Azara Blog: April 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/04/30

Ryanair our hero (permanent blog link)

Ryanair is to airlines as Google is to search engines. Both appear to have the golden touch and you just have to wonder when it is all going to end in grief, since it is too good to be true. Of course the Ryanair business model relies on airplane fuel not being taxed and on subsidies from regional airports. But they could make money even without that help, they are so mean and lean.

Passengers are barred from whole rows of seats, in order to cut down on cleaning (and hence turn-around) time. They have now introduced scratch cards (so effectively gambling) in order to make a buck or two. (Not many takers for that one.) And they are one of the few airlines that are so efficient at turn-around that often they leave ahead of schedule and so arrive ahead of schedule. Pity about the congestion at their London hubs. One worrying sign for Ryanair is that their staff do not seem to be as satisfied as they used to be.

Regional airports are great. Before Ryanair came along nobody could see how to make money flying to them. Imagine being able to fly to Karlsruhe from Stansted (Ryanair) or Katowice from Luton (Wizzair). It's a luxury nobody would have imagined even five years ago. It is the best of all possible times to be an airline passenger living near Stansted and Luton.

Bombarded by election leaflets (permanent blog link)

Heading down the final stretch of the election, and every day another leaflet or two arrives at the door. Two from Labour, five from the LibDems, one from the Tories, two from Respect and one from UKIP during the past week. Needless to say all these leaflets ask you to vote for someone (their candidate), and the most surprising leaflet to arrive this week was one asking you not to vote for someone (the BNP). That leaflet was from some organisation called Unite Against Fascism, whoever that is.

What can one say about Respect? It's just an ego trip for George Galloway, whose main claim to fame is opposing the war in Iraq. The proposed policies are standard socialist policies from the 1980s, with very little support in the UK (or anywhere in the world, for that matter).

What can one say about UKIP? Euro-haters who are a bit of a joke. But they don't just hate Europeans, they hate all foreigners who dare to tread in Britain. The one proposal of note in their leaflet is that they want to "stop planting GM crops". (As if any are being planted.) So this is one policy that both right and left agree upon in the UK.

What can one say about the Tories? No hopers in Cambridge. Their leaflet mentions "the shortage of housing in Cambridge" but has no suggestions about how to deal with that other than allow the sale of more council housing to tenants and at the same time build more social housing (somewhere unspecified). Go figure. The Tories generally don't want any more housing in the southeast of England (social or not) so the shortage of decent housing will continue here. (But the other parties are not much better.)

What can one say about Labour? Blair blew his place in history by following the dreadful Bush into an unnecessary and silly war. For that, he and the rest of the cabinet should be made to pay the price by losing their seats, but of course they are in safe seats so it will be the decent Labour MPs like Anne Campbell who might take the hit. Struggling to get around this barrier in Cambridge, the Labour approach seems to be to lie low and ignore Iraq. The main policy being touted is effectively "more of the same".

What can one say about the LibDems? They are hungry to win Cambridge and their leaflet today claims that some opinion poll here gave Labour 37% to the LibDems 36%. So possibly a close finish. Pity about their candidate. Pity about their leader.

So far no leaflet from the Greens, but perhaps their campaign is saving the environment by not wasting paper. Their election advert on television yesterday was amusing enough, effectively claiming that Blair was turning Britain into a Police State. Fair enough but slightly ironic given that the Greens themselves are nothing if not control freaks, who, should they ever win power, would spend all their time and effort deciding what you can and cannot do with your life, every minute of the day. One of the horrors portrayed in their broadcast was a sign saying "eat GM foods", as if somehow that was an act of totalitarianism worse than that the Greens would propose by having the sign instead say "don't eat GM foods".

Date published: 2005/04/29

GM rice study in China (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Genetically engineered rice crops can cut costs for poor farmers and improve health, a new Chinese study says.

In the study, published in the journal Science, Chinese and US researchers looked at the use of insecticides in small farm trials.

They compared normal strains of rice with varieties modified to have innate resistance to pests.

Chinese GM rice has been undergoing safety trials for nearly a decade now, but is not yet fully licensed.

One of the arguments against genetically engineered crops is that they benefit the seed companies, but not the farmers.

The authors of the new study disagree.

They found that Chinese farmers using rice engineered to resist insect pests made huge savings on insecticides, compared with their neighbours who had planted ordinary hybrid strains.

This had nothing to do with any specialist guidance the farmers received, because they were left to manage their crops as they saw fit.

As well as cutting costs, the researchers say, the farmers benefited from better health.

Pesticides in China are cheap and widely used, but poison an estimated 50,000 farmers a year, up to 500 fatally.

Dr Jikun Huang, who led the study, said he hoped it would help persuade the Chinese government to license the commercial use of GM rice.

If it does, the impact beyond China's borders would be substantial.

The world's largest country would be taking a lead in commercialising a major staple GM food developed in its own labs, which could transform the GM debate across the world.

But campaigner Greenpeace expressed serious concern over the study.

Sze Pang Cheung of Greenpeace China commented: "The Science paper states that farmers cultivated the [genetically engineered] rice without the assistance of technicians, and that quite a number of the randomly selected participants grew both [genetically engineered] and conventional varieties on their small family farms."

The most worrying aspect of the study (subscription service) is that the results were obtained by "producer-recall interviewing techniques", and how does one know that the farmers didn't actively spin the results because they knew that that was what the interviewers wanted to hear.

However the results seem plausible (the point of these GM crops was to be resistant to certain insects, and if so then pesticide use could well be reduced). Of course the so-called environmentalists will never accept any pro-GM results because they have a religious objection to GM technology. (The specific Greenpeace comments about mixed-seed farms seem irrelevant, especially given that the non-GM-mixed-farm results were consistent with the totally-non-GM-farm results.)

China fortunately has a weak home-grown opposition to GM crops (it does not yet have a large enough comfortable middle class), so it is ideally placed to push this technology forward and leave the rich West (especially Europe) trailing. Needless to say the rich West may well try to blackball Chinese exports (both for anti-competitive and religious reasons) if and when GM food crops are grown in quantity there, and that could well be the main obstacle for China.

Earth absorbing solar energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Earth is absorbing more energy from the Sun than it is giving back into space, according to a new study by climate scientists in the US.

They base their findings on computer models of climate, and on measurements of temperature in the oceans.

The group describes its results as "the smoking gun that we were looking for", removing any doubt that human activities are warming the planet.

The results are published in the journal Science this week.

The study attempts to calculate the Earth's "energy imbalance" - the difference between the amount of energy received at the top of the atmosphere from solar radiation, and the amount that is given back into space.

Rather than measuring the imbalance directly, the researchers draw on data from the oceans, in particular from the growing global flotilla of scientific buoys and floats, now numbered in the thousands, which monitor sea temperature.

"Measuring the imbalance directly is extremely difficult, because you are looking for a very small number on a background of very large numbers," Gavin Schmidt, one of the research team from the US space agency's (Nasa) Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told BBC News.

"But we know how much energy is going into the oceans - that has been measured and over the last 10 years confirmed by satellites and in-situ measurements - and from our understanding of atmospheric physics, that has to be equal to the imbalance at the top of the atmosphere."

So data gathered from the oceans is plugged into a computer model representing the Earth's complex climate, including the atmosphere, oceans, winds, currents, greenhouse gases and other "pollutants". What emerges is that at the top of the atmosphere, our planet is absorbing 0.85 watts more energy per metre squared than it is emitting into space.

The reason the extra energy is trapped, the researchers say, is the human-produced greenhouse effect - elevated levels of gases such as carbon dioxide that absorb radiation from the Earth's surface which would otherwise disappear into space.
...
Not everyone agrees with these conclusions. One scientist who disagrees is William Kininmonth, a former head of Australia's National Climate Centre and a member of Australia's delegations at various rounds of United Nations climate treaty negotiations.

"The paper implies that it is possible to estimate quite accurately the global radiation imbalance," he told BBC News; other researchers, he says, have "explained why it is not possible to measure the imbalance with an accuracy better than several watts per metre squared".

The article is not yet published in the (paper) journal Science, but presumably will be next week. To know the significance of this result one needs to know the error bars, and hopefully some are quoted in the article. The blatantly political spin on the story by the group ("the smoking gun") is not encouraging. But presumably global warming must imply something like this, so it's chicken and egg.

Date published: 2005/04/28

Iraq war legal advice finally published (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has denied he lied over the case for the Iraq war, calling evidence the attorney general changed his mind about its legality a "damp squib".

In advice now published on the Downing Street website, Lord Goldsmith told Mr Blair on 7 March 2003 a second UN resolution was the safest legal course.

Ten days later his advice raised no such concerns about legality.

The charge has always been that Blair distorted both the intelligence data and the legal opinion over the legality of war, through acts of omission, in order that he could bounce the country, and in particular, Parliament, into war. The legal opinion of the attorney general released today certainly shows that there were grave acts of omission. What is most astonishing is that Blair hid most of the gray legal opinion even from most of the Cabinet and only gave them the claim that the war might be deemed legal. Of course it would be a poor lawyer who could not make some kind of argument that the war might be legal.

The attorney general says:

There are generally three possible bases for the use of force:

before he goes on to completely dismiss the first two possibilities. (And Blair, after the so-called WMD were not found, started to pretend that the second reason was why he really went to war, although backed up by the third reason.) Goldsmith then spends most of the memo discussing the third reason. He mentions that many people thought that UN resolution 1441 did not authorise the use of force without a further resolution. Indeed that was the obvious opinion at the time of France and Russia and most other countries of the world (those that the US did not managed to blackball into submission).

The Goldsmith memo says:

I remain of the opinion that the safest legal course would be to secure the adoption of a further resolution to authorise the use of force. I have already advised that I do not believe that such a resolution need be explicit in its terms. The key point is that it should establish that the Council has concluded that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity offered by resolution 1441, as in the draft which has already been tabled.

Of course Iraq had given up its WMD and had largely satisfied the conditions of resolution 1441 (and earlier resolutions) and said so day after day loud and clear on British television in the run-up to the war, but their claims were loudly dismissed by the Blair camp and the pro-war pundits.

The memo concludes:

That is not to say that action may not be taken to remove Saddam Hussein from power if it can be demonstrated that such action is a necessary and proportionate measure to secure the disarmament of Iraq. But regime change cannot be the objective of military action. This should be borne in mind in considering the list of military targets and in making public statements about any campaign.

As even Blair admits now, the action was not necessary to secure the disarmament of Iraq (it had disarmed). And it's hard to see how the war (described as "shock and awe" at the time by the US propaganda machine) could in any way be deemed proportionate.

Cambridge nuclear bunker to be demolished (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Councillors have decided to demolish a Cold War era bunker - despite protests from English Heritage.

The listed building off Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge, was built to protect emergency Government staff in the event of a nuclear war.

It is Cambridge's most visible reminder of the Cold War but to most onlookers, it is simply an ugly concrete block.

Developers building homes on the site - which once housed Government offices and a driving test centre - have been trying to get permission to demolish the building for more than two years but were hampered when it was listed by English Heritage.

Now Cambridge City Council's planning committee has given its blessing to the demolition despite council officers recommending that they protect it.
...
Because it is listed, the application will now have to go to the Government and a minister will have the option of overturning the council's decision.

Sophie Jepson, from English Heritage, said: "In its severe and brooding form the bunker speaks eloquently of the very real fear of nuclear confrontation that permeated Britain during the recent historical era.

"English Heritage accepts that the bunker, listed Grade II, is no longer needed for its original use but despite the highly unusual nature of the building believe a practical, viable alternative use can be found that will allow this remarkable monument to be preserved.

"English Heritage is disappointed with the decision and we will now be working with the regional government planners to decide the next steps forward."

Coun Richard Smith, planning committee member, said: "We felt that there is a new development and lots of new properties so it is quite incongruous to have it there. It is not a pretty building. The committee feels some sort of memorial could be left to show what was there."
...
Chris Crook, managing director of Countryside Properties said: "We worked with the Bunker Preservation Trust who assured us the bunker had no architectural or historic merit and looked into a number of options.

"However, current health and safety legislation and the inability of the bunker to be satisfactorily used for storage or as a museum means demolition is the most sensible option.

"Failure to do so will result in a large, derelict structure remaining within a modern, high quality residential development that is the largest and possibly most important in Cambridge for many years."

The bunker is ugly and without "architectural merit". And English Heritage lists far too many buildings. But to describe the bunker as without "historic merit" is wrong. And it's always a bit suspicious when the city council just happens to side with a developer. It is interesting that the developer says that the bunker couldn't possibly remain within a "high quality residential development". No doubt if it were in Arbury instead of Brooklands Avenue that opinion would not have been expressed, so the rich of Cambridge are again given a pass. And although it is not yet finished, so far the view from Brooklands Avenue suggests that the new development is a large collection of bunkers which are bigger (above ground) and almost as ugly as the original bunker.

Richard Rogers to plan Cambridge railway area (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The pioneering architect behind the Millennium Dome and the Pompidou Centre in Paris has been signed up to oversee development of the station area in Cambridge.

Ashwell Property Group - owned by millionaire property tycoon Paul Thwaites - has drawn up a masterplan for the £725 million project which includes flats, offices, hotels, car parks, shops, a public square, guided bus interchange and a county heritage centre.

The firm has now announced the design team behind the project will be headed by Richard Rogers, the celebrated architect behind many of Europe's most daring buildings.

Lord Rogers, who taught architecture in Cambridge in the late 1960s, said: "The entrance to Cambridge, one of the world's most beautiful cities, is in dire need of urban regeneration."

"This is a remarkable opportunity to design a dynamic urban environment and create an entirely new gateway to Cambridge."

Ashwell is set to submit a series of planning applications for the one million square feet - or 25 acres - of land in the triangle around Station Road.

They will form the basis of the largest regeneration project in Cambridge for decades. The firm is referring to the massive project simply as the CB1 Scheme.

Mr Thwaites said: "Cambridge attracts more than 4.6 million visitors each year, second only to London. The area around Cambridge station has seen no meaningful improvements for nearly half a century."

"CB1 will be the first real mixed-use development in Cambridge, responding to local needs and demands."

"The development will reflect the European model where people work, live, shop and socialise in the neighbourhood, encouraging a sense of belonging and pride and improving quality of life for all."

The area around the Cambridge railway station is so dreadful it's hard to see how Rogers could manage to make it any worse. But he could.

The idea that this is the first "real mixed-use development in Cambridge" is false. The old gas site on Newmarket Road is mixed-use, and Arbury Camp, if it ever goes ahead, will be mixed-use (although there will be few retail shops in Arbury Camp because the Cambridge ruling elite have long since decided that people west of the Cam should be forced to cross the Cam to go shopping).

The idea that this development is "responding to local needs and demands" is also false. Local people will have little say in the matter, it will all be down to the developer and the Cambridge ruling elite.

