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.
Students at Xinjiang Provincial University, in Urumqi, before the Han-Uighur ethnic violence there in 2009. Students are on the left, and their Mandarin-as-second-language teacher is at right. (James Fallows)
Recent news out of China has involved crackdowns and seemingly looking-for-trouble international provocations, as mentioned here yesterday. The latest occasion for the crackdowns, including the scenes of jampacked subways that dominated many news shows yesterday, was the wave of recent terrorist violence in the vast western-frontier Xinjiang region of China.
Xinjiang is far closer to the Central Asian 'Stans than it is to Beijing or Shanghai, and its original dominant ethnic group is the mainly Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighurs, who look more like the people you might see across the border in Afghanistan or Tajikistan than those in the rest of China.
American coverage of violence in Xinjiang seems to alternate, switching between two simplifications we inevitably apply to foreign news. Sometimes attacks there are portrayed as part of worldwide jihad—this is a Muslim region, and during the Bush-Cheney era the U.S. joined China in classifying a major Xinjiang group as part of the worldwide terrorist threat. Sometime they are portrayed as part of dissident or regional resistance to central Chinese government control.
In a new essay in the LA Review of Books, James Millward of Georgetown University, one of America's real experts on the region, explains the tangles of Xinjiang's situation. Both of the standard views are partly true, but both are mainly beside the point, he argues. For instance (spelling the name Uyghur):
What is the relationship between the civil rights problem [for people in Xinjiang] and the terrorism problem? Are they linked? Some say so. Uyghur rights groups, while deploring the attacks, say that Chinese oppressive policies have led to the outbreak of Uyghur violence.
The Chinese government opposes this view, arguing that the sources of religious extremism and terrorism are external and unrelated to its own policies....
It’s likely that the truth lies in between: Chinese policies and never-ending crackdowns, especially since the 2009 riots, have created a climate in which some Uyghurs are more likely to heed twisted, pseudo-religious ideologies that advocate killing innocents to send a political message....
Why then the repeated gratuitous insults against Uyghur culture — false claims that Uyghur is a primitive language, thoughtless dismantling of Uyghur-language education, suspicion and persecution of private Uyghur-language instruction, compulsion of government workers to eat during Ramadan, prohibition of doppa caps and scarves?
I suspect that the Chinese leadership and some Chinese scholars who advise them are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. They increasingly feel that this distinctiveness is itself a source of the problem....
Even while the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.
The subject is likely to remain in the news, and Millward's essay is worth reading now and keeping on hand as a guide to the complexities.
For some previous installments, from when we were living in China and the Han-Uighur riots of 2009 were underway, please see this, this, and this, with links to other posts.
Students from the Mississippi School for Math and Science, performing historical re-enactment in honor of Emancipation Day.
Two emails came arrived within minutes of each other over the weekend. Both have to do with the reports my wife Deb and I have been doing from the "Golden Triangle" of Mississippi: the cities of Columbus, Starkville, and West Point. The reports started here, with a catfish fry; included this and this about schools and this and this about industry (and beer); and this about seeing small towns by air. There is more to come, from factories and from an orphanage and a college, plus a Marketplace report soon.
The two letters I'm quoting now are long but worth reading back-to-back. The first is from a man who grew up in the area—Lowndes County is one of three counties in the Triangle—and now lives several states to the north:
As a native of Lowndes County, MS and an alumnus of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, I wanted to let you know how thrilling it is to read the series of articles by you and your wife about my hometown and high school. I especially appreciate the clear lack of schadenfreude in the series so far. This is one of the few times in my adult life that I have had the privilege to read coverage of Mississippi in a national publication in which Mississippi was not used merely as a foil to highlight racial, social, or economic progress elsewhere. I understood perfectly what Joe Max Higgins meant by,"When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."
The population and income maps included with the most recent article are excellent, illuminating, and depressing. I'm curious to see whether you will further explore the intersection of race and economy in the Golden Triangle. I would love to know whether the benefits of the economic development in the Golden Triangle have accrued to blacks as well as whites. Does the economic development help race relations or strain them? I assume it's a mixed bag, but I would love to hear more details.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
Those questions of race and economy are in store for upcoming installments. For the moment, let's turn to the second letter, from a reader in New York. He said he had read some but not all of our Mississippi reports, and also has read Ta-Nehisi Coates's justifiably praised article on reparations:
[T]alking about the success of a few Mississippi towns in attracting industry where the average annual income is $14,000 and comparing this with the reparations article which provides a pretty severe indictment of Mississippi (not to mention Chicago, etc.) provides a hell of a contrast.
The theme that I find missing in your series is any recognition that the Southern states have been in a continuing economic war with the Northern manufacturing base for at least since the Civil Rights Act. Undermining and destroying unions has been a signature part of that strategy and it has been very successful. The great cities of the North have been hollowed out just as they were beginning to provide a haven for lower class families, not to mention the overall starvation of the middle class.
When I travel in the south among my all white family and friends who never interact with anyone more ethnic than a Catholic, I am struck by how rigidly that part of the world is regulated into two societies. Not as if this does not occur in cooler climates. In New York, however, there is no room for that.
Maybe I am missing the larger message in your series, and I know that you are averse to polemics, but I feel that glossing over the underlying original sin while applauding local civic restoration based on a depressed workforce and continuing segregation in schools and the workplace is not as helpful as you might like to be.
I try to avoid the "Oh, yeah?!" temptation to send nasty instant feedback to emails, and generally succeed. You never get in trouble for the peeved message you don't send. In this case I wrote right back, testily.
I didn't dwell on one point of detail I thought was completely wrong, the "never interact with anyone more ethnic" part. Having just come back in Mississippi, where I had spent a fair amount of time in the civil-rights-era late 1960s*, I was reminded of how much more cross-racial minute-by-minute exposure people are forced to have in the typical small Southern town than the typical big Northern city. Obviously this does not mean that race relations are more "equal." My point is simply that the big-city phenomenon of seeing mainly people like yourself all day long is harder to pull off in a small mixed-race town.
Instead I wrote back to say: Okay, would you like me to begin every dispatch with a reminder of Mississippi's troubled past? The Klan, the lynchings, Jim Crow? Don't you think people know this? He replied:
No, I don't think people "know" this. I think most people have a very short view of history which basically includes only those things that happened in their immediate observable universe. I also think that there are about 60 million people in the South who know this perfectly well and either deliberately ignore it, blame the victim, don't care because "those people" are not part of their tribe or are deeply invested in perpetuating it and all of whom benefit from it directly and live with that guilt. Not to mention those who still do the work of the Secessionists.
In the contrast between these notes are many of the themes and tensions of our politics now, and many generations in the past, and probably many generations to come.
* * *
As Ta-Nehisi Coates's article has underscored, we're dealing in the 21st century reverberations of divisions set up 300-plus years ago, in patterns of economics, agriculture, civic organization, and of course racially based slave-holding. Yesterday Andrew Sullivan posted a fascinating map reminding us how closely the blue/gray divisions of 150 years ago match the red/blue political divisions of today. Recently I posted a map showing that the parts of America where the highest proportions of African Americans live in the 21st century are the parts where Africans were brought to work as slaves several centuries ago. A reminder, via screenshot, with darker shadings meaning higher black proportions, and the three dots being the Golden Triangle.
