Sunday, February 2, 2020

UnBornAgain Yesterday

One of my favorite old films (I thought I had reviewed it here, but I can’t find it) is George Cukor’s 1951 remake of the Garson Kanin stage play Born Yesterday. It’s not that the film is so great, but Judy Holliday is worth watching again and again (she won an Oscar for the performance). She plays Billie Dawn, a New York chorus girl who gets lured into being the for-hire girlfriend of junk dealer and aspiring racketeer and all round shitheel Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). Billie is loud and brash, a rough stone from a poor background who now finds herself with money via her millionaire boyfriend. Harry doesn’t really grasp how the adult world works, but he thinks he does and he imagines Billie’s ignorance is getting in the way of his success. So when a journalist shows up at his hotel suite to interview him—William Holden—Harry hires the guy to “smarten her up.” And they all learn that a rough stone might, when polished, turn out to be something very different.

It’s really a lovely little Pygmalion kind of story, buoyed as I said by Judy Holliday’s really fabulous performance—you really can’t take your eyes off her. Broderick Crawford plays his role splendidly well, but his character is frankly unattractive—boorish, loud, abusive to everyone, entitled yet out of his depths, critical of everything, over-rich yet not very competent.

It reminds me of someone, which fact kind of ties into today’s theme.

One of the elements of Billie’s awakening at the hands of her tutor involves his explaining the workings of American government. Harry and Billie are in DC so that Harry can buy some politicians, and Billie uses her lessons as an impetus to learn about how Washington works. And in the process—and via her tutor’s passions about the nation’s fundaments—she comes to see the glory of the system Harry is trying to break for personal riches.

Anyway, everything old is new again. History repeats again and again and again.

I thought of this film today as I spent a couple hours wandering the Capitol Mall in DC. I have a 36 hour layover in Baltimore, so I rode a local train an hour South to look around (I think it’s been more than 30 years since I was here last). I find myself hearing William Holden’s voice from the film, stirring words about the Capitol buildings as the cheesy patriotic music swells in the background.

At one point near the end of the film Harry runs into resistance from his much-abused lawyer who complains that Congresspeople cannot just be bought to suit Harry’s whims (though that’s exactly why they’re there). “Why not?” Harry asks. “Because these guys are honest,” the lawyer scolds.

Walking past these same buildings today I couldn’t help thinking what a sham the whole place is. The super-grandiose buildings (oddly mimicking architecture from 500 years before, as though the work done within won’t be taken seriously unless the buildings look MUCH older), the whole town trying like a theatre set to win us over by force of pretense; the armed guards everywhere; the black SUVs with smoked windows; the barricades and roadblocks. All of it, as it happens, protecting a failed exercise: one party bent on a malicious overthrow, the other unable to meet the challenge.

As I wandered the Capitol grounds the Senate had just failed to conduct a legitimate trial of the president for obstruction of justice and abuse of power—charges for which the House of Representatives impeached him a few weeks ago (only the third such impeachment in the country’s history). The Senate’s was a trial in name only. The Senate Majority Leader stated openly and in advance that he would scuttle the trial, and virtually every Republican lined up behind him: they voted almost to a person to refuse even to allow witnesses to be questioned. This despite the common knowledge that the president is absolutely guilty as charged—guilty of this and very much more.

The acquittal is an act of organized, pure partisanship—the latest chapter in an insurgency stretching back over 10 years now, with roots going back even before that, to Reagan. Partisanship is not necessarily bad; opposing Nazis, say, seems a thing that should be done without even-handedness. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” But this is partisanship without even the pretense of a social or civic purpose. This present act of partisanship is just a naked power grab, a nuclear-blast maneuver that will decimate representative self-government, maybe permanently. (I really don’t think that overstates it.) It fundamentally undermines our system of checks and balances such that the presidency becomes autocratic.

They know all this, but at this point they’ve stopped even trying to justify their actions. Journalists’ probing questions to officials are met with explosions of indignation and fury; press conferences have dried up entirely; journalists are being denied access unless they toe the propaganda line. The party’s goal at this point is to circle the wagons and keep the autocrat in power at any and all costs—even when the costs may well be catastrophic for the country. (At the very least they will have set the precedent that no president can be charged with any crime or removed from office for any reason. Hard to imagine this precedent would sit well with a rogue Democrat in the seat; the solution to that seems to be to just keep a Democrat from holding the office—by any means possible. There’s broad consensus that Russia—a foreign power decidedly hostile to American ideals—interfered maliciously with the the electoral process in 2016. And indeed, the president-elect invited the interference publicly, and then met repeatedly with the Russians before and after the election. Republicans, while admitting Russia’s hostile intent, refuse to acknowledge the interference or take steps to combat it, and the consensus is that Russia will try again in 2020–they’re at work already.)

