Azara Blog: March 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/03/26

David Cameron is allegedly concerned about high property prices (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron has demanded urgent action to tackle what he calls the growing gap between rich and poor due to high property prices.

He warned of "a growing inequality at the heart of British life" because the property ladder was beyond young people from less well-off families.

He called for more housebuilding to provide an adequate provision.
He said millions of new houses would be needed over the coming decades because a shortage of new homes had contributed to an "affordability problem" for first-time buyers.

But the ones from wealthy families could rely on loans or gifts from their parents, a state of affairs which "only entrenches unfairness".

Mr Cameron mocked opponents of new developments as people who want to Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone or "Bananas".

Housing minister Yvette Cooper said his claims had no credibility because his party had opposed the government's plans for more house-building nationally.

"His party remains committed to cuts in the housing budget and his frontbench spokesmen are continuing to oppose new homes in their own constituencies," she said.

Yes, Cameron has a credibility problem on this front. Certainly Tory MPs near Cambridge seem to be classic NIMBYs and against most house building anywhere near their constituencies. Unfortunately in the UK, house building is dominated by large developers, and these people are not happy with putting the odd house here and there, instead they dump hundreds or thousands smack in the middle of an empty field and expect the locals to just put up with it. Even the small developers are not great. In Cambridge, Meadowcroft Hotel on Trumpington Road is due for demolition (real soon now) to be replaced with 19 (!) houses. (Why 19? Because if you hit 20 you suddenly have a whole different set of rules, including having to include some so-called affordable housing in your development.) So you can see why the neighbours might be upset and why people become NIMBYs. Growth should be organic, but the Green Belt restrictions mean that it never is. Land on one side of the magic boundary is worth over a million pounds an acre, and land on the other side is worth a few thousand pounds an acre. The only people ever allowed to build in the Green Belt are millionaires and big developers. It's akin to winning the lottery. Until Middle England faces up to the Green Belt issue, demand will continue to trump supply in the housing market.

(And it is not just first-time buyers who suffer. Everyone does, except for the few people at the top. Most people are stuck in sub-standard housing unable to afford to move to a better house. The first political party that recognises this gets a gold medal.)

Vegetarian couple allegedly unfit to be foster parents (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A couple who were told they could not become foster parents because they are vegetarians have persuaded their county council to think again.

Dolly and Paul Saunders from West Sussex were first told they could not be considered because they would not give a child meat to eat at home.

But the county council has now said its guidelines are being revised and the Saunders' application reconsidered.

Mrs Saunders said she did not understand what the fuss was about.

She said: "If we were to have a child living with us and to be cooking veggie food for ourselves and then presenting them with a different plate of food, that's going to make them feel uncomfortable straight away.

"By allowing them to eat meat at school and when they go to friends and if we went out to a restaurant, we don't mind paying for them to have meat.

"I really didn't understand that it was as big an issue as they were making it."

The couple, both 43, hoped fostering would provide company for their 10-year-old son Jake.

They filled in a one-page application form and said they did not eat meat, although they would be happy for the child to eat it outside the home.

A spokesman for the council initially said the problem lay not in the couple's vegetarianism but in their refusal to serve meat at home.

A later statement said its guidelines were being revised and the Saunders' application could be reconsidered.

This rather reads like an April Fool's joke, printed a few days early by mistake. Unfortunately it's probably a real story: the control freaks run Britain, and they have too much power and too little comon sense.

Date published: 2006/03/25

More recycling propaganda from Cambridge City Council (permanent blog link)

The latest edition of "Cambridge Matters" has arrived through the door. As usual, it is more worthy of being composted than being read, and you have to wonder how much energy is wasted producing and distributing it.

At least in this edition we learn that broken glass should not be left in the kerbside black boxes (page 10), but apparently broken glass can be left in bottle banks (page 14). And Pyrex and Visionware cannot be recycled with ordinary glass (page 13 and again page 14). Unfortunately useful information like that is buried in the midst of pages and pages of propaganda.

In the article on glass recycling (page 12) it states: "every tonne of glass recycled saves 1.2 tonnes of raw materials and the equivalent of 30 gallons of oil in energy". Well, they do not state it, but presumably that is ignoring the cost (and so consumption in energy) of gathering and sorting the glass. If recycling glass (or anything else) really was so energy efficient, companies would pay to go around collecting it.

In the "welcome letter" (page 3) it says: "UK recycling has had some bad press recently, with rumours of it being landfilled by unscrupulous companies. In this edition we examine what happens to your recycling after you put it out for collection". Well, except they don't really. In particular, they fail to mention that all the plastic they are picking up at great expense is getting shipped off to China. (And who knows what happens to it there.)

Cambridgeshire is also getting a new waste treatment facility (page 17). Needless to say, the bureaucrats will dump this on some unsuspecting and powerless rural community and expect them to live with the consequences, without any compensation.

A new jet engine and a new rocket (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new jet engine designed to fly at seven times the speed of sound appears to have been successfully tested.

The scramjet engine, the Hyshot III, was launched at Woomera, 500km north of Adelaide in Australia, on the back of a two stage Terrier-Orion rocket.

Once 314km up, the Hyshot III fell back to Earth, reaching speeds analysts hope will have topped Mach 7.6 (9,000km/h).

It is hoped the British-designed Hyshot III will pave the way for ultra fast, intercontinental air travel.

An international team of researchers is presently analysing data from the experiment, to see if it met its objectives.

The scientists had just six seconds to monitor its performance before the £1m engine crashed into the ground.

Rachel Owen, a researcher from UK defence firm QinetiQ, which designed the scramjet, said it looked like everything had gone according to plan.

The BBC also says:

The new Falcon 1 rocket has been lost on its maiden flight.

The US vehicle, developed by the Space Exploration Technologies Corp, was destroyed soon after take-off from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The vision of Elon Musk, co-founder of the electronic payment system PayPal, the Falcon was designed to cut the cost of current satellite launches.

An onboard camera appeared to show the rocket rolling out of control shortly before the video signal was lost.

SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp) spokeswoman Gwynn Shotwell told reporters on a conference call that there was about a minute of powered flight.

"We do know that the vehicle did not succeed after that," she said. "Clearly this is a setback but we're in this for the long haul."

So some (possibly) good news and some bad news on the technology front. Having rocket launching capability independent of government would be a particularly welcome development. (Well, no doubt the US government will exert undue pressure on any rocket launching company since it believes it has the right to control space.)

Date published: 2006/03/24

Plastic bags are not as bad as the chattering classes claim (permanent blog link)

Jane Bickerstaffe in a personal viewpoint on the BBC says:

The humble and much maligned thin plastic carrier bag is at least as much a household hero as the pantomime villain it is often (mis)cast to be.

A recent UK government-funded initiative to look at ways to reduce use of thin bags found that people don't want more re-usable "Bags for Life" - they already have plenty in their homes - they just forget to take them to the shops!

Surely, though, it's not that difficult if we are planning a shopping trip to remember to take our own bags.

We manage when we are on holiday in Italy or Spain, where the practice is more commonplace.

It might be different on ad-hoc trips, but still it is not necessary to always accept a new bag. One national UK pharmacy chain has trained its staff to ask customers whether they really need a bag.

All packaging (including carrier bags) has a tiny environmental impact compared with the impact of heating our homes and using private transport, let alone flying.

Putting a tax on carrier bags does nothing to help the environment. It simply adds costs and penalises those who can least afford to pay - the elderly and those without cars.

Another argument commonly directed against plastic bags is that they do not quickly degrade in landfill. These bags represent just 0.3% of household waste sent to landfill and the fact that they are relatively inert and stable is an advantage.

Biodegradable waste, on the other hand, such as potato peelings, some degradable plastics, junk mail and newspapers, does break down in landfill and releases greenhouse gases. This is why a European Landfill Directive has set targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable material landfilled.

However, a number of governments around the world are considering introducing, or have introduced, taxes or bans on plastic carrier bags. The reasons vary according to the country.

The Irish Government, for example, claimed that the sole purpose of taxing plastic bags was to solve a litter problem.

Yet two years after the introduction of the tax, plastic carrier bags still constituted 0.25% of litter according to the Irish Litter Monitoring Body.

In the UK, with no such tax, they were only 0.06% of litter, according to a survey commissioned by Incpen and carried out by Encams, the charity which runs the Keep Britain Tidy campaign.
According to the UK government's environment department, over 80% of plastic bags are re-used by British households.

Once a bag has completed its task of transporting purchases from shop to home, it becomes a bin liner, a disposable nappy bag, or something to carry muddy football boots in.

In practice, the tax in Ireland has actually had a negative effect on the environment.

Deprived of thin bags, people have had to buy tailor-made bags. Tesco reports selling 80% more pedal bin liners and SuperQuinn supermarket 84% more disposable nappy bags; these are thicker and use more resources.

Marks & Spencer reports using three times as many lorries to transport alternative bags to their Irish stores with a resulting rise in exhaust emissions and traffic nuisance.

If only the BBC had more articles with some common sense, instead of the usual diet of the usual trite propaganda of the usual suspects. The one negative is that the author, Jane Bickerstaffe, is a director of Incpen, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, so the article immediately becomes suspect. (What has been left out?)

The so-called environmentalists demonise most of modern life, and the plastic bag is just another one of their pet hates that they constantly get hysterical about (indeed the Green Party manifesto in the 2005 election laughably singled out plastic bags for mention). But, as the article points out, most people re-use their plastic bags, and if you lack simple plastic bags (as handed out by most shops in England) then you instead have to buy special-purpose bags for your rubbish, and that is much worse. Unfortunately this is the kind of simple and obvious thing that completely escapes people who put hatred of consumerism above common sense.

Emmaus, that wonderful charity for the homeless, has a shop in Landbeach, not far from Cambridge. A year or two ago they switched from plastic to paper bags, for environmental reasons (they believe the propaganda put out by the so-called environmentalists). But those paper bags are completely useless. They tear at the first excuse and are hardly ever re-used. They are almost certainly worse for the environment. They cost much more, which already indicates there is a huge upfront cost in energy, even ignoring the re-use issue (which cannot be ignored).

Of course many people probably have a stash of plastic bags a mile high in their homes, so we receive far more than we can use. And plastic bags in the open can cause problems for animals (although, for example, some birds are happy to use plastic in their nests). But compared to all the other problems of the world, the simple plastic bag does not really rate as an important issue, except to people who have nothing else to do with their lives than worry about what other people do.

