James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Technology

  • California High-Speed Rail: 10 Readers With 10 Views

    A solution looking for a problem? A genuine leap forward? The best we can expect from political compromise? Or something truly brave? Take your pick.

    Projected Southern California reach of HIgh-Speed Rail Project ( UC Davis and Esri )

    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.

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    He is opposed by Republicans, probably most significantly in the form of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Eric Cantor's successor as House Minority 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 state politicians waiting for the current Brown/Feinstein/Boxer cohort, 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. 1No. 2No. 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).

     

    An earlier era's ambitious infrastructure program: The Last Spike, by Thomas Hill (Wikimedia)

     

    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.

    Aspirational high-speed rail map, via Federal Railroad Administration

     

    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.

     

    Federal Railroad Administration.

    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

    -flying time

    -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 500miles! London-Brussels is only 225miles 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 I5 - 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. 1No. 2No. 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.

  • Sunday Evening Tech Tips, en Français

    How's your flux de travail? You never know unless you ask.

    Computerized workflow scheme, as conceived in France ( Dominique Renauld )

    The site I'm about to mention will be most appealing to you if you use Macs, and more worthwhile still if you're either able to read French or in the mood to cope with online translations. 

    If you're still with me, let me recommend a site from the French media figure and academic Dominique Renauld, who has put together a number of tips, tutorials, and analyses of how he uses computerized thinking-and-writing tools. These include the nice diagram of his flux de travail, or workflow, shown in the image above and elaborated here

    As the icons in that image suggest, M. Renauld makes extensive use of two programs I also find elegantly effective and have often praised here: Scrivener, and Tinderbox. You can find the section of his journal dealing with "writing tools" here, with tags for Tinderbox-related and Scrivener-related posts. He has also prepared how-to videos on, for instance, using Tinderbox for organizing research notes via tagging. Others are here, with a sample below.

    If this is the kind of thing you are interested in, you will find it very interesting. 

    Thanks to Dominique Renauld for the effort and ideas.

    Update: A very interesting four-year-old video by a man named Tom Webster, about categorizing information with a now-quaint version of Tinderbox, is available here. Today's version can do a lot more, but this gives you some ideas.

  • The California High-Speed Rail Debate—Kicking Things Off

    The Erie Canal. The transcontinental railroad. The Interstate Highway system. Big, expensive, controversial—and indispensable. Is the next one in this series a new rail network in our most famously freeway-centric state? 

    This is not a scene from California's High-Speed Rail project, but it's related. ( Wikimedia Commons )

    A little more than a year ago, when I did an article on the successful second-act governorship of Jerry Brown, I said that among his major ambitions for the state was to create a north-south High-Speed Rail project, or HSR. 

    There wasn't space to go into it at the time, but I was a fan of the project then, and have become more so as time has gone on, even as political controversy about it has mounted. Reasons for my initial pro-HSR outlook:

    From International Union of Railroads.

    • If you have lived any place where HSR is up and running, you see the difference it can make. China’s high speed rail has its flaws, like crashing. But a relatively quick rail connection between Shanghai and Beijing is miraculous. So too with Xiamen-Shenzhen — or Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, or all the ones in Europe I have heard about but not yet taken.

    • If you have lived or worked any place in America with even medium-speed rail service, you see the difference it has made. Amtrak also has its flaws, to put it mildly. But just imagine life along the Bos-Wash corridor without it.

    Aspirational US HSR network, 2030. 

    • If you even start to think what already-congested, still-growing California will be like without some alternative to increased reliance on cars and airlines, you get depressed. It’s not just the congestion — at LAX, SFO, 101, and “the 405” and all other freeways of the Southland (where freeway names begin with "the"–and where, for the record, I grew up and still consider myself "from"). It’s the doomed choice between building more roads, thus chewing up more land while ensuring that the new roads clog up soon, and not building more, thus ensuring even worse Beijing-style paralysis.

    • Plus, infrastructure! Of the right kind. You can think of big transport investments that didn’t pay off, especially if you start by thinking of Robert Moses. You can more easily think of ones that defined countries, eras, economies. For your old-world types, you have the Silk Road or the Via Appia. For the Japanese, the ancient Tōkaidō, or “Eastern Sea Way,” immortalized by Hiroshige, and the modern Shinkansen that covers much the same route. We Americans have the Erie Canal ... 

    Erie Canal and its effect on New York state, in map from 1903.

    ... and the “National Road,” the transcontinental railroads, the early U.S. expansion of an air-travel infrastructure, the Interstate Highways, the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, the international effects of the Panama Canal, plus others. History’s record suggests that big investments of this sort are more often a good than a bad idea. It's because of the central historic role of transport-infrastructure projects in shaping the growth of states, regions, and whole countries that I've made this post part of the American Futures series.

    Effects of the Panal Canal, via Project Gutenberg.

                                                           ***

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    That was my pro-HSR starting position. As I've read and interviewed over the past year, including on reporting trips to California's Central Valley, I've become more strongly in favor of the plan, and supportive of the Brown Administration's determination to stick with it. In installments to come I'll spell out further pros and cons of the effort, and why the pros seem more compelling. For the meantime, here are three analyses worth a serious read:

    • An economic impact analysis prepared by the Parsons Brinckerhoff firm for the High-Speed Rail Authority two years ago, which looked into likely effects on regional development, sprawl, commuting times, pollution, and so on.

    An analysis by law school teams from UCLA and Berkeley, which concentrated on the project's effects in the poorest and most polluted part of the state, the central San Joaquin Valley. 

    • A benefit-cost analysis by Cambridge Systematics, of the "net present value" of a California high-speed rail system. (NPV is a standard way of comparing long-term costs and benefits.) It had charts like these on the likely longer-term benefits of the project, and said that the costs would be significantly less.

    More on those arguments later on. While I'm at it, here is the site of the U.S. pro-HSR association, and here is the one for California's High-Speed Rail Authority.

    The remaining purpose of this first post is to tee up the topic  and introduce a wonderful resource for Californians and other interested outsiders who would like to learn more. It's a complex and instructive interactive map, based on technology from our old friends at Esri and created by a group of analysts at UC Davis and elsewhere in California. It addresses the most difficult intellectual and political challenge in considering a huge, long-term project like this: namely, assessing or even imagining the long-term, dynamic effects.

