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America, Home of the Transactional Marriage

America, Home of the Transactional Marriage

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America, Home of the Transactional Marriage
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
The Atlantic |

Victor Tan Chen

Photo by David Pollack / Getty.

Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.

In 2017, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.

The divide in the timing of childbirth is even starker. Fewer than one in 10 mothers with a bachelor’s degree are unmarried at the time of their child’s birth, compared to six out of 10 mothers with a high-school degree. The share of such births has risen dramatically in recent decades among less educated mothers, even as it has barely budged for those who finished college. (There are noticeable differences between races, but among those with less education, out-of-wedlock births have become much more common among white and nonwhite people alike.)

Plummeting rates of marriage and rising rates of out-of-wedlock births among the less educated have been linked to growing levels of income inequality. More generally, these numbers are causes for concern, since—even though marriage is hardly a cure-all—children living in married households tend to do better on a wide range of behavioral and academic measures compared to kids raised by single parents or, for that matter, the kids of parents who live together but are unmarried.

Whether this can be attributed to marriage itself is a contentious question among researchers, since some studies suggest that what really drives these disparities is simply that those who are likeliest to marry differ from those who don’t, notably in terms of earnings. (Other studies, however, find better outcomes for the kids of married parents regardless of the advantages those households tend to have.) Regardless, it is clear that having married parents usually means a child will get more in the way of time, money, and guidance from their parents.

Why are those with less education—the working class—entering into, and staying in, traditional family arrangements in smaller and smaller numbers? Some tend to stress that the cultural values of the less educated have changed, and there is some truth to that. But what’s at the core of those changes is a larger shift: The disappearance of good jobs for people with less education has made it harder for them to start, and sustain, relationships.

What’s more, the U.S.’s relatively meager safety net makes the cost of being unemployed even steeper than it is in other industrialized countries—which prompts many Americans to view the decision to stay married with a jobless partner in more transactional, economic terms. And this isn’t only because of the financial ramifications of losing a job, but, in a country that puts such a premium on individual achievement, the emotional and psychological consequences as well. Even when it comes to private matters of love and lifestyle, the broader social structure—the state of the economy, the availability of good jobs, and so on—matters a great deal.

***

In early 2017, the economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson analyzed labor markets during the 1990s and 2000s—a period when America’s manufacturing sector was losing jobs, as companies steadily moved production overseas or automated it with computers and robots. Because the manufacturing sector has historically paid high wages to people with little education, the disappearance of these sorts of jobs has been devastating to working-class families, especially the men among them, who still outnumber women on assembly lines.

Autor, Dorn, and Hanson found that in places where the number of factory jobs shrank, women were less likely to get married. They also tended to have fewer children, though the share of children born to unmarried parents, and living in poverty, grew. What was producing these trends, the researchers argue, was the rising number of men who could no longer provide in the ways they once did, making them less attractive as partners. Furthermore, many men in these communities became no longer available, sometimes winding up in the military or dying from alcohol or drug abuse. (It’s important to point out that this study and similar research on employment and marriage focus on opposite-sex marriages, and a different dynamic may be at work among same-sex couples, who tend to be more educated.)

In doing research for a book about workers’ experiences of being unemployed for long periods, I saw how people who once had good jobs became, over time, “unmarriageable.” I talked to many people without jobs, men in particular, who said that dating, much less marrying or moving in with someone, was no longer a viable option: Who would take a chance on them if they couldn’t provide anything?

And for those already in serious relationships, the loss of a job can be devastating in its own way. One man I met, a 51-year-old who used to work at a car plant in Detroit, had been unemployed on and off for three years. (As is standard in sociology, my interviewees were promised confidentiality.) Over that period, his marriage fell apart. “I’ve got no money and now she’s got a job,” he told me. “All credibility is out the tubes when you can’t pay the bills.” The reason his wife started cheating on him and eventually left him, he said, was that “a man came up with money.”

His loss of “credibility” wasn’t just about earnings. He worried that, like his wife, his two young kids looked down on him. He’d always been working before; now they wondered why he was always home. In his own mind, being out of work for so long had made him less of a man. “It’s kinda tough when you can’t pay the bills, you know. So I have been going through a lot of depression lately,” he told me. Unemployment makes you unable to “be who you are, or who you once were,” he added, and that state of mind probably didn’t him make an appealing person to live with.

The theory that a lack of job opportunities makes marriageable men harder to find was first posed by the sociologist William Julius Wilson in regard to a specific population: poor, city-dwelling African Americans. (Disclosure: Wilson was my advisor in graduate school.) In later decades of the last century, rates of crime, joblessness, poverty, and single parenthood soared in cities across the country. Many conservatives blamed these trends on a “culture of poverty” that perpetuated indolence, apathy, and instant gratification across generations. Some, such as the political scientist Charles Murray, argued that federal assistance programs made these communities dependent on outside help and discouraged marriage.

Many liberals criticized these “cultural” explanations, pointing out that, among other things, the inflation-adjusted value of welfare and other benefits had been falling over this period—which meant overly generous government aid was unlikely to be the culprit. In a 1987 book, Wilson put forward a compelling alternative explanation: Low-income black men were not marrying because they could no longer find good jobs. Manufacturers had fled cities, taking with them the jobs that workers with less in the way of education—disproportionately, in this case, African Americans—had relied on to support their families. The result was predictable. When work disappeared, people coped as best they could, but many families and communities frayed.

Decades later, the same storyline is playing out across the country, in both white and nonwhite communities, the research of Autor, Dorn, and Hanson (as well as others) suggests. The factory jobs that retreated from American cities, moving to suburbs and then the even lower-cost South, have now left the country altogether or been automated away.

The predicament of today’s working class is no longer just about the decline in manufacturing jobs. A study in 2016 by the sociologists Andrew Cherlin, David Ribar, and Suzumi Yasutake found that in places with relatively large disparities in earnings, parents were more likely to have at least one child outside of marriage. Part of the reason, the researchers concluded, was that these highly unequal areas had little in the way of jobs that paid well and that high-school graduates could get—not just factory jobs, but also lower-level office and sales jobs. What have replaced jobs like that are, for the most part, low-wage service jobs as janitors, restaurant workers, and the like. “The kinds of jobs a man could hold for a career have diminished,” the sociologists wrote, “and more of the remaining jobs have a temporary ‘stopgap’ character—casual, short-term, and not part of a career strategy.” The result: As many men’s jobs have disappeared or worsened in quality, women see those men as a riskier investment.

At the same time, they are not necessarily postponing when they have kids. As the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas have found in interviews with low-income mothers, many see having children as an essential part of life, and one that they aren’t willing to put off until they’re older, when the probability of complications in pregnancy can increase. For mothers-to-be from more financially stable backgrounds, the calculation is different: They often wait longer to have children, since their career prospects and earnings are likely to improve during the period when they might otherwise have been raising a child. For less-educated women, such an improvement is much rarer.

One wrinkle to the marriageable-man theory has to do with the role cultural norms—whether it’s socially acceptable not to marry, or to have kids outside of marriage—play in people’s decisions about starting a family. A study released in 2017, by the economists Melissa Kearney and Riley Wilson, looked at a scenario that was the opposite of what Autor and his co-authors examined: What happens when men’s wages increase? Do men become more marriageable in women’s eyes, and do out-of-wedlock births decline? Kearney and Wilson compared marriage and childbirth rates in areas that had seen a bump in wages and the number of jobs (thanks to fracking booms) to the rates in areas that hadn’t. They found that, contrary to what the marriageable-man theory would predict, areas where fracking boosted wages did not see an uptick in marriages. The number of children born to married couples rose, though births to unmarried parents also increased somewhat.

How do these findings square with those of Autor, Dorn, and Hanson? The authors of the fracking study suggest that the disappearance of good jobs could well have played a crucial role in an initial turn away from marriage, as well as childbirth within marriage. But what had taken over since then, they speculate, was a new set of social expectations: Over several decades, Americans have come to view marriage as less of a necessity, and more of an ideal, and this shift has continued into recent years. Now that singlehood and out-of-wedlock childbirth have shed a degree of social stigma, the theory suggests, an increase in men’s incomes won’t revive norms that have already faded away.

As evidence of how social standards have changed, Kearney and Wilson describe how people living in Appalachian coal-mining communities responded in a quite different way to a similar economic boom in the 1970s and ’80s. Back then, spikes in income led to dramatic increases in marriage and the proportion of births within marriage—the very things that apparently have failed to resurge in today’s boomtowns. The way that most couples decide matters of marriage and children nowadays, Kearney and Wilson argue, has taken on a momentum of its own, one that short-term improvements in the economy won’t easily redirect.

This model may seem to focus unduly on men’s economic prospects, compared to women’s, but that’s actually the point. Americans still on the whole expect men to provide, meaning their worth as partners is more closely tied to their income. In fact, what seems to be decisive in Autor, Dorn, and Hanson’s study is not really whether men’s incomes go up or down, but whether they go up or down relative to women’s. For instance, when competition from China chipped away at jobs in female-dominated manufacturing sectors, such as the leather-goods industry, marriage rates actually increased. As women’s wages fell compared to men’s, the economists argue, marriage was more likely to lead to economic security, and single motherhood became less attractive.

But even if expectations around gender and earnings remain firmly in place, they are clearly changing, likely in response to the reality that, nowadays, women are the primary breadwinner in four out of 10 families. I spoke to a 54-year-old former factory worker in Mount Clemens, Michigan, who told me that her husband’s resentment about the frequent temporary layoffs (which came during slow periods at her plant) eventually spilled over into vicious fights over money. “Anytime I got laid off, he got pissed,” she said. The two later separated. In today’s economy, when oftentimes both partners must pitch in their wages to make ends meet, it’s increasingly hard to see how anyone in the working class has the luxury of sticking with someone without a job—male or female.

***

Does it really have to be this way? Must a job—or a lack of a job—shape one’s romantic and family life? When I was doing research for my book, I talked to both Americans and Canadians affected by the retreat of manufacturing jobs, many of whom were separated by just a quick drive across the border between Michigan and Ontario. I was surprised, though, that unemployment appeared to be more toxic to the romantic relationships of the Americans I talked to, who were more likely to go through a separation or divorce following a layoff than my Canadian interviewees were.

To some extent, this reflects cultural differences. As Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist whose research was cited above, noted in his 2010 book The Marriage-Go-Round, Americans tend to place great importance on both marriage and personal autonomy, which is reflected in their very high marriage and divorce rates (higher than in other advanced industrialized countries, including Canada). An intensely individualistic worldview, when applied to relationships, may make someone more willing to end them when their partner doesn’t have a good job; the can-do, competitive values that America rightly celebrates can, when taken to extremes, make relationships seem to be as much about self-advancement as about unconditional love and acceptance.

At the other end of the earnings spectrum, this view of relationships leads well-educated people to search for partners who, on some level, will set them (and their children) up to be financially better off. Increasingly, this means that well educated people marry other well educated people—something that has always been the case, but not to this degree.

In discussing this trend—which researchers call “assortative mating”—in his recent book Dream Hoarders, the Brookings researcher Richard Reeves brings up the time a prominent Princeton alum advised current female students to snag a husband in college, where they are most likely to find someone “worthy” of them. The love life of a Princeton grad is an extreme example, but across all levels of education and income, there may be more of this weeding out of potential partners than there used to be. Finding a “worthy” partner is increasingly important in today’s economy, and for the working class, this sorting would be based on employment more than education.

All that said, the difference I detected in the durability of Americans’ and Canadians’ relationships following the loss of one partner’s job may also have to do with how the two countries’ social policies shape residents’ views on the stakes of being employed. Of course, some researchers believe that a strong safety net may actually discourage people from getting married in the first place. They point to the fact that in European countries with expansive government programs, there tend to be lower rates of marriage and childbirth within marriage. But it’s unclear whether the explanation is different values, or different policies. In many European countries, for example, cohabiting relationships are often long-term and stable, such that they look much like marriages. In the U.S. that tends not to be the case, which suggests that attitudes about live-in relationships, like views on marriage, diverge across the Atlantic.

My own research looks more narrowly at one question in this debate: Can certain policies help keep working-class married couples together after one of them loses a job? Ample support for worse-off families may keep the stresses of unemployment, and financial problems more generally, from tearing couples apart. In Windsor, Ontario, I met a 60-year-old Canadian man whose family went through a difficult time after he lost his job. One day, he walked to a highway overpass and decided he would kill himself by jumping in front of a truck. He stayed out there, on a cold December morning two days after Christmas, for three hours. But, unable to bring himself to carry out his plan, he went home.

He and his wife talked things over, and he decided to get help. A local support program for people out of work—an “action center” funded by the government and staffed by some of his former coworkers at the plant—provided him with a support network of peers who understood his situation. The center also lobbied his former employer to extend his remaining health-insurance coverage so that he could pay for his therapy. (Even under Canada’s single-payer system, not all health-care costs are covered by the government.) He said he emerged from that experience with a stronger marriage and a stronger relationship with his daughter. “Before, we didn’t have that openness, that communication,” he said.

