“Let the Public Decide”? Bad Idea….

Be careful what you ask for, since when an organization asks the public for input on what they should name something, they’re opening a Pandora’s box.

Click to jump to the Boeing story and discussion.It all started (sort of: see below) with a boat, which was covered in True’s 27 March 2016 issue:

Jokey McJokeface

The National Environment Research Council of the United Kingdom is planning to launch a 128m-long research vessel to take a staff of 90 to the waters of both the north and south polar regions. And if voters in an Internet poll NERC is conducting to name the Royal Research Ship get their way, it will be called RRS Boaty McBoatface. “It’s a brilliant name,” says James Hand, who submitted what is now the leading proposal, with nearly 100,000 votes. Though, he says, “I’ve tweeted the organizers and said I’m terribly sorry; a lot of people have replied to me and said that’s the most British thing ever.” NERC says it reserves the right to choose the final name. (AC/London Independent) …RRS Serious Boat Name.

NERC released this composite image to announce its new contest. (Click to make it Much McLarger)

James Hand is now a legend. Oh, he was known before that, as a presenter on BBC Radio on Jersey, the British protectorate in the English Channel. But I predict that in the end, his main claim to fame will be his “Boaty McBoatface” line. By the time the contest ended, his suggestion got 124,109 votes, far surpassing the runner-up with 39,886 votes. B.McB would have had many more votes, but NERC’s web site crashed under the weight of the publicity over the cheeky suggestion.

The boat ended up being christened with the #4 …uh… winner, RSS Sir David Attenborough, named for the long-time BBC natural historian who even at this writing is still active at 93. He only got 11,023 votes, but NERC’s vote is the only one that really counted. (Well, and Hand’s: he voted for Attenborough.) NERC considered the stunt a total success: “The poll is to generate interest,” a spokesman said even before the poll’s deadline. “That worked!”

Origin

“Virtusincertus” posted this photo on flickr with the caption, “Hooty McOwlface! I want to find the person who named this owl and give them a prize on behalf of all humanity.” (cropped)

Boaty McBoatface is a nod back to Hooty McOwlface. Retired English football (soccer) player Lee Dixon came up with that when he adopted a Southern Boobook Owl at Kirkleatham Owl Centre in Middlesbrough, England. Dixon was so embarrassed when the attached photo went viral in 2013, he denied he was the same Lee Dixon mentioned, but later admitted in a tweet (heh heh heh: it says tweet!): “Ok ok it was me. I named Hooty! I was trying to keep it quiet. Now please just let it go. Blinding name though!”

Before that, in another aquatic publicity stunt, Greenpeace allowed the public to name a humpback whale it was tracking, and 80 percent of the votes went to Mr. Splashy Pants. Another animal name went up for crowdsourcing in 2012, this time by the children at Havenview Primary School in Tasmania, Australia. They named a zoo’s emu “Spazzie McGee”, and the zoo duly posted a sign on its enclosure.

So With That in Mind…

Then comes Boeing, which— well, let’s go to the story, from True’s 23 June 2019 issue:

Bad Idea

After two crashes of the Boeing 737 Max jetliner killed 346 people, the model was ordered grounded worldwide, and the cause of the problems was traced to the plane’s software. The company hopes to have the plane flying again this summer, but Boeing acknowledges a renaming might be in order. “We’re committed to doing what we need to do to restore it. If that means changing the brand to restore it, then we’ll address that,” said Greg Smith, the company’s Chief Financial Officer. “I’d say we’re being open-minded to all the input we get.” (RC/KING Seattle) …Great! I suggest Crashy McCrashplane.

You’d think “they” — all of them — would learn.

“Insensitive”?

Two readers were unhappy with the tagline. “The crashes and Boeing’s struggle with the results and the fix are extremely serious and do not deserve the tagline,” says Rev. Larry in Indiana. “I really believe, on this one, you owe the victims an apology.”

The victims didn’t hear the tagline, and I think they would appreciate that someone was standing up for them. And Boeing’s “struggle” is fully their own doing.

Then, 10-year subscriber Marcel in Alberta, Canada, unsubscribed, citing the “very offensive item about Boeing 737.” Yep, I too was very offended at Boeing’s actions! But I didn’t shoot the messenger.

