Category Archives: Journalism

Scientific Journalism Is Moribund, Dead, Perhaps Alive

(thanks to Bill Clement for inspiring the gist of this blog)

In hindsight, it should have been clear long ago. It wasn’t going to be pretty, nor it could have been. On one side, journalists with the vaguest notions of the scientific method, mostly convinced that science is what a scientist does (need to remember Piero Manzoni, anybody?).

On the other side, a number of determined bloggers “that have made themselves experts in general climate science (in the words of Roger Harrabin), “ordinary people [who] can say [to scientists] ‘look, you said this, you said that, the two don’t match, explain yourself’” (in the words of Richard North).

Of course, it was going to be carnage. The journalists would not and could not survive the confrontation by any stretch of imagination. And so they didn’t. As noted by Matt Ridley in The Spectator:

It was not Private Eye, or the BBC or the News of the World, but a retired electrical engineer in Northampton, David Holland, whose freedom-of-information requests caused the Climategate scientists to break the law, according to the Information Commissioner. By contrast, it has so far attracted little attention that the leaked emails of Climategate include messages from reporters obsequiously seeking ammunition against the sceptics. Other emails have shown reporters meekly changing headlines to suit green activists, or being threatened with ostracism for even reporting the existence of a sceptical angle

As far as the average skeptical blogger is concerned, scientific journalism in matters of climate should be considered dying if not dead, only a place where to find nice but wholly un-necessary confirmation of one’s doubts. Or should it?

The underlying problem is suggested by Roger Harrabin in the same radio debate mentioned above:

What’s been difficult for people reporting mainstream debate in the past has been that what we would call our trusted sources of science, people like the Royal Society and the various other corollary bodies in different countries, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up to be the touchstone of probity on this issue, they have been the providers of news and the people who have been doubting these news have generally speaking not been academics, I am on the trawl for academics at the moment in British universities there are hardly any and there have been doubters from other quarters and it’s been very difficult for us to tell what are the credentials when all these establishment voices are lined up on one side, how can we put them against a blogger on the other side that might happen to be a blogger who has for the past 15 years spent 100 hundred hours on the Internet reading climate science and has a good knowledge but we don’t know how to test this

Note the choice of words…”our trusted sources of science“, “the providers of news“…these are the words of somebody with the mindset of being an information broker between “the scientists” and “the general public”. It is a way of seeing “scientific journalism” as some kind of translation service, from the high-brow vocabulary of the scientists to the simpleton’s expressions even the most empty-headed Joe Public might understand.

Obviously, such a mindset leaves no space at all to a critical analysis of what the scientists say: because “how can we put them against a blogger [whose knowledge] we don’t know how to test“. Harrabin might be more right on this than he is ever likely to wish: after all, as commented by Bill:

The Press, too, have few within their ranks with a genuine science background. The result – regurgitation (syndication) of the few articles written

Mind you, journalists might not see that as an issue. It all depends on what “journalism” is meant to be. Here’s how award-winning science writer Ed Yong recommends scientists to approach interviews:

[The journalists’] job is not to grill you with hard questions – it’s to find The Story and get you to say something interesting. Your job, interestingly enough, is not to answer their questions to the letter, but to get your message across and to do so in an interesting way. Note the compatibility between these two goals.

The easiest way to mutually assured victory is to get your message across in a way that’s interesting enough that you practically hand them The Story on a plate. Journalism is a game but it’s not a zero-sum one. You and the journalist are not vicious gladiatorial opponents; you are engaging in a collaborative venture and treating it as such will help you get more out of it.

The (skeptical) bloggers write about their quest for Truth. The journalists write instead about…”The Story“. Has “The Story” got any relationship with Truth? Who knows, and does anybody care? (hey…some editors go all the way and get rid of reporters trying to find out what the Truth is…).

Just as “The Story” on climate was the overwhelming consensus in 2009, it is now the overwhelming amount of evidence indicating the IPCC documents have been biased in a miriad of ways towards reporting exactly what the paymasters/Governments wanted them to report.