The Canadian safety net later helped him in other ways. He took remedial courses to get his high-school degree and then trained to become an addiction counselor; the government paid all his tuition, which included a job placement at the end of the program. Even when his public unemployment benefits ended, he continued to receive income through a special program for laid-off workers like him who had worked at least seven out of the previous 10 years. The fact that he could still bring home a check every other week, he said, made him feel less ashamed about not working. “Everything is moving in the right direction,” he told me at the time. For that he credited his family, his own motivation, and the government’s help.

While a patchwork of programs in the United States provides similar kinds of retraining support, it tends to be less generous and more narrowly focused. Whether one’s partner is out of work matters more in America, where the safety net is thinner, because less of a lost paycheck is going to get replaced by the government (if any of it is in the first place). In their recent research on the white working class, the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton note this link. “The repeated re-partnering in the US,” they write, “is often driven by the need for an additional income, something that is less true in Europe with its more extensive safety net.”

Canada has a robust set of policies that help struggling families, especially those with just one earner. For example, Canadian parents receive “baby bonuses,” monthly tax-free cash benefits for each child under the age of 18, which were greatly expanded for lower-income households in 2016. (America’s federal government offers a child tax credit, but it helps only those who have done a certain amount of paid work that year, and jobless workers and low-income families who don’t pay much in the way of federal income taxes receive less or none of it.) Canadians with modest incomes also receive quarterly, tax-free payments to offset the costs of various sales taxes. Policies like these make having two full-time incomes less crucial in keeping a Canadian household financially afloat. They may also make the relationships in that household less transactional—that is, less dominated by a calculus that tallies what one partner does for another.

Confronted, like the United States, with global economic realities such as free trade and automation, some countries have built or strengthened safety nets to give their residents a measure of financial stability. There’s a reason American family relationships have been shaped so much by labor markets. It’s not a matter of destiny, but policy.

Victor Tan Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.

This article was originally published on August 20, 2017, by The Atlantic, and is republished here with permission.

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All the Single Ladies written by Vincent Harinam and Rob Henderson

All the Single Ladies written by Vincent Harinam and Rob Henderson

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Published on January 16, 2020
All the Single Ladies
written by Vincent Harinam and Rob Henderson

“Oh, he’s kind of cute.” My friend at Yale, swiping through Tinder, leaned over and showed me his profile.
“Wait, no.” She moved her finger leftward.
“Why not? He seems alright,” I reply.
He goes to a local, less highly-regarded university, she explained. In other words, not Yale.

Swipe Right for a Master’s Degree

The dating market for women is getting tougher. In part, this is because fewer men are attending universities. Why would male enrollment in higher education matter for women? Because women, on average, prefer educated men. One source of evidence comes from women’s personal responses to dating profiles posted by men. Researchers analyzed 120 personal dating ads posted by men on the West Coast and in the Midwest. They found that two of the strongest variables that predicted how many responses a man received from women were years of education and income. Similar results have been found in Poland. Researchers analyzed how many women responded to dating ads posted by 551 men. They found that men with higher levels of education and higher income received more responses. A more recent study in Australia of more than 40,000 online daters found that women were more likely to initiate contact with a man if he had more education than themselves.

Still, young people today are more likely to use Tinder or other dating apps than Internet dating websites. Are things different on the apps? A study led by economics researcher Brecht Neyt of Ghent University found that, on Tinder, women were 91 percent more likely to “like” a man with a master’s degree compared with a bachelor’s degree. The researchers used the same male profiles, the only difference was level of education. They also tested how men would react to women with different levels of education, finding that men were only eight percent more likely to “like” a woman with a master’s degree compared with a bachelor’s degree. Both men and women preferred more-educated partners, but women had a much stronger preference.

In other words, all other things equal, a man with a master’s degree is about twice as likely to get a match than a man with a bachelor’s degree. Perhaps something to keep in mind, if you are interested in obtaining a graduate degree and are active on Tinder.

Some women do marry men with less education, though. These women tend to marry men who earn more than them. A study by Yue Qian, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, found that women who had more education than their spouses were 93 percent more likely to be married to men with higher incomes than themselves. In other words, if you are a less-educated man, it is helpful to earn more than your educated male peers if you want to marry an educated woman. Better-educated women have a stronger preference for partners who earn more, especially if their partners are less educated than themselves.

This finding fits the overall pattern revealing that women who are more educated and professionally successful have an even stronger preference for successful male partners, relative to less successful women. The evolutionary psychologist David Buss, discussing his research on how professionally successful women select partners, found that “Successful women turned out to place an even greater value than less professionally successful women on mates who have professional degrees, high social status, and greater intelligence and who are tall, independent, and self-confident.” The more professionally successful a woman is, the stronger her preference for successful men.

Getting Ratioed

Sex ratios matter for dating strategies for both men and women. Even seemingly small differences in sex ratios can be misleading. For example, in The Evolution of Desire, David Buss discusses the student body of the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches. In 2016, the student body consisted of 46 percent men and 54 percent women. That doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it is. It translates to 17 percent more women than men on campus. The UT Austin campus has about 52,000 students in total. This means that if every student pairs up with someone of the opposite sex, about 4,000 women will be without a partner.

More to the point, the age range for the Tinder study cited above was 23 to 27. This is the age range in which women are far more educated than men, and where more women tend to be looking for male partners. In his book Date-onomics, Jon Birger revealed that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, there are 5.5 million college-educated women between the ages of 22 and 29, versus only 4.1 million college-educated men in the same age bracket. In other words, the dating pool for college graduates has 33 percent more women than men—or four women for every three men. Broken down by degree type across all ages in the U.S., for every 100 men with bachelor’s degrees, there are 130 women. For those with master’s degrees, for every 100 men there are 134 women. The situation for educated women seeking educated male partners isn’t looking so good. Furthermore, more men identify as exclusively homosexual relative to women. Which suggests the dating pool for heterosexual women may be even smaller than the above numbers suggest.

But how do such imbalances manifest themselves with regard to mating strategies? When there is a surplus of men, men are more likely to adapt to women’s preferences. When there is a larger male-to-female ratio, men are more likely to compete with each other to be what women want. And, on average, women tend to prefer longer-term relationships. In general, women report a greater desire for emotional investment than men. This is true across cultures. In fact, the sex disparity in this preference for emotional investment is greater in more egalitarian cultures. In other words, the difference in the desire for love and emotional investment between men and women is larger in societies that more strongly underscore egalitarianism and sociopolitical equality. In contrast, men, on average, are more likely to prefer more casual sexual relationships. Indeed, the sex difference in the male preference for casual sex and sexual variety is greater in more gender-egalitarian societies. For example, research led by the psychologist David Schmitt found that the sex difference for enjoyment of casual sex in Denmark, Norway, and Finland is higher than in less gender-egalitarian cultures such as Ethiopia, Colombia, and Swaziland.

And we see this on campuses with more male students relative to female students. Jon Birger, in Date-onomics, describes the dating scene on campuses with imbalanced sex ratios. On colleges with more men than women, such as Caltech, steady relationships are more widespread. Students go on dates, and men demonstrate commitment in partnerships. Men are more willing to do what women want in order to be with them. On the other hand, when there is a surplus of women relative to men, women are more likely to adapt to men’s preferences. They compete with one another to be what men want. And this is what we see on campuses with more female students relative to male students. On colleges with more women than men, such as Sarah Lawrence, casual sex is more widespread. Hookup culture is more prevalent, and men are less interested in entering committed relationships. Women are more willing to do what men want in order to be with them.

Birger describes an interview with a female student at Sarah Lawrence:

Most straight men at Sarah Lawrence had no interest in a committed relationship. “Why would they?” she said. “It’s like they have their own free harem. One of my friends was dumped by a guy after they’d been hooking up for less than a week. When he broke up with her, the guy actually used the word ‘market’—like the ‘market’ for him was just too good.”

If you have ever been around young men at elite colleges, many of them do speak in this way, especially if there are less-prestigious colleges nearby. This is because male students at top colleges can attract women at their own college, as well as other local campuses. On the other hand, women at top colleges are often only interested in dating men at their own college. For these women, the dating pool is less promising compared to their male counterparts.

Interestingly, women at colleges where women are more numerous trust men less. In a study on campus sex ratios and sexual behavior, researchers analyzed data from 1,000 undergraduate women from different U.S. colleges. Women’s responses varied based on sex ratios on campus. For example, women at colleges with more women were more likely to agree that “men don’t want a committed relationship” and that they “don’t expect much” from the men with whom they go out. They also found that women on campuses with a higher female-to-male ratio were much less likely to report that they had never had sex.

The researchers report that, “women who attend college on campuses where they are more numerous tend to view men as less interested in commitment and less trustworthy. They are less likely to expect much from men, find it more difficult to locate the right kind of men, and are more likely to report that their relationships don’t work out and that a woman can’t have a boyfriend if she won’t have sex.” In other words, when men are in an environment where there are more women, they appear to put in less effort, and have less interest in relationships.

In contrast, in environments where men are more numerous, relationships are more likely to proliferate. The Harvard psychologist Marcia Guttentag and her colleague Paul Secord examined census numbers, data on sex ratios, and historical texts dating back to ancient Greece and medieval Europe. She found that in societies where men were more numerous relative to women, the culture was more likely to stress courtship and romance. Men had to compete for wives and were thus more willing to make commitments to women. While women in such societies were more likely to be cast in stereotypical gender roles, they also, Guttentag reports, exercised greater control in their choice of romantic partner. She found that the opposite was the case in societies with more women than men. She writes, “The outstanding characteristic of times when women were in oversupply would be that men would not remain committed to the same woman throughout her childbearing years.” Intriguingly, Guttentag posits that feminist movements are energized when there is a dearth of men in the local environment:
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With a surplus of women, sexual freedoms are more advantageous to men than to women. Decreased willingness to commit oneself to an exclusive relationship with one woman is consistent with that fact… It follows further that the persistence of such circumstances would leave many women hurt and angry. Other women, not themselves without a man, would nevertheless often be aware of the unfortunate experiences of their women friends in relations with men. These circumstances should impel women to seek more power, and incidentally, turn them towards meeting their own needs. Most forms of feminism are directed to just such ends.

In short, environments with more women give rise to conditions that propel women to reduce their social, economic and political dependence on men. In part because men are less interested in commitment when they are outnumbered by women and therefore have more options.

Still, much of this is assuming that men in educated dating pools prefer educated women. And for long-term relationships, they do. Compared with women, though, men tend to be more open to pairing up with less educated partners. And less educated women tend to be open to dating men more educated than themselves. What this means, then, is that educated women are not only competing against other educated women for educated male partners, but also against less educated women. To use Guttentag’s phrasing, the dating environment for educated men has an oversupply of women, and they are acting in line with Guttentag’s original findings. As Birger puts it in Date-onomics, describing why educated men are often reluctant to settle down, “Why make a lifetime commitment to one woman when you can keep her as an option while continuing to survey the market—a market that, for college-educated men, has an ever-increasing number of options?” This point has also been stressed by David Buss. In an essay titled The Mating Crisis Among Educated Women, Buss observes that it is no coincidence that the rise of hookup culture on college campuses has developed alongside the growing proportion of female students. Even Tinder, he suggests, is a part of the same phenomenon. Fewer men means more hookups.

Why Don’t You Get a Job?

Other factors don’t bode well for long-term relationships. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of never-married women, compared with less than half of never-married men, report that having a partner with a steady job is “very important” to them. Employed men are more attractive to women. And given that successful women tend to value success in prospective partners even more than less successful women, it stands to reason that employed women place an even greater value on employment when selecting a partner. However, Pew has also found that among never-married adults, for every 100 women, there are only 84 employed men. If all employed men were suddenly taken, every sixth woman would be partner-less.

Why does any of this matter? Maybe relationships aren’t that important, and people derive happiness from other things, like career success. But consider recent research led by Nathan Kettlewell at the Economics Discipline Group at the University of Technology Sydney. Kettlewell and his colleagues found that when it comes to cognitive and emotional well-being, job-related events such as getting a promotion or being fired doesn’t actually have much impact beyond about three months. What does impact well-being? Negative factors on well-being were the death of a partner or child, separation or divorce, and major financial loss (e.g., bankruptcy). Positive factors were getting married, having children, and a major financial gain (e.g., inheritance or lottery winnings). Considering that few of us are going to inherit money from a rich uncle or win the Powerball, establishing a relationship with people we love is key to our sense of well-being.

Why are men falling behind when it comes to education? Several suggestions have been offered. One might be video games. In a paper titled “Cutting class to play video games,” the economist Michael Ward looked at a dataset of more than 6,000 high school and college students. He found that when video game sales increase, students spend less time attending class and doing homework and more time playing games. Furthermore, this “crowding out” effect was stronger for males and lower income students. He also found that the average amount of time spent playing video games was three times larger for males compared to females.

