Azara Blog: November 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/11/30

Ocean current in the Atlantic might bring cooler weather to Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Changes to ocean currents in the Atlantic may cool European weather within a few decades, scientists say.

Researchers from the UK's National Oceanography Centre say currents derived from the Gulf Stream are weakening, bringing less heat north.

Their conclusions, reported in the scientific journal Nature, are based on 50 years of Atlantic observations.

They say that European political leaders need to plan for a future which may be cooler rather than warmer.

The findings come from a British research project called Rapid, which aims to gather evidence relating to potentially fast climatic change in Europe.
Florida-based scientists monitor the northwards-flowing Gulf Stream, and have found it has remained roughly constant over the last 50 years.

The NOC researchers concentrated on the colder water flowing south; and they found that over the last half century, these currents have changed markedly.

"We saw a 30% decline in the southwards flow of deep cold water," said Harry Bryden.
The NOC researchers admit that the case is not yet proven.

The analysis involves only five sets of measurements, made in 1957, 1981, 1992 and 1998 from ships, and in 2004 from a line of research buoys tethered to the ocean floor.

Even if the trend is confirmed by further data, it could be down to natural variability rather than human-induced global temperature change.

"This issue of variability is very important," said Harry Bryden, "and we do not have any good grasp of it.

"Models can predict it, but we think we ought to go out and measure it."

Michael Schlesinger from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a leading expert in models of climate and ocean circulation, believes that even with these caveats, the NOC team has probably come up with a link to human-induced climate change.

"The variability question is the right one to ask," he told the BBC News website, "but the phasing is wrong."

A decade ago Professor Schlesinger showed that the north Atlantic conveyor undergoes a natural 70-year cycle of strengthening and weakening.

"The Bryden measurements are out of phase with this cycle," he said.

"The natural cycle had a northern cooling until the mid-1970s and a warming afterwards, and here we see an apparent cooling."

He is also convinced by other details of the NOC measurements showing that the changes in the southerly underwater flow have occurred at great depths.

"The slowing down of the southward return occurs between 3,000 and 5,000m; and this more or less constitutes a smoking gun," he said.

So what does all this mean for European weather? Will it necessarily get colder - or will the apparent recent trend of warmer summers continue?

"If this trend persists," said Harry Bryden, "we will see a temperature change in northern latitudes, perhaps of a degree Celsius over a couple of decades."

But climate is a complex phenomenon; other factors could conspire, even so, to produce a net warming.

More grist for the mill. The main worry is that there are only five sets of measurements (and were the methodologies even identical?). Of course the media likes this kind of dramatic announcement, so play it all up. When young climate scientists start selling their houses in the UK and moving to the south of France then perhaps we should all start to have more confidence in these predictions. (Britain would not be uninhabitable but it would certainly be a much less desirable place to live.)

Adair Turner publishes pensions report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A gradual rise in the state pension age to 68 has been put forward as part of a major proposed shake-up of UK pensions.

In return, the basic state pension would be increased and rise in line with earnings rather than inflation.

In its report the Pensions Commission also proposes a National Pension Savings Scheme, which many workers would be automatically enrolled into.

The report has triggered a political row over who caused the pensions crisis and whether the reforms are affordable.
The head of the Pensions Commission, Lord Adair Turner, said the UK's pension system currently faced "significant problems".

The commission spent three years looking at ways to revamp the UK's pension system.

In its interim report last year, the commission said more than 12 million people over the age of 25 were not saving enough towards their retirement.

The commission has now called for the state pension to become more generous, but become payable at a later age over the coming decades as life expectancy increases.

It suggests that the state pension age should rise gradually, to 66 by 2030, 67 by 2040 and 68 by 2050.

It also proposes:

"The problems in the UK's pension system will grow increasingly worse unless a new pensions settlement for the 21st century is now debated, agreed and put in place," Lord Turner said.

The proposal to link increases in the basic state pension to earnings has already caused a political row. Chancellor Gordon Brown was reported to have said it was unaffordable.

Alison O'Connell from the Pensions Policy Institute told the BBC that people who had studied pensions recognised that it "would be much better to have a better state pension and less means testing".

"As we're all living longer, that will require some change in state pension age in future to pay for it," she added.

"The big question is how much we spend on state pensions and how much we can reduce that cost by raising the state pension age."

All very eminently sensible (and much as expected), which almost certainly means the government will ignore many of the recommendations. Alison O'Connell says that "people who had studied pensions recognised that it 'would be much better to have a better state pension and less means testing'" but unfortunately she is leaving out the one person who believes the opposite, Gordon Brown. He has a fetish for means testing (in particular of old people) and he's hardly going to admit now that he was wrong all along about pensions. So until Gordon Brown and New Labour are removed from office, expect no sensible progress on pensions.

Political correctness being foisted on university applications (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The names of students applying to university should be withheld to avoid racial discrimination, a report says.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has made the proposals, saying ethnicity may be identified through an applicant's name.

Hefce is calling on the University and College Admissions Service to give "urgent consideration" to the idea.

While finding no evidence of widespread racism, Hefce said applicants to law schools may face discrimination.

More useless politically correct time wasting by useless politically correct time wasting bureaucrats. In Cambridge (almost) all students are interviewed before being given offers. If the Hefce has come to the brilliant conclusion that "ethnicity may be identified through an applicant's name" imagine what can be determined by meeting the applicant in person. Not to mention that applicants give away a lot of relevant details in their personal statements, either purposefully or inadvertently. Sack these bureaucrats and spend the money on education.

Date published: 2005/11/29

Blair announces yet another energy review (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A fierce debate over nuclear power is under way after Tony Blair launched an energy review which could pave the way for a new generation of nuclear plants.

Greenpeace protesters disrupted Mr Blair's speech and other green groups voiced anger that nuclear could be used to fill gaps in energy supplies.

But business groups have welcomed the review, saying a clear decision on future supplies and nuclear is needed.

Ministers say they have so far made no decisions on building new plants.

That is despite reports that Mr Blair has been convinced that building more nuclear power stations is the only way to meet energy needs and stick to the targets on climate change.

Mr Blair had to make his speech in a different hall after the protesters climbed into the roof at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London.

He said nuclear power was a difficult issue but should be settled by open debate, not protests to stop free speech.

The energy review would be headed by the Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks and report by the middle of next year, he announced.

It would measure the UK's progress against a review carried out two years ago.

And it would "include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations", he said.

Mr Blair said energy policy was "back on the agenda with a vengeance".

"Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency."

He warned that "by around 2020 the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30% of today's electricity supply".

"Some of this will be replaced by renewables, but not all of it can," he argued.

Blair back to stating the obvious. Unfortunately nuclear power has a poor historic track record. So time will tell whether any new nuclear power stations will ever be built in the UK. But the UK is facing an energy squeeze by 2020, and the government has been extremely lax about doing anything about it. The fact that "green" groups voiced "anger" is neither here nor there. These religious zealots are always angry about anything that does not happen exactly as their narrow theological tenets suggests it should. And in line with other religious zealots, no debate or discussion is allowed.

European Union missing its emission targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Union is likely to miss its greenhouse gas targets by a wide margin, according to an official assessment of the Union's environment.

The European Environment Agency says that the 15 longest-standing members of the EU are likely to cut emissions to just 2.5% below 1990 levels.

This falls well short of their target 8% cut.

Growth in the transport sector is partly to blame, with increased air travel offsetting gains made elsewhere.

The European Union is at the heart of the Kyoto process, and is committed to substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

But real performance is poor according to the new report on Europe's environmental health - emissions have in fact been rising since the year 2000.

Improvements in industrial efficiency and reductions in methane emissions from waste tips have given the most dramatic gains.

But elsewhere the story is one of reverses.

Longer car journeys have more than eaten into any gains in engine performance, and ship and airline journeys are also increasing fast.

Let's see. You earn a certain amount of money. You spend it. That uses up a certain amount of energy. For a fixed size of your income, if the cost of energy goes up you use less, if it goes down you use more. For a fixed unit energy cost if the size of the economy grows the amount of energy consumed goes up, if the economy declines the amount goes down. This seems to be exactly what the EEA has somehow just noticed. For a fixed energy use you can cut emissions if you substitute one source (e.g. coal) for another (e.g. gas). This is obviously not happening fast enough to make a big enough difference. (Well, the world does not calculate emissions correctly in any case, since if the EU buys steel from China, the EU does not take the blame for the emissions made producing the steel.) So much for all the political grandstanding by EU politicians on the world stage. But the recent large increases in unit energy cost will eventually have an impact.

Cambridgeshire given money to do a road pricing study (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

It's official - Cambridge is to be one of the first areas outside London to look into the idea of congestion charging.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced yesterday (Monday, 28 November) that the city has been picked as one of seven local authority areas that will investigate what he calls "road pricing" - making motorists pay if they drive their cars on certain roads.

The Department for Transport will give the council a grant of £385,000 to mount a detailed study, which is expected to start soon and be finished by the summer of next year.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which will spearhead the study, says at this stage there are no firm proposals on how a charging scheme would work.

And lead councillor for highways and transport, Mac McGuire, told the News: "We have no plans to introduce a congestion charging scheme like the one in London. We are however interested in investigating one that, through rebates in other taxation, would cost the average motorist about the same as they are paying at present.

"This is an innovative approach, but until the study is completed we will not know whether or not it will work - or whether it will be appropriate for the Cambridge area."
Brian Smith, Cambridgeshire County Council's deputy chief executive, said: "The Cambridge area is facing big problems from traffic growth in future years, and we need to be planning now for how we deal with it. It's important to say however that although some form of demand management scheme will be needed, we simply don't know at this stage what it will be or how it will work."

One idea the council has floated publicly is compensating drivers who need to come into Cambridge in cars, and who will have to pay whatever charge is introduced. The idea is to give them some sort of discount - possibly a rebate on income tax, road tax or Council Tax.

The rebate would apply only to motorists who did a set average number of miles - those who were above the average would not qualify, thereby discouraging them from using their cars and encouraging them to use other modes of transport.

Mr Smith said the council will be working with other bodies - other councils, the Highways Agency, the East of England Development Agency, local businesses and so on - to canvass their views on what sort of scheme might work.

"Nothing is fixed - we want a wide debate and wide discussion on what we might do," he said.

If the study leads on to an actual project, it is likely to be several years before it starts, possibly not until 2011-2012.

Well needless to say anything to do with government is bound to be a disaster. Especially if it is to do with local government. However road pricing (often called "congestion" charging although the cost bears no or little relation to the congestion caused) is something that will obviously happen in the UK in the next twenty years no matter how expensive it is to implement and operate. It will certainly be interesting to see what kind of "business" model the county bureaucrats will come up with. Of course these are the very same bureaucrats who have purposely made road traffic in Cambridge worse and worse the last ten years. And although central government might be able to offer reductions in income tax or road tax as the alleged carrot to compensate for the introduction of road pricing, local government could only offer reductions in council tax. (It is also a bit of nonsense that the suggestion seems to be that only drivers get these reductions. Duh?) And because of the huge cost of implementing road pricing, the overall impact will not be tax neutral, since someone (i.e. the motorist) has to pay this cost. (And for the cost take whatever figures the government suggests courtesy of overpaid consultants and double these figures, or more.)

Date published: 2005/11/28

The CBI says the government is not spending enough on transport (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The CBI has called on the government to spend an extra £1bn on transport over the next two years, claiming delays are hitting output and stressing-out staff.

The business leaders' group wants the cash spent on road and rail projects, and demanded a £60bn injection to take spending in the next decade to £300bn.

Director general Sir Digby Jones has also called for the UK's "decrepit" transport planning to be reformed.

The government has commissioned a review of long-term transport needs.

The review is being conducted by Sir Rod Eddington, former boss of British Airways, and is due to report next spring.
"Germany built two high-speed railway lines and three airport terminals in the time it took us to have a planning inquiry to build Terminal 5 at Heathrow," Sir Digby told the BBC.

"This is no way for the fourth biggest economy on earth to operate."

Speaking at the CBI's conference, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced that £7m was being given to fund road pricing pilot schemes in seven local authorities including Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Tyne and Wear.

"One of the biggest threats to economic expansion we face in the next 10 years is congestion on the roads in our towns and cities," he said.

"Congestion is bad for business, frustrates motorists and hurts local economies."

The usual griping from the CBI. But New Labour has been far too influenced on transport by the so-called environmental lobby, so road transport has taken a hammering. And the less said about rail transport the better. (The Tories and certainly the Lib Dems would be just as bad, if not worse.) The UK is unfortunately bad at almost all transport (exceptions being Ryanair -- run by the Irish -- and Easyjet -- run by a Greek). This is partly, but not totally, because of the nightmare planning system. Unfortunately road pricing will almost certainly have a net negative impact on the UK economy (someone has to pay for all the infrastructure and operating costs, which are immense and usually ignored when the government discusses road pricing), but the ruling elite love it because it is another tax to inflict on motorists.

Gordon Brown tries to butter up the CBI (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chancellor Gordon Brown has announced that the Office for National Statistics will be made independent of government, in a speech at the CBI's conference.

The government hopes the move will restore confidence in official statistics and persuade voters that public services are improving.

The ONS would become a "wholly separate body", Mr Brown said.

The chancellor also unveiled plans to cut red tape for UK businesses while adopting a more "risk-based" approach.

This follows complaints from firms that the government has ignored their needs.

The ONS said the decision to allow it independence was "an important step forward in enhancing the integrity of official statistics".
Britain has been accused of overdoing things when it implements EU directives into domestic law. This accusation of "goldplating" is something Mr Brown is keen to tackle.

"I understand the concerns about the extra administrative cost of the goldplated regulatory requirement that from April next year all quoted companies must publish an operating and financial review," Mr Brown said.

"So we will abolish this requirement and reduce the burdens placed upon you."

The chancellor also announced a shake-up in the relationship between business and the government through a "risk-based" approach to regulation.

