Monday, March 28, 2022

China's Flight 5735 Crash: Mechanical Failure or Human Action?


On Monday, March 21, China Eastern Airlines flight 5735 took off from Kunming in western China on a flight to Guangzhou,  on the southern coast.  After takeoff, the plane rose to a cruising altitude of 29,000 feet and leveled off, traveling east.  A little more than an hour into the flight, the plane abruptly took a nosedive and crashed into a muddy mountainous region after falling about five miles in a minute and a half.  Recovery crews at the scene confirmed there were no survivors among the 123 passengers and nine crew members.  The two flight recorders ("black boxes") were recovered and are undergoing analysis, but Chinese officials emphasize that it is too early to reach any conclusions about the cause of this tragedy, which is the worst air transport disaster in China since 2010.


As a precaution, China has grounded over 200 of its Boeing 737-800 series airliners for heightened safety inspections.  So far, no other country has taken similar steps, although the Boeing 737-800 is reportedly the most popular airliner of its size class in the world.  One reason may be that the circumstances of the crash do not seem to indicate any particular mechanical failure. 


Many types of mechanical problems in aircraft give some sort of warning before causing life-threatening conditions.  For example, the software problems that led to the crashes of two 737 MAX airplanes in 2019 were known to cause unexpected behavior of the aircraft in certain conditions, but the manufacturer assumed (wrongly) that training would enable pilots to take the appropriate actions to counteract the plane's tendency to nose up and stall. 


The information we have so far about Flight 5735 shows no sign that anything was wrong prior to the moment that the plane took a nosedive.  Even more oddly, despite repeated attempts by air traffic controllers to contact the pilots during the 90-second dive, no replies were received.  The lack of response would be understandable if an explosion or other violent breakup of the plane occurred in midair, but eyewitnesses and the crash scene testify that the plane was largely intact until it hit the ground, except for a small piece found some 10 km away that might have broken off during the dive.  Investigators estimate that the plane's velocity could have approached the speed of sound, which is beyond its design speed and could have broken small parts off before the crash.


Although Chinese officials have not addressed the question directly, one possibility that must be addressed is that one or more of the pilots deliberately crashed the plane.  While very unlikely, such a thing has happened before. 


In 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the Indian Ocean with 239 people on board, and despite two extensive searches, the plane has never been found, although small pieces have washed ashore at various places.  In an extensively researched article in the Atlantic, William Langewiesche makes a strong case for the idea that the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, somehow overcame the other crew members, depressurized the cabin at an altitude that would have killed everyone on board outside the oxygen-supplied cockpit, and then let the plane crash in the ocean, possibly after committing suicide himself. 


It is too early to draw any definite conclusions from the preliminary data we have about Flight 5735, and we may have to wait quite a while before the official investigation produces any results.  By United Nations rules, the country in which an airplane crash occurs is in charge of the crash investigation, and while there are ties to U. S. investigation agencies by virtue of the fact that Boeing made the plane, they must play secondary roles. 


Information from the cockpit voice recorders, if any, will be extremely helpful in determining what was going on before and during the last minute and a half of the flight.  Reports state that no conceivable malfunction of the autopilot systems would cause the plane to take and persist in such an extreme nosedive, which apparently can only be induced by the pilot's manual intervention. 


This raises a more general question:  should new planes have software in place that would make it impossible to take such actions that would lead inevitably to the loss of the aircraft?  In discussions about how the MCAS system, which is mostly software, led to the crashes of two 737 MAX planes in 2019, it looked like we had already gone too far in the direction of a robot taking over a plane.  In any case, all new airliners are "fly-by-wire" in the sense that the pilot's manipulations of the controls pass through software systems that then execute the actual movement of control surfaces. 


In that view, it just becomes a matter of judgment on the part of the computer whether to let what the pilot is telling the computer to do take precedence over what the computer knows is best for the plane, or at least what might lead the plane to crash. 


