Friday, 30 October 2009

To err, or not to err

There's a clear split in opinion over the classifaction of drugs, as highlighted in all the papers and discussion programmes.

Basically the government has decided to ignore the advice of its' chief expert Prof David Nutt, who has been outspoken in criticising the government.

Either the government should sack him, or they should accept his arguments - he is appointed by them, after all. To do neither shows they are weak, divided and lack principles.

But I think the debate has been distorted by simple primary school level of confusion over the 'soft' drug, cannabis.

On one side it is the perception of cannabis as a 'soft' - and therefore harmless - drug which is causing confusion. And on the other it is the blatant ignorance of basic information which is yet more causing confusion.

This graph (from the Lancet) provides the best visual representation I can find for helping understand the difference between different drug types and how we should classify them (note alcohol is in the mid-range ie technically a class-B drug).

Cannabis is not a 'drug' in the sense that it is a pharmaceutical - it is only a 'drug' in the sense that it is an organic herb containing various active chemicals.

Whereas Ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine) or Heroin (diacetyl morphine) are trade names for refined chemical products on the criminal black market, Cannabis refers to a general name for a genus of flowering plants (which includes cannabis sativa, cannabis indica and cannabis ruderalis).

The different origins of the vernacular names is an interesting linguistic question, which black-marketeers couldn't care less about, politicians simply don't have the general level of education to distinguish between and most news reporters simply brush over - even when they do know better. It underpins the separation of fact and opinion and has huge implications for public policy in the matter.

So, while 'Ecstasy' or 'Heroin' refer to single chemical agents which have measurable effects, 'Cannabis' refers to a set of unique chemicals in various combinations of multiple chemical agents, each of which have different properties and each combination of which has different effects.

The unique group of chemical agents in Cannabis are described as cannabidols (hence the name). The most commonly occurring are THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) and the pater familias CBD (Cannabidiol).

The first of these is considered to have psychoactive properties (which has associations with triggering schizophrenia), while the second of these as anti-psychotic properties (associated with treating schizophrenia).

While it is not just the strength of the drug which should be considered when classifying cannabis, it is also the relative proportions between the numerous various different agents in each individual batch.

Mark Easton gives a typically excellent summary of some of the issues. He provids details of the governments' own survey that showed more 43% in favour of no change, while roughly equal numbers in favour of reclassification and legalisation (19% each). So there's clearly more at stake than the government claims...

...yet the government has subjected us to a constant barrage of ill-informed scare stories about how super-powerful strains of 'skunk' are flooding the streets of the nation in a bid to retain control of the situation. The head of the Forensic Science Service's drugs unit, Dean Ames, provided evidence of the new 'deadly' variety (2-3 times stronger) which had started to dominate the market and that this higher quality product justified a change in the law to change the way the market operates. Except the change in the law didn't change the function of the market, only the conditions in which it operates.

The political problem is that the public is now so far ahead of the establishment politicians that the law has become irrelevant in helping inform public behaviour: only this week I was walking behind a group of twelve and thirteen-year-olds who were smoking something they'd purchased illegally, but they were complaining that it was 'bad shit' and they should go back and beat up the guy who dealt it to them. Way to drive kids underground!

As Professor Nutt said:
"If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you're probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth."
It didn't smell like nothing to me, and they obviously knew about the differences between different products. They also clearly knew that the knowledge of their own experience is far more reliable than the guilt trip some morally repugnant fusty old biddy like Jacqui Smith wants to send them on as an excuse for her to absolve her own youthful indiscretions. Prosecuting her own insecurities by persecuting those who are in a similar position now as she was then is no penitance and does not resolve any wider situation.

Frankly speaking I'd court the disapproval of public fugures who are such blatant frauds as Ms Smith and I can understand why anyone else would too.

