Happy Earth Day and Happy 20th Anniversary to Scorecard.org


Almost exactly 20 years ago I was part of a team that launched scorecard.org, a web site that enables consumers to check out pollution in their neighborhoods. (See also this chapter of a tutorial book on Web development that describes it.)

The site is still running, remarkably, a tribute to the persistence of Bill Pease, the Big Idea person behind it. (I take credit for “Why don’t we just have people type in their ZIP code as the primary interface?”)

So Happy Earth Day to everyone and, if celebrating, try not to drink too much Toluene.

Interesting analysis of US home prices in the 1950s and now


“Why buying a house today is so much harder than in 1950” (Curbed) has some interesting numbers:

To understand just how unaffordable owning a home can be in American cities today, look at the case of a teacher in San Francisco seeking his or her first house.

Educators in the City by the Bay earn a median salary of $72,340. But, according to a new Trulia report, they can afford less than one percent of the homes currently on the market.

Despite making roughly $18,000 more than their peers in other states, many California teachers—like legions of other public servants, middle-class workers, and medical staff—need to resign themselves to finding roommates or enduring lengthy commutes. Some school districts, facing a brain drain due to rising real estate prices, are even developing affordable teacher housing so they can retain talent.

This housing math is brutal. With the average cost of a home in San Francisco hovering at $1.61 million, a typical 30-year mortgage—with a 20 percent down payment at today’s 4.55 percent interest rate—would require a monthly payment of $7,900 (more than double the $3,333 median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment last year).

Over the course of a year, that’s $94,800 in mortgage payments alone, clearly impossible on the aforementioned single teacher’s salary, even if you somehow put away enough for a down payment (that would be $322,000, if you’re aiming for 20 percent).

The figures become more frustrating when you compare them with the housing situation a previous generation faced in the late ’50s. The path an average Bay Area teacher might have taken to buy a home in the middle of the 20th century was, per data points and rough approximations, much smoother.

According to a rough calculation using federal data, the average teacher’s salary in 1959 in the Pacific region was more than $5,200 annually (just shy of the national average of $5,306). At that time, the average home in California cost $12,788. At the then-standard 5.7 percent interest rate, the mortgage would cost $59 a month, with a $2,557 down payment. If your monthly pay was $433 before taxes, $59 a month wasn’t just doable, it was also within the widely accepted definition of sustainable, defined as paying a third of your monthly income for housing. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s a $109,419 home paid for with a salary of $44,493.

I’m not sure that the author’s explanation of why houses are expensive today is right, but I think at least he is good at explaining that houses are expensive. (My personal view is that the U.S. is crazy bad at urban planning so there are only a few nice places to live and, with the population having quadrupled since the most recent batch of “nice places” were built (circa 1900), that puts a lot of pressure on prices.)

Readers: What do you think of this author’s arithmetic and, more importantly, his grand explanation?


Why the French make DNA testing illegal


“DNA test reveals fertility doctor’s dark secret, lawsuit alleges” (CNN) is about some folks who are upset 37 years after the fact.

According to the lawsuit, Ashby and her husband at the time, Howard Fowler, sought the doctor’s help when they had trouble conceiving a child. Ashby thought the doctor used anonymous donor sperm from a college student for the procedure that led to the birth of her first child, Kelli Rowlette, in the spring of 1981.

… That’s when Rowlette took an Ancestry.com DNA test and noticed that her results predicted a parent-child relationship with Mortimer. At the time, Mortimer was a complete stranger to her, according to the lawsuit.

Believing that the results were a mistake, Rowlette gave her mother access to her Ancestry.com account, according to the lawsuit.

“When Ms. Ashby was alone, she accessed the account to investigate further. When Ms. Ashby saw Dr. Mortimer’s name, she was devastated. Ms. Ashby contacted Mr. Fowler, her now ex-husband, and relayed the information she obtained from Ancestry.com. Mr. Fowler was also devastated,” the lawsuit says.

In order to be matched with someone on Ancestry.com, the website explains that both people have to be in the AncestryDNA database.

“Based on what we know from what’s been reported, and the knowledge of how our system works, it’s possible that both biological mother and father both took the test, and that the child did as well, however without further details we cannot speculate on individual cases,” Melissa Garrett, a spokeswoman for Ancestry.com, wrote in an email.