Let’s be clear: Boeing completely screwed up, and let’s count just some of the ways:

  • Boeing made a critical safety feature for a passenger airliner an extra-cost option. A safety feature! And that critical safety system otherwise had a single point of failure.

A single angle of attack sensor provided faulty data to the software in both the Indonesian Lion Air airliner and the Ethiopian Airlines plane, so the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) forcefully and repeatedly pointed the nose of the plane down as the pilots struggled to keep it up. This happened to other pilots, too, but they were able to disable the system before catastrophic “ground collision” (as they say in the business).

The plane actually does have two angle of attack sensors, but to do a sanity check to make sure both showed a problem before taking drastic action was (you guessed it!) an extra-cost “optional” add-on.

  • Boeing decided that pilots not only didn’t need training on MCAS, even though it was a new add-on to the 737 and was obviously critical to safety, but also didn’t even tell them about it.

“There are no pilot actions or procedures during flight which require knowledge of angle of attack,” claimed John Hamilton, Boeing’s chief engineer for Commercial Airplanes on 737 MAX flight deck displays. I can think of one right off: how to turn MCAS off if it fails, as it repeatedly did!

I’m not the only one to think so: AoA sensors “are critical, and cost almost nothing for the [airline manufacturers] to install,” said aviation industry analyst Bjorn Fehrm. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.” Well, that’s just the AoA sensors. What about MCAS?

“We do not like the fact that a new system was put on the aircraft and wasn’t disclosed to anyone or put in the manuals,” said Jon Weaks, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. Southwest was one of the biggest customers of the Max, flying 34 of them.

  • Boeing learned the safety system “wasn’t working as expected” back in 2017, but didn’t plan to address it in a software update until 2020, thus dooming the two flights …and the company’s reputation.

Even though they knew within months of the Max’s first commercial flights that warning lights didn’t work unless the airline bought the optional safety upgrade, they blew off the failures as “low risk” …until the crashes started. They didn’t even tell the FAA of the problem for 13 months. Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell said he “wasn’t happy” with Boeing’s delay. “We will make sure that software anomalies are reported more quickly,” he promised.

Boeing insisted the issue wasn’t a critical safety problem. “That is one of the things that made us confident initially to make the statement that we were happy to continue to fly the aircraft,” said American Airlines pilot Jason Goldberg, who is also the spokesman for the airline’s pilot union. “It turned out later that that wasn’t true.”

  • Boeing kept the 50-year-old 737’s paper manuals and checklists for the Max (even emergency checklists), rather than use computerized systems that they put on their other model planes which 1) alert pilots of specific problems and 2) automatically display checklists of what to do based on the problem it detected.

Why? “They wanted to A), save money and B), to minimize the certification and flight-test costs,” said Boeing flight control engineer Mike Renzelmann, who worked on the Max. “Any changes are going to require recertification.” That would slow down development of the plane when they were rushing to market to compete with other manufacturers, notably Airbus.

  • Boeing (and the FAA) resisted grounding the plane, even though multiple problems and two crashes made it obvious they needed to.

Having two new-model planes crash in similar circumstances is “highly suspicious,” says aviation analyst Mary Schiavo, who is a former Inspector General of the U.S. Transportation Department. “Here we have a brand-new aircraft that’s gone down twice in a year. That rings alarm bells in the aviation industry, because that just doesn’t happen.” The FAA didn’t act until virtually every other aircraft regulator in the world grounded the model.

  • Boeing used inexperienced software engineers to write the plane’s critical software.

“Increasingly, the iconic American planemaker and its subcontractors have relied on temporary workers making as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software,” notes Bloomberg investigative reporter Peter Robison, “often from countries lacking a deep background in aerospace — notably India.”

Foreign software engineers don’t necessarily mean bad software, but Boeing had clues the junior coders didn’t know what they were doing: the practice was “far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code,” said Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer who worked on the Max. Frequently, he said, “it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly.”

  • Boeing admits they were wrong to not inform pilots of the MCAS system.

“Boeing is finalizing its development of a previously announced software update,” said company Chairman and CEO Dennis Muilenburg, and it’s issuing a “pilot training revision that will address the MCAS flight-control law’s behavior in response to erroneous sensor inputs.”

