Harry Metcalfe

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Religious ideas, a tabula rasa and an atheist parent

I’ve been wondering a lot recently about what one should tell children about the world. I wouldn’t want to be so grandiose as to call this “education”. More, a bit of uncertainty about what to tell children who ask things, what to tell them proactively, and (perhaps most importantly) what should not be told to them at all. (NB: by “tell”, I don’t mean once. I mean consistently, over time).

I am certain that there are some things that it would be unethical to tell children. For example, it would not be ethical to tell things to a child in order to obtain obedience by inducing a permanent state of fear, because (I am reasonably sure) that would be very likely to have a lasting and damaging influence on their emotional and intellectual development, which would cause them to suffer, without any countervailing benefit.

I think, but am not certain, it is unethical to tell children things which are objectively false (as best we can tell) and which (unlike the ordinary healthy fantasies of childhood) are likely to lead to long-lasting and systematic belief in falsehoods. This is partly because I think it is important to understand what is true and what is not. But also because, for systematic belief in falsehoods to be maintained, one has to adopt ways of thinking which reduce cognitive dissonance, and allow the truths which challenge that belief to be rationalised away.

By way of example: it would not be ethical to tell children that the world is flat, and that contrary views are part of a huge conspiracy. This (manifestly) would be a false thing to tell a child. And maintaining that belief, in the face of the evidence to the contrary, would probably necessitate telling the child an even bigger falsehood: that such conspiracies exist in the world, that all of the contrary evidence is fake or wrong, and that a vast swathe of people in the world are either stupid or are liars seeking to keep the population ignorant.

And it would probably also necessitate systematising damaging ways of thinking, like confirmation bias, communal reinforcement, deliberate avoidance of new information or dissenting views, and myriad other fallacies and bad habits. Mental acrobatics of that sort would be necessary to hold the falsehood up.

There are many examples of this sort of thing in everyday life. Things which (I stress) I would not want to shelter a child from, but would strongly want to avoid being told to a child repeatedly, unquestioned, as fact, over time. The odd bit of wrong here or there is of no consequence at all. And bits of wrong which are asked about and explained are positively valuable.

Some of these sorts of things I mean are:

  • The idea that modern medicine (and vaccination in particular) does more harm than good, is mostly about money, and that alternative medicine is more effective (an idea whose adherents are responsible for many premature deaths)
  • The idea that some groups of people, different from the child in some irrelevant way, should be treated differently and should not have the same civil and human rights as everyone else
  • The idea (perhaps obviously at this point) that there exists a personal god with an interest in human affairs, who can influence our lives, who has set rules to govern our conduct, and to whom we should supplicate ourselves

These things don’t occupy my every waking thought, by any means, but they do occasionally crop up in challenging ways. Partly because all three of the above examples are represented in my family and friends (to varying degrees). But also because of the existence of people and groups who proudly espouse these views, systematically, to children and everyone else.

People like Rev Dr Mark Griffiths, author of One Generation from Extinction, and recently a guest on All Things Considered, whose contributions contained more euphemisms for “indoctrinate” than I could keep track of. People like the Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Coalition 4 Marriage. Campaigns like JABS. Perhaps worst of all, state-funded faith schools and laws requiring acts of collective worship in all schools.

Certainly, I would not want to overreact to this kind of thing. There is an abundance of nonsense in the world for anyone who wants to seek it out, and by and large, the best reaction is to ignore it all (or make fun of the silliest things). But I do find myself angered by people who proudly describe the ways in which they indoctrinate children who are too young to discern truth from fiction.

I’m not sure where the boundary lies between behaviour which I find distasteful but is nonetheless acceptable in a free society, and behaviour which is categorically wrong and should be prohibited along with corporal punishment and child abuse. I am sure it is in the wrong place now. And I am sure there is a vast grey area sitting in the middle.

Mostly, I am concerned about these things, and a little unsure of how I should chart the waters. And I find myself concerned about the kinds of environments in which I’d be happy to leave my child to her own devices.

Or more importantly, to other people’s.


Religion and public policymaking

Context: Woman ‘denied a termination’ dies in hospital

From a friend, on Facebook:

It’s a horrible story and a touchy subject, but there is both a legal and a religious element to this and I have more of an issue with the former.