As an illustration of another kind of persistence, consider this Esri "swipe map," which shows racial makeup on one side and obesity rates on the other. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map; zoom in to see county-by-county patterns. Darker shading on the right-hand map means higher African-American percentage; on the left-hand map, it means higher obesity rates. You'll see that in some parts of the country there's a strong correlation in the patterns; in others, not. (For instance, parts of Kentucky and West Virginia have relatively low black populations, and relatively high obesity rates.)
There are many books' worth of possible responses to the themes in these notes—as I am reminded by reading The Hamlet and Absalom, Absalom! for the first time since college. For now, two points only. One about journalism, and one about race.
* * *
The journalistic point involves what we are looking for, in Mississippi and the other places we are visiting for this American Futures project. Is it supposed to be a "balanced" or "comprehensive" view of America? No.
Through the years we were living in China, I never once imagined that my wife or I could offer a comprehensive view of what was going on. The country is too big, dynamic, unknowable, and contradictory for any sane person to dare that.
The U.S. is more familiar and knowable, at least for me, than China. But it is no less contradictory and complex. So I don't imagine for a second that I can offer a "balanced" view of this country of any of the places where we have spent a week or two.
But I can tell youthings I didn't know before we got there. And by both design and happenstance, more of those have been positive than negative.
By design, because we have been looking for smaller cities or areas where turnarounds of one sort or another have been underway. Downtowns that have come back; new industries that have started up where older ones had closed; schools that prepared students for jobs, or mobility in the broadest sense; places that have retained or revived a "thick" sense of civic engagement. Finding and reporting on these places doesn't eliminate America's countless other problems. But does anyone not know about those countless other problems? To me, successes at the moment are more interesting, more instructive, more "news."
By happenstance, because every place we've been—including, notably, the town where I grew up—has provided some surprise we'd had no idea of before arrival. Let's be specific about Mississippi. If you already knew that there was a big industrial boom underway in eastern Mississippi; and that a Russian company making steel and a European company making helicopters had decided this was the place to do business; and that there was a school like MSMS in the nation's poorest state, producing students who wrote essays like this—well, you're ahead of me. Neither my wife or I had any idea of this before our first trip a few weeks ago.
* * *
Now, the point about race, which is also the point about the Civil War and everything before and after.
Start with the nationwide comparison: Americans know, or should, that racial unfairness, starting with slavery, is the country's original sin and its ongoing social and political axis. It was at the heart of our bloodiest war. Countless other things are going on in America, many of them not at all connected to race. But many, from the pattern of our cities to the growth of our prison-industrial complex to the nature of our schools, are still obviously related to our long racial history.
We all know that, or should. But if some Chinese or German or Israeli sociologist shows up and says: "Here I am in America, and I observe that they have racial issues ..." Our natural response is: Thanks a lot for that great insight! That had never occurred to any of us. What can you tell us that's useful or new? As outsiders sometimes do, notably in this theme with An American Dilemma.
So too with the American South. For someone like me to show up in Mississippi and begin every dispatch by saying, "Here I am in the South, and I observe that they have a history of racial injustice ..." does not get anyone very far.
What we can try to do is observe the ways the schools, the industries, the churches, the institutions are evolving and operating in this environment, and their effect on the various groups living there. Which will be the point of some upcoming installments.
When not otherwise noted, any photos in our American Futures coverage are by me or my wife Deb Fallows, including the one at the top of this post.
* For the record: I happen to have spent two years of my toddlerhood in Mississippi. During the Korean War my dad was a Navy doctor, and he was posted to what was then the naval hospital in Jackson. As a teenager I worked for several months in 1968 for the Southern Courier civil-rights newspaper. It was based in Montgomery, but I spent much of my time covering voter-registration and food-stamp-rights efforts in Mississippi and Alabama.
Answer 1) Yes, this is bad. China and Vietnam have a long, mutually suspicious history—a point overlooked by many Americans, given the Chinese-North Vietnamese collaboration during America's time in the vicinity. The last real war the People's Liberation Army fought was against Vietnam, and it lost very badly. (The Chinese suffered almost half as many casualties, in a few weeks' battle against Vietnam, as the U.S. did in its 10-plus years.) Presumably whoever is in charge on each side will find a way to calm this down rather than letting it unfold into another shooting war. Presumably.
Answer 2) Yes, this is bad. Recall that a commercial-airline passenger recently reported a brush with death when two planes came within five to eight miles of each other. Recall too that when a Chinese fighter hit a U.S. military-surveillance plane early in 2001, it was a major source of tension between the U.S. and China—who are on lovebird-type terms compared with the current bitterness between China and Japan. No one outside China considers the People's Liberation Army Air Force pilots to be among the best-drilled or most precise aviators in the world. It is easier to imagine something going wrong here than not.
Question 3) This Chinese decision to bar state-owned enterprises from dealing with U.S.-based consulting firms like McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, on the pretext that they are spying, sounds bad, doesn't it?
Answer 3) Yes, this is bad. It's obviously a tit-for-tat in response to last week's U.S. report that specific, named Chinese military officials had conducted commercial-secrets spying, not plain old fate-of-nations spying, against U.S. industrial firms.
The Chinese are saying: You want to enlist companies in the game of nations? OK, we'll target your companies too! Few people outside China may have an idea of the scale of some of these consultants' work inside China—and it's not strictly commercial. Every analysis of China's mass-urbanization future refers to a huge 2009 McKinsey study on the topic, "Preparing for China's Urban Billion." During my reporting on China's aerospace ambitions and its environmental-cleanup efforts, I kept coming across references to influential reports by Western (mainly U.S.) consulting groups. Some of these were pro-bono, some for pay; presumably all are now taboo for the big, state-owned firms. This is not good for anyone. [For the record: I have many friends, and some relatives, who have worked for these consulting firms, notably including Dominic Barton, now the global managing director/big boss of McKinsey. We became friends during the time our families both lived in Shanghai.]
Question 4) This sweeping new security crackdown, especially in Beijing, in the run-up to the Tiananmen Square 25th anniversary and in the aftermath of the violence in Xinjiang—it sounds bad, doesn't it?
Answer 4) Yes, this is bad, though it should be more understandable for Americans than the others. Maximum security-theater overreaction to episodes of anti-civilian terrorist violence is a path the United States pioneered with our policies through much of the 2000s. China's big cities obviously can't operate with this kind of security shutdown of their transit systems, as shown in the picture at the top of the post. But for the moment, this is also bad.
As I've written a million times about China, the main fascination of the place is that its million-and-one contradictory realities are all simultaneously true. But at the moment, there's a higher proportion of the bad ones. As my friend Jorge Guajardo, former Mexican ambassador to China, observed:
Richer (in blue), poorer (brownish), and poorest (lightest colored) areas of the deep South.
On Friday, I introduced the work of Joe Max Higgins, Brenda Lathan, Raj Shaunak, and others who over the past decade have attracted some $6 billion worth of industrial investment to the "Golden Triangle" area of Eastern Mississippi. That post included screen shots from maps that were designed to illustrate a simple baseline point: the economic challenge facing the state of Mississippi as a whole, including the Columbus-Starkville-West Point area that makes up the Golden Triangle. Depending on how you measure, Mississippi comes in at or near the bottom of most state rankings economically. For instance, in median household income, subject of the first map below, it stands at #50 among the states.