The idea that this "development will reflect the European model where people work, live, shop and socialise in the neighbourhood" is also false. Like all other residential developments near the railway station, many if not most of the people who end up living there will be London commuters. And it's hard to believe that even those who are not London commuters will work in the associated offices or shops. In a "knowledge-based" economy (which Cambridge allegedly is) jobs are highly specialised and most people do not live anywhere near their job.

So lots of politically correct jargon put out by the developer (certainly a necessary requirement to appease the Cambridge ruling elite), but words count for very little.

Date published: 2005/04/25

Blair likes nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A re-elected Labour government would put nuclear power back on the agenda in an effort to meet targets on climate change, government sources have said.

The sources told BBC News Tony Blair wanted a national debate on the issue.

He would raise the issue when ministers responded to a climate change policy review in June or July, they said.

The Tories say there should be new nuclear stations provided they meet cost and waste concerns but the Lib Dems oppose the idea.

Mr Blair has said his policy has not changed since the energy White Paper two years ago, which left nuclear power on the back burner.

But a senior source told BBC News Mr Blair would raise the issue in June or July, when the government has to respond to its climate change policy review.

The government says the UK is on course to meet the Kyoto targets on climate change but has admitted it is slipping behind its own tougher targets.

As usual "senior source" is the silly terminology for a Blair spokesperson, who cannot be identified because the UK is a country where government hides behind curtains next to the Wizard of Oz. When Tony Blair says he wants a "national debate" it means he has made up his mind and is waiting to see if the opposing interests manage to muster enough of the media and in Whitehall in their favour. Since the so-called environmentalists are good at scare-mongering and mostly hate nuclear power, and the media generally gives them a free pass, Blair is almost certainly onto a loser here, especially if Gordon Brown and the Treasury do the sums and decide nuclear power is a financial black hole (it has been in the past).

BBC stages heckling of politicians for entertainment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The BBC has rejected Conservative complaints about a programme in which hecklers were encouraged to shout at Michael Howard during a public meeting.

The Conservatives claimed the event had been used to disrupt Mr Howard's speech at a meeting near Bolton.

But the BBC insists the programme, to be screened on Monday night, is a legitimate study of political heckling.

Director of News Helen Boaden said it also showed members of the Lib Dems and Labour Party being heckled.
...
"What happened is considerably less sinister than you fear and than the newspapers have portrayed on the basis of the information you gave them," she said in her letter to Guy Black, the head of Conservative communications.

The Conservatives had demanded an apology after producers of the BBC Three show gave people microphones and encouraged them to shout during Mr Howard's speech in Horwich last week.
...
BBC head of current affairs Peter Horrocks said microphones had simply been provided so the hecklers' voices could be recorded for the programme.
...
"There is a small part of the programme which shows how hecklers can perform, what makes a funny heckle and how parties might respond to it - that's the context in which this material is used.

"We provided microphones in order to be able to hear what the hecklers said, but we didn't provide any amplification and we certainly did not disrupt the meeting.

It is not unusual for journalists to encourage people they are filming to misbehave (either explicitly or implicitly because the people know the cameras are rolling). What is unusual is for journalists who are caught out misbehaving like this to defend their actions. How low has the BBC sunk? All those involved should be sacked.

Date published: 2005/04/24

Britain allegedly not socially mobile (permanent blog link)

Channel 4 News says:

Research shows the British now have less mobility in income and educational opportunity than our key European neighbours -- and it's getting worse...

Opportunity for all. That's been New Labour's mantra - repeated at every opportunity in this campaign. But today New Labour stands accused of denying the least privileged in society exactly that.

A new report out tomorrow - but seen exclusively by Channel 4 news - reveals those from underprivileged backgrounds are less likely to "better themselves" than they were thirty years ago.

And while social mobility is improving in most developed countries, in Britain it is getting worse, with more and more advantages going to those from already wealthy backgrounds.
...
The data shows how well people from different backgrounds had done financially by the age of 30.

So what's going wrong?

Channel 4 News is easily the best news programme on British television, so it's a bit sad to see them stoop to this kind of garbage report. Children born in 1970 were 27 when Labour came to power in 1997. To associate anything to do with their life in 2000, when they were 30, with Labour policies is just ridiculous. And interesting that the only measure considered to be relevant in life is how much money you make when you are 30.

Of course all the usual suspects come out at election time, because this is the perfect opportunity to make a stink, and the "poverty lobby" is doing that here. The definition of poverty/inequality is one that uses relative differences to claim there is a problem. Even if nearly every person in Britain has a job, even if nearly everyone has reasonable access to health care, even if nearly everyone is mobile (either via a car or so-called public transport), even if nearly every person has enough to eat, the poverty lobby will claim there is a problem, because some people will earn more than others. The only way the poverty lobby will disappear is if Britain becomes a socialist utopia, where everybody earns exactly the same as everyone else.

Channel 4 News had representatives from the three main political parties on the news to talk about this story, and of course they all played along and claimed the situation was terrible, etc. You have to laugh when the political elite say how dreadful the ordinary middle class is for daring to look out for the best interests of their children. Funny, you never notice the political elite having children who end up badly educated or poor, unless they are complete no hopers.

Date published: 2005/04/23

Vitamin D allegedly good for lung cancer patients (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lung cancer patients who have surgery in the winter are 40% more likely to die of the disease than those operated on in the summer, a US study suggests.

A study of 456 patients found high levels of vitamin D - from sun exposure and food supplements - had a positive impact on the success of surgery.

The Harvard University team said more research was needed and patients should not expect surgery in the summer.

UK experts said it was interesting but warned sun exposure could be dangerous.

Lead researcher Wei Zhou said: "This study in no way suggests that people should try to time their cancer surgeries for a particular season - that would obviously be impossible.

Researchers studied the treatment of 456 lung cancer patients of which only 10% had had either radiation treatment of chemotherapy.

Looking at the effect of the seasons, the team found patients who had operations in the winter were 40% more likely to die from their cancer than those who had the operation in the summer.

When the joint effect of the season and vitamin D levels were taken into consideration, there was a three-fold better chance of survival, evidence presented to the American Association of Cancer Research showed.

Vitamin D might well be doing the trick, but this sounds like another example of confusing correlation and causation. Could there be another reason that patients do better in summer than in winter? How about that the world is a much cheerier place in summer than in winter. There is nothing worse for the spirits than endless month of low light and gray skies. Blue skies and green grass must do wonders for loads of people, not just lung cancer patients. Of course it could be that Vitamin D is directly causing (rather than just being correlated with) the positive impact, as the researchers seem to be claiming, and that theory is easy to test. Just take two randomly chosen groups of lung cancer patients and give half Vitamin D supplements and the other half not, and see whether either group does (statistically significantly) better.

More election leaflets (permanent blog link)

The Tories have finally gotten around to dropping off their first election leaflets in Arbury. One of them says we should vote for Ian Lyon. The leaflet does not say what position he is running for, but presumably it must be for Westminister as an MP, rather than in local government, since the leaflet is fairly glossy. You have to pity more Mr Lyon, he is going to finish third at best. And does he have any connection with Cambridge? The second leaflet is about the local election (also taking place on 5 May), and is less slick, including a photograph of the candidate which is way out of focus.

Meanwhile the LibDems have dropped off yet another election leaflet. For a party that pretends to be "green", they are wasting a heck of a lot of energy promulgating their propaganda. This leaflet is almost identical to previous ones (again under the title "Cambridge Herald", trying to pretend that it is an independent newsletter). Except that the LibDems are obviously worried that the Greens (the political party, not any particular so-called environmentalists) are going to steal crucial votes: "People thinking of voting Green in Cambridge could end up helping Tony Blair get his MP re-elected." (Anne Campbell being "his MP".)

Date published: 2005/04/22

Baby care and childhood leukaemia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sending your baby to day care in the first few months of life could protect them against leukaemia, say UK experts. The Leukaemia Research Fund team believe exposure to common infections in early infancy is good and helps "prime" the immune system.

Conversely, reduced exposure to bugs in the first year of life increases the risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), they suggest.
...
Childhood leukaemia - cancer of the blood cells - has been increasing at a rate of about 1% a year.

In children, about 85% of these are acute lymphoblastic leukaemia or ALL and acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) accounts for most of the rest.

There have been many theories about what might trigger leukaemia, including exposure to radiation from the environment.

But the authors of the current study say they now have compelling evidence that exposure to infections in infancy is key.
...
Parents were asked about day care and social activity with children outside the family during the first year of life.

The researchers found that increasing levels of social activity outside the home were linked to consistent reductions in the risk of ALL.

Another example of confusing correlation and causation. Note that what they have shown is a "link" not a "cause", although apparently they are claiming the latter. Did they ask the parents what their income was? There is almost certainly a link with that as well. There might even be a link with how much wine the parents drink, or how big a car they drive, or lots of other things you could think of, which are linked with income. Indeed there is almost certainly a link between income and baby care, since rich parents are more likely to have baby care since they can more easily afford it. With the same logic you might then conclude that baby care makes parents rich. The only way to do this study properly is to randomly choose two groups of children and send one group to day care and the other not. It seems (not surprisingly) that this is not how this study was done.

Antarctic glaciers retreating (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The glaciers of the Antarctic Peninsula are in rapid retreat.

A detailed study reported in Science magazine shows nearly 90% of the ice bodies streaming down from the mountains to the ocean are losing mass.

But the authors - a joint team from the British-Antarctic and US-Geological Surveys - say the big melt could have a number of complex causes.

Although higher air temperatures are a factor, they say, the full picture may go beyond just simple global warming.

"The overall picture is of glaciers retreating in a pattern that suggests the most important factor is atmospheric warming; we can connect the retreat with the observed warming recorded at climate stations along the peninsula," explained Dr David Vaughan, from the British Antarctic Survey (Bas).

"But it's not a perfect fit; there seem to be other factors involved as well - possibly to do with changing ocean currents and temperatures," he told BBC News.

The planet is dyanamic. The planet is supposedly warming up. This is not a hugely surprising report. The real question is what, if any, is the consequence of the glaciers retreating.

Date published: 2005/04/21

More political campaigning (permanent blog link)

Only two more weeks to go. All the political parties are trying to claim they are the friend of the house buyer, by raising the bottom stamp duty threshold. Labour raised it from 60k to 120k in the budget. The LibDems want it at 150k. The Tories promised today to raise it to 250k, so the same as the second threshold. Why are political parties so economically illiterate? Raising the threshold helps sellers much more than it helps buyers, because the housing market has a fairly rigid supply, so removing a tax will just increase the cost of houses almost exactly to compensate. Politicians are just handing government money over to house sellers, who have already done handsomely out of the large increase in house prices the last ten years. The real problem with stamp duty is that the tax rate is absolute, not relative, so at each of the thresholds the tax suddenly jumps a large amount. And the Tories new threshold is making this jump even larger at 250k. Currently the tax jumps from 2.5k to 7.5k at 250k, with the Tory proposal it would jump from 0 to 7.5k. If the politicians want to do anything with stamp duty, they ought to make it rational and make the tax rate relative, not absolute. But that is obviously asking too much of the morons who run the country.

Meanwhile the LibDems have enclosed an eight page propaganda sheet with the free local weekly newspaper. Not for the first time they are trying to pretend it is independent, with the only real indication it is LibDem material being the disclaimer in small print at the bottom of page eight. Of course anybody with half a brain can see that it is LibDem propaganda, but what does it say about a political party that it tries to do this kind of thing. The LibDem headlines here are "Bush costs Blair votes" (true, but hardly any) and "LibDems set to gain seats" (possibly true). But no mention of council tax or some other LibDem favourite topics.

The LibDems dropped off another leaflet last week. That does mention the council tax: "Scrap this very unfair tax". Well it is not any more fair or unfair than any other tax. As always, tax you have to pay is unfair and tax someone else has to pay is fair. There is nothing inherently any more or less fair about the council tax (which is a property tax, so a crude wealth tax) compared with income tax. But don't let that get in the way of a good headline.

They also, as usual, claim "Only the Lib Dems take real action on the environment", because of plans for door-to-door plastic recycling about to start in Cambridge. As with all recycling matters it is not clear whether or not this is a net benefit to the environment, given the huge energy costs to implement this, both in terms of direct (e.g. transport) and indirect (e.g. labour) energy costs. Of course like most politicians and members of the chattering class, they would rather pose than argue their case.

They also say they would "force airlines to pay the real environmental cost of air travel" but there is no mention of forcing train and bus companies to do the same. Indeed there is a cute picture of a train with the slogan "Greener Transport" plastered over it. Why is train transport greener? Sure, if you just calculate the direct energy costs of energy consumed per mile to make the train get from A to B, then train transport looks "green". But if you include all the indirect energy costs (e.g. labour) then it is not so "green". The rough rule of thumb is "money equals energy" so the more something costs, the more energy it must be using (when the sums are done properly). (Of course it is not quite so simple because of tax and because of passing costs on externally.)

Meanwhile Labour has sent some more stuff in the post. Remarkably one of the leaflets is the first one to mention the local election, also taking place on 5 May. Ian Kidman is running for re-election as county councillor for Arbury. He doesn't live in Arbury (he lives in Highworth Avenue, just over the border in posher Chesterton), but for some reason not many Labour politicians do live in Arbury. He paints a bleak picture of life here: "anti-social behaviour, drug-dealing and prostitution". Well no doubt that all goes on in Arbury as everywhere else on the planet, but you have to wonder if this is really the most important issue here.

In one leaflet Anne Campbell shows a newspaper headline on one side "Plan for 500 new jobs at Marshall's is 'great news'" and on the other she says "[Campbell] has secured a pledge to tax aircraft emissions". Well one might have thought the two stories were linked (given that Marshall's is in the aircraft maintenance business). Mind you, regional airports should be encouraged, although Cambridge Airport is more likely to be closed down than opening up for more business. And as it happens, aircraft emissions are already taxed via the crude airport tax, but the level is probably too low and more importantly it is not currently related to fuel consumed, which it should be.

And (in bold) she "opposed the war". Were it not for Blair's stupid war in Iraq, Campbell would be a shoe-in, but as it is the LibDems ought to be in with a real chance in Cambridge.

Some women allegedly lie about family history of breast cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women are inventing family histories of breast cancer in order to have treatment, doctors have revealed.

Geneticists in Manchester say this can lead to patients having surgery to remove their breasts, only for doctors to discover that it was unnecessary.

They say the women, 1% of patients, are likely to have a psychological disorder similar to Munchausen's Syndrome.

Around 5% of the 40,000 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in the UK every year are linked to high-risk genes.

The geneticists at St Mary's Hospital said a small number, around 1%, of women claiming the most serious family risk of breast cancer - where three of four relatives develop the disease when young - were inventing the history.

Women who do have this kind of family history sometimes opt for preventative treatment, which may include surgery to remove the breasts.

But experts warn that, if patient's claims are not investigated, they may undergo unnecessary surgery, and cause fears among relatives that they may have a high risk of cancer.

Professor Gareth Evans, a consultant in medical genetics at St Mary's hospital in Manchester, said: "The women should go through a process of risk assessment with a geneticist, and also have a psychological assessment.