And he said he would simplify tax forms for companies and plans to introduce a new simpler self-assessment form for small businesses.

The government hopes that reducing administrative burdens will save businesses £300m a year.

Mr Brown said the government would abandon the Operating and Financial Review (OFR) which made it compulsory for firms to submit detailed outlines of their environmental and social strategies.

The TUC said it was "deeply disappointing" that the OFR was being scrapped, while Friends of the Earth mourned the demise of the "only concrete action this government has taken" toward corporate responsibility.

"It is about time the government stopped bowing down to CBI scaremongering," said Sara Jayne Clifton, a corporate accountability campaigner.

Well once in a great while Gordon Brown actually does something sensible. If only he were a bit more consistent. (Of course if this was Tony Blair he would be telling the CBI one thing and the TUC the opposite.) Making the ONS independent of government is a major move forward, since under New Labour they have been far too influenced by the need to make the government look good. As for "corporate accountability" and "responsibility", it is rather amazing that the government has abandonned the OFR, but it is probably just as well, it would just have meant that corporations were forced to justify business decisions on politically correct rather than financial grounds.

Date published: 2005/11/27

There are not enough houses in rural areas (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lack of land, "Nimbyism", and planning laws are causing rural social housing shortages and increased homelessness, housing associations are warning.

The National Housing Federation has told the government's Affordable Rural Housing Commission that the situation is now critical.

Rural house prices are rising but there has been a fall in the number of new affordable homes being built.

The federation wants changes to planning to prioritise social housing.

In its submission to the commission, the federation says that from 1999-2003 the proportion of homeless households in rural areas increased by 24%.

In the South West - where housing shortages, second homes and low wages make it the most expensive area after London - the minimum target for new affordable housing per year was missed by over a third.

It says planning processes that can be slow and cumbersome, and "unthinking" opposition from people who take a "not-in-my-back-yard" attitude to developments is exacerbating the problem.

The federation wants a national rural housing strategy to be drawn up, VAT to be reduced to 5% for refurbishment of empty rural houses and for surplus government land to be used for social housing.

It is also recommending that more rural people be given key worker status and for the right to buy social housing to be restricted.

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: "The acute shortage of affordable housing is a threat to the prosperity and existence of rural communities and market towns.

"A lack of land, a slow and unresponsive planning system and unthinking Nimby opposition is preventing not-for-profit housing associations from building the new homes needed to keep communities alive."

This is not just a rural problem, it is a UK problem. The main reason is that the ruling elite refuse to allow enough land to be released for housing. The problem is compounded by the fact that big developers have a stranglehold on house building, so you can understand why people start behaving like NIMBYs, because these developers don't put one or two houses here or there, instead they dump dozens or hundreds of homes right in one field. And "key worker" is one of the most obnoxious and divisive phrases introduced by New Labour. What it means is that certain politically correct categories of public sector workers are somehow deemed worthy of housing favours which are denied the rest of the populace. All workers should be able to afford a decent house but nobody should be given special favours, especially if the criterion is just that they happen to work for the government. In Cambridge, for example, school teachers are deemed more worthy than university staff, although teachers earn just as much (if not more) than your average university employee. And needless to say, the only reason the city of Cambridge exists at all is because of the university, so if you want to be divisive then you could easily argue that university employees should be the ones getting special favours in Cambridge, not school teachers.

Old people are worst hit by council tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Council tax rises are hitting the finances of pensioner households far harder than those of younger people, according to research from the Halifax.

On average, council tax accounts for 6% of household income amongst the over 75s, twice the rate for the under 50s.

Overall, council tax bills have risen 121% since 1993 compared to an 83% increase in average salaries.

But pensioners feel tax rises more keenly because the state pension increases only in line with prices.

In addition, many pensioners live in large houses which attract a high council tax charge.
Halifax's research did not take account of pensioners claiming council tax benefit.

At present, 2.4 million pensioners are receiving the benefit.

But Age Concern has estimated that at least a million older people are failing to claim, mainly put off by complexity and fear of means-testing.

The Local Government Association (LGA) called for an end to means-testing of council tax benefit.

Such geniuses at the Halifax. Council tax is a (crude) property tax and therefore is a (crude) wealth tax. Wealth taxes hit people who have more wealth than income (relatively speaking) just like income taxes hit people who have more income than wealth (relatively speaking). So wealth taxes have more of an impact on the old and income taxes have more of an impact on the young. Tell us something we don't know. (Life would be much better if you had wealth when you were young and income when you were old, but unfortunately it happens the other way around. Perhaps we should live our lives backwards.) Of course old people generally vote more enthusiastically than young people, so most governments would be wise not to piss off old people, especially since their number is increasing. The real problem is that everybody wants lots of services but nobody wants to pay for them, and the politicians and the media unfortunately play along with this silly game.

Date published: 2005/11/26

Cambridge might be getting a Maggie's Centre (permanent blog link)

The architecture critic of the Financial Times seems to have been ill and in this weekend's edition wrote a long article (not really worth reading) about hospital architecture, generally about how dreadful most of it is in the NHS. Of course it is possible to have decent health service architecture (the Swiss, as usual, seem to lead the way with Herzog and de Meuron). In the UK the most famous example of what can be done is Maggie's Centre in Dundee, whose architect was Frank Gehry. This came about not because someone in the NHS suddenly was inspired, but because one man, Charles Jencks, decided to do something after his wife, Maggie, died of cancer. There are now (or will soon be) half a dozen Maggie's Centres around the UK (mostly still in Scotland). Best news of all, for Cambridge, is that apparently we are supposed to get one here, once Addenbrooke's Hospital gets its act together (it is supposed to be located on that site), and the architect for that is supposed to be Daniel Libeskind. Now Libeskind is a bit of a BS artist, but at least his buildings are interesting, and it will be good to have at least one example of his architecture in Cambridge. The hospital site is of course the natural location, the only downside being that the whole layout and psychology of the site is so dreadful that any decent building risks being swallowed up in the mess.

Civil partnerships give inheritance tax exemptions (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Friends or cousins of the same sex wishing to pass on assets after their death free of inheritance tax may be surprised when their tax adviser suggests they tie the knot.

From December 5, individuals of the same sex can have their relationships legally recognised in the form of a civil partnership. While civil partnerships were intended to give gay and lesbian couples legal recognition, accountants and lawyers say they do not preclude any two individuals of the same sex -- provided they are not direct family members -- from forming a civil partnership to take advantage of the significant tax breaks.

The civil partnership extends the same rights enjoyed by husbands and wives, the biggest tax advantage being the ability to leave assets to a surviving partner without them incurring inheritance tax.

"There is no express requirement in the Act for the two individuals to live together, to be of any particular sexual orientation or to be in a sexual relationship," said Simon Rylatt, tax and financial planning partner at Boodle Hatfield.

However, under the rules parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles will be barred from registering each other as civil partners, as will half-brothers and sisters and those in adoptive relationships. Cousins will be able to make use of the rules.

Tax advisers say that civil partnerships are not to be entered into lightly, due to the rights and responsibilities of the legal union. But as record numbers of estates are moving above the inheritance tax threshold of £275,000, forming a civil partnership may become a mainstream option for individuals looking to pass on assets tax efficiently after their death.

"It would always be pointed out to clients now that there are advantages to getting married in that they can pass assets between each other," says John Whiting, president of the Chartered Institute of Taxation. "If there is a couple of friends who jointly own a house, then forming a civil partnership will be drawn to their attention. Civil partnerships will be put in the toolbox of solutions offered to clients."

However, legal experts say there are plenty of downsides to entering into a civil partnership purely for tax gain.

"If one of the partners wanted to leave all or part of his/her estate to children (or to anyone else) then on death there is a risk that the surviving partner might try to thwart that," says Julian Washington, partner with Forsters solicitors.

There could be further heartache down the line, if a civil partner wants to marry or end the relationship.

"Elderly couples entering into civil partnerships for tax advantages may be shocked to learn that they can only terminate the relationship by a process equivalent to divorce called dissolution," says Vivien Hardy, family law partner at Boodle Hatfield. "As with divorce, no application can be made before a year has elapsed and the court has to be satisfied that the civil partnership has broken down irretrievably. This process can take several months and can be expensive."

A spokesman for HM Revenue & Customs said that the department does not look at the motivation for couples entering into marriage and this would be the same for civil partnerships.

A rather silly story this. People can already marry to avoid inheritance tax, so in theory you could pass down an estate to your spouse who passes it down to a new spouse who passes it down to a new spouse, forever into the future, without a single penny of inheritance tax being paid. But hardly anyone (if anyone at all) takes up this opportunity (specifically to avoid this tax). If people did in large numbers then you can guarantee the Treasury would suddenly find good reasons why married people should not be exempt from paying inheritance tax. And indeed, the real point of this story should be that either nobody should be exempt from paying inheritance tax or everbody should be exempt (i.e. inheritance tax should be abolished). Why should only certainly politically correct categories (those who are officially married or officially in civil partnerships) be exempted?

Japanese space probe hopefully collects samples from an asteroid (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A Japanese space probe has become the first craft to collect samples from the surface of an asteroid, mission scientists say.

The probe, called Hayabusa - Japanese for falcon - briefly touched down on the Itokawa asteroid and fired a projectile to loosen surface material.

Scientists believe it collected the debris, but will only be sure when the craft returns to Earth in 2007.

Moon rocks have been analysed before, but asteroids could contain material from the birth of the solar system.

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) confirmed that the Hayabusa touched down on Itokawa for a few seconds.

Touching down on the asteroid, which is 290 million km (180 million miles) from Earth, was as tough as landing a jumbo jet in the Grand Canyon, a Jaxa spokesman said.

The probe fired a small metal ball into the surface and apparently collected the resulting powdery debris.
Saturday's announcement by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) came after a series of problems in the past week.

Last Sunday, Hayabusa made a first touchdown on the rotating asteroid - but it failed to collect material after temporarily losing contact with Earth.

A separate attempt to land a miniature robot on the asteroid was also unsuccessful.

Hayabusa was launched in May 2003 and has until early December before it must leave orbit and begin its journey home. It is expected to return to Earth and land in the Australian outback in June 2007.

An amazing feat if they really managed to pull it off. And much more sophisticated than what the US recently did, i.e. smash a large projectile into a comet.

Date published: 2005/11/25

High levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Current levels of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere are higher now than at any time in the last 650,000 years.

That is the conclusion of new European studies looking at ice taken from 3km below the surface of Antarctica.

The scientists say their research shows present day warming to be exceptional.

Other research, also published in the journal Science, suggests that sea levels may be rising twice as fast now as in previous centuries.

The evidence on atmospheric concentrations comes from an Antarctic region called Dome Concordia (Dome C).

Over a five year period commencing in 1999, scientists working with the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (Epica) have drilled 3,270m into the Dome C ice, which equates to drilling nearly 900,000 years back in time.

Gas bubbles trapped as the ice formed yield important evidence of the mixture of gases present in the atmosphere at that time, and of temperature.

"One of the most important things is we can put current levels of carbon dioxide and methane into a long-term context," said project leader Thomas Stocker from the University of Bern, Switzerland.

"We find that CO2 is about 30% higher than at any time, and methane 130% higher than at any time; and the rates of increase are absolutely exceptional: for CO2, 200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years."
"The main thing that's changed since the 19th Century and the beginning of modern observation has been the widespread increase in fossil fuel use and more greenhouse gases," said Kenneth Miller from Rutgers University.

Well, the planet Earth has been around for several billion years, so half a dozen hundred thousand years is a short time scale. So the word "exceptional" has to be taken in context. But it is interesting data. Everybody (well nearly everybody) believes that the high (and increasing) CO2 level is because of human activity. But the real question is what to do about it, and whether the various proposed "solutions" are worse than the "problem". What the world really needs is a (human) population crash, but of course nobody wants to volunteer.

Swimming with dolphins makes you less depressed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Swimming with dolphins appears to help alleviate mild to moderate depression, researchers have found.

A University of Leicester team tested the effect of regular swimming sessions with dolphins on 15 depressed people in a study carried out in Honduras.

They found that symptoms improved more among this group than among another 15 who swam in the same area - but did not interact with dolphins.

The study is published in the British Medical Journal.

All the volunteers who took part in the trial stopped taking antidepressant drugs or undergoing psychotherapy at least four weeks beforehand.

Half the volunteers swam and snorkelled around dolphins for one hour a day over a two-week period.

The others took part in the same activities, but without dolphins around.

Two weeks later, both groups showed improved mental health, but especially so among patients who had been swimming with the dolphins.

The researchers say dolphins' aesthetic value, and the emotions raised by the interaction may have healing properties. Some have speculated that the ultrasound emitted by dolphins as part of their echolocation system may have a beneficial effect.

Let's see. You give a huge amount of care and attention to a group of depressed people and in particular allow them to have an extraordinary experience swimming with dolphins which 99% of the planet cannot afford to do (because it is so expensive) and these people benefit. Are we supposed to be surprised? The only good thing to say about this "research" is that at least they used two random groups (or so it seems). Well hopefully the determination of "improved mental health" was sufficiently unbiased. Sure, if it turns out that flying people to Honduras and letting them swim with dolphins for two weeks has a long enough beneficial effect to match the savings from not taking pills, then it's obviously a great idea. Unfortunately if that were the case you might find a lot more people claiming they were depressed.

Date published: 2005/11/24

Disabled people do not do as well in life (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teenagers with disabilities get lower qualifications and have more trouble finding jobs, a study suggests.

Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that pupils with disabilities have high aspirations but that these are often not realised.

Disabled people who do find work are also likely to be paid less than others, the study said.

And there is a widening gap in terms of aspiration and achievement as people move into their 20s.

The researchers studied data from the British Cohort Study of 1970 and parts of the Youth Cohort study of pupils of school leaving age born in 1982/3 and 1984/5.

They focussed on people with both physical disabilities and mental health problems.

They found that at 16 that there was no difference in the educational, work and earnings aspirations of people with disabilities and others.