While that part of the constitution, as originally drafted, did have strong Catholic influences that would have probably been a good reflection of the beliefs of the people at that time. However, although there have been a number of referenda about the topic since then, I am not sure that it currently reflects the ‘will of the people’ and that’s the failure that I would be more angry about.

While you can debate whether it is right to make the rules about this matter on simple majority view, given the complexities, I’m inclined to think it’s the best option. So, I think the real issue is not the religious label, but whether these are in fact the rules that the majority buy in to or not.

There may well be a majority of anti-abortion sentiment (which may or may not be motivated by religious beliefs). However, if there is a silent majority that would be in favour of abortion being legal and if that opinion is not heard because the political system prevents that view from being expressed, that’s bad.

I believe that governments should try to enact policies which will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.  Taking that as a starting point, the question isn’t so much “does the majority support X”, but “does the majority support X, and if they do, why?”

If there is a majority view in favour of a public policy for which there is supporting evidence, or a history of positive outcomes, or a lack of negative ones, all is well.

However, if there is a majority view in favour of a public policy which is largely supported only by dogma, and which results in injustice or bad outcomes (or just waste), all is not well. Popular support does not make a thing right. A majority view supporting some policy is not, by itself, enough. The policy also has to be by supported by evidence or experience showing that the policy is more likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number than some other policy.

Elective abortion is a complex issue and that is the main reason that I am pro-choice. I think that it is possible for pro-choice and anti-abortion positions not to be religiously motivated, although it’s certainly unusual to find secular opposition to abortion. But the case for abortion as a medical procedure to save the life of the mother is surely a different issue. In a situation where the baby and the mother will probably die, but the mother could be saved by aborting the baby, it is clear that the greatest good is accomplished by performing the abortion. (I think in that situation abortion is in fact legal in Ireland? Not sure why it didn’t happen here?)

Assuming that the case in question was such a situation, it seems to me that:

  • The legal and constitutional prohibitions of abortion in Ireland are the result of organised lobbying by religious groups and the popular support of religious people
  • Those prohibitions apparently do in some situations prevent abortions that are not elective
  • The doctor in this case is a Catholic who allowed his religious views to influence his medical decisions; or that
  • The doctor in this case felt unable to offer his patient an abortion because of the law or because of prevailing public opposition to it
  • The patient died (at least in part) because of a public policy that is in fact dogma, enacted on the support of religious people and motivated by religious principles.

If all of that is right (and I certainly make room for the possibility that this case is some grotesque exception) then I do hold this up as an example of the way religion and religious views distort people’s understanding of reality and impede our progress towards the realisation of a society that is optimally good.

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Banning photography in traf sq?

I’ve just sent this email to the GLA/DCMS, having seen reports about possible new restrictions on photography and protest and Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in the new byelaws:

Photography, film and protest in Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square Gardens

Dear Carl,

I’ve just seen the draft byelaws for Traf Sq and Parliament Sq, which have been blogged about, and widely reported on Twitter.

On my (admittedly amateur) reading of the draft byelaws, it appears that they would require any person to obtain permission before protesting or taking photographs or filming in the squares. Surely, such a sweeping restriction cannot be possibly be proportionate.

Please could you consider making these rules more permissive (for example, by not requiring permission for photography/filming/protest other than when there’s a reasonable chance that it will cause disruption), or, at the very least, make available some explanatory notes that give context to the proposed regulations?

Many thanks.

Harry Metcalfe
(Concerned amateur photographer)

CC: The Mayor, the National Union of Journalists, The Association of Photographers, Amateur Photographer

Why not take a moment to send an email as well? The more, the better:

Any objection to the confirmation of the Byelaws may be made by letter addressed to Carl Schnackenberg, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2-4 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5DH, or by email to:Carl.Schnackenberg@Culture.gsi.gov.uk.

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Is the Public Data Corporation gone for good?

I’m not sure. But certainly, things are shifting around in a way that sounds very positive. I just got this in my email, from the Shareholder Executive, as I’m sure many other have:

As promised we want to keep our stakeholders up to date with the latest progress on the Public Data Corporation project.  You may well have seen the Chancellor’s announcement within today’s Autumn Statement but I thought that it would be helpful to set out what this means in practice.

