Azara Blog: April 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/04/30

Head teachers' leader says Labour obsessed with school tests (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government must give up its "continuing obsession" with testing England's schoolchildren, a head teachers' leader has said.

Desmond Hamilton, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, also demanded that no class should exceed 30 pupils in size.

Personalised teaching - not "tests for tots" - was needed, he told the NAHT's annual conference in Harrogate.

Ministers say tests are essential for raising standards.

Dr Hamilton told conference delegates: "There are no mistakes in schools, only lessons to be learnt.

"We are knowledge creators. What we do often remains invisible and intangible.

"Yet government has a continuing obsession with leaving no person under-tested.

"Those for whom classroom visits are occasional photo opportunities often reflect most enthusiasm for testing regimes - not classroom teachers."

The Blair government is obsessed with tests, one of its many follies. And since school status (and so eventually money) depends on the results, schools teach to the tests and everything is optimised with that goal in mind. This is why the results get better year in and year out, although the students of today are no better (or worse) than the students of yesterday. It's a complete distraction from the real purpose of school, i.e. education. And unfortunately, outsiders cannot really judge how good a teacher is, certainly not based on some arbitrary measure of test performance. But if there is one thing you can guarantee, the government will continue to obsess about tests.

Cambridge allegedly a property hotspot (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridge is one of the best cities in the UK for property investment, according to a TV poll.

Students and commuters have led to a booming market, concluded celebrity house hunters Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer, who revealed Where's Best to Invest.

Cambridge came second in the top 10, with only Oxford a better bet for a landlord's money.

House prices in Cambridge could rise an average of nearly ££100,000 in just five years as demand outstrips supply.

The rental market is booming and comprises mostly one or two-bed flats let to London commuters, the programme revealed last night.

Students lead demand with 20,000 living in the city, but many families are also searching for rental properties with townhouses and other larger buildings always fast to let.

New developments planned around the railway station and the regeneration of the city centre are areas to watch.

The programme singled out The Triangle and The Belvedere developments, where a penthouse sold for £1.2 million recently. The north of the city, with its lower prices, was earmarked as a future hot spot.

The average price of a house in Cambridge was projected to rise from £244,183 in 2005 to £336,239 by 2010.

Well most of the real top 10 were boroughs of London, but that would have made a boring TV show so they arbitrarily excluded London from the results, which is rather silly. And the idea that two TV pundits and their (unnamed) experts can predict house price rises five years into the future is not very credible. Of course prediction is cheap, nobody will come back in five years and sue them if they have it wrong. So another cheap prediction is that if anything goes up in value relative to the rest, it will be the few decent houses with decent gardens, because they are building no new such housing in Cambridge, just loads of flats and a few rubbish houses. And ironically the proposed railway station development has just been thrown out by the city. If the cattle market development is anything to go by, it could be ten or twenty years before the railway station development fully takes place.

Date published: 2006/04/29

Cost of the "war on terror" set to be almost a trillion dollars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has soared and may now reach $811bn (£445bn), says a report by the Congressional Research Service.

It estimates that Congress has appropriated $368bn for the global war on terror, including both conflicts.

It says that if the current spending bill is approved, US war costs will reach $439bn, and it estimates that an extra $371bn may be needed by 2016.

And almost all of that money was spent for party political reasons, so that the Republicans (in particular Bush) could look tough on "terror" and the Democrats not. And the BBC fails to mention that much of that money has gone to line the pockets of friends of Bush and Cheney, in particular of Halliburton.

Date published: 2006/04/28

Supermarkets allegedly produce more CO2 than greengrocers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) is urging people to buy food from local shops to cut greenhouse gases.

FoE says government research shows the average supermarket produces as much carbon dioxide as 60 greengrocers.

It says supermarkets are less efficient and encourage people to produce more emissions by travelling further to shop - an average of 890 miles a year.

The British Retail Association disputes FoE's claims, saying supermarkets produce less CO2 than small food shops.

FoE supermarkets campaigner Sandra Bell said supermarkets produced three times as much carbon dioxide per square metre of floor space as greengrocers and twice as much as the average independent butcher or corner shop.

But British Retail Association director general Kevin Hawkins said the research, carried out for the government by Sheffield Hallam University, did not back FoE's claims.

He said: "For example, the average supermarket produces three times the carbon dioxide that a greengrocer does but in terms of floor space, the average supermarket in Hallam's research is 20 times bigger than the average greengrocer - 1,500 square meters against 76 square meters.

"So the efficiency with which the average supermarket uses energy is much better than the performance of the average greengrocer."
...
Ms Bell said the amount of CO2 produced by shoppers travelling to out of town supermarkets and by supermarkets transporting food around had to be taken into account.

She said: "They're encouraging people to travel further to out of town stores to do their shopping, they're flying in produce from all over the world, they're transporting it up and down the country through their central distribution systems....

"If you take all that into account then it's clear that local shops are going to be more efficient than big supermarkets."

But Mr Hawkins said central distribution systems had superseded a system under which each individual supplier transported its goods direct to each retailer, which he said was "certainly not environmentally friendly".

He added that research by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs showed that "food miles", including long haul air travel, accounted for less than 2% of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions.
...
An FoE spokeswoman said independent shops were being driven out of business as more people turned to large supermarket chains.

Dear, oh dear, if this is the best the FoE can do they should pack up and go home. They unfortunately let their hatred of supermarkets get in the way of a sane analysis. The ratio of CO2 produced by an average supermarket to an average greengrocer is irrelevant, the former is much bigger so of course it is going to produce more. Even the alleged ratio of 3 per square meter is irrelevant, since the supermarkets could easily be selling that ratio and more of goods per square meter, compared with greengrocers, and it is the bang per buck which matters.