                                                           ***

    You can go straight to the maps here, but let me explain a little more about what you'll find. 

    Judging the dynamic effect of big projects — downtown restoration efforts, canals or highways or airports — is essential because they all involve "compared with what?" questions. Building a railroad is expensive. But what is its cost, compared with that of building roads, airports, and so on? Building a railroad requires extra land. But how much land will it use, compared with instead building more highways, airports, etc? Trains use fuel and send out emissions. But compared with ... 

    The analyses above all go into these comparative questions. But the interactive maps present the information in a different and more literally dynamic way, by letting you zoom in and out, pan around, and compare building plans for the rail system with the main variables: cost, land-use effects, environmental impact, job creation, and influences on the rich-poor divide that is even more acute in California than in the country as a whole.

    For instance, this is a screen shot of the map's depiction of the system at an early stage of its construction, overlaid on a display of pollution and health stresses in the Central Valley.

    As a reminder of why the environmental situation in the Central Valley is so important, reflect on this chart — previously discussed here, originally from the Washington Post — comparing the ten worst air-pollution cities in China with those in the United States:

    The first moral of the chart is: China has a huge problem. The second one is: so does the Central Valley, where six of the seven most-polluted U.S. cities are located, the other being Los Angeles. 

    There is a lot more in these interactive maps. For instance, here is a screen shot showing the extraordinarily valuable farmland that has already been lost to sprawl around cities from Stockton in the north, through Modesto, Merced, and Fresno, down to Bakersfield in the south. The red dots represent acreage that has been converted to housing developments, malls, and the like. (You can see this much better at the map site.) 

    A make/break question for the rail project is whether it would accelerate, or retard, the paving-over of some of the world's most productive farm land. To me, the analyses suggest that HSR would be an important land-saving policy, but go to the studies and the maps to judge for yourself.

    That's it for now. In upcoming installments, interspersed with travel reports, there will be more about the arguments for—and against—this investment. Please prowl around on the maps, check out the studies, and follow on here for the next rounds.

                                                           ***

    For their work on the maps, and for explaining to me what they have put together there, my thanks to: Mike McCoy of the California Strategic Growth Council; Nate Roth of the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis; Dan Richard and Doug Drozd of the California High-Speed Rail Authority; and Jack Dangermond and many others on his team at Esri.

    Update: This post is No. 1 in a series. See also No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4

  • The Power of Maps, Past and Present

    New ways of envisioning how America once looked, and how it is changing.

    Historical maps, combined by USGS and Esri.

    One of our partners in our American Futures project, along with Marketplace radio, is the Esri mapping/geographic-info company of Redlands, California. Here are two interactive maps Esri has recently produced that I think are potential time-sinks of the instructive rather than of the "you'll hate yourself when you spend half an hour this way" variety.

    First, a "swipe map" that lets you compare recent rates of county-by-county population growth with the sources of that growth—or decline. You can see the full-screen version of the map here, which also explains its legend. In short, the darker the shade of green on the left side of the map, the faster the population growth. And on the right, a tan color means that migration has been the main source of change—people moving in—while blue means the "natural increase" of births and deaths. A pale color on either side means no growth/no change.

    Click the words "Hide Intro" when you first see the map, to get a view in which you can pan around and zoom in or out. Don't click on either "Data" or "Legend" — or, if you do, click back on "Map" to get the real display. Again, darker green is faster growth, and tan is people moving in. If you forget, just look at North Dakota. 

     

    Next, we have a really extraordinary overlay of some 175,000 historic topographical maps, whose power becomes evident if you click on a place you're familiar with. You can read background from the USGS here, and from Esri here. This latter link describes some of the technical feats necessary to produce this display. It also includes a series of maps showing, as an example, Phoenix's dramatic expansion through the past century.

    To try the historical maps, go to http://historicalmaps.arcgis.com/usgs/,  move around to find a place you care about, click on that site, and follow the instructions to see a range of historical maps. For instance, here is the way our current neighborhood in Washington looked in 1890, when today's Tenleytown was apparently called "Tennallytown" and when, surprisingly, what are now the main drags — today's MacArthur, Nebraska, Loughboro, Wisconsin, Reservoir, Foxhall, etc—had already been laid out. Also a surprise: that nearly 125 years ago there was already a reservoir overlooking the Potomac, which gave the then-unbuilt-upon Reservoir Road its name.

    And here is how my home town looked around the time I was starting kindergarten. I am not sure* exactly what the red shading indicates, but our house was at the very bottom of the red area. Most of the other area shown was orange groves.

    These are places of interest to me; you will find ones of interest to you. Congrats and thanks to Esri and their partners at USGS and the Census for making these maps available.  

                                                        ***

    * Update What about that red-tinted area? Reader Kit Case points out something I should have noticed myself. If you go into the Esri historical-map browser and choose old maps to inspect, you'll see, over on the left side of the screen, little thumbnails of each map you've chosen. By each thumbnail is an option to download the original map itself, as a PDF. When I download the map shown above and open its PDF, I see a full legend—including, in this case, info that red shading means areas where "only landmark buildings are shown," like schools and libraries, rather than each individual house. Which is why my family's house doesn't show up, but one right across the street, in a non-red area, does. Now I know.

  • Software Notes: Solutions to Info Overload and Other Eternal Challenges

    Old problems, new programs and devices.

    The new issue is out (subscribe!). I've just received my in-print copy, and tonight and tomorrow, en route to Colorado, I look forward to reading the 99% of the issue's contents I had heard about in the office but have not yet seen. Through the eons I've made a point of reading as much of the magazine as possible not in galley proofs nor in intermediate versions but the way civilians would, when it arrives all nicely bound and illustrated. More reaction anon.

    The 1% I have seen is my article on that evergreen topic, information overload. The reporting for this one was fun, in that it involved talking with people whose ideas, software, writings, or any combination thereof have guided my thoughts about technology's limits and evolution.

    They were: Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and creator of (among other things) the brilliant early program Lotus Agenda; Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote; Esther Dyson, a friend since our teenage years and an authority on all things digital; David Allen, famous for the "Getting Things Done" approach to life and a friend since I met him in Texas ten years ago; and Mark Bernstein, chief scientist of Eastgate Systems and designer of Tinderbox, an elegant and powerful Mac-based system I've used for info-management since making the Mac switch six years ago. (For a decade before that, I relied on—and still love—the Windows program Zoot, by Tom Davis of Zoot Software.) Among other distinctions, Allen and Bernstein are former guest-bloggers here.