Another study which indicates sea levels will rise a lot (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Earth could be headed for catastrophic sea level rise in the next few centuries if greenhouse gases continue to rise at present rates, experts say.

A study in the US journal Science suggests a threshold triggering a rise in sea level of several metres could be reached before the end of the century.

Scientists used an ancient period of warming to predict future changes.

Greenland could be as warm by 2100 as it was 130,000 years ago, when melting ice raised sea levels by 3-4m.

The implication is that Greenland would - eventually - melt by as much in response to present warming.

The findings come from two studies published in Science by Dr Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona in Tucson and colleagues.

Their computer models show that, in addition to widespread melting of the Greenland ice sheet, this rate of warming could also lead to the collapse of about half the West Antarctic ice sheet in 500 years.
Geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, who is not an author on the new paper, told Science: "Palaeoclimate always has a large amount of uncertainty, [but] we should take this as a serious warning sign. You could lock in a dangerous warming during this century."

Another end-of-the-world report. Are these scientists so convinced by their findings that they are personally changing their lifestyle decisions (such as moving to higher ground, and not flying to scientific conferences at every opportunity)? When that starts happening, you can believe that disaster is indeed around the corner. Of course this is assuming "business as usual". But that is unlikely to be the case, not so much because anybody believes the doom scenarios enough to change their lifestyle, but because energy is going to get more expensive via the usual marketplace mechanism of supply and demand.

Date published: 2006/03/23

The latest annual bird survey from the RSPB (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of birds visiting British gardens is on the decline, according to a survey involving 470,000 people.

Although the house sparrow continued to be the most common garden bird, its numbers have dropped from an average of 10 per garden in 1979 to 4.4 in 2006.

The starling, once the most common, is down to a quarter of those in 1979.

Some 86,000 children were among those who watched gardens and parks in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds's January Big Garden Birdwatch.

The numbers involved broke the previous record set in 2004 of 419,000 participants.

The house sparrow was the most common bird seen over the two days - although the blackbird, recorded in 94% of all 270,000 gardens involved, was the most widespread - and 8.1m birds of 80 species were seen.

The same report comes out every year. Unfortunately this study is completely unscientific, since it is uncontrolled. Further, since so many more people take part, compared with 1979, comparisons between then and now are even more meaningless. Back then the people taking part were probably much better at bird watching, and they probably also had bigger gardens (hence more birds). (The survey counts the number of birds per garden, not per acre.) There is nothing on the RSPB website to suggest that they have put any thought into this issue at all. But of course they have a story to spin, and their story is always that the world is ending for birds. It's a pity the BBC just runs what amounts to a press release from the RSPB every year without bothering to critique it in any way. But that is par for the course for the BBC, which almost always gives a free pass to anybody who claims to be an environmentalist.

Government drops one mental health bill and proposes a new one (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to extend powers of compulsory detention to English mental health patients deemed a risk to themselves or others have been unveiled by ministers.

The proposals also include measures to force patients to comply with community treatment orders or face detention.

Anyone detained under the laws, or who has a problem with their treatment order, will have a right of appeal.

The plans come in an amendment to mental health laws after ministers had to abandon plans for a new bill.

The controversial draft Mental Health Bill was dropped after eight years of planning because of criticism from mental health charities and civil rights groups.

It was also thought unlikely ministers would be able to get the plans, which included allowing the detention of patients for 28 days without appeal, through Parliament.

Launching the revised plans on Thursday, health Minister Rosie Winterton said: "The introduction of supervised treatment in the community will make a very real difference to patients and carers and will make sure that what has been the revolving door syndrome is dealt with."

If the new proposals do become law, someone who had been detained or sectioned under the Mental Health Act, who medics believed was at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, could be forced to comply with supervised community treatment orders.

If they refused they would be taken to a clinical setting and given the treatment against their will.

The other change involves widening the definition of who is treatable.

Currently, anyone deemed a risk to themselves or others cannot be detained in hospital for treatment unless they pass a "treatability test" - ie their condition has to be one that can be treated.

This was the problem the authorities faced in the case of dangerous psychopath Michael Stone, who was convicted for the brutal murders of Lin and Megan Russell.

Under the new plans, anyone for whom an "appropriate treatment" is available could be held for treatment purposes if their doctors feel they pose a risk to themselves or others.

Mental health tsar Professor Louis Appleby said that treatments which could lessen the symptoms of the personality disorders, such as behavioural or cognitive therapies, were available even though they may take a long time to work.

This would hold true for someone who was at risk of suicide as much as someone who was deemed a risk to others.

But many other mental health experts disagree and believe personality disorders are simply untreatable.

Chairman of the Mental Health Alliance Paul Farmer warned: "The decision to abolish the treatability test risks increasing compulsory powers unnecessarily for people who will have no therapeutic benefit from being deprived of their liberty."

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane, said she was disappointed the changes do not include more positive rights for patients.

Dr Tony Zigmond, honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: "An important principle must be that we only deprive people of their liberty when we can offer treatment that will be of benefit to them."

The proposed amendments will retain the rules on detention which exist now.

Patients detained for the first time would be able to appeal after 14 days.

Those who are detained on subsequent occasions automatically have a hearing in front of a mental health tribunal after six months of being held.

Ministers have pledged to bring this length of time down but not to the 28-day limit originally proposed in the Mental Health Bill.

Those on supervised community treatment orders would still be appeal against their treatment once every six months, even from the community.

The new Bill, which ministers hope will be introduced into Parliament this session, would amend the Mental Health Act 1983 and the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

It applies to England but is likely to be rolled out to Wales if it becomes law.

Well, there are of course complicated issues at stake here. But given the history of New Labour, this just seems like another example of increasing the dictatorial powers of the state at the expense of the individual. They used to lock up dissidents in the Soviet Union on the excuse that they were mentally ill. (Obviously anyone who opposes the wonderful government must be.) The medical profession in the UK (certainly those involved in any way with the government) should not be assumed to be acting impartially or reasonably or with infinite wisdom. It will just be a matter of time before someone who is dying of cancer (say) and refuses treatment is forcibly detained and treated (tortured) using these powers. Or a hundred and one similar other abuses.

British suburbs allegedly need to be nurtured (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British suburbs are being neglected and need to be nurtured, according Demos, a think tank which will later unveil suggestions to improve such areas.

Recommendations will include the creation of more communal spaces and the setting up of car-washing circles.

Demos said there was a need to combat "negative" stereotypes and protect the "unique qualities of suburbia".
Up to 86% of the UK population live in the suburbs, Demos said.

"Suburbia is the forgotten heart of Britain," said Ms Mean, who heads the think tank's Self-Build Cities programme.

"While politicians have focused on tackling the problems of inner cities and the countryside, the suburbs have been neglected by policy makers.

"At the same time, cultural stereotypes of the suburbs are overwhelmingly negative."

She went on: "We need to find ways to preserve the core values of suburbia, such as a strong community spirit, while opening up the suburbs to new ideas and new people."

Another pointless study from another pointless consultancy. If this is the best these people can do then they should be done with it and get a real job. The fact that they are willing to claim the overwhelming majority of the country lives in suburbs already tells you that they are taking a very broad definition of suburbs. So broad that the difference between much of that suburb and urban and rural areas becomes completely blurred. Cambridge is a perfectly good example of this. In the central core it is urban (by some definition). But a mile or so from the core you are already in suburbia and another mile or two out you are in rural areas. Are Demos really claiming that the various residents of these three parts of Cambridge are somehow different? Of course, making any statement about any group as large as this is going to be hopelessly simplistic. But that is what consultancies specialise in, simplistic generalisations dressed up as meaningful commentary. On a minor point, "car-washing circles" has to be one of the most idiotic recent suggestions made in the UK, considering we are in the midst of a water shortage. And being "neglected by policy makers" is a positive, not a negative, thing. The worst thing about Cambridge is that the control freaks spend all their time and effort control freaking over the central area. Although this has made Cambridge no better, it at least means these people have not had time to ruin the areas further out (although they have started doing that as well, since they have to justify their existence). You can bet your last pound that by "nurtured", Demos mean that they and the rest of the hopeless chattering classes who run Britain should control freak more over the suburbs. The suburbs do not need the urban elite running amok with their politically correct ideology.

Date published: 2006/03/22

Gordon Brown gives another empty budget speech (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A large increase in funding for schools was the centre-piece of Chancellor Gordon Brown's 10th Budget.

Mr Brown said his long-term aim was for state school pupils to get the same quality of education as private pupils.

Other measures saw road tax on "gas guzzling" cars but no repeat of last year's pensioners council tax rebate.

Tory David Cameron said Mr Brown taxed and borrowed too much and was "the past". Lib Dem Sir Menzies Campbell said it was a missed opportunity.

Mr Cameron said Mr Brown was an "old fashioned tax and spend chancellor" who had given the UK the "biggest tax burden in history".

Unfortunately the annual budget speech has become more and more of a pantomime, in keeping with the New Labour Style of putting spin above substance. So Gordon Brown gives loads of silly soundbites, and the opposition has to do the same in return because it is only long after the speech is finished that anyone actually finds out what the budget really contains. Brown will probably be remembered most for sinking the country under a large debt to be paid off by future generations, in particular through his crackpot adherence to PFI. He also has not at all addressed the issue of pensions in any sensible way. All in all the country ought to be much better off when we get rid of this dreadful government. Only whoever replaces these clowns will almost certainly be worse.

4x4s are allegedly the biggest evil in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

You need a thick skin to drive a 4x4 these days, with environmentalists, safety campaigners and even Tory MPs on your case. But are they as bad as their critics claim?

Off-roaders, 4x4s, SUVs, Chelsea Tractors - call them what you will, these broad, bulky and towering vehicles are more popular than ever.

Last year, some 187,000 were sold - compared to 80,000 a decade before - accounting for almost 8%, or one in 15 of all cars sold.
Off-roaders used to be reserved for the countryside, but it's the growth in urban 4x4s that has irked many people. Britain's cities are crowded and traffic-clogged enough without these "urban tanks", the argument goes.

"When you see someone trying to manoeuvre it round the school gates you have to think, you are a complete idiot," says London mayor Ken Livingstone. Even arch petrol head Jeremy Clarkson has voiced his concern for the sanity of anyone who drives a 4x4 in a city.
All car makers must, by law, state carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions for each model sold in the UK, based on grams emitted per kilometre and this determines the amount of road tax paid annually. Greenpeace points the finger at "gas guzzlers" rather than 4x4s per se, making the point that there are plenty of high-polluting cars that are not four-wheel drive.
The environmental pressure group wants a new, £1,800 punitive tax band, to be paid annually, for all cars which exceed 250g/Km - "roughly 25mpg," says Greenpeace's Mark Strutt.

