Wednesday, February 5, 2003

No sex please, we're British soldiers!

The Telegraph reports that a new ₤40,000 government-funded study finds sexism exists in the British military. For example, the use of the word “manning” instead of “staffing.” I don’t know, somehow “Staff the guns, the enemy is attacking!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Another criticism is that “the media image of women soldiers as sexy or tomboyish influenced Army policy and made it difficult for women to integrate.” In other words, in the new feminist Puritanism we mustn’t see members of the opposite sex as “sexy.” Absent castration, that seems unrealistic in the world outside the ivory towers of academia.

Which brings me to my favorite part, the title of the study itself -- Gendered Bodies, Personnel Policies and the Culture of the British Army. “Gendered Bodies?”* I don’t think that too many people are likely to join the military if it means becoming un-gendered.

*According to my Webster’s, gendered means “reflecting the experience, prejudices, or orientations of one sex more than the other.” The authors of the study clearly intended this awkward term as a reference to the masculine culture of the military, which they seek to emasculate in the name of equality.

Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Fisking done right

Fisking is a bit like playing the violin. Done badly, it's tedious and annoying. Done right, it’s a pleasure to behold. Tim Blair does it right. Here’s a sample of him Fisking his favorite victim subject, Margot Kingston:

Grace believes many women feel as she does - desperate, helpless, and afraid to speak up because "they're not able to back it up with political analysis".

So they take off their clothes instead? What is this, some kind of elaborate blonde joke?

She says she's never done anything like this before, and the momentum her email has generated "thrills me but scares me as well". She's nervous about stripping off, as are most women who've agreed to come, and she asked me not to reveal the location of the protest for fear of unwanted onlookers.

It's a private protest. The most effective kind.

posted at 11:16 AM

Sacred white elephants in space
One sign that a government program has become a sacred white elephant is when it is above criticism. This is true of the current manned space program.

Instead of exploring the solar system and the cosmos, we are spending tens of billions of dollars on an unreliable space shuttle and “International Space Station” extravaganza of no real scientific merit. The space station exemplifies NASA in general -- it costs a fortune yet just travels around in circles going nowhere.

Meanwhile, real space exploration has come to a virtual standstill. An interplanetary probe costs less than a single shuttle launch and yet can add substantially to our knowledge. But the shuttle/space station program continues to suck funding away from real science and exploration.

Tom Tole’s has an excellent cartoon in today’s The Washington Post about the need to look at the underlying assumptions behind our current manned program, but rather than address his argument NASA's defenders treat any criticism of the current program as an outrage.

Not to pick on The Eleven Day Empire, but here’s an example:

…what he did today is to pull down his pants and piss all over the lives and sacrifice of seven brave men and women; over the hard work and grief of thousands of people who work for NASA; and over the hopes, aspirations and dreams of millions of people in this country and throughout the world.

That is utterly contemptible. It shows Toles to be a heartless, soulless, worthless fuck, a hateful jackal who knows how to do only one thing - smear feces on the wall as a cry for underserved attention from his betters.

If toles' superiors at the Post had the slightest sense of decency or propriety, they would fire Tomes immediately. To their shame, I don't really expect they will.

It’s high time that NASA’s mission was reevaluated and the agency geared away from the shuttle/space station and refocused on exploration and science. And that is in no way disrespecting the lives of the seven astronauts who perished with Columbia – unlike using their memory as a shield to protect NASA from rational oversight.

UPDATE: James DiBenedetto writes:

Just to clarify the comments on my site - I agree that NASA is currently doing is NOT the way to go about manned space flight. I do believe very strongly that we must continue manned space flight, because that is where our future lies, and until we get rational leadership that commits to a PROPER program for the colonization and exploitation of outer space, if our choice is a mismanaged, dead-end shuttle/station program or nothing, I'll take shuttle/station. A poor and dangerous human spaceflight program is better than no human spaceflight program. I know that can be argued, but that's where I stand.

