Beauty of Gray

Friday, June 07, 2002

Flight 587

Anyone remember this flight, the one that crashed in Queens a short time after the September 11 attacks? There was a lot of speculation at the time about whether it was terrorism or an accident. Nobody was really sure; all they knew was that the tail and both engines had fallen off the plane before it crashed. But then the investigation started, nothing new was heard, and there were too many other things going on for a plane crash to stay in the news for very long.

Anyway, for those who are interested in the story, the NTSB has a summary of their investigation at this page. The fact that they haven’t presented any findings yet is not unusual. The NTSB moves very slowly and deliberately in their investigations, with the greatest possible care taken to get the right answer, with speed a secondary consideration.

However, their most recent release, from June 4, contains a summary of the statements taken from eyewitnesses, which are interesting.

The Witness Group has received 349 accounts from eyewitnesses, either through direct interviews or through written statements. An initial summary of those statements follows:

· 52% specifically reported seeing a fire while the plane was in the air, with the fuselage being the most often cited location (22%). Other areas cited as a fire location were the left engine, the right engine or an unspecified engine, and the left wing, the right wing or an unspecified wing.
· 8% specifically reported seeing an explosion.
· 20% specifically reported seeing no fire at all.
· 22% reported observing smoke; 20% reported no smoke.
· 18% reported observing the airplane in a right turn; another 18% reported observing the airplane in a left turn.
· 13% observed the airplane "wobbling," dipping" or in "side to side" motion.
· 74% observed the airplane descend.
· 57% reported seeing "something" separate from the airplane; 13% reported observing the right wing, left wing or an undefined wing separate; 9% specifically reported observing no parts separate.

No real conclusions here, but one thing to keep in mind is that not all the witnesses would have the same angle and not all of them would have been watching during the same period of time. This, together with the fact that people aren’t great observers in general, means that the failure of many witnesses to see something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Specifically, I think it’s clear that the plane was on fire before it crashed. The fact that 52% of the witnesses agree on that is extremely strong evidence. The other bit that jumped out at me was that 8% reported seeing an explosion. Now, the tail and both engines ripped off the plane, so its possible that separation, or the plane disintegrating, could have been mistaken for an explosion. But its equally true that an explosion would be fleeting so you’d only expect a small percentage of the witnesses to actually have seen it. If their accounts of the location and timing of the explosion agree, then there probably was one.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:37 PM

Homeland security

Consider me underwhelmed. For all the build-up towards the announcement yesterday, after looking at what is actually proposed, I fail to see how this reorganization will help the country fight terrorism. The key organizations that need to be at the point of any anti-terrorism effort are the FBI and the CIA. Neither group comes under the purview of the proposed new department.

This chart details all the different organizations that will drawn under the aegis of homeland security, along with their budgets and number of employees. The problem is, most of the groups listed have other jobs which is why they are currently funded. Simply saying that the Secretary of Homeland Security will control a budget of $37 billion dollars doesn’t mean that much, since most of that money is being used for other tasks. At best, the department can have some success on the margins by shifting the emphasis of, say, the INS more towards anti-terrorism and less towards garden variety immigration. But it’s not like any of these groups has a lot of extra money floating around that they can apply towards security concerns.

Now, I’m not cynical enough to think that the whole affair is just a publicity stunt to try and divert criticism and give an illusion of activity. If it is, it’s a remarkably poor one since it completely fails to address the problems in the FBI and CIA which are the targets of the most recent round of criticisms.

Ultimately, though, this entire effort is a sidelight. The war on terrorism will not and cannot be won simply by defending our borders. That is an impossible job. The real task is to take the battle to the enemy as we did in Afghanistan; to disrupt the terrorists activities and plans, deny them safe harbor, and hound them over the world. Homeland security is a last line of defense that can never be really effective, even against foolish terrorists that announce their plans in advance.

Incidentally, this story about Atta and the Florida banker gives some credence to the theory that the Anthrax attack on “American Media” was the result of a misunderstanding on the part of a dimwitted terrorist. Note this quote:

Prompted by a souvenir she had on her desk, he also expressed interest in the Dallas Cowboys' football stadium, mentioning that the team was "America's team" and the stadium had a "hole in the roof."

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:18 PM

Wednesday, June 05, 2002
The World’s Most Boring Headline

A few years back The New Republic had a contest for readers to send in the most boring headline they could find from a major newspaper. I don’t remember what won, but I have a new nomination from the brave new blogospheric world: “Bellesiles Update.”

Nothing is more certain to make my eyes glaze over in the few seconds it takes me to click on to another site than a long, in-depth discussion of guns. Like abortion, it seems to draw out the true believer in people, and lead them to paroxysms of rage and, unfortunately, rhetoric. But the parameters of both debates are so narrow—the issues remind me of World War I battles, ferocious combats over a narrow few hundred yards of wasted No Man’s Land, while behind the lines remain hundred upon hundreds of miles of countryside, secure and oblivious.

In both cases, the fundamental rights in question have been affirmed by the Supreme Court and seem to be accepted by a majority of the population. There’s a lot of posturing and yes, many people who would like to outlaw abortions and guns, but neither side has any chance of actually succeeding. So instead we end up with a tremendous sound and fury spent on what are, really, minor issues, small fiddlings on the margins of the main issues which have long since been decided.