Perhaps the rarity of a pilot going berserk is enough to allow us to lodge our ultimate trust in the person actually flying the plane, and not in some software that probably hasn't been tested under the conditions that would apply if a rogue pilot was determined to crash the plane.  Besides, a pilot that's smart enough to fly a plane safely is probably smart enough to outwit software designed to keep him from doing it. 


In any case, we will simply have to wait until Chinese accident-investigation officials reach their considered conclusions about what caused the crash of Flight 5735.  In his article on the Malaysian Air crash, Langewiesche says that important personal information about the pilot Shah was suppressed by accident investigators, who were reluctant to admit the possibility that one of their own pilots deliberately caused the crash, which officially still has no determined cause.  Political considerations can be a factor in accident investigations, and if the Chinese investigation comes up empty-handed, it may be because stating the most likely cause would be politically embarrassing.


Politics aside, if a mechanical failure was at fault, it's important to get to the bottom of it so that all the other users of 737-800s can avoid such disasters in the future.


Sources:  William Langewiesche's article "What Really Happened to Malaysia's Missing Airplane" is available at  I also referred to articles on the Flight 5735 crash at the following sites:,,, and 

Monday, March 21, 2022

Fitness Watches: Too Much (Health) Information?

Recently a friend of mine replaced his recalled Fitbit watch with a more expensive, but more versatile, Apple watch.  (The recall was caused by multiple reports of Fitbits that were overheating and injuring users, but the irony of a health-related consumer product causing burns is a subject for another day.)  A biomedical engineer by profession, he showed me how the Apple watch can even display his electrocardiogram (EKG) in real time.  You press a button on the side of the watch, thereby completing a circuit that includes your arms and heart, and right there on the watch's screen is the same kind of wave that we're used to seeing in hospital bedside monitors costing many thousands of dollars.


While I was glad for him that he no longer has to worry about sustaining wrist burns from his watch, it turns out that any fitness or health-tracking device that provides instant health information has the potential to cause harm in the form of the nocebo effect.  Strangely enough, finding out too much about the immediate state of your health can make you feel less healthy.


Tim Culpan, writing in Bloomberg News, points out that "nocebo" (Latin for "I shall harm") means the opposite of "placebo" ("I shall please").  A placebo is a medication or treatment that has no objective scientific basis, but is perceived by the patient as being helpful.  For unclear reasons that have to do with the mind-body interface, placebos often lead to objectively measurable improvements in health.


Culpan cites studies in which researchers reminded concussion victims of their history of head injury, and that reminder by itself made them perform worse on cognitive tests.  Another example he quotes is the online comment of a fitness guru, who complained about his sleep-tracking watch app.  He'll wake up after what he feels was a good night's sleep.  Then he looks at his watch, and it tells him that actually, he was X percent lower in REM sleep than he should have been, or whatever.  And suddenly he doesn't feel as rested as he did before he looked at his watch.


The nocebo effect is a lot more widespread than we think.  How many drug ads are aimed not at making you feel better, but at lowering some number that diabetics or hypertensives are told is the key to their health and well-being?  The A1c average-glucose-level test for diabetics and the blood-pressure test for high blood pressure are both things that consumers can now do in the comfort of their own homes—or discomfort, if the numbers aren't what we want.


Economics is at work as well.  What begins as a means to an end—measuring blood sugar or blood pressure to avoid the serious negative consequences of diabetes or hypertension—subtly and gradually becomes an end in itself, as patients begin to obsess over the numbers and small shifts up or down that probably have no statistical significance.  But they demand lower numbers from their doctors at any cost, which the pharmaceutical companies are glad to assist with.


As with so many other areas of life, one can have too much of a good thing, even if the good thing is personal medical data.  Because the problem originates in one's mind, that is where we need to deal with it, and the best advice I have come across to deal with the nocebo effect comes from an unlikely source:  G. K. Chesterton.


