Azara Blog: September 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/09/30

London congestion charge zone is to be extended (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The London congestion charge zone is to be extended to include Kensington and Chelsea, the Mayor has announced.

From February 2007, motorists will have to pay £8 on weekdays when crossing the new boundary in west London.

Critics say extending the zone will push traffic into Hammersmith and Fulham and could kill off local trade.

Ken Livingstone also announced that from September 2006 drivers could pay the current central London charge the day after travelling in the zone.

Currently drivers must pay in advance or on the day of travelling.

When the Chelsea and Kensington extension comes into effect, charging hours will end 30 minutes earlier at 6pm.

A Transport for London survey showed 63% of residents and 72% of firms were opposed to the western extension.

Liberal Democrat London Assembly transport spokesman Geoff Pope said the extension decision "flew in the face of common sense" and was "the wrong scheme at the wrong time".

Referring to London's falling retail figures, London Chamber of Commerce press and public affairs director Dan Bridgett said: "This is a bad decision at the worst possible time".

He added that the message that most companies opposed the extension had been "received, understood and blatantly ignored".

But the Mayor said the extension would reduce traffic in the zone by up to 22%, shaving five minutes off a typical journey time.

Wow, five whole minutes. That certainly means it's worth introducing further social apartheid onto the streets of London (the rich, e.g. those in taxis, get a free pass, the poor get told to go to hell). And in line with most consultations, the ruling elite just ignore any result which doesn't confirm their prejudices. (But Livingstone has done a poor job, usually the ruling elite make sure the consultation process gives the result they want.)

And Liberal Democrat Geoff Pope should perhaps read page 32 of his party's manifesto for the UK election this past May:

Congestion charging in London (first proposed by the Liberal Democrats) has cut pollution, cut traffic jams and paid for new investment in buses. We will encourage more cities and towns where traffic congestion is a problem to extend congestion charging.

Well, of course he is the transport spokesman in the London Assembly, not the House of Commons. LibDems, being a party of the comfortable middle class (along with the Greens), generally hate cars (there's nothing worse than an independently mobile working class), hence the national policy as stated in the manifesto.

Date published: 2005/09/29

Animal rights terrorists strike again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Animal rights extremists threatened to make life a "living hell" for employees of a nursery linked to an animal testing laboratory, it has emerged.

A letter was sent by the Animal Rights Militia to Leapfrog Day Nurseries because of a child care scheme for Huntingdon Life Sciences.

The note, seen by Channel 4 News, said employees of the nursery would "pay the consequences" for the links.

The scheme was withdrawn by the nursery to protect children and staff.

Leapfrog Day Nurseries - Britain's largest childcare provider - has 102 nurseries nationwide, with units in Beds, Bucks, Herts, Cambs, Essex and Northants.

They administered a scheme for Huntingdon Life Sciences to give employees child care vouchers which can be used at any nursery.

Huntingdon Life Sciences have long been targeted by anti-vivisection extremists. Supports, including the government, argue that its work is needed to prompt medical breakthroughs.

The letter read: "The company you work for is working with Huntingdon Life Sciences. This is a disgusting and cowardly act. You have a choice.

"You can walk away from those sick monsters or you can personally face the consequences of your decision."

The note went on: "Not only you but your family is a target.

"... Sever your links with HLS within two weeks or get ready for your life and the lives of those you love to become a living hell."

Well the terrorists have won again. Blair and the police are too busy using the Terrorist Act against innocent 82-year old pensioners to have any time to deal with any of the real terrorists in Britain.

John Roberts sworn in as chief justice of the US Supreme Court (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

John Roberts has been sworn in as the chief justice of the US Supreme Court in a ceremony at the White House.

President George W Bush's personal choice for the post, he was earlier confirmed by a comfortable 78-22 margin in a vote in the Senate.

A Catholic with conservative views, Mr Roberts, 50, received the backing of many Democrats as well as Republicans.
...
He was chosen to replace long-serving Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who died earlier this month.
...
Some campaigners have expressed concern at Mr Roberts' conservative views, though he has promised to enforce the letter of the constitution, not to be swayed by personal prejudices.

"My faith and my religious beliefs do not play a role," he told his Senate confirmation hearing.

Well hopefully he will not be as bad as the form book might imply. He refused to answer most questions during his confirmation hearing, so his views must be suspect. Of course Rehnquist was one of the worst Supreme Court judges of recent time, so it's hard to believe Roberts will be any worse. Whatever, we're stuck with him for an awful long time.

Date published: 2005/09/28

Jack Straw still trying to justify the invasion of Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Jack Straw will pledge to put "the responsibility to protect" at the heart of British foreign policy, during a speech to Labour delegates in Brighton.

The thousands murdered in Rwanda and Srebrenica would have been saved had this been the policy, he will say.

The foreign secretary will argue UK troops are in Iraq to help the elected government build a stable nation.

Earlier, Mr Straw told BBC Radio 4's Today programme military action against Iran was "inconceivable" at present.

In his keynote conference speech, Mr Straw will say Britain should be at the vanguard of a new recognition "that sovereign states and the nations of the world ... have a collective responsibility to protect all citizens from genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity".

Those sad folks (Blair, Straw, etc.) who got the UK into the mess in Iraq are getting more and more dramatic in their post-hoc justifications for their illegal war. No doubt if and when George Bush attacks Iran, we will have Mr Straw saying that he didn't ever "conceive" it would happen (he always was a bit dim) but of course it was being done because of the alleged threat of Iran to the world, and when that turns out to be a fatuous claim (as was the similar claim about Iraq) then the post-hoc justificiation will again be that it was done because of "the responsibility to protect" the people of Iran. Meanwhile, back in Stalinist Britain, the BBC says:

The Labour Party is to apologise to an 82-year-old member who was thrown out of its annual conference for heckling.

Walter Wolfgang, from London, was ejected from the hall after shouting "nonsense" as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended Iraq policy.

Police later used powers under the Terrorism Act to prevent Mr Wolfgang's re-entry, but he was not arrested.

Delegate Carol Hayton protested during a later debate that Mr Wolfgang had been "manhandled".

Mr Wolfgang, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1937, is a member of the Stop the War Coalition.

Erith and Thamesmead constituency party chairman Steve Forrest, who was sitting next to Mr Wolfgang, was also thrown out after complaining about his treatment.

What kind of country is it where a harmless 82-year old is prevented from entering a conference under the Terrorism Act? Welcome to Blair's Britain, where everybody who doesn't salute the leader is a terrorist.

More results from a UK GM crop study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A follow-up to the UK's major trial of genetically modified crops, the Farm Scale Evaluations, finds that impacts on wildlife can persist for two years.

The original trial found that spring GM rape and sugar beet were harsher than their conventional equivalents in the short term, while GM maize was better.

The new study shows the same pattern at two years for rape and maize.

The British government has welcomed the findings, which it says "provide important information" on GM crops.

The new information relates to three of the four crops studied in the Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs): spring oilseed rape, sugar beet and maize.

Initial results on these crops were published in October 2003; data on the fourth crop, winter oilseed rape, was published separately in March 2005.

"The new study confirms our impression of what would happen when we released the initial results," said Les Firbank, of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Lancaster, the FSE project co-ordinator.

"We did expect the differences to persist, and I don't think it will affect any decision on approving GM crops," he told the BBC News website.

This follow-up, published in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters, did not look at insects and birds as the initial study had done.

Instead, it confined itself to monitoring the weed seedbank - the number and diversity of weed seeds left in the soil, which will be food for insects and birds.

It found that the result seen at one year for maize, with the GM crop leaving a greater seedbank than conventional varieties, persisted through the second season after planting.

The converse result for spring rape - GM cultivation worse than conventional - also persisted.

Nothing unexpected. But the idea that this one measure (some measure of "diversity") should determine whether or not some specific crops should be allowed is ridiculous. And of course the people (the comfortable middle class) who object to GM crops do so on religious grounds, so the results are politically irrelevant in any case.