The economist Erik Hurst has suggested that leisure time has become so valuable to men that they are less willing to exchange that time for other pursuits. In an interview, Hurst has said, “In our culture, where we are constantly connected to technology, activities like playing Xbox, browsing social media, and Snapchatting with friends raise the attractiveness of leisure time. And so it goes that if leisure time is more enjoyable, and as prices for these technologies continue to drop, people may be less willing to work at any given wage.” This may be why fewer young men, relative to women, are employed or attending university.

Furthermore, Hurst and his colleagues found that from 2000 to 2015, labor hours fell by 12 percent for those aged 21–30. What has filled this free time for men? The researchers found that young men increased the number of hours dedicated to leisure by about the same number of labor hours they lost. And what kind of leisure? An article in The Economist reports, “For each hour less the group spent in work, time spent at leisure activities rose about an hour, and 75% of the increased leisure time was accounted for by gaming.” Video games might be more appealing than other ventures, and many young men have decided to dedicate more of their time to gaming and less to education or work. Interestingly, these young men do not report being unhappy. Hurst goes on to say, “These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers.” However, the men surveyed are quite young. It is possible and perhaps likely that as these men reach middle-age, their feelings will change.

For now, many young men understand that women want educated and successful partners. Why not work harder to adapt to this preference? In their book, The Demise of Guys, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan suggest that the answer is twofold: fake war and fake sex. They argue that many young men have a natural desire for conflict, struggle, and accomplishment. Video games satiate this desire. They are designed to induce a sense of gradual achievement in the face of obstacles adapted to be just above the player’s ability. Alongside this, young men also have a natural desire to seek sexual partnerships. Digital porn satiates this desire. Porn provides a virtual experience of sexual fulfillment with multiple different partners. Many young men may have simply decided to derive a sense of accomplishment from gaming, and a sense of sexual satisfaction from porn.

Sexy selfies and dating pools

In short, there are far more educated women than educated men. Educated women, on average, prefer men who are educated as well. And among couples in which the woman has more education, they tend to prefer men who earn more than themselves. But the reality is that fewer young men are graduating from college compared to women, fewer men are employed, and fewer men are seeking employment. The dating pool is shrinking for women who are interested in successful, educated, men with good career prospects. In such an environment, hookup culture becomes more widespread, which women tend not to like as much as men. The romantic landscape is rosy for educated men, who are more open to dating both educated and less educated women. But for women, the situation doesn’t look as great. Research suggests in such an environment, sexual competition between women intensifies. In fact, a recent study found that the proliferation of “sexy selfies” may be due in part to economic inequality, as women compete to earn the attention of a shrinking pool of economically successful men.

The good news, though, is that couples in which both individuals are educated tend to be happier. Their divorce rates are lower and satisfaction with their marriages is higher. But as the incentives continue to shift, and imbalanced ratios continue to influence the dating pool for the educated, we may see fewer such couplings.

Rob Henderson is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. You can follow him @robkhenderson

Vincent Harinam is a law enforcement consultant, research associate at the Independence Institute, and PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. You can follow him @vincentharinam
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Comments

Stephanie

Good article, thank you. It never occurred to me how hookup culture could be fueled by an overabundance of female students, but it makes a lot of sense. The female preference for educated men and the diminishing proportion of men in university adds up to bleak prospects for our birthrate.

How do we fix this? Do men need to make themselves more competitive for university admission or do more women need to look outside the university pool?

Although lowering standards is seldom the right answer, I’d have to say the latter is a better solution. We have too many university graduates as it is, saturating the market such that there are insufficient jobs that pay well enough to support a good standard of living and pay off tuition debt in a reasonable timeframe. We should be looking to reduce admittance to higher education institutions to numbers that match the market’s need.

On the other hand, plenty of great men’s careers require no formal education, mostly in the trades. Men with such careers start their earning years earlier and without debt, making them more financially secure in their 20s, the prime reproductive years, and many can be in the position to open their own businesses in their 30s or 40s if they wish. The male-dominated nature of these professions means they too need to look outside for a mate.

My husband was working as a pipefitter when I met him, while I was doing my MSc. I was too conservative for the university crowd so I wasn’t going to find a mate there, but I was practically a leftist compared to my husband. Meeting him and truly stepping outside the university bubble for the first time in my life was a transformative experience that showed me the value of old fashioned family-centric ethos. Now I have a loyal husband who’s incredibly attractive and who supports my higher education goals and my excessive living standards. Being a wife and mother is infinitely better than chasing down dates with the miniscule proportion of men who are both highly educated and good looking.

Men outside the bubble are better able and willing to give women what they actually want, something women should clue in to before they end up bitter and infertile.
Kiashu
Stephanie:

How do we fix this? Do men need to make themselves more competitive for university admission or do more women need to look outside the university pool?

Per the article, apparently boys need to spend less time playing video games.
Stephanie:

We should be looking to reduce admittance to higher education institutions to numbers that match the market’s need.

I agree with this. As I’ve mentioned before, in 1966 Australia had 90,000 students with 12 million people; by 2015 it was 1.4 million students with 24 million people. In the late 1980s people could work as a bank teller without finishing high school, 10 years later they needed a commerce degree. I refuse to believe that in 10 years the job gained complexity needing 4 more years’ education, if it had the banking industry would have gone through convulsions through lack of qualified people. Likewise many other industries.

“the reality is that fewer young men are graduating from college compared to women, fewer men are employed, and fewer men are seeking employment.”

This does not bode well for the future, since these things all lead to higher incidences of mental health issues, drug abuse, and crime. And a growing healthcare and welfare bill.

But mainly what I got from the article was that I’m very glad to be happily married.
MorganFoster
Stephanie:

Men outside the bubble are better able and willing to give women what they actually want, something women should clue in to before they end up bitter and infertile.

Apparently, there are a lot of highly intelligent, well-educated and successful women who were under the impression that the old saying “it’s lonely at the top” was never going to apply to them.
Shamrock

As i read the findings of the university study, it struck me that the article could be summed up as “The laws of supply and demand”.
MorganFoster

Some years ago, a friend of mine, a female professor at a local college was teaching a course in which all the students who signed up were women. No men.

It wasn’t set up to be all female, it just worked out that way by chance. On the first day of class, my friend invited them to each say a few words about themselves by way of introduction, and she then said she would like to ask them a few questions about their view of life outside of school.

Among her questions were these three:

How many of you would be willing to marry a man who is younger than you? Most of the women raised their hands.

How many of you would be willing to marry a man who makes less money than you and always will make less? Most of the women raised their hands.

How many of you would be willing to marry a man who is shorter than you? Not a single woman raised her hand.

(My professor friend was 6’ tall in her bare feet, and her husband was an inch or so taller. Her students didn’t know that.)

I’m sure it all means something.
jdfree49

Education and formal education are antonyms.

The formal education system, besides promoting Leftism, is highly feminized. It treats all students like girls and puts boys on ritalin to try to get them to comply. The results are a reduction in the number of good men, the inflation of the female ego, and a credentialism that leads women to incorrectly imagine themselves superior to men who thrive outside their system.

As women are hypergamous, this is a dating disaster waiting to happen.

Men are checking out of this system as it plainly does not serve them. Some achieve outside the system, but others, particularly those indoctrinated by the system and their single moms, find no avenue for satisfying their male need for measurable achievement other than video games, whose addictive nature is their clearly defined measures of progress.

I read an article a few years back in which economically successful Chinese women complained that there were “no good men”. The signature quote was that in China, “The A men marry B women, the B men marry C women, and all that’s left is the C men and A women”.

Think about that for a second. This was China – a country that’s spend decades creating a massive gender imbalance with the One Child policy. How on earth can their women complain about bad odds? Likely these self-described “A women” are not as special as they think they are. At the same time, given the rampant egoism of recent history, who can blame men for marrying down and scoring themselves wives who are actually grateful for them?

And the end of the day, this is all just more evidence that feminism is awful. If the male/female ratio at a university was 51/49, they’d scream “patriarchal oppression!”, but give them the majority, and suddenly they’re unhappy about their dating lives.
jdfree49
Kiashu:

The schadenfreude of this post reeks of an embarrassing misogyny. You should get that seen to.

Shooting the messenger, claiming a monopoly on good intentions… any other textbook left-wing tactics you want to pile on there?

What I said was true, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you.
Dcl

There were many interesting points raised here – I particularly thought it was interesting about the hookup culture stemming from a surplus of women – but I was rather bemused to read this entire article without encountering “all the single mothers” who parent these men and women.

Video games are a trendy and, to my mind, easy and shallow way of scorning young men. It seems to have become received wisdom, with logic something like this: “More young men are single, driftless, angry, and underemployed/undereducated. More young men also play video games. Therefore, video games are obviously the cause of their being single, driftless, angry, and underemployed/undereducated.”

Talk about a logical fallacy. Perhaps they play video games because that gives their lives meaning; that is, their lives are rudderless and instead of joining a gang or drinking themselves to death, they join a community of video game playing. Quelle horreur.

I don’t play video games, but my sons do. Many are hugely inventive, imaginative, skill-intensive, particularly the RPG but also highly skilled games like the Mario games. Just because a lot of young men play video games does not mean that playing video games causes their other issues. If a lot of men read and didn’t go out, would we be having a discussion attacking books? If a lot of women spent excessive time drinking wine and gossiping with their female friends, would we say they’re wasting their time too?

I’ll tell you what else is associated with driftless young men: single mothers and absent fathers.

How this entire article talked about this issue without mentioning single motherhood is beyond me. There are a million studies that show the high risk of single mothers and absent fathers on kids–why would the risks stop once they turn 18 and become adults? (I”m a single mother by the way; I don’t hold animus to single mothers. At the same time, I’m not going to pretend my kids had the same experience as kids whose fathers also played an active role in their lives.)

The other interesting thing the article didn’t do was question the habits of women and men–women wanting men of higher status essentially (money, height/strength, power), and men wanting women who compliment their physical/emotional desires and needs. That is, women are on average far more hierarchical than men when it comes to choosing their mates. It’’s fascinating how we can have parallel discussions on the intrinsic biological differences between men and women to the point that it’s unquestioned – the author never says, “Hey here’s a solution: why don’t women try marrying a decent lower-class bloke for once?” – at the very same time it’s verboten to say men and women are different. Talk about cognitive dissonance!
Stephanie
Kiashu:

Per the article, apparently boys need to spend less time playing video games.

I agree with @jdfree49 and @Dcl that video games are a weak explanation. It seems tautological that as work time decreases, leisure time increases. Videogames just happen to be the popular leisure activity for men, being both engaging and inexpensive.

Sure there are men who have a toxic dependence on them, but it’s not like in the absence of videogames they would be going to university and being top-tier husband material. The men at the bottom of the pile were always going to be there, and if they are underemployed and totally unmarriageable I would blame the lack of jobs available for the uneducated before blaming videogames.
BrainFireBob

I recall seeing some of this years ago, but blaming men- women were being “forced” into hookup culture.

I have always been a subscriber to the school of thought that women actually control all sexual and social interactions and norms. The Tinder results are proof- women are making hookups available for reasons of mate competition, men aren’t forcing them into it. The male response is a response, not a power play- feminism is wrong.

So, retroactively apply to social more and older feminist arguments: Did men force women into the home? Did men hold women back? Or did the gestalt choice of most women create that prudish society, with its emphasis on men becoming as optimally masculine as they could achieve?
PeterfromOZ

Don’t use the word ‘‘mysogyny’’. It’s very rarely appropriate in real life as there are so few men who hate women. If you must bend the knee to leftist twaddle, at least use ‘‘sexist’’ as it was invented to cover the sort of thing of which you complain.

If you’re not careful, you’ll be using ‘‘decimated’’ to mean ‘‘erradicated’’ and then where will we be?
Mythfortune

Agreed, his posts frequently are both more interesting and better sourced than the original article. Although there are quite a few other commentators that is true of as well. Quillette has great essays, but really shines for the quality of the comment section.

It actually poses an interesting paradox. Most website commenting forums are such cesspools that interaction just gets mud on you. So what is the point in posting? Then I find Quillette and have the opposite problem. Anything I want to say is often already being said far more eloquently by someone else, so what is the point in posting?

At least I get to push the “like” button pretty often. :slight_smile:
DoctorR

The usual feminist diversion- attack the messenger rather than the message.

You may not like the argument, but can you deny that it’s true? If the ratio of men to women at universities were reversed, feminists would cry sexism. But when the ratio favours women, suddenly everyone, including the media, go quiet.

Apparently double standards aren’t a problem when they favour females. To dismiss this as “misogyny” gets it laughably backwards.
Farris

So those damn cisgendered privileged toxic men are in short supply? Just ain’t no pleasing some folks.
AsenathWaite

Problems inherent in trying to engineer human society to fit some artificial idealized vision of what you think the world should be like while ignoring human nature as shaped by millions of years of natural selection. See also: communism.