Faced with that blatant stupidity, the FoE spokeswoman then diverted onto transport. Now the produce that is flown in "from all over the world" has not accounted for the CO2 consumed, since air fuel is not taxed. But all road transport in the UK more than pays its fair share of carbon tax (via fuel duty), so that cannot count negatively against supermarkets. And one would have to guess that for supermarkets, the CO2 produced by road transport far outweighs that produced by air transport.

The FoE spokeswoman then, in desperation, turned towards social reasons for using local shops. The website article does not mention it, but in the actual interview on Radio 4 she made the obvious point that people without cars have less access to supermarkets. But as she admitted herself, more and more people shop in supermarkets, and that is because they prefer them to greengrocers. For one thing, they are far more convenient, in particular, unlike most shops in towns, they have reasonable parking. This makes them much more family friendly. But of course FoE, along with many other of the chattering classes, believes that the interests of the majority of Britain should be subsumed by the interests of the minority.

A third of students allegedly would have been put off by university fees (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A third of final-year university students would not have started degree courses if they had been forced to pay "top-up" fees, a study suggests.

The UK Graduate Careers Survey findings are based on responses from more than 16,000 students at 30 universities.

Students in England will pay fees of up to £3,000 a year from September. The National Union of Students said this was deterring prospective students.

But ministers say poorer students will benefit from more generous grants.

The government has also insisted that students would benefit from not having to repay a loan until after they have graduated and have started work.

The Graduate Careers Survey report said 41% of finalists from state schools would never have gone to university if they had been faced with higher fees, compared to 38% of finalists in the survey overall.

Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers Research, which conducted the research, said: "These findings will be a major blow for the government."

Meanwhile, new figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) revealed that more than 14,000 fewer students applied for courses starting in September than at this time last year - a fall of 3.2%.

A silly and meaningless survey. It is ridiculous that anyone would even pretend that 38% of current students would not have gone to university if there had been these "top-up" fees, so it is rubbish that the "findings will be a major blow for the government". Talk is cheap, especially on a survey. The 3.2% fall in applications is a more believable figure representing those put off, but even that is probably just a one-off, and the actual long-run figure might well be less. Indeed, if the extra money going to universities actually improves their educational offering (which is not that likely) then that might eventually even encourage more students to go to university.

Date published: 2006/04/27

LibDems pose on the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sir Menzies Campbell has challenged David Cameron to sign up to a cross-party plan on the environment.

The Lib Dem leader urged the Tory leader to agree to five broad "green principles" that would underpin policy.

Green issues have become a key battleground at next month's local elections after Mr Cameron urged voters to "vote blue, go green".

But the Lib Dems argue progress can not be made until there is cross party agreement on the way forward.

In a speech in Norwich earlier on Thursday, Sir Menzies urged the Conservative leader to agree that:

Sir Menzies said: "These steps are common sense and they do not require 18 months of deliberation by a policy review.

Well what is a "green" tax? If the LibDems agree that the UK electricity and gas supply (in particular for houses) should be subject to a carbon tax, then all very well (and it seems that they are implying that above, so let them announce it loud and clear that they are proposing that household gas and electricity bills should double in cost, and stop playing around). And it is just common sense that air passenger duty should be based on emissions and not on passengers, and it is unbelievable that the government cannot cope with that simple concept (but the Treasury has trouble with lots of simple concepts). But Vehicle Excise Duty has nothing to do with carbon emissions, it is based simply on ownership, not usage, so that particular bullet point just seems like the typical middle class stupidity common amongst the ruling elite of Britain. (There is of course a proper carbon tax based on vehicle usage, it's called fuel duty.) Unfortunately for the ordinary citizens of the UK, "green" taxes are going to be based on political correctness rather than carbon emissions. (Cars allegedly bad, buses allegedly good. Airplanes allegedly bad, trains allegedly good. Making steel allegedly bad, heating houses allegedly good. Anything allegedly bad gets hammered, anything allegedly good gets off scot free, independent of actual carbon emissions.)

"Real" nappies allegedly better for the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Every day UK parents bin eight million nappies, a waste mountain Real Nappy Week aims to reduce. Disposables may be an eco nightmare, but it's easy to forget how this simple invention helped liberate women from the home.

Many parents probably don't have existential crises about what kind of nappies to use. Most will opt for those which seem comfortable, don't cause too much of a dent in the bank balance, and allow their little ones to run around without a care in the world.

Yet behind the scenes, a war of words is brewing - a clash between activist parents who think it's irresponsible to use disposable nappies because they damage the environment, and those who praise disposables for allowing them to spend less time cleaning soiled children and more time on work, leisure and the brighter side of parenting.

Green-leaning campaigners encourage parents to use what they call "real nappies", which go in the washing machine, rather than the bin.

"They save waste and can save parents money," says Elizabeth Hartigan, of the Women's Environment Network (WEN), organisers of Real Nappy Week. She used washable nappies on her three children, and says they are the best "eco and economic option". Nor are pins an issue, having been replaced by poppers and Velcro.

Yet many mums and dads resist pressure to go washable - not because they are indifferent to the environment, but because they see disposables as a valuable invention that has freed up women's time in particular.

How quaint of the BBC to label the anti-disposable-nappy brigade as "activist", you could also call them interfering control freaks. This is just another example of the hysterical middle class busy bodies trying to denigrate parents, and in particular this can easily be seen as just another attack on working mothers. (It would be interesting to see if there is a reasonable correlation between households that use disposable nappies and households where both parents work outside the house.) People who claim that washing nappies "saves money" are just missing the point completely (even assuming it is a correct claim). People are willing to pay more for convenience, just witness the success of mobile phones (where the call charges are much higher than for fixed lines).

