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Two bad cases of the DTs

From The Telegraph on the subject of the predecessor to the Bloodhound SSC project…

Thrust SSC was, at 4m wide and 10 tonnes – powered by twin Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines, more commonly found beneath the wings of an F-4 Phantom II jet aircraft – an unwieldy beast. Rather than simply tweak its design, Noble and Green opted to begin from scratch. A slimmer, lighter car could, they reckoned, significantly outstrip Thrust. But first they needed jets.

This is what an F-4 Phantom looks like:

Do you see any engines under the wings? Now obviously I knew this already but finding that (and many more) images took 5s with Google. And it’s not like it’s an obscure ‘plane so anyone writing on this sort of stuff ought to know anyway.

If I were editor of the DT I’d carpet Mr Ross for such sloppy idleness. Now I’m a fair man so I’d give him a start before I released the hounds and wouldn’t spray his genitals with aniseed first. I reserve that as a unique punishment.

The second is this gem of bollocks reporting and woo-woo headlining.

Look, you numpty, this is what the USA thought of doing… They were going to detonate a kT range-yield nuke (I hate the term “atomic bomb” which is used in the article) to show the Soviets that the USA could hit the Moon or even in principle weaponize it. Bear in mind this was the ’50s when serious popular science journals were considering the (stupid and unworkable) idea of missile batteries on the moon. Unworkable because it took an entire Saturn V rocket to get three men there and stupid because it took three days to get there (or back). Who wants to launch a nuclear strike giving the other side that much notice? Of course in those days small (and not so small) boys were reading action comics in which the USMC (Space Division) and the Spetznaz (Space Division) would be slugging it out (with ray-guns, natch) over Copernicus Crater.

It all goes back perhaps to Arthur C Clarke (and maybe John Wyndam) and the concept of orbital weapons. Again a militarily ridiculous concept if you think about it*. Ultimately technical, military and economic logic won though against SF dreams and the sub-orbital ballistic missile was born. Couple that with a nuclear powered submarine and you have a far more potent weapon at orders of magnitude less money. You think a Vanguard or Ohio class submarine is expensive? Compare with the cost of building nuclear silos on the Moon…

I guess it hit a popular Zeitgeist based, perhaps, on the feeling that we’d gone from the Wright brother’s stick and string to Sputnik in half a century and from lobbing hand-grenades from primitive biplanes to Little Boy in even less time.

“Everyday it’s a-gettin’ closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster”

-Buddy Holly.

Perhaps it’s also down to other little boys fantasizing about using their ray-guns to waste some tentacled horror and win the heart of the alien princess who might be green but that’s OK because she has unfeasibly large breasts (that’s Zero-G for you!). Seriously, the interaction between popular culture, fashion, trends in aerospace and governmental policy can’t be underestimated. Perhaps whoever wrote this Telegraph schlock was one of those little boys but of course this persisted long after the ’50s. Consider two films from about 1980. There was a sort of proto-”Deep Impact” movie (I forget the name) which featured pre-existing Soviet and US nukes being turned against an incoming meteor or some such and also of course “Moonraker” with the USMC in space-combat with Drax’s mob. Drax also has deadly weapons in space. Of course he does! And he wears a Mao suit.

Instead we had Apollo. You know they left medals commemorating lost cosmonauts as well as the astronauts who died in the Apollo oxygen fire?

Back to Earth! The wider problem I see with this hopelessly sloppy reporting on aerospace related issues by the dear old DT is that this is a subject I know a lot about. And it isn’t just the DT. They are all at it. The contempt the MSM scribblers show for basic fact checks and employing anyone competent** in the first place is staggering. And this is something I know about so I can chortle but what about the huge numbers of things I don’t really know about? That’s a worry. I don’t have the internal knowledge to appraise immediately nor the time to acquire it. They can’t sell me a load of pony on certain things but on others… And the same dear reader applies to you. None of us are polymaths anymore.

