Azara Blog: October 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/10/31

UK introduces citizenship test (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British citizenship tests are being launched across the UK.

The 45-minute test - covering government, society and practical issues and costing £34 - comes into force on Tuesday.

People seeking to become British will take the test at one of 90 centres across the country, before taking part in a formal citizenship ceremony.
...
The "Life in the UK" test is the last of a series of changes to how people become British brought in by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Potential citizens must answer 75% of the questions correctly to pass, but they are allowed to retake it until they pass.
...
Among the 24 questions in the test are:

...
The Life in the UK citizenship guide for prospective new citizens includes information on British history and society, its institutions and political system - but also practical issues key to integration such as employment, healthcare, education and using public services like libraries.

Apparently another question was to identify the two telephone numbers which could be used to dial the emergency services. You have to wonder how many British people would be able to answer 75% of the questions correctly. And needless to say they are largely irrelevant. Except that they teach you the most important British skill of all, how to play the system.

Political correctness in hiring of top civil servants (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Top civil servants are to have their pay and bonuses linked to the achievement of increased targets on the number of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the senior civil service.

The move to hold permanent secretaries accountable through the performance appraisal system is part of a 10-point diversity plan to be unveiled on Tuesday by John Hutton, Cabinet Office minister, and Sir Gus O'Donnell, head of the civil service.

Progress on achieving diversity targets will for the first time be a factor in permanent secretaries' performance appraisal discussions.

A senior Cabinet Office official said the move "sends a message to the very top people who have real influence in setting their departments' strategy".

Waqar Azmi, chief diversity adviser to the Cabinet Office, told a diversity conference in London yesterday that the plan would also aim to make all senior civil service posts open to flexible working unless there was "robust justification" for failing to do so.

The civil service was already doing better than other sectors, with women accounting for 29 per cent of senior civil servants, against 9 per cent of senior private sector executives, he told the conference, organised by the Guardian and Observer newspapers.

Nevertheless, the service had failed to achieve its 2005 target for women to comprise 35 per cent of the senior civil service. Other 2005 targets for ethnic minorities to hold 3.2 per cent of senior civil service posts and for people with disabilities to hold 2.3 per cent had been achieved. Progress towards the 2008 targets would be published every six months.

Great, hire an incompetent woman and get a pay rise. Hire two and get a free holiday. Hire a blind Asian Islamic lesbian and retire early on the windfall. What would the country ever do without New Labour?

Date published: 2005/10/30

Gates Foundation gives malaria research grants (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is donating £28 million to a UK university as part of a £145m ($258.3m) gift to malaria research worldwide.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting three international projects over five years.

One project at the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine will look at ways to control the mosquitoes that spread malaria.

Others will look for new malaria drugs and environmentally-safe insecticides.

Mr Gates said malaria was a "forgotten epidemic".

"Millions of children have died from malaria because they were not protected by an insecticide-treated bed net, or did not receive effective treatment," he said.

"If we expand malaria control programs, and invest what's needed in research and development, we can stop this tragedy."

Good for Gates, and this is not the first such donation (of course it doesn't excuse his crappy operating systems). Needless to say poor-country diseases are (understandably) not top of the pile for rich-country corporations (or even rich-country governments), so this kind of money is important. It would be even better if some of this money could support research directly in the countries affected (e.g. Indonesia) because it would be better if these countries, rather than rich-country academics, could set priorities, and it would also have other long-term benefits (e.g. not having to hand over money to other countries for drugs, etc.). Of course the academic track record in most of these countries is poor, but you have to start from somewhere.

Exhibition of Dale Chihuly glass at Kew Gardens (permanent blog link)

The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew this year has a large exhibition (ending 15 January 2006) of glass by Dale Chihuly. Up until Kew, Chihuly was probably best known in Britain for his exhibition in 2001 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (and there is still a large "chandelier" by him in the V&A entrance lobby). But the Kew exhibition is far larger, and in a far better setting. The Temperate House and the Princess of Wales Conservatory contain most of the pieces, although there is also one large "star" in the Palm House, and there are more pieces on the pond and in front of the Palm House and in one of the "White Peak" shops (the latter in a formal setting, behind glass). Chihuly's work can be overly complicated (especially his large pieces), and they often have the kind of pretentious titles (e.g. "Macchia") beloved of artists, but the overall quality is very high and the exhibition is definitely worth a visit. Supposedly all (or at least most of) the pieces are for sale but the price even for small pieces is a few thousand pounds.

Date published: 2005/10/29

White House in trouble (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

George W. Bush was on Friday night facing his most serious White House crisis after the special prosecutor in the CIA leak case announced criminal charges against a top administration aide and decided to keep the investigation open.

As he headed to his Camp David retreat for the weekend, relief for Mr Bush that Karl Rove, his chief strategist, had not been indicted was tempered by the prospect of further torment from the continuing inquiry and likely trial of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to Dick Cheney, vice-president.

The federal grand jury in Washington indicted Mr Libby on five counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements during the investigation by Patrick Fitzgerald into how the identity of a covert CIA operative was leaked to the media after the invasion of Iraq.

Mr Fitzgerald said: "Without the truth our justice system cannot serve our nation or its citizens. The requirement to tell the truth applies equally to all citizens, including persons who hold high positions in government."

Mr Libby, who also acted as national security adviser to Mr Cheney, has resigned. He could face 30 years in prison.

Mr Bush and Mr Cheney both praised Mr Libby's talents and said he was entitled to a fair trial. Before boarding his helicopter, a grim-faced Mr Bush spoke of how "Scooter" had sacrificed much for his country.

Robert Luskin, lawyer for Mr Rove, said his client would continue to co-operate with the probe, which he was confident would confirm his innocence.

Everybody knows that Cheney and Rove also have their fingers in this cover-up and so far Libby is the fall guy. Of course the usual Republican Party scum (which seems to be most of the Republican Party these days) are going around defending the administration. This is par for the course for this kind of scandal. All we need now is for Bush to state: "I am not a crook".

Papworth Hospital is coming to Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The decision by Papworth Hospital to press on with a move to Cambridge has been greeted with mixed feelings.

The board has decided to go ahead with plans for relocating the hospital next to Addenbrooke's Hospital on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

The state-of-the-art heart and lung hospital is expected to cost around £170 million and could be complete by 2011.

Addenbrooke's welcomed the announcement. In a joint statement, Dr Mary Archer, chairman of Addenbrooke's, and Malcolm Stamp, the hospital's chief executive, said: "The hospital's re-location will bring the opportunity to improve services not only for the local population but also benefit medicine worldwide.

"We greet Papworth's decision to move here as a major event. We are both delighted."

More than 1,000 people took part in a four-month public consultation into the proposed move and Papworth said most of them supported relocation.

But concerns were raised that the hospital's unique ethos would be lost and that not enough work had been done to ensure there was affordable housing for staff and good access around the Cambridge site.

Good news for Cambridge, bad news for Papworth (although Papworth is not that far from Cambridge). Needless to say with enough money they can make good enough clinical facilities on the Addenbrooke's site. But almost certainly there will not be adequate car parking facilities. The rest of the site suffers from this problem in a big way and the ruling elite of Cambridge and Addenbrooke's refuses to do anything about it (except to make it worse). So this move will be both good and bad for patients.

Date published: 2005/10/28

Women who have abortions allegedly not at a higher risk of depression (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is no credible evidence that women who terminate an unwanted first pregnancy are at a higher risk of depression, researchers say.

A recent US study had suggested having an abortion increased significantly a woman's chance of suffering depression.

But the authors of a British Medical Journal work looking at 1,247 women say pre-existing mental health might be a better predictor of depression risk.

Anti-abortion lobbyists maintain abortions are psychologically damaging.

The latest study looked at US women who aborted or delivered an unwanted pregnancy.

It showed that the women who opted for a termination reported less depression than those who chose to carry on with the unwanted pregnancy.

However, this might have been down to differences in education and income between the two groups, because the women who went for abortions tended to be more affluent than those who did not, it said.

They also tended to have fewer children already - large families have been linked to increased risk of depression before.

"This suggests that if the goal is to reduce women's risk of depression, research should focus on how to prevent and ameliorate the effect of unwanted childbearing, particularly for younger women," said the researchers.

Professor Nancy Russo, from Arizona State University, and her colleague Sarah Schmiege from the University of Colorado, said the difference between their results and the previous US study that did find a link between abortion and depression might be down to the way the studies were carried out.

In the previous study, the researchers looked at women with unintended pregnancies, which could have included some that were wanted although unplanned.

In the current study, Professor Russo made sure they only included women who said the pregnancy was unwanted.

The follow-up period between pregnancy and depression assessment ranged from four to 10 years.

About 30% of pregnancies in Britain are unplanned, it is estimated.

Last year, there were 185,400 abortions in England and Wales. Only 1% of the abortions, 1,900 in total, were carried out under grounds that the child would be born disabled.

Dr Michael Jarmulowicz, of The Guild of Catholic Doctors, questioned the latest study's findings.

He said the evidence suggesting that abortion increases the risk of suicide or self-harm attempts, as well as depression and a possible increased risk of death from all causes, was much stronger.

A spokesman from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said: "Our counselling service deals with many women who have had abortions, and their feelings of remorse and sorrow are 100% genuine and deeply painful.

"Even if abortion did no emotional or physical harm to women, it would still be wrong because it always takes an innocent, defenceless human life.

"We hope society will one day see abortion as the grave denial of a basic human right that it undoubtedly is."

Sophie Corlett, of the mental health charity Mind, said: "While any distressing life event has the potential to affect an individual person's mental health, this study supports earlier research that abortion, as opposed to bringing to term an unwanted pregnancy, does not increase the risk of later depression.

"Mind would welcome attention to the support needs and work/education opportunities for all women who experience unwanted pregnancies, whatever the outcome might be."

A spokeswoman from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which provides abortions to women in Britain, said: "From our experience, abortion does not cause depression, as long as a woman has discussed all her options and made a fully informed decision.

"Very few women return for post-abortion counselling and this is because they made the best decision for them at the time and see no need to talk to a counsellor."

Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance said: "The problems that lead women to opt for abortion - financial hardship, abusive men, social stigma - are still not being properly addressed. Real 'choice' would give women the freedom and support to feel that abortion is neither the only nor good solution that the pro-abortion lobby suggests."

Well the BBC obviously felt the need to pass the mike to all the usual suspects on the matter of abortion. On the point at hand, these studies mostly look at correlations, and there is a big difference between correlation and causation, as the people who did this study seem to recognise but others do not. Also, the anti-abortion activists obviously don't care about the mental health of pregnant women one way or the other (any more than the average member of the public), they just don't like abortion and will use any pretend excuse to try and stop it. The risk (or not) of depression is only one (small) factor a woman needs to consider before having an abortion. Of course, whether or not a woman has an abortion should be up to her, not a bunch of religious control freaks.

Study looking at the effect of climate change on Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mediterranean and mountain regions of Europe will be hardest hit by the changes set to affect the continent's natural resources this century.

That is the conclusion of a Europe-wide assessment that highlights the threat posed by climate change.

The Mediterranean will be at increased risk of forest fires, water shortages, loss of agricultural land and from its tree species shifting northward.

The study, by an international team, appears in the journal Science.

The assessment set out to forecast the impact of climate change, shifting land use and socio-economic factors on Europe during the 21st Century.

It simulated the effects of changes in soil fertility and water availability as the climate changes and humans respond, for example, by modifying land use patterns or moving to new areas.

Of all European regions, the Mediterranean was most vulnerable to the global-scale changes projected to occur during the course of this century.

Many of the effects on this region are related to increased temperatures and reduced rainfall.

"If you have an increase in droughts, you get an increased risk of forest fires and changing suitability for crops. You will also see decreases in water per capita for the people living there," said lead author Dagmar Schroeter of Harvard University.