Britain's efforts to cut back on CO2 emissions have faltered of late, particularly in transport, and this, in part, is because of the trend for 4x4s, says Mr Strutt.

Supporters of 4x4s say they already pay more tax, because they use more fuel. And they note that diesels - which rate notably better on C02 emissions than petrol - outsell petrol models by about 2:1. But diesel engines tend to be bigger than their petrol counterparts, says Mr Strutt, and besides, they emit more polluting particulates and hydrocarbons. Particulate traps help, but "ultra-fine particles still slip through", says Mr Strutt.
The safety argument against 4x4s has long hinged on divers' "I'm alright Jack" attitude. In other words, while those inside are safer than ever, anyone else is likely to come off much worse in a collision.

According to the safety standards judged by Euro NCAP - a respected independent body that crash tests cars on sale in Europe - that's still true, but getting less so as car makers up their game.

"The law of physics says that when a heavy car, be it a 4x4 or anything else, hits a lighter one the big car will come off better," says Chris Patience, head of technical policy at the AA.

Well this article is not that balanced but it is more balanced than the usual fare you get from the BBC on transport. They do fail to point out that how much you pay in road fund tax has nothing (yes, nothing) to do in any way with how much petrol your car consumes. You pay the same whether you drive your car for 100 or for 100000 miles per year. The tax is now being used as just one of those typically vindictive taxes for politically incorrect forms of consumption (politically incorrect to the dreadful middle class non-workers that run Britain). There is of course a tax which does relate to how much petrol your car consumes, and that is called the petrol tax. The BBC at least managed to grudgingly point that out in the article. Indeed, because of the petrol tax, car drivers are the only people in Britain who pay a sufficient carbon tax. Nobody else does. In particular, train commuters do not. But of course the usual middle class so-called environmentalists never call for train commuters to pay a proper carbon tax. Somehow it is ok to take a train from Bristol to London and back each day and expect the rest of the country to subsidise your journey (not only operationally but environmentally). The BBC snidely refers to the alleged "I'm alright Jack" attitude of owners of 4x4s. But the real "I'm alright Jack" attitude is displayed loud and clear again and again by the so-called environmentalists. They hate cars so they endlessly promote the idea that car drivers should be persecuted.

Eta declares a "permanent" ceasefire (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Basque separatist group Eta has declared a permanent ceasefire.

Eta is blamed for killing more than 800 people in its four-decade fight for independence for the Basque region of northern Spain and south-west France.

In a statement released to Basque media, the group said its objective now was "to start a new democratic process in the Basque country".

Spanish PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said the government was cautious but hopeful about the announcement.

Better news than most these days, but time will tell whether Eta is serious.

Date published: 2006/03/21

Blair digs a bigger hole for himself over Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has defended Britain's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, by arguing that only an interventionist stance can confront terrorism head-on.

What happened in those countries was crucial for UK security. "This is not a clash between civilisations, but a clash about civilisation," he said.

He attacked those against his vision of an "activist" foreign policy, saying this was a battle about "modernity".
Mr Blair insisted that controversial military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were not distant entanglements but essential to Britain's future security.

"We must reject the thought that somehow we are the authors of our own distress, that if only we altered this decision or that, this extremism would fade away," he said.

"In my judgement, the only way to win is to recognise this phenomenon is indeed a global ideology, to see all areas in which it operates as linked and to defeat it by values and ideas set in opposition to those of the terrorists."

Blair is becoming more and more pathetic in his post-hoc justification for his illegal war in Iraq. Needless to say, there were no terrorists in Iraq before he launched this crazy war with his buddy Bush, now they are endemic. And instead of having a weak state run by a lunatic dictator, we now have a failed state descending into anarchy. If this is the best that Blair can do he should resign now, we do not need him and his crackpot "activist" war mongering any more.

UN wants water to be more expensive to use (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Farming poses the biggest threat to fresh water supplies, according to a major United Nations report.

Agriculture is consuming more water as the world population increases and as people turn to a Western diet, one of the scientists on the report said.

Farms use two-thirds of fresh water taken from aquifers and other sources.

The UN concludes that ending subsidies on pesticides and fertilisers, and realistic pricing on water, would reduce demand and pollution.

A lack of adequate protective measures now will lead to greater problems in the future, warns the report, entitled Challenges to International Waters: Regional Assessments in a Global Perspective.

Co-ordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), it brings together evidence from about 1,500 researchers throughout the world.
"There are many important messages emerging from this pioneering study," said Unep's executive director Klaus Toepfer.

"One that rings loud and clear is the economic one - that our collective failure to value the goods and services provided by international waters, and to narrowly price the benefits in terms of the few rather than the many, is impoverishing us all."

The dilemma facing developing countries is made clear by the contradiction between this report and another released earlier in the World Water Forum by a different UN agency, the African Development Bank (ADB).

The ADB urges greater exploitation of water resources - more irrigation for farms, more dams for hydropower - in order to promote Africa's economic and social development.

Unep, by contrast, is highlighting the long-term environmental damage which would result if development is unsustainable, and pointing up the economic costs which would eventually ensue.

Of course Unep has a narrow remit, and that is the problem with this kind of report. It's not as if farmers are throwing water away for the joy of wasting it, they are using it to grow food. Perhaps Unep would be happier if instead millions more people starved to death. And similarly the snide remark about "Western diet" is a bit ridiculous given that UN agency employees are amongst the richest, and best fed, on the planet. Perhaps the Unep motto should be "let them eat cake", how dare the peasants expect the same lifestyle as the world elite. And sure we should "value the goods and services provided by international waters" (and a zillion and one other things, just pick your favourite pet topic). Only if we had a dozen economists doing this valuation their prices would no doubt be over a factor of two in range (because it is not even close to being well defined), which is just not good enough.

Date published: 2006/03/20

Yorkshire gets stuck with a car-share lane on busy motorway (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The first car-share lane to be built on a UK motorway has been given the go-ahead by the government.

The one-mile (1.6km) lane will open in 2007 at the junction of the M606 and M62 in West Yorkshire, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling announced.

It will allow cars carrying more than one person priority entry from the M606 southbound onto the eastbound M62.

A second such lane will open in 2008 on the M1 between junction 7, near Hemel Hempstead, and junction 10, in Luton.

That forms part of a planned widening scheme with work, which begun on Monday, expected to take about 32 months to complete.

Work on the lane in West Yorkshire is due to begin early next year.

The £2.5m lane, on the busy route between Bradford and Leeds, will cut rush-hour journeys by eight minutes on average.

Single-occupant vehicles would not suffer from additional delays and should also benefit from improved journey times, the Highways Agency said.

Mr Darling told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that car-share lanes had been used successfully in the US, Australia and Canada.

"I think it's one of a range of measures that we need to introduce because, frankly, in 20 or 30 years time we'll face absolute gridlock unless we're prepared to take sometimes difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions.

"But, to my mind, it's a sensible measure to try and encourage people where they can to share lifts, especially if they're going to work maybe in the same place or same area."

The government would also be looking into road pricing as another possible means of tackling congestion, he added.

Lane rules will be enforced by either cameras or extra police patrols, a Highways Agency spokesman said. Lone drivers found in the car share lane could face fines or penalty points.

Well it's probably worth giving the idea a try. But although Darling has been briefed by his advisors to claim it works wonderfully elsewhere in the world, the real question is whether enough people start sharing lifts to make the idea worthwhile. After all, this extra lane could instead be built to be used by everyone, and presumably the idea is that by restricting its use to multi-occupancy cars this will make the flow in this lane much less than that in the other lanes, hence it is an under-utilised resource, i.e. not value for money. And sharing lifts is not ideal for most people, who do specific-spacetime-point to specific-spacetime-point journeys, and one or other needs to be blurred to make it worthwhile. Indeed, the immediate beneficiaries of this kind of scheme are rich people (like Alistair Darling) who get driven around by someone, and non-working families (e.g. people on holiday) who now have extra incentive not to avoid the rush hour even though their time is more flexible than most workers. Unfortunately transport consultants have a vested interest in concocting more and more of these schemes, so their ideas are unlikely to be critiqued properly in government.

Biodiversity indicators heading downwards (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Virtually all indicators of the likely future for the diversity of life on Earth are heading in the wrong direction, a major new report says.

The Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO) is published as national delegates gather in Brazil under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Convention commits governments to slow the decline in the richness of living systems by 2010.

The GBO says "unprecedented efforts" will be needed to achieve this aim.

It sets out 15 indicators of progress towards the 2010 target, ranging from trends in the extent of wildlife habitats to the build-up of nutrients such as nitrogen which can harm aquatic life.

Only one of the 15 - the area of the world's surface officially protected for wildlife - is moving in the right direction for biodiversity.

Even here, however, most areas still fall far short of targets to protect 10% of each region with distinctive combinations of species.

The other indicators point to an accelerating decline, which has seen the rates of species extinctions surge to their highest levels since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Forests continue to be lost at a rate of six million hectares a year - that's about four times the size of the English county of Yorkshire - and similar trends are noted for marine and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, kelp beds and mangrove forests.

The abundance and variety of species continue to fall across the planet, according to an index measuring the percentage of species with good prospects for survival; bird variety is on the decline in every ecosystem type from the oceans to the forests.

Less complete indications are available for other groups of animals and plants, but it is feared they would show a similar picture.
The great challenge in meeting the biodiversity target comes in the fact that these pressures are currently projected to remain constant or to accelerate in the near future - so slowing the extinction slide would involve major changes over wide areas of human activity.

Nothing surprising here. And you can just about bet your last dollar that the targets will not be met. There are just too many human beings on the planet, and none volunteering to leave.

Date published: 2006/03/19

UK government wants to dump NHS patients with chronic illnesses (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government hopes to cut hospital deficits in England by reducing the number of emergency admissions for chronic illnesses.

The health secretary is set to announce patients with illnesses like asthma and heart disease could be better cared for by community nurses in their own homes.

The measures are intended to save the NHS up to £1.3bn a year.

But nursing leaders said ministers must first ensure staff levels are adequate, which will require further funding.

