Azara Blog: June 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/06/30

Oceans becoming more acidic (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Marine species are under threat from rising levels of acidity in the oceans, says the UK's Royal Society.

Unless carbon dioxide emissions are cut, there could be irreversible damage to ecosystems, it warns.

It is further evidence of the need to take action at next week's G8 summit, says working group chair, John Raven.

"Failure to do so may mean that there is no place in the oceans of the future for many of the species and ecosystems that we know today," he said.

The report: Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, says excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has already increased the acidity of the world's oceans to a level that is irreversible in our life times.

The world's oceans have already absorbed about half of the CO2 produced by humans, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, over the past 200 years.

This has led to a reduction of the pH of seawater by 0.1 units. If emissions of CO2 continue to rise as predicted, there will be another drop in pH by 0.5 units by 2100, a level that has not existed in the oceans for many millions of years.

Another end-of-the-world report. Of course if you look for problems you are going to find them. And these problems are almost certainly going to get much worse before they (might possibly) get better. Just add acidic oceans onto the general pile.

Hedgehogs in decline (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hedgehog numbers across the UK are falling, particularly in the east of the country, a survey has found.

According to the Mammals Trust UK, hedgehog numbers have dropped steeply since 2001, when a survey to spot animals on roads began.

The idea behind the study is that the quantity of hedgehogs on roads can indicate the size of the UK population.

Experts say that, amongst other factors, tidier decked gardens are responsible for the animals' decline.

Hedgehog numbers have been falling a lot longer than since 2001. Back in the early 1980s there were so many hedgehogs that "Not the Nine O'Clock News" ran a (rather sick) sketch with truck drivers keeping track on their lorries of the number of hedgehogs they had squashed. In the 1990s hedgehogs were already less common, and now it is indeed unusual to see one in many parts of Cambridge. It is probably not just down to "tidy" gardens, but that does not help, and the BBC must take its share of the responsibility for that (through such dreadful programmes as "Ground Force", etc.). (Local authorities can also cause trouble if your garden is not "tidy" enough based either on their middle class sensibilities or on some ridiculous health and safety rule.)

Pregnant women being sacked (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tens of thousands of women are forced out of their jobs each year for being pregnant, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has said.

These women miss out on £12m in statutory maternity pay, while employers spend £126m replacing them, the EOC added.

The EOC added that upwards of a million pregnant women will face workplace discrimination in the next five years.

Women must be better informed of their workplace rights, the group added.

"Pregnancy discrimination has a huge impact on their lives, but the harm it does to our economy affects us all," Jenny Watson, acting chair of the EOC, said.

"It's time for honesty about the scale of the problem. Employers - particularly small businesses - need more help in managing pregnancy at work."

Roughly 30,000 women a year lose their jobs because of pregnancy, but only 3% lodge a complaint at a tribunal, the EOC said.

About 200,000 pregnant women - or nearly half of those who work whilst pregnant - feel they have suffered some form of discrimination.

Of course the EOC has to justify its existence by finding discrimination anywhere and everywhere. The estimate of 30000 is exactly that, an estimate. And if 200000 pregnant women "feel they have suffered some form of discrimination" then how many non-pregnant women feel this way, and how many men feel this way? You would soon find that almost everybody feels this way (if you ask the question in the right way, which of course the EOC would have).

The EOC is also being one-sided. They say employers spend £126m replacing these workers versus £12m in statutory maternity pay, but how much would the employers had to have spent if these women were not fired? Unfortunately the EOC would like to pretend this side of the equation does not exist, so their views are completely partisan and hence ignorable.

Perhaps Jenny Watson should get a real job, running a small business, and then see what life is like in the real world.

Date published: 2005/06/29

Nuclear is bad, all other renewables are good (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The cost of new nuclear power has been underestimated by a factor of three, according to a British think tank.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says existing estimates do not allow for the cost of building novel technologies and expensive time delays in construction.

They claim that renewable energy sources like wind and solar should be relied upon instead of nuclear power.

However their report has been dismissed as inaccurate by the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA).

"This report is grossly out of kilter with almost all other reports that have been done," said Simon James of the NIA.

According to British Energy and British Nuclear Fuels, the cost of nuclear generation is between 2.2 and 3.0p/kWh. But the NEF says that this figure is probably a severe underestimate, with the real cost being somewhere between 3.4 and 8.3/kWh.
"A resurgence of interest in nuclear power, justified by voodoo economics, stands to hinder and potentially derail renewable energy," said Andrew Simms, NEF policy director.

However, the Royal Academy of Engineers (RAE), who recently completed their own estimates of the cost of nuclear power, dismissed the report.

"They are focusing on the worst-case scenario for nuclear power and the best-case scenario for renewables; so it is hardly a balanced view," an RAE spokesman told the BBC News website.

NEF has the strapline "Economics as if people and the planet mattered" which is a good indication that they cannot be treated seriously. And indeed, their report is completely one-sided, giving no real mention of any downside with non-nuclear renewables nor of any upside with nuclear power. These kinds of consultancies are a plague on modern life. They are very good at producing glossy PDF files but not so good at actually doing anything useful. Needless to say the RAE is a more reliable source of information. Engineers 10, Economists 0.

Chesterton railway station (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Plans for a new railway station in Chesterton could help solve traffic problems in Cambridge.

Cambridgeshire County Council has been working on proposals for a station which would serve workers at the Science Park and Business Park, as well as Chesterton residents.

The station would also form an interchange with buses.

The council believes the new station will reduce the number of cars travelling across Cambridge. About 80 per cent of cars travelling to Cambridge station go through the city centre, causing congestion, adding to air pollution and creating delays for other motorists.

The council is set to bid for the £25 million needed for the scheme next spring.

East Chesterton county councillor Julian Huppert said the station would benefit the residents of Chesterton and Cambridge as a whole.

He said: "I hope the county council is successful in its bid for funding and this essential facility is provided as quickly as possible."

Members of East Cambridgeshire District Council have already shown their support for plans to build a station at Chesterton.

Councillors sitting on the authority's environment and transport committee have said the proposed scheme would help ease traffic on the A10 between Ely and Cambridge as many people who commute to Cambridge from Ely work in the north of the city or at the Science Park.

And Coun Huppert also called on the Government to provide the money needed to move the sewage works in Chesterton to open up the land for housing development and remove the smell, which affects Chesterton and Milton residents.

"Ministers have told Cambridgeshire to plan for thousands of homes but they need to do their bit by providing the proper funding and resources for this to happen. The moving of these works is crucial for the development of the area," he said.

If "80 per cent of cars travelling to Cambridge station go through the city centre" then what percentage will be diverted to this new station and is it in any way significant? The Chesterton sidings have extremely poor road links and given the current hatred of cars by the Cambridge ruling elite it is hard to imagine any thought being given to how to get cars in and out of there efficiently (including adequate parking).

The main beneficiaries of this station will be Chesterton residents and people who live along the guided bus route in one of the villages along the A14. In both cases they will see their house prices increase because of the new station, especially Chesterton residents, who can expect a bonanza as London commuters start to crowd out the ordinary residents of Cambridge there, as already happens in the area around the current railway station.

Further the connections to this station are probably going to be poor for many Cambridge residents who live west of the Cam, in particular the residents of Arbury and the area along Huntingdon Road, who will probably find it easier to get to the current station than the Chesterton station. So aside from the residents of Chesterton itself, not that many Cambridge residents might end up using this new station.

The government should demand a serious business case before throwing money at this scheme. And as usual, take the estimated costs and double, and take the alleged benefits and halve.

As for the proposed relocation of the sewage works, there is no obvious reason why central government should pay for this (the net cost is currently expected to be around 100 million pounds, so it is almost certain to be more than that). The NIMBYs of Chesterton and Milton want to dump the sewage works on some other location, and it seems they want all the benefit without paying any of the cost, in traditional modern political style. (And you can guarantee that the residents near the new location will get no compensation.)

Date published: 2005/06/28

Religious leaders call for debt relief (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths have urged Tony Blair to play "the fullest part" in helping the world's poorest countries. The prime minister must use the UK's G8 presidency to help "halve extreme poverty", they say in a letter.

The G8 leaders must cancel the debt of the poorest nations, they add.

The letter is from by the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, the Chief Rabbi, the Council of Mosques and Imams chair and the Free Churches head.

It marks the first time they have spoken together publicly since their joint statement calling for peace in March 2003 ahead of the Iraq War.

Well nobody pays much attention to what religious leaders say. And the Christian churches in particular can make a big difference by selling all their own assets and handing over the proceeds to the poorest nations, but of course that is not what they have in mind.

France gets ITER nuclear fusion site (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

France will get to host the project to build a 10bn-euro ($12bn) nuclear fusion reactor, in the face of strong competition from Japan.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) will be the most expensive joint scientific project after the International Space Station.

The Iter programme was held up for over 18 months as parties tried to broker a deal between the two rivals.

Nuclear fusion taps energy from reactions like those that heat the Sun.

Nuclear fusion is seen as a cleaner approach to power production than nuclear fission and fossil fuels.

Officials from a six-party consortium signed the deal in Moscow on Tuesday, for the reactor's location in the Cadarache site in southern France.

The European Union, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and China are partners in the project.

Japan earlier withdrew its bid, after a deal was worked out for the "runner-up" to receive a generous concessions package.

According to the package, Japan will get 20% of the project's 200 research posts while providing only 10% of the expenses, and host a related materials research facility - of which half the construction costs will be shouldered by the EU.

Too bad it was all so bitter but it's good news for Europe that it ended up in France. The other partners all put in 10% but Japan was given the special deal, which hopefully will not sour things.

Date published: 2005/06/27

Cambridge University writes to its alumni and alumnae (permanent blog link)

The staff and students of Cambridge University generally feel more attached to their college and/or their department than they do to the university as a whole. The main purpose of the university itself seems to be administrative and financial, yet most fund-raising happens via the colleges or departments (the latter often with some kind of assistance from the university).

Alison Richard is the vice-chancellor of the university. (The prefix "vice" is misleading because she is actually the real head. The chancellor is Prince Philip, but that is only a titular post.) She has just sent out a (snail mail) letter to "all alumni" (the letter itself is addressed to "alumni and alumnae"). It's a two-page letter and it's hard to believe many people will actually read the whole thing, especially since there seems to be little stated purpose to it except to remind alumni that they are alumni. (Apparently it is the first time a vice-chancellor has sent out a letter to all alumni.)

Well of course the whole point of the letter is financial, and not just directly via fund-raising but also indirectly by promoting the university both upwards (to the government) and downwards (to prospective students). There is a bit of a contradiction here. The government is insisting (for social engineering reasons) that more and more people go to university. But of course government does not want to throw that much more money at universities. So the Cambridge administrators want government to allow it (and the other universities) to charge a whacking great amount to let it make up the difference, and hopefully to compete with American universities on the world academic stage. (The government will let universities charge up to 3000 pounds per student per year from next year.) Needless to say this is not going to encourage prospective students to come to Cambridge. "Poor" students (by some politically correct definition) will be subsidised which means "non-poor" students will get hammered even more. Foreign students will certainly be less inclined to come, and that will eventually hurt UK Plc because of diminishing influence in the world.

The best way for Cambridge to square this circle in the short term is to try and get its alumni to donate large sums of money. In the long term the best option is probably going to be to go completely private, which of course also relies on alumni donations. Going private will be the only way to get rid of the pathetic interference from central government. (It has been bad enough with Thatcher and Blair, if Brown takes over it will be ten times worse since, being part of the Scottish elite, he does not like Oxbridge.)

Date published: 2005/06/26

If ... We Stopped Giving Aid to Africa (permanent blog link)

The BBC had an absolutely dreadful docu-drama on BBC2 tonight, called "If ... We Stopped Giving Aid to Africa". If you did not read the blurb ahead of time, you at first would not know that it was a docu-drama, and it starts out convincingly enough with supposed video of an aid worker (who supposedly died recently) saying that perhaps all this aid was a complete waste of money and doing more harm than good. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint) it becomes fairly obvious fairly quickly that this is all made up. For one thing his parents and sister are far too slick and far too cold in their interviews to be convincingly upset or concerned. Then the programme fast forwards (not clear for how long) to 2015. And so the viewer has to assume (and it is almost certainly the case) that all the so-called interviews are completely fake. (The only real bits are playbacks of old television news stories about Africa.)

This is a completely disgusting programme. It is fair enough to question whether aid is doing more harm than good (it probably is in many circumstances, e.g. food aid can put local farmers out of business by undercutting prices). If the programme writer and director (someone by the name of Richard Alwyn) wanted to make a serious programme about this issue then he could easily have assembled plenty of people to discuss it. Instead we have his fantasy and spin and it all leaves a bad taste. This is the BBC sinking to a new low.

Euan Blair heading to Washington (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Euan Blair, the prime minister's eldest son, is to work in Washington DC as an intern for Republican politicians.

The 21-year-old will spend three months working for the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives - the lower chamber of the US Congress.

The move has surprised Democrats, who see the committee as highly partisan, says the Sunday Telegraph.

A Downing Street spokesman said the prime minister's son would also seek an internship with a Democrat politician.
Downing Street said British diplomats had been involved in the process.

Well his father is a Tory and is a buddy of Bush so why should Euan not work for the Republicans? The real point of the story should instead be that what still counts in the world is not talent but connections. Would someone by the name of Euan Jones from Bristol have been given such a position? (The jobs of the interns are lowly, but the point, for Americans at least, is that it gets you inside the political system.) It is particularly insidious that British diplomats were "involved in the process", since, after all, they are paid for by the British taxpayer, not Tony Blair.

Debt relief and the G8 summit (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A deal on 100% debt relief for the world's poorest countries can be secured at July's G8 summit in Scotland, the chancellor has claimed.

Gordon Brown said countries paying more on debt interest than education or health would not have much of a future.

The lead-up to the summit at Gleneagles will see tens of thousands of people take part in a Make Poverty History march in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Protesters wearing white plan to form a white band around the city centre.

The chancellor told BBC Scotland's The Politics Show that 100% debt relief would happen.

He said: "If you're actually spending more in debt interest payments than you can spend on education, then as a country, you're not going to have much of a future.

"And if you've got to spend more on debt interest payments than you spend on health, then there are lots of people going to die unfairly and unnecessarily.

"So I think the rest of the world has come to realise that 100% debt relief is essential, I believe we've got an agreement now that that should happen, I think you'll find it confirmed at the Gleneagles summit."

The US annual federal debt interest payments have been over 300 billion dollars ever since 1995. The US education budget is currently around 50 billion dollars per year. And the US health budget is currently around 600 billion dollars (and exploding; in 1995 it was less than 300 billion dollars, so less than the then interest payments on debt). Perhaps the US should be getting some debt relief. (Of course the 50 US states also spend money on education and health, and also have debt, so the total picture is much more complicated.)

Date published: 2005/06/25

Seymour Hersh visits Britain (permanent blog link)

An excerpt from a discussion at the Brighton Festival with the American journalist Seymour Hersh, as summarised in the Financial Times weekend magazine:

He found out about the goings-on in Abu Ghraib from an "Iraqi general friend"; Hersh stayed for three days in a Damascus hotel squeezing the story out of him. He never recommends that his contacts go public with their stories, because they would be crucified by the rightwing news media. "I would never tell anyone to speak up," he says. "They would be pilloried."
What's happening in the US government is disquieting, he says. George W. Bush doesn't read The New York Times or The Guardian, Hersh believes, and doesn't much care what they write. "[The papers] could rattle LBJ, Clinton, even George's father." But after September 11, the mood in the White House was "you're either with us or against us." Hersh cannot decide whether Congress is "supine or prone", and explodes into a quiet rage: "The war crimes committed by this president are incredible. Where were the federal bureaucracy, the military?"