Of course you could easily argue that parents who use disposable nappies should pay for the waste they create. But everybody should pay for all the waste they create. (For example, households should not pay a fixed waste collection fee as now, but one based on how much waste they dispose, e.g. based on weight.) But even if parents paid for the disposal of nappies, you can guarantee that the anti-disposable-nappy brigade would not be satisfied, they would still complain. (Motorists already pay a carbon tax way over the odds, but so-called environmentalists still complain about this. There are some people in life who have nothing better to do than complain about the actions of others.)

And focussing on nappies in this way misses the bigger picture. By far and away the most environmentally damaging aspect of children is not the use of disposable nappies but the creation of the children in the first place, since that leads to a lifetime of environmental degradation (and onto the next generation after that, etc.). But nobody ever mentions this, indeed the opposite is encouraged by most governments of the world (and also the "activists" and so-called environmentalists). We should not so much be taxing nappies as taxing birth.

Scottish Executive approves large wind farm (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to build Europe's largest onshore wind farm on a vast stretch of moorland south of Glasgow have been approved by the Scottish Executive.

Scottish Power said its £300m Whitelee project should be completed by 2009.

With 140 turbines, it will generate 322 megawatts of electricity - enough to power nearly every house in Glasgow.

Consent was granted after consultation as the wind farm had raised several issues over its impact on weather and air traffic radars and the landscape.

The farm will be built on high ground south of East Kilbride.

It will cover a huge area of moorland and forestry, on a site measuring 7.2 miles by 4.3 miles.

It will provide enough green energy to power 200,000 homes.
...
Marcus Rand, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association, said: "Wind represents our best chance of delivering significant quantities of carbon free power."

Good on Scotland for trying this out (well, assuming the locals are properly compensated). Hopefully some day the Glasgow/Edinburgh megapolis can derive most of its electricity this way, from nearby wind farms. But presumably for now much of this electricity will be "shipped south" to England. And the wind propagandists should really stop repeating the lie that wind energy is "carbon free". It is not carbon free because of the huge amount of energy (mostly oil) that needs to be burned up front making the equipment and installing the distribution network, and the (smaller) amount needed for maintenance every year, and then the amount required for decommissioning (some time way in the future). But when the sums are done properly, hopefully wind is less evil than (for example) natural gas. (Well, no doubt when enough wind farms are on stream, scientists will discover some effect which means there are some unforseen negative environmental consequences. There is no such thing as a free lunch.)

Date published: 2006/04/26

A Science for Sustainable Living (permanent blog link)

The seventh (and final) lecture of the university's Fourth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2006) was given today by Fritjof Capra, originally a theoretical physicist but for the last twenty years working in ecology and political activism. He wrote a book in 1975 called "The Tao of Physics", which already tells you he is out in left field, but in a way which makes him rated highly by a certain section of the chattering classes.

This lecture was all about how corporations are the biggest evil in the world, e.g. he said they have "a mostly negative impact on the world". This is so ludicrous that it's amazing anyone could say it with a straight face. But an amazing number of otherwise seemingly well-educated people seem to spout this kind of nonsense, without fear or trepidation. It certainly seems to work a treat amongst the academic middle classes as well represented in the audience. And at least Capra seemed to be earnest in this belief, rather than just yet another person with a book to sell. (Although he has several books to sell.)

Capra alleged that capitalism is fundamentally different now than 50 or 100 years ago. Well, you could have said the same 50 or 100 years ago, and the same again in 50 or 100 years, so hardly a deep thought.

Being an ex-physicist, he uses some of the jargon of physics (e.g. of complexity theory) to try and impress his audience that he is saying something important. His whole thesis seemed to boil down to the idea that everything in life is connected via networks (gee whiz, who would have thought) and that certain networks (global capitalism) are "unsustainable" and other networks (local communities) are "sustainable" and must be promoted as the only way forward in the world. Indeed, the world economic system allegedly needs to "be fundamentally redesigned". Yeah, yeah.

Well, you might want to take some of this seriously, only he said that global capitalism was all about "electronic networks" (banks moving money around at the touch of a button) and "sustainable communities" were all about "networks of energy and material flows". Obviously he hasn't yet seen that most of the global economy is not about shifting money around by computer but about the oil countries supplying energy for the world, China selling more and more industrial goods to the world, and the US and Europe (currently) leading the way in selling services to the world. The fact that he is fixated on money changers loses him a good deal of credibility. Sure banks have a big role to play (they provide the grease for the economy), but a lot of global capitalism is also about "networks of energy and material flows". So what? Clever-sounding but content-free linguistic jargon does not move the world forward.

Capra hates genetically modified food, it would seem more for religious reasons (hatred of corporations) than for scientific reasons, but in any case this also loses him a lot of credibility. He is also against nuclear power, but at least you can give that argument some reality.

He was deluded enough to say at the beginning that "there is a fundamental change of world view now occuring". Hmmm, is he referring to the fundamentalist religious nutters (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and whatever) taking over the world? No, he somehow believes that the anti-globalism campaigners are making a big impact. Well they manage to arrange riots at various global trade meetings, but anybody can be a hooligan, it is not exactly winning the argument. They get some press in the usual places (the BBC, the Guardian) but on the whole they have little visibility or impact.

Needless to say, Capra and his fellow travellers are all direct beneficiaries of the global economy. You can buy his books on Amazon. He flew all the way from California to Cambridge to give the lecture (although at least he was not flying back again straight away, apparently going down to Devon to spread the word), and travels all over the place promoting the cause. His talk was webcast to MIT. He was born in Austria but has worked in several countries. This is someone who directly reaps the benefits of the global economy.

He claimed the "South" (i.e. the developing world) was growing hostile to the "Northern" philosophy (of economic rape and pillage). Obviously he hasn't come across the streams of refugees and immigrants who are trying to move to Europe and America. They too want the lifestyle that Capra lives.

Date published: 2006/04/25

Charles Clarke has a rant against the media (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charles Clarke has accused the UK media of perpetuating "myths" that his law and order agenda is an attack on human rights and civil liberties.