Chesterton is nobody's idea of a poster boy for good health habits.  He drank (in moderation), he was fond of cigars and mildly baffled by anyone who questioned the propriety of his smoking habit, and in later life he weighed upwards of 300 pounds before dying of congestive heart failure at the age of 62 in 1936.


But while he lived, he lived with a gusto and joie de vivre that made him a model for how to enjoy life, and health while it lasted.  Health as such was not an obsession with Chesterton, but in his voluminous writings he made a few remarks that can guide our health-data-obsessed age toward more helpful attitudes.


In his book Heretics, while countering the eugenicist tendencies of H. G. Wells, he remarked, "The mistake of all that medical talk lies in the very fact that it connects the idea of health with the idea of care.  What has health to do with care?  Health has to do with carelessness."  By "carelessness" Chesterton did not mean negligence, exactly, but something close to it.  Being healthy enables one to do all the things that one wants to do in one's station in life, and that is the real purpose of good health.  Just sitting around concentrating on being healthy for health's sake is not only silly, but dangerous to your health.


In Orthodoxy, he has this to say along similar lines:  "The mere pursuit of health always leads to something unhealthy.  Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped."  He points out a profound truth that applies to obsessions with health as well as with any other created thing:  if enjoyment turns to worship, freedom has turned into slavery.  We can make ourselves unhappy by pursuing the happiness of good health to the exclusion of the rest of what life has to offer.


My friend with the new Apple watch is a pretty well-balanced individual, and I think he's not going to let himself be waylaid into checking his EKG compulsively and noting tiny changes in the waveform, as his training would allow him to do.  (If it was me, I'd just be happy to see any wiggles at all.)  But the nocebo effect is a reminder that our health accessories and toys can lead us down a road to unhealthy concern with information that in most cases can be safely ignored.

Sources:  I thank my wife for pointing out to me the article "Beware That Nocebo Strapped To Your Wrist" at  The Chesterton quotes were from (Heretics) and (Orthodoxy).


Monday, March 14, 2022

Electrifying New York — Again


Thomas Edison famously electrified New York City in 1882 when the first commercial central power plant in the world went online at 255-257 Pearl Street.  It took most of the next three decades to spread the blessings of electric power through the rest of the city, but it got done without much help from any government.  Electric lights were cheaper, safer, and just better than gaslight or kerosene lamps, and little government intervention was required to persuade millions of New Yorkers that going electric was the thing to do.


New York City now faces a new kind of electrification:  the electric car.  As an article in the New York Times recently described, the futuristic vision of having only all-electric vehicles inside the confines of the five boroughs that make up New York is being realized slowly, if at all. 


One significant drawback is the lack of public charging stations.  Even after setting a modest goal of installing 120 new charging stations, the city ended up as #93 in a recent survey that rated 100 cities in terms of how electric-car-friendly they were.


New York City's commissioner of transportation Hank Gutman is determined to change the situation.  His commission issued a report calling for 1,000 curbside chargers by 2025 and 10,000 by 2030.  Every municipal parking lot will have one-fifth of its slots equipped with chargers, if the plans in the report are carried out.


One might ask if those slots will be reserved for electric cars only, of which there are presently only 20,000 registered in all of New York City.  If only electric cars can park in those slots, all this means for the old-fashioned gas-guzzler driver is that the municipal parking lots will effectively shrink by 20%.


The electric car is perhaps one of the few major mass-market items whose main selling point is ideological.  From a purely pragmatic individual point of view—whether you are looking at personal safety, saving money, or convenience—there is really nothing an all-electric car can offer that a gasoline model can't also offer.


The ideological reason to buy an all-electric car is that it is one small step for a car buyer, but multiply that by a billion or so and it will be a giant leap toward a fossil-fuel-less future in which global warming is defeated.  And this reason cannot be discounted, because I think it is one of the main reasons people currently buy electric vehicles.


