The week of February 7th, 2016

Everyone loves a good mystery

By Jesse Hicks

In today’s connected world, it’s easy to imagine that there are no more mysteries. Surely, as people with portable oracles in our pockets (and on our wrists, and in our homes, and in the air), there can’t be very much that stumps us. A feeling of mystery or confusion is temporary and optional: When in doubt, just ask Google.

Of course that’s an illusion, and in this issue of the Kernel we’re looking at abiding mysteries—those that haven’t been solved, and the people trying to make sense of them.

First, Jeff Wise details his place in one of the more bizarre mysteries of our time: the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. In a world enmeshed by satellites, swept by radar, and monitored by air traffic controllers, it seems impossible that an airliner can just… vanish. But it’s been nearly two years since the 777 seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth, and despite having swept miles of ocean floor, investigators seem no closer to recovering it. Wise explains how, as a journalist covering aviation, he found himself in the middle of an ad hoc group of experts who wanted to challenge the official story. Their calculations seemed much more believable than the authorities’—until searching revealed that they, too, were wrong. Wise’s story is about how the Internet can give voice to alternative experts who might otherwise not be heard, but also about how it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know which experts and authorities to believe. After all, in this case it seems no one has the answers: MH370 is still missing.

While the MH370 disappearance shows what can be gained when the crowd pools its wisdom—at least for a little while—Stassa Edwards shows that sometimes the crowd just can’t be bothered. That’s the story of Ricky McCormick, found dead under mysterious circumstances in 1999. More than a decade later, the FBI released what it believed to be coded notes found on his body; believing they might be clues about his death, the Bureau asked for the public’s help in cracking the code. After a flurry of initial excitement, the story occasionally resurfaces on code-breaker message boards, but it largely goes ignored. (Or McCormick’s notes are dismissed as not an actual code, despite the FBI’s insistence.) There’s something sad in that neglect, Edwards argues, and in the fact that McCormick, who was marginalized in life, finds even in death his words are considered not worth reading.

Finally, Duncan Fyfe looks at the last days of HitchBOT, the friendly robot who tried to hitchhike its way across the U.S.A. Despite celebrated tours across Canada and Germany, HitchBOT didn’t make it far in the United States. Late at night on a street in Philadelphia, the robot was attacked and destroyed. But who was the culprit? And why would anyone want to hurt HitchBOT?

Enjoy the issue.
Illustration by Bruno Moraes