Now, with help from John Tierney, here are interactive versions of three maps that put the state's challenge in perspective.
These maps, via the ArcGIS software from our partner Esri, are useful beyond their specific relevance for this state or the South. For one thing, they are zoomable. The more you click in, using the + button, the finer the resolution, until you end up seeing specific Census tracts and blocks. As you zoom back out, with the - button, you see averaged values for counties or states as a whole.
Also, these maps cover the entire country, so you can see how the values apply in other places of interest. Finally, they have pop-up labels and information. If you click on an area, a window will come up showing relevant info for the zone(s) that in view. As you'll see, this behavior changes depending on how close-in or far-out you have zoomed, but it's self explanatory.
The first map is the one used for the previous post's screen shots. It shows the median household income of any given area, compared with the national median of just over $50,000. The bluer and darker the color, the richer the households in that area. The lighter the coloring, the poorer. The further in you click, the finer-grained the classifications you will see -- again, for anyplace, not just Mississippi. (The three dots on the maps are the three cities of the Golden Triangle: red for Columbus, blue for West Point, and green for Starkville.)
Next, because this is relevant for America as a whole as well as across the South, here is a similar clickable map of the African-American share of the population in each area, based on the 2010 Census. Here darker shading means a higher African-American percentage in each neighborhood, county, or state.
With this mapping technology, we can produce "swipable" maps, in which you can move a slider back and forth and compare different patterns or time periods. The correlations between income and race are striking—as, of course, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been demonstrating. Update: and now John Tierney has produced one of these illuminating swipe maps. It is below. Click on "Hide Intro" to see more of the map. Then move the slider back and forth to see how racial patterns correlate with economic ones. The two sides of the map will zoom and pan in sync. When you're done with the South, try Washington DC, or Chicago. You'll see some very clear patterns.
Also, Ta-Nehisi Coates's article is about the 21st-century living influence of slave-holding patterns from the 17th century onward, plus the 19th and 20th century history of Jim Crow and segregation. This screen shot of America's current racial distribution, zoomed out to regional scale, underscores his point. The areas with the greatest concentrations of African-Americans now are the areas where their forebears were brought and worked as slaves.
Finally, here is a "population pressure" map, based on work by Jim Herries of Esri that was previously described here. The idea is to create a very detailed representation of the parts of America that are gaining and losing population. The blue dots are parts of America whose population is expected to grow in pace with the national average. The green dots are faster-growing areas; the magenta, areas of expected decline. This too gives you an idea of the challenge facing the Golden Triangle and other areas of the country. I find this map very instructive about all sorts of American developments, from voting patterns to the gestation points of new industries.
That is the mapping installment for today. Next: what has gone right in the Golden Triangle's approach, and what (if anything) might be wrong with it.
And since today is Memorial Day, please see Deb Fallows's post on the connections among this holiday, the city of Columbus, Mississippi, and our magazine.
Joe Max Higgins, near the site of what will be an enormous Yokohama Tire plant in eastern Mississippi (Photos by Deborah Fallows)
The man you see above is Joe Max Higgins Jr, who is now in his mid-50s. He grew up in Arkansas as the son of a sheriff, and since the mid-2000s he has worked on economic-development programs for the part of Mississippi known as the "Golden Triangle." You'll see more about him and his colleagues here in coming days, and he will be part of a Marketplace radio segment next week. In this first installment I'd like to explain why I'm concentrating on him, and the larger trends he illustrates.
Through most of my life as a writer and as a person, the big issue for me has been "the American question." That is: Is the country making it? How do its realities compare with its ambitions? Where has it set the balance between the creative chaos that is its secret, and just chaos? On the long arc of renewal and dissolution, where does it stand now? Most of my books have directly or indirectly addressed this theme.
This is a subset of the question that anyone naturally considers when living or traveling around the world. Which is: why do societies thrive, or fail? What constitutes a sense of progress, or decline? And how much can people know about what's happening to—and because of—them while it's underway?
The list of questions could go on, but my real point is to highlight the impossibility of finding "answers." Rather, as the years have gone on I've become warier of every explanation. No theory really fits; there are counter-examples to everything; it's just too tempting to think that whatever factor is on your mind, or you're able to study, is the one that matters.
The Great Man/Woman theory of events (Lincoln and FDR to the good, Hitler to the bad); the institutionalist emphasis (post-war Japan's recovery to the good, institutional U.S. racism to the bad); environmental constraints or destruction (Jared Diamond about the past, who knows about the future); the tyranny or blessing of geography (China vs. the US); blunder or happenstance—these and other factors are usually all part of the story, and rarely the whole thing.
Let's bring this back to earth. To avoid paralysis, you have to choose something to concentrate on, while remembering that inevitably more is going on. You do your best, which is how we came across Joe Max Higgins.
Here is the question about this part of Mississippi: Why is industry coming back?
The map above, via Esri, shows median household income by state. The bluer the state, the richer; the tan ones are poorer. Mississippi is dead last of the 50 states, with a median household income of a little over $37,000 per year, versus just over $50,000 for the country as a whole and $64,000 for Connecticut. Update: These are screen shots of the interactive maps. I'll put up an interactive version as soon as I can work out the proper log-in permissions.
At right is a closer look at the state itself. In two areas—around Jackson, in the center of the state, and in the Memphis suburbs to the north—the median income is above the national median. All the rest are below. The lightest areas on the map are the poorest parts of the state, in the Delta. For instance, the median household income of Rosedale, Mississippi, on the river, is listed as $14,000. The three colored dots in east-central Mississippi represent the three cities of the so-called Golden Triangle: Columbus, in red; West Point, in blue; and Starkville, in green.
The three cities have different stories and situations. Starkville is home of the leading research university in the area, Mississippi State, and has the greater stability and higher-end amenities that come with being a university town. West Point is the smallest of the three and, in recent years, the hardest hit by economic change. In 2007, Sara Lee closed a nearly century-old meat processing plant that had employed more than 1,000 workers, fully a tenth of the town's population. Since then its unemployment rate has been near 20 percent. Columbus was historically the richest of the three, but one also hit by the one-after-another collapse of low-wage manufacturing jobs that had come there through the mid-20th century. It has relied very heavily on the nearby Columbus Air Force Base, which Mississippi's powerful Congressional delegation has defended through wave after wave of base-closing measures.
The whole area is poor.
If you look away from the factories that have closed in the vicinity, and the downtown storefronts that are vacant, what you also notice are huge new factories opening up, as previously mentioned here. What you see below is a 1970s-era "Golden Triangle" airport built at a centerpoint of the three cities, and with Delta connections to Atlanta. Just beyond it is a sprawling, modern steel mill owned by the Russian Severstal company, whose scale is barely imaginable from this picture. Nearby are large factories making truck engines, helicopters, drones and other advanced devices, at wages equal to several multiples of the local household income. Not far away, Yokohama Tires of Japan is building a major new plant.
In all, the Golden Triangle region has brought in some $6 billion in capital investment over the past decade, creating some 6,000 new jobs, in a concentrated, poor region where this influx has made an enormous difference.
So here's the question we'll try to wrestle with. Why so much? Why here? And to what effect?
As suits the complexity of life, the answers go in every direction. The search for non-union labor is a central factor. Incentives from the state and local governments are another. Plain old political log-rolling has been crucial to Mississippi and some other Southern states: its representatives are tough on federal spending, and even tougher about keeping earmarked projects coming here. And on down the long list.
