Nov 30


Newsweek has reconstructed, as best they can, the events that took place on board United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11. There are still some unanswered questions, but by inteviewing the people who received phone calls from the passengers, reviewing the tape from the Cockpit Voice Recorder, and researching the backgrounds of the people known to have been on the plane, the magazine has put together a fairly complete account of what happened. Amazingly, the passengers very nearly regained control of the plane (and had among them a pilot who probably could have landed it). It’s now clear that Flight 93’s hijackers had no chance — there were some very tough, smart, competent people on board, and once they learned what the terrorists were trying to do, they were determined to stop it at any cost. And they did.

Nov 18

Falling stars

I’ve just come in from watching the Leonid meteor shower with my children. The peak was predicted for 4:00 to 6:00 a.m., so I set my alarm for 5:00 and we spread a blanket on the front lawn and lay down to watch the show. The weather was perfectly clear, which helped to make up for skyglow we get from Raleigh and Cary. I knew that these were less-than-ideal viewing conditions, but hoped that the meteors were sufficiently bright that we’d be able to see them anyway.
We weren’t disappointed. They were bright, and we saw several per minute the whole time we were out there. It was chilly, but not terribly cold, and eerily quiet even for Holly Springs; normally, we have the sound of vehicles passing on Highway 55 as background noise even when nothing else is audible, but at 5:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, traffic was virtually nonexistent. The only sounds were the growling of my stomach (which was obviously ready for breakfast), the three of us breathing, and occasional exclamations when an especially spectacular meteorite zipped through our field of vision. Most of those exclamations came from us, but we could occasional ones from neighbors who were watching the show too. It was that quiet.
According to the CNN article that tipped me off about this event, the last time the Leonids put on a show like this was in 1966. I may have seen that shower. I can’t be sure of the exact date, but I distinctly remember lying on a blanket watching meteors with my father on the lawn of our house on Lionel Street in Monroe, Louisiana. We lived in that house from (I think) 1965 to 1970, so that’s the right location for a 1966 memory. I’ll have to ask my Dad if he can confirm this when I see him at Thanksgiving.
I did notice a couple of differences from the 1966 experience. My vision was a lot better back then; I didn’t even need glasses yet, let alone bifocals. And I don’t recall my joints complaining about lying on the ground. Even my Dad was younger back then (by about five years) than I am now.

Nov 15

Media drivel addendum

Retail sales shot up 7.1% in October. Yeah, American consumers are definitely cowering in their basements, all right.
A closer examination shows even more evidence that we’re not the Nation Paralyzed By Fear that the journalists would have us believe. Sales of automobiles and parts skyrocketed by 26.4% in October. That’s the biggest October increase since 1968. And sales of building materials rose 2.8%. A general increase in spending could perhaps be explained away as a fatalistic “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” reaction to terrorism and war. But if people are investing in new cars and home improvements, that means they expect to be around to enjoy them. These sales figures depict a nation that is optimistic about the future.
The article tries to dismiss the increase in auto sales as a response to interest-free financing, and claims that “people told consumer surveys they were miserable, but they were willing to borrow money to pursue a bargain.” But I just don’t believe it. Consumers aren’t that easily manipulated. For evidence of this, look at Japan, where the economy has been stagnant for years and shows no sign of recovering. The Japanese central bank has reduced interest rates all the way to zero, but consumers still refuse to borrow or spend money. They don’t believe things are going to get better any time soon, and prefer to save as much money as possible. This is not happening in America.

