Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Churches weigh in on mitochondrial replacement

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches are opposing mitochondrial replacement, a promising new development in embryology that could potentially prevent a variety of diseases by transferring the nucleus of the mother’s egg into a donor cell which has healthy mitochondria.

The Catholic Church’s position on this is ludicrous. In order to protect the “life” of poppy-seed sized embryos, it is willing to subject children to extravagant amount of pain and suffering. Why? Here’s their reasoning.

Many people are rightly concerned about the profound implications of Parliament passing regulations under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act to licence the creation of human embryos using the DNA of three people.

Who are these “many people”? And how many of them aren’t middle-aged men in priestly drag? And that “DNA of three people” thing. The mitochondrial DNA from the third donor as a proportion of the total DNA in a human’s genome is absolutely tiny. But we are talking about people who put the rights of poppy-seed sized “babies” on a level of moral equivalence with beings that have actual rights, interests and concerns in the world.

No other country has allowed this procedure and the international scientific community is not convinced that the procedure is safe and effective.

There have been a number of reviews conducted of the proposed treatment which have failed to turn up any evidence that it is unsafe. As actual use in humans is not licensed, and no clinical trials can be conducted (partly because of of the massive ethical problems of doing a double-blind controlled study involving fertilisation), there won’t be a way to know if it is effective unless one actually goes ahead and tries it.

The document from the Catholic Church brings up the fact that the US FDA has not approved this treatment. That might be in part because during the time of President Bush, the government pushed through so many measures to prevent any of this sort of embryological research, guided by the advice of the President’s Council on Bioethics, a body replete with the medical and biological expertise of, oh, Charles Krauthammer, Francis Fukuyama and Robert P. George. Religious nutters take over the bioethical establishment in the US, pushes through an anti-scientific agenda that makes climate for research in these areas toxic, then argues for bans in other countries based on their successful takeover of the regulatory agenda across the Atlantic.

There are also serious ethical objections to this procedure which involves the destruction of human embryos as part of the process.

What “serious ethical objections”? Spell them out, my dear, otherwise they cannot be judged as serious or not. Because frankly the likelihood of the Catholic Church having a serious ethical objection rather than a ludicrously overheated pile of theological garbage is pretty low.

When embryologists start barging into arguments on soteriology and pneumatology, theologians will have the right to barge into arguments about human fertilisation. Given the pitiful track record of ethical interventions from the church in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics—which basically amounts to a noxious mixture of spreading fear-driven bullshit about every other in-vitro fertilisation technology ever proposed combined with their attempt at opposing every extension of rights to LGBT people—I’m not sure why anyone thinks that what they have to say is worth a damn. They have no useful contribution to make to this discussion, just pseudoscience and theologically-driven fear mongering. Their only notable contribution is to the pain and suffering of children born with rare mitochondrial diseases that could potentially be prevented by careful use of scientific innovation.

David Cameron has his head screwed on and is fulfilling the government’s commitment to evidence-based policy: “I love watching, as I probably should stop telling people, crime dramas on the television. There’s hardly a crime drama where a crime is solved without using the data of a mobile communications device.”

TV dramas: the new source for government policies on crime and surveillance.

Death means a lot of bureaucracy on Wikipedia

When someone dies, on their Wikipedia article a diligent editor is supposed to update the following things:

  • the prose of the article, adding it to the lead and possibly to the ‘Personal life’ section or creating a ‘Death’ section if their death is particularly worth discussing
  • the infobox (if present)
  • the invisible PERSONDATA template
  • the entry on Wikidata
  • the categories (to remove the Living people category and adding the category that corresponds to the year they died, e.g. 2015 deaths)
  • the ‘living’ property of Template:WikiProject Biography (if present)
  • the article listing deaths this year, e.g. Deaths in 2015
  • their category on Wikimedia Commons (if they have one)

Remember: repetition never leads to inconsistency and invisible metadata never becomes out-of-date. I’m currently running a bot to check a number of these sources against each other.

The Guardian has an excellent collection of stories of homophobia. Just the normal, day-to-day harassment and discrimination that people face on the street, in work, on public transport and in housing. The scary thing is that every out gay man I know in London that I have asked has been able to give numerous stories of street harassment. (And I have my own set. Everyone does.) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

King’s College London has decided to not rebrand itself as “King’s London”. Which is good because the latter sounds bloody stupid. They’ve managed to spend tens of thousands of pounds on the rebranding exercise though, because that is a valuable use of resources for a university.

Struggling to find any reason why I would ever want to strap a Microsoft HoloLens to my face.

I nearly forgot to mention the other day: the Pope spoke out against gay marriage.

