Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The "Paracetamol Challenge" Doesn't Exist And Everyone Is An Idiot

If the first you hear about a new "craze" is the backlash against it, it's probably not actually a "craze".

A few hours ago I saw a Facebook friend post an article about the terrifying "#ParacetamolChallenge", where children are apparently daring each other to overdose on paracetamol - which is, genuinely, extremely dangerous.

But looking for more information, all I could find was the same thing: news articles from major respected newspapers and media organisations saying "apparently" and "so-called" and "dangerous new craze".

There's very little actual information or examples of this "trend". Which is surprising, if it's a trend, right?

First here's the tweet from Coatbridge Police (it's in Scotland) which all the major stories have not just quoted but embedded:

Firstly you'll note it's from 5th May - 3 weeks ago. If this was a scary new trend, like the newspapers are reporting, how come we've heard nothing about it until the last 24hrs?

Secondly, this tweet only has 25 favourites and 79 retweets (at time of writing) - despite being 3 weeks old and embedded in stories by several major news organisations.

This is no surprise - moral panics and scare stories travel without any need for the original news they're based on.

If you hear phrases like "dangerous new craze", alarm bells should ring about the accuracy of whatever is being claimed.

Having written about the "New Trend In Portland" last year, this phrase and the topic bears a number of similarities in why this story has gone viral - regardless of whether it's true or not:
  • Drugs
  • Children and Youth
  • Health
  • "Trends", memes, and power of the internet

Usually stories like "New Trend In Portland" slowly creep up the food chain of smaller Facebook pages to bigger Facebook pages, as the owner of each bigger page works out they can gain new followers and attention from sharing whatever gross/funny/terrifying story that's going around.

But with this is powerful combination of factors, it's no surprise that #ParacetamolChallenge has rocketed up the media hierarchy to major news outlets.

What we've got here is an accidental case of Brass Eye's "Cake" drug story. While paracetamol is certainly not a "made-up drug" like Cake, the story is just as made-up as the story of "Cake", which even made it into the UK Parliament.

What information do we actually have on the so-called "so-called Paracetamol Challenge"?

As some links report, it "came to light" around March - so this story is 2 months old at least.

The Scotsman reported last week on the "craze". But scrape through the vague scaremongering and there is very little to be certain of:
  • that one person, probably a child, may have been hospitalised, "apparently" from being dared to overdose on paracetamol, and
  • that a lot of people were scared by it, with East Ayrshire schools sending out notices to parents and telling them to monitor their social media use (as if parents aren't constantly encouraged to do that already)
The article also embeds this tweet by from 7th May describing the challenge - but this is not evidence, and @Robbie_Demure could just be repeating what he saw or heard. It's still just "apparently".

So what we have is "apparently" a few kids in a small part of Scotland doing something stupid and dangerous - and that incident rapidly turning into a local scare story, which has now become a global scare story.

And all it needed was the word "Challenge" stuck on the end - probably by someone completely unrelated to the original incident - to mimic the name of 2014's Ice Bucket Challenge. Because there's nothing scarier than our children repeating a trend they saw on new technology in a new and dangerous way.

What would Marilyn Manson say?

There's also this article by the Mirror where a heartbroken mother who lost her daughter to a paracetamol overdose begs young people not to do it. But the crucial thing here, is that this girl died in 2011 - nothing to do with #ParacetamolChallenge. The story is justifiably tragic but tragedy is the only reason this article is popular, not accuracy or connection with this "dangerous new craze".

Here is a heartbroken woman begging children not to take part in a craze that does not exist.

On Twitter, the only results for #ParacetamolChallenge are people screaming how awful it is and how stupid kids are. I don't know how far back you'd have to go to find an actual example of, as the Mirror article claims, children "daring each other" to abuse paracetamol "on social media networks including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram".

A quick look at Instagram shows there is no hashtag for #ParacetamolChallenge.
Instagram may have removed it - they police and manage the available search terms - but even searching #paracetamol shows nothing about this "craze".
#ParacetamolOverdose is 8th on the list of available search terms, with 41 posts, the latest being 3 weeks ago.

And to be frank I'm not sure how anyone "dares" someone else on Instagram, seeing as it's a picture site. They allow short videos, sure - but it's clear the sheer mention of "social networks [hyperlinked] including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram" is specifically designed to press the right buttons, as described in the list above, of paranoid parents and judgmental readers, ready to react first and think later.

Talking of videos, what about Youtube? Considering the Ice Bucket Challenge spread specifically and directly through Youtube videos, you'd expect in a "craze" 3+ weeks old to find some kids daring other people to take the challenge, but no, nothing.