    You can see their predictions in the article. The point of this post is to mention its existence, and to cover a few update points:

    1) I allude in the article to my version of the Holy Grail, "speaker-independent voice recognition." Here's the real-world example: I spent yesterday doing "American Futures" interviews in Winters, California, and this morning doing tech interviews in San Francisco. As a result, I have hours and hours of audio recordings, which eventually I need to sit and transcribe.

    Someday, I will be able to feed those recordings into an automatic transcriber, and get nice typed-out versions on the other end. No system now extant comes close to working well enough to handle that challenge. Not Dragon's software, which does fine when you train it to your own voice, not the Google or Apple voice-recognition that can parse limited words and phrases. A timeline with the article says that this might work within 10 years. Many people have written in to say, No, it will happen sooner! I think they're wrong but hope they're right. 

     

    The new Evernote-Fujitsu scanner.

    2) A version of the Holy Grail is a system that will automatically collect info from business cards and render it into usable, searchable text form. Phil Libin's Evernote has produced a hardware/software combo that is not perfect, but that unlike the voice systems has become just good enough at the task to be worthwhile from my point of view.

    You bring cards into the system either by taking smartphone pictures of them, then sending the image to the Evernote cloud for processing; or by scanning them on an expensive-but-excellent desktop scanner that made by Fujitsu and sold with the Evernote brand. The software for recognition in both scenarios is steadily improving. I swallowed very hard, and tried to distract my wife, before shelling out the $400+ for the new Fujitsu-Evernote scanner. But by the time I'd run the zillionth business card through it I thought it was worthwhile. It also handles receipts and any other sort of scan.


    3) Mark Bernstein's Eastgate has put out an entirely reworked new release of Tinderbox, known as Tinderbox Six. I paid to be part of the "Backstage Beta" testing and development process for this new release and consider it a big step forward in power and sophistication. More details on what is new at the Eastgate site and this user forum. Also, reviews by Steve Zeoli at Welcome to Sherwood.  (Zeoli also mentions another lithe little Mac program I like, FoldingText. As he points out, it recalls memories of the fabulous, lamented DOS program GrandView.)

    Tinderbox is expensive, though much less so than the scanner. Even more so than with the scanner, I consider it money well spent. Right now Tinderbox is bundled with several other (also excellent) "artisanal" Mac programs. You can read about them here. The two others from this group that I use every day are DevonThink Pro and the nonpareil writing program Scrivener. Here are the logos of the five programs on sale:

    Of course, your money for an Atlantic subscription is also well spent, and it's a bargain! 

                                                                      ***

    Because this comes up from time to time, let me say for the record: I always buy and pay normal list price for any software or hardware I like enough to use, including all of them mentioned here.

  • The Cirrus Parachute, as Seen From HQ and from a Swamp

    A plane with a built-in parachute records another save.

    Later this afternoon my wife Deb and I will be talking with, and to, a group of executives and employees of the Cirrus Aircraft company in Duluth, Minnesota. The Cirrus line of small planes—which now includes the original SR-20, the more powerful SR-22, and the still-in-development new jet, test models which we've seen flying around town—are the ones whose development I followed in the late 1990s and described in Free Flight. Cirrus's transition to ownership by CAIGA, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, was also one of the plot lines in China Airborne

    It will be an interesting day to re-visit Cirrus, because of the latest instance of a Cirrus airplane being in the news. When the Cirrus line made its debut some 15 years ago, its most remarked-upon feature was its unprecedented built-in parachute for the entire airplane that came as standard equipment. This was at the insistence of the founders of the company, Alan Klapmeier and his brother Dale. As I describe in Free Flight, Alan had been involved in a mid-air collision when he was a very young pilot and was lucky to survive. He vowed that when (not if) he and his brother started their own airplane company, he would build in "what if?" protection for emergencies like this. For more about why Cirrus and its parachute were so controversial in the aviation world, and yet why it has enjoyed such runaway popularity among purchasers (making Cirrus the best-selling plane in its category worldwide), please see this account after a parachute "save" in Australia last month, and this after a parachute save in Connecticut last year. (For more on Alan Klapmeier's latest aviation-innovation project, a new plane called the Kestrel, watch this site.)

    Yesterday there was another dramatic save, near the very busy suburban airport Hanscom Field in the western suburbs of Boston. As you can see in a TV news report here (not embeddable) the plane for some reason had an engine failure; the woman who was serving as flight instructor calmly reported the situation to the tower, directed the plane during its powerless glide away from the very crowded Burlington shopping mall area and toward a marsh, then pulled the parachute handle, and landed safely with the male flight student. The news station video shows flight instructor and passenger both walking out from the plane.

    The LiveATC capture of the air traffic control frequency conveys the drama of the event—and also the impressive calm of all involved. These include the flight instructor, starting with her first report that she is unable to make it back to the airport; the controller, who is juggling that plane's needs with the other normal flow of traffic into Hanscom field; and another pilot who is (it appears) from the same flight club and who immediately flies over to check the disabled plane's condition from above. 

    That LiveATC recording is also not embeddable, but I promise that if you start listening to the clip (again, it's here) you will find it a dramatic mini-saga. The tone in everyone's voices 5 minutes in, when the other pilot sees what has become of the plane, is remarkable, as you will hear. 

    This is my only moment for the next few hours, so I will stop now and get this posted rather than prowling around for more photos of the episode or follow-up explanations. They can come later, after I've talked with the Cirrus officials. Signing off now, but please check out the news story and the ATC clip.

  • Man Bites Dog: A Small Publisher Speaks Up on Amazon's Behalf

    The latest version of an argument that has been with us for a very long time.

    Portion of the cover of the book that has helped keep Random House going. (Wikipedia)

    I've long been wary of Amazon, for reasons that have come to a head with its highly publicized struggle with Hachette. This recent Atlantic item by Jeremy Greenfield lays out the stakes well. To summarize:

    In the short run, Amazon can argue that it's working purely "in the customer's best interest" by squeezing publishers to agree to its terms. In the longer run, the result will be a further destructive "de-bundling" of the book market and book industry, skewing the supply even more heavily to lower-risk blockbuster books.

