Sunday, March 23, 2014

Desperately seeking answers

This is my column today, March 23, 2014


As I write, almost everyone on earth, including experts, are still scratching their heads in   frustration and bewilderment over the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.  There have been a number of promising leads, all of which turned out to be duds. 
The question that has been raised repeatedly—and in increasing level of exasperation- is this:  Given the rapid advancements in aviation and surveillance technology, how is it still possible for a commercial airplane with 239 people on board to simply vanish from sight and to remain missing despite the combined search efforts of 24 countries and even after two weeks? 
There are a number of sobering realizations that we can draw from the MH370 tragedy, foremost of which is that most people on earth don’t seem to have rudimentary knowledge of geography after all.  I couldn’t believe the number of people who didn’t seem to have an idea of just how vast the Indian Ocean is, or for that matter, the South China Sea.  It appears that most people had this expectation that a single airplane flying over the South China Sea would be able to cover the whole area between the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China in a matter of hours.  And when Australians reported “credible” sighting of two significant chunks of debris in the Indian Ocean, it seemed most people expected ships to immediately arrive at the exact location within minutes of the sighting. 
It might be a good time to remind everyone that contrary to the common expression, ours is not really a small world.  Yes, this whole phenomenon called globalization has dramatically cut through boundaries of time and space, but no new technology has been able to shrink physical distances.  Before anyone expresses dismay over the seeming slow pace of finding debris in the Indian Ocean, a little sense of perspective might help—searching for a Boeing 777 in the Indian Ocean is like searching for a paper clip in an area the size of a several hundred football fields.  
Many technical details have surfaced about the way aviation computer systems, radar technology, transponders, communication systems, airplane security, etc, actually works that many have suddenly become experts on these subject matters overnight. Most of the details are gobbledygook and may be difficult to comprehend, but the bottomline is this:  Nothing in this world, not even the most advanced technology, can be 100% infallible, accurate, or reliable. We can put all kinds of sophisticated gadgets on airplanes, but it still impossible to foresee all kinds of possibilities.  There’s always room for error or an unforeseen event.  The best we can do is simply to mitigate risks.  It’s important to point this out because there are people in this world who continue to insist that what happened to MH370 is not theoretically possible.  Kids, it’s a depressing thought, but yes, anything bad can still happen today.
A number of theories have been forwarded that attempt to explain what could have happened to MH370. 
In pursuit of the hijacking theory, the personal circumstances of every person on board that plane, particularly those of the two pilots, have been subjected to intense scrutiny.  Related to this theory is the terrorist conspiracy angle from which the conjecture that the plane is now hidden somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan is derived from.  There’s the ghost plane theory which forwards the rather disturbing possibility that something—possibly a fire—happened on flight which killed everyone on board and which turned the whole plane into an auto-piloted coffin that drifted for hours along a computer guided path until it ran out of gas and supposedly crashed into the vast Indian Ocean. And then, of course, there’s the alien abduction theory which requires no explanation. 
What all these tell us is that in the absence of the truth or of any empirical fact, everyone who feels qualified to come up with a theory can be relied upon to invent or propound one.  Of course, we’re also reminded that there truly are lots of loonies in this planet, but then again, we don’t need a missing plane to tell us that.  Perhaps we should really leave the theorizing to the experts.
Like everyone else, I pray that the mysterious disappearance of MH370 is solved soon and that all people on board are found safe and sound. 
In the meantime, we can take small comfort in the fact that mishandling crises does not seem to be a characteristic that is specific to Filipinos.  It appears to be a global malady, after all.
The disappearance of MH370 reminds us of the staggering truth that, indeed, there is still so much in the world that mankind, despite advances in science and technology, just does not and cannot control. 

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