But I do recognize there are other arguments; as I said in the post you cited: "As my comments of the past couple of days should prove, I feel very strongly about space exploration - and colonization - and I don't have a lot of use for the argument that we should turn our back on what I see as our future.

Even so, there are arguments to be made; I disagree utterly with them, but they certainly exist. But there is an appropriate time and place and manner to make those arguments."

It's not JUST Toles' view, it's the way it's expressed. I admit that I'm not a fan of editorial cartoonists generally, and Toles in particular. Bu I saw his column as not an exhortation to take a cold, rational look at our current program, but (1) an attack against ANY manned spaceflight (which may just be a misinterpretation due to my bias showing through, I'll admit), and (2) an obnoxious, poorly-timed, thoughtless and hurtful way to go about getting his point across.

And that's what I reacted so strongly to.

OBG responds:

My own view is that "a mismanaged, dead-end shuttle/station program" ultimately discredits the entire space program by creating a poor and reckless track record. Eventually even Congress is going to question why we're shooting $15 billion a year into space with little benefit. It becomes hard to argue with the "for the cost of a single shuttle mission we can (fill in your favorite social program here)."

NASA's been coasting for a long time and if they want to continue to fire the public's imagination then they need to drastically change their direction.

If the choice is spending $15 billion a year on the shuttle/space station or giving it the axe and spending the money elsewhere, I'd take the axe - and I'll bet that more and more people are coming around to that view.

Monday, February 3, 2003

Astoturfing for prizes!

The Boston Globe’s ombudsman, Christine Chinlund, reports that:

Four times since mid-October the Globe has unwittingly published letters that were written not by the local folks who signed them, but by the Republican National Committee. The same letters, all praising President Bush, also appeared verbatim (or nearly so) in papers across the country, each signed by a person in that paper's area.

A PR campaign using these letters is known as “astroturfing.” They’re pre-written letters sent out by shills from around the country to media outlets, and the GOP isn’t alone in doing it. Nor does everyone agree that it is unethical. For example:

Michael McCurry, a former Clinton press secretary, finds no fault with the practice. McCurry, whose company offers technical support to client Internet users, tells critics of the letters: ''Grow up and join the Internet Age.''

Meanwhile, the “ website … rewards those who send letters with points that can be converted into gifts, ‘from coolers to mousepads.’” That’s not much of a reward for selling your credibility. At least McCurry gets real money for selling what’s left of his.

UPDATE: The Angry Cyclist has a slightly different take on the column:

Does anyone else think this would have never hit the Globe's radar screen if this was done by the DemocRATS?

It is unfortunate that GOP-authored letters were published as individual works. I applaud the effort to keep it from happening again. The Globe is blessed with readers who are smart, literate, and passionate about politics. The letters page should be reserved for their heartfelt words, not those of special interests seeking to sway public opinion.

From the mouth of Christine Chinlund, impartial and unbiased Boston Globe ombudsman - The Republican Party is a 'special interest(s)' who are not 'smart, literate, and passionate about politics', hell bent on a deceitful but hopefully quixotic quest to 'sway public opinion'.

UPDATE: Bill Dennis see astroturfing from a more populist perspective:

there is something about the complaints that strikes me as fundamentally elitist. Professional politicians hire professional speech writers and all sorts of spinmasters. No one accuses them of plagiarism, yet that is the charge some critics of astroturfing level at those who send these letters to their editor of their local newspaper. Bull. These letters to the editor were written with the understanding someone else would sign their name to them. Joe Blow citizens should be afforded the same courtesy given to the powerful.

If newspapers really want to stop astroturf letters from dirtying their op-ed pages, a few simple steps can be followed. First, no letter should be printed without verification. That's just basic journalism. It prevents someone from submitting a letter in someone else's name. A newspaper worried about astroturfing can not only get verification for who sent the letter in, they can ask the person submitted the letter if they are in fact the author. If the letter appears elsewhere, ban the letter writer.