    How is publishing "bundled"? One example: Over the past few years, the Random House empire has regularly praised heaven for the existence of E.L. James's Fifty Shades saga, which has underwritten a lot of other projects the house has supported. (Say, like this one.) The Amazon-vs.-publishers struggle is a version of the arguments about Wal-Mart's effects—"better" for customers day by day, much worse for traditional downtowns—or about lower-cost, mass-produced fast food. These big questions of measurable efficiency, versus other unmeasurable or longer-term components of social well-being, have been with our country from the start. (I went into them a lot in More Like Us.)

    But on the other side, here is a pro-Amazon note from a publisher. The author says that Amazon's radically more efficient business practices have been a boon to him, in his role as a small publisher (of DVDs), compared with traditional retailers or distributors. He writes:

    I am seeing the Amazon-ire over Hachette gathering steam in some quarters, and certain I share concerns (Oh wait, I was concerned about this years ago!)

    What I am not seeing is anyone talking about the actual dollars and cents, and offer the below as hard data on what our experience is with Amazon and other retailers and distributors....
     
    Like many, perhaps the majority of products on Amazon, our DVDs are sold under Amazon's consignment program. They are branded as Sold by Amazon, but as a matter of how the money actually changes hands, it's a consignment arrangement.

    As needed, Amazon sends us a stock up request for various numbers of our various titles. We pay shipping, but we do not pay storage in Amzon's warehouse.

    We set the MSRP [Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price], but Amazon sets the discount. Paradoxically(?) the faster a title is selling, the deeper Amazon discounts. My presumption is this is done algorithmically. We've seen our titles discounted anywhere from 0% to ~35%.

    Regardless of Amazon's discounting at the end of each month Amazon pays us 45% of MSRP. This is done automatically and a full accounting of sales, monies owed and paid is available online through our consignment retailer interface, which also gives us complete control over the product description and some (but sadly not sufficient) control over the product metadata.

    If our DVDs sat on Amazon's warehouse shelves too long Amazon would send them back to us at our cost, but this has never happened. We can also make stock-up requests if we think our inventory at Amazon's warehouse is insufficient to meet upcoming demand.

    By comparison, if we were to do business with Baker & Taylor or other "traditional" middlemen they would pay us no more than 40% MSRP, pay invoices in 90-180 days, over order titles and then back-charge us for returns.

    In short, Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options. I make no presumption that Amazon is 'the bad guy" in their dispute with Hachette, or even that there is a bad guy. If Hachette has a better deal somewhere else, they should take it.

    I assume that Hachette's retort would be: When certain players become dominant enough, it is cutesy rather than realistic to say "If you don't like our terms, go find a better deal somewhere else." No one else is in a position to offer comparable deals. Of course the history of technology is of "impregnably" dominant figures suddenly being disrupted. Anything anyone says about Amazon was said with 100 times more rancor about Microsoft a mere 15 years ago. This era too will presumably pass; the question is what gets disrupted or eliminated in the meantime.

    For now, I'll thank the reader for this side of the story. And I'll note that whenever possible I've been buying and ordering books from independent sellers; ordering electronic versions in the B&N Nook version or another ePub format rather than Amazon Kindle (each sluices into my iPad); and directing book-related links to the author's site, or the publisher's, or some local retailer's, rather than to the Amazon listing. All tiny gestures toward keeping the book-producing infrastructure diverse. 

                                                                   ***

    Update A reader writes in with a different experience and interpretation:

    Amazon is indeed a wonder and a terror. Our general merchandise (but mostly pool accessories and costumes) business has come to depend on Amazon for approximately 70% of our revenue. Not only has this driven prices (and profits) the rock-bottom, it can become devastating when they change their rules. Several times they have updated the data requirements for product listings without providing enough time for us to comply. The results have been hundreds or thousands of products "hidden" from their marketplace as we put other projects on hold to update these old listings.

    There's a lot of money to be made there. But in my experience they have very little regard for their merchants. Their domination of online retail feels very precarious, for them and merchants. But, hey, I guess consumers are able to buy products at 5% over wholesale.

  • Who Has a Legitimate Gripe Against Vibram Shoes? The Syndactyly Crowd

    Why some readers view this photo as a frightening "trigger."

    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.

    These are not the reader's feet. They're from
    Wikipedia to illustrate the syndrome.

    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.

    Sample Zoris, also from Wikipedia.

    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. 

  • After the Latest Peril-in-the-Skies Saga, Should You Be Afraid to Fly?

    No.

    Peril in the skies, from Airplane. (Wikipedia)

    [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.

  • How a Small Plane Crash Looks When Passengers Are About to Survive Rather Than About to Die

    Seventeen seconds of video that explain why one brand of small aircraft has become the most popular in the world.

    Let me explain the background of the amazing video below, shot two days ago in Australia.

    It's been 15 years since the Cirrus SR20 made its debut as "the plane with the parachute." At the time of its introduction, and in some grizzled-aviator circles even now, the idea of a parachute for the entire airplane met hoots of derision. After all, "real" pilots should always be ready to glide an airplane to a landing if its engine failed or something else went wrong. Handling a "power-off approach" is part of regular pilot training. So isn't a parachute like a crutch, or training wheels, for flyers who really need to up their game?* 

    But people other than those grizzled aviators generally had an "Are you crazy???? Of course you'd want a parachute!" reaction. What if the pilot passed out? Or it was nighttime and you couldn't see where you were going? Or you were over mountains or forests will no smooth landing site? Or the pilot hadn't practiced power-off landings for a while? Or any of a dozen other concerns.

    Because of questions like these, the original SR20 and later, higher-powered SR22 have become the best-selling aircraft of their type worldwide. My book Free Flight, and this Atlantic article taken from it, describe the modern-day-Wright-brothers saga of the Klapmeier brothers, Alan and Dale, who created Cirrus and made it a very successful business in Duluth, Minnesota. The cover, at right, showed a Cirrus under parachute during one of its pre-certification tests. My book China Airborne describes, inter alia, how and why the Cirrus plant, still in Duluth, is now owned by the Chinese government via one of its aerospace ministries. 

    The first Cirrus parachute-pull came nearly 12 years ago, under circumstances in which Charles Lindbergh, Patty Wagstaff, and Bob Hoover together would have had trouble gliding the plane safely down. (Because of a maintenance error, one aileron came loose, making the plane essentially uncontrollable.) Since then the ~6000 Cirrus planes around the world have been involved in about 50+ parachute descents. You can see the full list here, at a site  maintained by Rick Beach for the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, COPA. After nearly all the episodes, the pilot and passengers have walked away unhurt.