Whether it makes sense for someone to spend an extra ten to thirty thousand dollars on a car that requires careful logistical planning to make it between charging stations and may not in fact reduce carbon emissions at all if the local electric utility burns coal, is a decision that individuals are free to make.  But so far, despite the growing sales figures of upstarts such as Tesla, the prospect of gasoline vehicles going the way of kerosene lamps by 1910 actually looks pretty reasonable, if you give it another three or four decades.


In 1910, there were still lots of people who used kerosene lamps, and it would be another twenty or thirty years before such things were found only in extremely rural areas.  And it would take government intervention, in the form of the Rural Electrification Administration, to bring electricity to the remaining rural areas without electric power.  Still, nobody was forced to put away their kerosene lamps and get connected.  People in rural areas had to wait longer because it cost more to install the lines than in urban areas, but they still wanted electricity as much as their city cousins did.


Until all-electric vehicles are cheaper and easier to buy and operate than gasoline-powered ones, it will be like pushing on a string to get most people to buy one.  Some of the string moves when you push on it, but most of it doesn't.  There are those who feel that the chronic global-warming emergency is so urgent that fossil fuels should be effectively banned—taxed out of existence or otherwise made inaccessible to the average person.  This would represent a draconian market intervention by governments in an area where government has not exactly covered itself with glory, judging by similar historical interventions such as the price controls during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s.


The technological optimists among us (and on some days I count myself in that number) look to a day when some new and currently unthought-of technology improves battery storage capacity by another factor of 10 and lowers the price by the same factor.  If that happened, electric cars would simply out-perform and undercut the price of gasoline vehicles, which hold the record as being the most complicated mass-produced human-sized object in history. 


By contrast, the entire drive train of an electric car is a battery, some electronics, and electric motors hooked to the wheels.  The rest is software, and we all know how cheap software is.  I don't think we'll get to the point that companies will give away electric cars for free as long as you put up with the ads, but it might come close.


At that point, we won't need government subsidies or carbon taxes or prohibitions to make the transition from gas to electric vehicles.  People will want to do it of their own free will, and the market will be more than happy to oblige.  But it might not happen for a while yet.


One of the most scarce commodities these days is patience.  Even with the vastly superior performance of electric lighting, which was not cheaper than gas to begin with, it took the better part of four decades before most people were able to make the transition.  Heavy-breathing global-warming alarmists may say, "We don't have four decades! We've got to do something now!!"  We are just emerging from the results of two years of governments "doing something now" to fight COVID-19, and offhand I can think of only one of those things that had an unequivocally positive effect on the outcome:  the rapid development of vaccines.  Most other actions arguably did more harm than good, or at least mixed in a lot of harm with the good. 


Let's not make that mistake again.


Sources:  Ginia Bellafante's article "New York's Electric Car Future Faces Several Challenges" appeared in the Mar. 13, 2022 edition of the New York Times.

Monday, March 07, 2022

If We Could Stop ICBMs, Would We Want To?


Along with invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has put his country's nuclear arsenal on high alert.  He hopes by this measure to prevent the U. S. or its allies from interfering militarily with his exploits, but by doing so he has provided an unpleasant reminder that Russia has more nuclear weapons than any other country in the world.   


According to Wikipedia, the Russians, with about 5900 nuclear warheads, have a slight edge over the U. S. with about 5400.  But considering that just one nuclear weapon can spoil your whole day, this is a distinction without a difference.


What if we could erect something like Israel's Iron Dome system used against Palestinian rockets, a system that shoots down the vast majority, or even all, of a rival state's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)?  Besides being able to cross that off our worry list, we could then unilaterally disarm ourselves from nuclear weapons, at least in principle. 


There are several problems with that idea.  One of the biggest, according to a recent article at, is that we've tried building an ICBM defense system, and it probably doesn't work.


