What really happened to flight MH17? A deep dive into the pool of idle speculation


The first time a Malaysian Airlines flight disappeared under mysterious circumstances, news media had themselves a field day: at least a month of wall-to-wall MH370 coverage, much of it idle speculation — or worse — due to the near-complete lack of hard information about the missing plane.

A second plane was tragically shot down today over Eastern Ukraine, but unlike the original missing flight, the circumstances under which it disappeared are far less mysterious. We have the body, we have the bodies, and now, we have the black boxes. I imagine that, pretty soon, we’ll have the full story.

Which means that if there are going to be batshit crazy theories about what happened and why, we’d better get moving in a hurry. What follows is my contribution to the concoction of crackpot. You’ve been warned.

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Are Facebook’s relationship status options a little bit sexist?

Facebook small

[Editor's note: Granted, everyone's a little bit sexist. But because the headline might imply otherwise, I should really tell you upfront I'm only talking about one of them.]

Facebook made a lot of headlines today with the announcement that it will now allow its users to choose from among fifty different descriptors of gender:

In a nod to the “it’s complicated” sexual identities of many of its users, the social network on Thursday added a third “custom” gender option for people’s profiles. In addition to Male or Female, Facebook now lets U.S. users choose among some 50 additional options such as “transgender,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “intersex” and “neither.”

[Editor's note: Gender fluid certainly does sound like it would go nicely with a seafood dinner and a box of chocolate.]

The new options appear to be quite progressive, but is Facebook really just trying to cover up some of the other ways in which it is insensitive to gender differences? Just take a look at the various relationship statuses from which the service asks its users to choose:

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Complete guide to spelling the holiday


While some are looking to tomorrow’s special event as some sign of apocalypse, I’d be the first to admit that I’m pretty excited for the coincidence of Thanksgiving and Chanuka. What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than by encroaching upon its native turf? (Zing.)

This post was prompted by a recent email that turned up in my inbox, with a deceptively-simple subject line — one word: “Thanksgivikah.” I didn’t think much of it as I got to typing my reply, but the moment I pressed send, I noticed something a little off. You see, I had concluded my email in kind, by wishing the recipient a “Happy Thanksgivvukah!” and couldn’t help but do a double-take at my own spelling of the word: Two v’s? That couldn’t possibly be right.

Or could it?

Two years ago, this blog thoroughly covered the debate over the proper spelling of Hanuka/Chanuka/Hanukah/Chanukah/Hanukkah/Chanukkah/Hanukka/Chanukka in a post titled Google’s War on ‘Chanuka’. One of the highlights of that post was Avidan Ackerson’s deterministic finite automaton that helped define all of the possibilities (for Google to declare war against).

This year, Avidan and I have again teamed up to compile all the possible spellings of the seemingly-simple but deceptively-diverse portmanteau of Thanksgiving and Chanuka. Behold, DFA v2.013:

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Sharks prefer men – so why did this one attack a woman?


Judging by the reaction to Sharknado, people on the internet really like sharks. And while I don’t normally write for anyone but myself, I’m going to make an exception for the sake of making a truly tasteless* “joke.” OK, so I guess I am still writing for myself.

*1. Pun intended. 2. You’ve been warned.

A teenager was attacked and killed Monday by a shark off the coast of Brazil near Recife. She was in the process of drowning when the shark decided to lend her a hand… by biting off her leg. Per Newser:

It’s hard to imagine a worse way to die: Bruni Gobbi was drowning, with lifeguards on their way to help the 18-year-old and her cousin on Monday, when a shark attacked. It bit Gobbi’s left leg, and though rescuers were able to get her ashore, she died that night at a hospital, CNN reports. The Daily Mail adds that her leg was amputated before her death, but she had lost too much blood. Gobbi and her cousin were swimming at Boa Viagem beach in Recife, Brazil, at the time.

“The rescuers came in a matter of five minutes, but to us it felt like five years,” the cousin tells a local CNN affiliate. “We knew there were risks of an attack, but I didn’t think that it would happen in the shallow [water], but in the deep.”

I would quibble over the claim that it’s hard to imagine worse ways to die (there’s always ebola), but as things go, this one is pretty horrific. And I recognize that. Which is why I’m also aware that the remainder of this post is way over the fishing line. But the Newser article went on to share a curious statistic I was drawn to like a shark after blood — and quite frankly, I couldn’t help myself:

Such attacks aren’t exactly rare in the area: In the past two decades, about 23 people have been attacked off Boa Viagem beach. Gobbi is the first woman to die from an attack in the state of Pernambuco during that period. Officials believe she was attacked by a bull shark.

