Busting the Filibuster

Why the Filibuster is Bad, but the Senate is Worse 

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden woke up ready to do something he’d never done before: break a tie vote in the Senate. In five years as Vice President, he has not once been called upon to engage this lone responsibility of his office. His record of zero votes as ‘President of the Senate’ is rare in American history. Only three full-term VPs before him have never cast a vote (eleven overall) and Biden is already the longest serving second-in-command to never break a tie. So why the record streak?

Partisan rigidity offers some explanation. With parties further apart in ideology, the personal appeals and horse-trading that might have once evened the score now paint targets on the backs of moderate senators. Deals are made, but polarization raises the costs to dealmakers (and the last Congress was the most polarized ever), making close votes scarce in Washington. Democrats’ sizable Senate majority in the Obama administration’s early years also made a 50-50 split unlikely.

Perhaps most importantly though, in the last five years, a ‘close vote’ has actually meant the number 60 rather than 51. The GOP’s unprecedented use of the filibuster raised the effective threshold for passing laws to 60 votes, the number needed for “cloture,” the parliamentary procedure that ends a filibuster.

The Washington Post illustrates the history of the filibuster

This once rare legislative maneuver has become the yardstick by which all federal legislation is now measured.

Origin Story

The filibuster is a product of evolution rather than conception. Though it’s come to be considered a right of the minority, the notion of such a rule never appeared in constitutional debate. It came about by default through another President of the Senate, Aaron Burr.

In his final acts as the nation’s third Vice President, Burr sought to clean up the rules of the young legislature. He decided that, as no one used the common parliamentary procedure to end discussion of a matter, the Senate would be simpler and better off without it. And so without anyone (including even himself) realizing it, he created what is now the limiting factor of all lawmaking in the United States.

In a strange coincidence of history, Aaron Burr created the filibuster not long after his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton. This Senate rule notorious for its absence from the Constitution was thus brought into being by a man who had, only a few months earlier, shot to death one of the Constitution’s key architects.

Evolution of the Filibuster

Though it existed as a possibility for several decades, the filibuster first came into use in the 1830s. The first cloture vote ended debate on the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the modern threshold of 60 votes began only in 1975.

Before the 1975 change, when the filibuster was more personal theater than political threat, getting a politician to quit holding their urine and sit down required two-thirds of senators “present and voting.” The Senate had to pack into a room together for prolonged displays of a single senator’s perseverance and moralizing oratory. These were the black-and-white days of Mr. Smith. It’s no surprise that the most famous filibusters (Long in 1935, Morse in 1953, Thurmond in 1957) all took place before the modern rules. They held an attractively American image: one of a righteous underdog standing up to power and rallying the people behind him.

Jimmy Stewart wouldn’t recognize the modern filibuster though; it’s been sharpened from a blunt object of last resort to the weapon of choice for any major legislation. Despite its omnipresence these days, the filibuster is also a weapon typically kept sheathed. Republicans need only threaten a filibuster to kill a bill rather than go through the comic theatrics of reading Dr. Seuss to the nation. The rules needed to change. And in November, they did. A bit. Majority Leader Harry Reid triggered the ‘nuclear option’ and ended the Senate’s ability to filibuster presidential nominees to federal agencies and judgeships. Proponents of reform, myself among them, celebrated the change.

Meet The New World

Last Wednesday’s confirmation attempt of DOJ Civil Rights nominee Debo Adegbile was the first appointment vote since the ‘nuclear option’ changed Senate rules on these votes. Biden finally had a shot at putting himself on the board and voting as Vice President in the the legislative body he’d served in for thirty-six years. A tie-breaker wasn’t necessary though. Seven Democratic senators broke with the party and voted against Adegbile’s nomination.

Despite a step forward in confirmation votes, all legislation and Supreme Court nominations are still held to the filibuster’s 60 vote threshold. The more absurd political practice of holding up all federal appointments is over, but the problem posed by the filibuster remains. Writing on Quora, historian/podcaster Bruce Carlson describes this problem well:

“A filibuster gives power not to the Senate, but to the individual Senator… The argument cannot be made that the Founders, Framers (there were many many people that could be founders, too many to fill any room available at the time) wanted a filibuster… It is simply a Senate rule that’s been changed over time… My own personal view is that it is too much power for one person out of 317 million in American government to hold up legislation. It should be eliminated or, if some of the idea is to be retained, cloture should be made even easier, maybe a few votes above majority, so that one individual, elected in a very unrepresentative fashion does not have supreme power over legislation.”

By the Numbers

Although it’s no surprise, the number ‘one person in 317 million’ stands out in Carlson’s writing. One senator can unilaterally halt federal legislation. The only other person with that sort of power is the President, who, unlike a senator, is politically liable to the entire country and represents hundreds of millions of Americans. The President holds many powers we might consider too broad for one American, were it not for a nationally elected mandate. A senator has no such mandate though.

If elected from a smaller state, a senator may represent only a few hundred thousand Americans, less even than the size of the average Congressional district (~700,000 people). In the 113th Congress, nine senators (nearly a fifth of the Senate) were elected with fewer than 200,000 votes to their names: John Barrasso (R-WY), Mark Begich (D-AK), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), John Hoeven (R-ND), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Jon Tester (D-MT).

