM - market cap 356m, operating margin of -139.12%,
• CHGG - market cap 506m, operating margin -20.51%
But generally, look at the debt leverage of these companies as well, and think about what kind of assets are in the company. Sure, some patents, and for some of them actual biotech equipment, but FUEL is leveraged 11.45x, for example; VMEM is 9.34x leveraged at -31.62m levered free cash flow; CHGG has a -60.16m levered free cash flow.
I think by numbers alone the HSR might look better ;)
(B) The difference of HSR in Europe and Asia to the US is the access to the stations: European cities were built around train stations: see Frankfurt, Hannover, London, Amsterdam.
If I have to take a car to the train station somewhere in Oakland/Berkeley and then wait for a train that is coming up from San Diego with 1h delay (remember 500 miles! London-Brussels is only 225 miles with a single stop, etc.), just to end up far outside Sacramento and to take a bus in again, I might as well drive.
9) "A cowardly approach, but all we can hope for these days."
Interesting piece on the high-speed rail. May be worth noting that this 'build almost to where you want to go' seems to be a common dodge these days; a way to make it harder for governments not to fund the useful part of a project for Phase II. There are 2 examples of this approach in Seattle.
First, the light rail to the airport was first built, well, not to the airport. It stopped about a mile or two away. Of course, that lead to outcry, and guess what? The 'useful' part was ultimately built.
Same thing is happening with the replacement of the 520 floating bridge. [This is the Highway 520 bridge that crosses the northern end of Lake Washington.] A new, 6-lane bridge is being built from the east side. As it approaches Seattle, it will be joining into the existing, decrepit, 4 lane bridge. Anyone think the piece to actually connect this to I-5—the 'useful' part—will not be funded?
A cowardly approach to infrastructure work, which ultimately wastes money and results in sub-optimal designs, but I guess that's all we can hope for these days.
10) A chance for California to lead the way? From a reader in the Pacific NW, where California doings are often regarded with suspicion:
Thank you for your work on the California HSR system. I agree with your assessment that it is critical infrastructure work. I think there is another angle that you should bring up in a later piece: the path lighting that California is doing. If Cali succeeds, it will show that true HSR can be a success in America, unlocking the option for the rest of us. I was disappointed that the Obama administration was forced to take small actions on 110 mph trains in the Midwest instead of doing the bold but correct thing.
Here in the Northwest, we are watching eagerly. Like California, we have state sponsored trains (Amtrak Cascades) that are a very pleasant way to get around. It just happens that they are held up by having to share tracks with freight trains and are not as quick as they could be. There are many incremental improvements to be made, but a great leap forward may only be possible when inspired by success in California.
For the record: This post is No. 5. See also No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4. Also see the interactive map showing different planned construction phases of the project, put together by UC Davis, the HSRA, and the mapping team at Esri, here. Also for the record: there are two of these posts that come very close to expressing my own view on the project. More of that, and other pros and cons, to come.
Old but still functional Chinese biplane on the ramp at Zhuhai International Airport, two years ago. Around the corner are the very modern, but very often delayed, aircraft of China's commercial fleet. (James Fallows)
The point of my book China Airborne was that just about everything involving China's potential, and its challenges, could be seen in its ambition to become an all-fronts aerospace power.
Chinese scientists and officials are trying to advance their civilian space program, and also their network of military satellites. Their state planners and their industrial companies are trying to build big airliners, like Boeing and Airbus. They are trying to build smaller jet and piston airplanes, like Gulfstream and Bombardier and Cessna and Cirrus (the last of which the Chinese aerospace corporation now owns). They want Air China and China Eastern and China Southern to be prominent international carriers. They want the entirety of their huge country to be connected with airlinks, and toward that end they have been building nearly 100 new commercial airports (!) and working with advisers from the U.S. and elsewhere to devise ways to guide flights to airports in the remote and mountainous Far West.
Across the country you can find the Chinese equivalents to the Wright Brothers, and Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, and Howard Hughes and Juan Trippe, and Chuck Yeager and John Glenn, and Herb Kelleher (head of Southwest) and Fred Smith (of FedEx) and Sally Ride, and others—but all at the same time. (For more, the novelist Dana Stabenow had a nice review this week.)