You'd also expect people to be shouting and raging about this dangerous new trend, but there seems to be just one video so far. 5 days old with 170,000 views, "The Newest Stupid Challenge That's F$%king Teens Up - SourceFed" claims "teens from all over the world are competing with each other to see who can take the most paracetamol". Really, guys?

They include a sample video of a kid spitting into a cup - it's even the thumbnail - as if this is an example video of the #ParacetamolChallenge, like some kind of proof it's really real. But we don't see him taking anything, there's no information about him, nothing - this is a kid from anywhere doing anything.

The male reporter with the toy giraffe on his head laughably says "campus cops are paying close attention to these trends", presumably unaware that British people hardly ever call high schools "campuses" and certainly don't have police in them! Which idiot at Sourcefed gave him this line?

The best irony is the presenters go on to describe other "trends" which are even more clearly made up, including taking drugs and alcohol anally "for a longer hit".

I should stop worrying about this - I've already spent an hour writing all this out, and my point is that kids are not actually dying, which is a good thing.

That's another point - if this was a real trend, we'd have heard about more than just 1 kid getting themselves into hospital, don't you think?

But what staggers me is how massively this story has been taken up, how literally and unquestionningly everyone takes it, and how seriously angry people are getting over something which is clearly not true. React first, think later.

Even international media have picked up the story - check the links below, and the hilarious Brass Eye video satirising fear of drugs way back in 1997.

The best past though? These scare stories and moral panics are poetically ironic.

This isn't even a lie or a conspiracy people are being fed - it's a lie people are only too happy to give themselves.

And it's a panic on social media about social media, when the only real event is the panic itself.

By the way, in case it's not clear - don't ever overdose on paracetamol, even if you do want to commit suicide. It's a horrifically painful and drawn out way to go.

Now I'm off to start the #MoralPanicChallenge. Anyone got any Clarky Cat?

P.S. By total coincidence the #CharlieCharlieChallenge is taking over Twitter at exactly the same time as the Paracetamol Challenge. Incredible. I wonder if it's a marketing gimmick for the Poltergeist remake?

Monday, 11 May 2015

One More Flight.

It's clear from the election I'm coming back to live in a Britain radically different from the one I left in 2008.

But that aside, I'm also nervous and excited for a whole bunch of reasons.

I'm writing this from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. This is my last long haul flight I'll take for probably a long time, and I don't even have a good estimate when. Both of these things are very weird.

I've become used to airports. I like them now.

My joke from the last few weeks is that I'm glad job interviewers won't ask me about my visa status any more - except that, considering my accent, they probably will.

It's also strange when I think I've spent more of my life in both Bangkok (8 weeks) and Chiang Mai (5 weeks) than I have in most British cities.

I am woefully underprepared for moving to London. The original plan was to use my stable time in Chiang Mai to upskill and apply for jobs. Instead, I cut my trip short, took a manic trip to Macau and Hong Kong, and completely underestimated the unforgiving the heat of Thailand this time of year; all of these have all left me flapping around and simply desperate for normality.

I'm really, really looking forward to British weather.

I've discussed travelling vs backpacking with people a lot recently - if I was in any doubt, the last few weeks have confirmed for me how much I hate carrying my shit everywhere.

I left England with a guitar, laptop, suitcase and bag, and I am returning with these same 4 things. It's become part of the history and mythology of how I see myself and I my life. And being able to carry these things all at once, by myself, is an important symbol of my competence and independence.

But even just carrying my laptop and backpack through the sweaty streets of Macau for 2 days was enough to drive me mad.

Maybe one day I will go "backpacking" again. I hope to do more adventuring and exploring, even as a boring old fart in my 30s. But not now.

Now, I'm hoping to make London my home and Europe my neighbourhood.

I'm looking forward to studying again, and staying in the same place, and being productive. London is calling.

But right now, I'm looking forward to free drinks and movies on the plane.

See you soon.


Friday, 8 May 2015

GE2015: I Feel Like I've Been Punched In The Face, Again

Well that was an election and I should clearly stop being surprised by anything any more.

Firstly the winners and losers, so far, with results still being announced:

  • Conservatives - performed far beyond expectations, even scraping a majority
  • Scottish National Party (SNP) - also exceeded expectations, destroying major Labour MPs
  • UKIP - massive vote and strong turnout
  • Greens - again, huge vote
  • Labour - awful performance not only against SNP but against Tories in England
  • Scottish Labour - worth repeating, Labour have been annihilated in Scotland by SNP
  • Liberal Democrats - annihilated across the UK, reduced from 57 to 8 (current results)
Plaid Cymru and Northern Irish parties are stable.

Early this morning, 12 hours ago, I wrote about how "The UK Voting System Is An Insult To Democracy". It was pretty angry, and predicted a hung parliament which would reveal how appalling our voting system is.

