Azara Blog: December 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/12/31

American World War II cemetery in Madingley (permanent blog link)

Just outside of Cambridge, in Madingley (or Coton), is located the only American World War II cemetery in the UK. (There is also a World War I cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey.) This provides a timely reminder of what the real impact of war is. Of course World War II was a necessary war, wheras Iraq is an unnecessary war. If only the chicken hawks (draft dodgers), who started the war in Iraq for party political purposes, had half the courage, honour or integrity of the nearly 9000 men buried or remembered in Madingley.

Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, England: grave stones Grave stones
Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, England: soldier statue Statue of soldier (designer Wheeler Williams)
Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, England: chapel mosaic ceiling Detail of chapel mosaic ceiling (designer Francis Scott Bradford)

Date published: 2005/12/30

Cambridge has a dusting of snow (permanent blog link)

Cambridge had a dusting of snow this week, first on Wednesday and then a bit more on Thursday. It was cold enough that it stuck around until Friday when slushy rain washed the remainder away. Of course everybody's favourite Cambridge scene is King's College Chapel, which looks great no matter what the weather. The college was closed because of the holidays, so plenty of opportunity to take photographs without people in the way.

King's College Chapel in the snow

US government investigates leak of illegal government spying (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US justice department has opened an inquiry into how information about President George Bush's secret spying programme was leaked, officials say.

The investigation is expected to focus on how the New York Times newspaper obtained the information.

Earlier this month, the paper reported that the National Security Agency had been conducting surveillance in the US without warrants.

Mr Bush later admitted he authorised the programme after the 9/11 attacks.

How quaint of the BBC to take the US government line. Notice how they say it is a "secret spying programme". What they should have said is that it is an "illegal spying programme". And the US justice department of course should instead be investigating Bush. What can you say about the boy king that he feels compelled to repeatedly break the law just to get his own way. (Of course you would have to be pretty naive not to expect all governments of the world to be constantly spying on their citizens, whether or not it is nominally illegal.)

Date published: 2005/12/29

Campaigners want to fast-track yet another breast cancer drug (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Campaigners have called for a fast-track assessment of a new breast cancer drug which may help save lives.

A global study found Femara (letrozole) was of most benefit to women at highest risk of the cancer returning, the New England Journal of Medicine reported.

In women whose cancer had spread to the lymph nodes, the drug cut the risk of a recurrence of disease by 29% compared to 'gold standard' tamoxifen treatment.

The study involved 8,000 women, including more than 400 from the UK.

The findings contributed to a decision earlier this month by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to approve a licence for the use of the drug for postmenopausal women with early breast cancer straight after surgery.

However, the NHS drug watchdog is not due to rule on whether the drug should be made widely available until late next year.
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There has been concern recently that cancer patients in some areas are being denied access to the newest drugs because of financial concerns of NHS trusts.

This has led some to take legal action to make their health authority fund the treatment.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is due to rule on the use of aromatase inhibitors by the NHS next autumn. However, pressure is building for the process to be speeded up.

Well if the general idea is to give NICE more resources so that it can make faster decisions about all drugs, then that is fine. But the idea instead seems to be to bounce NICE into pushing some drugs (and breast cancer drugs seem to be flavour of the minute) up the priority list, which presumably means that others have to be delayed. Perhaps the BBC should tell us which other drugs should have their approval delayed in order that Femara should be approved more quickly. Unfortunately the chattering classes (including the BBC) that run Britain seem to believe that there are no financial constraints in the world, and that anybody who can attract the attention of the media should be given special priority, at the expense of others.

Free fruit for children allegedly successful (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Moves to encourage young primary pupils to eat more healthily are proving fruitful, ministers have insisted.

Primary one and two children are given free fruit three times per week.

Ministers claimed a study by the Scottish Centre for Social Research showed 90% of those questioned said eating habits had improved.

Researchers quizzed a quarter of primary schools and all of Scotland's local authorities to find out what they thought of the anti-junk food drive.

As many as 60% of them said youngsters were eating more fresh fruit and vegetables at lunchtime because of the scheme.

It is part of the Hungry for Success effort, aimed at increasing the nutritional content of school meals and encouraging more balanced diets.

Well most people would say that children should be encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables and less junk food, but no study sponsored by the government about a government program is in any way believable. There is little incentive for either schools or pupils to respond honestly, after all they are getting something for nothing. Unless a large number of students just dumped the fruit in the bin, of course it is going to be deemed a "success". The real question is whether it is value for money (it might well be, but don't believe anything the government says about that either).

Date published: 2005/12/28

First Galileo satellite launched into space (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new era in satellite navigation has begun with the launch of Giove-A.

The 600kg spacecraft was lofted into orbit on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, at 1119 (0519GMT).

Giove-A will demonstrate key technologies needed for Galileo, the 3.4bn-euro (£2.3bn; $4bn) sat-nav system Europe hopes to deploy by 2010.

The new network will give EU states guaranteed access to a space-borne precise timing and location service independent of the United States.
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Giove-A will check out the in-orbit performance of two atomic clocks - critical to any sat-nav system - and a number of other components that will be incorporated into the 30 satellites of the fully fledged Galileo constellation.

These spacecraft - four of which have already been ordered - are expected all to be in orbit by the end of 2010.

Giove-A also has the important job of securing the radio frequencies allocated to Galileo within the International Telecommunications Union.

To do this, a sat-nav signal of the correct structure must be received on Earth by June 2006. The SSTL team believes it can complete this task within the first couple of weeks of flight.

Galileo is a joint venture between the European Union and the European Space Agency (Esa).

Once fully deployed, the new system should revolutionise the way we use precise timing and location signals delivered from space.

"We are aiming to provide one-metre, worldwide accuracy through Galileo's 'open' service - this is not possible today without regional or local augmentation," said Esa's Galileo project manager, Javier Benedicto.

"With the use of three signals, we will have access to centimetre accuracies, and with these you will see many more services than you have today; and European industry is working to develop those applications."

Three cheers for the EU for at least doing one thing useful for Europe. Well, it's only early days but hopefully this will be the start of a successful project. Of course Galileo is a direct competitor to the US military GPS system (which the US allows to be used in a degraded form for civilian purposes). The US is no longer a trusted partner in the world, so it is definitely best that the EU have an independent, mainly civilian-driven project. The UK government wants to charge motorists for every mile they drive, and Galileo should allow such a system to be made practicable (or as practicable as it will ever get). This is one downside of Galileo, the governments of the EU will soon be able to track their citizens with ease (via their mobile phone or via their car). Hopefully the upside (e.g. better air traffic control and better traffic management) will outweigh the downside.

The chattering classes want the workers to consume less (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

If climate scientists are right, the past year's scenes of extreme weather are set to become commonplace by the end of the century.

The prediction is that by 2100, the average global temperature will rise by anything from 2 degrees Celsius to around 6C with potentially devastating consequences.

The question is, what should we do about it?

To help answer that, let's explore two different scenarios for our future world.

You could summarise the first option as "business-as-usual". We carry on living life as we do now, allowing emissions of greenhouse gases to continue to rise - and if the climate turns nasty, we put our faith in technology to come up with solutions for dealing with its effects.

So, the era of cheap mass flights continues unchecked. We go on enjoying the amazing choices of our advanced consumer society. And above all, we carry on our love affair with the car.

There's no doubt the car has become deeply ingrained in our lives - even though we all know it's a major cause of greenhouse gases.

According to Nigel Wonnacott, of the UK's Society of Motor Traders and Manufacturers, the car is now woven into the fabric of our society.

"It provides us with huge freedom and huge flexibility," he says. "What we need to do as an industry is ensure that the products that we deliver are as low-carbon as they possibly can be and that we as consumers use our vehicles, be they cars or vans, in the most environmentally responsibly way."

In any case, it's not just us and our cars that are pumping out greenhouse gases.

You could take the view that a far bigger problem is the vast emerging economies of India and China. By 2100, they will be pumping out carbon emissions at a far faster rate; and though we will affected by them, we may be powerless to stop them.
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But there is another vision for our future - an alternative option for a greener world. This would require some serious changes in our everyday activities.

The key would be a serious attempt to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to minimise the scale of the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, believes that the British public are ready to embrace the new approach needed.

Just as recycling has become part of our lives, so could thinking about how our actions affect the climate. It could be as simple as choosing energy-saving light-bulbs or having a range of domestic appliances that are all low-carbon.

"We should be looking at a choice of products that are the cleanest, greenest most environmentally friendly products. Now governments can accelerate that new world. It can be with us very quickly if governments put in place the regulations - and I think the public, by and large, would go along with this."

This greener future would require more fundamental change as well. For example, we have all come to like the convenience and huge choice found in supermarkets - but we also know the environmental cost of flying and trucking fruit, veg and other products from all over the planet.

Dr Viner thinks that our shopping would have to be "more local". Supermarkets would have to make way for farmers' markets.

"We would really focus on local production and local consumption," he says. "So in that respect we would be looking at a world where we are not flying around so much, where goods and services aren't being moved around the world."

And checking in for all those popular cheap flights would be a thing of the past - no more mass flying producing greenhouse gases. We would all be opting for a British holiday instead, getting back to nature and back to a low-carbon existence.

So there are the two scenarios: either, let's just carry on and depend on our boffins to sort things out; or each think about our individual impact on the climate and turn local.

The chattering classes have been proclaiming the end of the world for pretty much forever, and also have decried consumption (except by themselves, of course) for pretty much forever. Once upon a time these sermons would have taken a religious overtone but now they take an "environmental" overtone (well, you could argue that so-called environmentalism is just another modern-day religion). Soon consumption by the people of China and India will overtake that of the EU and the US. So even if the chattering classes of Europe (and in particular of Britain) succeed in reducing consumption in Europe (i.e. making their citizens poorer) this will have little global impact. Of course it will not be the chattering classes who suffer if Europe becomes poorer. BBC correspondents and so-called environmentalists and their like are amongst the largest consumers, in particular of flights (often paid for by others). When they reduce their own consumption (and this includes the consumption incurred as part of their "work") to below the average, then perhaps the workers of Britain might start paying some attention to them.

