Azara Blog: August 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/08/31

Environmental protection important in reducing poverty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The key Millennium Goal of halving poverty in a decade cannot be met without better environmental protection, according to a new report.

The World Resources 2005 document says that most of the world's poor depend on nature for their income.

Its authors say a focus on aid has taken attention away from more complex issues such as the environment.

The report is endorsed by the UN, and comes two weeks before a major summit to review progress on the Goals.

World Resources is a biennial publication from the US-based research group the World Resources Institute (WRI).
...
"We have the Millennium Goals summit coming up, we have Tony Blair making Africa and poverty a major theme within the G8 - there's never been a time when poverty has been higher on the agenda," the WRI's President Jonathan Lash told the BBC News website.

"But if we don't make the key linkages between poverty, the environment and good governance, it will be impossible to achieve the poverty target.

"Seventy-five percent of the world's poor are rural poor, who depend directly on natural systems for their livelihood."

Let's see. A report produced by a typical so-called environmental organisation says that the environment is important. What a shock. And why is the environment more "complex" as an issue than aid, or trade, or anything else in the world? All rather patronising stuff.

Emissions from mobile phone masts to be monitored (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A pioneering scheme to monitor radiation emissions from mobile phone masts is being launched in Cambridge.

There are several masts dotted around the city, some attached to the sides of buildings and others disguised as lampposts and telegraph poles.

However, many people have condemned the masts amid fears of health risks from the emissions.

Now Cambridge City Council is launching a scheme - one of the first of its kind in the country - with Vodafone to record emissions and display the results on the council's website.

But, while mast protesters have welcomed the scheme, they say it is not enough.

The project will involve a unit, called Cassiopeia, which will take measurements of Electromagnetic Field (EMF) emissions from the Nuffield Road area of Chesterton in the city. The area has four mobile phone masts - two off Cowley Road and two off Milton Road.

A graph will be published on the council's website so residents can check if they are within health and safety guidelines. The unit will be moved to other areas of the city later.

Fears have been raised that microwave radiation from mobile phone masts could cause health problems such as cancer.

But experts, writing a report for the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), the Government's official watchdog, said the levels given off were so low they were incapable of causing ill health.

Tim Long, the council's telecommunications liaison officer, said: "Operators are required to ensure they comply with safety guidelines and this new unit offers continuous monitoring for the first time.

"Members of the public can visit our website at any time and check the EMF levels for themselves. We see this is as a demonstration of transparency and openness and as a way of providing a certain degree of reassurance about this controversial issue."

This issue is controversial in the UK in the same sense that intelligent design is controversial in the US. On one side stand the luddites, on the other everybody else. Well, perhaps the UK is different, because in the case of mast emissions, it's likely that the real opposition is from NIMBYs just masquerading as technophobes. And how many of the opponents themselves, or members of their family, use mobile phones? This whole exercise is almost certainly a complete waste of money. But you never know, some useful fact might be discovered from all the data. Except that most data in the world is never analysed by anyone, and this data will almost certainly fall into that category.

Date published: 2005/08/30

Ken Clarke wants to lead the Tories (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Former chancellor Ken Clarke is to make a third attempt to win the leadership of the Conservative Party.

He has announced his candidacy in the Daily Mail newspaper.

The Rushcliffe MP's pro-euro views were blamed for his defeats in 1997 and 2001, but he says his enthusiasm for UK euro membership has now cooled.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who intends to stand, welcomed the news. Colleague Tim Yeo said Mr Clarke, 65, would be a match for Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.

Announcing his intention to stand, Mr Clarke told the Daily Mail: "I am determined that Britain should be governed better than it has been under New Labour.

"I am horrified by a government run on a basis of spin. The political health of Britain has deteriorated very sharply. The Conservative Party must do something about it, and I am the man to do it."

Mr Clarke lost out on the leadership to William Hague in a vote of MPs in 1997 and in 2001 he came second to Iain Duncan Smith, in a run-off decided by grass roots Tories.

Clarke is easily the most electable Tory but the Tories have long since given up worrying about being electable, and Clarke is not very likely to be elected leader. If he were elected leader, the Tory Party would end up being left of (New) Labour on many issues.

Car parking raking in money for Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Parking fees and fines cost motorists more than £8 million in Cambridge last year.

The total income from parking in the city was £8,147,000 between April 2004 and April this year, with the majority - more than £6 million - coming from Cambridge City Council-run car parks.

The figure - obtained by the News through the Freedom of Information Act - is slightly lower than the previous year as more than £300,000 was lost in January, February and March following the demolition of 650 parking spaces at Lion Yard car park in the new year.

But the loss was matched by an extra £276,000 from Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs), or parking tickets, after the council took over parking enforcement from the police in October.

Paul Necus, the council's head of parking services, said: "It isn't the case we do this to make a profit.

"There's a common misconception we're just in this for the money and parking attendants are chasing targets - but that's simply not the case."

But shoppers and retailers said the council's parking policy was "greedy", and warned exorbitant fees in the city's car parks were putting visitors off.

When you have a monopoly service you have abuse. The city might not be "chasing targets" over parking enforcement (although there have been several examples recently of idiotic enforcement) but it is definitely the case that the city is just doing it "for the money" as far as parking charges are concerned. Break up the monopoly and we'll see prices fall. But funnily enough governments are not too concerned about monopolies that they themselves run.

Date published: 2005/08/29

Deforestation of Amazon allegedly decreases (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Brazil's government has announced estimates suggesting that deforestation of the Amazon rainforest has fallen by 50% this year.

The government says it believes this is the result of new protection policies.

But environmental groups warn it is too soon to be sure there has been a long-term reversal in the destruction of the world's largest rainforest.

Environment Minister Marina da Silva said some 9,000 sq km (3,475 sq miles) of forest was felled in the last year.

This compares with more than 18,000 sq km (6,950 sq miles) in 2003 to 2004.

Ms Silva said she believed this fall was the result of not only greater government control but also because of more emphasis on sustainable development projects.

However, environmental groups, while welcoming the fall, are still treating the announcement with caution.

The figures, they say, are still estimates from satellite images which, because of cloud cover, have a 20% margin of error.

They say a fall in soy prices may also have had an impact, with farmers no longer clearing land.

Finally, they point out that most of the fall in deforestation occurred over a two-month period in June and July this year, when the army and police mounted unusually large operations against illegal logging.

One should always treat any information provided by any government with care. And one data point proves nothing. The more important point is that if the rich West thinks this rainforest is so important, the rich West ought to be paying Brazil (many) billions of pounds per year to look after it, instead of just complaining when it disappears.

Date published: 2005/08/28

Mass extinction 250 million years ago perhaps caused by global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A computer simulation of the Earth's climate 250 million years ago suggests that global warming triggered the so-called "great dying".

A dramatic rise in carbon dioxide caused temperatures to soar to 10 to 30 degrees Celsius higher than today, say US researchers.

The warming had a profound impact on the oceans, cutting off oxygen to the lower depths and extinguishing most lifeforms, they write in the latest issue of Geology.

The research adds to the growing body of evidence that higher temperatures, rather than a giant space rock hitting the planet, led to the greatest mass extinction in history.

The extinction, at the end of the Permian Period and the beginning of the Triassic, has puzzled scientists for many years.

Some 95% of lifeforms in the oceans became extinct, along with about three-quarters of land species.

Many possible reasons for this catastrophic event have been proposed - including impacts, volcanism, climate change and glaciation. Hard evidence, however, has been difficult to find.

The latest data from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, supports the view that extensive volcanic activity over the course of hundreds of thousands of years released large amounts of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the air, gradually warming up the planet.

The NCAR team used a research tool known as the Community Climate System Model (CSSM) which looks at the combined effects of atmospheric temperatures, ocean temperatures and currents.

Their work indicates that temperatures in higher latitudes rose so much that the oceans warmed to a depth of about 3,000m (10,000ft).

This interfered with the circulation process that takes colder water, carrying oxygen and nutrients, into lower levels. The water became depleted of oxygen and was unable to support marine life.

"The implication of our study is that elevated CO2 is sufficient to lead to inhospitable conditions for marine life and excessively high temperatures over land would contribute to the demise of terrestrial life," Jeffrey Kiehl and colleagues write in Geology.

Interesting but hardly a definitive proof of anything (it's a computer simulation, giving a result people who like that particular model would want). No doubt the controversy over the cause (or causes) of mass extinctions will continue for years.

Date published: 2005/08/27

The US sticks two fingers up to the UN (again) (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Making a deal encompassing the whole world is unlikely to be easy. But next month's special United Nations summit had seemed a propitious moment for a North-South grand bargain on development and security and on how to pursue these priorities through a reformed UN. It would, essentially, involve rich countries doing more to remove the poverty and disease that poor countries see as the main threat to their existence, while the latter would help counter the terrorism and weapons proliferation that most worry the former.

Yet, as of today, there is nothing in the way of an agreed text for the 170 world leaders gathering in New York in three weeks' time to sign.

The chief, although not the only, culprit is the US in the person of John Bolton, its UN ambassador. Blocked by Democrats in the Senate from being confirmed in the usual way, Mr Bolton only got his job this month on a special appointment after Congress went into summer recess. But no sooner had he arrived in New York than he threw a fit about the preliminary 39-page summit text that had been drafted, with US officials involved, over several months. Mr Bolton railed that he had to have something far shorter. Eventually, warned that this would let other states off the hook of the many US-inspired commitments that they dislike, Mr Bolton sat down yesterday with his UN colleagues to haggle over hundreds of US amendments.

They mostly focus on measures and institutions the US has consistently opposed elsewhere, such as the International Criminal Court and the nuclear test ban treaty which the US has either refused or failed to ratify. The US is also opposed to the pledge for rich countries to spend 0.7 per cent of their national wealth on aid; most Americans believe US aid is far higher than this, and the Bush administration does not want to remind them it is actually far lower.

In the same vein the US apparently wants to delete reference to the UN's Millennium Development Goals set in 2000, when the original aim of next month's summit was to review progress towards them. Astonishingly, given the loud US allegations of recent genocide in Darfur, Washington is fretting at language that would urge permanent Security Council members not to use their vetoes to block action to halt genocide and other war crimes.

On this, however, China is as opposed as the US. Earlier this summer, Beijing joined Washington to thwart more states joining them permanently on the Security Council. Other recent developments also augur ill. The failure of last May's Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference has cast gloom on any further initiatives next month to check the spread of nuclear weapons. By contrast, the Group of Eight summit's relative success at Gleneagles on debt forgiveness has created the equally erroneous opposite impression on aid: that little more needs to be done.

Still on the agenda for the UN summit are many US priorities that deserve support and success. They include reforms to give Kofi Annan's UN secretariat more management responsibility but also to make it more accountable, the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission, reform of the UN's human rights machinery and an international convention to define and outlaw terrorism. But to have a chance of securing these goals, the US and Mr Bolton need to take account of others' concerns. In all negotiations, taking requires some give.

All very fine words from the Financial Times, but they, like most of the European ruling elite, make a fundamental mistake. Bush and his band of thugs such as Bolton have no interest in being reasonable and will never be reasonable. They are the football hooligans of the international community. The rest of the world should therefore not try to reason with them but instead just treat the US as a rogue state (unfortunately a rogue state with far too many bombs for comfort).

Poor little Christians offended by the BBC (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Broadcasters in the UK are happy to offend their viewers, a Christian group has told the Edinburgh TV Festival.

"If they know we may be offended by a programme, they have the chance to stop it," said Christian Voice national director Stephen Green. "But they just keep going."

Mr Green said the BBC ignored 47,000 viewer complaints before it screened Jerry Springer: The Opera in January.

