Wednesday, June 21, 2023

About That Missing Submersible

 The headlines have been cluttered the last few days with the frantic search for the missing submersible "Titan" owned and operated by OceanGate.  

In the midst of it all, have been some very interesting, and hugely problematic revelations about the design and build of this craft.  As someone with experience in control systems design, there are aspects of this which are as egregious as Boeing's failures with the 737Max "MCAS" system.

First up is the navigational control system - which is anchored by a Bluetooth connected game controller. First, let me state that using a game controller type device for directional control of the vessel isn't entirely a bad thing. The controllers are common, well understood, and generally work quite well. There are numerous systems out there that use them, and I'm not going to slam that entirely. 

I am going to slam the use of a battery powered Bluetooth controller, though. Those things eat through AA batteries like they're candy - in this situation, you better have a box of spare batteries at hand - because you're going to need them.  Controllers can act pretty strangely when the battery gets low - including having problems with the Bluetooth connection. 

My first thought was "where's the hardwired controller?" - nothing wrong with using a wireless device here if you have a backup device that's physically connected.  A Bluetooth device has a myriad of failure modes that need to be considered - the chip inside the controller can fail, the chip on the control computer can fail, both can get confused at critical moments and have to renegotiate connection, and so on. The importance of having a physical connection cannot be understated.

Then we come to some of the other question marks this raises.  Clearly this craft is computer controlled.  Are those computers redundant, and what is the behaviour if there's a hardware fault in the computer? This isn't a case like your car where if the ECU goes awry, it either goes into a "limp home" mode, or you can at least pull off the road and call for assistance. This is a vessel going into the deep ocean. There's a distinct lack of tow trucks at 4 km below the surface if you get into trouble. 

Which brings me to the second point about the navigational controls - are there direct overrides that would allow the operator to bypass a failed computer controller and directly operate the motors? The few pictures I have seen of the interior do not look like that's the case.  Again, this is a form of redundancy that is appropriate in this context, because frankly even a little bit of salt water is apt to be very fatal to the electronics. 

There are a bunch of design questions around the power and control systems that would require access to the engineering designs to comment on, but just what can be observed from public media is quite alarming. 

Then there's the discussion in the New Republic article, which implies that the viewing portals are not rated for the depths that the submersible operates at. That doesn't mean it will fail immediately at those depths - but it does mean that we don't really know when, or how, it might fail.  It might be fine for some number of dives, and then develop a leak around a seal that has a minor flaw. 

The point here is that OceanGate appears to have made an economic decision in the build, and decided not to bother spending the dollars needed to certify for 4 km below the surface - where the water pressure is going to be over 5850 lbs / square inch ( 1 atmosphere at sea level is 14.73 lbs ).  While this is not necessarily the failure case here, it's very concerning. 

Then there is the use of carbon fibre to make the hull. This is a materials science question for me - and something I don't have a lot of insight into.  Carbon fibre is relatively new in the world, and one does have to wonder just how it's going to react to repeated compression / decompression cycles as the vessel racks up hours of operation at depth, and then returning to the surface. 5 inches of carbon fibre sounds like a lot, but in a hostile environment like the deep ocean, it may not be, or the stresses may cause the material to begin to fail.  I don't think we know enough to be certain here. 

Circling back to this, there are a whole lot of question marks around the design and implementation of this craft. Once the search and rescue (or recovery) mission is over, we absolutely should be looking at the vessel more closely and assessing whether or not it was in fact fit for the purpose it was being put to. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Anti-Trans Movement Is A ReInstatement Of Patriarchy

Although the current backlash against transgender women (trans women) has its roots in a branch of feminism, it is no longer arguably a “feminist” discussion. In fact, there’s a considerable argument that it now exists as a patriarchal movement intended to re-establish the dominance of men in western society. 

First, consider the following shifts that have occurred.  In the early 2000s, most of the noise was coming from a handful of moderately well known feminist writers and their more vocal followers. It was mostly a fringe movement that hung out at the intersection of lesbian community politics and so-called radical feminism. If you weren’t in either space, you didn’t really hear about it … at all. My first encounters with it arose over the ruckus associated with the “Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival”, and one or two particularly toxic Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERF) that were flailing about harassing trans people online (names are left out here because … well, they’re still toxic, and I don’t want to give them the attention).  

On the other side of the discussion, we find the usual assortment of “Social Conservatives (SoCon)”, which is a polite, but inaccurate bit of language for describing people who are ultimately Christian fundamentalists who want to impose their particular idea of Christianity on all of us. Around about 2010-2012, we start seeing the language of the TERFs, and the language of the SoCons suddenly starts aligning. To the point that they were using the same language and arguments, and one often couldn’t tell at first whether one was arguing with a Christian, or with a TERF.  