The home secretary says a "pernicious and even dangerous poison" exists in the British press.

Reporting of issues like control orders is often through a "distorted prism", he told the London School of Economics.

But the Tories say it is "remarkable" that Mr Clarke has "chosen to blame the media" rather than protect the people.

Mr Clarke used his speech to the LSE to attack the press for using expressions once reserved for tyrants to describe the legitimate policies of democratic governments.

He said using terms such as "police state" or "hijacking democracy" or "destroying the rule of law" to describe modern democratic politicians is causing the truth to be thrown out the window.

"In the absence of many of the genuinely dangerous and evil totalitarian dictatorships to fight - since they've gone - the media has steadily rhetorically transferred to some of the existing democracies, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, some of the characteristics of those dictatorships," he said.

"So some commentators routinely use language like 'police state', 'fascist', 'hijacking our democracy', 'creeping authoritarianism', 'destruction of the rule of law', whilst words like 'holocaust', 'gulag' and 'apartheid' are regularly used descriptively of our society in ways which must be truly offensive to those who experienced those realities.

Unfortunately every home secretary has to prove he is the worst home secretary of all time, and Clarke is no exception. And Clarke and Blair *are* "destroying the rule of law", in particular they think they have the right to lock people up as long as they want without any court intervention. And whenever the courts rule that they have done something illegal, they just say "get lost" and ignore the courts. If Clarke and Blair want to claim they are not promoting a dictatorship they should start to behave like people who believe in the rule of law. This is definitely one of the most illiberal regimes of recent times, and Clarke and (especially) Blair constantly revel in it.

Live healthily to live longer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Making small changes to your lifestyle can have a significant impact on how long you will live, research has shown.

The Cambridge University study looked at over 25,000 people.

It found that stopping smoking, exercising more and eating better could give you the life expectancy of a person 11 to 12 years younger.

The government is backing the research, and launching an initiative to encourage people to make small changes to improve their health.

The study, carried out in Norfolk, is part of the European Prospective Investigation and Nutrition (Epic) study, involving over half a million people in 10 European countries.

The UK arm of the study is following 25,663 men and women aged between 45 and 79 years old since 1993, looking at their diet, environment, lifestyle and health.

The participants have regularly filled in questionnaires about their diet, lifestyle and health and had periodic check-ups from nurses.

These latest results from the study showed eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can give you the life expectancy of someone three years younger.

Not smoking turned the clock back by four to five years.

Even increasing exercise by a moderate amount can take up to three years off.

But the amount of exercise someone would need to do to achieve that depends on their job.

An office worker would need to do one hour of exercise, such as swimming or jogging, every day, while a person with a moderately active job, such as a hairdresser, would need to take 30 minutes exercise a day.

People with active jobs, including nurses and bricklayers, do not need to do any extra exercise - as their work is strenuous enough.

Well, the study only shows a correlation, not a causation, but at least here it seems plausible that the claim is valid. But is any of this supposed to be surprising? And does anybody seriously think anybody is going to pay any attention to this? And do we really need to live even longer than we already do?

Date published: 2006/04/24

David Cameron doesn't like the school run (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron is to commit his party to reduce carbon emissions from cars by nearly a third.

He will outline a series of incentives to get people to switch to more environmentally friendly cars.

He also wants more school buses to cut down on parents unnecessarily using their cars on the school run.
...
Mr Cameron's emissions target would mean virtually all cars on Britain's roads would have to be powered by new technologies such as hybrid motors.

He has declined to say whether he would increase vehicle excise duty for gas-guzzlers or impose a green tax on air flights which produce huge amounts of carbon.

He has also indicated he is against a ban on road-building.

But senior Tory sources say "ideas are coming" to deal with the school run in particular.

Unfortunately the school run is a lot worse these days because children no longer have to go to their local school, and this makes using school buses next to impossible, the children are too dispersed to make it energy efficient (when you include both direct and indirect use of energy). So are the Tories going to take away parents' "choice" of a school? (Of course it is not really the parents' choice, it is the school's choice, and this is particularly insidious, allowing a bunch of unaccountable people some power over who is granted right to attend a school.) And how will David Cameron's kids go to school?

There is the further problem that after-school activities mean that all kids do not go home at the same time. And there is yet a further problem in that parents of today are hysterical (courtesy of the media) about Little Johnny getting kidnapped / abused / hit by a car, so prefer to take him by car rather than let him walk or cycle (assuming by some miracle that he is going to a local school so is close enough to walk or cycle).

The WHO says that babies should weigh less (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The World Health Organization is to issue new guidelines on measuring the growth rates of babies.

Current charts are based on calculations using the growth patterns of babies fed largely on formula milk from 20 years ago.

But bottle-fed babies put on weight more quickly than those that are breast-fed, meaning breast-fed children could be shown as underweight.

The new recommended charts are based on data from breast-fed babies.

The research involved more than 8,000 children from six different countries, who were raised in environments where breast feeding, good diets, and prevention and control of infection were prevalent.

The data from this research has been used to formulate new charts that indicate how children should grow; allowing health professionals and parents to recognize optimal weight gain in children.

The study has shown that the current system pitches target weights too high.

Current charts suggest a healthy one-year-old weighs between 22.5lb (10.2kg) and 28.5lb (12.93kg), when in fact the true healthy weight is 21lb (9.53kg) to 26lb (11.79kg).

There has already been pressure to switch to charts based on breast-fed babies.

The WHO already recommends that mothers breast-feed their children, stating that it provides all of the nutrients a child needs.

