Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, March 28, 2014


I haven't had anything to say about that missing airplane, for the obvious reason that I don't have anything to say about it. But, as you know, that hasn't stopped the teevee news from talking about nothing else. That's actually good, because it has distracted attention from Crimea and thereby prevented World War III. If not for the missing plane, the past two weeks of teevee news would have consisted exclusively of Republicans taunting president Obama for being a girly man.

But, even though there was at most a scrap or two of new information each day, none of which added up to answers, the 24 hour data free mindless blathering attracted a big audience. CNN is in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers, and saying nothing meaningful for hours on end worked very well for the purpose. I actually find this interesting.

Interesting aspect number 1: This event is actually not very consequential in the grand scheme of things -- many more people have died in ordinary car crashes in the past two weeks than died in the airplane, just for starters, and obviously there are innumerable other matters that are much more important. Commercial flying is still very safe. But when many people die at once, in a single event, we pay attention. For some reason we particularly seem to like to pay attention to aircraft-related catastrophes, which is why Al Qaeda is always trying to blow up airplanes even though it's easier to blow up other stuff and could also kill more people.

Interesting aspect number 2: The fact is, we Homo sapiens are hard wired to be very interested in out of the ordinary happenings, and we are driven to understand them. That was essential to survival back in the African savannah days. Our ancestors relied on the predictability of their environment to find lunch and avoid becoming it. When something wasn't where it was supposed to be or did something it wasn't supposed to do, they paid attention, and they tried to figure out why. And indeed, this is a bizarre mystery and it's certainly intriguing. I can't help thinking about what might have happened, and I can sort of understand how people might end up riveted to the TV hoping to get a new piece of information that they can fit into their solution structure for the puzzle.

The information which has been publicly stated doesn't actually fit very well with any of the three plausible broad hypotheses: catastrophic electro-mechanical failure of some kind; a hijacking gone awry; or pilot suicide. (Actually, I'm sorry to say, it probably fits best with the latter, but I shouldn't speculate.) Of course the information we have been told could be wrong. But the strangeness of this event makes it all the more intriguing.

The ultimate conclusion is that television news is not for the most part designed to inform, but rather to entertain. Always keep that in mind.

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