This group is strikingly evenly split by party: five Democrats and four Republicans. Of course, votes and represented population are different. Not everyone votes and, of those that do, a politician needs to convince only half to win an election.

The apparent unfairness of the filibuster, as its power is stripped away, seems to betray an underlying unfairness of the Senate itself. When Reid reformed filibusters of federal appointments in November, Emily Bazelon, Slate’s Legal Affairs Correspondent and co-host of the wonderful Political Gabfest, had this to say:

“I am in total feeling of ‘ding-dong the witch is dead,’ partly because I’ve just hated the filibuster for a long time as being anti-democratic and giving what’s really a minority of the minority so much power. Because the Senate is already constructed in a way where a minority of states have a lot of control. And so the filibuster was just taking things to the point where you could really have 60-70% of the country for something and not have it happen.” (audio below)

Another striking number: 60-70%. Does the filibuster really insulate the Senate that far from popular opinion?

Even more so: 89% of the country could be in favor of legislation and see it fall to a filibuster.

If you consider senators by the populations of their states, a filibuster-proof minority of 41 senators could collectively represent only 11% of America (34 million of 315 million, the U.S.’s 2013 population). That share would equate to California having veto power over all federal legislation. As a Californian, the notion has its appeal, but as an American, I’m dumbfounded that politicians representing the equivalent of a single state can wield that much power.

This 11% number is a theoretical limit of course: the two parties field senators from both large and small states. Even so, if this filibuster-proof minority were composed only of 41 current Republican senators, they could represent as little as 26% of all Americans (or, 83.5 million). This lowered threshold is still worse than Emily Bazelon’s ballpark 60-70% figure: it means, quite realistically, that 74% of the country could want legislation and see it fall to a filibuster.

Only Symptoms of a Problem

As bad as these numbers are, the striking fact is: they’re not much worse than a Senate vote without a filibuster. While 41 senators can represent as few as 34 million Americans, 51 senators can represent as few as 53.7 million. Without the filibuster, the minimum amount of the population that can block legislation improves from 11% to 17%.

Not a tremendous gain. Instead of the California veto, this number is the equivalent of a California/Pennsylvania/Nevada veto. As a born Pittsburgher who enjoys visiting Tahoe from my home in San Francisco, this veto coalition has its appeal as well. But again as an American, it’s incredible that such a small portion of the country holds such sway in the upper house of Congress. In this instance though, there’s no arcane rule like the filibuster to blame it on. The problem appears to be that the Senate itself is fundamentally unequal.

Which leads to a question I’ll take up in my next post: exactly how unrepresentative is the Senate and why?

Sources and Further Reading

If you’re interested in my sources and methods, feel free to download my analysis here.

Mentioning Pennsylvania and Nevada along with the phrase ‘arcane rule’ brings to mind the electoral college. That’s a whole other bag of cats, worth its own write-up. Every four years, the presidential election reminds those of us in the solid blue and solid red states that our dollars and dials seem to have more impact than our votes. Though similar in feeling to an unrepresentative Congress, this issue isn’t ingrained in our government’s structure. Every state could be purple for all the Constitution cares. The only systemic point of friction is in the primary process. For example, why does Iowa get to begin nominating presidential candidates?

That decision is internal to the parties however and, as the Framers didn’t anticipate political parties, they remain (mostly) de-jure external to government while de-facto integral. To learn about the primary process and historical changes, read Elaine Kamarck’s truly excellent book Primary Politics.

Here’s is the Slate Political Gabfest discussing the ‘Nuclear Option’ — also my source for the Emily Bazelon quote above:

Gabfest Extra: The Nuclear Option

Image Sources:

Next Story — Twitter is a Hall of Mirror Balloons
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Twitter is a Hall of Mirror Balloons

“Silver Clouds” at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh

At the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, there is a large rectangular room filled with balloons. These balloons are all silver, so much so that they act as mirrors. These mirror balloons float around the room bumping and distorting each others’ reflections like an M.C. Escher ball pit.

That room came to mind as I read Jon Ronson on the subway today. His recent Times Magazine piece “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” details recent episodes of public shaming on Twitter and the immense toll the crowd’s ire can take on its subject. I wondered “Have I shamed anyone? Would I?”

I hope not, but more to the point, why does anyone? Why take time out of your day to register anger and outrage over an anonymous stranger?

Because they’re just a mirror balloon.

I can explain using llamas and dresses. On Thursday, a number of events passed through the Twitterdom. The first was a low-speed pursuit televised by helicopter. Two llamas were loose in an Arizona suburb. I made some Twitter jokes and tracked the drama online. I felt a part of a community, watching together on a couch and rooting for them to be wild and free.