Mountain regions also appear vulnerable because of a rise in the elevation of snow cover and changes in river run-off.

"In winter, precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow. The whole regime of peak flow times changes and you get an increased probability of flooding in winter and spring," Dr Schroeter told the BBC News website.

"You will get less water in summer because the water which was stored in the snow cover is no longer there."

Such changes would significantly impact both the skiing and hydroelectric industries, Dr Schroeter said.

The report did identify some positive effects. These include forest expansion due to a reduced demand on land from agriculture. Farmers in northern Europe could also begin to exploit crops usually grown in the Mediterranean.

Forests act as a "carbon sink" absorbing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But by the latter half of the century, rising temperatures due to climate change will balance this positive effect.

"By mid-century, it will probably become so hot that the soils will, instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, start releasing carbon dioxide - they will become an additional source of greenhouse gas emissions," explained Dr Schroeter.

The Harvard researcher says other parts of the world will fare much worse than Europe in the face of climate change and other global trends.

"If you live in Europe you are a lucky toad, but maybe not as lucky as I would have thought before doing this assessment. I was surprised by some of the very negative impacts of climate change," she said.

The researchers conclude that the involvement of policy-makers is required if European states are to develop effective strategies to cope with the changes.

Crystal ball gazing like this is all very good fun, especially for academics, but anyone who seriously thinks they can predict what is going to happen in 50 years is rather deluded. Just imagine the kind of predictions that could have been made 50 years ago about life today. Most of them would have been completely wrong. Nobody would have predicted that the coal industry would shrink to nothing, nobody would have predicted that loads of Brits would go to Spain each year on holiday, etc. And until you know about the demands on land (and water and other resources) and the patterns of employment and recreation, you cannot have a hope of predicting what any environmental impact (such as global warming) will be.

Date published: 2005/10/27

Tony Blair allegedly revulsed by president of Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has expressed "revulsion" at the Iranian president's assertion that he wanted Israel "wiped off the map".

Mr Blair told an EU summit at Hampton Court, near London, that he had "never come across" comments like those made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday.

He added that Iran, suspected of having a nuclear weapons programme, could soon be considered a "real threat".

But Iran later accused the West of turning a blind eye to what it called Israel's "crimes".

EU leaders earlier issued a joint statement saying they condemned Mr Ahmadinejad's remarks.

The Iranian charge d'affaires in London had already been summoned to the Foreign Office for the UK to lodge a protest.

Speaking after a one-day EU summit, Mr Blair said the Iranian leader's sentiments were "completely and totally unacceptable".

He said: "Their attitude towards Israel, their attitude towards terrorism, their attitude on the nuclear weapons issue - it isn't acceptable."

Mr Blair said he had never heard of the president of a country saying that they want to wipe out another country.

"If they continue down this path, then people are going to believe that they are a real threat to our world security and stability.

"They may believe... the eyes of the world will be elsewhere, but I felt a real sense of revulsion at those remarks."

Mr Blair added: "Can you imagine a state like that with an attitude like that having a nuclear weapon?"

Let's see, can we think of any other country with a silly president who shoots off his mouth on a regular basis? And unfortunately for Mr Blair, his illegal war in Iraq is also unacceptable. And actions count for more than words, so Blair's misdeeds are much worse. And most sane people are not very happy that America has so many nuclear (not to mention non-nuclear) weapons. (Nobody cares much about Britain's nuclear weapons because they are unlikely to work when push comes to shove.) The most worrying thing about Blair's rant is the phrase (with a disingenous caveat) that Iran is "a real threat to our world security and stability". Hmmm, isn't that what he said about Iraq (his previous big lie)? So what this seems to be really about is further softening up of the British public in anticipation of a military attack on Iran. Obviously Blair's complete screw-up in Iraq is not denting his appetite for further military adventurism.

Beavers being reintroduced into England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Beavers have been reintroduced to England, 500 years after they were hunted to extinction for their fur.

Six European beavers have been released at Lower Mill Estate near South Cerney, Gloucestershire, and are the first to roam wild in England for centuries.

The six adult rodents were caught in Bavaria in the spring and have spent the last few months in quarantine.

If the pioneering scheme is successful, it is hoped beavers can once again thrive in the British countryside.

Although the animals will be confined to a 500-acre site to start with, experts hope to remove the fences once the beavers have settled in so they can roam freely.

The beaver was hunted to extinction for its fur and the pain-relieving properties of its anal gland secretions.

Whereas the American beaver can be destructive, environmentalists say the European species should be a force for good in the countryside.

It is vegetarian so it should not deplete fish stocks in rivers and the beavers could also help keep waterways clear of debris.

Beavers are great. But it's amazing the UK blithely allows the introduction of what amounts to a new species in the UK with what seems little attention. Hasn't anybody learned anything from all the previous disasters of introducing new species? American beavers are not destructive except in the opinion of people who don't like what they do (e.g. cut down trees and make dams). If in a similar way UK beavers turn out to cause some commercial damage (in no doubt an unforseen way) are the people who are responsible for their introduction going to pay compensation?

Prince Charles is worried about climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prince Charles says climate change should be seen as the "greatest challenge to face man" and treated as a much bigger priority in the UK.

The prince unveiled his vision for the future of the environment, farming and food in an exclusive BBC interview.

He said climate change "is what really worries me", and said he did not want his future grandchildren to ask why he had not acted over the issue.

Unfortunately Prince Charles is a big part of the problem, he is not part of the solution. He consumes far, far more than the average UK citizen and so produces far, far more pollution and greenhouse gas emissions than the average UK citizen. (In common with all rich people.) So Prince Charles might be worried about climate change but he evidently fails to see the connection with his own circumstance.

Date published: 2005/10/26

Tories vote with the Government on Terrorim Bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Terrorism Bill, which would allow suspects to be held for up to 90 days without charge, has passed its first stage in the Commons.

Most Conservatives, led by home affairs spokesman David Davis, backed the bill, giving it a majority of 378.

But Mr Davis said the party would oppose the "fundamental sticking point" of longer periods of detention at later stages in the Commons and Lords.

Lib Dems voted against the Terrorism Bill at Wednesday's second reading.

Sixteen Labour MPs, including ex-Cabinet minister Clare Short, rebelled against the government.

Meanwhile, eight Tories - including former chancellor Ken Clarke, who was a candidate to become party leader until last week - joined them.

The Terrorism Bill would outlaw "glorifying" terrorism and make it an offence to commit acts "preparatory to terrorism".
...
The government wants to increase the time police can hold terrorism suspects without charge from two weeks to 90 days.

It says complex cases, often involving detailed research using computers, take more time, making an extension necessary.

Mr Davis told MPs longer detention was "a fundamental sticking point".

Despite talking to police and security services, he had "yet to hear a convincing argument for this measure".

He said the law should change so that terror suspects could be questioned after being charged.

This was a "tiny infringement on our traditions of liberty and justice by comparison with the proposed 90-day extension".

Earlier in the debate, Home Secretary Charles Clarke said: "We cannot properly fight terrorism with one legal hand tied behind our back, or give terrorists the unfettered right to defend themselves as they promote and prepare violent attacks on our society."

He accused the Lib Dems of "knee jerk" opposition and of "weakening the common front of democratic politics against terrorism" by saying they will against the bill.

It's hard to know who is worse, New Labour or Old Tories. You know Charles Clarke has no real argument if he talks about hands tied behind backs. You might as well get rid of the courts completely using that idiotic analogy, after all they only get in the way of putting the bad guys behind bars. And to play the terrorism card against the Lib Dems only shows further how low Clarke has sunk (and funnily enough he doesn't mention his own "knee jerk" support of the bill). It is the unfortunate destiny of every Home Secretary in Britain to prove that he is even worse than the previous one.

And what can you say about the Tories? They oppose one of the fundamental provisions of the bill yet vote for it. And they wonder why politicians are so reviled. Hopefully pretty boy David Cameron will prove he is not just a Blair clone when he takes over the Tories, and once again put the civil liberties of British citizens above the dictatorial inclinations of the current nobody generation running the UK. (But almost certainly it will be more of the same.)

Date published: 2005/10/25

Wind power for British households (permanent blog link)

Wind power is flavour of the minute in Britain. The BBC ran two stories today with further propaganda, about wind power for individual households. Although wind power sounds like a great idea, because there are no CO2 emissions from the actual operation that creates energy, the protagonists never calculate the emissions due to the construction, installation, maintenance and demolition of the wind generators. When you do that it is quite possible the net "benefit" will actually be negative (it's hard to know, nobody trustworthy ever does the sum). (But perhaps less negative than with other technologies.)

In the first story the chap installed a small wind turbine with blades just over a meter in size. Supposedly it cost £2000 to set up. It is implied that he also received a government subsidy, so the true cost is higher. (And if you want to calculate the impact on the environment, it is the true cost that matters, not the subsidised price.) The turbine is expected to generate around 600 kw hours per year. The latter would mean that on average it is generating around 600/(24*365) = 68 watts, so less than many light bulbs consume. This does not sound like a heck of a lot. Obviously on some days it would generate more and on some days less. The claim in the article is that the power generated "will be sufficient to light his home". If so the power must be being stored somehow (that is not stated in the article) or the person does not use many light bulbs at once (and low power ones at that). Certainly you can forget about running anything else in your household. So is the net benefit positive? Even at £2000 (so ignoring any subsidy) it's hard to belive it is. And on a more practical note, do the neighbours suffer any noise pollution?

In the second story the chap installed a much bigger wind turbine, 11.5m high. 22 neighbours objected to the planning application (because of noise and visual impact) but obviously their views were ignored. This turbine is located 15m from his house and 35m from the nearest neighbour's house, so is obviously only suitable for relatively large (on the British scale) suburban or rural gardens. That already tells you this is for the middle class only. This turbine cost £15000 to set up (including £5000 government subsidy). Supposedly the main parts of the windmill will last 20 years. So ignoring any additional maintenance and ignoring the discount factor (which nobody does or should) the turbine would have to save £750 per year to break even. The person supposedly expects to save £1000 just in heating bills (and of course electricity is going to get more expensive, hence ignoring the discount factor is not so crazy). (But no mention of electricity for lighting, etc., and the article also claims the "payback" period is 10 years and 10 x £1000 = £10000, which is what the chap paid, so maybe the total saved is £1000.) There is no statement about how much power is generated but the house will still need a standard electricity grid connection (if nothing else because the wind does not always blow). So even here, it is not clear if the net benefit to the environment is positive (the £15000 is unlikely to include much in the way of environmental cost factored in). And of course there is almost certainly a net negative impact to the local environment (noise and visual impact), and this cost of course has been externalised onto his neighbours (they are the ones footing most of the bill on this score). (Externalised costs are something the so-called environmentalists are always keen to mention for their pet hates: cars, planes, oil.)

Date published: 2005/10/24

London 2012 Olympics allegedly "green" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Down the years, the Olympic Games has thrown up some enduring images.

Black American Jesse Owens competing in Nazi-ruled Germany; bare-footed Zola Budd sending US favourite Mary Decker crashing to the floor, or Sir Steve Redgrave winning his fifth gold medal.

These are just some of the most recalled moments.

It is safe to say that carbon emissions or waste generation from a Games would not feature in anyone's list of top sporting moments.

But London 2012 is hoping to build a bridge between the growing awareness of environmental issues and the role the Olympic movement plays in the green agenda.

London has teamed up with environmental groups WWF and BioRegional to form the concept of "One Planet Olympics".

The idea is based on the environmental groups' One Planet Living campaign, which says global consumption and pollution levels need to be brought back within the Earth's ability to absorb the demands humans place upon it.

David Stubbs, head of environment for the London 2012 team, says the idea will help people make the link between sport and the environment.