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Detect file mime type using magic numbers and JavaScript

Detect file mime type using magic numbers and JavaScript

The everyday developer
Detect file mime type using magic numbers and JavaScript
Andreas Kihlberg
Andreas Kihlberg
Jun 11, 2017 · 3 min read

The browser File API in the quite powerful, the requirement of modern website is not just text and images but also video, sound and other binary formats, this has led to an improved support for handling files directly in the browser.

In this article we’ll have a look of how to use the FileReader to read the first four bytes of a file to determine the mime type of the file. This will give us a more accurate way to tell the mime type, and not just examining the file extension, which is browser default behaviour.
Two of the files is missing extension and one has an incorrect one. By using magic number we can still get the correct mime type
What is magic numbers and how to use them

Magic numbers, or file signatures is a byte pattern inside a file that is used to determine which kind of file you are dealing with. In our example we are reading the first four bytes.

A constant numerical or text value used to identify a file format or protocol — Wikipedia

You can read more about file signatures at Wikipedia and Whatwg.
Why not use the file object type

The default browser file type implementation only uses the file extension to determine the file type, in most cases this works pretty well. It doesn’t work very well when the extension is missing or if it’s incorrect.
Using FileReader API
Pretty much 100% support in modern browsers

The support in browsers for files and FileReader is pretty much 100%. It’s only opera mini that doesn’t support FileReader.
How to get the magic number using JavaScript and FileReader

In this example we are using a basic file input to let the user select a file. The steps to calculate mime type for a file in this example would be:

The user selects a file
Take the first 4 bytes of the file using the slice method
Create a new FileReader instance
Use the FileReader to read the 4 bytes you sliced out as an array buffer.
Since the array buffer is just a generic way to represent a binary buffer we need to create a TypedArray, in this case an Uint8Array.
With a TypedArray at our hands we can retrieve every byte and transform it to hexadecimal (by using toString(16)).
We now have a way to get the magic numbers from a file by reading the first four bytes. The final step is to map it to a real mime type.

An example
JSFiddle

Try this out or experiment using this JSFiddle
Code

This example should be runnable directly in your browser.

This is one use case of FileReader API. If you build websites which allows users to upload some types of files, this would be the most secure and accurate way to go.

This is just an example, to run this on a serious website you should definitely go over all known magic numbers that you want to support.
Learn more

FileReader API
Slicing a blob
Can i use — FileReader
Number toString
ArrayBuffer
TypedArray
List of file signatures

JavaScript
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Andreas Kihlberg

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Web developer with passion for great architecture, smart solutions and new technologies
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Quotas for Google Services

Quotas for Google Services

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Quotas for Google Services

Apps Script services impose daily quotas and hard limitations on some features. If you exceed a quota or limitation, your script throws an exception and execution terminates.
Note: In addition to the Apps Script quotas described in this page, some features have additional quotas imposed by the Google product they are associated with. A use of a product feature in Apps Script depletes all associated quota reserves. A feature becomes unavailable if any of the associated quotas are reached.
Current quotas

Quotas are set at different levels for users of consumer accounts (such as gmail.com) and G Suite free edition (discontinued), or different G Suite editions.

Daily quotas are refreshed at the end of a 24-hour window; the exact time of this refresh, however, varies between users.

The table below lists the Apps Script daily quotas as of August 2018. The quotas shown below are provided solely to assist you in testing scripts. All quotas are subject to elimination, reduction, or change at any time, without notice.
Feature Consumer
(e.g., gmail.com) G Suite free edition (legacy) G Suite
Basic / Gov G Suite Business / Enterprise / Education Early Access
Calendar events created 5,000 / day 10,000 / day 10,000 / day 10,000 / day Flexible
Contacts created 1,000 / day 2,000 / day 2,000 / day 2,000 / day Flexible
Documents created 250 / day 500 / day 1,500 / day 1,500 / day Flexible
Email recipients per day 100* / day 100* / day 1,500* / day 1,500* / day 1,500* / day
Email read/write (excluding send) 20,000 / day 40,000 / day 50,000 / day 50,000 / day Flexible
Groups read 2,000 / day 5,000 / day 10,000 / day 10,000 / day Flexible
JDBC connection 10,000 / day 10,000 / day 50,000 / day 50,000 / day Flexible
JDBC failed connection 100 / day 100 / day 500 / day 500 / day 500 / day
Presentations created 250 / day 500 / day 1,500 / day 1,500 / day Flexible
Properties read/write 50,000 / day 100,000 / day 500,000 / day 500,000 / day Flexible
Spreadsheets created 250 / day 500 / day 3,200 / day 3,200 / day Flexible
Triggers total runtime 90 min / day 3 hr / day 6 hr / day 6 hr / day 6 hr / day
URL Fetch calls 20,000 / day 50,000 / day 100,000 / day 100,000 / day Flexible

Note: Newly created G Suite domains are subject to the consumer limit for the first billing cycle if they have six or more users, or several billing cycles if they have fewer users. For more information, see the Help Center page on sending limits.
Current limitations

The table below lists hard limitations as of August 2018. The limits shown below are provided solely to assist you in testing scripts. All limits are subject to elimination, reduction, or change at any time, without notice.
Feature Consumer
(e.g., gmail.com) G Suite free edition (legacy) G Suite
Basic / Gov G Suite Business / Enterprise / Education Early Access
Script runtime 6 min / execution 6 min / execution 6 min / execution 30 min / execution 30 min / execution
Custom function runtime 30 sec / execution 30 sec / execution 30 sec / execution 30 sec / execution 30 sec / execution
Simultaneous executions 30 30 30 30 60
Email attachments 250 / msg 250 / msg 250 / msg 250 / msg 250 / msg
Email body size 200kB / msg 200kB / msg 400kB / msg 400kB / msg 400kB / msg
Email recipients per message 50 / msg 50 / msg 50 / msg 50 / msg 50 / msg
Email total attachments size 25MB / msg 25MB / msg 25MB / msg 25MB / msg 25MB / msg
Properties value size 9kB / val 9kB / val 9kB / val 9kB / val 9kB / val
Properties total storage 500kB / property store 500kB / property store 500kB / property store 500kB / property store 500kB / property store
Triggers 20 / user / script 20 / user / script 20 / user / script 20 / user / script 20 / user / script
URL Fetch response size 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call
URL Fetch headers 100 / call 100 / call 100 / call 100 / call 100 / call
URL Fetch header size 8kB / call 8kB / call 8kB / call 8kB / call 8kB / call
URL Fetch POST size 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call 50MB / call
URL Fetch URL length 2kB / call 2kB / call 2kB / call 2kB / call 2kB / call
Flexible Quotas Early Access
This feature is part of the Early Access feature set. As such only some developers currently have access to it.

Normally, if a script execution exceeds one of the above quotas or limitations, the script execution stops and an appropriate error message is returned. This can potentially leave the script’s data in an undefined state.

Under the flexible quota system, such hard quota limits are removed. Scripts do not stop when they reach a quota limit. Rather, they are delayed until quota becomes available, at which point the script execution resumes. Once quotas begin being used, they are refilled at a regular rate. For reasonable usage, script delays are rare.
Exception messages

If a script reaches a quota or limitation, it will throw an exception with a message similar to the following:

Limit exceeded: Email Attachments Per Message. This indicates that the script exceeded one of the quotas or limitations listed above.
Service invoked too many times: Calendar. This indicates that the script called the given service too many times in one day.
Service invoked too many times in a short time: Calendar. Try Utilities.sleep(1000) between calls. This indicates that the script called the given service too many times in a short period.
Service using too much computer time for one day. This indicates that the script exceeded the total allowable execution time for one day. It most commonly occurs for scripts that run on a trigger, which have a lower daily limit than scripts executed manually.
Script invoked too many times per second for this Google user account. This indicates that the script began executing too many times in a short period. It most commonly occurs for custom functions that are called repeatedly in a single spreadsheet. To avoid this error, code your custom functions so that they only need to be called once per range of data, as explained in the guide to custom functions.
There are too many scripts running simultaneously for this Google user account. This indicates that you have too many scripts executing at once, although not necessarily the same script. Like the exception above, this most commonly occurs for custom functions that are called repeatedly in a single spreadsheet.

Except as otherwise noted, the content of this page is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License, and code samples are licensed under the Apache 2.0 License. For details, see the Google Developers Site Policies. Java is a registered trademark of Oracle and/or its affiliates.

Last updated 2019-12-09.

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How Negativity Can Kill a Relationship

How Negativity Can Kill a Relationship

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How Negativity Can Kill a Relationship

Successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline.
John TierneyRoy F. Baumeister
January 9, 2020
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There’s an elegant symmetry to traditional wedding vows: for better or for worse. But love is not symmetrical, and most of us don’t realize how lopsided it can be. The worse matters far more than the better in marriage or any other relationship. That’s how the brain works.

Our thoughts and feelings are skewed by what researchers call the negativity effect, which is our tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. When we hear a mix of compliments and criticism, we obsess over the criticism instead of enjoying the praise. This imbalance, also known as the negativity bias, evolved in the brain because it kept our ancestors alert to deadly threats, but too often it warps our perspective and behavior. A slight conflict can have ruinous consequences when the power of bad overwhelms your judgment, provoking you to actions that further alienate your partner. You’d fare better by using your rational brain to override your irrational impulses, but to do that you need first to understand just how powerful bad can be.

In relationships, the negativity effect magnifies your partner’s faults, real or imagined, starting with their ingratitude, because you’re also biased by an internal overconfidence that magnifies your own strengths. So you wonder how your partner can be so selfish and so blind to your virtues—to all that you’ve done for them. You contemplate one of life’s most exasperating mysteries: Why don’t they appreciate me?

We have some answers, thanks to psychologists who have been tracking couples’ happiness. They’ve found, based on the couples’ ratings of their own satisfaction, that marriages usually don’t get better. The ratings typically go downhill over time. The successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline. That doesn’t mean marriage is a misery. The thrill of infatuation fades, so the euphoria that initially bonded a couple cannot sustain them over the decades, but most couples find other sources of contentment and remain satisfied overall (just not as satisfied as at the beginning). Sometimes, though, the decline in satisfaction is so steep that it dooms a marriage. By monitoring couples’ interactions and tracking them over time, researchers have developed a surprising theory for the breakdown of relationships.
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Imagine you are dating someone who does something that annoys you. (This may not require a great deal of imagination.) Perhaps your partner is a spendthrift, or flirts with your friends, or zones out in the middle of your stories. How do you respond?

Let it slide and hope things improve.
Explain what bothers you and work out a compromise.
Sulk. Say nothing, but emotionally withdraw from your partner.
Head for the exit. Threaten to break up, or start looking for another partner.

Those answers form a matrix used in a classic study of how dating couples deal with problems. Psychologists at the University of Kentucky identified two general strategies, constructive or destructive, each of which could be either passive or active. The constructive strategies sounded sensible and admirable, but they didn’t matter much. Remaining passively loyal had no discernible impact on the course of the relationship; actively trying to work out a solution improved things only a little.
A jacket cover of The Power of Bad.
This article is adapted from John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister’s new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

What mattered was the bad stuff, as the psychologists concluded: “It is not so much the good, constructive things that partners do or do not do for one another that determines whether a relationship ‘works’ as it is the destructive things that they do or do not do in reaction to the problems.” When you quietly hang in there for your partner, your loyalty often isn’t even noticed. But when you silently withdraw from your partner or issue angry threats, you can start a disastrous spiral of retaliation.

“The reason long‑term relationships are so difficult,” says Caryl Rusbult, who led the couples study, “is that sooner or later one person is liable to be negative for so long that the other one starts to respond negatively too. When that happens, it’s hard to save the relationship.” Negativity is a tough disease to shake—and it’s highly contagious. Other researchers have found that when partners are separately asked to ponder aspects of their relationship, they spend much more time contemplating the bad than the good. To get through the bad stuff, you need to stop the negative spiral before it begins.

Read: What you lose when you gain a spouse

But suppose you’ve managed to survive your courtship without any problems. (This may take more imagination.) You’ve just graduated from dating to blissful matrimony. Your soul soars, your heart sings, and your brain is awash in oxytocin, dopamine, and other neurochemicals associated with love. You are probably in no mood to participate in a scientific study, but some other newlyweds were persuaded to do so for a long‑term project called PAIR. (The full, unromantic name is Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships.) These couples, in central Pennsylvania, were interviewed during their first two years of marriage by psychologists who cataloged both the positive and negative aspects of the relationships.

Some of the people were already ambivalent or hostile toward their partners—and tended to get divorced quickly—but most couples showed lots of mutual affection and went on to celebrate several anniversaries. Over the long haul, though, those tender early feelings were not a reliable harbinger. More than a decade later, a disproportionate number of the couples who had been “almost giddily affectionate” were no longer together. As a group, those who divorced had been a third more affectionate during the early years than the ones who went on to have long, happy marriages. Over the short term, their passion had enabled them to surmount their misgivings and their fights, but those positive feelings couldn’t keep the marriage going forever. It was how they dealt with the negative stuff—their doubts, their frustrations, their problems—that predicted whether the marriage would survive. Negativity hits young people especially hard, which is one reason that people who marry earlier in life are more likely to divorce than ones who delay marriage. (Another reason is that younger people tend to have less money, which means more stress.)