I was right about our voting system, but wrong about the hung parliament. Everyone was. A huge late swing to Tories in England left all those polls - which were stable, fixed, unmoving from January right up until the shock exit poll some hours ago - completely ridiculous and miles off.

I followed the New Zealand election in September last year and felt sick with the surprise result. After 2 terms of selling off national assets (privatisation), spying scandals, environmental scandals, you name it - everyone I knew predicted a Labour/Green victory. Instead the rightwing National Party government gained a momentous victory.

It was a shock, even watching from "over the ditch" (Tasman Sea) in Melbourne, like a physical impact. The lefties did not see it coming because we did not know how most of New Zealand felt.

8 months later and virtually the same thing has happened in the UK. Why did Labour do so badly? How did it happen? Why were the polls so wrong?

It is a chaotic result - we now have many parties making huge impacts, but complicated by our frankly Stone Age voting system First Past The Post (FPTP).

For example, many countries - New Zealand, Australia, some in Europe - all understand multi-party politics, but our system is geared specifically to favour 1) large parties, like Labour and Conservatives, and 2) geographically concentrated parties, like the SNP.

So we have:
  • SNP destroying everything in their path, marching on Westminister with pitchforks and flaming torches (and separately governing the Scottish Parliament too). Nearly all of Scotland is bright yellow.
  • UKIP enjoying a huge number of votes (maybe 1 million or more) in the East and North of England. There will be many people who are proud they voted UKIP, a xenophobic party full of homophobic and racist members. In towns and villages, racists and thugs will feel more confident with public bigotry.
  • Labour reduced to the cities of England, ready to play the games of "blame everyone" and "sacrifice the leader". It is not a healthy place to be.
  • Conservatives swamping the English countryside and towns, even creeping into typically Labour seats in cities. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls being unseated by Tories is the icing on their cake.
  • The Greens taking over 1 million votes across the UK - still only 1 seat, Caroline Lucas in Brighton, but a much stronger position than ever before.
  • And of course Lib Dem graves being dug all over the country, particularly England and Scotland, major politicians and cabinet ministers being kicked aside by the relentless SNP.

You know what, I was going to write some personal analysis and interpretations, but I'm really tired - mentally - and I don't have the energy. Nothing I write here now about "voters decided at the last minute" and "emotional decisions, not rational ones" (no shit Sherlock!) will be helpful or practical in any way.

It's hard to tell which is worse, the shock surprise or the result itself.

I find it very hard to remember the last election in UK, NZ, Australia, which I felt really happy about.

I'm going to have a whiskey, mix some loud music, and go to bed early.

The UK Voting System Is An Insult To Democracy.

I write this in the sweltering Bangkok heat, and I live in 2 worlds: the social media world, where the UK election is raging, and the world of Thailand, where the UK election doesn't exist.

It is 30 degrees C at 3am. This is normal in hot season.
Summary: Sign this petition to change the UK voting system and get ready to get angry.

The simple fact is this: the UK electoral system is barely "democracy", and we can't be proud of it while this historical relic is still destroying the will of the people.

I get back to the UK in 4 days - not to visit this time, but to live, after 7 years in NZ and Aus. I have so many draft blog posts to finish: the follow-up to living in Chiang Mai; the one about Macau and Hong Kong; the one about how I almost certainly got herpes last year and why we need to talk about herpes. You're going to enjoy that one.

But here and now while I sweat in my guesthouse and people vote and argue 6hrs behind in the UK, this is the post I have to write.

The media say "our system is broken", but our system was always broken.

"First Past The Post" (FPTP) works by local areas electing a representative MP to send to Parliament, apparently to represent them.

Well, apart from the bare fact that Parliament decides law for the whole country, and MPs can only influence their area by huffing "I'm the MP! I'm important!", here's the simple version of why this system is fucked:
  • 40% votes is roughly the votes each MP wins in their constituency
  • 60% MPs is considered a strong government which can pass laws without problem
  • So, 40% x 60% = 24% of votes cast elect the UK government.
To be legitimate this number should be 51% or more. To make laws for all the country, your government should represent a majority of the country. Real democracies understand this.

The media say, what is happening now shows our 2-party system (Labour vs Conservatives) has become fragmented. That it no longer works. FPTP is supposed to deliver strong governments, and 2 elections in a row is has failed.

But this is clearly a fucking lie. It has always been broken - we are only now, in a very visible way, seeing that brokenness.

The causes for revealing the failure are not even about the system itself. The media points to the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland and United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in England, plus a strong rise for the Green Party. They show this as evidence our democracy is now "multi-party".