Kudos to all journalists following the new “Story” but don’t expect their articles to become the new WUWT or EU Referendum. They can not: check the somehow inadvertently comical situation described by Ivan Oranski, executive editor of Reuters Health, on how to choose one’s sources. It looks like Mr Oranski has been around the block quite a few times, so to speak. He even recommends “to always read papers you’re reporting on, instead of relying solely on press releases” (no sh*t!). But not even once Mr Oranski dares thinking he could use himself, his ongoing knowledge of the topic, his ability to cross-reference findings throughout the mountains of scientific papers he has read.

The above suggests “scientific journalism” is still a long, long way from getting in the same league as, say, political journalistic analysis of internal or foreign affairs, where a healthy skepticism of politicians’ statements is nowadays a matter of course. One suspects, too many “scientific journalists” haven’t had their Cronkite moment as yet. But there is hope. Here’s an example of a scientific journalist actually using his brains, however briefly (Nicholas Wade, “Ancient Man in Greenland Has Genome Decoded“, The New York Times Feb 10, 2010):

Perhaps reflecting the so far somewhat limited reach of personal genomics, the researchers note that the ancient Greenlander was at risk for baldness, a surprising assessment given that all that remains of him is his hair

Ed Yong seems also more open than most to the new challenges of the present:

There is rampant churnalism, a dearth of fact-checking, misguided attempts at balance at the cost of accuracy. On the other hand, there is plenty of work from non-traditional sources that does espouse these values, including the writings of many freelance science writers and working scientists (and many of the so-called elements of journalism are elements of good scientific practice too).

If you play out this taxonomic game, you quickly see that many people who ostensibly work in science journalism produce work that is nothing of the sort. Likewise, amateurs who wouldn’t classify themselves as science journalists, actually ought to count.

Journalists are even waking up to the extraordinary amount of news they can produce from “inspirations” found in blogs and other forms of online social media. One interesting lead fresh out of the AAAS 2010 meeting: some scientists still don’t get it (will they ever), others understand they need new ways of thinking in order to explain themselves to the outside world.

And of course there is one reliable anchor that hasn’t been much affected by all of this: the minute group of scientific journalists that have actually been scientists themselves, know how scientific publications work, and can read and critique a scientific article on their own, if need be. I am talking about people like journalism-award-winning academic David Whitehouse.

No prize to guess what Dr Whitehouse thinks of climate alarmism.

(many thanks to @TheGreenDemon and @ThisIsTrue for sharing some of the links above)

Richard Black Is Not Alone

Anybody wondering how did BBC’s Richard Black manage to post as poorly argued a blog as today’s, wonder no more: a few hours earlier, BBC’s Duncan Kennedy from Rome wrote an article with a gem like this:

In Italy, politics has literally become a contact sport

Looks like Mr Kennedy is reporting despite showing little awareness of his surroundings: between 1947 and 2008, there have been more than 35 political/mafia massacres in Italy. And many more individual assassinations. A “contact sport” indeed.

If that’s the new standard of BBC journalism, expect Richard Black to dive ever lower.

Not Much Hope For Journalism Standards Worldwide

I was already disappointed enough after learning a few details about British journalism in Nick Davies’ “Flat Earth News”. And I better reserve my comments about Italian journalism. Could it have gotten any worse?

It could. And it did. Here’s a story from Randy Cassingham’s (unmissable) “This is True” (28 June 2009):

PICTURE THIS: The magazine Paris Match announced its annual prize for student photojournalism. The winners, Guillaume Chauvin and Remi Hubert from the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, were handed their prize: a check for 5,000 euros (US$7,050), for their investigative report on student poverty. The magazine published the photos, showing how students had to resort to prostitution, or digging in the trash for food, to survive. “We pushed the cliches to the limit,” Chauvin and Hubert said. “We thought the whole thing was so hackneyed that it could never win.” The real subject of their project, they announced at the award ceremony, was to use staged photos “to call into question the inner workings of the attitude of the kind of media which portrays human distress with complacency and voyeurism.” The “crestfallen” judges still managed to applaud, reporters say — but Paris Match stopped payment on the prize check. “There was nothing in the rules of the competition to say that rigged photos were banned,” Hubert told a reporter. (London Independent) …No worries: the project should easily qualify to win the 10,000-euro Striking the Match Prize.
©2009 Randy Cassingham, excerpted from This is True with the author’s permission

Yes, there is a very good point in blogging!!

Media And Democracy In Italy – What Freedom? And Whose Freedom?

