When human lives are an optional extra

Boeing’s 737 Max: is safety an optional extra?

Two very different but equally shocking stories in the papers today: The New York Times reports on the safety features missing from two Boeing 737 Max plans that crashed, killing dozens, while The Guardian publishes an extract from Beth Gardiner’s book about “dieselgate”, the car emissions scandal. 

The stories do have a common thread: corporations putting profits above human lives. In dieselgate, car firms deliberately cheated on their vehicles’ emissions tests, putting God knows how many lives at risk from very damaging air pollution (the emissions from diesels, if not dealt with properly, are particularly dangerous).

With the 737 Max, Boeing withheld crucial safety features, making them an optional extra. The planes that crashed didn’t have them.

The NYT:

For Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the practice of charging to upgrade a standard plane can be lucrative. Top airlines around the world must pay handsomely to have the jets they order fitted with customized add-ons.

Sometimes these optional features involve aesthetics or comfort, like premium seating, fancy lighting or extra bathrooms. But other features involve communication, navigation or safety systems, and are more fundamental to the plane’s operations.

Many airlines, especially low-cost carriers like Indonesia’s Lion Air, have opted not to buy them — and regulators don’t require them.

There appears to be a significant problem with sensors on the 737 Max, and those problems can make the planes crash. Boeing has a fix for that problem, but it’s not included as standard when an airline buys a 737 Max.

Multiple informed sources claim that the problem is structural: the way the 737 Max has been designed makes it much more prone to stalling. Its software makes corrections to try and stop that from happening, but it’s dependent on a single sensor. According to AviationCV.com, if that sensor fails “you’re essentially doomed”: the software doesn’t get data from other sensors and there’s no backup.

Back to the NYT, describing the safety measures that would prevent these planes from crashing:

“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

Horrific, isn’t it? And yet these examples of corporate wickedness pale into insignificance against the firms spending huge sums battling climate change regulation. Plane crashes kill a few hundred people a year; diesel emissions are believed to kill around 5,000 people a year in Europe. Climate change has the potential to kill millions.

That isn’t stopping fossil fuel firms from trying to stop regulation as they expand their operations. Such firms are spending millions on advertising and social media campaigns designed to undermine, delay and block attempts to clean up our energy sources.

The largest five stock market listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m (£153m) a year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change, according to a new report.

Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil were the main companies leading the field in direct lobbying to push against a climate policy to tackle global warming, the report said.

One of the firms, ExxonMobil, faces a ban from the EU parliament over allegations that it is funding and spreading climate change denial.

This is not new – think of cigarette companies selling proven carcinogens, suppressing the evidence of their ill-effects and battling regulation for decades – but the danger is on an even greater scale. The one cost the world’s biggest companies don’t want to consider is the human cost of what they do.

Follow the money

OpenDemocracy reports that the US anti-LGBT hate group Alliance Defending Freedom has been funding supposed “grassroots” organisations in the UK. In this particular case it has been funding groups that campaign against euthanasia; it also funds anti-abortion campaigners and other lovely people.

Here are some interesting coincidences.

The ADF works closely with another anti-LGBT hate group, the Family Research Council. In late 2017 the FRC outlined its “divide and conquer” strategy to roll back LGBT equality by attacking trans people.

“Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer… if we separate the T from the alphabet soup we’ll have more success.” The strategy would specifically seek out allies such as separatist feminists, “ethnic minorities who culturally value modesty” and “female athletes forced to compete against men and boys”. It would wrap its intolerance in feminist rhetoric to try and recast rolling back LGBT rights as protecting women. Its key talking points would focus on the supposed dangers of trans people in toilets, in shelters and in prisons, of the supposed unfairness of trans people in competitive sport and of the “erasure of women” by trans people.