More health faddism. Of course the WHO has been waging a long campaign against powdered milk. But this latest campaign is bound to further demonise mothers who do not breast-feed their children. And the obvious conclusion to the switch is that we will soon hear about a new "epidemic" of alleged obesity in children, since when you arbitrarily subtract two and a half pounds from the upper bound of what is "normal" then the number of children above this bound is going to be a (probably much) larger percentage. The use of the phrase "true healthy weight" is particularly egregious, since it seems the "truth" has somehow changed from one day to the next. Just wait for the day when the control freaks tell us that mothers that don't breast-feed their children are guilty of child abuse.

A study on plant species temporal variability in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's plant species have experienced dramatic changes over the past 18 years in the conditions under which they grow, according to a new report.

Climate change, agricultural practices and man-made habitats have produced challenging environments for Britain's flora, the study shows.

Some species (18%) are thriving under the new conditions; others (16%) are in decline; most (66%) remain unaffected.

The Lottery-funded report is called Making it Count for People and Plants.

It is a joint initiative by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) and conservation charity Plantlife.

The project, set up in 2002 and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to identify the state of British flora and encourage more people to get involved in botany and plant conservation. It involved over 5,550 participants.

The project incorporated four strands, including surveys of single and common species and a rare plant register.

The most striking results came out of the BSBI Local Change Survey - a study that compared today's British plants to the flora of 18 years ago.

Between 2003-2004, over 750 botanists set about recording plants found in 811 2km-by-2km plots across Britain, collecting about 200,000 records. They were then able to compare their findings with a near identical study that had been carried out in 1987-1988.

It's hard to know whether the results are significant or not, in particular who is to say whether or not these results would have been replicated if we had similar studies from the 1960s, and earlier. Is 16%/18% big? Small? Average? There can be variations in species numbers just from one year to the next. And the whole study involves sampling, which by itself is prone to produce variations from one study to the next. So are we supposed to be happy or sad with the results, or, more likely, just shrug our shoulders and move onto the next subject.

Date published: 2006/04/23

Blair the dictator rumbles on (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Tony Blair has accused his political opponents and some of his own MPs of being out of touch with public opinion on law and order.

He told a Sunday newspaper he wanted to "harry, hassle and hound" criminals into giving up - or leaving Britain.

And he denied his policies on ID cards, anti-social behaviour or DNA storage by police were eroding civil rights.

Mr Blair was responding to e-mails from the Observer accusing him of "steadily attacking our rights and freedoms".

"This is as much an issue of modernity as liberty" he said, arguing that new police powers were needed to tackle 21st century crime.

"You can't deal with the levels of sophistication in today's organised crime by traditional methods."

He said "Dixon of Dock Green" policing no longer worked and was "leaving the innocent unprotected and the guilty unpunished".
...
The prime minister went on to outline specific measures he wanted to take, including making it "a presumption that those who deal in drugs to young children should go to prison".

He said he would make breaching a drugs treatment order an arrestable offence and proposed seizing cars from suspected drug dealers.

If there is anyone who lives in a bubble, it is the prime minister. And unfortunately he seems to have little time for the rule of law. Instead he just seems to want a dictatorship, where he can decree who is innocent and who is guilty. As one small example from the article (and the Observer lists plenty more), Blair seems to think nothing about wanting to seize cars "from suspected drug dealers". Once upon a time the State used to have to prove someone was guilty of a crime in a court of law before the State expropriated his property, but not any more. New Labour, New Dictatorship.

Cambridge businesses do not like the proposed closure of Victoria Avenue (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Two of Cambridge's busiest roads could be closed during the middle of the day - blocking access to two multi-storey car parks and countless shops.

Cambridgeshire County Council is considering closing Maid's Causeway and Victoria Avenue from 10am to 4pm - a move which would cut off access to the city centre, and to Park Street and The Grafton centre west car parks.

The council says up to 60 per cent of the 15,000 vehicles using the two roads between 7am and 7pm daily is just passing through the area.

And one of three options the council is proposing to cut city centre traffic is the part-time "tidal" closure of the roads in Stage 5 of the city's Core Traffic Scheme.

But businesses have reacted furiously to the possible introduction of bollards, similar to those in Silver Street, which would limit access to the city.

Under Option A the two roads would be open to city-centre-bound traffic only from 6am to 10am, and for vehicles heading away from the centre between 4pm and midnight, but with exemptions for buses, taxis and cyclists.

The council says this would improve the environment for residents, pedestrians and cyclists, improve air quality and reduce accidents.

But it concedes it will push traffic on to Elizabeth Way - which already carries around 25,000 vehicles from 7am to 7pm daily - and Chesterton Road.

The council says diverting traffic to Elizabeth Way and Chesterton Road at peak times would cause unacceptable congestion on these roads.

Brian Stinton, lead engineer with the council's Cambridge projects team, said: "We are looking at moving some of the traffic flows onto the ring road in such a way that it can cope.

"We would still allow traffic in the dominant direction during the peaks. The closure would be during the off-peak period."

Michael Wiseman, director of The Grafton and chairman of the Cambridge Retail and Commercial Association (CRACA), called the scheme a "step too far".

He said: "CRACA is concerned retail businesses in Cambridge are already suffering from ever increasing restrictions for people wishing to access the city centre by car.

"While we have worked with the city and county council's to try and reach an acceptable compromise with previous schemes, we feel the closure, or even partial closure, of Maid's Causeway and Victoria Avenue is a step to far at this time.

"The closure or partial closure of this route will only push even more traffic on to the already crowed Elizabeth Way route and cause further pollution in this relatively narrow area.

"It will also severely affect flows into Park Street and the Grafton West car parks which is likely to lead to a loss in parking revenue for the city council and subsequent further increases in either parking charges or increases in the local council tax to offset the loss of income.

"CRACA will therefore be encouraging its members and other local businesses to support Option C - do nothing at present."

Another businessman said the proposed scheme would have a "vast" negative impact.