Some couples, of course, are better off splitting up, but far too many of them sabotage a relationship that could have worked. Researchers who track couples have repeatedly been puzzled to see relationships destroyed even when there are no obvious causes. To test a theory, the psychologists Sandra Murray and John Holmes brought couples into a lab and gave them questionnaires to be filled out at tables arranged so that the partners sat with their backs to each other. They’d both be answering the same questions, the experimenter explained, and it was important that they not communicate in any way as they filled out the forms.

In fact, though, the questionnaires were different. One form asked people what they didn’t like about their partners. They could list as many traits as they wanted, but were told it was fine to name just one. These people, who’d been dating on average for a year and a half, had a few complaints but were mostly pretty satisfied. They typically wrote down one or two things about their partners that were less than ideal, and then they put down their pens. The other partners were given a much different task: listing all the things in their home. Instructed to name at least 25 items, they’d start writing—cataloging pieces of furniture, kitchenware, gadgets, books, artwork, whatever—and were often still working away at it five minutes later.

Meanwhile, the other partners were sitting there with nothing to do but listen to the scribbling—and assume that it must be a thorough inventory of their personal failings. They’d been hard‑pressed to name just one or two complaints, but their partners apparently had a much different view of the relationship. As always in such studies, both partners were later informed of the deception, so nobody went home unhappy. But before revealing the truth, the experimenter asked more questions about the relationship, and it turned out that the deception had a big impact on some of the people: the ones already prone to insecurity. The people with high self‑esteem (as measured in a test before the experiment) felt a little threatened, but shrugged it off because they were secure enough to know that their partners valued them. But the people with low self‑esteem reacted strongly to the presumed cascade of criticisms.

Once they heard all that scribbling behind their backs, they feared their partners might reject them, and that fear took over. To protect themselves, they changed their own attitudes. They lowered their regard and affection for their partners. They felt less close, less trustful, and less optimistic about the relationship. The insecure people were reacting needlessly, because in reality they were valued by their partners just as much as the secure people were. But they projected their own self‑doubts into their partners’ minds. They assumed their partners would judge them as harshly as they judged themselves.

Read: What does it mean to be ready for a relationship?

This sort of needless self‑protection is especially harmful to a relationship, as Murray and Holmes found in another study by tracking a group of newlywed couples over three years. All too often, couples would seem to be in good shape—they had relatively few conflicts—but then one partner’s insecurities would kick in. They’d mentally push their partners away or devalue their relationships even though there was no real danger. They’d become especially resentful of making routine sacrifices, such as staying home in the evening instead of going out with friends. Their relationships were among the strongest to begin with, but they fell apart rapidly.

By watching sore spouses bicker, researchers have noticed a pattern of gender differences. Insecure men tend to focus on fears of their partner’s sexual infidelity. Inflamed with jealousy even when there’s no cause for it, they become highly possessive and controlling, which puts stress on the relationship and eventually drives the woman away. Insecure women worry less about sexual infidelity than about other kinds of rejection, and they tend to react with hostility rather than jealousy. These reactions were cataloged in a study of New York City couples who were videotaped in a lab at Columbia University as they discussed their problems.

Each time one of the partners did something negative— complaining, speaking in a hostile tone, rolling their eyes, denying responsibility, insulting the other—the action was classified and counted. The researchers, led by Geraldine Downey, found that insecure people were the ones most likely to act negatively. Their own fear of rejection no doubt intensified the distress they felt, because for them an argument wasn’t just about a specific issue but a sign of deep problems and an ominous signal that the relationship was in jeopardy. Their panicky response was to push away their partner—with unfortunate success, as the researchers found by following couples over several years. People sensitive to rejection were especially likely to end up alone. Their fear of rejection became a self‑fulfilling prophecy.

Negativity seems to be less of a problem in same‑sex couples. When researchers tracked a group of same‑sex couples for more than a decade, they found that both male and female couples tended to be more upbeat than heterosexual couples when dealing with conflict. They were more positive both in the way that they introduced a disagreement and in the way that they responded to criticism, and they remained more positive afterward. In heterosexual couples, the most common conflict pattern is called “female‑demand, male‑withdrawal,” a destructive cycle in which the woman initiates a complaint or criticism and the man responds by withdrawing. That pattern is less likely in same‑sex couples. If it’s two men, they’re less likely to initiate a complaint; if it’s two women, they’re less likely to withdraw after being criticized.

Most people don’t recognize the negativity effect in their relationships. When Roy Baumeister, one of the authors of this piece, asks his students why they think they would be a good partner, they list positive things: being friendly, understanding, good in bed, loyal, smart, funny. These things do make a difference, but what’s crucial is avoiding the negative. Being able to hold your tongue rather than say something nasty or spiteful will do much more for your relationship than a good word or deed.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.
John Tierney is a contributing editor to City Journal and the co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
Roy F. Baumeister is a social psychologist at the University of Queensland and the co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
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What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane

What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane

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What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane

Five years ago, the flight vanished into the Indian Ocean. Officials on land know more about why than they dare to say.
Mendelsund & Munday

Story by William Langewiesche
July 2019 Issue
Global

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Updated at 10:25 a.m. ET on June 17, 2019.
1. The Disappearance

At 12:42 a.m. on the quiet, moonlit night of March 8, 2014, a Boeing 777-200ER operated by Malaysia Airlines took off from Kuala Lumpur and turned toward Beijing, climbing to its assigned cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. The designator for Malaysia Airlines is MH. The flight number was 370. Fariq Hamid, the first officer, was flying the airplane. He was 27 years old. This was a training flight for him, the last one; he would soon be fully certified. His trainer was the pilot in command, a man named Zaharie Ahmad Shah, who at 53 was one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines. In Malaysian style, he was known by his first name, Zaharie. He was married and had three adult children. He lived in a gated development. He owned two houses. In his first house he had installed an elaborate Microsoft flight simulator. He flew it frequently, and often posted to online forums about his hobby. In the cockpit, Fariq would have been deferential to him, but Zaharie was not known for being overbearing.

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In the cabin were 10 flight attendants, all of them Malaysian. They had 227 passengers to care for, including five children. Most of the passengers were Chinese; of the rest, 38 were Malaysian, and in descending order the others came from Indonesia, Australia, India, France, the United States, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Russia, and Taiwan. Up in the cockpit that night, while First Officer Fariq flew the airplane, Captain Zaharie handled the radios. The arrangement was standard. Zaharie’s transmissions were a bit unusual. At 1:01 a.m. he radioed that they had leveled off at 35,000 feet—a superfluous report in radar-surveilled airspace where the norm is to report leaving an altitude, not arriving at one. At 1:08 the flight crossed the Malaysian coastline and set out across the South China Sea in the direction of Vietnam. Zaharie again reported the plane’s level at 35,000 feet.

Eleven minutes later, as the airplane closed in on a waypoint near the start of Vietnamese air-traffic jurisdiction, the controller at Kuala Lumpur Center radioed, “Malaysian three-seven-zero, contact Ho Chi Minh one-two-zero-decimal-nine. Good night.” Zaharie answered, “Good night. Malaysian three-seven-zero.” He did not read back the frequency, as he should have, but otherwise the transmission sounded normal. It was the last the world heard from MH370. The pilots never checked in with Ho Chi Minh or answered any of the subsequent attempts to raise them.

Primary radar relies on simple, raw pings off objects in the sky. Air-traffic-control systems use what is known as secondary radar. It depends on a transponder signal that is transmitted by each airplane and contains richer information—for instance, the airplane’s identity and altitude—than primary radar does. Five seconds after MH370 crossed into Vietnamese airspace, the symbol representing its transponder dropped from the screens of Malaysian air traffic control, and 37 seconds later the entire airplane disappeared from secondary radar. The time was 1:21 a.m., 39 minutes after takeoff. The controller in Kuala Lumpur was dealing with other traffic elsewhere on his screen and simply didn’t notice. When he finally did, he assumed that the airplane was in the hands of Ho Chi Minh, somewhere out beyond his range.

The Vietnamese controllers, meanwhile, saw MH370 cross into their airspace and then disappear from radar. They apparently misunderstood a formal agreement by which Ho Chi Minh was supposed to inform Kuala Lumpur immediately if an airplane that had been handed off was more than five minutes late checking in. They tried repeatedly to contact the aircraft, to no avail. By the time they picked up the phone to inform Kuala Lumpur, 18 minutes had passed since MH370’s disappearance from their radar screens. What ensued was an exercise in confusion and incompetence. Kuala Lumpur’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre should have been notified within an hour of the disappearance. By 2:30 a.m., it still had not been. Four more hours elapsed before an emergency response was finally begun, at 6:32 a.m.
The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation.

At that moment, the airplane should have been landing in Beijing. The search for it was initially concentrated in the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was an international effort by 34 ships and 28 aircraft from seven different countries. But MH370 was nowhere near there. Within a matter of days, primary-radar records salvaged from air-traffic-control computers, and partially corroborated by secret Malaysian air-force data, revealed that as soon as MH370 disappeared from secondary radar, it turned sharply to the southwest, flew back across the Malay Peninsula, and banked around the island of Penang. From there it flew northwest up the Strait of Malacca and out across the Andaman Sea, where it faded beyond radar range into obscurity. That part of the flight took more than an hour to accomplish and suggested that this was not a standard case of a hijacking. Nor was it like an accident or pilot-suicide scenario that anyone had encountered before. From the start, MH370 was leading investigators in unexplored directions.

The mystery surrounding MH370 has been a focus of continued investigation and a source of sometimes feverish public speculation. The loss devastated families on four continents. The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seems beyond the realm of possibility. It is hard to permanently delete an email, and living off the grid is nearly unachievable even when the attempt is deliberate. A Boeing 777 is meant to be electronically accessible at all times. The disappearance of the airplane has provoked a host of theories. Many are preposterous. All are given life by the fact that, in this age, commercial airplanes don’t just vanish.

This one did, and more than five years later its precise whereabouts remain unknown. Even so, a great deal about the disappearance of MH370 has come into clearer view, and reconstructing much of what happened that night is possible. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight-data recorder may never be recovered, but what we still need to know is unlikely to come from the black boxes. Instead, it will have to come from Malaysia.
2. The Beachcomber

On the evening of the airplane’s disappearance, a middle-aged American man named Blaine Gibson was sitting in his late mother’s house in Carmel, California, sorting through her affairs in preparation for selling the property. He heard the news about MH370 on CNN.

Gibson, whom I met recently in Kuala Lumpur, is a lawyer by training. He has lived in Seattle for more than 35 years but spends little time there. His father, who died decades ago, was a World War I veteran who endured a mustard-gas attack in the trenches, received a Silver Star for gallantry, and went on to serve as the chief justice of California for more than 24 years. His mother was a graduate of Stanford Law School and an ardent environmentalist.

Gibson was an only child. His mother liked to travel internationally, and she took him with her. At the age of 7 he decided that his life’s goal would be to visit every country in the world at least once. Ultimately this challenged the definitions of visit and country, but he stuck with the mission, forgoing any chance of a sustained career and subsisting on a modest inheritance. By his own account, along the way he dabbled in some famous mysteries—the end of the Mayan civilization in the jungles of Guatemala and Belize, the Tunguska meteor explosion in eastern Siberia, and the location of the Ark of the Covenant in the mountains of Ethiopia. He printed up cards identifying himself: adventurer. explorer. truth seeker. He wore a fedora, like Indiana Jones. When news arrived of MH370’s disappearance, he was predisposed to pay attention.

Despite reflexive denials by Malaysian officials, and outright obfuscation by the Malaysian air force, the truth about the airplane’s strange flight path quickly began to emerge. It turned out that MH370 had continued to link up intermittently with a geostationary Indian Ocean satellite operated by Inmarsat, a commercial vendor in London, for six hours after the airplane disappeared from secondary radar. This meant that the airplane had not suddenly suffered some catastrophic event. During those six hours it is presumed to have remained in high-speed, high-altitude cruising flight. The Inmarsat linkups, some of them known as “handshakes,” were electronic blips: routine connections that amounted to the merest whisper of communication, because the intended contents of the system—passenger entertainment, cockpit texts, automated maintenance reports—had been isolated or switched off. All told, there were seven linkups: two initiated automatically by the airplane, and five others initiated automatically by the Inmarsat ground station. There were also two satellite-phone calls; they went unanswered but provided additional data. Associated with most of these connections were two values that Inmarsat had only recently begun to log.