Unless and until the lectures from the authoritarian pulpit can demand our attention in such ways as through automatic transmission into every mobile phone and PDA (and I'm not sure this isn't the dream of the aspirant omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent force in an irreligious time), then it must be accepted that there are simply millions of people who are just not listening and will not listen to whatever the latest innaccurate, ineffectual and irrelevant outbursts of 'initiative' the PM and his self-absorbed colleagues in Parliament choose to congratulate themselves with as a means to justify their reelection crusade.

The establishment habit of trying to make individual decisions on our behalf while distorting the information they give us - when they choose to provide it - goes to the heart of why the public distrusts the current political system. It suits their purposes, but it doesn't fulfil our needs or our aspirations.

The fact that certain political figues actively choose to go against considered expert advice and their better instincts says all you need to know about them. You've also got to wonder how the rest of the public will respond to their advice if that is the example they set!

So I'd prefer it if we erred on the side of reality, if we must err at all.

And if the government were serious about banning dangerous plants then they should start by eradicating poison ivy from all our churchyards.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Ideas for Power2010

I've been tagged in a meme by Bracknell Blogger, Dazmando.

Being a completely anti-social misanthrope (ahem) who spends far too much time hanging out online (double ahem) I'm usually disinclined to get involved in blog memes, but from what I've read of the other ideas put forward in response to Guy Aitcheson's request for suggestioned reforms I'm a bit disappointed at the lack of original thinking and the grasping for 'big ideas'.

Check out some of the different ideas on the Power2010 blog where there is a lively discussion. The deadline for submitting ideas is November 30th.

So let me start by outlining what I think are the problems from the viewpoint of someone who has been on the inside and the outside and currently hangs out on the fringes.

The main problem is a sense of disconnect between the inhabitants of our representative chambers and the general public. We hardly know who they are or what they do, and what little we do know seems designed to put most people off.

Distrust stems from incomplete and unreliable information, broken communication channels and messages which are not short and snappy or clear and complete or full and frank. Only when all the information is at our disposal can consensual adult decisions be made.

What happens in Parliament must correspond with society, our needs and our wishes if it can be expected to be representative: we must encourage accessibility and break down the barriers to participation.

My first reform would therefore be on election day at the point where decisions are made. While I would keep current restrictions on access to the polling station, I would also require a room to be set aside where literature from party candidates can be picked up and perused.

I've found it shocking that people are asking questions of tellers on the doorsteps of polling stations and making judgements without any space to make a proper decision. And as most polling stations requisition whole schools or other community buildings for the duration it is something which could be implemented at no cost.

My second reform would be to the political calendar, so people can set their diaries according to what happens. PMQ's is accepted as the highlight of the week because it occurs with unerring regularity at midday on Wednesdays. I know there are a range of events and ceremonies which take place at Parliament, and while I can say what happens at a few of them I couldn't even say with certainty when it is open.

So as a general plan I would have the parliamentary calendar correspond directly with the school calendar. This would create an intrinsic timetable to events and allow business to be conducted separately from the primarily ceremonial aspects of parliamentary life.

My third reform would be to the financing of political debate, and to do so in such a way which makes it reflect the level of service provided by the people campaigning for votes.

Currently the total amount of spending by political parties is of the order of £1 per person per year, yet we hear about the inordinate impact of donations made by excessively rich members of society who are able to decline requests to clarify whether or not they are even eligible to donate those sums!

Political funding is closely akin to racketeering at the moment and it must be put on a more equitable basis. So I think if people were aware that their votes were providing the means of financial support for that party to be successful then participation would be incentivised and made more affordable - we may have won 'one person, one vote', but we are still a long, long way from saying the contributions of all people are equal.


I'm supposed to tag 5 bloggers, so I'll be deliberately democratic and link to bloggers representing a fair cross-section of the local blogosphere:

Freethinker Elizabeth Thomas,
atheist Steve Borthwick,
environmentalist Matt Blackall,
humorist Mr London Street,
communications expert Tim Trent.

I'll also warn them now, if they are prepared to write a post I will write a round-up collating their responses for my local blog.

I am particularly interested in seeing the different perspectives each will bring to the question.

Politics and Political Parties - the truth is out there, somewhere

The issue of representation has been filling my head recently, which follows on from the furore about QT.