"We're very supportive of care moving from the hospital to the community but there's got to be the capacity," said Dr Beverly Malone, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing.

"It's not a cheaper response."

Do you get the feeling that the government is getting ready to just dump chronically ill people "into the community", in the same way that the previous Tory government just dumped mentally ill people "into the community". Or perhaps they are going to charge a large fee for these patients to actually see a nurse, claiming that this is not really medical care.

Google ordered to hand over data to US government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A federal judge has ordered internet search engine Google to turn over some search data, including 50,000 web addresses, to the US government.

However, Judge James Ware denied a request that Google hand over a list of people's search requests.

The Justice Department had wanted access to search records to help prevent access to online pornography.

The judge said privacy considerations led him to deny part of the department's request.

"This concern, combined with the prevalence of internet searches for sexually explicit material, gives this court pause as to whether the search queries themselves may constitute potentially sensitive information," he said in his ruling.

Google lawyer Nicole Wong said it was reassuring that the judge's decision had "sent a clear message about privacy".

"What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from internet companies," she said.

The ruling said the request for 50,000 web addresses, or URLs, was relevant for use in a statistical study the government is undertaking to defend the constitutionality of its child anti-pornography law.

Earlier, the government had reduced its request to just 50,000 web addresses and roughly 5,000 search terms from the millions or potentially billions of addresses it had initially sought.

"The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be reasonable," Judge Ware wrote, "but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with which users use Google."

The case has focused attention on the issue of personal information held by internet companies.

The US Government is seeking to defend the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which has been blocked by the Supreme Court because of legal challenges over how it is enforced.

It wants the data from the search engines to prove how easy it is to stumble over porn on the net.

It should not be up to Google to do dirty work for the US government. If the US government really wants to do a statistical analysis they should just look at the traffic of their own employees, which is bound to be perfectly representative (for porn or otherwise). Well, some employees are probably smart enough not to look at porn at work, so the US government could just announce that they are going to allow a free-for-all for a week to gather statistics without prosecuting any employees. (And then someone should leak the results so that we can see what those pretend goody-goody Republican kiddies are up to in the White House.)

Date published: 2006/03/18

Anti-war protestors gather again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of anti-war protesters have turned out for a demonstration in central London calling for UK troops to leave Iraq.

Police put the number attending at 15,000, but organisers said between 80,000 and 100,000 were at the rally.

It marks three years since the start of the conflict and was organised by CND, Stop The War Coalition, and the Muslim Association of Britain.

Protests are also being held in other cities across the world.

They include Baghdad, Basra, New York, Madrid, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto and Dublin.

Unfortunately the illegal war started by Bush and Blair is such a disaster that it is now not clear whether it is better to pull out or to remain. Both options will likely lead to even further disaster.

UK pensions need to be affordable to the government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Any changes to the UK pension system must be affordable to the government, Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton has said.

His comments came as ministers held public meetings across the UK to debate radical reform of the pension system.

More than 1,000 people at events in six cities have been voting on ideas including raising the retirement age.

The government says it will look at the results before publishing its proposals in the next couple of months.

London, Newcastle, Birmingham, Glasgow, Swansea and Belfast hosted the consultations, which coincide with National Pensions Day.

Meanwhile pensioners' groups staged a rally in London to protest over the level of the basic state pension.

The government is working out what sort of new laws it should propose in its forthcoming White Paper on pensions, to be published later this spring.

Mr Hutton told BBC News 24 said people must recognise that any reforms had cost implications.

"I don't mean just affordable this year or next year but over the next fifty years because the one thing you've got to do in these arguments is to build a sustainable future.

"You can't ask people to plan and to save in confidence for their retirement unless they know exactly what they are going to get in terms of the state pension," he said.

Lord Turner, who led the Pensions Commission, said he was confident the public would understand the need to work longer.

"As long as we explain to people what the reasons are for an increase in the state pension age, they will accept it," he told the BBC.

How clever of Hutton to state the obvious. The main hurdle to pension reform now is unfortunately the Labour government in the guise of Gordon Brown, so it's unlikely anything sensible will happen in the next five or ten years. In modern political life everybody expects to get something for nothing, and pensions are no exception. It is obvious that people should have to work longer before they get a pension, otherwise pensioners are going to have to expect less and less annual income as they live longer and longer. The sooner the government states this the better. But unfortunately Gordon Brown also believes in complicated and demeaning means-tested state pensions. And the government is also forcing most of the pension risk onto private citizens, with the inevitable occasional disaster as has been amply demonstrated time and again. Needless to say the one group of people insulated from all this risk are MPs, with gold-plated pensions. (And public sector workers are not far behind.)

Date published: 2006/03/17

Locally produced food does not help the environment that much (permanent blog link)

The BBC says (in a guest column by Gareth Edwards-Jones, Professor of Agriculture and Land Use at the School of Agricultural and Forest Sciences, University of Wales, Bangor):

We are all used to buying goods that originate from abroad, be they toys from China, cars from Germany or clothes from India.

We don't hear too much about the environmental impacts of such imports, but we do hear a lot about food which is produced overseas.

Indeed, the terms "food miles" was coined in order to convey to the general public that an awful lot of food travels an awful long way before it finally reaches our mouths.

But food doesn't have to travel from an exotic location in order for it to clock up food miles. UK-produced food can also travel substantial distances between farm, processors, storage depot and the supermarket.

A lot of people object to this accumulation of food miles, and we seem to have increasing calls for "local food" and "slow food". While those making these calls may seem to have common sense on their side, the science which could be used to underpin their arguments is at best confusing, and at worst absent.

To start with, the advocates of local food don't speak with one voice and there seem to be several different reasons for calling for local food.

For example, social scientists are generally very much in favour of communities increasing the amount of interaction they have with each other, be it buying and selling or simply doing each other favours.

These sorts of interactions are felt to be important in forming and maintaining "sustainable communities". Local food initiatives help form sustainable communities as they encourage local processors and consumers to buy from local farmers, thereby making more social links while simultaneously keeping the money in the local community.

Some other groups, typically those representing farmers, seem to support local food initiatives as they tend to increase demand for their own produce - a kind of ethical "trade barrier".

However, perhaps most people support local food as they relate food miles with environmental damage.

Typically, attention concentrates on the greenhouse gases that are emitted by the vehicles which transport the food, be they trucks or aeroplanes.

So for many environmentally aware consumers, it is the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which drives them to buy local food.

Unfortunately though, simply getting consumers to target food miles when making their purchasing decisions may not necessarily bring about a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, as these are emitted from many more places within food systems than just trucks, planes and automobiles.

For example, the production of fertiliser, pesticides, machinery and packaging all use energy - the generation of which will undoubtedly have contributed some greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

In addition, storing and cooking food also consumes energy.

Indeed, our research suggests that when considering UK grown potatoes, 48% of all energy used during the potato's life cycle is expended in the kitchen (the life cycle encompasses the sowing, growing, harvesting, packaging, storage, transport and consumption of potatoes).

Boiling potatoes is horrendously energy intensive, and this simple act dwarfs the energy consumed during their production and transport.

But less obvious to the average consumer is the fact that soil itself produces greenhouse gases, and different types of soils produce different amounts of gas.

These gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, are emitted by the millions of bacteria which live in the soil.

The gas emissions occur as the bacteria break down carbon-based molecules in the soil, most of which exist as organic matter (or humus).

As yet, we don't know much about how these emissions vary between different types of soils. Nor do we know if the way the crop is managed can alter the levels of gas emitted.

However, the research done to date does show that there can be big differences between different land uses. For example, emissions of carbon dioxide from grasslands are usually quite low, while those from paddy fields are higher.

We also know that there are variations in gas emissions from location to location - across countries and across Europe. But our knowledge is sketchy, and we know almost nothing about these gas emissions in tropical systems.

If only the BBC gave more airtime to sensible people like this rather than the near perpetrual stream of propaganda from the so-called environmentalists, who seem to react more from religious conviction than anything else (in particular, they hate anything to do with globalisation, except when they themselves travel the world, when it is suddenly ok). And although transport in the world generally does not pay for the environmental damage it does, not many economic activities do. And ironically road transport in the UK does pay for its environmental damage (via the petrol tax, which is a whacking great carbon tax), unlike other forms of transport, such as rail and air, which do not.

Animal tests and agonist monoclonal antibody drugs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Animal tests on the kind of drug given to the six men ill in a London hospital may not be the best way of evaluating the effects in people, an expert warns.

The drug they took stimulates a protein only found in humans.

Dr David Glover, an expert in drug testing, said this meant animal tests of medicines of this sort might give falsely reassuring results.

He said it might be better to look at innovative ways of testing small amounts of such drugs on people.

The drug, TGN 1412, which the six men took belongs to a class called monoclonal antibodies.

It is hoped they could combat a wide range diseases, including cancer.

They are created in the lab by fusing or merging a cell that produces antibodies - the foot soldiers of the immune system - with a cancer cell.

People's lives have been saved, and the quality of people's lives has improved dramatically over the last 25 years, thanks to monoclonal antibodies such as Herceptin, hailed as a significant breast cancer drug.

Most monoclonal antibodies prevent something happening in the body - they are "antagonists".

For example, Herceptin works by blocking the action of the Her2 protein, which can fuel the growth of breast cancers.

But TGN 1412 is an "agonist" - which boosts a particular action.

It boosts the activity of human immune system protein called CD28 which is present on the surface of white blood cells.

There have been concerns it might have been inappropriate to test such drugs on healthy volunteers, whose immune systems are already working effectively, as a further boost might push their systems into over-drive.

At this stage, there is no hard evidence to suggest this is what happened in the study that left six men seriously ill.

The problem might equally be due to a fault with the manufacturing process, or simply a unique reaction to the drug in humans that could not have been predicted.
Professor Chris Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council's clinical sciences centre, said that currently, all drugs were tested on at least two species of animals before they can be tested on humans.

"Animals are the best models we have for humans, but we all know they aren't absolutely perfect.

"Very occasionally animals do not pick up potential problems.

"But, of course, there are thousands of potential drugs that were tested on animals, and never got to humans because their potential toxicity effects were recognised."

A sensible article, for once. Nobody ever claimed that animal tests were perfect, the real question is whether they are good enough given how many animals are tortured and killed in the process. And as noted in the article, it is too early to tell what was the real problem with the TGN 1412 test.

Date published: 2006/03/16

Unesco thinks it has the right to rule the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UN experts are meeting to determine the risks which climate change poses to some of the world's special places.