So, the movie. It gives today’s events an unfortunate odor of deja vu: the boorish, ignorant, control-freak criminal trying to enrich himself no matter who or what is destroyed (indeed, the destruction and personal devastation are marketed as selling points to the propaganda-fed media consumer, who craves his Colosseum moment); the for-sale politician, the ignorant masses huddled behind the cartoon depictions of their noble government while donating to and voting for its destruction.

When I first saw Born Yesterday some years back I was shocked at how much the world had changed in 50 years—at least the Hollywood version. The Wikipedia article talks about the difficulties Cukor had in getting the film past the censors, having to skirt around their being lovers—they *certainly* could not share a bedroom!—or Judy Holliday having an actual woman’s body. But the real shock for me was Harry’s treatment of Billie which by any standard today is frankly abusive. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Judy Holliday is not allowed to show an inch of cleavage or tailbone or anything even remotely suggestive to the censors; but Harry’s violence toward Billie gets past with nary a protest.

But this is the world Republicans are striving to re-create, where white men run everything and everyone else’s citizenship is second-class—if that. Environmental regulation is scuttled to gleefully pander to the country’s most ignorant people, propaganda tells us what to think, corporate profit takes precedence over virtually every other thing.

One wants to think that we actually have progressed, and on the surface we have made progress since 1951. I know the jagged edge of history trends broadly and inexorably toward progress and equality and fairness. But always there is a reminder that human nature contains much that is selfish and greedy and clannish and self-destructive.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Jagged Path

This was written in 2016 before I went to ground school.


I've decided to change airplanes.

For an airline pilot, this is kind of a big deal. The equipment you fly at an airline determines a bunch of things: it sets the route structure you'll spend your time plying; it dictates your seniority (since overall seniority in the company is less immediately important than your relative seniority in your fleet and seat); it dictates the minutiae of your work schedule (and, in our case, your sleep schedule).

And there's the equipment itself. An airplane is an airplane, maybe, but each transport jet is kind of its own world, and we must immerse ourselves in the particulars and minutiae if we are to operate it efficiently and safely. And that's an involved undertaking.

I come to my current job by way of about eight years at regional turboprop airlines. That means I flew passengers on short-haul routes, flying many short legs in the course of a typical workday. Lots of legs, mostly hand-flown, down at low altitudes in the weather. Lots of instrument approaches, lots of paperwork and refuelings and weight-and-balance calculations. Lots of repetition of checklists--over and over again multiple times every day. Eight years of this. This contrasts pretty sharply with my current job flying international cargo on a heavy jet. I tend to fly very few legs, almost all of them long-duration legs flown under automation at high altitudes above the weather.

So life in these two jobs is very different in pretty much every way. The only commonality is that in both cases I'm operating a pretty complicated machine in the contemporary ATC and IFR environment.

When I came to my current employer 15 years ago I began in the old Douglas DC-8, first as a flight engineer (a new job for me) and then as a First Officer (copilot). This was my first experience with a heavy jet (or any jet, though a turboprop motor is in fact a jet engine that's used to drive a propeller instead of moving the aircraft purely by exhaust thrust), and it represented quite a change from the flying I knew. Most DC-8 workdays consisted of two legs: one leg after sundown from some city--Milwaukee or Detroit or Denver or Cleveland, etc.--into our package sorting facility, and another before sunrise back out to our starting point. Two legs per night, 10 legs per week. Week-on, week-off; that meant about 20 legs per month. This contrasts with my turboprop days where we averaged six to eight legs per day.

The upshot of this was that I was now flying a much larger, heavier, faster airplane and had much less time with my hands on the controls to master the task. It happened, of course, but it took me a year in the DC-8 to log as much time as I would have accumulated in a couple months of my previous job.

After eight years on the DC-8 I moved to the MD-11, where I found this same situation amplified and extended. Now I was flying a VERY heavy jet on VERY long legs. Typically one leg of nine or ten hours every other day.