But they found that disabled teenagers were less likely to get on the course they wanted (half did so, compared to three-fifths of non-disabled people).

By the age of 18 or 19, the highest level qualification of nearly half of disabled young people was NVQ 1 (equivalent to a D or under in GCSES), while just over a quarter of people without disabilities were at this level.

By the age of 26, people with disabilities were four times as likely to be unemployed as others.

Those who were in work were earning 11% less than non-disabled people with the same level of education.

Are we supposed to be surprised or moved or worried by these findings? Stop wasting money on this kind of useless "research" and instead spend the money on science or engineering or almost anything else where real problems are identified and solved.

EU finally agrees to reduce sugar subsidies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A reduction in subsidies for Europe's sugar farmers has been agreed by European Union agriculture ministers, officials in Brussels have confirmed.

They have agreed to cut the prices offered to European sugar farmers by 36%, bringing the EU's sugar rules into line with global frameworks.

The changes were demanded by the World Trade Organisation, but EU farmers and sugar firms have warned of job losses.

The EU had been paying Europe's sugar producers three times the world price.

A spokeswoman in Brussels said the "deal has been done" on the basis of "a large qualified majority" of the ministers - in other words, by votes allotted according to states' population but weighted in favour of smaller countries.

EU farmers wishing to abandon growing sugar beet will now be offered compensation amounting to 64.2% of revenues lost due to the price cuts.

The agreements follow three days of marathon talks.

At present, the EU pays about 1.5bn euros ($1.8bn, £1bn) annually to support the sugar sector.

Change was demanded of the EU after the WTO ruled earlier this year that its existing 40-year-old guaranteed pricing system was illegal.

About bloody time. This was one of the classic EU farm scandals.

Date published: 2005/11/23

Doris Lessing visits Cambridge (permanent blog link)

Doris Lessing paid a visit to St Catharine's College tonight. She is a good example of how interesting old people can be. She started by talking a bit about how although people might think we live in horrid times, people have pretty much always thought that. And situations that people think might last forever (e.g. the so-called war on terror) have a habit of going away suddenly. Before the War (which for people over a certain age means the very real WWII, not the phoney so-called war on terror) she pointed out that people thought that the Third Reich, Communism and the British Empire would all last pretty much forever, but they are all gone.

She then read some excerpts from a recent collection of her essays, Time Bites, interspersing this with more general commentary. Like many people over a certain age, she believes that the kids of today don't receive a decent education. In particular she mentioned a daughter of a friend of hers who apparently got through school without knowing anything about Christian ceremonies or history. Well, you can't really blame the schools for this, this is just someone who is not interested enough in things to go out and read. And no doubt every generation has made the same sort of complaint about the next generation, it's one of the perils of growing old.

Along the same line, she said that the publishing industry was getting worse and worse, with publishers having to "bribe" booksellers to get books stocked. And her editors keep changing because the previous one has either been sacked or decided to change jobs. Well, publishing is more fluid these days, because of the internet (i.e. Amazon) and the end of the cosy price agreements that used to exist in the UK publishing industry.

She also talked about what it takes to be a writer. Basically, the advice was that it was a lot of hard work, best done in isolation. And don't show your books to your friends while you are writing it, they will just criticise it. Just write what you want and be damned. (Also don't pay any attention to the critics, but everybody knows that already.) Don't copy another book's ideas (apparently publishers are still awash in variants of Bridget Jones's Diary), write in your own voice. Don't write as if there is an intended reader. She said she could tell who was a real writer by whether or not they were willing to scrap what they had written and start again.

Apparently self (or "vanity") publishing is on the rise. Well blogging is a good example of that. But she meant old-fashioned, dead-wood publishing. Even here she said it was relatively trivial to get a good printer and someone who could put together a book cover, for not much money. But the big problem, of course, is not so much the production of the book, but its distribution. (The same problem with music or films, of course.) You can do it all yourself, but this means you end up with stacks and stacks of books in your house, and you spend all your time putting parcels together. So not necessarily a good idea.

At the end there was a question and answer session with the usual sorts of questions ("what's your favourite novel?": "none").

Surprise, students who work have less time to study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Undergraduates who work part-time during term-time are likely to do less well academically than their contemporaries, research suggests.

When working 15 hours a week, the odds of working students getting a first class or upper second degree were found to be 62% of similar non-working peers.

The survey of 1,500 UK-based students also found working students tended to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The study is likely to fuel debate about the future of student funding.

The research, commissioned by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) and Universities UK, questioned 1,500 final-year students from seven universities across the UK.

More useless "research". What a surprise, working 15 hours a week means you have 15 hours less a week to study. Give these guys a bonus. Even worse, they have found the obvious strong correlation between working and (parental) income. Have these "researchers" bothered to check whether there is also a correlation between income and exam results (independent of whether or not you work)? That in itself might count for a large portion of the correlation they did find. Why oh why does the UK constantly waste money on this kind of garbage "research"? Why oh why does the BBC think this ought to "fuel debate about the future of student funding"?

Chirac thinks airlines are responsible for global poverty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The French government has approved plans for a new tax on airline tickets to boost aid for the world's poor.

The tax, which needs parliamentary approval, would range from one to 40 euros depending on the distance travelled and type of ticket.

Levied on every passenger boarding a flight in France, it could raise up to 210m euros ($248m; £144m) a year.

President Jacques Chirac has been campaigning for an international air tax to help fight global poverty.

He first raised the idea during the Word Economic Forum in Switzerland last January, saying an international tax of one euro should be charged on the 3 billion airline tickets issued each year.

He has the support of the UK government, which has agreed to divert revenues from its existing Air Passenger Duty.

In Chile, a $2 surcharge will be added to tickets on all outgoing flights from January 1 2006.

But the US has made it clear that it does not support the idea, and it is not clear how many other governments will adopt Mr Chirac's proposal.

A stupid idea from Chirac. Why air passengers? Why not people who buy cars, or people who buy perfume, or people who buy books, or people who buy just about anything you can imagine? Indeed, if the government of France is so keen on foreign aid, it should just increase income tax or sales tax or some other general tax. Are air passengers to blame for global poverty? And, needless to say, Chirac and the parliamentarians will be not affected at all by this tax because the French taxpayer pays for them to fly everywhere.

Date published: 2005/11/22

Stunts to reduce road traffic speed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A campaign is under way to lower speed limits to 20mph in urban areas, but what's going to make drivers slow down? A bossy road sign, a hump in the road or a three-piece suite parked in the road?

There's no reason that traffic calming should be boring or without a sense of humour, says children's author and traffic campaigner, Ted Dewan.

And using his Oxford residential street as a test laboratory, Mr Dewan has been working on more creative ways to reduce traffic speed.

"People are too used to being scolded by warning signs telling them about lethal speed and driving. It's like 'tell me something new'. But they're not used to having their wit engaged," he says.

So in a spirit that combines a sense of entertainment with a serious intent, he has come up with the idea of "folk traffic calming".

This is where art installations meet road safety, a kind of sleeping policeman that's been influenced by Damien Hirst.

These type of "DIY traffic-calming happenings" are described by their creator as "roadwitches" and have included an 11-feet high rabbit, a big bed (for a sleeping policeman), a Casualty-style fake crash scene for Halloween and the setting up of a living room in the middle of the road.

"There's an element of fun and mischief, but underneath is the ambition to encourage people to re-examine how roads are used," says Mr Dewan.

"With the living room, it was the most direct way of saying 'We live here. This is our living space.'"

And he says that residents really enjoyed the strangeness of being able to relax outside in their own street, rather than feel it was a place only belonging to the cars that race up and down it.

Residents had forgotten what it was like to have a street without the usual high-volume and low-courtesy of passing traffic.

Oh for the good old days, when the peasants had to take the bus or walk or cycle to work. It's amazing how the non-working class always object to the working class scurrying around getting to work in order to pay enough taxes to keep the non-workers going. All these stunts probably make the roads much less safe (too distracting for the drivers), except of course "setting up a living room in the middle of the road" which would have stopped traffic completely. And unfortunately, Mr Dewan does not "live" in the middle of the road, he lives in his house. If he wants more space around his house then he should buy a house with more space around it, not assume that he can appropriate public space for his own private purpose. If he so objects to people driving cars in front of his house then he should never drive his car anywhere near anyone else's house. (Well there are two kinds of people who object to other people driving cars: those who themselves drive, who are hypocrites; and those who do not themselves drive, who are selfish -- "I don't need to drive so why should anyone else?".) Needless to say there are plenty of roads in urban areas where the speed limit should be 20 mph, and it is ridiculous that the politicians and bureaucrats find this so difficult to achieve. The speed limit should also be reduced near schools when students are arriving or leaving. Unfortunately so-called traffic calming implies that people should drive at 5 mph or less (the only safe speed over many of the speed bumps, if you don't want your car trashed). So instead of putting in sensible speed limits the ruling elite have decided to wage war on their own citizens. They are far too influenced by the non-workers and the safety nutters.

UK students turning away from physics (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government must take urgent action to deal with a "severe shortage" of physics teachers or the subject will die out in schools, a report has said.

Buckingham University academics studied 432 schools and colleges in England and Wales and found 38% fewer pupils were taking A-level physics than in 1990.

Over the same period, the number of new physics teachers dropped from about a third of the science total to 12.8%.

The government said it was working hard to reverse a "long-term trend".

Should this be something the UK should really be worried about? Students don't like physics because it is hard and not particularly interesting (for most of them). And physics research is not nearly as glamorous as it used to be, with cutting edge theoretical physics looking more and more like religion written down in algebra. The golden age of physics was the first half of the 20th century. The most interesting and glamorous science subject now is molecular biology (and related disciplines).

Date published: 2005/11/21

Homeopathy allegedly has positive outcomes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A six-year study at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital shows over 70% of patients with chronic diseases reported positive health changes after treatment.

More than 6,500 patients took part in the study with problems ranging from eczema to menopause and arthritis.

The biggest improvements were seen in children - 89% of under 16s with asthma reported improvement.

Of the group, 75% felt 'better' or 'much better', as did 68% of eczema patients under 16.

The results come just months after a study in The Lancet concluded that using homeopathy was no better than taking dummy drugs.
Dr David Spence, Clinical Director and Consultant Physician at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital and Chairman of the British Homeopathic Association, a co-author of the new study, said: "These results clearly demonstrate the value of homeopathy in the NHS."

All the patients were referred by their GP or hospital specialist and many had tried conventional treatment first without success.

Professor Matthias Egger, of the University of Berne, who worked on The Lancet study said the study was weakened by the lack of a comparison group.

He also questioned the validity of the way the study recorded improvements in patients' conditions.

"Patients were simply asked by their homeopathic doctor whether they felt better, and it is well known that in this situation many patients will come up with the answer the doctor wants to hear."

It's unbelievable that the BBC gives any credence at all to this study. The comment at the end is the relevant one, and the fact that "the biggest improvements were seen in children" is not that surprising if the patients were just asked if they felt better.

Date published: 2005/11/20

The UK will probably miss 2010 CO2 target (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is unlikely to meet its 2010 target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20%, the government's chief scientific advisor has admitted.

Sir David King told the BBC the target was perhaps a "bit optimistic" but said the government had not given up and long-term plans were in place.

The "green light" should be given for more nuclear reactors, he added.

Environmental groups accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of backtracking on the issue of setting targets.

The Blair government seems to love targets. Usually the government can rely on the affected parties (e.g. schools, hospitals, etc.) to fiddle the statistics and/or skew performance in order that the targets are met. (So, for example, allegedly school students are doing better and better, only they seem to know less and less by the time they get to university.) With emissions the figures are much harder to fiddle. And, unlike with their other targets, government has also done little to offer financial rewards (either directly or indirectly) to the population for meeting the targets. If you are going to make targets like this, you should make them for 2050, when you are long dead, so cannot be held accountable.

The Blair government certainly looks likely to push for more nuclear power. Most of the so-called environmentalists will not like this at all, but in some sense, by forever claiming that global warming is by far and away the number one problem on the planet, they themselves have encouraged the political climate where nuclear power again becomes accepted. Of course with nuclear power the current generation is passing huge problems (of storage of nuclear waste) onto future generations, and this is allegedly "unsustainable" behaviour (in the dreadful jargon of the day). Not unlike greenhouse gas emissions, as it happens. But a recent report has indicated that with emissions targets and without nuclear power, the UK will face a serious electricity supply shortfall in future.

Date published: 2005/11/19

Breastfeeding allegedly reduces gluten intolerance (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Breastfeeding may protect children against the gluten intolerance known as coeliac disease, research suggests.

The Archives of Disease in Childhood study was a review of over 900 children with coeliac disease and almost 3,500 healthy children.

The longer a child was breastfed, the lower their risk of the condition was.

However, it is not clear whether this apparent protection is permanent or how breastfeeding might protect a child. Other studies show conflicting results.

An estimated 1% of the UK population has coeliac disease.

People with this condition develop a permanent sensitivity or intolerance to gluten - a protein found in cereals such as wheat, rye, and barley.

A number of studies have suggested that early infant feeding practices, as well as genetic factors, may be important in coeliac disease.

A team at Manchester University, the UK, looked at recent research on the effect of breastfeeding on the risk of gluten intolerance.

They found six studies all showing a link between breastfeeding and reduced risk of coeliac disease.

Those infants who were being regularly breastfed when they were first introduced to foods containing gluten cut their risk of developing coeliac disease by 52% compared with those who were not being breastfed.

The researchers said there were a number of possible explanations for the findings.

It might be that a child is simply exposed to less gluten during weaning if he or she is being breastfed.

Alternatively, breastfeeding might protect against coeliac disease by preventing gastrointestinal infections in an infant which can weaken the lining of the bowel and allow gluten to pass deeper into the gut than normal.

Breast milk also contains certain immune cells from the mother that might confer protection against gluten intolerance, they said.