The first and more accurate of the values is known as the burst-timing offset, or what I will call the “distance value.” It is a measure of the transmission time to and from the airplane, and therefore of the plane’s distance from the satellite. It does not pinpoint a single location but rather all equidistant locations—a roughly circular set of possibilities. Given the range limits of MH370, the near-circles can be reduced to arcs. The most important arc is the seventh and last one—defined by a final handshake tied in complex ways to fuel exhaustion and the failure of the main engines. The seventh arc stretches from Central Asia in the north to the vicinity of Antarctica in the south. It was crossed by MH370 at 8:19 a.m., Kuala Lumpur time. Calculations of likely flight paths place the airplane’s intersection with the seventh arc—and therefore its end point—in Kazakhstan if the airplane turned north, or in the southern Indian Ocean if it turned south.
Judging from the electronic evidence, this was not a controlled attempt at a water landing. The airplane must have fractured instantly into a million pieces.

Technical analysis indicates with near certainty that the airplane turned south. We know this from Inmarsat’s second logged value—the burst-frequency offset. For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to this value as the “Doppler value,” because it includes, most crucially, a measure of radio-frequency Doppler shifts associated with high-speed movement in relation to satellite position, and is a natural part of satellite communications for airplanes in flight. Doppler shifts have to be predicted and compensated for by airborne systems in order for satellite communications to function. But the compensation is not quite perfect, because satellites—particularly as they age—do not transmit signals in precisely the way airplanes have been programmed to expect. Their orbits may tilt slightly. They are also affected by temperature. These imperfections leave telltale traces. Although Doppler-shift logs had never been used before to determine the location of an airplane, Inmarsat technicians in London were able to discern a significant distortion suggesting a turn to the south at 2:40 a.m. The turn point was a bit north and west of Sumatra, the northernmost island of Indonesia. It has been assumed, at some analytical risk, that the airplane then flew straight and level for a very long while in the general direction of Antarctica, which lay beyond its range.

After six hours, the Doppler data indicated a steep descent—as much as five times greater than a normal descent rate. Within a minute or two of crossing the seventh arc, the plane dived into the ocean, possibly shedding components before impact. Judging from the electronic evidence, this was not a controlled attempt at a water landing. The airplane must have fractured instantly into a million pieces. But no one knew where the impact had occurred, much less why. And no one had the slightest bit of physical evidence to confirm that the satellite interpretations were correct.

Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight. Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered. The underwater search for them ultimately centered on a narrow swath of ocean thousands of miles away. But even a narrow swath of the ocean is a big place. It took two years to find the black boxes from Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009—and the searchers had known exactly where to look.

Read: Malaysian officials update last words spoken from MH370

The initial search of surface waters ended in April 2014, after nearly two months of futile efforts, and the focus shifted to the ocean depths, where it remains today. Blaine Gibson followed the frustration at first from a distance. He sold his mother’s house and moved to the Golden Triangle of northern Laos, where he and a business partner set about building a restaurant on the Mekong River. He joined a Facebook discussion group dedicated to the loss of MH370. It was filled with speculation, but also with news that reflected useful thinking about what could have happened to the airplane and where the main wreckage might be found.

Although the Malaysians were nominally in charge of the entire investigation, they lacked the means and expertise to mount a subsea search-and-recovery effort; the Australians, as good international citizens, took the lead. The areas of the Indian Ocean that the satellite data pointed to—about 1,200 miles southwest of Perth—were so deep and unexplored that the first challenge was to map the undersea topography sufficiently to allow side-scanning sonar vehicles to be safely towed miles beneath the surface. The ocean floor was lined with ridges in a blackness where light had never penetrated.

Gibson began to wonder whether, for all the strenuous underwater searching, debris from the airplane might someday simply wash up on a beach somewhere. While visiting friends on the coast of Cambodia, he asked whether they had stumbled on anything. They had not. Debris couldn’t possibly have drifted to Cambodia from the southern Indian Ocean, but until the airplane’s wreckage was found—proving that the southern Indian Ocean was indeed its grave—Gibson was determined to keep an open mind.

In March 2015, a one-year commemoration of MH370’s disappearance was held in Kuala Lumpur by the passengers’ next of kin. Uninvited, and largely unknown to them, Gibson decided to attend. Because he had no special knowledge to offer, his arrival raised eyebrows. People don’t know what to make of a dilettante. The commemoration took place in an outdoor space at a shopping mall, a typical event venue for Kuala Lumpur. The purpose was to grieve collectively, but also to maintain pressure on the government of Malaysia to provide explanations. Hundreds of people attended, many from China. There was a bit of music on a stage. In the background a large poster showed the silhouette of a Boeing 777, along with the words where, who, why, when, whom, how, and also impossible, unprecedented, vanished, and clueless. The principal speaker was a young Malaysian woman named Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother had been on the flight. Nathan is a criminal-defense lawyer specializing in death-penalty cases, of which Malaysia has many because of draconian laws. She had emerged as the most effective representative of the next of kin. She took to the stage wearing an oversize T-shirt printed with a cartoon graphic of MH370 and the exhortation search on, and then proceeded to describe her mother, the deep love she felt for her, and the difficulty of enduring her disappearance. On occasion she quietly wept, as did some in the audience, including Gibson. Afterward, he approached Nathan and asked whether she would accept a hug from a stranger. She did, and they became friends.

Gibson left the commemoration determined to help by addressing a gap he had perceived—the lack of coastal searches for floating debris. This would be his niche. He would become MH370’s private beachcomber. The official investigators, primarily Australian and Malaysian, were heavily invested in their underwater search. They would have scoffed at Gibson’s ambition, just as they would have scoffed at the prospect that on beaches hundreds of miles apart, Gibson would find pieces of the airplane.
Left: The Malaysian lawyer and activist Grace Subathirai Nathan, whose mother was on board MH370. Right: Blaine Gibson, an American who has mounted a search for debris from the airplane. (William Langewiesche)
3. The Mother Lode

The Indian Ocean washes against tens of thousands of miles of coastline, depending on how many islands you include in your count. When Blaine Gibson started looking for debris, he did not have a plan. He flew to Myanmar because he had been intending to go there anyway, then went to the coast and asked some villagers where flotsam tended to drift ashore. They directed him to several beaches, and a fisherman took him there by boat. He found some debris, but nothing that came from an airplane. He advised the villagers to be on the lookout, left his contact number, and moved on. Similarly, he visited the Maldives and the islands of Rodrigues and Mauritius without finding debris of interest. Then came July 29, 2015. About 16 months after the airplane went missing, a municipal beach-cleanup crew on the French island of Réunion came upon a torn piece of airfoil about six feet long that seemed to have just washed ashore. The foreman of the crew, a man named Johnny Bègue, realized that it might have come from an airplane, but he had no idea which one. He briefly considered making it into a memorial—setting it on an adjacent lawn and planting some flowers around it—but instead he called a local radio station with the news. A team of gendarmes showed up and took the piece away. It was quickly determined to be a part of a Boeing 777, a control surface called a flaperon that is attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Subsequent examination of serial numbers showed that it had come from MH370.

Here was the necessary physical evidence of what had already been electronically surmised—that the flight had ended violently in the Indian Ocean, albeit somewhere still unknown and thousands of miles to the east of Réunion. The families of those aboard the airplane had to surrender any fantasies that their loved ones might still be alive. It came as a shock, no matter how rational and realistic they had been. Grace Nathan was devastated. She told me that she could barely function for weeks after the flaperon was found.

Gibson flew to Réunion and found Johnny Bègue on his beach. Bègue was friendly. He showed Gibson where he had found the flaperon. Gibson poked around for other debris but without expectation, because the French government had already mounted a follow-up search to no avail. Flotsam takes a while to drift across the Indian Ocean, moving from east to west at the low southern latitudes, and a flaperon might arrive sooner than other debris because parts of it could rise above the water and act as a sail.

A newspaper reporter in Réunion interviewed Gibson for a story about the visit of this independent American investigator. Gibson wore a search on T-shirt for the occasion. He then flew to Australia, where he spoke with two oceanographers—Charitha Pattiaratchi, of the University of Western Australia at Perth, and David Griffin, who worked for a government research center in Hobart and had been assigned to advise the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the lead agency in the search for MH370. Both men were experts on Indian Ocean currents and winds. Griffin in particular had spent years tracking drift buoys, and had launched an effort to model the complex drift characteristics of the flaperon during its voyage to Réunion—the hope being to backtrack and narrow the geographic scope of the undersea search. Gibson’s needs were easier to handle: He wanted to know the most likely locations for floating debris to come ashore. The answer was the northeast coast of Madagascar and, to a lesser degree, the coast of Mozambique.

Gibson opted for Mozambique because he had not been there before and could bag it as his 177th country. He chose a town called Vilanculos, because it seemed safe and had nice beaches. He got there in February 2016. As he recalls, he asked for advice from local fishermen, and was told of a sandbank called Paluma that lay beyond a reef, where fishermen would go to collect nets and buoys that washed in from the Indian Ocean. Gibson paid a boatman named Suleman to take him there. They found all sorts of junk, mostly plastic. Suleman called Gibson over. Holding up a gray triangular scrap about two feet across, he asked, “Is this 370?” The scrap had a honeycomb structure and the stenciled words no step on one surface. Gibson’s first impression was that it could not have come from a large airplane. To me he said, “So my mind was telling me it’s not from the plane, but my heart was telling me it’s from the plane. Then we had to take the boat back. And here we get into the personal thing. Two dolphins appeared and helped lead us off that sandbank—my mother’s spirit animal. When I saw those dolphins, I thought, This is from the plane.”

Make of that what you will, but Gibson turned out to be right. The scrap—from a horizontal-stabilizer panel—was determined to almost certainly be from MH370. Gibson flew to the capital, Maputo, and handed the debris to the Australian consul. Then he flew to Kuala Lumpur, just in time for the second-anniversary commemoration. This time he was welcomed as a friend.

In June 2016, Gibson turned his attention to the remote northeastern shores of Madagascar. This turned out to be the mother lode. Gibson says he found three pieces on the first day, and another two a few days later. The following week, on a beach eight miles away, three more pieces were delivered to him. And so it has gone ever since. Word has gotten around that he will pay for MH370 debris. He says he once paid so much for a piece—$40—that an entire village went on a day-long bender. Apparently the local rum is cheap.

A lot of debris washed up that had nothing to do with the airplane. But of the several dozen pieces that have been identified to date as certain or likely or suspected to have come from MH370, Gibson has been responsible for the discovery of roughly a third. Some pieces are still being investigated. Gibson’s influence has been so large that David Griffin, though grateful to him, has worried that the perceived debris pattern may now be statistically skewed toward Madagascar, perhaps at the expense of points farther north. He has given this worry a name: “The Gibson Effect.”

The fact remains that, after five years, no one has yet been able to work backwards from where the debris has washed ashore and trace it to some point of origin in the southern Indian Ocean. In his insistence on maintaining an open mind, Gibson still holds out the hope of finding new debris that will explain the disappearance—charred wiring indicating a fire, for instance, or shrapnel-peppered evidence of a missile strike—although what is known about the flight’s final hours largely precludes such possibilities. What Gibson’s discovery of so many bits of debris has confirmed is that the signals analysis was correct. The airplane flew for six hours until the flight came suddenly to an end. There was no effort by someone at the controls to bring the airplane down gently. It shattered. There is still a chance, Gibson thinks, of finding the equivalent of a message in a bottle—a note of desperation scribbled by someone in his or her last moments on the doomed airplane. On the beaches, Gibson has found a few backpacks and a large number of purses, all of which have been empty. The closest he has come to finding such a note, he says, was a message written in Malay on the underside of a baseball cap. Translated, it read, “To whom it may concern. My dear friend, meet me at the guesthouse later.”
Illustrations by La Tigre

A—1:21 a.m., March 8, 2014: Over the South China Sea, near a navigational waypoint between Malaysia and Vietnam, MH370 drops from air-traffic-control radar and turns southwest, back across the Malay Peninsula.

B—Roughly an hour later:
After flying northwest above the Strait of Malacca, the airplane makes what investigators call the “final major turn” and heads south. The turn and the new course are later reconstructed from satellite data.

C—April 2014:
The surface search is abandoned and a deep-ocean search gets under way. Analysis of satellite data had located MH370’s final electronic “handshake” along an arc.

D—July 2015:
The first piece of debris from MH370—a flaperon—is discovered on the island of Réunion. Other confirmed or likely pieces have been found on widely dispersed beaches in the western Indian Ocean (locations in red).
4. The Conspiracies

Three official investigations were launched in the wake of MH370’s disappearance. The first was the largest, most rigorous, and most expensive: the technically advanced Australian underwater-search effort, which was focused on locating the main debris in order to retrieve the airplane’s flight-data and cockpit voice recorders. It involved calculations of aircraft performance, the parsing of radar and satellite records, studies of oceanic drift, doses of statistical analysis, and the physical examination of the East African flotsam—much of which came from Blaine Gibson. It required heavy maritime operations in some of the world’s roughest seas. Assisting the effort was a collection of volunteer engineers and scientists who found one another on the internet, called themselves the Independent Group, and collaborated so effectively that the Australians took their work into account and ended up formally thanking them for their insights. In the annals of accident investigation, this had never happened before. Nonetheless, after more than three years and about $160 million, the Australian investigation closed without success. It was picked up in 2018 by an American company called Ocean Infinity, under contract with the Malaysian government on a “no-find, no-fee” basis. This search used advanced underwater-surveillance vehicles and covered a new section of the seventh arc, a section deemed most likely by the Independent Group to bring results. After a few months, it too ended in failure.

