Tuesday, 25 August 2015

The myth of strike-busting driverless tubes

As soon as #tubestrike starts trending on Twitter, the calls for the London Underground network to switch to driverless trains reach fever pitch. People carry on as if the network can switch to driverless trains in a matter of moments and that it will instantly end tube strikes.

Regardless of your views on London tube strikes, it is important to know that switching to driverless trains can't happen overnight and it won't necessarily stop strikes, even if we woke up tomorrow to find the switch had somehow magically happened.

There are 11 London tube lines, as well as the Overground and the already-driverless Docklands Light Rail (or DLR, but more on that in a moment...). In February 2014, when Mayor of London Boris Johnson, approved plans for driverless trains. But not even Boris would have such a rush of blood to the head that he'd sign off on a project that would be unfeasible on a practical level and astronomically expensive.

Boris signed off on procurement for 100 driverless trains for the Piccadilly Line. Just the Piccadilly Line. This is the start of a project that will cover only four of the network's lines between now and 2034 and it will cost £10 billion.

Every month, my bank account takes a direct hit thanks to Boris' love of raising public transport fares, but not even he would hike fares to the point where the upgrades and new trains required for a driverless tube could be implemented in lightning-fast time.

To implement driverless trains across infrastructure that is more than 100 years old in many parts is not a small or cheap undertaking.

On top of this, there ain't no whinger like the average London underground passenger. Especially when lines are closed for essential engineering work. Apparently, there are people out there who would rather travel on a poorly maintained railway system all the time instead of sucking it up and dealing with the occasional replacement bus service while travelling on a safe, well-maintained service the rest of the time.

And the average London underground whinger would complain at a rate last seen at Fawlty Towers if entire lines were closed for months at a time to do the upgrades required for driverless trains. Transport For London (TFL) needs to strike a balance between getting work done and minimising inconvenience for paying passengers.

Not that any of this stopped Richard Holloway, a Conservative councillor for the London borough of Westminster, from setting up an ill-informed and predictably briefly popular petition on change.org. The petition calls on Boris Johnson to "begin operating completely driverless trains on the entire London underground as soon as possible."

I tweeted Richard to ask him about this and he said that the Paris Metro went driverless over a period of five years. "Are we going to let the French beat us?" he asked without a trace of irony, given the French culture of strikes, and despite the fact it's not 1793.

Facts are pesky for Richard - the Paris Metro has not yet gone entirely driverless. I have no idea where he got his five-year figure from - Paris opened its first driverless line in 1998, a second in 2012 and a third is due by 2020. So that means two out of the 14 Paris Metro lines have gone driverless in the last 17 years.

When I asked Richard for costings, he tweeted a link to a BBC news story. I pointed out that this is not a costings document and he asked me if I frequent change.org and ask every petition for a full breakdown of costs for their proposal? Of course I don't. Most petitions on change.org are started by people who are not elected representatives. But if you are an elected representative publicly putting forward a proposal, you are effectively making a policy statement and it is entirely reasonable to be expected to provide costings. Especially when public money is involved.

Richard clearly didn't want to discuss this matter any further and asked if I'd demanded costings on a petition about the UK providing medical care to migrants at Calais.

He had no real answers to my questions and today, he is still on Twitter banging on about driverless trains as a panacea for all strikes. Such as the DLR, I suppose?

But the DLR - the line that is always cited as an example for how the tube should be by the "LET'S GO DRIVERLESS TOMORROW!" brigade - is not entirely without staff nor is it strike-free.

The DLR has more than 500 people on staff, such as cleaners, security staff, station staff and train captains. The captains move around the carriages while the trains are in motion and they have to manually operate the train if something goes wrong. If the rest of the tube network, went "driverless", the tube drivers would be the first people to be offered these train captain jobs - they are already trained to deal with a range of mechanical problems so they'd be obvious candidates.

And, sorry to break it you, Richard, but DLR staff have gone on strike. In May this year, DLR cleaning and security staff went on strike. If there are working people involved in an endeavour and striking has not been outlawed, strikes will probably still happen.

Get mad about tube strikes if you like. That is your right. But don't kid yourself that driverless trains can happen overnight or would be an instant strike-buster.

Photography by Svetlana Tikhonova

Smoke, fire and campus rape

Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, has been in the news this week after some douchey signs were hung up outside a frat house.

Delightfully, these signs contained the following tempting invitations:

"Rowdy and fun, hope your baby girl is ready for a good time."