It didn't take 9/11 to make the White House believe "you're either with us or against us", Bush and his cohorts have always been fundamentally nasty people. The difference was that after 9/11 nobody in the American media was willing to challenge them.

Date published: 2005/06/24

Sampling of the UK motorway network (permanent blog link)

Common folklore has it that the UK road network is badly designed and implemented, as with the rest of the UK transport system. Take any trip on just about any motorway or major road and your worst fears can be confirmed. The road surfaces on UK motorways and major roads are perfectly good but that is about their only strong point.

Some examples from one day's travel. The interchange between the M11 and A14 is convoluted (not to even mention that the A428 does not even have an interchange with the M11). The interchange between the A14 and the M1/M6 goes via two pathetically small roundabouts. There is no real interchange between the M6 toll road and the M54 although the end of the former is near the beginning of the latter. Where the A5 is not dual it does not quite have enough space for four lanes so instead there are two large lanes and cars play chicken passing other vehicles down the middle of the road.

The M6 toll road is interesting. It is not that well used, and in particular there is hardly a truck to be seen on it. Trucks pay 7 pounds (during the day) so any time saving they make (on average) is obviously worth less than that amount to them. And unbelievably when you approach the toll road there are no signs indicating what the expected delay might be on the (untolled) M6, which of course would give you an idea whether the toll road should be used. It's possible the government is just in hock to the toll road operator and so purposefully keeping its citizens in the dark, or it could just be that the government is incompetent and cannot figure out how to implement such a system. If you go on the Péripherique in Paris, there are signs every few hundred meters telling you the estimated time to various upcoming exits, and the estimates are pretty good. Perhaps it's time to let the French take over the planning and running of the British road network. (In Britain you can pay lots of money to third party operators to get an estimate of congestion.)

As further proof of the ridiculous motorway IT systems, approaching exit 16 on the M40 (the first from the M42) the flow is fast but there is a sign saying "heavy congestion between exits 16 and 15". How could it be, with the flow so good, so everybody ignores the 40 mph flashing speed limit and rushes ahead. But lo and behold, between exits 16 and 15 the traffic suddenly grinds to a halt, and then crawls along at a few miles per hour. It surely must be an accident, or road works. Eventually another sign says that both lanes 1 and 2 are closed, and so there is a furious merge into lane 3, hence the problem. Except that some people are not merging: perhaps they are just the usual cowboys who cut in at the last minute. But no, it turns out there is no blockage anywhere in lanes 1 or 2, the sign was completely incorrect, so the flow shortly speeds up again. To add insult to injury there is another sign half a mile later saying it's the end of the non-existant blockage.

Father's depression linked with son's emotional problems (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Postnatal depression in fathers can have long-term consequences for the behavioural and emotional development of their child, research suggests.

Bristol and Oxford University doctors found postnatal depression affects a significant number of fathers.

The Lancet study found baby boys whose fathers were depressed had twice as many behavioural and emotional problems in the pre-school years.

The researchers suggest health workers look for signs of paternal depression.

The researchers, working with colleagues from the University of Rochester in the US, analysed records on 8,430 fathers.

They found that eight weeks after the birth, 3.6% (303) appeared to be suffering from depression, with symptoms including anxiety, mood swings, irritability and feelings of hopelessness.

Oxford psychiatrist Dr Paul Ramchandani said: "We already know that postnatal depression in mothers can affect the quality of maternal care, and is associated with disturbances in children's later social, behavioural, psychological and physical development.

"While a significant number of men do report depression following the birth of a child, until now the influence of depression in fathers during the early years of a child's life has received scant attention."

Dr Ramchandani said there was research showing adolescent children of depressed fathers have higher rates of psychiatric disorder.

But he said until now very little was known about the effect of paternal depression on early child development.

The researchers assessed children at the age of three-and-a-half for signs of emotion problems, such as worry and sadness, and behavioural problems, such as hyperactivity.

There was a significantly higher rate of problems among boys whose fathers had been depressed early in their life, but girls seemed to be less affected.

Dr Ramchandani said: "It may be that boys are specifically sensitive to the effects of parenting by fathers, perhaps because of different involvement by fathers with their sons.

"The influence of fathers in very early childhood may have been under-estimated in the past, but these findings indicate that paternal depression has a specific and persisting impact on children's early behavioural and emotional development and that fathers influence their children's development from very early in life."

He said it was important that healthcare professionals looked for signs of depression in fathers - and offered treatment where necessary.

Wow, who would have thought that emotional problems in a parent might be correlated with emotional problems in their children? Why is this kind of research funded? And it's also a classic case of confusing correlation and causation, since there are almost certainly genetic factors, as well as environmental factors, at play here, and so treatment for depression in the father might not do much good for the child at all.

Date published: 2005/06/23

A new charter for techie women in UK universities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A charter for women in science, engineering and technology has been launched to help tackle gender inequalities in UK universities.

The six-point charter, launched by the Athena Project and the Scientific Women's Academic Network (Swan), aims to stem the loss of women scientists.

All universities that sign up must commit to six principles to bring about cultural change within academia.

There will also be awards to recognise institutions that make changes.

"Becoming a charter member will help universities to make practical, positive changes," said Dr Louise Archer, charter co-manager and Swan founder.

"The awards will also recognise, celebrate and publicise the good practice that already exists."

A University of East Anglia study earlier this year showed that men still occupy the majority of key positions in UK academic science.

Many women scientists feel undervalued by colleagues and unsupported in career progress.

Well, gee whiz, many men scientists also feel undervalued by colleagues and unsupported in career progress. In fact Cambridge University, which supposedly has signed up to this charter, already treats all of its (large number of) non-permanent staff in the same, disposable way, independent of gender. (Indeed, the university is being forced by the EU to behave better.)

The six "principles" of the charter:

  1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation
  2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation
  3. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern, which the organisation will address
  4. The use of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the university recognises
  5. The transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science can be particularly difficult for women and requires active consideration by the organisation
  6. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

Yes the thought police have arrived in British academia, straight from America. This is what points (1), (2), (3) and (6) are all about. Swan are preaching a "cultural revolution", no doubt complete with re-education camps.

Points (4) and (5) are the only serious ones. Why does the use of short-term contracts have particularly negative consequences for women, and why is the transition from PhD into an academic career particularly difficult for women? Well the real agenda of this charter is to allow women to take N years off for breeding and then just hop back into a position as if nothing has meanwhile happened in the world of science. With short-term contracts this is difficult (you have to justify your existence). With a permanent contract you can just do what you want and there is little anybody can do about it. This might be a good idea for careers where nothing changes much from year to year. It is not ok for science. Sure, some women are brilliant enough to take five years off and then come back in top form. Most are not. This charter does nothing for the former (the stars, who get by anyway), or for women who don't want to breed forever and a day. And of course this charter does nothing for men (fathers or not), since politically correct sexism is the order of the day.

Supermarkets allegedly bad for the universe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's four biggest supermarkets are bad for business, consumers and the environment, environmental action group Friends of the Earth has said.

In the latest of numerous attacks on supermarkets, the action group will put its views to MPs on Thursday, the day before Tesco's annual general meeting.

The campaign group wants stricter regulation of the supermarkets.

Supermarkets have long argued they are simply giving UK consumers what they want and treat suppliers fairly.

The action group also claims that farmers and suppliers in the developing world are not getting a fair deal because of the purchasing power of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons.

Friends of the Earth says more regulation is needed to stop the suffering of UK farmers and smaller High Street retailers.

"MPs must act now to curb the growing market power of supermarkets and ensure that Britain's booming supermarket industry does not kill off farmers, consumer choice and the traditional British High Street," said Friends of the Earth's supermarket campaigner Vicki Hird.

Typical middle-class nonsense from the FoE. There is much more choice now than there ever was in the past. And how quaint (and backwards, as always) to talk about the "traditional" British High Street. Yes, the middle class non-workers, like the FoE, have time to stroll up and down the High Street every day, shopping for their daily requirements. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the vast majority of people prefer supermarkets, because of their choice, convenience and prices. It's amazing how much press space the BBC gives to organisations like the FoE, but of course the BBC is stock full of the same sort of middle class people. (Almost any programme on food on Radio 4 would express similar opinions.)

Date published: 2005/06/22

International Whaling Commission annual meeting (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has condemned Japan's plan to increase the scale of its catches in the name of science.

Tokyo's proposal would see Japanese research vessels take more than 1,000 whales each year in Antarctic waters.

Its delegation said Japan would continue with its scheme, called JARPA-2, as it can under IWC rules.

Conservation bodies said the huge expansion planned by Japan had ensured opposition from anti-whaling nations.

The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling dates from 1946, and states:

"...any contracting government may grant to any of its nationals a special permit authorising that national to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the contracting government thinks fit..."

In other words, any country can decide to hunt however many whales it likes in the name of science, whatever other nations think, and whatever the reservations of scientists.

As usual in such emotional matters, both sides are disingenuous. Of course none of the whaling being done is for scientific purposes, it is for commerical purposes, so the whole regulatory framework is ridiculous. On the other hand, the anti-whaling bodies do not oppose Japan because of the "huge expansion planned by Japan" in whaling, they oppose Japan because they oppose all whaling. The IWC is broken because the two sides have fundamentally different beliefs and whoever has a voting majority can just trample the views of the minority, as has happened consistently for years.

EU CO2 emissions rose in 2003 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide rose in the European Union by 1.5% in 2003 after falling in 2002, the European Environment Agency reports.

Italy, Finland and the UK were named as the worst offenders while cold weather was blamed for a rise in the use of fossil fuels to heat homes and offices.

Some commentators now doubt the EU can meet its promise to cut emissions by 8% of 1990 levels by 2012.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth called the new figures "shocking".

"The blame goes mostly to national economy and industry ministers, who constantly block any attempts to introduce mandatory targets for renewable energies, energy efficiency rules or fuel consumption standards for cars," Jan Kowalzig said.

Carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 3.4% since 1990, according to the EEA figures.

The Copenhagen-based EEA said emissions in the 15 old EU member states increased by 53 million tonnes, or 1.3%, in 2003, after a drop in 2002.

According to its figures, between 2002 and 2003, Italy, Finland and the UK saw the largest emission increases in absolute terms - 15 million tonnes, eight million tonnes and seven million tonnes respectively.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas called on member states to meet their commitments.

All grist for the mill, but to read anything into one year's figures is not very bright. And to call the figures "shocking" is also not very bright.

Date published: 2005/06/21

Urban Design in Cambridge: Challenges and Opportunities (permanent blog link)

Glen Richardson, the Urban Design Mananger at Cambridge City Council, gave a presentation tonight on "Urban Design in Cambridge: Challenges and Opportunities", at the Michaelhouse Centre, as part of Architecture Week 2005. Needless to say, most of the audience were the usual suspects: politicians and bureaucrats and other members of the middle class with an interest in design or architecture. Richardson is a recent arrival in Cambridge but already seems to have grasped that you have to be careful what you say around here.

Having said that, Richardson started out by mentioning the "high quality public realm" manifest in the centre of Cambridge (thanks to the university and colleges, not the city), and contrasting that with the "suburban realm" with "less appeal and identity", i.e. most of Cambridge looks pretty much like any other town in the UK (i.e. mediocre). That might have been considered to be a slightly controversial statement.

Richardson is from Canada, so he next listed some of the obvious differences between North America and the UK. So in the former there is (supposedly) a "dominance of suburbs" and the urban areas mostly have "downtowns of indiscernable quality". (He then quickly mentioned Montreal, Boston, New York, etc., as counter-examples, which already takes up a reasonable fraction of the urban population.) Well, is that really different from the UK? Most people in the UK want to live in suburbs (and Cambridge is mostly a suburb in spite of what some people think), but the urban elite certainly have a stronger stranglehold on planning in the UK than in the US.

He then listed the "challenges", since Cambridge is supposed to add over 12000 dwellings by 2016. Guess what, transport is a problem. Well, interestingly enough, he also mentioned people's fear of change. And transport actually falls into a similar paradigm. Everybody always believes transport is a disaster and the world will end if something is not done, but everybody is always wrong. On transport Richardson of course promoted the current politically correct party line, namely that cars are the source of all evil in the world and that of course pedestrians should come first in transport, then cyclists, then buses and finally cars (if the ruling elite are kind enough to allow anyone to have one). One of the city councillors at the end pointed out that in fact most people believe the opposite, that cars should have priority (since most people are drivers). So this is just another demonstration of the disconnect between the ruling elite (of Cambridge, the UK and Europe, for that matter) and ordinary people.

Richardson of course also mentioned "sustainable" communities (blah, blah, blah). Being an outsider, when he first arrived in Cambridge he said he was surprised by all his colleagues constantly referring to "sustainable" this, that and the other. But now he was willing to use this term as a pro like the rest. Unfortunately "sustainable" has become one of those dread words used by the elite to justify anything and everything, and at its core is of course the cult of hatred of the car. Isn't it amazing that the ordinary public can see how useful cars are but the ruling elite cannot figure that out (hint for the ruling elite: it makes people independently mobile; yes, we know you hate people being independently mobile because you are control freaks who think you know best when and how people should get from A to B).

He mentioned a few specific projects. There is the Crowne Plaza Hotel (originally a Holiday Inn) on Downing Street. A mediocre building if ever there was one, and located smack in the middle of what should be a prestige site in the centre of Cambridge. Unfortunately as part of the so-called Grand Arcade scheme they knocked down the Norwich Union building instead of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

There is the complex on the old Cattle Market site housing a new cinema and hotel (and other premises). The main problem here is that the large square in the middle is just a large soulless square of no charm and just begging the youth of Cambridge to engage in brawls there on Friday night. Now you go to almost any city on the Continent and you find large squares of great charm, so where has Cambridge gone wrong? Perhaps the square just needs to age (which is what Richardson seemed to suggest). Perhaps the fact that the immediate neighbourhood has no great quality is part of the problem.

There is King's Parade. Well of course everybody loves King's Parade. Of course it was not planned by government, which is perhaps the clue. At the end someone asked a question about the street lights on King's Parade, apparently they are not suitable for the location (and were "temporary"). You know you are surrounded by middle class people when the biggest concern in life someone can express is the alleged horribleness of the street lights.

There is the so-called Grand Arcade. Well the less said about this the better. The construction of this is just now starting, so perhaps it will be good. But far more likely it will be Lion Yard Mark II, so another shopping mall which could be found anywhere in the world.

There is the station area project (still on the drawing board, with allegedly a budget of 700-800 million pounds). Unfortunately Richard Rogers has been appointed some kind of master planner for this by the developers, so we are likely to have some completely inappropriate and idiotic muddle at the end of it. And mostly London commuters living there, so hardly a great scheme for Cambridge.