The second official investigation belonged to the Malaysian police, and amounted to background checks of everyone on the airplane as well as some of their friends. It is hard to know the true extent of the police discoveries, because the report that resulted from the investigation stopped short of full disclosure. The report was stamped secret and withheld even from other Malaysian investigators, but after it was leaked by someone on the inside, its inadequacies became clear. In particular, it held back on divulging all that was known about the captain, Zaharie. No one was surprised. The prime minister at the time was a nasty man named Najib Razak, who was alleged to be monumentally corrupt. The press in Malaysia was censored. Troublemakers were being picked up and made to disappear. Officials had reason for caution. They had careers to protect, and maybe their lives. It is obvious that decisions were made to not pursue certain avenues that might have reflected poorly on Malaysia Airlines or the government.

The third official investigation was the accident inquiry, intended not to adjudicate liability but to find probable cause, and to be conducted according to the highest global standards by an international team. It was led by an ad hoc working group assembled by the Malaysian government, and was a mess from its inception. The police and military disdained it. Government ministers saw it as a risk. Foreign specialists who were sent to assist began retreating almost as soon as they arrived. An American expert, referring to the international aviation protocol that is supposed to govern accident inquiries, told me, “Annex 13 is tailored for accident investigations in confident democracies, but in countries like Malaysia, with insecure and autocratic bureaucracies, and with airlines that are either government-owned or seen as a matter of national prestige, it always makes for a pretty poor fit.”

A close observer of the MH370 process said, “It became clear that the primary objective of the Malaysians was to make the subject just go away. From the start there was this instinctive bias against being open and transparent, not because they were hiding some deep, dark secret, but because they did not know where the truth really lay, and they were afraid that something might come out that would be embarrassing. Were they covering up? Yes. They were covering up for the unknown.”

In the end the investigation produced a 495-page report in weak imitation of Annex 13 requirements. It was stuffed with boilerplate descriptions of 777 systems that had clearly been lifted from Boeing manuals and were of no technical value. Indeed, nothing in the report was of technical value, since Australian publications had already fully covered the relevant satellite information and ocean-drift analysis. The Malaysian report was seen as hardly more than a whitewash whose only real contribution was a frank description of the air-traffic-control failures—presumably because half of them could be blamed on the Vietnamese, and because the Malaysian controllers constituted the weakest local target, politically. The report was released in July 2018, more than four years after the event. It stated that the investigative team was unable to determine the cause of the airplane’s disappearance.
The idea that a sophisticated machine, with its modern instruments and redundant communications, could simply vanish seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

Such a conclusion invites continued speculation, even if it is unwarranted. The satellite data provide the best evidence of the airplane’s flight path, and are hard to argue with, but people have to have trust in numbers to accept the story they tell. All sorts of theorists have made claims, amplified by social media, that ignore the satellite data, and in some cases also the radar tracks, the aircraft systems, the air-traffic-control record, the physics of flight, and the basic contours of planetary geography. For example, a British woman who blogs under the name of Saucy Sailoress and does Tarot readings for hire was vagabonding around southern Asia with her husband and dogs in an oceangoing sailboat. She says that on the night MH370 disappeared they were in the Andaman Sea, and she spotted what looked like a cruise missile coming at her. The missile morphed into a low-flying airplane with a well-lit cockpit, bathed in a strange orange glow and trailing smoke. As it flew by she concluded that it was on a suicide mission against a Chinese naval fleet farther out to sea. She did not yet know about the disappearance of MH370, but when, a few days later, she learned of it she drew what was to her the obvious connection. Implausible, perhaps, but she gained an audience.

An Australian has been claiming for several years to have found MH370 by means of Google Earth, in shallow waters and intact; he has refused to disclose the location while he works on crowdfunding an expedition. On the internet you will find claims that the airplane has been found intact in the Cambodian jungle, that it was seen landing in an Indonesian river, that it flew into a time warp, that it was sucked into a black hole. One scenario has the airplane flying off to attack the American military base on Diego Garcia before getting shot down. A recent online report that Captain Zaharie had been discovered alive and was lying in a Taiwanese hospital with amnesia won sufficient acceptance that Malaysia angrily denied it. The news had come from a crudely satirical website that also reported a sexual assault on an American trekker and two Sherpas by a yeti-like creature in Nepal.

A New York–based writer named Jeff Wise has hypothesized that one of the electronic systems on board the airplane may have been reprogrammed to provide false data—indicating a turn south into the Indian Ocean when in fact the airplane turned north toward Kazakhstan—in order to lead investigators astray. He calls this the “spoof” scenario, and has elaborated extensively on it, most recently in a 2019 ebook. He proposes that the Russians might have stolen the airplane to create a distraction from the annexation of Crimea, then under way. An obvious weak spot in the argument is the need to explain how, if the airplane was flown to Kazakhstan, all that wreckage ended up in the Indian Ocean. Wise’s answer is that it was planted.

Blaine Gibson was new to social media when he started his search, and he was in for a surprise. As he recalls, the trolls emerged as soon as he found his first piece—the one labeled no step—and they multiplied afterward, particularly as the beaches of Madagascar began to bear fruit. The internet provokes emotion even in response to unremarkable events. A catastrophe taps into something toxic. Gibson was accused of exploiting the families and of being a fraud, a publicity hound, a drug addict, a Russian agent, an American agent, and at the very least a dupe. He began receiving death threats—messages on social media and phone calls to friends predicting his demise. One message said that either he would stop looking for debris or he would leave Madagascar in a coffin. Another warned that he would die of polonium poisoning. There were more. He was not prepared for this, and was incapable of shrugging it off. During the days I spent with him in Kuala Lumpur, he kept abreast of the latest attacks with the assistance of a friend in London. He said, “I once made the mistake of going on Twitter. Basically, these people are cyberterrorists. And it works. It’s effective.” He has been traumatized.

In 2017, Gibson arranged a formal mechanism for the transfer of debris: He would turn over any new find to authorities in Madagascar, who would hand it to Malaysia’s honorary consul, who would pack it up and ship it to Kuala Lumpur for examination and storage. On August 24 of that year, the honorary consul was gunned down in his car by an assassin who escaped on a motorcycle and has never been found. A French-language news account alleged that the consul had a shady past; his killing may have had no connection to MH370 at all. Gibson, however, has assumed that there is a connection. A police investigation is ongoing.
The first scrap of debris found by Blaine Gibson, from a horizontal-stabilizer panel, was recovered on a sandbank off the coast of Mozambique in February 2016. (Blaine Gibson)

By now he largely avoids disclosing his location or travel plans, and for similar reasons avoids using email and rarely speaks over the telephone. He likes Skype and WhatsApp for their encryption. He frequently swaps out his SIM cards. He believes he is sometimes followed and photographed. There is no arguing that Gibson is the only person who has gone out looking for pieces of MH370 on his own and found debris. But the idea that the debris is worth killing for is hard to take seriously. It would be easier to believe if the debris held clues to dark secrets and international intrigue. But the evidence—much of it now out in the open—points in a different direction.
5. The Possibilities

In truth, a lot can now be known with certainty about the fate of MH370. First, the disappearance was an intentional act. It is inconceivable that the known flight path, accompanied by radio and electronic silence, was caused by any combination of system failure and human error. Computer glitch, control-system collapse, squall lines, ice, lightning strike, bird strike, meteorite, volcanic ash, mechanical failure, sensor failure, instrument failure, radio failure, electrical failure, fire, smoke, explosive decompression, cargo explosion, pilot confusion, medical emergency, bomb, war, or act of God—none of these can explain the flight path.

Second, despite theories to the contrary, control of the plane was not seized remotely from within the electrical-equipment bay, a space under the forward galley. Pages could be spent explaining why. Control was seized from within the cockpit. This happened in the 20-minute period from 1:01 a.m., when the airplane leveled at 35,000 feet, to 1:21 a.m., when it disappeared from secondary radar. During that same period, the airplane’s automatic condition-reporting system transmitted its regular 30-minute update via satellite to the airline’s maintenance department. It reported fuel level, altitude, speed, and geographic position, and indicated no anomalies. Its transmission meant that the airplane’s satellite-communication system was functioning at that moment.

By the time the airplane dropped from the view of secondary—transponder-enhanced—radar, it is likely, given the implausibility of two pilots acting in concert, that one of them was incapacitated or dead, or had been locked out of the cockpit. Primary-radar records—both military and civilian—later indicated that whoever was flying MH370 must have switched off the autopilot, because the turn the airplane then made to the southwest was so tight that it had to have been flown by hand. Circumstances suggest that whoever was at the controls deliberately depressurized the airplane. At about the same time, much if not all of the electrical system was deliberately shut down. The reasons for that shutdown are not known. But one of its effects was to temporarily sever the satellite link.

An electrical engineer in Boulder, Colorado, named Mike Exner, who is a prominent member of the Independent Group, has studied the radar data extensively. He believes that during the turn, the airplane climbed up to 40,000 feet, which was close to its limit. During the maneuver the passengers would have experienced some g‑forces—that feeling of being suddenly pressed back into the seat. Exner believes the reason for the climb was to accelerate the effects of depressurizing the airplane, causing the rapid incapacitation and death of everyone in the cabin.
The cabin occupants would have become incapacitated within a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and gently died without any choking or gasping for air.

An intentional depressurization would have been an obvious way—and probably the only way—to subdue a potentially unruly cabin in an airplane that was going to remain in flight for hours to come. In the cabin, the effect would have gone unnoticed but for the sudden appearance of the drop-down oxygen masks and perhaps the cabin crew’s use of the few portable units of similar design. None of those cabin masks was intended for more than about 15 minutes of use during emergency descents to altitudes below 13,000 feet; they would have been of no value at all cruising at 40,000 feet. The cabin occupants would have become incapacitated within a couple of minutes, lost consciousness, and gently died without any choking or gasping for air. The scene would have been dimly lit by the emergency lights, with the dead belted into their seats, their faces nestled in the worthless oxygen masks dangling on tubes from the ceiling.

The cockpit, by contrast, was equipped with four pressurized-oxygen masks linked to hours of supply. Whoever depressurized the airplane would have simply had to slap one on. The airplane was moving fast. On primary radar it appeared as an unidentified blip approaching the island of Penang at nearly 600 miles an hour. The mainland nearby is home to Butterworth Air Base, where a squadron of Malaysian F-18 interceptors is stationed, along with an air-defense radar—not that anyone was paying attention. According to a former official, before the accident report was released last summer, Malaysian air-force officers demanded to review and edit it. In a section called “Malaysian Military Radar,” the report provides a timeline suggesting that the air-defense radar had been actively monitored, that the military was well aware of the identity of the aircraft, and that it purposefully “did not pursue to intercept the aircraft since it was ‘friendly’ and did not pose any threat to national airspace security, integrity and sovereignty.” The question of course is why, if the military knew the airplane had turned around and was flying west, it then allowed the search to continue for days in the wrong body of water, to the east.

For all its expensive equipment, the air force had failed at its job and could not bring itself to admit the fact. In an Australian television interview, the former Malaysian defense minister said, “If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point in sending [an interceptor] up?” Well, for one thing, you could positively identify the airplane, which at this point was just a blip on primary radar. You could also look through the windows into the cockpit and see who was at the controls.

At 1:37 a.m., MH370’s regularly scheduled 30-minute automatic condition-reporting system failed to transmit. We now know that the system had been isolated from any satellite transmission—something easily done from within the cockpit—and therefore could not send out any of its scheduled reports.

At 1:52 a.m., half an hour into the diversion, MH370 passed just south of Penang Island, made a wide right turn, and headed northwest up the Strait of Malacca. As the airplane turned, the first officer’s cellphone registered with a tower below. It was a single brief connection, during which no content was transmitted. Eleven minutes later, on the assumption that MH370 was still over the South China Sea, a Malaysia Airlines dispatcher sent a text message instructing the pilots to contact Ho Chi Minh’s air-traffic-control center. The message went unanswered. All through the Strait of Malacca, the airplane continued to be hand-flown. It is presumed that everyone in the cabin was dead by this point. At 2:22 a.m., the Malaysian air-force radar picked up the last blip. The airplane was 230 miles northwest of Penang, heading northwest into the Andaman Sea and flying fast.

Three minutes later, at 2:25, the airplane’s satellite box suddenly returned to life. It is likely that this occurred when the full electrical system was brought back up, and that the airplane was repressurized at the same time. When the satellite box came back on, it sent a log-on request to Inmarsat; the ground station responded, and the first linkup was accomplished. Unbeknownst to anyone in the cockpit, the relevant distance and Doppler values were recorded at the ground station, later allowing the first arc to be established. A few minutes later a dispatcher put in a phone call to the airplane. The satellite box accepted the link, but the call went unanswered. An associated Doppler value showed that the airplane had just made a wide turn to the south. To investigators, the place where this happened became known as the “final major turn.” Its location is crucial to all the efforts that have followed, but it has never quite been pinned down. Indonesian air-defense radar should have shown it, but the radar seems to have been turned off for the night.

