MH370 As Stage Magic

Ed Dentzel is the host of the missing persons program, Unfound. He’s covered over 120 disappearances including Flight 370. However, before devoting his life to helping missing persons families, he was the Stage Manager for “The World’s Greatest Magic Show” at the Greek Isles in Las Vegas from 2005 to 2008. While there he worked with more than 50 magicians, helping them create and hone new tricks.

“Magicians don’t go on stage with a new trick until it’s flawless,” he told me. “Sometimes it means months and months of choreography, lighting changes, equipment changes, costume changes, all in an effort to make sure the audience can’t figure out how the trick works. I got paid lots of overtime while helping them find perfection.”

I asked him: given his experience in devising magic tricks, what does he think of the idea I laid out in The Taking of MH370 that the disappearance could best be thought of a stage magic–does the disappearance match with the way a magic trick would be crafted? This is an edited version of the reply he sent me.

I do see a lot of similarities. And I think you’ve touched upon a few of those qualities without possibly knowing it.

First, every magic trick is tailored to the environment in which it will take place. In other words, there’s a reason at a child’s birthday party you don’t see a magician cutting a woman in half. Why? Because to do that trick, the audience can’t be “on top of” the magician. If the audience is too close, then the trick is exposed. Also in other words, the simpler the trick, the more it can travel from a stage, to a convention room, to a home. Card tricks are probably the best known of this kind.

How does that relate to Flight 370? Well, if things happened the way you’ve written, the “trick” couldn’t have been performed over the USA at noon on a Wednesday. Why? Other jets would see Flight 370 leaving its path. People on the ground would see it. Military and civilian radar would see it.  Instead, these hijackers picked the correct venue for their trick: Southeast Asia, where things are a little lax, especially at night.

Second, every trick has a tell. Not because the magician wants it that way. But because there is no easy way to make things seem possible that are truly physically impossible. What do I mean? Well, a magician can’t make birds appear out of nowhere if he is naked on stage. So, her costume/his suit/those pants are not something you’d pick up at the Men’s Warehouse. Those are specially designed clothes for that bird trick. Likewise, in almost every levitation trick out there, there’s a reason the magician drapes a piece of cloth over the entire assistant before she is suspended in the air. Why? Because that’s to cover the woman sliding into the table she is lying on, and what the cloth is really covering as it goes into the air is a wire frame suspended by wires. But, to the audience–the magician’s clothes, the draping of the assistant, etc. appears to be very natural and unassociated with the trick itself, even though it is.  Maybe the best example is when David Copperfield walked through the Great Wall of China. Great trick. Yet, the tell was right in front of everyone the whole time . . . why exactly did he use the same platform and shrouding on one side of the Wall, then the other? You mean a rich guy like that couldn’t afford platforms for both sides. Well . . . it was because he was hiding in the platform and thus got carried by his assistants from one side of the Wall to the other.

How does that relate to Flight 370? Well, it may be that the SDU cutting out and coming back on is that “tell.” And you’ve kind of explained it as such. To seemingly everyone else in aviation, this is just some natural thing that occurred. To you, it’s the “tell” that a “trick” was taking place. And like the magic tricks which need the special costume or the draping of the assistant, the taking of Flight 370 couldn’t have happened without the SDU going off then on again. Continue reading MH370 As Stage Magic

New York: The Recent Deadly Boeing Crash No One Is Talking About

A few weeks ago a Boeing jet was maneuvering near an airport when it abruptly nosedived and plowed into the ground at tremendous speed, killing everyone aboard. This was not the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 that has transfixed the world, however. It was an American plane, a 767, and its destruction in a muddy bay near Houston remains even more mysterious and, consequently, potentially more disturbing in its long-term implications.

At 12:30 p.m. on February 3, Atlas Air Flight 3591 was near the end of a flight from Miami to Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, carrying cargo for Amazon and the U.S. Postal Service. Two pilots were at the controls and another was riding as a passenger. A band of stormy weather lay across the route, and as the plane was descending from 8,500 feet, air traffic control advised the pilots to turn left from a northerly heading, in order to get around a band of precipitation. A different controller then said that they’d be given vectors to clear skies. One of the pilots replied, “Okay.”