Having authored Op-Eds for other people I have some sympathy for Bill's argument. Why should a different standard apply to the letters to the editor than to the Op-Eds? Or is the problem not so much that the letters are authored by professionals, as that the letters aren't unique?
posted at 2:09 PM

Junk science in the service of politics
Iain Murray takes a look at Why They Hate Us, “a new study from two professors at Boston University that supposedly demonstrates a deeply-held dislike of American culture among young people around the world (including the United States)”

He finds that, “There are two major problems with this study of teenagers' attitudes: the methodology and the logic. That doesn’t leave much.” The study makes no pretense at obtaining a good statistical basis from which to draw it’s conclusions – conclusions that result in such odd results as American teenagers rating themselves as negatively as the Pakistanis rated them, and much more negatively than did teenagers from Italy, Argentina and Nigeria.

Even the logic used to arrive at the study’s conclusion is defective:

…teenagers want so much to see American culture, which they despise, that they break their countries' laws to obtain it. Presumably so they can tut-tut and remark how shameful it all is. This argument isn't even circular, it's inherently self-contradictory. This study and the conclusions drawn from it are meaningless in every sense.

Meaningless, yes. But it’ll be cited over and over again by those whose agenda the study furthers. Whatever happened to peer reviews?
posted at 1:07 PM

Rand Simberg lays out a good case for trimming the manned space program
Rand Simberg admits that science isn’t “a good justification for a manned space program. It's simply too expensive, compared to all other federal science programs, particularly the way that NASA goes about it. But more to the point, by focusing on this purpose of the space program, and excluding all others, it allows people to ask questions like ‘why don't we do it with robots?’” And it’s the robot part that rubs him the wrong way.

For Simberg, it’s about becoming a “space-faring nation and planet.” You know, establishing “off-world settlements”, “A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon” and “an orbital infrastructure that can both mine useful asteroids and comets, and deflect errant ones about to wipe out civilization.” Oh my!

In other words, it’s all about allowing a handful of people to play Buck Rogers on the public dime. There’s an enormous opportunity cost to spending tens of billions of dollars a year on NASA, and if this is the best justification they can come up with for the current space shuttle/space station extravaganza, then let’s kill it now and start using the money in a cost-effective way to increase our understanding of the solar system and the cosmos.

If Club Moon can find private investors willing to drop tens of billions of dollars to establish “A new leisure industry, with resorts in orbit or on the moon,” then that’s their business. Just don’t ask Joe taxpayer to foot the bill.

UPDATE: Here's an excellent policy position statement from the Cato Institute.

Sunday, February 2, 2003

Space exploration is too important to be treated as a carnival ride

I withheld comment yesterday on the Columbia disaster because I didn’t want my own opinion of the current space program to impinge on the tragedy of seven lost lives.

This is going to make some people mad, but here goes...

The space program has long attracted the best engineers, pilots and scientists, and has touched the imagination of not just Americans, but much of the world. That said it is largely an expensive boondoggle that has gotten worse since the days of Werner and Marcus von Braun, when we blew untold billions of dollars in order to put a few astronauts on the moon in a publicity battle against the Soviets.

Today, rather than support meaningful space exploration, NASA’s budget is being largely used to build and support a “space station” of little to no scientific value. Manned space travel is expensive and detracts from our goal of understanding our solar system and the cosmos. Far more can be accomplished for far less using unmanned vehicles for which life support systems and manned-flight safety precautions are unnecessary.

There will be a time when sending astronauts to the moon, mars and other extra-terrestrial bodies will make sense from a scientific standpoint, but that time is not yet here, and pouring resources into an ancient fleet of space shuttles and a “space station” discredits the space program and ultimately retards the goal of space exploration.

It’s time to get serious about exploration and not just treat space as an expensive political carnival ride.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg makes an interesting observation:

Gregg Easterbrook says that it's time to end the Shuttle program.

He actually says much with which I agree, but I utterly disagree with his prescription, which is to have NASA build a newer, safer system. He gets it wrong because he continues to fall into the trap of believing that the primary purpose of a space program is for science.

