Friday, August 03, 2007

Courage, Sense and Talent: Discovering Michael Crichton

It is a quality of superb literature that it teaches as well as inspires and entertains.

And my desire for just such literature is what generally keeps me away from modern authors – modern authors who are strong on political-correctness and spiritual cynicism but terribly weak on vocabulary, style, profundity, virtue and truth. Therefore, when I come across newer books that I do appreciate (“newer” roughly defined as written before 1951), I’m pleased to pass on my recommendation.

Now the author I’ve just discovered is, I’m sure, “old news” to many of you. After all, he’s one of the bestselling authors of our time with many of his books also becoming transformed into blockbuster Hollywood movies. He is even the creator of ER, one of prime time’s most popular TV series. He is Michael Crichton, author of The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, Rising Sun, The Great Train Robbery, Congo and many more, including the two I recently read, Airframe and State of Fear.

Both are terrific thrillers, action novels full of suspense, interesting characters in compelling situations and, as I said earlier, an awful lot of intriguing details about the respective subjects of the books. With Airframe, that subject is commercial flight while State of Fear deals with the potential for malicious manipulation of the global warming hysteria. But, in both cases, Michael Crichton combines the best of storyteller, documentarian and advocate.

Airframe is a riveting story with an intelligent, hardworking female protagonist whose job in the quality control section of Norton Aircraft ends up getting her enmeshed in a tangled, adventurous plot involving airline and union politics, international contracts, air safety, inter-office ego trips, media, personal danger, intrigue and a weighty deadline which just might spell our heroine’s doom as well as her company’s. It is a stimulating trip…and especially enjoyable as I had picked the novel up in a nearby public library and read it in my easy chair. Had I picked it up in the airport to read on an overseas’ flight…well, I’m glad I didn’t!

However, along with the page-turning tension of Airframe, Crichton gives his readers extremely interesting information along the way: issues of airline deregulation, the technology and business of commercial flight, background information about air disasters, and more. Let me give just a couple of examples here:

1) She was not really surprised to hear it. Flight data recorders rarely performed correctly. In the press, these failures were explained as the consequence of crash impacts. After an airplane hit the ground at five hundred miles an hour, it seemed reasonable to think that a tape deck might not be working.

But within the aerospace industry, the perception was different. Everyone knew flight data recorders failed at a very high rate, even when the aircraft didn't crash. The reason was that the FAA did not require they be checked before every flight. In practice, they were usually function-checked about once a year. The consequence was predictable: the flight recorders rarely worked.

Everybody knew about the problem: the FAA, the NTSB, the airlines and the manufacturers. Norton had conducted a study a few years back, a random check of DFDRs in active service. Casey had been on the study committee. They'd found that only one recorder in six worked properly.

Why the FAA would mandate the installation of FDRs, without also requiring that they be in working order before each flight, was a frequent subject of late-night discussion in aerospace bars from Seattle to Long Beach. The cynical view was that malfunctioning FDRs were in everybody's interest. In a nation besieged by rabid lawyers and a sensational press, the industry saw little advantage to providing an objective, reliable record of what had gone wrong.
(Page 77)

2) Walking away from him, she realized she was exhausted by the effort of the interview. Talking to a reporter these days was like a deadly chess match; you had to think several steps ahead; you had to imagine all the possible ways a reporter might distort your statement. The atmosphere was relentlessly adversarial.

It hadn't always been that way. There was a time when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event. They wanted an accurate picture of a situation, and to do that they had to make the effort to see things your way, to understand how you were thinking about it. They might not agree with you in the end, but it was a matter of pride that they could accurately state your view, before rejecting it. The interviewing process was not very personal, because the focus was on the event they were trying to understand.

But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn't want information so much as evidence of villainy. In this mode, they were openly skeptical of your point of view, since they assumed you were just being evasive. They proceeded from a presumption of universal guilt, in an atmosphere of muted hostility and suspicion. This new mode was intensely personal: they wanted to trip you up, to catch you in a small error, or in a foolish statement—or just a phrase that could be taken out of context and made to look silly or insensitive.

