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Jan 08 2016

BBC’s impartiality in question after Stephen Doughty’s resignation

Category: Bad News Author:

The first two sentences of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines are as follows:

“Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. It applies to all our output and services – television, radio, online, and in our international services and commercial magazines.”

It seems difficult to reconcile this stance with the contents of a BBC blog post – since removed – that describes the Daily Politics team’s successful efforts to persuade Stephen Doughty to resign on live TV. The timing was of particular dramatic importance as the show aired immediately before Prime Minister’s Questions. Clearly, influencing such an event or its timing is anything but impartial.

Even more suspiciously, the BBC later issued a statement on Twitter which contradicts the contents of the blog post by claiming Doughty had “already decided to resign” and merely chose to make the announcement on the show. At best, then, the Daily Politics team is choosing to embellish their contribution to the show in a very bizarrely unflattering manner. At worst, the BBC and Stephen Doughty are guilty of collaborating to ensure his resignation had the greatest possible effect. In either case, I suggest filing a complaint at the very minimum.

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Jan 06 2016

US spying causing more legal problems for businesses

Category: Politics Author:

Foreign Affairs has a good article that goes into some detail on how the United States’ persistent and indiscriminate violations of privacy are causing more problems for businesses needing to operate within the requirements of international law.

The ECJ’s Safe Harbor ruling has now forced Washington to decide whether it values its unrestricted ability to spy on Europeans more than an open Internet and the economic well-being of powerful U.S. businesses.

The United States faces a profound choice. It can continue to work in a world of blurred lines and unilateral demands, making no concessions on surveillance and denouncing privacy rights as protectionism in disguise. Yet if it does so, it is U.S. companies that will suffer.

Examples like this suggest that the US attitude towards surveillance and privacy is not simply one of ‘playing dumb’ in order to get the desired results, but one of genuine idiocy in the face of compelling evidence that their approach is counterproductive. It’s not just businesses that are suffering, but the actual intelligence-gathering effort itself; Bill Binney, previously technical director at the NSA, has made a compelling case for why the agency is drowning in irrelevant data that prevents them from making important connections until after the fact. If the US wants to get results it will have to behave in accordance with the reality that exists, not the reality they wish existed.

The UK, of course, is always eager to learn from America’s mistakes, and we can look forward to the same sorts of results here. The Netherlands on the other hand has taken a more rational, considered stance (at least for now) by acknowledging the undesirable consequences that necessarily follow the introduction of backdoors into software.


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Jun 05 2015

At the collision between reality and policy

Category: The Law Author:

The recently-elected Conservative government has been seeing some well-deserved criticism of its naïve plan to do an end-run around the ‘legal highs’ arms race by simply banning the lot of them. Their new legislation will:

Make it an offence to produce, supply, offer to supply, possess with intent to supply, import or export psychoactive substances; that is, any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect.

There are several good reasons why this simplistic strategy falls firmly in the ‘if it was that easy we’d have already done it’ category.

Firstly, there is a not insignificant and growing list of products that may be unintentionally banned by the law, including but not limited to flowers, deodorants, and glue. The legislation already exempts commonly-used psychoactive such as tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine, and it seems probable that this whitelist will have to be expanded to cover many other unexpected items. But once you start whitelisting anything psychoactive that shouldn’t be banned, you quickly find that instead of constantly maintaining and updating a blacklist of forbidden drugs, you’re instead maintaining and updating a whitelist of permitted consumer products. This seems like a pyrrhic victory at best, and a chilling reversal of the ‘Everything not forbidden is allowed‘ principle of law at worst.

Secondly, there is no simple or objective measure of the degree of psychoactivity of a particular substance. As pointed out by the Guardian, almost any item or experience is capable of producing an altered state of consciousness or mood. You can take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and argue that perception by definition requires the alteration of your mental state in order to see or hear, and it’s tough to mark out a point between that and a full LSD trip that everybody can agree is weird enough to count as ‘properly’ psychoactive.

Ultimately, the problem is that banning psychoactive substances on the basis of their psychoactive nature is a totally illogical pursuit, and this legislation makes that fact crystal clear. One can almost imagine the frustrated Conservative response to the Independent article; “Well, obviously we don’t intend to ban those items! Just the drugs — all the bad psychoactives!” What they seek to eliminate, essentially, is not a class of product but a class of mental state, and this approach forces them to make a clear, legal distinction between acceptable states and unacceptable mental states.

The silver lining, perhaps, is that with legal highs no longer available, people will naturally gravitate back to the tried-and-tested drugs legal highs are designed to imitate — which have already been shown to be less harmful that the legal highs of alcohol and tobacco in almost every instance. Perhaps Cameron should have stuck to his original plan and saved himself a lot of bother.

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Apr 16 2014

Jenny McCarthy tries to scrub off the stink of ‘anti-vax’

Category: Science and skepticism Author:

I’m heartened to read about Jenny McCarthy trying to claim she actually isn’t anti-vaccination. Not because her views have changed in response to overwhelming evidence – of course they haven’t – but because it means she’s aware that she’s being labelled as anti-vax and that it’s a bad thing. As a person whose loudly uninformed views have contributed to actual harm in the return of diseases such as whooping cough and measles in the US and around the world, she is more than deserving of the slur.

