Categories
politics

Brexit

I was awake soon after 5:30 yesterday morning. As I got to my computer, the EU referendum results weren’t confirmed, but it was looking certain that the country had voted (narrowly, but decisively) to leave the European Union. My thoughts during the day are nicely summed up by my tweets and retweets.

My initial reaction was anger.

(Hmm… the downside of rolling news coverage – that story has changed dramatically since I first linked to it.)

A few minutes later I was slightly more coherent (and almost philosophical)

Then the reality of the situation started to sink in

I tried to be positive

I was being sarcastic, of course. We’ll return to this subject later on.

I started to see life imitating art in a quite frightening way.

(And, yes, I know I should replace that picture with one of Boris Johnson)

Nigel Farage is (and, apparently, always has been) a despicable man. So it should have come as no surprise that his victory speech was insulting and divisive.

I don’t mind not being considered ordinary, but I’m certain I’m real and I like to think I’m decent. Tom Coates inverted Farage’s phrase nicely.

When Cameron resigned, I immediately became worried about the fall-out.

Really, if your best option is a man who stuck his penis into a pig’s mouth, then it must be clear that you’re in trouble.

Then I checked the stock market and realised that many of the Brexit supporters may have shot themselves in the foot.

A story in the FT illustrated the fall nicely (“nicely” isn’t really the right word!)

The markets bounced back a bit later in the day – but it was one of the most volatile days of trading in history.

Fox News can, of course, always be relied on to get important facts wrong.

Then I started to see data on the demographics of the voting – where it became obvious that it was mainly the older generations who were voting against the EU

Can I just point out that it’s #NotAllBabyBoomers :-/

Remember the £350m a week that was going to be diverted to the NHS. Turns out that was a lie.

It was a lie on many fronts.

  • It was a lie because the UK doesn’t send £350m a week to the EU
  • It was a lie because it ignored the money that we get back from the EU
  • It was a lie because any money saved was never going to be spent on the NHS

It was a lie that the Leave campaign were called out on many times, but they refused to retract it.

To be fair to Farage (and that’s not a phrase I ever expected to write) he wasn’t part of the official Leave campaign, so he wasn’t the right person to ask about this. But someone should certainly take Johnson or Gove to task over it.

Going back to the baby-boomers, I retweeted a friend’s innocent question

Then it started to look like Cameron might not be the only party leader to go in the fallout from the referendum

Incidentally, has anyone seen any evidence of the Lib Dems in this campaign? A couple of days ago I saw footage of Tim Farron in a crowd somewhere. Took me a few seconds to remember who he was; and then another minute or so to remember that he was the leader of the Lib Dems.

Euro-myths have always really annoyed me

More bad news from the City

I should point out that Morgan Stanley have denied the story. I guess time will tell who is telling the truth here.

By mid-afternoon, I was working on alternative plans

A final thought struck me

I mean, they were a single-issue party. And they’ve won that battle. Surely, there’s no need for the party to exist any longer. They can’t surely expect people to vote for them now (although, UK voters are a very strange bunch). If they closed down, they could all go back to the Tories and Farage and Carswell could get places in the new Johnson/Gove cabinet.

Oh, now I’m really depressed.

Categories
politics

Ten Years?

It’s been some considerable time since I wrote anything about Nadine Dorries. I still keep an eye on what she’s up to, but most of the time it’s just the same old nonsense and it’s not worth writing about.

But I was interested to read her recent blog post explaining why she had given up Twitter (again). Of course, she uses it to rehash many of her old claims of stalking and the like, but what I found really interesting was when she said:

After almost ten years on Twitter (so long I can’t remember) and with 28,000 followers, I have made my own modest exit.

Because that “almost ten years” didn’t fit my recollections. Twitter has just had its tenth anniversary. As I wrote recently, almost no-one has been on Twitter for ten years – certainly not any British MPs.

It’s simple enough to use one of the many “how long have I been on Twitter?” sites to work out when her current @NadineDorriesMP account joined Twitter. It seems to be January 2012.

But that’s not the full story. She has joined and left Twitter a few times. Let’s see what we can find out.

Firstly, here’s a blog post from May 2009 where she doesn’t seem to be planning to join Twitter any time soon.

Anyway, safe to say, I shan’t be joining the legions of twitters any day soon.