The Government has today announced that:

To support the growth of high-value data businesses and make access to data easier for startups, the Government is making available for free a range of core reference data sets.  In addition it is announcing the creation of a Data Strategy Board and a Public Data Group which will maximise the value of data the public sector buys from the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, Land Registry and Companies House.

What this means in practice:
Delivering on its commitment to establish a Public Data Corporation, Government has announced the establishment of a Data Strategy Board (DSB) which will seek to maximise the value of data from the Public Data Group (PDG) of Trading Funds for long-term economic and social benefit, including through the release of data free of charge.

Sending a clear signal of the DSB’s mandate, Government is announcing the release of additional core reference datasets for unrestricted use from the PDG, including, for the first time, weather observation and detailed weather forecast data and core data from the Companies Register.

The PDG currently includes Ordnance Survey, Met Office, HM Land Registry and Companies House. The Group will identify and deliver efficiencies and synergies to reduce the cost of data for users and re-users of data and provide additional funding for making data freely available.

This change clearly separates the commissioning and provision functions of public data, rebalancing the incentives to release more data for free, as well as strengthening the capability of Government to commission data for its own needs.

This announcement signals a significant step towards making additional core reference data from the Met Office, Ordnance Survey, HM Land Registry and Companies House available and free at the point of use.

For further information on the wider announcement please see the following link:  http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/open-data-measures-growth-review

I do hope this is helpful and we will of course keep you informed of further progress.

There’s some more detail from page 10 of this PDF — sadly, though, nothing very substantial from Ordnance Survey.

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Dear police officer…

Dear police officer who I couldn’t finish a conversation with earlier because a traffic light went green,

It’s true. Ok? I did it. I stopped at a junction 3 metres in front of a stop line. Not in the junction, of course, and without upsetting any crossing pedestrians.

I did it because the opposing traffic often turns across the road dangerously quickly in an attempt to turn right before our column of traffic gets going.

I did it because people who do dangerous things dangerously quickly often don’t notice cylists.

I didn’t wait for the dangerous people to go first because to do so would obstruct the traffic on my side of the road by preventing them from turning left.

So, in order to substantially reduce the chances that I’ll die on the road, and to reduce the extent to which I obstruct busy traffic, and while having due regard for the rules of the road, and for the safety and convenience of other road users, I will occasionally stop in front of a stop line. Or turn left on a red light. Or use the pavement. Or anything else that I, acting in good faith, think is safer.

Because, frankly, the prospect of getting a ticket from you on a sunny Thursday morning doesn’t seem terribly important when stacked up against the possibility of becoming dead.




Quick thoughts on the Xoom

First impressions: really lovely. It looks fantastic. The on-screen keyboard is great, much better than on my Nexus S, but probably just because it’s bigger. Copy & paste is also much better. It works the same way across all apps now, by giving you a little menu across the top of the screen when you select text.

In fact, Honeycomb is leaps and bounds beyond Gingerbread generally. The interface is seriously shiny, as well as being quick and responsive. They’ve dumped the physical buttons in favour of on-screen buttons in a bar across the bottom of the screen, which also incorporates a notifications area. There’s a new button for accessing recently-used apps as well as the normal ones for the home screen and back button. The built-in apps are lovely too — web browsing is pretty much the same as Chrome on the desktop. And Email is considerably improved.

The camera is decent, and video is really nice – 720p, and looks great in full-screen playback. I’d love to have tried the front camera with a video call on Skype but Skype for Android still doesn’t support video — seriously! Wtf?

So far, I’ve been able to do everything I knew that I’d want before I got it: show PDFs and documents to people, check email, write quick documents & browse the web. So as far as the essentials go, the app support is great. But it is certainly the case that there are fewer apps for the Xoom than there are for the Android, and that some of the apps that are designed for Android phones don’t work terribly well on the Xoom. But I’m fairly convinced that that’s temporary. In fact, I distinctly recall iPhone apps running in a teeny box in the middle of the first iPad’s screen — and it didn’t take long for that to change. And before anyone gets too much into on the Xoom vs iPad2 argument, I’ll just say that I installed Flash as soon as I got it, and it works great. And also that Hitler was an Apple fanboy, so Android must be better. Man it’s easy to win arguments on the Internet.