A spokeswoman from the British Nutrition Foundation said: "The review provides encouraging evidence for a protective effect of breastfeeding at the time of gluten introduction - which is not recommended before 6 months - on the risk of developing coeliac disease."

But she added: "While the findings of this review are encouraging, there is a need for longer-term studies to investigate further the relation between breast feeding and coeliac disease, and for research to elucidate the mechanism whereby breastfeeding may protect against coeliac disease."

Professor Paul Ciclitira, a coeliac disease expert at King's College London, said there was no consensus as to whether breastfeeding did protect against coeliac disease or not and that more research was still needed.

A spokesman from Coeliac UK said: "We welcome this review as it provides strong evidence of the protection conferred by breastfeeding where infants are at risk of coeliac disease.

"However, it is still not clear whether breastfeeding delays the onset of the disease, temporarily or provides permanent protection."

The World Health Organization recommends women breastfeed babies for at least six months.

Another research study which seems to confuse correlation and causation. For example, are healthier mothers (with healthier children) more likely to have breastfed their children just because they feel healthier? Of course as stated, the current dogma is that women should breastfeed their children (and it is fairly obvious this has to be best). But to do this kind of study properly one would have to take a random group of mothers and force half to breastfeed their children and half to not, and then see which half suffers less from coeliac (and other) disease. Needless to say, studies are never done this way.

Inheritance tax catching out more and more people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of UK homes that will be subject to inheritance tax has tripled in the past five years, the Halifax bank has said.

It said house price rises meant the tax would be payable on 2.1 million homes.

The bank reckons 12% of all privately owned homes are worth more than the tax threshold, rising to 50% of homes in London and south-east England.

Currently, people have to pay tax at a 40% rate on inherited assets worth more than £275,000.

That threshold is scheduled to rise to £300,000 in the tax year 2007/08.

But Martin Ellis, the chief economist at the Halifax, said it should be pushed up much further:

"This trend will worsen unless the government acts now and raises the threshold to fully reflect the increase in property prices."

The bank estimates that if that lower limit had kept pace with property inflation over the past 10 years it would now stand at £406,600.

A Treasury spokesperson said: "No previous administration has ever linked tax thresholds, including inheritance tax thresholds, to price movements of any particular asset. The practice of this government is no different."

Inheritance tax is estimated to bring the government an income of £3.4bn this year.

That is a rise of nearly £1bn pounds in just two years.

Of course homes themselves are not subject to inheritance tax (as stated in the first paragraph), it is the total estate of a deceased person. Well for most people by far and away the largest asset in an estate is their house, but many people only have part (typically half) shares in their house. Anyway, there is the general question of whether inheritance tax is "fair" and whether the rate (40% above the threshold) is "fair" (whatever "fair" is deemed to be). Inheritance tax sounds like a great idea. Tax the assets of "rich" people when they die so that their horrid undeserving children do not just inherit all the money, having done nothing to earn it. Unfortunately inheritance tax has some fatal flaws which mean that the only really fair way forward is just to abolish it.

The main problem with inheritance tax is that there are exemptions. For example, assets left to a spouse are exempt. This was introduced for the plausible reason that nobody wants an elderly wife or husband to be kicked out of their house when their spouse dies just to pay a tax bill. Gay couples who have civil unions will also soon qualify for this exemption. But what about everybody else? What about people who are not married (a large set of people these days)? What about people who live with their siblings? What about people who live with and look after their parents? These people are just as deserving as the politically correct categories that are currently exempted. You could probably make a case that just about anyone is deserving and it would be far too complicated (and arbitrary) to set down plausible rules as to who was and who was not. So instead just abolish inheritance tax.

Date published: 2005/11/18

New UK housing estates allegedly dreadful (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A housing estate in County Durham has been branded the worst new development in northern England, according to a government-funded buildings watchdog.

Only 6% of new developments across the North were rated as good in the The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe) study.

Their report described the 141-home estate at Villa Real in Consett, as a "truly awful development".

The builder Persimmon described it as much-needed affordable housing.

The estate, which scored the lowest in an audit of 93 new housing developments in the North, was criticised for its "identikit" appearance, its small garages and poor parking provision.

Cabe has hit out at the majority of new homes being built as failing to measure up on design quality.

Developments completed between 2002 and January 2005 were examined for their character, roads, parking and pedestrianisation, construction environment and community.

The study said recurrent problems include poorly defined streets and public space, illogical site layouts and the failure to create a distinct sense of place.

A spokesman said the overall standard of the vast majority of the schemes fell substantially below what was needed to realise the aims of government plans for sustainable communities.

Of the Villa Real development of detached and semi-detached homes, Cabe said there was "a complete failure to create a sense of character and identity, consisting of identikit houses with no architectural quality and no reference to the local vernacular."

Peter Jordan, regional projects director for Persimmon, said: "The type of housing that was built in Consett at that time in a very price-sensitive marked has done exactly what it says on the tin.

"People wanted houses with gardens and parking and garages, and that's what they've got. It has kept people in the town."

Cabe called for house builders and local planning authorities to work closer for the benefit of home buyers.

Britain has been building "identikit" housing for centuries. Just look at all the Georgian and Victorian terraces and the long rows of 1930s semis. (No doubt the chattering classes in the 18th century complained about the horrid terraces being built, which are now considered wonderful by today's chattering classes.) One has to assume Persimmon knows better than Cabe (middle class control freaks) what their customers are willing to put up with, given the (real) constraint of price. The big problem with UK housing is that the price of land is kept artificially high by the planning rules enforced by the ruling elite. This by itself means that almost all housing in Britain has to be built by a developer, rather than by individuals (with the help of an architect). With development land costing millions of pounds per acre, you are never going to get decent, cheap housing, especially if you want to include parking and a garden. Of course most of the UK planning elite think no housing for ordinary people should include a decent garden or (especially) parking, since allegedly anything that is not high density rabbit hutches is "unsustainable". So it's quite amazing to see that Cabe is supposedly worried about "small garages and poor parking provision". Of course anyone who uses the dreadful phrase "sustainable communities" is already suspect. And the planning elite and local authorities of Britain do not have a good track record when it comes to housing design, being more interested in politically correct ideology than in what the home owners might actually want. Developers are not great but the government dictated alternative is usually worse.

New air traffic management system for Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe is to get a new 20bn-euro (£13bn) air traffic management system to cope with its congested skies.

The Sesar project will overhaul current technologies used to keep planes at safe separations, and allow pilots to fly their own routes and altitudes.

The new automated system would shorten individual flight journeys, reducing fuel use and pollution.

Growth forecasts show that air traffic in Europe is set to double by 2025, and even triple in some areas.

"Europe will have the most effective air traffic control infrastructure in the world," Jacques Barrot, vice-president of the European Commission and Commissioner for Transport, said as he launched the definition phase of the project.

"By making air transport more efficient, Sesar will add around 50bn euro to European growth. The project will create almost 200,000 highly skilled jobs."

Sesar is the technological part of the single European sky initiative, launched in 2004 to reform the organisation of air traffic control in the EU bloc.

It is envisaged that future management of our skies will become increasingly automated, with advanced communication and computing technologies being used to optimise the flow of planes in the air.

Sesar, formerly known as Sesame, is expected to make heavy use of Galileo, Europe's next-generation satellite-navigation network which comes into operation over the next five years.

Galileo is being built to deliver guaranteed signals at sub-metre accuracies, a performance that would support a safety critical application such as automated air traffic management.

Sesar will be deployed between 2014 and 2020. Like Galileo, it will be funded as a public-private partnership.

Well they are almost certainly overstating and overestimating the potential benefit, but it has got to be a good idea, if they can get it to work without huge cost overruns, etc. And it's good to know that at least someone in the EU is doing something practical to improve air transport (including a reduction of unit emissions), rather than just attacking air travel as allegedly an evil form of transport.

Another pointless psychological study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Unhappy workers are more likely to become ill, according to a new study.

People with low job satisfaction are most likely to encounter emotional burnout, reduced self-esteem, anxiety and depression, say researchers.

Even a modest drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout of "considerable clinical importance", the report warned.

The study of 250,000 employees was carried out by Lancaster University and Manchester Business School.

Depression and anxiety were now the most common reasons for people starting to claim long-term sickness benefits, overtaking illnesses such as back pain, it found.

Professor Cary Cooper, of Lancaster University Management School, urged employers to seriously tackle the issue with "innovative policies".

"This would be a wise investment given the potential substantial economic and psychological costs of unhappy or dissatisfied workers," he said.

"Workers who are satisfied by their jobs are more likely to be healthier as well as happier."

Gee whiz, what a surprise. Another pointless piece of "research". And even worse, they seem to confuse correlation and causation. All they have found is a correlation (i.e. a link) between job satisfaction and all sorts of other things you would expect there to be a correlation with. But to state that "even a modest drop in job satisfaction could lead to burnout" (or any of the other conclusions they are trying to imply) is claiming a causation which has not been demonstated. With the claimed (trivial) correlation you could equally well state that "burnout can lead to a drop in job satisfaction" (again with no proof of the purported causation). Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Business schools should stick to producing MBAs.

Date published: 2005/11/17

Cambridge railway station area development (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Detailed plans for a huge redevelopment scheme [ of Cambridge's Station Road area ], which will cost £725 million, have now gone on show.

And Lord Richard Rogers, the distinguished architect who is leading the design team, told the News: "This is a remarkable opportunity for the city."

The project, called cb1, is being masterminded by Cambridge's Ashwell Property Group.

The plans include a big transport interchange - for buses, bikes, cars and trains - residential accommodation, including affordable housing, offices and shops, a 150-175 bed hotel, and health care facilities.

There will also be restaurants and bars, a conference centre, covered cycle parking, and a multi-storey car park.

An "historical research and cultural centre" is also set to be created in the old Spillers flour mill building, and there will be a big piazza-style public square.

Network Rail Property is involved in the scheme too, and the historic station building itself is due to be refurbished.

Rod Dowle, strategic planning director for Ashwell, said the area had "remained static for many years, despite local demand for a much-needed boost".

"It will now be rejuvenated as a result of the plans being proposed by Ashwell," he said. "The surroundings to the station will be enhanced with the new square, to improve pedestrian flow, and improve the vistas from and to the station frontage.

"It will be a sustainable and viable mixeduse development."

The city council has yet to approve the scheme, but the property firm has put the plans on show this week so that people can see what is being proposed and comment on it.

When the consultation process is finished, comments will be assessed and plans will be amended as required, Ashwell says. In tandem with Network Rail, the firm then aims to submit a planning application to the city council before the end of this year.

Phase one of cb1 - a new 90,000 sq ft commercial building worth £18m - is due to get under way in February 2006.

The property company has a long track record in working on big schemes. It is also involved in a £400 million building programme to develop 2,800 houses across East Anglia over the next seven years, and is working on development projects in Sudbury and Chelmsford.

Lord Rogers has been appointed as master planner and lead architect for the Station Road scheme, and his team will be designing about half of its buildings.
The public exhibition of the Station Road is being held in the entrance hall to St Paul's Church on Hills Road on the following days: Thursday, 4pm-8pm, Friday, November 18, 12pm- 5pm, Saturday, November 19, 10am-2pm.

Well given the constraints imposed by the Cambridge ruling elite, the master plan presented at the St Paul's exhibition looks reasonably good. It's only a master plan, so detailed design is lacking, but it looks like at least Rogers has not completely gone off his rocker. One developer, Ashwell Property Group, owns the entire site (that is being developed) so that helps.

Of course there is plenty to quibble about. They are proposing two big blocks right opposite the station entrance, one, to the north of Station Road, for a hotel and conference centre, the other, to the south of Station Road, for office and retail space. The latter in particular (at ten storeys high) will dominate the old (Foster's) mill building. (The mill building is supposed to be converted to residential use, and the old silo to the Heritage Resource and Cultural Centre, the HRCC.) Some people might not like the tall buildings but if there is one location in Cambridge where this does not matter it has got to be the station area.

The proposed cycle parking is for 2000 (expandable to 3000) places, under cover, but located a couple of hundred meters south of the station entrance. (As a comparison, apparently there are around 500 "official" cycle parking spaces now and around 500 "unofficial" ones.) Well the fact that it is covered will probably please some people (but it is not stated yet whether there will be a charge to use it). But the distance will put many cyclists off. And late at night what is the security going to be like in the cycle shed? Many cyclists would choose instead to lean their bikes against one of the closer buildings or trees. People who don't cycle really don't understand the psychology of cyclists.

It is proposed that Station Road will be blocked to cars at Tenison Road but there will be a parallel road leading off the latter towards a multi-storey car park (which might also contain the short-term parking). The main square out front (measuring apparently around 50 x 150 m) will contain a taxi rank and disabled parking and (amazingly) a place to drop off and pick up passengers. (It is amazing because the Cambridge ruling elite have stupidly never thought about such a facility for the central bus station, nor for the new bus area whether it be on Victoria Avenue or on Parkside. The Cambridge ruling elite hate cars so design everything as stupidly as can be imagined just to stick two fingers up to drivers.)

Station Road will contain most of the commercial space being developed and the residential space will be behind. Unbelievably they are going to try and squeeze 1400 households -- i.e. flats -- in the little space there is. Of course many of these households will be occupied by London commuters, many of whom would not have previously considered moving to Cambridge, so this side of the development is rather irrelevant for the citizens of Cambridge, it helps rather little to accomodate the people who live and work in Cambridge. Except that 30% of the housing will be "affordable" (i.e. expensive but subsidised by the other households on the site so that some politically correct category of workers can be accomodated there). And also possibly, in the best of all possible worlds, some housing a bit further from the station will be freed up because some commuters will move to live in the station area.