(Frankly, guys, if you're referring to your female classmates as "baby girls", you haven't grown up enough to be trusted with your own erect penis near other people. And "rowdy"? Really? That's the kind of cute-but-lame word your mother uses when you're being a little boisterous on the front lawn as in: "Enough with the rowdy shenanigans, you little scamps!".)

"Freshman Daughter Drop Off."

(Young women: Just another delivery along with the beer and pizza!)

and, finally:

"Go ahead and drop off Mom too".

(Yeah! What grown-ass woman wouldn't want to indulge in some MILFy fun with these fine, young men!) 

The fraternity has been suspended pending an investigation before classes even start for the year.

If I saw these signs on my own university campus back in 1994, my initial reaction would be an eyeroll so hard that I'd be able to see out of my own ears. Perhaps the young women at this university should thank the members of the Sigma Nu fraternity for advertising themselves as weapons grade dickheads who should be avoided at all costs. That's what I'd tell any daughter of mine if that was the warm welcome she received on her first day of higher education.

And, hey, this is America! Land of the free! And that includes freedom of speech. If these crazy kids want to exercise that right by outing themselves as cretins, so be it.

But let's not be naive. Anyone who has ever gone to university knows that sex will happen. And not all sex that happens on college campuses is consensual. Statistics on rape in colleges are never going to be 100% accurate and this is partly down to under-reporting and poor notions of consent among young men and women.

For example, the young woman who wakes up after passing our drunk to discover a fellow student having sex with her is being raped but she might be unsure, just as her rapist might think his behaviour is perfectly acceptable and that her passing out in his room is the same as consent. Hint: It's not.

This is not a problem unique to the US. In the UK, Cambridge University introduced talks and workshops on consent in response to a survey of 2,100 female students in which almost half the respondents reported being "pinched, groped or grabbed" and more than 100 reported experiencing "serious sexual assault".

Just because someone was accepted into one of the world's best universities, that does not necessarily mean they are equipped with the life skills to be sexually responsible and respectful adults. Education about consent is important and, ideally, it should start when the kids are still at school. Because that is when people start to have sex. If we can set "enthusiastic consent" as a benchmark for sexual activity, we might start seeing campus sexual assault statistics fall and entertaining the notion of consent forms for sex at universities would become absurd.

If you seriously believe that all the kids responsible for the idiotic Sigma Nu frat house signs have sophisticated notions of consent, I've got a bridge to sell you. Given the fragmented nature of sex education across the US, any campus is going to have students joining the party with different levels of comprehension about everything from consent to homosexuality to birth control. The members of Sigma Nu won't necessarily all end up raping their classmates but it's naive to think that they're all on track to graduating as men who respect women if those signs are their idea of a welcoming gesture.

Sure, let the douchebros of Sigma Nu have their freedom of speech with their signs. And ensuring the freedom of people to go about their lives, especially at institutions of education, without being sexually assaulted is essential if we are as civilised as we claim to be.

Photography by Linnea Mallette

Monday, 24 August 2015

Abortion, adoption and the reality of choice

The story only received scant media coverage when it broke last month. Anti-abortion protesters forced a London abortion clinic to shut down. The clinic's name has not been made public but it is also rumoured that a second clinic is under threat thanks to protesters harassing women. It is suspected that Blackfriars Medical Centre, a longtime target of protest groups such as Abort67, is the second clinic under threat.

Never mind that apart from abortion being legal here in the UK, the Blackfriars clinic also provides ante- and post-natal checks, smear tests, minor surgery, counselling, men's health services, travel vaccines, cardiac health promotion, asthma and diabetes health promotion, dermatology and counselling. But for supposedly prolife people, these life-saving services might get thrown under a bus as long as they can limit access to safe, legal abortion by harassing women whose medical appointments are none of their damn business.

The only politician to stick her head above the parapet is Labour leadership contender, Yvette Cooper, and for that, she deserves respect. She has called for buffer zones around abortion clinics, as has happened in the US, Canada and France. This means the protesters can still exercise their right to free speech and women can still exercise their right to access medical services.

If you want to shout in public about why you believe abortion is wrong, that is your choice - but you have to remember that free speech is not the same as it being compulsory for anyone to listen to you. And free speech means that anyone who disagrees has the right to put forward their case.

Will the UK end up going down the US track of clinics requiring volunteer escorts to usher girls and women safely past protesters? Will the UK ever see its first example of abortion clinic staff being murdered? I really hope that is not the path on which we are travelling. Yvette Cooper should be commended for taking a stand on behalf of girls and women across the country.