A few seconds later, the plane hit a patch of rough air. For reasons that are unknown, the flight crew throttled the engines up to full thrust, and then after the plane pitched slightly up, pushed the controls sharply forward until the plane was descending at a 49-degree angle — about what you’d encounter on the steepest of ski runs. The plane kept diving, even as cockpit warning systems called for the pilots to pull up. Security-cam footage shows the plane plummeting from 6,000 feet.

Eighteen seconds after the trouble started, the plane smashed into the muddy waters of Trinity Bay, killing everyone aboard.

A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board on the incident caused a stir when it cited “control input” as the cause for the steep dive. Was this a case of pilot suicide, like the Germanwings pilot who programmed his Airbus A320 to fly into the side of a mountain in 2015? But it’s hard to imagine that, in the midst of trying to maneuver through and around bad weather, a pilot suddenly decided to commit suicide.

A revised version of the NTSB report changed the language to “a nose-down elevator deflection,” which seemed to move responsibility away from the human pilots and raised the possibility that a malfunction, perhaps of the autopilot, could have been responsible. But there are no known autopilot modes that would behave like this.

In online pilot discussion forums, a third idea has been gaining adherents: that the pilots succumbed to a phenomenon called somatogravic illusion, in which lateral acceleration due to engine thrust creates the sensation that one is tipping backward in one’s seat. The effect is particularly strong when a plane is lightly loaded, as it would be at the end of a long flight when the fuel tanks are mostly empty, and in conditions of poor visibility, as Atlas Air 3591 was as it worked its way through bands of bad weather.

The idea is that perhaps one of the pilots accidentally or in response to wind shear set the engines to full power, and then believed that the plane had become dangerously nose-high and so pushed forward on the controls. This would cause a low-g sensation that might have been so disorienting that by the time the plane came barreling out of the bottom of the clouds there wasn’t enough time to pull out of the dive.

It has been speculated that this might have been the cause of another bizarre and officially unsolved accident from three years ago: Flydubai Flight 981, which crashed 2016 in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. That plane had been returning Russian vacationers from Dubai when it encountered bad weather and was unable to land. After circling for an hour and a half, the pilots attempted to land, then aborted the attempt, came around again for another attempt, and then aborted again. After climbing sharply, the plane pitched forward into a steep dive and smashed into the edge of the runway, killing all 62 people aboard.

The crash of two 737 Max airplanes — Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air Flight 610 — in quick succession is horrific, but in a way, this kind of disaster shows how the system is supposed to work: a mishap occurs, officials determine what happened, and then the problem is fixed so that future air travel will be safer. While it’s still too early to draw any kind of conclusions about Atlas Air 3591, the possibility exists that a firm conclusion will never be drawn — and if it is, the cause could turn out not to be a design flaw or software malfunction that can be rectified, but a basic shortcoming in human perception and psychology that cannot be fixed as long as humans are entrusted with the control of airplanes.

Note: This article originally appeared in New York magazine.

New York: After 2 Deadly Crashes, Is It Safe to Fly on a 737 Max?

Every airline crash is tragic, but the loss of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max on Sunday was more than that. It raised questions about the safety of an entire type of aircraft and suggested that a whole a swath of aviation might not be nearly as safe as we’d assumed.

Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa and went into a steep dive shortly thereafter, killing everyone aboard on high-speed impact. The circumstances were eerily similar to those under which a Lion Air 737 Max crashed in Indonesia five months ago. It’s still too soon to say if the same factors were at play in both accidents, but the coincidences were spooky for some. By Tuesday, Australia, China, Indonesia, Singapore, and the U.K. had grounded all aircraft of that type, as had 25 individual airlines.

Here in the U.S., meanwhile, the three U.S. carriers that fly the 737 Max continued to stand by the plane. After the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would require “design changes” by April, Boeing said that it would be updating its software and training guidelines. In the meantime, both the FAA and Boeing said the 737 Max remained safe to fly. So who had it right? If your next airline reservation shows you booked on a 737 Max, should you roll with it or rebook?

First, the strictly rational answer: statistically, the 737 Max still has a decent track record for safety. With 350 in service since the type was introduced in 2017, with each flying an average of 3.5 trips per day, the percentage of the planes that have come to grief is quite small. With the investigation into last year’s Lion Air crash still underway, and the Ethiopian crash still so fresh that we know next to nothing about the cause, it’s way too early to conclude that anything’s wrong with the 737 Max.