Date published: 2005/12/27

EU is going to miss Kyoto targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is almost alone in Europe in honouring Kyoto pledges to cut greenhouse gases, a think-tank claims.

Ten of 15 European Union signatories will miss the targets without urgent action, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found.

The countries include Ireland, Italy and Spain.

France, Greece and Germany are given an "amber warning" and will not reach targets unless they put planned policies into action, the IPPR said.

Only Sweden and the UK were on course to meet their commitments, the think-tank's study found.

IPPR associate director Tony Grayling commented: "We are nearing the point of no return on climate change.

"We have very little time left to start reducing global greenhouse gas emissions before irreparable damage is done.
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An EU body - the European Environment Agency - warned in November that the EU was likely to cut its emissions by only 2.5% by the year 2012 - rather than the 8% the bloc promised.

Not very surprising. And the only reason the UK will meet its targets is because of the "dash to gas" away from coal for power generation. So it's rather a con (if technically correct). And the IPPR is (of course) contributing its own hot air on the subject. In particular, perhaps Grayling will kindly tell us exactly what is the "point of no return on climate change" and what is the "time left to start reducing global greenhouse gas emissions", since he obviously thinks he knows. The world's problems will not be solved by these professional chatterboxes, instead they will be solved by engineers and scientists. Stop funding the former and spend the money on the latter.

Harlequin ladybirds threatened by "conservation" body (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A foreign species of ladybird is threatening to drive three native British varieties to extinction, conservationists say.

The harlequin species, which arrived two years ago from continental Europe, is larger than British varieties and threatens them by taking their food.

The seven spot and the two spot, which until recently were common, are under threat along with the rarer five spot.

Charity Buglife wants the government to do more to protect these UK varieties.

The Peterborough-based charity, also known as the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, says the harlequin also damages crops by eating fruit.

A survey was launched at the National History Museum back in March to track the spread of the voracious predator known to easily out-compete home bugs for food.

Wildlife enthusiasts were asked to monitor their gardens for the harlequin which is black and red or orange and black.

Buglife director Matt Shardlow said at the time: "The harlequin may sound like a bit of a jester but there is nothing funny about it at all.

"There're a whole lot of problems it will bring with it. It out-competes native species and eats them.

"Everyone should be vigilant for the species and record where it is."

The insect - originally from south-east Asia - has a huge appetite for greenfly, leaving little for native ladybirds who then starve.

Worse still, organisers of the survey said, the harlequin would turn on other ladybirds if food resources diminished for the whole population.

The invader will also prey on other types of insects, eating butterfly eggs, caterpillars and lacewing larvae.

Presumably when the charity asks the government "to do more" what they want is a campaign of extermination against the harlequin. It's always amazing that "nature" organisations seem so fond of interfering with and controlling Mother Nature. And there doesn't seem to be a shortage of greenfly in the world (ask any gardener), so is the harlequin really causing a problem? Once again you have to ask whether any proposed "solution" is worse than the "problem" (especially given the cost of any "solution") and it is up to these advocacy groups to prove to reasonable certainty that it is.

Date published: 2005/12/23

Congress extends the so-called Patriot Act by one month (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US Congress has voted to extend the anti-terror law known as the Patriot Act - but only for a month.

The move is a rebuff to President George W Bush who wanted the legislation extended indefinitely.

The Patriot Act, introduced after the 11 September attacks, gives the US government extra powers to monitor terrorism suspects and their finances.

Democrats have grown increasingly concerned, believing the Act infringes on Americans' civil liberties.

The restricted extension to the life of the Patriot Act means it will again be debated in Congress in January.

For the White House, that will be an unwelcome addition to a crowded political diary in a year when the focus will be on the mid-term elections, says the BBC's Daniela Relph in Washington.

Approval for the shorter deadline came in a vote after Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, refused to agree to a six-month extension which had been passed by the Senate on Wednesday.

He said such an extension would allow the Senate to duck the issue of whether to renew 16 provisions of the Patriot Act, negotiate a new bill or extend the 2001 law further.

The Senate reconvened late on Thursday and swiftly approved the one-month extension.

The White House had lobbied determinedly for the provisions to be passed and hoped to satisfy critics by adding new safeguards and expiration dates for the most controversial elements.

These included roving phone taps and secret warrants for documents from businesses and hospitals, and for records of library books taken out by private citizens.

President Bush had urged a longer extension, saying that "our nation's security must be above partisan politics".

But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said his party had sought a short-term extension in order "to seek a Patriot Act that gives the government the tools it needs to fight the terrorists, while still protecting the rights of innocent Americans".

The president said he would sign the one-month extension into law.

King George is not very respected these days. Almost as little as the last King George who lorded it over the US. And you have to laugh when he says that "our nation's security must be above partisan politics". Such a natural born comedian, King George. Pity that he claims to be spreading freedom and liberty around the world while at the same time taking it away from his own citizens. But there are unfortunately too many Republican scum in Congress to think that this is the beginning of the end of the Patriot Act (whose name shows, of course, that King George has indeed put partisan politics above the nation's security).

South Korean human stem cell results allegedly fabricated (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Research by South Korea's top human cloning scientist - hailed as a breakthrough earlier this year - was fabricated, colleagues have concluded.

A Seoul National University panel said the research by world-renowned Hwang Woo-suk was "intentionally fabricated", and he would be disciplined.

Dr Hwang said he would resign, but he did not admit his research was faked.

"I sincerely apologise to the people for creating shock and disappointment," he said after the panel's announcement.

"As a symbol of apology, I step down as professor of Seoul National University."

However he maintained that the science behind his work was sound, and that his country's scientists were still leading the field.

Poor South Korea. Their first big moment on the world science stage and it seems now that it was all a fraud.

Date published: 2005/12/22

Some Labour MPs don't like nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Labour backbench MPs are to mount a campaign urging the prime minister not to build more nuclear power stations.

The group is launching a manifesto to promote investment in renewable energy, saying the government would be taking a "dangerous leap with nuclear".

Tony Blair has launched an energy review, amid reports he sees building more nuclear power stations as the only way to meet future needs.

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

The anti-nuclear campaigners - led by former minister Alan Whitehead - say the government will have to subsidise the nuclear industry massively to make new stations viable.

The move to produce an alternative manifesto mirrors the tactics taken against the government's education reforms, in which those MPs opposed to the idea set out their own proposals.

Mr Whitehead told the Guardian newspaper: "We have been promised by government that there is a debate to be had and that no decisions have been made.

"But there is a change in attitude in government. Only three years ago, a White Paper pretty well ruled out nuclear. But it is now at centre stage."

He claimed nuclear power stations could not be built if there were "no assistance for new nuclear build, no long-term promise of a guaranteed market and no minimum price for nuclear".

The Guardian reports that two members of the environmental audit select committee, David Chaytor and Colin Challen, are involved.

Speaking at the launch of his energy review in November, the prime minister said renewable sources could fill some but not all energy gaps.

But many Labour MPs fear Mr Blair privately favours renewing investment in nuclear energy, to keep targets on climate change.

Blair is obviously now pro-nuclear, and the only question is whether he can convince Gordon Brown to support him. The MPs behind this campaign seem to be dogmatically anti-nuclear and pro-"renewable", in common with most so-called environmentalists. So-called environmentalists have claimed for years that climate change is by far and away the number one problem in the world, so they themselves have brought around the political climate where nuclear again has to be considered as an option. Of course it is up to the nuclear industry to prove it has solutions to the real problems with nuclear power. But being dogmatic gets the country nowhere.

Blair visits Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has paid tribute to British troops after flying into Iraq for a surprise pre-Christmas visit.

Mr Blair told them: "I just want you to know how grateful we are for the work you are doing here."

He said they were helping to build democracy and they could return home when Iraqi forces were up to strength.

Well at least Blair had the grace to visit (some of) the troops for Christmas. But the fact that his visit had to be so secret illustrates how poor the security situation is in Iraq, even in the south. It's lucky the Americans and British outgun their opponents by ten thousand to one, think how bad it would be otherwise.

Date published: 2005/12/21

So-called Intelligent Design thrown out of court (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A US court decision to ban the teaching of "intelligent design" has been hailed by anti-creationism campaigners.

A federal judge ruled in favour of 11 parents in Dover, Pennsylvania, who argued that Darwinian evolution must be taught as fact in biology lessons.

School administrators had argued that life on Earth was too complex to have evolved on its own.

Intelligent design activists criticised the ruling, saying it would marginalise beliefs based on religion.

For those fighting the policy of the Dover school board, the judicial ruling offered a boost to the separation of church and state.

A majority of US states have seen some form of challenge to the pre-eminence of Darwinian evolution theory in the curriculum of publicly-funded schools since 2001.

"We have a federal judge ruling that intelligent design is in fact non-science and that it is religion," said Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"That's going to be extremely useful as we combat intelligent design in other states."

The BBC's James Coomarasamy, in Washington, said the decision by Republican judge John Jones was a landmark ruling and represents quite a blow to religious conservatives.

In his ruling, Judge Jones demolished assertions by members of Dover's former school board, or administrators, that the theory of intelligent design (ID) was based around scientific rather than religious belief.

He accused them of "breathtaking inanity", of lying under oath and of trying to introduce religion into schools through the back door.

The judge said he had determined that ID was not science and "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents".

In a 139-page written ruling regularly studded with criticism of the defendants' arguments, the judge said: "Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom."

Peter Briggs of the Family Research Council, a conservative group, described the ruling as a dangerous precedent.

"That's a terribly slippery slope if we're going to say in a democracy, in a free country, that people who are motivated by religion are excluded from the public script."

The ruling is not binding for schools outside Dover, but it is expected to have an impact in the wider debate over ID and the more overtly religious theory of creationism, which has long been banned from US schools.

Earlier this year, the state of Kansas passed into law the requirement that students be told that the theory of evolution was "controversial" when studying biology.

In Georgia, a federal court has been considering whether stickers questioning evolution placed on biology textbooks at one school are unconstitutional.

ID has also received backing from US President George W Bush, who has said schools should make students aware of the concept.