PANEL DISCUSSION IN OXFORD, 21 OCTOBER 5PM

MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY IN ITALY – WHAT FREEDOM? and WHOSE FREEDOM?
Berlusconi and the case of La Repubblica’s ten questions

Taylorian Institute, Room 2
Wednesday 21st October – 5 pm

A panel discussion organised by
Italian Studies at Oxford and the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy
In collaboration with the Oxford Italian Society

Chair: John Lloyd
Director of the Axess Programme, Contributing Editor of the Financial
Times and Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

Enrico Franceschini
London Correspondent and London Bureau Chief, La Repubblica

Dr. Daniele Albertazzi
Senior Lecturer in European Media, University of Birmingham

Maurizio Morabito
Press Secretary, Freedom Party (PdL), London Circle

Prof. Andrea Biondi
Secretary, Democratic Party (PD) London Circle

for more information, please contact: italianstudies@area.ox.ac.uk

AXESS PROGRAMME ON JOURNALISM AND DEMOCRACY

Feeling Sorry For Douglas Bailey…

It is with deeply-held feeling of sorry for its author that I am going to comment on Douglas Bailey’s “Do not comment on this article” (IHT, 25 July 2009; as one should expect, still not available on the NYT website…).

Mr Bailey wishes publishers would abandon “comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper Web sites“, because those are “insidiously contributing to the devaluation of journalism, blurring the truth, confusing the issues and diminishing serious discourse beyond even talk radio’s worst examples“. Can’t Mr Bailey simply avoid reading comment forums, one wonders? Or has he been ordered to do so by the doctor? (if that’s the case, it’s time for a second opinion!)

How thin can the skin of journalists be, and how soft-bodied their stories if all it takes to “tear down” one of their articles is for “some agenda-driven bonehead” to publish a comment? And what should worry us most…allowing people to freely express and exchange their ideas, or the unremitting deluge of scaried-up, sexed-up, hyped-up invariably “breaking” news pieces that has been befalling upon us since the invention of news business and especially after the advent of 24/7 news?

All in all, what I am really, really sorry about is to see a person like Mr Bailey approach the internet by renouncing critical thinking, and believing instead that writing a note in a web site grants “an aura of legitimacy from the association with the host’s brand“. Yeah, right…with such an attitude, I wish good luck to Mr Bailey’s business.

Polar Bears: Has the Daily Mail Just Pulled a Deceiving Article?

In my “Maurizio Morabito” blog in Italian, I have been following for the last few days the developing story of drowning polar bears, lost at sea after “the ice float they lived on melted”.

The story (“The heartbreaking picture of the polar bears with 400 miles to swim to the nearest ice “) (UPDATED LINK) originated in the pages of the Daily Mail, likely on Saturday Aug 30, and was immediately distributed in Italy by daily La Repubblica.

Trouble is, that story is, shall I dare say this, “not true”. And tonight, it looks like it has been pulled off the Daily Mail website altogether. (UPDATE: it survives of course in hundreds more)

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Actually, the story is based on something that has happened, and was reported by the WWF on Aug 22: nine polar bears have been spotted (by chance) swimming near Alaska. One of them was at least 60 miles from land.

But the Daily Mail article, by a Barry Wigmore, “embellished” the original story with so many incorrect details, the end result was abysmally not-true and deceiving.

A couple of days ago the WWF published some clarifying statements. From those it would be easy to spot where Wigmore’s article basically made things up. But as I said, the Daily Mail website has “lost” the page.

Here it is, saved from another website:

So which bits were patently baseless?

  1. 400 miles to swim to the nearest ice” (wrong: the WWF confirms nobody knows where the bears are, and when spotted, none of them was more than 60 miles away from the nearest land or ice)
  2. Struggling against the waves” (wrong: the bear in the picture is simply looking back to the helicopter where the pictures are being taken from, and whose rotors are causing the waves)
  3. polar bear faces almost certain death” (wrong: the WWF makes the point that polar bears are strong animals, and “a polar bear in the water, even one far from land or ice, is not always a polar bear that needs saving”
  4. becoming lost at sea” (made-up: there is no way to know if the bears were or were not just doing what polar bears have done innumerable times in the past)
  5. the creatures’ homing instinct has sent them north” (made-up: the WWF reports nothing on the direction the bears have been heading. Actually, there is no practical way to find any of them)
  6. the World Wide Fund for Nature, said it was considering asking the U.S. government to send a ship” (made-up: the WWF press releases say nothing of the sort)

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Last night I did send a comment to the Daily Mail urging the article’s author to check his facts.