But there are countless places that offer incentives, and discourage unions, and would love to have the factories. Each of the big employers that has recently chosen the Golden Triangle considered scores or hundreds of other possibilities, many in the South and some in Mexico or the Caribbean, before coming here. Why here?
Allowing for all the other explanations, I will argue that in this part of the country, a handful of forceful people made the difference in shaping the region's economy as a whole. In a way this is consistent with what we've seen in a number of other communities. A stalwart group is determined to give Eastport, Maine, a chance; a series of civic leaders shifted the Greenville area of South Carolina to a new civic and economic footing; successful business people who retained a strong local identity have made a huge difference in the character of Holland, Michigan, and Redlands, California.
In this part of Mississippi, it is harder to identify purely civic leaders who have played a comparable role. But it is hard to ignore the difference that the area's economic-development team has made, including Joe Max Higgins and Brenda Lathan and their colleagues at a regional organization called the LINK, Raj Shaunak of Eastern Mississippi Community College, and others we will describe.
Two illustrations to close for now. One day I was taking a tour of the major industries around the Golden Triangle Regional Airport with a group of investors from the Midwest who had put money into the region and were considering investing more. On the bus back to the airport—where several of their own jets were ready to fly them back home—one of the investors told me, "There are entire states that can't come close to what this team has done here," meaning Higgins and Lathan.
During that visit, my wife and I sat with Higgins in his office and asked him to describe the sequence of development in the area. What was the turning point. He had a long list, but he focused on "Eurocopter"— the facility, now part of Airbus, that makes helicopters for both civilian and US-military use.
"Eurocopter was really, really, a big deal," he said. "It was important because they make helicopters! In a county and a state where most people think the women are all barefoot and pregnant, all the men got snuff up in their lip, we're all members of the Klan—now we're making something that flies! That genuinely changed our psyche. It was monumental. When Eurocopter came in, people started walking upright a little bit."
It's a story he had told before, and he reveled in the "barefoot and pregnant" effect. But he was talking about something real, as we'll try in the next installments to explain.
Earlier this month I explained why I still wear, like, use, and tout Vibram "finger shoes," despite the company's having settled a claim from those who felt its health benefits were overstated. Once again, above you see one of my sons and me modeling the shoes four years ago.
Summary of that earlier argument: If you already know how to run in the "forefoot-strike" style that comes naturally when if you are barefoot or wearing minimally padded shoes, or if you can adjust or learn, then these shoes are great. But if you prefer, or are stuck with, the "heel-strike" style of running that is fostered or enabled by today's thickly padded shoes, you're not going to like finger shoes and should stay away.
Now responses, starting with someone who brought up an angle I hadn't considered. A reader wrote:
Say what you will about your finger shoes, but I'm one of those one in
a thousand or so with webbed toes (syndactyly); on each foot I have
two toes fused together.
It gave me a certain amphibian chic as a school boy swimmer, and a
proud sense of identification with my web-toed grandfather, but other
than that my toes have played no exceptional role in my life apart
form the role ties usually play; but those shoes - they freak me out.
I could only wear them if I had my toes sliced apart (ain't gonna
happen), to my feet and brain they look like medieval torture devices,
so when I see them I can't help but cringe and turn away.
I wrote back to say, touché, "I think you're the only person who can legitimately complain about these shoes!"
He replied right away:
You know more of us than you realize - we just don't wear open-toed sandals.
Excellent point! Now a few more on this theme, less exotic (mainly) in their medical info and all in the testimonial vein.
"I have no kneecaps." From another reader, a female runner:
I'm not applying for the Vibram Fivefinger shoe either!
My knee caps were removed one at a time in the 1970s—no replacements back then—due to congenital dislocation issues. Don’t worry, my legs don’t bend backwards: but finding shoes in which I could walk for miles, or stand all day as a trainer has been profoundly difficult. Because of the imbalance of muscles (great rocky calves and really flabby quads because of the biomechanics), I’d lost the ability to “feel” the ground. Poor proprioception, it’s called. My neighbors called me out about how much I was falling in my yard.
For me, the funky looking toed shoe is a life saver. Since I began wearing them as my everyday—and sometimes platform—shoe, my knees hurt less, I fall much. Love them, and wish the lace-up version came in a basic black.
Now about their chronically funky smell…. [JF note: Yes, it is good to wash them regularly.]
If they work for you, they’re wondrous. If they don’t, don’t wear them. We could use this common-sense approach to a lot of issues these days.
"I think of them as Zoris." From a reader on the west coast:
I am a 60-year-old, non-athletic woman with a bad knee who loves my Vibram Five Fingers. It should be noted that I grew up not wearing shoes unless I had to. For me, growing up in SoCal, it was mostly barefoot or Zoris (aka thongs or flip-flops). I even have "Zori feet," a major space between my big toes and the next. I've tried Tevas, but they were too constructed for my feet.
When my husband I did a half-world trip last year (Hong Kong to Venice), I bought my first pair of VFFs. I walked everywhere in them, including rocky terrain, sand, and asphalt. I did mountains, monuments, and muddy streets with no issues at all. Three months in all, and I never wore anything else but VFFs. Yes, I washed them periodically.
While Vibram has acknowledged their adverts were somewhat misleading, I cannot in all conscience put in a request for a refund based on those claims. I LOVE my VFFs and even purchased another pair after the announcement of a possible refund.
The shoes just WORK for me. I have never had a better pair for hiking and walking. Not to mention all the people who took pictures of my VFFs in rural communities around the world!
"I have never looked back." From a male runner—I'm ID'ing people this way just so you know who's weighing in:
I have been running regularly for 10 years, but after reading Christopher McDougall's Born to Run soon after it came out, I tried Vibram Five Fingers -- and have never looked back.
As you noted, the shoes taught to me run on the balls of my feet (which I had never done before), and now (at 67), I am still free of the bone and muscle ailments that my siblings and friends seem to all suffer from, I was very glad to see your defense of Vibram.
"Burn it to earn it." From a male runner on the West Coast who was able to shift his style.
I think the lawsuit reflects a failing of marketing rather than a failing of the product. Too many people bought the shoes on the basis of hype without considering their own running style.
My own running experiences reflect the same kind of transformation of style that is necessitated by a switch to finger shoes. I had been running in big, cushy stability shoes and getting shin splints. I switched my gait from a heel strike to a mid-to-forefoot strike and went to a near-minimal shoe. No more shin splints.
I’m glad to hear you’re a runner as well as a beer aficionado, as I am myself. Beer always tastes better when you work up a thirst. Burn it to earn it, eh?
That is all. My sympathies to those in the syndactyly community. I am sorry to have given you a fright.
A good side of the writing/journalistic life is that many of your friends end up being people in the business. Well, most of the time that's a good side. It's also the set-up for the news I'm presenting here: the arrival of five books worth your attention, all by people I happen to know. They're books I'd recommend anyway—just as I would urge that you read Ta-Nehisi Coates's new piece even if he weren't a friend and colleague.
