Azara Blog: February 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/02/28

David Cameron outlines his "vision" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

David Cameron is outlining his vision for a "modern, compassionate" Tory party, which he says will be seen as a "serious alternative" to Labour. The Conservative leader is to ask all members of the party to agree a new statement of its aims and values. He says the Tories "must be different" if they are to show they can offer Britain the change it needs.

And what is this grand "statement of values"? The BBC provides the full text and it is all rather bland. In fact it's just "Mom and apple pie" stuff. Or two fingers down the throat. For example, two random selections:

The more we trust people, the stronger they and society become. We're all in this together - government, business, the voluntary sector, families and individuals. We have a shared responsibility for our shared future.

and

The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money. We will enhance our environment by seeking a long-term cross-party consensus on sustainable development and climate change - instead of short-term thinking and surrender to vested interests. We will support the choices that women make about their work and home lives, not impose choices on them.

All rather pathetic, asking party members to sign up to this. It's basically saying that the Tories are forcing party members to admit they no longer have any dignity and are happy to mouth sweet nothings in an attempt to get elected. The only plus side is that it fits on two sides of A4.

Eating chocolate allegedly good for your heart (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have produced more compelling evidence that cocoa is good for your heart.

Dutch scientists found elderly men who consumed cocoa had lower blood pressure levels, and were less likely to die from cardiovascular problems.

They say cocoa contains ingredients which may keep the circulatory system healthy in different ways.

But UK experts warned the Archives of Internal Medicine study was not an excuse to gorge on cocoa products.
...
Cathy Ross, medical spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation, said: "There is some evidence that when eaten in small quantities, dark chocolate might have some beneficial effects on blood vessels and lowering blood pressure, but as yet no study has investigated the long-terms clinical effects.

"This small study from Holland reinforces the fact that more still needs to be done to determine how eating cocoa affects coronary heart disease in the long term."

She stressed that consuming cocoa was more often part of the problem than the solution.

"Cocoa is rarely tolerable in large amounts in its raw state and therefore to consume the suggested therapeutic amount you would have to have 100g of dark chocolate per day.

"This would mean an average intake of 500 calories per 100g and an average 30% of fat. Eating less did not produce the same effect.

"We are certainly not suggesting people never eat chocolate - everyone can enjoy a treat from time to time.

"But there are much better ways of improving your heart health."

Yet another health study which focusses on one effect so misses the bigger picture.

Date published: 2006/02/27

The British gender pay gap (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A landmark investigation into why women lag badly behind men in pay has called for a change of culture in schools and workplaces.

The Women and Work Commission concluded that the gender pay gap is worse in Britain than anywhere in Europe.

It found that women in full-time work were earning 17% less than men.

Among its 40 recommendations, the commission said there should be more government support and improved vocational training.

One member of the commission, John Cridland of the CBI, said the UK's culture was to blame for women being paid less.

"It is because of structural problems; because of young girls' choices in schools and the fact that our careers education system completely fails to make them realise that the choices they make will determine what they earn".
...
Katherine Rake, from women's equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, said that widespread discrimination was a major contributor to the pay gap.

"The Equal Opportunities Commission came out recently saying that 30,000 women a year are dismissed simply because they are pregnant," she told the BBC.

"There is widespread discrimination within the system and there's plenty of research to back that up" she added.

But Mr Cridland denied that employers were to blame.

"Absolutely not, we didn't find that at all," he said.

"15 Commissioners from all walks of society - the voluntary sector, the public sector, trade unions, employers - spent 18 months looking at the problem and they concluded that employer discrimination was neither the problem, and equal pay audits were not the solution."

Well the idea that employers are blameless is feeble. There is definitely discrimination in the work place. Partly this happens because men on the whole have more confidence than women so are more likely to exude competence and to get what they want. This might not be explicit discrimination but of course the effect is the same.

On the other hand, firing someone who is pregnant is considered to be discrimination, but any rational company would certainly think about doing so, since this burdens them with additional cost. This kind of hidden cost means that indeed women (on average) are being given implicit subsidies which top up their explicit salaries.

Further, another reason for the pay gap is that women's salaries are often considered of secondary importance to that of their partners, and they also have more child rearing duties, so women often take lesser jobs which takes these factors into account.

The Women and Work Commission can of course try and force society to take another tack but they should at least try and be honest in their arguments.

Britain's political system allegedly in trouble (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's political system is in danger of "meltdown" if major changes are not made, an independent report says.

The Power Inquiry, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, says voters feel they have little influence over decisions affecting their lives.

The inquiry's Power to the People report calls for a shift in control from ministers to parliament, and from central to local government.

State funding of political parties and a voting age of 16 are also suggested.

The report drew on 1,500 public submissions as well as surveys and hearings held in the UK during the 12-month inquiry, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust to mark its centenary.

It cites the low turnouts in the 2001 and 2005 general elections and falling membership of political parties as proof that "the current way of doing politics is killing politics".

"Politics and government are increasingly in the hands of privileged elites, as if democracy has run out of steam," Lady Kennedy said.

"Too often, citizens are being evicted from decision-making, rarely asked to get involved and rarely listened to."

As a result, people were turning away from voting and formal politics in favour of direct action and single-issue campaigns, it says.
...
Nottingham University's Philip Cowley, told BBC Radio 4's Today that lowering the voting age to 16 was not the answer.

"When the Electoral Commission looked at this, they found no overwhelming support among young people for it if you poll them properly... they found 80% of the public didn't think 16 was the right age; they thought it was too low.

"So you've got a report here that's all about listening to the public, doing what the public want, and on this particular issue, where 80% of the public think 16 is too low an age, they simply are ignored."

What a complete and utter waste of money this report is. Politics and government has always been in the hands of privileged elites, what planet is Kennedy living on. The turnout in the 2001 and 2005 general elections might be "low" but that was because there was no real choice (Blair's New Labour were just a cheery version of the Tories, and the Lib Dems were just a middle class academic version of the Tories) and certainly in 2001 the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion, so why bother to vote.

On Radio 4 this morning the complaint seemed to be that even when there are consultations, people get frustrated when their views are ignored. Well that is hardly surprising, given that completely contradictory views are expressed and not all of them can be accomodated. And unfortunately, public consultations are almost always going to be a waste of time and in particular will only ever produce views held by middle class activists who have an axe to grind, so are not representative of the general public. So encouraging more consultations will not help, it will just put more power into the hand of the privileged elites, this time unaccountable ones.

One of the major problems of the modern political era, as encouraged by the media, is that politicians have to constantly promise lots of spending on services while trying to pretend that nobody has to pay for it. Hence you get people berating the NHS for not happily spending tens of thousands of pounds per year on some alleged wonder drug, and the media laps it up. Of course when the public constantly gets promised something for nothing, the public will constantly be let down when this cannot be delivered, hence people become disillusioned.

Date published: 2006/02/26

2006 Winter Olympics medal count (permanent blog link)

The final medal count of the Turin (Torino) 2006 Winter Olympics by continent:

rankcontinentgoldsilverbronzemedalspoints
1Europe585862178352
2North America16191449100
3Asia-Pacific10782552
total848484252504
where points are calculated by giving 3 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze.

Although Europe had "home field" advantage, these figures are remarkably similar as percentages to those from 2002 when the Olympics were in Salt Lake City, with Europe and North America slightly down and Asia-Pacific up. (For points, the percentages were 72%, 21% and 7%, respectively, in 2002 and are 70%, 20% and 10%, respectively, in 2006.)

The silliest Winter Olympic sport is not the snowboard but rather the short track speed skating. What kind of sport is it where every other match has some disqualification or controversial non-disqualification?

Date published: 2006/02/25

Political meeting about embryonic stem cell research (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conflicting national policies in embryonic stem cell research hamper international collaboration, leading scientists and ethicists have said.

They have called upon scientists, journals and funding bodies worldwide to set an international ethical standard for research in this area.

The recommendations were made at a three-day international conference in Cambridgeshire, UK.

The researchers hope the measures will enable international collaboration.

About 60 leading researchers from 14 countries - including scientists, philosophers, bioethicists, lawyers, clinicians, journal editors and regulators - took part in the meeting.

The delegates have now formed the Hinxton Group, an interdisciplinary consortium on stem cell ethics and law, which will meet regularly to further discuss these issues.

All very well intended, but the real problem is not conflicting national policies per se. It is that religious fundamentalists are opposed to such research, and they have influence in many countries, in particular in America, which would normally be a leader in such research. A few countries will lead the way and that will settle the issue, unless the religious fundamentalists manage to get the UN to outlaw all such research.

The European Commission wants to waste research money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has unveiled plans for a world-class institute of technology intended to boost the EU's economic competitiveness.

It would consist of a small central core organising EU-wide research teams.

The move is a response to surveys which show that only a handful of European universities can compete with the world leaders, which are mostly in the US.

The Commission has also noted that China and India are the "coming players in the knowledge game".

Critics of the European Institute of Technology (EIT), as it has been labelled, fear it will divert money away from another new programme to sponsor top-level research.

"Excellence needs flagships - that's why Europe must have a strong European Institute of Technology, bringing together the best brains and companies, and disseminating the results throughout Europe," Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said on Wednesday.

He said it would teach graduates and doctoral candidates, carry out research and be active in innovation.

"We have a really urgent problem with our deficit, especially compared with the United States, in science, research and innovation," Mr Barroso added later.

European Commissioner for Education Jan Figel said Europe had to improve the relationship between education, research and innovation.

"Europe consistently falls short in turning R&D results into commercial opportunities, innovations and jobs," he said.