Anyway: now that the story is not there any longer, conscious that it will linger on for years on many websites, thinking about how many people are needlessly worried by this story sexied-up to the point of not being true any longer, one can only reflect sadly at the sorry status of English and Italian journalism, trying to pass a fiction piece as a real story and/or gobbling it up without bothering to check the original sources.

Finally, since I criticized them in the past, I want to add that I appreciate the fact that the BBC News web site has not fallen for Wigmore’s drowning polar bear fantasy.

Will Putin’s CNN Interview Herald a New Era of Media-Savvy International Leaders?

Matthew Chance of CNN writes about his interview with Vladimir Putin, some 7 years after the last one for the American news channel:

Putin […] was constantly watching CNN to see how the conflict was being reported. And he didn’t like it. He hated it […] there was no one on TV putting across the Russian version of events.

Why was there no one? Because there is no access in Russia, we were not allowed to go to the Russian side of the conflict zone. No Russian officials were available to talk to us, as usual. Georgia played the media game, Russia did not.

A decision was taken then to change tack, to engage with the Western media, to aggressively argue Russia’s side. The Kremlin, which constantly complains of a bad press, could have learned this lesson years ago. But hopefully they see the value of us now. Doesn’t mean we agree with them, or that appearing on CNN will convert the West to Russia’s line.

Putin has made a few allegations, some of them ringing more true than others. But their truthness is not as important as the fact that they have been heard by many people that until yesterday could only get their own Government’s propaganda. Now they can see an actual “foreign” and “enemy” leader speak his mind in front of the cameras, a person and not just a communique’.

Anyway, the simple fact that the American and Russian versions of events cannot be both right at the same time, could and should encourage a little more critical thinkings…and that cannot be bad.

Interestingly, the lesson of how to avoid a bad press has been recently learned by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China too.

Next in line should be Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Mohammed Ahmadinejad of Iran. For some reason neither of them has realized his potential in terms of worldwide media coverage. Perhaps Putin’s experience will change that: they do look like great TV material and if only they’d abandon the more hard-to-digest bits of their ideologies, many more people would watch (and listen) to them.

Evidence of Anti-China Reporting Bias in the IHT/NYT

In “Chinese students shed restraint in America” (IHT, Apr 30, published as “Chinese students in U.S. fight image of their home” on the NYT on Apr 29) Chou Wu, a Chinese doctorate student in the USA, is quoted by Shaila Dewan (in co-operation with Michael Anti) as saying that “Western media is even more biased than Chinese media“.

Ironically, in order to find evidence for his claim, Mr Wu should look no further than Ms Dewan’s article!

In fact, after reporting that Chinese students in America believe to be “still neglected or misunderstood (by Western news media) as either brainwashed or manipulated by the (Chinese) government“, Ms Dewan dutifully proceeds to portray those same students as…brainwashed and/or manipulated.

They are described as authoritarian, zealot nationalist prone to threats against Tibetans, also because “demonstrators couldintend to return home (too)”.

Ms Dewan even leaves the last word to Lionel Jensen, of the University of Notre Dame, IN, stating that Chinese students “dont’ ask” if Tibetans wanted the “aggressive modernization” brought by China to Tibet.

That doesn’t bode well for the impartiality of the article: a feeling that is confirmed when we are told that Chinese students’ “handouts on Tibet and Chinacontained a jumble of abbreviated history, slogans and maps with little context“.

Is “jumble” the appropriate word for a reporting piece? Methinks there is too much contempt for the report’s subject showing there.

We have to take Ms Dewan’s word for her judgements, as the only detail provided concerns “a chart showing infant mortality in Tibet had plummeted since 1951” (a positive thing if there ever was any). Alas, we are told, the students “did not provide any means for comparison with mortality rates in China or other countries“.

Too bad one is left none the wiser, as Ms Dewan herself provides no such a comparison either.

Once upon a time newspapers clearly separated news from news analysis. And journalists tried to report impartially. I know, that may be the stuff of Utopia nowadays, but is nobody trying anymore?

A Case of the UK Police Steadily Improving Their Methods?