Simberg identifies what I see as the problem, although he obviously does not. The legitimate purpose for using taxpayer money to fund a space program is to advance science. The program needs to become more science and less taxpayer-funded, over-priced carnival ride.

OmbudSunday: a partial roundup of ombudsman columns

# The Louisville Courier-Journal: Pam Platt tells us what the loss of the shuttle Columbia means to her.

# The Florida Times-Union: Mike Clark quotes “Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media reporter, on the good old days of the news media:”

There was no golden age (of journalism). There was certainly a time when politics and government were treated more substantively and seriously by the media. But what some people mythologize as the good old days was a time when women wrote mainly for what was known as the women's pages, when newsrooms were almost entirely white, when news about Negroes was treated differently than news about whites. Reporters of the Front Page mold may have been more in tune with the people they were writing for, but they were less educated, less specialized, less knowledgeable and sometimes drunker than today's journalists.

Oh, and some media columnist for a European newspaper, famous for its sophisticated use of the words "fuck" and “cunt,” opines that “In the American press, day after day, the White House controls the agenda. The supposedly liberal American press has become a dog that never bites, hardly barks but really loves rolling over and having its tummy tickled.''

# The Washington Post: Michael Getler reports that a “reader sent the following message last Monday:”

I implore you to challenge the paper's editorial staff to question the President's unwillingness to participate in press conferences, especially now when our nation is being led into war. I find it astonishing that so few reporters/columnists have brought the Bush administration's refusal to face the press to the public's attention, because, frankly, this avoidance of accountability is both disturbing and ominous.

While acknowledging that President Bush has held about the same number of news conferences as Presidents Carter and Ford, and more than Nixon, at this point in his first term, Getler (whose anti-war sympathies are seldom far from the surface) calls on the President to hold a “a proper, announced-in-advance, full-scale presidential news conference sometime between now and when the bombs start dropping,” to allow for “concentrated follow-up questioning.”

# The Oregonian: Dan Hortsch responds to a message sent by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction “to nearly 200 school district superintendents. The Superintendent wanted to ‘correct the misleading headline and story’ that appeared that day in The Oregonian.”

The Oregonian piece, headlined "Oregon will set a lower bar for minority, disadvantaged students," is about how the “State Board of Education's adoption of a plan to alter the timelines in meeting some requirements of the No Child Left Behind federal education law” would set “standards for the next decade for low-income, minority and other students [that] would be lower than for nondisadvantaged students.”

Hortsch reports that the piece is fairly accurate, and that state officials believe their approach to be “a sound, gradual approach to closing the achievement gap, rather than set unrealistic targets for schools." He notes that, “state education officials also objected to use of the word ‘lower’ in reference to standards that would be used for students in certain groups. They contend that in fact Oregon would raise standards from the present.”

Saturday, February 1, 2003

OmbudSaturday: a partial roundup of ombudsman columns

# Orlando Sentinel: Observing that, “A newspaper in Lincoln, Neb., staked out some new territory for American Indians this past week when it stopped referring to the professional football team in the nation's capital as the Redskins,” Manning Pynn argues that the issue of using controversial names in a newspaper has “a couple of elements.”

First, he asks, “Is naming a team after a minority group offensive?” The corollary is “Would a team deliberately call itself something it didn't like or respect?” The answer, of course, is no.

Pynn’s “second element has plenty to do with journalism.” It boils down to, “teams, not newspapers, decide what to call themselves.

If a sports team's moniker truly were offensive, though, the newspaper wouldn't cure the problem by keeping that name a secret. If anything, that would help protect the team from warranted criticism and contribute to the offense.”

# The San Diego Union-Tribune: Gina Lubrano appears to take peace marchers at their word when they report 1,200 marchers in their contingent in the January 18th Martin Luther King, Jr., parade. Marchers were “outraged” that The Union-Tribune had reported only that there were “more than 100.” No independent corroboration for the higher number is given, and since we know that the primary organizer of anti-war demonstrations, International A.N.S.W.E.R., is notorious for using inflated numbers, perhaps a little skepticism of numbers reported by the anti-war movement might be in order.