Richardson gave a lot of the typical current political slant on design ("appreciation of context", "character and identity", "creating supporting community", "attention to detail", etc.). In fact, if you modified the odd word here and there, then he could have given this kind of politically correct talk at any time in the last half a century. And the problem the ruling elite of Cambridge have to face is that if you asked anyone what the best buildings and housing is in town then all of those listed would be private sector and none of them would have been designed, championed or built by the city, who instead have been responsible for some of the worst examples (sometimes in league with developers). (If you look at the list of 100 notable buildings in Cambridge you will find only one building, the Parkside Pools, which government had any hand in planning, designing or building.) So what chance is there that this future development will somehow be better, with all their middle class supposition and arrogance about what is best for the public.

Of course one of the bugbears of the current urban planning elite is that all new housing has to be high density rabbit hutches (which often means flats). (Allegedly because high density is pro-bus and anti-car.) And the "high density" approach was supported positively by several people in the audience (including one who made the usual socialist suggestion that there should be no private gardens, heaven forbid for ordinary people to actually own a plot of land larger than a postage stamp). Richardson quoted several development densities, depending on the questioner, anywhere from 20 to 70 dwellings per hectare. One of the city councillors said that the current building site on Hills Road next to the railway line was more like 200 per hectare (hard to believe it is that high), and that the city had recently received an application for a development at 700 per hectare. Yes, why don't we just turn Cambridge into an urban hell.

(And the widely used measure of dwellings per hectare is misleading in any case. If you are really worried about density, then you should be measuring people per hectare. Otherwise three flats with one person each in them is somehow considered to be three times as "good" as one house with three people living in it. Unfortunately the urban planning elite haven't even figured this one out yet.)

The average quality of housing in Cambridge is already fairly mediocre and the new stuff will almost certainly push the average down. How is the university going to attract world-class talent? Well in some sense it already lost that battle half a century ago. But imagine you are a young professor with a bright future and you are invited to come here. You are paid not very much and the housing you can afford is something that a poor person might aspire to elsewhere in the world. Similarly, although the hi-tech boom has long since been over, there are still new hi-tech millionaires being created every year in Cambridge, with no houses to match. We need more housing like you find on Barrow Road, Latham Road and Millington Road. We are hardly getting a single new house like that. Of course perhaps America is becoming such an unattractive place to live that people will come here in spite of the conditions.

Someone asked about self-build opportunities amongst the 12000 new dwellings in Cambridge. The city bureaucrats both said there was nothing definite on that front. And the questioner also asked why the city could not just buy the greenbelt land that was about to be developed, parcel into plots, and sell these for specific purposes and with the general public involved, and not just developers (apparently this is what happens in Germany). That got the biggest clap of the night but the bureaucrats again poured cold water on this idea. This is a problem, the people running the show have no vision (it's not just Cambridge, it's all of the UK ruling elite).

Cambridge will hopefully muddle through in spite of the city council and in spite of the developers.

Congestion charging on the railways (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rail passengers could face congestion charge-style price hikes at rush hour to combat rising passenger numbers.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) proposed "rail peak pricing" to combat a forecast rise in travellers of at least 28% in 10 years.

Atoc said the government's road charging plan could prompt such a move by forcing more people on to trains.

But the Rail Passengers Council said travelling at off-peak times should be made "more attractive".

An Atoc future strategy document published on Monday said: "Any rail service which is a practicable alternative for people using the car on a high-charge road journey will need its own peak pricing system."

Atoc Director General George Muir told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "In the next 10 years the objective will be to run as many trains as we sensibly can, and as long trains as we can, to carry the maximum capacity.

"But there will come a point, and we are not far from that point, where we have reached capacity, and at that particular time if road use pricing then comes in it clearly has a knock-on effect on the pricing of other modes."

The strategy document - entitled Looking Forward: Contribution to Railway Strategy - also said scrapping under-used trains and stations could help operators handle growth.

Franchise requirements forcing operators to continue running these should be ditched, it said.

It also proposed lengthening trains on selected routes, improving track lay-outs and changing timetables to allow more trains to run.

The report said that overall the network should be able to handle predicted growth through innovation and small investments.

But Anthony Smith, director of the Rail Passengers Council, told Radio Five Live: "We are very, very worried that unless more space is made on the train network we're going to be looking at pricing people off, which would be a complete failure."

He added: " We've got serious climate change; we've got serious problems with vehicle emissions - we've got to get more people using public transport. It's not a solution to price them off.

"What we've said for a long time is make travelling off-peak and at less busy times more attractive - don't price people off at peak times."

Well the Rail Passengers Council is being silly on several fronts. Firstly, making rail travel "at less busy times more attractive" is pretty much the same as "pric[ing] people off at peak times", since by "more attractive" he means cheaper, so it is entirely price driven. Secondly, what is it about rail users that they think they are saving the world (and stopping climate change) by commuting (or whatever) by train? Their journey is hugely subsidised so they are not even paying for the energy they are consuming, never mind the consequent environmental damage. Commuting from Bristol or Cambridge to London every day is not an environmentally friendly life style no matter how you do the journey. Thirdly, are train passengers willing to pay for the extra capacity on the network that they want? Of course not, they believe it should be non-train passengers (i.e. the general taxpayer) that pays. One of the reason rail advocates constantly get away with this nonsense is that most of the media (including the BBC) is run by people who are rail (and/or underground) passengers, so of course they are happy to promulgate the view that the rest of the world should pay for their journey.

In any case this story is largely nonsense, since the price of train tickets is already higher at peak times, exactly for economic reasons. So the only real question here is what that level should be. Needless to say economists are happy to congestion charge everything (it keeps them fully employed determining the price), and if it's good enough for cars, it's good enough for trains. While we're at it, we should congestion charge pedestrians and cyclists. After all, by being in the way on roads (e.g. stopping traffic at pedestrian crossings) they are causing congestion. Fair is fair.

Date published: 2005/06/20

Aviation and the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Every day at Britain's airports, hundreds of aircraft take off for destinations across Europe. Each churns out tonnes of carbon dioxide, a by-product of the jet engine and a likely cause of global warming.

Take just one flight. Ryanair's 800-mile (1,300km) flight from Stansted to Rome, using a Boeing 737, will produce 27 tonnes of CO2 as it goes.

Much of it will hang around in the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse gases generated by air travel are tiny compared with many other environmentally damaging human activities.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates aviation contributes just 3% to total global emissions of CO2, compared with the 25% pumped out by power stations.

But there are predictions that this will rise to 15% because aviation is one of the few sources of greenhouse gases that are growing.

Air travel has been predicted by the government to triple in the next 30 years.

Airports are being expanded to cope with the extra demand, with extra runways planned at Stansted and Heathrow.

Now, enter the combined weight of the UK's aviation industry - with a strategy designed to show that airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers are taking responsibility for what they admit are the "significant, detrimental environmental impacts" of our love of flying.

The target is to make planes 50% more fuel efficient by 2020, compared with aircraft in our skies now.

That should reduce CO2 emissions by half. But can it be done - and what impact will it have on global warming?

For evidence that it is possible, the industry points out that modern aircraft are 70% more fuel-efficient than they were in the '60s.

Planes can be built much bigger. Airbus says its giant new A380 burns 13% less fuel than the ageing Boeing 747.

A380s are likely to be common at airports in 15 years' time.

Making the air traffic control system more efficient may help, too. Time wasted, on the ground or in the air, is paid for in aviation fuel.

But environmentalists doubt that building better planes with better engines can achieve the 50% target.

Jeff Gazzard, from the Aviation Environment Federation, said the strategy was "hopelessly optimistic, and over-reliant on technology. Real back-of-the-fag-packet stuff".

He believes a 25% reduction is possible, but says that will not be enough. If the government's estimates are to be believed, in the 15-year timescale of this strategy the number of flights will increase by 150%.

The aviation industry is also committed to a system of "emissions trading" which would allow airlines to buy the right to produce greenhouse gases from other industries that are producing less - such as power stations.

This "virtual pollution market", it is argued, would put a price on environmental damage, and encourage greener air travel.

But environmentalists believe none of these solutions will tackle the real problem: our growing desire to get on a plane and fly, whether on a business trip across the globe, or a cheap trip to a hot new holiday destination in Europe.

The only solution, they say, is to make flying more expensive, to persuade us to fly less.

The Aviation Environment Federation wants every passenger to pay at least £34 more for every 700 miles (1,100km) they fly.

So a 50% reduction is "back-of-the-fag-packet" but the equally handwaving 25% reduction suggested by the Aviation Environment Federation is not?? These people are taking the piss. One problem the hysterical anti-aviation organisations have is that if planes are made more efficient then flights will become even cheaper (as they should), and so there will be more demand for flights. And the carbon tax on flights should not be based on passenger miles, it should be based on fuel consumed, i.e. proportional to the environmental damage done. So airlines that have full planes would pay less compared with those that do not, and airlines with efficient planes would pay less compared with those that do not. And needless to say, your average middle class BBC correspondent and your average middle class so-called environmentalist make many more flights than your average British citizen, so perhaps they should abstain completely before complaining endlessly that more and more people take flights now that ordinary working class British people can afford a holiday abroad, as the middle class have for years.

Africa and climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa will fail unless urgent action is taken to halt climate change, a coalition of aid and environment groups claims.

The Working Group on Climate Change and Development says the G8 nations have so far failed to "join the dots" between climate change and Africa.

The group's concerns are echoed in a separate report from the UK's leading body of scientists, the Royal Society.

The leaders of the major industrial nations meet in Scotland On 6-8 July.

The Working Group on Climate Change and Development is an alliance of 21 UK-based charities and environment groups.

Their report, Africa: Up in Smoke? calls for deeper emission cuts in rich countries and for the G8 to make new funding available to help poor countries adapt to global warming.

Governments had to recognise that dealing with climate change was part of the answer of getting people out of poverty in Africa, said Sarah La Trobe, policy officer for climate change and disasters at the charity Tearfund.

"Efforts to reduce poverty in Africa are not going to work without attention to this issue," she told the BBC News website.

"Governments have to recognise that. They must make faster progress with countries that are suffering." The working group wants:

The Royal Society is also calling for G8 leaders to commit to helping Africa cope with climate change.

New data suggests the impact of climate change on crop production on the continent will be more severe than previously thought.

In its report, Food Crops in a Changing Climate, based on discussions in April by experts on climate change and crop production, the UK science academy says Africa is predicted to be one of the worst hit areas of the world.

The usual suspects making the usual claims. Anything and everything that any special interest pressure group wants to progress must be shown to have some link with climate change, because that lends it credibility. Of course Africa will be affected by climate change as will all other continents. And Africa, being poorer, will probably not cope as well. Tell us something we don't know. The most serious problems in Africa (including environmental ones) have less to do with rich-country-induced climate change than with governments that are dreadful.

Date published: 2005/06/19

Vitamin D supposed to reduce risk of prostate cancer in men (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sunlight can reduce a man's risk of prostate cancer, a study suggests.

Researchers from three US centres found men exposed to a high amount of sun had half the risk of the disease than those exposed to a low amount.

Writing in Cancer Research, they suggest that the protection was a result of the body's manufacture of vitamin D after sun exposure.

But men were warned not to sunbathe excessively because of the risk of developing skin cancer.
Previous research has shown that the prostate uses vitamin D to promote the normal growth of prostate cells and to inhibit the invasiveness and spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body.

Genes determine how the body processes vitamin D. They control receptors which vary in their ability to bind to the vitamin and therefore influence the behaviour of cells.

DNA tests carried out by the researchers showed the risk of prostate cancer was reduced by up to 65% in men with certain gene variants.

Dr Esther John, of the Northern California Cancer Centre, who led the research, said: "We believe that sunlight helps to reduce the risk of prostate cancer because the body manufactures the active form of vitamin D from exposure to sunlight."

She added that if future studies continued to suggest this link, increasing vitamin D intake from food and supplements might be the safest solution to achieve the right levels.

Chris Hiley, head of policy and research at the Prostate Cancer Charity, warned that while increased exposure to sunlight might decrease the risk of prostate cancer, it also increased the risk of skin cancer.

"Men need more evidence-based research to know how to balance the risks and benefits."

Henry Scowcroft, of Cancer Research UK, also cautioned that more work was needed to weigh up the risks involved.

"For most people, it usually takes just a few minutes of sun exposure for your skin to make a very large amount of vitamin D," he added.

More rather pointless research. The algorithm for such research seems to be as follows. Take chemical C. If you do not like C then give huge quantities of it to test subjects and show that some bad effect E1 is more likely to occur. If you do like C then give normal quantities of it to test subjects and show that some good effect E2 is more likely to occur. Normally do not worry about confusing correlation and causation (which does not seem to be the problem here). And just consider effects in isolation, since that is the only way to get the black and white result you need in order to publish the results (well, to be fair, effects need to be considered in isolation but missing out the bigger picture in the discussion can lead to silly media coverage).

Nurses want even more housing subsidy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nurses are being forced to quit the profession because they cannot afford to buy homes, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.

The RCN says the government's scheme to help public sector workers get onto the property ladder has failed to help thousands in places like London.

The government says its initiative, the Key Worker Living scheme, has a limited allocation of funds.

But the RCN says more money should be put into the scheme.

It also wants to see it extended outside the South East to other areas where workers currently get no help.

The Key Worker Living scheme helps workers buy homes by offering them loans of up to £50,000, or shared ownership schemes.

It is open to other public sector workers, such as police officers and teachers, but excludes nurses employed outside the NHS in private and charity sectors, as well as overseas nurses in the UK on work permits.

In its first year, the scheme helped 653 nurses in the South East onto the property ladder.

So far this year, the scheme has received 25,000 applications, of which 5,197 are completed or are at an advanced stage.

But the government has revealed that scheme's money is almost fully committed in some areas after just two months.

The RCN says nurses frustrated at not being able to afford to buy homes are having to find better paid jobs or take on extra work

Claire Cannings, the RCN's welfare officer, said the scheme was "fantastic" for the 653 nurses it had already helped.

But she added it was "over-stretched", and that it could seem "divisive and extremely unfair" for the many nurses who weren't eligible for help.

"It's very disturbing to find nurses considering leaving the profession because they can't afford their own homes," she said.

Hmmm, it is "divisive and extremely unfair" that some nurses are eligible and some are not. How about it is "divisive and extremely unfair" that nurses, and other politically correct categories of public sector workers, are eligible and nobody else is. Why should nurses (police, etc.) be given special subsidies by the State? Why are nurses considered to be "key workers" but not (just about) everybody else? In Cambridge, university employees are "key workers" but nobody gives them a break.

Of course this housing subsidy is in lieu of pay, and the government is being cheapskate by offering this subsidy instead of paying a higher salary in the first place. But government subsidy of housing specifically is extremely deleterious, it just pushes up house prices further. So this is a particularly idiotic way of increasing the pay of some nurses. Why is Gordon Brown considered to be such a great Chancellor? This subsidy is just one of his many halfwit policies which complicate the tax and benefit system and do more harm than good, and are "divisive and extremely unfair".

Date published: 2005/06/18

Placebo effect possibly works for anxiety (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists say they have found that the "placebo effect" of dummy drugs can relieve anxiety as well as pain.

The effect is when a person is successfully treated by a dummy drug, just because they believe it works.

Swedish volunteers were shown a series of unpleasant pictures and then given an anti-anxiety drug. The test was later repeated, but with a fake drug.

The effects on calming the people's nerves were fairly similar, the scientists told the journal Neuron.

However, there is still controversy over whether the placebo effect actually exists.