Let’s celebrate the fact that the police in the UK are getting better at their job.

It’s either that, or time to cry.

Having killed Jean-Charles de Menezes, they “only” shot Mohammed Abdulkahar in the Forrest Gate fiasco.

This time around, at the end of media-staged dawn raids on homes in Slough, they “simply” “accompanied” 24 people to the nearest Police Station (too bad for those broken doors).

Phew!

There is one thing in common though: dead, shot or arrested, all of the above were and still are completely innocent of the accusations that spurred British police into action in the first place.

In the nine days since the raid all but one child has been returned to the Roma community in Slough, according to a Romanian diplomat, and none of the 24 adults arrested at the scene has been charged with child trafficking offences.

In other news: despite strong evidence from British courts, the BBC, Channel 4, This is London/Evening Standard etc etc have decided not to correct their reporting about the Slough story. Just in case anybody were still left with the fantasy about “truthful” journalism

Skeptics Society: How Broadcast Journalism Is Flawed

I have already exposed in the recent past the obvious bias in global warming reporting by publicly-funded BBC.

Around very similar notes, but with a much much wider outlook, the Skeptics Society has now published a very interesting essay by investigative and feature journalist Steve Salerno, titled

Journalist-Bites-Reality!
How broadcast journalism is flawed
in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for informing viewers is almost nil.
.

It exposes broadcast journalism as reporter-of-nothing, when not creating panic out of that same nothingness. And it is especially critical of “campaign journalism”.

A couple of quotes:

In truth, today’s system of news delivery is an enterprise whose procedures, protocols, and underlying assumptions all but guarantee that it cannot succeed at its self described mission. Broadcast journalism in particular is flawed in such a fundamental way that its utility as a tool for illuminating life, let alone interpreting it, is almost nil.

You’re in Pulitzer territory for writing about something that — essentially — never happens.

In upcoming blogs I will return to parts of this essay that may be used to explain pretty much all the Climate Change scares that have ever (not) happened.

For now I strongly recommend reading it in full.

Twenty Missing, Three Dead, No Space on the Front Page

Letter To the Editors of the International Herald Tribune

As a long-time subscriber of the IHT I write to complain about your absurd choice of playing down both the death of 3 sailors during the recent storms in the Black Sea, and the fact that 20 more are missing and likely dead themselves due to the cold.

In the front page of the IHT’s paper edition of Nov 13, there is a short unsigned article titled “Counting losses in Black Sea storm“. In 59 words there is not a single mention of the human losses, and the reader is left with the impression that the ships’ captains and owners will be sued only for “environmental damage“. Has human life become as cheap as to be free to be taken?

True, there is a larger article at page 2, by Andrew E Kramer, where finally we learn of the human tragedy in the title “Black Sea toll: 3 dead and 20 lost“. This appears to be similar to an article on the IHT web site, again by Mr Kramer, although over there it is titled “Environmental disaster unfolding in Russia“.

The paper version starts “Three dead sailor and dozen of birds slicked with oil…“. Just a few words later “Another 20 sailors were missing“. Roughly a little less than half of the piece is dedicated to environmental issues (but again, there is no mention of any ongoing prosecution for the loss of human life).

The online version starts with “An environmental disaster began to unfold” and only talks about humans in the second paragraph. But then, dead and missing people are literally forgotten about, and roughly more than three quarters of the article is about environmental problems. For the third time, the only mentioned prosecution is about “environmental damage“.

Interestingly, in the paper article a Greenpeace Russia campaigner, Vladimir Chuprov, is said to have “called the spill a catastrophe of local rather than international scale“. No such a thing is mentioned online.

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All in all the above indicates a very poor choice by front-page and online Editors to find an excuse to push the “right buttons” about the environment, for some unfathomable reason deciding to play down the human cost of the Black Sea storm.

Shall we worship the Environment to the point of forgetting the people? That is a false dichotomy. We can take care of the environment and take care of humans too.

Please try.

Newsmedia, not History Books

Somebody has posted a great list of all that is wrong with newsmedia:

1. Great emphasis on the dramatic
2. Failure to distinguish between opinion and fact
3. Repetitive dissemination of original reports from a few limited sources without checking or questioning information
4. A catering to what the media perceives as the popular belief or their belief over reporting the facts
5. Reporters that have disturbingly low levels of knowledge in the areas they report on
6. Sometimes blatant misrepresentation of the facts by reporters in major news organizations
7. A tendency to run with the “latest story” to the point of boredom at the expense of broader, more informative reporting
8. Information becoming “truth” based on degree of repetition

Those points truly are the way contemporary newsmedia work, and especially those dealing with day-to-day stuff.

