Shakes on a Plane: Can you Harlem shake yourself to death?

Dancing like a tit at 30,000 feet.

Harlem shaking. Everyone's doing it, it's terrible, and sometimes you wish they would die. Lately, it seems like they might. Passengers on one plane nearly sparked an aviation emergency after harlem shaking en masse without thinking about the physics of such concerted action:

Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the problem is that a plane is, y'know, a floating tube hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles per hour. Everyone in that floating tube violently throwing their weight around runs quite a high chance of upsetting the delicate balance that keeps the tube floating in the air.

As a result, the FAA is looking into whether the stunt, which was carried out by students from the Colarado College in the US, was safe. The *Catalyst*, the college's newspaper, reports:

The students, who were traveling from Colorado Springs to San Diego on the way to an ultimate frisbee tournament, filmed a version of the “Harlem Shake,” a YouTube meme that has gone viral in the past few months. While no charges or sanctions have been filed against the airline or the students, the FAA is continuing their investigation into the flight and working to uncover if any regulations were violated.

“They are still looking into it, it’s still open,” Tony Molinero, a spokesman for the FAA said this week. “…I don’t know where the [investigators] were told about it, but when they saw the video they just decided to look into it because it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Back-of-the-envelope maths shows that the shakers would have to try quite hard to kill themselves. Take a Boeing 727-100, roughly the same type of plane the shakers will have been on. That plane has a maximum takeoff weight of 77 tonnes, and an empty weight of just under 37 tonnes. That means that, assuming the airline is halfway competent, the total weight of everybody on board can't be more than 40 tonnes. As it’s is, of course, they are likely to be nowhere near that. For one thing, much of that weight will actually be luggage and other essentials; for another, the plane holds a max of 150 passengers, and even assuming some bulky American football players, they don't weigh an average of 375kg.

So assume, at a stretch, a passenger weight of around 20 tonnes — maybe there are some really fat people just off frame. And assume that, at some point in the shake, they all threw their weight in the same direction at the same time. That would also be unlikely, given the whole point of the Harlem shake is everyone shaking crazily, not moving in lockstep as though they were inmates at that Thai prison where everyone is forced to dance to Michael Jackson.

A professional long-jumper hits 10m/s at the end of their run, so again, being generous, lets assume that's the speed our airborne meme-generators throw themselves to the side. If they make up roughly a quarter of the weight of the plane, that means the jet as a whole will lurch 2.5 m/s to the side.

That's about the magnitude of a particularly nasty stretch of turbulence. The far more dangerous aspect would be the fact that if you have 150 people in a confined space throwing themselves against the wall, the resulting crush would leave several of them gasping for breath.

And in the real world, the Harlem shake doesn't involve everyone throwing themselves in one direction in an effort to take down a plane. Instead, it just involves someone dancing like a tit for fifteen seconds, before everyone else dances like a tit for a further fifteen seconds. In those circumstances, they'll likely land safe and sound. Though frankly, they don't deserve to.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.