 Ancestry.com said in a statement that DNA testing helps people make powerful discoveries about their family history and identity and that the company is committed to delivering accurate results.

“However with this, people may learn of unexpected connections. With Ancestry, customers maintain ownership and control over their DNA data. Anyone who takes a test can change their DNA matching settings at any time, meaning that if they opt-out, their profile and relationship will not be visible to other customers,” the statement said.

In the lawsuit against Mortimer, Rowlette and her parents are requesting an amount in excess of $75,000 plus costs, disbursements, reasonable attorney fees and interest.

I wonder if this proves the superior wisdom of the French, where DNA testing that could reveal paternity is banned (Ancestry’s DNA matching service is not available there). See this Irish Times article from 2009:

the intent of lawmakers was to preserve “the peace of families”

Meanwhile, how does our legal system process the case of this 36-year-old? Would she have been better off if she’d been the genetic offspring of someone other than the doctor? If so, she could get paid for not being taller, for example?

Maybe she can hit the doctor for 18 years of child support? Idaho family law offers unlimited child support revenue given a sufficiently high-income defendant, but the percentage of income harvested is lower than in many other unlimited states, only about 5 percent of income above $250,000 per year (the same child would be more than twice as profitable in Massachusetts, for example).

What about the college student whose sperm was not used? He has been denied a genetic legacy. Should he get monetary damages?

Apache Warrior movie


Feel better about your day job, even if it is flying a feeble Robinson R-44 helicopter, by watching Apache Warrior, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The movie takes you through a single mission at the beginning of our second Iraq War. Thirteen Apache helicopters go up a valley to try to kill Iraqis who might interfere with the planned U.S. ground invasion of Baghdad. Each Apache has a front-seater who shoots and a back-seater who flies, unless one gets hit and the roles need to be redistributed. Both crew members are trained as pilots. The movie is mostly an annotation of video recorded from the helicopters during the flight/fight. Since at least my Facebook friends seem to be looking for a female pilot to worship as a hero they will be pleased to find Captain Carrie Bruhl in the front seat of one of these machines. (She does not add evidence to support the theory that the world would be a peaceful paradise if only women were running things!)

I don’t want to say too much more and spoil the movie, but let me note that, despite the armor plating of the Apache, hundreds of thousands of angry guys on the ground with rifles makes for a dangerous environment. Also, Trigger Warning for Taxpayers: All 13 helicopters are so badly damaged that repair had to cost pretty close to the $20+ million retail price per ship at the time. So you’re going to watch maybe $200 million in tax dollars circling the drain.

Self-criticism today: photographer asks museum to close his own show


Self-criticism was important in the Soviet Union, in Mao’s China, and for the Khmer Rouge (see Wikipedia). Here’s what it looks like in Boston today: “ICA Boston closes show of work by Nicholas Nixon, who has been accused of sexual harassment, at his request” (The Art Newspaper):

the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (ICA Boston) prematurely closed a solo exhibition of works by Nicholas Nixon, who has been accused of sexual harassment by former students at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), at the artist’s own request, …

Nixon retired abruptly from MassArt on 2 March, after allegations of sexual harassment prompted the school to launch a Title IX investigation, which the school’s president David Nelson addressed in a letter to the MassArt community on 22 March. Following the subsequent Boston Globe report, the ICA added signage in the gallery space of Nixon’s show stating that the institution was “dismayed and disturbed” by the allegations, and discussing questions raised by the situation such as “Can we separate creative output from personal conduct?”

The museum took down the “open forum” (now a “closed forum,” literally?) where people could express their thoughts about the accused and his now-discredited art, but the article preserves some samples:

“I love these pictures because they are about how these women live their lives,” Respini wrote. “There is immense power in their sisterhood and unflinching gazes. And now it seems the maker of these pictures is a yet another man who has abused his position of power. I condemn this kind of behavior and am angered by it. Can I still love the pictures?”