The llama chase didn’t distract me from work because I have a particular fascination with llamas or chases. I saw all manner of wild camelid when I lived in South America, even the more photogenic guanacos in the spectacular setting of Torres del Paine. Some llamas loose in Sun City, AZ, a place whose first google result is the very picture of a blandly uniform subdivision, doesn’t hold too much interest on its own for me. It’s the discussion that matters, the fact that I share an experience of comedy or drama with people I care about. We don’t tweet about llamas because we care about llamas. We tweet about llamas because we care about ourselves.

The Dress, an online saga that occurred later that same day, was one I almost missed. I’d had my Twitter fill and returned to work. Then, a text thread I’m on with my roommates and other friends in New York lit up with it. The famous photo was debated and quickly dispatched by a friend iMessaging out a short video he made scrolling the white balance back and forth. It was, unequivocally, black and blue. That Twitter obsession, another deeply irrelevant one, went as far and as wide as it did because people had opinions about it and those opinions defined them in the eyes of others. You were on a team. You were part of a community. You were a face in the crowd.

Twitter is a hall of mirror balloons. Whimsical blips of llamas and dresses float into our ken. We bat at them, twist them around, and examine our own reflection in them. Bopping a balloon around with your friends and staring into their funhouse distortions are little distractions. They’re short-lived entertainment.

The distraction of online outrage, and the shame it produces, comes from the same self-reflected entertainment, but bears immense costs on the subjects, as Ronson’s piece deftly describes.

To extend the Andy Warhol metaphor, imagine Twitter not just as a hall of mirror balloons, but one where playing with the balloon deflates them. We bat the balloons around, squeeze the helium out of them, and they drift to the floor like a crumpled mylar blanket. We need new balloons: bright, shiny, and full of fresh air.

When the llamas are lassoed, there are dresses to debate. When the dress colors are clarified, there are bigots to take down. It doesn’t end. It just moves on to the next thing.

Ironically, Thursday’s Twitter spike about llamas and dresses came the same day as the FCC’s landmark decision on net neutrality. My friend Josh remarked on that irony (on Twitter of course):

The FCC news wasn’t entirely ignored. It was the main story on Reddit that day and was a banner headline in every major newspaper. (President Obama even thanked the Reddit community in a handwritten letter for their work on the issue.) Net neutrality is just one of those issues whose importance is notoriously comparable with its ability to put a reader to sleep. John Oliver tried to re-brand it just to fix that, but it remains a lead balloon. No one really has opinions on it that define them from the crowd. There’s just nothing to discuss really.

A subject doesn’t trend on Twitter because it’s important, even to an internet set that’s primed to care about it. Something trends on Twitter when it’s a mirror balloon: when it’s fun and light and more a reflection of the talker than an object unto itself. We just have to remember that sometimes those trends are human beings and what distracts us for an afternoon can also destroy lives.

[I originally posted this on my personal blog, but enjoyed thought I’d share it here as well]

Next Story — 23 Things I’ve Learned About New York After Three Days of Living Here
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23 Things I’ve Learned About New York After Three Days of Living Here

I moved to New York from San Francisco three days ago. Though I grew up in Pennsylvania and have visited New York many times, I thought I’d write up a short list of recent unexpected observations as a new New Yorker.

  1. Citi-Bike will betray you when you need it most
  2. New York is “The City” and correcting New Yorkers that natives of San Francisco never call their city “San Fran” but in fact also call it “The City” will not earn you friends
  3. All stairways smell of hot garbage
  4. You’re not supposed to acknowledge celebrities, even though Hank Azaria’s playing with his son right next to the path in Central Park and probably wants to be recognized if you really think about it and if I say “Hi Dr. Nick!” and he responds with “Hi everybody!” in the voice, then I will be complete as a human being
  5. Middle-aged men working in finance wear the baggiest pleated suit pants known to tailoring and should honestly just commit to Hammer Pants at this point
  6. I can walk to anything I need in New York faster than I could drive to it in California, the one exception being decent burritos
  7. Skinny women are everywhere and, while mostly appearing healthy, often adopt a look best described as “irritable forest elf”
  8. Full-bodied women are everywhere and, while owning it pretty goddamn well, often adopt a look best described as “the Sultan from Aladdin”
  9. Everyone is younger than expected, or rather, any young people at all can afford to live here
  10. New Yorkers will boast about the simplicity of their streets’ grid system and the superiority of their subway system, but see no problem in the byzantine network of tunnels connecting the two
  11. I’m not an idiot for walking the wrong direction down Fifth Avenue for nine blocks — it’s all the tunnel’s fault
  12. Nights are hot and fans are wonderful
  13. The Freedom Tower’s spire makes the iconic new building look like a giant geometric middle finger, and I’m totally cool with that
  14. It is comically easy to break into a SoHo apartment by scaling the fire escape and lifting the window above a poorly-secured air-conditioner
  15. If you’ve locked yourself out and break into your SoHo apartment through your out-of-town roommate’s window above his poorly-secured air-conditioner, be sure to carefully plant your left foot alongside his lamp, carved moai, and family heirlooms while balancing his window pane on your back
  16. Upon realizing that you’re balancing on one foot out a three-story window with ten pounds of glass on your back, just say Fuck It and swan dive into your roommate’s futon, sending it sliding into the iron staircase with a triumphant clang
  17. People in SoHo don’t give one fuck about someone scaling the fire escape and breaking into my apartment
  18. Compared to San Francisco, New York has homeless people that appear more likely to be alone rather than in groups, more emotionally expressive, less visibly mentally unstable, and way better at rapping
  19. Parents, when in a crowded place, will employ a baby stroller toward both meanings of the word “icebreaker”
  20. At pedestrian intersections, it is normal for baby strollers to pause two inches from cabs going 87 miles an hour
  21. HBO’s “Girls” is filming two stories down from me tomorrow morning, but no one seems to care about that
  22. New Yorkers don’t watch HBO’s “Girls” because it’s “a little too close to home,” just as San Franciscans don’t watch HBO’s “Silicon Valley” because it’s “a little too close to home”
  23. By HBO’s tacit judgment, I’ve moved from an area whose TV-worthy industry is technology to an area whose TV-worthy industry is struggling writers and that, frankly, is a little too close to home
Next Story — Two Weeks Ago, I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever
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Two Weeks Ago, I Almost Died in the Deadliest Plane Crash Ever