The name EIT is a deliberate reference to the US's Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which has a strong record as a link between academics and industry.

Not content with destroying European jobs, the EU now seems content on destroying European research. The problem in Europe is not the lack of research and innovation, it is the stifling bureaucracy (much of it introduced by the EU) and anti-entrepreneurial, anti-corporate and anti-commercial attitude prevalent amongst the ruling elite, especially amongst the ruling elite of the Eurocracy (more so the European Parliament than the European Commission). Anything the EU sets up along these lines will just be a black hole of wasted money handed over to people who are well connected in the Eurocracy.

Date published: 2006/02/24

Surviving Famine (permanent blog link)

The sixth lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Andrew Prentice on "Surviving Famine". This was bound to be a grim lecture no matter what, and he started by showing photos (by Tom Stoddart) of famine victims.

Now most academics, not surprisingly, think their subject is the most important on the face of the Earth and is central to life. Prentice certainly seemed to be no exception to that rule. He even claimed several times that famine was a "powerful selective influence on the human genome". But he also claimed that famine was a rare event for hunter gatherers and it was the agricultural age that heralded the era of mass starvation.

Well both those statements are rather bold. And unfortunately he didn't really provide any evidence for either statement. If they are true then it implies that famine has been an extremely strong selective pressure since it is not that long ago (on the evolutionary scale) that humans took up agriculture. Of course it is possible that people with certain alleles survive better than people with other alleles, and famine would cause the former to be selected for, but Prentice did not address this issue directly.

He listed examples of famine over recorded history which were caused by nature and (more recently) others caused by man. Well needless to say there has been a lot of famine, but for a few billion people this is now a more remote possibility.

He then talked quite extensively about how people respond to famine, including behavioural changes. He talked about the recent drift towards obesity in rich countries. As he noted, the hunger drive is much more powerful in man than the satiety drive. But he even tried to claim that anorexia nervosa is a "maladaptive echo of surviving famine", which is starting to stretch things. And he pondered whether global warming would produce massive famines in the near future.

Grenoble observations (permanent blog link)

Grenoble has one of the many regional airports in Europe now being served by the cheap airlines from the UK (by Ryanair from Stansted and Easyjet from Gatwick). The airport terminal itself is a good example of modern terminal architecture (lots of glass and an interesting structural frame), finished in 2001, so it provides a good welcome (especially when it is sunny).

Although no flights from Russia are explicitly listed, there are a fair few signs in Russian in the airport terminal building. Indeed the biggest such sign had smaller print English below which said "Drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden inside the lounge", with no equivalent in French. So perhaps the Russians and Brits have been causing problems (or course English is a universal language so it might be that the Brits are innocent).

The buildings of downtown Grenoble make the city look a lot like a miniature version of Paris, with "imperial" (or "beaux arts") style seeming to dominate, with a few art deco apartment blocks. And there is a tram (with a not very extensive network), which is unusual.

And of course there are the mountains. Well there was not much snow except in the distant view, and some of the river beds looked very dry so it seems Grenoble might be suffering from a drought.

Being France you can get decent food at not crazy prices. One restaurant had the amusing note on its menu: "Sélection de nos alcols: Pour Monsieur: Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados; Pour Madame: Poire William, Framboises Mirabelle, Chartreuse VEP". Well you would be hard put to find anything quite so blatantly sexist in any restaurant in the UK.

Another restaurant served "Twinings of London" tea. Only the label not only mentioned the variety ("Thé de Ceylon") but beneath that proudly mentioned "Scotland". Perhaps the French prefer Scottish to English companies, so this might all just be a marketing ploy.

Date published: 2006/02/21

More propaganda from the LibDems (permanent blog link)

The LibDems are now the main party in Cambridge (thanks to Mr Blair). So they bombard citizens with far more junk mail than the other parties combined. This past weekend they outdid themselves, delivering not one, not two, not three, but four pieces of junk mail through the letterbox in one go, two of them identical and all with more or less the same message (of course). Perhaps someone should tell the LibDems that if they are allegedly so concerned about the environment, then perhaps they should be wasting less resources of the planet promulgating their propaganda.

The main point of the leaflets is that the "local NHS [is] in financial crisis". Wow, what a surprise. The NHS is a black hole. No matter how much money you throw at it, you could always throw twice as much. The recent media hysteria over herceptin is a perfect example. It's allegedly a wonder drug (but it's not clear if this is just the manufacturer encouraging hype). But it supposedly (arbitrarily) costs around 20k pounds per patient per year. Well it does not take a financial genius to figure out that that is a heck of a lot of money. But woe betide anyone who points that out. The media hysteria (as encouraged by the LibDems, it seems) says that every and all treatments should be paid by the NHS, no matter what it costs, and no sensible discussion is allowed on the matter. This is just illustrative of the general immaturity of the British political system (not uniquely in the world).

The LibDems also brag in one of the leaflets that "all houses in Arbury now get their plastic bottles collected for recycling every fortnight -- thanks to the Lib Dem Council". Gee, thanks for wasting money on a completely pointless exercise, which consumes far more energy than it saves. The comfortable middle class in action.

The LibDems also apparently "are helping residents campaign for a safer way to cross Gilbert Road and Histon Road". What they fail to mention (of course, since they are politicians) is that there is already a pedestrian crossing just north of that junction. Only most pedestrians don't like walking even ten foot to a crossing. And the crossing is indeed less than perfect for people who live south of the junction. But the LibDems fail to mention (of course, since they are politicians) what their proposed solution is. The only obvious one would be to put in a pedestrian cycle at the junction itself.

Well this would be great for pedestrians but would obviously cause even more serious traffic congestion than already occurs on that section of road. But of course the LibDems hate cars, so sticking two fingers up to drivers is par for the course for them. Unfortunately, as with most LibDem transport plans, making the traffic flow worse on Histon Road is going to cause rat-running on nearby streets. In particular Roseford Road and Perse Way are almost certainly going to get a lot more traffic. (And for some reason, rat-running on those roads has already gotten noticeably worse the last six months or so.) The LibDems are never bright enough to think one step ahead.

UK court says three bankers should be extradited to the US without probable cause (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three British bankers have lost their High Court battle against extradition to the US to face charges over the collapse of energy giant Enron.

Lord Justice Laws ruled that the case involving the former NatWest trio was "perfectly properly triable" in the US.

David Bermingham, Gary Mulgrew and Giles Darby have always maintained their innocence of "wire fraud" and say they should be tried by a UK jury.

The men will now try to take their battle to the House of Lords.

Enron collapsed in 2001 after admitting inflating profits and hiding debts.

The case has generated criticism of extradition laws that mean the US is not required to provide "prima facie" or solid evidence of wrongdoing to extradite a UK citizen.

Britain must still provide the US with evidence of "probable cause" if it wishes to extradite someone from America.
...
The judgement marks the first test case in the UK under the government's Extradition Act 2003 - which was developed in the wake of the 11 September attacks in 2001.

The decision prompted the men's solicitor Mark Spragg to warn that the case would have far-reaching consequences.

"The US justice system has a long and aggressive extra-territorial reach, and will increasingly apply for the extradition of UK citizens for allegedly criminal conduct committed against UK institutions," he added.

Speaking outside the court, Mr Bermingham added he was saddened that the government was using its citizens as "political currency".

The case has provoked widespread debate in the UK.

Company bosses are concerned that the treaty has created an unequal balance between the US and UK.

Yes, Mr Blair time and again has put the interests of the US government above the interests of the citizens of the UK. Needless to say, he will be paid back in full when he rakes in money on the US lecture circuit after the UK finally manages to get rid of him.

Date published: 2006/02/20

There are allegedly more infectious diseases emerging now (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New infectious diseases are now emerging at an exceptional rate, scientists have told a leading conference in St Louis, US.

Humans are accumulating new pathogens at a rate of one per year, they said.

This meant that agencies and governments would have to work harder than ever before to keep on top of the threat, one expert told the BBC.

Most of these new infectious diseases, such as avian influenza and HIV/Aids, are coming from other animals.

"This accumulation of new pathogens has been going on for millennia - this is how we acquired TB, malaria, smallpox," said Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University Of Edinburgh, UK.

"But at the moment, this accumulation does seem to be happening very fast.

"So it seems there is something special about modern times - these are good times for pathogens to be invading the human population."
...
Changes in land use through, for example, deforestation can bring humans into contact with new pathogens; and, likewise, agricultural changes, such as the use of exotic livestock.

Other important drivers include global travel, global trade and hospitalisation.

Hmmm, how about human population size being an important factor. But it seems unfashionable to ever mention that there are too many people on the planet. Instead we have to mention all the pet hates of the so-called environmentalists (e.g. deforestation, global travel and global trade). (Which of course could also be factors.)

Moths apparently in decline in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The British moth population is in rapid decline, according to the most comprehensive study of its kind.

A report by Butterfly Conservation says the number of common moths has fallen by a third since 1968.

This has serious implications for animals such as birds and bats which feed on moths, says the UK charity.

It also raises concerns about the state of Britain's natural heritage since moths are an important indicator of biodiversity.

"It's very bad news indeed," said study author Richard Fox. "Moths are a huge group, they are a really significant part of our biodiversity.

"If we are finding these declines amongst such a major group as the moths, then it is a very, very clear signal that British biodiversity as a whole is suffering similar rates of decline."

The Butterfly Conservation report focussed on Britain's larger moths - 337 species that are regularly captured and studied at hundreds of sites across the UK.

Much of the data came from a nationwide network of moth traps maintained by the scientific institute Rothamsted Research since 1968.