    The latest parachute pull happened this past weekend, in Australia, over a suburb west of Sydney. Someone was on hand to capture its descent for an enlightening YouTube video, as shown below. 

    This video is only 32 seconds long, and if you watch the section starting at time 0:15 you will have a dramatically clearer idea of the difference these parachutes can make. As a story in the Australian paper The Age put it, 

    The Cirrus planes are the only light planes in the world to come with their own parachute system, something that has helped it become the most popular piston engine plane in the world.

    “If they [the passengers] had been in any other aircraft they wouldn’t be going home tonight to their families,“ said a staff member at Regal Air, which sells and does maintenance on the aircraft from its headquarters at Bankstown Airport.


    For more details of the episode and pictures of the plane and passengers on the ground see reports from Australian Broadcasting, Sky News Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald, plus The Age

    The YouTube video also dramatizes why, during the ~1200 flying hours I have spent in Cirruses since buying a very early-model SR20 in 2000, it has been a back-of-the-mind reassurance to know the parachute is there, even though I've never come remotely close to circumstances where I felt I should consider using it. Also you will see why for non-pilot passengers, starting with my wife, its presence makes such a difference in peace of mind. In many small airplanes, there really is no reassuring answer to the question: OK, what if the pilot passes out? I've never come remotely close to passing out, either, but that's not a fully convincing answer. The parachute creates a very important Plan B option.


    For the record: I have no relationship with the Cirrus company other than as a two-time customer and a journalistic chronicler. I'm on friendly terms with many of the company's current and previous officials. I bought an early SR20 in 2000 and flew it for six years until we moved to China, at which point I sold it. On return four years ago I bought a new-to-me 2006-model SR22. We're traveling in that for our American Futures journeys.


    * Reader A.H. in Texas writes about this attitude:

    That sounds very much like British RAF in the last months of World War I, when German pilots began using the first early parachutes. The British supposedly refused to adopt them because they were convinced that pilots in a crippled machine would "lose their nerve" and jump, rather remain fully committed to saving the aircraft. Appalling, in retrospect.

  • The Man Who Thinks He Has Solved the MH370 Mystery

    ... but hasn't.

    Dr. M has not lost his edge. (Reuters)

    Anyone familiar with modern Malaysia—and hey, that should include almost everybody in this era of MH370 coverage—knows the name "Dr. Mahathir." For more than two decades, Mahathir Mohamad, originally trained as a medical doctor, was prime minister of Malaysia. To put it in perspective for Americans, this was a span that included all of Ronald Reagan's time in office, plus that of the first George Bush, plus all of Bill Clinton's, plus much of George W. Bush's first term.

    "Dr. M" first came to political prominence with a famous/notorious book called The Malay Dilemma, which argued that the country's more-numerous, less-prosperous ethnic Malays deserved special favors from the government, because eons of life in their lush tropical paradise had made them less fit for economic competition than the hard-driving Chinese minority. (Mahathir was head of the dominant ethnic-Malay political party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.)

    To say that Dr. M is prickly undervalues that term. While serving as prime minister, he once got into what we'd now call a flame war with a 10-year-old schoolboy in England.* When Mahathir had a heart operation in the late 1980s, the local joke was that the point of the operation was to give him one (a heart). For decades Dr. M governed with a giant chip on his shoulder, and even out of office he's retained his trademark style, as he shows with his views on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight.

    Are most people puzzled by what happened to the plane? Do nearly all fault the Malaysian government's handling of the situation? They should shut up, Dr. M has explained. It's actually Boeing's fault. As he put it on his personal blog, picked up yesterday by the Malay Mail online:

    I am very upset over MAS [Malaysia Airline System] employees being held hostage in Beijing by the relatives of the passengers of MH 370. I am upset because they are blaming the wrong people. The loss of the plane is due to the makers Boeing.

    How can Boeing produce a plane that is so easily disabled? [And so on.] ...

    MAS is not at fault, lax security or not. MAS flew a plane fully expecting it to perform the task. But the plane has somehow behaved differently. Who is responsible? Not MAS but certainly the makers of the plane — Boeing Aircraft Corporation.

    The perfidy of the West knows no bounds. Meanwhile, even as Dr. M is solving the mystery, airline pilot Patrick Smith, of the Ask the Pilot blog, says that it is farther than ever from explanation:

    Count me among those who feel that this is how ends: a mystery. The plane is out there somewhere, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, and in all likelihood we’re not going to find it....

    While I am not ruling anything out, my hunch is that a malfunction, rather than foul play or a pilot suicide mission, brought the plane down. A poorly handled decompression, for example, caused by a structural problem or windscreen failure. Or a catastrophic electrical failure combined with smoke, fire or fumes that rendered the crew unconscious. Granted that doesn’t totally jive with the evidence, but none of the theories do.

    That's what makes the situation an enduring and perhaps permanent mystery. No explanation makes sense. Except, of course, Dr. Mahathir's. 


    * While we were living in Malaysia in the 1980s, a British schoolboy wrote to Mahathir lamenting the destruction of the rain forest, mainly for conversion to palm-oil plantations. Dr. M took the time to write a blistering personal note back to the boy, lambasting the hypocrisy of Western hand-wringers and their late discovery of environmental concerns. "They should expel all those people all the people living in the British countryside and allow secondary forests to grow and fill these new forests with wolves and bears etc., before studying tropical angles." The man had an edge. I described this episode and the general Malaysian situation in Looking at the Sun.

    The more consequential side of his approach was his long legal persecution of his one-time protege, Anwar Ibrahim. For background see this. We loved living in Malaysia, but a notable item on the minus side of the ledger was the Mahathir-era governing style.

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  • The Electronic-Medical-Records Email of the Day, No. 1

    "Just as cars are not all the same, Electronic Medical Records vary greatly. A Mercedes, a Maserati and a Yugo are all cars, but you certainly wouldn't accuse someone of rejecting a used Yugo as being a Luddite and hating all cars. Similarly, you shouldn't generalize physicians who reject terrible programs as hating EMR."