The Arctic ice has shrunk four years in a row (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk for a fourth consecutive year, according to new data released by US scientists.

They say that this month sees the lowest extent of ice cover for more than a century.

The Arctic climate varies naturally, but the researchers conclude that human-induced global warming is at least partially responsible.

They warn the shrinkage could lead to even faster melting in coming years.

"September 2005 will set a new record minimum in the amount of Arctic sea ice cover," said Mark Serreze, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Boulder, Colorado.

"It's the least sea ice we've seen in the satellite record, and continues a pattern of extreme low extents of sea ice which we've now seen for the last four years," he told BBC News.

September is the month when the Arctic ice usually reaches a minimum.

The new data shows that on 19 September, the area covered by ice fell to 5.35 million sq km (2.01 million sq miles), the lowest recorded since 1978, when satellite records became available; it is now 20% less than the 1978-2000 average.

The current rate of shrinkage they calculate at 8% per decade; at this rate there may be no ice at all during the summer of 2060.

An NSIDC analysis of historical records also suggests that ice cover is less this year than during the low periods of the 1930s and 40s.

Mark Serreze believes that the findings are evidence of climate change induced by human activities.

"It's still a controversial issue, and there's always going to be some uncertainty because the climate system does have a lot of natural variability, especially in the Arctic," he said.

"But I think the evidence is growing very, very strong that part of what we're seeing now is the increased greenhouse effect. If you asked me, I'd bet the mortgage that that's just what's happening."

Well that last boast is a bit hollow (he probably could bet his mortgage, so perhaps he should and make a fortune), but the results are what everyone would expect and is consistent with previous results from the Antarctic.

Date published: 2005/09/27

Trouble ahead if the UK suffers a harsh winter (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Business vented its anger yesterday at the looming threat of power cuts if Britain suffers a harsh winter this year, blaming failures in the planning system for the lack of sufficient storage now the North Sea no longer supplies a surplus of energy.

Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the CBI employers' body, warned that his members were "really worried that this winter they're going to have the switch thrown on them". He told a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference that Britain had only 11 days of spare gas capacity, compared with about 55 days in other European countries.

The reduction in North Sea gas supplies, which saw Britain become a net gas importer rather than exporter late last year, meant capacity was now crucial, Sir Digby told the meeting. But failures in the UK's "decrepit, derelict planning regime" had allowed local authorities to block applications to build more storage tanks.

"We're the fourth largest economy on earth and it's an absolute disgrace that we risk running out of fuel because of something that was entirely avoidable," Sir Diby said.

Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, insisted it was "rather alarmist" to talk about fuel running out, stressing that domestic customers were not at risk of power cuts, no matter how bad the winter proved.

How complacent and stupid can you get? So the government minister seems to say it is ok if half of industry has to shut down? This is the problem you have when the country is run by incompetent spin doctors instead of competent technocrats. In a related article, the Financial Times also says:

The alert coincided with a warning by the Meteorological Office that government and industry should plan for Britain's first cold winter in a decade.

You have been warned.

The European Commission wants to include aviation in CO2 trading (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has recommended that airlines should be included in its carbon dioxide trading scheme.

The scheme currently puts limits on the emissions of 12,000 big industrial carbon emitters across the EU, with the aim of curbing global warming.

If they break through the limit, they have to buy credits from companies whose emissions are below target.

It is estimated that the proposal could add up to nine euros (£6) to the price of a return flight.

Aircraft are responsible for 3% of EU carbon emissions but the figure is rising fast.

Forecasts suggest that they could make up 25% of the UK's total contribution to global warming by 2030.

The impact of aviation is also thought to be especially strong because the gases and water vapour caused by aircraft are deposited directly into the upper atmosphere.

For once a sane proposal from the European Commission. Of course the idea that aviation will "make up 25% of the UK's total contribution to global warming by 2030" just shows how pathetic the people who make these predictions are.

Charles Clarke loses his marbles (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charles Clarke has vowed to "eliminate" anti-social behaviour and disrespect in society by the time of the next general election "whenever it comes".

The home secretary also denied government policy was to blame for the 7 July London bombings.
...
"It is not some particular government policy decision, or even some overall policy stance, which we could change and somehow remove our society from their firing line," Mr Clarke said.

This reads like a joke. First of all, any ten-year old would know that no government or society could ever "eliminate" anti-social behaviour. So the implication must be that there is never going to be another general election. Secondly, nobody has claimed that Britain would never be subject to a terrorist attack if Britain had not waged an illegal war in Iraq. It's just that such an attack was made much more likely.

Date published: 2005/09/26

Cambridge University want to raise a billion pounds (permanent blog link)

The University of Cambridge says:

The University of Cambridge has launched a major global fundraising campaign, aiming to raise £1 billion by 2012. The Cambridge 800th Anniversary Campaign will seek to secure the excellence of Cambridge in the 21st century.

Launching the Campaign in London yesterday (22 September), Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor of the University, said: "Cambridge is one of the world's greatest universities. Our commitment to sustain this pre-eminent position and our outstanding contribution to education, scholarship and research is reflected in our ambitious Campaign target of £1 billion."

"Our 800th anniversary in 2009 is a cause for great celebration. But it is also a time for reflection on the challenges we face and the opportunities that we must grasp if we are to remain a beacon of excellence internationally."

The Campaign has four investment priorities:

The University and Colleges are working closely together on the Campaign and gifts to any of the institutions that make up Cambridge will be counted against the target.

Richard was at Yale for many years and was in some sense hired to exactly bring this kind of American-style fundraising campaign to fruition. As it happens, Trinity College had a couple of reunion events this past weekend for its alumni. And the Master (Martin Rees) was amazingly blunt in his two speeches about the university fundraising exercise. In the first reunion event, an "annual gathering" (dinner) for those people who matriculated in 1980 or 1981, he even said that if this was America the two classes would be fighting each other to see which could raise more money. (The guests did not take up the challenge.) He also said that these annual gatherings would increase in frequency from once every ten years to once every five years (per class). The second reunion event was, for the first time ever, a luncheon where all past alumni were invited (well, up to the limit of 700 which were catered for), and the pleading continued. Indeed, after the Master spoke, another senior member of college spoke in the most cringing way (the longer he spoke, the worse he made it for himself). Now Trinity is the biggest and richest of the Cambridge colleges, and many people see little purpose giving money to it, but, as Rees said, there is no point having a rich Trinity if the university goes down the plug hole, and the pleading really was on behalf of the university rather than Trinity. (Although, as it says in the press release, college fundraising will be counted against the university total, and no doubt Trinity would be willing to accept a cheque.)

The university, like all universities in the world, does face financial pressures. But it seems that relative to most of Europe, Cambridge and Oxford (and a few others) are doing fairly well. The real competition is with the US universities (although that country seems to be heading inexorably downhill) and in a decade or two the real competition will be with the emerging universities in Asia (so far, Singapore and China).

The main pressure on the university is undergraduate finance. A large part of that is still provided by the UK government, and the constant petty and destructive interference by the latter has not helped the university. One option is for Cambridge to go private, but that seems unlikely in the short term.

Another pressure on the university is the large number of research staff on short-term contracts. These people provide the bulk of the research in the university but are treated with a cavalier "here today gone tomorrow" attitude (but not quite so bad as the equivalent staff in America). Indeed the university itself recognised this problem a few years ago (only because it affects women more than men). But instead of offering more permanent jobs, the university instead created a whole new layer of bureaucracy offering dozens and dozens of courses for staff (everything from how to write a CV to a networking, "springboard", course for women). Unfortunately the bureaucracy is often part of the problem, not part of the solution. The real point of the university, after all, is teaching and research.

Fishing in the North Sea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The North Sea needs to be managed as a complete ecosystem if fish stocks and fishing livelihoods are to be maintained for the future.

So say social scientists and marine experts who carried out a three-year study of fishing practices in the area.

After interviewing fishermen, nature conservationists and NGOs, they have drawn up a Fisheries Ecosystem Plan which they unveiled at the recent International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices) conference in Aberdeen.