As director of U.S. arms-control policy under Ronald Reagan, Kenneth Adelman was on the scene in Reykjavik as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their dramatic talks that, Adelman argues, were the beginning of the end of the Cold War. The line from Reagan intimates and admirers over the years has been that the Gipper, beneath his casual and even befuddled-seeming exterior, was a shrewdly observant strategist. This is the impression conveyed by Phil Hartman's immortal SNL sketch about "Mastermind Reagan." Ken Adelman's view of Reagan is highly admiring (in the view of David Hoffman in the WaPo, too much so), but the book is full of color, details, vignettes, and drama that buttress Adelman's view and made me glad to have read his account. It's also a very useful refresher on a reality now easily forgotten: how stressful and genuinely dangerous those Cold War years were.
The People's Republic of Amnesia, by Louisa Lim. Over the past few years in China, there has always been some "special" circumstance that required an "unusual" tightening of censorship, surveillance, and vigilance against protest. If it's not the "Twin Meetings" it's the visit of a foreign dignitary or an important anniversary. Right now, the increasing tumult and anti-civilian terrorist violence in Xinjiang have further ratcheted up security.
Even without these latest events, China would have been on lockdown for the next few weeks, because of the impending 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and resulting crackdown, on "May 35th," 1989. (Chinese censors tend to block out references to "June 4," giving rise to the "May 35" workaround.) Louisa Lim—well-known to US listeners for her NPR reports, and a friend and colleague when I lived in Shanghai and Beijing—has revisited the story with an emphasis on the nationwide depth and seriousness of the uprising in 1989—in contrast to what was usually portrayed as a Beijing-centered phenomenon—and the thoroughness of the government's effort to remove it from public memory. That's one more reason it's worth reading as a counterpart to Ta-Nahesi Coates's piece on what's been effaced from American public memory.
Unstoppable, by Ralph Nader. I first met and worked for Nader when I was 19 (and when he was a nationally famous figure in his mid-30s). I have kept in touch with him over the years, even though—like many of his one-time colleagues and supporters—I strongly disagreed with the way he continued his presidential run in 2000 and was at odds with him for a time after that.
Whatever your view of the Ralph Nader of 2000, or the 1960s, or other eras, I think you will be intrigued and impressed by the case and face he is presenting now. In a recent C-Span hour with Brian Lamb, Nader was relaxed and jokey. I will say more in another installment about the parallels between Nader's arguments in this book and the practical-minded successes my wife Deb and I have been seeing and writing about in our recent travels. (Eg, in comparing Burlington, Vermont, and Greenville, South Carolina.)
For now I'll say: at the national level, a pox-on-both-their-houses, all-politicians-are-crooks outlook on politics can be nihilist and destructive. We have two national parties; one or the other is going to hold power; and there are big and growing differences in their values. But at the local and state level, a lot more is possible. So Nader argues, in a book and with a style that I think can broaden his appeal. Also, he's arguing for a right-left convergence to challenge corporate overlordism, something that neither of the major parties is positioned to pull off. Worth checking out.
China's Second Continent, by Howard French. Four years ago in the Atlantic, Howard French—long of the NYT, now of Columbia Journalism School—had a great story about how Chinese interests and the Chinese government were extending their reach into Africa. It was a process that both resembled previous Western imperialism and differed from it—including, importantly, in the absence of gunboats and colonial administrators.
French's new book is on this same theme, and the wonderful aspect about it is its reportorial vividness. "Modern China" can sound boring in the abstract, to say nothing of "Modern China's relations with still-developing powers." But the actual human beings and organizations who make up modern China—with their dreams, their excesses, their dramas, their achievements and failures—are very interesting, and these are the stories French tells on-scene.
Age of Ambition, by Evan Osnos, of the New Yorker. My friends and family are sick of hearing me say that this is the golden age of writing about China—but that's still true, and Evan Osnos's book is another great illustration. It's the golden age because so many foreigners (and Chinese) are prowling around the country and learning about it; because there are so many facets of the country's story to tell; and because so many writers have found ways to make all the big points about the country's past, present, and future through novelistic or picaresque tales or memoirs.
Evan Osnos applies this universal-in-the-particular approach very well in this book. It is wryly funny throughout, laughing with rather than laughing at the absurdities of daily life in China; without being too obvious about the point, it conveys how contradictory and sometimes out-of-control the contending realities in China are; and it gives a clear sense of the mixed nature of China's modern "rise." Plus it's fun to read.
Make allowances, if you will, for the fact that I'm talking about books by my friends. Then, after making the allowances, dig in.
Listen to the next discussion you hear of tensions between Japan and two of its neighbors, South Korea and China. You'll hear again and again that an important root problem is Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with its history of World War II-era aggression in China and use of Korean "comfort women" as sex slaves for its troops.
Listen to the discussions you're about to hear on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China. You'll hear about the distortions arising from the Chinese government's refusal to come to terms with its suppression of protest then, let alone the large-scale terrors of the Cultural Revolution and the politically engineered mass starvations of the Great Leap Forward era.
Listen to any discussion of politics and economics in Europe, and see how much turns on recognition of Germany's doing as much as a country can to come to terms with the atrocities of its Nazi era. Or consider what the struggle for "truth and reconciliation" has done to increase post-apartheid South Africa's chances for political and economic progress.
Then read Ta-Nehisi Coates's magnificent new article in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It is about America's failure to come to terms with a central, brutal reality of our long-ago past and our ongoing present. When he talks about "reparations," he is talking about a process that begins with facing the truth, and the past, with the honesty we fault the Japanese or Chinese for failing to display.
Read this article, and reflect on the recent Supreme Court rulings saying that since racism is a dim relic of the past, there's no further point in voting-rights laws or affirmative action provisions.
Mainly, read the article.
By the way, if you value this kind of journalism, please consider supporting the institution that fostered it. We're offering the article and accompanying videos, maps, and documents free online, but they're costly to produce. Subscribe! After you read and reflect on this piece.
Portion of the cover of Erica Jong's 1973 book Fear of Flying, which is linguistically but not conceptually related to the topics discussed here.
Last night I mentioned the disconnect between things that are frightening, from sharks to airline flights, and things that are likely actually to do us harm. Several reactions worth noting:
1) From a reader who understood the illustration I deliberately left out, to see if anyone would notice. Of course that illustration is terrorismand America's fearful response to it.
As academics Ian Lustick and John Mueller have argued for years, along with Benjamin Friedman (formerly of MIT, now of Cato) and mere journalists, the fear of terrorist attacks, and the responses provoked by the attacks of 2001, have done far more damage to the country than even those original, devastating blows. Many more Americans died in the wholly needless Iraq war than were killed on 9/11; the multi-trillion-dollar cost of the war eclipses any domestic budgetary folly; the damage to civil liberties and American honor internationally has been profound; and so on. All this was all born of fear, often cynically inflamed, not realistic assessment of danger.
2) Back to airlines. From Jeremy Davis, of Seattle:
I suffer from panic disorder and agoraphobia, both of which have put a bit of a damper on my love of aviation (I wrote about the clash of those two aspects in an Air & Space article last year). But I'm also an aeronautical engineer.
The point I'd like to make is that, even with in-depth knowledge of the systems and structure of aircraft and aviation, fear can manipulate how we observe the world around us and skew how we interpret our senses.
During my first panic attack (on board a flight from LAX), my brain invented half a dozen explanations for why I was suddenly vertiginous and fighting to breathe. Some of those explanations were medical, but most were bizarre inventions about the cabin pressure supply lines being blocked or the aft pressure bulkhead succumbing to cracks. None of these were plausible from an engineering standpoint, but the bond between my fear at that moment and the act of flying on a commercial airline was forged so well that even now (a decade later), I still can't board a commercial flight.