    Background: In last month's issue (subscribe!) I had a brief Q&A with Dr. David Blumenthal, who had kicked off the Obama Administration's effort to encourage use of electronic medical records. Since then, the mail has kept gushing in, as reported in previous as reported in in our April issue, about why the shift has been so difficult and taken so long. Previous multi-message compendia are available in installments onetwothreefourfive, and six

    As an operational matter, I am going to start doling these out one or sometimes two at a time, on a every-day-or-two basis. They'll have headlines based on this one's, and I will try to figure out some standardized image or illustration as cues that these are part of a series. Generally I'll post these without comment; they're meant to be part of a cumulative conversation among medical professionals, technologists, and the rest of us who are merely patients and bill-payers.

    Let's start with two—one from a patient, one from a doctor.

    Patient (and tech veteran): I can't stand filling out these damned forms over and over again.

    I've been in the high tech industry since I graduate college in 1986, watching it grow from a specialized industry to the giant, interpenetrated octopus it is now. My wife also is in high tech, and indeed started out ... installing EMR systems in hospitals in the early 90s.  Just a couple of quick thoughts:

    First, if someone—ANYONE—can come up with a system that would prevent me from having to fill out THE SAME information over and over again just because I'm seeing a different doctor, I WILL TAKE IT. You get the same information requirements, but they're all on different forms, in different formats, from different doctors. But all the base information is exactly the same: Name, address, social security number, marital status, kids, insurance info, and so on. It's all the same. I'm seeing a doctor who was recommended by my GP; why in god's name am I filling out yet another form by hand. In 2014. When what most offices do is take my information and ... enter it into their databases by hand. How inefficient can you get? Hell, some doctors require you to put the exact same info *on multiple forms*. There has got to be a better way. [JF note: This is also my experience-as-patient, and I share the exasperation.]

    I've long thought what we need is a card that is programmable, the size of a credit or insurance card, that you swipe through a reader, punch in a security code, and it downloads the info to the new doctor's system. Why no one has implemented this I have no idea.

    Another note: I'm sure that a lot of the difficulty is incompatible systems, systems that don't play nice with various insurance companies, systems that don't interact with each well, and so on. This is not an inherent flaw of the technology—it would be no different if they were doing everything on paper, and then found, shit, we're using legal-sized, but the insurance requires 8.5 x 11! Or some other mundane problem with paper records. I don't know of any way around the problem other than mandated standards—"Everyone will use Oracle," or some such—and that's not going to happen. But the answer isn't to go backwards, or we'll end up with ink pots and quills.

    Finally, I have to believe that the second doctor whom you quote is forced to use three systems partly by insurance-company requirements. I have to believe that if we had single-payer, that would simplify the record-keeping and IT problem considerably.

    Doctor: A female doctor—as she notes, her gender is relevant to one of her points—says it's important to distinguish between good and bad systems.

    I am a 50+ yo hospitalist (yes, the dreaded hospitalist bogeyman) and have been one for 17+ years. A couple of points, if I may:

    1- there's a lot of talk about EMR as an entity without really addressing the quality of the EMR's. Just as cars are not all the same, EMR's vary greatly. A Mercedes, a Maserati and a Yugo are all cars, but you certainly wouldn't accuse someone of rejecting a used Yugo as being a Luddite and hating all cars. Similarly, you shouldn't generalize physicians who reject terrible programs as hating EMR.

    They just enacted an EMR/CPOE [CPOE=Computerized Physician Order Entry] at my hospital. The reason this particular program was selected was money, savings by choosing a cheap program and avoiding the federal penalty. It is so difficult to use and (as many other commenters noted) fills your noted with drek and making the useful information difficult to find.

    The program is so awful, in addition to parts of it being mouse driven, you need to use function keys and arrow keys to navigate. (Just hit F9, Dr. Smith...) When was the last time, in 2014, you were forced to learn a new program that required you to navigate that way? You can't search, you need to know the specific names for tests (CT chest rather than chest CT, dysphagia exam versus video swallow) and you need to click up to 30-40 times to get through something that previously required you to write 1 order. You can accidentally (and dangerously) erase the patient's entire plan of care with 2 clicks (one poor nurse spent 2 hours trying to recreate it) but you need click to confirm and verify multiple things that are clinically insignificant.

    I would love an elegant program that enhanced patient care, was safe and made my job easier. Love, love, love it. But instead, I am painted (per lots of your communicants) as a intransigent luddite who doesn't want to move forward. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    (By the way, that picture you posted on March 24, with Xrays accessed on the left, trending labs and graphs, looked great! All that info at your fingertips, integrated into the system. What program was that?) [JF note: it appears to have been an "artist's conception" image rather than a real program.]

    2-I am an Apple fan. I don't care what the computer has regarding the hardware, I just want it to work, be intuitive and be reliable. (Not unusual for a woman, regarding computers or cars.)  However, many of my colleagues are uber-geeks. Just being over 40 doesn't mean we can't handle the technology. We are just less patient of bad technology. I don't use the same phone I used in 1997, don't expect me to use an antiquated, poorly written program which was developed in 1997.

    3--Another topic, but: Hospitalists are seeing patients because the primary care physician [PCP] chose that option. There are trade-offs for any system and thehospitalist system is no different. We may not have the longstanding relationships with people and families but we replace that with relationships forged under very emotional and intense circumstances. As with any physician, experiences vary  greatly. You wouldn't slam all orthopedic surgeons because you had one bad experience or bad doctor, so you should not generalize one experience onto the whole specialty.

    Also, the actual number of times people would actually see their PCP is lower than perceived, usually because of call schedules (seeing your doctor's partners instead) and going to hospitals where your PCP does not have privileges. I addition, your PCP is generally only in the house early morning and after office hours. When families come by in the middle of the day, I am available to talk to them. When someone crashes midday, I can handle it because I am there.

    I got hugs from 2 patient families yesterday, one for spending the time to explain why the orthopedic surgeon was recommending an amputation ( he was at another hospital by the time the family got there) , another for transferring a patient after a terrible, prolonged, critical illness to rehab. Neither had PCP's on staff.

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  • If Doctors Don't Like Electronic Medical Records, Should We Care?

    "Yes, there are problems in any technology implementation and there always will be. But fewer people die. Yes, it is important to connect with the patient. But fewer people die. Yes, the opportunity to pad billing is obscene. But fewer people die."