The MD-11 is a challenging airplane. It can be unforgiving, with a history of punishing certain kinds of mistakes very severely. It's not an especially tricky airplane to land, but mistakes on landing can be problematic. And because of a couple design details, it's one of the fastest airplanes in the terminal environment and on approach, which makes it a challenge for controllers to integrate it with other traffic, and a challenge for pilots to play well with other airplanes (we're routinely told we're rapidly catching the airplane in front of us since we commonly are flying 30 knots faster than anything else in the pattern). And for this most challenging airplane to fly, we get our hands physically on the controls about 1/4 as often as with the DC-8 (which means about 1/16th as often as with my prior turboprop flying).

This is not a great combination. More challenging flying, less opportunity to practice. This is even further exacerbated by the fact that a portion of the copilots' time is spent as International Relief Officers--a third crewmember whose job is to give the other two flying pilots a rest period during long flight legs (since no pilot can be in the seat more than 8 hours in a day). Most F/Os on the MD-11 spend at least some of their time at IRO duties, and the IRO virtually never does the takeoff and landing. So the already-much-reduced number of legs is further reduced to below 50% for the F/O.

All this has factored into my thinking about what airplane to bid. The MD-11 has allowed me to see the world--literally. I've circumnavigated the globe in the last eight years probably 40 times or more, which activity, world travel, has been No. 1 on my bucket list forever. And it's an extremely comfortable airplane: quiet and spacious and with great visibility. It has a bunk for rest periods, a small galley with an oven and hot cup and refrigerator, and plenty of room for crew and jumpseaters. And it typically involves a one-long-leg-to-the-hotel workday, with the plusses and minuses that entails.

But with my background, I've long been leery that this is the right working environment for me--regardless of how much I may like it. My time on the airplane has allowed me to get mostly comfortable with the airplane's challenges and limitations, but always there is a sense that the airplane waits to bite if you step out of line. And the nature of the work we do with the airplane gives us the bare minimum opportunity for keeping abreast of these challenges.

My original plan was to settle in on the MD-11 and stay there until I could hold the captain's seat. But this would have required my changing domiciles and commuting up to Alaska. And after years of stagnation--almost nobody was leaving Alaska to make new captain spaces there--this was an uncertain path for progression. Add in my skepticism about the challenges of the MD-11--and my sense that learning a new airplane might be all for the good--I decided it was a good time to move over to the 757 / 767. I get to stay on my beloved international schedule, and I'll have the chance to learn a new airplane as a co-pilot--rather than step into the commander's chair in an unfamiliar machine.


(Shift back to the present day.)

And so it worked out. Another consideration at the time was my awareness that an upgrade to captain would likely be available sooner on the 757, and that (as the most numerous aircraft type in our fleet—by a large margin) I’d just have many more flying opportunities on this fleet than on the MD-11. And the situation unfolded thus.  I had barely finished my copilot training on the 757 before I got notice that I’d been awarded a captain upgrade on the fleet.  And that’s another post.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The machine in the god.

I’ve long been fascinated with Tudor England.

Me and a zillion other people, duh. There have been a hundred billion books and films and tv shows based on the hundred+ years that mark the Tudor period (c.1485-1600+), so somebody cares, obv. In addition to the films The Other Boleyn Girl and Anne of the Thousand Days and the TV series The Tudors, I’ve read (in audiobook form) a bunch of historical fiction novels by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir. The whole business is a stranger-than-fiction chapter in human history.

These actual stories are all cheating in a way, I know, since they involve emotions and words—and in some cases actual deeds—which simply cannot be known. The authors have wide leeway to make characters; the blankness of the canvas allows space for creation. At least in the case of these authors (Gregory and Weir), though, I feel their use of artistic license is limited and carefully restrained—and after all something very like these events MUST have taken place in order to get from point A to B.

Most stories revolve around Henry VIII and his six wives. That central thread, which needs no summary from me, is just history at its most lurid and stupefying. Different and fascinating social norms and the pernicious insipidity of religion and the vast gulf between rich and poor and the ghastliness of a world without science—the telling of it puts all this center stage. But even those several individuals are not the whole of the chapter. The book I’ve just finished is Alison Weir’s The Innocent Traitor, about the Lady Jane Grey, also known as The Nine Days’ Queen. She was the great-granddaughter of Henry VIII, yet even she managed to get caught up in the quagmire he stirred up.