Finally, this might mean the end of idiots pretending that Francis is somehow magically different and better than the previous Popes. Same bullshit, better PR.

DNS issues reveal inherent fragility and redundancy of DOIs

Those of you unfamiliar with bibliographic standards may be unaware of digital object identifiers (DOIs). DOIs are used by academic publishers to provide a unique global identifier for academic papers published in journals. A DOI is printed in the following form:


As I said, the point of a digital object identifier is to provide an identifier of a particular resource. This makes them a duplicate of a rather more popular and widespread system for identifying resources, namely uniform resource locators (URLs), the popular standard used on the Internet for web addresses.

Why not just use URLs then? Because librarians need DOIs. They need DOIs because you can’t trust the dastardly Internet to keep resources around. Links rot, stuff starts 404ing, people forget to renew domains. If you use a URL, the URL might break. So rather than having academic journal publishers assign URLs and then potentially doing something stupid, the best thing to do is to have a trusted party run their own URL system. The trusted third party in this case is an organisation called the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, and they run the technical infrastructure on behalf of the International DOI Foundation. Note the use of the words “international”, “foundation” and “corporation”—obviously these guys are serious and know what they are doing.

Of course, because DOIs aren’t actually that useful on their own, you need a resolver. You can take a DOI and remove the “doi:” prefix and then append the rest of it to the address and you then have… a URL! But then you have the problem that URLs have. Links rot. Servers break. People forget to renew domains. Or, as happened today, the CNRI made a mess of the DOI resolver’s DNS records because they manually renewed the DOI domain name at the last minute. This caused intermittent resolution issues.

I mean, sure, if one journal publisher were to accidentally mess up their website for a day, that’d be annoying. But when you put the very act of resolving your identifier in the hands of one organisation, the potential for catastrophe is pretty amazing. Especially given the sheer amount of academic infrastructure that is sitting on top of the DOI infrastructure: citation generators, bibliometric analysis software, personal paper library storage, pre-print metadata stores, institutional subscription-wall software. Whoops.

I’m still not convinced there is any point to DOIs. There is an international, widely adopted standard for identifying digital objects: URLs. URLs aren’t perfect, but you aren’t reliant on librarians to remember to renew their domain name for the whole system to continue running.

You want metadata retrieval? Easy. HTTP gives you that: content negotiation. Hell, the two formats that anyone is going to give a damn about for academic papers (HTML and PDF) can contain metadata—HTML in the form of microformats or RDFa (or, Xenu forbid, microdata), PDF in the form of the Info Dictionary and XMP.

Today’s silliness with DOIs show to me the inherent fragility of any “let’s just give a number to everything” system. The Internet exists and they all duplicate what URLs already do but with more indirection and with a constant risk of the lookup server going wrong. If your solution to “things on the internet go away” is to introduce a resolution service that can also go away, you are duplicating entities beyond necessity

Radio 4's History of Ideas is unlistenable dreck

I have listened to a few of the History of Ideas podcasts that are being put out on Radio 4 and much hyped by the station. Every one I have listened to has excelled only in its ability to disappoint me more than the previous one.

They have some excellent hosts who interview some world experts. But it seems as soon as the host settles down for a meaty interview with some professor who might be able to get in to the substance, we are immediately interrupted by an ethereal voice to give us what amounts to the first few sentences of the Wikipedia article but rewritten so as to not confuse any toddlers who might be listening, while the swirling sounds of some kind of BBC Radiophonic Workshop creation hums, bangs and jitters in the background. Why is this clutter needed? It’s as if someone decided to combine a systematic theology lecture and a group of small children hitting saucepans together.

No subject is ever left to lurk in one’s mind before we are jumped to some other topic. It almost feels like some kind of joke played by radio producers that they dreamed up after a few too many drinks. “Imagine if we edited In Our Time like a reality show!”

The sad thing is that there are occasional genuine moments of insight in the programmes in spite of the atrocious and overwrought format.

Why not just have a simple, understated talk from an expert? 15 minutes of exploratory discussion of an important philosopher or idea by a world expert without electronic bleating from the sound effects department or constant interruptions would be quite lovely.

Just saw a sign saying “bus stop not in use”—on a Tube platform. Someone ought to explain the concept of a category mistake to Transport for London.

Pope Francis: “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

I think I prefer John Stuart Mill’s version of free speech to the Pope’s. Will this shake Frankie’s PR? Nope. Pope Francis could eat a kitten on live television and there would be idiots proclaiming him a valiant defender of animal rights.

Whenever I hear tech industry douchebags going on about how amazing the Internet of Things will be, I just think of this clip and quietly mutter “would you like any toast?” to myself.