Those are the opportunities. On the other hand, we have the obstacles. The most important of them is the one that is the obstacle for many other aspects of China's development: the old-line interests of security-minded state.
China has a huge demand for more airline routes and more business-air travel, but nearly all of its airspace is locked up by the military, which only grudgingly makes it available. China has amazingly few helicopters for a country of its scale. With four times as many people as the United States, its civilian helicopter fleet is roughly one-twentieth as large. (Roughly 10,000 in the U.S., versus around 500+ in China.) Chinese purchases of helicopters, mainly North American- or European-made, could quickly double or triple—except for military and police controls that restrict their use.
All of which brings us to today's news. In a few ways, travel on Chinese airlines is "nicer" than in the U.S. The planes are much newer, since the fleets have expanded so rapidly; the cabin crews are newly hired and more chipper; and the system still operates on the quaint assumption that they should give you something to eat.
But if you care about speed and predictability of travel, which is the main point of an airline system, China's airlines have serious problems. Even on good days, their scheduled flight times are slower than for comparable U.S. or European routes, precisely because the military lock on airspace makes them take less direct and efficient routings. And they are much more subject to delay—yes, even when compared with the U.S.
Thus we have this summer's air travel nightmare for China. The military has scheduled a bunch of aerial training exercises in upcoming weeks. These happen to be over the airports that serve China's largest population centers, and they happen to take place during the heaviest travel period of the year (apart from the annual "Spring Festival" migration, aka Chinese New Year.) If the civilian airports have to be closed during that time, tough! You can read the details from the New York Times, from CNN, and even from state-controlled China Daily(above). Also from the China Real Time blog of the WSJ, which reminds us that China's major airports are the worst in the world for flight cancellations and delay, and that delay-induced commotions, even riots, are increasingly common results.
Everything about China of the moment, and the medium-term future, involves this tension between the modernizing, liberalizing impulses and needs of its companies, entrepreneurs, universities, and citizens, and the fearful impulse toward ever-tighter control by parts of the government. That theme will give passengers something to reflect on as they wait out the delays at PEK or PVG.
I have received lots of mail on the technical aspects of the "Iron Dome" system: its origin, performance, strengths, and potential weaknesses, plus comparisons with its Patriot predecessors. Watch this space for follow-ups as more information becomes known.
But I intend this to be the last installment on the string begun with the powerful note from an American rabbi in Jerusalem, about his gratitude for Iron Dome protection as Hamas rockets were falling. I have received enough mail since then to be reminded that there is an inexhaustible supply of passionate but irreconcilable, and familiar, statements of who is "more to blame" for the escalating violence and who originally wronged whom.
For a sobering example, consider this recent CNN exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett. I have heard from people in Israel, America, and Europe who say that Bennett is speaking tough, plain, necessary truths. I have heard from others in those same places who think, as I do, that Bennett sounds appallingly callous about other people's loss of life—in this case, the deaths of the four little boys on the beach. Wolf Blitzer himself seems taken aback by what he is hearing. It's worth noting that Bennett features this clip on his own YouTube site.
I know that Bennett is not "representative," and that his fiercest critics are within Israel itself. I can name lots of American public figures I agree with even less. I know that there are plenty of people in the region and elsewhere who hatefully urge death to Israelis or Jews. But I mention this video because watching it reminded me, through its absence, of the quality of moral breadth, compassion, and bravery that distinguishes people willing to take risks for peace.
As a young staffer on the periphery, I saw this quality from both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at the Camp David negotiations in 1978 (not to mention Jimmy Carter's role, as recently portrayed by my friend Lawrence Wright in the play Camp David). The lasting tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination (like Sadat's) is that he also had great courage and breadth, and unassailable credentials as a patriot who was strong enough to compromise. I am no one's idea of a Middle East expert, but I see no such figures on any side now.
With that, two further messages about the political and social ramifications of Iron Dome, both from people in Jerusalem.