To be sure, there may be a problem with the plane. A preliminary report into the Lion Air crash suggests that a new autopilot system called MCAS can, under rare circumstances, put the plane into an unprompted steep dive. Even so, that doesn’t mean that the plane is unsafe to fly. It’s a sure thing that every 737 Max pilot is now aware of the MCAS issue and will know how to disengage it if the plane starts to go nose-down.

Passengers don’t need to make every decision on a purely rational basis, however. The natural human aversion to being suspended by invisible forces miles above the earth is such that the traveling public wants flying to be as close to 100 percent safe as possible. If your anxiety is making you miserable, it’s perfectly fine to accept your emotional reality and plan accordingly.

If the majority of the public ends up feeling that way about the 737 Max, then Boeing has a big problem on its hands. A reputation of being unsafe is hard to shake. The McDonnell Douglas DC-10 passenger jet earned the nickname “Death Contraption” and “Daily Crash” after a string of high-profile accidents soon after its introduction in 1971. A fault in the design of a cargo door was to blame for some of them, and the FAA temporarily grounded all DC-10s in 1979. Though in the long run the plane’s statistics weren’t particularly bad, the optics were not sustainable. Four years later, McDonnell Douglas pulled the plug.

If you’ve got an upcoming flight and are keen to avoid the 737 Max, check your reservation to see what type of plane you’ll be on, or run your flight number through a site such as seatguru.com. In the U.S., Southwest has the largest fleet, with 34 737 MAXs, while American has 22 and United has 14.

If you do decide to rebook, be prepared to take a hit: U.S. carriers currently aren’t waiving change fees over passengers’ 737 Max anxieties.

The issue may become moot, however. While the FAA has said it’s in wait-and-see mode until the crash investigations progress further, political pressure may force its hand. On Sunday, Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the agency asking it to temporarily ground all 737 Maxes in service with U.S. carriers, saying, “Continuing to fly an airplane that has been involved in two fatal crashes within just six months presents an unnecessary, potentially life-threatening risk to the traveling public.”

Who Is Blaine Alan Gibson?

[Note: Today is the last in a series of excerpts I’m posting from my new ebook, “The Taking of MH370.” There’s a lot more in there, but I want to get some of the major findings out behind a paywell in order to further the public discussion.]

If the hijacking of MH370 was a Russian plot, and MH370 flew to Kazakhstan, then the pieces of debris collected in the western Indian Ocean must have been planted by the Russians in an effort to support the misleading southern narrative. Blaine Alan Gibson had demonstrated an uncanny knack for locating and publicizing this debris. Was Gibson somehow connected to Russia? 

Ever since he’d first crossed my radar screen, half a year before he found “No Step,” I’d struggled to understand this eccentric character. In the media, he consciously styled himself after Indiana Jones, with a brown fedora and a brown leather jacket. He portrayed himself as an inveterate adventurer and world traveler who before MH370 had pursued any number of quixotic international quests, including an attempt to find the lost ark of the covenant (more shades of Indiana Jones) and an expedition to the site of the Tunguska explosion in Siberia. His was a wonderfully appealing persona. After I wrote about him in New York magazine, TV producers started getting in touch with me, hoping I could hook them up with him to pitch reality shows about his life.

I wondered how, exactly, he was able to support such an exotic lifestyle. He described himself as a retired lawyer, based in Seattle, who inherited the money to fund his search after his mother passed away. He said that he’d started watching the MH370 coverage on CNN and gotten obsessed with the case while packing up her belongings. The inheritance must have been a tidy sum for a 60-year-old man, with decades of expenses ahead of him, to have the financial freedom to travel the world full-time. Yet his background did not suggest lavish wealth.  Continue reading Who Is Blaine Alan Gibson?

The Russian Passengers Aboard MH370

Николай Бродский

[Note: In yesterday’s exerpt we looked at possibility that a component of the Inmarsat data had been hacked. If that were the case, then the plane went north instead of south. The portion of the Inmarsat data that is much harder to hack is itself sufficient to calculate the route along which the plane traveled. The endpoint of this route is Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan lacks the technical chops to carry out an operation of this sophistication, but it is a close ally to Russia, which would have that capability. But were there any Russians on board? I address that question in today’s excerpt from “The Taking of MH370.”]

