Words


From the people who brought you ‘The early bird get’s the right size’…

Those who know me in real life will tell you how fond I am of my barbecuing. I really love to get out there and throw a few prawns on the barbie. Problem is that as the year heads into winter, venturing out to the barbecue to cook an evening meal becomes a little more perilous as the days get shorter and the darkness comes on earlier.

Usually I fend off the shadows with a small torch clenched in my teeth, but as you can probably imagine this is not a convenient way to get a steak cooked properly. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered today the Gasmate BBQ Grill Light – an LED lamp that conveniently attaches to my barbecue with a clamp or strong magnets.

But what’s this on the packaging? The light, they tell me, is, apparently, ‘all purpose’.

Faithful Cowpokes. The instrument has – surely – only one purpose and one purpose alone: to shed light on the barbecue area. Are you with me on this? I suppose that I could, in desperation, use it as a blunt weapon or an art installation, but even then, it’s not all purpose.

Oh, the mangling of the language. It burns.

I’m seeing a lot of floppy uses of the word ultimate lately, and the above promise from the makers of a massage chair in my local shopping mall is no exception. The Oxford dictionary tells me that, as an adjective, ultimate can either mean:

1. being or happening at the end of a process; final:

2. being the best or most extreme example of its kind:

Now, I don’t really think that the makers of FeelGood Massage Chairs1 mean to suggest that sitting in this chair might be the last thing you ever do, so we must infer that they are promising to give the sitter the best Shiatsu massage that money can buy.2

Somehow, this does not fit with my mental vision of the ultimate Japanese Shiatsu massage, which goes more like this:

Any other contentious uses of the word ultimate out there, Faithful Cowpokes?

  1. I’d just like to point out that this name is strikingly close to the Tetherd Cow Ahead trademarked proprietary process of FeelyGood™. I’d better get Cow Legal onto this. []
  2. Strictly speaking, I guess they are offering the best Shiatsu massage that $2 can buy, which I am pretty sure is never going to get into the ultimate range. []

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands. ~ Oscar Wilde

The Sydney Morning Herald is carrying at the moment, as one of the ‘Editor’s Picks’, this story which salaciously promises to reveal to the world the ‘dirty little secret’ behind the Mars rover Curiosity. It’s a shabby piece of hyperactive journalism from the blog of writer Geoff Brumfiel and echoed back through Slate, which essentially uses hyperbole and paranoia to try to spin the fact that Curiosity is powered by nuclear fuel into some kind of meaningful comment on… oh, I don’t even know what the point is supposed to be.1

As mostly anyone with any acumen understands, Curiosity uses nuclear power to implement its science, unlike its smaller cousins Opportunity and Spirit which were/are powered by solar cells.2 Solar power is great for space missions where you don’t need to do anything too hefty, but it has limitations, especially in the outer solar system where sunlight is feeble, or in circumstances where you wish to deploy energy-intensive instruments like Curiosity’s ChemCam laser. The problem is that the fuel required for Curiosity’s tiny reactor, Plutonium 238, is not manufactured in the US any longer, and so a small amount of it has been acquired by NASA from Russia for the exclusive purpose of powering space craft (a legacy of the old Soviet Union’s now decommissioned nuclear weapons program is that a stock of Pu-238 still exists in storage).

The main thrust of Brumfiel’s article, then, is that Curiosity is nuclear powered and that its nuclear fuel comes from the manufacture of Evil Russian Nuclear Weapons. Well, to an extent that’s sort of true – for whatever relevance that has. Pu-238 can be garnered during the manufacture of the Pu-239 that is used for for nuclear weapons (and this is how the Russians made it) but it is actually an opportunistic re-use of the unused isotopes of the process – you can make Pu-238 without making bombs. It’s just that if you are making bombs anyway, you may as well use the waste for something useful.

Physicist Luke Weston, from the University of Melbourne, puts it like this:

[To make Pu-238] you need uranium targets, production reactors, preferably high flux reactors, and radiochemical processing facilities, so traditionally it has been sort of piggybacked onto the existing infrastructure at the weapons labs, but no, it’s not really a “byproduct”.

NASA doesn’t particularly want to get the Pu-238 from the Russians and would like to control its manufacture in the US, but, Luke continues:

There has been a fight between NASA and DOE over the last couple of years regarding who should pay for the restart of USA Pu-238 production capacity – NASA says DOE should continue to do it, because DOE has the facilities and expertise, but Congress refuses to allow it to come out of DOE budgets – and as a result, planetary science right now and in the near future is suffering.