Unbelievable that the judge ruled so strongly. It's almost as if sanity has suddenly returned to the body politic in the US. The cry-baby quotation from Briggs is particularly amusing. The one thing the Dover school board (now kicked out of office) and the other ID apologists wanted to claim was that ID had nothing to do with religion, it was just another scientific theory (to which the Dover school board had decided to give special prominence). The judge, quite rightly, pointed out that this was completely disingenous, as anybody with half a brain could see. If religious people blatantly lie in order to push their religion, they do not deserve any respect, just raspberries, which is what the judge has blown them. Of course the religious fundamentalists will not go away, they dominate the Republican Party and hence have a strong influence in the running of the country. No doubt one of these loonies will threaten to kill the judge.

North-eastern US states sign an emissions plan (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Seven north-eastern US states have signed the country's first plan setting Kyoto-style legal limits on greenhouse gases from power stations.

They agreed to take steps to curb CO2 emissions starting in 2009.

The plan was endorsed by the governors of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It is open to other states.

Known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), it is seen as a break with the Bush administration.
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The RGGI - initiated in 2003 by New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican - gives power stations binding targets for cutting their CO2 emissions.

They can either do that by installing new, cleaner technology, or by buying CO2 allowances from other companies who have cut their CO2 beyond the target.

Carbon allowances thus become a tradable commodity, and there is money to be made for firms that clean up their act.

Under the RGGI, each of the seven signatories must proceed with required legislative or regulatory approvals to adopt the programme.

It's too early to tell what impact this will have, but it's an amazing step for the states to even have thought to do this.

Date published: 2005/12/20

Parkside residents don't want a new bus location (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Residents are set to form an action group to oppose plans for increased bus and taxi use on Cambridge's Parkside.

Three long-distance bus stops with shelters, an information block and a new taxi rank have been proposed for the street, which runs along one edge of Parker's Piece.

But residents say they will end up with more traffic, noise, pollution and visual intrusion from the double-decker buses and coaches.

Fears have already been raised about the safety of pupils attending Parkside Community College, with head Andrew Hutchinson saying they have "major concerns".

The scheme is one of two options drawn up by Cambridgeshire County Council to take pressure off Drummer Street bus station by moving long-distance bus stops.

A packed public meeting on Friday heard Coun Julian Huppert, chairman of Traffic Management Area joint committee, confirm the shelters would be a temporary arrangement until the bus stops were moved to the train station.

Chris Buckingham, a Parkside resident since 1976, said: "Julian Huppert was very helpful and told us it is definitely a temporary thing, he said about three years - but we've also heard it could be permanent.

"We think this could be the thin edge of the wedge, that buses would be moved permanently to Parkside. We've also got Parkside Community College and the ACE Nursery School here.

"A lot of parents have expressed a great deal of concern. I've been a resident here for 28 years and I've seen a lot of changes. This has been threatened a number of times."

He set up a website to www.stopparksidebuses.co.uk so interested parties can make their views known.

One contributor opposing the plans wrote: "I think this is disgusting. Not only is it next to a school and nursery but it provides the only green area for Parkside."

But Coun Colin Rosenstiel, deputy city council leader, posted a comment saying: "If we cannot expand the capacity to handle bus passengers in Cambridge we cannot accommodate the demand and pressure to let cars back in will grow.

"I am very disappointed by the rather Nimby-ish attitude of Parkside Community College to the coach proposal, who have not engaged in the process and just opposed the whole idea."

The area joint committee is due to make a decision on the proposals on January 16.

The original proposal was for the extension of the Drummer Street bus station to be on Victoria Avenue, but the NIMBYs of Maid's Causeway and nearby stopped that, by creating a bit of noise. So the council decided to instead propose Parkside as an alternative site. The idea seems to be that you keep changing the location until some neighbourhood doesn't have enough political clout to stop the proposal. (This happened in a similar way a few years ago when the Victoria Road residents asked for night-time lorries to be banned from the road, so the council brilliantly suggested instead that the lorries use Gilbert Road. Needless to say this proposal got the flak it deserved.) So the NIMBYs of Parkside have reacted in a totally predictable way. And it is also totally understandable. The city is arbitrarily proposing to cause inconvenience to these people, who are given nothing in compensation. The Cambridge ruling elite think buses are great, but buses are smelly and obnoxious (pushing other traffic out of the way) and are inappropriate for the narrow Cambridge streets. And the idea that this is a "temporary" move is fanciful. Most "temporary" things in life have a tendency to become rather permanent.

Far more worrying is that no matter where the council sticks an extra bus location you can guarantee they will do it in the stupidest way possible, e.g. there will be no consideration given as to how people might be dropped off or picked up at the site.

NEC develops a new battery (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Japanese company NEC has developed a lightweight, flexible battery that is less than a millimetre thick and can be recharged in half a minute.

It is called the Organic Radical Battery (ORB) and is based on a type of plastic that exists in a gel state.

The gel allows the battery to be extremely pliant, with a thickness of 300 microns.

ORBs could eventually be embedded into devices such as smart cards, wearable computers and intelligent paper.

Currently the battery, when in card form, can be recharged with a card reader device in 30 seconds.

The absence of harmful chemicals typically used in rechargeable batteries also makes it quite environmentally friendly, according to NEC.

The ORB has huge potential when combined with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags - tiny microchips that hold unique identifier information attached to a small antenna.

RFID tags are now finding wide use to keep track of items in the business supply chain - from the manufacturing floor to the retail outlet.

RFID tags fall into two categories - the more commonly found "passive" devices only respond to signals sent to it by a tag reader and have a shorter range.

"Active" tags on the other hand can transmit signals and can be read at greater distances but are larger and more expensive since they need a power source.

"If you can create a 'smart active label' - a thin label that broadcasts a signal as opposed to passively reflecting back energy from the reader - you could solve many of the readability problems people are struggling with now," said Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal.

"You could potentially put one of these labels on a case of coke in the middle of a pallet of coke and read it. That is not possible with passive tags because the energy from the reader is blocked by the metal."

Batteries are the weak point of much of modern technology (electric cars, home-sized wind generators, digital cameras, etc.) so any advance has got to be welcomed (although the NEC batteries look unlikely to help in most battery applications). On the other hand, RFID tags, although great for businesses, has a potential negative civil liberties impact, so advances on that front are not necessarily to be welcomed.

Date published: 2005/12/19

Carbon emissions not being counted correctly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New research from the US shows that trade can significantly affect emissions of greenhouse gases.

Researchers found that US imports of goods from China cause a greater production of carbon dioxide than if the goods were made in the US.

Factories in developing countries tend to use more energy than in the west.

The researchers say emissions control measures such as the Kyoto Protocol could "export" carbon-intensive industries to the developing world.

This has long been a contention raised by critics of the Protocol.

In a briefing just before the UN climate negotiations in Montreal, President Bush's chief environmental advisor James Connaughton told reporters that setting targets for emissions may "...cause a shift offshore of some energy-intensive industries.

"This probably equates to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, as it's a shift to countries which are probably less efficient than the US," he said.

This issue of "carbon leakage" is matched in controversy potential by another related argument; that western countries own up to emissions produced within their shores, when in fact they should be responsible for all emissions connected with the goods and products which they consume.

They are "saving" their own emissions, the argument goes, at the expense of developing countries.

This is indeed the major flaw in the Kyoto Protocol and in most of the arguments of the so-called environmentalists about emissions. There is no point counting emissions you produce directly if you ignore the emissions you produce indirectly. (The same silly reasoning is used when claiming that so-called public transport is somehow energy efficient. It is only so if you ignore all the indirect energy consumption.) Of course this trade swap works only as long as the rich countries have sufficiently desirable low-emission goods and services to offer the poor countries in return. Eventually the rich countries may no longer be able to offer enough low-emission goods and services which the poor countries want, and so the amount of high-emission imports the rich countries will be able to afford to buy will decrease, i.e. the rich countries will become poor(er). That might take some years to happen.

Date published: 2005/12/18

Bush admits to spying on Americans (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

President George W Bush has admitted he authorised secret monitoring of communications within the United States in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks.

The monitoring was of "people with known links to al-Qaeda and related terrorist organisations", he said.

He said the programme was reviewed every 45 days, and he made clear he did not plan to halt the eavesdropping.

He also rebuked senators who blocked the renewal of his major anti-terror law, the Patriot Act, on Friday.

By preventing the extension of the act, due to expire on 31 December, they had, he said, acted irresponsibly and were endangering the lives of US citizens.

The president, who was visibly angry, also suggested that a New York Times report which had revealed the monitoring on Friday had been irresponsible.

Why is it that Republican presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Bush) feel the need to constantly break fundamental laws? It's not as if the most powerful person on earth could not do things legally. At least Nixon was intelligent and Reagan had the excuse of senility. Bush is just a nasty piece of work (and not very bright and in over his depth). He's now so discredited that it's hard to see anyone paying serious attention to anything he says any more. Of course the Republican Party is rotten to its core (e.g. Ollie North is treated by them as a hero, in spite of his dreadful behaviour under Reagan), so it's hard to see any improvement in the situation as long as they remain in power.

Switzerland moves forward on assisted suicide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A hospital in Switzerland says it will allow assisted suicide on its premises for terminally ill patients.

A spokesman for the university hospital in Lausanne said the decision was taken after a long reflection.

He added that the conditions for permitting an assisted suicide remained very strict.

The practice is legal in Switzerland, but only for patients who are mentally competent and suffering from an incurable disease.

From the start of next year terminally ill patients in Lausanne's main hospital will be allowed to take their own lives on hospital premises, as long as they are of sound mind, are already too ill to return home, and have expressed a persistent wish to die.

Until now, hospitals across Switzerland had refused to allow assisted suicide on site and had denied access to the Swiss voluntary euthanasia society, Exit.

This meant that patients wishing to die by assisted suicide had to leave hospital to do so.

The new ruling will give patients access to an external doctor or to a member of Exit.

Hospital staff can choose whether or not they wish to attend the death.

Another step forward. Hopefully the rest of Europe will (eventually) follow suit. The world is far too dominated by religious and other control freaks who are far more worried about quantity rather than quality of life, one of whose consequences is to force many people to die a prolonged and horrible death.