In the Swedish experiment, Dr Predrag Petrovic and colleagues at the Karolinska Institute showed their volunteers images of mutilated bodies, in order to measure anxiety, which they asked the participants to rate on a scale of 0 to 100, 100 being the most unpleasant.

They then gave the subjects a genuine anti-anxiety drug - a benzodiazepine - and told them that it should reduce any unpleasant emotions.

They then administered an antidote to the benzodiazepine, telling the volunteers that this would restore the unpleasant emotions.

They repeated the test the next day with the same subjects in the same way, telling them that they were receiving the same drugs.

However, instead they were given dummy drugs.

Benzodiazapine had reduced the average unpleasantness rating from 51 down to 29. This reverted back to almost 61 after the antidote was given.

The placebo had a similar effect - unpleasantness rating dropped to 36 after the placebo and rose back up to 51 after receiving the fake antidote.

During all of the experiments the subjects' brains were scanned using functional MRI, which shows up blood flow.

The scans revealed that the placebo reduced activity in the brain's emotion centres and this reduction correlated with the unpleasantness rating, meaning subjects who reported the largest placebo response also showed the largest decrease in activity in the emotional centres.

Dr Petrovic said: "The placebo changes what we expect. When we expect that something unpleasant should become less unpleasant, it really does."

He said it was unlikely that placebos could be used to treat anxiety, because of the ethics involved of telling patients they were being given a treatment but not revealing that it is a sham.

However, he said the findings might help with finding better drugs and better cognitive treatments that activate similar centres in the brain as the placebos.

Interesting to some extent, but the anxiety condition was artificial, and some of the subjects possibly were just playing along so as not to upset the researchers. The claim of a correlation with brain activity provides some, but not conclusive, evidence that the placebo worked.

Date published: 2005/06/17

UN report on desertification (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Desertification is a growing menace that puts at risk global efforts to tackle poverty and hunger, a new report from a coalition of scientists states.

The group says bad crop management and the misuse of irrigation in a number of regions is putting unsustainable pressure on dryland areas.

The UN-led team estimates that 10-20% of drylands are already degraded.

They warn that unless practices change these areas will become unproductive, blighting the lives of millions.

Their report is called Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis. It is the latest document produced by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) project.

This $22m, four-year study by 1,300 experts from 95 countries has been described as the most detailed "green healthcheck" yet on the state of the planet.

In the case of drylands, preventing their degradation into deserts is an immense global problem, say the authors.

"Given the size of population in drylands, the number of people affected by desertification is likely larger than any other contemporary environmental problem," they write.

Drylands cover 41% of the planet's land surface, and are growing. They are home to over two billion people, including the world's most impoverished, in areas such as central Asia and northern Africa.

No great surprises here except that for some reason climate change did not rate a mention, and that is also bound to play a role.

Council tax revaluations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who make substantial home improvements - such as loft conversions - may face higher council tax bills, it has been confirmed.

The government's Valuation Office (VOA) has confirmed that improvements could push property into a higher council tax band during council tax revaluation.

All homes in England are currently being revalued, before new council tax bands are introduced in 2007.

Previously, improvements only affected tax bands when the property was sold.

"Home improvements have always ultimately affected the value of a property for council tax purposes when it has been sold," a VAO spokesman told BBC News.

"All that is happening now is that during the revaluation process we shall be catching up with how improvements have increased a property's value.

"We are doing this so that we can fairly gauge the value of the property."
But the Conservatives said the plan was another example of a government stealth tax.

Shadow Secretary for local government, Caroline Spelman said moving up a council tax band would mean an increase of £270 a year for the average household.

She said: "Hard-working families and pensioners who have spent time and money on renovating their home will be hardest hit.

"Armies of clipboard inspectors will be descending on every town in England to inspect people's homes to justify whacking up their council tax bills."

Liberal Democrat Local Government Spokesman Sarah Teather said: "It's absurd for the government to be penalising people for investing in their homes.

"Council tax revaluation will just prove how unfair it is to base local taxes on the value of someone's home."

This is a no-brainer, the Tories and Lib Dems are just taking the piss. The council tax is a (crude) property tax and so it is proportional to the value of your property. If your house has increased in value (relatively) much more than others then your tax should go up (well, the council tax occurs in bands, so this is only an approximate rule). With the Tory / Lib Dem logic, if you buy a plot of land with a near worthless derelict bungalow on it and get planning permission to replace it with a 10 million pound house, then you should still pay the original council tax (after all, it is just a "home improvement").

House prices have mushroomed since the original council tax valuation fifteen years ago, and the only real question now is whether the government is going to use that increase to sneak in a "stealth" increase in the council tax. If the revaluation is fair then the average property in an area should have the same bill before and after. Unfortunately life is not fair and New Labour, the champion of stealth taxes, is running the country. And unfortunately the Tories and Lib Dems seem to have decided not to raise this real issue, instead just posturing.

And there is nothing wrong per se with a property tax, which is a crude wealth tax. Like all other taxes it is arbitrary and the rate is arbitrary. The Lib Dems pretend that income taxes are fairer than property taxes but that is just nonsense. As everyone knows, the only tax that is fair is one that someone else has to pay.

Date published: 2005/06/16

Having friends allegedly makes you live longer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Good friends promise to be there for you, and their presence can actually help you live longer, researchers say.

Australian scientists said having friends around in old age can do more for life expectancy than having family members around.

The team looked at how a range of social, health and lifestyle factors affected the survival rates of more than 1,500 people over 70.
The team took data from the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging (ALSA), which began in 1992 in Adelaide, South Australia.

As part of the study, people were asked how much personal and phone contact they had with their various social networks, including children, relatives, friends and confidants.

The team then looked at each participant's survival rates over the following decade, checking them after four years, and then at around three yearly intervals.

It was found that close contact with children and relatives had little impact on survival rates over the 10 years.

However, those with the strongest network of friends and acquaintances were statistically more likely to be alive at the end of the study than those with the fewest.

After controlling for demographic, health and lifestyle variables, the people in the top third of friends social networks were found to be 22% less likely to die over the following decade than people in the lowest third.

This was evident even if the person had been through major changes such as the death of a spouse or close family members, and the relocation of friends to other parts of the country.

The researchers, led by Lynne Giles at Flinders University, in Adelaide, said the benefits may be due to the fact people could choose their friends, as opposed to family members.

Another pointless piece of "research", confusing correlation and causation. (Well, the BBC certainly makes this confusion in the first paragraph, perhaps the "researchers" were more careful.) Could it be that people with a more positive outlook on life both live longer and have more friends? Could it be that these people even over-estimate their social networks relative to people with a less positive outlook? Was it worth spending any money at all doing this analysis?

Some groups under-represented in science in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Black Caribbean and Bangladeshi people are the least likely to study or work in science after GCSEs, a report says.

They are the most under-represented groups in science, engineering and technology, according to a study for the Royal Society.

But there are big differences within broad ethnic groups, said the research team from Warwick University.

The research also found men to be four times more likely than women to be working in or studying science.

The study compared the participation of various UK ethnic groups in science, engineering and technology to that of Britain's white population.

Researchers analysed data from three sources for variations in participation by age, sex and ethnic group.

They said the two main disadvantaged groups in terms of participation were the Bangladeshi population - especially women - and the black Caribbean group - particularly men.
Asian groups were in general well-represented. Chinese and Indian groups were over-represented compared to the white UK population.

Black Africans were also well-represented, but the black Caribbean population was under-represented.

The researchers said white Britons were under-represented in some respects, compared with the size of population - for example, in terms of the numbers studying science subjects.

The report concluded that ethnic minority groups were not necessarily disadvantaged in terms of access to and participation in science, engineering and technology.

Another particularly useless piece of "research". Political correctness seems to have infiltrated the Royal Society. Instead give the money to something more useful. Say, science. All this analysis amounts to is a trawling for correlations, and there is a difference between correlation and causation. In particular, here the stronger correlation (and almost certainly closer to being the cause) is bound to be family circumstance.

Date published: 2005/06/15

Link between red meat and bowel cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A major study has found fresh evidence of a link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer, scientists say.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) looked at the dietary habits of over 500,000 people across Europe over 10 years.

Bowel cancer risk was a third higher for those who regularly ate over two 80g portions of red or processed meat a day, compared to less than one a week.

EPIC's study is reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The study also found a low fibre diet increased the risk of bowel cancer.

Eating poultry had no impact but the risk for people who ate one portion or more of fish every other day was nearly a third lower than those who ate fish less than once a week.
The researchers defined red meat as beef, lamb, pork and veal.

Processed meat was mostly pork and beef that were preserved by methods other than freezing. They include ham, bacon, sausages, liver pate, salami, tinned meat, luncheon meat and corned beef.

The key word is the researchers have found a "link", i.e. a correlation, and of course there is a difference between correlation and causation. In this case it's hard to imagine why the implied causation, that eating too much red meat actually causes bowel cancer, might not be true given the correlation. But this causation has not been proven by this study. And another problem with the way this kind of research is done and reported is that it looks at one thing in isolation. So excessive meat eating might be bad for you on this one specific front, bowel cancer. (And as we all know, most excessive eating or drinking of anything is bad for you.) But meat eating is no doubt good for you on other fronts. The moral of the story is just to ignore all reports about diet, and eat what you want, in moderation.

Japan and France looking into new supersonic plane (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Japan and France are to work together to develop a successor to the retired supersonic jet aircraft Concorde.

Companies from the countries will split an investment of $1.84m (£1.01m) a year for research over the next three years, Japan's trade ministry said.

The agreement to develop the new passenger plane was signed at the Paris Air Show, Japan added.

The new plane will have 300 seats and cut the flight time between New York and Tokyo to six hours, reports said.

"This is truly significant industrial co-operation," Japan's Trade Minister Shoichi Nakagawa said.

"Bringing their respective advantages together... should lead to the ability to offer highly-advanced aircraft and services in the future."

The ministry added that Japan had successfully tested an engine that could theoretically reach speeds of up to five times the speed of sound.

Concorde flew at mach 2 - twice the speed of sound.

It never recouped the huge amounts invested in it by the time it was taken out of service, after 34 years, in 2003.

However, France will bring its own knowledge of the aircraft to the table as French airline Air France was one half of the original Concorde team.

The deal also represents a break with Japan's habit of working with US firms.

"To research closely in this area with the Europeans does represent something new," said Yoshio Watanabe, an official with The Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies, which is heading the new initiative in Japan.

Japan and France (with Europe) are in the midst of a bitter battle over the next-generation fusion site location, so it's good to see them cooperating on such a significant technological project. And it's also hard to imagine any other European country with an appetite for such a project. Any such proposal in Britain would bring hoots of derision (especially from the so-called environmentalists). France, it seems, still has some vision for the future. Unlike Britain.

Date published: 2005/06/14

Money in IT for girls (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A scheme aimed at getting more girls interested in IT careers is being launched by the education secretary.

Women make up just one in five of the technology workforce. The same percentage of those studying IT-related degrees is female.

Computer Club for Girls (CC4G) seeks to persuade girls that IT jobs are not "just for boys", and is being rolled out to 3,600 schools across England.
The South East England Development Agency, which is funding the scheme, hopes that 150,000 girls aged 10 to 14 will be given a new insight into the possibilities of IT careers.

Agency head Pam Alexander said work on plugging the IT skills gap must begin in schools.

"By targeting girls at a significant stage in their education we can attract them into IT at the right time by showing them that computers can be both fun and useful.

"One hundred percent of schools involved in CC4G pilots feel that IT confidence levels are improved as a result. That is a huge achievement.

"Our next challenge - after rolling this out nationwide - is to build the pathway from 14-years onwards with appropriate and attractive courses for these girls. And then address the needs of boys too."

The kind of politically correct sexist policy you would expect from New Labour. And how sweet of Pam Alexander to eventually consider "address[ing] the needs of boys too". And the claim that "one hundred percent of schools involved in CC4G pilots feel that IT confidence levels are improved as a result" is the kind of vacuous claim you would expect to be made by a quango trying to justify its existence. (Would any school given money under this scheme ever make anything but glowing recommendations?)

UK government funds carbon sequestration project (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government has announced £25m of funding for a plan to capture greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and store them under the North Sea.

Carbon sequestration, as it is known, has long been regarded as one possible solution that might help mitigate the effects of global warming.

It involves power stations and oil rigs holding on to their emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

The gases are then pumped underground to keep them out of the atmosphere.

Carbon storage could be up and running within a decade, said the government.

The money announced on Tuesday is part of a £40m package to tackle climate change that covers not only carbon sequestration, but projects for cleaner electricity generation from coal and gas as well as for hydrogen and fuel cell technology.

"We've consulted the industry closely and it's clear that the long-term benefits of capture and storage, which could reduce emissions from power plants by up to 85%, merit significant investment now," said energy minister Malcolm Wicks.

"We must, of course, maintain the push toward renewables and energy efficiency that deliver cuts in emissions here and now."

The North Sea is thought to be ideal to store captured emissions as they would simply reoccupy the spaces in deep geological formations that had previously trapped oil and gas reserves for millions of years.

Experiments are already underway in the region. Norway's Statoil company, for instance, has buried carbon dioxide (CO2) under the North Sea since 1996.

Now, the British government believes it is time for the UK to extend current techniques.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks outlined the strategy for carbon abatement on Tuesday, together with new initiatives on hydrogen, a fuel that many expect to play a major role in the replacement of fossil fuels.

Experts say carbon capture and storage is best applied to large stationary sources, such as power stations and industrial plants, where CO2 can be separated from the flue gases.

In 2002, about 35% of UK CO2 emissions were from energy industries. Applying CO2 capture to the likes of power stations therefore has the greatest potential to reduce current greenhouse emissions in the UK, experts believe.

Definitely worth spending money looking at carbon sequestration, as part of an overall package to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Only time will tell how well it will work.

Mediterranean climate in England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Huge swathes of England could take on a Mediterranean look within 50 years as native woodlands are threatened by warmer, drier summers, say scientists.

Olive groves, vines and sunflower fields could become hallmarks of the landscape in South-East England as global warming changes conditions.

Experts also say the English country garden is unlikely to survive in the South East in its present form.

Rolling lawns and herbaceous borders may be ousted by palms and eucalyptus.

By 2050 summer temperatures in the South-East of England are expected to be 1.5 to 3C warmer than they are now.

This could rise to 6C by 2080 if current global warming trends continue. Meanwhile rainfall will be cut by a third.

Scientists, at a two-day climate change conference at the University of Surrey in Guildford, conjured a picture more reminiscent of the South of France than the South Downs as they looked at the implications of global warming for Britain's native trees.

Nothing new here at all. And think what the beach front properties in north Cambridge will be worth when the Fens are once more under water and the climate is near Mediterranean. So the news is not all bad.

Date published: 2005/06/13

St Ives Council thinks little of proposed 60 mph A14 speed limit (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Enforcing a 60mph speed limit on the killer A14 is not the answer, it has been claimed.

St Ives Town Council was asked to consider the proposal by the Highways Agency, but has decided it is not enough to have a significant impact on safety.

"Cars are always stopping and starting on the road and travel bumper to bumper, and we think that would continue even if a limit were in place," said town clerk George Cooper.

"If there is a 60mph limit in place people will slam on their brakes just the same as they do now when they approach a speed camera."

Jason Ablewhite, Mayor of St Ives, said 13 councillors agreed more action needed to be taken.

"We are not against a 60mph limit, and support anything that improves the safety on the A14," he said. "But we just don't think it will have a great impact."