It’s several months later, in September 2009, when she announces that she has joined Twitter. So that “ten years” is more like six and a half.

I’m pretty sure that first account was also called @NadineDorriesMP. At some point over the next couple of years, she closed that account (I’ll dig through her blog later to see if I can find any evidence to date that) and some time later she returned with a new account called @Nadine_MP. I know that because in May 2011 she gave up that second account and forgot to remove the Twitter widget from her web site. Then someone else took over the now-abandoned username and used it to deface her site. And then, as we saw above, she rejoined in January 2012.

So I think the list of Nadine’s Twitter accounts goes like this:

  • NadineDorriesMP (Sept 2009 – Unknown)
  • Nadine_MP (Unknown – May 2011)
  • NadineDorriesMP (Jan 2012 – Mar 2016)

That last account is still registered. She just chooses not to use it any more. If past behaviour is anything to go by, she’ll be back at some point.

Anyway, here’s another good example of why you can’t trust anything that Dorries says. Even on a simple fact like how long she has been using Twitter, she just pulls numbers out of the air. She makes stuff up to suit her and she’s been doing it for years.

Categories
tech

TwittElection at OpenTech

Last Saturday was OpenTech. It was as great as it always is and I’ll write more about what I saw later. But I gave a talk about TwittElection in the afternoon and I thought it might be useful to publish my slides here along with a brief summary of what I said.

TwittElection from Dave Cross
  • I started with a couple of screenshots of what TwittElection is. There’s basically a main page which shows how many days are left until the general election and a page for every constituency which has a widget displaying a Twitter list for all of the candidates in that constituency.
  • Why did I do it? Well I love elections. I have vague memories of one (or perhaps both) of the 1974 general elections and I have closely followed every general election since then. In the 90s I was occasionally  one of those annoying people who ask you for your voter number as you’re leaving the polling station and in 2005 I worked all night to make sure that the results on the Guardian web site were up to date.
  • I love Twitter too. Who doesn’t?
  • In 2010 I created a site that monitored the candidates in my local constituency. It wasn’t just Twitter (which was far less important back then) but any kind of web feed that they produced. That’s easy enough to do for one constituency, but it’s a bit more of a challenge for 650.
  • The technology for the system was pretty simple. It was the data that was going to be a lot trickier.
  • Just as I was considering the project, Twitter made a couple of changes which made my life substantially easier. Firstly they increased the number of Twitter lists that each user could create from 20 to 1000 (I needed 650). An secondly, they removed the restriction that Twitter list widgets were tightly associated with a specific list. Under the old system, I would have needed to create 650 individual widgets. Under the new system, I could create one widget and pass it a list ID in order to display any of my 650 lists.
  • I wrote the code in Perl. I made a throwaway remark about it being the “programming languages of champions”. Someone in the audience tweeted that quote and it’s been retweeted rather a lot.
  • I hosted the site on Github Pages in case it got too popular. This was a ridiculous thing to be worried about.
  • I used Bootstrap (of course) and small amounts of various Javascript libraries.
  • The data was harder. We have 650 constituencies and each one will have about six candidates. That means I’ll be looking for data about something like 4,000 candidates. And there’s no official centralised source for this data.
  • Back in November I asked my Twitter followers if they knew of anyone who was collecting lists of candidates and Sam Smith put me in touch with the Democracy Club.
  • At the time, the Democracy Club were just building a new version of YourNextMP – a crowd-sourced list of candidates. It did all that I needed. Which made me very happy. [Note: My talk followed one from the Democracy Club which went into this in far more detail.]
  • So with data from YNMP and my code, the site was build.
  • And it worked pretty well. There were a few bugs (including one that was pointed out by a previous speaker in the same session) but they all got fixed quickly.
  • I became an expert in Twitter error codes.
  • 403 and 429 are the codes that Twitter returns when you make more API requests than you are allowed to. There are two ways to deal with Twitter’s rate limits. You can keep a careful count of your requests and stop before you hit the limits. Or you can keep going until you get one of these codes back at which point you stop. The second option is far simpler. I took the second option. [Note: At this point I forgot to mention that the rate limits were so, well…, limiting that when I got my first complete data dump from YNMP, it took almost two days to build all of the Twitter lists.]
  • 108 means you’re trying to do something with a user that doesn’t exist. Basically, you’ve got the username wrong. Sometimes this is because there’s a typo in the name that YNMP has been given. Sometimes it’s because the user has changed their Twitter username and YNMP doesn’t know about the change yet. One common cause for the latter is when MPs changed their Twitter usernames to remove “MP” whilst the campaign was in progress and legally, there were no MPs. [Note: One of the YNMP developers spoke to me afterwards and admitted that they should have handled Twitter usernames better – for example, they could have stored the ID (which is invariant) rather than the username (which can change).]
  • Error 106 means that the user has blocked you and therefore you can’t add that user to a Twitter list. This seems like strange behaviour given that candidates are presumably using Twitter to publicise their opinions as widely as possible.
  • The first time I was blocked it was @glenntingle, the UKIP candidate for Norwich North.
  • I wondered why he might be blocking me. A friend pointed out that he might be embarrassed by his following habits. It turned out that of the 700 people he followed on Twitter, all but about a dozen of them were young women posting pictures of themselves wearing very little.
  • There was some discussion of this amongst some of my friends. This was apparently noticed by Mr Tingle who first protected his tweets and then deleted his account.
  • I’m not sure how good I feel about hounding a candidate off of Twitter.
  • Another UKIP candidate, @timscottukip, also blocked me. And I heard of another who was running his account in protected mode.
  • Some users didn’t understand crowd-sourcing. Every constituency page included a link to the associated page on YNMP along with text asking people to submit corrections there. But I still got a lot of tweets pointing out errors in my lists.
  • 72% of candidates were on Twitter.
  • Results by party were mixed. 100% of the SNP candidates were on Twitter, but only 51% of UKIP candidates (or perhaps I couldn’t see the others as they were blocking me!)
  • Was it worth it? Well, only 1000 or so people visited the site over the course of the campaign.
  • I haven’t yet seen if I can get any stats on people using the raw Twitter lists rather than looking at my web site.
  • I need to rip out all of the information that is specific to that particular election and encourage people to use the code for other elections. YNMP is based on software called PopIt and I think my code could be useful wherever that is used.
  • There are 1790 days until the next UK general election (as of Saturday 13th June 2015).
Categories
politics