Since late 2017, a number of suspiciously well-funded “grassroots” organisations have put anti-trans scaremongering at the top of the UK news agenda. They have attempted to split the T from LGBT, and have been joined in their efforts by ethnic minorities “who culturally value modesty” – the ones currently shouting through megaphones outside primary schools – and female athletes. They campaign to roll back LGBT rights in order to “protect women”. Their key talking points have been the supposed dangers of trans people in toilets, in shelters and in prisons, the supposed unfairness of trans people in competitive sport and of the “erasure of women” by trans people.

Some of the most high-profile anti-trans activists were listed as members of the Hands Across The Aisle coalition (a list now conveniently deleted from its website), which brings US evangelicals together with anti-trans activists. Hands Across The Aisle is one of the coalitions the FRC praised in 2017 in its description of how to use grassroots organisations to help it roll back LGBT rights.

As I said. Interesting coincidences.

Ban this sick filth

There’s something missing from the ongoing coverage of homophobic, transphobic parents demanding schools cancel their inclusive education classes: any detail about what’s actually being taught. So hurrah for Luke Tryl, formerly of education watchdog Ofsted and director of the New Schools Network, who’s shared an example of the kind of thing these parents want to protect their children from.

Imagine letting your children see this.

The whole thing’s thoroughly depressing, of course, but at least there’s some gallows humour on Twitter. This, by the writer Paul Coleman, made me laugh.

Homophobic parents are right to be worried about their children turning gay after lessons about LGBT awareness. I lived as a Tudor wench for 2 years following a history class.

Just an ordinary day

How’s your day going?

Just after midnight, I saw The Economist tweet this.

It turns out that the article was about Japan, and it has since been corrected with a less inflammatory headline. But as the writer Diana Tourjeé pointed out, “should trans people be sterilised?” is part of the regular media discourse on trans people alongside whether we should be banned from public toilets, whether we should be allowed to participate in sports, whether we should be acknowledged in the history books and in education, whether we should be allowed in homeless shelters, whether we should be given life-saving healthcare, whether we should be allowed correct identity documents, whether we should be allowed to serve in the military, whether we should be given normal health screening, whether killing us should be a hate crime, whether we should be allowed to adopt or raise children, whether we should be protected from discrimination. After all, “they chose this. They are sick. They are perverts. They are not normal.”

Responding to the thread another journalist, Katelyn Burns, noted that “Every single one of these questions in this thread has been the subject of major media coverage, op eds in large publications, or proposed in legislation over the last 6 months.”

On my way back from the school run, I listened to Radio Scotland where the discussion was about gender neutral toilets, a largely cost-based decision by local councils building new schools. Much of the discussion was about trans people; online, some listeners condemned the PC agenda, trans people etc. One approvingly shared links to news articles about parents getting “LGBT rights classes” dropped: “We desperately need a revolution” against LGBT people, he said.

Back home, on Twitter I saw Andrea Leadsom apparently supporting parental “choice” about whether or not children get to know that LGBT people exist, and I saw footage of Donald Trump nodding approvingly while Brazil’s bigoted president said he and Trump stand “side by side” in the war on “gender ideology”. Gender ideology is a meaningless phrase beloved by the hard right to describe all kinds of things they disapprove of: trans people, mainly, but also equal marriage, immigrants and women’s reproductive rights.

Also on Twitter, I saw that one Scottish school has canned its inclusive education because of it featured this poem:

Despite my best efforts my news app continues to show me right-wing newspapers, one of which is defending a woman who accused the CEO of trans charity Mermaids of “mutilating” her child and promoting “child abuse”. Almost all of the press and TV coverage has portrayed this not as vicious libel, but as a nice Catholic lady being victimised for using the wrong pronouns.

This is exceptionally common online: anti-trans activists will conduct a prolonged campaign of bullying against trans people or allies, and when it gets bad enough for the police to get involved they run to the papers claiming they’re being picked on for using the wrong pronouns. The police don’t give a shit what pronouns you use, but they do investigate harassment and malicious communications. The misreporting simply fuels anti-trans hatred.

My news app also gives me the terrible news that not only is Ricky Gervais still alive, but that his latest material includes more stuff punching down on trans people.