He told the News that a continuous speed monitoring system would have more impact.

"If they had cameras on bridges every half a mile, people would be forced to drive slower and keep a safe pace," he said.

"I also personally have a problem with the laybys. I think they are extremely dangerous and should be closed off until money can be spent to rectify the problem."

The Highways Agency is also suggesting a 60mph speed limit from north-west of the Spittals Interchange to east of Histon roundabout on the B1049.

Short sections of the A428 at the Girton interchange and the A1307 north-west of Cambridge would also be affected.

And a separate proposal suggests the introduction of a 40mph speed limit at the A14/ A141 Spittals interchange along with traffic signals.

The main problem with the A14 is that the design is dreadful and it is particularly dreadful (and dangerous) given the huge amount of traffic that uses it. The laybys are often extremely dangerous, being placed right next to exits, so that drivers in less than ideal conditions could mistake a layby for an exit slip road. (Amazingly enough this does not seem to happen that often.) Many of the entrances (and some of the exits) on the A14 are practically at 90 degrees to the road. The M11 - A14 - A428 interchange at Cambridge wastes a huge amount of space (e.g. parallel roads where they are not really needed) yet has a totally crazy design (e.g. two lanes of traffic which have to cross each other; and no way to get from the A428 to the M11). Is anyone in the Highways Agency willing to admit the situation is a mess and apologise for having to introduce the restricted speed limits?

Imported animal diseases in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More needs to be done to prevent imported animals spreading diseases to humans and wildlife in Britain, says the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Its report says a national monitoring agency should be set up to detect diseases more quickly and to help prevent them from spreading.

Around 75% of emerging diseases in humans come from animals, including Aids, Bird Flu and West Nile Virus.

Yet animals continue to be moved across borders with little scrutiny, ZSL says.

Ways that animals are moved around include the pet trade, hunting and tourism.

"A lot of wildlife diseases can be transmitted to livestock and even to humans," Dr Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London, told BBC News.

"It is essential that the UK has increased protection from the danger of emerging infectious diseases as they can devastate our already threatened native wildlife and pose a real hazard to human health."

Native British species have already suffered due to diseases spread by imported animals.

Examples include the decline of red squirrels due to the parapox virus, the death of hundreds of thousands of native frogs due to ranavirus, and the near extinction of crayfish due to fungal disease.

It's not just disease that is the problem, there is also the general issue of how the eco-system reacts to new species. And it is not just animals, it is also plants. But any proposed framework should be proportionate to the problem.

Date published: 2005/06/12

Robert Mallet-Stevens exhibition in Paris (permanent blog link)

2005 seems to be the year to remember Robert Mallet-Stevens, a French architect of the first half of the twentieth century. (He is not in the same league as Le Corbusier, mainly because the latter was a more successful self-publicist.) The main event of the year is a (wonderful) exhibition of his work at the Beaubourg (Pompidou Centre) in Paris. This included a publication of his "complete works". There are only twenty or so of his buildings still extant. He had lots of unrealised projects, and some of his most interesting buildings were at the Paris expositions of 1925 and 1937, so temporary. He also did many film sets (but will not be much remembered in history for that).

Several of his buildings have been restored in the last ten years or so: Villa Noailles in Hyères, Maison (and Atelier) Barillet in Paris, and (all in suburbs of Paris) Maison Collinet in Boulogne-Billancourt, Maison Trapenard in Sceaux and Maison Auger-Prouvost in Ville d'Avray (these also go by the name "Hôtel" or "Villa" instead of "Maison"). Another building is in the process of being renovated: Villa Cavrois in Croix near Lille (estimated cost is over 6m Euros, paid for by the French government).

And one of his buildings, the Villa Poiret in Mézy-sur-Seine (about 25 km from Paris), needs some serious restoration. This is a beautiful house in splendid isolation on top of a hill with grand views (all the way to the Eiffel Tower), with grounds of perhaps a few hectares. (Unfortunately the towns in the local area do not look very salubrious.) The villa was bought by an industrialist in 1999, after ten years or more of neglect, and so far not much seems to have been done to improve the situation except not to allow it to get worse.

A list of his extant houses in France (many no longer residential, all but two in or near Paris):

(There is also an apartment block at 7 rue Méchain, 14e, Paris, 1928-1929.)

Date published: 2005/06/10

Some painkillers allegedly increase risk of heart attack (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Research has suggested all painkillers in a class of drugs, including ibuprofen and naproxen, could be linked to an increased risk of heart attack.

The drugs belong to a family known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.

Last year, trials raised concerns over two NSAIDs and one of them, Vioxx, was taken off the market.

The authors of the study, in the British Medical Journal, said patients should not stop taking the drugs, but called for further investigations.

Some experts questioned the validity of the study findings, saying other factors might have caused the apparent increased heart risk.

The drugs are generally used by people who have chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis.

The two drugs covered by last year's trials were COX-2 inhibitors.

They are more 'stomach friendly' alternatives to NSAIDs, which can sometimes cause ulcers and bleeding.

In the BMJ study, Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox and colleague Carol Coupland used a UK database of patients registered with a GP to identify any who had suffered a heart attack for the first time over a four-year period.

They then looked at what drugs these 9,218 patients had been taking, paying particular attention to NSAID use.

Compared with patients who had not had a heart attack, patients who had were more likely to have been taking any of four types of NSAID.

These included the two COX-2 inhibitors - Vioxx (rofecoxib)and Pfizer's Celebrex (celecoxib) - plus diclofenac and ibuprofen.

For ibuprofen, the odds increased by almost a quarter (24%), and for diclofenac it rose by over a half (55%). For celecoxib the odds increased by a fifth (21%) and for rofecoxib it rose by a third (32%).

But this translates into a low actual risk.

Therefore, one extra patient for every 521 patients taking diclofenac was likely to suffer a first-time heart attack.

For rofecoxib the figure was one patient for every 695 patients, and for ibuprofen one patient for every 1,005 patients.

Swiss medical experts from the University of Berne said in a BMJ editorial that the results should be interpreted with caution.

"The quality of the data on cardiovascular risk factors and other potential confounders was poor," they said.

The study authors admitted it was possible that other factors might have skewed their results, but they said they did take into account other heart disease risk factors such as smoking and obesity.

Trawling through patient data is a classic way to get results which confuse correlation and causation. In order to do this analysis properly you instead need to take a random set of pain sufferers, and give random subsets different pain medicines and see what the consequence is. That would prove (or not) a causation (up to stastical fluctutations). Unfortunately medical research rarely seems to be done this way because it is more expensive. Trawling databases is easy, you don't even need to get out of your chair. Of course it is obvious that all medicines carry risks. Almost any medicine will kill somebody. This does not mean nobody should take it. The real question which should always be asked is whether the risks justify the rewards. Quantifying the risks, as this study claims to do but not properly because of the non-random way it was carried out, is obviously an important step.

Nuclear power stations allegedly not linked to childhood cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is categorically no evidence that living near nuclear power stations increases the rate of childhood cancers, says a report.

The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment based its conclusions on data on 32,000 childhood cancer cases from 1969-93 in the UK.

Overall, children living within a 25km radius of a site were no more likely to get cancer than those living elsewhere.

The latest research is the largest study so far looking at the cancer risk posed, if any, by power stations.

Professor Bryn Bridges, chairman of COMARE during the preparation of this, its 10th report, said: "We think this is as definitive a study as one can do.

"There is no evidence from this very large study that living within 25km of a nuclear generating station in Great Britain is associated with any increased risk of childhood cancer."

"We can give power stations a clean bill of health," said Professor Bridges.

Critics maintain power stations do pose a cancer risk.

Chris Busby of Green Audit, an environmental consultancy and review organisation, said: "By looking at a 25k radius they are not dealing with the actual real world movement of radioactivity from power stations to people.

"The wind blows in particular directions and the materials are released into the environment in particular ways. Much of it ends up in the sea and the coastline. We have told them this. These radial studies are meaningless.

"Also, they should be looking at adult cancers, particularly female breast cancers, as well.

"Childhood leukaemia is a rare disease and the numbers involved are going to be so small that it is much more difficult to get the levels of statistical significance that you need to see an effect."

But Professor Bridges said it was better to look at childhood cancers because children were more sensitive to the effects of radiation and they were less likely to have moved around a lot geographically, making it easier to check for any link.

Of course the so-called environmentalists hate modern technology, in particular nuclear power, so will never accept any result that doesn't agree with their preconceived notions that such technology is evil and the end of the world. Having said that, the 25 km radius approach does seem slightly odd. 25 km is a heck of a long way from a nuclear power station (unless it blows up). The whole way this kind of study is done is also unfortunate. You can certainly say that no correlation means no causation (and that is apparently the case here, subject to the misgivings about the area). But with these kinds of studies you can often find a correlation, and then the people with axes to grind claim that this proves some causation and it never does (and of course if A and B are correlated then it could be A causing B or B causing A or both caused by a third thing or ...). All technology carries risk, and the idea should not be to get hysterical about the risk but to quantify it and determine if the risk justifies the reward (in this case power). Unfortunately the chattering classes do not want to carry out sensible debate, just sensationalist hand-wringing.

Cambridge speed limits set to drop (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cyclists are calling for a blanket 20mph speed limit to be imposed across Cambridge city centre.

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign is keen for a 20mph zone to be introduced from the centre of town to Chesterton Road in the north, Fen Causeway in the south, East Road in the east and Queen's Road in the west.

Cambridgeshire County Council has just announced a series of proposals to introduce more bollards and one-way streets in the city centre, and planners have also floated the possibility of a 20mph speed limit in Bridge Street, Emmanuel Street and Silver Street.

But the Cambridge Cycling Campaign wants to see 20pmh restrictions in place right across the historic centre.

James Woodburn from the Campaign says: "We have two problems with the County Council's proposal: The first is that their zone is too small. The second is that its boundary is jagged and complex.

"We believe that the limit is far more likely to be observed if its boundary is straightforward, coherent and easily remembered. We think that the County's criteria are out of line with current analysis and current national accident data and it is time for them to be reviewed."

But Richard Preston, the council's Cambridge Projects manager, said: "The Campaign's plans ignore the speed management policy of the Council.

"We have the same aspirations as the Campaign but it is not practical to bang down 20mph speed signs all over the city, especially in areas where traffic moves faster than that."

He said this would amount to blanket coverage and said the zones must be "self enforcing".

Mr Preston added: "We would like to expand but we do not have the money or resources at the moment, and neither do the police to enforce these measures. We also need to make sure the first scheme is working before we make plans to extend."

The current (so-called Stage 4) proposals suggest a 20 mph limit inside most of the so-called core area of Cambridge. There are few roads in this area where you could actually safely drive 30 mph in any case (most of the day). The Cambridge Cycling Campaign is a typical special interest pressure group which thinks the rest of society should cave in to their demands. If these cyclists are so useless that they cannot cope with current traffic on Queen's Road, Chesterton Road, etc., then perhaps they should not be on the road in the first place. Of course Preston rather gives the game away. The bureaucrats want to remove cars from the entire city and are making life more and more difficult for drivers as part of this game (except for taxis, because rich people are given a free pass in Cambridge). The bureaucrats will carry out this attack in stages because they have to justify their existence. Once they have finished with the core area they will turn their attention elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, these proposals (which cover much more than the suggested 20 mph speed limit) are undergoing another of the usual fatuous public consultations. This one comes complete with an even more idiotic set of questions than normal. Take question one, which is typical: "The proposals would reduce traffic levels: strongly agree; agree, disagree; strongly disagree". Well obviously the proposals are going to reduce traffic, they are closing off roads to cars. Needless to say the bureaucrats will take the obvious answer as support for their proposals, but it is no such thing. What the question should by saying is "The proposals would reduce traffic levels at an acceptable cost." And the calculated cost should include not only the cost of implementation but also the operational cost, and the latter should include the cost to the public (i.e. drivers) and not just the county (including keeping all these transport planners permanently hired by the county council). No where in the pamphlet being distributed is there any mention of cost. This is typical of the ridiculous poor level of public discourse in the UK. Just mention alleged benefits, never mention costs. That way you can "justify" anything you want (road closures, expensive drugs for free, small class sizes, etc.) without having to justify it.

Date published: 2005/06/09

Environment Agency report on the UK environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Millions of people in England and Wales are being seriously affected by pollution and global warming, the Environment Agency says.

A major report by the agency praises air and water quality improvements but says we must plan for climate change.

The "green health check" says flooding and extreme weather will be among Britain's biggest problems.

Called A Better Place?, the "state of the nations" report updates an assessment last made five years ago.

It details areas where environmental markers are getting better, such as the improvement in air quality and the reduction in waste from households.

But it also highlights negative trends, such as the amount of traffic pollution now experienced in many urban centres.

Overall, the Environment Agency says real progress is being made, but adds that the "report card" is undeniably mixed and on some markers a lot of work still needs to be done.

Issues relating to climate change, wildlife and flood risk are flagged as areas where the greatest ground has to be made up, and where future policy action should be concentrated.
Overall, only the quality of water is unequivocally classed as "better".

England's and Wales' rivers and bathing waters are said now to be the cleanest on record.

Eighty percent of bathing waters meet the toughest EU standards, compared with 45% in 2000.

And pesticide levels in rivers fell by 23% in 2003, compared with the mean for 1998-2002.

Other markers, though, have at best qualified ratings.

Air quality, for example, is rated "overall, much better" but many towns and cities suffer from traffic pollution, the agency says, and industrial emissions of nitrogen oxide have increased by 5% since 2000 as a result of an increase in coal-fired electricity generation.

Wildlife is rated "slightly better but still poor".

The agency says many habitats are improving, but significant numbers of plants, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish and invertebrates remain under threat.

Consumption of resources and waste creation get a qualified "slightly better". Despite strong economic growth, the amount of raw materials being used has been maintained close to 2000 levels.

The total tonnage of domestic rubbish in England and Wales fell for the first time in 2003/04.

At the same time, recycling reached its highest level to date, with on average 17% of the domestic bin being put to new use.

It still takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone, however, and people are using more water despite signs climate change will further squeeze this precarious resource.

On climate change and flood risk, the picture is described as "worse".

The impacts of climate change are becoming more real, the agency says, but while the Kyoto target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% by 2012 will be met, the more challenging target to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 20% by 2010 will not.

In large part this is because of the growth in road traffic, which increased by 7% between 2000 and 2004.

By 2002, vehicles accounted for a quarter of CO2 emissions in the UK.

And on flooding, the agency says the number of people at risk is going to increase, not least because of the predicted effects of a warmer, wetter climate.

A useful compendium, although one has to take anything any government agency says with a pinch of salt because of its own vested interest in the subject (in terms of both budget, and whether it is considered to be doing a good job).

The claim that "the amount of raw materials being used has been maintained close to 2000 levels" is almost certainly false. It might be true if you consider raw materials imported into Britain, but it is probably not true if you consider finished products imported into Britain which involves the consumption of raw materials somewhere else on the planet on behalf of the British. Similarly, the amount of emissions in the UK is not the same as the amount of emissions which have occurred on behalf of the UK. The UK is not an economic island.

Darling gives a speech on road pricing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pay-as-you go road charging could be trialled within five years, says Transport Secretary Alistair Darling.

The pilot scheme is likely to cover a large conurbation or region, he said. If it is a success a nationwide scheme could be in place as early as 2015.

