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Math is Hard, So Is Knowing When To Say Something

Math is Hard, So Is Knowing When To Say Something

… if you see something

In December 2001, alert passengers on an American Airlines flight thwarted a terrorist attack by “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, and in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, we learned that neighbors had noted suspicious activity at the terrorists’ home but had not reported it for fear of being accused of profiling or of being racist.

This week, a passenger on an American Airlines flight was seated next to a man who was intently focused on “scribblings” she could not decipher, and after repeated attempts to engage him in conversation, she reported behavior she found to be suspicious.

The Washington Post reports:

On Thursday evening, a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane. It was a regional jet making a short, uneventful hop from Philadelphia to nearby Syracuse.

Or so dozens of unsuspecting passengers thought.

The curly-haired man tried to keep to himself, intently if inscrutably scribbling on a notepad he’d brought aboard. His seatmate, a blond-haired, 30-something woman sporting flip-flops and a red tote bag, looked him over. He was wearing navy Diesel jeans and a red Lacoste sweater – a look he would later describe as “simple elegance” – but something about him didn’t seem right to her.

She decided to try out some small talk.

Is Syracuse home? She asked.

No, he replied curtly.

He similarly deflected further questions. He appeared laser-focused — perhaps too laser-focused — on the task at hand, those strange scribblings.

Rebuffed, the woman began reading her book. Or pretending to read, anyway. Shortly after boarding had finished, she flagged down a flight attendant and handed that crew-member a note of her own.

It turned out that this male passenger was an economist at the University of Pennsylvania named  Guido Menzio and that the scribblings the female passenger had seen were differential equations.

WaPo continues:

[T]his quick-thinking traveler had Seen Something, and so she had Said Something.

That Something she’d seen had been her seatmate’s cryptic notes, scrawled in a script she didn’t recognize. Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering, possibly the details of a plot to destroy the dozens of innocent lives aboard American Airlines Flight 3950. She may have felt it her duty to alert the authorities just to be safe. The curly-haired man was, the agent informed him politely, suspected of terrorism.

The curly-haired man laughed.

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language, or even some special secret terrorist code. They were math.

Yes, math. A differential equation, to be exact.

Had the crew or security members perhaps quickly googled this good-natured, bespectacled passenger before waylaying everyone for several hours, they might have learned that he — Guido Menzio — is a young but decorated Ivy League economist. And that he’s best known for his relatively technical work on search theory, which helped earn him a tenured associate professorship at the University of Pennsylvania as well as stints at Princeton and Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Setting aside the sneering mockery evident in the WaPo article, this incident does raise questions well worth pondering.  For example, both the Bush and Obama administrations have publicized the need for an alert American public to “say something” if they see something suspicious.  The Obama admin partnered with Walmart for a short time in 2010 to push exactly this message.

CNN reported at the time:

“Homeland security starts with hometown security, and each of us plays a critical role in keeping our country and communities safe,” Secretary Janet Napolitano said as she thanked Walmart and the more than 320 stores who joined the national campaign Monday.

Participating stores, eventually including 588 from 27 states, will play a short video message at select checkout locations to remind shoppers to contact local law enforcement to report suspicious activity, said a DHS statement.

“This partnership will help millions of shoppers across the nation identify and report indicators of terrorism, crime and other threats to law enforcement authorities,” Napolitano said.

While short-lived (and much ridiculed), this Obama admin-Walmart partnership embodies the pervasiveness of the “see something, say something” message.  Equally pervasive, however, are the accusations and ridicule associated with anyone who “profiles”; they are xenophobic, racists, bigots, and worse.

While this economist was clearly not a threat, the San Bernardino terrorists were.  One was reported and checked out, one was not.  One person who saw something and said something is being ridiculed and accused of profiling for doing so, the other people who saw something didn’t say anything for fear of being accused of profiling.

How does anyone know when their suspicions are worth reporting . . . and facing the inevitable ridicule and charges of racism inherent in the “profiling” accusation and when they are not worth reporting and thus avoiding public ridicule and shaming?  When national security or our own personal security is at stake, where do we draw the line?  And where should media outlets draw the line in attacking Americans who are doing what they believe to be right in a given set of circumstances?

[Featured image via the Washington Post]


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Well trust a blond to do this.

And trust Fuzzy Slippers to channel her inner blond and show her inability to distinguish quadratic equations ( something mastered in high school freshman algebra ) and differential equations ( something first encountered after basic calculus but pervading sciences and of course economics ) .