And always it’s the religious angle of these stories that grabs me, mostly because there’s simply nothing more lurid—nor, sadly, more commonplace—than people killing each other over arcane points of invented mythological hooey. Henry VIII had initiated a traumatic break from the Catholic Church in order to effect his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and this to enable his marriage to the bewitching Anne Boleyn—all supposedly motivated by the need for a male heir to cement his young dynasty. Well, viewed through the lens of the moment (which these authors are trying to show us) these ARE rather pressing needs. His dynasty IS vulnerable if he cannot consolidate it with a strong male heir, and the Catholic Church IS standing in his way. He decides to remove the church as a rival to his authority, and his very Catholic wife sees heresy afoot—rightly, if we take the nonsense seriously.

But national matters do not settle with a decree, no matter what a sovereign might say. The newly formed Church of England, though declared to be the only legitimate faith of the land, was still doing battle with the much longer-established Catholic Church. And while the next king Edward VI (Son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour) was Protestant and sought to keep his father’s religious reforms in place, when he died at age 16 without an heir the expected bloodline reverted to Henry VIII’s eldest daughter, the staunch Catholic Mary—daughter of Henry VIII and the aforementioned very Catholic Catherine of Aragon.

But there’s a problem. A couple of them. First, in order for Henry VIII to remarry and attempt to beget a male heir, each of his preceding marriages was declared null and void—which then illegitimized the offspring of those marriages. So Mary (mother: Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (mother: Anne Boleyn) are bastards, and thus ineligible to inherit the throne. Henry VIII said so, and his son Edward VI reiterated it. This mechanism might be perfect for keeping Catholic Mary from the levers of power, but it works to keep the equally Protestant Elizabeth away as well. Good for the goose... (And it sows confusion in the average citizen whose sense of loyalty follows blood.) Second, if Mary’s ascension to the throne would surely bring about a Catholic Reversion—and the resumption of the Pope’s influence as a competitor to the King’s—the prospect of it opened a larger social wound that had not really healed. The church being a conduit for political power, the disposition of the official Church of England was something that very powerful people cared about rather emphatically. For each unyielding Protestant there was an unyielding Catholic. This is the stuff that wars are made of. What to do?

Henry VI’s solution before his death was a reversion to the bloodline of a previous generation. (There’s some dispute as to whose actual idea this was.) This line of succession led (after her mother demurred) to Jane Grey being declared the legitimate heir. Jane was the daughter of Frances Brandon, who was the daughter of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister. So the bloodline WAS there. But even after the garishly fascinating lives of Henry VIII’s two daughters are set aside, the details of Jane Grey’s story are too sadly delicious. None of this was HER idea; she had no such ambition—except to see the Catholic Church kept in abeyance. But her parents...  Pathologically ambitious parents schemed and plotted with their daughter’s life, hoping for personal gain—and the father, having escaped being beheaded for treason the first time, waded into the greedy morass AGAIN. The lure of power and wealth is like a disease.

He did not survive the second attempt. Nor, sadly, did she. She was brought to the Tower of London for her coronation and she never left the place. The official coronation never took place, and forces favoring Mary began to prevail. And thus the victors in this scheme were quickly made traitors and heads began to roll. Mary had sympathy for young Jane Grey (though not for her heretical faith), and was determined to spare her life. But after her father attempted a SECOND coup to put his daughter on the throne instead it was clear she was a focus for Protestant zeal and would remain a thorn in the queen’s side—even though none of this was her idea nor did she seems to want any of it. So she had to go.

You think as people are being led to the block that common sense will prevail and the slaughter of, say, a 16-year-old girl for failing to believe that the wafer and the wine *actually become the flesh and blood* of the mythological character will be averted. And over and over and over again you will find that instinct thwarted. And that’s why we read on and on. It’s much of human foibles and heroism, of the vagaries of human culture mixed with our base and animal natures, and all of it just close enough to ourselves that we can relate.

This was an 18 hour listen, and I found myself finished in a couple days—I looked for excuses to put on the headphones and go out for a walk. So, highly recommended. Next: Philippa Gregory’s tale of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hong Kong

This is yet another continuation post to the two previous, detailing some of my impressions about China stemming from our recent vacation there. Specifically, I'm interested in the special case of Hong Kong.