How Two Jetliners Nearly Collided Over the Pacific, Why No One Knows About It, and What It Means for Safety Oversight Aboard Airplanes

I was weightless. We all were. Thirty-three thousand feet up in a cloudless sky, our plane had suddenly pitched into a steep dive. I felt my body float upwards and strain against my seatbelt. Passengers around me screamed. There was a loud crash in the back — a coffeepot clattering to the floor and tumbling down the aisle. Our tray tables began rattling in unison as the 757 strained through the kind of maneuver meant more for a fighter jet. Top Gun this was not, though. Our flight that Friday, April 25th, was mostly heavy-set tourists returning to California from Hawaii. More Tommy Bahama than Tom Cruise.

Weightless and staring downhill at the thirty-some rows of passengers ahead of me, I had a rare and terrible reminder of the absurd improbability of human flight. We were hairless apes crowded into a thin metal tube hurtling through the sky at a speed and height beyond anything evolution prepared us to comprehend. The violence was over after a few seconds. United 1205 leveled out, having dropped at least 600 feet without warning.

The voice of an audibly flustered flight attendant came over the speaker. “OK. That was obviously unexpected.” An understatement. The fasten-seat-belt sign was still off. A moment later, after we’d laughed and settled back into the friendly fiction of air travel as a mundane commute, her voice returned to notify us that “the pilot took evasive action to avoid an aircraft in our flight path.” Then a few minutes later: “Aloha! United Airlines will be offering today’s DirecTV entertainment free of charge. Anyone who has already purchased in-flight entertainment will receive a reimbursement on their credit card.” In 2014, when checked luggage, snacks, and movies have all become nickel-and-dime profit centers for modern air carriers, this announcement surprised me. Something bad must have occurred. Something truly unusual and unexpected. After we landed safely in LAX, I spoke with members of the flight crew and learned what happened.

Soon after reaching our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, the collision alert system sounded an alarm. Our plane was on an imminent path with a US Airways flight over the Pacific, I learned. In these situations, the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) communicates between the two planes, alerts the crew, and gives instruction to either dive or climb (ensuring that one plane dives while the other climbs). On United 1205, after the alarm went off, the captain looked out the windshield, exclaimed “Holy s***, there it is!” and immediately took the plane into a sharp dive. The first officer later told me the US Airways flight was “certainly too close for comfort.”

Two details in particular are unsettling:

  1. Visual Confirmation — At altitude, a pilot can see a long way from the cockpit. Even so, at our speed, long distances can close incredibly quickly. Our plane was cruising at 600 mph. Two planes coming at each other at that speed will close a distance of five miles in fifteen seconds.
  2. The Response — Our aircraft was a 757-300, the longest narrow-body twinjet ever made. Violent maneuvers like Friday’s incident are not taken for minor events. According to an Aviation Safety Inspector with the FAA in Hawaii, the severity of the response in United 1205 speaks to the severity of the threat perceived by the pilot.
In 1977, the Tenerife Airport Disaster claimed 583 lives.

The Deadliest Aviation Accident in History

The Tenerife Airport Disaster is the deadliest aviation accident in history. In 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, two 747s collided on the runway. The death toll was 583.

On United 1205, I was one of 289 passengers. With the five or six crew members, the total count for our flight was around 295. We were six miles over the middle of the Pacific, so it’s safe to assume two things: 1) The US Airways flight coming at us was a passenger jet of similar size and 2) Everyone on both flights would have died. Had there been a collision, it would have been the new record, with an estimated 590 deaths, one of them mine.

The Timeline

Cruising Altitude FlightAware data on United 1205 between Kona and Los Angeles (Data corresponds to red line)

On April 25th, our flight left Kona a little after our scheduled 12:35pm takeoff. Normally, the above graph of FlightAware data would be a flat line of cruising altitude 33,000 between takeoff and landing. But the data shows a small but unmistakable anomaly around 1:15pm: our speed and altitude quickly drop and recover.