I’m curious what she thought he could be doing that was dangerous. Writing out some kind of incantation in mystic runes that would summon a djinn who would then down the plane?

    tom swift in reply to RodFC. | May 7, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Prayers. Islam is big on prayers, most of which are not particularly hazardous.

    Thanks for pointing out that typo, Rod. I have changed the word “quadratic” in my post to “differential” to match the WaPo report.

    No wonder some people need Trump.

    Trump makes little dicks into big dicks!

    Mister Natural in reply to RodFC. | May 12, 2016 at 7:59 am

    those Arabic numbers, again

    Sally MJ in reply to RodFC. | May 13, 2016 at 12:43 am

    Because none of the 9/11 terrorists were engineers, and none of them knew complex math – as demonstrated by their lack of knowledge of how to take down two skyscrapers and the Pentagon with large passenger aircraft.

    Your dismissiveness seems to imply that you think people should only report security concerns if they are absolutely positive the individual in question is a terrorist.

Quadratic equations, or differential equations? A bit different. But it’s integral equations which look vaguely like Arabic cursive. Except for that writing right-to-left thing.

But anyway … what’s the problem?

If the aircrew threw the guy out of the plane in mid-air “just to be sure”, that would be a problem.

If the 30-something had organized a crew of neighbors into a mob which burned the guy’s house down, that would be a problem.

But asking questions directly related to safety? Hardly. That would be like getting upset because the guy behind the counter at the post office asks if the package you’re mailing has anything hazardous inside.

While this economist was clearly not a threat

And we know that … how? Leaving aside the more generic question of whether economists in general are threats to life on this planet (after all, Marx was an economist), we all know that educated and fairly well-off people are never terrorists, right? Yeah, right. If this was the Gong Show, it would be getting pretty noisy in here right about now.

    tom, you asked: “‘While this economist was clearly not a threat’

    And we know that … how?”

    We know that because he was taken off the plane and questioned and cleared by security officials. He presumably did not have a bomb on him or any plans to hijack or otherwise interfere with the plane. Had he been a threat, he would have been detained, no? Instead, it appears that he was working on a talk he was on his way to give at a Canadian university; you can click the provided link and read the whole WaPo article if you are still confused about this.

This reminds me of the unarmed scenario … goes something like this … unarmed man was shot trying to …. We know after the fact he was unarmed because we have the luxury of leasuirly searching him. What about at the moment he was shot, or even before that moment. Do you want to be the one that made the mistake of assuming someone was unarmed.

Our local Al Sharpton was invited by the po-po to do some training with them. He was put in a some force on force scenarios and asked to be the “man” in these situations. After a few times of being killed by a fake knife, he went all aggressive cop. Funny thing is I haven’t heard a peep from this guy since that training.

The problem with plane travel is that no innovation is at play when it comes to passenger safety. There is absolutely no incentive whatsoever for the safety of the passengers to be increased. Instead we get the …. TSA, now there is a creative inventive solution to passenger safety. Why must we accept the government coercive totally ineffective politically motivated invasive useless solution when some other solution (or partial solutions) are out there waiting be discovered by someone that has proper incentives. Unless and until we get WHY government doesn’t work on these types of problems we will be doomed to continually repeat them and the cost will be lives.

legacyrepublican | May 7, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Terrorist? I think it would depend on whether or not he is Keynesian or Supply Side.

Richard Aubrey | May 7, 2016 at 6:05 pm

Somebody’s supposed to pay little Achmed the Clockfaker $15 mill.
Made the point before; the Russian intel gave the fibbies the Tsarnaev clan on a platter. Our guys couldn’t find anything to concern them, or perhaps it was “You’re not the boss of me.”
And Mrs. Farook faked up her immigration paperwork so smoothly that it took ABC almost a day to spot the clangers.
Result is…say something, be working for your lawyer for the next twenty years. Or…didn’t make any difference, anyway.

maybe if he hadn’t been such an anti-social 5hit to the lady, this could all have been avoided.

blaming her for doing the right thing is stupid.

    Milhouse in reply to redc1c4. | May 8, 2016 at 1:39 am

    Antisocial what? When you’re trying to get some work done, and some random stranger keeps bothering you with inane chatter, since when are you under any obligation to oblige her? Why is it her business where you live or what you think of the weather or what your cats names are, or whatever intrusive questions she asked? Just shut up, lady, and let me work, or read, or whatever I’m doing that’s more important than you.

Maybe the ridicule is not for reporting suspicious activity, but for thinking that differential equations were suspicious.