He is taking the piss. The only thing one can say with certainty is that tens of thousands of the richest, and therefore most polluting, people on Earth will descend on London in 2012. Just getting there will probably cause more per capita emissions than the average citizen of the developing world will cause in a year. There is very little "link between sport and the environment" and there is very little link between sport and the Olympics, and the only link between the Olympics and the environment is a negative one. The fact that there will be some immediate window dressing in the vicinity of the Olympics counts for little. Indeed, most of the VIPs in attendance are being paid to attend by their governments or otherwise, so are paying exactly nothing for all the environmental damage they are causing. The people attending are a large part of the problem, they are not part of the solution. And will Coca Cola, McDonalds, IBM and all the other big advertisers be happy that the London 2012 team is allegedly promoting the idea that "global consumption" is allegedly too high and needs to be reduced? It's only too high for the rich people promoting this agenda.

Shelter wants better housing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Shelter has called for more affordable family-sized housing after a survey on the extent of overcrowding in England.

Children were sleeping with their parent or parents in three-quarters of the 505 overcrowded households that completed the housing charity's survey.

A quarter had children sleeping in living or dining rooms and a tenth had teenagers of different sexes sharing.

Shelter said: "In 21st Century Britain, having adequate space in which to live ought to be a realistic expectation."

"For one in 10 children in this country, living conditions have more in common with the Dickensian era, when the statutory definition was first drawn up, than those expected of a modern, thriving nation," director Adam Sampson said.

"The health, education and future chances of thousands of youngsters are being blighted by cramped conditions."

In all, 77% of those who responded to Shelter's questionnaire strongly agreed that overcrowding harmed family relationships.

Some 81% said there was no room for their children to play and 71% that overcrowding affected the health of family members.

Respondents from black and minority ethnic groups were twice as likely as white British families to be severely overcrowded - defined as lacking two or more bedrooms under the Bedroom Standard.

Shelter has called for more "affordable, family-sized homes with adequately sized rooms, storage and outside space".

Of course Shelter has only looked at the extremes ("overcrowded households") so not surprisingly has found extreme answers. But if you asked almost anyone in Britain they would tell you they do not have enough space. And calling for "affordable, family-sized homes with adequately sized rooms, storage and outside space" sounds so ridiculously obvious you wonder how it could not already be happening. But in fact under New Labour, central government, the developers, NIMBYs, local authorities, urban planners and so-called environmentalists have conspired together to build smaller and smaller houses with smaller and smaller plots, all under the guise of "sustainability". So tough luck to the citizens of Britain, especially the working class and the poor non-working class: put up with what the ruling elite has decided you should put up with or get lost. Shelter is fighting a losing battle against the entrenched interests of the powerful, although of course Shelter really only cares about the bottom of the pile, so might make some headway for this small group for politically correct reasons. (And the results quoted for "black and minority ethnic groups" are hardly surprising given that on average they are poorer than "white British families". You wonder why anybody has to point out this division, except in readiness to play the race card.)

There is one unfortunate apparent request by Shelter:

[ Shelter ] would like increased measures to discourage private owners from leaving houses empty.

Now houses are empty for all sorts of reason. For example, people die and the people who inherit the house take some time to decide how and when to sell it. What is meant by "increased measures" is yet more legal rights for government to steal private property (and no doubt give it to their developer friends who will make a tidy profit). This is not the "solution" to the problem. The real solution is releasing more land for building.

Date published: 2005/10/23

Lib Dems publish more recycling propaganda in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Lib Dems are keen on dropping propaganda through the door every now and again. The latest example, the Cambridge Herald number 15, a 4-page tabloid-sized newsletter, arrived a day or two ago. It's the usual kind of stuff. For example, the Lib Dems now seem to be opposing the upgrade to the A14. (Having discovered that if you have more cars on the A14 this means you probably also have more cars in Cambridge, and you can't possibly have that, since we're so precious, or at least the rich residents of Huntingdon Road are. Of course the traffic projections are almost certainly wrong, but that is another matter.)

This past week the Lib Dems have changed the way rubbish is picked up in Cambridge. Instead of a pick up every week we now have the rubbish picked up every other week, and in the alternate weeks plastic bottles are now picked up. (There is also an every-other-week picking up of organic waste and glass/tins/paper.) What a wonderful town Cambridge is, so wonderfully "green". Unfortunately this idea of picking up plastic bottles is rather controversial. So what do the Lib Dems say in the Cambridge Herald about this:

Lib Dem plans for plastic recycling in Cambridge will cut emissions - the main cause of global warming. Estimates for the plastic collections show that the City Council will collect over 450 tons of plastic bottles in the coming year. With the oil content of plastic at over 60%, the oil saving is at least ten times the 25-30 tons of diesel which the bin lorries will use collecting the plastic bottles from the blue boxes.

Wouldn't you be embarrassed publishing such drivel? Apparently the MP for Cambridge, David Howarth, a Lib Dem, is not, since his face is plastered all over the newsletter so presumably he agrees with the content. Let's see, the Lib Dems are claiming there are around 250 to 300 tons of "oil content" in the plastic bottles they are recovering. Well of course this is the amount of oil saved only if the plastic bottles miraculously (and with no cost of energy) make it back to the manufacturers who used the bottles in the first place and they can re-use them (with no additional cost of energy). Needless to say this does not happen. Indeed the Labour Party in Cambridge supposedly has claimed that the bottles are being shipped to China. And who knows what will happen to them once they arrive there. Supposedly they will be "recycled", perhaps they might just be dumped. How much energy does "recycling" in China cost, and does it actually save any oil when the total sum is done? Indeed, on the other side of the equation, just quoting 25 to 30 tons of diesel is also misleading. How many tons of oil are required to make that? And what about all the indirect energy costs, such as maintenance of the collection vehicles and labour costs. (So-called environmentalists and most transport planners also make this mistake when calculating the energy cost of so-called public transport, since they only count the direct energy cost and never the vast indirect costs.) All in all, the Lib Dem claim is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Date published: 2005/10/22

UK government wants ban on wild bird imports (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government has called for a ban on wild bird imports to the EU, after bird flu was found in a parrot that died while in British quarantine.

Currently imports are only banned from countries which have bird flu cases, such as Romania, Thailand and Turkey.

Scientists are testing to see whether the parrot, from South America, has the most dangerous strain, H5N1, which has killed 60 people in Asia.

Experts fear a bird flu pandemic if it mutates to spread easily among humans.

The bird, from Surinam, was part of a mixed consignment of 148 parrots and "soft bills" that arrived on 16 September. It had been held with 216 birds from Taiwan and died on 16 October.

All the birds in the quarantine unit have been culled, while people who came into contact with them have been treated with anti-viral drugs as a precaution.

Environment minister Ben Bradshaw said the ban on wild bird imports could be introduced within days.
...
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it was asking the European Commission to review its position.

A Defra spokeswoman said: "This involves birds worldwide...not just the EU.

"Birds going through quarantine come from non-EU countries."

Defra later said its call for an import ban did not include poultry which it says are not classed as "live birds".

The request was welcomed by animal welfare charities and the Liberal Democrats, whose rural affairs spokeswoman Baroness Sue Miller had called for the ban.

Julian Hughes, spokesman for the RSPB, said a ban was "the right thing to do" to try to close what he described as a "dangerous back-door route".

This could be called shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. It also might not help. Of course if a government believes something might cause disease it has to act, but the most likely source of the spread of bird flu are not the birds being imported but instead wild birds migrating over or to the UK. So taking out one rather inconsequential potential cause seems more like reacting to media pressure than dealing with the real issue. (And are they going to compensate the people they are putting out of business?) And the RSPB should be careful with what they wish for. If you take their stand to its logical conclusion (about "dangerous" back-door routes) then you could argue that all migratory birds entering UK airspace should be shot. (After all, we don't want to take chances.) Does the RSPB want this (obviously not), or are they just using the case of the poor parrot as a convenient excuse to call for an end to a practise they don't like?

Retiring early allegedly not very good for longevity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Researchers have disproved the theory that people who take early retirement enjoy longer lives as a result.

In fact, those who stop working at 55 have nearly double the death rate of those who continue to work on until they reach 65, a study suggests.

The work, published in the British Medical Journal, involved over 3,500 employees of the petrochemical industry who retired at 55, 60, and 65.

Poorer health forcing some to retire early may be a factor, say the authors.

However, this would not entirely explain the differences they found, neither would factors such as sex and socioeconomic status.

Men were far more likely to die at a younger age than women, as were those on lower incomes compared to those with the highest incomes, but after controlling for this the researchers still found a big survival gap between the different retirement ages.

The Shell Health Services researchers excluded the first 10 years of survival for those retiring at 55, and the first five years for those retiring at 60, to make for a fair comparison with those who carried on working to 65.

The employees who retired at 55 had a significantly increased mortality compared with those who retired at 65.

In contrast, employees who retired at 60 had a similar survival rate to those who retired at 65.

Well take this study with a pinch of salt. They have done the honourable thing and tried to control against some obvious factors. But they have probably missed something else and it would definitely be confusing correlation and causation to imply (as the article does) that we would (on average) be better off if we did not retire at 55 (not that most people have that option). As an example of one particular thing that might be missing, the person who retires at 55 might not be unhealthy according to official definitions but could well be unhealthy (on average) relative to the population average. The only way to do this study properly (and it will never happen this way) is to take a random group of people and force a randomly chosen half to retire at 55 and the other half to retire at 65 and see what happens. (But also ask people if, say, they would rather retire at 55 and live to 68 or retire at 65 and live until 71 and see what the response is. Longevity is not everything.)

Cambridge should allegedly do what Oxford has not done yet (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Cambridge University should follow the example of its famous rival and introduce sweeping reforms if it is to remain a world-class university, Lord (Chris) Patten, chancellor of Oxford, has warned.

Lord Patten was speaking publicly for the first time in support of a controversial attempt to make Oxford more attractive to potential donors and to satisfy the modernisation demands of the government.

The radical plans suggested by John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, have met with criticism from dons. Cambridge has so far not pursued a similarly controversial strategy.

Lord Patten told an audience of alumni this week that he hoped Oxford's efforts would "make it easier for Cambridge to follow us if we can get sensible proposals in place".

Dr Hood's proposals, which included plans to have university strategy decided by a powerful board of trustees made up entirely of outsiders, sparked controversy among Oxford's academic community and an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Congregation, the university's parliament, over a plan to introduce compulsory professional assessment for dons.

However, Dr Hood believes the reforms are the only way Oxford can tackle its chronic funding shortfall. He argues that the university needs to get its house in order before the government will allow it to charge more for its teaching, currently capped at £3,000 a year. Reform would also encourage Oxford alumni to donate more. "That will only be achieved if we can take off the table those things which Oxford is regularly criticised for, namely its governance, its strategy and financial management," Dr Hood told an audience at the Savoy hotel.

Lord Patten said a modern corporate governance structure was vital if Oxford was to meet the demands of the Lambert report. The study by Richard Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times, called on Oxford and Cambridge to report to ministers by next year on the progress they had made in reforming themselves.

Cambridge financial management is a bit of a mess (if anything the colleges more than the university itself). But to say that the "governance structure" (currently only partially dominated by the administrators) or "strategy" is to blame is wrong. The real problem is that the administration has not been entirely up to scratch, coupled with the dreadful social engineering foisted on British universities by the third-rate educationalists who are in the favour of New Labour. What the administrators (such as Patten) seem to want is to turn Oxbridge into a typical American university, where all that counts is how much grant or commercial or alumni money you bring in to your department or college. Oxbridge could always do with more money (what organisation could not) but there is no point subjugating the researchers and teachers further to the administrators just in search of money.

Date published: 2005/10/21

Amazon allegedly being deforested more than previously thought (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists from Brazil and the US say new research suggests deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has been underestimated by at least 60%.

The team has completed a study using a more advanced technique of satellite imagery that can pick up more types of logging activity.