And so it comes up again with the dear Jennie asking why certain bloggers are ignored by the blogging establishment.

As a general topic it's one I get into on a regular basis. The discussion always centres around what the definition of 'politics' is.

Some people think politics = political parties.

Others think everything is political.

The first seems to come from a mindest that people involved with political parties are unable to be objective, while the second comes from a mindset that nobody is completely objective (even when they try).

I get round the accusation of bias by taking the 'BBC defence' and seeking out a balanced view, but this then creates a difficulty in giving appropriate and proportionate weight to the different sides.

So, what can be done to give a more representative account and convince critics that no group or individual is being discriminated against and treated unfairly?

Ultimately I think there is some overlap between those who think white working-class men are being treated unfairly and those who think BME groups and women are being treated unfairly: the establishment is failing to placate these critics and convince them by communicating the full extent of the issues at stake, and this shows the action being taken by the establishment is not sufficient.

Without getting into the question of immigration and how desirable it is (people who know me personally don't need to ask - I have some strong views), the establishment has failed to clarify that these issues are a choice we each need to make - we need to separate the narrow issue of what is good for 'me' and the broader subject of what is good for 'us', and if they do not correspond then we need to understand why not.

It has been a consistent trend of Gordon Brown's path to power that he has crushed, negated and otherwise sidelined opposition wherever he has seen it, but this has had the consequence that the public has not debated questions of importance as assumptions were made and conclusions jumped to, bypassing and failing to account for any uncomfortable facts.

Where Thatcher and Blair stimulated demonstrations of opposition, Britain under Brown has simply gone ahead without wider participation in the discussion of the ways and means worth adopting. Where Thatcher and Blair were capable of debate (however inaccurately), Brown asserts.

Britain under Brown is increasingly in the iron grip of a new establishment - despite their noises about inclusivity, participation at elections is not rising and general membership of political parties has fallen. The seemingly inevitable passage of David Cameron into Downing Street is not being met with any general acclaim and the growing climate of cynicism about politics is enthusing a sense of separation from participation in the processes of democracy among the public: politics is now a lifestyle choice, not a reflection of those choices we make in our lives.

It seems obvious to me that the two-party hegemony suffocates a real sense of representation, and the more it seems likely that this will continue then frustrations from different sections of society will increasingly crop up.

It does not matter what Labour or Conservatives do about our borders, or if their initiatives bring about a massive increase in women or black or Asian MPs, because it is only a temporary repreive - they will still represent the same way of doing things which has consistently shown itself to break down as the innate incoherence of their binary philosophy crumbles.

Inclusivity cannot mean substituting one preferred view for another more preferable view, as that just perpetuates a sense of prejudice and disenfranchisement, rather it must mean growing the overall level of participation: an open democracy cannot stand still, it must constantly constantly strive to break down the barriers which so easily grow between us.

If politics is for anything, then it must be the art of pluralism - if only because the word itself means 'relating to the people' or 'public affairs', not because politicians are commonly compared to a bunch of blood-sucking parasites.

Monday, 26 October 2009

An End to 'Peak Oil'?

The human capacity for innovation and technological advancement is amazing.

For a long time environmental campaigners have been concerned about both the decline of resources and the pollution caused by waste. But such dual problems can often be combined to create an effective solution.

The problem of 'peak oil' and what to do about the 50million scrap tyres which must be disposed of every year in the UK alone is exactly one such case which may go a long way to providing for society while improving the environment at the same time.

See, human creativity overcomes our base fears - again!


Datablog publishes the statistics on the world's oil reserves.


Possibly related discussions (well that's how my mind works): Alix, LDV.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A short statement on the speakers' conference on Parliamentary representation

Parliament represents society.

While Parliament fails to fully represent society it fails to represent the best of society.

So any imbalance in representation is an indictment of the failure of Government to fulfil the potential of all the members of society.


I watched the three main party leaders face the committee and I have to say this was an instance when the best of our politics was on show.