The UN's cultural and scientific wing Unesco says climate change threatens World Heritage Sites such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Tower of London.

The two-day meeting aims to develop plans of action to mitigate the threat.

Environmental groups want such action to include pledges to reduce emissions, but the US says Unesco has no authority to act on climate change.

In a position paper issued in advance of the Paris meeting, the US says Unesco has no brief to consider anthropogenic climate change as a "threat" to protected sites because it is an unproven theory.

Its position appears very different from that of the British government, which is funding the meeting.

Under the World Heritage Convention, which Unesco oversees, member nations - and just about every country is a member - vow to protect World Heritage Sites wherever they are located.

Over the last 18 months, environmental groups have lodged petitions with Unesco charging that four Sites are threatened by human emissions of greenhouse gases.

It is irrelevant whether or not "anthropogenic climate change" is an "unproven theory". The real point is that a bunch of unelected bureaucrats are somehow claiming that they have the right to tell the world what to do. Of course they are claiming this right because they are incapable of winning this right through the ballot box. The idea that the preservation of World Heritage Sites (an ever expanding list, of course) should somehow be driving decisions about the world is ridiculous.

Ken Livingstone thinks he is Prime Minister (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

London mayor Ken Livingstone is set to call on Prime Minister Tony Blair to abandon plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

In a speech at the annual Greenpeace lecture, he is expected to say that decentralised energy is the solution to many of the UK's energy problems.

Previously, a government advisory panel said that creating more nuclear plants would not help to tackle the issue.

The government is currently undertaking a review of Britain's energy needs.

As North Sea supplies dwindle, nuclear power is seen by some as a more secure source of energy than hydrocarbon supplies from unstable regimes.

Proponents say it could generate large quantities of electricity while helping to stabilise carbon dioxide CO2 emissions.

But Mr Livingstone will set the case against nuclear energy, claiming it is dangerous and expensive, BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin said.

He said Mr Livingstone will urge the government to turn to decentralised power generation.

It works by trapping unwanted heat from conventional gas power stations and using it to warm homes, schools and swimming pools.

Conventional gas power stations waste around 40% of energy by creating unwanted heat.

By capturing this heat, decentralised power would save around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is a more expensive form of energy.

Mr Livingstone has signed a contract with an energy firm to make London a world leader in decentralised energy, Mr Harrabin said.

Well the usual suspects of course do not like nuclear power. But at least combined heat and power has some plausibility as an alternative. The fact that "it is a more expensive form of energy" tells you straight away that in fact it is a less efficient form of energy, with the only possible justification being that with an appropriate carbon tax it works out as better when the total sums are done. Needless to say, one wouldn't trust a politician like Livingstone to have done the sums properly. This is really all just part of his attempt to claim power over national policy where he has no mandate.

Date published: 2006/03/15

Blair wins first vote on so-called education reform bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has won the first Commons test of controversial school reform plans for England - but only by relying on support from the Conservatives.

MPs voted by 458 votes to 115 in favour of plans to give schools more control over admissions and budgets.

But 52 Labour backbenchers rebelled and another 25 MPs did not vote.

The revolt will be seen as a blow to Mr Blair's authority but Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said she was delighted to get through the plans.

Tony Blair always was a closet Tory so it is only natural that he is now the leader of the Tory Party rather than of the Labour Party. He, and his slick advisors (including Andrew Adonis) have provided no real justification to the country for this so-called reform of education, they have just spun (as usual). Of course it is possible this is a good idea, but nobody has bothered to tell the country why. It's the usual "trust me, I'm Tony", which has rather worn thin as an excuse these days.

Labour officials allegedly did not know about loans to Labour Party (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Labour's treasurer has revealed that he and other elected officials did not know the party had secretly borrowed millions of pounds last year.

Jack Dromey said he will investigate the issue with the party's general secretary and report next Tuesday.

His comments follow a furore over three men recommended for peerages after lending Labour money. Unlike donations, loans do not have to be declared.

Mr Dromey said Downing Street had not respected the party "sufficiently".

He is calling on the Electoral Commission to investigate the issue of political parties taking out loans from non-commercial sources.

Mr Dromey, who is also deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, says there is not a secret "slush fund".

He does not believe anything illegal has been done and says the loans will show up in Labour's accounts.

But he complained that neither he nor Labour's elected chairman knew about the loans.

He only found out when details of the money emerged in the newspapers and wants to find out who obtained them for the Labour Party.

"It cannot be right that the elected officers were kept in the dark," he told BBC News.

Wow, this is a potentially explosive statement. Blair now has to answer serious allegations of sleaze, to be piled on top of all the other things he is messing up on right now.

Lords rejects mandatory ID cards for passport applicants (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government plans to force all passport applicants to have an ID card have been defeated in the Lords for a third time.

Peers voted by a majority of 35 to overturn the proposal, which was backed by MPs earlier this week.

Opposition peers say the plans break the government's promise that ID cards will initially be voluntary.

But Home Secretary Charles Clarke told the House of Commons on Tuesday passports were "voluntary documents" that no-one was forced to renew.

The Lords insist it should be voluntary for people who apply for new-style biometric passports to have their details entered on a national identity database.

Of course the Lords are correct, not that that will get them (or the country) anywhere. And of course Clarke is being completely disingenuous to pretend that the ID cards are voluntary when he is insisting that people who apply for passports have to register. He might as well claim that income tax is voluntary because nobody forces you to earn any money. And they wonder why people think so little of politicians, when they cannot even be honest about something so simple.

Date published: 2006/03/14

CO2 in the atmosphere increasing more quickly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US climate scientists have recorded a significant rise in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, pushing it to a new record level.

BBC News has learned the latest data shows CO2 levels now stand at 381 parts per million (ppm) - 100ppm above the pre-industrial average.

The research indicates that 2005 saw one of the largest increases on record - a rise of 2.6ppm.

The figures are seen as a benchmark for climate scientists around the globe.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has been analysing samples of air taken from all over the world, including America's Rocky Mountains.

The chief carbon dioxide analyst for Noaa says the latest data confirms a worrying trend that recent years have, on average, recorded double the rate of increase from just 30 years ago.

Well nobody should much be surprised with this finding, similar information was publicised a year ago.

Four UK environment research centres to be closed down (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Controversial plans to close four global warming research centres and cut scores of jobs have won approval.

The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) sites at Dorset, Oxford, Monk's Wood in Cambridgeshire and Banchory, in Aberdeenshire, will shut.

Managers at the Natural Environment Research Council say they will cut 160 jobs instead of the 200 proposed.

Union Prospect said the decision was "tantamount to disarming the UK in the battle against global warming".

Staff at the centre - which offers independent advice on a range of environmental issues, including climate change - will now be based at four sites at Bangor, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Wallingford, Oxfordshire.

Its headquarters will move from Swindon to Wallingford.

A spokesman said the restructuring was essential "if the long-term scientific and financial sustainability of the CEH is to be secured".

Well this certainly looks to be crazy. Of course everyone and anyone who has anything to do with the environment these days claims to be working on "global warming", since that is supposed to make them protected against such cuts. (Just like many biochemists claim to be working on things that will help "cure cancer".) But unless the NERC wants to claim the work at these centres is second-rate, the closures do not seem warranted. The UK should be spending more on science, not less.

Date published: 2006/03/13

Girls and boys allegedly should have differenct science syllabuses (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The sexes are split on science interests, researchers say, leading to calls for gender-specific syllabuses.

A survey of just over 1,200 pupils in England found the hot topic for boys was explosive chemicals while girls were more interested in the human body.

Tailoring lessons to each sex may help reverse the decline in take-up of science in schools, researchers said.

The University of Leeds report is part of a global study, Relevance of Science Education, based at Oslo University.

Report author Professor Edgar Jenkins said that the differences between the sexes could not be ignored.

But he said they were common to most of the developed world, according to research emerging from more than 40 nations taking part in the work.

He said: "We have had a generation or more now of promoting gender equality but the differences exist and I raise the question as to whether we should teach the two sexes separately for some of the time."

More pointless "research" from so-called educationalists. Of course when you are paid to look for differences you will find differences. The question is whether the result is significant. And are they saying that if women want to do science they should be told they should do biology? And "tailoring lessons" implies they want to have two sets of science lessons, one for boys and one for girls. Well, let's bring that idea to its logical conclusion. Let's do a study and find the differences between white and non-white students. Then let's do a study and find the differences between heterosexual and homosexual students. Then let's do a study and find the differences between students with Irish and Japanese backgrounds. Then let's do a study and find the differences between Protestants and Catholics. Soon we will have a single science lesson for each student. If only the countries of the world would stop wasting money on this kind of junk "research" and instead put the money into science, we would all be better off.

Jack Straw patronises Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has appealed to the Iranian people - saying he wants to help them have a freer and more prosperous future.

In a speech in London Mr Straw said the Iranian people "deserved better" than their current government.

International agencies should publish more reports in Farsi on the internet to help reach the Iranians, he said.

The UN Security Council is to discuss Iran's nuclear programme but Mr Straw says military action is inconceivable.

He refused to comment directly when asked by the BBC's Frank Gardner about contingency plans being drawn up by US military chiefs about possible strikes on Iranian targets.

In his speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, he said: "Sadly, Iran is now going in the wrong direction and the chances that were there before Iran are being squandered.

"Since President Ahmadinejad's election last year, he and the small group which surrounds him have adopted policies both at home and abroad which risk real damage to Iran's reputation and its relations with the rest of the world.

"Iran and the Iranian people deserve better."

Well the US and the American people "deserve better" than the rubbish government they have. But funnily enough Straw doesn't have any patronising words for Mr Bush and his merry band of hooligans running America. (Not to mention that New Labour does not exactly provide an inspiring bunch of leaders.) And does anyone seriously believe that the US will not attack Iran? After all, it's election year and the Republicans are doing poorly in the opinion polls. No doubt the UK will help and Straw will then claim he couldn't possibly have forseen the made-up reason the US uses to justify the attack.

Date published: 2006/03/12

Berlin observations (permanent blog link)

Berlin is no London or Paris, but it makes up for in recent history what it lacks in punch. The first thing you notice about Berlin is how spread out and low-rise it is. It really is a collection of villages. (The same is said about London, but more in nostalgia than reality.)