The opera's writer, Stewart Lee, said he was determined the show's national tour would go ahead, despite protests from Christian groups.

The show angered some viewers by depicting Jesus, God and Mary as talk show guests in Hell, prompting pickets of BBC offices before its broadcast.

"We all might cause offence through ignorance," said Mr Green, "but I am worried that there are people working in television who know something is going to be offensive and then just go ahead and show it."

BBC director of television Jana Bennett said the opera was shown after winning "all the plaudits it could" on its West End theatrical release.

"We judged it was very good and worth offering up to the public who could choose to watch it or not," she said.

Ms Bennett said the offence registered before the opera's broadcast could have only been "hypothetical" because viewers had yet to see the show.

"You do not need to see a murder to know that harm has been caused," replied Mr Green.

He said it was "odd" to suggest that viewers' protests against TV programmes are undermined if organised by a single group such as Christian Voice.

"That would be like saying that the more protests there are, the less attention you are going to pay them."

Well Mr Green is taking the piss. First of all, Jerry Springer: The Opera was too boring to be offensive, and it did so well in the ratings only thanks to the rants of the Christian fundamentalists. Secondly, we can of course ignore any protests organised by a single group since obviously the purported protesters are just a bunch of sheep following the lead from on high, rather than people who have thought seriously about the issue (another clue being that they protested without having seen the show: this was not murder, it was a drama). If Mr Green wants to believe in some random piece of religious mythology that is his right, but other people have the right to criticise (including making fun of) that belief.

Date published: 2005/08/26

Homeopathy efficacy review (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A leading medical journal has made a damning attack on homeopathy, saying it is no better than dummy drugs.

The Lancet says the time for more studies is over and doctors should be bold and honest with patients about homeopathy's "lack of benefit".

A Swiss-UK review of 110 trials found no convincing evidence the treatment worked any better than a placebo.

Advocates of homeopathy maintained the therapy, which works on the principle of treating like with like, does work.

Someone with an allergy, for example, who was using homeopathic medicines would attempt to beat it with an ultra-diluted dose of an agent that would cause the same symptoms.

The row over homeopathy has been raging for years.

In 2002, American illusionist James Randi offered $1m to anyone able to prove, under observed conditions in a laboratory, that homeopathic remedies can really cure people.

To date, no-one has passed the preliminary tests.

In the UK, homeopathy is available on the NHS. Some argue that it should be more widely available, while others believe it should not be offered at all.

In 2000, the UK Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology issued a report on complementary and alternative medicine.

It reported that "any therapy that makes specific claims for being able to treat specific conditions should have evidence of being able to do this above and beyond the placebo effect".

According to Professor Matthias Egger, from the University of Berne, and Swiss colleagues from Zurich University and a UK team at the University of Bristol, homeopathy has no such evidence.

They compared 110 trials that looked at the effects of homeopathy versus placebo with 110 trials of conventional medicines for the same medical disorders or diseases.

This included trials for the treatment of asthma, allergies and muscular problems, some large and some small.

For both homeopathy and conventional medicines, the smaller trials of lower quality showed more beneficial treatment effects than the larger trials.

However, when they looked at only the larger, high-quality trials, they found no convincing evidence that homeopathy worked any better than placebo.

Professor Egger said: "We acknowledge to prove a negative is impossible.

"But good large studies of homeopathy do not show a difference between the placebo and the homeopathic remedy, whereas in the case of conventional medicines you still see an effect."

He said some people do report feeling better after having homeopathy. He believes this is down to the whole experience of the therapy, with the homeopath spending a lot of time and attention on the individual.

"It has nothing to do with what is in the little white pill," he said.

However, the Lancet also reports that a draft report on homeopathy by the World Health Organization says the majority of peer-reviewed scientific papers published over the past 40 years have demonstrated that homeopathy is superior to placebo in placebo-controlled trials.

Furthermore, it says that homeopathy is equivalent to conventional medicines in the treatment of illnesses, both in humans and animals.

Professor Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter, said the draft WHO report seemed overtly biased and that all of the trials cited happened to be positive.

"They are not the most rigorous ones, not the most recent," he said.

A spokeswoman from the Society of Homeopaths said: "Many previous studies have demonstrated that homeopathy has an effect over and above placebo.

"It has been established beyond doubt and accepted by many researchers, that the placebo-controlled randomised controlled trial is not a fitting research tool with which to test homeopathy."

If "conventional" medicine cannot cure someone it is not too surprising that alternative options might be considered. But homeopathy is a particularly crackpot alternative. Of course no matter how many scientists state this, homeopathy (or similarly crackpot alternatives) will not go away, because easy money can be made from it, and the victims are desperate.

Date published: 2005/08/25

Another pointless male/female IQ study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Academics in the UK claim their research shows that men are more intelligent than women.

A study to be published later this year in the British Journal of Psychology says that men are on average five points ahead on IQ tests.

Paul Irwing and Professor Richard Lynn claim the difference grows when the highest IQ levels are considered.

Their research was based on IQ tests given to 80,000 people and a further study of 20,000 students.

Dr Irwing, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Manchester University, told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four that up until the age of 14, the study showed there was no difference between the IQs of boys and girls.

"But beyond that age and into adulthood there is a difference of five points, which is small but it can have important implications," he said.

"This is against a background of women dramatically overtaking men in educational attainment and making very rapid advances in terms of occupational achievement."

The academics used a test which is said to measure "general cognitive ability" - spatial and verbal ability.

This does not prove that (on average) "men are more intelligent than women", it just proves that men (on average) do better on these IQ tests (presumably largely designed by men). And what are the "important implications" that supposedly arise from this study? More importantly, why is this pointless "research" being funded? Instead spend the money on something more useful, e.g. (real) science and engineering.

Of course it is not unreasonable that if you take any measure in life, there are different distributions for men and women. The averages can be different and the standard deviations can be different. But focussing on any one measure as supposedly proving anything about anything, other than that one measure, is stupid, and will almost certainly encourage some malicious populist crackpot to then infer that women (or men) should be treated as second class citizens. And needless to say, you can play the same silly games with race, religion or nationality instead of gender.

Tax breaks on second homes allegedly a problem (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to give tax breaks on second homes could exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing in the countryside, a government watchdog has warned.

Investment in residential properties will count as part of a pension and qualify for tax rebates from April.

Financial advisers say investors are queuing up to buy second homes and the Affordable Rural Housing Commission fears this could raise prices further.

But the Treasury says this measure will only appeal to a few people.

People will be allowed to include buy-to-let investment property in their pension pot, under the self-invested personal pension scheme.

It means that higher income earners could get 40% back from the government on the cost of a holiday home.

In an interview for BBC Radio 4's Costing the Earth programme, ARHC chairman Elinor Goodman said that the chancellor's plans "on the face of it" seemed contrary to trying to keep prices down in the countryside.

BBC rural affairs correspondent Tom Heap said the spiralling cost of housing in the countryside was fast becoming the biggest source of concern in rural areas, which many rural already dwellers priced out of the market.

A housing shortage along with the number of properties bought as holiday homes by wealthy city dwellers were thought to be factors, he said.

More ridiculous complaints from yet another special interest pressure group. Decent affordable housing is a problem everywhere in the UK, not just in rural areas, and the reason it is a problem is that the ruling elite, including those who run the rural special interest pressure groups, are refusing to allow enough housing to be built, especially in rural areas. And for once the Treasury is correct, hardly anyone will use this tax break because it has too many strings attached to allow any but the most wealthy to take advantage of it (which makes you wonder why Gordon Brown bothered to introduce it in the first place).

Date published: 2005/08/24

New programme to deter illegal fishing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A coalition of environmental and development agencies has launched a new programme which aims to stem the loss of fish stocks worldwide.

The Profish programme will compile a global list of illegal fishing vessels, promote sustainable aquaculture and help protect marine reserves.

It could also reduce the extent of legal fishing by European boats in African waters.

Profish was launched at the Fish for All Summit in Abuja, Nigeria.

There are no reliable global estimates either for the economic value of illegal fishing, or for the amount of environmental damage it does.

But there is general agreement at government level that it is a serious issue, which is why the Council of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) adopted in 2001 the International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing.

The logic behind Profish is that information is key to reducing the impact and extent of illegal activities.

"There has been considerable work over the last few years to track illegal fishing," the World Bank's Director of Environment Warren Evans told the BBC News website.

"Although large vessels receive a lot of attention, in fact small-scale operations at local level are causing extensive ecological damage, by harming coral reefs, spawning grounds and so on; basically these boats exploit every stock they can."

The process of compiling the rogues' register will be led by IUCN, the World Conservation Union, which joins the World Bank, FAO, and other conservation bodies in launching Profish, with an initial investment of just over US$1m from Iceland, France, Norway, Finland and the World Bank's development facility.

Profish will also develop a "small-scale fisheries toolkit", which will show fishing communities how to manage stocks in a sustainable yet profitable way.

It also aims to develop estimates of "resource rent loss" for developing countries - the amounts of money they are losing by not managing fisheries for sustained production.

Well it sounds like a great idea. Only it could slip into the mode where a bunch of rich westerners (with no direct experience of fishing) are arrogantly telling the rest of the world how they should manage their own resources. The "small-scale fisheries toolkit" in particular sounds like it is going to be patronising ("those dumb Africans just don't know how to manage anything"). And is anybody going to believe the "resource rent loss" numbers? The people doing the sums have their own agenda, and so their estimates might or might not be impartial.

Foetuses feeling pain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Foetuses cannot feel pain until the last few weeks of a pregnancy, a review of medical evidence has concluded.

The paper, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, was prompted by proposed federal legislation in the US.

It would require doctors to tell women having an abortion from the 20th week of pregnancy that the foetus felt pain.

But the University of California team said foetuses would only have that capacity at 29 to 30 weeks gestation.

A full-term pregnancy lasts around 40 weeks.

The researchers say there is only limited data available on this issue.

But, writing in JAMA, they say pain requires the conscious recognition of an unpleasant stimulus.

This cannot happen until certain brain structures connecting the thalamus and the cerebral cortex develop during the third trimester of pregnancy.

These connections are not usually apparent until the 23rd week of pregnancy and may not begin to be made until the 30th week.

Interesting but the anti-abortion people will care less. They have been unsuccessful at stopping abortion completely so instead they are trying to chip at it from various directions to limit the numbers of abortions, and the proposed legislation is just part of their campaign of harrassment to achieve this end.

Date published: 2005/08/23

UK animal rights terrorists close down guinea pig breeding farm (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A farm is to stop breeding guinea pigs for medical research after intimidation by animal rights activists.

The family-run Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, has been at the centre of a campaign of abuse.

The owners and people connected with the business have received death threats during the six-year onslaught.

The family said they hoped the decision would prompt the return of the body of their relative Gladys Hammond, whose remains were stolen from a churchyard.

It's amazing that the BBC calls these people "activists", how sweet, they must be good chaps. Well, they are the same kind of fundamentalists who blow up abortion clinics in the States. Why is Tony Blair worrying about terrorism in Iraq and the wider world, he's completely incapable of doing anything to stop terrorism in his own back yard. Of course terrorists can always wreck havoc on a society, but this is especially true when the ruling elite refuse to sit up and do anything about it, presumably because many of them have some sympathy with the goals of the terrorists (as the Republican Party does with the abortion clinic terrorists and probably many in the Labour Party do with the animal rights terrorists).

More education will allegedly cause more income (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Young people who stay on in education after their GCSEs could earn up to £4,000 more per year than those without good GCSE results, it is claimed.