Brown, Cameron and Clegg all made excellent shows of the efforts they've made and provided good reasoned (if partisan) arguments why more democracy is necessary to solve the weaknesses in our current democracy.

With all the furore being caused by the BNP's appearance on the BBC it has been easy to get distracted from the positive politics going on under our noses, but it is also easy to lose sight of how these issues are two sides of the same coin.

So it is a shame that QT was dominated by the assumptions surrounding perceptions of the BNP and its' leader Nick Griffins' anti-democratic credentials, when the time may have been more productively spent quizzing him on what efforts he is making to improve the overall balance.

I for one don't see the BNP encouraging gender balance, nor do I see them doing anything at all to help ethnic minority representation or arguing for an extension of the democratic franchise to any group - in fact they are doing the reverse!

Therefore amid all the hype over who exactly is bullying whom I think it is important to remember who is actually offering greater support to the greatest part of society and therefore who has the best interests of society at heart.

Brown and Cameron can both proudly stand up to say they are taking positive steps, but I have to get behind Nick Clegg's argument that it is a wider problem of our politics that we aren't doing enough. Maybe we can never do enough, but I think it is vital to recognise we must always try to do more.

Monday, 19 October 2009

No More Ludo!

Sadly Ludovic Kennedy has died.

I met him once when I was 6 or 7, but I'll mostly remember him for his appearance as himself on Yes, Minister catching Jim Hacker out.

Because of his towering reputation and influence I often confused him with the news correspondent and his contemporary, Charles Wheeler.

Between the two of them they installed my faith in the hard fought values of principled journalism by ensuring you didn't just look at the easiest and most comforting of angles.

While I was happy to disagree with either on their conclusions they were both formative characters who set the standards to be followed and lived up to.

Here is the Telegraph's obituary.

Goethe's advice that one should "distrust all those in whom the urge to punish is strong" is one I read subsequently and can't agree with more strongly, though I've tended to broaden the scope of it to understand the urge for self-punishment.

I think part of this informed my doubt about his vigorous campaigning for euthanasia, which grew a touch distasteful in its' insistence through the 90's, and I can understand Ludo's temporary split from the LibDems when Charles Kennedy began to disapprove.

However, maybe it was a sign of the times, but I was glad to read he had patched up his differences and was eager to rejoin under Nick Clegg.

It's interesting to read that he died peacefully at his resthome near Salisbury, and though I'm intrigued to know the manner of his passing and whether he chose the moment as a final act of defiance I think it would be undignified to intrude. Had he really been campaigning for a change in the law on his own behalf, then surely he would have travelled to Switzerland, wouldn't he?

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Lessons from the SNP versus the BBC

Last week saw the political conference season reach its' conclusion with the visit of the SNP to Inverness.

Alec Salmond was in typically bullish mood declaring that he would triple the number of MPs his party would return to Westminster after the general election, while the other main noteworthy events were their declaration that the only difference between all the parties is the size of the spending cuts envisaged during the next parliament and justifying the release of Lockerbie bomber on the grounds that it represented 'Scottish values'.

Far be it from me to pick up any of these points... oh, alright then.

The first is pure speculation and hype, and the second is directly contradicted by the third (notwithstanding the fact that it is a massive simplification of the ongoing debate which plainly distorts the picture).

Malc In The Burgh thinks 20 SNP MPs would be pretty a tall order too.

Still the main thing which got me was watching the segment looking at a potential independence referendum and Mr Salmond's interview with Anita Anand.

Clearly the raison d'etre of the SNP is the affirmation of a separate identity for Scotland even if it means the denial of everything and anything 'British' (including any geographical unity), but I was laughing at the blatancy of Salmond's cheek to call Auntie the 'British Brainwashing Corporation' in his very first breath.

Now, I'm not so naive to think attacking an institution which represents the diverse nature of the country doesn't play well with tribal politicians on the make, but the confrontational interview technique is standard practice.

