Thursday, 25 March 2010

Something about Mephedrone

In the run up to the much-anticipated-but-ultimately-not-very-groundbreaking budget we got to witness what may be the last Prime Ministers Questions session before the election. During it I saw a striking illustration of the ignorance and hysteria that plagues our parlimentarians regarding drugs. Labour MP for Ayr, Sandra Osbourne stood up and said the following...
"...will the prime minister give his assurance that when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs reports on the 29th of March, that he will act immediately to ban such legal highs"
Ms. Osbourne was driven to ask her question after the death of Jordan Kiltie of Ayrshire. However this report by The Press and Journal and this one from the Scotsman website both suggest that the 19 year old 'may have taken a number of substances.' Of course the outrage must continue unabated despite such uncertainty, and while it is almost certain the late Mr Kiltie had consumed mephedrone on the night he died, the toxicology report that would highlight what other substances may have contributed to Mr Kiltie's death is incomplete.

There is an implicit instruction in the question that goes beyond the call to ban the drug that Brown himself went on to call 'evil'. The right honourable member for Ayr is effectively asking for the Prime Minister to take an action regardless on what the ACMD reports! As the sacking of Professor David Nutt* in October last year showed, Parliament tends not to hold balanced scientific advice from it's advisors in high regard. It does make you wonder what the point of going through the charade of making a report actually is.

*By the way there is a great interview with Prof. Nutt in today's Evening Standard. It cheers you to hear someone being sensible

Monday, 22 March 2010

Before the business of the day can start...

So, I actually came on here to write a nice informative piece about the deficit, what it means, how it effects us, what it means for the budget and so on. I thought it would be a nice informative and traffic inducing (well ok, getting my hopes up I know) post.
In connecting to the interwebs I innocently signed on to twitter, eager to see what the news of the moment was. Any further info on the Labour lobby lovers? Cash gordon linking to more porn? No such luck, instead @Charltonbrooker posts this link. A link that has finally turned me into one of them. Yes those slimy cunts with nothing better to do than write letters of complaint to TV stations complaining about their hideous content. Look at the link, then read my response below (which has been e-mailed to them).

To sir/madam,
I today viewed with surprise and distaste a segment of ITV's Alan Titchmarsh show focussing on the potential harms of videogames.
While the need for care and concern for the potentail effects of all media is understandable, what wasn't was the setting up of a single knowledgeable panellist as a pantomime villian against an ill informed debating panel and an unnecessarily hostile audience.
Mr Titchmarsh had clearly not been briefed regarding the existance of strict age certification in the retail selling of video games that is identical to that of DVD's. The segment also included an uncorroborated assertion that video games were in some part responsible in the hideous and tragic case of James Bulger.
The videogames industry in the UK is a highly successful one, with a large percentage of the available games being suitable for child or family use. An acknowledgement of these facts would have gone a small way to rectifying the issues with this segment. However it would have been far better to have properly briefed both your host and guests against repeating unfortunate and unsupportable arguments  that went out of fashion nearly a decade ago.
I hope this this message is considered with others should you consider holding such an unbalanced debate on any topic in the future.
I watched the clip nearly half an hour ago and I still haven't quite calmed down. The link above also contains a link to the ITV complaints and comments area. Maybe you can turn into 'one of them' as well.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

In the world of the mail, this shit matters

The top story on the Daily Mail website right now?

This is the Mail taking offence at the fact that on measuring young 5 year old Cian's Body mass index, they sent a letter stating that he was defined as obese on the index and the dangers this could cause.

This seems reasonable no? I mean, are we not running headlong into an obesity epidemic, that could cost the country billions and it's citizens a less fulfilled and shorter life? Not according to the mail, and in particular Cian's mother Kriss.
‘It’s getting ridiculous what they are telling children at such a young age - it is damaging to them. I don't want my children to grow up to be anorexic'
Well yes body image is also a concern in this media driven age. So quick mental exercise for you all. Which do you think would endorse a poorer body image in a young child?

Option A) Having a letter addressed to your mother (which you are unlikely to read or know anything about unless she tells you about it) calmly point out the risks that being overweight can pose, while offering advice and help on how to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Option B) Having your picture posted on a national news website, along site a letter from the NHS stating that you are overweight, with your not particularly healthy looking mother glaring on in the background.

I certainly know which is more likely to lead to you getting picked on at school.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Voting reform 3: Single Transferrable Vote (STV)

Ok so it took a while, but here comes the third and final part of the Hippo voting reform series.

If you missed parts one and two look here for a discussion on FPTP, it's faults and the reason that we should never use the term 'winner' in an election.
Once you are done with that, have a look here for a gander at the rules regarding an AV election, the system that we may get a referendum on as part of the Voting Reform Bill.

Those following the goings-on in parliament will have seen that the Liberal Democrats tried to pass an amendment to the Voting Reform Bill, to get STV included on the referendum form. This motion got voted down, so you may wonder why I'm bothering to mention it at all.

