Friday, November 16, 2001

ADVANTAGE: MIND OVER WHAT MATTERS! Instapundit has finally gotten around to debunking the Oliver North / Osama connection today. Mind posted the entire phony e-mail and rooted out the truth back on November 5th! Why aren't we getting 20,000 hits a day?

Thursday, November 15, 2001

UPDATE: Earlier this week, I remarked: "We [the human species] have no innate sense of what it would mean to experience a single, continuous flight lasting many hundreds of years -- which is what it would take for any one passenger to be statistically certain of experiencing a plane crash first-hand."

I probably knew the correctly calculated figure at some point in my life -- in fact, I was pretty sure that the actual statistic would put the length of that impossible flight at several thousand years. But at the exact moment I was writing those words, I was too lazy to Google up the research, so I hedged my bet on the conservative side.

Now it turns out that I was waaaaaay too conservative. Trusting that he didn't also make up a number out of whole cloth, Mark Steyn reports that: "...if you fly every single day of your life, you would have to live 26,000 years to face the statistical likelihood of dying in a plane crash.

(Not to miss the point, but Steyn then adds: "But that’s missing the point. If you fly every single day of your life, by the end of the first week it already feels like 26,000 years.")

BOSTON TEA PARTY II: Libertarian Samizdata reports that Massachusetts is actually on the verge of abolishing its State Income Tax.

We're just curious: Is Massachusetts so vastly unlike New Jersey that its bureaucrats won't swiftly make up the revenue shortfall by imposing higher property taxes?

BIZARRE COMPROMISE: How to reconcile the impasse vetween the Senate bill (Federalize airport security) and the House version (keep it private)?

This afternoon, NPR reports that a bizarre compromise is in the works: The exact same private security providers now in business will be "supervised" by Federal overseers ... for one year. Then, the entire security apparatus will become fully federalized for the next two years. At that time, all private security personnel will become employees of the Department of Transportation. After the end of this three-year period, the program will be reevaluated.

Remember -- you read it here first! (If you had the presence of mind to visit Mind over What Matters first, anyway.)

SECOND-GUESSING OSAMA: With the prestige and reputation of Mind Over What Matters on the line, I'm predicting that the World's Most Wanted Criminal will shortly turn himself in.

While the media has done its utmost to portray Osama as a desperate and willing martyr, he's clearly demonstrated a desire to survive as long as possible -- if only that his agenda may also survive. And now, misadvised by a frustrated and panic-stricken attorney general, George W. Bush has just handed him the means to ensure exactly that.

While Osama might take some satisfaction in knowing that, in death, his agenda will outlive him, he must be able to control the circumstances, timing and means of his demise if he is to have any hope that his followers will carry on. It must be an inspirational -- some might even say romantic -- death. He must go out in a blaze of glory.

But that scenario is increasingly likely to be denied him. As his empire crumbles -- and with a $5 million bounty on his head -- Osama must be wondering how much longer he can command absolutely loyalty. Surely there must be at least a whiff of dissension in the ranks by now.

What if, taken by surprise, he were to be summarily executed by his own followers, his head presented on a platter by rank-and-file Taliban "moderates," as a "peace offering" to the civilized world? What then would become of his precious, discredited agenda?

If he's cornered and facing imminent capture, will Osama "do the right thing" and put a pistol to his head? Doubt it. Suicide may seem romantic to some depressed, teenage girls, but that's not his target audience.

Now, with George W. Bush's extra-legal court for terrorist-aliens in place, Osama has been handed an alternate scenario -- perhaps even (from his warped perspective) the best possible exit strategy: He can have the most watched trial in the history of the world -- conducted by an indefensible United States Military kangaroo court which may (in the words of an alarmed William Safire!) "conceal evidence by citing national security, make up its own rules, find a defendant guilty even if a third of the officers disagree, and execute the alien with no review by any civilian court."