So while I agree that writers tend to play on the public's unfounded fears about flying, we shouldn't discount the ways that fear can warp how we view, and subsequently recount, our experiences. Ultimately, I think it's an editor's duty to balance a writer's artistic license and honest belief in the experiences he or she felt with the publication's integrity and adherence to verifiable facts. I can only hope that my editor and I toed that line better than the NY Times.
Of course Mr. Davis is right. Our emotions and fears are beyond rational control. That's why we call them "emotions." And his Air & Space article is very good, including its climax when a pilot-colleague helps him escape his panic attacks with a comforting ride in a small airplane.
As I read Jeremy Davis's article, I naturally thought of Scott Stossel's memorable cover story for our magazine, drawn from his memorable book. All of these are precisely about the logical mind's inability to contain pre-logical fears. That is a big enough problem when it affects individuals. It's something else—and something that should be easier to recognize and curb—when it affects whole institutions, from journalism to national government. I know that the "should" shows me to be a quaint meliorist.
3) Back to cars. From another reader:
I liked the note re being scared in a normal car ride. I have often given a little monologue that goes something like this.
Imagine for a moment that the personal automobile had never been invented. We are all riding around in trains, trolleys, busses, etc.
Now, along comes an inventor who invents the personal automobile. He lobbies the U.S. Senate to get the government to build roads. They have a hearing. At some point, we get the following interchange.
Senator: So, how fast will these "cars" go?
Inventor: Oh, maybe 70 or 80 mph.
Senator: And, how are you going to keep them from running into each other?
Inventor: We're going to paint lines on the road.
We would still be riding in busses.
4) On to the planet as a whole.
I realize that this question is more profound than the questions related to air safety, though I've had that same thought many times myself while barreling down the highway.
I also would apply it to the distinction between the Cold War [with its dangerous nuclear standoffs] versus the Global War on Terror with its [fear-inducing] apocalyptic imagery in the messianic sense (and that goes for the jihadists as well as our own homegrown evangelicals who are Rapture Ready.
Is that the core conundrum facing humanity when it comes to global warming as the driver of catastrophic climate change? Is there ANY real world experience that would shift the "fear" of an ecological disaster on a global scale into a universal acknowledgment of the clear and present "danger"?
Memorial stones in downtown Starkville, county seat of Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, and home of Mississippi State University. On the left, one honoring Confederate soldiers, erected in 2005. On the right, one honoring Union soldiers, erected in 2006.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
In case you have missed it, please be sure to check out the latest post by my wife, Deb Fallows, from our time in the "Golden Triangle" of eastern Mississippi.
This one is based on essays from high school seniors at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, or MSMS. It's a residential, public high school for students from every corner of the state. Deb asked them to write about what the school had meant to them. I think you will be surprised and impressed by the answers. A brief sample:
Sometimes I believe the soul of Mississippi is as dark and bottomless as muddy rivers settling through rolling hills. These contaminated waters seek out the unique and attempt to wash away the scent of rebellion, or the hope for change. My greatest fear is to wander aimlessly into those waters, be molded by conformity, forget my passion, my compassion, and acquiesce to the current of complacency. As I dig my naked feet into the burning red clay on my middle-of-nowhere dirt road, I cannot help but feel the history of Mississippi, rich as the soil, leeching into my skin. Despite the intense heat, I shiver. Turning on my heels to give one fleeting glance to the dancing colors of the fiery sunset, I am sure of only one thing: I do not belong here.
As I grasp the battered storm door of my unleveled mobile home, I envision the scene that awaits me....
These are by high school students, from a wide range of economic and racial backgrounds, at a public school in one of the nation's poorest states. They made a big impression on me, and I think you will find them interesting.
A shark alleged to have attacked four people in Egypt. He was an exception that supports an unfortunate anti-shark stereotype. (Reuters)
A few days ago I pointed out that yet another popular news item had described how frightened an airline passenger was, about a situation that was objectively not dangerous at all."Yet another" because stories like this -- there we were, about to die! -- are journalistic staples, now as much as ever. (Two examples from the NYT, here and here.)
In part this reflects the bone-deep suspicion that people shouldn't be sitting and reading in a tube 30,000 feet above the ground. In part, it's the famous human difficulty of distinguishing things we're scared of from things that really threaten us. On average, one American dies each day in a bathtub accident -- and one American dies each year from a shark attack. Bathtubs should be 365 times as frightening as sharks, but it's the reverse. We don't have "Bathtub Week" on the Discovery Channel.
We use an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identification of nearby traffic and collision avoidance. Here's my "scraping distance" story. [And a recent photo of his craft, crew, and passengers en route.]
In May of 2010 after 13 days at sea, during which time we rarely saw more than one vessel a day, on AIS or visually, we found ourselves just south of the Nantucket traffic separation zone (shipping lane) running east and west out of New York Harbor. Now, rather than one or no targets of interest, we had a dozen vessels, some very large and moving very fast, to keep on eye on.
It was dusk and the light was fading when we ID'd a west-bound freighter on a course that would make a close pass with us as we headed north towards Montauk.
This is what we did:
Using the AIS we ascertained the vessel's name, course, and speed.
Using our VHF radio we made contact with the bridge of the other vessel and inquired whether or not they could see us. The replied they had us on radar, AIS, and visually.
I communicated our concern that our courses might bring us closer than comfortable. Being a sailing vessel, we were the stand-on vessel, but the Law of Gross Tonnage ultimately rules. We asked the freighter if he would like us to adjust our course to ensure we took his stern.
The freighter replied that we should stand-on and he would increase his speed to pass in front of us well before we were anywhere near each other.
We thanked him, stood by on #16 and then watch the freighter pick up it's pace and pass in front of us about three miles ahead.
The entire encounter was, for us, tense. We wanted to be sure there were no misunderstandings, or if there were, that we would be ready to respond sufficiently to get out the way of the much larger vessel.
The next day I was in the front passenger seat of our family minivan taking crew to various airports and train stations so they could find their way home and I was TERRIFIED!!!
Just 12 hours earlier I had been in a tense situation where my boat was going about 5kts, the other vessel was going about 20kts, and the distance between us was measured in 1000s of yards.
Now I was barreling down the highway, at closings speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, sometimes with mere inches to spare. In other words, we were driving down a two land country highway at 55mph with on coming traffic. I resolved my terror by closing my eyes and going to sleep.
In case my point is not clear, we are more comfortable with familiar sensations and risks than unfamiliar ones. Two weeks on a nearly empty ocean made the shipping lanes seem like rush hour traffic, and the "rush-hour" traffic of the shipping lanes made a drive down a country highway pure terror (I really did close my eyes and go to sleep because I couldn't just sit there flinching in horror every time we closed with another car). No doubt the author of "I almost died" felt as scared during the plane's descent as I did as we barreled down Route 27 at 10am. The fear is real. The danger not so much.