Bottom of the Dive FlightAware data on United 1205 between Kona and Los Angeles (Data corresponds to red line)

This second version of the same graph shows the lowest altitude reached (the data on the left corresponds to the moveable red line on the graph). The lowest altitude in the data is 32,400 feet — making our dive at least 600 feet. Given the poor granularity of the data here, the drop may well exceed that number.

I’ve spoken to both airlines and FAA representatives in Hawaii and Los Angeles. United Airlines confirmed that an incident occurred and that it was significant enough to merit their own internal investigation. US Airways was unwilling to comment. US Airways 663 and 692 were in that neighborhood of the Pacific Ocean at that time, but without further information, I can’t determine the other side of the near miss.

Near Hit

After we landed safely in Los Angeles, thankful to survive the near miss, the passenger next to me laughed and reminded me of George Carlin’s riff on word choice in air travel. “It’s not a near miss, it’s a near hit!”

Not A Problem Until It Is

I spoke with FAA representatives at length this week and my conversations led me to a shocking conclusion: airlines are essentially self-policed.

With all its barefoot body scans in the TSA line, air travel doesn’t seem to suffer from a lack of oversight. And that’s true. We devote tremendous resources to ensuring security in air travel. However, the more I learn about the industry, the more it becomes clear that our safety in the air does not have the system of oversight we might imagine.

Two airliners colliding six miles over the ocean would be a disaster of such proportion to be unthinkable to us. It was similarly unthinkable only two months ago though, that a passenger jet could simply disappear. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 ended that fiction. It showed us that, even on a commercial flight with hundreds of other passengers, there is no global blanket of tracking enveloping us and keeping us safe.

It’s still the open ocean out there.

The FAA might learn about the April 25th near miss in one of two ways: direct reporting by air-traffic controllers and indirect reporting (through the Aviation Safety Reporting System administered by NASA) by members of the flight crew. An hour east of Hawaii, “there’s no one out there but the pilot — that’s the only one seeing it” according to an FAA investigator in Hawaii. And so, when reporting the incident, the pilot decides if he wants to report the event. If reported, different points in the chain can determine it a “significant” or “non-significant” incident. The event on April 25th, which United Airlines itself considers a significant enough event to internally investigate, was either unreported or “non-significant” in the eyes of the FAA until this week.

On Friday, two weeks after the near miss and my initial call with the FAA, I followed up with the agency and learned that the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) was looking into the incident. According to the FAA official I spoke with, the sheer fact that they’re exploring the event implied to him that they saw it as “significant,” even though they’d never passed it on to the FAA with any formal categorization. Two weeks of daily ATO reports to the FAA had gone by without a mention of this likely “significant” event. This official took issue with ATO not sharing the event, but admitted that there is no requirement for sharing, only common practice.

I was shocked at the number of links in the reporting chain; not to mention how weak each appeared to be. The FAA even admitted that my initial information, the random phone call from a passenger, was “essential to [their] fact-finding.” Without the basic information I provided to them, they would not, by their own admission, have been able to connect the dots when the ATO began asking questions.

Thankful as I am that someone is examining what happened, the system appears broken. The FAA is the only regulatory body with the authority to turn lessons of a near catastrophe into improvements in policy, procedure, or training. Yet, the FAA is in the dark on a near miss that could have taken more lives than any air accident in history. Air travel has a tremendous modern safety record. My experience asking questions about United 1205 however, has painted the picture of a safety system resting on its laurels.

Automation Addiction

Human flight is a technological marvel. Flying aircraft twice the size of blue whales across whole continents is another marvel upon that. Doing so countless times in precise choreography every day is a feat upon that still. Modern air travel is such a raw miracle of technology it would almost certainly be the first of our achievements to awe generations before us.

That technology can become a crutch though. In November, the FAA released a report detailing that over-reliance on autopilot and other flight technologies has led to accidents and safety incidents:

“Pilots sometimes over-rely on automated systems — in effect, delegating authority to those systems, which sometimes resulted in deviating from the desired flight path under automated system control.” — FAA Report, “Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems”

These ‘automation addiction’ concerns, voiced by industry and regulators alike, grew after the National Transportation Safety Board named it a potential cause of the fatal July crash of Asiana Flight 214. December’s NTSB hearings found “speed the most critical factor” leading to the disaster, and misuse of automated systems the most critical factor in the speed. The 777 approached SFO’s runway at 118 mph, far below the required minimum of 158 mph, because the pilot mistakenly believed airspeed was under automatic throttle control. The plane fell short of the runway and clipped the seawall, leading to 3 deaths and 181 injured.

Even as the FAA decries pilots’ over-reliance on the technology of their aircraft, they themselves over-rely on the technology of their safety systems. While seeking out answers for the April 25th incident, I was told by the FAA:

“Modern technology equips the airplanes with all these devices. It all worked properly, and because everything worked properly, [any investigation]’s probably not going to go a whole lot farther.” — Hawaii FAA Inspector

The achievement of modern air travel, that precise choreography, instills a hubris in those tasked with managing it. The system and its safety record are so impressive that catastrophes that almost happen apparently aren’t worth scrutiny. Instead, the FAA inspector told me that any changes would likely take place internally at the two airlines. The agency seems to rely on these companies, the creators of these infallible technologies, to self-police much in the same way that financial regulators relied on banks to self-police when it came to complicated products like mortgage-backed securities.