There are some downsides: One serious annoyance is that the Xoom has its own charger. It doesn’t charge from USB. This may not matter if the battery can withstand heavy use, as it wouldn’t then be necessary to carry the charger around. It’s been fairly widely reported that the battery life is excellent, so I have high hopes, but I’ll wait to see for myself.

Another irritation, though very minor, is that the power button is on the back of the tablet next to the camera. So when it’s lying on the table, you have to pick it up to turn it back on. It’s also a little heavier than I expected. I’d be curious to know how much the iPad2 weighs. The Xoom is 730g — not exactly heavy, but I suspect that’s a little heavier than one might like if you had to hold it on a long train journey.

Overall — it seems like a lovely bit of kit. I’ll be putting it to the test over the next few weeks, and we’ll see if more experience bears out my first impressions.


On direct lighting

So, I was taking pictures of last night’s supermoon. I tried taking some on the 18th as well, but none of them were coming out how I’d have liked. A few nights before, I took this one:


Which, really, I seriously love.

But all my subsequent attempts didn’t really produce anything as good. This was the best one:

Full Supermoon

Now, I took both of these in London. So light pollution will certainly have reduced sharpness, and it’s entirely possible that the atmosphere was a bit clearer for the first shot than it was for the second.

But actually, I think it’s more to do with the position of the sun. The full moon is much flatter and duller than the waxing moon, which is rather to be expected — relative to the camera, the sun illuminates the waxing moon from the side, and a full moon from behind. If I was shooting people with flash, I’d expect much the same thing to happen. So — if it’s not too much to ask — it would be excellent if the universe could contrive to stick gigantic remote flash in high orbit around the moon.

Or, failing that, all practical suggestions on how to do a better job for the next supermoon (14th November 2016) gratefully received. Already on the list:

  • Longer lens, or an extender
  • A thermos, a warm jumper, and a nice hill in the middle of nowhere


My letter to Jeremy Corbyn MP

Today, the Government has scheduled the Digital Economy Bill’s committee, report and third reading stages. To take place this afternoon. In two hours. A process which normally takes days — 40 or 50 hours of debate, consideration and amendment.

You need to write to your MP, and ring them up, and ask them to attend the house to vote against this bill. Go. Do it. Now!

Dear Mr Corbyn,

I’ve just called and left a message, but I thought it would be good to follow up by email.

This afternoon, the Digital Economy Bill will receive its committee, report and third reading stages, all in two hours.

Some of the most damaging parts of the bill — clauses 10-17 — remain unopposed by the Conservatives, and are still supported by the Government.

These clauses have not been properly scrutinised by the Commons, may be very costly and damaging to the digital economy and to the digital civil liberties of your constituents and should not be passed without full and proper consideration.

I hope that you will attend the house this afternoon to vote against this bill at third reading. It can easily be reintroduced after the election, and given proper consideration, if the new Government so wishes.

Online copyright infringement has been rife for over a decade. It can wait for three more months. The sky will not fall down.

Yours Sincerely,

Harry Metcalfe

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Support the Open Knowledge Foundation

The Open Knowledge Foundation are responsible for marvellous things like this, and CKAN (the data package management system that powers data.gov.uk). They do splendid work.

They put a pledge on Pledgebank a while ago, seeking regular donations from supporters so that they can go on doing more splendid things. Unfortunately, the pledge failed — but I don’t think that really matters. I’ve signed up anyway. They deserve your support — can you spare them £5 a month?

Donate to the OKF

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Letter to Harriet Harman

I just sent this to Harriet Harman using 38degrees’s tool:

Dear Ms Harman,

I am writing to you as Leader of the House of Commons.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the Digital Economy Bill is shortly to be discussed in the Commons, and I am very concerned that it is not going to receive the scrutiny from MPs that such a complex bill demands.

This bill is complicated, and could have significant (possible unintended) affects if passed as drafted. Much of the bill is clearly drafted for the benefit of commercial entities, in ignorance of technological realities and contempt of the public interest. Recent revelations from Dispatches seem to confirm that the ability of wealthy special interests to influence our legislative process is alive and well.

In any situation such as this — where commercial and public interests are competing, over a complex and nuanced problem — it is vital for proposed legislation to be scrutinised diligently and comprehensively. To attempt to rush such a bill through in the last weeks of a Parliament is deeply inappropriate.

