In arson investigations, there is something called “the area of confidence.” As I understand it, the area of confidence is the patch of ground where the detectives believe the fire started. The terminology is a bit arcane, it seems like — very much one of those phrases used only by fully immersed experts, people who have not needed to stop and explain what they mean for a very long time. It’s hard to work out why they decided to call it that. Do they mean that this is the part of the investigation where the detectives need to be extra confident, because here is where it gets even more difficult, or do they mean that this is the only thing they are confident about in a situation that is otherwise characterized by abiding uncertainty? I hope it’s the second one, because that interpretation offers more opportunities to completely run this metaphor into the ground, but I don’t know any fire detectives and so have no one to ask.
Another good one is “the confidence interval.” This is a popular idea among statisticians, and I obviously do not have any idea what it refers to and never will. I asked a friend who is a data analyst to explain it to me and he said it was “a bit difficult to tell you over WhatsApp,” and Wikipedia just has stuff like “In other words, if confidence intervals are constructed using a given confidence level from an infinite number of independent sample statistics, the proportion of those intervals that contain the true value of the parameter will be equal to the confidence level.” Gibberish. Absolute lies. Means nothing, surely, other than “this is a moment where everyone can feel confident in the knowledge that they are right.”
My friend the data analyst is definitely regretting blowing me off, and fire detectives around the world are surely moaning and breathing heavily through their noses, but it doesn’t really matter. I am highly unlikely to find myself in a situation where I will be required to speak authoritatively on either data analysis or arson investigation, the latter of which is basically all made-up anyways. I have already extracted maximum value from both of these phrases, as well as from the meanings I have ascribed to them, and I am offering them to you in the belief that you will find something to enjoy there, too. “The area of confidence.” “The confidence interval.” “The interlude in which you can be certain that you are correct.” “The place where you are right.” Mm. Sitting quietly, secure in the knowledge that the ongoing investigation will turn up nothing more than further airtight evidence that you have nailed it. Not smug or sanctimonious about whatever it is, not defensive and trying to make other people see it the way you do, becoming shrill and abrasive. Just right.
It’s been a long time since I enjoyed the heady thrill that goes along with stumbling into an area of confidence, maybe even years, but not so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like. I felt a wave of it hit me a week ago, very cold and fresh, after going on the computer and seeing that the appropriate way to behave on a plane had once again become a matter of tense debate. “Again” is maybe the wrong way to put it. The discussion is always thrumming away in the background, a flame kept alive by all the many people in this world who are absolutely incandescently pissed off about the rules relating to cabin baggage, for example, but that is where it generally stays, seething beneath the surface, until yet another story surfaces about yet another creatively wrong way to behave on a plane. There’ll be a video of someone using their big toe to flick skilfully and speedily through the movie options, or an article about a woman insisting that her vicious lizard be treated with the care and respect due to more conventional types of support animals, or footage of a lunatic coldly punching the back of the seat in front of him, and suddenly we are all at square one again, miles and miles away from the area of confidence, lost and adrift.
This video has the internet legitimately divided .— Marina Marraco (@MarinaMarraco) February 12, 2020
Dude is in the last seat on the plane. Seat doesn’t recline.
Hers does. And she reclines.
He’s upset, and is punching her seat incessantly— so she records.
Who is right?!
Who is wrong?!