Though obviously a Chinese city, it was a part of the British Empire--governed and administered by the British--for a hundred years until being handed back over to Chinese control in 1997. And so it's always had a hybrid feel, a city of (mostly) Chinese people living under British ideas. And under that working arrangement it has attained an iconic status, like New York or London.

But my sense is that there has always been some tension there between West and East, and the handover of the territory back to Chinese control was the subject of much angst: China felt the territory was rightfully theirs (taken from them by unfair treaties) and most of the residents did not consider themselves to be Chinese and were very happy governing themselves. As an airline person, I remember reading about Cathay Pacific's concerns that Communist China would not honor the sovereignty of the profitable and thriving business at handover, and I believe serious consideration was given to moving the headquarters of the airline out of the region.

I found myself lounging on my hotel bed in the Tuve Hotel in Hong Kong reading a New York Times article about just this subject the day before we left to return home. The gist of the article was that Chinese authorities promised to honor Hong Kong's independence after control was returned to China--what China calls "one country, two systems"--but that, unfortunately, is not really how things are unfolding 20 years on.

I've always held Hong Kong in special regard, but this is based on my visitor's impressions rather than any scholarly expertise. On this trip we spent five days in Beijing and a couple days in Xian (another Chicago-sized city of which I've barely heard), and like all other major Chinese cities these places are abuzz with construction and growth and activity and change. Hong Kong is too, of course, though in that case it doesn't represent a change from the status quo. The larger sense is that China is a country massively on the move. And so Beijing very likely thinks it can manage growth and business quite well, thanks, and perhaps that there's no need or justification for Hong Kong's special status. More than this, to acknowledge Hong Kong's special spark--to acknowledge that its differences contribute to its spark--is to imply that other Chinese cities could follow the same model. That's clearly not immediately in the cards--although modern China is hardly recognizable from what was here 50 years ago. The NYT article says that some in China feel that HK suffers from "too much democracy." Residents of the city, naturally, resist this characterization.

So where does that leave Hong Kong? Right now, kind of stuck. Beijing has actively removed several democratically-elected politicians of whom it does not approve, and even gone so far as to abduct under cover of darkness those--liberal booksellers, for example--it considers to be threatening. All of this is a nightmare for residents who having let the fox into the henhouse are really left with few options.

Meanwhile, several massive projects are on hold because the two sides cannot agree on how to proceed. One has to think this all leads inevitably toward their not being "the two sides."

Much as I love HK, I find I'm torn. As a socialist, I think putting the reins on capitalism is sensible and utile. And I'm unqualified to see how much of HK's brilliance is due to laissez-faire economic policy--and I certainly don't KNOW that HK will be a different or less attractive place when Beijing gets its way. But OTOH I feel like people ought to be able to determine their fates, and it's hard for me to see how Beijing's control will benefit HK or its citizens. In any case, Beijing seems unlikely to back down--especially when they're doing so well in other places. I fear--and I'm obviously not alone in this--a place I love will be snuffed out and turned into something much less vibrant.

At the very least one feels that Beijing cannot be taken at its word, and that no success in HK will shake the elite of the Communist Party from their positions of power.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


(This post kind of continues on from the previous post--and is followed by a kind of Part III about Hong Kong.)

We’re on a two week vacation in China.

I’ve been here often before. Well, I’ve been in the country many times before, but I’ve only visited a handful of cities in what is after all a vast and diverse place. Most of my time has been in the Pearl River delta—Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong—and further North in Shanghai. And I’ve spent a little time in Chengdu and now, recently (upon changing airplane fleets) a couple new places: Zhengzhou and Qingdao.

I’ve been in love with Hong Kong since my first visit, and I’ve been trying to get Susan to come here for a decade. (She does not inherently share my fascination with the country, and she’s needed time and persuasion to take on the 13-hour flight.) She finally agreed provided we also spend some time in places I had not previously been. She suggested Xian (to see the Terracotta Army) and I suggested Beijing. And the trip would end with five days in Hong Kong.

And so it has gone. We’re currently on Day Three of five in Hong Kong after having a spectacular visit to Beijing and, after a delay, Xian. These places have been all we could have asked for. In Beijing we saw the Summer Palace and looked around Tiananmen Square and the outside of the Forbidden City, made a trip to Mutianyu and the Great Wall, toured the National Center for Performing Arts, wandered the 798 Arts Zone, explored the subway system (the largest in the world after Shanghai, which is only fractionally bigger), wandered the famed hutongs. Weather cooperated brilliantly, and our only snafu was getting out of Beijing at the end. Everything canceled due to bad weather and we ended up having to spend an extra night at a roach motel at the airport—which after all gave us one of our best meals in a cafeteria-style hotel restaurant.

