Monday, May 9, 2016

Writing Math Equations On A Plane Can Peg You As A Terrorist? Please.

Was it Menzio's equation or Muslim-like appearance that made a female passenger nervous?

Woe betide you if,  while on a  plane, you happen to be seated next to a clueless bimbo in flip flops who observes you trying to solve a  differential equation, e.g.

If the bimbo's limited brain cells are unable to distinguish Arabic writing from math symbols you will likely be profiled as a "terrorist" and dragged off the plane for interrogation  - especially if you sport a darker complexion, curly black hair with beard, etc.  The tragedy is that not only was the poor prof in question victimized for minding his own business (but working out DEs while doing so) but so were dozens of others whose flight was delayed several hours. Such a fate befell an Italian economist  (Guido Menzio) whose AA flight was delayed after his seatmate -  described by The Washington Post as "a blonde, thirtyish woman in flip flops"  - saw him working on a differential equation and alerted the cabin crew. Can't have people working on cryptic differential equations now, can we?

Evidently, Ms. 'Barbie' Bimbo had never reached the level of even moderate math education to recognize an integral sign, far less a partial derivative and freaked out. Trembling, she scribbled a note of alarm and passed it to an American Airlines flight attendant who evidently didn't know any more about math symbols than the woman.

Thus, Guido Menzio, a University of Pennsylvania economist, was taken off and questioned by agents who did not identify themselves, after the woman - who initially reported she felt "ill" to Prof. Menzio (maybe in the head?) then tattled on his "strange script". . He showed his inquisitors what he had been writing and the flight eventually took off - more than two hours late. All that could have been spared if these geniuses had just checked his ID and googled his name. They'd have quickly learned that last year, he won the Carlo Alberto Medal for Best Italian Economist Under 40.

Prof.  Menzio told the Washington Post that the pilot seemed embarrassed.(As well he should have been realizing his plane had been carrying a nitwit unable to discriminate math from Arabic) The prof then wrote on Facebook that the experience was "unbelievable" and made him laugh. He was to board a connecting flight to Ontario, where he would give a talk at Queen’s University on a working paper he co-authored about menu costs and price dispersion (Q,S,s Pricing Rule). 

The University of Pennsylvania associate professor boarded the Philadelphia to Syracuse flight on Thursday on his way to Ontario, Canada. Before the flight took off, the woman sitting next to him passed a note to a member of the cabin crew. She initially told them she was feeling unwell but then voiced her suspicions about Mr.  Menzio's scribblings.

On learning this, Menzio wrote: "It's a bit funny. The lady just looked at me, looked at my writing of mysterious formulae, and concluded I was up to no good. It's a bit worrisome."

As well it should be, but if you read the terms of service before you board an airline - any airline - you will see how many rights you forfeit in this new fear and hyper-security era. These include freedom from not being fingered by a hysterical and ignorant seatmate who can't tell a differential equation from Arabic and then points you out to cabin crew as "suspicious". Especially if you lack a clearly defined white, "honkie" look and demeanor.

Most of the so-called "Contract of carriage" doesn't refer to dark, swarthy types writing strange formulas, but it does allow persons to be removed whose conduct has been known to he "disorderly, abusive, offensive, threatening, intimidating or violent"

Note that the terms "threatening and intimidating" can cover a lot of territory especially if one is an unread, nosy math knucklehead "intimidated" by advanced math. As explained by CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg this morning:

"They can kick you off for just about anything. You can be kicked off the plane if you're too fat, if you stare, if someone overhears you speaking a language they may not recognize. The operative word right now is fear."

In other words, it's a good damned thing back in May, 2013 wifey and I didn't practice our German before landing in Munich! Some moron that couldn't recognize it as a legit language may have reported it. All of which shows fear and ignorance rules in determining who can be kicked off a plane.

Menzio told Associated Press that the crew should have run additional checks before delaying take-off. He said, correctly:

 "Not seeking additional information after reports of 'suspicious activity' is going to create a lot of problems, especially as xenophobic attitudes may be emerging."

He also rightly blamed a lot of these "xenophobic" attitudes to the rise of Trumpism and especially the anti-Muslim component, which extends to many non-Muslims (like Italians) who might also be pegged as Muslims.

American Airlines, whose regional partner Air Wisconsin was operating the flight in question, said the crew followed protocol to take care of an ill passenger and then to investigate her allegations. It was established that they were not credible. But once again, the dislocation and inconvenience could have been minimized if someone at least had done a quick Google check of the man fingered by Missy Flip Flop.

Confirming this, in a FB post (later deleted) Menzio noted that the plane returned to the gate and the woman left her seat. He was then asked by the pilot to get off the plane, and when he did, he wrote that he was met by someone who looked like an FBI agent.

After first being asked about the woman sitting next to him, Menzio said, he was then told that the woman "thought I was a terrorist because I was writing strange things on a pad of paper." But there is little doubt it wasn't just the math but his appearance which, to this bimbo - probably caused her to think "Islamic terrorist!"

 Menzio on hearing the woman's tale then took the agents  back to the plane where he "showed them my math."

He told the Post in an article published Saturday that he is 40 years old, that he was wearing jeans and a red Lacoste sweater, and that the woman had tried to make small talk with him, but he was too busy with his math solutions.

He also told the Washington Post in an e-mail that "it is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of (Donald) Trump’s voting base", in a reference to the presidential hopeful’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric. (The Republican candidate has advocated banning Muslims from entering the US, building a border wall and deporting illegal immigrants.)

Truth be told things never should have come to this. The moral of the story? If you are seated next to a young blonde in flip flops who wants to start a conversation, be sure to oblige and not rebuff her. Then, be sure you at least explain the basics of any math you may be working on, so she realizes it's not Arabic and you're not a terr'ist.

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