The second thing you notice is that there is a tonne of graffiti. Everywhere. Most of it the same rubbish you see elsewhere (e.g. New York). Now and again a bit cleverer. Some of the best is on a large section of the remainder of the Berlin wall (the "East Side Gallery") on Mühlen Strasse.

The third thing you notice is that there are still quite a few old (i.e. pre-war) buildings left, although some have of course been restored so just look old. There is still quite a bit of construction going on post-reunification, and there are acres and acres of derelict land even close to the centre of the city, just waiting re-development (e.g. next to Mühlen Strasse).

As a result of the building boom, of course there is a lot of new architecture. The Reichstag re-development by Norman Foster is perhaps the best known. There are queues to go up to the top to see the dome. It's not clear why because it's not that great. And it's partly open to the elements, hence very cold on a winter's day. (Berlin has been having lots of cold weather and snow this winter.)

A lot of the architecture is better at night, when it is lit up, for example the area around the Brandenburger Tor and also around Potsdamer Platz.

There are two subway networks, the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn. The subway interconnects do not work particularly well, in the sense that you often need to go via the street on the way from one platform to another. Fortunately this is not a real problem because there are no ticket barriers. You just buy a ticket on any platform and go on your way. (The day card at 5.80 Euros is good value for money.) There are plain-clothes inspectors now and again to keep everyone honest.

Berlin seems to be a fairly relaxed city, in spite of the federal government now being located there. Graffiti does not have the threatening status that it does elsewhere. People drink beer on the subway. There are markets where even in snow people will stop to have a coffee on outside tables. In the snow, parents drag their children along the sidewalks on sleds.

Air Berlin can be recommended (Stansted to Tegel). You get a specified seat, you get a snack (a reasonable sandwich) and you get free newspapers. So definitely a step up on service from Ryanair.

Date published: 2006/03/08

Climate change, the end of oil and the necessity of sustainable development (permanent blog link)

The fifth lecture of the university's Fourth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2006) was given today by Michael Meacher, a Labour MP who is best known in the UK for having been Environment Minister from 1997-2003. Well anyone who puts the tired word "sustainable" in their title is probably up to no good. But in fact Meacher gave a reasonable lecture (with hardly a single mention of that word). He's obviously reasonbly clued up and reasonably well intended.

But his talk was one of fire and brimstone. At the end he admitted to being a pessimist, but claimed he was an optimistic pessimist since he said he was not cynical.

He went for many of the easy lines. In particular he criticised the current US government several times (and they are certainly an easy target) and also attacked car drivers and airline passengers. So par for the course for these kinds of talks.

His basic point was that we are all doomed, or at least all doomed unless the world changes today. Well, the world is not going to change today. So we can only conclude we are all doomed. He went through the usual litany of disasters: global industrialisation leading to the "rapacious exploitation" of the earth's resources (of course people have been saying this for 50 years); the "explosive" increase in population (and congratulations to Meacher for at least mentioning this, since most people prefer not to); and climate change (brought about by the first two).

We produce too much carbon. Biodiversity is going down the plughole. Half a billion people live in regions of chronic drought (allegedly set to quintuple by 2050 according to the UN). Half of fish stocks have been exploited to the hilt. By 2050 the Amazon will have died back and so will be a carbon source instead of a carbon sink. Common vector borne diseases will almost all get worse with climate change. Etc. Take your favourite environmental disaster story and Meacher probably mentioned it.

And then the punchline: "Well what is really worrying..." [ pause for audience laugh ] "... is that climate change is still in its early stages". All true of course, so it is possible we are all doomed no matter what anybody does. But of course the fire and brimstone types do not want anybody to think that, because they want everything to change, and if we are doomed anyway there is less reason to change.

Of course Kyoto got a mention. He was not that confident that the Kyoto targets would even be met, but even if they are met it would mean that for the top industrialised countries which had signed up there would be only a 5% reduction in emissions by 2010 (relative to 1990). His only relief was that it would have been worse without Kyoto. But of course the US, China and India are not in Kyoto. And their emissions are increasing a lot (especially China and India, because they are industrialising).

Meacher claimed that even if OECD countries cut their emissions by 50% by 2050, the global total would still double. Well this is if you believe everything will continue as now until then. But Meacher also mentioned that oil is running out. We might have already reached peak oil production and he thought we would certainly do so within a decade. But the "business as usual" scenario implies that demand will double in the next few decades. Well that arithmetic does not match up. Prices would rise and demand would be less.

Meacher several times mentioned that he thinks the only way change will happen is in the face of disaster. And allegedly the cost of disasters due to climate change (floods, hurricanes) is increasing at 12% per annum. Of course global GDP is not doing the same. If you extrapolate the figures you get that by 2065 the cost of climate change exceeds GDP. Well that is silly, as Meacher of course pointed out. But it is possible that these huge costs will eventually force change. But the biggest costs are currently being borne by the developing countries, which gives much less incentive to people in the developed countries to care.

Meacher said he wanted three policies: a phasing out of fossil fuel use; a vast increase in "carbon-free" energy sources such as wind, biomass and solar; and an increase in energy efficiency and conservation. Well this is more of the usual litany. Unfortunately Meacher made the usual flip remark that wind (etc.) is "cost free" once you have the infrastructure in place. That indeed ignores the massive amount of energy you need to install this infrastructure in the first place. And with solar power in Britain, for example, the pay back period for solar heating on individual houses is effectively infinite, so more energy goes into making it than is saved in having it. Well if energy prices do indeed shoot through the roof, this massive expenditure of (largely oil-based) energy up front might turn out to be a good investment. But let's not pretend these energy sources are "carbon free".

Meacher said that the only way to avoid global doom was to get universal agreement, and that this must involve the developed countries reducing their emissions and the developing countries increasing their emissions until they converged in a spot which is hopefully acceptable environmentally. He did admit that the chance of this kind of agreement was "slim".

Why do politicians not do anything about this looming disaster? Well Meacher fell into the usual trap here. He blamed politicians for being "feeble" and "vested interests" for riding roughshod over the interests of the public. That really is rather pathetic. Corporations as the big evil force in the universe. Well BP, Shell and Exxon do not really care if they make billions of pounds from oil or solar, as long as you have to come to them for energy. Oil just happens to be the easiest way to make money today.

He blamed the "transport lobby" for allegedly allowing the continuing twin evils of car driving and airline travel. Well he admitted afterwards that it is not just car drivers and airline passengers who should pay a carbon tax, everyone should, including electricity consumers and train commuters. (Why is it ok for people who take the train 60 miles each day from Cambridge to London but evil for people to drive five miles from Willingham to Cambridge?)

Meacher claimed that some American consultancy had calculated that if you added the proper externalities onto the price of oil then hydrogen fuel cell cars would be 25% cheaper than petrol driven ones. Well that is a bit of a joke, since the only way to produce hydrogen now is to consume vast amounts of electricity (generated mainly by oil). The anti-car nutters are just a bit too unbelievable to be taken seriously.

And on airline travel, Meacher was not much better. He said cheap flights were dreadful because allegedly his (Oldham) constituents were not the ones taking them, but only rich people like himself. Well this is rather dismissive of his constituents. No doubt they want to take a holiday in (say) Spain just like everyone else, and presumably many of them already do. And if you make airline travel more expensive the people who lose out are not rich people but the people just at the margins of being able to afford it. Going from 0 to 1 flight per year is much more important for someone than going from 4 to 6 flights. And for rich people the cost of the flight is largely irrelevant, it's finding the time and overcoming the hassle that are far more important. So those people advocating "demand management" of airline travel (i.e. taxing it to death) are no friends of the working class, no matter how much they might pretend to be.

During the questions afterwards, this attack on vested interests even became slightly surreal. Someone wanted to know why the EU was allegedly spending so much money on nanotechnology and allegedly not so much on climate research. Well who is to say that nanotechnology will not help drive energy efficiency?

The real problem with nothing much happening on the climate change front is not vested interests. It is inertia. Nobody wants to change. Nobody has time to even think about change (except for academics, who are so out of touch they can't see why everybody else isn't spending 24 hours a day worrying about things that they worry about).

Afterwards Meacher said he was for not just national carbon quotas but also personal carbon quotas. If someone went over their carbon quota they would have to buy more on the open market. Well this is not a totally crazy idea. Only you can guarantee your last penny that the way government would introduce it would be a disaster. Politically incorrect activities (e.g. driving) would have a high carbon tax and politically correct activities (e.g. commuting by train) would have a low carbon tax. So it would probably just lead to a massive distortion of the economy without actually having much environmental benefit.

You got the feeling that Meacher would prefer to be running a dictatorship where he could tell people what to do. Well he is allegedly an old-styled socialist (if you ignore that fact that he owns many houses). And he was rather dismissive of his fellow MPs ("they are the last people to absorb new ideas"). He seemed to believe that if only the people running the country (a clique surrounding Tony Blair who were too heavily influenced by corporations and the media) were "accountable" to the public (all of who allegedly want to have their lifestyle curtailed) then all would be well. Hey, start a political party and run on this platform and see how far you get, if the public is allegedly so keen on these ideas.

Carbon sequestration in the North Sea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British and Norwegian oil companies have announced plans to bury carbon dioxide under the bed of the North Sea.

Statoil and Shell plan to take CO2 from a power station in Norway and pipe it to an oil field, where it will be used to force oil to the surface.

The $1.2bn-1.5bn scheme will require major investment from governments.

The process of carbon sequestration is viewed by some as a partial solution to climate change, but can also help companies exploit oil reserves further.

Statoil already extracts carbon dioxide from a natural gas well in its Sleipner field and stores it under the sea bed, while schemes using compressed CO2 to enhance oil recovery are already running in North America.

The companies say their North Sea venture would be the world's largest enhanced oil recovery project.

Statoil would extract CO2 produced by a new natural gas-fired power station on the Norwegian coast.

It would then be pumped to Shell's Draugen oilfield and injected into oil-bearing strata, forcing more oil to the surface.

Electricity from the power station would run a nearby gas terminal established largely to export gas to the UK.

Elements of the project could be phased in from 2010, with CO2 also being piped later to Statoil's Heidrun field.

Well good for Statoil and Shell for pushing this technology further. But do they really need "major investment from governments"?

Date published: 2006/03/07

Alberto Gonzales lies point blank to the BBC (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has defended the treatment of terrorism suspects held at the US military base at Guantanamo Bay.

Speaking on a visit to the UK, Mr Gonzales denied prisoners at the camp in Cuba had been tortured.

He told the BBC that of thousands of allegations of mistreatment, only five had been found to be genuine.