“A huge error of omission was the fact that Boeing failed to disclose the existence of the MCAS system to the pilot community around the world,” said Daniel Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association in Congressional testimony. “The final fatal mistake was therefore the absence of robust pilot training in the event of an MCAS failure.” And…

  • The company’s brass were tone deaf about the crisis, taking ownership of it, and making a sincere apology

“I cannot remember a more heart wrenching time in my career,” said CEO Muilenburg. Yeah, well, it ain’t about you, dumbass! Was that supposed to make the families of the 346 passengers and crew feel better?

After lamely trying to blame the crashes on pilot error — it wasn’t, and since the company knew of the software problems as early as 2017, they knew (or “should have known”) that it wasn’t pilot error. It took weeks for the CEO to finally say, “We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 MAX accidents. These tragedies continue to weigh heavily on our hearts and minds, and we extend our sympathies to the loved ones of the passengers and crew on board Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.”

They “continued to weigh” because the the first crash was October 29, 2018, and the second was March 10, 2019. That apology didn’t come until April 4.

“We can’t change what has happened in these accidents but we can be absolutely resolute in what we’re going to do on safety going forward,” Muilenburg finally said on May 29. “So I am sorry for that, we apologize to the families that have been affected, we apologize more broadly to the traveling public where confidence has been affected.”

“I do personally apologize to the families, as I’ve mentioned earlier we feel terrible about these accidents, and we apologize for what happened, we are sorry for the loss of lives in both accidents,” Muilenburg said. Great. But… “We are sorry for the impact to the families and the loved ones that are behind, and that will never change, that will always be with us. I can tell you it affects me directly as a leader of this company, it’s very difficult.” — back to his “poor me” routine.

It was weak enough that another executive decided to apologize again more fully at the Paris Air Show on June 17:

“We are very sorry for the loss of lives,” said Boeing’s Kevin McAllister, the president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division. He also acknowledged the disruption to their customers’ businesses — and their customers, the airline passengers. But then he foolishly took the focus off of them: “It is a pivotal moment for all of us,” he couldn’t help but add, and then finally owned it: “It’s a time for us to make sure that accidents like this never happen again.”

Yet neither executive addressed the systemic issues within the company that led to the problem in the first place, the many bullet points discussed above, nor promised to change their business practices that may well destroy Boeing in the end.

They did, at least, decide to make one of the “optional” safety enhancements standard equipment on the 737 Max …should it ever fly again.

The Bottom Line: Did Boeing deserve the slam in the tagline? I don’t see how anyone can disagree. “I’ll have to agree with the Boeing CEO,” Carey said in his Congressional testimony: “they let the traveling public down in a fatal and catastrophic way.”

My sources for the details above include: New York Times, Geek Wire, CNN, Engadget, Bloomberg, NPR, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, ABC News, CBS News, and Bloomberg.

When a Joke Becomes a Meme

Of all the funny names, clearly Whatever McWhateverface is the one that’s sticking. Hand’s almost-original idea has led to suggestions or actually adopted names for Aussie racehorse Horsey McHorseFace, Sweden’s Trainy McTrainface, proposed San Diego soccer team Footy McFootyFace, Aussie passenger ferry Ferry McFerryface, Isle of Wight’s floating bridge Floaty McFloatface, megabusUK’s Mega McMegaface, and Google’s grammar parsing software package Parsey McParseface, among others.

I know “McCrashplane” isn’t exactly “McCrashface” — but I’m trying to encourage a little variety here. Not to mention that the plane’s problems are a much more serious issue, as discussed. And clearly, “being open-minded to all the input we get” definitely invites input.

But at least in the contest for a sculpture of a muskox outside City Hall in Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, Musky McMuskoxface was soundly voted down. Instead, the winner was Elon Muskox. Satisfactory.

Meet Elon Muskox — and you can, if you visit City Hall in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. (Photo: City of Yellowknife)

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20 Comments on ““Let the Public Decide”? Bad Idea….

  1. I think the best way to name something by public vote if you only want serious names is a two-round system. The first round is a free-for-all nomination submission, where people can submit their proposed names for consideration. Then a committee filters the list of nominees down to 5 to 10 finalists, which are then revealed and voted on in the second round to get a winner.