There was only one Russian aboard MH370, a 43-year-old businessman from Irkutsk named Nikolai Brodsky. Brodsky was sitting in business class seat 3K, approximately 12 feet from the E/E bay hatch. Back in economy class were two Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity, Sergei Deineka and Oleg Chustrak. The men, both 45, were sitting together in row 27, almost directly underneath the SDU. I was unable to find anything about the Ukrainians from online news reports, but Brodsky had received some coverage in the Russian press. His wife, Elena, gave several interviews to local media. In one, she calmly indicated that her husband was still alive. “He’ll be back,” she told the Komsomolskaya Pravda, “and he will tell all.” I started putting out feelers to find freelance investigators in Russia and Ukraine.

I hired a freelance investigator in Irkutsk who was able to interview one of Nikolai Brodsky’s friends and three of his relatives. From their accounts she was able to assemble a rough outline of his life.

Born in 1971 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Brodsky moved with his family to the eastern province of Yakutia when he was eight, and then returned to Irkutsk when he was 16. He attended a local polytechnic but was a poor student. When he was 18, his girlfriend Nadia became pregnant, so they married and moved to Yakutia along with Brodsky’s parents. The marriage was unhappy, however. Nadia left and returned to Irkutsk. Brodsky followed, but the marriage ended soon after.

Brodsky subsequently moved to a small town further north where he worked for a timber-products company. For a time he attempted to continue his education via correspondence course, but the school eventually expelled him for poor performance. Then he hooked up with a future oligarch, Vitaly Mashchitsky, and his fortunes improved dramatically. While still in his 20s, Brodsky founded a wood-products company whose operations ultimately extended to three cities in Siberia and the Far East. Continue reading The Russian Passengers Aboard MH370

The Drive: The Crucial Clue MH370 Investigators Missed

Angus Houston, chief coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre

[Note: this piece ran today on TheDrive.com. It hits upon some points I’ve made here previously, but ties them together more concisely than I’ve managed in the past and also fits into the series of major points and revelations I want to make over the next few days. So bear with me… thanks!]

This much we know: Precisely five seconds after MH370 left Malaysia-controlled airspace, someone turned off all of the communications equipment and cranked the plane into a hard left-hand turn. Beneath a clear starry sky, the plane completed a one-eighty, skirted the edge of Thai airspace, and barreled over the Malay peninsula. Hanging a right around the island of Penang, it flew pedal-to-the-metal up the Malacca Strait. Then, an hour and 20 minutes after takeoff, at 18:22:12 universal time, it slipped off military radar coverage.

At this point, MH370 had gone completely dark. It could have flown anywhere in the world and no one would have been the wiser. But then something happened—something that might rank as the strangest part of a very strange story. Two minutes after it slipped out of radar coverage, someone turned the power to an obscure piece of equipment called the Satellite Data Unit, or SDU, back on. One minute later, at exactly 18:25, the SDU finished its reboot process and reconnected with the Inmarsat communications satellite orbiting 22,000 miles over the Indian Ocean.

Over the course of the next six hours, the plane exchanged hourly pings with Inmarsat. These pings didn’t contain any overt information about the location of the plane—this is a communications system, not a navigational one—but by closely examining the associated metadata, scientists were able to extract clues about where the plane had gone. Their analysis led them to a patch of ocean 1,500 miles west of Australia. The plane, they deduced, must be within this area.

Five years later, we know they were wrong. The plane wasn’t there. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent scouring the seabed with the latest technology, only to ascertain that the plane’s endpoint lay nowhere within an area the size of Great Britain. How could this be? The Australian investigators in charge of the search have declared that based on their analysis, the search has exhausted “all prospective areas for the presence of MH370.”

One of their assumptions must have been wrong, obviously. But which one? Continue reading The Drive: The Crucial Clue MH370 Investigators Missed

Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?

The flight line at Hetian, China’s largest airbase in the extreme west of the country, shows only intermittant use, with jets on the field in September, 2013 (left) but none a month later (right).

[Note: As I wrote earlier this week, I’ve released an ebook “The Taking of MH370” summing up my research into the disappearance of MH370. For those who haven’t already read it I’m planning over the next few days to excerpt some of the chapters that I think will be the most useful in driving the conversation forward. Here is the chapter in which I explore the state of radar surveillance along the northern route.]

It seems like a common-sense assumption that most countries routinely monitor their whole airspace. That, however, turns out not to be the case. Military radar is expensive to build and requires a lot of electricity and manpower to operate. Unless there is a valuable target to defend, and missiles and planes capable of defending it with, running a radar station 24/7 is a waste of resources. So in most parts of the world coverage is like Swiss Cheese in reverse—the gaps far outnumber the areas under surveillance.