First, from a woman who agrees with the rabbi:
I have lived in Israel for 21 years and in Jerusalem for the past 14. I long for peace and would vote tomorrow to give up the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state that would accept the existence of Israel and live in real peace with us.
I (literally) cry over the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians. But your reference to "rocket exchanges" obscures the fact that the Hamas - an Islamic terrorist group whose stated goal is to drive out (or worse) the Jews living in the entire territory of Israel - including the area within the Green line - started firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel's response was defensive. You can argue about the intensity of the response, but not about the need for a response and a forceful one.
As for Iron Dome, I too am grateful to all who designed, funded, built and operated it and I know that the Hamas leaders are in luxury hotels in Doha and Cairo or in underground bunkers while they leave their people exposed to Israeli air strikes.
When you write that many "vastly more Palestinian families have been killed..because of differences in offensive weaponry and defensive systems and other factors" you might mention that the "other factors" included the Hamas government's refusal to build shelters and defensive systems to protect their people, as well as their use of civilians as shields to hide behind when they shoot rockets at Israeli civilians.
Now, from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson of Jerusalem, who has explicitly asked me to identify him. ("I indeed wish to be mentioned by name, as I believe in the veracity of my claims and am willing to defend them.") He is director of programs for Molad, an Israeli think tank.
His message is personally very critical of the rabbi, which I know will be wounding. But since I have kept his (the American rabbi's) identity confidential, and since Dr. Sasson is taking responsibility for his critical views by name, and mainly since his statement is so powerfully argued, it seems fair to give him his say.
Hillel Ben Sasson writes:
Reading the words of the anonymous rabbi in recounting his fear in face the warning sirens alerting Jerusalemites of Hamas rockets, I was both enraged and ashamed.
I was enraged by the lack of comprehension he showed to the situation in which we - Israelis and Palestinians - have been living for as long as we remember. I was born in Jerusalem in 1979 and lived here for most of my life. An officer in the IDF still fulfilling my reserve duty, I have lived through three wars (Lebanon I - 1982; Gulf I - 1991; Lebanon II - 2006), two Intifada uprisings of the occupied Palestinians (1987; 2000) and three military operations in Gaza (Cast Lead - 2008; Pillar of Defense - 2012; Protective Edge - 2014). Some of these I experienced in uniform. I am also raising two young children in Jerusalem.
For us living here, the current military operation and the ongoing drizzle of rockets are neither unbearable nor threatening in an existential way. Iron Dome has enabled Israelis to continue with their normal lives neither terrified nor terrorized. While the Gazans are rained with high-precision ton-heavy bombs falling with no sirens or alert system, we in Jerusalem have heard three sirens in the past nine days, and witnessed no rocket falling.
When the siren went off in that Saturday afternoon mentioned by the rabbi, I was sitting with my family in a park right across to the Shalom Hartman Institute, compared in his narrative to an U-Boat under attack. From the park where we were picnicking, as it happened, I could see the rocket being intercepted several miles south to Jerusalem, above Hebron, and in contrast to the rabbi's Dresdenian depiction.
In a cross check with a senior Haaretz correspondent, it turns out that none of the rockets even got close to central Jerusalem - hits were located only around Hebron and Ramat Raziel (a village miles to the west of the city) probably a result of shrapnel from Iron Dome's interceptions. This gets nowhere near WWII (the very comparison is preposterous if not offensive to survivors of that terrible war).
I am enraged because the rabbi is presumably a tourist in my city and country, yet in the name of his spiritual and cultural connection to the holy land he feels free to act as its spokesman. By generalizing his personal sense of fear and acting as a spokesman for those who actually carry the burden of living in Israel, the rabbi grossly exaggerated the impact of Hamas terror on Jerusalem and portrayed it with unduly epic dimensions. In so doing, he distorts the actual power imbalance in this tragic situation, in addition to victimizing me and my fellow Israeli citizens.
As a society, we are a (powerful) side in this conflict, not a helpless victim. To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I am far from disregarding the fear and anxiety felt by many Israelis who are in the line of fire day after day. Writing about Jerusalem however - a city that witnessed three sirens and not even one hit of a rocket - in the way that the rabbi adopted is simply absurd. This absurdity might indicate that his experience is influenced less by concrete reality and more by his already existing perception of victimhood. And this brings me to shame.
