The town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin is not generally thought of as one of the innovative centers of America. Children's clothing, yes. Trucks? You betcha. But Oshkosh doesn't typically jump to mind as a powerful counter-argument to those who worry that the computerized, modern era has obliterated backyard tinkering, craftsmanship, and forward-thinking innovation.
Except for one week a year.
Each year, at the end of July, the Experimental Aircraft Association has its annual convention at the Wittman Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 12,000 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of people attend, making the airport, for that one week, the busiest airport in America. Lots of private and commercial pilots fly in to the convention in standard general aviation planes that range from the 1920s to the latest and most current models. There are graceful biplanes that are as much works of art as machines of the air. There are WWI and WWII fighters, tiny little trainers, gliders, seaplanes, and huge military transports. But the show is also a hotbed of innovation and inventive craftsmanship; reassuring to anyone who wonders, or worries, whether we've lost that hands-on, Thomas Edison-like inventor's edge.
The "Experimental" Aircraft Association, after all, was founded to support those who wanted to design and build their own planes. Many of those innovators have gone on to produce and sell hundreds, or thousands, of standardized "kits" of their designs, which are then built by individual owners in their garages. Even in 2009. And the results are often far beyond what exists in "factory-built" airplanes. Some kitplanes go 200 miles an hour or more, on only a few gallons of gas per hour.
But really, the fun part; the remarkable part (and the most inspiring part), is seeing the vast array of new ideas made real in prototypes spanning a broad range of shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. To illustrate, here are just a few:
The ICON -- portable, light, amphibious sport fun
Park in your garage, take off from a runway, and land in the local lake for a morning of fishing--and look cool while you're doing it. ICON has high-tech design and looks, aimed at pilots who want a plane that's relatively simple but as modern-looking as their stereo systems. It's still in test flight, and the plane is limited to two passengers, and 120 mph. But it's clearly not your father's Oldsmobile.
Terrafugia--a high-tech flying car
One of the longstanding problems of using planes for transportation is that you arrive at a destination airport without a good way to get around on the ground. So ever since the early post-war era, designers have tried to figure out how to make a hybrid vehicle that would both fly and drive. Nobody so far has had a lot of success with the concept of a flying car (the requirements of the two types of transport are pretty different, after all), but a team of MIT engineers has entered the market with a high-tech design called the Terrafugia, which they call a "roadable aircraft." (Wings fold to drive on roads.) Will it work? Hard to say. It has flown, but it's had some problems in flight testing that the team is now struggling to work out. But it's a bold try at applying new technology to an old problem.
The Maverick -- a low-tech flying car
Innovation isn't purely the domain of high-techengineers, as evidenced by this bare-bones flying dune buggy. Designed by a missionary pilot named Steve Saint (author of End of the Spear), it's a grass-roots solution to a very common problem in remote third-world areas: washed out, impassable roads. As a dune buggy, it navigates rough dirt roads well. But if a driver encounters an impassable section of land or road, he or she can open a parafoil atop its long center pole, start the pusher propeller behind the buggy, get a 100-foot headstart, and literally "puddle-jump" the washed-out section. It flies 40 miles an hour (so it drives faster than it flies), and is simple enough to be easily repairable in the bush ... even by indigenous people with limited mechanical or pilot training.
The All-Electric Plane
The problems with an all-electric airplane are more complex than a hybrid or electric car, but there are several companies working on the concept. "It's the future," says Jeremy Monnett, whose Sonex company is working on the electric engine/aircraft pictured above. "It's not the near-term future, but it's definitely the long-term future. You know that Chinese saying about "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, this is our first step." Sonex, a kitplane manufacturer, is testing the 55 kw (75 hp) brushless DC cobalt motor on an existing Sonex kitplane, but Monnett envisions the engine being used eventually to extend the flight time of a motor-glider design or power a much lighter, purpose-designed airframe. (Sonex is also working to develop a single-engine kit jet (see below). When? Ah. Well, when they find a new engine manufacturer, because the original supplier went out of business.)