The majority of the posts that followed were written by anonymous ICA staff members and heavily criticised what they perceived as an inadequate response. “As a woman who works at the ICA, I am sickened by this… Dialogue is not substantial enough of an action,” one staff member wrote. Another staff member wrote that “when presented with an opportunity to make a controversial but morally guided decision, the ICA chose to protect the problematic artist and its own pockets. By keeping this exhibition on view and by twisting this decision to be about public discourse, the ICA as an institution is silencing the voices of those who have come forward to name Nicholas Nixon as an abuser.”

In December 2017, the 70-year-old Nixon was celebrated in New Yorker magazine:

Today, we are bombarded by images of women every day—in entertainment, in advertising, in art, on social media—but depictions of women who are visibly aging remain too rare. Stranger still, women whom we know to have aged are often made to appear as if they have not, suspended in a state of quixotic youthfulness, verging on the bionic. But Nixon … is interested in these women as subjects, not just as images, and he’s committed to documenting the passage of time, not defying it.

What did the exhibit look like before it went into the memory hole? Here are some iPhone snaps from February 23, 2018:

Separately, the museum still has an “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” exhibit, which starts with Nam June Paik’s 1994 Internet Dream. The sign says that he hoped for “a communication network as a participatory mass medium, one that might foster genuine connectivity and understanding between diverse groups of people.” (How has that worked out?)


Cindy Sherman’s 2007 print seems to predict the Facebook/Instagram culture pretty well. (The sign: “… they’re older women and if they are successful, maybe they’re not really happy. Maybe they’ve been divorced, or they’re in an unhappy marriage, but because of the money, they’re not going to get out.”)

Here’s a fun Sarah Sze kinetic work for engineers that is not part of the Internet exhibition:

Finally, one gift shop item on February 23, 2018 loosely related to what would happen in March with the Nicholas Nixon show…

My friend, on seeing Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted, asked “Is that about divorce plaintiffs?”

Circling back to Nicholas Nixon… an 8×10 view camera photographer worked fast enough to get #MeTooed? And if he had been having sex with students, does it make sense to remove the images of the wife and her sisters from museums worldwide? Why do these women have to go into the memory hole also?


Why aren’t there simple machines for finding septic tank covers?


A new employee from our septic tank pumping company showed up recently. He was unable to find the tanks or covers, even with a map, and eventually abandoned the project. Why isn’t there an inexpensive electronic device that can find the metal covers underneath a foot or two of dirt/grass? Then the job could be done by people at a lower level of skill.

It looks as though this can be done with ground-penetrating radar (example). It seems that the necessary equipment is more than $10,000, though. Everything else with sensors and electronics has gotten cheaper. Cars are sprouting radars everywhere. Why can’t this technology be cut down to $250 the way that everything else has been?

[Separately, the new employee was a white guy in his 20s. All of the people that I’ve seen in Massachusetts pumping septic tanks are white males, from which it is reasonable to infer that they are using their white male privilege to exclude women and minorities from this job?]

A country cannot get rich by buying college educations for everyone?


“School Is Expensive. Is It Worth It?” (WSJ) is a response to The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan, an economics professor.

Thus Mr. Caplan’s case against education begins by acknowledging the case in favor of getting one. “It is individually very fruitful, and individually lucrative,” he says. Full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree, on average, “are making 73% more than high-school graduates.” Workers who finished high school but not college earn 30% more than high-school dropouts. Part of the difference is mere correlation: Mr. Caplan says if you adjust for pre-existing advantages like intelligence and family background, one-fifth to two-fifths of the education premium goes away. Even so, it really does pay to finish school.

Mr. Caplan believes these signals [of having been smart, diligent, and conformist enough to finish a college degree] are reliable, that college graduates generally do make better employees than nongraduates. Thus it is rational for employers to favor them, and for young people to go through school. Yet the system as a whole is dysfunctional, he argues, because the signaling game is zero-sum. He illustrates the point with another analogy: If everyone at a concert is sitting, and you want to see better, you can stand up. “But if everyone stands up, everyone does not see better.”