The Learning and Skills Council says they can expect to earn an estimated £185,000 more over their careers.

It says the education maintenance allowance is encouraging students from low-income families to stay in school.

And it is encouraging pupils to apply for the scheme, which entitles them to payments of up to £30 per week.

The LSC says students who gain A-levels or other advanced qualifications can expect to earn an average yearly salary of £20,692.

But it says those who leave school without obtaining five GCSE passes at grades A*-C or the equivalent can expect an average salary of £16,739.

Head of Learner Support Trevor Fellowes said: "These statistics prove the financial benefits of further education to all young people.

"By staying on to do an academic, vocational or retake course, young people will be setting themselves up for a better future."

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. People in category 1 do better in life than people in category 2 so let's force everybody into category 1 and the world will be a better place. Well extra education at age 16 might indeed be better for students than immediately starting work. But if the case is so clear cut the government should make it mandatory for all people to be educated to age 18.

Western and Eastern people allegedly look at the world differently (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Western and Eastern people look at the world in different ways, University of Michigan scientists have claimed.

Researchers compared the way 26 Chinese and 25 US students viewed photographs of animals or inanimate objects set against complex backgrounds.

Westerners' eyes tended to focus on the main subject while the eyes of their Eastern counterparts kept flicking to background details, they said.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Its findings appear consistent with previous research which has suggested Eastern people think in a more holistic way than Westerners, instinctively paying greater heed to context.

In contrast Westerners were thought to be more focused and analytical.

The latest study found that to start with, both American and Chinese students fixed mainly on the background.

But after 420 milliseconds the Americans began to concentrate their attention more on the foreground objects.

This was not true for the Chinese, who kept throwing glances at the background.

The researchers also tested the ability of volunteers to remember previously seen foreground objects when they were superimposed against new backgrounds.

The Chinese students were more likely to forget they had been shown an object before.

In their memory, the foreground object and its original background appeared to be bound together.

The researchers, led by Dr Richard Nisbett, wrote: "The Americans' propensity to fixate sooner and longer on the foregrounded objects suggests that they encoded more visual details of the objects than did the Chinese.

"If so, this could explain the Americans' more accurate recognition of the objects even against a new background."

The researchers suggested social practices may play a role in the differing approaches.

"East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations.

"Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning.

"In contrast, Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context.

"The present results provide a useful warning in a world were opportunities to meet people from other cultural backgrounds continue to increase.

"People from different cultures may allocate attention differently, even within a shared environment.

"The result is that we see different aspects of the world, in different ways."

They test 51 students with some paltry visual test and deduce some grand general philosophy of life from this?? They have been watching CSI too much. It's amazing that the PNAS would stoop to publish this.

Date published: 2005/08/22

NIMBYs might cause A14 upgrade to be delayed (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A group of residents who have vowed to fight plans which would see the A14 pass less than a mile from their homes could delay vital upgrading of the much maligned road.

Proposals for the new route, which would pass close to the edge of Offord Cluny, near St Neots, have received a hostile reaction from residents.

They are concerned the relief road - the A14 Ellington to Fen Ditton Road Scheme - would cause noise and pollution for people living nearby.

Residents are also worried about the effect on Buckden Gravel Pit, which has won environmental awards, and Buckden Marina, where there are holiday cottages and boats moored.

And they are angry because they say they were not consulted over plans for the new route, which was unveiled in April. In response, they formed the Offords A14 Action Group.

Now resident Nita Tinn, from Offord Cluny, has applied for a judicial review of the plans, on behalf of the action group. The reason behind her application is that the Highways Agency failed to consult on the route of the A14 relief road.

She said: "At the beginning of April 2005, the Highways Agency started a three-month consultation process, about whether the proposed route between Ellington and Fen Drayton should have four lanes or six.

"But we were not consulted on the exact route of the new road, which was fundamentally different from the preferred route proposed as a result of the Cambridge to Huntingdon Multi-Modal Study (CHUMMS) in 2001.

"The new route has moved 1km closer to the village."

She said the previous route had taken the A14 over a landfill site and further away from Buckden and the Offords.

"The Highways Agency told us they have decided against that option because of the extra cost and possibility of pollution," she said.

More NIMBYs in action. The new section of A14 will lie between Godmanchester (to the north) and the Offords (to the south). Almost exactly in between lies a hill (Offord Hill). If you put the road to the north of the hill (the original proposed route) then Godmanchester suffers more. If you put the road to the south of the hill (the new proposed route) then the Offords suffer more. (There is also a beautiful house on top of the hill which will suffer no matter what.) So the kind citizens of the Offords are basically saying (not surprisingly) that they are happy for Godmanchester to have the extra noise and pollution but not themselves. And the new route is not that close to the Offords (it's around a km). Large numbers of Cambridge citizens live within a mile of the A14 and the world has not ended for them. (On the other hand, the soon-to-be-built Arbury Camp is literally on top of the A14, which is a stupidly close distance to place new housing, but at least there are supposed to be offices buffering the housing from some of the noise.) More serious for the Offords is that they will get the road but presumably not an exit and entrance (the nearest likely exits and entrances will be on the A1 and A1198).

Women allegedly have difficult time in US scientific academia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The path for women in science remains a "difficult trek", according to a group of US researchers writing in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They say that although there have been major advances, academic institutions are still not making full use of the pool of women scientists available.

Female scientists sometimes find the campus environment "chilly" and may encounter "unconscious discrimination".

They also face the extra challenge of balancing home and family life.

"The good news is we have made progress," said lead author Jo Handelsman, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. "The bad news is we still have a long way to go to achieve equity."
...
Professor Handelsman and her colleagues say that, broadly speaking, there are four areas within which woman encounter hurdles.

...
There are a few things that could be changed, Professor Handelsman suggests, which would help women balance family and work, such as on-campus breast-feeding rooms and child care facilities.

Alice Hogan, director of the National Science Foundation's Advance Programme, an initiative developed to analyse the impact of efforts to advance women in science, believes it is highly worth while investing in female talent.

"While we have made progress in attracting women into most science and engineering fields, we still see fewer women with doctorates," she said.

"After investing in creating this pool of highly trained talent, we should see a high rate of return - productive, creative and respected teachers and researchers attracting more students into fields that might [previously] have seemed closed to them."

Nothing new here. It's just part of the perpetual campaign to force more politically correct social engineering on universities. If the US spent less money on this kind of useless "research" and more on science and engineering in the first place (for all people, not just women), the US (and world) would be better off.

Wildcats being cloned for conservation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A conservation institute in the United States has produced wildcat kittens by cross-breeding cloned adults.

The Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species says this is the first time that clones of a wild species have bred.

Eight kittens have been born in two litters over the last month, and all are apparently doing well.

The researchers say this development holds enormous potential for preserving a range of endangered species.
...
The animals are somewhat larger than a typical domestic cat, and many have a domestic-style tabby coat; though not endangered, they are a useful "model organism" for developing techniques which the researchers hope could one day be used to help preserve species at risk of extinction.

Not all conservationists believe that cloning has much value in preserving threatened species.

"While cloning is an intriguing scientific breakthrough that may enhance captive breeding in the years to come, it currently has no value for conservating endangered species in the wild," said Dr Susan Lieberman, Director of WWF's Species Programme.

"Cloning does nothing to reduce the most pressing threats to endangered species and their habitats; conservation requires work on entire populations and their habitats."

If it is to play a role in conservation, the process of cloning can only be part of the story; it also has to be shown that the clones could breed normally once re-introduced to the wild.

That is what the Audubon team believes it has done, though other tests await over the coming years.

For once the WWF is making some sense (but is "conservating" a real word?). For now cloning should be considered more of a desperate measure than a real conservation activity.

Date published: 2005/08/17

The internet allegedly leads to less social cohesion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Websites providing information on different neighbourhoods could widen the gap between rich and poor areas, a charity has warned.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is concerned about websites providing househunters with data on neighbourhood income levels and ethnicity.

The JRF said that similar sites in the US had led to people on high incomes increasingly living in the same area.

The charity said this led to greater segregation and less social cohesion.

Generally, information available to UK househunters about neighbourhood characteristics has been more limited than that available to their US counterparts.

In the US, househunters can search for the average income of neighbourhoods as well as other details such as how ethnically diverse an area is.

Such information is becoming more widely available over the internet to UK househunters, on a postcode rather than neighbourhood basis.

Already househunters can check out local crime rates and the performance of neighbourhood schools.

The JRF said that, although it was good for househunters to know more about areas, there was a danger that wealthy people would only choose to live in areas with other wealthy people.

Social scientists have long theorised that having a mix of rich and poor in a neighbourhood ultimately raises the living standards of the poorest people in the area.

"It is entirely possible that people will start using them to sort themselves out into neighbourhoods where their neighbours are less diverse and more like themselves," said Professor Roger Burrows, who led the JRF research team from the Universities of York and Durham.

"While no one would want to prevent public access to neighbourhood information, we should recognise the potential implications for disadvantaged neighbourhoods and the people who live in them," he added.

Isn't it amazing how the internet is now blamed for all social ills? (Child pornography, illegal wildlife trading, etc.) How many people buy a house without checking out (or more likely explicitly knowing about) the neighbourhood in person, and how many people trust without question the information they see on the internet? Rich people are always going to live in the same neighbourhood as each other (clue for the JRF "research" team: it is not too common to find expensive houses intermingled with crap housing). The best quote in the article is: "Social scientists have long theorised that having a mix of rich and poor in a neighbourhood ultimately raises the living standards of the poorest people in the area." Well three cheers for the wonderful genius social scientists. Stop wasting money on this "research" and give the money to a more deserving cause, e.g. anyone working to make more land available for housing (which is a much more serious issue for the people of Britain than the "diversity" of their neighbourhood). Once in awhile JRF has something useful to say about housing but unfortunately they then produce stuff like this. Middle class control freaks in action.

Further advances in designing a "silent" aircraft (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans for the world's first completely silent aircraft have been unveiled by Cambridge University engineers.

Environmental campaigners and people living on flight paths have already welcomed the campaign to build the jet.

Now it could become a reality some time in the next decade and Luton Airport is be a partner in the venture.

The main development is a new shape for the aircraft after engineers identified traditional designs caused much of the noise at landing and take-off.

The new aircraft is basically a flying wing and would be silent once it left the airport.

Project leader Paul Collins said: "It's a radically different design from the traditional tube and wing we are all used to flying in.

"For passengers we think it will be like flying in a cinema or theatre seat.

"People are used to that and I think they will be very comfortable with the new design."

Cambridge's engineering department has gone even further to dampen noise and the solution is to mount the engines on top of the aircraft so all the noise would be generated upwards.

The initial prototype design should be finished within six months and it is hoped production might start within the next decade.

Well it's early days. A non-tested prototype proves little. And even if it works from a noise point of view, does it work from an economic point of view, and will this technology get over the usual inertia against new technology? Since it's a European initiative it's possible Boeing and the US government will not be keen to adopt it. (It's possible even Airbus will not be keen.) But hopefully this technology will work in a meaningful way (in terms of engineering and economics) and become standard for most airplane travel.

Date published: 2005/08/16

Police version of shooting of Brazilian starts to unravel (permanent blog link)

Channel 4 News says:

ITV News has obtained secret documents and photographs that detail why police shot Jean Charles De Menezes dead on the tube.

The Brazilian electrician was killed on 22 July, the day after the series of failed bombings on the tube and bus network.

The crucial mistake that ultimately led to his death was made at 9.30am when Jean Charles left his flat in Scotia Road, South London.

Surveillance officers wrongly believed he could have been Hussain Osman, one of the prime suspects, or another terrorist suspect.