The blinding victimhood embodied in the rabbi's comments is shameful because it points at an abject moral, spiritual and leadership failure. In the very same Jerusalem and on the very same days, young religious Jews have burnt alive an innocent Palestinian teenager, in the name of national revenge. In this very city, racist Jewish hooligans are marching every night, seeking Arab scapegoats, cracking down on other Jews who dare answer back to them, shouting slogans such as "death to the Arabs" and "A Jew has a Soul, and Arab is a son of a whore".
Where is the cry of this anonymous rabbi against these far more worrisome threats to our existence and future? How dare American rabbis who keep silent these days continue and call themselves religious shepherds? As an observant Jew, I am ashamed at how few were the courageous voices who took into heart the words of Rabbi A. J. Heschel who marched at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr.: "Few might be guilty - but all are responsible".
The rabbi's anonymity, it turns out, is but a metaphor for his inacceptable silence on the real enemies of the Jewish society in Israel - the extremist hateful enemies from within.
No, rabbi, you got it wrong. The rockets are not really scary nor are they a true existential threat. Racism, radicalism, and religious intoxication from brute power has become an imminent danger to our old and beloved peoplehood. When people are accustomed to hearing that they are perpetual innocent victims of Palestinian aggression, they eventually translate they frustration into rage and start seeking justice in revenge. If you continue looking up to the sky, you will not notice that the house is already burning from within.
Four other airlines flew along this Ukrainian route more frequently than the beleaguered flag carrier of Malaysia did. Would we make the same assumptions about negligence if the rocket had hit a Lufthansa airplane? The people to blame here are the ones who brought the plane down.
I have an op-ed in Saturday morning's NYT, whose title gets across its point: "Don't Blame Malaysia Airlines."
Short version: Airlines rely on regulators and national and international bodies to tell them about airspace they should avoid. Absent such warnings, airspace is presumptively legal and safe for transit. MH17 was following the rules by staying out of no-fly and warning zones. A terrible crime and disaster occurred, but that is not Malaysia Air's fault.
Shorter still: According to Spiegel (German version here), while some airlines, including Air France, had changed their routes to avoid Ukraine, most did not. Many other airlines took a path similar to the one on which MH17 was shot down, notably including Lufthansa. Here is Spiegel's chart of how many planes had gone this way in the week before yesterday's disaster;
Lufthansa, as flag carrier for that paragon of efficiency, Germany, had taken the route more often than did Malaysia Air. So too (according to Spiegel, with data from FlightRadar.com) with Singapore Airlines, famously high-end and responsible airline. Any of them could have met the fate that tragically befell the 298 people on MH17. Indeed, also according to Spiegel, some other first-world airliners were not far from MH17 when it was shot down. Somehow I suspect that if it had been a Lufthansa plane that was attacked, there would be fewer starting-point assumptions that the carrier had somehow been cutting corners at the cost of its passengers' safety. (Thanks to Chua Chin Hon of the Straits Times for noticing this graphic.)
Malaysia Airlines and its home country, where all of the flight crew and more than 40 of the passengers came from, are among the damaged parties in this case, not among those doing damage. Sympathies to them and all others affected by this catastrophe.
Update see the remarks from the always-sensible Patrick Smith at Ask the Pilot. Among his points:
It is fairly routine for civilian jetliners to overfly areas of conflict. Dozens of airline flights pass each day over Baghdad, for example (many of them land there). I’ve personally piloted flights over eastern Ukraine, close to where the Malaysia Airlines 777 met its fate on Thursday....
In a lot of respects these tragedies are less about air safety than they are about dangers and conflicts on the ground. If a government or rogue faction shoots down a commercial plane, is that really an “air safety issue”?
[Please see twoupdates below.] Many crucial questions about the tragic/disastrous apparent shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight in Ukraine are still unanswerable. Who did it? Why? With what warning? Or repercussions?
But at this point one question can be answered: Did aviation authorities know that this was a dangerous area?