    Well, I guess if you want to wreck everyone’s fun…! 😉 -rc

    Reply
  2. O! Canada yay! We The North broke the circle! Guess we’re not a colony any more! I vote Elon replaces Beaver Bucktooth as our new mascot. 😉

    Yeah, a Canada TRUE story hasn’t been published since …last week! -rc

    Reply
  3. As an experienced Defense and Aerospace physicist, I will say the problem is even deeper. Boeing tried to fix a design flaw with a software solution. Newer, more efficient engines are larger. If you look at older model 737s, you will see they are mounted farther back on the wings. The new larger engines would not fit, so they are mounted farther forward and higher, affecting the pitch characteristics. The software tried to compensate…. that is the real root cause.

    Reply
  4. I used to write safety-critical mission-critical hard real-time software for a living. The more I hear about MCAS, the more horrified I am.

    Reply
  5. The biggest lie of all is the lie you tell yourself. You lie to yourself when you ignore the truth in evidence and tell yourself “it’ll be alright, we’ll fix it later.” Corporate managements perpetually lie to themselves to meet goals, realistic or not, so they can say they met schedule or cost or quality when in fact they have not. CEOs who cook the books, middle managers who cover up errors, these are all metrics of self-deception. Fear of failure drives it.

    Reply
  6. Everyone has the right to be offended. They should be subject to this right at least weekly.

    Reply
  7. If you want to see what the internet has done to the firearm industry, take a look at hipoint’s new offering. They left the name up to the internet and the internet responded with the “YEET CANNON”.

    Hipoint tried to back out of that, but Heckler & Koch called them on it, so, I present to you the YC (Yeet Cannon) 9.

    Reply
  8. “How many Boeing aeronautical engineers does it take to change a light bulb?”

    –None, “we’ll fix it in the software.”

    Reply
  9. I haven’t laughed so hard as the Whatever McWhateverface story (and all that went with it). The suggestions, such as Horsey McHorseFace or Sweden’s Trainy McTrainface are priceless! Thanks for the laughter. I have to call my sisters and share!

    Reply
  10. Your explanation of the 737 Max problem with bullet points and noted sources was the most thorough I have read. While I think your tagline in the original post was a bit cheeky for such a serious issue, it is your right to write whatever you want!

    I don’t see this as “my right” but rather that it’s “my job” to help put things in perspective. The bottom line really is that Boeing has deserved the terrible publicity it has received, and the lame “we’ll listen to input from the public regarding a new name” is so tone deaf and missing the point as to deserve a wake-up, and I hope they “get it” sooner than later. -rc

    Reply
  11. What bugs me is not your tagline, but the use of the word “accident” in those tepid apologies. They knew about this problem months prior to the crashes, told nobody that there was a problem, and then called the crashes “accidents.” There’s no accident here.

    Reply
  12. What I find unbelievable as an aircraft engineer is that Boeing obviously never considered the effects of an AOA vane separation on the MCAS software, even though such separations are not unusual due to bird strikes. Once the vane separates the internal mass balance will always move the sensor to the nose vertical position, a situation that is completely unlikely in flight.

    The single AOA vane would have been perfectly safe if the software had been written to ignore any angle of attack above say 70 degrees and provide a BITE error for the pilots to advise the next ports maintenance technicians to take MEL action.

    BITE means Built In Test Equipment and provides the crew a different code for each detected failure. That code tells the techs what system has a defective component as a minimum and what component has failed in many cases.

    MEL is minimum equipment list and specifies what actions to take when a critical component fails. In most, but not all, cases there is a redundancy so the aircraft can safety operate for a short time. The “spare” unit is always fitted and operational to ensure the aircraft will be safe to operate in the event of a single failure. Component failures on aircraft are rare and most components have a mean time between failures of far less than one failure per 100,000 flying hours (think of this as one failure in 50 years when used 40 hours per week).

    For example the MEL allows most aircraft to fly with one AOA failed to the earliest of next base with spares or one calendar day so long as the other sensor is working.

    In the 737Max situation FAA may well have mandated the second AOA be connected to the MCAS before they approved the MEL.

    Glad to have an aircraft engineer weigh in on this. Thanks. -rc

    Reply

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