The report found that:

Scientists have yet to pinpoint why moth numbers are falling so rapidly. But they say habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution and climate change are the main suspects.

Well given that the "main suspects" cover just about anything you can imagine, it's certainly likely to be some combination of these. Evidently more research is needed.

Date published: 2006/02/19

CO2 should be stored under the North Sea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The entire carbon dioxide emissions created in Europe could be stored underneath the North Sea if the infrastructure were put in place, a Norwegian company has claimed.

Gas and oil firm Statoil said the undersea aquifer beneath its Sleipner platforms in the North Sea, 200 miles off the Norwegian coast, is capable of permanently holding carbon dioxide (CO2) - a gas linked to climate change.

The Sleipner platform provides methane to countries throughout western mainland Europe and is capable of exporting 20 million cubic metres of gas every day. But it is also the first of a handful of geological sites where CO2 is stored.

"There are calculations which say it could handle all of Europe's CO2 emissions for several hundreds of years," Statoil's Senior Vice President for the Environment Tor Fraeren told BBC World Service's One Planet programme.

"It could all be handled by this reservoir. I hope that during these hundreds of years we could solve the CO2 problem in a more efficient way, but we have the potential here to store it."

Climate scientists generally acknowledge that storing carbon in this way can play a role in combating global warming.

Well, you can never really believe anything said by anyone about global warming, but it seems that carbon capture will almost certainly have to play some part in the medium term as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Of course it could turn out to be a disaster for some unforseen reason. But that's true about all the "solutions" to global warming.

Lock cats indoors to allegedly protect otters (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A parasite carried by cats is killing off sea otters, a veterinary specialist has told a major US science conference.

The Californian researcher has called for owners to keep their cats indoors.

Cat faeces carrying Toxoplasma parasites wash into US waterways and then into the sea where they can infect otters, causing brain disease.

The parasite is familiar to medical researchers, as it can damage foetuses when expectant mothers become infected while changing cat litter.

The most likely source of infection for sea otters is the parasite's tough egg-like stage, known as the oocyst, that is passed in the faeces of cats.

"We need to control the infections in sea otters and reduce the risk to humans by managing our cats more responsibly," said the study author Patricia Conrad of the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis.

She told the BBC News website: "That involves keeping them indoors if we can. I know that's tough; I hate cleaning cat litter boxes as much as anybody.

"But by keeping the cats indoors, we reduce the chance they're going to get infected by eating infected birds or rodents, and the chance they are going to shed their faeces outdoors."

This is just sick, and it's amazing anyone has the nerve to suggest it. Cats are semi-wild animals, and the idea that we are supposed to torture them by keeping them locked in a house is abominable. Of course lots of Americans already torture their cats by de-clawing them, so perhaps we should not be surprised this kind of nonsense comes out of America. Cats are not toys, and these control freak scientists ought to understand that. No doubt the real problems facing otters, as for all other wild animals, are caused by man, so perhaps we should just lock all people up indoors permanently.

A "think tank" wants more money thrown at parents (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is an annual 90,000 "baby gap" between the number of children women say they want and the number they have, a study suggests.

There would be 13% more births each year if women actually had the number of babies they said they wanted in their 20s, the IPPR report suggested.

However, a third of mothers who returned to work faced a "fertility penalty" in the form of low paid jobs.

Better childcare and parental leave was recommended by the think tank.

Surprise, surprise, the "solution" to the "problem" is for the government to throw money at it. There are already far too many people on the planet, so why are we supposed to encourage people to have more children? What the IPPR are really saying is that people who are responsible and don't have children are supposed to hand over even more money (via the tax system) to people who are irresponsible and have children. Needless to say the former already hand over thousands of pounds each year to the latter (mainly to pay for education, which at least has some purpose), but of course the people with children are never satisfied and want more and more subsidy for their choice of lifestyle.

Date published: 2006/02/18

Rumsfeld says US is losing the propaganda war (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US is losing the propaganda war against al-Qaeda and other enemies, defence chief Donald Rumsfeld has said.

It must modernise its methods to win the minds of Muslims in the "war on terror", as "enemies had skilfully adapted" to the media age, he said.

Washington and the army must respond faster to events and learn to exploit the internet and satellite TV, he said.

Yes, how is it that a bunch of loony fundamentalist nutters stuck in some mountain range in Asia are respected more by much of the world than a bunch of loony fundamentalist nutters stuck in some dump called Washington. The former believe that their way is the only way. The latter believe that their way is the only way. The former send their foot-soldiers out to blow themselves up. The latter send their foot-soldiers out to blow everyone else up. The former have killed thousands of people, all in the name of ideology. The latter have killed tens of thousands of people, supposedly in the name of ideology but really mainly for political and economic reasons.

Unfortunately for Rumsfeld, the Bush administration has proved remarkably arrogant and incompetent, a lethal combination. The American media (e.g. the Republican News Network, a.k.a. the Fox News Network) has played the patsy and the Bush administration cannot understand why the rest of the world's media doesn't play along with the drivel it spouts. After all, Bush is King George and the peasants of the world should treat him with respect. Unfortunately for King George, the peasants can see that he has no clothes.

Analysis of a previous period of global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Greenhouse gases are being released 30 times faster than the rate of emissions that triggered a period of extreme global warming in the Earth's past.

That is the conclusion of scientists who presented results at a conference in St Louis, in the US.

Emissions that caused a global warming episode 55 million years ago were released over 10,000 years.

Burning fossil fuels is likely to release the same amount over the next three centuries, the scientists claim.

Professor James Zachos of the University of California at Santa Cruz studied the period of global warming known as the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).

Temperatures shot up by 5C (9F) during this episode, driven by a massive release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

By probing sediments on the ocean floor, Professor Zachos was able to determine that about 4.5 trillion tonnes of carbon entered the atmosphere over a period of 10,000 years.

If present trends continue, this is the same amount that will be emitted by burning fossil fuels during the next 300 years, according to the UC Santa Cruz geologist.

The fear for climate scientists is that higher temperatures could slow down ocean mixing, reducing the ocean's capacity to absorb CO2. This could cause "positive feedback", with reduced absorption leaving more CO2 in the air, causing more warming.

"Records of past climate change show that change starts slowly and then accelerates," he said.

"The system crosses some sort of threshold."

This is a slightly apples and oranges comparison since the atmosphere is not the same now as then. And of course that assumption about how much carbon will be released into the atmosphere over the next 300 years is just that, an assumption (you can just about believe analyses about the next 20 or maybe even 50 years, but not 300). But it does show, as everybody already knew, that we are pumping an awful lot of carbon into the atmosphere here and now.

Date published: 2006/02/17

Surviving Natural Disasters (permanent blog link)

The fifth lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by James Jackson on the "Surviving Natural Disasters". In some ways this is an easy lecture to give, because there are plenty of natural disasters with plenty of photographic and video evidence. But it was a very good lecture even given that. Jackson talked about earthquakes, although one of the earthquakes, under water off Sumatra in 2004, caused the infamous tsunami which killed a couple of hundred thousand people.

He showed a graph of the number of earthquakes per century which killed more than 10000 people (an arbitrary cutoff). Of course the data is not perfect going back more than a few centuries, but it seems that such earthquakes occurred around 1 year in 20 from 1000-1600, around 1 in 5 from 1600-1900, around 1 in 3 in the twentieth century, and so far this century just about 1 year in 1. So are "killer" earthquakes becoming more common for some reason? Well, it does not take an expert to figure out that the basic problem is that there are a lot more humans on the planet, many in developing countries which have poor infrastructure, and this is probably the reason for the above statistic.

He discussed several recent earthquakes in Iran, such as at Sefidabeh in 1994 and at Bam in 2003. Sefidabeh, for example, is apparently a small town located in the middle of nowhere, with the "Desert of Death" one way and the "Desert of Hell" the other. Why does Sefidabeh exist? Well, there is a source of water there. And it turns out this source of water is due to there being a fault line for earthquakes. So you can either live in the desert and die of thirst, or live near the spring and face the once in a few hundred years risk of a major earthquake. Needless to say most humans would opt for the latter. Bam apparently is similar, and there were other examples he mentioned.

Jackson mentioned an amazing bit of engineering done by the Iranians living in such near-desert situations. They are called "qanats" are are tunnels which carry water from the spring to the village, often some distance away. Obviously in this day and age that is fairly ordinary, but apparently Alexander the Great already remarked on qanats as being ancient in existence. Earthquakes often damage these and so they are continually rebuilt (he showed one photo with examples).

He talked briefly about Tehran. This is one of the new global mega-cities appearing in many countries, with a population of 10-12 million. Apparently Tehran was pretty much completely destroyed by earthquakes in 855, 958, 1177 and 1830. It does not take a genius to see that it will happen again, but this time hundreds of thousands if not millions of people could die, since there are so many more people living there and apparently the housing is not much better than in Bam. And bizarrely, the government seems to have built a large tourist tower with a restaurant on top, right smack on the fault line. And even worse, a large hospital is also on the fault line, and that is obviously going to be the first casualty of any earthquake.

He mentioned the Ganges basin, which is bordered by an earthquake zone along the Himalayas because India is running into the rest of Asia. These earthquakes happen regularly along the entire Himalayas, and apparently the geology is such that earthquakes turn the soil into effectively a liquid state, so buildings just topple over. He showed a photo of Niigata, Japan, which had an earthquake in 1964 where some buildings just toppled over because of similar geology, although because it was Japan the buildings themselves were fairly rigid, so people ended up just crawling out of the windows (presumably injured from the fall but at least not dead). Jackson pointed out that the big cities in the Ganges basin did not have such good buildings. So a large earthquake could kill a lot of people.