Source: Flickr

Imagine you’re driving on the highway at night. Suddenly, another car driving the opposite direction appears in your lane. You swerve into another lane just as the car passes. The FAA’s view would hold that nothing was amiss because your headlights revealed the oncoming car.

Clearly, in the car example and its April 25th plane equivalent, something went wrong. Someone was in the wrong place. On the ground, cars separate horizontally by always driving on the right side of the road. In the air, planes separate vertically: all eastbound flights cruise at odd altitudes (33,000 feet, 41,000 feet, etc.) while all westbound flights cruise at even altitudes (38,000 feet, 52,000 feet, etc.). Of course, plane travel has one dimension more than car travel, so it’s exponentially more complex. Planes take off and land, passing through odd and even altitudes in the process. They avoid weather. And their flight paths have 360 degrees of horizontal directions. Two planes flying into Paris, one from London and the other from Barcelona, aim nearly head on at each other but both qualify as “westbound” flights.

On April 25th, my United 1205 flight was on an eastbound heading from Kona to Los Angeles and had reached a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet. An odd-numbered altitude, so by the east-west/odd-even rule of thumb, we were on the right side of the highway. The US Airways flight coming at us was on the wrong side of the highway. Thankfully, my pilot saw the plane in our ‘headlights’ in time and swerved into a dive, but the lack of a disaster doesn’t mean a grave, teachable error did not occur somewhere in the process.

A composite image of aircraft taking off (Flughafen by Ho-Yeol Ryu)

Near misses are terrifyingly common in high traffic areas near airports and major cities. According to an investigation by two Seattle news groups into the ASRS data, “on average more than 150 close calls are happening every day.” Nonetheless, the vast majority of these close calls involve small aircraft at low altitudes, incidents on the ground at airports, or isolated issues involving a single plane. Commercial airplanes, at cruising altitude and far from high traffic areas, rarely come close to each other. The FAA confirmed as much, telling me that my incident of two commercial jets at cruising altitude passing close enough to each other to trigger an RA in the collision avoidance system is “very rare.”

The car equivalent might be the distinction between driving in a parking lot and driving in a highway. Circling a parking lot, drivers often end up in the wrong place and cause a fender bender. Getting onto an off-ramp and heading west on an eastbound lane of a highway is a different story entirely. And one that likely doesn’t end well.

The April 25th near miss was close enough to pass through the “RA Region”

Safety Technology

The system that ensures safe air travel, and that led my pilot to dive our plane on April 25th, is called the Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Planes send out radio signals that create electronic “bubbles” around themselves. If two bubbles overlap, the system alerts the two pilots. The ‘Traffic Advisory’ (TA) Region gives the pilot information, but doesn’t require any action. If two planes enter each others’ ‘Resolution Advisory’ (RA) Region, the system flashes an alert and instructs each pilot to climb or dive their plane immediately. Following an RA is fundamental to safe air travel. In 2002, over southern Germany, two planes received RAs but one pilot followed the TCAS instruction to dive while the other ignored the TCAS climb order and followed air traffic controllers. Both planes descended, leading to a collision that killed everyone on board both known today as the Überlingen Disaster.

Typical TCAS Envelope

On my April 25th flight, the United pilot followed the RA he received and even had a visual of the oncoming US Airways flight. Considering the size of RA bubbles, we may have been only seconds from a collision.

It Just Takes One

Air travel is indeed extraordinarily safe. Before the July Asiana crash, the last commercial airline fatality in the United States occurred in 2009 with the Colgan Air Flight 3407. Considering the number of air miles traveled in the country every year, plane travel has “nearly zero accidents per million flying miles.” Car crashes, minor and major, occur hundreds of times a day.

Colgain Air Flight 3407 crashed in upstate New York in 2009

Regardless, plane crashes hold a unique place in our fears: the fiery violence, the lack of control — they have a scale and spectacle that makes them loom larger than their actual threat. Similarly, more Americans are killed by vending machines than sharks every year, but more people fear sharks than vending machines. Perhaps most importantly, car crashes occur with a sliding scale: fender bender to freeway pileup. Plane accidents are more binary: either nothing goes wrong or everything goes wrong.

Economists call these the ‘statistical life’ and the ‘actual life.’ Whenever a speed limit is increased, more people are likely to die — to the public, these deaths are ‘statistical lives,’ without names or stories. When comparing car crashes and plane crashes, we’re often considering the nameless numbers of car accidents to the stories and details of a single plane crash.

As a result, each plane crash seems to lead to new regulation or new training. Safety in air travel, much like security, is reactive to events. The shoebomber means we now have to remove our shoes. A single threat in England means we now have to surrender our liquids. A collision of two planes over Germany means pilots now have to follow TCAS over air traffic control.