"With all of those in place women should no longer be getting surgery in that situation.

"Unfortunately it appears that women still are getting surgery, so some surgeons are still not going through the protocol as they should."

Professor Evans said restrictions under the Data Protection Act have made it harder for doctors to verify what patients are saying if they will not consent to having their family histories investigated.

It should be difficult for doctors to trawl through family histories. Given the small fraction of cases where allegedly this will do the patient some good, this is an overwhelming and blatant trampling of other people's rights. Why should a mother (etc.) have her medical history examined without her consent or knowledge just because some doctor allegedly thinks her daughter might be lying?

Date published: 2005/04/20

Cambridge city centre speed limits to be reduced to 20 mph (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Streets in Cambridge city centre could become a 20mph zone under a plan to slow traffic down.

Roads including Downing Street, St Andrew's Street, Silver Street and King's Parade will be included in the 20mph zone if city residents give it the okay.

A joint committee of city and county councillors this week agreed to consult the public on the idea before making a decision.

Councillors and traffic chiefs have been talking behind closed doors for some time about having a low-speed zone in the city centre. A recent survey showed the average speed on most of the roads in the proposed zone was already close to 20mph.

It is hoped in time the zone would be widened to include all the streets in the centre of Cambridge.

City councillor Jenny Bailey, who is responsible for transport, said: "There have been a number of people pushing for it including the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and some of the shopkeepers.

"It will be a nice thing to have in the town centre because people can be tempted to race through. I don't think it will affect many people during peak time because the congestion keeps people down to 20mph anyway, but during off-peak times in the early morning and late evening it will stop dangerous speeding.

"I think residents will be in support of it. There are a few people with souped-up Fiestas who just try to see how fast they can go, but Cambridge streets are just not the place for that - they were never designed for cars."

Tennis Court Lane would have road humps as part of the scheme but traffic chiefs decided the rest of the roads would not need traffic-calming measures to ensure people keep their speeds down.

The public consultation will take place between May and July, with a final decision on whether to go ahead with the plan expected from councillors in October. The new speed limits would come into force next year if the public approved of them.

Coun Bailey added: "It has to be self-policing because the police do not have the resources to enforce it. However, if there is a place where we get a lot of complaints then we would ask the police to come down with a mobile speed camera.

The usual silly comments from Bailey. Why should the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (a small minority) be deciding policy for Cambridge yet again? The idea that a few "souped-up Fiestas" are destroying life in Cambridge because they are going 30 mph when there is no traffic around is a joke. Fortunately in this case there is nothing wrong per se with a 20 mph speed limit, and most people already stick to that because most people drive at a safe speed rather than at a speed limit, as even Bailey seems to recognise. Some of the worst offenders are not private motorists, but taxis (and sometimes buses) careering down Silver Street during the middle of the day (when the road is closed to private cars). Of course the LibDem Cambridge councillors only hate private cars, so that is always going to bias their remarks.

The worst thing about this whole episode is that local government is going to waste money yet again on a fatuous "public consultation". Needless to say the cyclists, and other car haters in the chattering classes, will be over-represented in the response, but since the people who run this town are all in the chattering class they of course want this bias to exist so their prejudice can be reaffirmed by their fellow travellers. Blessed be the day when Blair resigns so that the people of Cambridge can kick the LibDems out of power in the city.

On the other hand, maybe it is just as well that local government is going to spend a lot of time and effort on this proposal. It means they have less time to spend on doing even more damage elsewhere (the normal course of events).

What is relativism? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Shortly before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a withering denunciation of relativism. For those unfamiliar with even the blunter points of philosophy, what was he driving at?

Moral relativism is the idea that moral principles have no objective standard, so states its dictionary definition.

In its extreme, the view that there are no hard and fast rules on what is right and wrong, on which values are set and should be fought for.

It is in contrast to absolutism, that there is one truth.

Relativism is "Different opinions, no one authority, and as many 'truths' as there are people or societies or cultures advancing different ways of doing things," says Simon Blackburn, Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

It is easy, he says, "to give relativism a slogan: Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. One man's meat is another man's poison." And when that is applied to ethics, then goodness, virtue and duty also lie in the eye of the beholder.

So, for the western liberal, living under western liberal influences, with western liberal opinions, he says, contraception and abortion are in, but for the Catholic Church, they are out.

In his sermon ahead of the conclave to choose a new Pope, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned of the need to preserve the Church's traditional Catholic tenets against modern trends, against the "dictatorship of relativism".

Moral standards, Catholic conservatives believe, should be perfect and unchanging.

At the same time, relativism was being attacked in the British general election campaign. Under it, said Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party, traditional British values are "being trashed" as "the victims have become the aggressors and the aggressors have become the victims"

On education, much is made of a lack of discipline in schools at a time when parents can challenge the teachers who used to be a figure of absolute authority.

The arguments' theme is not new. Two and a half thousand years ago, Professor Blackburn points out, Plato opposed relativism in his Dialogues when he sought "one true opinion, real knowledge, real authority" and wanted to establish the error of other opinions.

In the Reformation, Martin Luther argued authority came from each believer, from the bottom up, not from the top down, as Church heads would have it.

As Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher's Magazine, highlights, relativism grew under "early globalisation" when explorers discovered other cultures had different standards and morals, a catalyst to reconsider their own.

In the late 20th Century, postmodernism had academics arguing that there is no one truth, just many interpretations. And in politics, some cast the impeachment of President Clinton as an absolutist attempt to establish right over wrong.

But philosophers warn against painting a crude black and white contrast between one absolute truth and the rest - bagging together all "relativists".

"The problem is that it's not just a contrast to absolutism," says Baggini.

Relativism, he says, gets "a bad name" from opponents like the church who cast it only as "an anything goes" approach to moral questions. The reality has a much more diverse set of views, he says.

That bad name, he believes, is "perhaps the biggest example of philosophical illiteracy".

For once a halfway-decent article on the BBC website, give a bonus to the author(s) (it's not stated who that was). However it is not correct to see "the impeachment of President Clinton as an absolutist attempt to establish right over wrong", it was just a rightwing attempt at a coup (which they then achieved in the 2000 presidential election proper).

The only people who believe in "absolutism" are the people who believe they have the authority to dispense what the absolute beliefs ought to be. They rarely have a decent argument as to why their beliefs are any better than the opposite. (Referring to arbitrary interpretations of 2000 year old texts does not count.)

Information Technology for Sustainable Development (permanent blog link)

The sixth and final lecture of the university's Third Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2005) was given today by Nazli Choucri, a political scientist who is behind the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD) project at MIT. (Their home page is one of those confusing front pages where it is not obvious how to proceed. Going via google to find the real home page was easier.)

Now Choucri flew over from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then will go back again after a couple of days in the UK. Meanwhile her talk was beamed back to MIT via a video link. Nobody seems to notice the irony in all this. Apparently the practitioners of "sustainable development" see nothing wrong with flying 10000 miles round trip to give a lecture when instead you could give the lecture on your home ground of MIT and make the video link go the other way. At least she did not talk about "sustainable transport". In last year's series, Fred Salvucci of MIT did exactly the same round trip, again unnecessarily, and he did talk about "sustainable transport" (needless to say, the car being the source of all evil in the world). Some people have no shame. (Well, he was the originator of the "Big Dig" in Boston, one of the worst public sector projects of all time.)

There is a tendency among many in the "sustainable development" community to use cringe-making jargon, and this lecture was certainly full of that: "e-knowledge access", "new technologies for knowledge networking", "de-massification" (huh?), moving from "'supply chain' to 'knowledge chain'", "strategic cyberpartnering", "enabling new actors and leverages", etc., and with a meaningless chart with "knowledge content" on the x axis and "knowledge value" on the y axis. Social scientists seem to love this stuff, and it's a good reason to move money from that into science and engineering, where people solve problems instead of just talking fashionable jargon.

However there is at least some point to the GSSD project. If you get away from the dreadful jargon, what they seem to be trying to do is to catalogue work in "sustainable development" on the internet so that other people can more easily find it. Unbelievably they seem to have been given a patent for this work (the first for the School of Social sciences at MIT, according to Choucri), but then again, in the US you can patent anything.

They have introduced fourteen top-level categories or "domains" (labelled "energy", "trade", "industry", "mobility", "agriculture", "land use", "water", "conflicts", "urbanization", "consumption" "unmet needs", "population", "migration" and "governance"). Each of those is split into five sub-categories (labelled "activities", "problems", "technical solutions", "social solutions" and "international responses"), and then each of these is sub-divided further (dependent on what the top-level domain is).

This is a classic exercise in data modelling, as has been done by librarians, and more recently scientists and others, for centuries. It is a non-trivial job and largely thankless. No domain is black and white, and almost anybody can come up with examples which seem to show the categorisation does not quite make sense. (Someone in the audience asked about "air" since "water" was listed explicitly. It's hiding somewhere but only an expert would know.)

And with google around, you have to wonder if all this work is worth it. Basically GSSD is a "sustainable development" portal. Is going to such a portal going to save you time and effort when you are trying to find something in the "sustainable development" field? First of all, google only searches on syntax (word matches independent of context). As it happens that is a very powerful methodology if you combine it with a good ranking system for webpages, which of course google has.

Many people believe (but with little success so far) that you should be able to do better searches if you take account of semantics (what something means, so in particular in what context it appears). GSSD would be one approach to doing that. You get experts to review documents, those that are good enough get listed and categorised, and those that are not (according to the reviewer) do not. This can be an extremely expensive procedure, not only to review the documents in the first place, but then also to maintain the information (because documents on the internet move, etc.).

The proof will be in the pudding, and as with all portals there is a chicken and egg problem (if you are not known you might not be found, unless google ranks you high, and if you are not found you will never become known). Choucri mentioned that if you put "sustainable development" into google you would get millions of hits, suggesting GSSD would be much better for that kind of search (since meant specifically for it). But why would anybody put such a wide query into google. Much more likely you would ask about a specific topic, or paper, or author.

For many searches google wins hands down, but it depends on the search. If you have a paper copy of the Financial Times and want to find an article on the FT website you could go to the FT website and try to find it using the categories the FT has set up, or you could go to google and type a half dozen words from the first sentence. The latter would get you there faster almost always. Google does a better job of drilling down into websites than websites do themselves. But if you wanted to know how much a Polish zloty (stroke through the "l") is worth in British currency today then you would probably just go to the FT website, because it is dead simple to find that information on their website, and google might well flounder. So the FT website has been set up to make it easier to find currencies than specific articles.

One suspects that GSSD will be the same. If what you want falls easily into place with their categories then GSSD will be useful, otherwise probably not.

And it is a bit ironic that with "decentralization" featuring in Choucri's talk (as it does in many "sustainable development" talks) that GSSD is a large central service with a central authority deciding what can appear in the system. As someone from the audience pointed out in the question and answer session, a more decentralised approach would be for people in the "sustainable development" community just to put appropriate keywords into their HTML and let google do the rest.

Choucri said in the question and answer session, in response to a specific query, that one of her primary objectives was to get the UN to use this system. The idea is that there are lots of UN agencies and committees and lots of international agreements, and how does anyone know, for example, if a clause in one agreement contradicts that in another. Well, it's hard to see how GSSD or any computer system could ever do that since you need to understand the legal implications of the obtuse and arcane jargon found in such agreements, and that is down to human experts.

Date published: 2005/04/19

Pope Benedict XVI (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been elected as the pope - the head of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, the 78-year-old German has appeared on the balcony of the Vatican palace.

Hopefully he does not turn out to be as bad as his form book would imply. The world does not need yet another religion run by fundamentalists, and with policies on population control and AIDs driven by medieval orthodoxy. Fortunately he is old, so should not be around that long.

Diets of children in West of Scotland ten years ago (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The children of women who work have better diets than those whose mothers stay at home, researchers have found.

The University of Glasgow researchers analysed information from over 2,000 11-year-olds and their parents.

They found children whose mothers did not work were more likely to eat unhealthy snacks.
...
The data was collected in 1994 to 1995 as part of a major study of the health and lifestyles of children in the West of Scotland.
...
Parents provided information about the household, the mother's qualifications and whether or not she was working.

The researchers found 63% of children whose mothers were at home full-time were classed as eating "less healthily", compared to 52% of those whose mothers worked full-time.

Mothers who worked full-time did tend to live in less deprived areas, which the researchers said could account for the difference.

Ten-year old data, bizarre. This looks like a classic confusion of correlation and causation, which is pretty much admitted in the last paragraph. The meaningful link, as with most things in life, is with income. It's hard to believe that the BBC gives this kind of "research" any publicity.

Date published: 2005/04/18

Nuclear power is no go in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

None of the UK's three main parties will take the lead in the debate on building new nuclear power stations.

Many energy experts say the issue must be raised soon if Britain is to start construction of new plants to meet its power production and climate targets.

But the parties do not believe the next government will have a responsibility to promote the nuclear argument.

Labour and the Tories say that it is down to industry to make a case - which the Lib Dems think is unwinnable.

"This is about industry coming forward with proposals," said Lord Sainsbury, who has held the science and innovation ministerial brief under Labour.

"We have said we will keep the nuclear option open; we're putting the money in to make certain we have the research and trained people available if there is a change in the situation, but, in the first instance, it is for industry to come forward and then we will have that public debate."

This is just saying that no nuclear power stations are going to be built in the UK. The chattering classes (including the so-called environmentalists) long ago gave up on nuclear power, and if government has no interest then why would industry waste millions of pounds just in case. The politicians are being disingenous if they are trying to pretend otherwise.

Ski resorts and ecology do not mix (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The impacts of ski piste preparation on alpine plants are long-lasting and greatest at higher altitudes, Swiss researchers report.

The effects are likely to worsen as global warming forces ski operators to use more artificial snow and open higher runs, the scientists say.

They compared the vegetation on and off-piste at 12 Swiss ski resorts, in the biggest study of its kind.

Overall, they found 9% less plant cover and 11% fewer plant species on-piste.

Their study, published online in the Journal of Applied Ecology, also showed 17% less plant biomass on ski pistes, with woody plants and early-flowering species worst-affected.

Is this supposed to be surprising? You just have to look at ski slopes in summer to be able to see writ large what damage they do to mountains. But the Alps are not mountain-to-mountain ski slopes, so this hardly seems like a great issue.

Date published: 2005/04/17

Cam Magazine, Lent Term (permanent blog link)

Cam Magazine is an alumni magazine for Cambridge University. Like all such magazines the real intent is to convince alumni to support the university financially, but of course the British are much more subtle about this than the Americans, and there is no mention of money, and the articles are often quite interesting.