He then talked about the long fault that runs along Sumatra and beyond, which is where the earthquake occurred which caused the tsunami in 2004. This is caused by the same plate which contains India running under the plate which contains the rest of Asia. The first plate gradually slides under the second, but because of friction the first plate partly drags the second one, so land near the fault line is lowered and land further away is raised. Until an earthquake happens, when the equilibrium is (temporarily) restored, with the near land rising and the far land sinking. At the 2004 earthquake, for example, the island of Simeulue rose and Banda Aceh sank (compounding the effect of the tsunami there). Jackson showed clear photographic evidence of this. He even had a photo which showed that part of the island of Simeulue which had been under water before the earthquake had old rice paddy fields marked out on it, so this cycle of rising and falling was not new.

There was another earthquake in 2005 just south of the 2004 earthquake. And a similar phenomenon occurred. But of course the fault continues further south and east. The next zone is not far from a major Sumatran city, Padang. Basically, that city could well be flattened in the next few decades.

The 2004 tsunami travelled at around 500 miles (800 km) per hour. This meant that it took around two hours to reach Sri Lanka. If there had been some kind of early warning system in place a lot fewer people might have died there. So that is being put into place. Of course that does not help locals near the fault line that much. Here the best option seems to be education. The sea moves out from shore before the huge wave hits. This gives perhaps 10-15 minutes of warning. (Of course if the tsunami strikes in the dark, nobody might notice.)

He showed one photo of some town in Indonesia where every building was competely destroyed except for the mosque, which was practically intact. One reason was that on the ground floor there were largely just columns, so the water swept through the building relatively unimpeded. But the mosque was also well built. Apparently when the builder was asked why it was so well built, he said the obvious: "you don't cheat god".

Jackson ended by talking about what could be done. He pointed out that there were two significant earthquakes in California in the last two decades, one in 1989 of magnitude 7.1, and one in 1994 of magnitude 6.8. Around 50-60 people died each time. Compare that to Bam in 2004, where around 40000 died with an earthquake of magnitude 6.8. This is partly down to building standards. Needless to say the rich of the world can put up better buildings than the poor. Not that Iran is really a poor country but the government there is worse than in many more developed countries.

Jackson said that the mega-cities of the world are expected to accrue another two billion of so people in the next few decades. So that means another billion or so households. So if new buildings had better building standards then at least some lives could be saved. But what are the odds of better building standards in the developing world? Jackson thought that some earthquake in the next couple of decades could kill a million people.

Greenland ice sheet melting faster than previously thought (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Greenland's glaciers are sliding towards the sea much faster than previously believed, scientists have told a conference in St Louis, US.

It was thought the entire Greenland ice sheet could melt in about 1,000 years, but the latest evidence suggests that could happen much sooner.

It implies that sea levels will rise a great deal faster as well.

Details of the study, by Nasa and University of Kansas researchers, are also reported in the journal Science.

The comprehensive analysis found that the amount of ice dumped into the Atlantic Ocean has doubled in the last five years.

If the Greenland ice sheet melted completely, it would raise global sea levels by about 7m.

Greenland's contribution to global sea level rise today is two to three times greater than it was in 1996.

"We are concerned because we know that sea levels have been able to rise much faster in the past - 10 times faster. This is a big gorilla. If sea level rise is multiplied by 10 or more, I'm not sure we can deal with that," co-author Eric Rignot, from the US space agency's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told the BBC News website.

Previous estimates suggested it would take many hundreds of years for the Greenland ice sheet to melt completely. The new data will cut this timescale, but by how much is uncertain.

"It depends on how fast the glaciers can go and how sustainable the acceleration can be," said Dr Rignot.

He added: "It takes a long time to build and melt an ice sheet, but glaciers can react quickly to temperature changes."

In 1996, Greenland was losing about 100 cubic km per year in mass from its ice sheet. In 2005, this had increased to about 220 cubic km. By comparison, the city of Los Angeles uses about one cubic km of water per year.

Well we are getting such stories almost every week these days, so nobody should be really surprised by any of this. The only question, as usual, is what should be done in the near term. The global economy is not going to stop tomorrow even if it was guaranteed the sea level were to rise by 7m in a few centuries. You can be sure that most people who attended the conference where these results were discussed came by airplane. So the scientists are not so worried as to change their own behaviour yet.

Date published: 2006/02/16

Tyndall Centre looks to the year 3000 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK could face major flooding and tropical temperatures by the year 3000 if greenhouse gas emissions are not sharply reduced, a new study says.

The report, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, claims Britain could look radically different with sea levels rising as much as 11.4m.

The study was commissioned by the Environment Agency.

However, other researchers cautioned that it was extremely difficult to make climate forecasts so far in advance.

Is this an April Fool's joke? The Environment Agency should have its budget cut if it is going to waste taxpayer's money on such ridiculous studies. It's not as if there is no real research that needs doing.

Date published: 2006/02/15

Water and sanitation in the developing world (permanent blog link)

The second lecture of the university's Fourth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2006) was given today by Sandy Cairncross of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. His title was the rather long-winded "From hardware to hygiene behaviour: an engineering odyssey into water and sanitation". It was mainly his recollection of his experience working in water and sanitation in the developing world. He's an engineer so had something to say.

He mentioned examples from Losotho to Mozambique to Brazil to India to Ghana. One of his important observations was that you need a functioning local government in order to sustain a town's water supply. Needless to say this is a big problem in many parts of the developing world.

He pointed out that with water supply you can worry about quality and quantity. But it seemed that for people within half an hour of water, the quantity of water consumed was not correlated with the time it took to get the water. But he also gave a scary statistic that almost half the world is more than half an hour from a water supply.

He then went onto sanitation. Apparently almost by accident he helped design and market a slab used to cover latrines in Mozambique. Starting in 1980 the take-up grew slowly but by 1995 had reached sales of 25000 per year. It seems that health was not the selling point for latrines, rather other things like prestige, convenience and security (the latter in particular important for women). As Cairncross mentioned, this is not really any different from anywhere else, as in the developed world people don't buy shoes based on reasons of health but more based on fashion.

His tips gathered from his experience with this venture were:

It seems that the introduction of drains and sewers have been shown (not surprisingly) to reduce disease transmission around the world, but that this takes place in the public domain, which doesn't necessarily make things better in the private (domestic) domain (and there was evidence of that). So it was important to look not just at industrial plant but also at the situation of people in their homes (apparently something which many consultants miss).

Then he said that the most important thing for world health was to get people to wash their hands with soap. He showed various bits of evidence this was true. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this idea was that it provided a big opportunity for public-private partnership. In particular soap manufacturers could work with government to improve health, and both sides would win. It seems the soap manufacturers thought of soap as a beauty rather than a health product, so in fact were happy to be seen to help save lives (and make money at the same time).

Someone asked about using ash or mud instead of soap, and Cairncross said that they were almost as effective, perhaps because of all the rubbing action you needed just to get the muck of your hands. No doubt the soap manufacturers wouldn't want to spread that message too far.

Someone else asked about other possible public-private partnerships. Cairncross said he thought the most likely new examples would be in sanitation, and he seemed fairly keen on this whole approach.

Amusingly at the end he said he had studied the behaviour of people at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and found many did not wash their hands with soap after going to the toilet. Apparently the bureaucrats stopped this study because it was deemed unethical. But it just goes to show that many people do not really think about health issues, even in the developed world.

MPs pass law to make it illegal to "glorify" terrorism (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair's controversial plan for a new law to stop people "glorifying" terrorism has been backed by MPs.

The House of Lords voted last month to remove the measure from the Terrorism Bill, but the Commons has now voted by 315 to 277 to reinstate the plan.

Mr Blair said the vote was a "signal of strength" which could outlaw placards glorifying the bombers who attacked London last July.

But the Tories accused Mr Blair of "ineffective authoritarianism".

The Lib Dems and Tories both opposed the law.

They said existing laws - and plans for a new offence to prevent indirect encouragement of terrorism - mean the glorification offence is not needed.

Seventeen Labour MPs rebelled in the vote and some others abstained, reducing the government's usual majority of 64 to 38.

Unfortunately there are too many Labour MPs who put the interest of their party above the interest of the country. One can only hope that the public will see through this cynical exercise and that the next election will see the number of Labour MPs reduced further. No doubt the entire country is sleeping better and safer tonight knowing that Blair's Police will stop anyone from waving placards glorifying the July bombers. But as with previous Terrorism Laws, you can guarantee the Police will use this power mostly in totally inappropriate ways, such as preventing people from heckling members of the government because of their illegal invasion of Iraq.

Small retailers allegedly under threat in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The future of small and independent retailers in the UK is looking bleak and they may disappear from High Streets, politicians have warned.

According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops, there are concerns that the retailers may cease trading as soon as 2015.

Many are being squeezed out by larger rivals and supermarkets, they said.

However, the British Retail Consortium said the group was "trying to turn the clock back".

If smaller stores are squeezed out, the parliamentary group said that there would be social, economic and environmental consequences felt by local communities.

Convenience stores and grocers are "unlikely to survive" the growth of the larger chains, the group said.

More middle class hysteria based on middle class snobbery (the idea that small stores are somehow inherently better than large shops), and laughably short of the mark. Lucky for these MPs, in 2015 nobody will remember that they wrote this silly report.

Date published: 2006/02/14

UK government wants more waste to be incinerated (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has launched its review into how it plans to tackle the growing problem of waste in England.

Among the proposals is a plan to burn more of the nation's rubbish in an attempt to reduce the amount of refuse ending up in landfill sites.