Date published: 2005/12/17

EU budget deal finally concluded (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European leaders have agreed the next seven-year EU budget after two days of tense talks ended in the early hours.

The UK gives up 10.5bn euros (£7bn) of its rebate, some 20%, while the budget grows to 862.4bn euros, helping to fund the development of new member states.

In return, France has agreed to a budget review in 2008-2009, which could lead to cuts in farm subsidies.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said the deal allowed Europe to move forward, avoiding a serious crisis.

Well, Blair is correct about that. But as usual the French have gotten away with murder. And who would be surprised if the supposed future review of farm subsidies just ends up making the situation worse. French farmers might well end up destroying the EU.

Shell cuts North Sea exploration plans (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Oil giant Shell has cut its plans for North Sea exploration, blaming Chancellor Gordon Brown's tax hikes for the move.

The company had planned to hire three drilling rigs, but has decided to reduce the number to two.

Shell said it took the decision after a review prompted by the chancellor's decision to increase a charge on profits from 10% to 20%.

The Treasury said the charge compared favourably with tax regimes abroad.

However, the Scottish National Party warned that the move would cost jobs in Scotland.

Leader Alex Salmond said: "The chancellor's tax grab on the North Sea was a crude attempt to hide the black hole he has created in Britain's finances, and the cost is now being felt here in Scotland.

For once Alex Salmond is not talking complete nonsense. Of course Shell might just be trying to make excuses, but it is obvious (for normal goods and services) that the more you tax something, the less that will be produced. Gordon Brown is unfortunately spending far too much money, so has to cover the "black hole" from somewhere.

Date published: 2005/12/16

British government arrested their own agent (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A veteran Sinn Fein figure expelled from the party has said he was a British agent for two decades.

Denis Donaldson headed the party's administration office at Stormont before his October 2002 arrest over an alleged spy ring led to its collapse.

Mr Donaldson said he was recruited in the 1980s as a paid agent and deeply regretted his activities.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams claimed he was about to be "outed" by the same "securocrats" who set him up as a spy.

Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive collapsed in October 2002 following the arrests of three men, who had all charges against them dropped "in the public interest" last week.

The government said on Friday that the Stormont raid more than three years ago was solely to prevent paramilitary intelligence gathering.

The Northern Ireland Office said it "completely rejected any allegation that the police operation in October 2002 was for any reason other than to prevent paramilitary intelligence gathering".

It said "the fact remains that a huge number of stolen documents were recovered by the police".

In a statement on Friday, Mr Donaldson said: "I was a British agent at the time. I was recruited in the 1980s after compromising myself during a vulnerable time in my life.

"Since then I have worked for British intelligence and the RUC/PSNI Special Branch. Over that period, I was paid money."

Mr Donaldson said the "so-called Stormontgate affair" was "a scam and a fiction invented by (police) Special Branch".

At a news conference on Friday, Mr Adams claimed Mr Donaldson had been approached by police officers earlier this week and told he was about to be "outed" as an informer.

He said Mr Donaldson was not under any threat from the republican movement.

Police sources earlier reiterated that the "Stormontgate" affair began because a paramilitary organisation was involved in the systematic gathering of information and targeting or individuals.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said if "one of Sinn Fein's top administrators in Stormont turns out to be a British spy, this is as bizarre as it gets".

Completely scandalous. The British government arrests one of their own spies for alleged illegal spying and the whole peace process in Northern Ireland practically disintegrates. Heads should roll, all the way up to cabinet level, but of course they will not. It would all be laughable if it had not had so many serious consequences.

British internal migration switches northward (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Increasing numbers of people in the UK are moving north in an "unprecedented" reversal of a southward trend seen since at least 1971, say researchers.

House prices were said to be a factor in the decision to sell up and move, and a deterrent to others moving south.

Figures also show an "exodus from the cities" to suburbs and rural areas is showing no sign of abating, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Over a quarter of the UK population lives in London and the South East.

The region and capital city combined house 15.5m people but cover less than a tenth of the UK's land area.

The study also looks at international migration, age structure and fertility rates to help chart population change.

The report said that with around 11% per cent of the population changing address each year, migration within the UK had the potential to cause large shifts in the patterns of where people are living.

Unfortunately demographic (so-called) experts look at data for N years and since the slope is one-way they say of course it will be the same way for the next N years. Other (so-called) experts do the same, with regard to air travel, car usage, etc. Of course it is the easiest prediction to make (and perhaps the one most likely to be true), but nobody ever admits the error bars are large. The (so-called) experts have also not thought through what will happen when all the baby boomers retire. Will the ones living in the London area really want to continue to live there or will they cash in their chips and move to somewhere more salubrious (e.g. the southwest or the north)? And the "exodus from the cities" also makes sense. British cities are rather squalid and the non-urban areas are less so. The ruling elite (protected from the squalor, so not understanding what the fuss is all about) are trying to turn that one around by strangulation of growth via the planning system and also by screwing car drivers.

Date published: 2005/12/15

Bush finally supports anti-torture law (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

President George W Bush has announced he will support a new law banning cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of terrorist suspects.

Sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain, the law on torture has been the subject of months of negotiations between Congress and the White House.

The BBC's Adam Brookes in Washington says this is a change of heart by Mr Bush, under pressure from Congress.

Mr Bush had said it would constrain the military and intelligence agencies.

But when both the Senate and the House of Representatives came out overwhelmingly in favour of a new law banning torture, Mr Bush did not have much choice, our correspondent says - even though it is a blow to presidential authority.

Mr McCain, once a prisoner of war who was tortured in Vietnam and now Senator for Arizona, proposed the measure as an amendment to a military spending bill.

So Bush has finally caved in. Mind you, it is tempting to give Bush a piece of his own medicine and claim this shows he is pathetically weak on terrorism and really a friend of Al Qaeda (that's what the Republican scum always say about anyone who dares to disagree with their dreadful policies). But at least this is another indication that Bush is losing influence. And perhaps the US might eventually rejoin world civilisation.

Alistair Darling visits Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridge will not be press-ganged into charging motorists for driving on its roads.

That is the pledge from Transport Secretary Alistair Darling following top-level talks with council chiefs in the city.

Cambridge has been picked as one of the first areas outside London to investigate how congestion charging scheme might work.

The Department for Transport is giving Cambridgeshire County Council £385,000 to mount a detailed study, which is expected to be finished by the summer of next year.

On Wednesday, Mr Darling came to Cambridge for initial talks with the council about the idea - and he later spoke exclusively to the News to allay fears the scheme would be imposed on the city.

The minister said: "Cambridge is a very popular city, with lots of people coming in to visit and to shop. That means its road problems are going to get worse not better.

"Unless we start now on trying to sort it out, Cambridge will be completely gridlocked in 20-30 years time.

"That will be bad news environmentally, and also economically. Businesses will start choose to locate somewhere else, not in Cambridge. We need to plan ahead to stop that happening and that's why we have given Cambridge the money to look into what can be done."

Mr Darling said if the study found congestion charging might work in Cambridge, the city might get further funding to try a pilot project, adding: "I have made it very clear to councillors the Government is not interested in working with conscripts - we want to work with willing partners.

"We need to test whether or not a scheme will work in the area - but I am not interested in working with people who feel they have been press-ganged. If a scheme were to go ahead, there would have to a consensus locally that it was worth doing.

"What we need in Cambridge is a full and open debate. Residents have a good sense of what could happen if we do nothing, and this a unique opportunity. Not everyone will be in favour, I know, but the challenge to them is what would they do instead?"

Darling is rather taking the piss. First of all, Cambridge does not need to be "press-ganged", the Cambridge ruling elite hate cars and would love nothing better than to have yet another way to attack drivers. They have also done everything they can to make congestion as bad as possible over the last decade, and then blame drivers for the mess. And Cambridge, like the rest of the UK, has no real choice about (so-called) congestion charging. The government will impose it, period. Everywhere. Of course the people doing the study about congestion charging in Cambridge will have an inducement to say it should all go ahead. After all, they will then get even more business telling the council how it should be done.

And there is plenty there could be done instead. Such as sacking all the Cambridge transport planners. And building some new roads in strategic locations, such as at Addenbrooke's. Well, they are supposed to build an access road to Addenbrooke's from Trumpington, but they hate cars so will almost certainly make it not work as well as it should (hint: there is not nearly enough parking on the Addenbrooke's site, and they will do nothing about that). Another thing (national) government could do is to insist that children attend their nearest school unless there is a bloody good reason to do otherwise. That would remove a lot of the school run traffic. Of course the current idea is instead to let parents send their kids to whichever school they want. The government could also put shopping next to good road links (e.g. the M11) instead of forcing everyone to trudge into over-crowded Cambridge (and then curse them for daring to drive a car to get in). (People who live west of the Cam are particularly badly affected since all major shopping is east of the Cam.)

Another warm year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

This year has been the warmest on record in the northern hemisphere, say scientists in Britain.

It is the second warmest globally since the 1860s, when reliable records began, they say.

Ocean temperatures recorded in the northern hemisphere Atlantic Ocean have also been the hottest on record.

The researchers, from the UK Met Office and the University of East Anglia, say this is more evidence for the reality of human-induced global warming.

Their data show that the average temperature during 2005 in the northern hemisphere is 0.65 Celsius above the average for 1961-1990, a conventional baseline against which scientists compare temperatures.

The global increase is 0.48 Celsius, making 2005 the second warmest year on record behind 1998, though the 1998 figure was inflated by strong El Nino conditions.

The northern hemisphere is warming faster than the south, scientists believe, because a greater proportion of it is land, which responds faster to atmospheric conditions than ocean.

Northern hemisphere temperatures are now about 0.4 Celsius higher than a decade ago.

"The data also show that the sea surface temperature in the northern hemisphere Atlantic is the highest since 1880," said Dr David Viner from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

No measurements of average temperature can be completely accurate, and David Viner believes the team's calculations are subject to an error of about plus or minus 0.1 Celsius.