Satellite tracking would be used with charges varying from 2p a mile on rural roads to £1.30 in congested areas.

Mr Darling said charging could replace road tax and fuel duty. It would leave half of motorists better off, he said.

Mr Darling explained details of his proposals in a speech to the Social Market Foundation in London on Thursday.

The transport secretary says that his plans, which are unlikely to become reality before 2015-2020, are an attempt to prevent Britain's roads reaching "gridlock".

Mr Darling said he needed to build a consensus for such radical proposals and he acknowledged that road pricing was not an "easy option".

But he argued that "future generations would curse us" if politicians failed to live up the challenges of keeping traffic moving in such a "crowded island".

There was not enough space to simply build more roads, he said.

"Road pricing is not an easy option - there will be hard choices and difficulties along the way. But we need to face up to all this now," he said.

Well there is nothing here that was not leaked to the press last weekend. In particular no new answers to the difficult questions. For example, there is plenty of space in the UK for roads between cities, it's just that the UK ruling elite have decided not to allow existing roads to be widened or new roads to be built, except in a few spots. So it's about time the UK ruling elite stopped making fatuous claims and started addressing the real issues.

And the claim that "it would leave half of motorists better off" is not only irrelevant, it is probably false. Road pricing should be introduced only if it provides a net benefit to UK plc. In particular, it is likely that the operational costs are going to be huge, so the average cost of motoring will almost definitely increase (who knows, perhaps by 10%). It's possible that in spite of this increase in the average, the median cost could decrease (it depends on the distribution) but it's unlikely. One of the main things Darling has to do is to nail the costs down accurately. Otherwise he is playing Russian roulette with the British road network. Unfortunately these costs will be determined by transport consultants who have a vested interest in road pricing, so you cannot believe anything they say.

Date published: 2005/06/08

Cambridgeshire Horizons open meeting (permanent blog link)

Cambridgeshire Horizons (CH) had their first open meeting tonight. They are responsible for seeing the Cambridgeshire Structure Plan (which specifies what is going to be built, where, and related issues) implemented over the next ten years or so. As you would expect from such a meeting, the people attending were the usual suspects, in particular loads of politicians and people representing special interest groups. And in Cambridge special interest groups always means cyclists (always way over-represented in such events) and railway enthusiasts.

David Trippier (once upon a time a Tory MP) is the chair of CH. He and Stephen Catchpole, the chief executive of CH, gave Powerpoint presentations. The CH strap line appears to be "driving forward sustainable communities" and that immediately tells you the politically correct complexion of what is going on. Having said that, at least Trippier seems to have his head screwed on. And the task at hand is daunting.

The Cambridge region is supposed to have 47500 new homes built between 1999 and 2016. Between 1999 and today around a quarter of that total, 11629, have been built. Well we are over a third along the way between 1999 and 2016, so the current build rate of around 2000 homes per annum needs to be nearly doubled (soon) in order to meet the target.

That depends crucially on getting infrastructure in place, which requires massive funding by central government. Apparently right now the deficit in forseen funding is around 2.2 billion pounds (almost certain to go up), with around half of that down to transport. And Trippier stated that the most crucial bit of development was the upgrading of the A14, with the dualing of the A428 a close second. Wow, what a shock for someone to state that. The usual Cambridge ruling elite seem to think that putting in a few cycle paths and persecuting car drivers will sort Cambridge transport. But Trippier is a relative newcomer to Cambridge, so not yet infected with Cambridge middle class provincialism.

The new build will be split roughly a third for infill and sites less than 100 units (14900 to be exact), a third for sites over 100 units excluding Northstowe and the Cambridge Fringe development (16870 to be exact) and a third for Northstowe and the Cambridge Fringe (15730 to be exact). Northstowe is the proposed new town near Longstanton on and around the disused Oakington airbase (which is allegedly brownbelt, but is mostly green and is indeed more green than most of the surrounding area, which is industrial agriculture). The Cambridge Fringe areas are the proposed new developments at Arbury Camp (next to the A14), the Histon Road - Huntingdon Road fields, the fields near Addenbrooke's, and the university land between Huntingdon Road and Madingley Road, all in the short term, and Cambridge Airport in the longer term (yes, the city is still stupidly asking one of its major employers to get lost).

Apparently as well as the 47500 new homes we are going to get 50000 new jobs. If they say so. Trippier said he didn't want Cambridge to just build houses for London commuters, but certainly a lot of the houses and flats recently built in Cambridge city centre are full of London commuters, and it's hard to see that changing. Trippier wants houses for locals, including the "indigenous" population (such quaint terminology). (And needless to say, not that many people have deep roots in Cambridge, which is about the best thing about the city.)

After the presentations there was a question and answer session, when Trippier and Catchpole were joined by Peter Studdert, Director for Sustainable Communities for CH (dreadful title, so you know you are already in trouble). Most of the questions were asked by politicans and special interest groups. The politicians in particular seemed to be doing nothing but posing, since they already knew the answers to the questions they asked. Issues addressed:

Nobody asked the politically incorrect questions:

The meeting was over in two hours. Not really very consequential.

British countryside allegedly under threat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

"Park and ride" schemes are shifting traffic and related pollution problems from urban areas into the countryside, rural campaigners have warned.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) estimates 40 towns and cities in England operate park and ride schemes.

The schemes encourage people to leave their cars on the outskirts of centres.

A CPRE spokesman said: "Increasingly large areas of countryside are being buried under tarmac in the name of sustainable transport."

The CPRE is releasing the findings of a survey into park and ride schemes at a conference on Thursday.

Comments to be made by Paul Hamblin, CPRE's head of transport policy, were released ahead of the conference.

He said park-and-ride posed a "leading threat" to Green Belts.

"If this continues, every major town in England will have a necklace of car parks around it and it won't be a pretty sight," he said.

"We need to reduce traffic levels overall and improve public transport closer to where people live to provide genuine transport choices."

Spokeswoman Anne Robinson from the CPRE told BBC Radio Four's Today programme the schemes were "trashing" the countryside.

"Park and ride results in large green field sites, if not greenbelt, being covered in tarmac and then you get the intrusion of the traffic," she said.

Of course the Park and Ride schemes move pollution from cities to the countryside, that was their entire point. But the idea that "large areas of countryside are being buried under tarmac" is ridiculous. Take Cambridge. There are five Park and Rides. One, Cowley Road, is next to a sewage farm and in the midst of a business park. The other four (Madingley Road, Newmarket Road, Babraham Road and Trumpington) have been carved out of the greenbelt. How much greenbelt has been lost? Perhaps 50 acres. That leaves only a few tens of thousands of acres still to go in the Cambridge region. Most of the traffic approaching these Park and Rides in the past would have done the same journey except continuing on into Cambridge. Hardly a great "intrusion of traffic". The CPRE of course has to constantly justify its existence with these silly scare stories.

(Which is not to say that there are not problems with the Park and Ride. It is not that family friendly since buses are not that family friendly. From the north there is only one relatively accessible Park and Ride, at Cowley Road, because of the lack of a southbound exit off the M11 at J13. There should be Park and Rides out along Huntingdon Road and Histon Road and Barton Road. And the Babraham Park and Ride should be located on the Addenbrooke's Hospital site, with a decent new access road, but that was considered politically incorrect by the Cambridge ruling elite. And the Trumpington Park and Ride should be a shopping centre, so that people don't have to trudge all the way into Cambridge, but that was considered politically incorrect by the Cambridge ruling elite.)

Unfortunately the CPRE has been particularly busy with their moaning this week (this time with help from some of the other usual suspects). The BBC says:

Government plans for a new rural watchdog may not protect the countryside from damage, environmental pressure groups have warned.

The bill to set up Natural England - a body to replace English Nature and the Countryside Agency - will be debated in the Commons on Monday.

Ministers say the bill will create a powerful champion for conservation.

But green groups say it puts economic concerns such as promoting recreation ahead of environmental protection.

Friends of the Earth, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and the Wildlife and Woodland Trusts say the bill puts too much emphasis on promoting access.
The groups want a clause in the bill to make sure if there is a clash over conservation and commercial concerns that environmentally protective measures would take precedence.

Landowners say this is naive, adding the countryside will only thrive if rural businesses are healthy.

Well you can't possibly have the peasants having access to the countryside, or landowners getting to manage their land as they see fit. Whatever next? Obviously the unelected, unaccountable, chattering class theoreticians (FoE, CPRE, etc.) know best.

Wind farms pose low risk to migrating birds (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Migrating birds are unlikely to be seriously affected by offshore wind farms, according to a study.

Scientists found that birds simply fly around the farm, or between the turbines; less than 1% are in danger of colliding with the giant structures.

Writing in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters, the researchers say previous estimates of collision risk have been "over-inflated".

However, conservationists warn that turbines pose other risks to birdlife.

The research project involved one of Denmark's two large offshore wind farms, Nysted in the Baltic Sea, which contains 72 turbines each measuring 69m to the top of the nacelle or hub. It started operating in 2003.
Globally, offshore projects currently generate around 600 MW, less than 2% of the overall total for wind.

But the potential is huge, because there is less competition for space at sea, turbines are less visible, and the wind there is often more reliable.

It's early days and it's only one study, but definitely good news. As with most technology that is relatively new on an industrial scale, the real problems will only become apparent in decades. And it will almost certainly be the case that some species will be winners (e.g. those that can use the platforms somehow) and some will be losers. On the whole it would seem fairly obvious that onshore farms are better, but many people don't like onshore farms.

Date published: 2005/06/07

Jane Fonda visits Cambridge (permanent blog link)

Jane Fonda is in England to publicise her book "My Life So Far". Today she was in Cambridge. Her first event was "In Conversation" with Carol Gilligan and Juliet Mitchell. It was held at Great St Mary's Church since all other big event spaces in the university are currently occupied for examinations. Amazingly enough the church was not even close to being full. It was mostly middle aged middle class people who remembered the Vietnam War.

This "conversation" was sponsored by the Cambridge University Centre for Gender Studies, and that by itself should tell you about the intent. Apparently Juliet Mitchell is a professor of psychoanalysis and gender studies, and Carol Gilligan is a visiting professor at the Centre from the States. And Fonda knew Gilligan, which is presumably why she bothered to come to Cambridge at all (it was her first time here).

The first half of the "conversation" was Gilligan and Mitchell making comments and Fonda responding. In fact Mitchell made most of the comments. Being a psychoanalyst she seemed to believe she knew more about the meaning of what Fonda had said in her autobiography than Fonda did herself. Needless to say Fonda was far too polite to ever tell Mitchell to get lost. But after one particularly long diatribe by Mitchell one of the members of the audience shouted out "that's just psycho-babble". And it was. But that's what you expect from gender studies types.

The second half of the "conversation" was questions from the audience. The most amusing one was a prelude to a real question (about the after-life) from a bloke who said that he would only ever have this one chance so would Fonda be willing to go out to dinner with him tonight. Mitchell didn't like that one bit, and Fonda just ignored it (a joke might have been in order).

Most actors (which includes actresses in the gender studies world) are a bit messed up, and Fonda seems to be no exception. Her father (Henry Fonda) was very cold, and her mother killed herself when Fonda was 12. This is not going to be a good foundation in life. She kept repeating about having to be a "good girl" (she was obviously rather bitter about that). She said that none of her three husbands had provided the intimacy she desired.

She seems to believe that "patriarchy" is the source of all evil in the world ("squash patriarchy to save us all"). And that the "damage" to boys starts at age 5-6. She didn't want to blame the parents, just society, but she admitted for herself, and put it down as a general hypothesis, that mothers treat their sons better than their daughters. There are almost certainly natural reasons for this (e.g. their sons remind them of their husbands without the accompanying down side, at least early in life). And it's amazing the number of men who belive they can get away with being horrid because their mother -- and often father -- told them they were the best and could never do anything wrong. (Camera switches to doting mother of mass murderer: "he was always such a nice boy".)

The best way to end "patriarchy"? Apparently to educate women, especially in the developing world. "Even Larry Summers believes in educating girls." And education is of course key, and it is unfortunate that debt relief and global warming dominate the current world discourse on development.

There were one or two questions about her films (the usual: what was she most proud of, etc.), but it was obvious she doesn't really consider acting to have been the most important part of her life, certainly not now. She did have one good quote: "I didn't want to be an actress but I was fired as a secretary because I wouldn't sleep with the boss".

Of course what she is probably most going to be remembered for (other than her exercise video) is her stance against the Vietnam War. She said that some Vietnam vets learned more about the war from reading her book than they had known at the time. And she said that one of the most amazing things she had observed in North Vietnam is that the people were not generally anti-American in spite of being bombed back to the stone age by America. And contrasted that with being called a "traitor" when she came back to the States.

Carbon neutral lifestyle (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The G8 summit promises to be a "carbon-neutral" event, but thousands of people in the UK are already taking steps to cut their personal carbon dioxide emissions.

A summit to discuss global problems often falls prey to headlines of waste, gluttony and gas-guzzling.

Not this time, the government hopes.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett has announced the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland, and the rest of the UK's presidency, will compensate for its emission of the greenhouse gases blamed by many scientists for global warming.

The total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the G8 presidency is equivalent to the electricity and gas used in 800 average homes over a year.

So the government has promised to invest £50,000 in projects with strong sustainable development benefits in Africa, and use clean fuel cars and video conferencing where possible.

The Kuyasa urban housing upgrade in Cape Town, which involves installing solar water heaters, ceiling insulation and compact fluorescent light bulbs, is set to benefit.
Flying is one of the highest carbon costs - a return flight from London to Los Angeles "costs" 2.45 tonnes of carbon, according to Climate Care, which says this can be offset by an investment of £15.93.

In one of the sidebars to the article the BBC also claims that "a return flight from Edinburgh to Southampton produces 0.12 tonnes of CO2, offset by £5" and that "driving 10,000 miles in a year in a typical petrol-driven car produces 3.5 tonnes of CO2 for the year, offset by £22.72". The numbers quoted do not stack up, as the following table shows (to convert from tonnes of CO2 to tonnes of C you multiply by 12/44):

activity CO2, tonnes C, tonnes offset, £ offset/C
Edinburgh - Southampton0.120.0335153
10000 miles in average car3.50.9522.7224
London - Los Angeles9.02.4515.936.5

The ratio in the last column should be constant, if these numbers are supposed to be in any way consistent. But they are not. Suppose the Edinburgh - Southampton ratio is correct. This would mean that the offset for driving 10000 miles in a typical car is not 23 pounds but still a reasonable 146 pounds. This is much, much less than the average motorist pays in tax (due to the petrol tax). And it is indeed true that the only economic activity in the UK that pays (more than) a proper carbon tax is driving. So it is ironic that so-called environmentalists hate cars and love so-called public transport (which is heavily subsidised, so doesn't even come close to covering its operational costs, never mind its environmental costs). But the chattering classes never were very good at maths, or logic.

And the London - Los Angeles offset quoted is a joke. The 16 pounds is way less than the almost non-existant tax (around 60 pounds) paid by such airline passengers. Assuming the Edinburgh - Southampton ratio is correct then the offset would be a more believable 374 pounds. And then that would be (a first approximation to) the amount that jet fuel should be taxed in compensation (it is currently not taxed at all, except indirectly).