What better way to pound home the message that the United States embraces corrupt, evil, dangerous values than to allow himself to be executed by order of the USA's brand-new Soviet-style star chamber?

This is going to come back to haunt us. Big time.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: Investigators swiftly concluded that Flight 587 was not brought down by a bomb. But the nature of the catastrophic mechanical failure appears to be unprecedented in modern aviation, in that the tail fin was "cleanly" separated from the rest of the plane in-flight. Question: Are we at least looking at the possibility of sabotage by the maintenance ground crew? If not, why not?

Tuesday, November 13, 2001

A PLETHORA OF MYRIADS: My old buddy Bill Sherman says:
"...[T]he American Heritage Dictionary uses "myriad" as both adjective and noun (usage two: noun, A vast number. From the Greek murios to mean countless). So it's grammatically correct, even if it does sound clunky...

*Ulp*. And to think I've been correcting my betters for all these myriads of years. Hopefully, I'll keep an open mind about the organic nature of language from now on. From, here's more:
Throughout most of its history ... myriad was used as a noun, as in a myriad of men. In the 19th century it began to be used in poetry as an adjective, as in myriad men. Both usages in English are acceptable, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's “Myriad myriads of lives.” This poetic, adjectival use became so well entrenched generally that many people came to consider it as the only correct use. ...

Live and learn.

PET PEEVE: As Kabul falls, Charles Krauthammer explains our next big mission in Afghanistan:
The government we are trying to hatch has to satisfy the requirements of six neighboring countries, four major tribes and a myriad of ethnic prejudices and half-buried grievances.

That said, the next big mission of Mind Over What Matters is to hold up to ridicule every major American newspaper which allows the word "myriad" to be used as a noun rather than an adjective.

(It's very simple, fellas -- just remember how clumsy it would have sounded, had Larry Niven's classic science fiction book been called All The Myriads of Ways.)

CARTOONIST TOM TOMMORROW, in an eerily cynical moment of clarity, questions conventional wisdom:

Or, for those with broadband connections who would rather watch an unrelated Tom Tomorrow animated cartoon:


Federalize airport security. Immediately. Not that it would have helped Flight 587 one way or another -- but the fact that we legitimately feared, for an entire news cycle, that it was brought down by a terrorist bomb is proof enough that we can't afford Tom DeLay's political posturing on this issue.

In an eerily prescient moment of clarity, let's reconsider what Mind Over What Matters had to say only eight days earlier (with bold italic underscores added):
The oft-stated reason for federalizing airport security is simple and fundamentally true: Government must intervene wherever ordinary market forces work against the public interest. This is precisely the dynamic at work here. Left to their own devices, our private-sector airlines -- most of which are now battling for their very survival -- will continue to pay minimum-wage or low-bid rates for untrained, unchecked, unmotivated rent-a-cops. If Congress simply passes unfunded mandates to dictate improved quality control for security checks, the airlines will cut corners elsewhere. (Fewer safety inspections, anyone?)

Monday, November 12, 2001

OKAY. Twelve hours later, and cooler heads are prevailing. Flight 587 appears to have suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure. No evidence of terrorist involvement. Leroy Sievers, executive producer of Nightline, sends out a daily promotional e-mail for the show (sorry, no link -- it's just an e-mail list -- but you can sign up here) and had this to say today:
What is interesting is the relief that people feel every time a new report comes out that tends towards a mechanical problem, rather than terrorism. Two months ago, I don't think that people would have felt relief that there was a catastrophic problem on a plane. I guess that's sort of like the difference between "natural causes" and "murder." Our reaction to that kind of mechanical problem would have been horror before September 11th, now we seem relieved. Mechanical failure is something we can understand.

Indeed, this morning, I felt visceral anger at the thought that our nation's ineffectually feeble attempt to beef up airline security had enabled some extremist nutcase to plant a bomb on the plane. This evening, I feel -- yes -- relief that Al-Qaeda apparently hasn't the resources to launch a serious second strike at this time.