Once the European Commission-funded plan is refined, the authors hope to present it to politicians with the ultimate aim of seeing it incorporated into marine management policy.

"Traditionally, species have been managed in isolation on a stock-by-stock basis; so first you'd look at cod, then haddock, then whiting," explains Chris Frid, professor of marine biology at the University of Liverpool, UK.

"In the last 20 years, there's been a certain amount of recognition that what you do to cod affects what happens to whiting because they eat each other; but there's been no recognition that cod and haddock are eating other things in the sea or that the temperature of the sea and the year-to-year variation in climate can affect the survival rates of eggs and how fast fish grow.

"So, there's been no integration of these wider affects into fisheries management," he told the BBC News website.
...
With overfishing putting increasing pressure on North Sea stocks, some scientists have suggested the only solution is to enforce vast no-take areas.

In his presentation at the Ices meeting, Ronald Fricke, of the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde in Stuttgart, Germany, called for a third of the North Sea to be declared a Marine Protected Area, with the remaining two-thirds being exploited on alternate years.

However, Professor Frid feels that while this action may help nourish fish stocks back to health, it would be to the detriment of fishing communities.

While protected areas would potentially become relatively healthy, those where fishing was allowed would be rapidly degraded as concentrations of fishers tried to extract sufficient fish to keep their livelihoods going.

Instead, of large no-take zones, the Fisheries Ecosystem Plan proposes a network of small no-take zones designed to protect specific habitats, such as locations containing vulnerable sponges which are important at trapping organic matter and supplying nutrients to the ocean.

At the same time, the amount of fishing would be limited by means such as restricting the number of boats, or limiting the amount of fish that any one boat can catch.

Finally, there would be technical measures such as replacing particularly destructive fishing equipment, such as drag nets with line fishing.

Any plans designed to manage the North Sea ecosystem in the future will also have to consider the likely effects of global climate change on the marine environment.

Ken Drinkwater, senior research scientist at the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, Norway, studied the likely impact of climatic changes over the next 100 years on cod stocks in the North Atlantic, and concluded that cod generally inhabit areas with bottom temperatures of 12C or less.

A rise of two degrees in seawater temperature would mean that cod populations might not exist at all in the southern North Sea.

"If the pressure from fishing stays high, fish populations are going to be more susceptible to collapse by climate change," he says. "There's an interplay between the environment and climate."

Professor Frid concurs: "As climate changes, we will have to take account of it in setting the levels of sustainable fish catch.

"If cod retreats northwards, the amount of cod you can take from the southern North Sea that's sustainable will go down.

"But you might be able to catch more sea bass and red mullet than in the past, as they appear to be increasing. The environment is forever fluctuating and we are, perhaps, accelerating that process.

"However, we're fortunate that we now have a better understanding of the system and therefore the potential to cope better with those changes than 100 years ago."

All fairly obvious stuff. Hopefully the views of the fishermen were listened to carefully, up until now scientists have pretty much ignored, and so just antagonised, them. And climate change might make all the current models and predictions irrelevant.

Date published: 2005/09/25

Microgrid power generation allegedly a great idea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Small networks of power generators in "microgrids" could transform the electricity network in the way that the net changed distributed communication.

That is one of the conclusions of a Southampton University project scoping out the feasibility of microgrids for power generation and distribution.

Microgrids are small community networks that supply electricity and heat.

They could make substantial savings, and emissions cuts with no major changes to lifestyles, researchers say.

Electricity suppliers are aiming to meet the UK government's Renewables Obligation, requiring them to generate 15% of electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

Microgrids, say the researchers, could easily integrate alternative energy production, such as wind or solar, into the electricity network.

They could also make substantial savings and cuts to emissions without major changes to lifestyles, according to lead researcher, Dr Tom Markvart.

"This would save something like 20 to 30% of our emissions with hardly anyone knowing it," he told the BBC News website.

"A microgrid is a collection of small generators for a collection of users in close proximity," explained Dr Markvart, whose research appears in the Royal Academy of Engineering's Ingenia magazine.

"It supplies heat through the household, but you already have cables in the ground, so it is easy to construct an electricity network. Then you create some sort of control network."

That network could be made into a smart grid using more sophisticated software and grid computing technologies.

As an analogy, the microgrids could work like peer-to-peer file-sharing technologies, such as BitTorrents, where demand is split up and shared around the network of "users".

Microgrids could exist as stand alone power networks within small communities, or be owned and operated by existing power suppliers.

Campaign groups such as the Green Alliance have been pushing for micropower generation technologies, such as micro-CHP (combined heat and power) boilers - a vital part of microgrids - mini-wind turbines and photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays.

Micro-CHP units work by turning heat which would normally escape through flues into electricity. Homeowners then sell any surplus heat back to the national grid.

The Green Alliance says the government should take micro-generation more seriously.

Putting just six panels of solar PVs on a typical new three-bedroom house would reduce that household's carbon emissions by over 20%, according to the group.

Microgrids are designed for a smallish community - a typical UK housing estate for example. They deal much more efficiently with fluctuating power demands which the national grid is not flexible enough to cope with.

Nothing new here. Yes, decentralised power generation might be a good idea (it would certainly look like a good idea after a major terrorist incident at a large power station). But the technical details need to be worked out in a fairly rigourous way, and the sums done to make sure it makes economic sense. Unfortunately some of the dramatic language used in the article makes it looks like people have not thought about this seriously. First of all, a major requirement of any power supply is that it be secure, and if there are thousands of power stations attached to the national grid, then that opens up the potential of a hacker's paradise. And any article that mentions "grid" computing is obviously dubious, since "grid" computing is just the latest buzz phrase invented by academic computer scientists as a way of fleecing the research councils of money (because it sounds like such a great idea, whatever it turns out to mean). And don't you love the sentence "Then you create some sort of control network." If only it were that easy.

Further, putting solar PVs on a house in Britain right now probably adds to the global carbon emissions, when you do the full-lifecycle calculation, including the construction, installation, maintenance and disposal of the solar panels, and don't just look at the midlife benefits (i.e. when the solar panels are sitting on the roof of a house, producing electricity, not very efficiently). (Of course it depends on the discount factor used when doing the lifetime sums, although you could try using a discount factor of zero.)

Further, you have to wonder how anybody would ever claim that small power stations can cope with fluctuating power demands more flexibly than the national grid. The whole point of networked systems (for energy generation, the phone network, etc.) is that the larger they are, the smaller the proportion of extra average capacity is required to achieve a given level of service, because the fluctuations iron themselves out better in bigger systems. This is just simple probability and statistics. Of course maybe the BBC meant that if you have lots of little networked power stations then that is better than a few large networked power stations. That might be true.

Date published: 2005/09/24

More junk mail on recycling from Cambridge City Council (permanent blog link)

Cambridge City Council has an incessant need to bombard the residents of Cambridge with junk mail (most organisations are the same). This week we received another issue (we are already up to number 4) of "Cambridge Matters", which is mainly about "recycling" (as the city defines this word). The only really useful information in the entire twenty-four page glossy magazine is that the change from weekly to alternate weekly collection of ordinary garbage is starting the week of 17 October.

Other than that, and the usual patronising advice about recycling, the only other part of the magazine worth mentioning is an advert which says "It's not just for the tourists. Cambridge is a great place to live but isn't it funny how we don't always make the most of it." Yes that is funny. Could it be that (ordinary) Cambridge residents don't like to constantly be told by the Cambridge ruling elite how terrible cars are, and how the city will make it as difficult as possible for anybody who dares to drive anywhere in the city? Answers on a postcard...

Paul Wolfowitz and the World Bank (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times has a lengthy article about Paul Wolfowitz (subscription service) in this weekend's edition. It's mainly a flattering portrait, with a few interesting paragraphs:

The promotion of democracy has been one of the most consistent themes of his career. As a leading neoconservative, he believes in the use of US might to advance democracy abroad. Because of this, and his role in the Iraq war and its troubled aftermath, it is no secret that a large chunk of the bank's staff was appalled when he got the job last June. (There was a similar reaction in some European finance and development ministries, but national leaders gave their backing and Wolfowitz was approved by unanimous vote at the bank's board.)