TwittElection

I was convinced that the general election in 2010 was going to be the “Twitter election”. I built a web site (now sadly lost somewhere in cyberspace) that monitored what PPCs were saying on Twitter in my local constituency. But, all in all, it wasn’t very impressive. I gave a talk about how disappointing it had all been but then I forgot about it all.

But there’s another general election coming. And, surely, this one must be the Twitter election? A lot has changed in the last five years. Everyone is using Twitter. Surely this time some useful and interesting political discussion will take place on Twitter.

I set the bar a lot higher this time. Instead of just monitoring my local constituency, I’ve created a site that monitors all 650 constituencies in the country. Each constituency has a page, and on that page you’ll find a Twitter widget which displays a list I’m curating which contains all of the PPCs I can find for that constituency.

Well, when I say “I can find”, that’s a bit of a simplification. Obviously, finding details of all of the PPCs for 650 constituencies would be a bit of a mammoth task. But I’ve had help. There is a wonderful site called YourNextMP which is crowdsourcing details of all of the PPCs. And they have an API which allows me to grab their data periodically and update my information. If you have any information about PPCs in a constituency that they don’t already have, please consider adding it to their database.

After I found YourNextMP, it was just a simple matter of programming. I made heavy use of the Twitter API (via the Net::Twitter Perl module) and I’ve hosted the site on Github Pages (so I don’t need to worry if it suddenly gets massively popular). All of my code is available on Github – so feel free to send pull requests if there are features you’d like to add.

Oh, and obviously there’s a Twitter account – @TwittElection. Follow that if you want updates about the site or general chatter about the election campaign.

Today marks 100 days until the general election. I thought that was an appropriate day on which to officially launch the site.

Please let me know if you find the site useful.

Categories
politics

Jungle Money

There’s been a lot of talk recently about what Nadine Dorries was paid for her appearances on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and why she hasn’t declared that fee yet.

By following the trail laid down by Unity in this excellent blog post and listening carefully to what Dorries says in this interview with Andrew Neil (I expect that’ll be there for another week or so) it becomes pretty obvious what has happened.

She hasn’t received the money yet.