Sure, it's a troubling coincidence that this plane should crash so soon after 9/11. But the only reason to make the leap and assume that another terrorist act was committed today -- in the complete absence of evidence, and in direct contradiction of all that has been said at every level of government and by countless witnesses -- is that it feels better to have someone to blame. Someone to punish.

Reality check: We exist in a violent, chaotic, unfair Universe, in which no one is imbued with a right to exist in perpetuity.

And here's what has to be understood about the nature of coincidences: The human mind never evolved to fully comprehend the very large numbers within which the Universe routinely generates coincidences. Our survival as a species was never dependent on that kind of comprehension (until, perhaps, very recently).

In that context, some of us may understand intellectually, in the abstract, that the failure rate of commercial aircraft is tiny compared to the number of people-miles flown per year. But we have no innate sense of what it would mean to experience a single, continuous flight lasting many hundreds of years -- which is what it would take for any one passenger to be statistically certain of experiencing a plane crash first-hand.

What we do surely understand is small numbers. We understand the number 2 very, very well, because we've had so much experience dealing with it. Some studies even show that counting and small-number basic math may be hard-wired from birth! And so, when a plane crashes two (2) months after an act of terrorism, the human brain is naturally inclined to process the number 2 and think of it as evidence of a meaningful pattern -- one that can be comprehended instinctively -- even as it takes place within the universe of billions and trillions of events, among which the relationships are too vastly intertwined ever to comprehend.

Not only do we exist in a violent, chaotic, unfair Universe -- one that is also chockablok full of events that the human mind instinctively interprets as suspiciously coincidental -- the reality is that coincidences are statistically likely to happen, both often and regularly. What would be truly suspicious would be if seemingly inexplicable coincidences -- such today's crash happening so soon after the 9/11 attacks -- failed to occur on a regular, statistically predictable basis.

For more on the subject, I heartily recommend the book Innumeracy : Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos. And if enough of you buy it through this link, eventually my household will earn enough to replace my recently-busted shoelaces.

(All that said, our elected representatives still apparently lack the will to impose a fix on airline security, and it's just a matter of time before some extremist nutcase exploits the holes in the system and blows a few holes of his own. When it happens, we should demand the resignation of every member of Congress who has frittered away these past two months in the hopes of scoring partisan political points.)

("Don't make me angry.
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.")


Slightly later reports are beginning to suggest that it could have been engine failure after all. Another witness has reported seeing flames shooting out of engine during the takeoff of Flight 587, and a quick visual inspection of the fallen engine indicates that it may well have exploded without the aid of a bomb.

And now comes word that the pilot had radioed to another nearby aircraft that he was having mechanical difficulties shortly before the crash.

Nevertheless, the FBI has itself rushed to judgment and stated that they believe there was an explosion inside the passenger compartment. On what grounds, I have no idea. We'll see, soon enough...


I'm not usually one to rush to judgment -- but one can't avoid jumping to the logical conclusion that United Airlines Flight 587 was brought down by a bomb. Obviously, more hard information will come out soon enough, but eyewitnesses from the ground reportedly saw an explosion in the air and one wing separate from the plane before the crash. That sure doesn't sound like mere engine failure.

The especially odd twist -- accounting for some early confusion as to whether this was an inbound or outbound flight -- is that the plane was apparently attempting a U-turn just before the explosion. Did yet another suicidal passenger-terrorist announce his mad scheme just before tripping the switch?

In any case, it doesn't matter. Unlike 9/11, we shouldn't have been taken by surprise. We knew better -- we knew!! -- that our airline security was compromised -- we'd seen the awful consequences of treating airline security as a national joke -- and we failed to act swiftly to fix the problems. What we were trying to prove? That we could second-guess the terrorists? Did we make some cost-benefit calculation and figure that our resources were best spent elsewhere -- that the second strike couldn't possibly come by air?

What gross, irresponsible stupidity!

This one, sad to say, is our fault!