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You Could Like Land and Stuff
and you other dudes can like take off and stuff
The argument I’ve made here, roughly a million times, is that societies and communities that are increasingly concerned with cultural signaling and status performance become less and less able to do stuff. So I’m fascinated by a couple of recent events that speak to very basic questions of operational competence.
The worst aviation accident in history happened on a runway, at Tenerife, as a result of a series of misunderstandings and and half-completed gestures — and please click on that link if you don’t know what happened. That collision between two 747s killed nearly 600 people, and many of them burned to death in their seats. There are no pilots or air traffic controllers who don’t know this story. So there’s no mystery or ambiguity about the danger of runway conflicts, a long-understood and much-discussed topic in the aviation community. A long series of reforms have addressed the problems that led to disaster at Tenerife.
And yet we’ve had two very near misses on American runways in recent days — one at JFK, one in Austin — and the last one was pretty astonishing:
At JFK, a pilot turned onto a runway she hadn’t been cleared to cross. At Austin, it appears that an air traffic controller cleared a plane to land and a plane to take off from the same runway at the same moment, in heavy fog.
I’m not a pilot, and I claim no expertise of any kind on this topic, but I found this discussion from an experienced pilot to be incredibly compelling:
Note what he says at the end: “These sorts of incidents are increasing at an alarming rate. There’s a huge turnover in the industry, not only amongst pilots but amongst air traffic controllers, mechanics, maintainers, rampers. And with the state of hiring practices and training today, and the relentless effort to do things faster, cheaper, and more efficiently, we’re just one radio call away from having the biggest aviation disaster in history.”
This is increasingly the story of American institutions, and rail industry workers are saying similar things about the pressure to do things faster and cheaper. And by the way, as Igor Chudov just wrote, some guy named Anthony Fauci just appeared on the list of authors for a paper lamenting the obvious failure of Covid vaccines. ("Attempting to control mucosal respiratory viruses with systemically administered non-replicating vaccines has thus far been largely unsuccessful, indicating that new approaches are needed.") The malintent-vs.-incompetence debate aside, for the moment, all of our doing-stuff institutions are becoming less and less able to do stuff, and more and more committed to other agendas that make operational competence a secondary consideration.
We’re harming ourselves in completely unnecessary ways. We’re forgetting how to do things that we know how to do.