Nov 14


Let’s hear it for Al Gore, who showed true statesmanship this week when he urged Americans to stop rehashing last year’s election. “The presidential election of 2000 is over,” Gore is quoted as saying. “And of course, right now our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush’s efforts to achieve that goal.” This statement was in response to study of the election that suggested Bush probably did win. Gore didn’t have to say what he did; he could easily have either denouced the study or simply ignored it, making no public statement at all. Instead, he chose to not only say it’s time to move on, but also to express support and solidarity for the president he ran against. Whether you voted for Gore or not, you have to admit that this is a classy thing to do.
And while I’m cheering, hooray for Vladimir Putin, who is going well beyond the call of duty, at considerable political risk to himself, to cooperate with the U.S. on issues like nuclear arms reduction and the fight against terrorism. Like Gore, Putin didn’t have to do this. But he seems genuinely determined to make Russia a partner of the U.S. in these worthy endeavors. If he keeps on like this, he may end up rivaling Gorbachev in the history books as a leader committed to moving beyond the Cold War and building trust between Russia and the West.

Nov 14

Media drivel

Even before September 11, I didn’t hold the news media in very high esteem. But since then, my opinion of them has plummeted to an all-time low. Their hysterical, overhyped handling of the hijack attacks and the anthrax-by-mail story thoroughly disgusted me. Now, in the wake of Monday’s plane crash in New York, they’re busily squandering what little credibility they had left.
This CNNmoney article is a perfect example. There’s not a single fact in the entire piece; it’s nothing but guesses, conjecture, and idle speculation. The crash might affect consumer spending. The holiday season could be in trouble. People may stay at home instead of going to the mall. And so forth. The article is full of statements like “at this point in time it’s hard to predict what will happen” and “the impact of this latest crash has yet to be determined.” In other words, we don’t know anything. But we’re not going to let that stop us from blathering on for 19 paragraphs about how everything is going to get worse.
The low point of the article is this statement: “Americans, who have been shying away from malls and other large public places since Sept. 11 for fear of another attack, could hunker down at home even more now that another plane has crashed, experts said.” I have been reading claims like this for the last two months, and as far as I can tell, they are completely false. I’ve gone to malls, restaurants, and movie theaters numerous times since 9/11, and they have been as crowded as ever. I can only recall one exception: at lunchtime on September 12, the parking lot and food court at Prime Outlets near Research Triangle Park were semi-deserted. But that was no surprise, because most of the lunch business at Prime Outlets comes from the nearby airport, which was closed that day by federal order.
Other than that, I have seen zero evidence that people are avoiding public places. In fact, on November 11, I drove a friend to Crabtree Valley Mall, where she was meeting someone else. I tried to park in the lot at the Hudson Belk end of the mall, but that lot was completely full. So I tried parking in the lot in front of Toys ‘R’ Us nearby, something I normally only have to do during the holiday shopping period. There was no parking there either — not a single space. I ended up having to drop off my passenger and leave without parking at all. Does that sound like people are “shying away” from Crabtree? On the contrary, I took it as evidence that holiday shopping has started early this year.
The assertion that Monday’s plane crash will prompt people to “hunker down” at home is particularly stupid, since the plane crashed in a residential area. This means that people on the ground were killed because they were at home. If this disaster prompts people to change their behavior at all (which I doubt), it will make them avoid their homes and spend more time in public places, not less. But that’s a logical conclusion, and I don’t expect logic from journalists any more than I expect facts. They’re too absorbed in their mission of telling us we should panic and predicting economic disaster to waste time on such things.

Nov 13


Now that The New Republic has retired its Idiocy Watch feature, I’m going to steal the title (with a slight modification) and use it here to report dumb actions and statements that come to my attention from time to time. And I already have an introductory item. In an Associated Press article published today, Ireland’s Foreign Minister Brian Cowen is quoted as saying, “We must reject a world order in which the 200 richest people have greater assets than the two billion people at the other end of the spectrum.”
If they are the 200 richest people in the world, then by definition they have greater assets than everyone else. That’s what the word “richest” means.
I don’t know what qualifications are required for the position of Foreign Minister in Ireland, but apparently a high verbal score on the SAT isn’t one of them.
Update: It’s been suggested to me that Cowen was trying to say “the combined assets of the 200 richest people exceed the combined assets of the two billion poorest.” OK, perhaps that’s what he meant — but it’s not what he said.