MH370 was now most likely flying on autopilot, cruising south into the night. Whoever was occupying the cockpit was active and alive. Was this a hijacking? A hijacking is the “third party” solution favored in the official report. It is the least painful explanation for anyone in authority that night. It has immense problems, however. The main one is that the cockpit door was fortified, electrically bolted, and surveilled by a video feed that the pilots could see. Also, less than two minutes passed between Zaharie’s casual “good night” to the Kuala Lumpur controller and the start of the diversion, with the attendant loss of the transponder signal. How would hijackers have known to make their move precisely during the handoff to Vietnamese air traffic control, and then gained access so quickly and smoothly that neither of the pilots had a chance to transmit a distress call? It is possible of course that the hijackers were known to the pilots—that they were invited into the cockpit—but even that does not explain the lack of a radio transmission, particularly during the hand-flown turn away from Beijing. Both of the control yokes had transmitter switches, within the merest finger reach, and some signal could have been sent in the moments before an attempted takeover. Furthermore, every one of the passengers and cabin-crew members has been investigated and cleared of suspicion by teams of Malaysian and Chinese investigators aided by the FBI. The quality of that police work is open to question, but it was thorough enough to have uncovered the identities of two Iranians who were traveling under false names with stolen passports—seeking, however, nothing more nefarious than political asylum in Germany. It is possible that stowaways—by definition unrecorded on the airplane’s manifest—had hidden in the equipment bay. If so, they would have had access to two circuit breakers that, if pulled, would have unbolted the cockpit door. But that scenario has problems, too. The bolts click loudly when they open—an unambiguous sound that would have been familiar to the pilots. The hijackers would then have had to open a galley-floor hatch from below, climb a short ladder, evade notice by the cabin crew, evade the surveillance video, and enter the cockpit before either of the pilots transmitted a distress call. It is unlikely that this could have happened, just as it is unlikely that a flight attendant held hostage could have used the door keypad to allow sudden entry without firing off a warning. Furthermore, what would the purpose be of a hijacking? Money? Politics? Publicity? An act of war? A terrorist attack? The intricate seven-hour profile of MH370’s deviation into oblivion fits none of these scenarios. And no one has claimed responsibility for the act. Anonymity is not consistent with any of these motives.
6. The Captain

This leaves us with a different sort of event, a hijacking from within where no forced entry is required—by a pilot who runs amok. Reasonable people may resist the idea that a pilot would murder hundreds of innocent passengers as the collateral price of killing himself. The definitive response is that this has happened before. In 1997, a captain working for a Singaporean airline called SilkAir is believed to have disabled the black boxes of a Boeing 737 and to have plunged the airplane at supersonic speeds into a river.* In 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990 was deliberately crashed into the sea by its co-pilot off the coast of Long Island, resulting in the loss of everyone on board. In 2013, just months before MH370 disappeared, the captain of LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 flew his Embraer E190 twin jet from cruising altitude into the ground, killing all 27 passengers and all six crew members. The most recent case is the Germanwings Airbus that was deliberately crashed into the French Alps on March 24, 2015, also causing the loss of everyone on board. Its co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, had waited for the pilot to use the bathroom and then locked him out. Lubitz had a record of depression and—as investigations later discovered—had made a study of MH370’s disappearance, one year earlier.

From the November 2001 issue: William Langewiesche on EgyptAir 990

In the case of MH370, it is difficult to see the co-pilot as the perpetrator. He was young and optimistic, and reportedly planning to get married. He had no history of any sort of trouble, dissent, or doubts. He was not a German signing on to a life in a declining industry of budget airlines, low salaries, and even lower prestige. He was flying a glorious Boeing 777 in a country where the national airline and its pilots are still considered a pretty big deal.

It is the captain, Zaharie, who raises concerns. The first warning is his portrayal in the official reports as someone beyond reproach—a good pilot and placid family man who liked to play with a flight simulator. This is the image promoted by Zaharie’s family, but it is contradicted by multiple indications of trouble that too obviously have been brushed over.
The Malaysian police report held back on divulging what was known about the captain, Zaharie. No one was surprised.

The police discovered aspects of Zaharie’s life that should have caused them to dig more deeply. The formal conclusions they drew were inadequate. The official account, referring to Zaharie as the PIC, or pilot in command, had this to say:

The PIC’s ability to handle stress at work was reported to be good. There was no known history of apathy, anxiety, or irritability. There were no significant changes in his lifestyle, interpersonal conflict, or family stresses … There were no behavioral signs of social isolation, change of habits or interest … On studying the PIC’s behavioral pattern on the CCTV [at the airport] on the day of the flight and prior 3 flights, there were no significant behavioral changes observed. On all the CCTV recordings the appearance was similar, i.e. well-groomed and attired. The gait, posture, facial expressions and mannerisms were his normal characteristics.

This was either irrelevant or at odds with what was knowable about Zaharie. The truth, as I discovered after speaking in Kuala Lumpur with people who knew him or knew about him, is that Zaharie was often lonely and sad. His wife had moved out, and was living in the family’s second house. By his own admission to friends, he spent a lot of time pacing empty rooms waiting for the days between flights to go by. He was also a romantic. He is known to have established a wistful relationship with a married woman and her three children, one of whom was disabled, and to have obsessed over two young internet models, whom he encountered on social media, and for whom he left Facebook comments that apparently did not elicit responses. Some were shyly sexual. He mentioned in one comment, for example, that one of the girls, who was wearing a robe in a posted photo, looked like she had just emerged from a shower. Zaharie seems to have become somewhat disconnected from his earlier, well-established life. He was in touch with his children, but they were grown and gone. The detachment and solitude that can accompany the use of social media—and Zaharie used social media a lot—probably did not help. There is a strong suspicion among investigators in the aviation and intelligence communities that he was clinically depressed.

If Malaysia were a country where, in official circles, the truth was welcome, then the police portrait of Zaharie as a healthy and happy man would carry some weight. But Malaysia is not such a country, and the official omission of evidence to the contrary only adds to all the other evidence that Zaharie was a troubled man.

Forensic examinations of Zaharie’s simulator by the FBI revealed that he experimented with a flight profile roughly matching that of MH370—a flight north around Indonesia followed by a long run to the south, ending in fuel exhaustion over the Indian Ocean. Malaysian investigators dismissed this flight profile as merely one of several hundred that the simulator had recorded. That is true, as far as it goes, which is not far enough. Victor Iannello, an engineer and entrepreneur in Roanoke, Virginia, who has become another prominent member of the Independent Group and has done extensive analysis of the simulated flight, underscores what the Malaysian investigators ignored. Of all the profiles extracted from the simulator, the one that matched MH370’s path was the only one that Zaharie did not run as a continuous flight—in other words, taking off on the simulator and letting the flight play out, hour after hour, until it reached the destination airport. Instead he advanced the flight manually in multiple stages, repeatedly jumping the flight forward and subtracting the fuel as necessary until it was gone. Iannello believes that Zaharie was responsible for the diversion. Given that there was nothing technical that Zaharie could have learned by rehearsing the act on a gamelike Microsoft consumer product, Iannello suspects that the purpose of the simulator flight may have been to leave a bread-crumb trail to say goodbye. Referring to the flight profile that MH370 would follow, Iannello said of Zaharie, “It’s as if he was simulating a simulation.” Without a note of explanation, Zaharie’s reasoning is impossible to know. But the simulator flight cannot easily be dismissed as a random coincidence.

In Kuala Lumpur, I met with one of Zaharie’s lifelong friends, a fellow 777 captain whose name I have omitted because of possible repercussions for him. He too believed that Zaharie was guilty, a conclusion he had come to reluctantly. He described the mystery as a pyramid that is broad at the base and one man wide at the top, meaning that the inquiry might have begun with many possible explanations but ended up with a single one. He said, “It doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to reconcile with the man I knew. But it’s the necessary conclusion.” I asked about the need Zaharie would have had to somehow deal with his cockpit companion, First Officer Fariq Hamid. He replied, “That’s easy. Zaharie was an examiner. All he had to say was ‘Go check something in the cabin,’ and the guy would have been gone.” I asked about a motive. He had no idea. He said, “Zaharie’s marriage was bad. In the past he slept with some of the flight attendants. And so what? We all do. You’re flying all over the world with these beautiful girls in the back. But his wife knew.” He agreed that this was hardly a reason to go berserk, but thought Zaharie’s emotional state might have been a factor.

Does the absence of all of this from the official report— Zaharie’s travails; the peculiar nature of the flight profile on the simulator—not to mention the technical inadequacies of the report itself, constitute a cover-up? At this point, we cannot say. We know some of what the investigators knew but chose not to reveal. There is likely more that they discovered and that we do not yet know.

Which brings us back to the demise of MH370. It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers. There was the gentle whoosh of the air rushing by. The cockpit is the deepest, most protective, most private sort of home. Around 7 a.m., the sun rose over the eastern horizon, to the airplane’s left. A few minutes later it lit the ocean far below. Had Zaharie already died in flight? He could at some point have depressurized the airplane again and brought his life to an end. This is disputed and far from certain. Indeed, there is some suspicion, from fuel-exhaustion simulations that investigators have run, that the airplane, if simply left alone, would not have dived quite as radically as the satellite data suggest that it did—a suspicion, in other words, that someone was at the controls at the end, actively helping to crash the airplane. Either way, somewhere along the seventh arc, after the engines failed from lack of fuel, the airplane entered a vicious spiral dive with descent rates that ultimately may have exceeded 15,000 feet a minute. We know from that descent rate, as well as from Blaine Gibson’s shattered debris, that the airplane disintegrated into confetti when it hit the water.
7. The Truth

For now the official investigations have petered out. The Australians have done what they could. The Chinese want to move on and are censoring any news that might inflame the passions of the families. The French are off in France, rehashing the satellite data. The Malaysians just wish the whole subject would go away. I attended an event in the administrative city of Putrajaya last fall, where Grace Nathan and Gibson stood in front of the cameras with the transport minister, Anthony Loke. The minister formally accepted five new pieces of debris collected over the summer. He was miserable to the point of being angry. He barely spoke, and took no questions from the press. Nathan was seething at the minister’s attitude. That night, over dinner, she insisted that the government should not be allowed to walk away so easily. She said, “They didn’t follow protocol. They didn’t follow procedure. I think it’s appalling. More could have been done. As a result of the inaction of the air force—of all of the parties involved in the first hour who didn’t follow protocol—we are stuck like this now. Every one of them breached protocol one time, multiple times. Every single person who had some form of responsibility at the time did not do what he was supposed to do. To varying degrees of severity. Maybe in isolation some might not seem so bad, but when you look at it as a whole, every one of them contributed 100 percent to the fact that the airplane has not been found.”

And every one of them was a government employee. Nathan had hopes that Ocean Infinity, which had recently found a missing Argentine submarine, would return to the search, again on a no-find, no-fee basis. The company had suggested the possibility of doing so earlier that week. But the government of Malaysia would have to sign the contract. Because of the political culture, Nathan worried that it might not—as so far has proved true.
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If the wreckage is ever found, it will lay to rest all the theories that depend on ignoring the satellite data or the fact that the airplane flew an intricate path after its initial turn away from Beijing and then remained aloft for six more hours. No, it did not catch on fire yet stay in the air for all that time. No, it did not become a “ghost flight” able to navigate and switch its systems off and then back on. No, it was not shot down after long consideration by nefarious national powers who lingered on its tail before pulling the trigger. And no, it is not somewhere in the South China Sea, nor is it sitting intact in some camouflaged hangar in Central Asia. The one thing all of these explanations have in common is that they contradict the authentic information investigators do possess.

That aside, finding the wreckage and the two black boxes may accomplish little. The cockpit voice recorder is a self-erasing two-hour loop, and is likely to contain only the sounds of the final alarms going off, unless whoever was at the controls was still alive and in a mood to provide explanations for posterity. The other black box, the flight-data recorder, will provide information about the functioning of the airplane throughout the entire flight, but it will not reveal any relevant system failure, because no such failure can explain what occurred. At best it will answer some relatively unimportant questions, such as when exactly the airplane was depressurized and how long it remained so, or how exactly the satellite box was powered down and then powered back up. The denizens of the internet would be obsessed, but that is hardly an event to look forward to.

The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box. If Blaine Gibson wants a real adventure, he might spend a year poking around Kuala Lumpur.

This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “‘Good Night. Malaysian Three-Seven-Zero.’”

* This article originally stated that SilkAir is an Indonesian airline.
William Langewiesche, a former national correspondent for The Atlantic and a professional pilot, has written about subjects including aviation, national security, and North Africa.
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Ball Throwing Machine
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