These include selective logging, where loggers pick out trees of value but leave the surrounding forest intact.

Brazil's government welcomed the report but said the figures were exaggerated.

Deforestation in the Amazon is on such a massive scale that the only way of measuring it is by using satellites.

The trouble has been that while traditional aerial images can show areas that have been completely destroyed, they do not reveal selective logging of valuable trees such as mahogany.

With input from the Nasa space agency, the joint US and Brazilian team used an ultra-high-resolution technique to examine just how much selective logging was going on.

The report was published in the US journal Science.

The researchers concluded that the area of rainforest destroyed between 1999 and 2002 was thousands of square kilometres bigger than previously thought.

They also found that about 25% more carbon had been released into the atmosphere than estimated - possibly enough to affect climate change.

Brazilian officials praised the scientists for highlighting the issue of selective logging, but said the new figures were hard to believe.

The businessmen involved in the practice claim picking out individual trees is more environmentally friendly than the blanket clearance of huge areas.

But environmental campaigners say that to reach the prized trees, roads have to be built and heavy equipment brought in.

This, they say, can be of no benefit to the Amazon.

Generally the more you look for something the more you will find of it. (Be it burglaries, autism or logging.) And that seems to be most of what is going on here. Of course the Amazon as a forest would best be left alone (including from the control freak so-called environmentalists who think they know best how to control Mother Nature) but that's not very realistic. The industrial world does not grow enough forests for its own consumption and the wood has got to come from somewhere. If the world objects to logging in the Amazon the world had better start handing over vast sums of money to Brazil in compensation for not logging, and determining alternative wood sources.

Temperature rise in Southern Ocean (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An alarming rise in temperature in the Southern Ocean threatens seals, whales and penguins as well as krill, which play a crucial role in the food chain.

The ocean west of the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by more than a degree since the 1960s - contradicting the results of computer models.

Sea animals in the region are highly sensitive to changes in temperature.

UK scientists predict whole populations and species could disappear from the region as a result of further warming.

In the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Michael Meredith and John King of the British Antarctic Survey write: "Marine species in this region have extreme sensitivities to their environment."

They add that "population and species removal [are] predicted in response to very small increases in ocean temperature."

In the summer, water temperatures around the Antarctic Peninsula peak at around 0.5C. At about 2C, Antarctic scallops lose the ability to swim and at around 4-5C, clams lose the ability to burrow into the seabed.

Krill is considered a keystone species, an organism upon which many others in the region depend; but it is already under pressure.

A study published last year showed krill numbers had fallen by 80% since the 1970s and experts linked the collapse to shrinking sea ice (the crustacean feeds on algae under the ice).

Professor Lloyd Peck, a polar expert also at Bas, commented: "It is the first paper to show a temperature change in the Southern Ocean that could have ecological significance and possibly global importance."

Computer models had suggested that a combination of ice, winds and currents would keep the Antarctic water cool and shield many marine creatures from the effects of climate change.

"Air temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have gone up by three degrees in the last 50 years or so and none of the computer models show that either," Professor Peck told the BBC News website.

"So I think you have to accept that the ability of the models to characterise polar regions is relatively poor."

The amount of salt in the top layer of water has also increased. This is important as dissolved salt lowers the freezing point of ice. This makes it more difficult for sea ice to form in winter.

Ice is a powerful reflector of sunlight, so reducing its area at the poles could increase the warming effect both on polar regions and globally.

It is not too surprising that temperature computer models are not perfect, especially at the fringes. And of course the predictions of these scientists also rely on (population) computer models. But these predictions do not look good.

Date published: 2005/10/20

South Korea sets up embryonic stem cell centre (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A bank that will create and supply new lines of embryonic stem cells for research around the world has been opened in Seoul, South Korea.

The project is being led by cloning expert Dr Woo Suk Hwang, who has pioneered the development of stem cells tailored to individual patients.

It will serve as the main centre for an international consortium, including the US and the UK.

Critics say using human embryos in research is unnecessary and unethical.

But proponents argue that stem cells taken from embryos offer the best hope of new treatments for a range of diseases and injuries.

Stem cells are the body's master cells, with the ability to become many different adult tissues.

However, embryonic stem cells are the only type which have the ability to turn into any other tissue in the body.

The new bank is expected the help scientists from countries like the US get round government restrictions on stem cell research.

Good for South Korea and this is no doubt one of the early examples of Asia leading the way in science because of the backwardness of the ruling elite of Europe and (especially) the US.

Victoria Avenue bus terminal objections (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Residents are campaigning against the creation of a coach terminal next to a Cambridge common.

Council chiefs have proposed longdistance coaches arriving in Cambridge use a new terminal along Victoria Avenue, alongside Midsummer Common, to take the pressure off Drummer Street.

Residents nearby gathered 135 signatures on a petition opposing the move and spoke of their fears at the Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee this week, which includes county and city councillors.

Members of the Brunswick and North Kite Residents' Association said the stop would ruin the scenic tree-lined avenue, cause a danger to cyclists, and passengers alighting at night would be left abandoned in an unsafe area.

Wendy Andrews, from the association, said: "We understand the need to sort out Drummer Street, but we can't see any logical argument in favour of moving the long-distance bus terminus to Victoria Avenue.

"Cyclists will be put at risk by the manoeuvring of 50 buses a day arriving at Victoria Avenue - that's a lot of buses pulling in and out. This proposal will create an eyesore on one of the city's most beautiful vistas."

Jesus College has put in an objection to the plan and representatives from Stagecoach also spoke at the meeting, saying Victoria Avenue was too far out of the city centre and they would lose trade. They said Drummer Street could be remodelled.

Councillors deferred making a decision until other options - such as Parkside and the railway station - could be looked at in further detail.

The Drummer Street bus station cannot easily be remodelled. One option (suggested many years ago) would be to build a new bus area where Bradwell's Court is located. That is supposed to be demolished in any case, but of course the city would never dream of spending money acquiring the site. There have been proposals over the years to move the bus area out onto Christ's Pieces, but of course that always brings howls of hysteria from the chattering classes. So as it stands the central bus station does not have enough space. And this is not even to mention that the site is almost inaccessible by cars and there is no designated place where drivers can drop off passengers. An integrated transport policy we do not have.

The only proposals the chattering classes of Cambridge ever seem to agree about are ones that are anti-car. Otherwise some group finds great offense at any suggestion involving change. The Victoria Avenue proposals are not particularly well thought out but 50 buses a day is not "a lot of buses pulling in and out", it's not even one bus every ten minutes. So cyclists should hopefully be ok, although one of the bad points of the proposals is that cyclists heading northbound would indeed be forced to ride between the bus dropoff site and the normal road lane (of course putting it on the other side of the bus site would mean that pedestrians including bus passengers could be disadvantaged). And again there is no designated place where drivers can drop off passengers. And the bus site is on the opposite side of the road from the shiny new toilets, which not surprisingly many of the bus passengers might want to use. So the overall design is rather weak. However to call the proposals an "eyesore" is ridiculous.

Date published: 2005/10/16

The bird flu is coming, the bird flu is coming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A bird flu pandemic will hit Britain - but not necessarily this winter, the chief medical officer has said.

Sir Liam Donaldson said a deadly outbreak would come when a strain of bird flu mutated with human flu.

He told the BBC's Sunday AM show it would probably kill about 50,000 people in the UK, but the epicentre of any new strain was likely to be in East Asia.

The UK has so far stockpiled 2.5m doses of anti-viral drugs - and may restrict travel if there is an outbreak.

If a new strain did hit the UK before a vaccine was created, Sir Liam said an extra 50,000 would probably die - and a death toll of 750,000 was "not impossible".

"In a normal winter flu year... flu actually kills in excess of 12,000 people," Sir Liam said.

"But if we had a pandemic, the problem would be that our existing vaccines don't work against it, we would have to develop a new vaccine, and people don't have natural immunity because it hasn't be around before."

The total death toll depended on whether the mutated strain was a mild or serious one, he said.

However, Dr Martin Wiselka, consultant in infectious diseases at Leicester Royal Infirmary, said a death toll of 50,000 was a "complete guess".

"It could be worse, it could be better. I think initially it could be worse than that," he said.

"When a new strain arrives it tends to be more virulent but then it slows down. But the honest answer is we don't know."

Media hysteria generation in action. Of course flu *could* kill 50000 people (which is not that high if 12000 people normally die of flu every winter). And the killer flu *could* arrive this year. Well, a meteor *will* crash down on the UK but not necessarily this winter, and it *could* kill 50000 people. It *could* even kill 750000 people. The sky is falling.

Fungi found in pillows (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A small thought to help you sleep when you next get your head down - a study shows the average pillow is home to a host of potentially-harmful fungi.

A University of Manchester team found up to 16 types of fungi in pillows they analysed, the Allergy journal reported.

Researchers said feather pillows had fewer species than synthetic versions, particularly in the case of a fungus which exacerbates asthma.

Experts advise disinfecting pillows but say fungi occur in most environments.

The researchers took samples from 10 pillows - five feather and five synthetic - which had been used for between 18 months and 20 years.

The fungal spores found in the pillows fed off human skins scales and dust mite faeces.

Fungal contamination of bedding was first uncovered by studies carried out in the 1930s, but few studies have been done since then.

Researchers found that all 10 pillows had a "substantial fungal load" with between four to 16 different species being identified on each, Allergy reported on its website.

The microscopic fungus Aspergillus fumigatus was particularly evident in synthetic pillows.

This fungus commonly invades the lungs and sinuses and can worsen asthma. It is also known to cause infection in leukaemia and bone marrow transplant patients.

Nothing new here. Of course it doesn't even bear thinking the kind of things living in pillows. But is anybody supposed to be surprised? Humans are part of the world's ecosystem, and no doubt humans have been co-existing with these fungi as long as humans have existed. Sure, asthma cases (or similar) might want to be careful (no doubt they already are) but isn't it ridiculous that the first reaction to discovering that there is something else in our ecosystem is to try and eliminate it.

Date published: 2005/10/15

Scottish Parliament wins building of the year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Scottish Parliament building, which opened three years late and was massively over budget, has won the Stirling Prize for architecture.

It beat five other contenders including a library and new factories built for BMW and the McLaren Formula One team.

The prize honours the building which has made the biggest contribution to British architecture in the past year.

Last year the £20,000 award was won by the London's "Gherkin", which was designed by Lord Foster.

Foster and Partners had hoped to win the prize for the second year running for their design for the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey.

The judges described the building, which houses laboratories, testing facilities and electronic workshops in a 50-acre site, as "breathtaking".

But they chose the "remarkable architectural statement" of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh instead.

The building, designed by EMBT/RMJM Ltd, caused controversy by opening three years late and being 10 times over budget at £431m.

Can one really be surprised that the judges chose the Scottish Parliament over the other, mostly more deserving, buildings? The architecture community prefer big budgets, so why not award the building that wasted the most money for the least effect (space for a bunch of third-rate politicians). Even better, the public, on the whole, seem to dislike the building (apparently it featured rather high on a recent list of buildings that people wanted to see demolished). Well to be fair to the judges, last year the Gherkin was selected. Most years Foster has a building (or two) in the running and most years his building is just about the most popular with the public. Including this year. Of course RIBA named the prize after Stirling, who was responsible for one of the most novel but least functional buildings ever put up in Cambridge (the Faculty of History building). So that already shows you what they think is important in architecture. Style over substance.

Americans losing friends in Iraq (permanent blog link)

Khalid Muhmood in the letters section of the Financial Times says (subscription service):

Sir, First some facts. My father is Iraqi. My mother, English. My direct family is spread between Iraq and Kuwait with an extended family in Iraq. I live in Vietnam, where I run my own business. My family would represent the quiet middle voice of Iraq. The middle voice carries many mixed feelings. We did not agree with the way President Bush went about invading Iraq, but were all glad to see the back of Saddam Hussein. We feel that the way the US has handled the war is completely incompetent, but live in hope that things will turn out for the better. We feel sorry for the US troops in Iraq, but at the same time feel their aggressive gung-ho nature invites trouble.