Apparently, Brazilian sharks have a preference for men — just like Brazilian piranhas.

I find the existence of sex preferences surprising. Gun to my head, I’d have guessed sharks find women tastier (and I’d have been totally wrong). Indeed, it’s unlikely sharks find people all that tasty to begin with, meaning that the question of Why hangs over just about every shark attack.

So what prompted this shark to gobble up Gobbi? My theory: a case of mistaken identity by a really bad speller:

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What Google’s figured out but Twitter hasn’t


Search. Obviously — that’s sort of Google’s thing.

The social networking giants are joined in one giant rush to rip off one another’s ideas — good ones or otherwise: As you are doubtless aware, Facebook just added #hashtags. Twitter introduced Vine a few months ago — and now, Instagram is rumored to be adding video, as well. The race is on to see which network will manage to render the others redundant and thereby achieve social media singularity.

Some of these efforts have been successful to some degree. But when these companies rush to be everything to everyone all at once, they sometimes forget the small details. In the case of Twitter it’s the search function. The microblogging service has been trying to get into search for at least four years now, and it’s easy to see why: The ability to see updates and reactions in nearly-real time can be an extremely powerful tool. Jon Stewart’s bullying aside, it’s the reason CNN & friends ask their viewers for the fuzzy products of cell phone cameras. The result is that when I want breaking news updates, I’m about as likely to head over to Twitter as I am to Google or New York Times or any other non-constantly-updating stream of information.

So it was that just today, when I heard that the Mariners had signed their second-round draft pick out of Stanford, Austin Wilson [this post is not actually about sports], I immediately attempted to confirm that rumor (he hasn’t, yet) on Twitter:

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McDonald’s might want to rethink this particular promotional strategy


The victims of the Cleveland kidnapping have — mercifully — been mostly kept from cameras and the public eye, and so in their absence, the country has fixated on the hero, Charles Ramsey:

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Obama finally goes on that apology tour


When your party’s recent foreign policy track record consists of two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the obvious move is to draw attention to your opponent’s shortcomings — and away from your own diplomatic inadequacy.

Which explains why Republicans have spent so much time blasting Obama for the “apology tour” on which he embarked soon after taking office. Here are a few choice quotes:

“I think he had made a practice of trying to apologize for America. I personally am proud of America.” – Donald Rumseld

“Mr. President, stop apologizing for our country.” – Tim Pawlenty

There is also a Heritage Foundation list entitled, “Barack Obama’s Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower”, and Karl Rove published an article in the Wall Street Journal, “The President’s Apology Tour”.

And since Mitt Romney doesn’t know when to stop, here are a few he put together himself:

“I will begin my presidency with the jobs tour. President Obama began his with an apology tour. America, he said, had dictated to other nations. No, Mr. President America has freed other nations from dictators.” – acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention

“The president began what I have called an apology tour, of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America.” – during the first debacleate

“The president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.” – during the second debate

Mitt even named his damn book No Apology, and wrote in it, “I will not and I will never apologize for America. I don’t apologize for America, because I believe in America.”

Here’s the problem: that apology tour never happened. NO ONE DENIES THIS.

FactCheck.org disagrees using mild language. CNN simply called the allegation false. Fact Checker at the Washington Post gave the allegations “four Pinnochios”. Politifact rated the “apology tour” canard “Pants-on-fire”. I hope Mitt can afford a replacement pair of pants.

But thanks to Obama’s recent visit to Israel, fresh evidence that Goebbels’ old adage still rings true: if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth – in this case, Obama finally did go on an apology tour:

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Why we all owe Nadirah Farah Foley a debt of gratitude

Puck Frinceton

[I noticed a lot of people -- by this blog's standards, anyway -- reaching this post via the Google nearly a week after the story broke, which means a lot of people have been googling Nadirah Farah Foley. Presumably, potential employers will one day do the same, and also stumble upon this post. This message is really for them. I can't imagine learning about this story is going to do too much in the way of convincing you to hire Nadirah, though I suppose it's more about the story than about anything I wrote (this is how I justify contributing to the pile-on), and I can't keep you from finding what you're looking for. But the point is this: I don't know Nadirah (Nadirah Farah?), but I do know she will grow up. I would imagine she already learned her lesson. The internet holds grudges; it never lets you truly declare bankruptcy (unless you mean moral bankruptcy) -- especially if your name is sui generis like Nadirah Farah Foley. So don't be like the internet. Don't hold this against her forever. Give her a chance. Maybe what follows will help you see her story in a slightly more-positive light:]