Assault weapons. Parental notification for minors having an abortion. Waiting periods for handguns. Partial birth abortion. Gun shows. These are, really, fairly trivial things, although you would never know it from the flaming, outraged slippery slope arguments the NRA and NOW and other organizations use to keep their cash cow lactating regularly. Their interest in stirring up a frenzy is clear to me. What’s less clear is why so many people buy into it, on the gun issue in particular where the opposition is so weak and the fundamental Constitutional right so strong and clear.

Update: Dan Hartung from the nice Lake Effect blog writes in to say that the winner of the New Republic contest was the truly stirring headline, "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative."

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:03 PM

Tuesday, June 04, 2002
Book Appreciation

I found this interesting piece from Salon via a link on the bookslut site. The article covers several phenomena that I’ve found to be curious. The first is the idea that a “good” reader should like all great books and all great authors. And that if you don’t, it’s something to feel guilty about. This is a point of view that I’ve never understood.

The article points up the difference between appreciating the ability of a writer or the positive aspects of a work of fiction and actively enjoying it yourself. If you pick up, say , Anna Karenina and think it’s just garbage and has no redeeming qualities, then you are missing something and probably nee to reconsider. But if you just don’t like it, even to the point of finding it unreadable, well that’s nothing to be ashamed of, and I’ve never understood the common perception that it is.

Of course, in my observation, many people are unable to make precisely this distinction, and confuse their own personal preferences with the intrinsic quality of a book. So that the value of literature then lies solely in how it caters to our own personal interest. (“Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.” --La Rochefoucauld)

As the article goes on to point out, books have very unique and different points of view, and different writers have very different writing styles. There’s no more reason to assume that a person should like all great books than there is to assume that everyone should like coffee ice cream, or everyone should be fans of soccer. There are certainly things to like about each, but liking them is not an intrinsic part of our common humanity. Enjoyment of a work of literature is a matter of preference and aesthetic judgment, and of course the choices different people make will be different.

The second, related point made in the article is the strong negative reaction people have when they find out someone else doesn’t like one of their favorite books. “Awful. They must be an idiot to fail to appreciate the merits of Joyce (or Austen or Dickens or…) I think this is because books are so intimate and precisely because they involve a strong identification with a particular frame of mind or point of view. So the books we like are felt to be elements of our personality, or a signal of them. And those who reject those books are felt to be rejecting us. We feel personally insulted when a critic denigrates a favorite book. Examples of just this sort of reaction can be seen in the e-mail responses that the column generated.

It’s also interesting to note that these reactions seem to only apply to fiction. Neither poetry nor non-fiction stirs up the same feelings of guilt in or anger towards those who don’t like a particular poem or poet. Music also doesn’t seem to inspire these emotions, although it comes closer than poetry or art—I’d be much more likely to start an argument if I said that Jane Austin books are boring than if I said that Schumann’s compositions are unbearable to listen to. (I think music is in the middle because for it appreciation of skill in composition is a more important part of overall musical appreciation than the similar analysis in literature.)

So don’t be afraid to admit your own preferences, and don’t let anyone make you feel bad if you don’t like Hemingway or Dostoevsky. As one of the letters to editor of Salon put it, life is too short to spend too much time reading things you dislike, out a sense of obligation. (Although of course some reading of the canon is worthwhile whether or not you enjoy it, since it will enrich later reading.)

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 12:50 PM

Sunday, June 02, 2002
Environmentalist Taxonomy

The following is an interesting quote I ran across in the introduction to Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama (p. 18.) It highlights what I think is an important split in the environmentalist movement, one which is often ignored by critics. It is the split between those who take an adversarial position towards modern society, setting up a dichotomy between the environment and modern life, and those who seek a harmony, trying to strike a balance between the needs of modern life and industrialization and the desire to protect wilderness.

Critics of environmentalists often lump them all in the first camp, casting them as modern day luddites whose sole goal is to throw spikes in society and to bring it down in a smoking ruin. This, of course, makes it easy to ignore any concerns about the environment, since you have already decided that all environmentalists are fringe loonies who don’t shower and talk to trees and hate contemporary society. This sort of internalization of strawman arguments is distressingly common, since it renders thought unnecessary and doesn’t obligate seriously engaging with opposing positions. Certainly, there are many who do fit this description, and as is the case with many movements, the fringe groups’ efforts actually sabotage their cause by alienating the majority and allowing the entire movement to be stereotyped in their own image.

Anyway, here’s the quote, which is better than any of my meanderings:

…even today, the most zealous friends of the earth become understandably impatient with the shuffles and scuffles, compromises and bargains of politics when the “death of nature” is said to be immanent, and the alternatives presented as a bleak choice between redemption and extinction. It is at this point, when environmental imperatives are invested with a sacred, mythic quality, which is said to demand a dedication purer and more uncompromising than the habits of humanity usually supply, that memory can help redress the balance. For what I have tried to show in Landscape and Memory is that the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature. All our landscapes, from the city park to the mountain hike, are imprinted with our tenacious, inescapable obsessions. So that to take the many and several ills of the environment seriously does not, I think, require that we trade in our cultural legacy or its posterity. It asks instead that we simply see it for what it has truly been: not the repudiation, but the veneration, of nature.

…if by suggesting that over the centuries cultural habits have formed which have done something with nature other than merely work it to death, that help for our ills can come from within, rather than outside, our shared mental world, this book may not entirely have wasted good wood pulp.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 6:31 PM

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