A few days ago I received news that my 40-year-old cousin had been killed. It was a hot night, and, with no electricity, the family decided to sleep on the roof of their house - a common practice. That night US helicopters were shooting flares to light up the ground. One of the flares landed on the roof where my cousin was sleeping, killing him immediately.

Since the death, there has been no acknowledgement from the US army, no apology, no offer of compensation. Absolutely nothing. Imagine if this accident had happened in the US. There would be court cases, newspaper headlines, reports on the negligence of the army and heads would roll.

This is not an isolated case. It happens every day in Iraq, but does not get reported. Most Americans know that close to 2,000 US soldiers have been killed. How many know how many Iraqi civilians have been killed? If the US army does not wake up to addressing these negligent killings, then the middle voice in Iraq will start to shift and that will benefit nobody.

Khalid Muhmood
Apollo Education Training
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Well nobody would be surprised by this letter. The Americans (and British) do not count Iraqi casualties (caused both by direct American action and because America has failed in its responsibility as occupier by not offering sufficient protection for Iraqis from other attacks). That would be too embarrassing. And it might broach comparison with the number of deaths caused by Saddam Hussein. The whole American occupation of Iraq has been a disaster (as many people predicted it would be), mainly because the Bush administration started the war for the wrong reasons and with little support in the international community, and they also did not prepare sufficiently. The American military seems to be much more capable in international disaster relief (e.g. in Indonesia after the tsunami) than in its stated purpose. Perhaps it is time they took the strapline from Dr. Strangelove more seriously: "Peace is Our Business".

Date published: 2005/10/14

Cambridge University has a funding gap (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cambridge University's watchdog has warned that some of its top facilities could be at risk unless enough money is raised to plug a funding gap.

The university recently launched a campaign to raise £1bn by 2012.

Cambridge's board of scrutiny warns that some of the university's "premium services" might be at risk.

But the university said it was confident the target would be reached and denied suggestions that one-to-one tutorials would go.

The chairman of the scrutiny board Nick Holmes said: "It's common sense that if you want to have better than average facilities then you have to pay for them.

"If we can't raise more funds, in the end we will have to decide what we cannot afford."

The scrutiny board - set up 10 years ago - acts as a watchdog for the way the university is run and comments on this to Cambridge's governing body.

In its 10th report, the watchdog estimates that since 2000, Cambridge has used up £50m of reserves keeping afloat.

In three years' time, Oxford and Cambridge will lose the extra college fees they get from the government and will be funded along the same lines as other universities. This extra funding will have been wound down over 10 years.

The report said much had been done to reverse the deficit but there still remained a great deal to do.

"Although improved, the university's financial health still remains precarious, and further efforts are needed to ensure that the improvement continues," it said.

It went on: "If this extra income does not rise at least at the same rate as student and staff numbers then it will be difficult to maintain the premium services that the university and colleges provide (and which are essential to preserve the character of Cambridge)".

A spokesman for the university said Cambridge was committed to keeping the tutorial system.

He said: "The current supervisory system will remain integral to the world class quality of a Cambridge education. However, it comes at a price.

"We are working hard to rebalance our sources of funding and to achieve a sustainable surplus. This includes the launch of our £1bn anniversary appeal."

The silly terminology "premium services" basically means supervisions ("tutorials", which are normally two-to-one, not one-to-one as the BBC states; half of the BBC went to Oxbridge so they should have known better; mind you, they were probably the ones who spent all their time in the college bar). If supervisions are junked then it leaves less and less incentive to keep the college system. The Cambridge colleges are certainly anachronistic and the Fellows who run them are a bunch of amateurs who way over-rate the value and wisdom of their own opinions. (So much so that it is amazing that half the colleges have not gone bust.) But this does not mean the world would be a better place if they disappeared. Unfortunately we are in the age of New Labour where political correctness means we should not distinguish between Oxbridge and Slippery Rock.

The "transpose" problem in computing (permanent blog link)

In computing one often comes across data structures which are effectively inhomogeneous order n tensors. A tensor is a multilinear "form". "Order n" means the form acts on a cartesian product of n vector spaces (so in a coordinate basis, the tensor has n indices). "Inhomogenous" means the n vector spaces are not necessarily the same.

The most common examples of tensors are vectors (n = 1) and (the basis-independent formulation of) matrices (n = 2). A vector V has components V_i where i ranges over some set (usually for numbers, i, where 0 <= i < D, for some D, the dimension). A matrix M has components M_ia, where i ranges over one set and (in general) a ranges over another.

Vectors are dead-simple to handle in computing, there is not much variation on the theme. Matrices are harder, because it is quite common that some times it is best to deal with M itself and other times it might be best to deal with the transpose of M, i.e. the matrix N with components N_ai = M_ia. (The transpose is sometimes called a pivot in certain contexts, e.g. in Excel.)

This might seem like not a big deal. But often there are algorithms where the D1 vectors x(i)_a = M_ia (if i ranges over a set of size D1) can be quickly manipulated, and that is how your data should be stored. If you also have another algorithm which relies on fast access to the D2 vectors q(a)_i = N_ai = M_ia (a ranges over a set of size D2) then you are in trouble. You want your data manipulated as both x(i) and as q(a). (Sometimes because you want to fix i or a.) The usual way to do this is just to take the transpose (or equivalent). But this is slow (and if you want to store both that means wasting memory, and then also having to keep both in sync).

As an example, suppose you have a molecule with A atoms. The coordinates of this molecule are effectively a matrix with dimensions A x 3 (unless you are a member of a religion such as theoretical physics where molecules live in 10 dimensions). If you believe in object-oriented programming you might define a structure Atom, which has attributes x, y and z. Then in memory your data would be A Atoms. Memory is linear and the he data would effectively be stored as (x_0, y_0, z_0, x_1, y_1, z_1, ..., x_(A-1), y_(A-1), z_(A-1)). (At least in C. In Python or Java or other fancy languages then forget it.) Alternatively you might believe that you would rather deal with three vectors, r, s and t, each of length A, where r = (x_0, x_1, ..., x_(A-1)) and similarly for s and t. Now the data would effectively be stored as (x_0, x_1, ..., x_(A-1), y_0, y_1, ..., y_(A-1), z_0, z_1, ..., z(A-1)). Which form is better? Well it depends what you are calculating. If you want to rotate the molecule the first form is preferable, if you want to calculate the centroid the second form might be preferable.

As another example, a relational database table is effectively a matrix, where one index loops over the rows and the second index loops over the columns. Sometimes you might need a specific row (SELECT * from table where key=some_value). Sometimes you might need a specific column (SELECT column from table). Needless to say, a row of a matrix, M, is the same as a column of the transpose matrix, N.

The situation even gets worse for higher n. With an order-3 tensor there are six permutations for the index order (*_iaf, *_ifa, *_aif, *_afi, *_fai, *_fia). And so on. (With these higher order tensors you often end up projecting down to smaller order ones.) (Relational databases are poor at handling this kind of data.)

For example, in a business model for telephone calls you might want to consider revenue as a function of customer type, time of day and destination. This leads to an order-3 tensor R_iaf, where, for example, i = customer type = (residential, small business, large business), a = time of day = (weekday day, weekday night, weekend), and f = destination = (local, national, international, mobile). Sometimes you might want to fix customer type, sometimes time of day and sometimes destination.

No matter what way you choose to represent or store data for these kinds of problems, for certain calculations it will turn out to be the "wrong" way.

Date published: 2005/10/13

Deforestation allegedly does not increase risk of major floods (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Deforestation and logging do not increase the risk of major floods, according to a new report.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) say the evidence shows no link.

Loss of forest cover does play a role in smaller floods and in the loss of fertile topsoil, it says.

It accuses Asian governments of blaming floods on small-scale loggers and farmers to deflect criticism.

The belief that deforestation causes major floods and increases the damage which they do appears to be widespread.

China's catastrophic floods of 1998, when the Yangtse and Yellow rivers broke their banks, were linked to deforestation by Chinese officials, the environmental group WWF and the Red Cross.
...
"I think the belief comes about because forests do help to reduce floods in small areas, and so people assume it must also apply to severe floods in large areas," said Cifor's director-general David Kaimowitz.

"But our sense is that in general the conclusions of scientific studies indicate that changes in land use and land use cover have only a minor role in large-scale flooding events," he told the BBC News website.

On a smaller scale, forests act like sponges, soaking up excess water.

Water can spread out and be absorbed in surrounding forest soil; but when all the woodland is inundated, the ground simply does not have enough capacity.
...
The report does acknowledge, however, that forests can safeguard natural resources by binding soil and preventing it from being washed away.
...
FAO/Cifor say that Asian governments in particular have curbed small-scale logging and land clearance by local people without justification.

"You have to be very careful before taking repressive measures against small farmers on hillsides or small-scale logging activities, because you're destroying peoples' livelihoods," said David Kaimowitz.

"The most extreme case was the logging bans established in regions of China following the floods of 1998 which put more than a million people out of work, when it's almost certain that logging played very little role in the floods.

"Sometimes one gets the impression that governments don't want to consider whether they should have warned people, evacuated people, made sure they're not so poor that they have to live in vulnerable areas."

These are issues which are unlikely to disappear soon, as the incidence of floods with major loss of life appears to be rising rather than falling.

As the FAO/Cifor report makes clear, this is partly due to the growing global population and the consequent expansion of human settlements into areas which had once been marginal. As a result, each flood claims more lives than it would have done a century ago.

Interesting stuff. Of course preventing flooding is not the main reason given for not chopping down forests. On the other hand, part of the litany of the so-called environmentalists is to claim that practically every disaster is a result of environmental change.

PCBs and male fertility (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pollutant chemicals called PCBs damage sperm but do not appear to have a dramatic impact on male fertility, scientists say.

However, they warn damage from PCBs could be enough to render infertile men whose sperm is already of less than optimum quality.

The synthetic organic pollutants are found widely in the environment.

Details of the pan-European study, which tested the sperm of 700 men, appear in Human Reproduction journal.

The study examined the effects of pollutants on men from four different places - some from Warsaw in Poland, some from Kharkiv in Ukraine, some Inuits from Greenland and some fishermen from Sweden.

Sperm samples were analysed for evidence of genetic damage and blood tests were carried out to determine the level of PCB exposure.

The results showed that among the European men overall, genetic damage to the sperm rose in concert to exposure to PCBs.

However, no such association was found among the Inuit group.

Overall, around 10% of sperm DNA was damaged on average and the large majority of men in the study were fertile.

The probability of fathering a child starts to decrease when the proportion of damaged sperm reaches about 20% and becomes negligible from 30-40% onwards.

Lead researcher Dr Marcello Spanó said: "PCB exposure might negatively impact reproductive capabilities especially for men who, for other reasons, already have a higher fraction of defective sperm."

Dr Spanó said the results suggested that something in the Inuit group's genetic make-up, or something about their lifestyle, might help to neutralise or counterbalance the damaging effects of PCB exposure.

However, he admitted the study was limited as there was no way the researchers could fully tease out the effect of each of the 200 closely related substances in the PCB family.

Hmmm, when you live in a polluted environment there are lots of pollutants, not just PCBs. They only seem to have studied PCBs, could one or more of the other pollutants be the main cause of the problem? It certainly seems suspicious that the Inuit had different results. The only way to do this study properly is to take two randomly chosen groups of men, expose one of the groups to extra PCBs and see what the difference is. Needless to say that study will never be done (on humans).

There are allegedly too few male primary school teachers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A drive to recruit more male primary teachers in England is being launched by the Training and Development Agency for Schools.

The TDA is trying to redress the gender imbalance in the profession at primary school level.