We all know what he means. For me, it's the contrast I feel at the end of every trip in my small airplane. Over the previous few hours, I've been in the middle of an activity that is objectively dangerous -- but from which I could safely turn my attention for 30 seconds at a time to look at a chart or check the weather, except during the couple of minutes of approach and landing. (Or on an instrument procedure, or inside the clouds, or on takeoff, or in other "high-workload" phases of a flight.) Then when I get in the car to drive home, other vehicles are whizzing past me with very small clearance, and if anyone stops paying attention for even a few seconds, the results can be dire. Yet we all treat this as routine.
Main lesson for writers and editors: If you want to talk about an experience that was frightening, talk about how scared you were. That's real. Not about how close you came to dying, because that probably had no relationship with how you felt.
Debating African-American history, at the Mississippi School for Math and Science (Deborah Fallows)
1) Deb Fallows, best known to the world as author of Dreaming in Chinese and of a series of popular American Futures posts on language and schools (and best known to me as my wife), has a very nice story in today's NYT Travel section about what we've seen as we've gone from town to town. The online version has several great photos by Raymond McCrae Jones; if I can get permission, I will use one here. For now, check them out, and the story, at the Times's site.
2) Deb also has another of her school posts on the Atlantic's site right now, about the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Everyone involved with the school understands where their state stands in national school rankings and other indicators of economic and social progress. They are trying hard to move up.
3) Starting later today I'll start a series of posts about the business / industrial complement to those school efforts in the surrounding "Golden Triangle" area of Mississippi. Probably later this week, our partners at Marketplace will run their report on the shift from collapsing, old, lower-wage industries to new higher-wave factories in Mississippi. Here's a view when we were together in Columbus recently: Kai Ryssdal in the red shirt, engineer Charlton Thorp with the gear, and from the back Brenda Lathan of the (very successful) local economic development group, the Golden Triangle Development Link. I am the other person. We're standing in front of a shuttered factory, before going to a newly opened one.
4) Also in today's NYT Book Review, I have a piece on David Pilling's very interesting book on Japan, Bending Adversity.
5) If he were still around, we would be celebrating my dad's 89th birthday today. He is not still around, as I chronicled at the time, five and a half years ago. This was a wonderful picture my sisters and brother and I saw only after our parents' deaths. It's of our mom and dad in their early 20s, soon after they'd gotten married. He was in medical school, she had just finished college and was working as a school teacher, and I was on the way.
The bounty of the Magnolia State (and environs), hand-carried back to DC.
The world is full of sorrows, but it is also full of ever-better beer. To wit:
1) My friend Adam Minter with a report from Beijing, "If you can't breathe, drink." It is about one of the new craft breweries in town, Capital Brew or 京-A (Jing-A, or "Capital A.") I haven't yet been there, although I've loved the pioneering Great Leap brewery, and its Shanghai counterpart Boxing Cat. China has been the land of very terrible beer for a very long time. The future looks bright. Update: I should also have mentioned Slow Boat Brewery, which I have heard about but not yet visited.
2) Mississippi.The picture at the top shows, working outward from the center:
- In the middle, both in cans, we have two beers from SoPro, or Southern Prohibition Brewery, which was founded last year in Hattiesburg, in the southern part of the state. On the right in blue, Suzy B Dirty Blonde Ale. On the left, Mississippi Fire Ant Imperial Red Ale.
- Flanking them, two from Yalobusha Brewing in Water Valley, near Oxford in the northern part of the state. Yalobusha, in case like me you didn't know, is the name of a county. On the left, River Ale, an American Pale Ale. On the right, Copperhead, an American Amber.
- Next, working outward, two from Lazy Magnolia brewery in Kiln, near Biloxi. On the left, Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. On the right, Southern Hops'pitality IPA.
- The outermost pair are not technically from Mississippi--but they're from the vicinity, and I found them in the phenomenal The Smoke Stack smokes-and-beer store in West Point, Miss. (That's also where I got the commemorative glass shown below, with the insignia of the Golden Triangle Brewers of Mississippi.) On the left, the beautifully labelled Cocodrie from Bayou Teche Brewery in Arnaudville, Louisiana. On the right, from Yazoo Brewery of Nashville, a porter with the simple name SUE.
The craft-brew movement is new to Mississippi, but (unlike the Chinese) people there have a good excuse for taking so long. Until July 2012, it was against the law even to possess a brew with alcohol content higher than 5%. Bud Light, Coors, and Corona all qualified under that standard, but just about no beer you would consider "good" did. (Interesting alcohol-by-volume chart here.) Now, under its new law, Mississippi is making up for lost time. And lest we forget, none other than Jimmy Carter was the man who brought a similar change to the nation as a whole. In all the local Kwik-E-Marts in Mississippi the main national-brand craft brew I saw was Samuel Adams "Rebel IPA." It's excellent beer, but this is an interesting brand for the Boston Beer Company, brewer of Sam Adams, to feature in this part of the country.
3) America as a whole: English writer Geoff Dyer with a very nice WSJweekend essay (paywalled) on how America as a whole has gone from being a beer wasteland to becoming the beer garden spot of the world. Eg:
These days the U.S. is not only a world leader in beer, it's a beer destination. Where once the tired and huddled masses arrived in the hope of breathing free (but with no hope of a decent IPA), now it's the thirsty, and they're here for the beer.
4) America's capital, Washington DC. One week ago, the beautiful Building Museum in Washington was the venue for the spiritually beautiful SAVOR Craft Beer festival that gathered brewers from all across our great land. It had brewers as well-known as Lagunitas ...
... and as on-the-rise from a national perspective as Nebraska Brewing, of La Vista, Nebraska, which (like nearly all the companies there) had some excellent new beers.
Again, there are troubles in the world, but not in the world of beer.
Tomorrow, my wife Deb Fallows has a great new story in the NYT also about Mississippi. Stay tuned.
While the episode—a sudden if brief descent by a United air crew over the Pacific, to be sure it stayed out of the path of another plane—might well have been frightening, the hundreds of passengers on the two planes never faced any danger of a mid-air crash. The quick descent indicated the safety of today's air-travel system, not its brink-of-disaster shoddiness.
Think of the analogy of car airbags. When an airbag goes off in a car, I am sure it scares the bejeezus out of anyone on board (I've never experienced it), plus possibly bruising them and, for infants in the front seat, doing real damage. But that detonation, frightening as it is, is part of a system that has made car travel safer rather than more dangerous. Something similar is true with anti-skid braking systems—they can frighten you, but they help protect you. And the same goes for today's aircraft collision-avoidance technology.
I mention this to introduce a note I have gotten from someone with first-hand experience with "TCAS," the automatic collision-avoidance system that ordered the descent on Kevin Townsend's flight:
I work in the aviation industry as an engineer, and have gotten more and more familiar with FAA requirements for aircraft design. I wish the flying public understood how precisely-engineered each piece of critical avionics must be in order to satisfy FAA regulations for a "safety of life" application.
TCAS -- and its successor,TCAS-II -- is one such piece of avionics hardware. By all accounts in the Townsend post, TCAS did its job in resolving airspace issues between what is known in FAA jargon as two cooperative aircraft. And the pilots did what they were supposed to do in taking the correct action.
It is vital that pilots trust their instruments because the avionics driving those instruments (and their design requirements) are engineered with that in mind.
Believe me, I know. I've spent the bulk of my career designing, writing software for, and testing the integration of, avionics. If TCAS says "go up", there are thousands of hours of engineering behind that system making sure that "up" is the right decision.
