The “immortal” B-52

Even as technology cycles speed up for smartphones and other devices, there is one remarkable plane that is still flying and might continue to fly for decades more: the B-52.

Don’t be surprised if another generation of the family is in the cockpit before it goes into retirement. The Air Force plans improvements that will keep the plane around till 2040.It’s not quite your grandfather’s B-52. True, its onboard computers are pitifully underpowered antiques and some models still have vacuum tubes — Google that, kids. Barry Posen, director of the Security Studies Program at MIT, informs me that “there are dials in the B-52 cockpit that have not been connected to anything for years.”

But the plane has been repeatedly remodeled and upgraded to assure its utility, with new engines and electronics. Soon it will be “getting modern digital display screens, computer network servers and real-time communication uplinks,” according to the Times…

One of its virtues is relatively low cost, which presumably makes the Pentagon more willing to use it. The high price tags on the B-1 and the B-2 Stealth bomber mean the Air Force can’t buy as many of them and has to exercise more caution about putting them in harm’s way.

Another factor is that while more advanced aircraft possess capabilities that are rarely needed, the B-52 is perfectly adequate for most real-world contingencies. MIT defense scholar Owen Cote told me that since the 1990s, “we’ve been essentially continuously at war against smaller powers with weak or nonexistent air defenses, against whom the range, persistence and versatile payloads of the B-52 can be invaluable.”

I saw this story while recently thinking about the amazing aspects of modern car engines: they can be turned on and off thousands of times a year and they generally are expected to last at least 100,000 miles. Car engines are remarkably consistent considering all of the moving parts and the internal combustion taking place. Take the consistency of cars and then apply them to these larger aircraft and the idea that they can last for decades or even a century is remarkable.

Additionally, the end of the column hints that these old aircraft are perfectly fine in most modern situations – not all, but many. I know there is a whole history of bombers not being as flashy as fighter  and we would prefer to be prepared for all circumstances but it does lead me to wonder about claims that we need always need to be creating the best fighter-jets possible…is this a physical manifestation of American exceptionalism?

Are the suburbs truly American?

The suburbs are a key part of American life: a majority of Americans live in them and they are part of the American Dream. So can we really ask whether they are truly American?

In his review of American Horror Story, which premieres tonight on FX, Slate’s TV critic Troy Patterson writes that the show’s “title carries more weight than its content can bear.” He then quotes a book review by Joyce Carol Oates of Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife:

Is there a distinctly American experience? The American, by Henry James; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Quiet American, by Graham Greene; The Ugly American, by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral; and Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho—each suggests, in its very title, a mythic dimension in which fictitious characters are intended to represent national types or predilections…. ‘American’ is an identity fraught with ambiguity, as in those allegorical parables by Hawthorne in which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are mysteriously conjoined.

But wait: Are only Americans “fraught with ambiguity”? Oates lets these titles—and, especially, the many, many lesser books she might have mentioned—off the hook too easily. Too many books—and movies, and now TV shows—use the word “American” in their titles as a cheap shortcut to gravitas and sociological importance…

Besides bullying us with their national import, these titles often reinforce the fairly exaggerated ideas we tend to have about the uniqueness of this country. There are many things particular to and remarkable about the United States, but let’s not get carried away. Capitalism is not uniquely American (sorry, American Psycho). Suburbs are not uniquely American (sorry, American Beauty—the movie, I mean; and yes, plastic bags float in the wind in other countries, too).

This seems related to American exceptionalism: we like to think we have done everything in the best way. Perhaps we have the best capitalistic system. (A lot of people might argue with this these days.) But to pick on the suburbs here seems misguided: are there really other countries in the world that can match the American suburbs? A few countries have suburbs like ours such as Australia and Canada. Most other developed nations have limited suburban developments and sometimes they are the inverse of American suburbs where the wealthier live closer to the center of the cities and the poor live more on the edges. But Australia and Canada have relatively few people compared to the United States and I’m not sure they have the same suburban culture that pervades their national identity.

Perhaps we are particularly jingoistic in our naming but the American suburbs do seem to be uniquely American.

Defining what makes America exceptional (or not)

The Washington Post writes about a public debates between liberals and conservatives over the idea of “American exceptionalism.” It appears that some conservatives have attacked President Obama for allegedly not believing strongly enough in this idea.

But critical to this discussion is actually delineating exactly what might make America exceptional. Here are the possibilities suggested by this article:

“The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez faire,” wrote the late political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, one of the leading scholars of the subject…

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character.

It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.”

These are the sorts of traits that one can commonly hear expressed: American is about liberty and freedom, a high level of religious belief and religiously motivated action (as least compared to other industrialized nations), individualism, a laissez faire approach to markets (and life), and reliance on the ideas of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

A couple of thoughts:

1. These discussions often seem rooted in historical qualities which still have some influence today. But how would people add to this list from a more modern era? Some possible character traits to include: pragmatic, middle-class, consumeristic, materialistic, patriotic, etc.

2. What would others around the world think about this list of traits? Is America really seen as exceptional because of the Constitution? Are the five traits listed by Lipset ones that other countries would desire for themselves? Do other nations like the talk of “American exceptionalism”? Do most nations have their own versions of “national exceptionalism” or is this sort of thinking frowned upon?