It has carried out research which suggests 83% of parents would like to see more men in primary teaching.

Currently just 15.7% of all primary school teachers in England are men.

The TDA is to form an advisory panel of current male primary teachers to consider how to attract more men to teach at primary level.

The TDA survey, which questioned 1000 parents of primary age children, suggests one in four parents are concerned that their children do not have enough interaction with male teachers.

And almost two thirds - 61% - said they believed male teachers had a crucial role to play in helping children feel more confident with men.

More than a quarter of parents - 26% - worry that their children will lack a male perspective on life, according to the survey's findings, and 22% say they are concerned their children do not have enough contact with positive male figures of authority.

Almost half of pupils aged between 5 and 11 (47%) do not have any contact with male teachers, the survey suggests.

Graham Holley, TDA executive director, said: "Teaching is now a popular career choice for graduates, which is excellent news for schools.

"But it is vital that teachers are representative of the communities they teach."

"We need more men to become primary school teachers to redress the current gender imbalance and our aim is that the new advisory panel will help up achieve this goal."

Another pointless quango creating problems where none really exist. Of course you can get any result you want from a survey, and people are always willing to say there is a "problem" if they are given no context and no cost estimates for the "solution". In particular, did they ask the parents whether a lot of money should be spent addressing the "problem" with some slick advertising campaign, or would the money perhaps better be spent on buying books for students? And if the gender imbalance had been the other way around you can guarantee we would now be hearing loud and clear that primary schools were "institutionally sexist".

Date published: 2005/10/12

EU interior ministers want more powers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU interior ministers have agreed that phone records must be kept for at least 12 months, and e-mail data for at least six, to help the fight against terror.

At a meeting in Luxembourg, they mandated UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke to negotiate with the European Parliament to get its agreement.

The parliament has argued that such a law would violate civil liberties.

Mr Clarke said governments would pass a law without MEPs' involvement unless there was a deal by December.
...
Officials say no record will be kept of the content of phone calls or e-mails, only the sender, recipient, time, place and length of any communication.

The legislation would apply to unanswered as well as answered calls.

The UK already requires telecoms companies to allow it to tap anything the government wants. So keeping records really only helps post-incident analysis. And needless to say, the government will soon abuse the process and track phone calls and emails of those people they suddenly discover to be troublesome who they would like to immediately discredit (such as 82-year olds who heckle at Labour Party conferences). And how much will this all cost? The ministers don't care, it's not their money.

Date published: 2005/10/11

Blair defends his police state (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has warned it would be "irresponsible" to ignore police calls to let them hold terrorist suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

In his monthly media conference he denied criticism from opposition parties and civil liberties groups that he was "authoritarian".

"This is what we need to make this country safe," he added.
...
Currently, suspects can be held for up to 14 days without charge.

Mr Blair said the police had provided good evidence for extending this period - such as the complex nature of terror cases, which involved gathering large amounts of evidence.

He added: "I care deeply about the civil liberties of this country."

Asked about criticism by judges of the government's proposed terror plans, Mr Blair said: "All I'm saying to the judiciary is be aware there's a proper role for the judiciary and a proper role for Parliament."

Terrorist activity was "of a wholly different order" from any before.

Mr Blair said: "We need to make sure therefore that we give ourselves every possible opportunity to prevent such terrorist acts occurring."

He cared most about "one basic civil liberty, which is the right to life of our citizens and freedom from terrorism".

So the police want to be able to hold people for 90 days with no real evidence. And Mr Blair thinks this is a jolly good idea. How many terrorist incidents will be prevented as a result of these dictatorial powers? How many wholly innocent people will be locked up as a result of these dictatorial powers? How many guilty people will actually be trapped as a result of these dictatorial powers? It's ever so touching that Blair worries about "freedom from terrorism", it's just too bad he personally brought the UK smack into the front line of terrorism by launching an illegal war on Iraq with his buddy Bush.

Date published: 2005/10/10

The NHS Confederation wants incentives to run the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The NHS should be rewarded for getting people off incapacity benefit and back into work, say health service managers.

An NHS Confederation report says the NHS could play a key role in helping many people currently claiming incapacity benefit back into work.

But it says the money saved should be spent on the health service.

Around 2.6 million people currently claim incapacity benefit. A government Green Paper on benefit reform is due this autumn.

Currently, any savings made from getting people off incapacity benefit go back to the Department of Work and Pensions.

But the NHS Confederation says the health service should be incentivised to help tackle the problem.

What a ridiculous idea. First of all, it means the NHS would be incentivised to claim that patients are healthy when they are not. Secondly, "savings made from getting people off incapacity benefit" do not currently really go to the Department of Work and Pensions, instead they just mean that the overall UK tax burden is decreased. If the NHS were for some reason making (a lot of) money off incapacity benefit reductions then you can guarantee that the rest of the overall UK health budget would be decreased in compensation.

More social engineering in schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The most successful state secondary schools in England are admitting too few children from poorer families, says a report from an education charity.

The Sutton Trust says that in the top 200 schools, only 3% of pupils qualify for free school meals - compared to a national average of 14%.

"The best comprehensives serve the relatively affluent," says the Trust's chairman, Sir Peter Lampl.

He called for a "network of school buses" to give schools a wider reach.

The research looked at the intakes of the 6% of state schools with the best results at GCSE - and found that poorer pupils were under-represented.

The majority of this sample of schools were grammar schools - but the researchers say that the social make-up of the top comprehensives and grammars were not dissimilar.

Even allowing for the better-off areas served by some of these schools, the report says that poorer pupils (as defined by qualifying for free school meals) were still under-represented.

"We have replaced an education system which selected on ability with one that is socially selective: the best comprehensives serve the relatively affluent, while the remaining grammar schools attract far too few able students from poor backgrounds," said Sir Peter.

He proposed that successful schools could develop outreach projects and that school transport should put schools into the reach of families without cars.

The report concluded that it is "clear that the admissions system is not operating equitably and is in need of review".

The day these control freaks who love social engineering send their own kids to crap schools in order that a poor kid can go to a better school is the day that what they say has some credibility. Rather than wasting time and effort (and money) trying to come up with the perfectly politically correct mix in schools as defined by a bunch of middle class busy bodies, perhaps the UK should instead try and make all schools better.

Date published: 2005/10/09

What is the "expected" level for English in UK schools? (permanent blog link)

Mike Baker of the BBC says:

The main education story this week was the warning that there is an "urgent need" to reduce the proportion of 11-year-olds who fail to reach "Level 4" in English.

The warning came from Ofsted, the schools inspectorate in England, in its report on the teaching of English.

In response, the government pointed out how much standards have risen since 1997; yet it agreed that the numbers reaching the "expected" standard were too low.

Indeed the most recent figures show that 23% of 11-year-olds fell short of Level 4 in the national tests.

Yet is this really a cause for concern? What exactly does the "expected" level mean?

This week I tried to find out. I asked Miriam Rosen, Ofsted's director of inspections, whether it was the level "expected" of all 11-year-olds or only of the average 11-year-old.

She could not tell me.

I tried again. Did Ofsted interpret Level 4 as the minimum standard for all children or only for the typical pupil?

"I don't think we interpret it in any particular way," was the reply.

She did add, however, that it was "a target to aim for".

So could the Schools Minister, Lord Adonis, enlighten us? He was asked whether the government's aim was to get 100% of 11-year-olds to this level.

"Whether you can get up to 100% is debatable," he said, "but let's get closer to it first and then see if we can eradicate that final group who're not reading up to standard."

The Department for Education website was my next call. It said that "at the age of 11, most children are expected to achieve Level 4".

So, we are not much clearer. Is that most as in "just over half" or as in "nearly all"? In short, is Level 4 a minimum or an average standard?

This is what happens when spin doctors run the country. Of course if the general public was more comfortable with probability and statistics, then we would be able to see through all the smoke and mirrors promulgated by government and its quangos. The only real certainty in all of this is that Ofsted has to continually justify its existence and that is bound to bias how it reports on anything.

Should badgers be culled? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The humane culling of badgers to control bovine TB should be urgently considered by the government, the British Veterinary Association says.

It warns tuberculosis costs the farming industry millions of pounds a year and must be eradicated.

In a letter to the government it cites "established links" between the prevalence of the disease within the cattle and badger populations.

But conservationists say there is not enough evidence to support a cull.

BBC environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee says it is the first time the BVA has come down on either side of this highly controversial debate.

Its letter to Animal Welfare Minister Ben Bradshaw said there was concern that waiting another year for the publication of results of culling trials would lead to increasing infection within the two populations.

This would "also increase the potential risk to human health", it added.

The government has previously said it would only consider a badger cull if scientific evidence proved it would work.

Following the BVA's letter, the Badger Trust said the government should tighten control measures within the cattle population, with more rigorous testing for the disease.

The National Farmers Union has said bovine TB poses a real threat to the beef and dairy industries and costs taxpayers almost £100m a year in compensation and testing.

Farmers say in some parts of the country the disease is having as devastating an effect on agriculture as foot-and-mouth disease, our correspondent said.

The farming community has said for some time that badger culling is the only way of controlling the disease.

But the government says it is currently analysing other studies on the spread of the bovine TB.

Mr Bradshaw announced in June the government was to launch a trial to test whether injecting badgers with a TB vaccine could prevent the spread of the disease in cattle.

The three-year trial, costing about £1.1m a year, will start next year in an area of high bovine TB prevalence in south-west England.

A further three-year project to create a version of the vaccine to be taken orally is due to start in November.

There is no such thing as a "humane culling" and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. There are plenty of wildlife programmes on the BBC which show badgers as heroes, yet farmers see them as villains. So once again this illustrates how rural areas in the UK are often hostile to wildlife that suburban areas consider a treat (foxes being another obvious example). The government is in a no-win situation here, they must be praying that an affordable and workable vaccine can be made and quickly.

Date published: 2005/10/08

Greenpeace takes the piss on global warming (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Greenpeace will attempt to turn a prosecution of four of its environmental campaigners to its advantage next month by using the trial to justify attacks on gas-guzzling 4x4 vehicles.

Lawyers for four Greenpeace protesters arrested for handcuffing themselves to Land Rover sports utility vehicles in London will present expert evidence on global warming and argue the action was aimed at preventing an environmental catastrophe, and they should go free.

The four, who face possible jail sentences if found guilty of aggravated trespass, are using a defence known as "necessity", arguing that actions which might otherwise be criminal were to prevent the greater evil caused by global warming.

The case marks an escalation in the battle between the environmental movement and maker of sports utility vehicles, demonised by many green activists for their poor fuel economy. Yesterday an editorial in the British Medical Journal recommended SUVs should carry health warnings about the dangers they posed to pedestrians.

Mike Schwarz, partner at solicitors Bindman Partners acting for the four, said: "There is a very strong scientific argument and a very strong moral argument and a great urgency. For the sake of all of us, this sort of argument has to work legally too." The largest SUVs were being "mis-sold", with vehicles appropriate for off-road or country use being marketed in cities.

More pathetic grandstanding by Greenpeace, and their fellow travellers in the British Medical Journal (perhaps all doctors "should carry health warnings about the dangers they posed" to everybody, not just pedestrians). And Mr Schwarz is taking the piss. SUVs are not "mis-sold", most of them are completely inappropriate for off-road and country use, as he knows full well. And the busy bodies (including the so-called environmentalists) have been making the roads in urban areas impassable with "speed calming" measures, and so SUVs are if anything more appropriate for urban areas than most other cars.

And let's take this ridiculous argument about "necessity" to its logical conclusion. By this argument we should have the right to go into the offices of Greenpeace and smash their computers. After all, computers use electricity, and electricity generation is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. And animal rights nutters should have the right to terrorise anybody and everybody who does anything horrid to animals (e.g. eating them). And anti-abortion nutters should have the right to go around shooting anybody and everybody who has anything to do with abortions. Let's just give all fundamentalist nutters (including the so-called environmentalists) the right to go around and do whatever they want, all "for the sake of all of us". Funnily enough, these people never seek election, so in fact speak for nobody except for their own minor organisations.