We should never forget that newspapers, newsmagazines, TV/radio news programs are meant to be sold and capture the widest possible audience.

They are built to re-inforce the prejudice and convictions of the people that are going to buy them. Sometimes, they could challenge their readers, but bankruptcy is in order if they do that too boldly.

You simply can’t do that by being 100% honest, informative, opinion-free…articles based on that would bore to death most of the readership.

That’s why history books are written by scholars, instead of being reprints of old newspapers.

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The above is not meant to be taken as an insult. Hey, I am a part-time journalist myself!!

I see it more as the way things “are”, just as new models of cars are always presented with scantily-clad girls and watches invariably point to 10 past 10 in photo ads.

People have tried to act differently but few if any of those businesses have survived.

On the other hand I do agree there is no internal, contemporary  “media trend” toward alarmism. Readers’ titillation has always been the order of the day, so any change is likely to have been as a result of a change in what the readers wanted.

As an example, compare the opening pages of London’s The Independent from 20-30 years ago with the screaming trendy single-issue front page of today. And don’t forget the failure of the “good news” newspaper put out a few years ago, again in London (by the Guardian, I believe)?

I don’t think I need to mention any self-proclaimed “Fair and Balanced” news network here.

Perhaps the newspapers of 1907 were scary, exciting and dramatic for their readers, but they don’t appear as such to us simply because (by definition) we are not the people those were meant to be sold to.

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There is only one challenge for all the readers: and that is to provide ourselves with the tools for critically managing the streams of news we are bombarded with.

And by that I mean being able first of all to look for cause-and-effect, so that if event A should cause event B, don’t believe A has happened until B has showed up too.

The Average Brit Flying to Work at 18,000mph

So what is my local car rental manager doing, parading in NASA coveralls in London’s Queen Mary University Theatre in late November 2006?

No, wait: it must be Gary Lineker, guest speaker of the British Interplanetary Society, with a 8’-by-5’ poster of Saturn and the secret aim of taking chips and sweets from the noisy local student contingent.

Or…is that a bird? Is that a plane? No, it’s Piers J. Sellers, Ph.D., former Global Warming researcher and now Space Shuttle crew member and quasi-UK Astronaut Extraordinaire (“quasi” as UK persons need opt for a different citizenship to work in Earth orbit).

Sellers, born in Sussex in 1955 but now an American citizen, is following up his July STS-121 mission with a UK trip that has generated good-natured interest in the press, and even some air time on BBC Radio4’s Today.

Luckily (for Sellers) and blissfully (for all of us), Sellers’ Shuttle trip companion astronaut Lisa M. Nowak hasn’t yet destroyed her career by wearing nappies for a 1,000-mile drive to pepper-spray a love rival in February 2007.

And so instead of a sex scandal, the talk is about the less risky enterprise called space travel, as told by a bloke so average in appearance and so relaxed about himself to make taciturn Neil Armstrong a veritable space alien.

Aliens won’t invade us, because [on streets like Mile End Road] they can’t find where to park”: Sellers is definitely no warplane pilot turned moonwalker spiritualist. He’s “simply” a space walker, slightly “disoriented” only by the first sight of the white-and-blue jewel called Earth.

His description of the piling up of task upon task may sound familiar to office workers the world over. Still, very few of those usually validate if their cubicles will destroy during atmospheric re-entry, as Sellers and the rest of the STS-121 crew did after the Columbia tragedy of February 2003 and the half-botched first “return-to-flight” mission of STS-114 in July 2005.

A NASA video hints at the peculiarities of working in space. First of all there is nobody within a 3-mile radius of a ready-to-start Space Shuttle: and for good reason, as the bunch of aviation and navy pilots, space commanders and Ph.D’s collectively called “astronauts” are literally sitting on top of a giant bomb hoping it will explode in a controlled manner, pushing them upwards and forwards rather than into smithereens..