The Vision Jet
But while Sonex is years away from a flyable, single-engine kitplane jet, Alan Klapmeier has one already flying. Klapmeier is the founder and mastermind behind the Cirrus Design Company (whose Cirrus aircraft James Fallows has written about numerous times). But not content to rest on his laurels, he's designed, and is working to market, a very sleek but practical single-engine, five+2-seat, factory-produced personal jet for the speed-seeking traveler.
Some of the ideas on display are astoundingly simple; others rely on sophisticated computer design and control. And they may not all work or prove viable, of course. The history of aviation, like any field, is littered with ideas that proved better in concept than in reality. But the EAA show is a reminder, once a year, that that the "old" backyard, hands-on, bold spirit of invention is still alive and kicking, even in the video-game and digital age. And that alone is worth something.
Note--offline: I'll be offline for the next week. Returning August 6th.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
As the public’s fear and loathing surge, the frontrunner’s durable candidacy has taken a dark turn.
MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina—All politicians, if they are any good at their craft, know the truth about human nature.
Donald Trump is very good, and he knows it better than most.
Trump stands alone on a long platform, surrounded by a rapturous throng. Below and behind him—sitting on bleachers and standing on the floor—they fill this city’s cavernous, yellow-beige convention center by the thousands. As Trump will shortly point out, there are a lot of other Republican presidential candidates, but none of them get crowds anything like this.
Trump raises an orange-pink hand like a waiter holding a tray. “They are not coming in from Syria,” he says. “We’re sending them back!” The crowd surges, whistles, cheers. “So many bad things are happening—they have sections of Paris where the police are afraid to go,” he continues. “Look at Belgium, the whole place is closed down! We can’t let it happen here, folks.”
Retailers are experimenting with a bold new strategy for the commercial high holiday: boycotting themselves.
It starts with a scene of touch football in the yard. Next, a woman and a girl, cooking together in the kitchen. “Imagine a world,” a soothing voice intones, “where the only thing you have to wrestle for on Thanksgiving is the last piece of pumpkin pie, and the only place we camped out was in front of a fire, and not the parking lot of a store.” And, then, more scenes: a man, cuddling with kids on a couch. An older woman, rolling pie dough on the counter. A fire, crackling in the fireplace. Warmth. Wine. Togetherness. Laughter.
It’s an ad, unsurprisingly, but it’s an ad with a strange objective: to tell you not to buy stuff. Or, at least, to spend a day not buying stuff. “At T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods, we’re closed on Thanksgiving,” the spot’s velvet-voiced narrator informs us, “because family time comes first.” And then: more music. More scenes of familiar/familial delights. More laughter. More pie. The whole thing concludes: “Let’s put more value on what really matters. This season, bring back the holidays—with T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and HomeGoods.”
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
A yearlong investigation of Greek houses reveals their endemic, lurid, and sometimes tragic problems—and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame.
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
An entire industry has been built on the premise that creating gourmet meals at home is simple and effortless. But it isn’t true.
I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes. Every day, when I head to my office after a nourishing breakfast of smashed blueberries or oatmeal I found stuck to the pan, and open a glossy new cookbook, check my RSS feed, or page through a stack of magazines, I’m confronted by an impenetrable wall of unimaginable cooking projects, just sitting there pretending to be totally reasonable meals. Homemade beef barbacoa tacos. Short-rib potpie. “Weekday” French toast. Make-ahead coconut cake. They might as well be skyscraper blueprints, so improbable is the possibility that I will begin making my own nut butters, baking my own sandwich bread, or turning that fall farmer’s market bounty into jars of homemade applesauce.
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.
America loves its freeways. After the 1956 Federal Highway Bill created the pathway for a41,000 mile interstate highway system, states and cities jockeyed for the funding to build ever-more extensive networks of pavement that could carry Americans quickly between cities. Sometimes, they built these highways right in the middle of cities, displacing communities and razing old buildings and homes.
“This was a program which the twenty-first century will almost certainly judge to have had more influence on the shape and development of American cities, the distribution of population within metropolitan areas and across the nation as a whole, the location of industry and various kinds of employment opportunities,”Daniel Moynihan wrote in 1970 about the federal program that built these thousands of miles of highways.