Of course, you wouldn’t usually expect to wait six months for payment for a media appearance, so what has happened?

Dorries has a service company called Averbrook and all of her media work is now undertaken by this company. Then Averbrook invoices media organisations for the work that Dorries does and the media companies pay the fees to Averbrook. The fees then sit in Averbrook’s bank account until needed.

At this point Dorries has received no money and therefore has no requirement to declare any income. In the Andrew Neil interview, she says “I have not personally benefited from going into the jungle”. She then explains that she has a company for her media work and although it isn’t made clear, it’s obvious that this company receives the money from this work.

Dorries goes on to say that when she benefits from that work, she will have to register the income. At some point in the future she will need to use this money and Averbrook will pay it to her. There are various ways for a director to take money out of a company. You might pay it as salary, you might pay it as dividends (if the director owns shares in the company) or, in extreme circumstances, you can close the company down and redistribute its assets. All of these will have varying tax implications and all of them will require Dorries to declare the income to parliament.

But here’s the interesting thing. The income that Dorries will receive from Averbrook will have no link back to its original source. The declaration will simply need to say “£X,000 dividend from Averbrook” or whatever is appropriate. There will be no way to say how much of the money comes from each individual source.

It’s a bit like money laundering. But, of course, this is all completely legal. Working through a service company is a really common way to manage tax affairs. It has tax benefits and (as we can see here) it has privacy benefits.

Of course, there’s a good argument that using a company like this goes against the spirit of the requirement for MPs to declare income. It would be hard to argue against that. But until the law is changed, you are very unlikely to see any MP stop using the system.

So what are the chances of the system changing? Rather slim I’d say. Why? Well because the people who would need to make the change are many of the people who are benefiting from this system.

But on this occasion, I’d have to say that Dorries isn’t the problem. She’s just taking advantage of a well-known system. And people aren’t asking her the right questions about it.

Categories
politics

The Political Web

I made a thing.

On Sunday I mentioned how OpenTech always makes me feel a bit embarrassed that I’m not doing more useful stuff – particularly in the kinds of areas that OpenTech speakers care about.

Usually, real life takes over before I get a chance to do anything about it and I forget about my embarrassment until the next OpenTech. This year, I managed to harness my embarrassment and actually do something productive.

It’s not like I built anything from scratch. This is is really just me finally shipping something that I’ve been working on (off and on – more off than on) for almost five years. I built the first prototype at a hack day in 2008. I even wrote about it at the time.

The Political Web is a site that is intended to be a one-stop-shop for finding out information about British MPs. Currently each MP has a page which lists a number of standard web pages that contain information about the MP (Wikipedia, The Guardian, TheyWorkForYou – things like that). Of course each MP also has a number of non-standard pages on the internet (an official web site, a blog, perhaps a Twitter account) and adding those is going to be a harder job.

Previously two things have stopped me launching this. One was the fact that I wanted to support those all of those other sources of information. But I’ve decided to go for a “minimum viable product” approach and show you what I’ve already got. The other thing that prevented me talking about it much was that I thought I’d need someone to make it look nice (my web design skills are horrible). But the arrival of Bootstrap means that even a design ignoramus like me can build a site that looks more than half-decent.

So there you go. It’s there for you to play with. And there will (hopefully) be more coming soon. Please let me know if you find it useful.

And thanks to all the giants whose shoulders I’m standing on. The site wouldn’t exist without the TheyWorkForYou API, the Perl Dancer framework and Twitter Bootstrap.

Categories
tech

OpenTech 2013

Yesterday was the (almost) annual OpenTech conference. For various reasons, the conference didn’t happen last year, so it was good to see it back this year.

OpenTech is the conference where I most wish I could clone myself. There are three streams of talks and in pretty much every slot there are talks I’d like like to see in more than one stream. These are the talks that I saw.

Electromagnetic Field: Tales From the UK’s First Large-Scale Hacker Camp (Russ Garrett)
Last August, Russ was involved in getting 500 hackers together in a field near Milton Keynes for a weekend of hacking. The field apparently had better connectivity than some data centres. Russ talked about some of the challenges of organising an event like this and asked for help organising the next one which will hopefully take place in 2014.