Yes, they most certainly did. Nearly three months ago, on the "Special Rules" section of its site, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out an order prohibiting American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and everyone else over whom the FAA has direct jurisdiction, from flying over southern parts of Ukraine.
Here is how the "who this applies to" part of FAA NOTAM 4/7677 looked, in the ALL-CAPS typeface of many FAA communications and in the language the FAA uses to say "this means YOU!"
THIS SPECIAL FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATION (SFAR) APPLIES TO THE FOLLOWING PERSONS:
1) ALL U.S. AIR CARRIERS AND U.S. COMMERCIAL OPERATORS;
(2) ALL PERSONS EXERCISING THE PRIVILEGES OF AN AIRMAN CERTIFICATE ISSUED BY THE FAA, EXCEPT SUCH PERSONS OPERATING U.S. REGISTERED AIRCRAFT FOR A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER; AND
(3) ALL OPERATORS OF U.S. REGISTERED CIVIL AIRCRAFT, EXCEPT WHERE THE OPERATOR OF SUCH AIRCRAFT IS A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER.
And here is how the "these are the areas to stay out of" part of the order was written, everything specified as Longitude/Latitude coordinates:
(D), NO PERSON DESCRIBED IN PARAGRAPH (A) MAY CONDUCT FLIGHT OPERATIONS IN THE PORTION OF THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) FIR WITHIN THE FOLLOWING LATERAL LIMITS: 454500N 0345800E-460900N 0360000E-460000N 0370000E-452700N 0364100E-452242N 0364100E-451824N 0363524E-451442N 0363542E-451218N END PART 1 OF 4. 23 APR 22:30 2014 UNTIL 1504270001. CREATED: 23 APR 22:16 2014
FDC 4/7667 (A0012/14) - null AIRSPACE SPECIAL NOTICE UKRAINE 0363200E-450418N 0363418E-445600N 0363700E-443100N 0364000E-424400N 0361600E-424700N 0340000E-424800N 0304500E-434100N 0303200E-441500N 0302400E-444600N 0300900E-455400N 0322500E-454900N 0324700E-455400N 0330600E-455600N 0332700E-455900N 0332900E-THEN ALONG THE CRIMEA BORDER TO 454500N 0345800E.
Until only a few years ago, most FAA notices—of restricted air space, of special weather hazards, of other areas-of-concern—were promulgated in this same indecipherable Long/Lat form. Now the FAA distributes most information on U.S. airspace via easily understandable graphical overlays. For instance, its Special Use Airspace site, which you are supposed to check before every flight, gives you a color-coded illustration of all active military airspace, restricted zones, etc, at any given time. Here is how part of it looks right now, mainly showing active "Military Operations Areas" in the South. This is a screen shot, but on the real map you can click on each one to see its vertical limits. For instance, those large ones over northeastern Mississippi go from 8,000 feet upward, so we were able to fly under them in our recent visits to the "Golden Triangle" cities in the same area.
I have not yet seen a map that plots the Long/Lat points of the Ukraine no-fly order onto the route the Malaysian plane flew, and where it was apparently shot down. When I learn of one, I will provide an update. (Credit to Jad Mouawad of NYT for seeing this notice before I did.)
UPDATE This FAA notice appears to apply mainly to Crimea and the areas immediately to its north, all of which are south of the reported crash zone. So this rule would apparently not have prevented flights over the exact area of the crash, but it certainly was a sign of a general trouble zone. Thanks to Joel Koepp and other readers for plotting out the Long/Lat readings.
The point for the moment: the FAA "Special Rules" section tells U.S. pilots and aircraft not to fly over trouble spots ranging from North Korea to Yemen to Syria to Iraq. And since last April it has told them not to fly over certain parts of Ukraine.
Update-update Thanks to readers who have pointed me to another, later NOTAM, which warned planes about hazards in broader areas of Ukraine, apparently including those the Malaysian airliner flew across. The hazard this NOTAM warned against was possibly conflicting Air Traffic Control instructions from Russian and Ukrainian controllers. A sample of that NOTAM is shown below, with text here. For more information, try this site.