By 10am that morning, elite firearms officers were provided with what they describe as "positive identification" and shot De Menezes eight times in the head and upper body.

The documents and photographs confirm that Jean Charles was not carrying any bags, and was wearing a denim jacket, not a bulky winter coat, as had previously been claimed.

He was behaving normally, and did not vault the barriers, even stopping to pick up a free newspaper.

He started running when we saw a tube at the platform. Police had agreed they would shoot a suspect if he ran.

A document describes CCTV footage, which shows Mr de Menezes entered Stockwell station at a "normal walking pace" and descended slowly on an escalator.

The document said: "At some point near the bottom he is seen to run across the concourse and enter the carriage before sitting in an available seat.
...
Police have declined to comment while the mistaken killing is still being investigated.

The police were prefectly happy to talk to the press after the shooting to put their (it seems misleading) spin on the story. If this ITN report is correct, someone in the police should take responsibility. And the various members of the government and media who contributed to the poisonous atmosphere which led to the police behaving like this, should also take responsibility.

Oxbridge commission ridiculous survey of "social context" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many comprehensive school teachers think students are put off applying to Oxford and Cambridge by their social image, a survey says.

Of 101 teachers interviewed, 54% said students were often discouraged by the universities' "social context", while 45% said this happened occasionally.

Grammar school and college students were less wary, the National Foundation for Educational Research found.

It recommended more "proactive targeting" of comprehensives.

A total of 236 teachers completed the NFER's questionnaires: 101 from comprehensives, 80 from grammars and 55 from post-16 colleges.

Worries about the "social context" of Oxbridge often discouraged pupils, according to 23% of grammar school staff, and occasionally according to 70%.

For college teachers the figures were 46% and 48%.

Some 906 students at comprehensives, grammar schools and colleges were also interviewed.

NFER found 35% were put off applying to Oxbridge by its social mix, down from 47% in a corresponding study in 1998.
...
The NFER study - Factors Affecting Applications to Oxford and Cambridge - was commissioned by the universities.

Is this serious? Hardly anyone completed the questionnaires (are we supposed to be impressed that 236 teachers did), and with this kind of questionnaire it is much more likely that people with a strong negative opinion are going to respond. And the wording of all surveys distorts the outcome (if 1 student in 100 is discouraged then that counts as "occasionally" but it's hardly a problem). The worst aspect is that the universities actually paid for this ridiculous study to be done, what a complete and utter waste of money. No doubt it was done for politically correct reasons, an unfortunate reaction to continual government demands for social engineering to be the prime criterion for admission to Oxbridge. It would have been far better to spend the money on something the universities should be doing (e.g. student bursaries, scientific research, etc.).

Illegal trading of wild animal products on the internet (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The illegal trade in wild animal products over the internet is driving the world's most endangered species to extinction, wildlife campaigners claim.

An International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) probe found 9,000 live animals or products for sale in one week on trading sites like eBay.

Ifaw claims many traders are taking advantage of the internet's anonymity.

The UK Government says it takes wildlife crime seriously, but Ifaw urged it to act urgently.

During a three month investigation, Ifaw found some of the world's most endangered species for sale online - almost all being traded illegally.
...
Of the 9,000 animals and animal parts found for sale by the probe in its first week alone, 70% were from species protected by international law.
...
A spokesman for eBay said its animals policy goes beyond the law in prohibiting the sale of native and endangered species and it was working closely with the Ifaw to ensure the site remained free from illegal items.

"If we are made aware of any listing that breaks this policy, we will end the listing and may, where appropriate, forward it to the relevant law enforcement agency for action.

"We strongly encourage users to report illegal items to customer support.

This just reads like yet another press release from yet another special interest group trying to get some free publicity. Are we supposed to be shocked that illegal goods are being sold on the internet? You can perfectly well sell illegal goods "anonymously" without the internet and it is almost impossible to be really anonymous when using the internet (just ask all those virus writers who get caught within a week or two).

The mention of Ebay at the top of the story is particularly egregious if the spokesman for Ebay at the bottom of the story is not completely lying, and perhaps the BBC should actually do some work on this story and check Ebay out.

The mention of the figure of 9000 at the top is spin. Midway in the story we find that 30% (2700) of the animals had no protection under international law (presumably cats and dogs come under this category). And are the remaining 70% (6300) totally illegal? Did Ifaw notify the relevant governmental authorities with specific cases and documentation? Did Ifaw approach the relevant websites and ask for the sales to be removed?

Of course there is unfortunately probably a serious story underlying this silly reporting. We should also question whether governments of the world should be devoting as much resource to this problem as Ifaw wants, rather than devoting more resource to mundane law enforcement jobs like trying to make sure people don't get mugged in the street (or the zillion and one other things governments can spend money on).

Date published: 2005/08/15

Indonesia signs peace treaty with Aceh representatives (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Indonesian government and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) have signed a peace deal aimed at ending their nearly 30-year conflict.

Representatives from each side signed the official document in Helsinki.

"This is the beginning of a new era for Aceh," said former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who mediated the talks. "Much hard work lies ahead."

Efforts to end the conflict resumed after the tsunami in December, which destroyed vast swathes of Aceh.

In the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, big screens were set up in the main mosque so that people could witness the signing.

Locals have also begun two days of prayers in support of the peace process, in the hope that this time it really does signal the start of a new chapter for their beleaguered province.
...
15,000 people have died in more than 29 years of conflict between the government and the rebels in Aceh.

Definitely a step forward and about the only good thing to come out of the tsunami. The main threat to the peace, as was the case in East Timor, will probably be the Indonesian militias present in Aceh. Hopefully the Indonesian military and police will ensure the militias are disarmed and disbanded.

Possibly serious temperature measurement errors for weather balloons (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A dispute over the data for global warming may be down to the way sensors were placed on weather balloons when readings were taken in the 1970s.

For years, experts sought to determine why temperature readings taken from weather balloons did not show the same increases as readings on the ground.

The resulting mismatch has fuelled scepticism of global warming.

Researchers at Yale University in the US say exposed instruments on the balloons may be the problem.

Weather balloons are sent up around the world twice a day and older versions of the balloons used temperature probes that were exposed.

The result, say the researchers, was higher readings on balloons sent up in daytime because of the exposure to sunlight.

After correcting for the problem, the researchers estimate there has been a global temperature increase of 0.2C (0.4F) per decade for the last 30 years.

"Unfortunately, the warming is in an accelerating trend - the climate has not yet caught up with what we've already put into the atmosphere," said lead author Steven Sherwood of Yale.

"This has muddied the interpretation. There are steps we should take, but it seems that shaking people out of complacency will take a strong incentive."

It just goes to show, as some theoretical physicist once noted, that you should never trust an experiment not confirmed by theory. The researchers also noted that there might be other systematic errors still lurking. But you then have to wonder whether other temperature measurements have similarly serious systematic errors. And it is unfortunate that once again the scientists feel obliged to make political statements rather than sticking with the science, it undermines their credibility.

Date published: 2005/08/14

South African grape industry in crisis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The South African grape industry says it is in crisis.

While exports have been hit by a strong rand and production damaged by bad weather in certain areas, farmers cite British supermarket price wars as a major reason for financial hardship and bankruptcies.

They say that in many cases supermarkets are demanding high standards of production, while not paying the price it costs them to produce the grapes.

According to the South African Table Grape Industry, 65% of the country's grape producers are now operating at a loss. Many are being kept afloat by bank loans or credit from their exporters.

It is estimated that one in five grape farmers in the Orange River region of the Northern Cape has gone bust, and it is feared that many more are set to go the same way.

Gerhard Oosthuizen is one of the farmers in Orange River to have recently gone bankrupt.

His farm had been in his family since 1920, but now the vines are being ripped up and the land sold at auction. He is clearly distraught at the thought of leaving it.

The bulk of his crop went to UK supermarkets and he said that up to five years ago he was paid the equivalent of about £5 (60 rand) for each 4.5 kilo box.

However, the price has since dropped and he now gets as little as £2 a box, despite each box costing more than £3 to produce. As he was producing 175,000 boxes a year, the losses were considerable.

"I went to the UK in February and saw the prices at which people buy grapes in supermarkets and I was stunned to see at what price they sell grapes compared with the price they get grapes," he says. "They are making quite a lot of money. I think it's slightly unfair."

Many farmers are particularly critical of supermarket special promotions, such as 'buy one get one free' or sudden big price reductions, which can result in them being paid even less than expected.

It is a common complaint that the grapes can already have been shipped and arrive in stores before the supermarket has decided the price it will charge the shopper - and therefore what it will pay the farmer.

This sounds odd. Are the farmers really claiming that Tescos and Sainsburys are just arbitrarily deciding the price after the goods are already shipped? What kind of business allows its customers to do that? And if it really does happen, the supermarkets might as well have permanent "buy one get one free" offers, or indeed they might as well give the grapes away for free and pay the farmers nothing. Even anything nearly along the lines implied in the article sounds highly illegal and it's hard to imagine the British government would not press charges. (Various bits of government might be in the pockets of the supermarkets but it's hard to believe the police and CPS are.) There is also a global market in grapes. If the UK companies really behave so badly it is obviously time for the farmers to find an alternative buyer (the US, Scandinavia, China, etc.). No doubt the farmers of the world are at the rough end of global trade, but by (it seems) garbling the story the BBC leaves its readers none the wiser.

Government failing small business (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has failed to hit most of its targets to encourage the growth of small businesses, the CBI has said.

Smaller companies have been hampered by uncoordinated delivery of support and increasing regulation, the group said.

Four out of seven targets set by the government's Small Business Service in 2004 had been missed, its report said.

The Department of Trade and Industry said it was already working to simplify the regulatory structure and the burden on small businesses.

The CBI report said the government had failed on four targets - to build an enterprise culture in the UK, create a positive environment for growth, improve regulation and encourage entrepreneurs in disadvantaged areas.

All true but does anyone in the Labour Party care? Probably not. New Labour is all about spin and marketing and Old Labour hates business. Regulations are the real issue, the other targets are largely irrelevant. All the "family friendly" regulations in particular are a serious drain on small businesses. (They are a drain on all businesses but big businesses can cope more easily.)

Date published: 2005/08/13

Lib Dems stick up two fingers to pedestrians in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The controversial Cambridge city centre cycle ban will be lifted next month - but councillors are still at odds over the effect it will have.

The ban has been in place since 1993, when it sparked protests from city cyclists. It currently covers the pedestrianised city centre streets but will be lifted for a trial period of 18 months.

The surprise plan to lift the ban was unveiled at a joint county and city council committee meeting earlier this year amid accusations from Labour councillors that a deal had been made behind closed doors between Lib Dems and Tories.

They protested at the decision and tried to get it "called in" at another meeting but were unsuccessful.

City councillor Lewis Herbert, a Labour member of the joint committee, said: "Labour hasn't moved from its ground on this. We need better provision in various parts of the city for cyclists but we need to have clear areas for pedestrians and clear areas for cyclists.

"We do know that a lot of people, particularly older people, are very worried about this. If there are near-misses or pedestrians feel intimidated by the cyclists, then there are other ways cyclists can go through town.

"The evidence is that cyclists and pedestrians don't mix very well. Generally the standard of motoring is going down and the standard of cycling is not very good either. This is supposed to be a trial so we will look forward to the review report."

But Lib Dem county councillor Julian Huppert said they were responding to city people who had been calling for the ban to be lifted for a long time.

He said: "There have been calls for many years to relax cycling restrictions in the city centre and create a safer and more convenient route for riders. However, we also recognise pedestrian safety is paramount, that is why we will run this scheme as an experiment which will be closely monitored.