Environmentalists and local campaign groups are against more incineration plants, saying they will set back efforts to increase recycling rates.

The government is expected to publish its updated strategy later in the year.
...
One of the proposals calls for greater investment in "energy from waste", a process in which incinerators are used to power electricity generation plants.

It calls for 67% of waste to be recycled, composted or recovered through "energy from waste" schemes by 2015.

The proposal would increase the target for recycling and composting to 45%, with the remaining 22% being met by incineration and other energy recovery methods.

Environmental groups rejected the idea that refuse can provide green energy, calling it a "myth". Friends of the Earth said more effort had to be focused on increasing recycling rates.

"Recycling saves more energy than is created by burning waste," said campaigner Anna Watson.
...
The group also said burning rubbish increased the risk of local residents being exposed to dioxins - chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer.

The Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) said energy from waste had to play a role in the government's long term waste management strategy.

"Our cleaner, greener European neighbours have long understood that energy from waste is sensible," said INCPEN director Jan Bickerstaffe.

"Denmark incinerates 58% of its waste, compared to 9% in the UK.

"According to the Environment Agency, more dioxins were emitted in one hour by the millennium fireworks than will be produced by all of the UK's incinerators in 120 years."

That last statistic is amusing if it is (a) true and (b) not misleading. And as usual, the so-called environmentalists harp on about so-called recycling as if it is better for the environment than incineration (or landfill) for all materials. Recycling seems to be loved by the chattering classes since it means they can produce as much waste as they like as long as they hand over enough of it to the State in tidy middle-class bundles. The so-called environmentalists unfortunately have never shown themselves to have a balanced view of the world so their claims have to be largely discounted.

Underwater biodiversity hotspot in the Caribbean (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An underwater mountain with some of the richest diversity of marine life in the Caribbean has been found by scientists.

During a two-week dive researchers discovered scores more species of fish than previously known in the region and vast beds of "seaweed cities".

But the team says the biodiversity hotspot is in danger: oil tankers in the area threaten the fragile reefs.

The researchers are hoping to get the area protected by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

The find was made in the Saba Bank Atoll, a coral-crowned seamount, 250km south-east of Puerto Rico in the Netherlands Antilles.

It is ranked as the third largest atoll in the world and has an enormous active reef.

As with most things in life, if you look you will find. And scientists always have to hype their finds to get any attention in the world. But this site certainly seems worthy of protection, if anything is. Shipping generally, and not just oil tankers, cause problems for reefs. The Banda Islands in Indonesia have some wonderful reefs, and the main damage is caused from fishing boats dropping their anchors. Of course the underwater ecosystem is largely out of sight, so damage to it does not produce such great media attention as, say, burning down forests.

Date published: 2006/02/13

Report recommends more research on effect of sound in oceans (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Research into the effect of sound in the oceans on marine mammals should be commissioned by the UK Government, a report recommends.

The Inter-agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology says mammals are affected by many sounds, including sonar, oil exploration and shipping.

It suggests research should include deliberately exposing mammals to noise.

There has been speculation that the whale found in the Thames last month had been disorientated by sounds.

"There are many sources of sound in the sea, including seismic surveys for hydrocarbons prospecting, shipping, offshore wind farms, military sonars and scientific research," said Professor Peter Liss from the University of East Anglia who chaired the report committee.

"We therefore decided that the study must consider all these sectors and one of our conclusions is the need for better regulation underpinned by more research."

Sound in the oceans is a possible real problem for marine life, but the UK is powerless to do anything significant without involving international bodies, so research is all very well, but other countries need to be brought on board. And if you give most countries the option of, say, having more expensive energy or a few dead whales every year, then the whales are unlikely to come out on top.

Church primary schools prefer middle class students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Church primary schools in England are less likely than local authority schools to admit children from poorer homes, updated research shows.

In 2005, the Institute for Research in Integrated Strategies identified a similar phenomenon in a limited study.

It has now analysed admissions and eligibility for free school meals in all 17,319 primary schools in England.

Schools in the voluntary aided category admitted fewer poorer children than expected from the area's social makeup.

Almost 19% of children living in the postcode area of church schools were from families eligible for free meals, but only 14% of the schools' intakes were.

Conversely, local authority community schools took a slightly higher proportion of poorer pupils than lived in their local districts.

More pointless "research". Is anyone supposed to be surprised (or worried) about this? The government should stop wasting money on this kind of work and instead put the money into education.

Date published: 2006/02/12

Gordon Brown wants to be a dictator (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown is to announce sweeping new security measures, including a call for tougher counter-terrorism powers.

Plans for a new integrated electronic border system will be announced as well as a proposal to extend the time terror suspects can be held without trial.

The Chancellor will say that security and counter-terrorism will be at the heart of a public review.
...
Speaking at the Royal United Services Institute in London on Monday, Mr Brown will speak of the complexity of the terrorist threat and call for a "shared national purpose" to toughen laws to protect people.

He will also to say that three terror plots have been disrupted since 7 July.

"I want to remind the country that the terrorist threat has not diminished and will not diminish until we defeat it," he will say.

He will argue there is a need to balance tough security with individual liberty and proper accountability through the courts and Parliament.

"Now we find that national and international action for security is inextricably linked and security issues dominate decisions in transport, energy, immigration and extend to social security and health, as well as the Treasury," the chancellor will say.

Among his proposals are:

  • an integrated electronic border security system to check biometric passports at ports and airports
  • a single security budget - which could mean a new department for homeland security
  • new measures to combat the financing of terror networks, with private and public sectors sharing data
  • the 28 days for holding terror suspects without trial to be extended

  • Well Brown seems to have the worst of the Blair control freak tendencies without any of the Blair graces. Of course you would certainly hope there was an "integrated electronic border security system to check biometric passports", is he joking? But the introduction of a department of "homeland security" will probably be a failure (as it has been in the US). And increasing the 28 days is just the kind of dictatorial power which Parliament has already told the government to get lost over, exactly because there is no "proper accountability through the courts". But of course proto-dictators always try to push for more power. What he means by a "shared national purpose" (other than waving the UK flag on his proposed UK nationalism day) seems to be to scare people into handing over more of their civil liberties.

    UK citizenship mess at the Home Office (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    More than 70,000 people are waiting to hear if they can become British citizens, BBC News has learned.

    The Home Office confirmed it had been overwhelmed by people who applied before 1 November, after which citizenship tests became compulsory.

    Home Office minister Tony McNulty said his staff were working hard but would be unable to clear the backlog until May or June 2006.

    He said: "I can only apologise for the disruption to people's lives."

    Mr McNulty added: "Resources are being put in place to deal with it as quickly as possible."

    Prospective new citizens applying after 1 November 2005 will have to take a 45-minute test - covering government, society and practical issues and costing £34 - at one of 90 centres across the country.

    But those who applied before the deadline need only demonstrate a working knowledge of the English language.

    The BBC website utterly fails to mention one of the most relevant points. When you apply for citizenship you have to include your existing passport, so the Home Office is pointlessly sitting on this for months on end. They could of course ask you for your passport at the time they actually get around to wanting to verify it, which would take a few days or at worst weeks, but that would be far too logical for the UK civil service. So as it is these people applying for citizenship are stuck in the UK without an important piece of identification. It is disgraceful.

    But these long delays are nothing new. A decade ago one applicant similarly had to wait for months on end waiting for a citizenship decision, without a passport. Only one day it looked like there was need for an urgent business trip to Mexico as part of a several hundred million dollar export deal. The employer made a call to the Home Office and the passport (and authorisation of citizenship) was returned within a day or two. Otherwise it probably would have dragged on for a few more months. (Unfortunately the Mexican economy took a nosedive so the export deal never happened.) And someone else was faced with a similarly long wait, only she happened to live in the constituency of the then Prime Minister (John Major) so her husband (a Brit with some business connections) made a phone call or two and the citizenship was approved within a week or two.

    This is why government should not even be allowed to run a chip shop.

    Date published: 2006/02/11

    Naive energy sums done by naive consultants (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    The huge profits reported by oil and gas companies would turn into losses if the social costs of their greenhouse gas emissions were taken into account.

    That is the conclusion of research by the New Economics Foundation (Nef).

    Nef found that the £10bn-plus profits just reported by Shell and BP are dwarfed by costs of emissions associated with their products.

    Nef also suggests UK Treasury revenues from oil and gas may be a disincentive to curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

    The comments come in an article for The Green Room, the BBC News website's weekly series of opinion pieces on environmental issues.

    Reporting previously undisclosed figures, Nef's policy director Andrew Simms writes: "Our new calculations from research in progress with WWF, based on Treasury statistics, show that UK government income from the fossil fuel sector - conservatively estimated at £34.9bn ($61bn) - is greater than revenue from council tax, stamp duty, capital gains and inheritance tax combined.

    "Policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions could therefore have a major impact on the government coffers; a serious disincentive to action."

    But, Nef concludes using more government figures, this revenue does not reflect costs associated with climate change resulting from burning oil and gas.

    A report prepared for Defra and the Treasury estimates that each tonne of carbon dioxide emitted costs about £20 ($35) in environmental damage.

    "Combining the emissions that stem from BP's direct activities and the sale of its products leads to 1,458m tonnes of CO2-equivalent entering the atmosphere, with a damage bill of £29bn ($51bn)," writes Andrew Simms.

    "Subtracting that from the £11bn ($19bn) annual profit it has just reported puts it £18bn ($31bn) in the red; effectively bankrupt.