Well in my opinion STV is the best way of selecting representatives for a given constituency, indeed instead of a single 'victorious' representative being chosen, a number of representatives are selected based on the spread of political opinion in that constituency. Of course whether or not this is an improvement on the current state of affairs is a matter of opinion. Before we look into the positives and negatives let's first observe how it works.

In each constituency there will be a greater number of parliamentary seats up for grabs. This will mean that each constituency is larger, so rather than a single election determining the representative of apporximately 70,000 people, an STV election would simutaneously produce four representatives for a ward containing 280,000 members.

The ballot paper for an election in this system will look the same as one in an AV election (see image) where each voter, instead of putting a single 'x' in a single box, expresses their order of preference for the candidates. A '1' will indicate the candidate that the voter most prefers, followed by a '2' for the second most favoured all the way down to the last candidate that the voter can stomach.

So far, so familiar. But of course this time we need to select (for the sake of our argument) four representatives, how to do that with the information gathered from voters?

In the current case where we are selecting four representatives, we look for the four candidates who recieve one vote more than 20%* once we have taken into account all the preferences. That is any candidate who recieves 28001 votes in our 280,000 constituent ward gains a seat in parliament (assuming a 100% turnout in the kind of ward described above).

The first thing that we do is look at the first choice votes cast. If any candidate gets the required number of votes, they are elected. If more than one candidate gets the required number of votes, all of those candidates are elected. As it takes a set number of votes to pass the threshold, second choice votes are transeferred proportionally to other candiates. How this is done is a little hard to explain so please bear with me for the next passage.

Leaving our example for a second, imagine that a candidate that requires 10,000 votes to be elected actually gains 20,000 votes. this means that the candidate has an excess of 10,000 votes (and is good for my on-the-fly arithmetic). Now for each of the 20,000 votes cast the second choice is considered and counted up. Once totalled, half of those votes are then transferred to the respective candidate. We only transfer half the votes, because half of the votes needed to be used to elect the first choice, but we counted all the papers because we need to discover the second choice votes of all voters in question.

When the second choice votes are considered for all of the candidates that have reached the required number of votes** we then check to see if any of the other candidates have now reached that mark. If not, the lowest ranked candidate is eliminated, and their votes are completely redistributed to the next preference candidate on that paper.

If a Candidate qualifies at this point, then any surplus is again redistributed in the way outlined above and the process is repeated until all places are filled. If this was a little hard to follow, check out the STV page on wikipedia which offers a simple scenario involving treats.

Hopefully now with a (sketchy maybe) grasp of how STV works, we can look at the pros and cons of introducing such a system. Writing on the AV post from this series an anonymous poster said.
"Each party can put up as many candidates as they like without fear of splitting the vote. And independents who broadly support a party (and party rebels) can also choose to stand without needing to worry about taking votes away from a more viable candidate and letting a less preferable opponent in."
This is of course true of AV systems, but with only one seat available in the house where is the incentive to field more than one candidate? At the end of the day political parties care only that the candidate from their party gets voted in. Not that the constituents are happy. If they feel that the mood in a constituency is such that their party will get the votes (safe-seats)  there is no need to field other potential representatives if you know there will be someone voting with your whip once the votes are in!

With STV there is an incentive to field at least enough candidates to fill all the available seats. That then gives the voters a choice to vote for a party but to exclude a candidate that they do not approve of. Just think of the chance for labour voters to oust Hazel Blears or Jacqui Smith!

There is another regularly raised issue with STV, is that with larger, multi-represented constsiuencies, there will no longer be an obvious link between MP's and their constituency. While this may be undoubtedly true if taken flat, the information on the ballot papers could be used to assign candidates to constituencies once the election is complete. Alternatively, maybe having more than one representative would be a good thing anyway. If voters had more than one person to field an issue to, they would be more likely to vote again for the one that responded most positively, even if it meant using one of their preferences for a candidate that is not part of the party they would choose for government. The best performing MP's in this system would be returned to sit again, while the weakest would only manage to serve a single term. What we'd end up with is basically market forces aiding in the survival and ousting of MP's!

That's about it. This was quite tough to explain properly, so if you can suggest any clarifications I'd love to hear from you via the box below. Also, if you agree disagree or have anything to add, join in below. I look forward to hearing from you.

*The reason for this choice of number is actually a logical follow on from what constitutes a working majority (ie 50% of votes +1) In a typical (FPTP) election, gaining one more than 50% of the votes guarantees that no other candidate can have more votes. In this case, only 4 candidates can possibly have more than a 20% share of the vote so we use 20% of the votes cast + 1vote. This system for working out how many votes are required to be elected is known as the 'Droop quota'

**Of course if more than one candidate has already been selected, we may need to look at the third choice or lower preference candidate on any paper. In all cases we just look for the highest useable preference.