In its current form, the Bill strips away human rights to due process, establishes collective punishments and establishes an infrastructure for state censorship of the web.

All in the name of protecting an industry whose history is both littered with attempts to secure protectionist policies when threatened by technological developments, and success stories of growth, adaptation and increased profitability when those attempts fail.

This is a complex problem with no simple solution. I urge you to give it sufficient Commons time for a full and proper debate, or to allow the bill to fall and bring it before a new Parliament after the election.

Yours Sincerely,

Harry Metcalfe

Feel free to crib bits. Please do send her a letter — and why not send it to your MP too?

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British culture and entrepreneurs

I have to say, this has not been my experience (so far) at all.

I’ve found people to be generally excited, understanding and supportive. We’ve got a lot done on good will alone, and I hope we’ve given enough back.

That said, some of the things the article says certainly resonate — especially people being suspicious of success — and we’ve never had to seek VC. So perhaps my experience isn’t representative.

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Letter to Jeremy Corbyn MP

I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t yet written to my MP about the Digital Economy Bill. But amendment 120 (which would establish a system in the UK for take-down and blocking of websites) and today’s news that it was drafted, in its entirety, by the BPI — has finally prompted me to action. So I’ve sent the following to my MP. Feel free to crib bits if they look useful:


I have been watching the movement of the Digital Economy Bill through the House of Lords with some concern. Most notable among its faults are the proposals to disconnect entire households from the internet for the alleged infringements of individuals living there — a collective punishment — and the ability for ministers to arbitrarily amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act by statutory instrument.

Some improvements to the bill have been made, including the removal of those Henry 8th powers. However, they have been replaced with a sweeping amendment — bizarrely supported by the Opposition and opposed by the Government — to introduce a system of website take-down and blocking for alleged infringements. This would effectively introduce the infrastructure for a Chinese-style system of censorship of the web, and is a potent and serious threat to our freedom of speech and human rights.

I now discover, via the Open Rights Group, that the entire amendment establishing this system was drafted by the British Phonographic Industry and tabled, unaltered, for consideration by the Lords.

I recognise that the drafting of amendments by third parties is routine, but this surely exceeds what is reasonable: in my experience, amendments drafted by lobby groups are generally probing, and if passed, rarely become part of the bill in their original form.

We now find ourselves opposing a bill drafted in considerable part by the record industry for their gain and to our detriment.

I ask that you raise this concern with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and ask him to respond, and to rigorously oppose this bill when it enters the Commons in the coming weeks.

Yours sincerely,

Harry Metcalfe

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I think HAML is great

Mini post, mostly to pick up on some tweets about HAML that I wanted to respond to. But not in 140 characters.

HAML is fantastic. If you’re writing Rails apps, you should be using it. We’re working on making something similar for PHP.

So, today, I was surprised to see clever people knocking it. I asked what was going on and Markng said:

@harrym my largest objection is that it’s an abstraction over something that doesn’t need abstracting. (link)

@harrym maintainability involves people after you picking up code. People who don’t think learning another html syntax was necessary. (link)

@harrym good html is fine to read. Bad HTML not so much so. Maybe some are using HAML as a discipline mechanism. (link)

@harrym furthermore, the biggest reason for abstraction is when there is more than one output or source. Not the case with HAML. (link)

First of all: it’s not really an abstraction at all. I know that it calls itself one, but it isn’t, really. It’s just an alternative syntax. So let’s rename it to Html Alternative Markup Language and forget about that one!

You’re right that people’s unfamiliarity with HAML is a barrier to maintainability, but that’s true of any new technology. That it’s a barrier isn’t really the point: the more important question is whether it’s a barrier that’s worth breaking through. I say that it is. Once you have learned it (which is hardly difficult) it becomes much easier and quicker to write clean, readable, valid markup. Less stuff to write, less stuff to read, fewer lines than the HTML equivalent. Win.

As for using HAML as a discipline mechanism. That’s partially true. Then again, it’s true of compilers, too, and non-superuser accounts on *nix boxes, and typed languages, and object orientation. All of those are, among other things, discipline mechanisms. What’s bad about that?

If you can enforce discipline while also being easier, quicker and more elegant, haven’t you just made some better technology?

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