Your daily reminder that politicians don’t understand technology or the modern world. In Parliament yesterday, Andrew George MP (Lib Dem, St Ives) said: “It’s run from a call centre in Newport 200 miles away, and also it uses logarithms which actually involve them asking a patient in my constituency, ‘Um, are you conscious?’.”

Hansard corrected it from “logarithm” to “algorithm”. It may just be an instance of “mis-speaking”, but I’m genuinely worried that the people who run our country mostly don’t know the difference between a logarithm and an algorithm. And worse, they probably don’t know even care why not knowing that is a problem in a society based so heavily on science and technology. Scary.

Gross ignorance of science and technology would also explain David Cameron’s suggestion to ban messaging services that use encryption, and why such a suggestion would prompt security experts to say that he is “living in cloud cuckoo land”.

Why can't I easily find out what Parliament is up to?

I was out on a long walk this morning and catching up on news podcasts while doing so. One topic of discussion on a number of the podcasts covering Westminster politics was Tony Blair’s appearance yesterday at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee to discuss the handling of the “on the runs” during the Northern Ireland peace process while he was in office.

That sounds pretty interesting, I though. As a citizen, a Wikipedian and a Wikinews contributor, I’d rather like to see what this country’s former prime minister has to say about this controversial issue. And I currently can’t easily get a transcript of what was said. Hansard does not seem to report the oral evidence presented to select committees. There is a video I can watch and it requires I install Microsoft Silverlight for some reason that should have been redundant since the introduction of the HTML 5 video tag and the availability of free, open source video codecs. And I don’t want to watch video: I can read a lot quicker than I’m sure either Blair or the members of the select committee can speak.

Even though select committees play an increasingly important role in political life in Westminster (think of Margaret Hodge’s fearsome chairing of the Public Accounts Committee or the role of the Backbench Business Committee in Parliament), Hansard do not provide transcription of oral evidence presented to select committees. Quite how deaf people are supposed to be able to engage with this, I am not sure. I’m also wondering how Parliament get away with this given that they have voluntarily agreed to conform to WCAG 2 as well as having legal duties under the Equality Act 2010 to not discriminate against people with disabilities (which includes deaf people).

This aside, there is a wider issue: I’d like to know what Parliament is up to. What business is scheduled for the Commons and the Lords? Who is going to be giving evidence to select committees? The media do an okay job of covering Parliament, but the problem is usually it is too late. It is after-the-fact, it focusses on the dog and pony show that is PMQs and what party leaders are up to, and often doesn’t dig into the detail of how the institution is running.

Parliament has a Twitter feed. Which is great if you want to know what Parliament is doing right now. It’s not so useful if you want to know what Parliament is going to be discussing next week. Then there’s the Facebook feed—because what I really want is Facebook to not just filter content my friends post but also decide which bits of the already curated feed of stuff Parliament post on Facebook is “relevant” to me. No, I want to decide that. And there’s a Google+ feed but nobody who doesn’t work for Google gives a fuck about Google+, least of all me.

Then I look a bit further and find a list of RSS feeds. Okay, that looks more promising. I subscribe to the Commons Select Committees feed and despite the fact that the feed is formatted in a very bizarre way in terms of date and timestamps, it does the job.

For instance, for the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee oral evidence session with Tony Blair, I get this:

And if I click through on this, it takes me to the homepage of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. The same feed also tells me that yesterday a select committee would be hearing evidence regarding High Speed 2. So I click on that link… and I go to a calendar page listing all the select committee hearings for yesterday. Why do these two feed items take me to different places? I have no idea.

What would be nice is if each debate, each particular item of business—whether that’s a Commons debate on a bill, a ten minute rule bill, an adjournment debate, a questions session like PMQs, a select committee oral hearing—would have one permanent URL which had on it all the details. If the debate hasn’t happened yet, the same details that appear in the upcoming business listings. When the debate has happened, it should contain video (and not in bloody Silverlight—as I said, HTML 5 video exists) as well as audio and full text transcripts. Hansard should be expanded to include oral evidence to ensure select committee hearings are covered. This would help researchers, it’d help journalists, but most of all it’d help citizens better follow (and share and debate etc.) the proceedings that matter to them in Parliament.

I’ve heard lots of hot air around the subject of digital democracy: it is something that John Bercow, Speaker of the House seems keen on doing. Making it so that the Parliament website actually lets us as citizens meaningfully track the business of Parliament would be a good start.

The smoke detector in my flat has an excellent feature: when the battery is getting close to empty, it lets out a short chirp about every 30 seconds. This is a particularly good feature when it activates just after 2am.