The peoples histrionics

Yet again we’re told that democracy is under threat, our conditional niceties are being ignored and we’re days away from the death of democracy and people being rounded up into gas chambers (seriously people are actually saying this). The cause this time is Mr Johnson asking the Queen to prorogue Parliament so that she can give a speech explaining what he wants to do now he’s in charge. This is in fact entirely normal, constitutional and legal. “Ah but!”, they cry, “he’s done it to suit his agenda not ours”. To which quite frankly the only response one can give is “Well, d’uh!”. “Even worse”, they go on to bemoan, “he’s suspending parliament for weeks stopping proper scrutiny”. Part of this at least is true, Parliament is being suspended for weeks, but most of those weeks were agreed to back in July. You know just before all of our politicians left for the six weeks of holiday they voted themselves. Every year about now Parliament gets suspended so all of the political parties can have their conferences, so they can tell themselves what great things they’ll accomplish. Now the dates for the conference jollies hadn’t actually been voted on , just agreed in principle so Mr Johnson was possibly being a bit presumptuous. On the other hand all the conference venues are booked, and not a soul was talking about missing them let alone cancelling them – so not really that presumptuous. None the less, this tiny bit of presumption we’re told is an affront to democracy and will surely herald in a new third Reich (which I think would make it the fourth Reich, unless I’ve forgotten one in which case it would be the fifth Reich).

Continue reading

Small numbers

The BBC recently published an article about how few people are needed to make fundamental changes to a society. Titled “The 3.5% rule“, it repeats research which has been around for quite a while. Though it seems to lower the numbers required to precipitate change. One of the observations the article makes is:

” although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change. “

The article then goes on to say:

” Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable.

“There weren’t any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved 3.5% participation during a peak event,” says Chenoweth 

What makes this research getting an airing by the BBC interesting, is that people who like the BBC are also quite likely to dismiss concerns about immigration on the grounds that the numbers are small. That people’s concerns about the impact of immigration on social norms and society at large are unfounded because the numbers are small. 3.5% isn’t exactly a big number after all. Looking at ONS data after Christians ( which covers a lot of variants) and people with no religion the next largest group is Muslims. In the period April 2017 to March 2018 there where apparently 3,372,966 Muslins in Great Britain. That’s from a total population of 65,288,422 giving a percentage of 5.1% which is comfortably over the required 3.5% of the BBC article.

This isn’t to say that the Muslim population is about to embark upon some sort of revolutionary rampage. The research though does to me suggest that we shouldn’t dismiss concerns about changes to society on the grounds that a group is small. When someone says they’re worried about the impact of immigrants, “Nazi’s”, some other group on their town/school/country we should remember that it doesn’t take many people to cause change unless there is equally motivated resistance. Without an engaged population it would seem that society is more vulnerable to the diktats of small motivated minorities then perhaps many of us realise.

Confirmation bias writ large

As our Government continues to find new levels of incompetence the abandonment of reason seems to be reaching fever pitch amongst those that feel that the whole referendum thing was a huge mistake. Usually sceptical friends that ask that things be fact checked and evidence be provided have seemingly abandoned all critical thinking when it comes to the campaign to revoke article 50.

The latest petition, created by someone with quite a dubious background, is watched with baited breath as the count creeps ever upwards. This petition despite all the dubious names signed up to it is seen as some sort of true representation of the countries desire, as is the comparative turn outs at various marches. Completely overlooking the fact that it really isn’t normal for anyone to agitate that the Government do soemthign they’ve said they’ll do. Usually protests and petitions are to encourage the Government to change their mind or do sometime new. The idea of campaigning to pressure the Government to do something they’re already ( albeit cack-handedly ) doing is somewhat bonkers. Why would anyone start a petition or take to the streets to tell the Government to carry on? Yet the lack of people campaigning for Government policy is seen as some massive sea change in the popular will.