There is an obvious comparison between Wolfowitz and Robert McNamara, the controversial Vietnam war defense secretary who resigned from the Pentagon to head the World Bank. But when I asked Wolfowitz about the comparison, he said: "I don”t know if it is fair to put that label on him - but I certainly was not running away from my old job. I would have stayed there very happily if this hadn't come along as, you know, a more exciting opportunity."

As for Iraq, he said: "I don't want to get into an argument with all the people around here who might have a different view, but I still think that what the US, UK and others did for Iraq was the right thing and done for the right reasons. And hopefully it”s going to turn out the right way." He added that wherever he had travelled recently, from Burkina Faso to Bosnia, Iraq had hardly come up at all.

Of course the (illegal) invasion of Iraq was done for the wrong reasons (it was a party political exercise to promote the Republican Party as patriotic and the Democratic Party as not). But that's not the fault of Wolfowitz. And as he said, what he's going to do with the World Bank is more important now (for him personally) than what happened in Iraq (no matter how much that has damaged American credibility).

But what exactly are his priorities? After more than half a dozen conversations with Wolfowitz, and more with others close to him, it seems clear the new president will make sure that the bank”s main concern will remain Africa, the first continent he visited after his appointment.

Sub-Saharan Africa is unquestionably where the bank's work is most needed. Numerically, there are more people living in abject poverty in China and India, but unlike Africa those countries have fast-growing economies, functioning states and a 20-year record on reducing poverty. Fears that the neocon hawk might try to reorientate the bank towards promoting democracy in the Middle East, and away from fighting poverty in Africa, are far-fetched.

Wolfowitz would like his legacy at the bank to be the moment when Africa shifted on to a sustainable development path, which is no small ambition. "I am not naive. It”s a huge challenge and the bank is only a small part of the answer, but if the world and the sub-continent can rise to that challenge, it would be wonderful to feel that we made a difference," he says.

Wolfowitz sees an important role for aid, but is very sceptical of the idea that the only path to successful development is for rich countries to give poor ones enough money. Pointing to south-east Asia and China, which did not rely on financial aid, he says it is a "fallacy" to think spending money is all that is needed to reach targets such as the eight "Millennium Development Goals" that commit the international community to address a range of development challenges by 2015, from extreme poverty to access to education. Money, he says, "is a necessary but far from sufficient condition".

As for what he calls "the development process", he says "my feeling is that we understand about half of it, and about half of it is a mystery, almost". He thinks it is affected by much more than strictly economic factors. "Leadership is a huge factor, both good and bad leadership, and one of the things that seems to be changing in Africa is that the ratio of good leaders to bad leaders seems to be going up significantly."

One area in which Wolfowitz may differ from his predecessor is the central importance of economic growth in reducing poverty. James Wolfensohn was sometimes criticised for being too willing to please non-government organisations - and some within the bank - who opposed making growth the top priority. Wolfowitz has been clear from the start: "It's just an inescapable fact you can't make serious dents in poverty without sustained growth over a considerable period of time."

The bank's new action plan for Africa is laden with references to private sector-led growth in areas such as agriculture and regional trade. A recent report by the bank's Operations Evaluation Department, an independent unit that analyses its loans and grants, said the organisation needed to refocus on promoting growth and investing in infrastructure. Spending more on health and education projects alone, for example, would not by itself reduce poverty. Wolfowitz appears to agree with the broad thrust of that report. During most of Wolfensohn's time at the bank, there was a shift away from large-scale infrastructure projects, though at the demand of borrowing countries there had been a greater focus in the last couple of years. Wolfowitz aims to take this much further. He is committed to increasing the bank's investment in hydropower, roads, water and telecommunications and while he says the bank must learn from mistakes of the past, he adds that it won't cave in to protests from environmental and social activists.

It almost sounds too sensible to be true. And time will tell. Unfortunately when you have a bunch of rich people playing god (the World Bank, the NGOs, etc.) the outcome is usually less than perfect. But at least Wolfowitz seems to be on the right track.

Date published: 2005/09/23

Farm pesticides allegedly need more control (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The public needs more protection from farming pesticides, a report warns.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report said more research was needed into a possible link between pesticides and ill health.

It recommended in the meantime no-spray zones to reduce potential risk to the public and more information on sprays.

Ministers will study the findings before responding. The Crop Protection Association said it was confident pesticides were safe if used correctly.

Former rural affairs minister Alun Michael called for the report in June 2004 to address growing controversy over whether human health was at risk from the use of agricultural pesticides.

It followed claims from a number of sick people that crop spraying had caused illnesses including nervous disorders, depression and even cancer.

Royal Commission (RCEP) chairman Sir Tom Blundell told BBC Breakfast: "We have a large number of people who live next to arable fields that are sprayed and a number of them, a few hundreds, are ill, and they think they are ill because they've either been sprayed or spray drift has come over their homes.

"The question is how do we link these illnesses to the cause, and is the cause spraying?

"It's very uncertain science, but we feel there is a plausibility that some of those ill [people] are ill because of spraying."

Government policy did not take into account the scientific uncertainty about the effects of the chemicals, the RCEP said.

The code of practice used by farmers should be strengthened so that people living next to fields received advance warning if the area was to be sprayed, it said.

Sir Tom said: "Most farmers are very responsible and most spraying is done by very professional people, but I think we need to have a little bit more statutory regulation so that we know, and everybody knows, that the rules are being followed."

The RCEP recommended five-metre no-spray strips between sprayed land and homes.

Once again the RCEP has come down on the side of the health and safety worriers and control freaks ("statutory regulation" is all about control, after all), with no evidence to support their case at all. (This is the so-called "precautionary principle", where anything you don't like shouldn't be allowed.) It doesn't take a genius to figure out that these chemicals are nasty (they are meant, after all, to kill weeds, etc.). But people are not forced to live next to farms, and the farms were almost certainly there before the houses. If the people in the nearby houses don't like standard farming practise they should move back into cities where they belong.

The UK pension age should rise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britons may have to wait until the age of 69 to pick up their state pension, plans put to the government suggest.

A report by the National Association of Pension Funds (NAPF) said everyone should be eligible for a "citizen's pension" starting at £109 a week.

But, to ensure the payment rises in line with average earnings, people would have to retire later, it added.

The report has been submitted to the Pension Commission, which will outline its reform proposals later this year.

Its report suggested Britons would not be able to pick up their pensions until the age of 67 by 2030, rising to 69 years of age by 2040.

The NAPF first put forward its idea of a universal citizens pension in December, as a way of removing 10 million future pensioners from means tested benefits.

The pension would be a payment available to anyone resident in the UK who reaches a set pensionable age, regardless of national insurance contributions.

The NAPF said the proposed system would ensure that many women - who often fail to make full national insurance contributions - would still receive a full state pension.

The new system could be funded by pooling all the money that is currently put into the basic state pension, the state second pension, contracted out schemes and pension credits, the NAPF has said.

However, to ensure that the value of new pension keeps rising in line with earnings - rather than just with inflation as at present - the state retirement age would also have to rise.

"It is realistic to assume that the state pension age will have to go up to 67, or even higher at some point in the future," an NAPF spokesman said.

All rather obvious and logical, which means the government is almost certain to ignore it.

Date published: 2005/09/22

Cambridge City Council North Area Committee Meeting (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge City Council has regular public meetings in compass-based areas of the city. The North Area (Arbury, King's Hedges, East Chesterton and West Chesterton wards) had such a meeting tonight, with the first, and most important, agenda item being a presentation of the new Arbury Camp development, presented by the developer Gallagher, in particular Andy Lawson (assistant projects director) and Mukesh Ladwa (associate construction director). (Arbury Camp is officially in Impington, but morally it is closer to Cambridge than to Impington, since the A14 is in between.)