All of this before 11am on an entirely typical day.  I am so, so tired of this.

Criticism of sex education, and why it’s wrong

There’s yet another worrying development in the parents vs education story: Conservative politician Andrea Leadsom says that parents should get to decide when their children “become exposed to that information”.

Writing in the TES a few weeks ago, Natasha Devon explains why the “kids are too young” argument and two others are wrong.

When it comes to same-sex relationships, it’s interesting (in a disturbing way) how many people think of them as somehow inherently sexual, in a way heterosexual partnerships are not. Most schools now have several pupils with two mums or two dads. It’s important for all children to be exposed to representation that reflects this, in the same cartoon-character, age-appropriate way heterosexual parents are.

Children are not being taught about what people do in bed. As Devon writes:

Sex education at the age of 4 is generally restricted to a “pants are private” message and to helping children understand consent and that they must tell if someone touches them inappropriately. I think we can all agree that they’re never too young for that.

There’s no joy in saying “we told you so”

We told you so, #1.

When religious groups protested about inclusive education in a Birmingham primary school, LGBT people said it was the thin end of the wedge. Protests have now expanded to more Birmingham schools who have abandoned their #NoOutsiders “respect everyone” lessons, and complaints have now been made to schools in Manchester too. US money is incoming and these protests will become more widespread.

The protests aren’t about sex education – education watchdog Ofsted has investigated and rejected the allegations that the lessons aren’t age-appropriate. They’re about understanding that people are different, whether by age, religion, sexual orientation or gender. They’re about letting kids know that some kids have two mums, two dads, or dads that look like mums or mums that look like dads. The irony is incredible: unlike the fictional beings that apparently want their followers to hate LGBT people, LGBT people actually exist.

This is really frightening. It’s Section 28 all over again: an attempt to pretend that LGBT people don’t exist on the grounds of protecting children. Every LGBT adult was an LGBT child, but sadly intolerance and bigotry means that not every LGBT child gets to become an adult. This “debate” has terrible consequences for LGBT people.

We told you so, #2.

The bullshit paper on the invented syndrome of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria has been fully investigated. Guess what? Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria is invented, and the paper was bullshit; it’s been corrected to reflect the truth, which is that it’s a study of attitudes among parents who don’t accept their trans children. The apology to the trans and gender non-conforming community is too little, too late: the bullshit has spread and has been used in endless newspaper articles demonising trans people.

We told you so, #3.

LGBT Nation reports that “Hate groups have come unhinged over the Equality Act”, highlighting the deranged scaremongering of the extreme evangelical right. The EA is a US bill to improve legal protection against discrimination for LGBT people. What’s striking is the way the language and arguments used by the aforementioned anti-LGBT hate groups are identical to the language and arguments used by British newspaper columnists, many of whom take their cues from activists funded by – surprise! – the lunatic fringe of the extreme evangelical right.

Top tip: if you’re doing the same scaremongering as the lunatic fringe of the US religious right, you might not be on the side of the angels.

Breaking the news

BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme, The Nine*, appears to be making the same mistakes  that affect current affairs programming nationally and on radio: it’s trying to get on-air bust-ups instead of trying to inform its audience.

I don’t know how much of this is deliberate – one of the channel’s aims is to create content that goes viral on the internet – but it undermines the BBC as a serious journalistic enterprise.

In a recent item on schoolkids’ climate change protests, the programme invited the Global Warming Policy Foundation. You might not have heard of the organisation, but you’ll know its chairman Nigel Lawson. It’s an anti-science, climate change denial lobby group that won’t tell anybody who’s funding it.

So many environmental groups and experts refused to share the sofa with the group that the item had to be pulled.

It shouldn’t have been organised in the first place. The BBC in England warned staff about featuring such cranks – Nigel Lawson in particular – back in 2018. Director of news and current affairs Fran Unsworth wrote:

To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.