And it is a bit of a joke that spending 50000 pounds on some politically correct projects somehow makes the G8 summit carbon neutral. If the summit really does squander the same amount of CO2 as the gas and electricity of 800 homes, then that gives a ratio of 62.50 pounds per home. And there will not be many people in the UK with a total power bill of anywhere near as low as that (it's out by getting on an order of magnitude). And since the participants are not paying the bill themselves, the whole concept that the summit is somehow environmentally acceptable is facetious. The leaders of the world are some of the main culprits in environmental destruction (along with all the other rich people of the world).

Science academies want action on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The science academies of the world's leading nations are urging their governments to take prompt action to combat possible climate change.

They have agreed that all countries could and should take cost-effective action to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The unprecedented statement will be issued on Wednesday by the academies of the G8 nations, including the US National Academy, and China and Brazil.

World leaders attending July's G8 meeting in Scotland have received it.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is to hold talks in the US with George W Bush on Tuesday to discuss the issues at the top of the G8 agenda - aid to Africa and measures to target global warming.

Mr Bush has consistently stressed the uncertainties of climate science.

But the statement will make it much harder for him to scorn the scientific consensus.

Bush could care less about the scientific consensus. If the Bible mentioned climate change he might believe it, otherwise not. And no doubt in 100 years most of the ideas behind the scientific consensus will have been shown to be wrong (as happens to almost all scientific theories). The problem is that this is the only game in town right now. There is probably some of the "herd" instinct in all this consensus (you could never get a job in most of academia if you did not follow it) but that does not mean it is all wrong.

Date published: 2005/06/06

China allegedly spending too much money on its military (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US defence secretary has accused China of spending more on its military capabilities than it acknowledges.

Donald Rumsfeld said Beijing was expanding its missile build-up and developing advanced systems of military technology, in a speech in Singapore.

He questioned the need for "growing investment" because he said no nation was threatening China.

The comments highlight US concern over China's increasing military, economic and diplomatic power, observers say.
He said the Pentagon's annual study of China's military power concludes that its defence budget is now the third largest in the world.

And they say Americans don't do irony. How many nations are threatening the US? (Zero, but of course the US is threatening loads, including Syria, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc.) Yet America spends around the same on its military as the rest of the world combined.

Exeter allegedly has a bland high street (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cathedral city Exeter has topped a poll to find Britain's blandest high street.

Researchers found chainstores dominated the main shopping street, with just one independent shop out of 50.

Independent think tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF) said the survey showed how Britain's towns were becoming "clone towns".

But Exeter city centre's manager said branding it a "clone town" was unfair on the city which had a wide range of independent stores in other streets.

John Harvey told BBC News: "They must have been surveying a different city centre because it is a picture neither I nor any business people associated with the city would recognise.

"There is street after street with a massive range of small independent stores and Exeter is a shoppers' destination because of the range of interesting stores we have."

He added: "I don't see it as a negative thing to have so-called clone shops.

"Today's independents are tomorrow's chain stores and the shops that thrive are the ones that people spend their money in."

The NEF said 41% of urban centres were clone towns where independently-owned shops were in short supply and 26% risked losing their distinctiveness.
NEF policy director Andrew Simms said: "Clone stores have a triple whammy on communities: they bleed the local economy of money, destroy the social glue provided by real local shops that holds communities together, and they steal the identity of our towns and cities."

The NEF survey is based on 103 national and 27 London surveys completed by members of the public in communities with between 5,000 and 150,000 residents.

The analysis is based on surveys, which were almost certainly obtained with an unscientific (i.e. not random) sample, hence completely worthless. Good on John Harvey for putting NEF (one of the zillions of consultancies afflicted upon the nation) in its place. Only the usual middle class suspects would ever claim that independent stores are somehow inherently superior to chain stores, and no doubt this kind of survey, driven by middle class snobbery, appeared already in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and will appear again in the 2010s, 2020s, 2030s, and beyond.

Heathrow Airport set for further expansion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Draft plans to build a third runway and sixth terminal at Heathrow Airport are due to be published on Monday.

They outline £7bn of development over the next decade, and propose the demolition of up to 700 houses.

The new development could see annual passenger numbers rise from 67m to around 116m by 2030.

BAA Heathrow believes there is a "strong economic case" for building a sixth terminal, but campaigners say it will increase noise and pollution.

A fifth terminal at Heathrow, with an overall budget of £4.2bn, is due to open in 2008.
Under the proposals, a boundary for the third runway could include up to 700 houses.

But John Stewart, chairman of local residents' pressure group Hacan, said a third runway would "bring more noise, more pollution, and people will lose their homes".

"It's also not necessary for the economy. Unemployment is at an all-time low in west London.

"People would have to be brought in to fill the jobs and the infrastructure cannot support that."

An expected development, given the recent government White Paper on airport expansion. The idea that the airport is "not necessary for the economy" because of low unemployment is bizarre. Unfortunately it will be the case, as with all such major developments, that just having the proposal on the table will blight the local community until the decision is made one way or the other, which will take years. This is one of the many unfortunate consequences of how planning is done in the UK. And those affected will not be properly compensated.

Date published: 2005/06/05

Road pricing coming to Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drivers could pay up to £1.34 a mile in "pay-as-you go" road charges under new government plans.

The transport secretary said the charges, aimed at cutting congestion, would replace road tax and petrol duty.

Alistair Darling said change was needed if the UK was to avoid the possibility of "LA-style gridlock" within 20 years.

Every vehicle would have a black box to allow a satellite system to track their journey, with prices starting from as little as 2p per mile in rural areas.

Mr Darling has outlined his proposals to the BBC - previewing a speech he will give to the Social Market Foundation on Thursday.

"The advantage is that you would free up capacity on the roads, you would reduce the congestion that we would otherwise face and you would avoid the gridlock that you see in many American cities today," he said.

"This is a prize well worth going for. We've got to ask ourselves: would it work. Could it bring the benefits that I believe it could bring, because it would make a real change to the way we drive in this country."

A satellite tracking system would be used to enforce the toll, with prices varying from 2p per mile for driving on a quiet road out of the rush hour to £1.34 for motorways at peak times.

The Department of Transport says the scheme would be fairer because those who travel greater distances would pay the most.

"We have got to do everything we can during the course of this parliament to decide whether or not we go with road pricing," Mr Darling said.

If public reaction is favourable, a pilot scheme planned for the Leeds area could be rolled out nationwide within the next 10 years.

The Environment Agency's Nick Rijke warned that shifting money away from fuel duty would take away the incentive for people to use green vehicles.

And AA Motoring Trust director Bert Morris said there were a number of issues which needed to be addressed.

"Tourism is car-based in this country. Would we have empty hotels on summer days on the coast if people couldn't afford to drive?"

It was also important to ensure that drivers with less money were not penalised, Mr Morris added.

RAC Foundation spokeswoman Sue Nicholson said the plan could help counter a projected 45% growth in congestion problems by 2030.

"Providing this tax was substitutional to fuel tax and road tax and provided we had some other guarantees then I think, for a lot of people, this would be a tempting option," she said.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth broadly welcomed road charging but warned the transport crisis could only be tackled if money raised was invested in improving alternatives to car travel.

Professor Garel Rhys, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff university's business school, believed road pricing would have to be introduced in the UK.

But he warned: "The key is trying to introduce those tolls without affecting the flow of traffic, ie. not having to stop and pay at a booth which caused congestion itself.

"Governments will upset at their peril society's wish to do what it wants to do and that is to move around."

Not a great surprise. Darling and others have been mentioning this for years. And on page 25 on the Labour Party Manifesto from the recent election we find "we will seek political consensus in tackling congestion, including examining the potential of moving away from the current system of motoring taxation towards a national system of road-pricing". Alistair Darling allegedly wants a "national debate" on the matter. When politicians say this they of course normally mean they could care less what people think, and will not debate the issue itself in any substance except to repeat platitudes of the kind he gives above. Hopefully this time will be different.

There is nothing wrong with road pricing per se. At least this proposal is based upon congestion, unlike the so-called congestion charge currently in operation in London (which is really an access charge, only the people who promote this charge are so dishonest they cannot even call it what it is). The idea that you can maximise the capacity of a network by pricing it according to use is nothing new. Unfortunately many of the people who are pushing for road pricing (e.g. the so-called environmentalists and most of the ruling elite) have no interest in this, instead they just hate cars and car drivers and want to hammer them as much as possible. These people should be completely ignored in the national debate since they have nothing useful to contribute. All they ever do is ask for more handouts for so-called public transport (such a wonderfully "sustainable" form of transport that it needs billions of public subsidy every year to sustain it).

Darling needs to address the following issues (and more):

The government should set up an independent citizen's panel to look at these proposals, not stacked with the usual suspects (so-called environmentalists, transport consultants and the like), but instead composed of car drivers, businesses and the like, in other words people who have an interest in making the UK road network work, not not work (which is what the so-called environmentalists want).

Swiss voters say yes to the 21st century (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Swiss voters have backed joining a European passport-free zone and giving more rights to same-sex couples in separate referendums on Sunday.

Official results from all 26 cantons showed 58% backed the same-sex move and 54.6% supported joining the Schengen group of European nations.

The Swiss government had urged a yes in both votes.

Backing Schengen will also allow the Swiss police to share information with EU states on crime.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, but is surrounded by countries which are.

Joining the Schengen zone means that it will scrap border checks with its neighbours by 2007.

The same-sex vote gives gay couples the same inheritance and tax rights as married heterosexual couples. However, they will not be allowed to adopt or to undergo fertility treatment.

It was the first time a country had held a nationwide referendum on this issue.

Legislators had approved the move, but a coalition of religious and conservative groups had gathered 50,000 signatures to force the referendum.

Critics of Schengen had also forced the referendum vote with 50,000 signatures.

What with the voters in many other countries moving backwards, it is good to see an occasional step forwards. The "yes" vote on Schengen, although narrowly carried, is particularly good news since the opponents ran a typically dreadful xenophobic campaign. Three cheers for Switzerland.

More exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

The Royal Academy's annual Summer Show has just started, so it must indeed be the start of summer. It has the usual collection of good stuff and rubbish. It's a year with more prints than usual, and you have to wonder if they are ever going to manage to sell a hundred (or whatever) copies of all those prints (there must be hundreds), which is, after all, the point of the show.

One room is dedicated to the work of Ed Ruscha, an honorary academician. The RA seems to like to have Americans as honorary members, presumably because that brings with it the interest, and hence money, of Americans generally. But what a waste to dedicate one room to Ruscha. Along one wall are dozens of aerial photos of parking lots. And there are also lots of (non-aerial) photos of swimming pools. Well you can see why Californians with more money than sense might like this sort of stamp collecting, but why here?

Academicians are allowed six entries as their right, which means that that work is on the whole is not nearly so good as the work submitted by the non-academicians. This year is no exception. Some academicians have nothing new to say, and their trick is so feeble it starts to wear thin (Craigie Aitchison comes first to mind).

Some highlights:

As with most summer shows, the best room was the one with architecture in it. Whatever else you can say about Eva Jiricna, she knows how to do beautiful staircases.

Meanwhile, over at Tate Modern an exhibition of the work of Herzog and de Meuron has just opened. They of course did the conversion of the Tate Modern itself. Lots of architects are failed artists, and Herzon and de Meuron are squarely in this camp. The exhibition space is littered with toy models, it must be great fun working for them. And the pseudo-intellectual gloss put on some of the ideas is a bit pathetic, even if they look the part of being Swiss philosophers. They are also part of the unfortunate modern architectual movement that deems that no corner should be square because design software can allow every corner not to be square. But the bottom line is that they have done some fine buildings, although some of them are far too fussy on the outside, if clean and clinical on the inside. If you have money to burn, they could well be the architects for you. Just don't take their pretensions seriously.

Date published: 2005/06/04

UN releases atlas of satellite images of the planet (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An atlas of environmental change compiled by the United Nations reveals some of the dramatic transformations that are occurring to our planet.

It compares and contrasts satellite images taken over the past few decades with contemporary ones.

These highlight in vivid detail the striking make-over wrought in some corners of the Earth by deforestation, urbanisation and climate change.

The atlas has been released to mark World Environment Day.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) produced One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment in collaboration with other agencies such as the US Geological Survey and the US space agency (Nasa).

Among the transformations highlighted in the atlas are the huge growth of greenhouses in southern Spain, the rapid rise of shrimp farming in Asia and Latin America and the emergence of a giant, shadow puppet-shaped peninsula at the mouth of the Yellow River that has built up through transportation of sediment in the waters.

The effects of retreating glaciers on mountains and in polar regions, deforestation in South America and forest fires across sub-Saharan Africa are also shown in the atlas.

This year's World Environment Day, which will be hosted by San Francisco in California, will focus on ways of making cities more environmentally friendly and resource-efficient.

"The battle for sustainable development, for delivering a more environmentally stable, just and healthier world, is going to be largely won and lost in our cities," said Klaus Toepfer, Unep's executive director.

"Cities pull in huge amounts of resources including water, food, timber, metals and people. They export large amounts of wastes including household and industrial wastes, waste water and the gases linked with global warming.

"Thus their impacts stretch beyond their physical borders affecting countries, regions and the planet as a whole."

This kind of data is invaluable but the bottom line is that there are too many people on the planet. The specific mention of cities is interesting in light of the view of the urban planning elite in the UK that "sustainable" development means that everybody should be forced to live in cities (in high-density housing, and with no access to cars). The amount of environmental damage a person causes (either directly or indirectly) is not related so much to location of habitation as to income and wealth (more money means more energy consumption and hence environmental damage, although the effect is not exact because of taxes and because differing economic activities and energy sources have differing, unpaid for, externalised costs).

Hosepipe ban being introduced in parts of England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Low water supplies have led to a hosepipe ban being introduced in parts of Sussex, Southern Water has said.

It follows repeated warnings from water firms in the region that restrictions are set to follow a dry winter.

Problems are worse in the South East because of the dense population, said Water UK, which represents suppliers.

Environmentalists want to cut people's water use and prevent house-building on flood plains, which stops rain reaching the aquifers that hold water.

The building of tens of thousands of homes in the South East is currently being allocated to district council areas.

Plans include building in the Gatwick, Ashford and Thames Gateway areas, in Surrey and along the Sussex coast.

Mark Shepherd, from independent environmental advisory company ADAS, said: "People have got to realise that we are a water-poor country.

"Out of all the European countries, we are near the bottom of the league table for the amount of water we have per head of population."

But Water UK said the other parts of Europe, including France, Spain and Portugal had a similar situation.

A spokesman said the South East of England had only had 60% of its normal rainfall between November and May.
Climate change had also led to predictions that the UK would see more flooding and more drought in future years, because concentrated downpours did not soak into the ground well, he added.

Water UK has also said this year that problems with leaks in pipe networks, notably in London, would add to difficulties.

Almost an annual rite of summer in England, hosepipe bans. But amusing that the BBC manages to parlay a lack of rain into the statement that "environmentalists want to cut people's water use". So-called environmentalists want to reduce any and all kinds of consumption by people, this is part and parcel of their branding as modern day puritans. And most people want to "prevent house-building on flood plains" because the houses will get flooded, or will cause displacement of water which will flood other buildings, not because it allegedly "stops rain reaching the aquifers that hold water".

Toxic chemicals can have effects down the generations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Toxic chemicals that poisoned your great-grandparents may also damage your health, US research suggests.

A team from Washington State University has produced evidence that some inherited diseases may be caused by poisons polluting the womb.

Research on rats indicates man-made environmental toxins may alter genetic activity, giving rise to diseases that pass down at least four generations.