Gallagher has planning permission to build up to 900 homes (30% "affordable" housing) and 18000 m2 of office space. The work officially commenced yesterday (although there has been activity on the site for a few weeks already). Tonight's presentation was mainly a rehash of previous presentations. But there were a couple of new tidbits.

Arbury Camp is bordered on the north by the A14, so there is an immediate noise problem, about to get worse when the A14 gets widened. One way to mitigate that was for the offices to be put between the A14 and the housing. However tonight it was stated that it is unlikely the offices will be built until way into the future, apparently the soft Cambridge office market has put Gallagher off (and some people stupidly believe Cambridge is a boom town). So instead of offices as the shield, Gallagher is proposing a fence.

The other interesting news was also about the A14. The A14 is (supposedly) going to be widened. Under the published Highway Agency plans the A14 will go from being two lanes (in each direction) to four on this section. As part of the infrastructure development for Arbury Camp, Gallagher is widening the A14 embankment. But instead of two lanes, they are only widening it enough for one lane. And the Highway Agency signed this off. Unbelievable.

There were representatives from the city council (of course, since it was their meeting) and also from the Histon and Impington district council (in the audience). Gallagher has not had too much to do with these politicians, but instead has had to deal with South Cambs district council. And there is obviously extremely bad blood between the city/town politicans and the SouthCambs/county politicians, with the former all but accusing the latter of gross negligence over Arbury Camp. (Unfortunately there seemed to be no representatives of the latter at the meeting to defend themselves.)

The audience (mostly the usual middle class suspects) was allowed to ask questions. Not surprisingly the most pressing issue was transport. Guess what, the roads of Cambridge are busy and if you add more housing you get more traffic. As it happens, at evening rush hour, King's Hedges Road is usually backed up from the lights at Cambridge Road quite some distance. Arbury Camp is almost bound to make that worse (although it is not totally obvious since without commercial offices on the site most traffic at that time will be into rather than out of the site). Several people voiced various concerns about that and were rather rude to the Gallagher representatives. But what is Gallagher supposed to do about it, magically wave a wand? (Well, in fact some of the road changes they are paying for might make it better.) And as part of this development, the speed limit on that part of King's Hedges Road will drop from 40 and 60 mph to 30 mph. And in Arbury Camp itself the speed limit will be 20 mph. In a moment of surreal theatre, someone from the audience berated Gallagher for not spending time and effort trying to get a 20 mph limit on the other, existing, roads in the area. Meanwhile back on Planet Earth...

There was also some discussion about the proposed Cambridgeshire Guided Bus (CGB) scheme, which is supposed to have one route traversing Arbury Camp. Gallagher has an interest in the CGB as well, so they are happy for it to proceed, and have set aside some land at Arbury Camp for this to happen. Here again the local councils are in conflict with the county councils, with the latter the main proponents of the CGB. Hopefully central government will decide against the scheme (but it's likely they will decide for it, since that is the current politically correct thing to do, no matter how wasteful of money that it is). And it seems the CGB will be given some kind of preference at the King's Hedges Road and Cambridge Road junction, which of course will make that junction even worse (for cars, and no doubt cyclists).

Gallagher has apparently paid £6.9 million for transport development (around £2 million of that for the CGB) as part of the section 106 agreement (for those who do not know, section 106 is the idiotic way that the UK claws back some gain from giving planning permission to large developments such as Arbury Camp). Apparently as part of that there was talk at some time that there would be a cycle path put in over the A14 (as there now is at Milton) but Lawson said this was not included in the agreement.

Finally, there was a small mention about the name for the new development. It has been known as Arbury Camp for some time now (at least five years). But Gallagher has decided to change the name to Arbury Park, because it sounds better from a marketing point of view. Unfortunately Arbury Park is not going to attract up-market households. Who wants to be on top of the A14 like that? And although Arbury Camp will have a new primary school, the secondary school for the residents will apparently be Manor Community College, which is hardly going to attract people. Given the crazy house prices in Cambridge, Gallagher should have no trouble making loads of money on Arbury Camp, but it's unlikely this development will be any better than the endless monotonous housing on the other side of King's Hedges Road.

Photographer targeted for talking to children (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Police want to trace a man who asked three girls if he could photograph them on their school playing field.

The man spoke to the 10-year-olds who were playing on the St Felix Middle School field off Fordham Road, Newmarket.

Other children challenged the man, who left the area.

Police do not believe that he took any photographs. He did not go onto the school premises and spoke to the girls over a gate on a path leading to the "Yellow Brick Road" riverside walk and cycle path.

The man is said to have been between 20 and 30 years old. He was white with dark hair spiked on top and was about 5ft 6in tall.

He was wearing a dark crumpled suit, an open light-coloured shirt and slip-on shoes.

Suffolk police spokesman Mike Nunn said: "We would like to hear from any other girls who may have been approached by this man."

Well perhaps this was a sinister incident, you cannot tell from the description. But it seems like just part of the UK chattering class hysteria about paedophilia. Most photograhers these days are extremely careful about taking photos of children because they know that society now has a warped sensitivity towards children and treats any contact between adults and children as paedophilia. But what is wrong with taking pictures of children (or babies or teenagers or whatever)? Did he ask them to undress and pose naked? (Perhaps he did, one suspects not.) It's no wonder the police have no time to worry about burglaries, they spend far too much time tending to issues whipped up by the chattering classes (especially the media).

Cigarettes allegedly bad even in small quantities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Smoking just one to four cigarettes a day almost triples a person's risk of dying of heart disease, according to Norwegian researchers.

Their work suggests the health impact is stronger for women and that even "light" smokers face similar diseases to heavier smokers, including cancer.

The team tracked the health and death rates of almost 43,000 men and women from the mid 1970s up to 2002.

Their findings appear in the journal Tobacco Control.

Compared with those who had never smoked, the men and women who smoked between one and four cigarettes a day were almost three times as likely to die of coronary artery disease.

Among women, smoking one to four cigarettes daily increased the chance of dying from lung cancer almost five times.

Men who smoked this amount were almost three times as likely to be killed by lung cancer.

However, due to the relatively small number of men that this applied to in the study sample, this finding could have been due to chance.
...
The researchers believe their conclusions are accurate, even though they had to estimate the projected impact of smoking one to four cigarettes for five years in those light smokers who had smoked for less time.

This indicated that the risk of death from coronary artery disease for both sexes would have been 7% higher, and the risk of lung cancer would have been 47% higher in women.

A significant proportion of the light smokers had also increased their daily consumption over the period of the study. However, this had not exceeded nine cigarettes a day.

Author Dr Kjell Bjartveit also pointed out that it was not possible to tell from the findings what impact sporadic smoking - such as a few cigarettes on a Saturday night out - might have on health.

Dr Ken Denson of the Thame Thrombosis and Haemostasis Research Foundation questioned the validity of the figures.

He said other large studies had not found that smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes daily increased the risk of heart disease.

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. Of course it's possible the small amount of smoking was the cause of the increased health problems, and certainly most people would believe this, which is why the authors can get away with making these assertions so easily. But the authors do not prove any causation, they just prove a correlation. To prove a causation you would have to take a random sample of people and force half to smoke a few cigarettes a day and the other half not to smoke at all, and see what the difference was. Needless to say, health studies are never done this way. As an example of what can be wrong with the simple "smoking is evil" conclusion of the study, in the UK these days smokers tend to be from the "lower" sociodemographic classes, and these classes generally have worse health problems for all sorts of reasons. Hopefully the study factored this out. And you also have to be cautious about anything published in a journal which is openly hostile to tobacco.

Date published: 2005/09/21

Decarbonising the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK homes, firms and motorists will have to cut carbon dioxide emissions to zero due to air travel growth, a study says.

Even if such growth is halved, the rest of the economy will need cuts beyond targets set for 2050, said the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

The government predicts UK air passenger numbers will rise from 180 million to 475 million by 2030.

