Air statistics and other stories

Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes is a fascinating book, but I suspect it isn’t one that you’ll find in the airport bookstores.

Written by George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota’s School of Engineering and Mines, Beyond the Black Box explains the conditions that help determine when planes crash.

For example, 45 per cent of the crashes happen on landing, but these crashes account for only two per cent of all the fatalities. The worst crashes are those when you are climbing or cruising (14 per cent of crashes, but 37 per cent of fatalities).

He can tell you why each crash occurred, describing the forces at work on an icy runway, the relevant coefficients of friction and the impact of thrust reversers.

His chapters have uplifting titles like “In-flight Breakup”, “Pressure, Explosive Decompression”, “Burst Balloons” and “Metal Fatigue: Bending 777s and Paper Clips”.

In spite of all this, it turns out that for most people in most crashes, there is a surprisingly happy ending.Take, for instance, crashes that result in “total hull loss”, which means the crash damages the airplane beyond economic repair.

Of the 446 DC-10s ever delivered, 27 of them were involved in crashes that led to “total hull loss”. Overall in these crashes, 69 per cent of all passengers and crew members survived.If you throw out the three worst crashes, the survival rate is nearly 90 per cent!



Why are there so many fake memoirs in the world? The list keeps growing, from Margaret Seltzer’s Love and Consequences to Misha Defonseca’s Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years.

If you had written a memoir that was, say, 60 per cent true, would you try to present it as a memoir or as a novel? If you were the editor of a memoir that you thought was 90 per cent true, would you publish it as a memoir or as a novel?

Or is this a better question: what are the upsides of publishing such a book as a memoir instead of a novel? Here are a few possible answers:

  - A true story gets a lot more media coverage than a lifelike novel
  - A true story generates more buzz in general, including potential film sales, lecture opportunities, etc

  - The reader is engaged with the story on a more visceral level if a book is a memoir rather than fictional
Every time a memoir is exposed as a fake, you hear people say, “Well, if it’s such a good story, why didn’t they just publish it as a novel instead?” But I think the reasons I enumerate, and maybe many more, incentivise authors, publishers and others to favour the memoir over the novel.

Here’s an experiment: take an unpublished manuscript that tells an intense and harrowing story from a first-person perspective. Assemble a group of 100 volunteers for the experiment.

Give a copy of the manuscript to 50 of them with a cover letter describing the memoir they are about to read. Give a copy of the manuscript to the other 50 with a cover letter describing the novel they are about to read.

In each case, write and attach an extensive questionnaire about the reader’s reaction to the book. Sit back, let them read, and compile the results. Does the “memoir” truly beat the “novel”?



When it comes to saving the environment, things are often not as simple as they seem at first blush.Take, for instance, the debate about paper bags versus plastic bags. For a number of years, anyone who opted for plastic bags at the grocery store risked the scorn of environmentalists.
Now it seems that the consensus has swung in the other direction – once a more careful cost accounting is done.The same sort of uncertainty hangs over the choice of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers. At least some choices are beyond reproach environmentally.
It is clearly better for the environment to walk short distances rather than to drive them. Right? Now even this seemingly obvious conclusion is being called into question by Chris Goodall, as reported by John Tierney on The New York Times website.
 And Goodall is no nut; he is an environmentalist and author of the book How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.Tierney writes: “If you walk 2.5km, Goodall calculates, and replace those calories by drinking about a cup of milk, the greenhouse emissions connected with that milk [like methane from the dairy farm and carbon dioxide from the delivery truck] are just about equal to the emissions from a typical car making the same trip.
 And if there were two of you making the trip, then the car would definitely be the more planet-friendly way to go.”



Between 2004 and 2007, the spot price of uranium more than quadrupled, reaching $140 (Dh514) before falling off sharply in the past several months to less than $80.

Why was there such a spike in price?One reason is because there’s been an increased demand from nuclear power plants around the world, as nuclear energy becomes more palatable in the face of global warming.
 According to David Miller, COO of Strathmore Minerals, nuclear plants had, until recently, been living off a huge uranium stockpile from the 1980s.
That stockpile was created in anticipation of an onslaught of new US nuclear plants that ended up never being built because of political, regulatory and public pressures. Now, says Miller, with that stockpile depleted, there’s a huge push for new uranium.

This doesn’t explain the recent drop in uranium price, of course, but it is hardly the only commodity that’s taken a hit.


Stephen J Dubner and Steven D Levitt are the authors of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)