But as to the aerospace specifically, suspect deep-down it is a symptom of an ingrained belief amongst the “serious” papers (the ones without unfeasibly large breasts – more honest – you know where you are with a tit) that the really important stuff only happens between Whitehall and Wapping and getting actual facts – easy, non-controversial, non-debatable facts correct about all that nasty, complicated stuff with “like sums with letters in them” doesn’t really matter to their journalism trained minds. Something Michael Gove said is ever so much more important. No. It. Isn’t. When the Govester and his EBacc are mere footnotes in Hansard (some other wanker will be re-arranging the deckchairs by then anyway) studied only by the dullest of graduate students people will remember Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

Well, that tech-stuff does matter and I’d much rather read something written by someone with no qualifications in journalism but an understanding of the area they are reporting on anyway. As I said, in many areas I don’t know what to think because I don’t trust what I read not just because it is propaganda or lies or deranged opinion but because I can’t accept the basic, verifiable, “truths” they use within the piece as real or otherwise because I know how sloppy they are on things I do know because I know they don’t even care to find out an F-4 Phantom has fuselage mounted engines rather than under-wing ones. I’ll leave the penultimate words to a quote from Bertrand Russell (I think this is about right),

I’d rather be reported by my worst enemy in philosophy than someone ignorant of it.

Quite, Bert.

Without facts to argue from analysis and opinions are devoid of meaning. Without a respect for facts analysis and opinions range from doubtful to disingenuous to out-right “Noble Lies” (in the Platonic sense).

I want to know truth and not an unreality built upon a lack of genuine, objective facts. Every ignoring of reality (whether deliberate or through idleness or stupidity) contributes towards an “invented reality” so let’s ultimately hear from Jorge Luis Borges.

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order — dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too is ordered.

- Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

PS. I know this rambles. I’ve spent too long on it.
PPS. I know (see PS) this is posted after Levenson introduced (BBC – “His long-awaited enquiry results”. Not by me it wasn’t. I wasn’t calling for the DT to be taken to task by the “Regulators” (think Western movies) over these inexcusably bad pieces of journalism. No. I was calling for the likes of us to point out and laugh because, like a small boy who sees a potentate in the nip.

*Either geostationary over Moscow and DC or in predictable orbits or burning lots of fuel to vary orbit which would mean a very limited life-span or some form of space refueling.
**In the first article there is some wibbling about “Computational Fluid Dynamics”. Clearly the author hasn’t a clue what he is on about.


  1. bloke in spain says:

    Think you may be commenting on the death throws of a particular style of journalism, there, Nick.
    The problem always, with technical matters (& most others apart from the size of Jordan’s rack) is the limits of the dead tree press. Space & money. (Jordan’s rack, again). Presuming this went out in the chip-wrapper, as well as online, it’s worth about whatever’s left of a page after the advertising. Stocking filler with a pic or two to bulk out the middle pages. It’s some cut & paste from a publicity handout leavened with a few irrelevances. Contributes towards giving the vaguely techy media graduate who wrote it a job. Next week he’ll be doing a similar one on underwater mountain biking. Trouble being, even this is as over the heads of half the people who bothered to read it, as it was to its author. If you really wanted to know about rocket cars or Phantom jets, you’d read someone who knew what they were talking about. So it sits uselessly between the uninformed & the cognoscenti. Of not great value to either.
    Move away from the corpses of trees & it’s possible to treat the subject with the attention it deserves. Online, the entry can be no more than the attention grabbing photo & a few words linking to a précis of the subject. From there, hyperlinks from keywords to people who really know their subject. And that’s layered, isn’t it? Almost infinitely so. If you really wanted to know what the chemical formula of the tyre walls were, it’d be available. Or what South Africa’s treehugging community’s plans were, for protesting the number of glaciers its carbon footprint would melt.
    But none of this works with the current incarnation of the newspaper industry. It’s either vastly too big. Or vastly too small.
    I don’t know what the future is but I don’t suppose there’s a role in it for Rory Ross-Telegraph technical correspondent. Maybe a ‘paper’ will just be a gateway. Maybe what you’ll be buying is the editorial experience to guide you the first layer or two into the informational cake. ( Which blurs the line between newspapers & blogs to invisibility – Kitty Counting as the future international journal of record, Telegraph as part time hobby for the alcoholically challenged) Couple of layers down is where the experts live. And where the cutting edge, career ending, government tumbling, investigative journalism is done. Along with appreciations of Jordan’s rack, of course. Let’s not get out priorities misplaced.
    The big question is the business model that will pay for it.

  2. Eddie Bromhead says:

    Oh, the hubris. The RR-engined Phantom wouldn’t have US insignia, as only British Phantoms had RR engines. The rest had GE J79s. Also quite easy to find on the web!