    "The same calculation puts Shell £4.5bn ($8bn) in the red, even as it reports an annual profit of £13bn ($23bn)."

    An amusing if naive calculation. It completely ignores the massive direct and indirect social and economic benefits of burning all that fossil fuel. NeF almost seems to believe all this fuel is being torched by the oil companies, in a fit of pique. For an organisation with "economics" in their title they seem to know little about economics.

    And their complaint that the current carbon taxes that the government collects (mainly from drivers) are "a serious disincentive to action" is rather surreal. Do these so-called environmentalists believe in carbon taxes or don't they? The most "serious disincentive to action" is not the large amount of money raked in by the Treasury from the fossil fuel sector, it is that if the economy takes a nosedive because the government turns off the main component of the national energy supply (which almost seems to be what NeF wants) then the people of Britain will vote out the government. Certain sections of the chattering classes might be happy for the lights to go out, but most people would not.

    Date published: 2006/02/10

    Freddie Laker dies (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Sir Freddie Laker, the British pioneer of charter airlines, has died in the United States at the age of 83.

    Sir Freddie, who introduced cheap air travel to the world in the 1970s, died of undisclosed causes in Miami, a family friend said.

    At its peak, Laker Airways offered London to New York tickets for £118, but was forced out of business in 1982.

    Fellow airline tycoon Sir Richard Branson paid tribute to Sir Freddie as "one of Britain's great entrepreneurs".

    The first person to offer air travel to the masses, instead of just the ruling elite. Unfortunately his airline failed, because of predatory pricing by British Airways and others, but his legacy lives on in Ryanair, Easyjet and similar airlines. Of course this might be a short-lived phenomenon, given that much of the ruling elite (such as the BBC and the so-called environmentalists) do not like the masses to have cheap air travel and so are trying to make it much more expensive.

    Blair tries to scare people yet again (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Guaranteeing security is as important to Labour as fairness, Tony Blair has said as he prepares for key votes on anti-terror laws and ID cards.

    In a speech to Labour's spring conference in Blackpool, Mr Blair urged activists to back the plans.

    Failure to ensure laws are in place to fight security threats would be an "abrogation of duty", he said.
    ...
    Mr Blair argued there cannot be an opportunity for people or strong communities without security and Labour must realise security is an essential part of its political purpose.

    "Once we understand that providing security is our duty, we also see that to try to fight the new security threat of the 21st century without the new laws and resources that are needed would be an abrogation of that duty," he said.

    Blair back to beating the dead horse, still trying to justify dictatorial powers by scaring people. There is no "new security threat", it is just the usual vandals trying to wreck the usual havoc. Blair used the same hysterical approach to bounce the country into his illegal war in Iraq, and it is more than wearing a bit thin.

    It's warmer now than for 1200 years (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    In the late 20th Century, the northern hemisphere experienced its most widespread warmth for 1,200 years, according to the journal Science.

    The findings support evidence pointing to unprecedented recent warming of the climate linked to greenhouse emissions.

    University of East Anglia researchers measured changes in fossil shells, tree rings, ice cores and other past temperature records or "proxies".

    They also looked at people's diaries from the last 750 years.

    Timothy Osborn and Keith Briffa of UEA analysed instrument measurements of temperature from 1856 onwards to establish the geographic extent of recent warming.

    Then they compared this data with evidence dating back as far as AD 800.

    The analysis confirmed periods of significant warmth in the Northern Hemisphere from AD 890 - 1170 (the so-called "Medieval Warm Period") and for much colder periods from 1580 - 1850 (the "Little Ice Age").

    Ho hum, another day, another global warming story. But it's useful to try and quantify the present in terms of the recent past.

    Date published: 2006/02/09

    Study on the decline of house sparrows in Britain (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    The decline of the house sparrow, one of Britain's best known birds, could be down to a lack of insects and spiders during the summer months, experts say.

    A De Montfort University team claims adult sparrows are struggling to find enough food to feed their chicks in the early stages of their lives.

    UK bird charity RSPB said measures that boosted insect numbers could also help arrest the sparrows' decline.

    This included growing deciduous trees and shrubs and cutting insecticide use.

    In August 2002, the house sparrow was added to the Red Data list of bird species of conservation concern because their decline had been more than 50% in the last 25 years.

    Between 1977 and 2000, house sparrow (Passer domesticus) numbers in the UK declined by 65%.

    Kate Vincent, of De Montfort University in Leicester, put up more than 600 nestboxes around the East Midlands city to study the birds' breeding success, chick condition, diet and feeding habits.

    Ms Vincent found that chicks were more likely to starve if their diet contained a high proportion of vegetable matter or ants, and less likely to starve if their diet contained a high proportion of spiders.
    ...
    Thus far, there is no evidence that the birds' invertebrate prey have fallen in abundance in urban and suburban of Britain.

    But Kate Vincent says it provides a plausible mechanism for the observed declines in populations of the birds.

    Well the BBC article does not give enough details, but this sounds like stretching data to provide a desirable interpretation. For one thing, the study was in Leicester. Is there any plausible explanation why the city would have lost so much insect life between the 1970s and today? It's hard to imagine gardeners using more insecticide now than then, especially given that so-called organic gardening is flavour of the minute amongst the chattering classes (so amongst most people rich enough to have a big enough garden to matter). And the study almost seems to be claiming that people should not be leaving seed out in the garden for sparrows (and hence for birds, period, because once you feed one, you feed them all), since that is allegedly not as "healthy" as spiders. But that seems ridiculous (but you never know). Are more people feeding seed to birds now than in the 1970s? Is there no relationship to climate change? Etc.

    Committee of MPs promotes carbon capture and storage (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Capturing and storing carbon dioxide from power stations could help Britain meet its energy needs while curbing greenhouse gas emissions, MPs say.

    The Commons science and technology committee says in a report that all new coal power stations should be suitable for carbon capture.

    The costs are likely to be similar to using renewable energy, it says.

    It urges the government to lead reform of international treaties to ensure storing CO2 underground is legal.

    "The UK is struggling to meet its targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2010 and 60% by 2050," the report notes.

    "At the same time, domestic concerns over security of supply are increasingly dominating the debate about energy policy, reflecting unease over UK dependence on imported gas.

    "We find that there is significant scope for carbon capture and storage technology to contribute both to reducing CO2 emissions in the UK and abroad, and to enhancing the security of the UK's future energy supplies."

    Storing carbon dioxide in rock has already been shown to be safe and effective by the Norwegian company Statoil, which has been piping the gas down into a reservoir under the sea floor for almost a decade.

    But capturing the gas in the first place is a different issue.

    Using current technology reduces the efficiency of power stations by about a quarter, meaning that more need to be built to produce the same amount of electricity, with costs rising as a result.

    Nevertheless, the committee concludes that the costs of generating low-carbon electricity this way will be "comparable" to nuclear fission or renewables such as solar panels and tidal turbines.

    Nothing new here. CO2 capture and storage ought to be part of the future energy equation. But as with all new technology, we don't really know the real long-term impact of this approach. Ten years is not enough to claim this is "safe and effective", just that it is not obviously unsafe or ineffective.

    Date published: 2006/02/07

    Blair is not keen to reduce air travel (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Tony Blair says it is unrealistic to think the tax system can be used to reduce air travel in the UK.

    The prime minister said it would take a "fairly hefty whack" for people to cut back on flights in the UK and abroad.

    He told the Commons liaison committee that it would be hard to sell, and said he would not be keen on such a move.

    Instead, he said, the best way to tackle climate change was to invest in more environmentally friendly aircraft and to invest in other new technology.

    It had been put to Mr Blair that the rise in aircraft emissions were threatening the overall plans to cut back on greenhouse gases.

    Mr Blair told the MPs that the world would be in "serious trouble" unless there was a new agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

    He said it was vital to come up with a framework for when the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012.

    Mr Blair said he thought that with a "significant uplift" in investment in new and alternative environmentally-friendly technologies the emissions savings could be found fairly quickly.

    He said emissions targets would have to form a part of a future agreement on climate change.

    It was understandable that the US was very wary of having targets imposed on it, and instead wanted to concentrate on the use of clean technology - on which it spends more than any other country - he said.

    However, there were "real signs of change" in the US on the issue, he said.

    But on air travel, the prime minister conceded: "It is unrealistic to think that you will get some restriction on air travel at an international level.

    "The best way to go is to recognise that is a reality and see how you can develop the technology that is able to reduce the harmful emissions."

    Well most of that is obvious, if somewhat fanciful, but the UK could, if it wanted, reduce air travel from UK airports. Just put 200 pounds per passenger on the cost of each takeoff and each landing. The real question is whether that makes any sense or is desirable. Sure airplane flights should have a carbon tax imposed (and there is a crude passenger tax which covers part of that but ignores the real point of a carbon tax which is to make the tax proportional to the damage caused). But railway and bus journeys should also have a carbon tax, and nobody ever seems to talk about that. And gas and electricity in homes should also have a carbon tax, and nobody ever seems to talk about that. The chattering classes instead fixate on cars (where there is already a whacking great tax which more than covers any putative carbon tax) and planes. But why should the UK taxpayer subsidise someone who (say) commutes from Bristol or Cambridge to London every day? (And not paying a carbon tax is a big subsidy, on top of the direct taxpayer subsidy of train travel.)

    UK pension age set to increase (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Some increase in the state pension age from 2020 is "inevitable", the Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton says.

    The minister was speaking at a conference organised by the think tank, The Work Foundation.

    The state pension age for women is already set to rise from 60 to 65, the same as for men, between 2010 and 2020.