Prescribing Analytics (Bruce Durling)
Bruce is the CTO of Mastodon C, a company that helps people extract value from large amounts of data. He talked about a project that crunched NHS prescription data and identified areas where GPs seem to have a tendency to prescribe proprietary drugs rather than cheaper generic alternatives.

GOV.UK (Tom Loosemore)
Tom is Deputy Director at the Government Digital Service. In less than a year, the GDS has made a huge difference to the way that the government uses the internet. It’s inspirational to see an OpenTech stalwart like Tom having such an effect at the heart of government.

How We Didn’t Break the Web (Jordan Hatch)
Jordan works in Tom Loosemore’s team. He talked in a little more detail about one aspect of the GDS’s work. When they turned off the old DirectGov and Business Link web sites in October 2012, they worked hard to ensure that tens of thousands of old URLs didn’t break. Jordan explained some of the tools they used to do that.

The ‘State of the Intersection’ address (Bill Thompson)
Bill’s talk was couched as a warning. For years, talks at OpenTech have been about the importance of Open Data and it’s obvious that this is starting to have an effect. Bill is worried that this data can be used in ways that are antithetical to the OpenTech movement and warned us that we need to be vigilant against this.

Beyond Open Data (Gavin Starks)
Gavin has been speaking at OpenTech since the first one in 2004 (even before it was called OpenTech) and, as with Tom Loosemore, it’s great to see his ideas bearing fruit. He is now the CEO of the Open Data Institute, an organisation founded by Tim Berners-Lee to the production and use of Open Data. Gavin talked about how the new organisation has been doing in its first six months of existence.

Silence and Thunderclaps (Emma Mulqueeny)
Emma has two contradictory-sounding ideas. The Silent Club is about taking time out in our busy lives to sit and be still and silent for an hour or so; and then sending her a postcard about what you thought or did during that time. The Thunderclap is a way to get a good effect out of that stack of business cards that we all seem to acquire.

Thinking Pictures Paul Clarke)
Paul takes very good photographs and used some of them to illustrate his talk which covered some of the ethical, moral and legal questions that go through his mind when deciding which pictures to take, share and sell.

1080s – the 300seconds project (300seconds)
The 300 seconds project wants to get more women talking at conferences. And they think that one good way to achieve that is for new speakers to only have to talk for five minutes instead of the full 20- or 40-minutes (or more) that many conferences expect. The Perl community has been using Lightning Talks to do this with great success for over ten years, so I can’t see why they shouldn’t succeed.

Politics, Programming, Data and the Drogulus (Nicholas Tollervey)
Nicholas is building a global federated, decentralized and openly writable data storage mechanism. It’s a huge task and it’s just him working on the project on his commutes. Sounds like he needs a community. Which is handy as the very next talk was…

Scaling the ZeroMQ Community (Pieter Hintjens)
Peter talked about how the ZeroMQ community runs itself. Speaking as someone who has run a couple of open source project communities, some of his rules seemed a little harsh to me (“you can only expect to be listened to if you bring a patch or money”) but his underlying principles are sound. All projects should aim to reach a stage where the project founders are completely replaceable.

The Cleanweb Movement (James Smith)
I admit that I knew nothing about the Cleanweb Movement. Turns out it’s a group of people who are building web tools which make it easier for people to use less energy. Which sounds like a fine idea to me.

Repair, don’t despair! Towards a better relationship with electronics (Janet Gunter and David Mery)
Janet and David started the Restart Project, which is all about encouraging people to fix electrical and electronic devices rather than throwing them out and buying replacements. They are looking for more volunteers to help people to fix stuff (and to teach people how to teach stuff).

CheapSynth (Dave Green)
Dave Green has been missing from OpenTech for a few years, but this was a triumphant return. He told us how you can build a cheap synth from a repurposed Rock Band game controller. He ended his talk (and the day) by leading the room in a rendition of Blue Money.

As always, OpenTech was a great way to spend a Saturday. Thank you to all of the organisers and the speakers for creating such and interesting day. As I tweeted during the day:

 

But I spent yesterday hacking on something. More on that later.

Categories
politics

Equal Marriage

Over the last few days there has been a fair amount of heat and light coming out of the Tory party, generated by the discussion about equal marriage (or, as the tabloids like to describe it, “gay marriage”).