This left us a day short in Xian, and we debated whether we shouldn’t just head straight to Hong Kong. But we didn’t want to miss the Terracotta Army, and China Eastern was not very accommodating about changing our tickets. So we got out the next morning, about 20 hours late. But everything then went like clockwork and we were at our (extraordinarily swanky) hotel in Xian by 10:30 that morning. We suggested to the hotel that we still hoped to see the army, and we were told it was no problem at all. Turns out, it may have been better to go around noon (as we did) then to go at 8:AM as we originally planned. It was a hot day and the place was only moderately busy at lunchtime. We immediately met up with a guide who took us through in a couple hours. Afterward, we spent the afternoon walking along the ancient and immense stone wall surrounding the city—some 60’ high and 60’ thick and some nine miles around! Absolutely immense, and one could land an airplane on much of it. We got a great vibe from the city, and I could see spending time here.

The next day we had a three hour flight to Hong Kong and were at our (strange, uber-modern) hotel by about 16:00.

My little bits of exposure to China and Hong Kong continue to kindle my enthusiasm but leave me far from being any kind of expert. I don’t speak a word of the language—something that’s more challenging away from the Southeast where English is fairly common. In Beijing and Xian people’s grasp of English was much more tenuous, making it very hard to communicate at times. And I fear the lack of language keeps everything at arm’s length for a visitor, even a repeat one. Either because of this language limitation or from my natural keep-to-myself travel mien, I’ve visited these places for years without every really talking to a local or seeing any but popular tourist sites and what you can see walking the streets.

Consequently, I don’t really know what life is like for the average Chinese. How are jobs arrived at? Does everyone receive a basic monthly income and can one supplement that by working in a free enterprise setting? And what does the government get out of that free enterprise in return? How do people decide to work in hotels or in little art boutiques or coffee shops or as tour guides? Is the process different from that in the US? And living arrangements: does the government still assign housing? We saw numerous real estate brokers in Hong Kong and the prices perhaps exceed even Manhattan’s. Who buys these? And where do you live if you can’t afford them (that is, how do MOST people find their housing)? I don’t imagine the answers to any of this are especially interesting or intricate, but they play a role in what life must be like in these bustling places for so many of the people with whom we interfaced.

A couple observations: All the Chinese subways I’ve been on have been things to envy. They’re relatively new and constantly growing (virtually every Chinese city I’ve been in except maybe Hong Kong is actively digging subway lines), spotlessly clean, utterly reliable. Trains seem to run (like London) as often as the tracks will allow—one is always leaving as we approach the platform, and the signs never say more than three minutes for the next train—and signage and ticketing could hardly be easier or more comprehensible. How fortunate for us that there’s always an “English” button on the ticket machines and that announcements are always made in English after the Chinese.

Beijing particularly was striking. The system, which is now up to 19 lines and growing (from, I believe, two lines in 2002) carries 10 million passengers per day, for a yearly ridership of almost 3.7 billion. That’s more riders than any other subway system, more than twice what NYC’s subway carries. (Shanghai's numbers are almost identical.) And the Beijing system is being aggressively upgraded and expanded to carry about twice its current numbers.

To me, this seems like but one example of immense spending for the public good. And I can't help noting that it’s exactly the opposite of what we're doing in this country. Rather than pursue aggressive public benefit--since such things are castigated as "progressive" (the *horror!*)--we’re dismantling the federal government and trying to farm its functions out to for-profit concerns. A quick visit to this part of the world shows that in comparison we’re failing at almost everything (except defense spending; I guess that's not an accident). 

Every single subway station we were in when in Beijing (maybe 10 stations overall) had 1) functioning, clean bathrooms; 2) uniformed traffic directors / helpers; and 3) a pair of uniformed military personnel monitoring the entrance. There was often a military guy at the main boarding platform on a raised box keeping an eye out. We never saw the military people interacting with anyone, and they didn’t seem there to hassle or discipline anyone. But there is a clear sense that the transportation of people was an important thing that was managed and carefully overseen.