"Let me give one clear message to the minority of cyclists who do break the rules and cycle dangerously - if you cause problems it is unlikely the experiment will continue. If you cycle safely and with respect for pedestrians, then that will be better for everyone."

You mean the cycling ban hasn't been lifted already?? Most cyclists seem to think it has, just visit Sidney Street to see loads of cyclists going up the street the wrong way. Of course when Huppert claims the council is "responding to city people who had been calling for the ban to be lifted for a long time" what he really means is that he is responding to requests by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, which is a typical special interest pressure group which lobbies to have its own interests put above the interests of the public as a whole. Needless to say there is no equivalent pedestrian lobby in Cambridge. The current (it seems illegal) two-way cycling in Sidney Street and Trinity Street is already bloody dangerous, as should be clear to anyone with an ounce of common sense. (Unfortunately the Lib Dems who run the town have little common sense.)

President of Royal College of Surgeons wants new NHS funding system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A tax-funded NHS, free at the point of use, is unsustainable, one of Britain's most senior doctors has said.

Bernie Ribeiro, the new president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said patients should be forced to pay part of the cost of treatment.

They would take out insurance to cover that, he told the Daily Telegraph.

But Unison, the UK's largest health union, said the public was "rightly proud" of the existing NHS structure and would object to such changes.

The social insurance system suggested by Mr Ribeiro would be similar to those in France and Germany.

"We will have to look hard at an alternative system," he told the Telegraph.

"If we are to provide healthcare free at the point of need all the time for patients, then I don't think that's achievable in the present structure."

Mr Ribeiro argued that the rising cost of technology and medical staff would make a tax-funded NHS unsustainable in the medium term.

He said: "The working population is reasonably well paid, we could afford our workers to make an identifiable contribution towards healthcare - not one hidden in national insurance and taxation."

But contributions would be means-tested, with the poorest people required to pay nothing at all, he said.

Hmmm, let's see. Mr Ribeiro wants to change the current funding system, which is partly based on national insurance (a tax on wages) and partly on income tax (a tax on wages and investments) with some other "insurance" system which is effectively a tax on wages (and investments?). In other words replacing the current system with an almost identical one (except possibly the exact proportion of wage versus non-wage income going to the NHS might be different). The only real difference seems to be that the contribution is supposed to be "identifiable" rather than just lumped in with all the other government tax. Does that really matter (to the citizens of Britain rather than economists)? (Anybody who is really interested in costs can just look at the NHS budget relative to the entire government budget and do the trivial arithmetic to figure out how much tax they are paying towards the NHS.) You know you have a marketing person in charge when window dressing is supposed to make a difference to an organisation. (Of course perhaps he wants the "insurance" to depend on other factors such as age and health history, if so he should say so clearly.)

Meat grown in the lab in the future (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An international research team has proposed new techniques that may lead to the mass production of meat reared not on the farm, but in the laboratory.

Developments in tissue engineering mean that cells taken from animals could be grown directly into meat in a laboratory, the researchers say.

Scientists believe the technology already exists to directly grow processed meat like a chicken nugget.

The technology could benefit both humans and the environment.

"With a single cell, you could theoretically produce the world's annual meat supply. And you could do it in a way that's better for the environment and human health.

"In the long term, this is a very feasible idea," said Jason Matheny of the University of Maryland, part of the team whose research has been published in the Tissue Engineering journal.

Growing the meat without the animal could reduce the need to keep millions of animals in cramped conditions and would lessen the damage caused by the meat production to the environment.

Laboratory-grown meat could also be healthier, proponents say.

Tissue engineering techniques were first developed for medical use and small amounts of edible fish tissue have been grown in research conducted by Nasa.

To industrialise the process, researchers suggest the cells could be grown on large sheets that would need to be stretched to provide the 'exercise' for the growing muscles.

"If you didn't stretch them, it would be like eating mush," said Mr Methany.

Whilst the technology to produce processed meat is here now, producing a steak or chicken breast is still quite a way off, the researchers say.

This reads like an April Fool's joke. It's hard to believe this food will not taste horrible, certainly for the forseeable future, but given all the pre-cooked rubbish already available in supermarkets probably most people will never notice the difference. And presumably they will manage to get it to taste good eventually. Whether it really is "better for the environment" remains to be seen.

Date published: 2005/08/12

People allegedly don't like shopping in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Nearly three in four people shun shopping in Cambridge for elsewhere, according to a News poll.

And city centre bosses admit they are unsurprised by the findings.

The online poll found 73 per cent of people say Cambridge is not their first choice for shopping.

Annette Joyce, Cambridge city centre manager, said she was "not shocked" by the result.

But she said the impending Grand Arcade development - which will house 50 shops on land bounded by Corn Exchange Street, Downing Street and St Andrew's Street - would put Cambridge on the retail map.

She said: "Our reaction to that (the poll) is the development of the Grand Arcade shopping centre which will be open towards the beginning of 2008. Within there, there will be 257,000 sq feet of retail.

"As we work towards 2008 the city will be looking at itself as one of the region's major destinations for shopping. At this stage it doesn't surprise me there are some people erring away from Cambridge.

"In this minor economic recession, people are spending less on retail, which is not unique to Cambridge. There may be a poll saying 73 per cent of people are not happy with the offer, but we have listened to that, which is why all this retail is coming in 2008."

Difficulty in travelling to the city centre and the cost of parking have been cited as reasons why most shoppers would prefer to spend elsewhere.

Lion Yard is the city's most central and costly car park.

A two-hour stay there on a Saturday will put shoppers back £3 during the day and £7.50 for a four-hour shopping spree. In comparison, Peterborough charges £2 for three hours and £3.50 for four - less than half the price of Cambridge.

Paul Necus, head of parking services at Cambridge City Council, defended the charges.

He said: "I do not think what is happening in Cambridge is anything to do with parking or parking charges - there are spaces in most of the car parks most of the time.

"If car parking is such an issue, why are people so keen to park in Lion Yard - one of the most expensive car parks in the city? We have not changed our prices for nearly two years. Whatever people are doing now they have not been put off by parking prices."

Of course online polls are meaningless, since nobody knows how representative the replies are. But it is amusing the way the bureaucrats try and justify that people might be unhappy with shopping in Cambridge. For non-Cambridge residents the number one problem is car parking, which the city has made as expensive and difficult to use as possible. If you treat your customers like that you can hardly be surprised that they do not think much of you.

People are keen to park in Lion Yard because it is just about the only car park where you can easily walk to the shops in the city centre. (There is also Park Street, but the city has made that so inaccessible that most people avoid it now.) It does not mean people are happy with the extortion, it just means (in typical British fashion) they put up with it.

The amount of retail in the city centre is not the issue. There is too much retail in the city centre. It was already horrible struggling along St Andrew's Street as a pedestrian way before the Grand Arcade was starting to be built, and that new mall will only make the situation worse. But of course the Cambridge ruling elite have decided they should force the people to come to the shopping rather than allow the shopping to come to the people. (For example, Arbury Camp in the north and the site of the Trumpington Park and Ride in the south are both natural sites for malls. Instead of driving to a mall in Trumpington the Cambridge ruling elite instead want you to drive to exactly the same site and then take a bus ride all the way into the city centre.)

Falconer tries to intimidate the judiciary (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lord Falconer is considering new laws forcing judges to take more account of national security when deciding whether to deport terror suspects.

The lord chancellor said the proposed changes would allow Britain to deport undesirable foreigners while abiding by the Human Rights Act.

He denied it would put the government on a collision course with judges.

Ministers face a legal battle to deport ten foreign nationals to countries with poor human rights records.

Lord Falconer said he wanted the same weight to be given to national security concerns as a suspect's human rights.

He denied he was seeking to tell the judiciary how to interpret the law.

He told BBC Radio 4 Today's programme: "I want a law which says the home secretary, supervised by the courts, has got to balance the rights of the individual deportee against the risk to national security.

"That may involve an act which says this is the correct interpretation of the European [human rights] convention."

He said he was not seeking conflict with judges and that it was for Parliament to decide the right response.

"Nobody suggests for one moment that that would remove from the judges any degree of discretion in determining individual cases," he said.

"It would provide the basis with which that discretion was exercised."

Gareth Peirce, the solicitor representing seven of the 10 terror suspects detained on Thursday, condemned Lord Falconer's suggestion, describing it as "a constitutional challenge of the highest order".

It's amazing Faulker ever became lord chancellor, he's so bumbling. (Of course he's Tony's crony, which is all that counts.) And one of the problems with the way Britain is ruled is that the lord chancellor can just make the law up as he goes along. If only someone with a bit more intelligence was doing it. The real question here is whether the judges will be browbeaten into submission, and agree with the government proposition that the circle can be squared with compass and straight edge.

Date published: 2005/08/11

The EU is trying to figure out how to tax aircraft emissions (permanent blog link)

Nature says (subscription service):

Flight UA923 is a problem. When the Boeing 767 travels from London to Washington DC every week, it emits around a tonne of carbon dioxide for every passenger. The aircraft departs from a country that is intent on tackling such emissions, but lands in one that stands almost alone in resisting such measures. To further complicate matters, most of the emissions do not actually occur in the airspace of either nation. So how can UA923's emissions, and those from other flights, ever be regulated?

A first stab at an answer, at least in Europe, is likely to come soon. The European Commission (EC) is due to release a proposal on the issue in September, and details are starting to emerge. Emissions trading, already used to limit emissions from other European industries, will play a central role. New taxes are also likely. But although environmental groups and the airlines can agree on these points, a battle looms over a critical issue: the quantity of greenhouse gases that the industry should be allowed to emit.

International aviation is a pressing environmental concern. The industry emits around 3% of global greenhouse gases and is the fastest-growing source of emissions. Yet it is omitted from the Kyoto Protocol, which regulates emissions from most industrial nations. Total emissions from the European Union (EU), for example, dropped by around 5% between 1990 and 2003 but contributions from the booming aviation industry rose by 75%.

The EC plans would cover all flights taking off in Europe. They would either see emissions included in Europe's existing carbon trading scheme, or in a stand-alone version for airlines. Under the existing scheme, which began in January, around 13,000 European firms monitor greenhouse-gas emissions. If companies produce more than their government-allotted quota, they must buy emissions credits from others that have emitted less than allowed.

Some aspects of the plan to incorporate aviation are straightforward. As air travel is international, the European Union, not individual member states, will probably set emission targets. And the targets are likely to be based on the fuel burnt during each flight, not the distance flown, so that airlines will be rewarded for using more efficient engines.

Quantifying the impact of airline emissions may prove more difficult. As well as emitting carbon dioxide, aircraft exhaust gases promote the formation of ozone, another greenhouse gas. Aircraft contrails also create cirrus clouds, which have a warming effect. Together, these are believed to have a global-warming impact around two to four times greater than that of the carbon dioxide alone.

An analysis published this June predicts that current aviation growth will more than wipe out any emissions reductions from other industries.

The EC's environment directorate, which is drafting the September document, told Nature that it nonetheless favours including carbon dioxide emissions only, as this is the basis for the existing trading scheme. Other emissions, such as the nitrogen oxides that promote ozone formation, would be tackled by extending existing taxes such as landing charges.

The final and thorniest part of the problem is the process of setting the industry an emissions target. An EC-commissioned report, published last month and led by a team from CE Delft, a Dutch environmental policy institute, explored the effect of setting allocations at 2008 levels. This would add only a few euros to the cost of an air ticket in the following years and is in line with industry thinking. "It's in the right ball park," says Robert Preston, executive officer of the British Air Transport Association.