Yes, girls as well as women...

The world has been reeling from the knowledge that in Paraguay, an 11-year-old girl, who was allegedly raped by her step-father at the age of 10, has just given birth. Her mother, the person who should be able to make medical decisions on behalf of her daughter, was denied the opportunity to let her daughter have a safe abortion just as she was not taken seriously when she tried to report her husband to the police. Everyone should be relieved that the girl survived the pregnancy and the c-section delivery, but every time she sees her c-section scar, she will be reminded of her rape. She is living in a family stricken by poverty in a country where around 600 girls aged 14 or under become pregnant every year. How has forcing her to give birth improved anything?

What is left of that girl's childhood? Is this the sort of awful story that we want to see replicated in the UK? It is the sort of awful story that should not happen anywhere ever.

Pregnancy is the world's biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide and it would be appalling if the UK's abortion laws changed so that girls here joined that terrible, inexcusable death toll in ever-increasing numbers.

But wait! There's always adoption! Well, sort of.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing, giving hope to children who might otherwise face a terrible childhood. But where are the Abort67 activists when it comes to making adoption easier for people who are able to given babies and children loving, safe homes? Such activists tend to sell adoption as a simple solution, a panacea for every unplanned, unwanted pregnancy but why are they not lobbying local authorities when ridiculous criteria make it impossible for potentially great parents to adopt?

Obviously, it would be irresponsible to simply let anyone who wandered in off the streets adopt children without any checks. After all, we are talking about kids who may have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, kids who have witnessed violence in the home, kids with serious medical problems and kids who were born addicted to drugs or suffering from foetal alcohol syndrome.

It is important to remember that adoption isn't always sunshine and rainbows. It can be very hard on everyone concerned. Potential adopters have to be realistic, to be aware that they probably won't end up with an angelic newborn.

But when local authorities impose conditions such as requiring at least one parent to take a year off work and, for adoption of sibling groups, one bedroom per child, children will linger in foster care. I recently came across the sad case of five siblings who are awaiting a forever family while being separated in the foster care system. Tragically, they will probably remain in the system for a long time yet unless there is someone out there with a six-bedroom house and the ability to take a year off work.

Why isn't Abort67 focusing on these cases? Why isn't Abort67 advocating the use of birth control and ensuring that every school student in the country receives broad-based effective sex education? Why is Abort67 more concerned with sitting outside clinics?

Because that is easier than doing anything that would actually contribute to reducing abortion or helping children that have already been born.

May Abort67 remain a fringe group. Yvette Cooper was dead right when she said that we do not need US-style abortion wars here.

Monday, 17 August 2015

The hypocrisy of the royal paparazzi outrage

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have done the very British equivalent of hanging their heads out the window and yelling at the top of their lungs: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!". They wrote a strongly worded letter.

Essentially, it was a plea to paparazzi photographers for the same sort of privacy non-royal parents enjoy. It was a call for control over what photographs of their kids are shared widely. Just as it is up to parents to decide what pictures of their little darlings end up on Facebook, on mantelpieces and on naff Christmas cards, William and Kate would only like official photographs and photographs taken at official photo calls to be published.

Of course, if they truly want to raise their kids in a normal environment, a republic would solve that problem. They could live as private citizens and get jobs and everything. Yes, I know Prince William works as a part-time air ambulance pilot and donates his salary to charity, but he can afford to have the luxury of such altruistic principles. He could always give up the tax-free money his dad gives him from the Duchy of Cornwall and pay tax like the rest of us.

But to suggest a British republic is still, for many, as absurd as suggesting we all wear shoes made of tofu and hats made of argon. So that leaves us with the letter from the here-to-stay-for-now Duke and Duchess, which was dutifully published in full across multiple newspapers, including the Daily Mail.

It was nice of the Mail to do this, accompanied by official pictures of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. No seedy pap pics taken from the boots of cars. But on the Mail's website, right alongside this reverential reprinting of the letter were paparazzi pics of Brooklyn Beckham, aged 16. And this was just days after the non-story of four-year-old Harper Beckham photographed sucking on a dummy was considered front page-worthy.