Jeremy Waller, who lives in Brunswick Gardens, off Maid's Causeway, has his Primavera shop on King's Parade and another business, First Edition, in Wellington Court, off Newmarket Road.

He said: "The negatives are vast, compared with simple traffic calming measures.

"It would send another hugely negative message to city centre shoppers, employees who need their cars to get to work and businesses that need vehicles, that the city centre of Cambridge is not the place to go to or invest in."

He added: "I have experience of what happened at Silver Street. It has had a terrible impact on the trading results of all shops and activities near or on King's Parade."

Giulio Cinque, proprietor of Giulio's menswear shop on King Street, said: "I am a member of the recently formed Sussex Street Traders Association and we can see no benefits.

"If I drive in by 9am to open the shop, what am I going to do if I want to go out before 4pm?

"There is an option to do nothing and I think that would be best."

There was traffic chaos when Victoria Avenue was closed northbound for two weeks last August while work on an underground gas main was carried out by Transco.

The council's Option B would see both roads remain open but with traffic management measures to control speed, improve safety, and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

Option C, the "do nothing" option, would also maintain the current choice of routes but offer no improvement to conditions for road users or residents along the route.

This is an elaboration of a report from last week. Unfortunately the people who run Cambridge hate cars, and if they have to cut off their nose to spite their face, they will. They have done it before, and they will do it again, and then trumpet how wonderful the world is (in spite of plenty of evidence to the contrary). They seem to want a Cambridge where only students and tourists go anywhere near the centre of town.

Option A really is crazy. If you go for that (the likely option, unless enough people tell the plonkers who run Cambridge that they are plonkers) then the city might as well shut down the Park Steet car park, because it would be inaccessible during the day. (The Park Street car park is already the world's most expensive cycle shed, so it could just solidify that status further.)

And Option B is just letting the health and safety nutters ruin yet another road. Victoria Avenue is already perfectly safe for cyclists (of which there are enough) and pedestrians (of which there are hardly any, except to cross at one of the two crosswalks). So the city is offering great expense and grief for no reason.

And note that the city talks about "through" traffic, without even defining what it is, or why it is allegedly bad. Most major roads in Cambridge have almost nothing but "through" traffic on them. Let's shut them all down. Victoria Avenue was built specifically as a bribe to the citizens of Chesterton to compensate them for the additional tax they would have to pay when they were amalgamated into Cambridge, just over a hundred years ago.

Closing Victoria Avenue is a stab in the back for everybody who lives north of the river, in particular for the people of Chesterton, Arbury and King's Hedges. Let the electorate of those areas know that it is the Lib Dems who are promoting these crackpot policies, and the local councillors are doing nothing to help. Indeed, one of the Chesterton councillors, Julian Huppert, is one of the chief protagonists trying to close the roads down.

And Elizabeth Way is a disaster area not just in the rush hour. In particular, on the weekends it is congested worst in the middle of the day. Does anybody who has anything to do with transport planning in Cambridge have a clue about transport in Cambridge? Sack them all.

The only advantage of this proposal is that is shows how dreadful are the people who run Cambridge, and it will keep them occupied having to defend this nonsense for awhile, so that they have less time to inflict their damage elsewhere in the city (until next year, of course).

Date published: 2006/04/22

Gordon Brown ruminates on climate change and fuel tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The developed world has a moral duty to tackle climate change, Chancellor Gordon Brown has said.

But he has resisted calls for higher fuel taxes, saying that high oil prices are enough of a burden for motorists.

The comments come as world oil prices reached record levels and UK drivers were warned the cost of petrol could reach its previous high, 96.1p a litre.

Speaking after talks in the US, he also warned that rising oil prices may threaten global economic stability.

On Friday in New York the price of a barrel of oil reached a record high of $75 (£42).

Mr Brown said the price increases were partly down to growing demand, particularly in Asia.

This has fuelled speculation that the prices at the pumps could rise and remain high throughout the summer.

Petrol retailers said prices were unlikely to top the £1 mark but predicted an "uncomfortable" period for motorists and road hauliers.

Mr Brown said the climate change issue was an ethical one, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"If it is affecting both our habitat and environment and affecting those people who are dependent on that environment the most - and that is poor people in poor countries - then this has got to be looked at, not just as an economic issue but a social issue.

"And you could therefore say that it's got an ethical dimension as well."

He added: "There is personal and social responsibility here.

"We can as individuals make a difference in the way we behave and use the environment.

"But it's got to be matched by the measures that we take as a community as a whole. Voluntarism in itself will not be enough."

However, Mr Brown insisted that putting up taxes on energy was not the answer.

"To freeze fuel duty at a time of rising oil prices is the right decision and it is the right decision I made in the Budget.

"You have got to make a balanced judgement about the needs of the economy and the protection of citizens."

The high fuel prices themselves acted as a catalyst for efficiency, and adding further taxes on top would not be practical, Mr Brown said.

Brown will be remembered for the disaster of PFI and for insisting on complicating the tax and benefit system beyond belief, unless he screws up in an even bigger way as the next prime minister. But at least he is willing to defend not raising fuel duty further, perhaps the only politician mature enough to do so in the present "green" hysteria which seems to be gripping the chattering classes in the media. Car drivers pay a whacking great tax, and indeed this is the only economic activity in the country for which any reasonable kind of carbon tax is paid. But of course the so-called environmentalists hate cars (and planes) so fixate on them, with hardly a peep about how domestic electricity and gas prices should rocket if an appropriate carbon tax were imposed on them, and of course no willingness to even contemplate that train (and bus) commuters should even come close to paying the operational cost of their journeys, never mind the environmental cost.

Date published: 2006/04/21

European car makers allegedly doing poorly on CO2 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European car makers are defaulting on a vital target to tackle climate change, according to an environmental group.

Their efforts to boost fuel efficiency are falling "far short" of a commitment made to the European Union in 1998, Transport & Environment says.