The current issue (Lent Term 2005, number 44) is fairly typical. One of the normal features is "Don's diary", when a "don" (a senior member of the university) writes about his or her life. The one in this issue is written by Simon Blackburn and he says (amongst other things):

Off to the House of Lords to give evidence to the committee chaired by Lord Mackay, looking into Lord Joffe's excellent bill to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who expressly want to die. I am there at the invitation of the British Humanist Association. A posse of religious spokesmen (yes, men) precede us, all frothing that God's will must prevail, and the bill would mark the end of civilisation as we know it -- as they doubtless did when suicide itself was made legal, or probably anaesthetics or for that matter umbrellas, which after all impiously thwart God's plan to wet people. The religious posse are given three hours or so; we are given one, and that is interrupted by a loud bell, on which most of the Lords troop out to vote in a debate that they haven't attended.

One of our group is Philip Havers QC, who defended Diane Pretty. He lucidly describes the incoherent and unjust state of the law as it stands. Only a few of the Lords seem bothered. I talk about the fragility of any distinction between doing something to hasten dying (which can get you fourteen years in prison) as opposed to removing something that is lengthening life (which is currently legal). The Lords are polite, but when it comes to questions they ask about something quite different. I am told that the ethics committee of the BMA likes the acts/omissions distinction, no doubt since it provides a nice shelter and absolves doctors from involving themselves in these embarrassing things.

Isn't it nice to hear someone be rational on this subject. Unfortunately the religious control freaks have far too much influence in the world. And the BMA (British Medical Association) is not much better.

Another regular feature in Cam Magazine is "My Time at Cambridge", with a couple of famous alumni telling some (usually amusing) stories about their time as undergraduates. (People who come to Cambridge just as post-graduates are not really considered to be in the same class.) One of the alumni this month is Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records. He said he had wanted to do Maths and Physics from an early age but ended up doing English at Cambridge, so a bit of a loss that. He also says:

I got something wrong when I was nineteen: I gave Neil Young's Harvest album a bad review in Varsity and have regretted it ever since. Since then I've been obsessed with getting things right. As a 54-stroke-5-year-old worker in the music industry, I go two or three times a month to watch bands and stand in a dirty basement while four teenage kids thrash their guitars. Every time is like the unseen paper in tripos when I rubbished what I thought was a crappy nineteenth-century song, but which turned out to be one of those folksy songs that clever-dick Shakespeare throws into his plays from time to time. That really hurt bad. And so, if I ever thought a band was no good, and I was wrong and they turned out to be significant artists, I would have to slit my throat. As my late mother once complained, "This crazy life of yours is still just an extension of Cambridge".

Google satellite maps (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Photographs of North America's most significant landmarks and locations, including the Grand Canyon, Alcatraz and Mount Rushmore are being given a fresh perspective thanks to a tool by Google.

The search engine giant now provides satellite photographs of many locations in the US and Canada.
...
The satellite maps are provided by digital map maker Keyhole Corporation, which was bought by Google last year.

At the moment Google only offers satellite images of locations in the US but Keyhole has data for the whole globe so the service could be rolled out for other countries.

While satellite images have been commercially available for some time, the cost has put the photos out of reach of most individuals.

Satellite imaging firm EarthSat sells photos which can cost about $22 (£14) per square kilometre with a minimum purchase of 25 square kilometres.

The detail in some of the Google photos is impressive - putting zoom at the highest level lets you pick out individual houses and even cars.

Almost any address has a satellite photo version but Keyhole has tried to calm privacy fears by pointing out that the photos are at least six months old.

Google is of course the greatest invention of the information age. Their satellite maps are definitely impressive, down to a few meter resolution, and (with a decent internet connection) you can pan amazingly smoothly (clever software, eh). The only worrying thing is that if this is what you can get for free on the internet, imagine what the spy agencies can do. They can probably tell what newspaper and what article you are reading in your garden. Fortunately, with six billion people around, they can only spy on a few thousand people at a time.

Rich countries not doing enough for education (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's richest countries are failing to provide the funds needed for education in the developing world, the Global Campaign for Education has said.

The campaign group's report was published during ministerial meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington.

The delegates are set to discus efforts to achieve universal primary education.

World leaders have agreed a target of providing primary education for all children by 2015.

It was part of the Millennium Development Goals agreed at a United Nations summit five years ago.

The Global Campaign for Education says 100 million children are still not going to school and it blames rich countries for failing to provide the funding necessary.

Is it really the business of the rich world to interfere in absolutely every aspect of life in the countries of the poor world, no matter how well intended? And most rich countries "are failing to provide the funds needed for education" in their own countries. This is all par for the course. Everybody wants money for everything (especially the NGOs of the world) but nobody wants to pay for it.

Date published: 2005/04/16

EU votes to block US grain imports (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Union has voted to block certain US grain imports unless they are guaranteed free of a controversial genetically modified strain of corn.

Some scientists fear the Bt10 strain, which has been entering the EU in a mix with other varieties, could make humans resistant to the antibiotic ampicillin.

EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said the block was necessary to uphold consumer confidence.

Washington's mission to the EU called it an over-reaction.

"US regulatory authorities have determined there are no hazards to health, safety or the environment related to Bt10," a spokesman said.

Bt10 corn apparently entered the EU after being mistaken for Bt11, another genetically modified organism (GMO) which has been authorised by Brussels.

The manufacturers of the corn, Syngenta of Switzerland, said they were doing everything possible to ensure that the safety of humans, animals and the environment was not affected.

From now on, US consignments of corn gluten animal feed and brewers' grain will have to be accompanied by an analytical report from an accredited laboratory.

But Syngenta have not so far come up with a test to distinguish between the banned strain and approved strains.

The environmental organisation Greenpeace said that that could necessitate a blanket ban on the trade in US corn gluten feed, which was worth $450m last year.

Greenpeace GMO expert Christoph Then said Europe was "currently helpless to defend itself" from contamination by GMOs.

"As long as EU authorities have no means to test imports for all the GMOs being released in the US and elsewhere, it must say 'No Entry to the EU' for any food, feed or seeds that are at risk of contamination with illegal GMOs," the Greenpeace expert said.

Needless to say the ordinary punter has no way of knowing whether Bt10 is a real issue or just part of the usual EU anti-GM attitude (both for religious and anti-competition reasons). The so-called environmentalists will always cry wolf, and sooner or later, just by the laws of probability, they will cry wolf when there is indeed a wolf. Wouldn't it be nice if an expert without an axe to grind was allowed to comment on the issue by the BBC, instead of just the usual suspects.

Flats dropping in price in the UK (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

The price of new flats has fallen by 10 per cent in a year, according to a survey that adds to fears of housebuilders flooding the market with overpriced apartments.

While the value of new detached and semi-detached homes leapt between March 2004 and March 2005 (17.8 per cent and 8.8 per cent respectively), prices of new flats fell by 9.8 per cent, according to the survey by SmartNewHomes.com.
...
The survey reinforces Land Registry figures for the year to the end of 2004 which showed the price of new flats had fallen 1.2 per cent while the price of the average residential property had soared by 11.8 per cent.
...
Flats have gone from less than 20 per cent of new homes built each year to more than 50 per cent, largely as a result of government policies that favour high-density, brown-field sites. The buyers have mainly been investors, often with heavy debt, looking for capital growth.

When one, not particularly desirable, sector goes from less than 20 per cent to more than 50 per cent of the market then you know you have a problem. Although the speculators, including the developers, are not blame free, the government and the urban planning elite have to shoulder much of the blame. They have this idea that "executive" homes (the dreadful name given to new suburban homes which are big enough for a family) are awful and that everybody should be forced to live in an urban shoebox. Flats are ok for young people but not for most people. As it happens Cambridge too has seen an explosion of flats coming on the market (and another huge development is being built on Hills Road next to the railway line). Fortunately Cambridge has a large student population, so there might be some demand for all these new flats, especially if the prices do indeed fall to a more sane level.

Date published: 2005/04/15

Tories subverting British values (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair's government has allowed the special interests of a "politically correct" minority to subvert British values, Michael Howard has said.

During a speech on immigration and asylum, Mr Howard said those who dared to criticise groups that bent the rules were "intimidated into silence".

But no one stood up for British values which were "being trashed", he added.

Mr Blair said Mr Howard was playing on people's fears. The Lib Dems said he had a problem with his own Britishness.

It's always amazing how second generation immigrants, like Howard, try to pretend to be more British than the British. He is the one subverting British values.

Which brings us to the Tory manifesto, which is several days old now. There is this puerile handwriting throughout the document (Howard's own?). But ignoring that, what does it say.

The Tories say "Britain is a great country. But today it is heading in the wrong direction." What on earth are they talking about? The main thing wrong with the country today is the dreadful attack on civil liberties by the government and, in the recent past, the awful unprovoked attack on Iraq, and the Tories are pretty much in league with Labour on this. Indeed, Michael Howard was the worst Home Secretary of all time, until Jack Straw and David Blunkett in turn took that title away (and Charles Clarke is on his way).

The Tories promise "value for money and lower taxes". They say "People who work hard, pay their taxes and do the right thing should be rewarded, not punished". This is all just meaningless spin. They say "All new regulation will have to have benefits exceeding costs", but all political parties say that before they come to power, and once they are in power they do the opposite.

The Tories say "What is wrong with a little discipline in schools?" Not many people have suggested the opposite.

The Tories say "How hard is it to keep a hospital clean"? It is hard, when you don't spend enough money on cleaning, and that is something which the last Tory government ensured when they privatised the cleaning of hospitals.

The Tories say "It's not racist to impose limits on immigration". No, but it is racist to launch unfounded attacks on asylum seekers, and to try and create a link between immigration and asylum seekers.

The Tories ask "Why can't politicans be more accountable"? Because they are people like Michael Howard.

The Tories say "The Right to Buy for council tenants extended home ownership, transformed many of Britain's housing estates and expanded our property-owning democracy." This was one of the worst decisions by the last Tory government (and there is a long list of competing claims). Why is it right for a council tenant to receive a huge discount on buying their house? Most of them make tens of thousands of pounds instantly. Free money from the State. There are many hard-working people (oh, the kind of people Michael Howard claims he represents) who have to save and scrimp every penny they have in order to afford to get on the housing ladder. They receive no golden handshake from the government.

The Tories say "A Conservative Government will end Labour's war on the motorist". Unfortunately it was the last Tory government that started the war on the motorist.

The Tories say "A Conservative Government will call a halt to Labour's plans to concrete over our green fields. We will promote development on brownfield sites and establish more Green Belts with tighter development rules." Unfortunately it was the last Tory government that encouraged this to happen. And it to some extent it needs to happen in order to provide enough housing where people want to live. And many "green" fields are more brown than some designated brownfield sites. Cambridgeshire is full of examples (e.g. the new Northstowe development will be centred on a disused airfield, which is allegedly a "brownfield" site, but most of the area being developed is green field by any criterion).

There is more of the same. So all in all, there's not that much in the Tory manifesto. It's mostly spin. A grade of C-.

Save billions by cutting pollution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Union could save up to 161 billion euros a year by reducing deaths caused by air pollution, the World Health Organization has said.

Air pollution reduces the life of the average European by 8.6 months.

The toxic particles in pollution increase deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and the price of treating these ailments is costly.

However, EU plans to cut pollution by 2010 should on average save 2.3 months of life for each European, WHO says.

This is the equivalent of preventing 80,000 premature deaths and saving over one million years of life across the European Union.

As of today there was no information on the WHO website as to how they did their sums, but 161 billion Euros sounds unbelievable. It had better be net the costs of reducing the pollution, otherwise the number is meaningless. And isn't it amazing that the governments of the EU are so stupid as to not accept a cheque written for 161 billion Euros staring at them in the face.

There is this fetish amongst the health professionals of the world to maximise lifespan, as if that is all that counts. Which is better, to live 83 years and have a decent job until you are 65, or to live to 83 years, 8 months and 15 days and be made redundant at age 50 because your job has been exported to China? The EU has shown itself to be remarkably good at exporting jobs, and this kind of narrow focus on health and safety at all cost is part of the problem. Being unemployed is more of a health risk than the amount of air (and other) pollution that now exists in most of the EU (at least in the western part).

Cambridge car drivers avoid the Cam (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Traffic flow into Cambridge has gone down by 2,000 cars a day - but it has gone up everywhere else in the county.

New figures compiled by traffic counters show that 2004 saw a reduction in motor vehicles in the city.

There were 3 per cent less vehicles crossing the River Cam in 2004 than in 2003 and 19 per cent less than a decade ago.

The survey figures show that people have moved to using the park and ride which saw a 6 per cent increase in usage in 2004 and now carries 1.5 million fare-paying passengers a year.

Well one of the reasons for the 19 per cent reduction over a decade is because the city has closed down some of the routes over the Cam (except for rich people in taxis). And just counting the number of vehicles crossing the Cam is missing out most of the picture. What has happened to traffic on the (99% of) city roads that are not crossing the Cam?

The shopping strip in the Newmarket Road area of the city has doubled or tripled in size the last few years, with no change in the road capacity (in fact a reduction thanks to the silly and confusing bus lanes they have put in). Anyone who pays any attention (and do any of the politicians or bureaucrats who run this city?) knows, for example, that in the last year or two Coldhams Lane heading into Newmarket Road has become one big traffic jam. To get from Sainsburys on Coldhams Lane to Arbury you would be crazy (except in the evenings or early mornings) to go via the city, you would instead drive out of the city and use the A14. One less crossing of the Cam according to the statistics (one crosses the Cam, but not via a bridge in the city). More traffic elsewhere. More car mileage. More pollution. (Relative to the situation a few years ago.) One big victory for the environment, thanks to the chattering classes who run Cambridge.

Traffic has gone up elsewhere in the county because there are now many offices outside the city (just as well, given the double whammy of the extortionate rents in the city, and the fact that the city government refuses to allow enough car parking, which is one of the stumbling blocks in the redevelopment of the area around the railway station).

(Another question is whether the Park and Ride sites have increased or decreased total energy consumption. When the sums are done properly.)

Date published: 2005/04/14

Liberal Democrats manifesto is launched (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Liberal Democrats are the "real alternative" to Labour and the Tories, leader Charles Kennedy has said, as he launched his election manifesto.

The Lib Dems say replacing council tax with a new local income tax will make 15 million households better off.

Well if 15 million households are better off then presumably 10 million are worse off. So this is just suggesting that a small majority should have money handed over to them by a large minority, and in theory that is a good idea electorally (but with tax it is never so easy). The LibDems would probably claim this is just restitution for money that was sent in the opposite direction in recent years because of Labour tax policies (again, the situation is more complicated). The big winners will be the non-workers (e.g. students and pensioners), the big losers will be the workers.

At least the LibDem manifesto is not very long. Of course it is largely irrelevant, since the LibDems are not going to come anywhere near winning the election (they might even lose some seats, although that seems unlikely). But some Labour voters will opt for the LibDems just because they can't stand Blair, so perhaps worth knowing what the LibDems claim they would do in the parallel universe in which they run the UK government. And refreshingly there is certainly less spin in their manifesto than in the Labour one.

The LibDems want to abolish the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry), it's just about the first thing mentioned. How odd, that sounds like a Tory policy (less government and all that). But no doubt the DTI is largely a waste of money.