However, once the two groups started sharing language and arguments, they rapidly started sharing tactics and strategies, and they coalesced around ideas such as “immutability of sex”, “trans women have a natural advantage in sports”, and failing all of that, “trans women must be perverts and pedophiles”.  

The latter set of claims is of course very much a repetition of the kind of arguments that were made about (particularly) male homosexuals for decades. More or less, it is constructed from the patriarchal assumption that by definition men are a danger to women.  They have extended the definition of “man” here to include anyone who possesses, or ever possessed, a penis. The argument is then extended to the idea that anyone who fits into this categorization of “man” is also a danger to molest children. 

How is this a patriarchal claim? It is patriarchal on several levels. First, it assumes that men are so much more “powerful” than women that they cannot be trusted around women and children. In other words, it places men at the top of a social hierarchy rooted in physical strength. Second, it places undue focus on the penis, making it an object which is to be feared - and anybody who has ever had one is automatically a danger, but also in doing so implicitly relegates women to second tier status in the power hierarchy.  

There is a point to this. In many Christian cultural contexts, there is a specific hierarchy in the family unit, which places the man (husband) at the head of the household (after all, he’s the breadwinner, right?), and the woman (wife) in the position of being the person who supports the husband, and ensures that the home is orderly and well run. Children in this context often end up being treated as “little possessions to be controlled” instead of independent human beings developing into adults.

I won’t go into the kind of social pressures that women who are in these contexts are subjected to. Beyond saying that in many of the groups I am familiar with, women are expected to conform to “Stepford Wives” standards - as creepy as that sounds.

There’s a reason I brought up the idea of appearances here. Women in these contexts are held to very specific standards of appearance. This makes it possible for the next vector of attack against trans women to emerge. Caricatures of trans women emerge within these circles. Trans women are then assumed to be little more than “men wearing a dress”, and anyone who isn’t 5’2” and wearing a specific style of clothing is looked upon with suspicion. Of course, women come in all sorts of shapes and sizes - this isn’t news.  But it serves as a handy “weapon” to use against anyone who is “trans” - suddenly “body policing” begins. If you don’t appear sufficiently “feminine” for someone else, you can find your presence in a public washroom challenged. 

But, the real beauty of this for the patriarchy types is that it focuses women on “identifying the threat in their midst” (as if trans women are somehow “wolves in sheep’s clothing”), and of course anybody who is remotely non-feminine suddenly finds themselves subjected to ridiculous levels of scrutiny, and they are distracted from the structures that patriarchies create specifically to marginalize and control women. 

Trans women in particular are a problem for proponents of religious patriarchy for several reasons.  First, like homosexual men, they defy the very narrow idea of what it means to be male. Gay men violate the concept of sexual power by being attracted to … well … other men. Trans women in particular go a step further and really confuse the patriarchy by stepping into a social role that is deemed “weaker” by the patriarchy. This kind of flexibility both socially and sexually is intrinsically threatening to the sense of structure that is relied upon to ensure the power of males in the social world. 

Then we get to the concept of bodily autonomy. Transgender people in general represent a generalization of the bodily autonomy that underpins many aspects of feminist thinking. Feminism itself arose out of a need to move beyond the “biology as destiny” world of the past, and forces the recognition of women as whole and equal members of society who exist at the same level of autonomy and ability as men do. Transgender people go much further with respect to the concept of bodily autonomy, essentially arguing that their bodies are in no way “destiny”, and that they should be able to move through society as equals regardless of their bodily configuration. This creates additional “threats” to traditional patriarchy because suddenly clear cut delineation between people and social roles disappear, replaced by self determination and actualization. For someone seeking a clear, well ordered, social world, that represents a dire threat indeed. 

These two reasons are why we now see religious figures at the forefront of demonizing trans women (and yes, to a certain extent, trans men get a pass here because patriarchy also requires mystifying the feminine while exalting the “power” of the masculine.  

This is also why trans women in elite sports became a flash point after Lia Thomas won a few medals at a competition.  Up to that point, trans women had been competing openly since the mid-2000s. Of course, they weren’t winning medals.  The moment one trans woman did start winning, the patriarchy driven notion that women are intrinsically “weaker” than men was leveraged to claim that somehow there was an “unfair advantage” (the science around this topic remains full of more questions than answers, and I’m not going to tackle it here).  Why? Because patriarchy demands that women compete separately from men - not really because women and men are “dramatically different”, but because in the rare event that a man would lose to a woman, that would threaten the very structures patriarchy demands in order to function. 

It is ironic to me that among the loudest voices attacking trans women are alleged “feminists”, who are ultimately operating hand-in-glove with the same people who would happily shove society forcefully back to the structures that held sway before women dared assert their right and ability to vote.

The Cass Review and the WPATH SOC

The Cass Review draws some astonishing conclusions about the WPATH Standards of Care (SOC) . More or less, the basic upshot of the Cass Rev...