The proposal is to demolish all the existing buildings on the south side of Station Road and also the ones on the north side of Station Road east of Tenison Road (the developer does not own the other part of the north side of Station Road). In particular the classic 1970s buildings, Demeter, Leda and Jupiter will be demolished and even worse Kett House will be demolished, and that was massively (and no doubt expensively) refurbished only four years ago. Needless to say, the developer's blurb for the site gives all the usually politically correct jargon, including that the development is "sustainable" (the most abused term in modern political life). But how "sustainable" is it to demolish perfectly good buildings just so that slightly taller buildings can be put up in their place? (Of course when someone says that something is "sustainable" they only really mean that it is something they want or like, and everything they don't want or like is "unsustainable".)

The developer also claims that "we anticipate that up to 80% of the new employees and residents in the area will not travel by car during peak hours". Well that might be a bit fanciful, but of course in the usual stupid Cambridge way, less car parking is being allowed (per sq foot of office space) in the new offices than in the existing offices. (Now what happens when a visitor to these offices discovers there is no parking. Hmmm, let's see, they park elsewhere, such as in the multi-storey cark park intended for rail users. This is indeed what one Rogers spokesperson suggested tonight as the obvious thing that will happen. Of course the Cambridge ruling elite will express surprise in N years when this turns out to cause problems.)

And a lot of the residents will indeed be London commuters so of course rather than driving their "unsustainable" car 2 miles to get to work in Cambridge they are going to take the "sustainable" train 60 miles to get to work in London. A great victory for the environment.

UK state pension age is probably going to increase (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A rise in the basic state pension and an increase in the age at which it can be claimed is to be recommended by the Pensions Commission later this month.

The commission's report will call for a more generous state pension but a rise in the claimant age to 67, according to the Financial Times newspaper.

A new national savings plan, in which individuals will automatically have to enrol, will also be recommended.

The commission has been tasked with finding a blueprint for pension reform.

A Pensions Commission spokeswoman said the newspaper article was speculative and that it would not be commenting ahead of the report's publication on 30 November.

According to details of the report obtained by the FT, the commission will call for a generous rise in the state pension.

This should rise from the current £80 a week to closer to the £109 a week paid out through the means-tested minimum income guarantee.

To pay for this increase, the report will recommend that the age at which people can claim the state pension should rise from 65 to 67.

The proposals, to come into force after 2020, would affect everyone currently under the age of 50.

There is also a suggestion that the Turner Commission has been discussing scrapping the State Second Pension scheme to help pay the cost of their proposals.

Well so far this is just gossip, but it sounds plausible, and is mostly the kind of obvious advice anybody halfway sensible would make. Although they should bite the bullet and increase the claimant age to 70 (and possibly higher in future). People live much longer now and if you live much longer you have to expect to work much longer. Of course the government might just ignore all this advice, they have enough trouble on their hands already.

A $100 portable computer for the poor children of the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A prototype of a cheap and robust laptop for pupils has been welcomed as an "expression of global solidarity" by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The green machine was showcased for the first time by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte at the UN net summit in Tunis.

He plans to have millions of $100 machines in production within a year.

The laptops are powered with a wind-up crank, have very low power consumption and will let children interact with each other while learning.

"Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction - they will be able to open up new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning," said Mr Annan.

He added that the initiative was "inspiring", and held the promise of special and economic development for children in developing countries.

The foldable lime green laptop made its debut at the World Summit on the Information Society, which is looking at ways of narrowing the technology gap between rich and poor.

All very well intended, but wouldn't you think the world would be more concerned about providing sanitation and clean drinking water to the poor of the world than portable computers. And of course $100 is not cheap for those at the bottom half of income in the world.

Date published: 2005/11/16

English Heritage doesn't like barn conversions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's historic farm buildings are under threat from disuse, dereliction and "horror" conversions, English Heritage is warning.

In a joint report with the Countryside Agency, the body says there is pressure on buildings such as barns, hop kilns, dovecotes and stables.

The report found 7.4% of listed farm buildings were in a severe state.

It would take £30m to repair these buildings and many more are in danger, the Heritage Counts report said.

Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, said: "Because they are falling out of use, they are vanishing fast.

"We are talking about thousands of barns, wagon sheds, byres, dovecotes, outhouses, stables and oast houses - these buildings face disuse and dereliction.

"Almost as bad is that some of them are being converted in such a way that is fundamentally unsympathetic to the buildings and very unsympathetic to the countryside itself.

"Almost a third of listed working farm buildings have already been converted, mainly to residential use, and this can do a lot of damage if it is not done with care and attention."

Dr Thurley said he was aware of some "horror" barn conversions which were causing the "suburbanisation of the countryside".

The usual middle class snobs expressing the usual sanctimonious middle class views. There is nothing the urban and rural elite hate more than the "suburbanisation" of anything (a code word to mean anything they don't like, such as decent housing for the ordinary people of Britain, rather than the urban rabbit hutches promoted by the planning elite). The reason so many farm buildings are "in danger" is because they are no longer useful, and by far and away the best use of most of these buildings is to be converted to residential (and less frequently other) use. Of course the middle class control freaks do not really like this (how dare the suburban peasants trample the countryside). And the complaint that conversion of listed buildings "can do a lot of damage if it is not done with care and attention" is a statement of the obvious, but of course any change to a listed building needs planning consent, so the complaint also rings hollow. If the UK has £30m to spend, it would be far better spent on improving the housing stock of the country than on keeping farm buildings that nobody wants up to scratch.

Met Police Commissioner states the obvious (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's top policeman has warned the UK remains a top target for terrorists as he spoke of the challenges police face in tackling the threat.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said every community was at risk from "indiscriminate" terrorism.

He also called for a debate on policing, saying forces were seen as a bulwark against anti-social behaviour.

Police were praised following 7 July; but were "savaged" after the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, he said.

Making his first public comments since the government's failed bid to extend the time terror suspects could be held without charge to 90 days, Sir Ian voiced "frustration" at the public "silence" on what it wanted the police to do.

In the annual Dimbleby lecture he said police work was being hampered by the lack of a proper examination of what they were for - whether it was to fight crime or fight its causes, to build stronger communities or enforce zero tolerance.

Gee whiz, Blair has figured out the UK is still a target from terrorism. Next he will be warning us that burglars are loose on the streets of London.

Police were "savaged" after the death of de Menezes because he was completely innocent, because he was killed because of a screw-up in police work, and because the police then tried to cover up the screw-up. If an organisation goofs like that you can hardly expect it to be praised.

And it's fairly obvious what the government wants from the police: meet government targets no matter how it distorts real crime priorities. Oh, and play along with the rhetoric concerning the "war" on terror, so that the public will gladly hand over their civil liberties.

US (and UK?) used chemical weapons in Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK troops have used white phosphorus in Iraq - but only to create smokescreens, Defence Secretary John Reid has said.

MPs are worried by the admission by US forces that they used the controversial substance in the Iraqi city of Falluja - something they had previously denied.

White phosphorus can burn flesh and some MPs say its use will hand a propaganda victory to Iraqi insurgents.

Both the US and UK Governments deny using the weapon against civilians but there are calls for a UN inquiry.

White phosphorus is highly flammable and ignites on contact with oxygen. If the substance hits someone's body, it will burn until deprived of oxygen.

The US State Department originally denied it had been used in last year's assault on Falluja, a stronghold for Sunni insurgents west of Baghdad.

But on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Barry Venable said the substance had been used as an "incendiary weapon against enemy combatants".

Col Venable also said white phosphorus was not a banned chemical weapon.

Let's see, we launched an illegal war on Iraq partly allegedly because Saddam Hussein was a horrid dictator who tortured and used chemical weapons against the people of Iraq. Now we know that the US government used chemical weapons against the people of Iraq. And, as we have seen several times since the war started, the US government also promotes and uses torture in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. And the new Iraqi government also (surprise, surprise) seems to be indulging in a bit of torture. What a great crusade Bush and Blair have started.

Date published: 2005/11/15

Greens cry over European chemical regulation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmentalists complained on Tuesday that a key European law on the control of chemicals is being watered down.

The Reach chemicals regulation comes up for a vote on Thursday, a week after the parliament's main political groups agreed a business-friendly compromise.

The law demands thousands of chemicals to undergo health tests and to be registered in a central database.

But Greens say last week's compromise means that many chemicals will slip through the net.

"The bill will actually weaken environmental and health protection as we may end up getting no useful data on almost 20,000 chemicals," said Swedish Green MEP Carl Schlyter in a debate in the parliament on Tuesday.

Some MEPs and environmentalists are also concerned that the law will fail to ensure that hazardous chemicals are progressively replaced by safer alternatives - an area unaffected by the compromise between the main conservative and socialist groups of MEPs.

"We especially believe it necessary to promote, as stringently as possible, the principle of substitution - ie that substances identified as being dangerous will progressively be replaced," said Liberal group spokesman on the environment, Chris Davies.

Reach stands to revolutionise the use of chemicals in Europe by putting the onus on business to prove that the chemicals they use are safe.

The European Commission initially proposed that 30,000 chemicals manufactured or imported in volumes of more than one metric ton should undergo tests, at industry's expense.

The compromise between the conservative European People's Party and the Socialist group means that health testing will not be necessary for chemicals manufactured or imported in quantities of less than 10 tonnes - nearly two thirds of the total.

The compromise is also supported by the Liberal group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe.

Poor Greens, their hysterical anti-chemical crusade seems to have only been partly successful. Of course time will tell what effect the regulations will have in terms of health and employment. (The way the European Union is going every citizen will soon be perfectly healthy and perfectly unemployed.) And when the BBC says the "law demands thousands of chemicals to undergo health tests" what they really mean is that millions of animals will suffer horrible torture and death all to please the anti-chemical lobby.

Acid rain emissions have declined in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some of the UK's most environmentally sensitive upland lakes and streams are recovering from the impact of acid rain, the government has said.

Acidic sulphur in Britain's water has generally halved in the last 15 years, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said research showed.

In around half of 22 sites monitored by scientists, invertebrates and native algae were showing signs of recovery.

Environment minister Ben Bradshaw said the research was "encouraging".

It is thought that emissions controls and greater use of natural gas instead of coal is aiding the reduction and boosting fish, plants and insects.

Since 1970 there has been a 74% decline in sulphur dioxide emissions from 3.8 million tonnes to one million tonnes in 2002, and a 37% decline in emissions of nitrogen oxides.

These gases, along with emissions of ammonia from agriculture, are largely to blame for acid rain.
Ben Bradshaw said the research highlighted how measures brought in by government were starting to bear fruit.

Many of the changes which have meant less acid rain (e.g. the switch from coal to gas) have nothing to do with the Labour government. But at least the figures are going in the right direction. However, this is looking at the UK in isolation, and British citizens also indirectly contribute to emissions abroad by purchasing goods from the rest of the world. It would be interesting to see what the average British citizen's contribution was when the sums are done correctly.

Date published: 2005/11/14

Blair allegedly not doing enough for the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmental charity WWF UK has severely criticised the government for what it says is a lack of action on climate change and the environment.

It says the UK has wasted opportunities presented by its presidency of the EU and the G8 group of wealthy nations.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has dumped coal at Downing Street as a protest at the government's environmental record.

But a Downing Street spokesman said the government had achieved wide consensus in the G8 on tackling greenhouse gases.

A truck bearing the slogan "Blair - Climate Failure" dumped several tonnes of coal across three entrances to Downing Street.

Another, heading for the Whitehall entrance, was stopped by police.

Greenpeace says Mr Blair is "rowing back" on his commitment to the Kyoto Protocol - the international and legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

Director Stephen Tindale, a former environment adviser to Labour, said: "So far all he has done is make speeches."

Last year environmental charities applauded the prime minister when he said he would make climate change a priority.

But WWF UK now says he was trying to please environmentally concerned voters more than demonstrating the will to use leadership in tough negotiations.

Last week Mr Blair said the "blunt truth about the politics of climate change" was that no country would want to sacrifice its economy to meet the challenge, although they all knew they must develop on a "sustainable basis".

The charity says he has undermined the most central plank of climate change policy by suggesting binding targets to cut pollution are incompatible with economic success.

Campaigns director Andrew Lee told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "This is exactly the language we hear from George Bush.

Mr Blair was undermining the people "trying to take action on climate change" and "giving succour" to the opponents of the Kyoto treaty, Mr Lee added.

More hot air from the comfortable middle classes. And how much damage to the environment did WWF cause by transporting and then dumping "several tonnes of coal" in London? Probably more than an average car driver does in a month. But of course emissions restrictions should not apply to the ruling elite like the so-called environmentalists but only to the workers of the world. And how stupid can anyone be to believe anything Blair says one way or the other. And needless to say by far and away the best thing Blair, or any politician, can do is just to "make speeches". It is when a politician stops making speeches and starts doing something that things usually go wrong (e.g. Iraq, removal of civil liberties, etc.). The day WWF proves with any credibility that the economy will not be badly impacted by their proposals is the day they might be treated seriously (by those other than their comfortable middle class supporters, who of course will not be badly impacted by any downturn in the economy). Blair (for once) was actually talking some common sense.

UK a windy country (even ignoring the politicians) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's wind is better for generating electricity than that of its rivals, according to a government-backed study.

Steady stiff breezes had meant a more reliable supply than the more extreme blusters of Denmark and Germany over the last 35 years, researchers found.

UK turbines had produced 27% of their maximum possible energy, compared with 20% in Denmark and 15% in Germany, the Oxford University study said.

Ministers want more turbines; opponents say they are an inefficient eyesore.

The study, for the Department of Trade and Industry, analysed hourly wind speed records collected by the Met Office at 66 locations across the UK since 1970.

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks said: "This new research is a nail in the coffin of some of the exaggerated myths peddled by opponents of wind power.

"We have a vast and dependable wind resource in the UK, the best in Europe."

Well not many people would argue against wind turbines because there is no wind, so as usual a Labour minister is being disingenous. The only interesting point of this study is that it shows how inefficient these wind turbines are. But for the UK it is almost certainly the case that wind power is a better source of energy than solar power (i.e. the latter is even less efficient). The real point of most of the opponents of wind power is that the people affected (those who live near wind farms) are not compensated for the financial loss they suffer. (Of course some people oppose wind farms because they are luddites who believe a landscape shaped by agricultural industry is beautiful but that shaped by any other industry is horrid.)