    How critics imagine the new record-keeping system. ( Wikimedia commons )

    Dr. David Blumenthal, who now is head of the Commonwealth Fund, has been a friend since we both were teenagers. It was a sign of his medical / tech / policy skills that the newly arrived Obama administration put him in charge of encouraging a shift toward use of electronic medical records. It is evidence of his admirably good-humored big-tent personality that David still takes my calls after the many rounds of back-and-forth we've posted here in response to his original Q&A in our April issue, about why the shift has been so difficult and taken so long.

    For those joining us late, you can check out installments onetwothree,  four, and fiveHerewith number six, on the particular question of how the non-expert public -- those of us who experience the medical system mainly as patients and bill-payers -- should assess the opinions of physicians, nurses, and other inside participants. Should we give them more weight, because of their first-hand expertise? Less weight, because of possible institutional bias or blind-spots? Both at once? See for yourself.

    First, the concerns of two physicians. One on the West Coast writes:

    I am a family practice physician in western Washington state. I have been practicing for 25 years.  Ten years ago I was excited about about the potential of electronic technology to improve patient care. Today I am profoundly disappointed.  

    I am currently working in three different EHRs (electronic health records). Two are OK, i.e. allow me to efficiently document a patient visit with clinically relevant data.  The other one is cumbersome beyond belief. It is a company with outstanding marketing capability that won over our administrators. It falls far short of meeting the needs of those of us trying to improve patient care.  Intrinsically it fails to produce a note useful for other doctors. To achieve that end, I use time-consuming work arounds. Sad I think. 

    I believe that primary care is valuable to patients but also has potential to limit costs.....

    I have included a reference to one of my favorite articles from the New England Journal of Medicine, including the first paragraph of the article:

    "It is a widely accepted myth that medicine requires complex, highly specialized information-technology (IT) systems. This myth continues to justify soaring IT costs, burdensome physician workloads, and stagnation in innovation — while doctors become increasingly bound to documentation and communication products that are functionally decades behind those they use in their 'civilian' life.

    And from a doctor in Kentucky:

    As a 50 y/o it infuriates me when I read that only physicians less than 40 are comfortable with EMR’s because they grew up with them. Well that’s crap. My first computer was a Commodore 64 which I learned to program. I am very familiar with computers and have 4 networked together in my home.

    That being said I would agree with Dr. Wait [from this post] in that EMR’s are not ready for primetime. If EMR’s were so great, no one would have to bribe and penalize us to use less. They generate a tidal wave of information. The important data gets lost in the overwhelming volume of mostly useless information. I used to dictate my notes and they would then scanned into the computer. The note was legible and concise. I could find it anywhere. Then the EMR came. It takes 20 minutes to do what used to take 30 seconds. I get a note that is less than useful. It is full of errors that I can’t correct. Information that others have entered that is clearly wrong that I can’t remove. I no longer try. The only important part now of my notes are the HPI and the plan. The rest is just garbage.

    To give you an example my EMR won’t let me enter a subtotal hysterectomy in the past surgical history. Even when I supply the correct CPT code the EMR calls this  a Total hysterectomy, which is not correct and can lead to errors in determining who needs a pap smear.

    So EMR remain not ready for primetime. I’m not sure why I can’t continue to dictate and allow the transcriptionist to fill in the EMR. It would work so much better.

    Now for a different view, from an informed non-expert. This reader, a physics professor at a university in the South, uses the distinctive phrase of the day to suggest that we apply a discount to complaints from today's practitioners:

    I've been reading the back and forth over electronic medical records. It seems the opposition comes, by and large, from doctors. Because why?

    Because problems. There's lots of smoke and mirrors about interconnectivity, about interacting with the computer instead of the patient, about sleazy increased billing but all of that is in service of a single point of view: let's never change until we can change to something perfect. In other words, the underlying point is "don't make me change the way I'm used to doing things."

    This all misses the main point. To me, what is overriding importance is the undeniable fact that ANY system that does NOT rely on the memory of the patient for long term medical history storage is NECESSARILY a better system no matter how badly it sucks. The VA has proved this over the last couple of decades as measured by the fact that fewer people die. Better information management beats clever doctoring every time.

    Yes, there are problems in any technology implementation and there always will be. But fewer people die. Yes, it is important to connect with the patient. But fewer people die. Yes, the opportunity to pad billing is obscene. But fewer people die. Any large scale IT rollout has problems. The question is do the benefits outweigh the time invested in ironing out those problems. Most of us would say yes because fewer people die. I wonder why physicians are so reluctant to say that? Didn't they swear an oath or something?

    I also wonder how many of these physicians, when directing their gimlet eye to another field such as public education, are equally skeptical of, say, massive online courses or teachers attending to the computer instead of their students, or teaching to the test? I somehow doubt it.

    I think when you are the person dealing with a system day after day, it is easy to let your detailed knowledge of its problems overwhelm the vaguer notion of its benefits. You don't have a direct experience of a patient who didn't die, but you do have a direct experience of a technical snafu. 

     Thanks to experts and non-experts for writing in, and to David Blumenthal for opening this view into a world that affects us all.

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  • How to Check If a Site Is Safe From 'Heartbleed'

    If your site reads Safe, it makes sense to change your password. Even if it doesn't yet, a change still makes sense.

    This post follows one a few hours ago about the Heartbleed security failure, and for safety's sake it repeats information I have added to that post as an update.

    Point 1: If you would like to test to see whether a site is exposed to the loophole created (over the past two years) by the OpenSSL bug, you can go here and enter the URL you are concerned about. (This tip via Bruce Schneier.) As explained in the FAQ, the test sometimes delivers "false positives" for vulnerability  -- that is, it may report problems with a site that actually is OK, or that is in the middle of taking steps to protect itself. But the site's creator explains why "false negatives" -- OK signals when there actually is a problem -- should be very rare, and especially if you perform the test several times. Update Here is another good test site.

    Point 2: If a site tests through as Safe, then it makes sense to change your password there. And all of my email and financial sites are now saying Safe, so the changes I am making there will stick.

    But even if a site does not say Safe, the people I have asked say that it still makes sense to change -- even though you'll need to change again when the SSL for that site is fully repaired.