    Last year the Pensions Commission, led by Lord Turner, proposed that people should work even longer before being able to claim the state pension.

    However his suggestion was that a further increase from 65 to 66 - or even higher - should only be phased in from 2030.

    Mr Hutton acknowledged that raising the state pension age was "a fairly blunt tool for changing effective retirement ages".

    But he added: "If we aren't prepared to consider the option of raising the state pension age, we will simply pass an even greater burden onto our children."

    Even so, Mr Hutton stressed that any rise would only be acceptable as part of a package to improve pension provision - and that it needed to be accompanied by "tailored support" to help people back to work.

    Is this really news? And does Gordon Brown accept any of it?

    Date published: 2006/02/06

    Another report on pesticide spraying near housing (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Scientists have criticised a report on crop spraying and its risks to health.

    Last year, a report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) recommended five-metre no-spray zones between fields and homes.

    But the Advisory Committee on Pesticides (ACP) says this measure is "arbitrary" and a "disproportionate" response to scientific uncertainty.

    The ACP is an independent scientific committee and advises government on the control of pests.

    Its formal response was requested by Lord Bach, minister for sustainable farming and food, and will be used to inform the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' response to the RCEP's report.

    While agreeing with some of the recommendations made in the report, Professor David Coggon, chair of the ACP when the response was written, said the committee strongly disagreed with the recommendation of placing a five metre buffer zone alongside residential property to protect against possible adverse health effects.

    "We agree that there is scientific uncertainty, but we think a buffer zone is arbitrary and a disproportionate response to the uncertainty," he told the BBC News website.

    The ACP committee argues there are already wide margins of safety built into the current regulatory system, but says the RCEP failed to take these into account when writing its report.

    The buffer zone was one of several measures recommended by the RCEP report: Crop Spraying and the Health of Residents and Bystanders.

    Others included more research to reduce uncertainties related to the adverse health effects of pesticides, and improved public information on their usage.

    Chaired at the time by Sir Tom Blundell, the RCEP is an independent body appointed by the Queen, which publishes in-depth reports on environmental issues.

    Crop spraying is no stranger to controversy. Some members of the public living near to areas where this takes place believe that the pesticides are causing chronic illnesses including nervous disorders, depression and even cancer.

    At the time the report was published, Sir Tom Blundell told the BBC: "We have a large number of people who live next to arable fields that are sprayed and a number of them, a few hundred, are ill, and they think they are ill because they've either been sprayed or spray drift has come over their homes."

    Professor Coggon said the committee acknowledged scientific knowledge of the harmful effects crop spraying might cause needs to be improved.

    "It is not a question that everything is clear cut and we don't need to do any more research because we know all the answers. We are absolutely in agreement with the Royal Commissions on that," he said.

    But he also said the ACP disagreed with the proposed interim precautionary measures which would restrict people's exposures even further.

    "Our position has always been, if on the risk assessment you don't think there is adequate protection for bystanders, then you don't impose a buffer zone to protect people, you just don't allow the use of the pesticide," he told the BBC

    The commentary in the ACP's response does highlight that it is not against buffer-zones in principle, and said that there could be a legitimate case for them on social grounds.

    But Professor Coggon cautioned: "That's not a matter of science, that's a matter of balancing what you do for the neighbours, against the disadvantages for the farmers."

    The response to the RCEP's report represents the views of 17 of the 21 members of the ACP.

    Defra said the government would give full consideration to the ACP's views in formulating its response to the RCEP. The response should be published by the summer.

    A classic case of one set of experts disagreeing with another. The ACP points are valid but of course you can always play safe, which is what the RCEP effectively recommended, but the ACP points out that there is a cost, and perhaps little benefit, to doing this. Unfortunately the so-called environmentalists have spent the last fifty years demonising the chemical industry so the general public is convinced that any and all adverse health effects near farmers' fields are of course to be blamed on the pesticides. And these pesticides are not great chemicals (their purpose, after all, is to kill certain life forms), so no doubt sooner or later one or more of these chemicals will be found to have too bad an impact on the environment to be allowed to be continued to be used. (If you cry wolf enough times sooner or later there will be a wolf, especially if you continually raise the "safety" threshold, as always happens in Europe.)

    Supposedly more cave art discovered in France (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    A French caver has discovered prehistoric cave art believed to date back 27,000 years - older than the famous Lascaux paintings.

    Gerard Jourdy, 63, said he found human and animal remains in the chamber in the Vilhonneur forest, in caves once used to dispose of animal carcasses.

    The paintings included a hand in cobalt blue, he told AFP news agency.

    The discovery was made in November, but kept secret while initial examinations were carried out.

    Mr Jourdy also said he saw a sculpture of a face made from a stalactite - which would be a scientific first for the era, but experts were dubious about this claim, AFP says.
    ...
    The French culture ministry confirmed the findings, but a spokesman said that although the discovery was of interest, the paintings were not as spectacular as those in the Cosquer and Chauvet caves in the Ardeche.

    The Lascaux Caves, in the Dordogne, are among the best known and most important prehistoric sites of Stone Age cave art.

    Experts think the caves were used for hunting rituals and shamanistic rites, and it is thought that the first paintings were done some 17,000 years ago.

    It's too early to tell but it could be an interesting new discovery. But the most amusing thing about the article is the statement about the existing Dordogne caves: "experts think the caves were used for hunting rituals and shamanistic rites". Anything in archaeology that an "expert" cannot give a reasonable explanation about always ends up as being classified as some kind of (usually religious) ritual. Perhaps the pre-historic people were just bored and so decided to put lots of graffiti on the walls. You can just imagine in 10000 years some archaeologists stumbling over a large pile of McDonald's litter and them earnestly telling the world it was obviously a site of great religious significance, with the red referring to blood and the yellow referring to the sun.

    Date published: 2006/02/05

    British Gas prices set to soar (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Reports that British Gas is to increase its prices by up to 25% have angered consumer groups and some charities.

    British Gas said it is planning to increase rates but said the exact figure had not yet been decided.

    Age Concern said: "Rising fuel costs mean older people on fixed incomes will struggle more than ever to keep warm, which could mean even more deaths."

    However, energy regulator Ofgem said that UK customers currently had "the lowest gas prices in Europe".

    Gordon Lishman, director-general of Age Concern, said: "Many pensioners live on a low, fixed income and are hit particularly hard by hikes in their fuel bills.

    "More than 28,000 people over 65 died from cold related illness last winter, when temperatures were warmer than they have been this year."

    A spokesman for Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, said: "Wholesale gas prices for 2006 are up about 75% on 2005.

    "Clearly all suppliers are buying their gas in the same market, therefore we would expect that suppliers will be increasing their tariffs substantially as we go through 2006.

    "But we haven't said anything about timing or scale of an increase."

    It's totally obvious such an increase is due. And these kind of price increases are going to do much more to reduce energy consumption in the world than almost anything government could do (because government, when it is run well, is almost a zero-sum game). And consumers should also be paying a carbon tax on gas, which would increase prices futher, but funnily enough nobody (not even the so-called environmentalists) ever mentions this. The question of how much energy subsidy to give certain sectors of the community, e.g. pensioners, is a completely orthogonal issue.

    Small print in New York City apartment advertisement (permanent blog link)

    The Financial Times (UK) weekend edition occasionally (roughly once a month) contains a glossy supplement called "How To Spend It". Well, the name says it all, and if you are unwilling to spend a few hundred pounds (euros, dollars) on a purse or a few thousand on a dress then this is not the magazine for you. This week's "How To Spend It" contains not one but two two-page spreads for extremely expensive apartments in New York (so you have to wonder about the health of the New York City real estate market if they think Brits have more money than Yanks). One advertisement says you can buy half and full floor (!) apartments starting at $10 million. But the more amusing one has apartments starting at a mere $3 million. The small print of the blurb says:

    We are pledged to the letter and the spirit of U.S. policy for the achievement of equal housing opportunity throughout the Nation. We encourage and support an affirmative advertising and marketing program in which there are no barriers to obtaining housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status or national origin."

    How touching, the only barrier is wealth (and perhaps whether you support the Yankees or the Mets).

    Date published: 2006/02/04

    Iran stops nuclear inspections (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Iran has said it will no longer allow snap inspections of its nuclear sites, after the UN nuclear watchdog voted to report Tehran to the Security Council.

    President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the country's nuclear agency to end inspections from Sunday.

    Iran also plans to press ahead with full-scale uranium enrichment.

    The move to report Tehran, agreed by 27 of the 35 states on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), could lead to possible sanctions against Iran.

    "Because of the resolution of the IAEA... the organisation should stop voluntary implementation of the additional protocol and other co-operation from Sunday," Mr Ahmadinejad said.

    Of course Iran did say they would do this. This is what happens when jerks, i.e. Bush and Blair, run the world. They will only be happy when they start yet another unnecessary war. Obviously their misadventure in Iraq has taught them no lessons.

    Date published: 2006/02/03

    Survival of Languages (permanent blog link)

    The third lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Peter Austin on the "Survival of Language". This was the first lecture in the 2006 series where the lecturer actually did a proper job.

    Austin said that there were an estimated 6500 languages spoken in the world today. Of course that is just an estimate (what is a language?) but it's as good as any. Apparently there is a "crisis" in that lots of languages are disappearing. Apparently this "crisis" is accelerating. Hmmm, it sounds just like every other "crisis" that confronts the Earth.

    Apparently 96% of the world speaks 4% of those 6500 languages, with more than 40% just for the top 9. Austin evidently found this a shocking state of affairs, but is it? Take almost any series you want and you will get exactly the same kind of long tail. Apparently 50% of languages have less than 10000 speakers and 25% less than 1000.