The advantage of having a credential, that is, comes at the expense of those who lack it, pushing them to pursue it simply to keep up. The result is “credential inflation.” Today a college degree is a prerequisite for jobs that didn’t previously require one—secretary, rental-car clerk, high-end waiter. And to return to the concert analogy, if you’re unable to stand, you’re objectively worse off than before. “People who are in the bottom 25% of math scores—their odds of finishing college, if they start, are usually like 5% or 10%,” Mr. Caplan says. They end up saddled with debt and shut out of jobs they may be perfectly capable of performing.

The irrational actor in this whole drama, Mr. Caplan says, is the voter, who almost without exception wants to keep the tax money flowing. “Only about 5% of Americans say that we should spend less on education,” he says. Even among self-identified “strong Republicans,” the figure is a mere 12%.

The professor is down on Internet education:

“Online education is only a viable competitor if you think that the main thing going on in schools is teaching useful skills,” Mr. Caplan says. He doubts that any internet certificate can supplant the signaling function, especially when it comes to conformity: “If your new, weird signal of conformity attracts a bunch of nonconformists, it fails as a signal of conformity.”

But he is up on getting a job as a teacher:

“I’m not one of these professors that resents teaching or dislikes teaching. I love it,” he says. “Maybe most of the students aren’t that interested,” but if “there’s one person in the room that cares, that person to me is the center of the universe.”

If you look at “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (a.k.a. majoring in partying and football)” and similar chronicles of how American college students actually spend their days, it is tough to believe that anyone ever thought that using tax dollars to subsidize majors other than science and engineering was going to make society wealthier. Other scholars have pointed out that Americans don’t come out of a typical college program with measurably better critical thinking or writing skills than when they went in (see my reviews of Academically Adrift and Higher Education?) But maybe The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money is the first to point out the zero-sum nature of college credentials? That, even if the problems identified by other scholars were fixed and college were somehow made intellectually rigorous, college for everyone still wouldn’t provide a huge boost to GDP.

Recreation for Americans in Vietnam


Some stuff that probably wasn’t mentioned at yesterday’s Arlington Cemetery monument dedication ceremony

Guts ‘N Gunships: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam is mostly about flying and fighting, but it contains some description of recreation.

Next to the officer’s club was a large steel cage that housed two adolescent sun bears. These sun bears, indigenous to Southeast Asia, are black with a fawnish face, and weigh more than one hundred pounds. The Camp Holloway bears were captured and rescued as cubs, when the Pathfinders were clearing a trail somewhere in No Man’s Land. They accidently got between them and their mother and they had to shoot Mamasan Bear when she attacked them. They decided not to leave the cubs in the jungle to die, so they brought them back to the cage, and had fed and raised them since. Often, when we were walking by the cage on the way to the club, there would be a couple of exceedingly inebriated Pathfinders, wrestling with them in the cage. Admittedly, the bears were not completely grown when I first observed these encounters, but throughout the year, they quickly became fine adult specimens. I guessed their weight at the time to be in excess of one hundred pounds each. And this was more than one hundred pounds of bear, for God’s sake. They had claws, seemingly as long as my fingers, and a set of teeth that any grizzly would have been proud of. In other words, the Pathfinders were regularly getting their asses kicked. The Pathfinders found a way around this, however. They just got the Bears drunker than they (the wrestlers) were before they entered the cage.

Through the bars, they would hand a beer to the bears, who would take it with their front paws, sit on their asses, and down the chute it would go. They would then beg for another, and another, until they were soused. With the playing field now more level, the Pathfinders would still get their asses kicked by the drunken bears, but it took the bears longer to pin them to the mat. To my knowledge, the bears never injured a Pathfinder, and were always careful to pull their punches. A lot of soldiers going past the cage would give the cherished bears food and beer. When the bears were drunk, they were hilarious, and, by the way, they were usually drunk. They would stumble around the large cage, falling and rolling into one another, making strange, gurgling sounds as they went. When they eventually stumbled into one another, a world class wrestling match would ensue. Seemingly, they would merge into a single large ball of fur, and would roll around on the floor of the cage like a huge, hairy, black and brown basketball. Then, when both of them thought the other had had enough, they would sit and face one another, and lick each other’s faces with a tongue that looked like it was a foot long. After recuperation they would again approach the bars of the cage, stand on their back legs, reach through the bars, and beg for beer and morsels of food. More often than not, they would get it.