I say "probably" because, thank God, it's never been subjected to a real-life test.  Termed the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), it was designed primarily to guard against potential nuclear launches from North Korea.  GMD consists of some 44 interceptor rockets stationed in Alaska and California.  It's been tested with dummy targets dozens of times since it was first deployed around 1999, and while its record would look pretty good as a baseball batting average, even one strike with a nuclear missile is too many. 


Scientists consulted by Salon say there is no fundamental theoretical barrier that prevents us from developing a 100% effective anti-ICBM defense.  But it's a very hard technical problem.


An ICBM undergoes powered flight (the "booster phase") for only its first three or four minutes.  After that it goes ballistic, literally—meaning that it's moving like a thrown rock in space, subject only to Newton's laws and without any steering.  This is the phase in which it is easiest to get a radar handle on where it is and where it's going, and steer any prospective anti-missile weapons toward it.  Once it gets close to its target and slows down in the atmosphere, it's too late to do much about it, because blowing it up a few thousand feet above a populated area and scattering the radioactive residue all over would not be much better than just letting it do its job.


Also, modern ICBMs launch multiple warheads at the same time, some of which are decoys.  This makes hitting all the real ones much harder, especially considering that each one is only about a meter long, according to one source.  Against a single ICBM consisting of a single nuclear warhead, our GMD stands a good chance of whacking it out of the air.  But a massive full-scale ICBM attack such as Russia would be able to do is far beyond GMD's capabilities, and probably beyond the capability of any conceivable system we could put in place at a reasonable cost.


Suppose, however, the political will was there to mount an Apollo-space-program-style effort to design the ultimate ICBM-deflector, a U. S. version of Israel's Iron Dome that would really make us free from any concern about nuclear attacks by ICBMs.  Would we want to deploy it? 


For those of us with long enough memories, this was the ultimate goal of Ronald Reagan's so-called Star Wars program, which never got very far.  But if scaring the old USSR to pieces was the goal, Star Wars achieved its aims without even being built.  Historians will argue till doomsday about the true causes of the USSR's collapse, but Star Wars was certainly a factor.


The political prospects of the present U. S. administration announcing something like Star Wars for the twenty-first century are about the same as the prospects of a snowball in a volcano.  But if we built such a thing, would it be wise to scrap our nuclear arsenal and say that now we don't have to worry about nuclear attack, we don't need to threaten anyone else with it either? 


That would certainly be an option, and if we did so it would be a sign that we really trusted our ICBM defenses.  But I note that even with the Iron Dome, Israel has not divested itself of conventional rockets, and they hammer back at their enemies who throw rockets at them whether or not they land on Israeli territory.


Realistically, there are always going to be some regimes that won't feel safe until they have nuclear weapons.  North Korea is one such place, and currently Russia is another one.  A major nuclear war anywhere in the world would probably be a global disaster, with dangerous levels of radiation rising into the stratosphere and coming down gradually everywhere. 


While it would be nice to think that the world would follow our example and get rid of its nuclear weapons after the U. S. did, all it would take is one holdout to spoil the game.  And so it looks like the path to nuclear disarmament doesn't lie along the lines of developing a really good ICBM defense system first and then getting rid of our own nuclear weapons.


As in other aspects of war, you never know for sure whether you've prepared adequately for the next war until you lose it.  If you win, you might have gotten by with considerably less preparation than you did.  So war is always a wasteful proposition, among its many other disadvantages.


The current war in Ukraine is tragic enough without pulling us closer to the brink of what has become for many the secular Armageddon, the nuclear end of the world.  Let's hope that the prospect of mutually assured destruction, which has kept us free from nuclear war for seven decades or so, will continue to convince Putin and others that the nuclear option is really no option at all.


Sources:  The Salon article " Why scientists still can't figure out how to intercept nuclear missiles" by Nicole Karlis appeared on Mar. 3 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Ground-based Midcourse Defense and obtained the statistics on nuclear weapons from the Wikipedia article "Russia and weapons of mass destruction."