We’ve know for ages that David Cameron is in favour of it and that a lot of the Tory heartland isn’t. But at the end of last week Cameron said that he supported same-sex wedding ceremonies taking place in churches if (and that “if” is important here) the church is happy for them to take place. This hasn’t played well in the shires and various Tories have said a number of increasingly stupid things about it (for a particularly ridiculous example see Tim Fenton’s excellent piece on Nadine Dorries’ confusion over religious freedom and the ECHR).

The problem seems to be that all of the naysayers are illiterate. I said that the word “if” was important in what Cameron was proposes. To many of his critics it seems to be invisible. Where you and I are reading “churches may decide to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies if they want to”, Cameron’s critics are reading “churches will be forced against their will to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies”. They seem to be reading the story through some kind of middle-England auto-bigotry filter.

Some people on my side of the debate (in case that’s not clear, it’s the pro-equal-marriage side) have gone the other way – saying that churches should be forced to hold these ceremonies. I don’t want that at all. Here’s what I want.

I want churches to be stopped from marrying people.

Ok, that’s a deliberately attention-grabbing way of putting it. I should explain in more detail.

As I see it, there are two parts of a marriage. There’s the legal joining together of two people. And then, for some people, there’s a religious ceremony. What if those two parts were completely separated? What if churches lost the right to perform the legal part of the marriage ceremony?

This isn’t so strange. People do it all the time. If non-Christians want to get married, they have to do it in two stages. They go to the registry office to do the legal stuff and then they go to a mosque, temple or whatever to have a ceremony. What if all weddings worked like that?

So here’s what I propose:

  • In order to be legally married, you need to go through some process at a local registry office. This would be a purely legal thing. Bride and groom (or whichever permutation is appropriate) and a couple of witnesses. After this you would be legally married.
  • You then have the option to have some other kind of ceremony of any type you want. Many people would choose a church. Others would go to a mosque or a temple or whatever. You’d also have the option to do nothing else.

The advantage, as far as I see it, is that as the second part (the religious ceremony) now has no legal standing whatsoever, then the government would have no say at all about how it is run and whether or not churches or mosques or temples can run same-sex ceremonies. That decision would be unambiguously in the hands of the people running the organisation in question (but good luck getting a mosque to run a same-sex wedding!)

Of course, this is one of the areas where the religious playing field is uneven. Non-Christians are used to the set-up I describe above. The only reason that Christian churches get a special dispensation to carry out the legal part of a wedding is because they are the established church and therefore sometimes get to dabble in things that should completely off-limits to them.

All of which means that implementing my suggestion would be another step on the way to (or, at least, another very good argument for) disestablishment of the Church.

All in all, I can’t see the flaw in my suggestion. Can you?

Categories
tech

MPs’ Web Sites

When I set up Planet Westminster in 2006 I thought it would be a relatively simple project to maintain. Over the years, more and more MPs would start blogs. Every couple of months I’d add the new ones and everything would be great.

It hasn’t worked out like that at all. MPs’ web sites have proved to be really difficult to keep track of.

The problem is, of course, that the vast majority of MPs have absolutely no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work. That’s to be expected. What’s less expected is that many of them seem to get round that problem by delegating the work to people who also have no idea how web sites, blogs or web feeds work.

I’ve just done a clean-up of the feeds I’m currently monitoring. Here are some of the problems I’ve dealt with.

A few MPs (including Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas) changed the address of their web feed. Just changed it. No notification as fas as I can see. No attempt to redirect the old address to the new one. Just an old address returning a 404 error. Anyone who was subscribed to the old address would have just stopped getting updates. It’s almost like they don’t want people to follow what they have to say.

Ed Miliband’s web site has just ceased to exist. It now redirects you to the main Labour Party web site. Because the leader of the party obviously has no constituency responsibilities. Or something like that.

John McDonnell seems very confused. In 2007 he had a web site at john4leader.org.uk. In 2010, he was at john-­mcdonnell.­net. Both of these sites are now dead and he’s at john-mcdonnell.net. It’s like no-one has told him that you can reuse web site addresses. I wonder what he’ll do once he’s run out of variations of his name on different top-level domains.

Eric Joyce has just lost control of his domain. His ericjoyce.co.uk address currently goes to an unfinished web site campaigning for “John Smith for State Senator”. It doesn’t look as though Joyce realises this as he’s still promoting the web site on his Twitter profile.