He also denied the US had used airports in Europe to transfer prisoners to countries where they would be tortured.

Last month a UN report called for the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay to be closed immediately, saying prisoners had no access to justice and were subjected to treatment that amounted to torture.

Mr Gonzales said his message to critics was "we hear what you're saying".

"We are aware of your concerns, we are here to communicate exactly what's going on in Guantanamo," he said.

"If there are alternatives, we are always willing to look at that."

It does the American government no good that they lie over and over again in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Indeed Gonzales is one of the dreadful lawyers who told Bush that he could authorise torture (hey, he's the president so can do what he wants). And the torture that the Americans are too squeamish to carry out themselves they are outsourcing to various nasty regimes around the world. The fact that Gonzales is US Attorney General tells you everything you need to know about the Bush regime.

Rumsfeld decries alleged Iranian involvement in Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iranian revolutionary forces have been infiltrating Iraq, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said.

"They [Iran] are currently putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq," Mr Rumsfeld told a news conference.

"We know it, and it is something that they... will look back on as having been an error in judgement," he added.

Well no doubt the Iranian defence minister could say the same thing with Iran --> US. Of course when you are losing a war you try to blame everybody and anybody but yourself.

Date published: 2006/03/06

Sustainable Development Commission rejects nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Building new nuclear plants is not the answer to tackling climate change or securing Britain's energy supply, a government advisory panel has reported.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report says doubling nuclear capacity would make only a small impact on reducing carbon emissions by 2035.

The body, which advises the government on the environment, says this must be set against the potential risks.
Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the SDC, commented: "There's little point in denying that nuclear power has benefits, but in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages.

"The Government is going to have to stop looking for an easy fix to our climate change and energy crises - there simply isn't one."
Research by the SDC suggests that even if the UK's existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only provide an 8% cut on CO2 emissions by 2035 (and nothing before 2010).
"With a combination of low carbon innovation strategy and an aggressive expansion of energy efficiency and renewables, the UK would become a leader in low-carbon technologies," the SDC claims.

Well the SDC makes the obvious point that nobody yet knows how to deal with the problem of nuclear waste (thank god for experts). But Porritt rather shoots his own case when he says there is no "easy fix". Nobody ever claimed that nuclear power was all or even most of the solution to the carbon "problem". And the SDC goes down its own fantasy trip by suggesting (in common with many other academic types) that "aggressive expansion of energy efficiency and renewables" are most of the solution. Both are only part of the solution. The SDC, and the other similar organisations, should be forced to give very believable (and not just "mom and apple pie") evidence that indeed this wonderful carbon-free world can happen without sacrificing the lifestyle of the citizens of the UK. Otherwise they should be honest and say "we want to solve the problem by making Britain poorer". (Of course these people are all rich, so will not be the ones who suffer.)

The SDC is also keen on distributed energy generation, which of course nuclear power is the antithesis of. This idea is just part of the anti-commercial mentality rife amongst the so-called environmentalists. Sure distributed energy generation has some advantages. But growing your own food also has its own advantages, yet most people are better off for not having to do so. And the distributed energy bandwagon seems awfully similar to lots of other bandwagons which look great until you think about it for ten minutes. The people who promote these bandwagons should put their money where their mouth is. And sure, rich people with lots of land would be wise to put in their own wind and solar supply, because it provides you with your own secure energy supply. But most people are not rich. (Of course Porritt is best buddies with Prince Charles, which probably clouds his idea about the wealth of the average citizen of the UK.)

Contact lens lawsuit against eBay dismissed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charges that online auction firm eBay aided the illegal sale of contact lenses have been dismissed.

Regulatory body the General Optical Council offered no evidence at court in London after being advised eBay could not be made to monitor its listings.

eBay denied aiding and abetting illegal lens sales, arguing it removed any adverts on its site in August 2005, as soon as it was aware of the problem.

By law, lenses must be sold by a registered optician or doctor.

The General Optical Council (GOC) had said it spotted more than 200 lenses for sale on the site and first issued eBay with a summons over the alleged sales in August 2005.

The criminal prosecution was being brought at City of London Magistrates under the Opticians Act 1989.

However, following legal advice that eBay were covered in the matter by a provision under European law, the council decided to offer no evidence at the eleventh hour.

GOC registrar Peter Coe said: "The council took action on this issue because of the dangers to consumers buying and wearing contact lenses which have not been fitted by a qualified professional.

"We recognise that eBay has put in place listing policies addressing these issues and appears to be ensuring that unlawful auctions of contact lenses are removed from the website.

"Hopefully the public is also now more aware of the risks of buying and wearing contact lenses from unregulated sellers."
eBay said the case reinforced its position that as an "information society service provider", its duty is simply to remove illegal sale notices from its site when it is made aware of them rather than to comb through it for them.

A rather frivolous lawsuit, in the American style. Is there any mention anywhere of going after the real criminal, i.e. the people trying to sell these lenses (who probably are people up to no good)? No, instead blame the messenger and go after the corporation. If only medical organisations were so keen on protecting the public against the malpractice of their own members.

Date published: 2006/03/05

Mobile phone masts no more dangerous than television transmitters (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mobile phone masts and handsets are no more dangerous than television or radio transmitters, an expert has suggested.

Communities often use health arguments to protest over their construction but Prof Anthony Barker said there was no proof they had an adverse effect.

He said TV transmitters had a similar strength field but people did not question their construction.

Residents often protest strongly over perceived health risks in positioning masts near homes and schools.

Prof Barker told an audience of students and academics at the University of Ulster: "There is no reason to expect mobile phone signals - which are essentially low-powered radio transmissions - to be bad for health."

He said that for over 80 years there have been wireless transmissions - "we have big TV and broadcast radio transmitters all around us".

He said concerns were only raised when phone masts - "which is also a radio transmitter" - were proposed.

Prof Barker has three decades experience studying the biological effects of electromagnetic fields.

He is based at the Department of Medical Physics of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

Unfortunately the anti-mast hysteria is now part of the public psyche, so is unlikely to go away for many years, no matter what any study ever concludes or expert ever says. Of course it's possible there is a real health problem with all this wireless noise being transmitted everywhere, but if so it must be a pretty subtle effect. And it could depend on the frequency of transmission.

Obese men allegedly more likely to die in a car crash (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Male drivers who are involved in a car crash are more likely to die if they are obese, a US study suggests.

The Milwaukee team says this may be due to the driver's greater momentum in a crash and because of the effect obesity has on the body's ability to recover.

But the bodies of moderately overweight men appear to cushion the blow, reports the American Journal of Public Health.

The authors said their findings, based on crash data involving 22,000 people, had implications for vehicle design.
But there was no significant link between BMI and women drivers' risk of death, the researchers found.
A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said the research was interesting.

"However, it would be a very costly process to have a car modelled on the person's shape to make it as safe as possible - that's really a bespoke car and would take a lot of money and effort to produce," he said.

"It would be preferable to try to stop people having car accidents in the first place."

Exactly. More rather pointless research.

Date published: 2006/03/04

Astronomer thinks the public should not fly to Spain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ground-based astronomy could be impossible in 40 years because of pollution from aircraft exhaust trails and climate change, an expert says.

Aircraft condensation trails - known as contrails - can dissipate, becoming indistinguishable from other clouds.

If trends in cheap air travel continue, says Professor Gerry Gilmore, the era of ground astronomy may come to an end much earlier than most had predicted.

Aircraft along with climate change will contribute to increased cloud cover.

The timescale is based on extrapolating air traffic growth figures. The BBC has learned that the calculations were made as part of preparations for an upcoming observatory project called the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT).

The ELT is intended to probe planets around nearby stars and look for extremely faint objects in the Universe.

"It is already clear that the lifetime of large ground-based telescopes is finite and is set by global warming," Professor Gilmore, from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, told reporters recently in London.

"There are two factors. Climate change is increasing the amount of cloud cover globally. The second factor is cheap air travel.

"You get these contrails from the jets. The rate at which they're expanding in terms of their fractional cover of the stratosphere is so large that if predictions are right, in 40 years it won't be worth having telescopes on Earth anymore - it's that soon.

"You either give up your cheap trips to Majorca, or you give up astronomy. You can't do both."

Let's see. It's ok for astronomers to travel to the other side of the world (Hawaii, Chile, Canary Islands) to make their observations but it's not ok for the ordinary British citizen (who pays taxes which keep these astronomers in business) to take a holiday in Spain. Not to mention all the conferences astronomers (like all academics) attend, mostly by air. Sure the person flying to Spain does not pay enough of a carbon tax (the current tax is not related to carbon emissions) and that should be rectified (assuming that train commuters, people who heat and light their homes, and all the other users of energy, also pay a carbon tax). But astronomers personally pay nothing for their trips abroad (in their capacity as astronomers), never mind a carbon tax. So they are externalising the environmental damage they are causing even more than most people.

Astronomers are treading a thin line here. If you asked the general public whether they should get to fly to Spain or whether astronomers should get to do their work, the astronomy community might not like the answer. And if you believe their analysis then they are pretty much saying that in future ground-based telescopes should not be built (even if carbon emissions were plausibly reduced over the next few decades it would take decades beyond that for the effects to work through the system).

Blair mentions God (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Anti-war campaigners have criticised Tony Blair after he suggested his decision to go to war in Iraq would ultimately be judged by God.

The prime minister told ITV1's Parkinson chat show: "If you believe in God (the judgement) is made by God."

Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq, said Mr Blair was "using God as a get-out for total strategic failure" and his comments were "abhorrent".

But Labour MP Stephen Pound praised Mr Blair for being "painfully honest".

Mr Blair told Michael Parkinson, in an interview being screened on Saturday, how he had struggled with his conscience when making decisions about a potential war in Iraq.

"When you're faced with a decision like that, and some of those decisions have been very, very difficult, most of all because you know... there are people's lives... and, in some case, their death," he said.

"The only way you can take a decision like that is to try to do the right thing according to your conscience."

He said: "I think if you have faith about these things, then you realise that that judgement is made by other people... and if you believe in God, it's made by God as well."

When asked if he had prayed to God on the matter, he replied: "I don't want to go into that... you struggle with your own conscience about it... in the end, you do what you think is the right thing."

Well Blair would have been remembered as a great prime minister except for his terrible decision making over Iraq. But the furore these remarks seem to have caused is ridiculous. It's not as if Blair is claiming that God told him to attack Iraq, or that God has authorised the invasion of Iraq, or that God is on the side of the invading forces (things you could quite easily imagine Bush saying).