Reactive policy is not defensive though; it prepares only for the dangers that have already come to pass. To be more robust, the agencies that manage air travel have to do two things: First, they need to collect more and better data. With the hubris of flying’s relative safety, they see their data as a flat line of perfect safety with only a few blips of outlier catastrophes.

“Currently, the commercial aviation system is the safest transportation system in the world, and the accident rate is the lowest it has ever been. This impressive record is due to many factors, including improvements in aircraft systems (such as those mentioned above), pilot training, professional pilot skills, flightcrew and air traffic procedures, improved safety data collection and analysis, and other efforts by industry and government. However, incident and accident reports suggest that flightcrews sometimes have difficulties using flight path management systems.” — FAA Report, “Operational Use of Flight Path Management Systems” (emphasis added)

If they make policies for the outliers though, they need to better collect the data between zero and one: the near misses, the errors that narrowly avoided their consequences.

Secondly, they need to communicate that data more openly and readily. To push the comparison between air safety and air security further, America’s security apparatus had intelligence on the September 11th terrorist attacks, but the knowledge was spread across different agencies and too siloed away for the dots to be connected. In the aftermath of the attacks, information sharing was identified as a key improvement in our security system.

Safety threats grow in the shadows just like security threats. Sharing information across groups means more lights shining into those shadows and more opportunities to identify a threat. The only downside to granting more people access to information is more people may leak that information, as the security apparatus saw with Manning and Snowden. Safety threats are unseen gaps in process or training though, not terrorist groups that might be able to make use of leaked information. Airlines are the only party that might object to information sharing, as their bottom lines suffer if consumers see air travel as more dangerous.

Inspecting an engine of the PanAm 747 at Tenerife

Just Enough

Accidents don’t occur because everything went wrong; they occur because just enough went wrong. Thankfully, air travel has become more safe with time, but that doesn’t mean its technology is perfect. Had just one more thing gone wrong two weeks ago, two jetliners would have collided in the largest airline disaster in history.

As mentioned, the crash currently with the most fatalities is the Tenerife Airport Disaster, in which two 747s collided on a Canary Island runway in 1977. For that tragedy to occur, even nearly forty years ago when the safety system was much less advanced, a string of unlikely events had to occur:

  • A bomb explosion at the Gran Canaria International Airport forced planes to divert to the smaller airport on nearby Tenerife.
  • Dense fog eliminated visibility for air traffic controllers and pilots. Tenerife’s small airport had no radar, and so without visibility, voice communication was the only way to locate the planes.
  • The pilot of the KLM 747 did not have takeoff clearance when he attempted to lift off and collided with the taxiing PanAm 747.
  • Tower communication with the two planes led to a radio interference in the KLM cockpit that prevented the captain’s misinterpretation of takeoff clearance from being corrected.

The United flight two weeks ago had at least one thing go wrong. Two jetliners six miles over the Pacific don’t come within scraping distance of each other without something going amiss. Thankfully, just enough went right that a disaster even beyond the scale of Tenerife was averted.

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Such meme. Very wow. (Illustration by Harry Malt for The Washington Post)

All your memes are belong to us

The top 25 memes of the web’s first 25 years

By Gene Park, Adriana Usero and Chris Rukan

For more of The Web at 25, visit The Washington Post.

Memes didn’t begin with the Web, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” to describe something that already existed. A meme, from the Greek “mimeme” (to imitate) was “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” This encompassed phenomena from Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” to the famous graffiti drawing “Kilroy Was Here,” which dates to the beginning of World War II.

But the Web has proved to be the most fertile ground, and the site Know Your Meme has confirmed more than 2,600 of them. Below, 25 definitive memes from the Web’s first 25 years.

[1] Dancing Baby

1996: Considered the granddaddy of Internet memes, the baby shuffling to Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” filled inboxes and prime-time airwaves, appearing in several episodes of “Ally McBeal.” The file was originally included with early 3D software. LucasFilm developers modified it before it was widely shared, and it was finally compressed into one of the first GIFs.

[2] Hampster Dance

1998: Proving that GIFs were meant for stardom, a Canadian art student made a webpage with 392 hamster GIFs as a tribute to her pet rodent. The infectious soundtrack was a sped-up, looped version of “Whistle Stop” by Roger Miller.

[3] Peanut Butter Jelly Time

2001: A Flash animation featuring an 8-bit dancing banana, “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” became an Internet phenomenon in the early 2000s. The catchy song was written and performed by the Buckwheat Boyz, a rap group.

[4] All Your Base Are Belong to Us

2001: A meme that would echo across the gaming community for years to come, “All your base are belong to us” originated in a cut scene in the Japanese video game “Zero Wing.” The poorly translated quote has persisted as an Internet catchphrase.

[5] Star Wars Kid

2002: Arguably the first victim of large-scale cyberbullying, Ghyslain Raza unwillingly became a meme based on a video of him swinging a golf ball retriever as a weapon, reminiscent of Darth Maul in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” It was an early sign that Internet privacy was not guaranteed for anyone.

[6] Spongmonkeys

2003: Before they became spokesthings for Quiznos, two singing Spongmonkeys catapulted to viral stardom after being featured in a newsletter for b3ta, an early link- and image-sharing site. Their opening line: “We like the moon.”