Environment Minister Elliot Morley wants to see aviation included in international emissions agreements.

The government's target of a 60% cut in CO2 by 2050 is based on the amount in the atmosphere that scientists say is safe to avoid dangerous climate change.

But the report said that ignoring aviation had led to a "serious underestimation" of the effort needed.

"If the UK government does not curb aviation growth, all other sectors of the economy will eventually be forced to become carbon neutral," said Dr Kevin Anderson, who led the research at the Manchester University research centre.

"It will undermine the international competitiveness of UK industry."

The report called for a change to current rules, under which aviation and shipping are not considered part of a country's CO2 output.

Aviation is regarded as especially polluting because of the large amount of fuel used at high altitude.

"At the moment aviation is completely outside the Kyoto agreements and all international and national targets and it doesn't make sense for aviation to be outside," Mr Morley told BBC Breakfast.

"We will be pressing, at the next October environment ministers council, for European aviation to be included within the emissions trading scheme to actually have a cap in trade in relation to CO2."
...
The findings are part of a five-year study into CO2 emissions over the next 45 years by the Tyndall Centre.

The report, Decarbonising the UK, describes ways of cutting CO2 emissions from road transport, housing, industry and coal-fired power stations.

It also looks at the role of renewable energy, nuclear power and hydrogen fuel in providing low carbon energy supply.

Don't you love policy wonks, inventing wonderful new words like "decarbonising". The report is long (89 pages) but not long enough to give full details behind the study. They look at five scenarios, but as usual that is not even close to covering the possibilities (given all the parameters they allow to vary). One thing the Tyndall Centre ought to do is release the spreadsheet behind their model, so that people can check these things independently, and make their own scenarios.

The report says aviation and shipping should be included in emissions standards. Unfortunately even doing that does not give the full picture. If you earn your money making movies in Hollywood and buying industrial goods from China, you are still a big producer of carbon, even though the international standards would claim that China is responsible for most of the carbon production. So this report still falls far short of the real picture.

One bad thing about the report is that it promotes the usual idea that the working class should not expect to have the same privileges as the middle class (such as the people writing the report) have had all these years, in particular with respect to air travel. For example, the section devoted to demonising air travel starts with the wonderful quote "it's not that we need to fly less, but that we cannot fly more!" Well coming from a bunch of academics who no doubt fly more often (and in general produce a lot more carbon) than the average British citizen this reads a bit rich.

They also have included more propaganda for the idea of personal carbon quotas. One variant of this is that everybody effectively gets taxed extra when fuel is purchased. Well this already happens of course (except for so-called public transport), and in particular car drivers already pay way more in tax than any proposed carbon tax. So this is nothing new. But the problem is that just paying for fuel does not fully account for the carbon produced. In particular, the users of any service that is subsidised (e.g. so-called public transport) are not fully paying for the carbon they have produced (directly and indirectly). So these taxes will end up being biased towards politically incorrect forms of consumption (e.g. private cars, or anything else the control freaks have trouble controlling).

Amphibian global action plan (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The price of saving the world's frogs, toads and salamanders from oblivion will top $400m (£220m) over five years.

This is the estimated cost of a global action plan drawn up during an expert summit in Washington DC, and backed by the UN's biodiversity agency IUCN.

The money would pay for the protection of habitats, for disease prevention and captive-breeding projects, and for the ability to respond to emergencies.

About a third of all amphibian species are at a high risk of extinction.
...
According to the Global Amphibian Assessment, a vast and authoritative study which reported its findings last year, almost a third of the 5,743 known species are at risk of extinction; up to 122 have disappeared within the last 25 years.

The action plan emerging from this meeting lists six major reasons behind the decline:

Over the three days, working groups drawn from a wide range of scientific institutions and conservation organisations have established budgets for tackling each of these issues; the overall total comes to US$404m (£223m).

So widespread and so devastating is Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, the fungus responsible, that one of the main recommendations emerging in the action plan is that extensive captive-breeding programmes should be established for amphibians at particular risk.

The plan envisages that, ultimately, around 1,000 species could be preserved in this way, with specialist facilities established on every continent.

But not all delegates believe this to be an effective approach.

"Many species can't be bred in captivity," Cynthia Carey, from the University of Colorado, US, told the BBC News website, "and with 99% of the species they're looking at, we just don't know how to do it.

"You can give them the right habitat and food, but they may need specific light or heat or moisture or group size, otherwise the female won't ovulate - and it can take years to study that."

The action plan sees captive breeding as a bridge to a better era when chytridiomycosis can be beaten and the amphibians returned to the wild.

"We've been running a captive-breeding programme with the boreal toad (Bufo boreas) since 1995," said Professor Carey.

"We've tried re-introducing them to the wild seven or eight times, but every time they die within a couple of years; if you don't get rid of the fungus, all you're doing is providing it with lunch."

Well, these people are "saving the world", or at least they think so, so perhaps they should be given some grace, but as one sceptic has pointed out in the article, this exercise might just turn out to be mostly a waste of money (nothing new there).

Date published: 2005/09/20

UK Government climbs down over council tax revaluation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to revalue English homes for council tax have been postponed until after the next election, the government has announced.

Local Government Minister David Miliband said the delay would mean the issue could be considered as part of an inquiry into local authority funding.

The revaluation of around 22 million properties would probably have meant higher bills for many households.
...
Mr Miliband said the postponement from the previously scheduled 2007 would allow Sir Michael Lyons to look at revaluation as part of his wider inquiry into local government funding.
...
Every home in Wales was revalued last year, with a third moving up at least one valuation band and 8% moving down.

But it has been 14 years since the last valuation in England and property prices have risen sharply since, particularly in London and the South East.

If the revaluation was done fairly, the average bill in every local council area ought to remain the same. In particular it does not matter, per se, if more houses move up bands than move down, because it just means that the average band rate (in that area) ought to decrease in compensation. So there ought to be no great pain from the revaluation. Unfortunately the losers from the revaluation will be very bitter against the government, whereas the winners will hardly care one way or the other. For example, say the average bill increase in the year of revaluation is 5%. If you move up a band your relative bill might go up by 10% and if you move down a band your relative bill might go down by 10%. That means in absolute terms that the losers have to face a 15% increase in tax whereas the winners are only 5% better off. The council tax is like all other taxes, nobody wants to pay it (apparently only "rich" people should, whoever they are) but everybody wants (and demands) fantastic (local) services.

EU wants to impose restrictive medical emission limits (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European laws tightening the emission limits medical staff can be exposed to from scanners will stymie research and harm patients, warn UK experts.

By 2008, it will be illegal for workers to be exposed to electromagnetic fields higher than 300GHz.

But this limit in the Physical Agents Directive is 100 times lower than that deemed safe for the patients having the magnetic resonance imaging scans.

UK medics say the legislation is overly cautious and needs urgent revision.

They have written to the Secretary of State for Health urging the government to step in.

The government's Health and Safety Executive said it had already begun a dialogue with many sectors, including the medical industry, to look at how the directive may be implemented.

Experts are concerned the new laws will mean pioneering advances will be banned and patients, particularly in vulnerable groups such as children and those with cancer, will miss out on best treatment.

Unfortunately the health and safety control freaks run Europe. And this is a perfect example of the harm they cause.

Flights from Stansted to USA start up again (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

An all-business class luxury air service is to be launched between Stansted airport and the US.

New American carrier MAXjet Airways will begin services between the airport and New York on November 1.

As revealed in the News earlier this month, the airline will be operating one flight every day apart from Saturday and fares will start at £599 one way, excluding taxes.

All passengers will get business class seats and will have pre-takeoff drinks and multi-course meals.

They will also have a large amount of legroom as MAXjet are configuring their Boeing 767-200s, which normally seat more than 200 passengers, so they take just 102 customers.

The airline plans to increase its Stansted-New York frequency and to add additional trans-Atlantic routes.

Well this is not much use to most people but hopefully there will also be cattle class flights in future as well, and not just to New York. For now Stansted mainly remains a haven for cheap flights to Europe.