The LibDems want to scrap the so-called Child Trust Fund (a.k.a. Baby Bond) and use the money instead to reduce primary school class sizes. The Child Trust Fund is one of the worst pieces of legislation on the economic front that Labour introduced during the last term. But it is almost certainly bound to be electorally popular since all parents will think of themselves as winners (even though averaged over a lifetime many will not be) and non-parents were not supposed to notice the extra few pounds being handed over in tax to subsidise the parents. (There are much bigger subsidies being handed over, after all.) So it's amazing that any political party has the will to suggest abolishing it, but good on them. Not that reducing primary class sizes will really do much good. Far better to increase the budget for books and computers in schools.

The LibDems will not introduce ID cards. This shows they obviously realise they will never be in power, because any politician who aspires to power also aspires to run a Police State, as New Labour has amply demonstrated.

The LibDems will abolish university tuition and top-up fees. Tony Blair, and most other politicians of his generation (the so-called useless generation; John Major another member), received university education for free (including a grant for maintenance) but decided what was good enough for him was not good enough for today's students, so he pulled up the ladder behind himself, without even a hint of contrition.

The LibDems will introduce free personal care for elderly and disabled people. Labour has this ridiculous idea that if you cannot look after yourself because of certain health problems you get free care, but for other health problems you have to pay (a lot). It's a nonsense. So the LibDems would change that, although it will get very expensive in future.

The LibDems want to increase the (marginal) income tax rate to 49% for income over 100000 pounds (from 40%). Well this is better than increasing National Insurance (NI), as Labour is wont to do. But not much better. It is always tempting to "soak the rich". And this policy will see the richest 1% handing money over to the remaining 99%, so again it ought to be electorally popular. But it is not as easy as that. If it's 100k today it will probably be 90k tomorrow, then 80k, etc. (Or the equivalent automatically if the 100k is not indexed to inflation.) So more people might see this as a tax that will eventually entrap them. And most people who earn over 100k have accountants. And accountants are good at tax minimisation. In particular, the capital gains tax rate is 40%, and it won't take long for the rich to divert some of their income to capital gains. So back to square one.

(The increase is to 49% because there is an employee NI payment of 1%, so the sum of 50% is their headline story. But why bother with that triviality. First of all none of the other parties would have done so. Secondly, it is not really being that honest, because it ignores the much higher employer NI payment, which is really another income tax in disguise. The real marginal rate of tax would be something like 55%. See the memo on NI for the situation in the 2001-2 tax year.)

Then the manifesto bizarrely claims "The environment features on every page of this manifesto -- a strong green thread running through everything we do and promise". Huh??? No mention of anything to do with the environment up to that point. Or immediately afterwards either. So this reads oddly. But the following sections all end with a "green" claim.

In the section on health, they mention that "We support the adoption of the EU Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH) Directive" (a typical piece of interference by the Eurocrats, which will mean more animal lab deaths, mainly for the benefit of the so-called environmentalists). And they want to promote walking and cycling. Well that's controversial. That is the sum total of the LibDem "green" policies on health.

And in the section on education they say "All plans for new educational buildings must be good for the environment as well as good for education". Well hopefully the same applies to non-educational buildings. And unfortunately what is good for the environment is not necessarily the same as what the chattering classes (led by the so-called environmentalists) believe is good for the environment. (In particular, the urban planning elite all want housing to be high density slums, because treating the workers like rats is considered to be "sustainable".)

In the section on crime they even manage to come up with some spurious "green" connection. They are going to "improve the enforcement of pollution controls".

The LibDems are going to increase the (lowest) stamp duty threshold from 120k to 150k pounds. (The Labour Party just increased it from 60k to 120k, as part of their cynical election campaign.) They claim this "cuts the cost of home ownership". But it does no such thing. It just means that house prices will increase (almost) exactly to compensate for the removal of this tax. So not very impressive. But none of the political parties seem to be very sensible on stamp duty. In particular none of them have promised to change the thresholds from being absolute to being marginal, which is the real problem with stamp duty.

Their "green" action on the economy is to change from the Climate Change Levy into a straight Carbon Tax. Fine, if they do this fairly. But car drivers already pay a carbon tax and bus and rail commuters do not. Yet you can guarantee that with the LibDems, car drivers would pay more and commuters less. So this is just politically correct hot air. They are also going to "promote clean energy" (more hot air) and not build any new nuclear power plants.

The LibDems say that they will make sure that "within seven years 60 per cent of all household waste is recycled". A nonsense policy. It does not address the real issue, which is the amount of waste created in the first place. It is recycling for recycling's sake, so very middle class. They say "Manufacturers will be held responsible for disposing of their products and materials that are difficult to reuse or recycle". Sounds great, but in implementation it is almost certain to be more middle class nonsense.

The LibDems, like most of the chattering classes in the UK, hate GM crops. "No commercial GM crops unless we know they're safe for the environment." This is just a way of saying "never", because the anti-GM zealots will never accept any evidence that GM crops are "safe".

The paragraph on aviation is stark. "To encourage more fuel-efficient aircraft and discourage half-empty planes we will press for international agreement on extending emissions trading to aviation, while at the same time implementing per-aircraft rather than per-passenger charges. We will oppose the construction of international airports on new sites, and also the expansion of airports in the South East. We will end the regulation on busy national airports which results in retail rents subsidising landing charges and encouraging congestion and pollution."

Are they going to discourage half-empty trains? (Almost every train from Cambridge to London outside the rush hour is half-empty.) Anybody who has ever been on one of the cheap airlines like Ryanair or EasyJet knows full well that the planes are generally quite full. The LibDems also seem to be opposing the expansion of Stansted, so they are sticking two fingers up to East Anglia. They also believe they know how to run airports better than the airport operators. How dare any business subsidise one part of their sales from another. Well it would be interesting to see how many air travelers object to this. Definitely a policy for the chattering classes (who travel by air far more than the typical British citizen).

All in all a B-. The same as Labour without Blair.

GM rice allegedly being sold in China (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The environmental group Greenpeace says genetically modified (GM) rice is being sold in China even though it has not been approved for public consumption.

The group said the rice was being sold in markets in central Hubei province and it may have contaminated exports.

A Greenpeace spokesman said the government was in effect experimenting on the Chinese people.

Chinese government scientists told the BBC they were unaware of any illegal sales of GM rice.

China has been testing genetically modified rice for years and is expected to approve a strain for commercialisation soon.
...
Greenpeace campaigner Sze Pang Cheung said the genetic engineering industry was "out of control".

"A small group of rogue scientists have taken the world's most important staple food crop into their own hands and are subjecting the Chinese public to a totally unacceptable experiment," he said.
...
China is a major exporter of rice. Greenpeace warned the modified crop could have reached other countries, including Japan and South Korea, large consumers of GM foods.

The most amazing thing about this story is that it seems Greenpeace has members in China, how wonderfully middle class China has become. Unfortunately, if through this hysterical press release Greenpeace manages to sink Chinese exports of rice (generally), they might find the authorities are not very amused. The idea that this is "rogue scientists" at work is not very believable. Much more likely some farmers have decided that growing GM crops is a good way to make some money, and it wouldn't be surprising if there was some implicit government involvement somewhere along the chain. If and when the Chinese government officially approves GM rice, no doubt Greenpeace will still claim that this is "a totally unacceptable experiment".

Date published: 2005/04/13

Labour Party manifesto is launched (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has urged voters to make Labour's changes last "for all time" as he launched their election manifesto.

His programme for a third term includes a pledge not to increase the basic or top rate of income tax, but says nothing about National Insurance.

After eight years in power, Mr Blair says he is fighting his last election.

What a boring (and long) manifesto it is. "More of the same" sums it up. And full of the usual New Labour jargon and misleading statistics.

If the last term is anything to go by, then expect increases in National Insurance (NI) to help plug the black hole in public finances that has now developed courtesy of Gordon Brown refusing to balance the books. NI is an income tax, only it is not called an income tax. It is a particularly insidious income tax because it only applies to income earned by working. So if you spend 40 or 50 hours a week slaving on an NHS ward then you have to pay it. But if you make your money renting out houses or playing the stock market then you do not have to pay it. Go figure. The Labour Party is an anti-Labour Party. (Well Blair is a Tory in all but name.)

Amazingly the manifesto mentions the word "Iraq" ten times. (Not to apologise for misleading the nation into an unnecessary war, or for putting the interests of the US government above the interests of the citizens of Britain.) But no mention of "Bush".

Some selected quotes.

Labour will be the next government so we will all have to put up with this crap. Our only hope is that their majority is vastly reduced so they will be not be able to inflict too much damage on the country, especially with regard to civil liberties. At least in four years we will be rid of Blair (well, he is a serial liar so you never know).

Windfarms in Cumbria (permanent blog link)

The BBC (Caroline Wyatt) says:

On the green wind-swept hills of Cumbria loom several new landmarks: their long, tall frames silhouetted against the darkening skies.

Close-up, you can hear a high-pitched whistle and a loud whoosh as their huge blades scythe through the wind.

These five gunmetal-grey turbines are part of an existing wind-farm at Lambrigg, aimed at providing the area's energy needs in a sustainable way.
...
Kyle Blue has brought me here to look at the impact of even a small wind farm on the stunning, craggy landscape of the fells.

The 53-year-old chartered surveyor, born and bred in the nearby village of Orton, speaks with a calm passion about why many locals are bitterly opposed to plans for a much larger wind farm on the crest of Whinash fell.

"It would be the largest wind farm in the country, in some of the loveliest landscape outside the national park," says Kyle Blue.

"What worries us is that once a development occurs, it encourages others.
...
Cumbria is already home to 11 wind farms, but Whinash would be the largest by far.

Its 27 turbines would provide enough power for 47,000 homes. The turbines would be 115 metres high to the tip of each blade, the same height as St Paul's Cathedral, at a site bordering the Lake District National Park.

We drive there to take a look across the valley.

Even from several miles away, it is clear that a major wind farm on the ridge of the fell would change the wild landscape irrevocably, something the 'No Whinash Wind Farm" group is determined to prevent.

"If I were certain wind power were going to deliver what people hope, the sacrifices might be worth it - but I don't believe it is," says Kyle. "Many see this as the gateway to the lakes.

Tourism employs some 40,000 people in Cumbria, and putting that at risk is really putting the county at risk."

But Whinash is the perfect site, counters Steve Molloy, project manager for West Coast Energy, agents for the wind farm developers Falck.

"The wind resource here is excellent, and this is a very remote site," he insists.

"The wind farm would have no ecological impact. The land here does have its merits, but it's hardly of the same value as the Lake District National Park. It basically consists of acid grassland and some blanket bog."

Local chocolate maker David Kennedy vehemently disagrees.

He runs Kennedy's Fine Chocolates in Orton. In this village of just 300, his cosy shop employs 20 - making this a vital local business.

"Tourists are not just the icing on the cake for us - they are our bread and butter.

Even a small fall in numbers could really affect our business," he worries. "If the wind farm was put up and fewer tourists came, that would have a big impact.

We might have to move and not all our staff could move with us. I am all in favour of renewable energy, but if the area became carpeted with wind turbines, I wouldn't want to work here."

You get the typically flippant remarks from West Coast Energy. The basic problem is that they are not compensating the residents for the destruction (as they see it) of their landscape. Dismissing this landscape as "acid grassland and some blanket bog" is adding insult to injury. Windfarms are almost all sited in rural areas and the benefit almost all goes to urban areas (and the companies who own the windfarms). This is the kind of inequity which the so-called environmentalists (and the BBC) like to campaign about when it comes to other countries like India (e.g. when it comes to hydroelectric power) but somehow in Britain they are happy for the rights of their fellow citizens to be trampled.

Date published: 2005/04/12

Green Party manifesto is launched (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Greens say they can offer a radical alternative for voters who are fed up with the three main political parties.

They put climate change at the heart of their manifesto, saying it was a bigger threat than terrorism.

They pledged to fund public services and green policies with money saved by scrapping Labour's road building plan, Britain's nuclear arsenal and ID cards.

Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems all say they are determined to tackle climate change.

But the Green's main speaker, Keith Taylor, said their "privatise and pollute" agendas had led to soaring CO2 emission levels, and said flooding in Boscastle and Carlisle showed the effects of climate change.

"Climate change is happening and it's happening now. The only people denying it are those who make their money from burning fossil fuels," Mr Taylor said at the manifesto launch on Tuesday.

The Greens want to replace VAT with a new eco-tax and increase NHS investment to £90bn a year by 2008.

They would spend the £30bn saved from the roads scheme on public transport and use money from eco-taxes to invest in renewable energy and to create more skilled manufacturing jobs.

And they would use £3bn from scrapping Labour's ID cards plans to invest in community policing.

For some reason the Green Party gets more publicity than its share of the vote would justify, perhaps because the chattering classes who work for the BBC and other parts of the national media have some sympathy with the Green Party, or perhaps the media is just desperately looking for some interesting angle in this boring election.

The Green Party is the party of the comfortable middle classes, so much the same constituency as the LibDems. (Which is perhaps why the Green Party website seems to be attacking the LibDems more than the other parties.) As of tonight their manifesto is not available on their own website but was downloadable from the BBC website.

They start off their manifesto with one of the current middle class fixations: "High levels of wealth inequality contribute to poor physical health, as well as to crime and other social problems. Even those who are materially better off are not always happier or more fulfilled. When we include these factors in our calculations of economic well-being, we can see that our overall 'wealth' has been falling since the 1980s." Well you would be hard placed to find many people in Britain who think that the early 1980s were a high point in the happiness or wealth of the nation.

The Greens don't like GDP as a measure of anything, they prefer instead some fuzzy and arbitrarily defined measure "such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) or the New Economics Foundation's Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP)". Expect the thought police to not allow anyone to mention GDP if the Greens win power.

Oh, and don't forget, "production must by cyclical, not linear". And people complain about the gibberish that New Labour spouts.

Currently the top income tax rate in the UK is 40%. The Greens want to increase the tax rate to 50% above 50k pounds and 60% above 100k pounds. The message is clear, if the academic middle classes want something, the higher middle classes should pay for it. (The LibDems want a tax rate of 50% over 100k pounds. The other main parties are not advertising any change.) At least the Greens want to abolish National Insurance (NI), which is a nonsense income tax (only income from jobs pays NI, income from investments does not).

Currently inheritance tax is zero below a threshold of 275k pounds (2005/2006 tax year) and there is a 40% tax rate above that. The Greens want inheritance to be treated more as income by the recipients rather than as a lump sum. This would mean that a partner losing a partner could get hammered (although presumably the first complication in the Greens plan would be that this does not happen), and that if you have lots of kids then you could avoid inheritance tax completely by spreading the goods, which hardly seems fairer than the current system.

The Greens want to replace VAT with "eco" taxes. Well VAT is already a crude eco tax since it taxes consumption and as a rough rule of thumb the more something costs the more energy has gone into creating it. There are zero-rated VAT items in the UK (e.g. food, children's clothing and books) and low-rated VAT items (e.g. heating fuel and domestic electricity), so the link to energy usage is not perfect. But whatever the Greens would introduce, it is almost certain to be much more arbitrary and less linked to energy usage. For example, their manifesto for some reason in particular picks out plastic bags as worthy of being taxed. (And this is a perfect example of how middle class these people are, that this merits any specific mention.)