But the real drop in support of the two main parties is due to their failures to be convincing this election:
  • The Conservatives have governed over massive rises in food banks, inequality, welfare cuts - while the rich have gotten richer through the global recession. They d
  • Labour have failed to shoot the fish in the barrel, to provide clear policies that will protect people. After 5 years of failing in opposition, they have only looked convincing in these 4 weeks campaigning.
  • Both parties campaigned in a pathetically negative manner during the Scottish independence referendum, and both parties have failed to account for the white English working class who feel left behind and left out. Both are responsible for the rise of SNP and UKIP.
The third "main" party, the Liberal Democrats, also face losing half their seats because no-one believes anything they say after breaking their promises and supporting a rampant poor-hating Conservative party.

So here we are. Finally our voting system is revealed as the farce that it always was.

The media talks about the "national vote", the % of all votes each party wins, as if this matters.

It is a red herring.

Not only does it not decide who is in government, it is also highly misleading.
  • If the polls say 33% of all votes are for Labour, 
  • and 33% of all votes are for Conservatives, 
  • how many of those votes get thrown in the bin, because they are in losing constituencies?
Yes pundits and geeks will look at the stats, "Oh the Greens did well this time", "Oh look at UKIP's strong support", whatever.

The hard truth is that every vote that is not for a winning MP gets thrown in the trash.

So if Labour and Tories each win 43% seats (280 seats) that means 43% x 33% = 14%.

So the probable effective national vote of each major party - these are the big, dominating parties of UK politics - in 2015 will be 14%.


So we are supposed to ignore the fact Labour and Conservatives gain 19% of the "national vote", over half of all the votes they receive, in constituencies they lost.

We are supposed to pretend that it all kind of balances out, really, in the end, doesn't it, right?

What a fuck up.

Even New Zealand, a small poor country full of sheep and volcanoes and excellent beer, has a better system than the UK. It's called "Mixed Member Proportional" (MMP):
  • Each person gets a party vote and a constituency vote
  • So the constituency area is still represented in Parliament...
  • ...but each party in Parliament gets the same proportion of MPs as all the votes cast.
The superiority of the NZ Parliament over the UK Parliament is already clear. In an age where climate change is scientifically accepted, the New Zealand Green Party have 14 seats out of 120 (12%), while the UK Greens have 1 MP out of 650 (1.5%). The National Party's historic, monumental, landslide victory of 2014 saw them win 50% MPs and 47% of all votes.

So if you're an old buffer who believes proportional representation means removing constituency representation, go get fucked, because it doesn't.

While the UK bombs other countries for democracy, it is nice to finally see clearly our own system failing to deliver the representatives and the will of its own people.

Most hilarious of all, when our system "works" it swings like a pendulum: we go from strong Labour governments to strong Tory governments and back again - as if politics is either One World Outlook On All The Things or That Other World Outlook On All The Things.

The 2 big parties are supposed to sit opposite each other and shout at each other - that is how the House of Commons is designed! - instead of finding consensus and solutions which at least half the country would agree with.

The other parties sit at the end, like children sent to the children's table at Christmas dinner. You claim it's because there's no room but really it's because you're sick of the sight of them.

And let's not talk about the House Of Lords. We don't have to! They're not elected, so not actually part of democracy at all.

I don't have a problem with elected representatives. Constant referendums is a shoddy way to run democracy and it assumes too much of the public and the media.

I just wish our elected representatives actually represented the people who elected them.

I shouldn't have to feel fucking embarrassed when I explain to international people how my country's democracy does not work.

So. I'm sweating ALL OVER, and in 2 hours my alarm will go off - 6am Thailand time, midnight UK time. I will watch the results come in because politics is my football.

5 years ago I watched the 2010 UK election with international people in a sports bar in Wellington. I was despondent when it was clear we wouldn't get a result that day - or the next day, or even that week.

This incoming dog's dinner of results we will receive today will make 2010 look like a dance in a paddling pool.

People will be angry about why their votes aren't represented in MPs.

People will be angry that 2 parties who do not even have a majority of MPs OR votes, in a despicable system that favours them, will be shouting the word "LEGITIMACY" at each other in the press.

People will be angry that the top-hat wearing, poor-hating, student-hating, homeless-hating, jobless-hating, corporate tax-cut cretins we call "the Conservative Party" haven't been strung up by their austerity policies which every sane country has dumped in the bin.

With a little luck, and maybe Labour + Liberal Democrat + SNP courage, the media and the political establishment will focus on how to fix our constitutional shitbath before the next election delivers some kind of fascist military junta with a nuclear cat as Prime Minister and a shiny turd for Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I'm not betting on anything though.

Here is a petition to change our broken voting system. Nearly 100,000 people signed it before voting even finished. You should sign it too.