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May 8, 2016

Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Posted by Tom Leinster

A professor of economics was escorted from an American Airlines flight and questioned by secret police after the woman in the next seat spotted him writing page after page of mysterious symbols. It’s all over the internet. Press reports do not specify which differential equation it was.

Although his suspiciously mediterranean appearance may have contributed to his neighbour’s paranoia, the professor has the privilege of not having an Arabic name and says he was treated with respect. He’s Italian. The flight was delayed by an hour or two, he was allowed to travel, and no harm seems to have been done.

Unfortunately, though, this story is part of a genre. It’s happening depressingly often in the US that Muslims (and occasionally others) are escorted off planes and treated like criminals on the most absurdly flimsy pretexts. Here’s a story where some passengers were afraid of the small white box carried by a fellow passenger. It turned out to contain baklava. Here’s one where a Berkeley student was removed from a flight for speaking Arabic, and another where a Somali woman was ejected because a flight attendant “did not feel comfortable” with her request to change seats. The phenomenon is now common enough that it has acquired a name: “Flying while Muslim”.

Posted at May 8, 2016 7:30 PM UTC

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Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

It’s happening depressingly often in the US

That’s true, but the problem of flying Muslim is not confined to the United States.

Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise all over Europe as well. Radical right-wing groups (of fascist or Neo-Nazi type) are becoming more and more prevalent and vocal in countries such as Sweden, France, Denmark, and Hungary, with government representation in some cases. Here’s one brief article.

On a lighter note: I do often wonder how weird mathematicians may appear to others. I remember well talking with John Baez about operads in a crowded pub, across the table from a family whose children kept giggling at us – our conversation must have sounded very, very strange to all of them.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on May 8, 2016 10:06 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

the problem of flying Muslim is not confined to the United States.

Unfortunately not. I originally didn’t write “in the US”, then I realized that all my examples came from that one country, so I added it in. There’s no doubt that we in Britain have plenty of bigotry to be ashamed of too.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 8, 2016 10:14 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

I don’t remember that — the children giggling, that is. If I noticed it at all, I probably would have written it off as the general giggliness of children.

Posted by: John Baez on May 9, 2016 1:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

It’s worth noting that we while the original story contains remarks like:

a 40-year-old man — with dark, curly hair, olive skin and an exotic foreign accent — boarded a plane.

Maybe it was code, or some foreign lettering,

He laughed because those scribbles weren’t Arabic, or another foreign language,

and

Perhaps she couldn’t differentiate between differential equations and Arabic.

there’s no real evidence here that the woman singled out Menzio because of his skin color, or because she thought he was writing in Arabic. These remarks are primarily the journalist’s embellishments, and it’s worth noting that this was an “opinion piece” rather than a news story. She did indeed quote Menzio as writing:

It is hard not to recognize in this incident, the ethos of Trump’s voting base.

but again, he’s just guessing what that woman actually thought. It’s a plausible guess, but it’s also possible that it was just his strange equations together with his curt reply to her question that made her suspicious… in an era when we’re constantly urged to report all suspicious behavior.

As a commenter on my own thread about this topic said, it could be just a story of what can happen “when a workaholic introvert meets a paranoid anxiety-ridden extrovert”.

We are always eager to fit everything into patterns, and often it’s good, but when enough people have their pattern-recognition turned up a bit too high, problems can amplify. Here I’m talking both about the woman who reported Menzio, but also the news reports about this incident.

For example, a woman I know was watching TV news in her workplace. The news reported a crime and said that the suspect was a black male. She said “they always do that” — meaning that particular news channel always blames someone black. Someone overheard her and thought she meant black males are always committing crimes. That person reported her to someone else, and before you know it a security guard was trying to get her to sign an affidavit admitting she’d made a racist remark! It took quite a while to sort out.

Posted by: John Baez on May 9, 2016 1:39 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Sure, we’ll probably never know what his neighbour was thinking. This isn’t math and we can’t say anything for certain. But I’ve yet to hear a halfway-plausible alternative theory explaining her behaviour.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 9, 2016 1:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

We are constantly told, here in the US, and especially when it comes to airplane travel: “if you see something, say something”. In other words: if you see something you think looks suspicious, tell an authority about it. She did.

Posted by: John Baez on May 10, 2016 5:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

“if you see something, say something”

She certainly did! The question is, what possessed her to think this was a thing worth saying?

It’s possible that when she decided to report this guy, thoughts of “Islamic” terrorism never crossed her mind. It’s possible that her paranoia had nothing to do with the general fearmongering over Muslims and terrorism. But I wouldn’t bet money on it, and I guess you wouldn’t either.

I don’t actually think we’re disagreeing — we’re just emphasizing different things. You’re emphasizing that we don’t know for sure what was in the woman’s mind. I agree. I’m emphasizing that although we can never know what she was thinking, it’s highly plausible that this is part of an important and dismaying trend.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 10, 2016 5:35 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

PS - it’s not just in the US that you’re constantly told “if you see something, say something”. I travel by train a lot, and every time I’m in a station, I hear the announcements about the dangers of unattended luggage every couple of minutes. The same message is shown on the electronic display on every platform. It burrows right into your consciousness.