Nov 07

Dust motes

Sitting in a status meeting this morning, I found myself staring at the particles of dust illuminated by the beam of the overhead projector. They were all moving in the same direction — toward the lens, like moths drawn to the light. And I realized that when I’ve watched dust in a projector beam in the past, it has always moved in that direction. There must be a physical reason for this.
Here’s my theory: The projector heats the air around it, which rises. Cooler air then flows toward the projector to replace the departed warm air. Therefore, once a projector has been on long enough to heat up, the air in front of it will always be moving toward the lens, carrying dust with it.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to test this theory. The simplest way would be to light a couple of cigarettes, hold them near the projector, and observe the behavior of the smoke. But you can’t do that where I work. A bowl of dry ice would probably work just as well, but how do I explain bringing that to a status meeting? Guess I’ll have to figure out another method.

Nov 07


But everything has an upside, even an apocalyptic war against the forces of darkness. Such a war tends to put everything else in perspective. Conflicts that once loomed large suddenly seem petty and insignificant, and it actually becomes possible to talk about ending them.
In Northern Ireland, the IRA is laying down its weapons, and the first steps toward reestablishing the failed power-sharing government are being taken. And with the Cold War a distant memory, the U.S. and Russia are growing more friendly by the day. Where the Russia of a decade ago bitterly opposed the U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf, today’s Russia has pledged cooperation with the United States in its war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. and Russia are hammering out a plan to slash their remaining arsenals of nuclear warheads by two thirds. And the two nations are even making progress toward renegotiation of the 1972 ABM treaty, an issue over which they were deadlocked just months ago.
Even in the Islamic world, there are signs of hope. In Indonesia (the most populous Muslim nation), a militant fundamentalist who tried to organize anti-American protests on the island of Lombok was chased out by the local officials, who told him that his message of hate and violence wasn’t wanted. And in Iran, demonstrations against the fundamentalist, anti-American government and in favor of the U.S. are increasing, while government-organized demonstrations to commemorate the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy were a complete failure — almost no one showed up.
The winds of change are blowing, and some of the changes are very good indeed. We shouldn’t overlook that.

Nov 04


Anger for me has always been a temporary thing, something I could never sustain. No matter how angry I was at someone, no matter what the reason, after a day or so the tide would ebb and I would find myself ready to talk out the problem. Even if I didn’t really want to stop being angry, I just couldn’t keep it up.
September 11 changed that. Over the last two months, I have discovered that I am capable of sustained rage. Oh, it begins to ease off after a while, but then I encounter something like this memorial video that reminds me of exactly what it is that I’m enraged about. Or I read a report like this one, describing the numerous Muslims living in Britain who support bin Laden and even think the World Trade Center attacks were justified. And suddenly I’m redlining the rage meter again.
My father was born in 1932, so he grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. He doesn’t tend to talk much about that part of his life, but at one point he recalled a memory from his youth that has stayed with me ever since. He was mowing the lawn, he said, and as he did so he imagined that the stalks of grass that he was cutting down were Japanese soldiers. When I first heard that, it seemed sad and quaint, like a remnant of a different age. It was certainly understandable that a child growing up during wartime could fantasize about something so violent, but I could never imagine myself doing that.
Today I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to mow my lawn. As I pushed the mower, I thought back on the poll of British Muslims . . and before my eyes, the grass turned into Taliban soldiers and Islamic fundamentalists. I don’t know which is more depressing — that I’m back in the same place where my father was six decades ago, or that at the age of 41, I’m feeling what he felt when he was ten years old.
This isn’t going to go away, is it? The war against terrorism will last for years, perhaps even decades. And this emotion, this white-hot, chest-constricting, blinding sensation of impotent fury, is going to be with me for all that time. For the duration, as people used to say when my father was a kid. It’s just something I’m going to have to learn to live with . . . tucked away in a corner of my mind, but never forgotten.
The person I was on September 10 could never have conceived of this emotion. But he’s gone. And that, too, is something to be angry about.