There was also wrestling among humans…

I asked, “Aren’t you guys afraid of VD?” “Hell no, all you have to do is go to the flight surgeon and get a shot of penicillin. You ain’t getting out of this, Garrison. You might as well just stop whining around about it and enjoy yourself. Now come on, get out of the jeep and come with us.

The author ends up falling asleep with his new ladyfriend and missing his ride back to the base. So he ends up spending the night in a town where half of the people at VC sympathizers.

Things go a little more smoothly on leave:

In the summer of 1969, I became eligible to fly to someplace in Southeast Asia for about a week, to lick my wounds and convalesce from nine months of combat flying. There were several destinations that one could choose as long as they happened to be available. Places such as Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, and others. Most of all the married guys went to Hawaii to meet up with their wives. A majority of us wound up in rather more exotic places around the globe. I wound up in Taipei, Taiwan.

When I first arrived in Taipei, I was escorted by military vehicle to a place called the Kings Hotel. As soon as I situated myself in my room, I went down to have a drink at the hotel’s bar, and was almost immediately approached by a Chinese gentleman who asked me if I would be interested in a female companion for the evening. I asked what he had in mind and he told me to turn around and take a look. Against the wall behind me was a whole line of women, who had one thing in common. They were all beautiful. Adopting the old adage of, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” I took my pick. Prostitution was technically illegal in Taiwan at the time, so you were asked to sign a contract stating that you were to entertain the young lady for the evening by dinner and dancing and other rather benign activities. These contracts lasted for twenty four hours.

The author describes prodigious consumption of alcohol purchased at the military-run shop on the base, but no use of opiates or even marijuana.

What was it like to come home?

As soon as the aircraft took off and departed Vietnamese airspace, I told myself that I would never complain about anything again. I felt extremely lucky to have been on the flight home. I thought about all the close calls I had had flying missions, and knew that I could well have been killed in combat.

Of course, I’m human, and I have failed miserably about the “not complaining” promise that I made to myself. But when things have gotten tough in life, I remember how things were then, and it helps to put things in perspective.

Then I was to report to good old Fort Wolters for instructor pilot training. This time I would be an instructor. I planned to be every bit as tough as Toth was with me, to give my students every chance of making it home alive, as I had done. I entered the Seattle Tacoma Terminal along with the other soldiers, and we were met by a rather large group of war protesters, carrying placards that said things like, “MOTHERFUCKING BABY KILLERS, WAR CRIMINALS and FASCIST PIGS.” Then their spit hit my face.

As it happened, the author was not a supporter of the war per se. He thought that the U.S. should either go into North Vietnam with a full-scale invasion to try to win or go home. He describes the other pilots as similarly disillusioned with the general idea of the U.S. Vietnam effort. Their motivation for fighting was to save the lives of American ground troops, not a belief that the politicians back in Washington or the generals in Vietnam had sensible ideas.

More: Read Guts ‘N Gunships: What it was Really Like to Fly Combat Helicopters in Vietnam.

Southwest 1380: think about the flight attendants


The media is gushing over the heroic deeds of an airline captain on Southwest 1380, which suffered an uncontained engine failure. The stories generally do not mention a co-pilot (example) and therefore it would be impressive for this captain to have been the first person to earn a single-pilot type rating for the Boeing 737-700. However, when the airliner checks in with PHL tower, the first officer’s voice is heard on the radio (full audio). Newsweek identifies this pilot as Darren Ellisor. The big safety innovation of airlines is the crew concept and the multi-pilot crew so it is surprising to me that every time a flight makes the news the media gives us the impression that we are back to the 1920s single-pilot airline system (see below for how Captain Sully was apparently by himself in the Airbus).

[Why is the public apparently more interested in a narrative of a lone hero, be it Captain Sully or Tammie Jo Shults, the Southwest captain? Why wouldn’t a story about five people (two pilots plus three flight attendants) working together to achieve a successful outcome actually be more inspiring? Most of us work on teams so why wouldn’t we be more inspired by a story about teamwork?]