“During the Cold War, we got used to the concept that the radar is constantly on and jets are scrambled if anything unexpected is seen” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Asia, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. “We sort of expect that to be the normal response, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehensive coverage in other parts of the world.”

Still, there are areas of the world that probably are under watch for most of the time. It would be interesting to know if MH370’s presumed northern route passed through any of them.

Let’s start with the beginning of the route. A half hour after leaving the Malacca Strait, according to the DSTG’s calculations, the plane would have passed over the Andaman Islands. The islands belong to India, which maintains a radar station there. But the radar is only turned on when a crisis is looming, which wasn’t the case on March 8. “We operate on an ‘as required’ basis,” the chief of staff of India’s Andamans and Nicobar Command told Reuters. Continue reading Wouldn’t MH370 Have Been Seen By Radar If It Went North?

New MH370 Book Ties It All Together

As readers of this blog well know, I’ve spent the last five years delving into every aspect of the disappearance of MH370, looking at everything from orbital decay and flight dynamics to marine worms and garbage patches. I’ve presented a lot of my findings in this space, and worked through some of the questions and difficulties with the help of a superb group of readers. Much of what I’ve found, however, had to be kept under wraps for fear of undermining further reporting.

With the five-year anniversary upon us I feel that the time has come to put it all together into a single narrative that lays out what we know and suggests how we can best make sense of it. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I here present:

The cover was designed by my lovely wife and I think it is peachy.

Over the course of the next few days, I’ll be walking readers through some of my most important findings. If you want to cut to the chase, you can click through the image above and get a copy of the ebook right now. It hardly needs saying but I would be extremely grateful to anyone who does and even more so if you leave a positive comment. {here endeth the shill}

The quest to unravel the mystery of MH370 is something that all of us have poured ourselves into for a very long time. At times the journey has been exciting, at times it has been exasperating or even despair-inducing. But the goal has always seemed important. And bit by bit we’ve steadily made progress, building up an impressive depth of knowledge about every aspect of the case.

Five years on, many people in the wider world believe that MH370 is an unsolvable mystery. That’s due in no small part to the fact that the two countries primarily in charge of the case, Australia and Malaysia, have given up. Adding to the general dismay is the fact that countless ideas have been put forward, some of high quality and some of low; the press has generally been unable to tell the difference, so everything gets lumped together into the stew of conspiracy theory. “Nothing is true and everything is possible,” as the saying goes.

Those of us who’ve had the opportunity to dive into the technical minutiae have a much clearer picture of where things stand. We’ve worked through which things are possible and which are not. By carefully tackling the evidence at hand, I believe we can arrive at a well-founded understanding of what happened to the plane and why.

The most important thing I can say about the case is this: it has been a collective undertaking, and I am extremely grateful to my collaborators, the readers of this blog. I haven’t always seen eye to eye with everyone all the time, and many of you may may feel that at times I’ve been kind of an asshole. But I hope not! At any rate I appreciate your patience, your enthusiasm, your ideas, and above all your determination to see this thing through to some kind of an ending.

More to come soon…

Identity of MH370 Mystery Caller Revealed

Kristin Shorten, a journalist working for The Australian newspaper, has published an article revealing that the aircraft engineer with whom MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah had a 45-minute phone conversation prior to the missing flight was Shah’s cousin.

The call had been the subject of speculation since it was mentioned in the leaked Malaysian police report. Folder 4 of the report, entitled ‘SKMM Analysis’, states:

The analysis on the phone call made and received by MH370 Pilot showed that he received noticeably long call duration from 019-3394874, registered under Zuihaimi Wahidin, an aircraft engineer who works for Malaysian Airlines System Berhad. The call was made on 2 February 2014 at 9:49 am for 45 minutes. Further analysis showed no indication that the two have called each other from January to March 2014. Records also showed that Zulhaimi made an attempt to call the MH370 Pilot on 8 March 2014, when the aircraft is announced to be missing.

Who was Zuihaimi, and why did he call Shah before and after the plane’s disappearance? Had he, perhaps, provided Shah with the technical expertise needed to abscond with the plane?Shorten’s story puts paid to such speculation.