European Space Agency Cryosat satellite lost (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Space Agency has confirmed that its ice mission Cryosat has been lost off the Russian coast.

The satellite fell into the Arctic Ocean minutes after lift-off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia.

The £90m (135m euro) craft was designed to monitor how the Earth's ice masses are responding to climate change.

Scientists said the crash was a "tragedy" and it would be years before they could launch a similar mission, even if more funding were available.
...
The spacecraft was designed to provide data on the extent and thickness of the Earth's ice sheets.

Previous satellite measurements, submarine and surface readings point to rapid melting in some areas, particularly in the Arctic Ocean where the extent of summer ice reached a record minimum this year

The satellite was launched on a Rockot vehicle - a converted SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile.

Not very good, this would have provided very useful data. Why does the world seem less capable of launching satellites now than back in the 1960s?

Date published: 2005/10/07

The IAEA is awarded the 2005 Nobel peace prize (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The 2005 Nobel peace prize has been awarded jointly to the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Mohamed ElBaradei.

The citation says the IAEA's director is a "fearless advocate" of curbing nuclear arms and the importance of his agency's work "incalculable".

The nuclear watchdog's work to promote safe nuclear energy was also commended.

Mr ElBaradei said the award recognised that the spread of nuclear weapons was the world's worst security threat.
...
He began a third term at the IAEA last month after the US withdrew complaints that he was being "soft" on Iran.
...
Opponents of nuclear civilian energy condemn the agency's parallel commitment to civilian atomic power.

In the words of Greenpeace International, Mr ElBaradei is both "nuclear policeman and nuclear salesman".

Not for the first time the Norwegians have stuck two fingers up to the Christian fundamentalists who run America, and that seems to be the main reason that the IAEA and Elbaradei were awarded the prize. But it's interesting that the environmental fundamentalists also take a negative view of the IAEA. And presumably the Islamic fundamentalists who run Iran also don't like the IAEA. All of which starts to make the IAEA look more deserving than it is.

Date published: 2005/10/06

UK government worried about effect of climate change on animals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change could lead to the extinction of many animals including migratory birds, says a report commissioned by the UK government.

Melting ice, spreading deserts and the impact of warm seas on the sex of turtles are among threats identified.

The report is being launched at a meeting of EU nature conservation chiefs in Scotland.

It says that warming has already changed the migration routes of some birds and other animals.

The UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commissioned the research, which was led by the British Trust for Ornithology.

The meeting, in the Scottish holiday resort of Aviemore, was called to discuss ways in which wildlife might be helped to adapt to global warming.
...
Nature has always had to adapt to changing climate conditions.

Indeed, it is one of the driving forces behind the process of evolution which has produced the staggering variety of life on Earth.

But the fear is that the changes currently under way are simply too rapid for species to evolve new strategies for survival.

Their options are also being narrowed by the rapid conversion of ecosystems such as the draining of wetlands, felling of forests and development of coastlines - so if their existing habitats are hit by global warming, there is literally no place to go.

The report has important messages for conservation officials gathered in Scotland for this meeting convened by Defra.

They are being urged to make more use of "biological corridors" to widen the options available to migrating species as climate change takes hold.

The whole approach to conservation may have to be radically changed - the most perfectly-protected nature reserve could end up being of little use if the animals breeding there face starvation because they have nowhere to migrate.

Nothing new here, another "end of the world" report with the usual litany of dire forecasts. And unfortunately the idea of "biological corridors" might not work since an entire ecosystem might have to move in unison and that is unlikely to be achieved (especially since some of it, the underlying geography, cannot move).

Tony Blair the comedian (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has told the Iraqi president British troops will stay in the country "as long as he wants them".

Speaking after talks in London, Jalal Talabani said an early withdrawal of US and UK troops would be a "catastrophe".

Mr Blair issued a warning to Iran not to interfere in Iraq following claims it was supplying weapons to insurgents.

He said devices which killed British troops looked like those used by Iran but stressed "we cannot be sure".

Both leaders reiterated that British forces were in Iraq under a United Nations mandate with the support of the Iraqi government.

Mr Blair said: "There is no justification for Iran or any other country interfering in Iraq."

Tony Blair ever the comedian. Although perhaps Blair thinks that having thousands of troops in Iraq doesn't count as "interfering". In the same way that Bill Clinton did not inhale and "did not have sexual relations with that woman".

Date published: 2005/10/05

Big business in UK allegedly worried about climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British business leaders are due to meet senior ministers in a bid to refine Britain's strategy on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

The heads of top companies want clear targets to cut emissions, but small firms believe such targets could be a burden to them.
...
Lord Browne, BP chief executive and Sir John Bond, HSBC chairman, will both speak on business leadership on climate change.

Many larger firms are thought to back a stronger government policy on climate and are particularly keen for minister to establish targets and timetables for future CO2 cuts.

This would enable such businesses to plan their investment strategy.

Lord Oxburgh, a chairman of Shell, told BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin that big business was prepared to take action.

"If the government would give a very clear signal that everyone would have to [cut emissions], I'm sure businesses would move very quickly indeed," he said.

But Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said there will be very little progress on climate change until everyone agrees on the action that needs to be taken.

"We need a European Union that stops cheating on it, we need an America that comes to the party and we need the domestic consumer in this country to stop being hypocritical and get out their wallets," he said.

It is often claimed that big business hates regulation, but here is an example where the opposite seems to be the case. Mind you, it's a bit worrying when Shell runs glossy TV adverts extolling wind power and BP runs ones saying climate change is here and now. But of course they aren't really addicted to oil, they're only addicted to making money, and they are happy to do whatever that takes (it just so happens that right now it's easier to make money with oil than anything else).

And Digby Jones is a bit unkind to the domestic consumer. It's obvious that electricity and natural gas consumption (e.g. for heating houses) should have a hefty carbon tax but government and the chattering classes refuse to even mention this. Instead the government and chattering classes focus only on cars and airplanes (and the former already has a large carbon tax which is also conveniently never mentioned). With this kind of irrational and muddled leadership at the top you can hardly blame the consumer for being slightly unconcerned about it all. (And when has any leader of a big corporation offered to personally consume less, i.e. take a pay cut? Hypocrisy also starts at the top.)

Iran allegedly behind attacks on British in Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain has accused Iran of responsibility for explosions which have caused the deaths of all eight UK soldiers killed in Iraq this year.

A senior British official, briefing correspondents in London, blamed Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

He said they had provided technology to a Shia group in southern Iraq, although the Iranians had denied this, he added.

An Iranian spokesman denied the charge, insisted that Tehran was committed to ensuring a peaceful Iraq.

How convenient. An anonymous official (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more) starts to release anti-Iranian propaganda. No doubt part of the softening up campaign of the general public so that if and when the US decides to bomb Iran the UK government can claim that Iran deserved it all along. Don't forget to mention that Iran has (or soon will have) weapons of mass destruction.

Date published: 2005/10/04

Cambridge plastic being "recycled" allegedly ends up in China (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Waste collection in Cambridge is set to be revolutionised on October 17. The weekly collection of household waste will become a thing of the past as a controversial new scheme takes over. Now residents will have their regular waste and their compostable waste collected in alternate weeks.
...
But Labour city councillors have raised concerns about the scheme. Coun Lewis Herbert, a former senior recycling officer at Cambridgeshire County Council, says the amount of oil needed to drive around the city and collect the [ plastic ] bottles will negate the benefits of recycling them.

He said: "It's a missed opportunity because there are other ways the money could be better spent to encourage people to recycle more.

"The method of sending vehicles out to only collect plastic bottles is both wasteful and crazy - no other council does it that way. They should be collecting other things at the same time.

"This is not the best way of spending what amounts to about half a million pounds of tax payers' money a year."

But the Lib Dems have responded, citing figures which state that for every ton of diesel used by the lorries to collect the bottles they will be able to recycle nearly 18 tons of plastic. Plastic contains about 60 per cent oil and the Lib Dems say this is justification for the scheme.

However, Labour critics dispute the figures and have pointed out that all the plastic is then shipped to China before it is recycled.

Needless to say the chattering class LibDems that run the city did not bother to give any facts to people when they put out a consultation on the matter many months ago. So we now find that for every ton of diesel (produced by how many tons of oil?) they can collect 18 tons of plastic, which contains around 11 tons of oil. Presumably we are supposed to be impressed since 11 > 1, only it is an apples (diesel) and oranges (oil) comparison, and even worse, not only will they probably not be able to recover the full 11 tons, how many tons of oil does it take to recover the amount they do manage? Even worse, if this stuff really gets shipped to China not only does that add another amount of oil consumption (well, possibly not that much extra if the boat was going back empty in any case), it also means that this stuff is probably never recycled but just dumped in some landfill in China (or at sea). So it sounds like this plastic "recycling" is just a con trick to salve the conscious of the chattering classes of Cambridge (people who produce a lot of waste and like to pretend they are saving the world because they "recycle" some of it). It's time we have some people with common sense running Cambridge, and that precludes (most of) the LibDems.

Exercise in midlife allegedly cuts risk of dementia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Exercising for half an hour at least twice a week during midlife can significantly cut a person's risk of dementia later, say researchers.

People in their late 40s and early 50s who do this could reduce their risk of dementia by about 50%, according to a study reported in Lancet Neurology.

Those who are genetically prone to Alzheimer's disease could see a reduction of about 60%, it adds.

The Swedish team said the findings had large disease prevention implications.

"If an individual adopts an active lifestyle in youth and at midlife, this may increase their probability of enjoying both physically and cognitively vital years in later life," they said.

Past studies have also suggested regular exercise might guard against dementia, however, this is one of the first to look at the effects over a long time scale - about two decades.

The authors say this is important because dementia takes many years to develop and is typically quite advanced when it is diagnosed.

The study involved nearly 1,500 men and women, of whom nearly 200 developed dementia or Alzheimer's disease between the ages of 65 and 79.

The researchers looked back at how physically active the study participants had been up to 21 years earlier, when they would have been in their late 40s and early 50s.

Those who developed Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia were far less likely to have been active when they were middle-aged than those who remained free of dementia.
...
It might be that people who exercise tend to live healthier lifestyles in general, such as drinking less alcohol and refraining from smoking, they said. However, when they took into account such health risk factors, the findings remained the same, suggesting that exercise per se is beneficial for the brain.

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. As noted in the final paragraphs above, they tried to take other "risk factors" into account, but they certainly have not thought of everything. It's possible that your health outcome is already largely determined by the time you are (say) ten, and some people then are already predetermined to be both healthier in midlife (hence more likely to exercise) and healthier in late life (hence less likely to get dementia). The way to do this study properly is to take two randomly chosen groups, and force one group to do no exercise in midlife, and the other group to do lots of exercise, and then see what happens. Needless to say such a study would never be done. As such, the only conclusion one can make from the study that was done is that there is a correlation between exercise in midlife and not getting dementia. Of course there may be more than a correlation, only these researchers have not demonstrated it one way or the other.

A junket in London to discuss climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The leaders of more than 20 world cities are meeting in London to swap ideas on combating climate change.

Berlin's investment in solar cells, Mexico City's taxi fleet upgrade, and Toronto's use of lake water cooling for its buildings are all on the agenda.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who is hosting the event, says that cities have a special responsibility to curb emissions, and special opportunities.

Cities consume about 75% of global energy production.

The World Cities Leadership Climate Change Summit brings together representatives from a diverse range of cities, including Beijing, Delhi, Sao Paulo, Stockholm and Kingston.
...
One of the most imaginative low-carbon projects comes from Toronto, where cold water from the lower depths of Lake Ontario is circulated around the city.