And these things continued in other spheres as well. The National Center for Performing Arts ("the Egg") is maybe the most impressive single building I've ever seen, all in support of the arts--the same programs, more or less, that we're cutting from every school curriculum Republicans can get their hands on. There are public bathrooms all over the place, every two or three blocks, and there are usually people there keeping things clean and picked up. There were no tip jars that I could see when I visited the facilities, so these folks were working for wages paid by someone and not relying on handouts. And it’s hard to overstate how lovely it is to always have a nice bathroom handy as you roam the city. There are people making the rounds of most blocks picking up trash and cigarette butts—I’ve seen this in every Chinese city—and the subway stations were typically being mopped and picked up. There is almost no graffiti, and none at all in the trains or stations (that I saw). Buses are numerous and reasonably new and clean (though we rode them only in Hong Kong).

So what to make of this? All these jobs require money and people. With 1.4 billion citizens--over four times our own population--people seem to be a resource they have well in hand, and many tasks that might be automated in the US (roadwork, say, or manufacturing jobs) are here done by armies of people. But keeping walkways weed- and trash-free is honorable work and very much to the public good, and these armies of workers can be turned toward any task imaginable: building a subway, driving trucks, shipping, manufacturing, construction. But there are some concerns attached to all this: where is the line between functional oversight that, say, makes it possible to have public bathrooms in the subway system and, on the other hand, Big-Brotherism? Surely to some degree everyone here behaves and celebrates the brilliant transit system because punishment for misbehavior is swift and merciless. Vandalizing a public bathroom or public transit has always seemed self-immolating to me, but at what point does preventing that vandalism become oppressive? I suppose this is the age-old exploration of the liberal and conservative mind.  This is an authoritarian society, though one which has loosened considerably in the last 40 years, and it's not until I'm here in person that I begin to formulate these questions.

It’s hard for me to have a sense of what life is like for a citizen of Beijing, especially one with worldly ambitions. Hong Kong seems to straddle these two worlds—Communist East and Capitalist West—and it seems to fall in the center of many scales: more public services than we see in the West, but fewer than in Beijing; more oversight / public scrutiny than in the West but less than in Beijing.

For as long as I’ve been coming here I have the feeling that we underestimate China at our peril. They may not do everything well; they may not have everything figured out; their citizens may not top every poll; their culture may not dominate the world: but I cannot put anything past them. They seem well positioned to call the shots in the future—about everything. They are playing a long game, and they have time and sheer numbers on their side. If they don’t yet have the best schools, they soon will; if they don’t have the biggest or most capable military, they soon will; if they don’t dominate business and finance, they soon will. I just don’t put anything out of their reach. And this at a time when the US is clearly and obviously on the decline. Our budgets are perilously out of control, our educational system is only semi-functional, and our popular democratic politics are clearly and obviously dysfunctional. One of our two parties is a disorganized rabble unable to keep its eye on any common good and the other is actively malevolent and corrosive.

It seems like a good time to be Chinese.

Some pictures:

(PS: A couple days after writing this I came across a New York Times article talking about the difficulty Hong Kong is having straddling exactly these worlds. That'll lead to another post.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Builders

My new airplane is exposing me to a bunch of places I've not seen before. (New airplane? That's a post I began about six months ago and never finished. Perhaps I'll finish and put up here out of order.)  Osaka, Japan; Tokyo (I've landed but not laid over); Qingdao, China; Zhengzhou, China--these on top of a bunch of new places in Europe over the last few months: London; Nottingham; Budapest; Prague; Stockholm; Malmö; Madrid. And more to come.

But at the moment, Asia. I made it to a few destinations in China regularly on the MD-11, but the 767 goes to all those same places and twice as many more. My takeaway from this present trip is a reinforcement of what I've long felt: that we underestimate people in this part of the world at our peril. The populations are staggering and there is building and change going on here on a massive scale--everywhere I've been. Especially in China (Tokyo and Osaka are of course huge and well-established places) subways are being dug everywhere, and both Qingdao and Zhengzhou are in the midst of a building boom like I've never seen. Huge structures are going up everywhere, and flying over Zhengzhou one can see elevated railways being built and huge freeways being laid out. Zhengzhou city is surrounded by what appears to be a massive man-made (that is, entirely concrete-lined) river. Not a canal, but a full-fledged river. Miles of it. Huge housing blocks are newly-built (with many more underway) and there is a gorgeous new airport with an immense and eye-popping terminal--like every other Chinese airport I've been to. New industries--sometimes measured in the square mile--are everywhere.