But environmental groups take a different view. An analysis by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, UK, commissioned by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and published this June, predicts that current aviation growth will more than wipe out any emissions reductions from other industries in coming decades. Even sticking to 2008 levels would leave airlines with much more than their current share of emissions, and possibly skew any carbon credit scheme, says Richard Dyer of FoE. The group wants airlines to cut emissions to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, a massive challenge for an industry that is growing by 4% annually.

Better engines and improved routeing are only likely to cut emissions by 1-2% per year and it is unlikely that other industries could supply airlines with enough credits to make up the difference. So FoE argues that the cuts can only be achieved by introducing extra taxes, such as passenger duty, which reduce demand by forcing up ticket prices.

With such issues to be resolved, it is no surprise that the date for implementing trading is already slipping. The UK government, which is leading the debate as part of its current EU presidency, wants trading to begin in "2008 or as soon as possible afterwards". The EC environment directorate had also backed a 2008 target, but says now that 2012 may be a more realistic goal.

Well it is good that the EU is considering this issue and seems to be on track to propose something sensible (e.g. making the tax depend on fuel consumed). It is unfortunate that the only response of the so-called environmentalists is yet again to try and screw the working class, who can now afford to take flights that once upon a time only the comfortable middle class (like the so-called environmentalists) could afford to take. And the argument that the huge increase in aircraft use is a specific cause for concern is fatuous. It is akin to decrying the large increase in computer sales year-on-year because of the toxic materials they use, and suggesting that instead of reducing the toxic materials we should put an artificial tax on computers so that poor people are forced to instead use slide rules. In a dynamic world (which the so-called environmentalists hate, they think nothing should ever change) it is inevitable that some technologies will become more used and other technologies will become less used, and there is nothing alarming about that per se. We should be aiming for a world where pretty near everyone should be able to fly around the world as they see fit. We should not be aiming for a world where only the elite can do so. If the so-called environmentalists spent more time trying to figure out how to make aircraft more efficient and less time trying to screw the working class they might have more credibility.

One variety of rice genome decoded (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have unscrambled the genetic code of rice, a development that could help end hunger around the world, Nature magazine reports this week.

The blueprint will speed up the hunt for genes that improve productivity and guard against disease and pests.

In order to avoid shortages, rice yields must increase by 30% over the next 20 years, researchers say.

Scientists from 10 countries cooperated to work out how the 400 million "letters" of rice DNA are arranged.

"Rice is a critically important crop, and this finished sequence represents a major milestone," said Robin Buell of The Institute of Genomic Research (TIGR). "We know the scientific community can use these data to develop new varieties of rice that deliver increased yields and grow in harsher conditions."

The research will also help scientists understand other vital food crops. Rice is genetically similar to maize, wheat, barley, rye, sorghum and sugarcane. So understanding the genomes of these plants is now a small step away.

"Rice is the Rosetta Stone for crop genomes," said Dr Buell. "We can use the rice genome as a base for genomic studies of cereals."

According to the United Nations, rice currently provides 20% of the world's dietary energy supply, while wheat supplies 19% and maize 5%.

Although rice represents 30% of global cereal production today, and production levels have doubled over the past 30 years, much more of the cereal will be needed in the future.

Current consumption trends suggest that about 4.6 billion people will be reliant on rice by the 2025. In addition, global warming may mean that rice is required to be more robust in the face of droughts.

Japan led the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, which included teams from the US, the UK, China, India, Thailand, Brazil and France.

If you ignore the unfortunate hyperbole about ending world hunger, this can only be a positive (and expected) step forward. So-called environmentalists who hate biotechnology are going to look more and more retrograde as the pace of these advances continues to grow.

Europe allegedly suffering in the heat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new report from the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) warns that temperatures in Europe's major cities are rising.

The report analysed summer temperatures in 16 European cities over the last 30 years and found that in most of them, average summer temperatures were at least one degree Celsius higher over the last five years than they were 30 years ago.

WWF says the increase is caused primarily by greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere by coal and gas-fired power stations and by cars.

Heat waves, drought and torrential rains are all things Europe can expect to see more of, the WWF says.

Rising temperatures will mean more extreme weather conditions and cities may be especially hard hit.

The WWF study shows that Europe's big cities are getting hotter faster than expected.

London showed the biggest increase. Its average maximum temperatures now are two degrees higher than in the 1970s.

Madrid, Paris, Stockholm, Lisbon and Athens are suffering in the heat too.

Average summer temperatures have risen by one-and-a-half to two degrees in all of them, and such increases don't just mean more nights out in the open-air cafes.

They mean heat exhaustion for those struggling to work and serious health risks for the very young and the very old.

You have to laugh at this kind of report. It could have been produced by a robot, and the idea that any of it is "new" is pathetic. And it's too bad the BBC yet again just prints what reads like a press release from a so-called environmental pressure group, including all the expected hot button phrases. And if only Britain did have decently hot summers.

Date published: 2005/08/10

Michael Howard bashes the judiciary (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Judges could risk Britain's security by opposing new proposed anti-terror laws, Tory leader Michael Howard has said.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Howard warned judges not to thwart the wishes of Parliament.

He argued it was the job of MPs to balance new counter-terrorism measures against the human rights of suspects.

But the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, said: "I don't think one should try to see it as a conflict between judges and the executive."

Tony Blair recently said the laws passed by Parliament should be upheld.

Mr Howard says he does not believe judges are being wilfully difficult.

He blames the government for drawing the courts into the "political sphere" by passing the Human Rights Act, which means judges have to decide whether new laws are proportionate to their intended effect.

The Conservative leader says the judiciary, together with the government and Opposition, have a duty to play its part in combating the terrorism threat.

But he says he is worried that "judicial activism" has reached unprecedented level in obstructing MPs.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, he said: "Parliament must be supreme. Aggressive judicial activism will not only undermine the public's confidence in the impartiality of our judiciary.

"It could also put our security at risk - and with it the freedoms the judges seek to defend. That would be a price we cannot be expected to pay."

Mr Howard cites the House of Lords' ruling that it was illegal to detain foreign terror suspects in Belmarsh Prison as an example of judicial interference.

He complains in particular about Lord Hoffman's comment in the Belmarsh judgement that "the real threat to the life of the nation... comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these."

Unfortunately Mr Howard seems to want to outdo Mr Blair in whinging. If Parliament or the government does things illegally it is up to the courts to say so. Lord Hoffman was spot on. Unfortunately in Britain the legislative branch is under the thumb of the executive, and so it is only the judicial branch which stands in the way of total dictatorship. And the executive and legislative are so useless that the judiciary has to clean up the mess time and again. Fortunately we will be rid of Howard within the year and Blair within a few years. (Not that the clone control freaks who replace them will be any better.)

Most school boards are middle class (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Schools need to recruit governors from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds to become more democratic and "cosmopolitan", a report says.

Largely middle-class volunteers had helped to improve performances but had left some boards "significantly unrepresentative" of their communities.

There were also not enough women involved, researchers argued.

Schools across the UK had to create stronger community links to ensure continued improvement, they said.

In the late 1908s, the Conservative government created more than 400,000 "volunteer citizens" to occupy boards of governors.

This was the "largest democratic experiment in voluntary public participation", said the report by researchers from Warwick, Glasgow Caledonian, Queen's Belfast and Birmingham universities and the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

However, those recruited were "generally white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income, public/community service workers".

Such people had the knowledge to make a "profound contribution to regenerating the schools", with their "access to privileged networks and resources".

But this approach only went a certain way to improving schools if the bulk of the community was not involved.

Is this stating the obvious or what? The middle class have more time and energy and interest for this kind of voluntary work, so it is hardly surprising that more of them do it. And no doubt most of the "researchers" for this wonderous report are also "white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income, public/community service workers". As is most of the BBC. Why is this kind of "research" funded? Divert the money to something more useful (e.g. science).

Date published: 2005/08/09

£60000 starter homes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

John Prescott said the price of houses in Britain is too high except for people already on the property ladder.

The deputy prime minister was speaking as he unveiled the next stage of his plan for £60,000 starter homes.

Conservative spokeswoman Caroline Spelman claimed the £60,000 price tag was just for construction and said the final price would be much higher.

She added that 140 of the homes would be built next to Category A prisons and all would be on contaminated land.

But Mr Prescott said his plans had already defied critics and the new homes would help 1,000 families and first time buyers.

Asked if he thought the average house price in Britain was too high, he replied: "I think everybody thinks they are too high, unless you have bought one, and that's one of the problems of this present stage."

Asked how much he would like to see prices come down by, Mr Prescott said: "I would love to sell a £60,000 house. Wouldn't you like to buy one at £60,000?"

When pressed over the fact that house prices had doubled in the last six years, Mr Prescott replied: "I have to accept that is very much a function of the market.

In fact, the idea that I am coming along here, talking about £60,000 houses, is to recognise that the market is not able to produce it, if you take the land and the price, put it together, a house at £60,000.

"Unless you have some other arrangement, and we have shown a way forward.

"But I generally recognise, unless we lift the amount of houses in supply, we are not likely to reduce greatly that increase in prices in housing, which even now is two or three times people's yearly earnings."

Mr Prescott hit back at Tory claims he was using "contaminated land" to build cheap starter homes on.

"I thought the pressure was on me to build more and more on brownfield sites. And we have now reached a record level of 70%," he said.

"It is right that we do that, we are building back in the cities."

Nine finalists from a competition to create £60,000 homes will now be invited to design the houses for construction on public sector sites, he said.

The 1,000 homes will be a mixture of flats, houses - some rental, some for sale and a third being made available for first time buyers.

As usual Prescott manages to mangle what he is saying. House prices are way above two or three times people's yearly earnings and the recent annual percentage increases have also been way above two to three times the percentage increase in earnings. And he might joke about how wonderful it would be to pay £60000 for a house (the average price in Cambridge is near enough three times that) but who is going to win the lottery by being allowed to buy one of these £60000 homes? Presumably certain politically correct categories (e.g. public sector workers). Meanwhile the rest of the country suffers.

And anybody with any sense, even people who have bought a house, recognise that high house prices are a problem, because it is the delta to the next house on the ladder that determines how easy it is to move up the ladder, it is not just the first rung that matters. In 1990 the price of top-end houses in Cambridge was 300k pounds and of above-mid-range houses 100k pounds. Now those numbers are more like 1.5m and 500k. So the ratio is still 3 to 1 but the absolute difference is way above any possible increase in earning power during that time. So everybody is stuffed (except developers and people moving out of the UK).

The key to solving the "housing crisis" is not to build loads of new crap houses but to release much more land for housing, and let the market do the rest. Of course the ruling elite refuse to allow this to happen for all sorts of reasons. (There is plenty of land, in spite of what is often claimed.)

The Tories are just playing politics because everyone knew the £60000 was not counting the price of land (most buildings plots near Cambridge cost more than that, per household, so needless to say the full cost of any new-build house is much, much higher). And the Tories were in power when the housing crisis started (they in some sense encouraged it), and the Tories are the main party which wants to stop house building in the south of England. So they are part of the problem, not part of the solution. (The LibDems are not much better.)

Date published: 2005/08/08

Free pets for patients (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Patients are to be given grants of up to £1,000 so they can boost their health by buying a pet.

Medical experts believe that looking after an animal can have a therapeutic effect on the owner.

Now, a health trust in south London, is running a pilot scheme which will allow doctors to offer the chance to care for a pet.

Lewisham Primary Care Trust said owning an animal can help people recover faster and reduce isolation.

Trust spokesman Oliver Lake said it is hoped a pet will keep the patient out of hospital.