Because the focus was so personal, the reporters asked continuously for personal speculations. Do you think an event will be damaging? Do you think the company will suffer? Such speculation had been irrelevant to the earlier generation of reporters, who focused on the underlying events. Modern journalism was intensely subjective—"interpretive" and speculation was its lifeblood. But she found it exhausting.

And Jack Rogers, she thought, was one of the better ones. The print reporters were all better. It was the television reporters you really had to watch out for. They were the really dangerous ones.
(Pages 109-110)

3) Since deregulation, the carriers were flying aircraft longer than anybody ever expected. Three thousand aircraft in the domestic fleet were now more than twenty years old. That number would double in five years. Nobody really knew what would happen to all those aircraft as they continued to age.

Except Amos.

It was Amos who had been brought in by the NTSB as a consultant on the famous Aloha 737 accident, back in 1988. Aloha was an inter-island carrier in Hawaii. One of their airplanes was cruising at 24,000 feet when suddenly eighteen feet of the airplane's outer skin peeled off the fuselage, from the cabin door to the wing; the cabin decompressed, and a stewardess was sucked out and killed. Despite the explosive pressure loss, the plane managed to land safely at Maui, where it was scrapped on the spot.

The rest of Aloha's fleet was examined for corrosion and fatigue damage. Two more high-time 737s were scrapped, and a third underwent months of repairs. All three had extensive skin cracks and other corrosion damage. When the FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive mandating inspections of the rest of the 737 fleet, forty-nine more planes, operated by eighteen different carriers, were found to have extensive cracking.

Industry observers were perplexed by the accident, because Boeing, Aloha, and the FAA were supposedly all watching the carrier's 737 fleet. Corrosion cracking was a known problem on some early-production 737s; Boeing had already warned Aloha that the salty, humid Hawaiian climate was a "severe" corrosion environment.

Afterward, the investig
ation found multiple causes for the accident. It turned out that Aloha, making short hops between islands, was accumulating flight cycles of takeoff and landing at a faster rate than maintenance was scheduled to handle. This stress, combined with corrosion from ocean air, produced a series of small cracks in the aircraft skin. These were unnoticed by Aloha, because they were short of trained personnel. The FAA didn't catch them because they were overworked and understaffed. The FAA's principal maintenance inspector in Honolulu supervised nine carriers and seven repair stations around the Pacific, from China to Singapore to the Philippines. Eventually, a flight occurred in which the cracks extended and the structure failed.

Following the incident, Aloha, Boeing, and the FAA formed a circular firing squad. The undetected structural damage in Aloha's fleet was variously attributed to poor management, poor maintenance, poor FAA inspection, poor engineering. Accusations ricocheted back and forth for years afterward.
(Pages 112-113)

And then there’s Crichton’s State of Fear, notable among even the best techno-thrillers for its knowledge, characters and point of view, a point of view which is distinctly more objective and based on hard science than just about anything else you’ll find in popular media dealing with the issues of global warming.

I posted an entry here on The Book Den some 2 and 1/2 years ago about Michael Crichton’s unusual degree of passion for scientific accuracy regarding global warming. (Also I entered another post a few months later linking readers to ABC's John Stossel's review of State of Fear. Yes, I know. I'm pretty far behind in just now getting round to it!) But anyhow, for a fellow whose career is so intimately connected to New York publishing and Hollywood movie making, Crichton’s outspokenness is no small act of courage. And when one thinks of how early he was to speak out against the “silly science” which fuels the global warming mania, it is more impressive still.

Nonetheless, whether it is Crichton’s scientific solidity, his courage, his reputation for creating vastly entertaining novels, or recommendations such as the one I’m passing along here that moves you to finally pick up State of Fear and spend a very enjoyable weekend with it, by all means do so. I believe (a few examples of rough language notwithstanding) that you’ll find it an exceptional read.

A couple of examples from State of Fear?

1) "Kilimanjaro is melting."

"Why is that?"

"Global warming."

"Actually, Kilimanjaro has been rapidly melting since the 1800s— long before global warming. The loss of the glacier has been a topic of scholarly concern for over a hundred years. And it has always been something of a mystery because, as you know, Kilimanjaro is an equatorial volcano, so it exists in a warm region. Satellite measurements of that region show no warming trend at the altitude of the Kilimanjaro glacier. So why is it melting?"