See you at 7p on #FOX5LION@fox5dcpic.twitter.com/jjjTLLwvEc
Questions of basic morality are considered as if for the first time. “Is it okay to force a stranger to sit next to your scary feral pet?” “Is it okay to punch the back of someone’s seat over and over?” “Is it okay to make everyone around you think about your unnaturally flexible, disgustingly responsive feet?” I don’t think anyone is pretending, either. For reasons that are opaque to me, it seems that there is genuine confusion around these issues. It’s true that people love to enter into a debate about low-stakes bullshit, and it’s true that there’s no harm in that, as long as they don’t immediately expand the discussion in dramatic and unsustainable fashion and say that it is not the plane ride that is making you unhappy, it is Late Stage Capitalism. People go buck wild for that one, despite there being so, so many better and more illustrative examples of why we should all hate and strive to dismantle capitalism. The temptation to use planes as a staging ground in this way is all part of the miasma of confusion that swirls around all aspects of air travel. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Here I am, entering the area of confidence. My gaze is level, my tread is steady. There’s me, smoking a cigarette in the bracing night air of the confidence interval, knowing that I am absolutely and indisputably correct when I say that the main thing about being on a plane is that it is humiliating — basically undignified in all aspects, everyone sitting so close to each other eating reconstituted eggs and sobbing their way through the Paddington Bear movie, hydrating obsessively, getting electric shocks from the blankets, smiling at the cabin crew with red wine teeth, being one of those inexplicable guys who walks through the airport with their neck pillow still on.
It’s chaos, and all anyone can do is conduct themselves in a way that does not bring further shame upon themselves and their families. I say this not to shut down debate, but because I think it would be helpful for society if we established some very basic ground rules. Reject this imminently sane advice if you must, but know that it is very peaceful and relaxing here in the area of confidence. There is nothing preventing you from joining me, and coming to hold the opinion that the minute you enter a plane, your personal dignity levels dip to just above zero, and one unthinking move will plunge you into the permanent humiliation zone, from which it is impossible to claw your way back. You have to be careful. You must sit still, and you must remember that you are currently in a position that would seem unimaginably luxurious to your dead great-grandparents, and that your role is to stoically endure whatever is meted out to you.
Flying is terrible for the environment, and the mere thought of your carbon footprint should make you so cravenly apologetic that you offer to just actually fold yourself up in the stowage compartment.
This means, obviously, that you should never, ever, ever, ever sit there rhythmically punching the back of the seat in front of while wearing a vacantly belligerent expression that suggests you are going to try and run over a dog on your way home from the airport. You should just never do that, because we can all see you and feel a bit defiled by what we are witnessing, but even if you don’t care about how creepy you seem, you should still never, ever, ever do it, because as well as being bizarrely aggressive and somewhat frightening, it is undignified, and the margin of error here simply does not allow for it. Know that for the rest of your days you are going to feel hotly embarrassed about this thing you are doing now on the plane. Have some respect for your future self, and do not do it.
No punching the seat under any circumstances, and no reclining your chair into the lap of someone who has asked you not to recline your chair either. Do not do it! No invoking the principle of the thing — yes, the chairs are physically capable of reclining, but do you love to lean slightly back in a chair that sucks more than you love your pride, your sense of self-possession? No thinking that this is about the right to assert yourself in a situation that apparently screams “late capitalist dystopia” for some reason. When you hand over your ticket stub to the air hostess, you are handing over your access to the moral high ground as well as your dignity. Flying is terrible for the environment, and the mere thought of your carbon footprint should make you so cravenly apologetic that you offer to just actually fold yourself up in the stowage compartment. More luxurious air travel, where fewer people all get nice big chairs that can recline at a ninety degree angle, would be even more disastrous for the climate. If you aren’t concerned about that, all the very best to you, but then you can’t say anything about plane rides being a potent example of how capitalism fucks everyone over. You can’t lie and pretend you care about other people.
No jostling elbows with a stranger in a fight for the arm rests, both of you staring straight ahead while you pretend to watch a version of A Star is Born where all the swearwords have been overdubbed so they say “frigging” instead of “fucking.” Remember that life is long, and that you are going to feel like an idiot about this every time you remember doing it, which will be often. No bitching about the food or “the service.” You are on a plane. The service that is being provided to you is the service of being flown to a place that is far away, at ruinous cost to the environment. Unless you are being assaulted or poisoned or actively menaced, no complaining.
There’s a rightness to what I’m saying. Feel it. Everything is so much clearer now, here in the area of confidence. Enjoy this fleeting moment of certainty in a bewildering world. There will never be any dignity in air travel, ever, so let’s all stop thinking we can achieve human flourishing one microcentimeter of leg room at a time.