Date published: 2006/03/03

Surviving Longer (permanent blog link)

The seventh lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Cynthia Kenyon on "Surviving Longer". And entertaining she was (in the fairly typical North American way). She discussed her work on the C. elegans worm, used as a model system for studying ageing. And this is quite interesting work. Her lab discovered that by imparting mutations that damaged the so-called daf-2 gene, you could double the lifespan of an individual. And these long-lived individuals were active for most of their life, they did not just have a lengthened "old age".

Now this gene had earlier been implicated in another phenomenon, the ability of a worm which was faced with a poor environment (in particular, lack of food) to go into an altered "slowed" state called a DAUER for a period of time. But this was only possible for immature worms. And Kenyon's group discovered that the ageing effect instead only had an impact on adult worms. (As she quipped, there's hope for us all.)

The protein that the daf-2 gene encodes is a hormone receptor. And it turns out there are two similar receptors in humans, a receptor for insulin and a receptor for a protein called IGF-1. She mentioned that there were other species (e.g. fruit flies and mice) where there were similar receptors and similar behaviour had now been observed.

Using microarray analysis, her lab showed that daf-2 controls the activities of many genes (not surprisingly). C. elegans has around 20000 genes and they looked at the top 50 picked up by the microarray analysis. She classified these genes into the following categories: antioxidants, chaperones, antimicrobials, metabolic genes and novel genes. Now this is where it really gets complicated. It is not clear which combination of genes is really controlling the ageing process, and it might not be a simple matter.

She mentioned that her lab had found that ageing and age-related diseases were not necessarily intertwined (i.e. you could have one without the other). And similarly reproduction and ageing were also not necessarily intertwined (so not having children does not necessarily make you live longer).

UK citizens allegedly poor at tax planning (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Four out of five people are set to pay more tax than they need to this year, an Independent Financial Advice Promotion (IFAP) survey suggests.

Failure to claim tax credits and poor inheritance tax planning are amongst the main reasons for people paying too much, the group added.

In total, the IFAP said that Britons waste £7.6bn a year in unnecessary tax.

David Elms, chief executive of IFAP, blamed public "apathy or confusion" for too much tax being paid.

A silly story. Obviously if by some miracle everybody managed to claim back every penny from the government to which they were entitled (wasting a huge amount of time and effort to do so) then the government would just raise the level of taxation to make up for this. The government has to raise a certain amount of tax. Period. There is no 7.6 billion pounds just waiting to be handed over to the citizens of Britain. (The exact amounts everybody paid would of course be slightly different but that is rather beside the point.)

Date published: 2006/03/02

NHS hides public health information (permanent blog link)

When you plan to go abroad you can go to your GP to get vaccinations against various diseases (dependent on the country to be visited, of course). At the Bridge Street surgery in Cambridge it seems that they use a web service provided by the NHS, called TRAVAX, to find out information about vaccinations. The surgery even prints out the details for you. Only if you then go to the same website to find out more (e.g. there are apparently maps showing malaria regions) you discover that you cannot access this information. Unbelievably it is behind a subscription wall. The TRAVAX registration page says:

Please note that this service is provided free to NHS users within Scotland since the service is funded by the Scottish Excecutive. Since NHS (Scotland) is independent from other parts of the UK there may be a nominal charge for registration elsewhere in the UK. e.g. the current charge for GPs elsewhere in the UK is £100 annually (excluding VAT) and £500 for Primary Care Trusts.

Absolutely ridiculous. This is a matter of public health. What on earth is the NHS doing hiding this information from the public? Would they prefer the public to go abroad ignorant and bring back big problems to the NHS? Thanks to google you can find out most of the information you need, for example there is a useful non-governmental website called Travel Doctor. (And it's possible that somewhere on the NHS website some of this information is available for free.)

Application for largest wind farm in England turned down (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to create England's largest wind farm in Cumbria have been rejected by the government.

The £55m development would have seen 27 turbines, each 377ft tall, erected at Whinash, near Kendal.

A six-week public inquiry last year heard from campaigners who said the project would destroy the landscape of the Lake District.

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks said he agreed with the inquiry inspector that the plan should be thrown out.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace backed the clean energy plans, but campaigners were worried about the visual impact on the countryside.

The turbines would have occupied a 9-hectare (22.25 acre) area stretching between the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District National Park, close to the M6 motorway.

Chalmerston Wind Power and the Renewable Development Company led the proposed project to build the turbines, which would have generated around 67 megawatts of electricity.

The Cumbrian Tourist Board was amongst those opposed to the plans and naturalist David Bellamy vowed to chain himself to the turbines if building went ahead.

Mr Wicks said: "Tackling global warming is critical, but we must also nurture the immediate environment and wildlife. This is at the crux of the debate over wind energy.

"On this occasion, we agree with the independent inspector that the impact on the landscape and recreation would outweigh the benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions.

"I know there was both support and opposition to the Whinash development, but I hope the winner here is the planning system, which has to be robust in its assessment of the merits of each proposal. Our commitment to renewable energy is remains firm."

Stephen Tindale, executive director of Greenpeace, said: "Any government that wants to expand airports and turn down wind farms is simply not fit to govern.

"Climate change will ravage beautiful areas like the Lake District. I hope those responsible will be willing to explain to future generations how they played their part in allowing the savage grip of global warming to trash the countryside and claim hundreds of thousands of lives."

Penrith and the Border Conservative MP David MacLean said: "The overwhelming weight of evidence at the public inquiry was against the Whinash wind farm development.

"This is good news for Cumbria, for local people and all those who have been campaigning to prevent our precious Lake District landscape being destroyed by the wrong wind farms in the wrong places."

Hell hath no fury like a scorned so-called environmentalist. How petulant can Tindale be? And Tony Juniper (Friends of the Earth) was not much better on the Channel 4 News tonight. The so-called environmentalists always bang on about how immoral it is to pass external costs onto third parties, but the main problem with these wind farms is that they do exactly that. If (say) half the profits from these wind farms went to the local people to compensate them for having this industry in their back yard then the opposition would be much less.

And the so-called environmentalists are just getting a taste of their own medicine. They love NIMBYs when it comes to blocking road building and airport expansion. And they love scare mongering when it comes to GM food. If they are so convinced about their case for wind power then perhaps they should run for office in Cumbria and see how far they get, rather than ranting from the sidelines.

Menzies Campbell is the new Lib Dem leader (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sir Menzies Campbell has been elected leader of the Liberal Democrat Party.

Sir Menzies, 64, who was Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman and acting leader, topped a ballot of party members after a five week campaign.

He beat economic affairs spokesman Chris Huhne in the final run off. Party President Simon Hughes came third.

Well Campbell was the most credible candidate but he's too old to be around for long. And it's not very clear where he stands on most issues, so time will tell how well he will do for the Lib Dems. Right now it looks like Huhne is the leader in waiting.

Date published: 2006/03/01

Does resource extraction contribute to development? (permanent blog link)

The fourth lecture of the university's Fourth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2006) was given today by Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman of Anglo American and former chairman of Shell, with the apposite title "Does resource extraction contribute to development?". He was from the old school, so just gave a talk from paper, rather than from Powerpoint. And given his job it's pretty obvious he made sympathetic noises about corporations, in particular, oil, gas and mining companies.

He said that he had lived in nine countries and visited another thirty during his career, and mentioned a few he thought had developed reasonably successfully (Oman and Malaysia) and one he thought had obviously not (Nigeria). So he claimed there was no "resource curse". The main issue was one of governance, and how "civil society" managed to work with government. And although multi-national corporations are hate figures for NGOs and the "left", he claimed that small local firms were much more likely to cause environmental problems or abuse human rights than the multi-nationals. Well, perhaps, but of course everyone has their favourite example of poor behaviour by a multi-national (and several people at the end brought theirs up).

He said that he was in favour of transparency, and in particular of something called the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). With oil, for example (and presumably with other resources), he said that it should be public knowledge how much oil companies pay the respective government in royalties (so reported by both sides and hopefully the two numbers more or less agree).

At the end he was asked by a couple of people what companies should do for countries when the resources run out, so the royalties stop. More warm words, about how the money should have been spent on education, etc., so that the country can move on. And one person specifically asked whether some of the money should be spent on subsidising renewable energy projects. Well get serious, what business is it of the corporation to tell the government what to do with its money. Anyway, that brought the subject inevitably onto climate change. And here, he said that he did not think the market would solve the problem by itself, but that it needed a regulatory framework in order to guide the market.

Someone asked why didn't the government just turn the clock back, and force people to use less energy (e.g. via the tax system). Cambridge academics, eh. Well of course government could do this, only, as Moody-Stuart pointed out, democratic governments have a habit of not wanting to upset voters. But voters are not nearly so powerful as portrayed. For example, Ken Livingstone managed to screw the working class with the introduction of the so-called London congestion charge and get away with it, partly because the powerful media and commercial interests portrayed it as a good thing (removing the peasants from the streets of London, hence freeing it up for companies and the rich), and partly because many of the people affected live outside London, hence do not have a vote on the matter. And in the quasi-democracy of Singapore they of course have made car ownership so expensive that only the truly rich can afford one. Unfortunately this kind of demand management is always talked up by the people (e.g. academics and so-called environmentalists) who do not suffer the consequences (because they are rich).

BBC scare story about some soft drinks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Traces of a cancer-causing chemical have been found in British soft drinks at eight times the level permitted in drinking water, BBC News has learned.

The Food Standards Agency watchdog says these do not pose an immediate health risk, but questions need answering.

Benzene, which can cause certain cancers, is thought to be formed when two commonly used ingredients react.
The industry tests on 230 different products revealed levels of up to eight parts per billion in some soft drinks - although the brand names have not been revealed.

Although there is a legal limit of one part per billion on the amount of benzene allowed in drinking water, there are no UK restrictions on the amount of the chemical permitted in soft drinks.
Benzene has been linked to leukaemia and other cancers of the blood and is also found in pollutants such as car exhaust fumes.

Dr Andrew Wadge of the Food Standards Agency said: "The levels found so far are not a cause for concern.

Typical BBC scare story. The FSA says it is "not a cause for concern" but the BBC has some muck-raking to accomplish so has to trumpet their alleged astonishing discovery. Repeat the word "cancer" over and over again so that the reader knows that there is a problem (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).

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