While Boris Johnson can get away with bluster to avoid challenging questions because he has an image as a bit of a buffoon, other prominent figures without this string to their bow simply look silly and like they are playing to the most insular and prejudiced constituency imaginable.

It was an example of Salmond's popular instinct over-riding his capacity to make honest arguments. It was illustrative of his tendency toward temporary expediency and as such an occasion where we could see him actively making a miscalculation.

Fascinating stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but more than making me laugh about exactly who was trying to brainwash who it made me worry about the 'knock-on' effects (that's a bit of local idiom, for those of you not from these parts).

On the other side Anita Anand has obviously been well-schooled in how to deal with this response and rose above it.

This was equally interesting as it showed the development of BBC policy in an area which is a strong bone of contention for Conservatives, who continue to ride the wave of criticism for an apparent 'liberal' bias at the corporation (cf Andrew Marr).

Personally I argue a slightly different angle, namely that there is a definite democratic bias written into the BBC constitution, which walks a fine line between popular approval and authoratativeness.

Anyway, watching the exchange made me consider the prospects of tory reforms to hit the Beeb, but left me thinking some sharp operators have already taken pre-emptive action in order to maintain their treasured independence. The BBC is nothing if not political, but it will be nothing if it is ever partisan.

In which case any future Cameron government will be left scratching around with nothing to show his vocal supporter base. And raises more questions about what he is for.

How will he ever be able to weaken the BBC's independence or find any justification which doesn't undermine his platform?

Yet how will he ever satisfy this baying crowd without throwing them a few sacrificial lambs?

And what guarantees will that ever provide they won't come back for more if he somehow does?
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Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Friday, 9 October 2009

Peace Oscar Awarded To Obama

As much as I approve of Barack Obama's attempts to foster greater diplomacy among the world's nations I'm actually a bit shocked that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The announcement only highlights the flawed concept on which the prize is based.

Surely it undermines the institute's reputation to take such an overtly political stance based on his intentions rather than any solid results - as committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland admitted "It was because we would like to support what [Obama] is trying to achieve" - in other words, not what he has achieved after a whole eight months on the world stage.

Just like the Oscars were always a means of marketing the industry establishment on behalf of the American Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Science, so too the Nobel Institute's premier award is designed to actively promote the political ideology of the global establishment.

It is the highly perverse nature of prizes which supposedly recognise the highest achievement in their field but are confined to giving the awards out on an annual basis - this creates an arbitrary and artificial standard where the level of competition is assumed to be the same every year and creates false expectations around the winners as well as devaluing the wider conception of the means and purposes of competition.

Should Rocky or Titanic be conferred equal status with Gandhi and The Godfather? And do they deserve the status when other timeless classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Metropolis weren't even nominated?

Equally, the Nobel Peace Prize is a product of establishment politics and has become a weapon to be harnessed for those political ends.

So what will happen next year if Obama is successful in spreading the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? Will he be awarded the medal, diploma and 10m Kronor again? And the year after?

It would have been far wiser to exercise a little patience and discretion by judging the evidence rather than build up unrealistic expectations about what achievements are possible.

Maybe Obama will be deserving of the award in a few years time (when he's heading into a re-election campaign the publicity and it will be of far more practical use to him), but it seems the distinguished members of the committee are prone to getting star-struck and indulging in a bit of wishful thinking.

I just hope they aren't setting him - and themselves - up for a fall.


Global reactions to the prize.

OH and CF also offer some strong blog reactions, unsurprisingly.
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Sunday, 4 October 2009

Integration Or Disintegration?

So the Irish have passed their referendum on the Lisbon Treaty by a margin of 2-to-1, despite the volume of sceptical opinion out there.

Even Nigel Farage's excuse-making that the score is now 1-1 and a decider is required has been blown out of the water by the scale of the defeat - it can't even be written off as an away-goals victory considering the aggregate score!

The thing which gets me is how the criticism is just so massively misplaced.

If the EU is imperfect then we should work to make it better - it can be and has been an effective counterweight to the excesses of national governments, so we should strengthen it's accountability processes and improve transparency.

