We are rarely lost anymore.
In a foreign city or just a drive out of town, our GPS-enabled smartphones pin our positions on digital maps to within a few meters. We are rarely without facts anymore. Any question that has an objective answer — from the last day of the Civil War to the maximum speed of a Boeing 777 — is as close as Google. For a broad class of experience in modern life we have become very used to "knowing." Events a world away may be subject to our opinions but rarely anymore are they cloaked in an enveloping darkness.
How then can Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing disappear in good weather over shallow, heavily trafficked seas?
The human tragedy of the flight will be written in the stories of loved ones left behind, their lives suddenly and forever shattered. But from half-a-planet away the mystery of an advanced jetliner vanishing in the midst of multiple, overlapping advanced technologies raises an additional and unsettling question for us moderns.
Do we understand uncertainty anymore?
There was a time — most of our time on this planet to be exact — when the sails of a ship sank with finality below the horizon as it headed off on its journey. Those left behind were left with uncertainty. They could pace the harbor walls or just get on with their lives but the ship was gone and there would be no news until ... there was. For almost ALL of the 2,000 generations stretching from back into the last ice age, human beings have lived through deep existential uncertainty about the world around them. Tomorrow's weather might be intuited from experience but not glimpsed via satellite images. Loved ones away on travels were for the most part entirely absent. Without text or Facebook updates, their current status remained the stuff of the imagination.
Is it the genetic memory of that unknowing that makes us so unsettled when search teams seem to chase ghosts? Debris spotted from the air turns out to be nothing more than some logs tied together. What was thought to be the downed plane's oil spill is determined to contain no jet fuel.
Twenty years ago information about flight MH370 would've been firmly the domain of experts. Today anyone can find the current status of the skies via services like Flightradar24.
Eventually we all expect that the mystery of MH370 will be a mystery no more. But whatever its resolution, what do these days of waiting reveal to us now about the world we are building?
We are, of course, still surrounded by uncertainty like the terrible wait for a prognosis or the horror of watching a nation spin into civil war. But in creating our network of protective technological miracles have we inadvertently inoculated ourselves from a reality that lies too close for us to want to face? Have we limited our capacity to deal with a darkness that, in truth, will always surround us?
For the first time since it legalized recreational marijuana, Colorado is releasing revenue figures: The state made $3.5 million in taxes and fees in January.
As KUSA-TV reports, $2.1 million of that came from the sale of recreational pot and $1.4 million came from medical marijuana.
"The figures from the state Department of Revenue also give a preliminary idea of the size of the marijuana trade in the state, showing $14 million worth of marijuana was sold in the first month of legal sales.
"The report provides the first concrete proof of what pro-marijuana advocates had promised, that growing and selling the drug locally would generate economic activity here rather than sending drug money out-of-state, and that the drug could provide a windfall to the state government.
"'This is revenue directly out of the hands of cartels,' said Brian Vicente, who helped legalize pot in Colorado. 'These tax numbers will probably grow over time, but since it's a new market, will have to wait and see.'"
The Associated Press reports that the state has 160 state-licensed recreational marijuana stores. The state imposes two taxes on pot: A 12.9 percent sales tax and a 15 percent excise tax.
"The first $40 million of the excise tax must go to school construction; the rest will be spent by state lawmakers," the AP reports.
There's always a risk in flying, but the phase in which a plane is cruising at high altitude is widely considered to be safe. And that's what makes the mystery of what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 so confounding.
"Whatever happened happened quickly and resulted in a catastrophic departure from the air," Mark Rosenker, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board who is now a consultant with CBS news, told NPR's Melissa Block.
There have been a number of cases in which planes have fallen from the sky — from factors that include catastrophic failure and sabotage. As Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot who runs the popular Ask The Pilot website, writes:
"All we know for sure is that a plane went down with no warning or communication from the crew. That the crash did not happen during takeoff or landing — the phases of flight when most accident occur — somewhat limits the possibilities, but numerous possibilities remain. The culprit could be anything from sabotage to an inflight fire to a catastrophic structural failure of some kind — or, as is so common in airline catastrophes, some combination or compounding of human error and/or mechanical malfunction."
Here are some of the problems that an aircraft can experience during flight.
An aircraft undergoes two kinds of routine stresses: a mechanical stress on the cabin caused by the pressurization and depressurization cycle that happens on each flight; and stress on the plane when it lands.
The structural fatigue and damage they cause "are typically taken care of by periodic maintenance," Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst who now runs the Airsafe.com Foundation, said in an email.
The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 was last been inspected just 10 days ago and was said to be in proper condition. The 777 is a long-haul aircraft that is regarded as safe. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, it's had about 60 incidents since it entered service in 1995.