Ho hum, another warm year. Unless the scientists are completely wrong (and that is certainly a possibility) it is going to get still warmer. Britain might even start getting some decent summers.

Date published: 2005/12/14

Cambridge University approves new IPR rules (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Academics at Cambridge have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a change to the university”s intellectual property rules, in spite of warnings that the new regime could damage the institution”s position as a global leader in technological innovation.

Over 70 per cent of the 1,000 dons balloted backed proposals to give the university ownership of patents on inventions by research staff while securing the copyright for the inventors.

Supporters of the plan applauded what they described a new consensus, after five years of internal wrangling over the Cambridge intellectual property arrangements.

The university has traditionally given individual academics much more control over the use of their research than at other British institutions, and Professor Ian Leslie, pro-vice chancellor, said the new arrangements would safeguard that control.

Hermann Hauser, a director of Amadeus Capital Partners, the venture capitalists, said the business community in and around the city would welcome the attempt to update the rules.

"This is very advantageous for everybody because for the first time it brings clarity to the situation," he said. "Previously, you didn”t know who the stuff belonged to, and this is still one of the most generous IPR plans anywhere in the world."

But Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the computer laboratory, said those pushing for change had destroyed the unique advantages that led to the growth of a vibrant technology cluster around the university - the so-called "silicon fen".

"One of the things that made Cambridge special has died today," said Prof Anderson, who led the campaign against the proposals. He argued that Cambridge had managed to pull ahead of other leading British universities, including Oxford, in scientific innovation because a balance had been maintained between theorists and practitioners on the academic staff. Clawing back ownership rights and income for the central university could disrupt that balance by putting off inventors, he said.

"There are many other opportunities available for applied folk - and as academic salaries have fallen behind, keeping them depends on providing something extra."

He said the changes, which will allow individuals to take a much higher proportion of the income from externally-funded research when it is commercialised, would benefit medical research more than technology, changing the pattern of companies based in and around the town.

Business observers also criticised the "mood music", saying the university had allowed itself to be portrayed as "taxing the inventors" rather than arguing for a coherent central strategy on the commercial exploitation of research.

But Prof Leslie said the new rules would prevent disputes and would not lead to delays or overly-bureaucratic approaches to getting inventions to market. The proposals include, for example, incentives to the technology transfer office to improve its efficiency.

The university”s ruling body said it had promised academics concerned about the changes that the package of proposals would be amended later to clarify that inventions could only be patented with the consent of academics.

Well when the money men (e.g. Hauser) say it is good for everybody you can probably guarantee it is not. But only time will tell. With respect to these proposals, the university bureaucrats have done an extremely poor job explaining to the academics both what the implications are and what the up-side and down-side are.

Lib Dems want to get rid of Kennedy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charles Kennedy has told Liberal Democrat MPs he intends to lead them into the next election, as he fights for his political life.

Mr Kennedy addressed them at a routine meeting, which followed criticisms from inside his own "shadow cabinet".

Afterwards, Mr Kennedy said he had received "overwhelming" support from MPs who spoke at the meeting.

But in a BBC News interview, he refused to say whether deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell had backed him.

Concerns about Mr Kennedy's performance were voiced at a meeting of the Lib Dem "shadow cabinet" on Tuesday, but nobody asked him to resign.

The BBC has learned that some frontbenchers considered writing a letter threatening to resign if Mr Kennedy did not quit as leader. But they never sent it.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said nobody would challenge Mr Kennedy in the next few days but they could attack him again in the future.

Kennedy is an intellectual lightweight. His main claim to staying on as leader seems to be that the Lib Dems did better at the election in May than in a very long time. But that was because some Labour supporters voted against Tony Blair by voting for the Lib Dems. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, there is nobody else around who would be a more credible leader other than Menzies Campbell, and he is too old. The rest of them are also intellectual lightweights.

Date published: 2005/12/13

Another extinction report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Researchers have compiled a global map of sites where animals and plants face imminent extinction.

The list, drawn up by a coalition of conservation groups, covers almost 800 species which they say will disappear soon unless urgent measures are taken.

Most of the 800 are now found only in one location, mainly in the tropics.

Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers say protecting some of these sites would cost under $1,000 per year.

"This is a whole suite of species threatened with extinction," said Stuart Butchart, global species programme co-ordinator with BirdLife International, one of the groups behind the report.

"Most of them are living on single sites and are therefore highly vulnerable to human impacts," he told the BBC News website.

"Safeguarding this suite of sites is not the only thing we need to do; but if we don't protect them, these are guaranteed extinctions."
...
"In Madagascar the community benefits," said John Fa, "because we have been able to attract donor money to support the establishment of schools, building of wells, and starting initiatives like home gardens; so people see there are benefits from conserving wildlife."

The AZE team has calculated the cost of conserving each of the 595 key sites; they conclude that the annual price would vary hugely, from $470 up to $3,500,000.

Well one of the criteria used in the study was that at least 95% of the species lived on one site, so the second comment by Butchart above is redundant. The original article is worth reading (unlike most science articles, it is understandable by the lay-person). The costs quoted are estimates only (based on a crude formula) and, as mentioned above, they are only operating costs. As for capital costs, the original article says: "One-time acquisition costs for unprotected sites can be many times their management costs but may often be much lower because protection may be achieved through redesignation of public lands to higher levels of protection or better enforcement of existing designations." Does that or does that not imply that if only governments would steal the appropriate land (i.e. "redesignate" the land, hence decreasing the market value) then the purchase costs could me made much lower. Of course governments often do this kind of thing. There is also the small issue of the people who live on or near these sites. Presumably their voices should be heard at least as much as a bunch of scientific outsiders (the original article rarely rates local inhabitants a mention, other than as a problem). The comment about Madagascar in the BBC article is odd. The benefits quoted have no connection with "conserving wildlife", it is just that in this case the rich outsiders have put extra money into the whole program. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Rich outsiders who think that someone else's land should be protected from human exploitation should definitely cough up more than enough money to pay for this.

Council of Europe report on US torture allegations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Allegations that the CIA abducted and illegally transported terror suspects across European borders are credible, an investigator has said.

Swiss senator Dick Marty has submitted a report on the claims, made in the media, to a meeting of the human rights committee of the Council of Europe.

Mr Marty criticised the US for refusing to confirm or deny the allegations.

The US government and its intelligence agencies say that all their operations are conducted within the law.

Mr Marty's findings were released in an official statement by a committee of the 46-member Council of Europe, the continent's human rights watchdog.

"The elements we have gathered so far tend to reinforce the credibility of the allegations concerning the transport and temporary detention of detainees - outside all judicial procedure - in European countries," he said.

He went on: "Legal proceedings in progress in certain countries seemed to indicate that individuals had been abducted and transferred to other countries without respect for any legal standards."

The BBC's Alix Kroeger in Strasbourg says the strongly worded report will add to the pressure for more in-depth inquiries.

The European Union has so far declined to investigate, although it has said any member state with secret prisons on its territory could have its EU voting rights suspended.

Poland and Romania have been named by the media as possible locations of CIA secret prisons, but have denied the allegations.

In his statement, he said it was "still too early to assert that there had been any involvement or complicity of member states in illegal actions".

But, he warned, if the allegations proved correct any European states involved "would stand accused of having seriously breached their human rights obligations to the Council of Europe".

However, Mr Marty told a news conference he believed any prisoners held secretly by the US in Europe had now been moved to North Africa.

Tony Lloyd, a member of the Council's parliamentary assembly, told the BBC the charges that people may have been effectively kidnapped and taken to other countries for possible torture "were of such magnitude that they have to have proper answers".

Mr Marty urged the US to comment formally on the allegations, saying he "deplore[d] the fact that no information or explanations" were given during last week's tour of Europe by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

It's been clear for years that the American government is up to no good. It's hard to believe this report will change anything. Bush does not care what anybody else thinks. The fact that the Bush administration claims that "all their operations are conducted within the law" is irrelevant since the administration also believes that anything that Bush says is within the law is within the law.

Date published: 2005/12/12

Abortion allegedly causes mental anguish (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An abortion can cause five years of mental anguish, anxiety, guilt and even shame, a BMC Medicine study suggests.

University of Oslo researchers compared 40 women who had had a miscarriage with 80 who chose to have an abortion.

Miscarriage was associated with more mental distress in the six months after the loss of a baby - but abortion had a much longer lasting negative effect.

Pro-choice campaigners said there was no evidence abortion directly caused psychological trauma.

The researchers said their work underlined the importance of giving women information about the psychological effects of losing a baby - either through miscarriage or abortion.

The Oslo team found that, after 10 days, 47.5% of women who had miscarried suffered from some degree of mental distress compared with 30% of the abortion group.

The proportion of women who had a miscarriage suffering distress decreased during the study period, to 22.5% at six months and to just 2.6% at two years and five years.

But among the abortion group 25.7% were still experiencing distress after six months, and 20% at five years.

The researchers also said that women who had an abortion had to make an effort to avoid thinking about the event.

Well you have to take any report on abortion with a pinch of salt. First of all it is easy to confuse correlation and causation. For example, suppose poor women are more likely to have an abortion than rich women. Then since poor people on average have worse health (both physical and mental) you would not be very surprised to see women who had abortions having more psychological problems than normal. Secondly, the religious control freaks vocally (and often violently) oppose abortion and it would not be very surprising if that continual demonisation causes women who have abortions some pause for thought. Is this the fault of the abortion or the fault of the control freaks? Thirdly, women who have miscarriages are not constantly told it is their fault, but women who have abortions could obviously instead have had the child, so one could understand why some of them might feel guilty even independently of the pressure exerted by the control freaks. All in all, this is yet another "health" report which should just be ignored.

MPs are better educated than the public as a whole (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nearly a third of MPs and almost two thirds of members of the House of Lords were educated privately, compared to 7% in the wider population, figures show.

A report by the Sutton Trust charity says politicians' educational profiles do not match those of society at large.

It also found 27% of the Commons and 42% of the Lords were educated at Oxford or Cambridge universities.

The trust's chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, said the findings were symptomatic of an "educational apartheid".

Sir Peter said: "The educational profile of our representatives in Parliament does not reflect society at large."