For the pilots of this airplane it was like a normal day in the simulator (they actually said as much a couple of days later in an official statement: “As Captain and First Officer of the Crew of five who worked to serve our Customers aboard Flight 1380 yesterday, we all feel we were simply doing our jobs.”). Essentially all airliner or bizjet sim training is single-engine operation following a failure because flying a working jet with a three-pilot crew (bulletproof autopilot, left-seat captain, right-seat first officer) is actually easier than a lot of single-pilot operations in light aircraft (hence the higher accident rate for four-seaters, even when experienced pilots are at the controls). Thus, the “engine failure then land single-engine” is something that a mid-career airline pilot would have done 500 times or more in a sim that is so realistic it can be logged as time in the actual aircraft. A 18-year-old seeking a multi-engine rating on his or her Commercial certificate would have to demonstrate managing an engine failure in a piston twin and then flying a single-engine approach and landing… solo. The applicant who failed to demonstrate this competently to an examiner would fail the checkride and not earn the rating. Similarly the pilot seeking a type rating for a turbojet-powered aircraft, such as a business jet or a Boeing 737, must demonstrate this capability before being legally authorized to fly the aircraft (only as part of a crew in the case of the B737, which requires two pilots minimum).

What did happen from the pilots’ point of view? The plane depressurized, necessitating the donning of oxygen masks (the ones in front are “quick-don” types accessible by reaching behind one’s shoulder) and then a reasonably rapid descent from what seems to have been about 32,000′. The goal is to get down to about 10,000′ where everyone can take off their oxygen masks. At the same time, the airplane would yaw because of the asymmetric thrust (dead engine on one side). The plane would have been on autopilot at the time and therefore the yaw damper would automatically kick in some rudder to counteract the yaw.

Usually the crew divides responsibilities between the Pilot Flying, who manipulates the flight controls and/or supervises the autopilot, and the Pilot Monitoring, who does everything else, including talk to Air Traffic Control (ATC). The Captain and First Officer, both of whom are fully trained to fly the aircraft, swap these roles after each leg of a trip. If something goes wrong, the Pilot Flying will take over the radios and thus free the Pilot Monitoring to dig into the checklists, typically accessible via a “Quick Reference Handbook” (“QRH”; see this example from the Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) that I used to fly). It is the Pilot Flying’s job to ask for the appropriate checklist, e.g., “Give me the Engine Fire Message checklist” (though the Pilot Monitoring can suggest checklists, e.g., “Would you like the Left Engine Oil Pressure Message checklist?”). There are some items to do from memory, with the two pilots cooperating so that they can agree on which engine is the dead one and should have its thrust/fuel lever cut off, for example.

Airline training stresses the use of the autopilot in an emergency, which frees the human pilots to concentrate on the checklists and not pulling back, for example, the thrust lever on the running engine. The Pilot Flying monitors the autopilot and the Pilot Monitoring is going through the checklists and making sure that items such as gear and flaps are set appropriately at various times.

The Southwest crew was favored with “Day VFR” flying conditions (i.e., it wasn’t dark and there weren’t low clouds over the runway) and were near a super long runway, the 12,000′ 27L runway at KPHL. Once any fire is extinguished, e.g., by cutting off the fuel or blowing the squib on a bottle of fire extinguishing stuff (that’s about as technical as we got in training), the situation on a CRJ is no longer considered an “emergency” but merely an “abnormal” operation and the pilots go to the “Single Engine Procedures, In-Flight Engine Shutdown” checklist. The APU is started so that there is a backup source of electrical power (in case the second engine quits!) and various switches are set up so that the dead engine is secured.  Then it is time for “ABNORM 1-9, Single Engine Approach and Landing.” The CRJ checklist calls for landing with partial flaps, thus resulting in a 25 percent increase in landing distance. Full flaps enable landing at a slower speed, but the extra drag means that the remaining engine would be straining to keep the plane on the standard glide path to the runway.