Takeoff and landing are typically the riskiest portions of the flight. A Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines was involved in the crash at San Francisco Airport last year that killed three people.
But the en-route portion of the flight, which the Malaysian Airlines flight was on, is seen as the safest. According to a Boeing analysis, only 9 percent of fatal accidents occur at cruising altitude.
"Cruise is generally a pretty good place," says David Ison, assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who was a transport pilot with international & transoceanic experience. "There's stable conditions. The weather at higher altitudes is generally better. The only issue is turbulence and, sometimes, thunderstorm activity."
And while weather is a factor at higher altitudes, Flight MH370 was traveling in good weather conditions.
Referring to the Malaysian Airlines flight, Curtis said:
"Weather can be a factor, but it is unclear if it was a factor in this event. One factor that was happening during this event was that the aircraft is flying over the ocean at night. Under these visual conditions, the crew may not be able to look out the window and use the horizon as a sort of backup aircraft attitude indicator. This may make it harder for the pilots to recover the aircraft it gets into an unusual attitude."
Catastrophic failure affects one or more critical aircraft structures or systems, making it difficult or impossible for the crew to safely land the aircraft.
There are exceptions to this, of course. The most famous being the "miracle on the Hudson" in 2009 when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuarida Airport in New York, struck some birds on its way into the sky, lost both engines and was then successfully guided to a safe landing.
Curtis says "because many aircraft systems have backup systems or backup procedures, it usually takes multiple failures to occur before those failures are considered catastrophic or potentially catastrophic."
Ison of Embry-Riddle notes that aircraft today are so reliable that technical failures are highly unlikely in regular operations. And, he notes, that 75 percent to 80 percent of such cases, the error is human - either by the pilot or in the air traffic control tower.
Sabotage is the single-biggest reason for en route accidents, writes Max Kingsley-Jones, a reporter for Flight Global, an aviation magazine.
Here's more from his story:
"Including the MAS 777, Ascend Online shows that a total of 46 western-built jet airliners have crashed with the loss of all on board while in the en-route phase. Of these, 13 were caused by sabotage, two more by hijacks and one was shot down. Three more were caused by undetermined causes where flightcrew suicide is suspected."
And, he notes, "In some cases, in-flight events happen so rapidly that the flightcrew are unable to issue any form of mayday, but it is extremely" unusual.
When faced with a crisis, the main job of the pilots is to maintain control of the aircraft. That may explain why there was no communication from the Malaysian Airlines plane.
"If the pilots are distracted doing something else, then talking to air-traffic controllers is not a priority," said John Cox, a former commercial airline pilot who is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems.
Ison notes that in the event there's no communication it could mean that something catastrophic has happened or simply that the crew was unaware of what was happening. That was the case, he says, with Air France Flight 447. The pilots "didn't communicate [with air-traffic controllers] even though they had an opportunity to," he said.
The black box recordings in that case showed that the pilots seemed unaware the plane was going to crash until just seconds before they hit the water.
The black boxes on that Air France flight were found two years later, and it took investigators until 2012 to piece together what happened on Flight 447. That may also be what's in store for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.
"Of course, once this plane is found, it'll be much more clear what may have happened to the aircraft," Curtis said. "In any case, it may be months or years before the true nature of this event is understood."
Ison, however, said there's no reason why it takes so long to locate an aircraft after it goes missing.
"In this day and age, having no ability to pinpoint these aircraft is really not acceptable," he said. "We have technology to make it happen. We really need to do something .. so we can prevent the loss of aircraft."
The holdup, Rosenker, the former NTSB chair, is cost. One recent study said a U.S. airline with a global network would have to spend at least $300 million per year to transmit its flight data.
The United States has threatened economic sanctions against Moscow, but America is light on financial leverage in Russia: The country represents less than 1 percent of U.S. trade, and few major U.S. companies have significant investments there.
But one company with a long history in Russia is Pepsi.
So how did the American soft drink giant get its foot in the door to build a major market in Russia?
This story — about how Pepsi came to be sold widely in Russia — could give us some insight into how the two counties do or don't do business with each other. The relationship dates back to the Soviet era.
During the Cold War, then-Vice President Richard Nixon visited Soviet Russia to meet with Premier Nikita Khrushchev, which produced some memorable moments. The two men stood in front of a microphone and sparred, with the help of interpreters, in a televised session now known as the Kitchen Debate. The 1959 debate, which you can watch on YouTube, is all kinds of historical, nerdy awesomeness.
"You plan to outstrip us, particularly in the production of consumer goods. If this competition is to do the best for both of our peoples and for people everywhere, there must be a free exchange of ideas," Nixon said as Khrushchev began to speak over him. "You never concede anything."