I can’t entirely blame them for the faith they put in this petition. Despite a similar petition in 2016 being hijacked by bots, this time round the “experts” claim it’s different. Though I shudder to think that these people are what qualify as experts these days – though it would explain a lot. Looking at the reasons they give for bot’s not being a risk they’re so bad they’re not even wrong.

They all agreed that the petition’s email validation process would be a deterrent.

Each signatory has to supply a unique email address to which a verification link is sent before their signature can be accepted. UK-based signatories must also share a valid postcode.

While email addresses are easy enough to set up, doing that in real time at high volume is less straightforward.

Additionally, while it is possible to buy lists of email addresses stolen in various data breaches on the black market, the owner of the list would still need to access those email accounts and retrieve the validation email before being able to sign in the name of somebody else.

Lets take the easy thing first you have to give a “valid postcode” , well I suppose that searching for “list of UK post codes” and downloading a list of every postcode in the UK – might be a challenge for some people but we probably don’t need to worry about the average 5 year old.

Then we have this laughable idea that lists of email addresses are in anyway a problem. Registering a domain can be done for free in some cases or just cost a few pounds. Once you have a domain you can create any sub-domain you like under it and as many users as you like for no extra cost. In fact you don’t even need to set them up individually due to the joys of wildcards. So for example suppose you register “”, you do the following:

  • Download a fake name generator
  • Download a list of the UK postcodes
  • Write/download a script to sign the petition
  • Tell your e-mail server to accept any email it receives no matter what the domain or the user.
  • Tell the internet that any email for <anyone>@<anything> should be sent to your server. (A wildcard MX record in case you’re interested)
  • Have all mail sent to your server go through a script that looks for the confirmation link and “click on it”.

And there you go valid postcodes and as many unique e-mail addresses as you like for little or no cost. No need to buy lists of email addresses or access other peoples accounts. You can do it all on your own and it’ll probably take you less than an hour to do. The only tricky bit is the initial signing of the petition, but there are youtube videos on that so probably not much of a challenge if you were so inclined. It’s almost enough to make you say you’ve had enough of experts if that’s the quality of expert we’re meant to pay attention to. I mean this is utterly laughable and Kevin should become a journalist as they obviously haven’t learnt to code:
” it would be “a bit of a pain” to build a sophisticated enough programme to cope with the email addresses. ” – Cyber-security expert Kevin Beaumont

With “experts” spouting nonsense like this I can’t really blame people for being taken in. Though I won’t accuse them of being low information nor suggest that they’re obviously not bright enough to have a valid opinion.

The low information conceit still being strong, as evidenced by all the “witty” placards on the “cancel article 50” march. Interesting to note both that the campaign is to now cancel Brexit not have another referendum, and also to ask who funded the large number or standard placards being waved as it wasn’t socialist worker this time. The number of people on the march have, as is now traditional, seemingly been grossly inflated, but if we take those numbers as a valid expression of the peoples will then presumably we should expect Parliament to revoke the ban on Fox hunting as that march dwarfed even the inflated figures for the remainers latest outing. It is an odd thing though, that for all the claims that people that voted to leave the EU are considered to have not understood things, when those that voted remain seem to want to hold people not in Government and not invited to take part in the negotiations responsible for the outcome of those negotiations, and think that a suggestion on a bus but a campaign group is a stronger commitment that manifesto promises made by the parties in power.

I’m not going to revisit the fact that apart from the referendum, we’ve subsequently had several parliamentary votes as well as a general election where both major parties stood on manifesto’s of enacting the referendum. But I will observe that as many people predicted this is following the classic EU play book when they get a vote they don’t like, as the country to vote again and keep holding votes until they vote the “right” way. Which could almost make one accuse the EU of not being keen on democracy.

I don’t want to be hard on them though, the vast majority of them are decent people who want what they think is best for the country and it’s commendable to see so many people being actively involved in one of the biggest issues of the day. I just wish that they held to their normal expectations for rigour and fact checking and didn’t let confirmation bias run away with them so much.