And last night, in a discussion on islamophobia in relation to the Christchurch terror attack, the programme invited Brendan O’Neill of Spiked. Spiked is at least partly funded by hard right US billionaires: its writers are propagandists, not impartial journalists. Their approach is simple: if “the left” say it’s white, they say it’s black. O’Neill believes that islamophobia is a myth and that we should be nicer to right-wing writers who write viciously anti-muslim articles.

The rest of The Nine’s output may be brilliant, but stunt casting like this undermines the whole enterprise.

As National columnist Kirsty Strickland put it on Twitter:

It isn’t interesting. In a world of instant news and no shortage of idiots willing to argue that up is down if they think it will boost their profile, this style of ‘debate’ is overdone and lazy. Thoughtful, informative broadcasting is what we desperately need.

She’s right. The world isn’t short of people deliberately taking an antagonistic opinion to any subject you like: smacking children, LGBT rights, climate change, islamophobia. Opinion is only worthwhile if it’s informed opinion. If it’s denying established fact – arguing against settled science on climate change, for example, or denying that islamophobia exists – then it should be left to shouting at cows, not given a national platform. People have the right to believe anything they want, but they don’t have a right to be on TV.

This is a problem for journalism generally, but it’s a particular issue for the BBC. The BBC has a unique place in the UK because of the licence fee: it’s supposed to free the BBC from the ratings-obsessed, clickbaity bullshit of ad-funded broadcasting, which is why we are made to pay for it instead of letting it compete in the cut-throat world of commercial media.

If it doesn’t offer programmes of a higher quality, if it prefers bear-pit populism to informed journalism, why should anybody be compelled to pay for it?

* Vested interest alert: I recorded a non-broadcast pilot for the programme before its launch, I know some of the production staff and presenters and I’ve been invited on to talk about tech several times although I haven’t been able to appear for personal reasons. 

Like tears in the rain

MySpace, the leading social network from the pre-Facebook days, has accidentally (?) deleted more than a decade’s worth of music. Every piece of music uploaded to the platform between 2003 and 2015, some 50 million songs from 14 million artists, is gone like tears in the rain.

This is an important lesson: digital does not last forever.

We’ve seen this happen again and again with user-submitted content; some of my own music was trashed back in 2003 when MP3.com was sold and its archive effectively destroyed. Always assume that sooner or later, remotely hosted services will be sold, will shut down or will do something unspeakable to your stuff.

But content you pay for isn’t forever either.

Your Spotify subscription, your Netflix account, your Apple Music: the availability of content on these services is not infinite. Contracts and licenses expire, catalogues are pruned, accidents happen, copyright holders revoke permissions… for myriad reasons, things disappear.

Sometimes things don’t disappear, but they stop working. My PlayStation told me today that some of the games I downloaded last year on the understanding that they were mine forever would lose most of their features later this year: the servers on which these older games depend will be switched off, removing features like online play and multiplayer. The games also depend on my PlayStation Plus subscription remaining current. If I don’t keep paying that, they stop working completely.

If you bought copy-protected music or movies in the early 2000s you may be familiar with a similar problem when authorisation servers are switched off: for example, in 2008 MSN and Yahoo both turned off the copy protection servers for their music services, so any downloads you’d bought could no longer be authorised. If you changed computer, you wouldn’t be able to authorise your legally purchased music to play on it.

There’s not much you can do about subscription services changing their catalogues, but for content you create yourself or that you’ve bought rather than rented it’s a very good idea to ensure that you have a local copy of whatever lives in the cloud. And while you’re at it, make sure that copy is in a format that’s free from copy protection, in a widely supported file format and in the best possible quality.

A good one

Every Friday for more than two years, The Root has responded to reader emails and comments. Last week, it only replied to one.

In a powerful piece of writing, Michael Harriot responds to a teacher who feels that “the rhetoric has grown increasingly anti-white, especially from the black community.” The email is long, but here’s the gist:

I think you should be careful to make a distinction between racist white people and the rest like most people know the difference between a good black person and a bad black person.

Harriot’s response is almost certainly the best thing you’ll read today.