For a plane that ordinarily can land in 5,000′, landing on a 12,000′ runway with one engine is a normal day at the office (sim). As noted above, this is the very situation for which nearly all of airline sim training is directed, albeit usually in uglier scenarios, such as an engine that fails just as the plane is taking off (a “V1 cut”). The wind was favorable on the morning of April 17, blowing straight down the runway at roughly 20 knots (on the recording you will hear the Tower controller saying that the wind is from 280 (magnetic west-northwest) and a plane pointed down 27L would have a magnetic heading of 267 degrees (“27” is short for “270”, a west heading; the L is because there is a parallel 27R and, to avoid confusion, the final parallel runway is “26”)). This reduces the touchdown groundspeed and therefore the landing distance (I was once a passenger on a B737 landing in Ushuaia, Argentina into a 50-knot headwind, which the pilots said was normal for Tierra del Fuego. The airspeed of 120 knots thus translated into a groundspeed of 70 knots, a slower touchdown than a Cirrus SR20 in calm wind conditions!)

Not to take away too much from the pilots’ achievement, but keep in mind that a Boeing 737 on one engine and no pressurization is still a much more capable aircraft than a typical light Cessna, Cirrus, or Piper. The autopilot is much better (if it even exists in the little plane!). The climb performance is better (not that this crew ever needed to climb). There are a lot more redundant systems. That’s why there is the standard joke about the airline captain who rents a Cessna from a flight school and puts “Will be declaring an emergency” in the remarks of the FAA flight plan form. The Tower controller later asks why and the captain responds “I’m going to be down to one engine, one radio, one navigation system, and no autopilot.”

If you’re looking for heroes, though, think about the flight attendants. They’re in the back of the plane with 140+ screaming passengers. There is a hole in the airplane. At least one person has suffered injuries that will prove to be fatal. Others are injured as well. They have received no training for this scenario. (Most flight attendant training, as I understand it, is directed at evacuations once the aircraft has landed.)

Some questions that friends have asked:

Why is the term “souls on board” used in aviation? Why does ATC ask? Does it matter if there are 50, 100 or 150 on board? Answer: They want to know fuel on board so they can figure out how much firefighting gear to bring to the scene and also S.O.B. so that they know when to stop searching for bodies. It is the standard phrase even for quotidian matters such as filing an IFR flight plan mid-air (e.g., if the weather turns out not to be clear as hoped).

What is an “extended final”? Answer: Based on the plan discussed in the ATC recording, the plane was lined up with the runway about 20 miles away rather than the usual 7 miles or so (for instrument conditions; it might be only 1 mile at a crazy airport such as LGA in VFR conditions; I wrote about this). That makes life easier for everyone.

Dumping fuel? Answer: 737 does not have a fuel dump capability. If you’re too heavy to land you fly around in circles for a while or just try to land gently so that you don’t stress the gear. If you’ve got a serious emergency and the plane is already damaged it doesn’t matter. You just land overweight. Remember that the max landing weight is for an incompetent landing and is mostly driven by how much abuse the gear can handle.

Do you think damage to cowling/wing/window affected flight performance in any measurable way? And if so, would autopilot recognize and be able to compensate? Answer: The autopilot will manipulate the controls to achieve its programmed goal, e.g., airspeed of 210 knots or heading of 180 (South). Airplanes are usually at least slightly misrigged so that the autopilot will have to hold a bit of left aileron pressure, for example, to keep the airplane from rolling off course. So slight damage to one wing would be like a worse-than-average rigging.

[If you want to truly scare yourself, read Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, about Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529, which suffered a prop failure and ended up with a huge amount of drag on one wing that could not be corrected by feathering or any other pilot action. The twin turboprop couldn’t hold altitude on the remaining engine. Flight attendant Robin Fech proved to be a true hero.]

So… let’s hear it for flight attendants who put their lives on the line every day and don’t get to log multi-engine turbine time or look out the front windows. Also for any passengers who got right on a replacement B737 and took off again from PHL to Dallas or wherever else they were ultimately headed. And let’s try to remember poor Jennifer Riordan, the unlucky passenger who died.


Starbucks: “Black Lives Matter, but not enough to train this month.”


In writing “While Starbucks runs a re-education camp for employees, can we run a re-education camp for customers?” I left out the most interesting part.

The racist incident occurred in mid-April. The anti-racism training is scheduled for May 29. So the corporate message is the following:

  1. racism is bad
  2. at least some Starbucks employees are racists (but won’t be after they get training)
  3. we’ll continue to operate our racist enterprise in a racist manner for another 1.5 months

This doesn’t seem like a good theme for a press release!


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