The more fuel a car uses, the more carbon dioxide - a key greenhouse gas - is emitted into the atmosphere.

But motor manufacturers say they are already working harder than many other industries to cut emissions.

In 1998, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (Acea) agreed with the European Commission an average emissions target of 140g of CO2 per kilometre for new cars by 2008.

Japanese and Korean manufacturers, which command a much smaller part of the European car market, have pledged to meet the same target. But they have an extra year to do so.

Last year, European manufacturers sold cars that produced on average 160g of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometre.

This was down 1% on the previous year, according to sales figures analysed by Transport and Environment (T&E).

T&E says car makers will now need an improvement rate of 4.3% per year over the next three years to meet their commitment. To date, T&E says, the best performance was 2.9%, recorded in 2000.

Jos Dings, director of T&E, said car makers "put all their technology into making cars heavier and more powerful, rather than more fuel efficient".
...
The UK SMMT (UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) counters that "cross-legislative" factors complicate the issue.

"There are a whole range of measures we have to put into cars related to safety, such as side impact bars and airbags, as well as all the things people want for comfort such as aircon and sat-nav," a spokesman explained.

"All those things add to the car's weight. You've got to find a way of moving that weight at the same speed, which of course means you need more 'oomph'."

Well these will not be the only targets missed on the carbon front. And notice T&E doesn't seem to be too worried about making buses and trains more efficient (just like cars, trains are being made more powerful, hence bigger consumers of energy). And as the SMMT points out, some (but certainly not all) of the increase in car weight is down to the regulations imposed by the health and safety nutters. So the T&E press release seems more about the usual anti-car hatred amongst the so-called environmentalists than anything else.

Catholic cardinal says condoms are ok to stop Aids (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the Roman Catholic Church's most distinguished cardinals has publicly backed the use of condoms among married couples to prevent Aids transmission.

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini said that in couples where one had HIV/Aids, which could pass to the partner, the use of condoms was "a lesser evil".

The Vatican says condoms should never be used, even to stop Aids spreading from one married partner to another.
...
According to insistent reports, Cardinal Martini was a close runner-up in last year's papal election.

A small chink in the usual medieval outlook of the Catholic Church. But a bit pathetic that anyone in the 21st century can deem condoms to be "evil", even if he is willingly to grudingly state that they are "a lesser evil" compared to Aids.

Date published: 2006/04/20

More on the upcoming local election (permanent blog link)

There must be an election on, yet another party leaflet drops through the door. Now what party could possibly state as priorities:

Well pick almost any party at random. Except for the bit about the "strong economy" (which the LibDems and Greens either do not care about or do not want), these sound bites could be made by pretty much any party. It happens to be a Tory leaflet. (The first from the Tories. The Lib Dems drop leaflets like confetti. But so far nothing from Labour, they must be having trouble getting anyone to volunteer for them.)

To be fair, they do mention a few things which other parties in Cambridge seem to ignore. For example, they mention "sustaining academic excellence". They don't mention the university explicitly (no point in upsetting, for example, Ruskin University or the LMB or the Sanger Centre) but it's obvious that without the university, Cambridge would just be a minor provincial village on the edge of a swamp. As it is, we're a major provincial village on the edge of a swamp. It's amazing that most of the political parties in Cambridge seem to show so much apathy towards the university, they obviously don't know which side their toast is buttered on. The politicians of Cambridge (certainly the Lib Dems) spend far too much time trying to figure out how to screw car drivers, and not enough time figuring out how to make Cambridge an attractive place for research and the hi-tech economy. (They do not seem to realise that the hi-tech boom died in 2000.)

The Tories also claim they "support the Green Belt". Well, this has been one of the disasters of Cambridge (and the rest of the south of England). And fortunately most of the Cambridge politicians now seem to agree that some of the Green Belt must go (the stupid example being the airport, which is both "Green Belt" and "Brown Field", and the latter designation provides a convenient fig leaf for development). The people who benefit from a rigid Green Belt, besides developers, are the propertied classes, whose houses continue to rise in value. Of course the propertied classes are generally Tories, except in Cambridge where they are more often Lib Dems.

Amusingly enough, the last thing the Tory leaflet says under "conserving the environment" is that "cricket on Parker's Piece will remain safe with the Conservatives". What planet do these people live on, to think that most voters would put cricket on any kind of priority list of things to worry about.

Meanwhile, the Lib Dems had their party political broadcast shown tonight. And rather surreal it was, being almost entirely about the "cult of the leader", complete with "ordinary" Lib Dems saying how wonderful he was (gee whiz, what a surprise they would say so).

Global warming being over-hyped (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hardly a day goes by without a new dire warning about climate change. But some claims are more extreme than others, giving rise to fears that the problem is being oversold and damaging the issue.

How much has the planet warmed up over the past century? Most people reckon between two and three degrees. They are not even close. The real figure, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is 0.6C.

It's not surprising most people get it wrong. We are bombarded by stories warning us that global warming is out of control. The most extreme warn us we will be living in a tropical Britain where malaria is rife and Norfolk has disappeared altogether.

Dr Hans Von Storch, a leading German climate scientist and fervent believer in global warming, is convinced the effect of climate change is being exaggerated.

"The alarmists think that climate change is something extremely dangerous, extremely bad and that overselling a little bit, if it serves a good purpose, is not that bad."

Why do the stories that reach the public focus only on the most frightening climate change scenarios? We decided to find out for a BBC Radio 4 documentary.

In 2005 the scientific journal Nature published the first results of a study by Climateprediction.net, a group of UK climate scientists. They had been testing what effect doubling the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere would have on temperature.

The vast majority of their results showed that doubling CO2 would lead to a temperature rise of about 3C. Such an increase would have a major impact on the planet. The scientists of Climateprediction.net say that is what you would expect their model to produce, and many other scientists have produced similar results. However a tiny percentage of the models showed very high levels of warming - the highest result was a startling 11C.