The Greens want to replace Council Tax and Uniform Business Rates with a "Land Value Tax" based on the rental value of land. Gee whizz, this is called rates, and was replaced years ago because it was causing so many problems, to be replaced with the even more unpopular Poll Tax and then the Council Tax. All are approximate land value taxes, the only difference is the exact algorithm used to assess the tax. So this proposal is nothing remarkable.

The Greens don't like global trade. They also don't like corporations. (So if by some miracle they took power in Britain, sell your UK assets quickly and leave the country.) They say: "As the benefits of trade go to corporations not individuals, it also undermines local economies." Huh? Corporations have shareholders, who are individuals (well, some of them are pension funds, etc., but those in turn are owned by individuals). It looks like they want to go back to command and control, which rather went out of fashion in the world back in the 1980s. They want to "reverse the process of economic globalisation" and in particular they say they therefore have to oppose the Euro. Boy, these guys live in cloud cuckoo land. If any of the major parties put this kind of rubbish in their manifesto they would get hammered, why did the BBC give the Greens a free pass?

The Greens hate carbon and love "renewable" energy (except for nuclear power, which they hate). Well there's a surprise. They want to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2010, 50% by 2020 and 85% by 2030. More cloud cuckoo land. But it's easy to do, just shut down the UK economy, which is what the Greens really want. The Greens want a carbon tax. Only they know that this would hammer the poor the hardest, so the tax rate will be different for different people (their manifesto says "tariffs will be structured in favour of smaller consumers"). So when you go to fill up your car with petrol, or buy food, or buy anything, then you may well have to tell the sales person how much you earned last year before you pay.

The Greens (like all the political parties) think that non-parents should hand over even more money to parents.

The Greens want to end Britain's opt-out of the EU Working Time Directive, so they know better than you how many hours you should work each week. They say we should be like the French and aim for a 35 hour week. Only France has Germany as a sugar daddy, and the UK does not.

The Greens want to reduce "dependency" on the car. Far better for the working population of Britain to be dependent on so-called public transport. Forget going from A to B when you want, you will have to ask permission from the Greens before you can go.

The Greens want to "factor in the true cost of motoring". Well driving is the only economic activity in the UK which pays (more than) its "true cost", in particular it is the only economic activity which already pays a carbon tax. (Clue for all you Green Party supporters. It's called the petrol tax.) The Greens want to take money from road building and spend it on so-called public transport. Amazing, eh, that something which is supposedly "sustainable" needs a large government subsidy in order to sustain it. Perhaps people on buses and trains should pay the "true cost" of their journeys, now that would be a radical proposal. (No political party would suggest this because London commuters run the country, and they would make trouble for any government which tried to take away their transport subsidy.)

The Greens want to tax air transport (more than currently happens). Well it is fair enough taxing all forms of transport, including air travel, but air transport is "public transport" as much as bus and train travel is, so why do the Greens hate the former and love the latter. They state they want to make "air transport reflect its true environmental costs" but do not say the same about bus and train travel. The Greens obviously think too many working class people can now afford to holiday abroad, and they want to return to the good old days when only the rich (like the Greens) could do so (there's nothing worse than flying to New York and having to share the plane with some horrid working class slob).

The BBC says:

[ London Assembly member Jenny Jones ] also offered an insight into the ethical dilemmas faced by party members, saying she was flying to New York to give a speech on peace.

"As a rule, I don't normally fly," she told reporters, but this trip was within her "personal carbon limits".

She's taking the piss. By going on some obviously pointless junket to New York she is going to cause more problems for the environment than your average UK car driver does in a year. Go to the bottom of the class. But the Greens, in line with all the other UK ruling elite, think there is one rule for the rulers and another one for the little people.

The Greens want to recycle 60% of domestic waste by 2010. This is classic Green middle class silliness. It does not matter how much waste you create, as long as you "recycle" a certain amount. And by "recycle" they mean hand it over to the State to "recycle" (which takes a huge amount of energy in transport), so woe betide any citizen who drops below the 60% target, as officially counted, by recycling their own green waste in a compost bin. This is recycling for recyling's sake.

The Greens want to "adopt the 'precautionary principle' with regard to any alleged benefits of new technologies such as genetic modification, xenotransplantation and nanotechnology". What this means is that the Greens hate new technology and have no reason to hate it so will just argue to ban it using a faith-based approach. The 'precautionary principle' also says we should invade Iraq just in case they have WMD. And then Syria, Iran and North Korea. So George Bush and the Greens at least share one principle in common.

The Greens want "organic" food production to be 30% of the total by 2012. Well "organic" is an arbitrary definition (and try to find an exact definition) made up by people who hate modern food production technology (anything less than, say, a hundred years old). In particular, for some reason GM food does not qualify as "organic", and the Greens will go so far as to ban that (as would most of the UK parties).

The Greens also love the NHS, foreigners, world peace, proportional representation, etc., etc. But all that stuff is boring and irrelevant in comparison to their economic and energy proposals.

BBC Top Gear should be axed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmental campaigners have called for the BBC's Top Gear programme to be scrapped as they claim it promotes irresponsible driving. But how fair is this criticism?

For many motoring enthusiasts it is among the highlights of the television week.

But, with its irreverent style and penchant for high-speed stunts, Top Gear attracts fans and critics in equal measure.

Now the BBC Two programme has come under fire from the Transport 2000 pressure group, which has called for it to be taken off the air and replaced with a show that promotes "sensible driving in sensible vehicles".
...
[ Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond ] stressed that Top Gear aims to provide "entertaining television" for motoring enthusiasts, whereas the programme mooted by Transport 2000 "wouldn't be watched for more than a week".

Why is the BBC giving any air time to Transport 2000? (They should be called Transport 1950 since they obviously think that is the era of transport system that we should have: all buses and trains and no cars.) Transport 2000 hate cars and so for them "sensible driving" means "no driving". Top Gear has some stupid moments but the idea that the unelected and unaccountable control freaks in Transport 2000 should decide what is and is not on TV is frightening. Unfortunately the BBC website gives far more time to anti-car nutters than it does to car enthusiasts.

Donald Rumsfeld is a natural born comedian (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US defence secretary has warned against political purges when a new Iraqi government takes power.

On a surprise visit to Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld said Baghdad must not allow goals of achieving democracy and defeating the insurgency to be blocked.

The US is worried that officers from the security forces who served under Saddam Hussein may be dismissed, the BBC's Baghdad correspondent says.
...
"It's important that the new government be attentive to the competence of the people in the ministries and that they avoid unnecessary turbulence," Mr Rumsfeld told journalists on his pre-dawn flight into Baghdad.

This is the usual neo-colonial "do as we say and not as we do". No doubt the new Iraqi leaders had a good laugh. Perhaps they asked him whether if competence is what matters then why was he still in his job. And next time they are in Washington perhaps they should ask to speak with all the Democratic cabinet members and judges that Bush has appointed, or all the top civil servants that were retained from the Clinton administration.

Date published: 2005/04/11

Tesco makes an awful lot of money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The people at Tesco think big. The company's hypermarkets are big, its share of the UK market is big, and its profits are big.

So big, in fact, that Tesco is expected to unveil record annual profits on Tuesday of around £2bn ($3.7bn).

Under its tough but respected chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco is thought to account for one in every eight pounds spent in Britain's shops, while it has been expanding abroad rapidly.

The company sets great store by its commitment to competitive prices, customer service and efficiency.

But as Tesco prepares to please its shareholders with yet another set of glittering earnings figures, not everyone will be celebrating.

Not everyone will be celebrating because the chattering classes (e.g. the people who work for the BBC) hate big companies and even more hate big successful companies. And cheap food is just ever so working class. And there is the common complaint from farmers (but farmers always complain about everything) that Tesco squeezes them so that prices can be made low. Funny, that's how capitalism works. And as long as Tesco is not a monopoly (and they are far from that nationally) then there is no great reason to assume they should be restricted in their business practises. (If they are a local monopoly that is a different matter.)

More electioneering from the LibDems (permanent blog link)

The LibDems continue with their attempt to take Cambridge. A canvasser stopped by on Saturday to ask about voting intentions. He was happy to hear that the LibDems were the likely choice but not so happy to hear that their candidate (David Howarth) is rather weak (or at least comes across that way). When asked how the canvassing was going, he was not willing to express great optimism about the outcome, so perhaps Cambridge will remain a Labour seat. But the LibDems are obviously the keenest, at least in Arbury.

On Sunday yet another LibDem leaflet dropped in through the letterbox. (This one entitled "Focus on Arbury", April 2005.) Not surprisingly it's much the same as all their previous leaflets (a rather big waste of paper), even though it's half-pretending to be a general local rather than election leaflet.

Meanwhile the national campaigns continue, and a real yawn it is. The Labour election broadcast (made with help from director Anthony Minghella) was all about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown trying to pretend they are good chums. All a bit unbelievable. And also lots to make you reach for the sick bag. For example, Gordon Brown says "Every child is precious, every child is unique, every child is special". And Tony Blair for some reason did not add "And that's why we need to get the DNA fingerprint of every child at birth, so we can nab the buggers when they start committing crime."

Date published: 2005/04/10

Frinton-on-Sea has lots of modernist houses (permanent blog link)

Frinton-on-Sea is a bizarre little seaside town, stuck in a bit of a 1960s time warp, and looking little more than a retirement village this time of year. The beach is nothing special (it does not even exist at high tide) but there is a long line of beach huts squashed in one next to the other (and sometimes three or four rows deep), in typical English seaside style. But what Frinton has that marks it out more than most English towns is a large collection of modernist houses (see The Bauhaus, modernism & domestic architecture, not dated explicitly but seemingly from 2001, so now getting old in some of the observations about the houses in their current state):

(and supposedly there is one at 16 Warley Way).

The architect Oliver Hill was the inspiration for the entire collection, starting in 1933. But he quit after the appointment of Tomkins Homer and Ley as the estate agents in 1935. (And many other famous modernist architects backed out early on as well for other reasons.)

And unfortunately most of these houses are not brilliant. Mainly because most of them have very little garden, and modernist houses need a bit of space to breathe. And they are surrounded by houses built in the usual English style, which looks jarring (again, that would not have been so bad if there had actually been any space in between the houses).

The house that looked the most loved was 4 Audley Way, which has been very sympathetically renovated recently (certainly since the time when the Bauhaus, etc., article was written, since the photo of the house in that article looks very different from what it looks like today).

Oh, and not far from Frinton, Norman Foster's early (1971-1975) building, Willis, Faber and Dumas, in Ipswich, is wonderful, but you can see why most people photograph it at night (the rest of the area does not do it justice, and the best views are into the sun).

Date published: 2005/04/09

US government sued over greenhouse gas emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Twelve US states, three cities and several prominent environmental groups told a court on Friday that the United States government had a legal duty to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.

They said the Clean Air Act mandated the government's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate all emissions which damaged human welfare.

The hearing was the latest step in a battle dating back to 1999, before George W Bush came to power.

A number of other states, together with bodies representing industry, oppose the case, which would if successful force a policy U-turn from the Bush administration.

In 1999, a coalition of 19 environmental groups petitioned the EPA, asking it to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from motor vehicles, describing them as "pollutants".

Four years later, under threat of legal action, the EPA responded by denying the petition.

"Congress has not granted EPA authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases for climate change purposes", it said at the time.

That interpretation is disputed by the parties behind Friday's court hearing.

"This case is about the EPA ignoring its responsibilities," said Massachusetts Assistant Attorney-General James Milkey, who is leading the plaintiffs' legal team.

"Since September 2003, it has hidden behind this claim that it doesn't have to regulate; in fact the Clean Air Act defines 'pollution' in a way that does include greenhouse gases and includes effects on climate."

Following that EPA decision, 13 environmental groups filed a case in the US Court of Appeals asking for a review; its wording only covers vehicle emissions, but the plaintiffs say that if successful it would automatically be extended to other sources of greenhouse gases.

Those 13 initial groups have since been joined by the authorities of states, cities and US overseas territories; many have submitted written evidence to the Court of Appeals, the second-highest tier in the American judicial system, and on Friday they presented oral arguments and answered questions from the three judges hearing the case.

How American, everything comes down to lawsuits, and as with most American lawsuits, this could drag on for years and years. On the other hand, the courts and the States are the last stumbling block between the Republican extremists governing the country and effective dictatorship. (This is perhaps why a Republican Senator from Texas recently threatened that judges would be killed if they did not tow the Bush line. Political opponents they can deal with otherwise.)

Date published: 2005/04/08

Private tuition a waste of money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some parents who pay for private tuition for their children might be wasting their money, a study suggests.

Research from London University's Institute of Education suggests more than a quarter of students have private tuition before their GCSE exams.

A study of more than 300 pupils who took GCSEs in 2003 found extra lessons raised maths results slightly, but made little difference to English grades.

Boys were most likely to benefit from private tutoring, researchers said.

If you were a scientist, and wanting to do this study properly, you would randomly take 300 students (well, perhaps more than 300 students, to get better statistics) and split them into two groups randomly. You would then give exams to both groups to check that what the baseline score is (hopefully similar, since the groups are randomly chosen). Then one group would receive tuition from some randomly chosen group of tutors. Then you would give them another exam, and see whether the tutored group has improved relative to the untutored group. (And all the while guaranteeing that neither the students nor tutors realise they are involved in the study, and that is almost impossible to achieve.)

The BBC article does not make it clear whether or not this is what happened. The article is pretty much a repeat of the Institute of Education (IoE) press release, except that the BBC left out a few crucial details, and the IOE press release says:

Private tuition may give a boost to students' GCSE results, but some parents may be wasting their money, according to new research from the Institute of Education.

Students who have private tuition in mathematics during the two years before GCSEs achieve on average just under half a grade higher - which can mean a C rather than a D grade - than students who do not have a tutor. And while some improve by well over half a grade, others do not see any improvement at all. Those who benefit most are boys.

Researchers Judith Ireson and Katie Rushforth surveyed over 300 year 11 students who had taken GCSEs in 2003. Forty-eight of them had had private tuition in maths during years 10 and 11, with boys and girls having similar amounts. But the boys increased their maths scores by almost three-quarters of a grade while the tuition had little effect on girls' performance.

Only 20 students had had private tuition in English and there was very little impact on GCSE grades.
...
Notes for editors:

A questionnaire survey of over 3,500 pupils in years 6, 11 and 13 was undertaken in 30 primary schools and 34 secondary schools and colleges in England. Parents of all these pupils were also surveyed and 1170 questionnaires returned. The schools were selected to represent a range of demographic characteristics and school organisation and within each school two classes representing the full range of ability were selected on a random basis. The impact of private tuition in years 10 and 11 on GCSE attainment was assessed using information for year 11 pupils in 7 schools. This controlled statistically for other factors known to affect achievement, including prior attainment in Key Stage 3 tests (taken in year 9), school, gender, ethnic group and socio-economic status.

