You'll have heard by now about a flight being delayed for two hours because a passenger became suspicious of an equation being worked on by a bearded Italian economist. How stupid!
But who, exactly, is being stupid?
First, the BBC, because the graphic they show is of Maxwell's equations. Any student of maths or physics will recognise it. No economist would be working on that. If I saw someone working on those equations and they claimed to be an economist, I would call the Science Police immediately. But joking aside, it demonstrates a regrettable tendency among the uneducated clowns at the BBC to assume that all equations are the same, and are equally incomprehensible.
In the USA, they have a campaign, "If you see something, say something" and I should put a superscript of TM there, because, yes, they've trademarked that. Suspicious activity includes, for example, "unusual items or situations". I'd say that an airplane passenger working on partial differential equations is pretty unusual. So the lady who reported it was only doing what the US Government recommended.
I have, of course, encountered this several times when out caching. People approach me while I'm groping under a post box, or rummaging in a hedge; the usual questions are "Are you OK?" or "Can I help you?" to which I smile brightly and reply "I'm fine thanks", which answers what they asked, but not their real question which was actually "What naughtiness are you up to?" And with that reply, they nearly always are happy and go away, and I hope that any terrorist reading this blog doesn't learn how easy it is to deflect suspicion with that phrase.
On one especially precious occasion, I was on my knees grubbing at the base of a hedge near a churchyard, and a voice behind me said "What are you looking for?" So I explained "I'm looking for God", and that was before I got up and noticed the clerical collar. He didn't ask any more, which is unfortunate, because I had with me a pamphlet from the Jehovah's Witnesses that I would have offered him.
But sometimes, this doesn't allay their suspicion, and they continue the interrogation with "What are you doing?" Depending on whether they're being nice about it or not, and on how contrary I feel, I'll answer with either "I'm on a sort of treasure hunt", or "I'm counting the slugs." The treasure hunt answer sometimes elicits, "Oh, is that geocaching?" and we have a bit of a conversation about that. The slugs answer usually baffles them by being so unexpected, and they can't think of any further questions, although a couple of times, I've been handed "Oh, really?" and then I show them my official "British Slug Survey" card. And away they go, thinking "Another looney" or whatever it is they think.
But there's always the occasional stalwart, not deflected by the slug story, who accuses me of "suspicious behaviour". And then the fun really starts.
One man caught me coming out from behind the trees near a bridleway, and after the preliminaries, demanded to know what I had in my pockets. I resisted the temptation to do a Gollum impression, and showed him my car keys. "What else?" he asked. "None of your business," I replied. And I walked away.
A woman caught me coming out from behind some trees, and didn't believe my slug story. I explained that her non-belief was actually her problem, not mine. She said that her son was a policeman. "Good for him," I said, "we need a good police force"
One man demanded to know my name and address. I told him I'd give him mine, if he gave me his. He wasn't too keen on the exchange, and we parted anonymously.
My favourite was at night, I'd been in a small patch of woods, I found the cache, signed it, and came out of the woods onto the green, where I was approached by two gentlemen, who demanded to know what I was up to.
"I was walking in the woods". "Why were you flashing your torch?" "So that I could see where I was going, I don't like falling over" And it went on like this for a little while, then one of them pulled out his phone. "I'm calling the police," he said. I kept a straight face. "I'll do a deal with you," I offered. "You call the police, and I'll wait here until they come, but you have to wait along with me so that you can explain to them why you called them. And if they don't turn up within one hour from now, I'm leaving anyway, and you can stay and talk to them by yourselves." He put his phone away. I wandered slowly away.
By the way, if it's an actual policeman asking me (as distinct from someone wearing a police-like jacket) then I tell them I'm geocaching. I feel they're entitled to ask, and entitled to a straight answer.
So here's the problem. What is it that they suspect?
Do they think I'm plotting to steal a tree? Am I planning to dig a bear trap? Is there the possibility of some nefarious sexual activity? The trouble is, they don't actually have any clear idea of what it is they suspect, it's just that I'm doing something that isn't like the things that they do.
And that's what the Italian economist was doing - something that isn't like what the lady next to him does.
And I blame governments for this, and other authorities. Here's what the University of Birmingham says.
We can all do our bit by remaining vigilant and reporting anything
suspicious. Be alert to anything that seems odd, out of place, unusual,
out of the ordinary or makes you feel concerned. You should never worry that it might turn out to be nothing.
We want you to report any unusual or suspicious behaviour no matter how
trivial it may seem. If it looks out of the ordinary, we want to know
We are asking the public to look out for and report any suspicious
activity. Suspicious activity is anything that seems out of place,
unusual or just doesn’t seem to fit in with day-to-day life.
I can only hope and pray that the people everywhere have the common
sense to ignore this. Because finding a terrorist is like looking for a
needle in a haystack, and there's two rules for that situation. 1)
Don't start off by making the haystack ten times bigger, and 2) Don't
think that burning down the haystack is a good plan.