Date published: 2005/09/19

North Korea supposedly agrees to give up military nuclear activities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

North Korea has agreed to give up all nuclear activities and rejoin the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in a move diplomats called a breakthrough.

In return, the US said it had no intention of attacking the North, which was also promised aid and electricity.

The agreement came during a fourth round of six-nation talks in Beijing, aimed at ending a three-year standoff over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

But correspondents warned that some key issues had not yet been resolved.

Unfortunately nothing North Korea or the US says can be believed, so time will tell whether this really is a break through, but hopefully this is a step forward.

People with large waists have higher health risks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many people in the UK do not know that having a large waist measurement increases their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, a survey suggests.

The National Obesity Forum says 80% of people in a survey across 27 countries were unaware it was linked to diabetes.

Three quarters of 100 UK GPs questioned knew abdominal obesity was a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.

But only 18% of patients at risk of these diseases said they had had their waists measured.

"Risk factor" means there is a correlation, and you can find correlations between all sorts of things in life. Are people supposed to be aware of every correlation ever found? And do people not really know that being fat is not a healthy situation? All in all a rather silly article.

Date published: 2005/09/18

The Lib Dems are confused about tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Vincent Cable does not come across as a man suited to the daily grind of British politics.

The Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesman - a donnish, Cambridge-educated economist - would seem to appear more at home deciding policy from on high than canvassing in Conservative marginals or delivering soundbites for TV.

But he realises that turning Britain's third party into an election-winning force is a "long slog".

In this summer's general election, the Lib Dems won 62 seats, more than at any time since the 1920s but still well short of the influence Mr Cable craves.

The gain of 11 MPs was "not particularly disappointing", he said, although this was towards the bottom end of expectations.
...
The economy - Mr Cable's area of expertise - is seen as the key to making the party electable.

Its big policies here are quite well known - local income tax to replace council tax and a 50% income tax rate for those earning above £100,000.

Yet, even Mr Cable admits that the latter, the most "progressive" policy among the main three parties, is not a "sacred cow".

Taxation will form one of the main debates at the Liberal Democrat conference in Blackpool next week.

Mr Cable said: "I don't have any sacred cows. The 50% rate has become a kind of totemic policy.

"It has some advantages. It's simple and it sends a clear redistributive signal and fulfils quite a lot of remits

"But, like most developed countries, we are moving to lower marginal tax rates.

"I'm looking for a balanced debate within the party and our aims and looking at other ways to achieve them.

"Taxes shouldn't be higher; they should be fairer. We must be a party that's disciplined. We must make tough choices."

One possible option is the system of "flat taxes", adopted by several eastern European countries recently and popular with some Conservatives.

Under this method, all tax payers are charged the same rate.

Supporters say this is fairer and simpler than the current system, especially if the threshold at which people start paying is made higher, say £10,000 or £15,000.

Opponents think flat tax is a way of making the rich richer which hits middle-earners disproportionately.

Mr Cable said: "We certainly ought to have a look at this. We shouldn't have an instinctive negative reaction.

"The local income tax is a flat tax, as everyone would pay the same rate.

"You could help people at the bottom end by raising the level at which people start paying, but this could hit middle-income households, which could have some nasty and unpopular consequences.

"There's a need for fresh thinking."

Any Liberal Democrat tax policy, he says, will show a "commitment to fairness and social justice".

As everyone knows, a "fair" tax is one that someone else pays. And this is the problem that every political party in Britain (and in most of the world) refuses to acknowledge. Everybody wants lots of services (a decent education, a wonderful health service, etc.) but nobody wants to pay for any of it. Heck let the "rich" (however that is defined) pay for it. Perhaps some day the UK "middle-income" households will (sensibly) expect to pay for the services they want. A flat (income) tax is appealing if nothing else because it is simple (unfortunately simplicity is the enemy of the current chancellor, Gordon Brown). And, needless to say, with a flat tax, the rich still pay much more (as an absolute amount) than the poor. And why is it that the chattering classes of Britain think that the government is a wiser or better or more "socially just" spender of citizens' incomes (or wealth) than the citizens themselves? And, unfortunately for the Lib Dems, Vincent Cable does nothing to inspire.

CPRE cries wolf over new homes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A wave of house building across England will do little to help those in greatest housing need, a charity says.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) warned government plans would cripple efforts to regenerate rundown urban areas and scar the countryside.

Campaigners are due to meet in London to try to persuade the government to reconsider proposals which include plans for 1.1m more homes by 2020.
...
The government hopes to address problems such as first-time buyers being priced out of the housing market, especially in the South East.

The CPRE argues that the plans will mean developers are given land for building in areas of high house prices, with the aim that an increase in supply will bring down the price.

But this would trigger a wave of house building on "greenfield" sites and in the most attractive towns and villages, it argues.

Meanwhile, it believes, areas which tend to have low prices, such as run-down parts of towns which are crying out for regeneration, will be ignored.

The CPRE says the plans would undermine years of progress in the re-use of urban "brownfield" land.

The proposals aim to bring in recommendations for changes to the planning system made in a housing supply review by Kate Barker, of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

Neil Sinden, director of policy at CPRE, called for the government to listen to "widespread public concern".

"Parts of the country desperately need more affordable housing but, as Kate Barker herself pointed out, a huge wave of house building for sale wouldn't even dent that problem," he said.

"Yet it would threaten the future health of our towns and cities and wreck the countryside."

The charity is urging communities and individuals to speak out against the plans.
...
The ODPM says because of changes such as an increase in average housing density, it can now build 1.1m homes on less land than the previous government set out for 900,000 homes.

More self-serving propaganda from the CPRE. Heck, why should the workers expect to live in a green and pleasant surrounding like those people who already live in rural areas? Let them live in high-density slums in the cities, where they belong. Currently people living in rural areas are massively subsidised by people living in urban areas and one way to redress the balance slightly is to increase the number of people living in rural areas. Needless to say the priviliged rural elite do not like this. And that the ODPM is bragging about increasing the density of housing by 20% shows how dreadful the housing situation has become in Britain. Imagine bragging that the workers are being given even less space than they used to have. Who needs the Tory Party when you have New Labour?

Jack Straw talks down to Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has described as "unhelpful" the Iranian president's assertion that Iran has a right to produce nuclear energy.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the UN his country had an "inalienable right" to produce nuclear energy - but said Islam precluded Iran having atomic weapons.

The US and the EU want Iran to give up any idea of enrichment capability.

Mr Straw said the speech was "disappointing" given recent talks with Iran over its nuclear stance.

"It is a difficult moment for the international community," he added.

Well most of George Bush's speeches, and certainly most of his actions, are also "unhelpful", but funnily enough Jack Straw never mentions that. More hypocrisy from one of the current ruling world elite (which is of course what the Iranian president was mainly complaining about).

Date published: 2005/09/17

Frank Lloyd Wright and Kentuck Knob (permanent blog link)

Kentuck Knob, in southwestern Pennsylvania, is one of the later Frank Lloyd Wright houses (built 1954-1956). It was built for I.N. and Bernardine Hagan (of the Hagan Ice Cream Company). It is less than ten miles from the far more famous Wright house at Fallingwater, built two decades earlier. Fallingwater is a technical and artistic triumph, but as a house Kentuck Knob is nicer (for one thing, the ceilings are higher).

The Hagans sold Kentuck Knob to (now Lord) Peter Palumbo in 1986 because of the failing health of Mr. Hagan, who subsequently died in 1992. But Mrs. Hagan is still going strong, and this year she has published an interesting memoir of the house ("Kentuck Knob: Frank Lloyd Wright's House for I.N. and Bernardine Hagan", 2005, ISBN 0971183554), a good read for all Frank Lloyd Wright fans.