Yet another large new animal being introduced into England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's biggest owl is secretly and successfully breeding in England, conservationists have disclosed.

Knee-high to a human with a two-metre (6ft) wingspan, the eagle owl is returning after centuries of absence.

Ringing of chicks confirms that a pair of the birds has reared 23 offspring on the North York Moors since 1997.

The first footage of a family of wild eagle owls in this country will be shown on 16 November in "Natural World - Return of the Eagle Owl" on BBC Two.

The owls are thought to have arrived from continental Europe, but the programme reveals there is controversy over their future here as they continue to spread.

Some experts and conservation organisations say eagle owls are an alien species that could prey on existing rare wildlife.

In areas where there are shortages of smaller mammals, the eagle owl will sometimes prey on larger ones, including other birds of prey.

It is even said to be capable of carrying off cats and small dogs.

Roy Dennis, a specialist in raptor conservation who has dedicated his life to bringing birds of prey like ospreys and red kites back from the brink of extinction, is convinced that the secretive eagle owl was once a British bird hunted to extinction.

He believes it should now be welcomed back as a necessary part of our ecosystem.

Well of course no species is a "necessary part of our ecosystem" (not even humans). If this species brought itself over into the UK then that is just the way Nature is. In particular, hopefully it was not introduced by anyone just because they happened to like big owls.

Date published: 2005/11/13

Man allegedly HIV-positive and then HIV-negative (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Doctors say they want to investigate the case of a British man with HIV who apparently became clear of the virus.

Scotsman Andrew Stimpson, 25 was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2002 but was found to be negative in October 2003.

Mr Stimpson, from London, said he was "one of the luckiest people alive".

Chelsea and Westminster Healthcare NHS Trust confirmed the tests were accurate but were unable to confirm Mr Stimpson's cure because he had declined to undergo further tests.

A statement from the trust said: "This is a rare and complex case. When we became aware of Mr Stimpson's HIV negative test results we offered him further tests to help us investigate and find an explanation for the different results.

"So far Mr Stimpson has declined this offer."

A trust spokeswoman added: "We urge him, for the sake of himself and the HIV community, to come in and get tested.

"If he doesn't feel that he can come to Chelsea and Westminster then he should please go to another HIV specialist."

This was the lead story on the ITV news tonight. It is amazing that either ITV or the BBC give this story any credence. The most likely situation by far is that one or other of the tests was wrong (hopefully the first one). The fact that the hospital "confirmed the tests were accurate" is neither here nor there, they are hardly likely to admit there might be something wrong for fear of being sued. Needless to say all tests have a certain probability of both false positives (e.g. someone without HIV is found by some test to have HIV) and false negatives (e.g. someone with HIV is found by some test not to have HIV). And not just because the test itself might be flawed. There are all sorts of ancillary reasons why the results might be wrong, e.g. a mix-up of the sample, accidental contamination, incorrect transcription of data, etc. Anyone who claims test results are perfect is deluded or lying. Of course it's possible there might be a deep medical advance in waiting here. But don't count on it.

Violence is allegedly the norm in daily life in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Almost every child is affected by bullying and is growing up in a society that sees violence as "the norm", the children's commissioner has said.

Professor Al Aynsley-Green argued that, despite good work in schools, there is still denial about the "existence, severity and effect" of bullying.

He told The Observer that violence had become the norm in the workplace, on television and in the home.

His comments came ahead of the start of Anti-Bullying Week on 21 November.

Professor Aynsley-Green, who is the children's commissioner for England, told the newspaper: "I have no doubt that children are being brought up in a society where violence is the norm in many ways.

"I include in this the violence on television, in the workplace and in the home.

"I have had hundreds of in-depth conversations with children since accepting this post, and I can tell you that the one thing every child I have met has been affected by, with virtually no exceptions, is bullying."

He plans to use Anti-Bullying Week to ask the government to compel schools to give children a questionnaire on the issue every term.

He said: "I want to pay tribute to much of the extremely good work going on in schools but, from what children are telling me, there is still a lot of denial about the existence, severity and the effect of bullying in schools.

"It is not going too far to say many schools and teachers are still in a state of denial about this issue."

Who is this guy kidding? "Violence [is] the norm in the workplace, on television and in the home"??? He obviously lives in some alternative universe from the rest of society. It's amazing anyone in Britain manages to get through the day without a black eye, the way he is telling it. Of course he has to justify his existence as the children's commissioner, so of course has to find problems anywhere and everywhere. And of course children (and others) get bullied. But keep the problem in perspective and don't pretend that violence is the norm. Get rid of this quango and instead put the money into education.

Date published: 2005/11/12

Sony blows it big time with CD anti-piracy technology (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sony has said it will suspend the production of music CDs with anti-piracy technology which can leave computers vulnerable to viruses.

The move came after security firms said hackers were exploiting the software to hide their creations.

The software has been used by viruses to evade detection by anti-virus programs and infect computers.

Sony said it had a right to stop people illegally copying music, but added that the halt was precautionary.

"We also intend to re-examine all aspects of our content protection initiative to be sure that it continues to meet our goals of security and ease of consumer use," the company said in a statement.

In late October Sony BMG was found to be using stealth techniques to hide software that stopped some of its CDs being illegally copied.

Windows programming expert Mark Russinovich discovered that the Sony XCP copy protection system was a so-called "root-kit" that hid itself deep inside the Windows operating system.

XCP uses these techniques to install a proprietary media player that allows PC users to play music on the 20 CDs Sony BMG is protecting with this system. The CDs affected are only being sold in the US.

Soon after Mr Russinovich exposed how XCP worked security experts speculated that it would be easy to hijack the anti-piracy system to hide viruses.

Now anti-virus companies have discovered three malicious programs that use XCP's stealthy capabilities if they find it installed on a compromised PC.

A complete public relations disaster for Sony. And given that this happened in the US, the lawsuits are bound to follow. But this is what happens when you treat your customers like scum.

Water vapour might be behind climate warming in Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Water vapour rather than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the main reason why Europe's climate is warming, according to a new study.

The scientists say that rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gases are increasing humidity, which in turn amplifies the temperature rise.

This is potentially a positive feedback mechanism which could increase the impact of greenhouse gases such as CO2.

The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The scientists involved have used research networks and weather stations across Europe to measure temperature, humidity and longwave radiation, which plays a key role in the greenhouse effect.

"We observed that between 1995 and 2002, the amount of longwave radiation coming downwards to the Earth in Europe increased significantly, whereas solar radiation did not," said study leader Rolf Philipona, from the World Radiation Center in Davos, Switzerland.

Longwave radiation comes from molecules of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour which have absorbed solar radiation after it has hit the Earth's surface and been reflected back up through the atmosphere.

"We wondered if this effect was simply because of a temperature increase at the surface - you would just get more radiation going up, and so more coming back down," Dr Philipona told the BBC News website.

"But we allowed for this, and for the impact of extra clouds, but still we found an increase."

The researchers calculated that this increase is partly down to higher concentrations of the gases such as carbon dioxide which are often described as causing the "man-made greenhouse effect"; but increased water vapour appears to have a larger effect, accounting for about 70% of the observed temperature rise.

Not all regions of Europe are affected equally.

Between 1995 and 2002, Eastern states appear to have warmed by a rate equivalent to about 2C per decade - considerably faster than their western counterparts.

According to the new study, that may well be down to humidity differences; broadly speaking, humidity has risen fast in the east but not in the west, where evaporation may be limited by the dryness of the Iberian peninsula.

Although rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides and other gases are almost certainly driving the global rise in temperature observed in recent decades, the natural greenhouse effect - without which the world would be considerably colder - is largely down to atmospheric water vapour.

Because human activities change its concentrations very little, it is generally not mentioned in discussions of modern-day greenhouse warming.

But climate scientists have been aware for decades that mechanisms involving water vapour could amplify temperature increases, and have attempted to model these effects in computer simulations.

More grist for the mill. Of course it is only one study by one group so should be treated with caution.

Environment Agency claims the UK coastal ecosystem is "under pressure" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Coasts and marine life around Britain are under pressure from pollution, coastal erosion, overfishing and climate change, experts have warned.

The Environment Agency says better management of the seas and coasts could help protect their fragile ecosystems.

The recommendations are published in the agency's first State of the Marine Environment report.

Sir John Harman, agency chairman, said there needs to be a balance between using the coasts and protecting them.

The report found many coastal waters are at risk from pollution from fertilisers and pesticides.

These can change the delicate balance of marine ecosystems, which in some cases are already having to adapt as sea temperatures begin to rise.

It says the basking shark is an example of this, being one of several species moving north as the climate changes.

Authors of the report also say that there is an increasing strain on the coastline from human population, with around 17m people currently living within 10km of the England and Wales coast.

Sir John said British coasts and seas are "under pressure".

"Fish stocks are decreasing. Sea levels are rising and flood risk is increasing.

"The climate is warming up and marine ecosystems are changing in response.

"To meet these challenges we need to strike a much better balance between the different uses of our coasts and seas to protect the marine environment," he said.

"While we have seen improvements ... our challenges are changing and much remains to be done."

The Environment Agency has also said it supports the Government's commitment to create a Marine Bill to replace the current piecemeal approach to management of the seas and coast.

This report sound like it could have been written by a robot. (A robot programmed for the "end of the world" scenario.) And what is the Environment Agency implying when it says "there is an increasing strain on the coastline from human population"? Do they think people should be relocated by government fiat? (The government of course already restricts where you can live by use of the planning laws. So they already restrict who can live near the sea but of course they could put in more draconian rules and start knocking housing down.) The EA seem to show little regard or concern for humans, in line with most other so-called environmental organisations. Of course the EA also has to justify its existence, so the report should also be seen in that light.

Date published: 2005/11/11

Bush plays second-rate party politics on Armistice Day (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iraq should be regarded as the "central front" on the war on terror, US President George W Bush has said in a speech to mark Veterans' Day.

"We will not rest or tire until the war on terror is won," he said.

Amid new questions in Congress about the intelligence used to justify invading Iraq, he said it was "irresponsible to rewrite history".

The speech comes as an opinion poll suggests less than half of Americans now trust his foreign policy.

Flanked by veterans, he was speaking at the Tobyhanna Army Depot a few weeks after the US death toll in Iraq passed the 2,000 mark.

The time had come, he said, for responsible Islamic leaders to denounce militants who distorted their religion.

Militants, he argued, aimed to build a "radical empire" and were enemies of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Listing some recent US security operations against militants in Iraq, he said: "We're on the hunt - we're keeping pressure on the enemy."

The best way to honour America's dead, he continued to loud applause, was to "complete the mission".

Mr Bush said he was open to criticism for his policies but it was "deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how the war began".

As usual Bush is confusing black with white. It is of course he and the other war apologists who are always trying to rewrite the history of how the war began. The intelligence was obviously manipulated. And Hans Blix was undermined by the US administration because Bush wanted a war. The alleged threat from Iraq was a joke (on one side the million pound gorilla, on the other a pathetic military which had been gutted over the previous decade and more). And needless to say, if you substitute "Christian" for "Muslim" in some of the propaganda above, you have a good description of the current bunch of thugs running America. "The time has come for responsible Christian leaders to denounce militants who distort their religion." "Militants aim to build a 'radical empire' and were enemies of Christians and non-Christians alike." And of course Iraq is indeed now the "central front" on the so-called "war on terror", thanks to the illegal and idiotic invasion of Iraq by Bush and Co. The worst president of all time? There's plenty of competition but Bush is right up there.

Date published: 2005/11/10

Britain facing future shortages in energy supply (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain is facing a shortfall in energy supply in the near future, according to a major report.

Within a decade, the country may be generating only about 80% of the electricity it needs.

A panel of 150 experts says fossil fuels will remain the mainstay of supply, with renewables expanding and nuclear power almost certainly needed.

The panel urges the government to take steps quickly to solve the issue; doing nothing, it says, is not an option.

"Up to the year 2050, fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source - there really is no alternative," said John Loughhead of the UK Energy Research Centre, who compiled the report following a two-day conference held last month under the auspices of the Geological Society of London.

The conference drew contributions from about 150 delegates representing all sectors of the energy field.

"If the UK is to remain on the path of reducing atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases, it will need to retain some nuclear capacity," Dr Loughhead told reporters at a news briefing on Wednesday.

"Renewables are going to play a role, but they're going to need support if they're to continue on a downward path of cost."

The immediate issue is the impending closure of most British nuclear power stations and many coal-fired units.

By 2015, all four Magnox nuclear stations still operating will have shut down, as will five of the seven stations running Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors (AGRs).

Under the European Large Combustion Plant Directive, many of the nation's coal-fired plants will also close in the next decade.

In principle, the gap could be bridged by new power stations burning gas or coal; but this would work against the government's short term targets and long term aspirations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"Without the need to reduce emissions, there would not be an energy gap by 2050," said Dr Loughhead.

Meanwhile, demand may continue to rise; and managing that demand, says the report, is a key issue.

Technologies exist to increase efficiencies, but they are not being used to anything like their full potential, it finds - largely because the public is not properly engaged in the energy issue.

This is one area in which it recommends urgent attention from the government.

Another is setting up the right frameworks to encourage investment and research, setting up a long-term stable marketplace which will allow companies to plan for the future.

This is what happens when you have spin doctors instead of technocrats running the country. The current government has been in power for eight years and has done nothing to help secure the UK's long-term energy future.

Blair ungracious in defeat on terror proposals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has accused some MPs of being out of touch with the public and of failing to face the terror threat.

Mr Blair met his Cabinet after a vote on anti-terror plans brought his first Commons defeat as prime minister.

He told ministers there was a "worrying gap between parts of Parliament and the reality of the terrorist threat and public opinion".