So there were only 48 students out of the 300 who had maths tuition (not a big sample) and they were not randomly chosen to receive the tuition. So this pretty much invalidates any possible conclusion, in spite of the warm words about the results being "controlled statistically". It's quite possible that these particular students were getting tuition because they had finally hit a roadblock in their studies, and that without the tuition they would have done much worse. Needless to say, the take-home message ("private tuition is a waste of money") is just what the chattering class educationalists (and people who work for the BBC) would love to believe, so they are happy to take the results at face value. Of course it is quite possible that private tuition is a waste of money, but the study does not really provide any evidence one way or the other.

Eat fruits and vegetables to live longer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have produced powerful evidence that a Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables and fruit and low in saturated fats can help us live longer.

It has long been thought that the diet can help to improve general health.

But a major pan-Europe study of 74,607 men and women aged over 60 has shown closely following the diet can actually extend life by up to one year.

The study, led by University of Athens Medical School, is published in the British Medical Journal.

The researchers collected information on areas including diet, lifestyle, medical history, smoking and physical activity.

The men and women were each given a score based on adherence to a Mediterranean diet, with higher scores for those who ate the most foods linked to such a diet.

The researchers found that overall a higher dietary score was linked to a lower overall death rate.

A classic example of confusing correlation and causation. The people who eat a "Mediterranean" diet are more likely to live near the Mediterranean, and there could be loads of other reasons for these people to have longer lives, including better weather and genetic factors. It's hard to believe the BBC gives this study so much credit.

Date published: 2005/04/07

More election leaflets in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

Both the LibDems and Labour have dropped leaflets through the letterbox today. (Nothing from the Tories yet, but they are no hopers in Cambridge.) Labour has the better computer system, their leaflet was addressed personally.

The LibDem leaflet, not surprisingly, says pretty much the same as the one they dropped off a couple of days ago. Tony Blair (helpfully pictured with George Bush) cannot be trusted, the LibDems would not support an invasion of Syria or Iran, the Council Tax is unfair, pensioners deserve more money, class sizes should be smaller, the LibDems want to tax "high-polluting" cars more (this already happens via the petrol tax, but the UK ruling elite choose to ignore this fact in their anti-car crusade), and (their favourite theme) Cambridge is a two-horse race between Labour and the LibDems.

The Labour leaflet trumpets the successes of the Labour government. "Record numbers of people in work", "low inflation and interest rates", "28000 more teachers, 19000 more doctors, 67000 more nurses, 12500 more police" (never trust stastics, especially from a politician). "The Tories have not learnt from their mistakes" (fair enough), "the LibDems would put our taxes up" (probably not much more than Labour has done). Needless to say, just don't mention the war.

UK bankers facing extradition to the US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three UK bankers facing fraud charges connected to the Enron scandal have won their first battle to avoid being extradited to the US.

David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby have been given permission by the High Court to challenge their treatment by the Serious Fraud Office.

They are now to launch a judicial review of a decision by the SFO not to prosecute them in Britain.

The men face automatic extradition unless the SFO handles their case.

This is due to one of the terms of the Extradition Act of 2003

They are accused of conspiring - in conjunction with two senior Enron officials - to defraud Greenwich NatWest by secretly investing in an "off-balance sheet" Enron partnership.

They continue to protest their innocence.

Their barrister, Alun Jones QC, argued before the High Court that the alleged offences involved UK citizens against a UK company, and therefore the SFO should handle the case in Britain.

In addition, he said, any trial in the US would take place in "hostile circumstances" for the three men.

The SFO has argued that there is insufficient grounds for an investigation into the matter in the UK.

Lord Justice Laws said "the matters should be looked at fully in a judicial review".

Mr Bermingham said he was "delighted" by the ruling.

"This is the first time the legal profession has properly grappled with the inherent flaws in the Extradition Act and the clear dangers that it presents to UK citizens," he said.

"The dangers arise when extradition is demanded without evidence and where prosecuting authorities here are seeking to avoid any responsibility to determine whether it would be appropriate for the allegations to be investigated here."

The Extradition Act of 2003 is a perfect example of Tony Blair putting the interests of the government of the US above the interests of the citizens of the UK. (The Iraq war was of course the biggest example.) Blair should not be prime minister. He should be exiled to the US where he can make a fortune on the lecture circuit.

Milk and Parkinson's disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drinking a glass or two of milk a day may raise the risk of Parkinson's disease in middle-aged men, research suggests.

Researchers say the apparent link is unlikely to be due to calcium - milk's key nutritional ingredient.

But they say it is unclear whether another ingredient, or a contaminant may raise the risk of Parkinson's - which overall still remains low.
...
Previous research has also suggested a link between high consumption of dairy products and a raised risk of Parkinson's in men - but not women.

The latest study focused on 7,504 men aged 45 to 68, who were enrolled in a heart study in Hawaii.

During the course of the 30-year study, 128 developed Parkinson's.

The researchers found those men who consumed more than 16oz (454g) of milk a day were 2.3 times more likely to develop Parkinson's than those who drank no milk at all.

Overall, the risk of Parkinson's - even among men who drank a lot of milk - was low.

The researchers calculated that in each 12 month period 6.9 cases of Parkinson's could be expected per 10,000 people who drank no milk.

Among those who drank more than 16ozs a day the figure was 14.9 per 10,000.
...
Rebecca Foster, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, warned against cutting milk from the diet.

She said: "Milk and milk products (such as cheese and yogurt) are important sources of essential nutrients in diet, including protein, B vitamins such as riboflavin and B12, and minerals such as calcium, zinc and magnesium.

"For example in the UK milk and milk products provide 43% of calcium intake, providing 33% of riboflavin intake and 35% of iodine intake in men and 42% in women."

Another one of those potentially dreadful pieces of food research which might convince some people to stop drinking milk, although for most people doing so would probably be more harmful than not doing so. There is little point looking at one thing in isolation in order to determine what one should eat. The only point of this kind of research is that it might help scientists determine causes of specific diseases.

Date published: 2005/04/06

What is it about dpi that confuses people? (permanent blog link)

It is amazing the number of people that email and ask: "Do you have such and such an image available at 300 dpi (for printing)?" (The acronym dpi means dots per inch but for digital photograph purposes this is the same as pixels per inch.) Unfortunately this is a meaningless question, and there is no way to tell someone this politely except by not mentioning the fact at all. What they really want to know is how many pixels you have. All images can be printed at 300 dpi, whether they are 1 megapixel or 24 megapixels or whatever. It's just that the more pixels you have, the larger you can print the image (at a fixed, say 300, dpi). For a 2 megapixel image of size 1600 x 1200, you can print this up to a maximum size of 5.3 x 4 inches (around 13.5 x 10.1 cm) if you want 300 dpi or better resolution (since 1600/300 = 5.3 and 1200/300 = 4). If you are willing to put up with 200 dpi (which in theory looks worse) then for that same image size you can print up to 8 x 6 inches (around 20.3 x 15.2 cm). For most purposes 250, and sometimes even as low as 200, dpi is enough to give a reasonable result (certainly on home inkjet printers), but publishers always seem to stipulate they want 300 dpi, presumably because someone long ago decided that was the figure they wanted and it has stuck ever since without anyone really thinking about it. Far more serious is whether your printer is continous tone or not (which most publishers will have), and another important issue is colour reproduction, since many publishers do not seem capable of doing very well on that front.

Boxworth windfarm turned down (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans for a windfarm between the villages of Boxworth and Connington have been unanimously rejected by South Cambridgeshire District councillors.

At a meeting on Wednesday council members rejected the plans.

Local residents from the Stop Cambridge Wind Farm Group have been campaigning against the windfarm since the plans were submitted last August.

The application for 16 330ft tall wind turbines was put forward by Suffolk-based firm Your Energy.

All 28 members of the council's development committee voted against the plans.

Mike Barnard, spokesman for the Stop Cambridge Wind Farm Group, told the BBC: "Planners had recommended refusal on a number of grounds.

"Those grounds were fairly serious including A14 safety, noise, landscape, the effect on wildlife and Cambridge Airport objected due to problems with radar.

"Each of those is grounds for refusal in their own right."

The company has three months to appeal against the decision.

Needless to say the opponents of the windfarm are largely NIMBYs and this illustrates perfectly well the problems with planning applications in the UK. People who are affected adversely by infrastructure developments are never properly compensated for their financial losses, and so obviously are going to vociferously oppose them. The so-called environmentalists are happy to talk about externalised costs when it comes to roads, but funnily enough not when it comes to one of their pet technologies, wind farms. It is not too surprising that South Cambs council turned this down because they have to answer to the NIMBYs, who are their constituents, and there is no great benefit to Cambridgeshire from having a wind farm so close. Should "Your Energy" appeal the decision, they will almost certainly get a much more sympathetic hearing higher up because the people making those decisions don't care about the locals at all, and accept that national interests are going to override local interests. This is how development happens in the UK. Not very well. (And any company that is called "Your Energy" is bound to make one suspicious. It's not your energy, it's their energy, and they are the ones who are going to make money out of it.)

Date published: 2005/04/05

The UK election is on 5 May (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The general election will be held on 5 May, Tony Blair has formally announced. Speaking after asking the Queen to dissolve Parliament next week, Mr Blair said Labour had a "driving mission" for a third term in office.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders pre-empted the announcement by starting nationwide tours of key seats.

Michael Howard accused Mr Blair's government of "losing the plot" while Charles Kennedy said he would focus on people's hopes, not their fears.

Mr Blair told reporters in Downing Street the election presented a "big choice".

"The British people are the boss and they are the ones that will make it," he said.

You have to hand it to Blair, he just sounds so convincing when he speaks (not quite in the class of Clinton, but the best in Britain). Unfortunately he is completely untrustworthy and deserves to be booted from office. The only problem is that Michael Howard is even worse. Which leaves Charles Kennedy, who is completely out of his depth but at least does not appear to be of dubious character. Where is Screaming Lord Sutch when you need him?

In Cambridge (well at least in Arbury) the LibDems are first off the mark with the latest "Cambridge Herald" in through the letterbox today. The first thing to note is that it's obvious this stuff is from the LibDems, only they don't say so loud and clear, which makes it right away seem like black propaganda. (Well, to be fair, underneath the "Cambridge Herald" banner they do mention that it is published "on behalf of the Liberal Democrats". Only the former is 75 pt and the latter is perhaps 5 pt.)

What are the issues the LibDems are pushing in Cambridge (no doubt they are pushing other issues elsewhere in the country)? On the front page is a claim they will look after the elderly better, with £100 per month increase in the (State provided) pension. On the second page the "Herald Comment" (trying to pretend to being an independent leader column) says "It's all about trust", and frankly that is the main hope of the LibDems. There is another article about the removal of civil liberties by Blair (all true, but most people don't care), one about the LibDem plan to axe the council tax (allegedly "unfair") and one about "hidden" waiting times in the NHS.

On the third page there is another article about removal of civil liberties, one about council tenants, one about class sizes for children under 7 being cut to 20 (all paid for by non-parents of course) and one about whether we want plastics collected at our doorstep (the chattering classes who run Cambridge are all keen on this one, although it is probably a net negative for the environment when you calculate the total costs).

On the final page there is an article about the £3000 university top-up fees introduced by Blair (bound to resonate in Cambridge), another article about trust (yes, Blair is not trustworthy) and finally a return to their seemingly most favoured topic, that Cambridge is a two-horse race between Labour and the LibDems (thanks, we didn't know that).

Another study into mobile phone technology (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New research is to be carried out into mobile phone technology, and the location and use of mobile phone masts, the government has announced.

A study will examine whether the number of cell phone "relay stations" can be reduced by firms having to share them.

Ministers are already reviewing the planning procedure for the masts.

The announcement follows several reports suggesting the masts may represent a health risk and a number of protests in areas where they are built.

In January scientists from the National Radiological Protection Board warned that young people were at greatest risk from the potentially-harmful health effects of mobile phone emissions.

Professor Sir William Stewart, who headed the study, said children under eight should not use mobile telephones at all.

The board also said more research could be done into mobile phone masts and suggested the location of the masts could be subject to independent review.
...
Other studies have highlighted the possible dangers of using mobile telephones.

A study by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden published last year concluded that long-term mobile phone users had nearly double the risk of getting a tumour on a nerve connecting the ear to the brain.

EU-funded research has found mobile phone radiation could damage DNA cells.

It is a bit ridiculous that most phone masts (those up to 15m in height) can be placed without proper planning procedure. This is because the government used to run the only company (now called BT) putting up phone masts and we can't possibly have rules and regulations restricting what the government can do. But now that "evil" corporations are doing this we obviously need controls.

On the other hand, it is also ridiculous the amount of attention received by the health faddists, who believe each and every illness is due to some government and/or scientific and/or corporate conspiracy. (They are aided and abetted by the so-called environmentalists who believe that any technology less than 100 or 200 years old is just too risky.) Believe it or not most people in the country use mobile phones, and so the masts have to go somewhere, in fact almost everywhere given that the whole point is that the phones are mobile. As usual, people just want them to not go in their backyard.

On some of the specific points, companies already share masts where they can because it costs less. And the Karolinska Institute study says nothing about the health risks of phone masts, only of holding a phone to your ear for hours on end (it is not comfortable and it would not be surprising if it eventually causes problems). It is typical of the BBC to try and conflate two issues to try and make it look like some unrelated second effect somehow confirms the main point of the article.

Every student is as good at maths as Gauss (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

All GCSE maths students in England will have the chance to gain a grade C if a pilot scheme is extended.

Under the current three-tier entry system - decided by candidates' ability - the lowest-placed group can only get a D, however well it performs.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority proposes replacing this with two tiers, allowing all to gain a C.

Chief executive Ken Boston said it was vital to "inspire, encourage and motivate" maths students.

The revised assessment system, which brings maths into line with other GCSE subjects such as science and English, could be in place by 2006.

Several thousand pupils, due to take their final exams this summer, will be taking part in the QCA's pilot scheme.

Mr Boston said: "It is vital that we inspire, encourage and motivate young people in their studies by providing them with the opportunity to gain a grade C in GCSE mathematics.

Why not go all the way and give them all an A grade? That will certainly "inspire, encourage and motivate" them. Heck, just because some students find difficult sums like 17 + 23 to be, well, difficult, does not mean they should be labelled a failure. Rather let's call them all geniuses. Just don't drive on any bridges they are responsible for designing in future.

As in the rest of the world, we would all be a lot better off if they just sacked all education bureaucrats and gave the money to someone more deserving.

Date published: 2005/04/04

Britain a banana republic (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A judge investigating vote-rigging in Birmingham's local elections has ruled there was widespread fraud and has ordered new elections.

Election Commissioner Richard Mawrey QC upheld allegations of postal fraud relating to six seats won by Labour in the ballot of 10 June last year.