More than 30 buildings in the city centre now use the Deep Lake Water Cooling Project rather than conventional air conditioners.

London itself will present details of its congestion charging scheme, under which car drivers have to pay a sum of £8 (US$14) for each journey into the city during working hours.

Mr Livingstone says that carbon dioxide emissions within the congestion charge zone have fallen by 19% since it was introduced.

Hmmm, a bunch of bureaucrats take a junket to London which consumes vast amounts of energy in transport, and we're supposed to be impressed. And presumably the BBC is misquoting Livingstone and he is only claiming that the CO2 emissions from cars have fallen by 19%. And of course there is no statement from him how much CO2 emissions have increased elsewhere in compensation. (If you do the sums properly, which these folks never do, the odds are the net effect is negative.)

Date published: 2005/10/03

Young children should allegedly be looked after by their mothers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Young children looked after by their mothers develop better than those cared for in nurseries, or by relatives or childminders, research suggests.

About 1,200 children were monitored from birth to the age of three.

The social and emotional development of babies who were cared for by someone other than the mother was "definitely less good", the report's authors said.

The study, by the National Childminding Association, was one of the biggest carried out so far on UK childcare.

Mothers were seen as the best carers, followed by nannies and childminders, then grandparents, and nursery care was the worst, the study said.

Study author Penelope Leach said the results were not a call for all mothers to stay at home and give up work.

Instead, they highlighted a demand for "developmentally appropriate high-quality childcare".

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. In particular, did the researchers factor out the socioeconomic status of the families? The correct way to do this research is to randomly assign children to different types of caring, and see what happens. And unfortunately, one has to treat with caution results from research carried out by the National Childminding Association on the subject of child care. Luckily they managed to make the results say that childminding was not the best, but of course everyone (certainly the chattering classes) believe that mothers are best, so just as well that that came out on top. And as with all sociological research, specific results should never be used to claim a "big picture" conclusion. If you looked at other things no doubt you could easily show that nursery care is "best".

Europe's ivory market allegedly a problem (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe's thriving ivory retail market is threatening an increase in elephant poaching, conservationists have warned.

More than 27,000 ivory products were found on sale in five major European countries where investigators went: the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

Global conservation groups Care for the Wild and Save the Elephants say an active ivory market spurs poachers on.
...
Their report also warned that all ivory, even if legally sourced, contributed to the slaughter of elephants.

Care for the Wild's chief executive, Barbara Maas, said the trade in Europe was predominantly in old ivory.

"Although technically legal, we mustn't forget that every item represents a dead elephant."
...
Illegal ivory out of Africa is now bypassing Europe and being shipped to East Asia where high demand is inflating prices, according to the report authors.

China has an unregulated ivory market and they warned that unless something is done to control demand, nothing would change in Africa.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, head of Save the Elephants, said that in unstable countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, the demand was fuelling "a poaching holocaust".

As Europe's legal ivory stocks dwindle, some craftsmen are using mammoth tusks as a substitute. The tusk is brittle and discoloured but prized by collectors.

Another co-author of the report, Dr Dan Stiles, said that in north-east Siberia the permafrost was melting as a result of climate change and exposing large numbers of mammoth remains.

"There is no way of quantifying stockpiles but we found 3,424 mammoth ivory pieces in Germany and France alone," he said.

The mammoth is an extinct species and requires no documentation for trading - a fact already being exploited.

Unfortunately the ridiculous nature of what reads rather like a press release from the two organisations mentioned might well be hiding a real problem. In the first paragraph Europeans are blamed for the illegal trade. Alarming numbers (27,000) are quoted. But further on we find that "the trade in Europe was predominantly in old ivory" and "illegal ivory ... is now bypassing Europe" and that some of the trade is down to (legal) "mammoth ivory pieces". So one is left with the impression that probably very little of the 27,000 is actually illegal. But of course that spoils the alarmist story, so we are told "we mustn't forget that every item represents a dead elephant". Unfortunately hysterical press releases will do nothing to bring back elephants killed 100 years ago and there is nothing wrong, morally or legally, with using and trading ivory from long-dead elephants or mammoths. By all means, make modern ivory uncool so more elephants are not killed illegally now, but don't use black propaganda to do it.

Date published: 2005/10/02

Supercars that are allegedly eco-friendly (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times once (or so) a month runs a special magazine called "How to Spend It" in its weekend edition. Well, the title itself gives the game away, and when you consider the average salary of an FT reader, you can well imagine the types of articles and ads the magazine has. Unbelievably, once in awhile there is an article which pretends it is more to do with conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption. This week there was such an article, about upmarket "eco-friendly" cars. (None of the contents of this magazine seem to make it onto the FT website.)

Apparently at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed (yes, very eco-friendly) there was an interesting new car:

It was the Venturi Fétish, the world's first electric sports car to go into series production. ... It has a top speed of over 100 mph; it can hit 60 mph from standstill in 4.5 seconds; and it is quieter than an empty milk float. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Venturi Fétish, however, is its price tag of 450,000 Euros (around 310,000 pounds). ... People with serious money are showing interest in fast, eyecatching, luxury cars that are eco-friendly at the same time.

To call this car "eco-friendly" is ridiculous. The fact that it costs 310000 pounds immediately tells you that it takes a heck of a lot of energy to build (more energy, for example, than it takes to build almost any new house in the UK) and most of that energy almost certainly came from oil one way or the other. Further, what is it that makes people think that electricity is so eco-friendly? Sure, if you happen to be in a city you might prefer to see an electric car rather than a petrol car drive past. But that electricity has to be produced somehow, so the pollution is just moved somewhere else. And any electric car that can do 100 mph is bound to be a car that consumes a heck of a lot of electricity. Rich people like the Fétish not because it is eco-friendly but because they can afford it and most people cannot. Of course they might want to pretend, as a bonus, that they are being eco-friendly, but they are not.

New electricity transmission lines in Scotland (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to erect huge power pylons across Scotland have been attacked by the Ramblers Association in Scotland, who claimed they would be "disastrous".

Scottish and Southern Energy plans to upgrade electricity pylons from Beauly near Inverness to Denny close to Falkirk with 600 pylons, some 67m high.

SSE spokesman Alan Young said the new power line was essential.

But Cameron McNeish, RAS president, said it would spoil a remote and environmentally sensitive area.

Part of the proposed line runs through the Cairngorms National Park.

The firm plans 200 fewer pylons than present, but they would be larger.

SSE said the pylon line would ship power produced by new wind farms and hydro schemes in the Highlands and islands to customers further south.

Mr McNeish said it was concerned the SSE would create an "energy highway" in a remote area.

"This massive upgrade would be disastrous for the region," he added.

"The result of this increase in transmission capacity will be to encourage even more giant wind turbines to seek connection to it in order to feed energy junkies down south."

As sure as night follows day, transmission lines follow new sources of electricity. The Ramblers are largely urban and middle class, and these are the very same "junkies" who will consume much of this energy. Hardly anybody likes the look of electricity pylons and that is no doubt what McNeish means by "spoil", but it's about time the UK middle class grows up and understands that not every remote area has to look like a Victorian postcard. Transmission lines do not have to cause much (real) damage to the land they pass over (it depends, of course, on how they are installed and maintained).

Date published: 2005/10/01

John Lloyd of the Financial Times rewrites history (permanent blog link)

John Lloyd of the Financial Times spends most of his columns excoriating the press. In today's offering (subscription service) in the FT he turns to "liberals" generally. Apparently "liberals" have spent the last few decades demanding that "something must be done" about the world's tyrants, yet took exactly the opposite view over Iraq:

It is a sad spectacle. Liberals and leftists who spent decades demanding that something must be done to end all sorts of repressions and foreign horrors, and denouncing theirs and other governments for refusing to end them, now denounce the British and US governments for having removed one of the great monsters of the late 20th century because blood was shed (and is still being shed) in the course of it. This isn”t debate about the manner of waging war: it is a smug, I-told-you-so (or I didn”t tell you but I am now) blast against apparent failure - usually oblivious to the consequences of that failure, especially on the ideals and practice that liberals and leftists claim to have espoused.

It's amazing how the war's supporters continue to misrepresent the history of the war against Iraq, obviously hoping to obliterate the record of what really happened. Firstly, you won't find many "liberals" with the line "I didn”t tell you but I am now" about the Iraq war. Most "liberals" have always been against the war, and vocally so. Remember, there were between one and two million people on the streets of London on 15 February 2003 protesting against the forthcoming invasion. The few "liberals" who were for the war pretty much all still support the war. Indeed, you will be hard put to find a single person who supported the war who is now willing to admit it was all a disaster and never should have happened. Instead we have countless post-hoc justifications of why the war was started, the favourite one being that it was done in order to remove a horrible dictator.

Funnily enough that is not what most of these very same people were saying before the war. Instead, the main reason given for the invasion was because Iraq was a threat to the US and Britain. This is certainly what Blair told the House of Commons in order to win the vote to go to war. (Not to mention Colin Powell's ridiculous propaganda show at the UN.) Of course this alleged threat was not the real reason either. The real reason was that Bush and his advisors thought this was an easy touchdown from the two yard line and would increase his political stature, and that of the Republican Party, at the expense of the Democrats. Many people on the streets of London on 15 February 2003 knew this (others thought the war was mainly about oil), but funnily enough, Blair (and it seems John Lloyd) did not.

This can be demonstrated in several ways. Before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the US was more than happy to do business with Saddam Hussein. Who cares if he killed a few million people as long as some of those people were Iranian. But then Hussein got a bit uppity and tried to steal control of Kuwait from under the noses of the US, and of course that could not be allowed. Who did that uppity Arab think he was. That is what irritated the US, not the killing of the Kurds.

Then the drumbeat to war conveniently started just in time for the midterm elections in 2002. And this helped the Republicans to do better than they should have. The entire Republican slime machine sent out the message "If you don't support us on Iraq you are a terrorist and a traitor". The Republicans purposely conflated the issue of Iraq and 9/11 (something Blair does these days as well as part of his post-hoc justification for the invasion). After the overthrow of Baghdad, Bush staged a totally theatrical party political exercise with his "mission accomplished" stunt on an aircraft carrier specifically kept at sea so he could fly out to it. Hardly the actions of a statesman concerned first and foremost about human rights, and not just playing party politics.

Sure, if Bush and Blair had really gone to war to remove a horrible dictator most (or many) "liberals" might well have supported them. But that is not why they went to war. There is no point John Lloyd trying to rewrite history while most people who took part are still alive, because they know full well he is just writing rubbish.

US wants to keep control of the internet addressing system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US has rejected calls by European Union (EU) officials to give control of the net over to a more representative United Nations (UN) body.

Wrangling over who should essentially be the net police, managing domain names and net traffic routing fairly, has been going on for some time.

The matter is supposed to be discussed at November's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

But at a pre-Summit meeting this week, the US said it would resist the plans.

In the meeting, the European Union (EU) backed proposals that control of the net should be under a more representative body.

"We will not agree to the UN taking over the management of the internet," said Ambassador David Gross, the US coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department.

"Some countries want that. We think that's unacceptable."

Currently, the US Commerce Department approves any changes to the internet's core addressing systems, the root zone files, managed by Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers).

Last month the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) published its proposals for reform of the way the net is run, which are to be debated at the Summit.
...
The UN's WGIG has suggested four alternatives:

The UN World Summit on the Information Society takes place in Tunis, Tunisia, between 16 and 18 November.

More obstructivism from the US. The UN itself is probably not the best organisation to take this role on, but it is ridiculous that the US controls Icann. If the US continues down this path (and with the current hopeless bunch of hooligans running America it will), then do not be surprised if the rest of the world sets up a competitor to the internet as it exists today. Perhaps some keen Indian or Chinese entrepreneur will take this on board.

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