A quick click on the Mail's homepage as I write this reveals, along with the usual papped shots of grown-ass adult celebrities, the following kiddie-based crap in the sidebar of shame: the Beckham kids again (this time, Romeo, Cruz and Harper but no Brooklyn, who was clearly too cool to attend his baby's sister's recital), a video filmed from across the street of David Beckham and all four of his kids performing the fascinating act of getting into the car, Kylie Jenner's boyfriend's two-year-old son, 17-year-old Elle Fanning trying to eat a frozen yoghurt in peace, Reese Witherspoon and her sons, aged 12 and two, Kourtney Kardashian and her kids, aged five, three and 18 months, and Kim Kardashian and her two-year-old daughter, North West.

They were all paparazzi shots. None of them were pictures the celebrity parents volunteered to the world's media. They are dull pictures of famous people and their kids going about their business, doing the same boring things the rest of us do. How come in Daily Fail-Land, papped shots of underage celebrities and underage celebrity kids are OK but papped shots of royal kids are a crime against media ethics? Prince George and Princess Charlotte can't help who their parents are but neither can the kids of David and Victoria Beckham, assorted Kardashians or Reese Witherspoon.

Which leads us to the bigger question here: Why the hell does anyone care at all about photos of celebrity kids?

If you are so pleased William and Kate took a stand against those evil paps, but you read the Daily Mail, especially the website, you are part of the problem. If you blush a little, giggle coyly, and admit the sidebar of shame is your "guilty pleasure", you are part of the problem. Hell, if you buy any magazine that uses pap shots, you are part of the problem. The editors know people want to see pictures of celebrity kids, they know it makes them money through copy sales, ad revenue and clicks.

You are creating the market for pictures of celebrity kids. If you feel a bit creepy about this, that is a good thing.

You should be embarrassed if you regularly pore over photos of children you will never meet. It is not the same as looking at photos of your nieces and nephews or your friends' kids on Facebook. It's an invasion of privacy and those pictures online will live on forever for the kids of celebrities, usually with nasty comments at the end.

A free press is a wonderful thing and it should be defended. But when we feed the market for the journalist equivalent of sniffing bicycle seats, for bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping non-news, we end up with the media landscape we deserve.

Photography by Anna Langova

Monday, 10 August 2015

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, a buffoon for each side of the pond

Could Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be the same person? Evil clown twins separated at birth perhaps? Whatever the case, they are two sides of the same awful coin and if we end up with President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson in five years time, two nations will be ruled by two spiteful, fiscally irresponsible men who are not nearly as funny as they want you to believe.

Superficially, both men are known for amusing hair. But in the pantheon of comedy, the hair on these two men is about as funny as burning orphans. Trump's flammable nylon skull pet and Johnson's deliberately unkempt head of straw serve as distractions from their real agendas, from them being properly scrutinised for the policies, for what they really stand for.

Both enjoy playing up their clownish personae. If you really think Boris Johnson's stammering, eye-popping schtick and his constant use of swallow-the-thesaurus words is spontaneous and genuine, you've been fooled. As you giggle while his head lolls about like a bladder on a stick, he wants you to think of him as a loveable buffoon. He loves it if you to think he is "good comedy value" because he'd rather you didn't question him on his abject failure to be the eco-friendly Tory mayor we were apparently all crying out for, on ever-increasing public transport fares, on the contractually dubious white elephant that is the Emirates cable car, on his vanity projects, on the money has has wasted on useless buses, on gluing pollution to roads, on trying to convince us his airport idea was a good one, on his complete failure to be present for TFL-union night tube negotiations despite happily plastering "Mayor of London" on TFL propaganda posters...

Likewise, Trump knows full well the internet contains more jokes about his hair, his orange face, his marriages and his tacky ostentation than any real scrutiny about policy. This week, he was placed under scrutiny by Megyn Kelly - I am no fan of Fox News but she did well at the debate this week. Trump's response to her perfectly reasonable questioning was to make a grotesque menstruation analogy. He knew the outrage would dominate the news cycle. His apologists won't care that he is a sexist and once the news cycle moves on, any policy-related questions Kelly asked will be largely forgotten.

Johnson and Trump use these idiot personae as distractions and we let ourselves get distracted. They are both as fiscally sensible as a spoilt teenager let loose with Daddy's credit card but that doesn't seem to stop people from hoping they achieve the highest office in their respective countries.