Caseworkers will be allocated the budget and will decide which items will help to improve the patient's wellbeing.

Mr Lake said: "What is bought for the patient is dependent on what the caseworker believes is necessary for the patient in order to improve his or her health.

"Evidence suggests that caring for a pet can help patients get better, but there are many other options."

Other items that can be bought with the grant include a type of chair, air conditioning, heater, transport to a social club, or an overnight carer.

Five practices in the borough are taking part in the pilot.

You can get a cat from the Blue Cross for less than 50 pounds, so the quote of 1000 pounds would have to include a heck of a lot of cat food and future vet bills. And at that cost you might as well send people on a holiday to Spain to get some sun. And pets should not be considered to be toys, fit for dispensation to anyone and everyone. Of course there is some evidence of a correlation (i.e. a link) between owning pets and being healthy, but correlation is not the same as causation. It could just be that people with positive attitudes are more likely to be pet owners and healthy, and that just giving someone a pet (or whatever) will not directly make them healthier (but it might). There is no harm in doing a pilot but someone who is sufficiently independent should do the analysis of the results and determine if this really gives value for money. (You can just imagine the survey handed out: "Do you feel better now that we have handed over 1000 pounds to you?")

Hotel desperately pandering to lone women travellers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A hotel is to open a wing which will be available to women only.

Males will be banned from the 68 rooms of the new section of the five-star Grange City Hotel in central London.

Even room service staff will be female in the seven-storey building that will open at the end of August.

The Grange Hotel Group offered the service after research showed half its customers were women, many of whom felt vulnerable when travelling alone.

It said the rooms would contain "female-friendly" features such as illuminated wardrobes, a backlit make-up mirror and extra-powerful hairdryer.

And for security every room will have a spy-hole and chain lock.

Barry Wishart, from the Grange Hotel Group, said: "We noticed that our women travellers were frequently asking for the same things.

"Traditionally hotels have always been male-centric, particularly business-class hotels."

He admitted the ban on men could not be fully enforceable if, for example, a guest wanted to invite a man to her room.

Obviously this is just intended to get some free publicity for the hotel (and it worked), because it is a mostly silly story. OK, perhaps women travelling alone need extra security. But why should women travelling alone (or with other women, presumably) be deemed worthy of an "extra-powerful hairdryer" (etc.) but not women travelling with men? Being sexist in a stupid fashion is no better than being male-centric.

Date published: 2005/08/07

Islamic "radicals" might be charged with treason (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Islamist radicals who express support for terrorism may face treason charges, the Attorney General's Office has said.

Lord Goldsmith and the Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald have discussed action against three individuals, a spokeswoman said.

The Crown Prosecution Service's head of anti-terrorism will meet Scotland Yard officers in the next few days.

Omar Bakri Mohammed, Abu Izzadeen and Abu Uzair are all expected to come under scrutiny.

The spokeswoman for the Attorney-General's Office said it was not clear at this stage whether there was enough evidence to bring charges.

Officials will be looking at broadcast and published comments as well as speeches and sermons made by the trip to followers.

"No decision on charges has been made yet. The CPS will be looking at it to see if any offences have been committed," she said.

Possible charges which will be considered include the common law offences of treason and incitement to treason.

Omar Bakri Mohammed is a London-based cleric for the al-Muhajiroun group.

On Friday while announcing new measures to clamp down on extremism, Prime Minister Tony Blair said that this group's successor organisation, the Saviour Sect, would be outlawed.

Mr Bakri caused controversy when he said he would not inform police if he knew Muslims were planning a bomb attack in the UK.

He also expressed support for Muslims who attacked British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"For Muslims there, they have a duty to fight occupiers, whether they are British soldiers or American soldiers," he told Channel 4 News.

British-born Abu Izzadeen, a spokesman for the group al-Ghurabaa (the Strangers) has declined to condemn the 7 July London bombings.

He told BBC2's Newsnight the bombings were "mujahideen activity" which would make people "wake up and smell the coffee".

Abu Uzair, a former member of al-Muhajiroun, told the same programme that the September 11 attacks in the US were "magnificent".

He said Muslims had previously accepted a "covenant of security" which meant they should not resort to violence in the UK because they were not under threat there.

"We don't live in peace with you any more, which means the covenant of security no longer exists," he said.

Well these so-called radicals might be a bunch of idiots, but claiming their comments are treasonous is a ridiculous over-the-top reaction. Unfortunately Blair and his government want to be seen to talk tough, in the usual way of politicians being goaded by the media.

Heathrow Airport is dreadful (permanent blog link)

Heathrow Airport is just plain dreadful. Just getting to it (from somewhere not in London) is painful (the M25 is bad enough but the approach road is even worse). How on earth is the airport ever going to cope when it expands? And Terminal 3 is hardly the first building you would really want (North American) visitors to see when they come to the country. Heathrow is the perfect example of why small regional airports are now so popular.

Date published: 2005/08/06

FOE makes fatuous argument against airport expansion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Airport expansion could result in the loss of billions of pounds from the economy as UK travellers spend money abroad, an environmental group says.

Friends of the Earth said visitors flying in spent £11b in the UK in 2004, while UK residents flying out spent £26bn abroad - a £15bn deficit.

It said if airport expansion proceeded as the government plans, the deficit would grow to £30bn annually by 2020.

An industry body said there was no evidence expansion harmed the economy.

According to the Friends of the Earth calculations, based on Office of National Statistics information, regions would miss out the most if regional airports expanded, with only London gaining.

The North East earned £177m from overseas visitors in 2004, but North East residents flying abroad spent £938m - five times as much, resulting in a deficit to the North East economy of £761m, FoE said.

One of the stupidest arguments ever made against airport expansion. Most importantly they are missing out a huge part of the picture (it is not just the amount of money visitors spend, it is the amount of business being done, and the latter almost certainly dwarfs the former). And are they suggesting that only people who live in the South of England should be allowed to fly abroad? Or are they suggesting it is better that people who live in the North of England should be forced to travel all the way to Heathrow (or wherever) if they want to fly abroad? If the FOE didn't hate airports you would almost think they are actually concerned about the British economy (touching isn't it). The FOE should stick to environmental arguments against airports, which at least have some validity (but not as much as FOE pretends). Otherwise they are just going to look plain silly. And shame on the BBC for (as usual) printing an FOE claim without bothering to consider whether it makes any sense.

Happiness and the economy (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service), in a review of a lecture:

An avuncular figure walks to the lectern, beams at the audience and asks: how happy can the state make us?

The economist, Richard Layard, now Lord Layard, will go on to say that the answer is: very. But his colleague on stage in the Old Theatre lecture hall of the London School of Economics, psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud, believes otherwise.

The two men are here to debate "the politics of happiness" in front of a packed, international audience. Both speakers have written a book about contentment but they disagree about how best to achieve it. The two specialists in the human condition outline their arguments, suited with ties and standing at lecterns on either side of the stage. They are polite and non-confrontational; happy, indeed, in each other's company, while the audience sits, attentively.

Layard argues in his book, Happiness: Lessons From A New Science, that happiness, not growth, should be the objective of our economic policies, and governments should attend more to problems that demonstrably make us miserable, such as mental illness, unemployment, and even advertising - especially ads aimed at children. "Life is complicated. We're picking up our norms from other people whether we want to or not. We're reading their advertisements, we're having our purses nicked. So many forms of involuntary interaction go on that the first role for the state is to see how these could be made more wholesome."

Layard may be sharing a space with the trim, modulated and more earnest Persaud, an industrious psychiatrist, author and broadcaster, but that proves to be about all.

Persaud argues in his book, The Motivated Mind, that happiness is up to the individual and his or her attitude more than any macroeconomic interference. Happiness, he says, is too personal to be prescribed like the pills that the visionary novelist Aldous Huxley had the regulated inhabitants of Brave New World ingest, a book he reads from to underline that human experience has texture and meaning when exposed to some distress.

"When people are asked about the different pathways of achieving happiness, there are as many pathways as there are individuals," Persaud argues. "I'm worried about the notion that government should be charged with the responsibility of determining our happiness."

It's worrying when a psychiatrist makes more sense than an economist. It's currently fashionable amongst certain sectors of the chattering classes (e.g. the Green Party) to claim that economic growth is irrelevant and happiness is all, because they hate consumption (at least by the working classes, not by themselves). Unfortunately the government is hopeless at almost anything to do with the economy (the most successful Labour Party policy of the past eight years has been making the setting of interest rates independent of government interference) and they would be even worse trying to regulate our happiness (imagine all the politically correct rubbish that would be endorsed). Of course happiness is strongly correlated with wealth and income, as even Layard manages to recognise:

Layard notes that the National Child Development Study shows that the least happy people in society are two-and-a-half times more likely to be poorer "than the rest of us".

Now who would have thought that? Of course from this correlation you could try to make the illogical deduction (confusing correlation and causation) that if you make people happy you will make them rich (whereas of course the most likely causative effect is the other way around, although even that is obviously not the entire story).

Date published: 2005/08/05

Blair wants more dictatorial powers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has outlined a raft of plans to extend powers to deport or exclude foreigners who encourage terrorism.

The UK can already exclude or deport those who pose a threat to security and Mr Blair said he also wanted to clamp down on those who advocated terror.

The prime minister said he was prepared to amend human rights laws to make deportations more straightforward.

But Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said Mr Blair's announcements would put the cross-party consensus under strain.
...
On the new anti-terror package, Mr Kennedy warned that plans to ban Muslim organisations, powers to close mosques and deport people who "visit particular bookshops and websites" risked "inflaming tensions and alienating people".

Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty, said Mr Blair has attacked key human rights and would jeopardise national unity.
...
At the final news conference before his summer break, Mr Blair said British hospitality had been abused and people should know the "rules of the game are changing".

"People now understand that when we warned of the terrorist threat it wasn't scaremongering it was real", he said.

Blair has got to be kidding. Nobody believed there was not a real terrorist threat, especially after Blair started his illegal war in Iraq. The question is whether we then respond by showing we are not afraid of the terrorists and continuing to lead our lives as normal, or showing that we are caving into the terrorists and introducing dictatorial law after dictatorial law. Blair unfortunately has chosen the latter path. (As has Bush, of course.)

The BBC claims in a side panel of that article that the planned measures include:

Heck, who could be opposed to these? Well under most counts Nelson Mandela would have been refused aslyum in the UK and deported to South Africa should he have ever managed to escape to the UK when Thatcher and her ilk were in power. Who decides who is and is not a "terrorist"? Of course the government.

The streets of London (permanent blog link)

The streets of London seem to be as busy as ever (with lots of tourists right now), in spite of the recent terrorist incidents. And the Tube seemed to be having a normal day (Central Line closed between Leytonstone and Marble Arch for awhile due to someone jumping in front of a train at Liverpool Street Station, the Bakerloo Line service suffering a "points failure", and no doubt other similarly routine problems on other lines).

There were more police all over the place, and Buckingham Palace and the London Eye also had increased security relative to a couple of years ago (e.g. they took "sharp objects" off of people, although, unlike the airports, they handed them back at the end of the visit).

Date published: 2005/08/04

Greenbelt land allegedly precious (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Green belt campaigner Tim Harrold stands on the edge of a field in his home county of Surrey and makes a grand sweeping gesture towards the horizon. "Isn't it lovely?" he says.

Unfortunately, he adds, this country lane will soon become a park-and-ride facility for more than 400 cars, complete with street lights and a roundabout.

"Isn't it lovely" is a phrase Mr Harrold repeats several times as we drive around the edges of Guildford, taking in its green belt 'hot spots'. It is, undeniably, lovely, and he and his colleagues believe they have to defend it to the last.