    It seems there are dire predictions that anywhere from 50% to 90% of existing languages will disappear by 2100. As he pointed out, even at 50% that would mean that approximately 2 languages per week are going to disappear this century. Well, that is assuming that these predictions are accurate.

    He blamed the loss of language mainly on "colonialist" policies, by which he meant a people with one language "subjugating" a people with another language (via economic, political, educational and other means). As one example he mentioned Australia, where when the Europeans arrived there were an estimated 250 languages, but now that is down to around 12 viable languages.

    Of course this is nothing new. He mentioned the loss of languages in Italy when the Romans (and hence Latin) took over.

    Should we care? He said that some people said "no" because apparently they believe that it would be better for the world if there were fewer languages. For example, there might be less conflict in the world if there were fewer languages. Well that sounds implausible, but it would be easier for people to get around, which of course some members of the ruling elite would not like (there is nothing worse than having ordinary people being able to do the same things that the ruling elite can do).

    But, more seriously, he did not mention that perhaps we should not care because that is just the way the world is. Languages come and languages go, and languages change. Trying to freeze the situation so that all languages forever henceforth survive is just fighting against thousands of years of human evolution. You can fight human evolution, just like you can fight Mother Nature (e.g. trying to save species whose environment has all but disappeared), but you are not likely to win.

    Austin of course thinks we should care, so he managed to come up with five reasons we should care, versus the one why we should not. The first was that we need language diversity. Apparently people who push this argument make a comparison with biodiversity. But nobody can even convincingly "prove" that that biodiversity is inherently a "good" thing (although everybody believes it). And, as Austin pointed out, you cannot be a robin and a sparrow, but you can speak French and English.

    The second reason we should supposedly care is that languages express identity. Well, that's all very well, but you do not need language to express identity. There are several hundred million native English speakers, and they do not all have the same identity in any sense of the word.

    The third reason we should supposedly care is that languages are repositories of history and culture. But that again is neither here nor there. Most culture just disappears (how many 20th century authors are even remembered, and that is relatively recent).

    The fourth reason we should supposedly care is that language contributes to the "sum of human knowledge". Well this is more of an argument to document languages than to insist they survive.

    The final reason we should supposedly care, and of course stated as a joke, is that languages are interesting to linguists.

    Austin ended with a bit of a sales pitch, to show what work he has been involved with and to mention that in some places languages are recovering (e.g. Welsh, Maori, Hawaiian). He seemed reasonably optimistic. But just tonight on the news was a story that Rotterdam city council is thinking about introducing a regulation that people have to speak Dutch in public. Apparently some Dutch people feel threatened that some people -- read Asians -- are not speaking Dutch, which is pathetic. (Presumably they will not lock white people up, such as most tourists, just non-whites.) This is the kind of "colonialist" policy which Austin spoke out against.

    Chris Huhne launches Lib Dem leadership bid (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Liberal Democrat leadership hopeful Chris Huhne has said that rather than being a "bridge to the future" he could deliver results for the party now.

    The former MEP, who only entered parliament last year, insisted he had the ideas to "set the pace".

    Launching his manifesto, Mr Huhne said he would fight for civil liberties and attack Labour's "surveillance state".
    ...
    Mr Huhne, a former journalist and the party's economics spokesman, launched his leadership manifesto at Green Works, a London workshop where unemployed and disabled people refurbish unwanted office furniture for community groups.

    The launch was put back two-and-a-half hours due to foggy flying conditions, which delayed Mr Huhne's arrival in London.

    Explaining why he had flown rather than travelled by more environmentally-friendly train, he said would be making sure his campaign was carbon neutral.

    Like all campaigns, it's full of hot air, so it's hard to know for sure (given his little exposure) what he really stands for. But he has, if nothing else, pushed his "green" credentials and pretty much promised to hammer car drivers (funny, they pay a carbon tax and nobody else does, but never let logic get in the way of fashionable sound bites). So his pathetic excuse for flying is all rather amusing. Evidently he believes there should be one rule for the ruling elite and another for everybody else. Needless to say, his campaign will not be carbon neutral, that whole idea is just a fiction put about by rich people so they can continue to consume vast resources while pretending to be "green".

    Date published: 2006/02/02

    More revelations about Iraq war (permanent blog link)

    Channel 4 News had an interesting report tonight:

    Channel 4 News tonight reveals extraordinary details of George Bush and Tony Blair's pre-war meeting in January 2003 at which they discussed plans to begin military action on March 10th 2003, irrespective of whether the United Nations had passed a new resolution authorising the use of force.

    Channel 4 News has seen minutes from that meeting, which took place in the White House on 31 January 2003. The two leaders discussed the possibility of securing further UN support, but President Bush made it clear that he had already decided to go to war. The details are contained in a new version of the book 'Lawless World' written by a leading British human rights lawyer, Philippe Sands QC.

    President Bush said that:

    "The US would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would 'twist arms' and 'even threaten'. But he had to say that if ultimately we failed, military action would follow anyway.''

    Prime Minister Blair responded that he was: "solidly with the President and ready to do whatever it took to disarm Saddam."

    But Mr Blair said that: "a second Security Council resolution would provide an insurance policy against the unexpected, and international cover, including with the Arabs."

    Mr Sands' book says that the meeting focused on the need to identify evidence that Saddam had committed a material breach of his obligations under the existing UN Resolution 1441. There was concern that insufficient evidence had been unearthed by the UN inspection team, led by Dr Hans Blix. Other options were considered.

    President Bush said: "The US was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."

    He went on: "It was also possible that a defector could be brought out who would give a public presentation about Saddam's WMD, and there was also a small possibility that Saddam would be assassinated."

    Well none of these specific details have been authenticated, but the story is not that surprising, everybody now knows that the war was undertaken for political, not military, reasons, and that Bush used any feeble pretext he could make up to try and justify it.

    Trevor Phillips wants "black power" in schools (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Proposals for trust schools could deliver "black power", the head of the Commission for Racial Equality said.

    Trevor Phillips told the Guardian the plans would help those children "most betrayed by the school system" and prevent schools becoming "ghettoised".
    ...
    Mr Phillips said the trust school could be a starting point to address under-achievement among black pupils and increase black community involvement in the school system, which was currently "marginalised, with the odd parent governor here, a rare head teacher there".

    "Ironically, the real potential of this White Paper could be to deliver true black power," he said.

    The CRE chairman added: "Imagine that we could harness black parents' expertise and commitment more directly into the school system".

    Well, not only is it not obvious that trust schools will do any such thing, imagine the furore if Phillips had said "the real potential of this White Paper could be to deliver true white power". Why is the head of the CRE making such comments?

    Date published: 2006/02/01

    Gardens should not be classed as "brownfield" (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Gardens must receive better protection from developers if they are to remain the "precious green lungs" of towns and cities, an MP has warned.

    Tory Greg Clark said the government had to close a loophole which classed private gardens as "brownfield" sites, making them easier to build on.

    A "domino effect" of selling to developers was ruining whole areas.

    Mr Clark's Protection of Private Gardens Bill is unlikely to become law without government support.

    The Tunbridge Wells MP said the government had announced that a record 72% of home building was on previously developed land known as brownfield sites.

    But ministers had conceded they had no information about how much of that was actually on gardens.

    Mr Clark said: "My bill is simple in its intent - very simple. It's to remove front and back gardens from the government's definition of brownfield sites of previously developed land."

    He added: "If brownfield sites mean anything, it's about improving the condition of our towns and villages.

    "It's about contributing to environmental progress, not changing and destroying the characters of these areas forever."

    Gardens were "havens for wildlife, for insect life and bird life", cooled the air and helped fight pollution, Mr Clark said.

    The local authority had little power to prevent development, while there was a "domino effect", as neighbours sold their properties to developers to prevent themselves being hemmed in by apartment blocks, he added.

    Well this chap is obviously going nowhere in British politics, he seems far too sensible. In Cambridge you see garden after garden being built upon. But this is what most of the urban planning elite want: the people stuffed into urban rabbit pens with no green space except for state-controlled parks (which in Cambridge mostly just contain grass, so are hardly "green" in any meaningful sense). And it is not just private gardens that are ridiculously counted as "brownfield". Cambridge Airport is "brownfield" although it is as "green" as any Cambridge park (i.e. it is mostly grass). And Northstowe, the proposed huge new development between Longstanton and Oakington, is going to be placed on a disused air field. That of course is classified as "brownfield" although much of it is far more "green" (by almost any definition) than the thousands of acres of industrial agricultural land that surround it. (Parts of the site have been left to grow semi-wild and part of it seems to be temporarily used for agriculture.) This is what happens when the people who run the country are more interested in political showmanship than in substance, urged along in this case by people who push the "brownfield" agenda as allegedly environmentally friendly.

    Lords defeat government on small part of Terrorism Bill (permanent blog link)

    The BBC says:

    Plans for new anti-terrorism controls on websites have led to a government defeat in the Lords - by just one vote.

    The original plans would have allowed a police constable to decide that information on the internet could be related to terrorism.

    But peers changed the anti-terror laws to ensure police have to ask judges before telling internet providers that web pages should be removed.

    The government was defeated by 148 votes to 147 in the vote.

    Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland was away for the vote because of what officials called a "family emergency".

    The defeat came as peers continue to debate the third and final stage of the controversial Terrorism Bill.

    Hmmm, is this real? It reads like an April Fool's joke. That close a vote will no doubt be overturned, but why would anybody (who is not for a Police State) think that the police should have some right to tell ISPs to remove web pages.

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