Both men love a vanity project. Trump Tower stands as a phallic edifice to Donald Trump's supposed throbbing, masculine success. He puts his name on everything he touches. Likewise, Boris Johnson loves that London has Boris bikes, Boris buses (even though they are crap) and he is most likely tickled that people still refer to his dead-in-the-water Thames Estuary airport idea as "Boris Island". And while bikes, daft buses and a failed airport idea seem lame in comparison to Trump's tower, plane and golf courses, it means that we all refer to Mr Johnson as "Boris". As if he is a man of the people, one of us, the kind of chap we'd go down the pub with for a night of top banter.

Both men have advocated policies that would not be out of place under the Stasi's awful regime. Trump is mad about a great big damn wall to keep Mexicans out while Johnson would simply love to see the secondhand German water cannon available for use on the streets of London. Kudos to Home Secretary, Theresa May, for not letting Johnson have his toys, even though he already wasted our money on them. Zero respect to Johnson for his complete lack of grace in the face of what he sees as a personal disappointment, as the act of a colleague who is out to get him, to stop the BoJo juggernaut.

If you seriously think either one of these men would be a good president/prime minister, you have been conned.

Monday, 3 August 2015

A rant about pants

A friend of mine asked me for my thoughts on a new invention. Special underpants, with a multi-layer gusset, that can be worn instead of a pad or tampon during menstruation, to be precise. They're called Thinx.

Clearly I am the go-to girl if you’re not sure what to think about periods. Obviously.

Anything that advances the lives of women, makes menstruation more comfortable, and helps women to study, live and work on an equal footing with men, unencumbered by the monthly annoyance that is getting your period gets my full support. Anything that helps stop periods being taboo, anything that stops girls and women from being shut away, out of sight, out of mind, rendered unproductive for a week or so each month has got to be a good thing. Obviously.

So I read up on these special period pants. I’d probably give them a go if I spotted them in Boots, I thought to myself. And then I started mentally placing a few qualifiers on my desire to try them out. I wouldn’t dare try them while wearing tight trousers, I thought to myself. What about with light-coloured summer dresses? Out of the question! They’d be a handy back-up plan while using a tampon, I told myself. And I’d consider them for the annoying times at each end of a period – when your period is due and you’re not sure when the Red Sea will start flowing, and at the pitiful end when you’re not entirely sure if the crimson tide has ebbed for the month. A nice substitute for a panty liner!

It is easy for me from my place of privilege, where I can see two shops where I can buy feminine hygiene products from my desk, to view these pants as a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have. With my bathroom cupboard a veritable treasure trove of products of varying degrees of absorbency, I have the luxury of tailoring my sanitary protection needs to suit my lifestyle, my wardrobe and my flow. For girls and women who aren’t as fortunate as to live in a developed country, these pants could be their only hope for a hygienic period each month.

And then another friend mentioned the rinsing. Oh good Lord, the rinsing, the rinsing, the goddamn rinsing. Ideally, you’d own a few pairs of these pants, but you’d still want to rinse them separately before throwing them in the washing machine. Rinsing and wringing! And to do this, you need access to clean water and decent laundry facilities.

For this product to truly be a success in developing countries, an obvious market for such pants, access to clean water is essential. Nobody wants to rinse their period pants in a dirty river or a stagnant puddle. Nobody wants to queue at a village standpipe for a miserable dribble of water, hiding blood-stained pants under the less embarrassing dirty washing.

Also, they are retailing online at $24 for the thong, up to $34 for the hip-hugger brief - for the affluent woman in the developed world, it makes sense to buy a few pairs. Spending $100 on knickers is nothing compared to a lifetime's pad and tampon expenditure, if you are not poor. It'd be a harder sell for poor women, especially if they cannot simply jump online with a Visa card and order a few pairs with effortless ease.

By all means, donate these pants by the truckload to Oxfam. Be entrepreneurial and sell them to distributors across developing countries - although at present Thinx are only sold online. Do what you can to help girls and women have a happier time each month.

I wish the developers of Thinx well, I really do. From what I can tell, the company is an ethical, female-friendly employer. They employ women in Sri Lanka. The company also supports the AFRIPads charity. This is all good.

But it is important to think about the practicalities too. Access to clean water is essential for communities across the world to flourish, to be productive, to succeed, for good sanitation to finally prevail. It’s not as simple as imposing pants on impoverished girls and women - the period issue is part of a much bigger picture. Make a regular donation to Water Aid. Call on your government to dedicate some of its foreign aid budget to clean water projects. Call on corporations to consider access to water as a CSR project. Clean water projects benefit everyone and have positive knock-on effects for local economies.

And, besides, girls and women in the developing word deserve better than to merely have underwear or pads thrown at them.