There is lots of sound and bouncing at lift-off. Somebody touches a control button, but Sellers reassures “We were just pretending to work. The launch [really] blew me away.” Orbital life is a piece of cake in comparison, with a couple of days of procedures to proceed and checklists to check, before approaching the International Space Station at the snail-like pace of 1m/sec (a little more than 2 miles an hour).

The video recording moves on to Lisa Nowak working with a large boom, at the time not to threaten a love rival but to move cargo to the Station with fellow astronaut-ess Stephanie Wilson, and then finally on mission day five maneuvering Sellers and colleague Michael Fossum locked on top of a 100-foot pole.

Sellers recounts a few funny details. For example, even in the most comfortable spacesuit one better gets used to spending up to ten hours without luxuries such as toilet breaks and nose scratching. And so a big deal of one’s resting time is spent cleaning up bodily odours and outpours from the spacesuit (no mention of any solution to the nose itching problem).

Furthermore, gloves for orbital work are more apt for a The Thing impersonation from the Fantastic Four, and so one handles multi-million-dollar wrenches knowing some will drop on their own sidereal orbit. Last but not least, one gets occasionally stuck in a phone-boot-like airlock for more than one hour.

Back inside the spaceship, in-between risky zero-g adventures with M&M’s of all things, one can look forward to a “shower” of damp cloths, a dinner of bland food and a night chained to a bed (kinky orbital fun, anybody?). Ah, and the toilet has a noisy fan and too thin a door really.

After some four days of that, it’s time to pull the jet brakes on the Shuttle (“feeling like on a truck slowing down”, Sellers remembers) to start the “unforgiving landing sequence”, after gulping in a disgusting salty drink designed to help the body readjust to Earthly life.

Outside the vehicle, “cherry-red windows” show the same tongues of fire that consumed the unfortunate Columbia astronauts a mere three-and-a-half years earlier. Falling almost helplessly, the Space Shuttle is somehow guided without engines to a hard touchdown, at the end of which gravity is felt like having “brick on the shoulders”.

Still Sellers opines, “The real dangerous bit is the lift-off.” No need to remind anybody of the crew of six that died on the 1986 Challenger accident, during the ascent phase.

Has Sellers got any chance of going back to the Space Station? “Sure. There is plenty of work available,” he answers. “Perhaps there will be 15 missions with 7 astronauts each between now and 2010.” Such chances are presumably slightly larger now than Ms. Nowak has been removed from NASA’s roster.

Before a strange, nostalgically catchy set of photographs of Seller’s mission is shown to the tune of Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound”, the evening fades away in a torrent of questions about medical facilities (“We can’t do heart transplants in space as yet”); rubbish management (“Thrown overboard”); launch delays (“Frustrating”); the justification for space budgets (“The money is spent on Earth”); and Orion, the Space Shuttle replacement (“Safer and cheaper and brings us back to the Moon”).

There! Has anybody else caught the tiny sparkle in Sellers’ voice when mentioning future manned Lunar exploration? Who knows, by 2025 the UK government may have found the negligible additional resources to fund a trip to the Moon for a couple of lucky British passport holders.

For the time being, I better check if my local car rental manager has moved to Houston.

Iraq: American, British, Italian TV/Radio Coverage Compared

(originally posted on March 21, 2003)

Thanks to the wonders of satellite and cable one is able to compare the attitude and approach to the war in Iraq by American (CNN, Fox News), British (BBC) and Italian (RAI) tv and radio channels.

Very briefly and perhaps not surprisingly:

1) The Americans are very positive about the actions, and can’t wait to tell you their excitement in having been “embedded” in fighting units. Problems are unheard of, and likely to be inaudible anyway. Could we get some truth please.

2) The British are obsessed to find out what is going wrong, and what scandals can be uncovered. Problems are the only thing that matters. Furthermore, any idiot with a microphone and a tv press pass will jump to the opportunity to show himself or herself as the “XXI Century Bard”. Can’t you stick to the news please.

3) The Italians concentrate their reporting on two fronts. From the beginning, all rumors are considered true, and analysed viscerally by hordes of tv experts, before being invariably forgotten when demonstrated false. On the other hand, the news are full of sad, unlikely personal stories, from the journalist that couldn’t sleep in Baghdad during a night of bombing, up, up, up to the awful youth of some Saddam Hussein. Listeners are encouraged to weep along. May we talk about the real victims please…