Speaking for the first time, former Malaysia Airlines engineer Zulhaimi Bin Wahidin ridiculed conspiracy theories that he had provided Zaharie with technical details to enable him to hijack his own aircraft. In an exclusive interview, Mr Zulhaimi told The Australian he was Zaharie’s first cousin, had been close to him all of his life, and insisted the experienced airline captain was not the sort of man who would take himself and 238 passengers and crew to their deaths.
Mr Zulhaimi last called Zaharie on February 2, 2014 — just weeks before MH370 vanished during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Royal Malaysian Police interviewed Mr Zulhaimi “three or four” times at his home and police headquarters following the plane’s disappearance on March 8, 2014, because of their suspicion he had provided his cousin with the technical advice to hijack the Boeing 777.
“I was at police headquarters for three days. It spanned from morning to evening,” Mr Zulhaimi said. “I told them that Zaharie is a smart guy. He doesn’t need me to get all of the information.” Mr Zulhaimi noted that Zaharie was a highly experienced aviator who held licences to train and test other pilots. “So he knew a lot about the aircraft.”

Zulhaimi insisted that Shah could not have been responsible for hijacking the plane.

Mr Zulhaimi, who now works for a different airline, feels “uneasy” about his cousin’s “name being tarnished”.

“They’re trying to blame him for what happened and it’s very hard for me to swallow that because he’s not that kind of a person,” he said.

“He was a jovial person. He had a lot of money. He was enjoying his life. Why would he kill himself for no reason? He had a good family and a good life. Successful children. I don’t think people are crazy (enough) to kill themself for nothing. Of course (he is innocent).”

While most staff at Malaysia Airlines knew the men were related, police initially did not. “I asked them to get all of the information from the telco company to see how many times he has been calling me,” Mr Zul haimi said. “When they found that he had been calling me so many times for the last 10 years then they did not question me anymore. They knew it was a genuine relationship.”

The father of three said Zaharie was actually “like a brother”. “He’s my father’s younger brother’s son,” he said. “We share the same grandfather. So that was the reason why (we had that phone call). Nothing more than that.”

Shorten points out that questions about the call had been brought to the fore by the Independent Group.

Police suspicions about the phone call became public when their initial investigative report from May 2014 was leaked online. This information, including that Mr Zulhaimi had tried to call Zaharie’s mobile three times after the plane was announced missing, fuelled wild speculation about their conversation.

Late last year, members of an independent group of experts urged Malaysia to provide “confirmation of the role and technical area of expertise” of the aircraft engineer.

“What was the substance of that long conversation?” the experts had asked through the media. “And who made the three attempts to contact Captain Zaharie Shah later on the morning of the disappearance?”

Mr Zulhaimi said he tried to call Zaharie three times between 10.27am and 11.12am on the day of the flight’s disappearance because he was in disbelief that his cousin’s flight was missing.

There were already many reasons to believe that Shah was not responsible for taking MH370, not least the fact that he had neither a motive nor in all likelihood the knowledge necessary for turning off the plane’s Satellite Data Unit and then turning it back on again. The absence of wreckage on the seabed of the Southern Indian Ocean also suggests that Shah was not the culprit. This latest testimony, however, serves to considerably bolster that position.

Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You

ReCaptcha inventor Luis von Ahn introduced Duolingo in 2012, hoping to help users master a new language. In minutes a day, the app promised, you could learn English, Spanish, French, or German—no books required, no instructors. And all for free.

The pitch sounded convincing enough. But in the first year after its debut, Duolingo had a hard time persuading hopeful linguists to keep up with the lessons. For every eight users who downloaded and tried Duolingo, seven never returned.

So von Ahn set out with his developers to make the app as addictive as Candy Crush and other popular games—in a good way. The addiction Duolingo cultivates, he says, isn’t harmful in the way the World Health Organization says compulsive video-game playing is; the organization classifies excessive video-gaming alongside opioid or amphetamine abuse. Duolingo really is about self-improvement, von Ahn says—time otherwise spent playing games, on social media, or doing nothing, is applied to developing a skill. What’s so bad about that?

Good or bad, Duolingo’s addiction rate is way up. Next-day retention is 55 percent, up from 13 percent in 2012. “That’s about as good as a middle-of-the-road game,” von Ahn says. And with about 300 million users, Duolingo is the largest language-teaching company in the world, by user base.

Continue reading Businessweek: Addiction to a Language-Learning App Can Be Good for You