Then there’s Rory Stewart. His web feed was returning data that my RSS parser couldn’t parse. Taking a closer look, it turned out that it was an HTML page rather than RSS or Atom. And it was an HTML page that advertised an online Canadian pharmacy pushing Cialis. Not really what an MP should be promoting.

Stuff like this happens all the time. MPs need to take more notice of this. And they need help from people who know what they are talking about. My theory (and it’s one that I’ve written about before) is that MPs’ web sites and blogs are often overcomplicated because they are developed by companies who come from a corporate IT background and who dismiss the possibility of using something free like WordPress and over-engineer something using tools that they are comfortable with. It can’t be a coincidence that many of the worst MP web sites I’ve seen serve pages with a .aspx extension (sorry – only geeks will understand that).

I’m going to repeat an offer I’ve made before. If any MP wants a blog set up for them,then I’m happy to help them or to put them in touch with someone who can help them. It needn’t be expensive. It needn’t be complex. But it can be very effective. And it will work.

Update: Eric Joyce replied to me on Twitter. He said:

Thanks. It’s being worked on and they seem to have pointed it at an obvious specimen page.

Categories
politics

Talking About Drugs

There are many things that make me angry in British politics, but I don’t think any of them make me angrier than the way that most British politicians refuse to have an intelligent conversation about drugs.

Here’s a case in point.

The Commons home affairs select committee are holding an inquiry into drugs policy. Yesterday, Professor David Nutt spoke to them. You might remember Professor Nutt. Under the last government he chaired the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. That was until late 2009 when he wrote an article in the Guardian saying that there was no scientific evidence supporting plans to reclassify cannabis as a class B drug. The then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, objected to a government scientific advisor producing scientific evidence which was at odds with government policy and sacked Professor Nutt from his post. This was followed by the resignations of many other members of the committee in protest.

Given all of that it was good to see that the current government were, at least, asking Professor Nutt for his opinions. In yesterday’s meeting Nutt stood his claim from 2009 that horse-riding is statistically more dangerous than taking ecstasy and also presented evidence that the introduction of Dutch-style coffee shops where cannabis can be bought and consume could well lead to a fall of 25% in alcohol consumption in the UK.

Once again Professor Nutt backed his theories with hard scientific evidence and once again his theories make the government very uncomfortable. The Guardian says:

Nutt’s remarks were immediately criticised by Tory MPs on the committee who said the idea that horse-riding and taking ecstasy were “morally equivalent” was irresponsible. Mario Dunn, Alan Johnson’s special adviser who was involved in the decision to sack Nutt, also observed that his remarks proved that “no responsible government would have David Nutt as a drugs adviser”.

Of course, this is completely misquoting Professor Nutt. He has never made the claim that horse-hiding and taking ecstasy are “morally equivalent” (whatever that means). He was comparing their relative levels of harm (both to the individual and to society in general) and reaching conclusions that the government didn’t want to hear.

And that’s the problem. The government – any government – likes hard scientific evidence when it backs up their policies. They are far less keen on it when it doesn’t back up their policies. In those cases governments either ignore the evidence or try to undermine it in some way. As Alan Johnson said in 2009, no government wants a scientific advisor publishing evidence that goes against government policy.

But that’s not how science works. Science is science. Scientific evidence can’t be changed to suit the whim of the current government (oh, alright, of course it can – but it shouldn’t be).

And I’m not saying for a minute that government policy has to be driven by scientific policy. I’m saying that it has to be informed by scientific policy. I’m saying that if a government doesn’t like the scientific evidence then it should have the courage to admit that rather than attacking or ignoring it.

In this current case, an honest government would say “Yes, the scientific evidence clearly says that cannabis is no more harmful (and almost certainly less harmful) than alcohol. But we don’t think that society (by which we mean the voters) would like it if we legalised cannabis or banned alcohol so we’re not going to do that”. But instead we have politicians who say “you can’t possibly say that” or “la-la-la, I can’t hear you”. And that’s a real shame. Until politicians can admit that the scientific evidence on drugs exists and is trustworthy, we can’t have a reasonable conversation on drugs policy.

Mark Henderson’s book The Geek Manifesto covers this (amongst many other things) in some detail. I highly recommend it.

Update: Oh look. A later story in the Guardian has the current Home Secretary strongly disagreeing with the current chair of the ACMD.