One thing Russia didn't have on us was brown, fizzy, sugary, delicious drinks. At that debate, Nixon and Khrushchev shared a Pepsi.
At the time, this shared drink gave Donald Kendall a bright idea. Kendall, who was a buddy of Nixon's, was the head of Pepsi's international operations at the time.
"[Kendall] went to Russia in 1959 and struck up a good relationship with Nikita Khrushchev," recounts Anders Aslund with the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Later, the Soviet government itself began bottling Pepsi, but it wasn't the drink we know.
"Pepsi was perceived by the population as a Soviet product, and Soviet products were truly bad," Aslund says. "While Pepsi was reasonably good, it was not as good as Western Pepsi."
Good or bad, Pepsi was the only option.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. When the Soviet Union closed, a form of free enterprise opened. In the 1990s, there was a boom in the U.S., and American companies were looking to grow.
During this time, Pepsi was getting its butt kicked by Coca-Cola all over the world, says Ali Dibadj, a senior analyst with equity research firm Sanford Bernstein. He studies packaged goods, such as soda and chips. And he says Pepsi had one key element going for it: The company knew a lot about Russia.
"Pepsi had to find a place to grow that was the path of least resistance, and arguably built on the history, since 1959, and the lower penetration by The Coca-Cola Company. Russia was the closest-to-home option, and it wasn't that close to home," Dibadj says.
It worked. Russia is now Pepsi's second-largest market behind the U.S., accounting for roughly 8 percent of sales.
So if Pepsi could become a dominant consumer force in Russia, then why hasn't everyone followed suit?
Well, companies such as Ford, Nike, McDonald's, Boeing and John Deere do have investments in the country, but they don't rely on the Russian market like Pepsi does. The reason, Dibadj says, is that Russia is unpredictable, and so are its consumers.
"The consumer has a history — given communism, given what they've been though — to, at the first sign of fear, shift very quickly to either different pack sizes [or] different brands. And [Russian consumers] have historically been used to lower-quality brands," Dibadj says.
At the first sign of trouble, Russian consumers go from drinking soda to tap water. Not only that, it's really hard for companies to get into Russia. With such a large country, you have to build giant distribution networks, and there's a lot of red tape.
"We don't have a lot of economic leverage," Dibadj says. "There's not a lot of stuff that Russians buy from us, and we don't buy that much stuff from Russia."
It's the age-old chicken and egg problem, says Amit Khandelwal, who teaches at Columbia University's Business School. American businesses, he says, are afraid to invest in Russia because it's risky; and it might be less risky if there were more of a U.S. corporate presence there.
"The U.S. won't have the potential threat of sanctions if there is no pain on both sides," Khandelwal says. "There is no pain on both sides precisely because no business has found it attractive enough to substantially grow their operations in Russia."
In other words, in order for the U.S. to have more soft power in Russia, the U.S. will have to sell that country more than soft drinks.
Pepsi In Russia1972: A deal is stuck: PepsiCo will manufacture Pepsi in Russia, in exchange for marketing and importing vodka, and other Soviet liquors, to the U.S. 1974: Pepsi becomes the first American consumer product to be produced, marketed and sold in the former Soviet Union. 1990: PepsiCo signs the largest commercial trade agreement in history with the Soviet Union. Source: PepsiCo
Since the Affordable Care Act kicked in fully, the percentage of Americans without health coverage has fallen to its lowest point in five years.
In the last quarter of 2013, just before the federal health law took full effect, 17.1 percent of Americans reported they lacked health insurance, according to a Gallup survey.
When the survey was taken (between Jan. 2 and Feb. 28), the rate had dropped to 1.2 percentage points to 15.9 percent.
The findings come from landline and cellphone interviews conducted with more than 28,000 Americans.
More people reported being covered by insurance they purchased themselves or by Medicaid. The percentage who said they were covered by employer plans fell slightly.
"The uninsured rate for almost every major demographic group has dropped in 2014 so far," Gallup said.
The biggest decline in the uninsured rate was seen among people who earned less than $36,000 a year — a drop of 2.8 percentage points to 27.9 percent. Among blacks, another group that saw a big change, the uninsured rate fell 2.6 percentage points to 18 percent.
Medicaid enrollment in states that took advantage of federal funding to expand coverage for low-income people could help explain that decline.
The uptake of insurance among the young was a bit less dramatic. The uninsured rate for 26- to 34-year-olds declined by 1.6 percentage points. Under the Affordable Care Act, adult children can stay on their parents' plans until they turn 26.
The Gallup survey only asks about adults, so it may understate the total number of people being added to the health insurance rolls.
The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 1 percentage point, so some of the changes seen aren't much greater than the statistical noise.