What actually happens if you report unattended luggage (as I’ve done a couple of times) is that a railway employee saunters up, grabs the bag, wanders up and down the train/platform shouting “has anyone left a bag?”, and generally behaves as if it is very much not a bomb. In other words, they respect the laws of probability, instead of acting like this (warning: rude words).

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 10, 2016 5:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Thanks for making this point, John. I had exactly the same reaction when reading this article. The author seems to have a bit of an agenda.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on May 10, 2016 6:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Thanks John Baez for the rational comment.

I would also like to add that the man was not “Ejected from flight” as the title of the post says.

On the contrary:

Menzio showed the authorities his calculations and was allowed to return to his seat, he told me by email. He said the pilot seemed embarrassed. Soon after, the flight finally took off, more than two hours after its scheduled departure time for what would be just a 41-minute trip in the air, according to flight-tracking data.

There is also no mention of “secret police” as you initially wrote. I haven’t read the other linked pieces, but considering the acridity and inaccuracy of your initial post (a hint of which still remains in the title), I have a hard time believing that those other stories are as outrageous as you would make them out to be. Sounds a bit like you have an agenda.

Posted by: Kosta on May 9, 2016 8:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

considering the acridity and inaccuracy of your initial post

If there are any inaccuracies, I’ll gladly correct them. Let me know.

“Ejected” is correct: he was made to leave the plane. (Unless you thought he was in an ejector seat, in which case I apologize for the misunderstanding.) I stated clearly in the post that he was allowed back on, after questioning.

Of course there’s no organization officially called The Secret Police. But Menzio wrote that he was questioned by some “FBI looking man-in-black”. Who knows whether he was actually FBI, DHS, or what; apparently the man-in-black didn’t identify himself. “Secret police” seems a reasonable collective noun.

Sounds a bit like you have an agenda.

All human beings do. It’s just a fact that in recent months, there’s been a string of reports of people, mostly Muslims, being removed from planes for the flimsiest of reasons. You can ignore that if you want, but it’s the reality.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 9, 2016 2:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

I think “secret police” is a bit tendentious, given that all airlines in the US now have well-established procedures for removing passengers and questioning them if they’re reported for suspicious behavior, and it’s not especially secret. The guy was probably working for the TSA, which stands either for Transportation Security Adminstration or Totally Stupid Assholes — I forget which.

This is the branch of the Department of Homeland Security — itself created on November 19, 2001 — that’s in charge of security for all travel within the US. Everyone who takes airplane flights in or through the US has been in contact with these people. They’re the folks who run the metal detectors, and pat me down when my belt buckle sets off the alarm, and sometimes randomly run tests on my backpack to see if it’s got plastic explosives in it, and sometimes bust into my suitcase and leave a note saying “sorry we broke your lock”.

There’s definitely an issue with “racial profiling” by the TSA — especially involving the Muslim race, whatever that is. But still, I wouldn’t call them “secret police”.

Under President Trump, things will be run differently. For starters, there will be a ban on Muslims entering the US — except for Sadiq Khan. The first part, at least, is supported by a majority of Americans.

Posted by: John Baez on May 10, 2016 5:41 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

It’s true that the phrase “secret police” can carry connotations of clandestine interrogation sites and extralegal renditions, associations which I suppose Tom didn’t intend.

However, if it’s true that whoever this law enforcement agent was, he didn’t identify himself or his department or have an identification badge, shouldn’t that raise an eyebrow? If a law enforcement agent is part of say an undercover operation, then I understand, but in ordinary dealings with the public, I’d think that such identification would be expected. Is that naive?

Posted by: Todd Trimble on May 10, 2016 5:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

The guy [the “FBI looking man-in-black”] was probably working for the TSA

I don’t know about “probably”, but yeah, he could have been. A large airport like Philadelphia presumably has a whole alphabet soup of agencies on hand: FBI, CIA, DHS (including TSA), border and customs agents, regular police, military, …. When someone raises a suspicion of a terrorist on board a plane, who knows which agency gets called? You’re guessing TSA; the guy who this actually happened to suggested FBI. We don’t know. Whoever it was who questioned him gave the strong impression of being in law enforcement but apparently didn’t identify himself (and as Todd asks, why not?)

I think “secret police” is a bit tendentious

I had to look up “tendentious” in the dictionary, but I agree that it’s a provocative word — my first association is with states like Ceauşescu’s Romania rather than nice countries like yours and mine.

However, I’m having trouble seeing how the term “secret police” is inaccurate when applied to the whole collection of US state security agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DHS. Can you give me an example of a commonly understood property of “secret police” that doesn’t hold for them?