MPs on Wednesday rejected plans to allow police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

The plans were defeated by 31 votes, with 49 Labour MPs rebelling against the government.
Conservative ex-Cabinet ministers Peter Lilley and Stephen Dorrell have criticised the government for using chief constables to lobby MPs ahead of the detention plan vote.

In a Commons motion, they said they feared the move was a "damaging step towards the politicisation of the police".

Well Blair and some of the media (in particular Rupert Murdoch's Sun "newspaper") have been spreading terror stories for awhile now, so it would not be too surprising if a (small) majority of the public backed Blair on the terror proposals. Of course a majority of the public also backs hanging, but Blair does not seem too keen on that. And a majority of the public would back just about anything (e.g. abolishing free speech) with sufficient government and media manipulation. The real question is whether Britain should move further towards dictatorship, where anyone can be locked up just because the government says they should be. And it seems that Downing Street "requested" that chief contables write anodyne emails to MPs in order to try to swing the vote yesterday. Good old New Labour, spin merchants to the end.

Date published: 2005/11/09

Blair defeated on proposed 90-day "terrorist" detention (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair says his authority is intact despite suffering his first House of Commons defeat as prime minister.

He said he hoped MPs "do not rue the day" they rejected his call to allow police to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without charging them.

MPs voted against by 322 votes to 291, with 49 Labour MPs rebelling, but later backed a proposal to extend the detention time limit to 28 days.

Conservative leader Michael Howard said Mr Blair should resign.

Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy warned Mr Blair could become a "lame duck" leader.

Following the defeat MPs backed by 323 to 290 votes a Labour backbench MP's proposal to extend the detention time limit to 28 days, from the current 14 days.
In his final plea for MPs to back the plans, Mr Blair urged MPs to take the advice of the police who had foiled two terrorist plots since the 7 July attacks in London.

A vote for democracy and against the terror mongers Blair and Bush. The only downside is that any future terrorist incident will see Blair with his crocodile tears saying "see I told you so". Blair's pathetic mentioning of the alleged foiling of two terrorist plots since 7 July (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) was a move straight from his playbook when justifying the illegal war on Iraq to the House of Commons in 2003. (All that secret intelligence telling us Iraq was a real threat which he could not share with us.) Unfortunately it only shows that the police can do their job without locking people up for 90 days. The government of course claimed the 90 days would only be imposed in very rare cases. That's what they said about previous terrorism laws, yet they managed to use these laws against an old man who heckled Jack Straw at the Labour Party conference. Basically, you cannot believe anything Tony Blair or Charles Clarke says. Government with excessive power abuses power excessively.

Patients who make waves get special treatment in the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A mother-of-four from Staffordshire who lost an appeal to be given the breast cancer drug Herceptin on the NHS will get the treatment paid for after all.

North Stoke Primary Care Trust (PCT) said on Wednesday because of Elaine Barber's exceptional circumstances she should be prescribed the drug.

It rejected her appeal on Monday saying it was not convinced of the drug's safety or cost-effectiveness.

Ms Barber, 41, said she was "over the moon" at the PCT's change of heart.

She had lodged papers against the PCT at the High Court last week.

Ms Barber was told the news after meeting the PCT's chief executive Mike Ridley on Wednesday.

She said: "I am absolutely over the moon. I hope that the very many women like me who just want to be given the chance to live will also be given funding for the drug treatment.

"I can't believe that I have been put through all this just so the health authority can balance the books. Human life cannot and should not be measured in pounds."

This is one of the problems with life in the modern world. People are somehow puzzled that government needs to balance the books. In the UK anybody and everybody (including the BBC) continually insist that the government spend more and more on the NHS (and everything else on the face of the earth). But nobody ever seems to want to question how it gets paid for. Politicians bring this problem upon themselves since they always want to claim you can get something for nothing. And of course the media (including the BBC) play along.

Apparently Herceptin costs about £20000 per patient per year. This is not a trivial number (it is about what the median income is in the UK, so way over the median tax paid). And it is obvious that money spent on Ms Barber will therefore not be spent on other patients. So the moral of the story is that people who get news coverage of their health problems get what they want, and the silent majority have to suffer in silence. Of course possibly the use of Herceptin will in return largely pay for itself, in particular by being successful as a treatment (so, for example, making people healthy enough to allow them to return to work, or to care for their family, etc.). That has got to be the hope.

Date published: 2005/11/08

Blair the cop supports Blair the politician (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's most senior police chief said there was "chilling" evidence of new terrorist plots as he urged support for new powers to detain terror suspects.

Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair said police should be able to hold suspects without charge for 90 days.

His warning came as the government said it was increasingly confident it would win an MPs' vote on the new time limit.

But the Tories, Lib Dems and some Labour MPs say 28 days' detention is the maximum they will accept.

Government officials admit the numbers ahead of the vote onn Wednesday are very tight.

The proposal to extend the detention time limit from 14 to 90 days originally came from the police and Sir Ian used a lunch with political journalists in the House of Commons to reinforce their case.

He said the police were "not in an auction" over the plan but believed 90 days was the right length of time needed because of the complexity and mass of evidence in terrorism cases.

Sir Ian said the current situation was unknown in peacetime and there were "people out there plotting mass atrocities without warning".

He said he had thought hard about whether the police had entered a political debate.

But he said: "This is not in my view politics. This is our professional opinion."

Critics of the plan say it would effectively bring back internment. They are not reassured by promises that senior judges would supervise the process.

Last week, Home Secretary Charles Clarke promised to hold talks on the issue when the 90-day proposal faced a possible Commons defeat.

But ministers are now sticking by their original plan, although they also have a "fall back" position of 60 days.

Unfortunately Ian Blair has as little credibility as Tony Blair. And it's not too surprising when the police express an interest in furthering moves towards a police state. If the government manages to get 90 days and there is another terrorist incident, will the two Blairs take personal responsibility and resign. Of course not, they will just up the ante to 180 days and introduce all sorts of other draconian measures. Will people who are detained for 90 (or even 60 or 28) days without conviction get compensated in any way? Will people who gave false evidence against these alleged terrorists be charged with any criminal offence? With the two Blairs you can forget about good cop, bad cop, we just have bad cop, bad dictator.

Kyoto Protocol allegedly has bigger impact on economy than previously thought (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Meeting Kyoto Protocol targets on greenhouse gas emissions will reduce European economic growth significantly.

That is the finding of a new study from the International Council for Capital Formation, a market-based think tank.

It projects that by 2010, Spain's growth will have fallen by 3%, and that Italy's will shrink by 2%.

These are bigger figures than previous studies have found, and their release comes as world leaders struggle to find a successor to the Kyoto treaty.
ICCF managing director Margo Thorning said that these reductions took into account a projected uptake of green technologies.

"We have a fair amount of new, clean technology already embedded in our forecasts," she told the BBC News website, "so we're already assuming more use of renewables, more efficiency and so on.

"We also assume the development of a regime in Europe which all energy use would be subject to in an attempt to push emissions down."

Currently, the European Union's principal mechanism for reducing greenhouse gases, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), includes only industrial producers.

But most of the EU's pre-expansion countries are some way off meeting their Kyoto targets, and there are moves to include the domestic and transport sectors in an expanded ETS.

The ICCF analysis suggests this would raise energy costs to a considerable degree, with electricity prices across the continent growing by an average 26% by 2010.

This means, it says, that economies would suffer, increasing unemployment by several hundred thousand people in each of the countries studied as well as reducing growth.
Funded as it is by industrial, trade and finance groups, including oil companies, some observers might not consider it surprising that the ICCF report casts a harsh light on the post-Kyoto world.

"The figures given for Spain are very different from all other studies done so far," commented Bert Metz of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP), co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group on mitigation.

"Other studies show changes in the order of 1% if you use options like emissions trading, 2% if you don't," he told the BBC News website.

"You can get any conclusion from any economic study by choosing your assumptions carefully."

The last point is the important one. Of course the same statement can be made about the IPCC models. Needless to say the "end of the world" types place great faith in models that show you can reduce emissions by a huge percent with no real effect on the economy and the "business as usual" types place great faith in models that show the opposite. (Well there are some "end of the world" types who want the world economy to be hammered, because they believe humans consume too many resources. Cheap low-emission energy would be a disaster as far as they are concerned.) The one certainty is that the rich people doing the models and making the decisions will not be the people who are most affected by rising energy costs.

Date published: 2005/11/07

IEA says the world's poor must stay poor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global greenhouse gas emissions will rise by 52% by 2030, unless the world takes action to reduce energy consumption, a study has warned.

The prediction comes from the latest annual World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

It says that under current consumption trends, energy demand will also rise by more than 50% over the next 25 years.

The IEA adds that oil prices will "substantially" rise unless there is extra investment in oil facilities.

It says the world has seen "years of under-investment" in both oil production and the refinery sector.

The organisation estimates that the global oil industry now needs to invest $20.3 trillion (£12 trillion) in fresh facilities by 2030, or else the wider global economy could suffer.

"These projected trends have important implications and lead to a future that is not sustainable," said IEA chief Claude Mandil.

"We must change these outcomes and get the planet onto a sustainable energy path."

Let's see. The rich people who run the IEA think that the poor of the world should not even think of having their standard of living rise to the level of the average person living in the rich world. Well perhaps someone should inform the IEA bureaucrats that the job of the IEA should be to tell governments of the world what they need to do to achieve the desired much increased energy consumption (including any desired environmental considerations), not sit there and insist the poor must stay poor. Step one, halve the salaries of the top IEA bureaucrats, hence reducing their "unsustainable" energy consumption.

Bush and torture by the American government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has defended his government's treatment of detainees after a media allegation that the CIA ran secret jails in eastern Europe.

"We do not torture," Mr Bush told reporters during a visit to Panama.

He said enemies were plotting to hurt the US and his government would pursue them, but would do so "under the law".

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court has allowed a legal challenge to the Bush administration's use of military tribunals for foreign detainees.

The court will decide whether a former driver for Osama Bin Laden, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, can be tried for war crimes before military officers in Guantanamo Bay.

Correspondents say the case will be a major test of the US government's wartime powers.

The White House has not confirmed Washington Post claims that the CIA set up a covert prison network in eastern Europe and Asia to hold high-profile terror suspects following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

About 30 detainees, considered major terrorism suspects, were held at these "black sites", although the centres have now been closed, the paper reported.

On Sunday, the United Nations' special rapporteur on torture urged European officials to conduct high-level investigations into the allegations.

"We are finding terrorists and bringing them to justice," Mr Bush said at a joint news conference with Panamanian President Martin Torrijos.

"Our country is at war and our government has the obligation to protect the American people," Mr Bush said.

"Any activity we conduct is within the law."

The Senate has passed legislation banning torture, but the Bush administration is seeking an exemption for the CIA spy agency.

Nixon: "I am not a crook". Clinton: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman". Bush: "We do not torture". Of course it depends what you mean by the words "crook", "sex" and "torture". Unfortunately the definitions proposed by the respective presidents are not those that 99.99% of humanity would accept as the usual meaning. And the proof is in the pudding. The Bush administration (in particular Cheney) wants to explicitly exempt the CIA from the proposed law banning torture. That tells you that the Bush administration definitely condones torture, and of course there is plenty of evidence that it conducts torture (either directly or indirectly via third parties). And you have to laugh at the statement that "any activity we conduct is within the law". Bush believes that anything he says *is* the law, so of course in his view of the world, torture approved by him is naturally within the law. And this is the government with which Mr Blair most wants to be associated. Mr Blair was happy to mouth off about remarks made by the Iranian president about wanting Israel wiped from the face of the earth, but funnily enough he doesn't condemn American torture.

Oestrogen allegedly makes women more careful drivers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The female hormone oestrogen could give women the edge when it comes to tasks such as safe driving, say researchers.

Tests showed attention span and ability to learn rules were far better among women than men.

The Bradford University scientists told a hormone conference in London how tasks requiring mental flexibility favour women over men.

A woman's oestrogen levels may prime the part of the brain involved in such skills - the frontal lobe - they said.

They asked 43 men and women aged 18-35 to perform a battery of neuropsychological tests that assessed skills such as spatial recognition memory, rule learning, attention, planning and motor control.

The women were far better at being able to shift their attention from one stimulus to another, making it easier for them to perform everyday actions like driving and reading.

This might explain why girls find it easier than boys to concentrate at school and why women are more careful drivers, the researchers hypothesise.

More useless "research". 43 men and women prove nothing about the public as a whole. And the silly litle tests prove nothing except something about the silly little tests. Of course these "researchers" have to justify their existence by making ridiculously grand claims from such pathetically small data.

Date published: 2005/11/06

Mother wants to stop abortions for girls without parental consent (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A mother says she is confident of changing government guidelines that allow girls to have abortions without their parents' knowledge.

Sue Axon, 50, of Baguely, Manchester, wants guarantees she and other parents would be informed if their daughters were referred for an abortion.

A judicial review of the Department of Health's guidelines begins on Tuesday.

Mrs Axon, who has two daughters, said she regrets having an abortion herself 20 years ago.

Current Department of Health guidelines state terminations can take place without parents' consent and doctors should respect girls' privacy.

"[But] I am feeling dead confident, I really do believe that they will have to alter the law," said Mrs Axon.

"We have got overwhelming evidence to prove that confidentiality encourages sexual activity.

"We have got a very, very strong case that government strategies are damaging children."

Mrs Axon said she had support from other parents but admitted her daughters, aged 16 and 13, had reservations.

"They're teenage girls and girls do believe that parents shouldn't know what they're up to.

"We're alright, though, we're not at loggerheads with it."

Mrs Axon said she had regretted having an abortion when she was 30, saying it made her "physically very, very ill" and she had "emotionally suffered for about 10 years".

"If my daughter needs two paracetamol at school I have to give permission yet the Department of Health has issued this guidance that we parents don't need to know [about abortions]."