China is in the midst of tectonic societal change, historic changes, and it's clear that it doesn't just involve people riding trains from the country to the city. The whole ancient society is changing radically, along with the economy and the social lives of the citizens. All this can be readily sensed, if not really understood, from our short visits.

I'm currently in Incheon, a Southwest suburb of Seoul. Korean society has maybe undergone a similar transformation from urban to rural in the last 100 years, but my sense is that the change has been underway here longer. Seoul is an established place. But Incheon has always struck me as something odd. It's clearly a planned community, one which might one day hold a million people; but why is it here? Why would people congregate here? I can see the need for an overflow airport to Gimpo, so I get the Incheon airport and all the surrounding infrastructure. But I don't see where the citizens of Incheon city--Songdo International Business District, as it's formally known--are coming from. Maybe because we don't ever see anything but our immediate surroundings, I can't see how all these people earn their livings--especially for what must be very expensive living quarters. There must be industry (and hence, jobs) here somewhere, but not nearly enough in Incheon to support all this housing--not that's visible from here, anyway.

On my walks this week I've become taken with a new housing complex being built a mile North of the hotel. It consists of 10 or 15 huge concrete towers, each of which must hold a few thousand people. The whole complex is in process, so one can see the towers being raised while others are being finished on the interiors while yet others are getting their exterior painting done. It's an immense project--one for which an army of workers is brought in and housed on site for the duration (I'd love to know the details of that arrangement, which seems to exist everywhere here)--but only one of a dozen similar projects underway on this little island.

As always, I get a little glimpse of something without really being able to get inside it. Our short layovers combine with my heads-down approach to walking thru strange places to keep me at arm's length to the real story. But not to complain; I'm very happy to see what I can.

Photos from around Incheon:

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Sir Robin's Hood

(Sorry. Written in December and never posted. I have several of these to catch up on.)

I've changed airplanes. After seven and a half years on the Mighty Mad Dog--the MD-11--I decided a change was in order and I've moved over to the Boeing 757/767. (I've been fiddling with another post exploring this move, so I'll save that discussion for that other post.)

One of the benefits to this new position is that the fleet visits many more places than the MD-11 did. The MD-11 is a log-haul heavy jet, a cargo ship of the air that circles the globe but stops in only a dozen or so places. The 767 by contrast goes nearly everywhere. And because the fleet type is really two airplanes--the 757 and the 767, the latter being nearly twice the size of the former--it fulfills every mission, long-haul and short-hop. My company has about 250 airplanes, and nearly 2/3 of them are of this Boeing type. The fleet has extensive flying in the US, of course, but also throughout Europe and Asia and Canada. So my choice of layovers has probably tripled. Given that my fleet change was at least partly motivated by a desire to see and do some new things, this is a most happy turn of events.

This is my first trip after completing the two month rigmarole of training, and my priority was to explore more of Europe. This first schedule is full of places new to me: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Malmö, Helsinki. And today's destination: Nottingham.

Susan and I were in London for a week a decade ago, but that is the only visit I've made to England. About three weeks ago for my last bit of training we stopped twice in Stanstead (just North of London) and made a quick trip to Birmingham from Germany. Now I have 48 hours in Nottingham.

My initial plan was to just catch a train into London--since, like NYC, I seem unable to get enough of that place. But after a little exploration I decided there is enough to see here that I'd stay put for my layover instead of burning half the day getting to and from London.

One of the first movies I fell in love with when in High School was The Lion In Winter, a loosely historical story of the tumultuous life of Henry II and his three scheming sons and one scheming--and imprisoned--queen. One of the chief attractions of Nottingham is the Castle. It's now an art gallery and history museum, and the building is relatively recent. But the location has figured prominently in English royal history for centuries. Henry II put up one of the first substantial castles on the property, and his squabbling sons, John and Richard the Lionhearted, practiced taking it away from each other after Henry's death. There's virtually nothing of the original structures, of course--it was over 800 years ago, after all--but it's fascinating to stand on the same hill overlooking the town where they and every other British monarch have stood.

I spent several hours wandering the town, including a really lovely section of old and stately homes below and West of the castle (called, I believe, The Park--or more specifically Lincoln Circus).

Here are some photos from the morning's wanderings.