Another silly report from the Sutton Trust. So what is Lampl saying, that unless half of MPs are thick (i.e. representative of "society at large") then something is wrong? You would hope that MPs are better educated (and more talented) than the average British citizen. If only they were even better educated (and talented) than they are. The fact that so many of the British privileged elite (such as Lampl) complain about the background of their fellow members of the elite is not very enlightening.

Date published: 2005/12/09

Cameron sets up environmental policy group (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron has set up a policy group on the environment to pave the way for "tough decisions" on cutting greenhouse gas.

The group, chaired by ex-Environment Secretary John Gummer and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith, will look at "quality of life" issues.

Mr Cameron says he will finalise policies in 18 months' time following the group's recommendations.

Labour said policies, not "platitudes", were needed to help the environment.

The new policy group is one of six which Mr Cameron intends to set up to help decide future party policy.

Ex-Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith is already looking at social justice, while former chancellor Ken Clarke is to head a "democracy taskforce".

Mr Cameron has highlighted the environment, and in particular climate change, as a key area of concern.

He launched the policy review group at the London Wetland Centre where he met members of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

Zac Goldsmith, editor of the Ecologist magazine, will work alongside Mr Gummer, meeting environmental groups to discuss policy proposals.
..
Mr Cameron said he believed in "green growth", arguing that environmentally-friendly measures did not have to stifle the economy.

"We don't want people to go and live like monks," he said.

Well the most encouraging thing here is that Cameron believes in "green growth". Whatever that is. But Gummer is a has-been third-rate politician and Goldsmith is a spoiled little rich kid who on the environmental front is just a younger version of Prince Charles. (Rich people by far and away cause much more damage to the environment than anyone else. So we don't really need patronising lectures from them about the environment.) And when a politician talks about "tough decisions" what they usually mean is that they are going to have to screw the ordinary people of Britain but they don't want to lose all those votes. Well, all three main parties seem to now be committed to similar policies on this front, so the Tories are not really sticking their necks out.

BAA releases plans for second runway at Stansted (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Airports group BAA has said a second runway and new facilities at London's Stansted airport will cost £2.7bn ($4.71bn) to construct.

The figure is close to one-third below previous government projections.

BAA hopes the runway, which is strongly opposed by local residents and environmental groups, will boost the UK economy and be ready by 2013.

Separately, BAA said 10.4 million passengers passed through its airports in November, up 2.2% on a year ago.

BAA operates airports at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in London, and Southampton, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Mike Clasper, BAA chief executive, said: "'We've worked very hard in the last two years to ensure that Stansted G2 [runway two] will deliver great value to the UK economy, to our airlines and to people using the airport.

"We've also examined in great detail the environmental impacts of the project, in order to ensure that they are reduced as far as possible."

The plans for Stansted - which would more than double the airport's yearly passenger capacity to 50 million - are opposed by some airlines, which fear higher airport charges.

Ryanair and Easyjet, which account for about 90% of Stansted's business, are worried they will effectively have to fund the expansion.

New British Airways boss Willie Walsh has also questioned the need for a new runway at Stansted, and promised to fight any resultant increase in airport charges to pay for it.

And the Stop Stansted Expansion Group said the BAA proposal would cause catastrophic damage to the environment.

Campaign director Carol Barbone said: "A second runway in any position would be an environmental catastrophe for which there is absolutely no economic justification."

It's a joke to call this (or almost any other UK) airport expansion an "environmental catastrophe". These people (classic NIMBYs) are just taking the piss. But it is amazing that BAA has managed to annoy all the airplane companies. Stansted serves a very useful purpose right now (certainly for Cambridge) with loads of flights provided by the cheap and cheerful Ryanair and Easyjet and others. BAA will do themselves and the people of East Anglia a great disservice if they destroy this.

Government approves guided bus for Cambridgeshire (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

At last we know - Cambridgeshire's guided bus scheme WILL go ahead.

After months of delay, the Government has given the stamp of approval to the £86 million project.

And that means the first buses could hit the road by 2007.

As well as being the costliest public transport project ever mooted in the county, the guided bus, which will operate between Cambridge and Huntingdon, is also one of the longest-running from a planning point of view.

It was first talked about seriously five years ago when transport consultants looked at ways of tackling congestion on the A14.

The study came up with plans to widen and re-route the road, and proposed ripping up the old Cambridge-St Ives railway, opened in 1847 and mothballed in 1970, replacing the track with a "rapid transit system" - the guided bus.

An efficient bus service would help to keep cars off the A14, and serve the proposed new township of Northstowe on the edge of Cambridge, it was claimed.

The idea has been strongly opposed by some individuals and organisations such as Cast.Iron, a pro-rail campaign group which believes the track should be re-opened for trains.

Time will tell whether or not this is the biggest white elephant to ever hit Cambridgeshire, or whether by some miracle is it a great success. (The fact that government is involved already stacks the odds against.)

Date published: 2005/12/08

UK government cannot use evidence that might have been obtained by torture (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Secret evidence that might have been obtained by torture cannot be used against terror suspects in UK courts, the law lords have ruled.

The decision means the cases of eight detainees facing deportation are expected to be reconsidered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission.

It is a victory for eight men who had been held without charge.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke accepted the ruling but said it would have "no bearing" on efforts to combat terror.

He said the government did not use evidence it knew or suspected had been obtained by torture but the ruling had clarified the appropriate legal test of what was admissable.

Thursday's ruling centres on how far the government must go to show improper methods if obtaining information from suspects have not been used.

The Court of Appeal ruled last year that such evidence could be used if UK authorities had no involvement.

But eight of the 10 foreign terror suspects who were being held without charge, backed by human rights groups, challenged that ruling.

They argued evidence obtained in US detention camps should be excluded from court hearings.

It is thought some of the eight men are being held in Belmarsh or other high security prisons, pending deportation, some released on bail and others restricted by the government's new control orders. The Home Office will not confirm precise figures.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) must now investigate whether evidence against the suspects facing deportation was obtained by torture.
...
Lord Bingham, the former Lord Chief Justice, who headed the panel of seven law lords, said English law had abhorred "torture and its fruits" for more than 500 years.

"I am startled, even a little dismayed, at the suggestion (and the acceptance by the Court of Appeal majority) that this deeply-rooted tradition and an international obligation solemnly and explicitly undertaken can be overridden by a statute and a procedural rule which make no mention of torture at all," he said.

Another member of the panel, Lord Carswell, said allowing evidence from torture to be used would "involve the state in moral defilement".

Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer of the government's terrorism laws, said the ruling reaffirmed the law as most lawyers had assumed it to be.

A major blow to the Blair dictatorship agenda and no wonder he wants to get rid of the Law Lords. It is a sad spectacle that the unelected Lords are the last bastion of freedom in the UK. And even ignoring the principles at stake, on the practical side, evidence obtained under torture is completely unreliable. The Blair government has an unfortunate habit of relying on unreliable evidence while pretending it is dead certain, and not only to lock innocent people up but of course to start the illegal war in Iraq. Will Brown or Cameron do a better job at promoting civil liberties in Britain? Unlikely. Blair is just a fairly typical representative of the current sad lot of politicians ruling the country.

More GM animals being used in animal experiments (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The use of genetically modified animals in UK laboratories has continued to rise, government figures have shown.

Modified animals made up 32% of all procedures in 2004, compared with 27% the previous year.

Total experiments showed a marginal increase, of 2.3% to just over 2.85 million - but this is still about half the level it was 30 years ago.

The number of animals used in research was 2.78 million, a rise of 2.1% on 2003 figures.

Home Office minister, Andy Burnham said that animal research had led to advances in the treatment of many conditions.

"Where there is no alternative available, we will continue to ensure that the balance between animal welfare and scientific advancement is maintained," he said.

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council (MRC), said the increased use of modified animals - predominantly mice - was a result of new techniques that were giving important insights into human disease.

By adding or knocking out genes in mice, scientists believe they can gain an insight into the molecular flaws in humans that lead to illness.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav) criticised the government for failing to provide adequate funding into alternatives.

"The Government pays only 'lip service' to alternatives. It has no strategy to reduce the numbers of animals used," said Adolfo Sansolini, chief executive of Buav.

Campaigner Animal Aid has published its own report to coincide with the release of the statistics that brands the use of GM animals a "scientific dead end".

The report's author Dr Jarrod Bailey, a medical scientist at Newcastle University, carried out an analysis of scientific papers and found that, in some 70% of cases where a GM animal is created in the hope of replicating human symptoms, the animal does not perform as expected.

"Animals often don't mirror the human situation in terms of symptoms or pathology," Dr Bailey told the BBC News website.

If Bailey would happily tell the scientists ahead of time which of the 70% of cases where allegedly using GM animals does not work then no doubt they would take the advice on board. Unfortunately it is like many things in life, you do not know ahead of time what will and will not work. This is one of the basic problems that the animal rights fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge. Well, like all fundamentalists they have moral objections to something (here, using animals in experiments) and so will use any spurious argument they can think of to try and promote their cause.

Date published: 2005/12/07

Rice says US will not torture people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US secretary of state says the UN treaty on torture applies to American interrogators in the US and overseas, in an apparent shift in US policy.

The Bush administration has previously said the convention which bans cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment does not apply to US personnel abroad.

Correspondents say a reason for the shift might be pressure from Congress.

Condoleezza Rice's European tour has been dogged by claims the CIA used foreign bases to hold terror suspects.

The UN high commissioner for human rights has called on the US to provide information about any secret detention centres and to provide access to them.

Louise Arbour said such detention centres could create conditions where torture might be used, but she welcomed Ms Rice's statement.

Ms Rice said the US was bound by the UN Convention against Torture (CAT).

It "extends to US personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the US or outside the US," Ms Rice said in Ukraine.

Her comments appear to contrast with the US Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales, who said last year the convention did not apply to US interrogations of foreigners overseas.

US officials travelling with Ms Rice were quoted by Reuters news agency as saying it represented a marked shift in US policy.

But, according to AFP news agency, one aide to Ms Rice said her remarks were "a clarification of policy, not a shift".