On most things in life a parent is presumed to have the best interest of the child at heart when deciding on what the best course of action is. Unfortunately with abortion one has to presume that this is not necessarily the case. And Mrs Axon rather gives credence to this: she regrets her own abortion (at age 30 note) so would obviously want to pressurise her daughters into not having one, whether it was in their best interest or not. Of course the fundamentalist religious nutters are taking over the world so sooner or later abortion generally may well be more restricted or outlawed, and (effectively) stopping many girls from having an abortion would be one step on that road.

Date published: 2005/11/05

More rats deserting Blair on Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A former British ambassador to the US believes the Iraq war has played a part in fuelling terror attacks in the UK.

Sir Christopher Meyer told The Guardian "there is plenty of evidence" that "home-grown terrorism was partly radicalised and fuelled" by Iraq.

Sir Christopher, based in Washington until 2003, said: "Don't tell me being in Iraq has nothing to do with it."

A Downing Street spokesman told the BBC that events in Iraq could never justify a resort to terrorism.

Speaking to Five Live, the spokesman added that Number 10 was not in the business of issuing statements to help people sell books.

Sir Christopher, who sat in on crucial meetings between President Bush and Mr Blair in the build-up to the war, is about to publish his memoirs of his time in Washington.

Although he still believed that it was right to topple Saddam Hussein, he expressed misgivings about how the war's aftermath had been handled. "I don't believe the enterprise is doomed necessarily, though, God, it does not look good."

Poor Mr Blair, his reign was going reasonably well until he screwed up big time in Iraq. And Number 10 shouldn't make such dismissive remarks about selling books considering that Blair, when he finally steps down (if he ever steps down), will spend much of his time criss-crossing America charging 100000 dollars a night so that rich gullible Americans can hear his great words, and much of that earning power has come about because of his decision to put the interests of the American government above the interests of the British people.

British public allegedly don't like sex selection (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parents should not be allowed to choose their baby's sex simply to balance their family, a snapshot survey finds.

The Newcastle University study showed that 80% of people questioned felt social sex selection was wrong.

They feared children could be turned into "consumer items", and that sex selection could lead to choosing babies on the basis of eye or hair colour.

The survey follows a recent Commons Science and Technology Committee report which advocated allowing gender choice.

However, the committee did not unanimously back the report.

Researchers from the Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Unit at Newcastle University interviewed 48 male and female members of the public and 10 medics.

They were asked their opinions after a discussion about the pros and cons of selecting the sex of a baby.

There were concerns that allowing a choice of sex could send out the message that it is morally acceptable to have a strong preference for one sex over the other.

Others suggested that offering choices like this might place an unfair burden on ordinary people.

Dr Tom Shakespeare, author of the study, which was funded by the Welcome Trust, said there had been some surprise that those questioned were so vehemently against sex selection.

"A lot of people say there is nothing wrong with sex selection, but the lay people we spoke to thought that it would change something important.

"I was surprised by the results, but these were not off-the-cuff remarks.

"These were the results of considered views after an hour or two of discussion.

"With a lot of subjects we have found that people change their minds, but not on this."

He added: "Our participants were very markedly against pre-natal sex selection (PSS).

"There was a greater ambivalence about using pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) to select against genetic defect.

The 'family balancing' argument - where couples choose to have a child of one sex when they already have children of the other - had little support.

Gee whiz, 48 people surveyed, well that's representative of the British public then. And we don't know how biased either the selection of the 48 or the interview/survey itself were. (With the correct wording it's easy to bias people one way or the other.) It's hard to take such "research" seriously.

Date published: 2005/11/04

Some animals not adapting well to rapid climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some animals are responding to climate change in ways which could threaten their survival, a new study finds.

Scientists showed that migration and breeding of the great tit, puffin, red admiral and other creatures are moving out of step with food supplies.

The researchers say the rapid pace of climate change, together with pressures on habitat, make it difficult for species to adapt.

The study is published in the Royal Society's journal Proceedings B.

A large number of studies in recent years have shown that the behaviour of plants and animals is changing in response to climatic alteration.

Birds are migrating at different times, flowers and larvae are emerging earlier, and fish and insects are moving into new ranges.

The key question is how much this matters - whether these changes impair the prospects for these species, or whether they are appropriate adaptations which will ensure survival.

Indeed there is nothing much new here, just some further elucidation. Of course any ecological niche that is emptied (e.g. by a species going extinct) is almost certain to be occupied fairly quickly by something else. Whether this is a disaster (e.g. losing many species) remains to be seen: most people believe this phenomenon is happening, so we are going to find out.

Exposure to electrical equipment allegedly does not cause ill health (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is no scientific proof exposure to electrical equipment causes ill health, say scientists.

Researchers from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) looked at research into electrical sensitivity and reports from patients.

The HPA said people could have real and unpleasant symptoms.

But they said there was insufficient evidence of a direct link between electrical exposure and these symptoms, which can often be disabling.

Electrical sensitivity is a condition which some people attribute to exposure to electromagnetic fields associated with the electricity supply.

It is unclear how many people suffer from the condition, with estimates ranging from a few per thousand people to a few per million.

As everybody knows, not finding a cause is not the same as the cause not existing, so some day a real medical condition might be determined. But even if such a condition is never discovered, this kind of report is largely irrelevant, because people who believe they suffer from some condition such as this are never convinced by any evidence to the contrary. In particular, people with health problems often try to blame the external world, in particular modern technology, for their illness because nobody wants to admit the problem just might be personal (of course they are encouraged in these beliefs by so-called environmentalists and other luddite groups who hate modern technology).

Date published: 2005/11/03

Blair still wants dictatorial powers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has said he still wants to give police controversial new detention powers - despite facing stiff opposition in the House of Commons.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke on Wednesday headed off a possible defeat on plans to allow terror suspects to be held for up to 90 days without charge.

But Mr Blair said police had asked for the powers and should get them.

"This is not an issue to play around with," he said, accusing critics of putting terror suspects' rights first.

"The civil liberties of the majority who need protection should come first," the prime minister told BBC News.

The usual dreadful utterances from Blair. The "civil liberties of the majority" already come first, terror suspects can currently be locked up for 14 days without charge. Mr Blair should not give powers to the police just because they ask for them. Otherwise he might as well just declare a police state (officially) and be done with it. He needs to give a coherent argument to justify his proposal, something which he seems unable to do. "Trust me" does not work from a serial liar. The sooner we get rid of Blair the better.

First Arbury Camp planning application thrown out (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The first planning application at a new development has been thrown out after it was likened to Communist Russia.

The six flats would be the first of 900 homes at the Arbury Park site in north Cambridge, but members of South Cambridgeshire District Council's development and conservation control committee described the design as "appalling".

Coun Sebastian Kindersley, council leader, said: "This is such a missed opportunity as it will be the first of thousands of houses to be built.

"I cannot support such an awful sight. I looked for a chink of light but found none."

Gallagher Estates have earmarked the flats as affordable housing for key worker ownership.

Wilmott Dixon Housing, which will build the six flats on their behalf, will now have to resubmit its application.

Contractors are building roads for the site and work to start building the houses is planned for next summer.

Officers recommended the application be approved, but after noting comments from Impington Parish Council, whose parish the site falls in, councillors agreed it did not conform to Gallagher's design guide for homes on the site.

Coun Dr David Bard, portfolio holder for planning and economic development, said: "These are not modern houses but more like what used to go up in Communist Russia. If this is the sort of thing in the design guide, then it should be revisited."

Coun Mike Mason, member for Histon and Impington, said: "It looks like a three-storey chicken shed and doesn't conform with the design guide."

The one photo of the proposal included in the Evening News article does not look either dreadful or wonderful, it just looks like a standard British box. And unfortunately Arbury Camp is in such a dreadful location (on top of the A14) that it's almost irrelevant what the housing looks like, it is not going to be a great place of residence, especially given the various politically correct impositions on the development (e.g. 30% so-called affordable housing, not enough car parking, wasted space for the so-called guided bus, etc.).

Date published: 2005/11/02

Americans are running a global torture network (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The CIA is running a network of secret prison facilities around the world to hold high-profile terror suspects, according to a US newspaper report.

Such prisons are, or have been, located in Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Thailand, the Washington Post claims.

It says more than 100 people have been sent to the facilities, known as "black sites", since they were set up in the wake of the 11 September attacks.
The Washington Post quotes current and former intelligence officers as saying that some top terror suspects are being held in an Eastern European country in a compound dating from Soviet times.

Its report says the covert prison system, financed by the CIA, has operated at various times in eight countries, as well as at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"The hidden global internment network is a central element in the CIA's unconventional war on terrorism," the paper says.
The names of the Eastern European countries allegedly involved were withheld at the request of senior US officials, the Post says, for fear their disclosure could put operations at risk.

Nobody should be surprised that the US is running what amounts to a global torture network as part of the so-called war on the so-called global terror network. This is all part of the mentality of the thugs now running America. On the Channel 4 News tonight it was suggested that Poland and Romania might be two Eastern European countries involved. Now you would think both those countries might have had enough of similar tactics by the secret police under the Russians to now allow this kind of behaviour by the Americans on their territory.

Government raking in money from stamp duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Residential property buyers paid the government a record £5.5bn in stamp duty in the last financial year.

Figures from HM Revenue & Customs show the government raised more from the tax than from the duties paid on beer and spirits.

The Conservative party spokeswoman, Caroline Spelman, said stamp duty was being used "to enrich the Treasury at the expense of home owners".

But the Treasury said the increase was due to the big rise in house prices.

In his budget earlier this year, the Chancellor raised the starting threshold for the tax from £60,000 to £120,000.

At the time, the government estimated that as a result half of all first-time buyers and 45% of all house purchases would become totally exempt from stamp duty.

It also estimated the change would cost it £250m.

Stamp duty is currently charged at a rate of 1% on homes sold for between £120,000 and £250,000, 3% on properties worth between £250,000 and £500,000, and 4% on those selling for more than £500,000.

But with the dramatic rise in house prices over the last decade, the tax has generated huge sums of money for the government.

Back in 1996-97, it raised just £675 million - roughly an eighth of its current levels.

John Whiting, a senior tax partner at the big accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said it was an example of what economists call "fiscal drag":.

"Prices go up so taxes go up," he said.

"It is a great example of raising taxes without raising the tax rates."

Of course if you don't index thresholds at the same rate as increasing prices then the overall tax take goes up. But stamp duty is even worse because the tax rates are absolute, not marginal. So, for example, a house selling for £240000 has a stamp duty of £2400 and one selling for £260000 (the kind of rise easily seen in a year in recent times) has a stamp duty of £7800, so more than a tripling of tax even though the price has only gone up 8%. This is more than "fiscal drag", it is highway robbery (welcome to "ripoff Britain" courtesy of Gordon Brown). It's amazing nobody (the Tories, the BBC, ...) ever points out the stupidity of this particular feature of stamp duty.

Date published: 2005/11/01

Stalking allegedly a frequent occurrence (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One in 10 people experience being stalked, and a third still suffer psychological distress a year later, research reveals.

Despite this, stalking is too often thought of as a rare phenomenon or its seriousness underplayed, say experts.

A British Journal of Psychiatry study finds the psychological consequences are severe even among stalking victims who do not seek help.

The authors say more recognition of the desperation that can result is needed.
To determine whether the same was true among people who chose not to seek help, an Dr Rosemary Purcell and her Australian colleagues from Melbourne University sent out questionnaires to 3,700 men and women living in Victoria.

From the 1,844 completed forms that were returned, 196 had reported experiencing an episode of brief harassment for up to two weeks and 236 said they had experienced a protracted stalking that typically lasted for months.

Compared with 432 respondents of similar age, sex and background but who had never been stalked, mental health problems were much higher among those who were victims of stalking for longer than a fortnight.

Just over a third (34.1%) of these still had psychiatric illness a year after the stalking had ended.

Distress appeared to be particularly high immediately after the event, however, and was most severe when the stalking was prolonged.

About 10% of the respondents who had been stalked said they had considered taking their own life as a result.

Almost certainly the 1844 people who completed the questionnaire are not representative of the general public, so the alarming statistics quoted are rather meaningless. People who have been stalked (or believe they have been stalked) are much more likely to fill out such a questionnaire. And the numbers quoted in the article are inconsistent. If 432 (=196+236) people really reported being stalked then that is 23% (=432/1844) not 10%. 23% really is rather unbelievable. According to this study, 1 in 4 of your friends have been stalked and 1 in 3 of those have psychiatric illness a year later. (Of course the BBC does not say whether some random drunk accosting you counts as "stalking", if so anybody who has been in a city centre in Britain on a Friday or Saturday night has been "stalked".) How do these kinds of studies which rely on non-random data ever get published in supposedly serious journals?

Blair says technology needed to deal with climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Technology and science will provide at least part of the solution to global warming, Tony Blair said as 20 nations held talks in London.

The prime minister was speaking at the two-day G8 summit of energy and environment ministers.

The focus is on curbing climate change through technology, not binding deals.

Mr Blair said there were divisions over the Kyoto climate agreement. But he said economic growth could be combined with helping the environment.
Mr Blair said people were very nervous about talks of specific frameworks and targets.

"People fear some external force is going to impose some internal target on you which is going to restrict your economic growth," he said.
Many opposition politicians and environmental groups are critical of any move away from Kyoto, saying that binding targets are the best way forward.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Norman Baker said: "It is all very well for the government to trumpet the merits of technology in reducing carbon emissions, but it simply isn't enough; we need robust, measurable targets, not just vague aspirations."

Conservative shadow environment secretary Oliver Letwin is in Washington for talks with Republican congressmen about climate change. He said technology and market forces had to be used to fight climate change.

But Mr Letwin added: "We also believe it is essential to have a post-Kyoto treaty with clear targets."

Mr Blair stating the obvious. Unfortunately most of the British chattering classes, including the Lib Dems and the so-called environmentalists, do not like technology (unless it is more than 200 years old) so would rather spend all their time and effort trying to lower the living standards of the workers of the world in order to reduce carbon emissions.

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