    Reasoning: If you change it now, it's possible that a still-active hacker will capture info today. But if you don't change it now, anything exploited in the past two years is vulnerable. Also, many sites that are not yet fully protected are on higher alert than they would have been before this news, so hackers may have a tougher time in the new environment than when this was an unknown-unknown.

    Point 3: The guy who created the test site, a young Italian cryptologist based in Milan, has a donation button on the site.

    UPDATE: Here is another industrial-strength test site. I tried the same domain on it, and the score you see here is way, way close to the top of those it has tried. And here is another test site.

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  • The 5 Things to Do About the New Heartbleed Bug

    Should you take the latest security scare seriously? I do, and here are the steps I am taking.

    [Please see important UPDATE in a newer post, and repeated at the bottom of this post.] Most flaps about scary new Internet bugs are just typical scary Internet flaps. This latest one, the Heartbleed bug, I am taking seriously. Potentially it means that username/ password combos for the sites everyone considered secure have in fact been hacked and stolen.

    Update: Just this second, I see that Bruce Schneier has declared the bug "catastrophic." Consider yourself warned. Schneier adds:"On the scale of 1 to 10, this is an 11." He has no track record as an alarmist.

     You can read more about how it happened, and why it matters, at this helpful master site and the dozens of useful tech links it includes. Here is also an overview from TechCrunch. (Update: and here is one of several useful test facilities to let you check the status of sites you're concerned about.)

    Simplest way to understand the problem: one of the protocols that many sites use to protect their own security, in an implementation known as OpenSSL (for Secure Socket Layers), itself has a previously unknown bug. That bug, in place for the past two years, could in theory allow an attacker to harvest large amounts of name/password combos plus other info from sites believed to be perfectly safe. Because exploitation of the bug would have left no trace, no one (except a potential hacker) yet knows how many names have been taken, or from where.

    A patched OpenSSL version exists and is being deployed. Until then, what should you do? Here's a five-point checklist, followed by explanations.

    1. Change the passwords for the handful of sites that really matter to you. I'll explain how you can do this in a total of ten minutes or less. This probably isn't necessary, but just in case...
       
    2. Do not ever use the same password at two sites that matter to you. Ever. Heartbleed or not, this lowers the security level of any site with that password to the level of the sleaziest and least-secure site where you've ever used it. 
       
    3. Use a password manager, which can generate an unlimited set of unique, "difficult" passwords and remember them for you.
       
    4. Use "two-step" sign-in processes wherever they're available, starting with Gmail.
       
    5. Read what happened in our family three years ago, when one of our Gmail accounts was taken over by someone in Africa, if you would like a real-world demonstration of why you should take these warnings seriously. It's from an article called "Hacked."  

    That's the action plan. Now the details.


    What I am personally doing about Heartbleed, and why.

    -  I am changing my password for a handful of "important" sites. My finance-related sites: bank accounts, credit cards, mortgage-payment, investment accounts. The email accounts I actually use, three of them in total and all Gmail-based. Plus all social-media accounts. Even though on most of these accounts I am dormant rather than active, I'd rather not have someone take over the account and cause problems in that way.  (UPDATE: In response to questions, you would need to do this again once the OpenSSL patch has been distributed or the sites have in other ways confirmed their safety. Nonetheless it seems worth doing even now, even given the possibility that a site is still vulnerable and could have new info intercepted as you're changing it, because otherwise you're exposed to any info collected over the past two years.)

    - I am abiding by the watchword of never using the same password on two accounts that matter. Whoever is in charge of security at, say, HottestCheerleadersPlusCheapMedicineFromThailand.com (not an actual site I have visited) might not know how to protect against hacks, or might even dishonestly sell its user info to hackers. They could then blindly try the combos elsewhere.

    - I am making all this easy on myself by using a password manager. The one I have used and liked for several years is LastPass, which was also the top choice in this recent PC Mag review. You can read reviews of a wide range of alternatives here and here. The idea behind all of them is that they store a vast range of passwords you could not possibly remember yourself; they automatically fill them in for your sites; and they have a range of very tough security measures to protect this precious central vault. In well under 1 minute per site, I can have Last Pass generate a new, "difficult," never-before-used password for important sites -- let's say u!YKhtAs7xQA , though that's not a real one -- and set my systems up to use that automatically.

    For now I'm not getting into the conceptual question of whether one centralized password trove is theoretically more vulnerable than the "distributed" approach of trying to manage this all on your own. In reality, I'm convinced that it's better to use a password manager, and safer than the alternative of trying to keep track of a whole list of passwords on your own. (For instance, you can read Last Pass's explanation of how it does encryption right on each user's computer, not at the central site, so that even someone who got the main controls wouldn't know your passwords.) The only password I keep in my mind is a very long password for Last Pass itself. It's so long that it could never be cracked by brute force, much as no one will win Warren Buffett's billion-dollar bet on the NCAA tournament. But it's very easy for me to remember, because it's a long passage I can reel off by heart.

    -- I am using two-step sign-in processes for every system that allows them, and you should too. Gmail does this, and in fact pioneered this as a free feature for mass, non-commercial users. Last Pass also does so. How this works: In certain circumstances, logging in requires not simply your password but an extra, real-time code that is sent to or generated by your mobile phone or other device. What it means: For all practical purposes, someone cannot take over your account from afar. Since so many destructive scams and hacks are carried out remotely -- from Russia, China, West Africa, Israel, the Stans, you name it -- this is the easiest possible protection you can take against a very broad category of attack.

    Two-step systems can be mildly inconvenient, but a lot of that has been buffed away. For instance, you can set Gmail so that it doesn't need the second password as long as you are using your own computer or phone. For more details, see this and this

    More as the story develops. The point for now: none of us can do anything about larger architectural questions of security, surveillance, vulnerability, and so on for the Internet. But along the spectrum of what that architecture makes possible, we can make ourselves less rather than more vulnerable. These steps will help.


    Update: Via Bruce Schneier, it is very much worth checking out this test site, to see whether a site you deal with frequently has been repaired to avoid the SSL bug. For instance, here -- fortunately -- is what you would see for the Atlantic's site:

    In theory, changing a password on a not-yet-fixed site could create new vulnerability, if a hacker has just decided to start watching it today. In practice, most of the people I have checked with say it's worth doing, because otherwise you're exposed to anything captured within the past two years. Then, when a site becomes safe -- as shown above -- it certainly makes sense to change the password. For further explanation, see this follow-on post

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