Friday, 12 March 2010


Okay so I guess it took me long enough, but I've finally found xkcd

It takes a while to find it's form, but when it does it becomes staggeringly brilliant. Those that know me will know why I love this one in particular

Go check it out, but don't worry too much if the science and maths stuff stumps you a little. It does me from time to time, and I actually care about that sort of shit.

(by the way, I discovered xkcd through this post at liberal conspiracy which is also well worth your time)

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The tourture of BBC science shows

So over the last two days I have spent two hours of my life watching science documentaries on the BBC iPlayer.
The first 'Wonders of the solar system: The sun' aired initially on Sunday night, the second 'Horizon: Is everything we know about the universe wrong?' was on last night at 9pm.

Now I really like the BBC, I'm happy to pay the hundred odd pound annual subscription and I watch almost all of my television through the iPlayer. This isn't me joining the (often pathetic) throngs that can't see the public service provided.

What it is though, is a request to stop wasting my bloody time by claiming that a show would inform me, or answer my questions when it quite simply doesn't. The few snippets of useful information in both those shows combined could have made a ten minute short. 15 if you wanted to get all arty.

I won't waste too much of my time talking about 'Wonders' as it's already stolen an hour of my life, but it basically amounted to Professor Brian Cox travelling the world, pointing a camera at the sky and going 'wow'. 'Wow!' he said looking at a solar eclipse. 'Incredible!' he exclaimed, sailing down the Amazon. 'Magnificent!' he gawped, at the northern lights. Maybe that was the point of the entire show, to make people gawp. I find it much better to gawp at facts that you wouldn't otherwise believe, rather than pretty pictures.

Now horizon was marginally better. It could have thrown a dog turd at me through my monitor and I would have thought the same (think of the technical achievement!). It remains though, that all of the actual information provided could be explained, in quite easy to understand language, during a cigarette break. I know, I tried it. It goes a little something like this...

The standard model of physics explains how the universe came into being. There was a big bang, then the universe grew consisting firstly of energy, then after a while matter formed. This matter settled down into stars, which clustered into galaxies, which gave us the universe we inhabit.
Some observations don't quite fit with the standard model. The first of these is the relatively uniform temperature of the universe (found out by looking at the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, a view of the universe 13bn light years away or 13bn light years ago), which is inconsistent with a universe still growing from an explosion. To get round this, a principle called 'inflation' was dreamed up where the universe grew from the explosion, then stopped for a bit. Then when the temperature was roughly even, it grew again. We aren't sure why.
This still doesn't quite explain our observations though. There isn't enough observed mass in galaxies to explain the stars rotate around the centre. Rather than the rate of rotation slowing the further from the centre of a galaxy you go, it remains constant. To account for the extra mass, we use something called dark matter which should be everywhere, and actually outnumbers actual matter by a ratio of 5:1. There is a guy in a lab underground looking for it, he has to be underground so that more common particles don't interfere with his detectors. We aren't completely sure what it is, but it might be something to do with supersymmetry.
Even this doesn't explain it completely, the universe is expanding faster than we expect it do. We aren't quite sure why, but we have come up with an idea of 'dark energy' which exists in vacuums. Effectively the energy of nothing. When we factor this in to our standard model, along with the dark matter and the inflationary principle, we get a working model of the universe...
Almost. Now, after studying the CMB for a bit longer another scientist has found that some galaxies are rushing together in groups. This doesn't work as part of our inflationary model. The concept has been called 'dark flow'.  It may be something to do with a multi-verse, that is, our universe is just one of many.
In order to get that information, that took me about 15 minutes to write (and as mentioned a cigarette break to explain). I had to sit through a balloon being blown up (pneumatically thankfully) about 15 times, what appeared to be a close up of a match about 40 times, and the phrase 'it started with a bang' about 7 million times (ok I exaggerate, but only on the last one).

I understand that most viewers don't want in depth science coverage, but that was a full hour of airtime! Why not just condense the sort of stuff written above into half an hour, and then put a half hour follow on show on BBC4 or something, for those that want to actually learn something?

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Credit where credit is due

Much of the blogosphere which I frequent is filled with bile and disgust aimed at the fourth estate. Newspapers in particular (along with their internet bretheren) are often lambasted for being biased, bigoted, ignorant and downright stupid. That is because in general they are.

As the title of this post suggests though, this is not always the case. So here I am to offer plaudits to the London Evening Standard for the week long feature they are running on 'the dispossesed'. The feature aims to highlight the disparity between London's richest and poorest, and offers a call to arms to all Londoners to try and fight poverty across the city.

Yesterday's issue was deliberately shocking, and the Leader rightly admitted as much. It was intended to galvanise the poplace and judging by the reaction in todays issue it seems to have gone some way to doing that already. Today's feature is more optimistic, showing that a life that begins in poverty doesn't have to continue that way.

I can't add much more to what is turning into a fantastic piece of journalism. Please check it out, those Londoners that ignore the papers on your daily commute might (finally) find something worth reading.