The results have been declared void and the polls in two wards must be rerun.

"The system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that," Judge Mawrey said.

Judge Mawrey said evidence of "massive, systematic and organised fraud" in the campaign had made a mockery of the election and ruled that not less than 1,500 votes had been cast fraudulently in the city.

The deputy high court judge said the system was "hopelessly insecure" and expressed regret that recent warnings about the failings had been dismissed by the government as "scaremongering".

He criticised the government's insistence that the current postal voting system was working, adding: "Anybody who has sat through the case I have just tried and listened to evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic would find this statement surprising."

Yes, the UK has become a banana republic since Blair took over. He has made the UK a wholly owned subsidiary of the US, he has removed our civil liberties wholesale, he has disregarded the rule of law when it is inconvenient for him, and he does not care about electoral fraud because it benefits the ruling (i.e. his) party. And we can't even grow bananas in compensation.

Right to death legislation in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parliament must debate as early as possible after the expected election whether terminally ill patients should be given the right to die, peers say.

The House of Lords Select Committee was divided over whether the law should be changed.

But it said any future legislation must make a clear distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The report marks a shift from the last parliamentary inquiry in 1994, which recommended no change.

Committee chairman Lord Mackay of Clashfern said: "Ending or helping to end someone's life, albeit with their consent, is an awesome issue, and opinion within the committee has been divided."

He added he hoped the report would "inform future debate and improve public understanding of this complex and emotive subject".

The committee was set up to look into Lord Joffe's assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, which proposes a lifting of the UK ban to "enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his/her own considered and persistent request".

The committee accepted the bill was not going to become law - parliament is likely to be dissolved within days for the forthcoming election.

But the peers said their report should be debated early in the next parliament.

It recommended that if a future bill was brought before MPs, it should clearly differentiate between assisted suicide, whereby medics provide the means for a patient to kill themselves, and voluntary euthanasia, when a patient is too ill to administer the lethal medication, but consents to someone else doing it.

The peers looked at two other countries which had introduced right to die legislation.

In Holland, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia are responsible for one in 40 deaths.

Whereas, one in 700 deaths in the US state of Oregon are from assisted suicide - voluntary euthanasia is not allowed.

The peers heard that doctors, who are generally not in favour of allowing patients the right to die, were more likely to support assisted suicide.

The committee warned that when patients had to take their own life, they were forced to think more carefully about the move than when someone else had the responsibility.

The report also said terminal illness had to be strictly defined, and doctors should not have to assist a patient if they had a conscientious objection.

Lord Joffe said he would be introducing a new bill in the next parliament, once the committee's report had been debated.

He said: "I believe the problems and the suffering caused by the present laws will become increasingly difficult for parliament to ignore."

A spokesman for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society said: "This is a momentous day for terminally ill patients who want greater choice at the end of their lives.

"The report is a green light for a change in the law and we look forward to a new bill being reintroduced into the Lords as a matter of urgency."

And Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, a former hospital doctor, said the report was welcomed, adding "It's about time the political establishment shifted away from their comfortable position of rejecting any change in the law and closing down debate."

But Julia Millington, of the ProLife Party, said there was no need for a change in the law and if anything it should be reinforced.

She also said: "We dispute the need for any further debate on the subject."

The State no more has the right to force someone to stay alive than it has the right to kill someone. The latter statement is now widely accepted in Europe but not yet the former. As usual the control freaks, in particular the religious fundamentalists (laughingly called "pro life" in this debate, since "pro agony" is more accurate), believe they should have more say about the end to your life than you do. It's not very surprising that doctors "are generally not in favour of allowing patients the right to die" and are "more likely to support assisted suicide" because doctors are some of the worst control freaks around. How many doctors really believe that their patients have any rights whatsoever over their care and treatment in any circumstance (not just with regard to death)? Eventually change will come when there are so many old people lying around that the State will see a clear financial benefit to allowing people to die when they want to, not when the State decides they can. Until then we will have to put up with lots of sanctimonious humbug from the control freaks.

No global moratorium on new nuclear facilities (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

The US has rejected a proposal by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a five-year, global moratorium on the construction of new facilities for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium.

One month before a conference to review the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the US and Iran find themselves in uncommon agreement in their joint opposition to the plan put forward by Mohamed ElBaradei.

According to diplomats in Vienna, where the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency is based, the US wants to expand its private civilian nuclear power industry, while Iran insists it should not be denied access to such technology.

Mr ElBaradei argues that the world already has more than enough capacity to fuel its nuclear power plants and research facilities. His proposed moratorium is intended to give the international community a breathing space to work out revisions to the treaty, widely acknowledged to be in danger of collapse.

North Korea quit the NPT in 2003 and later admitted possession of nuclear weapons. Iran is among several countries suspected of developing a clandestine nuclear weapons capability while remaining party to the treaty, which allows member states to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

One diplomat in Vienna said the White House had agreed to the proposed moratorium on condition that it did not apply to the US. France and Japan also oppose the plan. "The moratorium is going nowhere," the diplomat said. The US State Department declined to comment.

The US and the European Union are demanding that Iran abandon its uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing programmes. Iran refuses but it has largely frozen related activities for the past 18 months.

Needless to say the US and Europe are completely hypocritical about this all. They believe they should have the right to have nuclear programmes but nobody else should. This is the problem with international institutions like the UN and the IAEA, they just provide cover for the big nations to beat up on the small nations. Iran would have had to cave in long ago were it not for its trump card, oil.

Date published: 2005/04/03

Victorian homes should not be demolished (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

A heritage watchdog has urged ministers to halt the demolition of thousands of culturally important Victorian homes.

Despite the government's belief that Britain does not have enough houses, an estimated 750,000 stand empty. Many of these are said to be in "failed" areas and are destroyed as a result.

But Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, has called for the protection of many of these streets, saying they give towns character. In addition, Victorian homes were often better built than their contemporary equivalents, he said.

"We accept there is a case for demolition of some houses in areas that the government has identified as market failure areas," Mr Thurley said. "But in some towns those buildings make the character of the town; if you replace them with new buildings you erase that character."

English Heritage scored a victory in September 2003 when John Prescott rejected a bid by a local authority in Nelson, Lancashire, to demolish more than 100 Victorian terraced houses. The deputy prime minister backed a planning inspector's report that the retention and renovation of the properties was more likely to promote cohesion in the community.

Many people presume that most empty buildings are in the north. But according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a surprisingly high level - 40 per cent - are in the south and east.

English Heritage claims older houses cost less to maintain and occupy than modern housing.

"It is expensive to maintain modern houses," said Mr Thurley. "Victorian homes have better materials, such as copper plumbing. Modern ones have clipped-together plastic plumbing and UPVC windows that need replacing every seven or eight years."

English Heritage has been working with Pathfinder Partnerships in former industrial areas such as Lancashire and Manchester, north Staffordshire and Yorkshire.

The group admits that some demolition may be necessary. But it is trying to find more "creative solutions" to the issues of rundown, deprived areas where the housing has gone to seed.

The cost of repairing such homes can be only 50 per cent of the cost of building a new replacement.

"Crunching up bricks and mortar and building more in their place does not seem to be a sustainable activity," said Mr Thurley. "Our policy is not to go in with boxing gloves and duff people up . . but to persuade councils to think about it before they go ahead."

The sentiments of this article pretty much completely contradict those from an article from a couple of weeks ago in which it was stated that the UK was not demolishing enough homes and that 80000 homes (four times the current level) should be demolished every year, including (by 2050) perhaps three quarters of the houses built before 1919 (those that are not listed or in conservation areas) if they were "deemed unhealthy and incapable of providing affordable warmth".

So on one side we have English Heritage which wants everything conserved (although there are far too many listed buildings) and on the other we have a group of academics who claim we need to demolish almost everything which is old because they want the average British house of 2050 to produce 40% of CO2 emissions of the average British house of 1996. Both sides claim they are promoting "sustainable" development. The problem is that (probably) neither side has looked at the complete picture, i.e. the capital (build) plus the operational (lifetime) costs (or energy consumption). And there is no acknowledgement that the error bars are large on anything to do with the future (especially in 2050).

We need a neutral arbiter who does not have an axe to grind and who can do the sums and report the error bars correctly. We also need people with practical experience (i.e. builders and architects) to be involved, not just academics and English Heritage. But such a requirement is unlikely to be fulfilled. So the next best option is to take the decision out of the hands of the ruling elite and instead leave it to the marketplace (i.e. effectively the public) to decide. If the public wants to live in Victorian (or other old) buildings (and can afford the cost of heating, including a carbon tax) then so be it. If the public does not, and there is no alternative use, then demolish the old houses and put something else up.

As it happens, in Cambridge there were until recently half a dozen fine Victorian villas on West Road. The last few years two of them have been demolished and another one is soon to be demolished. They had long since stopped being used as ordinary single household residences, and were deemed not to be suitable for their current uses (two of them as university departments and the third as housing for Gonville and Caius College). It was all a bit sad but hopefully at least the replacement buildings will be more energy efficient, etc. (almost certainly the case) and last a hundred or more years (not so obvious).

Darfur atrocities referred to ICC (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Human rights groups claimed victory on Friday after the UN Security Council referred human rights atrocities in Darfur to the International Criminal Court, but said the deal came at an exorbitant cost.

The Security Council had come under fire for its relative inaction in the face of atrocities, which had led to 10,000 deaths a month and massive displacement.

After weeks of negotiation, which at several stages appeared on the brink of collapse, the UK brokered a last-minute compromise between France, which demanded the referral, and the US, which is bitterly opposed to the ICC.

The result was a resolution that refers alleged war crimes to the fledgling Hague-based court, but exempted nationals of countries not party to the ICC from prosecution by any other court than their own, provided they are on a UN mission in Sudan.

It was enough to win an abstention from Washington, rather than a veto. Algeria and China, which have consistently opposed tough measures against Khartoum, also abstained, leaving the final tally at 11 out of 15 votes in favour.

A perfect illustration that the Americans believe themselves to be above the law. If they have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear from the ICC (isn't that what Bush and Blair always say about criminals when removing our civil liberties). Unfortunately it is now well known that the US government commits and condones torture and on a whim Bush launched a devastating war in which 100000 people have died, so they do have something to fear from the ICC. Hopefully the ICC will at least be able to do something about Darfur since the UN seems incapable of doing anything.

Date published: 2005/04/02

The Pope dies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Pope has died at the age of 84, after becoming one of the longest-serving pontiffs in history.

Pope John Paul II died at 2137 local time (1937 GMT) on Saturday following a series of worsening health problems including heart failure.

Obviously the big story of the day. Anyone who lasts as Pope (or any other top job) for 26 years is bound to have made a big impact on the world, and he will probably be remembered as one of the greatest Popes, not only because of longevity but because he was such a sincere person. But he might be remembered most for actively opposing all forms of birth control, which is a disasterous policy for the planet in the 21st century. And fundamentally there is a contradiction between being the head of one of the richest institutions in the world, and espousing hope and pleading for justice for the world's poor.

Summer arrives in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The first sunny and warm weekend day in Cambridge of 2005. Of course there will be more cold weather to come, so not yet really the first day of summer, but it felt like it. There are a fair number of bumble bees to be seen this year, but even better, the number of ladybirds (ladybugs) seems to have gone back to a respectable level after years of relative scarcity. Mind you, the female ladybirds seem not to have been as interested in the next generation as the male ladybirds digligently following them around, so next year might not be so good again.

It was a graduation day at the university in Cambridge today (there are many of these days each year) and the weather could not have been better. So lots of happy (and not just proud) parents. And the Clare College cherry tree (pictured in 2000) was near its best today. It really needs to be seen against a blue sky, as it was in the late morning today, to be appreciated at its fullest potential, and this is because of its appealing combination with the cupola of the Clare chapel.

Date published: 2005/04/01

London "congestion" charge increasing to £8 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

London's congestion charge is rising from £5 to £8, mayor Ken Livingstone has announced.

The increase will come into force on 4 July. Charges for fleet vehicles will rise to £7 and there will be discounts for people who pay monthly or annually.

The mayor said up to £45m will be raised which will help cut traffic levels and improve public transport.

But Tory London Assembly member Angie Bray said the rise was a "serious blow" to city businesses.

The charge, introduced in February 2003, has been credited with reducing congestion in central London by 30% with 70,000 fewer vehicles entering the zone a day.
...
Ms Bray said Mr Livingstone was having to increase the charge to fund the cost of running the system.

"The revenue levels of the current charge have been so disappointing as it's a very expensive system to run," she said.
...
Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat London transport spokesperson, said: "Traffic levels in central London are still falling, yet our Labour mayor slams a 60% hike on congestion charges.

On April First it's hard to know which stories are April Fool jokes and which are not, since even most real stories involve someone taking the piss. Here that honour falls to Ken Livingstone. He wants to raise two fingers to motorists (at least those not rich enough to travel in taxis, which are exempt from the charge) and so motorists should raise two fingers in return and boycott London. He considers them a problem so they should take their business elsewhere. For once the Tories just about make the most sense, the problem is that the so-called congestion charge (which is really an access charge) is so expensive to collect that Livingstone needs to charge an extortionate rate to balance his books. The net "benefit" to the UK economy is probably negative, but what does he care, that's Gordon Brown's problem.

UK greenhouse gas emissions rose between 2003 and 2004 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's emissions of greenhouse gases rose between 2003 and 2004, according to provisional government data.

The emissions last year were 1.5% above those in 2003, and are now higher than at any time since the Labour government came to power in 1997.

For the first time, the data also suggests Britain could miss its target set down under the Kyoto Protocol.

Opposition politicians and green groups have accused the government of losing control of greenhouse gases.

"The increase in carbon emissions and greenhouse gases shows the failure of Labour's strategy for tackling climate change," said Liberal Democrat shadow environment secretary Norman Baker, in a statement.

"The latest figures mean that we may actually miss our targets under the Kyoto Protocol."

The Kyoto treaty commits Britain to keeping annual greenhouse emissions during the period 2008-2012 to 12.5% below 1990 levels.

In 2002, the UK was 14.4% below 1990 levels, and in 2003, 13.4% below.

The provisional figures for 2004 show emissions are 12.6% below - just 0.1% underneath the Kyoto figure.

The government says the main reason for the increase is growing energy demand; statistics show that emissions rose from industry, transport and the domestic sector.

Nobody should make anything from one year's set of figures, it is hardly the end of the world. It's an election year so one can perhaps forgive the silly statement from Norman Baker (but he is one of the weaker members of the LibDem shadow team, and that's saying something when you have Charles Kennedy in that group). Driving a car is the only economic activity in the UK which pays (enough of) a carbon tax. The problem is that all other economic activities do not. In particular power generation does not and so-called public transport does not. Funnily enough the so-called environmentalists spend all their time complaining about cars (and airplanes) and actually think that bus and train users should be subsidised even more than they already are rather than being forced to pay enough so that they cover the full (including environmental) cost of their journeys.

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