Sulking: "You tell me."

"Because of deforestation, Ted. The rain forest at the base of the mountain has been cut down, so the air blowing upward is no longer moist Experts think that if the forest is replanted the glacier will grow again."

"That's bull*&#%."

"I'll give you the journal references.* Now then—sea-level rise? Was that the next threat you mentioned?"


"Sea level is indeed rising."


"As it has been for the last six thousand years, ever since the start of the Holocene. Sea level has been rising at the rate of ten to twenty centimeters—that's four to eight inches—every hundred years."

"But it's rising faster now."

"Actually, not."

"Satellites prove it."

"Actually, they don't."*

"Computer models prove it's rising faster."

"Computer models can't prove anything, Ted. A prediction can't ever be proof—it hasn't happened yet. And computer models have failed to accurately predict the last ten or fifteen years. But if you want to believe in them anyway, there is no arguing with faith. Now, what was next on your list? Extreme weather—again, not true. Numerous studies show-there is no increase."

"Look," Ted said, "you may enjoy putting me down, but the fact is, lots of people think there will be more extreme weather, including more hurricanes and tornadoes and cyclones, in the future."

"Yes, indeed, lots of people think so. But scientific studies do not bear them out. That's why we do science, Ted, to see if our opinions can be verified in the real world, or whether we are just having fantasies."
(Pages 423-5)

2) "We are talking about a situation that is profoundly immoral. It is disgusting, if truth be told. The PLM callously ignores the plight of the poorest and most desperate human beings on our planet in order to keep fat politicians in office, rich news anchors on the air, and conniving lawyers in Mercedes-Benz convertibles. Oh, and university professors in Volvos. Let's not forget them."

"How's that?" Evans said. "What does this have to do with university professors?"

"Well, that's another discussion."

"Is there a short version?" Evans said.

"Not really. That's why headlines aren't news, Peter. But I will try to be succinct," he said. "The point is this: the world has changed in the last fifty years. We now live in the knowledge society, the information society, whatever you want to call it. And it has had enormous impact on our universities.

"Fifty years ago, if you wanted to lead what was then called 'the life of the mind,' meaning to be an intellectual, to live by your wits, you had to work in a university. The society at large had no place for you. A few newspaper reporters, a few magazine journalists could be considered as living by their wits, but that was about it. Universities attracted those who willingly gave up worldly goods to live a cloistered intellectual life, teaching timeless values to the younger generation. Intellectual work was the exclusive province of the university.
"But today, whole sectors of society live the life of the mind. Our entire economy is based on intellectual work, now. Thirty-six percent of workers are knowledge workers. That's more than are employed in manufacturing. And when professors decided they would no longer teach young people, but leave that task to their graduate students who knew much less than they did and spoke English poorly—when that happened, the universities were thrown into crisis. What good were they anymore? They had lost their exclusive hold on the life of the mind. They no longer taught the young. Only so many theoretical texts on the semiotics of Foucault could be published in any single year. What was to become of our universities? What relevance did they have in the modern era?"

He stood up, as if energized by this question. Then abruptly, he sat down again.

"What happened," he continued, "is the universities transformed themselves in the 1980s. Formerly bastions of intellectual freedom in a world of Babbittry, formerly the locus of sexual freedom and experimentation, they now became the most restrictive environments in modern society. Because they had a new role to play. They became the creators of new fears for the PLM. Universities today are factories of fear. They invent all the new terrors and all the new social anxieties. All the new restrictive codes. Words you can't say. Thoughts you can't think. They produce a steady stream of new anxieties, dangers, and social terrors to be used by politicians, lawyers, and reporters. Foods that are bad for you. Behaviors that are unacceptable. Can't smoke, can't swear, can't screw, can't think. These institutions have been stood on their heads in a generation. It is really quite extraordinary.

"The modern State of Fear could never exist without universities feeding it. There is a peculiar neo-Stalinist mode of thought that is required to support all this, and it can thrive only in a restrictive setting, behind closed doors, without due process. In our society, only universities have created that—so far. The notion that these institutions are liberal is a cruel joke. They are fascist to the core, I'm telling you."
(Pages 457-9)