Let me clarify, too, that I am not picking a fight with Kevin Townsend, with whom I've had a pleasant and mutually respectful exchange of messages. He wrote a post on a genuinely frightening experience without—as he has pointed out to me in email—the benefit of subsequent info on how far apart the planes had actually been (at least five miles, probably eight) or other technical analyses of what was going on.
I thought the original headline on his item was an enormous reach ("I almost died"), plus the idea that the planes were in "scraping distance" of each other. But, as he has also pointed out to me, if he had foreseen how widely this would be picked up in "peril in the skies" coverage, he would have been more statesmanlike in telling the story. (Plus, he is doing the Lord's work on the filibuster.) This is very different from a flat-out fake air-peril story last year in the NYT Magazine, and another over-hyped one in the same paper.
Why am I going back to this story? The immediate reason is because Townsend's account has generated another flood of email from newly re-frightened fliers. The larger point is one that Patrick Smith has often emphasized at Ask the Pilot. Something deep and primal in human beings, namely the fear of unnaturally being up in the air, easily spills over into something with no rational basis behind it: namely, the belief that airline travel is riskier than normal life, when it fact it is vastly safer than driving, biking, or walking across the street.
Update: Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate software (and one-time guest blogger here), writes about an unforgettable part of Kevin Townsend's account. That was during the zero-G descent when he was "weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me." Bernstein writes:
….back of the envelope suggests that a zero-g descent gets you down 600' in just about 6 sec. And I expect that one would not pull negative G's in a passenger flight, especially without warning, given any alternative. Surely the writer would have remarked on the experience of negative G's with stuff (and people) flying everywhere. So that's a boundary.
In fact, I believe we get to the normal descent rate, 1800'/min, with a second of zero g.
The point here, again, is not to nit-pick the original account but to underscore the difference between subjective experience of frightening events, and the objective reality of what is going on.
A month or two ago, I was flying into a small airport in the South when, at about 500 feet up on the final approach for landing, there was a very strong wind gust from the right. At the time I "felt," and actually told another pilot I saw after I'd landed, that the gust had "almost upended" the plane. I'm sure if there had been a film it would shown nothing remotely close to that. Probably at most a momentary 45-degree bank to the left, which I'd offset within a second or two. So it is with anything involving the unnatural act of human beings up in the air: our senses tell us one thing, and our minds (when they can act calmly) tell us something else. The calm-mind view of air travel underscores its safety, whatever else our senses may tell us.
[Please see update here.] I don't know Kevin Townsend, though I suspect I'd like him if I did. He's been fighting the good fight against the filibuster, and we have tech and other interests in common. Today he put up a riveting post about a frightening and, in his telling, extremely dangerous episode aboard a recent United flight. The headline gives you the idea:
And he has gotten a lot of pickup for his tale. Eg:
Recently I got my one-zillionth email of the day from a friend or reader asking: What with this, and the Malaysian flight, I'm getting worried. Is something going wrong with our air-safety system?
So in case you're wondering:
The episode Kevin Townsend describes sounds as if it could have been genuinely frightening, especially to passengers who had no idea what was happening, and he describes it quite vividly.
On the facts he presents, even though this was frightening, it was nowhere close to as dangerous as it could have seemed. There was no sense whatsoever in which he "almost died."
Commercial air travel remains remarkable for how extremely safe it is. Even this episode illustrates that reality, since one of many overlapping parts of the air-safety system worked rather than failed.
I wrote to Kevin Townsend a few hours ago to ask some questions but haven't yet heard back. and have just heard back. Here are the main points to bear in mind.
1) The plane got an anti-collision warning that caused it to descend suddenly, by 600 feet. This is the part that was genuinely frightening to Townsend and other passengers. While in cruise, the United flight crew got a warning from its TCAS, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System, with which airliners and other large planes are in constant automated contact with other aircraft in the vicinity.
If the paths of two airplanes seem likely to intersect, the TCAS in each plane gives each crew a warning. If they are getting too close for comfort, the TCAS gives each of them a "Resolution Advisory" to steer them out of the other's way. One plane will be told to climb, and the other to descend. In keeping with the instrument-flying maxim that you must trust your instruments rather than going by your seat-of-the-pants sense, flight crews are told to trust and follow those TCAS/RA warnings, immediately. The United plane was told to descend right now, and its crew did.
2) How far is a 600-foot descent? This is what Townsend describes as the terror-filled part of the flight:
Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning.
Again I am sure this was appalling, especially to people who start out with a fear of being up in the sky. But how far is a 600-foot descent? It is not very far at all. For one thing, it's about equivalent to four plane-lengths of the Boeing 757 that was flying. (That plane is a little over 150 feet long.) If an airliner descended at 600 feet per minute, passengers would probably not even notice it was headed down. If it were descending at what one manual calls a normal rate of 1,800 feet per minute, covering this vertical distance would take 20 seconds. I don't know what the 757's emergency-descent rate is, but if we say it's twice the normal rate that would mean about 10 seconds for getting down 600 feet.
Townsend includes a FlightAware chart of the course of that flight. Records from that date (April 25) are now behind FlightAware's pay wall, but here is the version Townsend published:
The blue line, which is airspeed, shows a sudden reduction at the point he is describing, with the vertical red line. This could be consistent with either a sudden reduction in power or (unlikely in the circumstances) a climb. The mustard-colored line, for altitude, seems more or less steady. Flight Aware is highly fallible, but at face value this indicates the plane rock-steady at a certain altitude. (Townsend wrote to say the chart actually records the 600-foot drop. OK)
3) How close were the planes, anyway? The premise of this story was a hair's-breadth escape from death. Eg "Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss." And "the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history."
To put this in perspective, the closest the planes appeared to have come to each other is at least 5 miles, and perhaps 8 miles (which is what CNN told Townsend when he appeared). If airplanes are headed directly head-to-head, distances can close fast. If each was going at top speed of 600 mph, or 10 miles per minute, then a head-to-head closing speed would be 20 miles per minute, or only 15 to 20 seconds of direct head-on flight. Still, the point is that the traffic systems in both planes warned both crews when detecting a danger, and sent them in diverging directions. A five-mile margin between planes is not "scraping distance."
(The simpler traffic-warning system I have in my propeller plane sends alerts when planes are within 6 miles' distance. That is far enough away that usually it is very hard even to see the plane causing the alert.)
4) How close to the brink is the whole system? The post mentions the amazing safety record of commercial aviation, and also the irrational nature of fears involving flight:
Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines.
All that is true. But I don't agree, as the piece goes on to claim, that "the [safety] system appears broken" or that airlines are left to "self-police" for safety regulations. Anyone who has dealt with the FAA can report otherwise. And to judge by the record, when was the last time two airliners collided in the United States? Hint: it was 49 years ago, and four people of the 122 aboard died. When was the last airliner-collision large-scale catastrophe in the US? It was when Dwight Eisenhower was president, and everything about technology was different.
Again, I think I'd agree with this author on most things, and I am meaning to be respectful about the article he wrote and the scare he endured. But people who think: first MH370, now this??? should think again. Several million commercial airline flights have taken off and landed safely worldwide since that Malaysian flight disappeared. Including the one Kevin Townsend describes.
Life is full of danger, including aboard aircraft. But if other aspects of life had even half the safety-consciousness of today's commercial air travel system, we'd live in a remarkably less perilous society.