Of course she has various Frank Lloyd Wright anecdotes. Now Wright has the reputation of being a bit of a prima donna (e.g. allegedly going into client's houses without permission, even after the houses were built, and moving or removing furniture as he saw fit). So one knows what to expect. Some quotes from the book:

In spite of all this (and a relatively small -- for Frank Lloyd Wright -- cost overrun) the Hagans obviously loved and appreciated Kentuck Knob. Palumbo has opened it to the public so anyone visiting Fallingwater also ought to visit Kentuck Knob.

Richard Branson worried about the price of oil (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sir Richard Branson plans to hold talks with the government about paying for a new oil refinery.

The Virgin Atlantic boss told the BBC he wanted to reduce his airline fuel bill, which has increased by £300m a year over the last two years.

He said there was an "enormous shortage" of oil refineries and said he was looking at building one.
...
Sir Richard said oil refineries were "very expensive" adding: "This is not something I particularly want to do."

But, he said: "At the moment there's an enormous shortage of refineries in the world.

"Every one of the refineries is at capacity, the oil companies are not building new refineries, and we have put a team on trying to raise money to build at least one."

The fuel bill for Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Express was in the region of £750 million a year, he said.

"If we could just bring that fuel bill down by just a tiny amount that would make a big difference to us and our customers.

"If we can encourage governments to confront this issue, if we can get western governments together to work out how to deal with the issue, we think we can make a real difference."

Sir Richard said it would take at least four years to build a refinery and he was also looking at ways to find oil.

Governments should aim to build 10 refineries as soon as possible to counterbalance oil companies and the oil cartel, Opec, which kept prices high, he said.

"Opec is effectively an illegal cartel that can meet happily, nobody takes them to court," he said. "They collude to keep prices high.

"The western world should have a counterbalance to that. If $20 billion was put aside to build 10 new refineries, oil prices would start to collapse again.

"The oil companies realise that and they are not getting out there investing the money to build those refineries.

"In a sense, as free marketeers why should they? But governments should intervene to make sure that happens."

A "two-pronged" government attack was needed to tackle the problem, he said.

"If they intervene in the short term and do something too radical to stop growth, we will have an incredible recession."

Governments should encourage companies to buy fuel efficient planes and trains and give tax breaks to companies which produced fuel efficient hybrid cars, he added.

It would be better to tax "fuel-inefficient" airlines than to tax all airlines for the fuel they used, he said.

You have to admire Richard Branson for at least considering this issue, which politicians seem to be ignoring. But it's truly bizarre that someone who runs a couple of minor transport companies is being forced to consider building a refinery, because of the lack of political leadership.

Of course airlines, like all other consumers of energy, should be taxed on the amount of energy they use (the rate being set by some combination of general tax requirements plus the purported cost of dealing with the associated environmental damage). How much energy you use determines whether or not you are "fuel efficient". And the calculation for all businesses is not as simple as just buying more fuel efficient equipment to replace less efficient older equipment because there is a huge capital investment in existing equipment (and money equals energy, so throwing away equipment is not only throwing away money, it is throwing away energy). Needless to say all businesses do an analysis to try and figure out whether and when it makes more sense to buy new equipment or continue to use old equipment. (The analysis might turn out to be incorrect, but that is another matter.)

Iran says it has the right to produce nuclear energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Iranian president has gone before the United Nations to insist that his country has an "inalienable right" to produce nuclear energy.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the General Assembly Islam precluded Iran from having atomic weapons and he strongly criticised US arms policies.

And he invited other states to play a part in Iran's nuclear programme.

The US earlier demanded that Iran should "abandon forever its plans for a nuclear weapons capability".

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the General Assembly at the beginning of its session on Saturday that countries like Iran threatened the "effectiveness of the global non-proliferation regime".

Ahmadinejad is a reprehensible man representing a reprehensible regime but Iran morally has as much right as the US (and Britain, etc.) to have nuclear energy and/or nuclear weapons. The world should worry about nuclear weapons falling into non-governmental hands but that just means the US should be working with the Iranian regime. Instead the US continually threatens Iran for no real reason other than that Iran does not kowtow to the US. (The neocons would of course try and pretend that the US does not like Iran because it is a reprehensible regime, but the US supports and has supported many reprehensible regimes.)

Date published: 2005/09/16

Older women and pregnancy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women who wait until their late 30s to have children are defying nature and risking heartbreak, leading obstetricians have warned.

Over the last 20 years pregnancies in women over 35 have risen markedly and the average age of mothers has gone up.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, the London-based fertility specialists say they are "saddened" by the number of women they see who have problems.

They say the best age for pregnancy remains 20 to 35.

Over the last 20 years the average age for a woman to have their first baby has risen from 26 to 29.

The specialists, led by Dr Susan Bewley, who treats women with high-risk pregnancies at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, warned age-related fertility problems increase after 35 and dramatically after 40.

Other experts said it was right to remind women not to leave it too late.

In the BMJ, the specialists write: "Paradoxically, the availability of IVF may lull women into infertility while they wait for a suitable partner and concentrate on their careers and achieving security and a comfortable living standard."

But they warn IVF treatment carries no guarantees - with a high failure rate and extra risks of multiple pregnancies where it is successful.

For men, there are also risks in waiting until they are older to father children as semen counts deteriorate with age, they say.

Once an older woman does become pregnant, she runs a greater risk of miscarriage, foetal and chromosomal abnormalities, and pregnancy-related diseases.

They add: "Women want to 'have it all' but biology is unchanged; deferring defies nature and risks heartbreak."

More patronising advice from control-freak doctors. Do they think women (and men) don't realise that the older you get the more difficult and risky pregnancy becomes? And the "have it all" remark is particularly obnoxious. Are they suggesting that women should either be house slaves or career minded? And most of modern human existence "defies nature", in particular most of modern medicine.

Hurricanes and global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Records for the past 35 years show that hurricanes have got stronger in recent times, according to a global study.

This fits with mounting evidence which suggests the biggest storms around the world - hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones - are intensifying.

Some US scientists say that greenhouse warming may be driving the most severe events, such as Katrina, although more research is needed to be sure.

Their assessment of hurricane activity is published in the journal Science.

The idea that global warming might have an impact makes sense in theory, at least, since tropical storms need warm ocean water to build up strength.

But most scientists believe there is currently insufficient evidence to make such a claim, partly because of the lack of reliable long-term data.
...
The author of the study, Dr Peter Webster, told the BBC News website: "What I think we can say is that the increase in intensity is probably accounted for by the increase in sea surface temperature and I think probably the sea surface temperature increase is a manifestation of global warming."

The debate is likely to continue, however, as some scientists argue that the present hurricane surge is part of a 60 to 70-year cycle linked to natural effects.

They believe climate change due to human activity will not significantly affect hurricanes and that damage caused by increased development along coastlines is a bigger factor.

Another useful study (although based only on two 15-year periods) but as usual lots more work needs to be done before any definitive conclusion can be made. Unfortunately politics biases the interpretation (certain people want to believe that global warming is responsible for everything and certain people want to believe the opposite).

Green energy needs huge subsidies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Consumers could be paying about a billion pounds a year to subsidise green energy projects like wind farms, according to a group of MPs.

The Public Accounts Committee said in some cases the government is paying out twice as much as the wind farm companies need to break even.

Fossil and nuclear fuels also receive government assistance.

But the Department of Trade and Industry said the subsidies were essential to develop renewable energy.
...
Devon Wind Power said the level of subsidy was "a matter for the government" and Renewable Energy Systems denied the subsidies were too much.

Spokeswoman Rachel Ruffle said: "I don't think people mind paying a small subsidy for clean, green electricity.

"As more renewable energy schemes are built, then the price will come down.

"People want green electricity because they're concerned about climate change and pollution."

How surprising. Of course it's fair enough to subsidise promising new technology. Of more interest here is whether these "green" technologies are really green. The reason they are so expensive is that you have to spend an awful lot of money up front to implement them, and that means consuming an awful lot of energy (almost certainly produced mostly from oil). Consuming an awful lot of energy (or producing an awful lot of carbon) today to save some energy (or carbon) tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, etc., is not necessarily a great idea (one has to do some hard sums, and be honest when doing them).

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