To be fair, many people find math terrifying.

    Anybody working hard on differential equations should be suspect.

    You see, Blaise Pascal whimsically invented differential equations in order to create a form of mathematics that was “completely useless.”

    This man had obvious subverted Baise Pascal’s intentions and should be locked up.

Be Alert! You country needs lerts.

The answer is that if anything bothers you, for any reason, say something, but the person to whom you say something, and the person to whom she reports, and so up the line, should all remember that there’s a greater than 99% that nothing is wrong. The person should not be treated like a probable terrorist, but quietly taken aside and asked a few polite questions, taking care not to draw attention or embarrass him. If you can’t do that then just keep an eye on him and don’t make contact. The minuscule chance that he really is a terrorist does not justify the definite harm of treating him like one. If the boy with the clock had been treated like that there would never have been a problem in the first place.

    Ragspierre in reply to Milhouse. | May 8, 2016 at 10:17 am

    “The person should not be treated like a probable terrorist, but quietly taken aside and asked a few polite questions, taking care not to draw attention or embarrass him.”

    And isn’t THAT essentially what the Israelis do in all airline security? And theirs works, by george, whereas ours conspicuously does NOT.

      Barry in reply to Ragspierre. | May 8, 2016 at 12:42 pm

      While I agree what we have doesn’t work, and what the Israeli’s have works for them, we have a bit of a different problem.

      The USA has north of 800 million passengers per year flying in/out of the USA. The Israeli’s have around 6 million.

      I don’t know that a good answer exists. Other than the obvious, kill the terrorist masters until they stop the terror. They are found in two places primarily, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

        DaveGinOly in reply to Barry. | May 8, 2016 at 1:07 pm

        Our aviation security infrastructure is (or maybe I should write “should be”?) proportionately larger than Israel’s. Israel’s does have fewer commercial aviation passengers to scrutinize, but it also has a smaller country from which to draw resources (personnel and fiscal).

          Barry in reply to DaveGinOly. | May 8, 2016 at 11:40 pm

          Agreed, we have much larger resources to draw upon. OTOH, the visitors to the US are much more complex to analyze than those going to Israel.

          The Israeli’s do a helluva job. But there problem is different than ours, IMO.

I heard he was an armrest poacher.

It’s easy to make fun of the woman but she’s not the one who delayed the flight and pulled him off the plane for questioning. Sitting by yourself and writing in a notepad isn’t unusual. They should have asked her what she saw, said “ok, so you didn’t really see anything”, and sent her back to her seat or home, depending upon her mental state. The fact that they felt compelled to investigate means their procedures have removed any shred of common sense from the equation.

And what he was writing seems to be the main part of the story but why should it make any difference? Whether he’s inventing the next search engine or writing lyrics for “Bin Laden: The Musical”, he’s still just a guy with a pen sitting in the corner.

    clintack in reply to tyates. | May 8, 2016 at 9:31 am

    Yes. Thank you.

    This is what seems to be missing from all the hullabaloo about this.

    The problem isn’t that the woman got nervous, it’s what the “authorities” did over the next hour and a half — it took them an hour and a half to confirm that the guy wasn’t a threat, delaying the entire flight for everyone on board.

      DaveGinOly in reply to clintack. | May 8, 2016 at 1:09 pm

      Yes, were they all so ignorant that the didn’t immediately recognize that the man was doing math and not writing a treatise on the Hadith in Arabian?

        rabidfox in reply to DaveGinOly. | May 8, 2016 at 2:22 pm

        And even if he HAD been writing a treatise on the Hadith in Arabic – so what? It isn’t illegal or even particularly threatening.

Maybe a better education system would have let her at least recognize equations. Wasn’t there an article recently that the libs want to get rid even of algebra as it is no longer necessary?

Regressing the education system to get the peasants back to their serfdom.

One has to use common sense in these situations. Just because someone is absorbed in reading or writing on a plane and isn’t interested in conversing with the neighboring passenger doesn’t mean anything, in and of itself. Other than actively praying out loud beforehand, Muslim terrorists aren’t big on engaging in a big preamble prior to launching an attack, and certainly not one involving writing. The woman may have been well-intentioned, but, her judgment in this scenario was decidedly poor.

And, the comments blaming the “authorities” for their lengthy investigation and delay of the flight are being totally unreasonable. When someone alleges that a passenger on board a plane is a threat, the situation evolves into both a law enforcement and a liability issue for the airline, with procedures to follow. So, no matter how specious the suspicion, of course it would take time to sort it all out.