  3. John Galt says:

    There was a sort of proto-”Deep Impact” movie (I forget the name) which featured pre-existing Soviet and US nukes being turned against an incoming meteor or some such

    I believe that the 1970′s movie that you’re referring to was “Meteor” starring Sean Connery, complete and utter schlock.

  4. Tim Newman says:

    I suspect this is a symptom of the larger problem of most of Britain being innumerate; and not only that, unashamedly so. How many times to tabloids refer to ordinary scientists as “boffins”, presumably because the ability to count, record results, and observe effects in an organised and consistent manner is the preserve of those bordering on autistic? I was lucky that I had an old-school physics teacher from Lancashire, right miserable old sod he was, but understood the importance of basic technical and numerical knowledge, and made us do practical experiments to demonstrate observable effects and lectured us incessantly on the requirement to think about what is happening and why. He also gave me two very useful pieces of advice:

    1. Fuck this southern rugby shite, get into proper rugby, rugby league. Watch a Wigan vs St. Helens game and ignore this Bath vs Wasps shite.

    2. Get yerself into a good northern red brick university, with a proper industrial pedigree. Salford or Manchester for example. Yeah, Manchester. Do a good engineering course, and you’ll never look back.

    He was right on both counts.

    Anyway, as XCKD pointed out in one of their cartoons, and many others have also done so, being innumerate and technically ignorant is nothing to be ashamed of, but apparently not knowing the ins-and-outs of literature or the arts renders you a philistine. A snort of “Oh, I’m no good with numbers, so don’t ask me” doesn’t get you the same looks as “I’ve never been to an art gallery, just not interested”.

    If the public don’t understand numerical or technical issues and don’t want to, then we can’t expect hack journalists to bother either.

    BTW, on the one recent episode in which I was well informed – the Macondo well blowout – the coverage by the Wall Street Journal was outstanding. How fortunate we are that its owner is afforded the respect he deserves by those media organs which fuck up everything they write about.

  5. Robert says:

    And there is the issue that many of those working in the broadsheet press – including the DT these days, it would seem – would regard a knowledge of, say, military aircraft as, at best, puerile, and, at worst, an unhealthy symptom of militaristic, fascistic etc tendencies.

  6. LJH says:

    Journalists staffing the broadsheets are the cream of the arts graduates, usually with a string to pull to get an internship. Hacks used to learn their trade on local rags covering local events where dodging the head of the WI after getting the facts of the annual jam sale made the High St a tricksy place, that is after a debollocking by a genuinely scary sub. Learning about politics via close observation of the council innoculated them ever more against starry eyed credulity about anything. Straight out of school, the trainees had learned no narrative in which to cast a story, they also lacked any sense of self importance. Cynicism, scepticism and dogged fact checking are what make a good journalist. The only extra education needed is a grasp of the abuse of statistics. Given the council assisted death of local papers by media officer and the hopeless teaching of maths and the scientific method at school, the smug graduate journalist is the coup de grace for accurate reporting.

  7. NickM says:

    I’m well aware of the difference between the F-4K/M and the other Rhinos. I just likd piccie. Anyhoo, I perhaps should have added that this is the only example of a Spey engined fighter. It was designed for airliners! The story as to how this state of affairs came to pass is a long one…

    Good points. I especially liked the one about “knowing things about ‘planes”. I tell someone I watch “Dogfights” and they think I’m some sort of Colonel Kilgore and love the smell of napalm in the morning.

    I have taken the liberty of deleting one of your double comments. I assume that was your real name so I’ll leave your nom de blog instead

  8. John Galt says:


    Thanks for removing the double-entry, but you needn’t worry “Lloyd” is the registered name for my UK TV service provider. They keep terminating my accounts because I is watching Film 4 from “Foreign”, so I keep having to re-register under different pseudonyms.

    Bloody content restrictions.

  9. Tim Newman says:

    I tell someone I watch “Dogfights”…

    Do that ’round here and you’ll probably be taken to one. Only you’ll not be looking up at the sky.