So, by using the Russian Pu-238, NASA is merely being pragmatic. Let’s be clear here – the stuff is already in existence. If it’s not being used for something, it’s just sitting on a shelf.3 We can’t unmake it.4

Geoff Brumfiel doesn’t think we should see it like that, however. He provocatively reminds us just how irresponsible the Russians were with their nuclear weapons manufacture, and how awful the ramifications were and then colourfully declares:

A few pounds of Stalin’s finest plutonium-238 hitched a ride to Mars on the back of Curiosity.

This kind of journalism is not helpful, enlightening or germane. It’s just grubbing around in the dirt for tawdry titillation and Mr Brumfiel should be truly ashamed of himself for doing it. It’s hardly even worthy of the Daily Mail.

Let me try to illustrate the logical sleight-of-hand being played out here.

This week, we saw the death of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the surface of another world. Armstrong’s passing was universally mourned. If we were so inclined, however, we could point out that NASA and Armstrong were aided in their grand lunar endeavour by the rocket propulsion systems designed for the Nazis in World War 2 by Wernher Von Braun – rockets meant for the express purpose of raining down death and destruction on terrified English citizens. Von Braun, in his post-war role as NASA’s chief scientist in the Saturn V program (having been famously and clandestinely ‘acquired’ after the war by the US military to help with their rocket science), designed the rocket engines that launched Apollo 11 into space and carried it to the moon. To attempt to portray the Apollo moon missions in this way sounds petty and stupid and pathetic, and yet, this is the very same kind of tactic used by Geoff Brumfiel in the Curiosity article, which has been circulated around the world and now warrants the ‘editor’s pick’ in the SMH. We can even extrapolate further: Curiosity also used the very same Nazi rocket technology that underpinned the Saturn V program to get to Mars, but Brumfiel is not telling that story here. Why? Because even people with zero science education would spot it for the irrelevant and egregious nonsense it is. Oh, and it doesn’t have the scary spectre of nookyular to juice it up.

Geoff Brumfiel claims that he is ‘as happy as anyone’ that Curiosity is on Mars, something I find disingenuous given the hand-wavingly hysterical tone of his article. He finishes up:

There’s nothing wrong with oooh-ing and aaah-ing over Curiosity’s photos. The project is an incredible achievement, and the science it produces will be amazing. But remember this, too: That little rover on Mars has left a big mess back here on Earth.

This kind of bereft backwards logic makes me furious. No, Mr Brumfiel – the fact is that when that nuclear material was made, a trip to the Red Planet by a mobile science lab with a computer brain was very much the stuff of science fiction. Trying to brand NASA or Curiosity with the responsibility for any ‘mess’ made by decades-old nuclear programs is vapid sensationalist rubbish dressed up in wilful scare-mongering.

At this point in time, when the world is in desperate need of better understanding of science, what it truly doesn’t need is silly Frankenstein’s Monster-style journalism masquerading as science commentary. Thanks Geoff Brumfiel, and Slate, for adding to the huge oxygen-depleted ocean of dreck-filled sludge that is slowly sucking us back into the Middle Ages.

___________________________________________________________________________

Thanks to Jo Benhamu for spotting the article and for Luke Weston for allowing me to quote from his comments.

  1. The tone of the article reminds me of nothing so much as a dinner guest pointing out to his convivial companions – for the express reason of making himself the centre of attention by being contrary – that people are starving in Africa. There are people who seem to compulsively feel the need to attempt to suck the life out of the joy & inspiration of others. []
  2. Contrary to the implication on Brumfiel’s blog, NASA has not tried to ‘cover up’ this fact in any way whatsoever. It’s easily available with all the other information about the Mars Science Lab, on the Curiosity site. []
  3. Arguably being somewhat of a problem. []
  4. Seriously: what’s A BETTER way to use the stuff? Anyone? []

You will remember, dear friends, last month’s look at nutty retail names for fashion shops in which we featured the adjoining hipster outlets ‘Acne’ and ‘Fat’. Today, Cissy Strutt brings to our attention a new contender for the Tethered Cow Ahead award for Best Inappropriate Business Name. In this photograph, we see a potential customer checking a garment for signs of bodily fluids. I have it on good authority that Monica Lewinsky favours this place when visiting Australia.

People. WHAT WERE YOU THINKING????

While we’re on the topic of stupid shop names, cast your minds back, faithful Acowlytes, to 2007 where we featured the unfortunate airport luggage retailer who adopted the catchy moniker of CarriOn as their hip intercapped logo. Well, it seems that someone has pointed out the tragic faux pas, since the CarriOn stores now all feature a somewhat less amusing and far more prosaic nom-de-trade. I flatter myself that they read about their sad mistake right here on TCA.