I’m always in favour of people who spread harmful misinformation being made aware of how they are regarded by the people trying to undo their damage.

Continue reading “Jenny McCarthy tries to scrub off the stink of ‘anti-vax’” »

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Apr 10 2014

Are you aware of homeopathy? It’s a good time to start!

Category: Science and skepticism Author:

If you weren’t already aware of homeopathy, then congratulations! There’s no better time to learn all about this ridiculous scam.

The inimitable Science-Based Medicine has an excellent and detailed primer on homeopathy; however, you don’t need to read the entire thing to understand the three main points:

  1. It’s literally just water

Continue reading “Are you aware of homeopathy? It’s a good time to start!” »

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Apr 04 2014

I’m a terrorist! Are you?

Category: The Law Author:

At last – all the mystique and danger of being an international terrorist, without having to get my hands dirty mucking about with bombs or mass murder. I need to update my business cards.

From The Independent:

Saudi Arabia has introduced a series of new laws which define atheists as terrorists, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

Article one of the new provisions defines terrorism as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said: “Saudi authorities have never tolerated criticism of their policies, but these recent laws and regulations turn almost any critical expression or independent association into crimes of terrorism.

As usual, this abhorrent attitude comes with nebulous language claiming that it’s for the preservation of all-important societal norms.

From Human Rights Watch:

Article 8: “Seeking to shake the social fabric or national cohesion, or calling, participating, promoting, or inciting sit-ins, protests, meetings, or group statements in any form, or anyone who harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.”

Inevitably, any hate-based legislation or justification seems to include something to the effect of ‘traditional values’ or the ‘fabric of society’ which are supposedly under threat (e.g. Russia’s recent LGBT propaganda law which included the phrase “distorted ideas about the equal social value of traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships”).

When your ‘values’ require threats and hate to keep them going, it’s a good bet that they need retiring.

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Jun 28 2012

Full moon at the asylum: Reactions to the PPACA decision

Category: Politics,The Law Author:

Early this morning the Supreme Court of the United States announced its ruling on the controversial PPACA bill (often referred to as ‘ObamaCare’) that has been the subject of much rhetoric and what passes for ‘debate’. In short, they voted to uphold the entire bill – and the reactions by some on the right are a worthy example of how an utter disconnect from reality has become standard for a substantial amount of political discourse.

I’ll pause briefly to interject my own opinion on the bill; I (as, I suspect, many people from a country with a functioning universal healthcare (UHC) system) find it perplexing and disappointing that America has once again decided to be obstinately different and overly-complicated in its approach to social policy that has frankly been settled for decades everywhere else. Instead of expanding the already extant (and almost universally loved) Medicare program to cover all Americans, the new bill instead further entrenches the dominance of private health insurance by requiring almost all Americans to purchase it, or else be subject to a tax increase. America with PPACA is better off with it than without it, but only because the situation so far has been embarrassingly terrible. The USA finally has healthcare for all, but in a makeshift, capitalistic, awkward sort of way. And even then only barely.

Continue reading “Full moon at the asylum: Reactions to the PPACA decision” »

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Apr 03 2012

It’s past time to reclassify data service

Category: Technology Author:

An article from the Wall Street Journal reconfirms what most people already know – the data plans offered by US carriers are completely out of touch with modern usage and are becoming comically inadequate. At what point will it become clear to these companies that data, like water or electricity service, is a utility and must be billed accordingly for any further progress in the industry?

If it wasn’t already clear, the incoming adoption of LTE should (one hopes) make it abundantly obvious to everybody that overly restrictive metering is going to have to go for the full potential of these technologies to be realised.

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Mar 21 2012

Afghan shooting as a simple litmus test of media credibility

Category: Bad News Author:

On the night of March 11, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked out of the Kandahar Army base in which he was stationed and (allegedly) murdered 16 civilians – nine children, four men and three women. Mostly children. While I’d like to say that the Western media’s approach to covering this gruesome saga is surprising, it’s sadly merely enlightening in serving as a crude litmus test of journalism. Which organisations approached the issue with a view to making sense of what happened and why; and which ones approached it with a view to making excuses for Bales’ behaviour so as to engender sympathy for him and avoid losing support for our occupation? Let’s find out.

Continue reading “Afghan shooting as a simple litmus test of media credibility” »

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Apr 16 2010


As you’ve probably already heard, the British Chiropractic Association has dropped its court case against Simon Singh following the overturning on appeal of the previous ruling against him, marking the end of an expensive and mostly pointless legal battle. Mostly pointless, because it has at least served to focus national attention on Britain’s hideously illiberal and outdated libel laws; it was only earlier this week at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub that MPs from all three major parties were present to pledge their support for libel reform.

The battle is over, though the war continues. And thanks to the BCA’s poorly-considered legal action, the smart money is on our side.

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