  10. David Gillies says:

    The problem with the general innumeracy of the public, and the press specifically, is that it robs people of one of the most valuable things any decent scientist or engineer has: a bullshit detector. One of the most valuable skills we were taught lo those many moons ago when we were just starting out as junior physicists is that in many if not most cases, you should have a rough idea, order-of-magnitude sort of thing, about what the answer should look like. If you do a sum and come up with the mass of the Earth as 10^18 kg or 10^28 kg a big flashing light should go off. We even did a bit of work on ‘Fermi problems’ which are heavy on making good guesses of sometimes quite complex things, using intuition, dimensional analysis* and sensible approximations. XKCD’s ‘What If” articles are basically extended riffs on Fermi problems. A classic example is how much water flows out of the mouth of the Mississippi each day? Most people don’t even know where to start and this leaves them open to charlatans, be they stump-jawed snake handling shitkickers trying to tell them Earth is 10,000 years old or AGW prophets bilking them for wind-farm subsidies.

    * which is why anyone contributing to one of those utterly fucking ridiculous stories like “scientists discover formula for perfect rice pudding’ or some similar cockwaffle should be garrotted. They’re invariably some mish-mash of coefficients plucked out of someone’s arse to build an ‘equation’ which, if you plug the actual units in, comes out to be an utterly physically meaningless thing like m s + K kg^-2/3. Arseholes. If you haven’t got commensurate quantities then you can’t add ‘em together or equate them.

  11. Mr Ed says:

    David, I suspect that the cult of ignorance suits the State and its minions just fine, and they welcome it. Many feel no shame in ignorance, some relish it.

    Those ignorant people do not deserve to starve, but I cannot say that they would not deserve not to starve when the economy collapses. I would not wish it, but actions and choices have consequences.

  12. bloke in spain says:

    I reckon you can trace the problem back a long, long time. Back to the mediaeval universities & the Guilds in fact. The Universities taught divinity, classics & philosophy & the only sciences were reading what the Greeks had sussed out 1500 years before. Mostly bollocks. The Guilds taught the apprentices the Mysteries. Which was how to get your hands dirty & do stuff. And a lot of that stuff was real science. Practical maths. All the geometry the Universities put down to Pythagoras was what you use to build & carpenter.
    For peculiar reasons, one of the talents I acquired in life was to be a pretty fair jeweller. Not the art school version but the real thing. I got taught the guild way. On the job. Learnt the whole thing from making wire from lumps of gold, casting, soldering, the lot. Some of the work we used to do was restorations for the Victoria & Albert. Fixing stuff a thousand years old. And we had to use the same techniques & often the tools as well. Clever guys those old boys. Soldering gold filigree as fine as cobweb to a large lump of gold. Can’t use modern techniques. Before the mass of metal would be hot enough to run the solder the filigree’d shrivel up & vanish. Or the solder would run towards the hottest point. Which it will. And clog the delicate wires solid. So we didn’t use solder. We did it like they did. Painted the mass with copper sulphate & stuck the filigree on with gum arabic. Pop it into a little furnace & when the temperature’s right the copper alloys with the gold , melts it & they fuse. Just like solder. Or rather, we’re creating the solder at just the points it’s needed. Cunning eh? You couldn’t have told those guys diamond dissolves in goats blood like they did at the universities. They’d have laughed at you. Want to know how to estimate how much metal you’ll be needing to cast that wax figure you’ve made? Archimedes Principle. (If your a university type & too ignorant to know it, look it up) But you’ll need to know relative densities as well. Archimedes didn’t discover that. Fucking patent violation. Bronze age people discovered that, thousands of years before he said he did. Acids? Alloys? Relationship of the circumference to the diameter. Try making a ring without it. Even electroplating & the university bods didn’t hack that till when?
    Same with all the crafts. Since, I’ve learnt to be a pretty fair carpenter. Most of the setting out techniques are the geometry the Egyptians were using. University shitheads give it all Greek names to confuse people.
    That’s the division isn’t it? Between people who get their hands dirty & make shit happen. And those who talk about it. Do you really think they invented economics or was it some Phonecian trader’s experience screwing the Minoans for the last talent? So is it surprising they’re so fucking jealous?
    Isn’t it true today? The big cheeses at universities are the ones who do all the yapping. The more rarefied & useless the discipline the more the status. Further down the ladder they’re all mere technicians.
    And because university people run everything, they run it to suit themselves. Arts degrees! Wonder if any of them know the chemistry of paint? The masters did. No, if it’s too complicated for their restricted, inadequate little minds they’re scared of it so they try & pretend it’s beneath them. “Oh that’s all numbers!” Boring!
    Notice the bigger & more important the university the higher the density of crapheads? Get to do Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Oxford & you’ll be in the running for Prime Minister. Which must prove it’s a real physical law & not just a hypothesis.

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