Violet Towne and I sometimes like to venture out on the weekend to one of the many places in Melbourne-and-surrounds where we might take in some of that magical stuff which is given the name ‘art’. One of our very favourite such venues, the TarraWarra Museum of Art is not even too far from where we live, and it was there we trundled last Saturday to experience their ‘Sonic Spheres’ exhibition, “an assemblage of contemporary Australian visual artworks engaged with music, sound and voice”.

TarraWarra, a privately funded public visual arts gallery, is one of the few of its kind in Australia, and is a purpose-built art museum situated among vineyards in the Yarra Valley. It’s a lovely place. It always maintains a high standard of exhibition and as is usual, our visit there provided an appropriately diverting & thoughtful hour or so. But I am not, Faithful Acowlytes, going to pontificate on art in this post, something for which I can sense palpable gratitude out there in Cowland.

No, what I want to talk about today is the survey which were handed upon our arrival at the gallery, and which we were asked to complete on our departure.

In my experience, surveys can be divided into two kinds:

1: Surveys where the point is to find out something useful.
2: Surveys where the point is to get a bunch of diffuse and obfuscated data that can be read in any way the surveyor chooses.

You know I wouldn’t be writing this post if it was the #1 variety that VT and I faced, pencils ready, at the end of our visit. I wish I’d snaffled a copy away for accuracy’s sake, because I will unfortunately have to go from memory as I attempt to draw you a picture of the confusion that beset me as I tried to answer as truthfully as I was asked.

The first portion of the survey annoyed the crap out of me because it was full of the kinds of questions that tried to stick me in a pigeonhole as a certain kind of person:

•Would you consider yourself the type of person who visits TarraWarra art museum?1

Thinks: Well, no. I got lost on the road, saw the sign that said ‘Art Gallery’ and thought I’d come in to see if glimpsing a Pollock might refresh my sense of direction.

•Do you like to be among the kinds of people who visit TarraWarra art museum.

Thinks: No! I wish they would jolly well stop those people from coming here, so me and my friends could come instead.

And so forth.

But then came the section that was the kind of thing that makes my Grumpy Old Man antennae start waving around like those of a grasshopper on acid:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person, would you say it was (check all that apply):

Charming

Entertaining

Outgoing

Interesting

Intelligent

Acowlytes, I was forced to scribble my incredulity on the page at this point. When the creators of a survey decide that by anthropomorphising an institution this will help reveal something useful about said institution, they’ve ventured well into cloud cuckoo land and thrown away their compass.2

The problem with even beginning to attempt to sensibly answer the questions posed above, is that you are on EXACT LOGICAL FOOTING with the following:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person (check all that apply):

Would you ask it out for a drink?

What colour eyes do you think it would have?

Should you give up your seat for it on a bus?

Do you think it would be appropriate dinner company for the Fire Station, the Public Library and the Chinese Restaurant?

It doesn’t matter how I try to frame it, I can’t see any possible way that any quantity of answers to this kind of question can provide data that might be helpful in making your art museum a better place – or even a controllably different place, for that matter. There is simply no sensible yardstick by which to measure things. Should the majority of respondents determine, for instance, that if the TarraWarra Art Museum was a person it would be charming and intelligent with a dash of insouciance, what the hell are you going to do with that information? Bash that damned insouciance out of it by removing the sand-blasted glass panels on the gift shop doors? If you thought TarraWarra-the-person was a little short on, oh, charisma, say, could you correct that by installing some crazy paving at the front entrance? You can, I trust, see my perplexity with this scenario.

And really, if you just can’t see your way around it, and you really must anthropomorphise your Art Museum, at the very least allow your respondents to have a creative personal say:

•If the TarraWarra Museum was a person:

Other (please use your own words, or make a drawing):

I imagine the TarraWarra Museum as a somewhat eccentric spinster with a penchant for French rosé. It has a good, if slightly peculiar, sense of humour and prefers chairs that face the window. It laughs a little too loudly and self-consciously at other people’s jokes, has a morbid fear of stick insects and visits a distant cousin in Ibiza every couple of years out of a misplaced sense of familial obligation.

At least reading the results of the survey would be entertaining. They might even make an amusing artwork.

  1. These questions were all couched in the wonderful ‘sliding scale’ terms that we are now so accustomed to seeing in these types of surveys, which only serves to cause me to want to unfailingly answer ambivalently in order to confuse the people trying to get some kind of useful result. If you’re asking a direct question, think about what that question should be, phrase it in a way that matters, and accept candid results. What is it with this confounded equivocating?! []
  2. Needless to say, the survey presented no check box options on this question for ‘Boring’ or ‘Irritating’ or Pretentious’ or ‘Eccentric’. You can see, I surmise, the inherent brainlessness of this pursuit. []

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