[7] Numa Numa

2004: The eyebrow lift. The arm pumping when the beat drops. The song (by Moldovan boy band O-Zone). Gary Brolsma, sitting at his desk, showed us all what it means to “dance like no one’s watching.”

[8] O RLY

2005: Originating on the community site 4chan, the wide-eyed owl was used to show sarcasm, becoming a precursor to other reaction memes.

[9] Chuck Norris Facts

2005: Chuck Norris was the Internet’s first “most interesting man in the world,” crowned the avatar for mythical men with impossible strength, attitude and swagger. “There is no theory of evolution,” as one “fact” says. “Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris allows to live.”

[10] I Can Has Cheezburger?

2007: Animal-based memes are a dime a dozen, but the “I Can Has Cheezburger” blog, whose mascot is a surprised, hungry British shorthair cat, brought them into the mainstream. The blog was created by Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami.

Rickroll and Deal With It collide to form an uber-meme

[11] Rickroll

2007: Before there was clickbait, there was the Rickroll. Popularized on 4chan, the gag — springing a Rick Astley video on an unsuspecting victim — has appeared during a session of the Oregon legislature and even on the White House’s Twitter feed.

[12] Success Kid

2007: Based on a photo that Sammy Griner’s mother, Laney, posted to Flickr when he was 11 months old, the meme describes something that goes better than expected. In 2015, Sammy’s fame helped his family raise more than $100,000 to offset the costs of a kidney transplant for his father, Justin.

[13] Dramatic Chipmunk

2007: A simple, five-second video clip of a chipmunk — ahem, actually a prairie dog — suddenly turning its head, from the Japanese TV show “Hello Morning.” The maneuver is set to an exaggerated bit of music from 1974’s “Young Frankenstein.”

[14] Philosoraptor

2008: This portmanteau meme was an early example of an “advice animal,” depicting the vicious dinosaur deep in introspection, and pondering wordplay and life’s general paradoxes.

[15] Deal With It

2010: In this GIF, sunglasses slide onto a smug canine’s face. It was around as an emoticon on the SomethingAwful forums for a while, then became a meme when the site Dump.fm held a contest encouraging users to create their own versions, with sunglasses sliding onto various faces and objects.

[16] Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife

2010: “So y’all need to hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband ’cause they’re raping everybody out here,” Antoine Dodson emphatically told a TV reporter after an intruder attempted to assault his sister. The clip spread quickly on YouTube, leading to Auto-Tuned versions and remixes.

Nyanyanyanyanyanyanyare you going insane yet?

[17] Nyan Cat

2011: The combination of an animated 8-bit cat (originally dubbed “Pop-Tart Cat”) with the insanely catchy tune “Nyanyanyanyanyanyanya!” blew up on YouTube, becoming the site’s fifth-most-viewed video of 2011 and inspiring fan illustrations, designs and games.

[18] Ermahgerd

2012: Originally uploaded as “Gersberms . . . mah fravrit berks” and later “BERKS!,” the text superimposed on this meme mimics the garbled speech of a person with a retainer.

[19] Bad Luck Brian

2012: Takes goofy yearbook photo. Gets face plastered all over the Internet. His real name is Kyle Craven, and he’s Internet famous thanks to his friend Ian Davies, who uploaded the photo to Reddit with the text “Takes driving test . . . gets first DUI.”

[20] Grumpy Cat

2012: The original photo of Tardar Sauce (that’s her name) racked up 1 million views on Imgur in its first two days. The meme has since spawned books, a comic book, an endorsement deal with Friskies cat food and a made-for-TV Christmas movie, “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” with Aubrey Plaza voicing Grumpy Cat.

[21] Ridiculously Photogenic Guy

2012: Uploaded to Reddit on April 3, the photo of the handsome runner quickly garnered 40,000 upvotes. Derivatives include Ridiculously Photogenic Metalhead, Ridiculously Photogenic Syrian Rebel, Ridiculously Photogenic Prisoner and Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back.

[22] Doge

2013: In February 2010, a kindergarten teacher in Japan uploaded pictures of Kabosu, her adopted shiba inu, to her personal blog, and a meme was born. It usually features broken English phrases in the comic sans font, representing an inner monologue.

[23] Crying Michael Jordan

2014: The basketball great got a little emotional during his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech. Around 2014, meme-makers started using an Associated Press photo, superimposing Jordan’s face over failures of all sorts.

[24] Ice Bucket Challenge

2014: While the origins of this one are unclear — people have been doing cold-water challenges for years — the results weren’t. The ALS Association raised more than $100 million in a month, compared with $2.8 million over the same period the previous year.

[25] Left Shark

2015: During the Super Bowl XLIX halftime show, Katy Perry performed with two dancing sharks. One shark stuck to the routine. The other, well, did his own thing — and became an Internet sensation.

And if you’re not over memes like the Internet isn’t over Harambe, we’ve compiled a Spotify meme-themed playlist for you to follow and take with you on the go.

Did we miss your favorite internet meme? Tell us about it — and why it’s so great — in the comments.

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