Daily Digest: Michelle’s near-miss, Muammar’s mess; playing with time, and playing for cash

by Mike Mullen

– The Washington Post has the story of a near-miss and aborted landing for First Lady Michelle Obama at Andrews Air Force Base. Apparently a 200-ton cargo jet was coming in just in front of Obama’s plane, and would still have been on the runway as hers landed. Though the FAA said the First Lady was never in danger, it also described Monday’s event as an “A”-level error, the highest classification. Obama’s is the latest in a slew of publicized mistakes by air traffic controllers over the last few weeks, which have resulted in zero accidents but hundreds of headlines. One air traffic controller was caught watching a movie, while seven others have been suspended in 2011 for sleeping. (Though, to be fair to the sleepers, they’d finished the movie by that point, so what’s there to stay awake for?) According to the Post, “The number of air traffic controller errors where planes come too close to each other have increased dramatically in the past year.” (Exactly what I want to hear as my girlfriend goes on a cross-country, and then international flight.) Obama had been in New York with (Second Lady? Fourth person?) Jill Biden for a TV appearance. (Reason No. 6 not to go on “The View.” Reasons 1-5 are the co-hosts of “The View.”)

-Libya’s foreign minister has told the Guardian newspaper that the country could hold free, U.N.-sanctioned elections within six months of the end of fighting. Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, replacement for the wonderfully-named Moussa Koussa — who defected, and was last seen apartment-shopping in Qatar — says Libya is currently considering in what way, if at all, Muammar Qaddafi should stay in power. “Everything is on the table,” Obeidi said. Meanwhile the UK, France and Italy are sending small (single-digits, each) teams to advise rebel fighters, who are still fighting but have stalled in their progress. The tiny European contingent, which are said to be non-fighting, raise the specter of similar small engagements in the past: in 1993, the American soldiers killed in Somalia, and in 1997, the Belgian U.N. peacekeepers killed in Rwanda. In both of those cases, the attacks were enough to drive out the foreign parties, and leave the Somalis and Rwandans to sort things out in their own bloody way.

– The New Yorker’s got a cool profile on neuroscientist David Eagleman, whose research gets after the brain’s relationship with time. Eagleman makes for a pretty good story, as his research often takes the form of fun stuff, with a bit of math: at one point, he’s interviewing a young couple about how they felt during a free-fall at an amusement park. On average, subjects overestimate the time it took them to fall by about 36 percent. But when Eagleman attaches a device to their wrist that flashes numbers at the subjects as they fall, they’re not any better at reading them than they are on the ground. That is, for the brain, time doesn’t actually seem to slow down as something’s happening — it only gets stretched in your memory. As Eagleman says, “It suggests that time and memory are so tightly intertwined that they may be impossible to tease apart.” Maybe the best anecdote in the whole story is meant to give you a new respect for the band U2, or at least its drummer, Larry Mullen. (No relation.) Brian Eno, another musician, tells the story of working with Mullen on a song which included a computer-generated beat. Mullen complained to Eno that the computer beat was just off, and it turned out that it was — by six whole milliseconds. As Eno tells it: “The thing is, when we were adjusting it I once had it two milliseconds to the wrong side of the beat, and he said, ‘No, you’ve got to come back a bit.'” So, if you hate U2, it’s not Larry Mullen’s fault.

– The theme for the next issue of ESPN the Magazine is “Money.” In one feature, the mag counts down the top salary earners across 43 men’s and women’s sports. Tied as top earners overall are Yankees’ third baseman Alex Rodriguez and boxer Manny Pacquiao, who both pulled in $32 million. At the bottom is women’s bowler Shannon Pluhowsky, whose $40,000 winnings are hardly enough to buy tickets to a Yankees game or one of Pacquiao’s fights. What I’m interested in is degree of difficulty vs. earnings: imagine distance runners Samuel Wanjiru ($617,000) or Liliya Shobukhova ($695,000 — and the only female athlete to out-earn her male counterpart), who cover thousands of miles each year, only to come in with less money than professional fisherman Kevin Vandam ($915,500) and Phil Taylor, who made more than $1 million throwing darts. Of course these amounts leave out endorsement money, so we don’t see the millions that equestrian champion Laura Kraut ($627,907) gets for advertising orthopedic horseshoes, or MMA fighter Brock Lesnar’s ($5,300,000) huge contract with shirtsforguyswithhugenecks.com. Also surprising to me was how little competitive eating champion Joey Chestnutt makes: how many practice hot dogs can you even buy with $218,000? (Though, I suppose a lot of his meals are expensed… and provide enough calories for the following month.) Maybe, like his old rival Kobayashi, Chestnutt should give up out-eating humans, and move on to stunt-eating against bears. Good luck, Joey.