The BBC's Justin Webb in Washington says Ms Rice's comments signal an important change in US policy on the use of harsh methods of interrogation - and an apparent softening of the White House position.

The White House has allowed the CIA to use practices such as mock drowning of prisoners, which would almost certainly be considered unacceptable under the terms of the convention, our correspondent says.

Well good to see the US administration now says it opposes torture by US government employees. Does anyone believe them that it will now stop? And unfortunately the US is still handing over people it has kidnapped to other governments to torture.

Oxford Street has a lot of pollution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

High levels of pollution in London's main shopping street could trigger an asthma attack, experts warn.

Scientists at Imperial College London found the damaging effects of pollution on asthmatics were much greater in Oxford Street.

Levels of sooty particles from diesel vehicles were found to be five times higher than in Hyde Park.

The particles, known as PM10s, become trapped in the lungs and have links to respiratory problems and cancer.

Experts asked 60 asthmatics to walk at their normal pace in each location for two hours on separate occasions.

They found lung function was most affected after walking in Oxford Street for two hours. However, the adverse effects continued for 24 hours.

Notice how the BBC manages to discuss the problem without mentioning what happens to be the source of the problem. Could it be that all those buses and taxis going up and down Oxford Street are causing this high level of pollution? (Ordinary) cars are not allowed on most of Oxford Street so unfortunately the chattering classes can't do their usual bleating about (private) cars. (For some reason the chattering classes don't count taxis as private cars.) Otherwise you can bet the BBC would have mentioned cars in the article. Of course Oxford Street is a dreadful place to shop completely independently of the pollution problem. Rather like being a rat squashed in a cage with thousands of other rats.

Date published: 2005/12/06

Married people somehow considered worthy of tax breaks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Marriage is being "downgraded" by government policies, a former High Court judge has warned.

In a speech on Monday, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said the loss of tax perks meant there was no financial incentive to marry or stay married.

She said the lack of financial help was "a wasted opportunity" to support an "undervalued" section of the public.

Her comments came as religious groups warned civil partnerships, which became law on Monday, may undermine marriage.

Until her retirement in April, Dame Elizabeth was in charge of the High Court's Family Division where she oversaw some of the UK's most high-profile divorce cases.

Delivering the Bar Council lecture in central London on Monday, she said growing divorce levels should concern the whole of society because they could affect the wider community and even the economy.

"This outcome which contributes to the downgrading of the status of marriage is particularly sad since the statistics show that marriage remains the most stable of all relationships between men and women, even with the incidence of divorce," Dame Elizabeth said.

The advantages of marriage were now "not sufficiently trumpeted", she added.

Statistics released in August showed the total number of divorces in the UK during 2004 increased slightly compared to 2003 to reach just over 167,000.

Dame Elizabeth also criticised the exclusion of heterosexual couples from civil partnerships ceremonies which give legal recognition to the relationships of homosexual couples.

"There are many cohabiting couples who have no idea of the legal pitfalls if they separate acrimoniously or die without making proper provision for the other partner," she said.

Unbelievable that a judge (former or not) could utter such drivel. Is she suggesting that people should get married because of financial incentives? Aren't there supposed to be better reasons than that? Married people still have tax perks (e.g. there is no inheritance tax and capital gains tax allowances can be shared). And what does such a tax perk mean? It is simply saying that non-married people should for some obscure reason be subsidising married people. Why? Are married people somehow inherently more moral or worthy citizens? And her quotation of statistics is a classic confusion of correlation and causation. But why would anybody expect a judge to understand that important distinction after a lifetime in the legal profession? You have to wonder about her rulings if this is how she thinks. And her final complaint rings very hollow. It is exactly people like her who have made sure that cohabiting couples have less rights than married people. If she is so concerned about them then tell government and married people to grow up and give non-married people equal rights (especially equal tax rights) instead of trying to make the inbalance worse.

Lawsuit over CIA torture (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A man who says he was a victim of the CIA's alleged secret prisons is suing its former chief over torture claims.

Khaled al-Masri says he was kidnapped in 2003 while on holiday in Macedonia, flown to Afghanistan and mistreated.

A US rights group has filed a lawsuit against ex-CIA head George Tenet and other officials on behalf of Mr Masri, a Lebanese-born German citizen.

It is the first legal challenge to the US policy of "extraordinary rendition" - flying suspects to third countries.

The US maintains that all such operations are conducted within the law.

The landmark lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a district court in Alexandria, Virginia.

It claims that Mr Tenet and other CIA officials violated US and universal human rights laws when they authorised agents to kidnap Mr Masri.

The lawsuit says Mr Masri suffered "prolonged arbitrary detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment".

Mr Masri, 42, spoke at an ACLU news conference in Washington via a satellite video link from Stuttgart, Germany.

He claims he was beaten and injected with drugs before being taken to Afghanistan and held for five months.

Mr Masri says that once there, he was subjected to "coercive" interrogation under inhumane conditions.

Mr Masri is now seeking damages of at least $75,000 (£43,000) and an apology.

The civil rights group says the government has to be held to account over "extraordinary rendition".

"Kidnapping a foreign national for the purpose of detaining and interrogating him outside the law is contrary to American values," said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.

"Our government has acted as if it is above the law. We go to court today to reaffirm that the rule of law is central to our identity as a nation."

Good luck to him, but the odds are stacked against him. As in all countries, the American courts don't give a toss about foreigners and rulings are heavily weighted against them. But at least the torture allegations might get a hearing in court. They are almost certainly true, just look how Cheney and Bush want to exempt the CIA from torture laws. And there is plenty of evidence from elsewhere.

Channel 4 News ran a story tonight in which a former law lord, Lord Steyn, suggested that British ministers could be considered guilty of war crimes if they knew that US flights through Britain were used to transport prisoners to the "secret" American torture prisons. (And it's hard to believe Blair and Straw did not know this was happening.)

Stress not good for healing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The stress caused by a 30-minute row with a spouse is enough to slow wound healing by a day, US researchers say.

The Ohio State University team focused on 42 married couples and found wounds on hostile couples healed at 60% of the healing rate for non-hostile couples.

The team told the journal Archives of General Psychiatry the findings showed hospitals should try to minimise stress for patients ahead of surgery.

This could lead to shorter hospital stays and save money, they added.

The researchers focused on a group of 42 married couples who had been together an average of at least 12 years.

Each couple was admitted into the University's General Clinical Research Center for two, 24-hour-long visits, separated by a two-month interval.

During each visit, both the husband and wife were fitted with a small suction device which created eight tiny uniform blisters on their arms.

The skin was removed from each blister and another device placed directly over each small wound, forming a protective bubble, from which researchers could extract fluids that normally fill such blisters.

The husbands and wives also completed questionnaires intended to gauge their level of stress at the beginning of the experiment.

Each person was also fitted with a catheter through which blood could be drawn for later analysis.

During the first visit, each spouse was asked to talk for several minutes about some characteristic or behaviour which he or she would like to change. This was a supportive, positive discussion.

But during the second visit, they were asked to talk about an area of disagreement which provoked strong feelings.

Analysis showed wounds took a day longer to heal after the arguments than they did after the initial supportive discussion.

Wounds on the hostile couples healed at only 60% of the rate of couples considered to have low levels of hostility.

Blood samples from those highly hostile couples showed differences as well.

Levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a key immune system chemical that controls wound healing, were also particularly elevated in the hostile couples.

High IL-6 levels are linked to long-term inflammation, which in turn is implicated in a range of age-related illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and arthritis.

Researcher Professor Jan Kiecolt-Glaser said: "In our past wound-healing experiments, we looked at more severe stressful events.

"This was just a marital discussion that lasted only a half-hour.

"The fact that even this can bump the healing back an entire day for minor wounds says that wound-healing is a really sensitive process."

Is this really surprising? Does any hospital believe that stressed patients are better-off patients? Oh well, at least these folk seem to have done the study properly (unusally for health-related studies).

Date published: 2005/12/05

Material for "recycling" just sent abroad as ordinary waste (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Councils are investigating what happens to their recycled rubbish after the BBC revealed 500 tonnes had been shipped unsorted to Indonesia.

Customs at Jakarta impounded containers holding mixed up paper, cardboard, plastics and cans from UK households.

They tipped off Real Story who went and found the rubbish was clearly British and falsely described as waste paper.

Documents linked it to a company contracted to process recycling by councils in the South of England.

Councils are investigating what happens to their recycled rubbish after the BBC revealed 500 tonnes had been shipped unsorted to Indonesia.

Customs at Jakarta impounded containers holding mixed up paper, cardboard, plastics and cans from UK households.

They tipped off Real Story who went and found the rubbish was clearly British and falsely described as waste paper.

Documents linked it to a company contracted to process recycling by councils in the South of England.

Surprise, surprise. The UK (and European) elite (including the BBC) have declared that "recycling" is wonderfully "environmentally friendly" but of course it is no such thing. And this particular fraud is only one reason. "Recycling", which means handing over material to the State which will not be put in landfill, requires a vast amount of energy just to pick the material up and process it (properly or not). For example, in Cambridge, the geniuses who run the city -- the LibDems, so very middle class -- have decided to send out a fleet of trucks just to pick up plastic bottles. Just imagine all the energy that takes (directly and indirectly via labour costs). Even worse, allegedly these bottles are then shipped to China for "recycling". And what are the odds they are processed properly in China? The UK (and European) elite seem to like "recycling" because it means they can produce as much waste as they want, as long as they hand over enough of it to the State as "recycling" material, so that they are deemed to be "good" citizens.

Ideas for managed zoos and woodlands (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An idea to ensure tourists visiting wildlife parks catch a glimpse of the animals they came to see has been proposed at an environmental conference in Malaysia.

Bernard Harrison, a zoo manager and designer, suggested the construction of "managed wildlife sanctuaries" on degraded land would allow people to enjoy what he called "orchestrated random encounters".

Speaking at the International Media and Environment Summit (Imes) in Kuching, he said this approach would suit many ecotourists who did not appreciate that the creatures they had paid to see often preferred to remain hidden.

The sanctuaries could be created on environmentally damaged land because such areas were actually often rich in food, he added.