The research is published in the journal Science.

The scientists exposed pregnant rats to two agricultural chemicals during the period that the sex of their offspring was being determined.

The compounds were vinclozolin, a fungicide commonly used in vineyards, and the pesticide methoxychlor.

Both are known as endocrine disruptors - chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of reproductive hormones.

Rats exposed to the compounds produced male offspring with low sperm counts and poor fertility.

They were still able to produce young, however. When these rats were then mated with females that had not been exposed to the toxins, their male offspring had the same problems.

The effect persisted through at least four generations, impairing the fertility of more than 90% of male offspring in each generation.

The researchers found the damage was not caused by alterations in the DNA code, but changes in the way the genes work.

These epigenetic changes, as they are known, are caused by small chemicals that become attached to the DNA, modifying its activity.

Epigenetic changes have been observed before - but were not previously known to pass onto later generations.
The levels of chemicals the rats were exposed to were very high - much higher than people normally ever encounter.

Professor Alan Boobis, a toxicologist at Imperial College London, UK, told the BBC News website the findings were interesting, but he said there was no need for people to be alarmed.

"This effect is likely to be concentration dependent, and these animals were exposed to very high levels of chemicals," he said.

"We need to find out whether this trans-generational effect is translated to much lower doses."

Interesting as far as it goes, but the main problem with the research is as noted at the end, the concentrations used were extremely high (not unusual in research on chemicals).

Date published: 2005/06/03

More money is needed for global seed banks (permanent blog link)

Nature says (subscription service) in an editorial:

Thirty kilometres from Aleppo in Syria, not far from the birthplace of agriculture, is the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). It includes an international gene bank that holds seeds in trust on behalf of the world's dry countries.

Organized through the World Bank and funded by international donors, ICARDA's gene bank holds samples of 131,000 individual seeds for plants that form part of the diets of one billion people who live in Central and West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The seeds include different varieties of barley, beans, chickpeas and lentils, catalogued and stored in sealed plastic bottles inside giant refrigerated vaults.
When Taliban fighters looted Afghanistan's national seed store in 2002, they took the empty plastic bottles, leaving the seeds behind. Even so, the country's scientists needed ICARDA's help to rebuild the store. And shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraqi scientists sent a 'black box' across the border to ICARDA containing copies of the country's seed stocks. The action was timely, as Iraq's seed bank, in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, was looted and destroyed during the insurgency. ICARDA plans to use the contents of the box to help regenerate Iraqi farming.
The US government has always been a generous financial supporter of the centre's activities.
[ We recommend ] more support be given to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international fund to build more gene banks around the world and to improve the conditions of existing ones. The trust was set up jointly by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. It says it needs an endowment of $260 million to safeguard seeds used in world agriculture and to improve the condition of the gene banks where they are stored.

The world's gene banks are in a parlous state, as a new report ("Safeguarding the future of US agriculture") published jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and the University of California makes clear. Of the 1,460 gene banks around the world, only 35 meet international standards for long-term storage. These include the gene banks of ICARDA and of the other Future Harvest Centres. The FAO, moreover, says that nearly-one fifth of the 5.4 million seeds stored in gene banks are degenerating.
The US government is currently spending more than $1 billion per week on military operations in Iraq. By comparison, a $260-million endowment is a small price to pay to conserve the world's agricultural heritage and to secure the future food supply of the United States and the rest of the world.

Of course it's a bit simplistic to say "the US spends X on Iraq, so should spend Y (a small fraction of X) on our favourite worthy cause", because there is only one Iraq and there are zillions of worthy causes. The Bush administration went to war in Iraq as part of a PR exercise to make itself look good (pity it's not gone very well). And as any government knows, when you are spending taxpayer money, you can never spend too much when it comes to PR on your own behalf. And, more seriously, it should not just be the Americans who fund these seed banks, the entire world obviously should (that's why it's called the "United Nations"), including rich Europe.

BA attacks BAA over Stansted levy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British Airways is threatening to call for the break-up of BAA if it charges levy on Heathrow and Gatwick passengers to subsidise a new runway at Stansted.

The British Airports Authority is proposing a levy of up to £1 per user.

BA argues the charge would mean its passengers at these airports would subsidise Ryanair's Stansted hub.

The airlines would have to pay the fee as part of the standard passenger levy already charged but BAA says there are also other funding options.

Under current Civil Aviation Authority rules, cross-subsidisation between airports is illegal but these rules are thought to be under review.

BA said it hadn't called for an immediate break-up of the airports operator but pointed out that cross-subsidisation was not the only way forward for building a new runway at Stansted.

"However, if the BAA pursues cross-subsidisation for Stansted then we will look at every option, including supporting calls from other airlines for the break-up of BAA," Jay Merritt, a British Airways spokesman said. BAA currently runs Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted as well as other UK airports.

Critics claim this gives it virtual monopoly control of London's main airports.

Ryanair said on Friday: "We'd like to see a break-up of BAA to introduce competition."

It thinks the proposed £4bn runway and terminal plan is too expensive and is expected, like BA, to appeal to the CAA against the levy.

"The price tag they're putting on it is to add all sorts of gold plating, including train links," said Ryanair spokesman Peter Sherrard.

Michael O'Leary, Ryanair boss, fears his company will end up paying the lion's share of the cost of the new project, saying it should cost about £400m.

He is believed to be willing to complain to the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission as well as to use local planning laws to block construction.

BAA says a second runway is needed at Stansted because peak-time slots for take-off and landing are at or close to capacity in the South East.

The date for completing the runway has already slipped a year to 2013.

BAA spokesman Mark Mann warned that if the CAA, which sets the per-passenger fees, did not approve the levy or an alternative plan, it could slip even further.

However, Mr Mann added: "We're not looking to pick a fight with the airlines over this. We're not willing to die in a ditch."

BAA could also seek a passenger levy at Stansted but it would not say whether the fee would be as high as the illustrative price of 50p to £1 given for Heathrow and Gatwick.

According to BAA, per-passenger fees at Heathrow are currently £12, compared with a much lower £3 at Stansted.

They are separate from air taxes charged to customers.

BAA has a de facto monopoly on airports in southern England. And monopolies always cause problems. They either need to be strictly regulated by government, including price controls, or they need to be broken up. All the airline operators seem to be opposed to BAA on the Stansted development: BA (which does not operate out of Stansted), Ryanair and Easyjet (the other big Stansted operator). Stansted development is crucial to the East Anglia (e.g. Cambridge) economy, so hopefully they will be able to settle this dispute sensibly, rather than waste millions and millions on lawyers. Stansted has been a cheap and cheerful airport (with a brilliant Norman Foster terminal building) and it would be best for almost everyone if it remained so.

Correlation found between childhood leukaemia and high voltage lines (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Living too close to overhead power lines appears to increase the risk of childhood leukaemia, researchers say.

A major study found children who had lived within 200 metres of high voltage lines at birth had a 70% higher risk of leukaemia than those 600m or more away.

But the Oxford University team stressed that there are no accepted biological reasons for the results and that they may, therefore, be chance.

Alternatively, it may be down to the environments where pylons are located.

And they said it did not resolve the debate about whether it is unsafe to live next to power lines.

Around 1% of homes in the UK are estimated to be within 200 metres of high voltage National Grid power lines.

The researchers said their findings showed living in such close proximity to power lines at birth could account for five extra cases of childhood leukaemia in a total of around 400 that occur in a year - a total of 1%.
The latest study was carried out by Dr Gerald Draper and colleagues from the Childhood Cancer Research Group at Oxford University and Dr John Swanson, a scientific adviser at National Grid Transco.

It looked at more than 29,000 children with cancer, including 9,700 with leukaemia, born between 1962 and 1995, and a control group of healthy youngsters in England and Wales.

The researchers measured the distance from children's home addresses at birth from the nearest high voltage power line.
Overall, youngsters living within 200 metres of the lines were about 70% more likely to develop leukaemia, and those living between 200 and 600 metres away about 20% more likely to develop leukaemia than those who lived beyond 600 metres from high voltage pylons.

Although the trend was definite, the researchers said they could not reasonably explain why it occurred.

For this reason, they caution that it might be down to factors other than the pylons themselves, such as the type of people who live near pylons or the general environment where pylons are located, which they plan to investigate.

Eddie O'Gorman, chairman of the UK charity Children with Leukaemia, said: "There is now a clear case for immediate government action.

"Planning controls must be introduced to stop houses and schools being built close to high voltage overhead power lines."

For once the BBC has a reasoned article about a health matter, probably because the researchers themselves obviously felt the need to stress caution. And the point is that there is a difference between correlation and causation. The researchers themselves point to other possible relevant factors, i.e. "the type of people who live near pylons or the general environment where pylons are located". For example, people who live near pylons are almost certainly poorer than people who do not (since pylons are considered ugly and industrial, so the housing is undesirable). And poorer people are generally less healthy in all regards, not just leukaemia. The comment from the spokesperson for Children with Leukaemia is dreadful and shows a complete disregard for the comments made by the researchers.

Date published: 2005/06/02

Endangered species allegedly at risk in eastern Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A list of the 800 most important sites for wild plants in central and Eastern Europe has been published by the charity, Plantlife International.

Many of the sites contain endangered species yet a fifth is without legal protection.

Agriculture, forestry and tourism are the main threats to "Europe's last areas of wilderness," says the report.

If they cannot be saved "we risk a spiritual impoverishment such as no generation has known before", it says.

Hundreds of specialists from academic institutions and non-governmental organisations identified the best sites for wild plants, fungi and their habitat in seven countries.

They were Belarus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The report also looked at the threats to each internationally important site for wild plants (IPA).

Another "end of the world" report. Only a fifth of the sites being without legal protection does not sound like very many. And does England suffer from "spiritual impoverishment" because the wilderness areas here have long since disappeared? And it should be up to the governments of eastern Europe to decide how to manage their countryside, not NGOs with their own selective agendas.

The CIA funds American anthropology students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A CIA scheme to sponsor trainee spies secretly through US university courses has caused anger among UK academics.

The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program pays anthropology students, whose names are not disclosed, up to $50,000 (£27,500) a year.

They are expected to use the techniques of "fieldwork" to gather political and cultural details on other countries.

Britain's Association of Social Anthropologists called the scholarships ethically "dangerous" and divisive.
Undergraduates taking part in the scholarship programme must not reveal their funding source and are expected to attend military intelligence summer camps.
Felix Moos, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas, defended the scholarships.

He wrote in the journal Anthropology Today: "The United States is at war. Thus, to put it simply, the existing divide between academe and the intelligence community has become a dangerous and very real detriment to our national security at home and abroad."

Moos had better stay in Kansas, with Dorothy, if he is willing to make such dumb statements in public. Indeed, expect American anthropologists to be targetted by terrorist groups if this story gets wide circulation. Although the premise is not that surprising, since the US military-industrial complex funds lots of university work, sometimes openly, sometimes not. And how many American (British, French, Chinese etc.) journalists are spies? And it's perhaps better for the CIA to fund academics than torturers, which is their other favourite activity right now.

Date published: 2005/06/01

Ben Verwaayen gives lecture in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Communications Research Network (CRN; previously known as the Communications Innovation Institute) sponsored a Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI) "distinguished lecture" by Ben Verwaayen, chief executive of BT. His talk was entitled "The Game is On" and was given totally verbally, so without Powerpoint, which is unusual in the corporate world.

The point of the lecture was to discuss the emerging challenges to the West (in particular Europe) from the developing world (e.g. China and India). He started out by mentioning the French and expected Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, repeating the common wisdom that this was the public rejecting the ideas of the EU elite. And the whole tone of the lecture was to implore the ruling elite (such as the people in the audience) to put the case better for the global economy, and the resulting changes that would be required if the EU wanted to remain competitive.

He mentioned that, for example, in China there is a real entrepreneurial thirst. But in the EU people were on the whole comfortable, and a lot of workers just wanted to know where their desk was and what their pension was going to be. At the end he said that the people who wanted the EU social economic model to continue (such as supposedly many of the French people who voted against the constitution) had to recognise that someone needs to pay for this. And he could respect people who are anti-globalist, as long as they are willing to accept that Europe would be less wealthy as a result. And he said Europe could indeed choose to be less wealthy, but if that was the choice this should be made clear to the public. You can choose more free time and less wages (the French illogically seem to believe they can have more free time for the same wages).

He said that the common perception that the developing world was just a sink for crap jobs was wrong. They were also creating good, hi-tech jobs. And how many graduates is Europe producing compared to India or China? Although Europe probably thinks it has some of the best universities in the world, that is no longer true, that is only the common perception (and he defined perception to be "reality with a time lag"). For many years the rich West has told the developing world to get its act together, so when it happens it's a bit churlish to complain about it. And Verwaayen saw it as a positive, not a negative, development. (Whereas the anti-globalists see it on the whole as a negative development. Many of the same of course want to perpetually pour vast amounts of money into Africa, whose main effect will be to make Africa permanently dependent on the West.)

He quoted a few odd interesting stories, as one does. Of course you have to take all of these with a pinch of salt, since you can always find examples of anything to back up a case. He said for example, that in a survey of MBA students in the US, over half said they wanted to start up their own business (although, as he pointed out, that might be only what they were saying). A similar survey in France apparently found that only one in seven wanted to, and almost half wanted to work for the government. This is the entrepreneurial challenge that Europe faces.

And apparently 350 thousand people (already) make most of their income from trading on Ebay. So in some sense Ebay is one of the world's largest companies, although these people are not employees in the traditional sense. But this illustrates the blurring of traditional boundaries in economic activities. "We are all both merchants and consumers now".

A lot of the lecture was basic cheerleading. Europe has to be "best in class" (in something) or will get ignored in the global economy. And are we best in class? The general implication was that we were heading one way, and that was downhill. He made the usual complaint that the schools in Europe were not teaching entrepreneurial skill. And perhaps the whole anti-entrepreneurial attitude of the European chattering classes is the main reason we are heading downhill.

He wants the European ruling elite to put the case for change, and said that politicians, universities and corporations all had a role to play. Unfortunately one of the real problems in the UK (and no doubt elsewhere in Europe) is that the chattering classes love to talk about spending money on everything (transport, hospitals, etc.) but never talk about who is going to pay for it. For example, if you listen to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 in the morning, you get endless streams of special interest pressure groups pleading for more money for their special interest, and the presenters usually lend them support, attacking the politicians for not spending enough on anything and everything. Of course someone has to pay for this all, and in effect the special interests are asking for the public to subsidise their special interest. As long as the chattering classes refuse to ask the hard questions, the situation will never improve. It's no wonder the public is so economically illiterate.

The Dutch also tell the EU to get lost (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Voters in the Netherlands have overwhelmingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution.

Provisional final results indicated that 61.6% of voters said "No" to the charter and 38.4% approved it.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who campaigned for a "Yes" vote, said he would respect the result.

The vote deals what could be a decisive blow to the constitution, which was also rejected by French voters in a referendum at the weekend.

Allegedly the Dutch have at least been more rational than the French in their (more decisive) vote to reject the constitution. Supposedly some people resent the Netherlands being a net contributor to the EU (well, they are not unique, and some countries have to be), some resent EU intrusion on national laws (but hard to know if the constitution would make that better or worse), some resent EU expansion (especially if Turkey comes in, because the Dutch are going through an openly anti-Muslim phase right now), and who knows what else.

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