Let’s try Wikipedia: “intelligence services or police and law enforcement agencies which operate in secrecy. Therefore, they have little to no transparency, accountability or oversight.” Does that fit? For the FBI and CIA, well, nothing needs to be said. As far as the TSA is concerned, sure, they might be those doofuses who make you take your toothpaste out of your bag, but they also have the unilateral power to stop you flying, and you don’t need me to tell you about the many complaints of their unaccountability (e.g. “The TSA and the No-Fly List Lack Accountability, Transparency”). The no-fly list itself is massively opaque, e.g. see this Malaysian architecture professor’s eight-year legal battle to get herself removed from it (and the judge’s eventual ruling that her being on it in the first place was “an error by the government”).

And of course Todd’s description:

the phrase “secret police” can carry connotations of clandestine interrogation sites and extralegal renditions, associations which I suppose Tom didn’t intend

is famously applicable to the CIA, and less famously to the FBI. (I did in fact intend those associations.) More extreme qualities of “secret police” listed on the Wikipedia page are

kidnapping, coercive interrogation, torture, internal exile, forced disappearance, and assassination

and again, all of those except perhaps internal exile have recently been done by the CIA. So it seems to me that “secret police” is a fair description of the US state security apparatus as a whole. Am I missing some dimension of this?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 10, 2016 8:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Tom wrote:

So it seems to me that “secret police” is a fair description of the US state security apparatus as a whole.

Sure, of course! I wasn’t questioning that.

If you want to call this guy “secret police”, fine. I wouldn’t, but I won’t report you for doing it.

Posted by: John Baez on May 10, 2016 11:29 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Ah, sorry - I misunderstood you. And thanks.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 10, 2016 11:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

While it may be technically correct that the man was first “ejected” before being “un-ejected”, I think stating the first but not the second in the title of the post is misleading. If you gave a student a failing grade on a test but then realized you had made a mistake in grading and corrected the grade to a passing one, wouldn’t you be annoyed if the student continued to go around telling his friends “Professor Leinster failed me!”?

Posted by: Mike Shulman on May 10, 2016 6:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

It’s true, the title states only the most dramatic part of the story. I think that’s OK.

If you gave a student a failing grade on a test but then realized you had made a mistake in grading and corrected the grade to a passing one, wouldn’t you be annoyed if the student continued to go around telling his friends “Professor Leinster failed me!”?

It depends on the context. In Cambridge, they used to announce all degree results in public. (Maybe they still do.) If I mistakenly failed someone, and their failure was announced in public in front of the student and all their friends and peers, then I’d expect the student to be upset and humiliated at the time. I’d also expect them to be aggrieved with me later after I’d corrected the mistake. And that’s fair: I’d be to blame for putting them through an unnecessary traumatic experience.

This differential-equation-solving economist seems to have been fairly relaxed about the whole thing, at least judging by what I’ve read that he’s said in public. He has the good luck not to be middle eastern, or have an Arabic name, or (as far as I know) to be Muslim, and he knew that the whole thing was ridiculous. But for more vulnerable people, even those for whom the accusation is equally ridiculous, it can evidently be a deeply humiliating experience. Regarding the Somali woman taken off a flight after requesting a change of seats:

When police asked the flight attendant at the gate if there was any reason why Ms Abdulle had been taken off the plane, the flight attendant replied “No” and that she “not feel comfortable” with the passenger.

and of the passenger herself:

“She suffered acute distress and anxiety as a result of this experience. She was publicly humiliated before a plane full of passengers” […] “She was crying in front of everybody”

So evidently being removed or ejected from a plane by security can be extremely distressing, even if the passenger is eventually allowed back on. That’s one reason why I think the ejection is important in itself, regardless of what came next.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 10, 2016 8:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

It’s true, the title states only the most dramatic part of the story. I think that’s OK.

I don’t. But these conversations never go anywhere, so let’s leave it at that.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on May 10, 2016 10:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

This reminds me of the story that Lawvere got into trouble for drawing cryptic commutative diagrams with cryptic arrows…but then he’d been seen lurking or browsing in the wrong bookshops.

As for bigotry being on the rise, its not just against blacks and muslims; I’ve noticed a few comments grumbling against polish people. I guess they’re the new visible minority in the UK.

Posted by: Mozibur Rahman Ullah on July 4, 2016 8:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

There’s also Hugh Woodin’s cryptic marks:

Woodin’s notepads consist mainly of cryptic marks he uses to focus his attention, to the occasional consternation of fellow plane passengers. “If they don’t try to change seats they ask me if I’m an artist,” he says. (How to think about … Infinity, New Scientist (paywalled))

See examples at Andres Caicedo’s blog.

Posted by: David Roberts on July 5, 2016 6:43 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Man Ejected from Flight for Solving Differential Equation

Practicing math without a license is a serious offense, after all. Maybe we should issue i.d. cards, something like press cards you know, that can be shown when we need to write strange symbols and diagrams in public?

Posted by: Mark Harder on August 19, 2016 5:26 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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