It would also have the bonus, Mr Harrison told delegates, of helping to resolve what was a "constant battle" between the needs of national parks to keep areas unspoilt, and the tourist industry "which want as many parks open as possible."

The director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London, UK, called for more areas of "functioning wilderness" that were off-limits to people.

Sir Peter Crane told the Imes conference that an area of ancient English forest, managed by Kew Gardens, near London's Gatwick Airport had benefited from adopting a policy of restricted access.

One area experienced visitor numbers of 400,000 a year, another limited acccess to just 15 people a day, while one site operated "complete exclusion".

The rare hazel dormouse, found in the woodland, "depends on that management tactic," Sir Peter said, adding that many small ferns also benefited.

"One misplaced foot can destroy decades of growth.

"In the absolute conservation zone, obviously these plants are doing better."

Well zoos are mostly horrid, but if someone wants to try out a new type of "managed wildlife sanctuary" (i.e. zoo) then what the heck, it's always worth seeing which ideas work out best in the end (by whatever criterion is being judged).

As for putting areas off-limits to humans, that's almost certainly to be better for the non-humans. But access should also be off-limits to the so-called experts, otherwise this just looks like yet another excuse for the middle class academic elite to gives themselves (and their friends) privileges where none exist for ordinary people. (Of course this kind of privilege already exists in many places, e.g. at Lascaux in France there is a real cave and a fake cave, and most people can only see the latter, but VIPs, including connected academics, get to see the former.) So also make these woodlands off-limits to the scientists. (It's hard to believe these so-called experts can manage a woodland better than Mother Nature can do by herself.)

Date published: 2005/12/04

Airbus sells some planes to China (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Chinese government and Airbus have signed a co-operation agreement which could see the European aircraft maker assembling some planes in China.

The pact came as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured an Airbus assembly plant at the firm's headquarters in Toulouse.

Mr Wen is expected to sign orders for 70 Airbus aircraft worth $5bn (£2.8bn) during his official visit to France.

The deal could eventually lead to Airbus assembling some of its smaller A320 single-aisle jets in China.

The company said it would carry out a feasibility study to establish whether it should build an alternative assembly point for A320 planes in China.

"One in six planes sold this year will go to China," said Airbus China chief Laurence Barron.

"Next year that will be one in five. We have 30% of their fleet now and hope that will rise to 50% in coming years."

Needless to say Boeing is also doing deals in China. But at least Airbus is in the game, with China providing the obvious growth market in the near term.

Date published: 2005/12/03

China, Munch and Rubens exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

London again has lots of good exhibitions on. The most important one is probably "China: The Three Emperors: 1662-1795", about the early Qing dynasty, on now until 17 April 2006 at the Royal Academy. This contains an absolutely stunning collection of art from that period, including wonderful scrolls and wall hangings. A definite must see exhibition for anyone getting anywhere near London before the exhibition closes. In some ways it's amazing that this art still exists, and is in such great condition, having somehow survived some extreme regime changes. The Royal Academy must have friends in very high places in Beijing to have managed to get all this stuff out of China.

Also on at the Royal Academy, in its final days, is an exhibition of self-portraits by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, almost all from the Munch Museum (Munch-museet) in Oslo. What a screwed up man Munch was, especially about women. And the overtly and overly sexual Madonna (1894-5) must have caused some commentary in the Church. But at least he could paint when he wanted to, and several of his self-portraits were quite good (generally the ones where he didn't drown too much in self-pity).

Meanwhile over at the National Gallery there is an exhibition (until 15 January 2006) of early Rubens work. This exhibition was surprisingly relatively quiet, you could actually see the paintings without having to stare over ten people. Perhaps Rubens is out of favour. Perhaps the National Gallery has not gotten its marketing act together. Perhaps the China exhibition at the RA is taking precedence. Perhaps there is so much Rubens around Europe that people do not get that excited by an exhibition of some of his work. (Indeed, the National Gallery has a large collection of their own, later, Rubens paintings in their main gallery.) Rubens has some problems with anatomy, but he is definitely a powerful painter.

ACLU sues CIA over illegal activities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A US civil rights groups says it is taking the CIA to court to stop the transportation of terror suspects to countries outside US legal authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says the intelligence agency has broken both US and international law.

It is acting for a man allegedly flown to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she'll comment on recent reports of alleged CIA prisons abroad before starting a visit to Europe on Monday.

Ms Rice has said she will provide an answer to a EU letter expressing concern over reports last month alleging the US intelligence agency was using secret jails - particularly in eastern Europe.

"The lawsuit will charge that CIA officials at the highest level violated US and universal human rights laws when they authorised agents to abduct an innocent man, detain him incommunicado, beat him, drug and transport him to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan," the ACLU said in a news release.

The release identified the jail as the "Salt Pit".

The group did not provide the name or nationality of the plaintiff, saying only that he would appear at a news conference next week to reveal details of the lawsuit.

The ACLU also wants to name corporations which it accuses of owning and operating the aircraft used to transport detainees secretly from country to country.

The highly secretive process is known as "extraordinary rendition" whereby intelligence agencies move and interrogate terrorism suspects outside the US, where they have no American legal protection.

It has become extremely controversial, the BBC's Adam Brookes in Washington reports.

Some individuals have claimed they were flown by the CIA to countries like Syria and Egypt, where they were tortured.

The US government and its intelligence agencies maintain that all their operations are conducted within the law and they will no doubt fight this case vigorously, our correspondent says.

He says they will not want to see US intelligence officers forced publicly to defend their actions and they will not want to see one of their most secret procedures laid bare in open court.

Well the US government is obviously up to no good, but it's extremely unlikely the ACLU will win any case. The current US administration has shown it is willing to break domestic and international law over and over again and neither Congress nor any American court has yet been willing to stand up to it in any significant way.

Date published: 2005/12/02

EU governments congratulate themselves for formalising snooping (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Union ministers have agreed a deal compelling mobile phone companies to retain call and internet records for use in anti-terror investigations.

Records will kept for up to two years under the new rules, which need to be approved by the European Parliament.

Police would have access to information about calls, text messages and internet data, but not exact call content.

Justice and interior ministers agreed governments can decide how long to hold data, from six months to two years.

The talks in Brussels had stretched into a second day.

The European Parliament had called for information to be disposed of after a year, while EU member states pushed for two.

This formalises what most governments probably do in any case (and everybody believes the Americans snoop on everything), but as with most such laws this is more likely to result in abuse of civil liberties than solving crime. And governments being governments are passing the (substantive) cost of implementing this onto the phone and internet companies. What better than to have someone else pay for your snooping.

Gordon Brown wants a new tax on property development (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government may be planning to introduce a new tax on the profits made by landowners selling sites for property development.

Aiming to raise £500m a year, Chancellor Gordon Brown is expected to launch a consultation into the proposal during Monday's Pre-Budget Report.

The Treasury has refused to comment, but it is thought the tax will be set at 20% of profit from each site sold.

Property firms say it would mean less land being made available for housing.

The money raised by the scheme could help pay for the extra schools, roads and health facilities needed to support the government's huge house building plans.

If introduced, the new tax, called a "planning gain supplement", would boost the estimated £2.5bn generated each year by local planning agreements.

When developers make an application to build new houses, they already negotiate a contribution for local infrastructure projects with the local council.

This process has been criticised in the past because it can slow down the planning process and the amount raised depends heavily on the negotiating skills of the local council involved.

The Town and Country Planning Association has said that the money raised by any new tax must go towards local infrastructure and not back to the Treasury.

"My concern is that the majority of the revenue money should go on providing a local infrastructure for all communities if new housing is to come forward," said its director, Gideon Amos.

The plan has been attacked by property developers who say that it could actually result in less land being made available for housing.

Speaking about the introduction of such a tax last month, British Land chairman John Ritblat said: "It would be utter madness to replicate so many mistakes that have gone before.

"The additional administration of this further tax imposition should be cut out before it begins."

The 2004 Barker Report called for an extra 70,000-120,000 homes each year.

The Chancellor is also expected to unveil new proposals aimed at meeting this requirement in his report on Monday.

Morally this tax makes sense (why should someone who happens to own a piece of land make a windfall just because it is reclassified from agricultural to residential?). This new tax ought to replace the so-called section 106 agreements which the BBC story quaintly calls "a contribution for local infrastructure projects with the local council". Those are ripe for abuse not only because of incompetence but also because of corruption (it's a very secretive process). It seems hard to believe that the overall tax burden will increase, since developers will be able to knock the cost of section 106 agreements down, quoting the new tax as justification. Obviously if that does not happen and the overall tax burden goes up (by a lot) then even less house building will happen (by big developers) in future than today.

Date published: 2005/12/01

US paying for propaganda in Iraqi newspapers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US military in Iraq has implicitly admitted that it is running a campaign to plant articles in Iraqi papers aimed at improving its image in the country.

The Los Angeles Times said the Pentagon had secretly paid Iraqi newspapers to run articles reflecting well on the US.

Many stories are being presented as independent accounts, the paper said.

Questioned about the issue, a US spokesman in Baghdad said Iraq's most-wanted militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was also using the media.

"He [Zarqawi] is conducting these kidnappings, these beheadings, these explosions, so that he gets international coverage to look like he has more capability than he truly has," Maj Gen Rick Lynch said in Baghdad.

"He is lying to the Iraqi people. We don't lie - we don't need to lie," he added.

"We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public but everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction."

In a report published on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times said the articles in question trumpet the work of US and Iraqi troops.

It alleged they were written by US soldiers, and translated into Arabic by a defence contractor which helps place them in Baghdad papers.

The LA Times said the stories were then presented as unbiased accounts by independent journalists, rather than stemming from the US military.

Although many are basically factual, they only present one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the US or Iraqi government, the newspaper added.

Is this news? The Americans (and not doubt most other governments of the world) have been doing this for years. Of course the Bush White House, one of the most corrupt American administrations of all time, has taken this kind of manipulation to a new level, and has been caught out paying for propaganda in the US on all sorts of issues, so it would be more than surprising if they didn't do this in Iraq.

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