The arguments are as old as the green belt. In the case of the park and ride, with congestion and the environment to consider the scheme is an essential part of the county's transport strategy, says the council, but the CPRE disagrees with its location and its viability.

Mr Harrold is speaking on the 50th anniversary of the first government circular that told councils to look at designating areas of green belt land in England.

Countryside campaigners say the green belt - the 'lungs' around towns and cities - is "under threat as never before", while the government insists it is being "maintained and increased".

For volunteers at the Surrey branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - of which Mr Harrold is chairman - there are several green areas in the vicinity that are cause for concern.

One battle that's already been lost is over expansion plans at the University of Surrey.

Jim Andy, 59, lives on the edge of the land the university has owned since the 1960s, but had previously only partially developed.

In 1987 it was designated as green belt land, but 10 years later the university successfully argued at a public inquiry that it should be able to expand onto 60 hectares of it, having had planning permission to do so since it first bought the land.

It's a complex case, but in many ways the same arguments are being replicated around the country, particularly with educational institutions under pressure to take on more and more students.

Needless to say those people on the "preserve the greenbelt at all cost" side of the argument are often just NIMBYs. They are living in nice countryside and they are trying to defend their privilege against anyone else being able to do the same. It's possible the greenbelt in Surrey is especially wonderful, but the greenbelt around Cambridge is largely sterile agricultural land. Indeed much of the so-called brownbelt land around Cambridge is more green than the so-called greenbelt land. And suburban gardens provide more of the "lungs" to towns than any agricultural land ever could or does. When the chattering classes (with chief cheerleader the BBC journalists) start to have some common sense the country might be able to move forward.

The Cambridge nuclear bunker gets a public inquiry (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Campaigners have forced a public inquiry into whether a nuclear bunker should be demolished.

Cambridge City Council had already given the green light for demolition of the Grade II listed bunker - but objections from the 20th Century Society mean the planning application will now be the subject of a full planning inquiry.

Developers Countryside Properties are building houses and flats at the site off Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge, and want to demolish the bunker to make room for more.

But now the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has called for the inquiry - likely to start next year - overruling the council. The 1950s bunker was built as a standby regional seat of government for use in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

Eva Branscome, of the London-based 20th Century Society, said: "If the building is destroyed we will lose part of history and it won't be rebuilt."

"It reminds us of the lengths we went to at the time of the Cold War when the nuclear threat was real. It is an important historic relic and a reminder of how close we came and a warning for the future."

"Many people don't realise these sorts of buildings are even there."

At the original planning committee meeting, councillors heard about proposals to turn it into a pub and hostel but decided its historical importance did not justify keeping it.

A city council spokeswoman said: "We will be defending the case that it should be demolished."

"In accordance with government planning policy guidance in relation to historic buildings, it was decided to allow demolition for two reasons. One, the alternative uses of the building suggested would not be in keeping with the surrounding residential development."

"And two, the alternative residential proposal will bring substantial benefits to the local community."

English Heritage said: "The former regional seat of government in Cambridge, built to protect emergency government staff in the event of nuclear war, is a powerful and evocative relic of the Cold War."

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

Chris Crook, Countryside Properties' managing director, said: "The Bunker Preservation Trust has assured us the bunker has no architectural or historic merit and we will maintain our current position, together with the city council, in arguing the case for its removal during the public inquiry."

It's hard to see a sensible viable alternative use being made of the building, except possibly as an archive centre (but there are plenty of warehouses in the world). And it has no architectural merit. But it does have some historic merit. So a public inquiry is fair enough.

Date published: 2005/08/03

Cambridge Illuminations exhibition at Fitzwilliam Museum (permanent blog link)

The Fitzwilliam Museum and Cambridge University Library (UL) have an amazing (free) exhibition of illuminated manuscripts until 11 December (Fitzwilliam open Tue-Sat 10.00 - 17.00, Sun and Bank Holidays 12.00 - 17.00; UL open Mon-Fri 9.00 - 18.00, Sat 9.00 - 16.30, but not 29 Aug and 16-23 Sep). They are taken from the collections of Cambridge University and colleges, and mainly date from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries, although they do have one book (The Gospels of St Augustine) dating from the sixth century. Many of the manuscripts are in such good condition they look like they have hardly been used. The workmanship is remarkable. But (apparently) in one manuscript a sixteenth century person commented about how much better they did things in the good old days (the fourteenth century). Anyone in Europe who has any interest in illuminated manuscripts should immediately book a flight to Stansted or Luton and come to Cambridge. And any North Americans looking for an excuse to come to England could use this exhibition (unfortunately you have to come via Heathrow or Gatwick). If you only have time for one of the two venues then the Fitzwilliam Museum part is bigger and better. The only bad thing is that these manuscripts are not permanently exhibited in this way.

Organic farming better for wildlife (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Organic farms are better for wildlife than those run conventionally, according to a study covering 180 farms from Cornwall to Cumbria.

The organic farms were found to contain 85% more plant species, 33% more bats, 17% more spiders and 5% more birds.

Scientists - from Oxford University, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology - spent five years on the research.

Funded by the government, it was the largest ever survey of organic farming.

"The exclusion of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers from organic is a fundamental difference between systems," the study says.

Other key differences found on the organic farms included smaller fields, more grasslands and hedges that are taller, thicker and on average 71% longer.

Dr Lisa Norton, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: "Hedges are full of native, berry-producing shrubs, which are great for insects and the birds and bats that feed on them."

Yes, the important question is what were the significant factors, and if a farm is less efficient at producing food for humans (e.g. because of bigger hedges) then it is almost bound to be better at having food (and other resources) for non-humans. Of course farms are supposed to produce food for humans, not non-humans, and although it is "common sense" (to the chattering classes) that more biodiversity must be better for humans in the long run (although it might be worse for some humans in the short run), it is not proven.

Date published: 2005/08/02

Nanotechnology and cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nanotechnology has been harnessed to kill cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.

The technique works by inserting microscopic synthetic rods called carbon nanotubules into cancer cells.

When the rods are exposed to near-infra red light from a laser they heat up, killing the cell, while cells without rods are left unscathed.

Details of the Stanford University work are published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researcher Dr Hongjie Dai said: "One of the longstanding problems in medicine is how to cure cancer without harming normal body tissue.

"Standard chemotherapy destroys cancer cells and normal cells alike.

"That's why patients often lose their hair and suffer numerous other side effects.

"For us, the Holy Grail would be finding a way to selectively kill cancer cells and not damage healthy ones."

The carbon nanotubules used by the Stanford team are only half the width of a DNA molecule, and thousands can easily fit inside a typical cell.

Under normal circumstances near-infra red light passes through the body harmlessly.

But the Stanford team found that if they placed a solution of carbon nanotubules under a near-infra red laser beam, the solution heated up to about 70C in two minutes.

They then placed the tubules inside cells, and found they were quickly destroyed by the heat generated by the laser beam.

Dr Dai said: "It's actually quite simple and amazing. We're using an intrinsic property of nanotubes to develop a weapon that kills cancer."

The next step was to find a way to introduce the nantubules into cancer cells, but not healthy cells.

The researchers did this by taking advantage of the fact that, unlike normal cells, the surface of cancer cells is covered with receptors for a vitamin known as folate.

They coated the nanotubules with folate molecules, making it easy for them to pass into cancer cells, but unable to bind with their healthy cousins.

Exposure to the laser duly killed off the diseased cells, but left the healthy ones untouched.

One of the first practical outcomes of research into nanotechnology (although it will be years before this kind of work reaches the clinical stage). Of course the chattering classes of Britain, led by the so-called environmentalists, hate nanotechnology (it's not two hundred years old), but fortunately this technology continues moving forward, even if in the US, China and elsewhere.

EU tries to bully Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Top EU countries have warned Iran they will cut off talks on the nuclear issue if it goes ahead with plans to resume nuclear activities.

France, Britain and Germany said they would be forced to take "other courses of action" if dialogue failed.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Tehran could be referred to the UN Security Council.

Iran has responded by saying threats are not the solution, and insists it will not cede its "legitimate rights".

A spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council said the decision to resume conversion of uranium at the Isfahan plant was irreversible.

The foreign ministers of France, Germany and the UK, as well as EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, made their warning clear in a joint letter to the Iranian authorities on Tuesday.

"Were Iran to resume currently suspended activities, our negotiations would be brought to an end and we would have no option but to pursue other courses of action," the letter said.

"We therefore call upon Iran not to resume suspended activities or take other unilateral steps."

France, Britain and Germany have so far resisted calls by the United States to take Iran to the UN, hoping that the crisis can be defused in talks.

The three EU countries are due to deliver full proposals within a week for nuclear, economic and political co-operation with Iran, provided it ends all nuclear activities.

Typical imperialist intervention by the ex-imperial powers of the EU on behalf of the current imperial power, the US. It is none of the business of any of these countries what Iran does on the nuclear front. The day Britain, France and the US give up all their nuclear capabilities is the day they can start preaching with a straight face about other countries doing so.

Date published: 2005/08/01

The LibDems want more people to die on the A14 (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

When it comes to praying for a solution to the A14, we're all singing from the same hymn sheet - the killer road must be widened, and quickly.

Cambridgeshire County Council, four district councils, Conservative MPs, the police, and a host of other important regional organisations have joined forces to demand swift action, and have sent a letter to the Highways Agency urging it to get moving on the project.

But one lone body is holding out and refusing to sign up fully to the initiative - the Liberal Democrat-controlled Cambridge City Council. And Cambridge's new Lib Dem MP David Howarth and the county council's Lib Dem group have also snubbed the campaign.

How do the Lib Dems justify their stance? Aren't they putting more lives at risk on the A14 by failing to throw their full weight behind a swift start to the £490 million scheme?

Ian Nimmo-Smith, leader of the city party - which has as many seats on the council as Labour and the Conservatives combined, holding 28 of the 42 - agrees that urgent safety measures are needed. But he insists that the widening scheme poses threats to Cambridge itself, and wants an investigation into how to prevent more traffic flooding into the city. He and his Lib Dem colleagues believe that road pricing may be needed - that is, making motorists pay for driving on the city's roads - as a deterrent.
...
We are not in complete opposition to the Government's proposals for the A14. We agree there needs to be an urgent package of measures to improve the A14 for safety and to combat congestion so that enhanced public transport can pass reliably between Huntingdon, St Ives and Cambridge. We endorse the proposal to widen the A14 to six lanes and to re-route it to the west of Huntingdon."

What the Lib Dems are worried about, however, is the volume of traffic a new, wider road will generate.

Mr Nimmo-Smith claims the road improvements will effectively create an American-style superhighway between Fenstanton and Fen Ditton.

He said: "This will inevitably bring more cars. The county council has recently produced traffic modelling projections which indicate an additional 43 per cent of vehicles will try to access central Cambridge along Huntingdon Road every day, of which 29 per cent would be caused by this vast increase in road access. This is completely unacceptable to Cambridge residents.

We are asking the Highways Agency and the county council to ensure that the appropriate technical studies, including into road pricing, are done so that we can have measures in place to stem this choking tide.

So the LibDems want the A14 to become a six-lane "American-style superhighway" but they also want to make Cambridge effectively totally inaccessible from it. They want even more money wasted on yet another study as to how the government can stop additional traffic coming into Cambridge. They claim it will not delay the scheme but of course it will, and what do they expect to be the outcome of this study? The LibDems should accept responsibility for every death that occurs on the A14 over the next few years if they continue with this ridiculous selfish Cambridge-centric policy.

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