Equally our national governments are far from perfect, but they are an effective counterweight to the weaknesses of the multi-national institutions and the only line of defence to wholesale intervention from outside, so we also work to bring in positive reforms at home.

Yet the very same people who complain about the loss of national sovereignty are exactly the same ones who complain loudest about how the people elected to our no-longer-sovereign parliament are abusing their power. By that logic we should get rid of the EU and we should get rid of the UK and literally turn every Englishman's home into a castle!

But I don't see it as a zero-sum game where an increase of sovereignty by one political body is matched by an equal loss elsewhere.

No, the balance of powers held by each organ is a mechanism by which real freedoms can be protected and advanced in a competition for legitimacy.

Obviously that isn't anything any aspirant dictator wants, so people like Farage use whatever means they can to attack each side in turn as they undermine the whole system. It doesn't matter to them what damage they've wrought so long as it helps advance their cause of building a power base (NB standing down one job to try to gain a bigger one in a breaking of convention is a tactic straight out of Caesar's handbook - Conservatives who egg on their Ukip opponent simply betray their anti-democratic credentials and lack of principles).

As for referenda I think it would be very interesting to hold them simultaneously at a pan-european level, just like with Eurovision or Uefa competitions, which would massively increase the interest among the general population to ensure decisions are placed on a much more democratic footing. This would also prevent sceptics from accusing commissioners of rigging the vote quite so easily.

At the moment I simply don't think the issues are understood or debated widely enough (the only people who have at least tried to read the actual texts of what is under consideration are amateur obsessives and real pros), so I don't think it is possible to make a good decision - yet.

What we really need to understand is that at the heart of the European question is a fundamental decision over whether people think integration or disintegration is the way to proceed - one thing is certain: the status quo is both unacceptable and unsustainable.


Update: He may be a slightly different species, but I think it's worth linking to Nosemonkey's desire for eurosceptics to use rational arguments.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Tories Drop EU Referendum Pledge

The subject of the EU is traditionally one of the most controversial in British politics, and so it proves again as the Conservatives have sneakily dropped their much-hyped promise to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Well, that's not quite fair because they haven't, at least they are trying to avoid talking about their position on the subject as they try to hoover up anti-EU votes under pressure from right-wingers in Ukip.

For my own part I think this highlights the not inconsiderable hypocrisy on their party and their major internal divisions on the subject.

Many tory-voting business leaders trade heavily with the continent and recognise the value of having a democratic forum to regulate relations with our partners and neighbours, but they also depend heavily on cultivating a UK-first attitude within their base.

Now I'm a Euro-realist. I love the place in all it's diversity and I think we benefit hugely from integration, despite the massive frustrations caused by the imperfections inherent in creating a system of politics which stretches across half-a-billion people with separate competitive histories.

But the simple fact remains that the institutions of the EU are the product of peaceful relations founded after centuries of rivalry, war and oppression by people on all sides. Having a functioning union is what prevents us from returning to those darker days.

It is the same with every country: unity brings peace, disunity brings war.

And all stable countries are to greater or lesser extents popular unions. The United States of America and Mexico, the Bunds of Germany and Austria, the union of France and the united provinces of the Netherlands. In the cases of former British colonies such as Canada, South Africa, Australia and India they have federal syatems of government, while even in places such as Scandinavia a sense of common heritage and unity is retained despite their division into separate monarchies. The Russian Confederation is another peculiar example.

So ultimately the Conservatives have conceded to the inevitable - their policy was unsustainable and they are fighting the tide of history, even while trying to surf on the appearance of a wave of popular opinion.

Making a big song and dance about the individual niggles is not the way to express a coherent political philosophy, and it is not the correct manner to address business.

So while I'm happy the tories have given an indication that they are waking up to reality I'm more convinced than ever that their sickly appeal to conventional orthodoxy is not the attitude Ii demand of leadership.

One thing I am sure of - when we say it is each man for himself, women and children get trampled on.

Ask and ye shall recieve

They're adorable - how can you possibly refuse them...