Last Wednesday, I wrote about the DP’s possible motive in publishing the story of Nadirah Farah Foley’s firing from the Penn admissions office (something like but not necessarily) three months after it happened. Today, I want to suggest three reasons she deserves more appreciation:

1. Though Ms. Foley has been maligned for violating the trust of prospective Quakers by publishing choice excerpts of their application essays on Facebook, without her indiscretion, we may have never learned of the applicant circumcised at Penn Hillel, nor the one who overcame his (her?) fear of pooping in the woods. Don’t pretend like reading those accounts didn’t bring at least the hint of a smile to your face. Privacy concerns notwithstanding, I’d say the world is a better place with those stories having seen the light of day. Sort of how the world is a better place with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

Sort of like that.

2. It’s always nice to have a reminder that you should think twice before posting anything remotely over the line anywhere online. Just about one year ago, I spent a few months working at the Penn Institute for Urban Research, and occasionally blogged about some of the things I encountered in the course of my employment. I just looked those posts over, and I don’t believe anything I wrote about crossed any lines, violated anyone’s privacy, or revealed any secrets — but still, it was probably a bad idea. If Foley’s Facebook posts — which aren’t even googleable* — got her fired, so could my blog posts. Assuming, of course, anything I put online would be grounds for dismissal. The idea, obviously, is to try to avoid posting those things, in case I needed a reminder.

And we all sometimes need reminders. Just the other day, a friend posted a google map on Facebook from which it was quite easy to decipher his home address. Thanks to my mother, I am more than aware this is a terrible idea. One of her favorite activities is sending me articles about the evils that can befall one who posts too much personal information on Facebook (like Nadirah!). So I knew just what to do: I sent my friend this 2010 CNN article about burglars who mine Facebook posts for personal information like home addresses and daily schedules. All he needed was the reminder, and the post was down within a couple of seconds. So thank you, Nadirah — we can never have too many reminders.

3. We could also always use another reminder that open-ended, inane personal statement/essay questions/cover letters are just about the worst things ever. And I’m not talking about the excerpts Foley shared on Facebook; I’m talking about the first site that pops up when you google her name. That distinction belongs to Princeton’s Department of Classics alumni news page, which includes the following personal narrative [skim only]:

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The most dangerous Shake


The Harlem Shake – a little overdone, but ultimately harmless, right? Wrong.

18 Colorado College students, on their way to an ultimate Frisbee tournament in San Diego, staged a Harlem shake as the plane soared over the Rocky Mountains.

The students said they had the approval of the flight crew, who let them use the plane’s public address system to tell other passengers about their intentions.

According to this story from CNN, the FAA is looking into the 31-second video recorded on February 15. And according to the story’s headline, the FAA is “not amused.” The article lays out some of the problems [bold added to draw your attention]:

Airline pilots, flight attendants and others say the fad presents serious safety and security problems.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Jim Tilmon, a retired 29-year airline pilot. “A commercial airplane in flight… is not a dance hall, it’s not an entertainment stage, it’s not any of those things.”

“It’s cute, novel, all that sort of stuff,” he said, adding, “Wrong place, wrong time.”

Hold it right there. The Harlem Shake might be cute, and it might be “all that sort of stuff”, but if there’s one thing it’s not, it’s novel. And forget the ubiquitous libaries, basketball arenas, basements, subways, Daily Show studios, and all the other locations in which you’ve seen it happen — it’s not even novel when it happens in, on, or around an airplane:

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If I forget thee, O Jerusalem Post


Friday was one in a hundred million. According to Meg Urry, physics and astronomy professor at Yale, those are the chances of Friday’s asteroid fly-by and Russian meteor occurring in the same day. As I noted on Twitter, it’s almost enough to make one suspect the two events might have been somehow related.

But leaving aside the whole crazy circumstances thing, I wanted to draw your attention to the media coverage of the meteor strike in particular. Here’s a sample of headlines from around the world:

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