When it came to selling the story to journalists, the press release only mentioned one figure - 11C.

The basic problem is that people (including scientists and the media) always have to hype everything just to get any attention. (Just look at British TV these days. Unless you are a one-legged child-molesting porn star with some rare fatal disease who believes you have been kidnapped by aliens, you can forget about getting any air time. It's one big freak show. Everything has to be "extreme".)

Of course people who are anti-consumerist, in particular so-called environmentalists and many academics (although they are some of the biggest consumers), love the threat of global warming (and in particular love the extreme scenarios), because it means they can use this as part of their anti-consumerism crusade. In the old days you could rant against consumerism because God (allegedly) did not like it and so you were saving the world from moral catastrophe, now you can rant against consumerism because climate science allows you to claim you are saving the world from carbon catastrophe.

There are plenty of people (including some otherwise respectable scientists) who believe that if any model shows an 11C increase in temperature then "something must be done today". This is based on the so-called precautionary principle, which is not a principle but just a lazy slogan for people who have no real argument. In short, it says that if there is some catastrophic event that has any probability of occuring, no matter how small, you have to stop its potential cause no matter what, pretty much ignoring the cost of doing this. (Amongst other things, this "justifies" Bush invading any country he wants to, just in case some day it carries out some attack on America. And it "justifies" Blair locking up without trial anybody he doesn't like the look of, in case they are a "terrorist".)

Ignoring those people, the real issue is what is the impact of the more likely medium term temperature rise of 3C, and what to do about it. If you believe the predictions, even that amount of a temperature rise is going to cause lots of bad things to happen.

Date published: 2006/04/19

More hot air all around on the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Protecting the environment can boost rather than hinder economic growth, Chancellor Gordon Brown is saying.

In a speech to the United Nations in New York on Thursday, Mr Brown will call for a global response to the problem of climate change.

The chancellor denied being rattled by Tory leader David Cameron's recent emphasis on green issues.

Mr Cameron is set to visit northern Norway to study the effects of global warming on glaciers.

During his US trip, Mr Brown is expected to discuss oil at a G8 meeting in Washington.

But his first task is his speech on the "global challenge of environmental change".

In an interview with BBC News, he said: "The difficulty is if we don't deal with the environment it will have adverse effects on climate and then on the economy and our ability to grow.

"The good thing, however, is that I'm more optimistic than ever that we can build an international consensus."

He said countries were increasingly recognising the need to act on high oil prices by moving to a more diverse range of energy supplies.

And there were huge opportunities to use new science and technology to meet energy needs in an environmentally friendly way.

More hot air, Labour is indeed a bit rattled by Cameron, he looks a bit too much like they did a decade ago. Of course the Cameron trip to Norway is just a PR stunt (no doubt lots of journalists and hangers on will accompany, adding up to a huge amount of carbon emissions), but the Brown trip to New York is not much better.

Well at least the Conservative party political ad tonight on TV was better than Labour's last night. For one thing they actually talked about their policies, rather than trashing the opposition. This ad was all about why voting "blue" is actually voting "green". They claimed that 4 of the top 5 councils for recycling were Tory, which is hardly surprising given that recycling is the way the rich, who are still mostly Tories, make themselves feel less guilty about all the resources they are consuming. And they, like Brown, talk about "green growth". All rather meaningless spin.

Meanwhile, on a related front, the BBC says:

Thirty-five environmental and energy groups have issued a joint manifesto in response to the UK government's current energy policy review.

The joint statement reflects the priorities and policies the groups believe should emerge from the review.

It calls on the government to uphold the vision and targets contained in the 2003 Energy White Paper.

Representatives from the groups along with MPs launched the manifesto at the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday.

Philip Wolfe, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, which helped organise the joint statement, said: "This is the last chance for government to bring forward a sustained package of measures to deliver the objectives set out in 2003.

"Industry is looking for strong signals so we can invest in the necessary changes to our energy system."

The manifesto calls on the government to:

The groups say this strategic framework, along with related policy measures, should "enhance sustainability, boost UK industry and reduce fuel poverty".

The 35 groups are mostly the usual suspects, and this "manifesto" is so unoriginal that it's obvious the whole point was just to get lots of free publicity for the usual comfortable middle class views. In particular, what they mean by reducing demand and focusing on "sustainable transport" is to hammer car drivers (who are the only people in the UK who currently pay a carbon tax) and to subsidise train commuters even more (so an even bigger carbon subsidy, courtesy of car drivers), and to increase air fares so that only the middle class can once again afford to fly (there's nothing worse than having to share an airplane with a bunch of working class slobs when you are flying to Norway or New York for political grandstanding).

And many of the 35 groups have a direct financial interest in renewable energy, so of course they want a "boost" (i.e. yet more government subsidy) for that, and it's hardly a grand principle to demand that the rest of the country subsidise your business. They want energy to be more expensive (renewables are, and oil, gas and coal should have a whacking great carbon tax), so their claim about reducing "fuel poverty" rings rather hollow. It will not be the comfortable middle class who suffer when energy prices soar.

Bird flu allegedly poses risk to biodiversity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The spread of bird flu poses serious risks to biodiversity, say scientists who have detailed an outbreak of the virus in Owston's civets.

The mammal is a small, endangered carnivore that lives in the forests of Vietnam, Laos and southern China.

Three animals died at a conservation centre in northern Vietnam last summer. It is not known how they contracted the virus, as they do not eat poultry.

The scientists report the cases in a journal of the UK's Royal Society.

The team - from the UK, Vietnam and China - call for better monitoring of the H5N1 virus in wild animals.

"H5N1 could pose a risk to a variety of wild birds and mammals," lead author Diana Bell, of the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, told the BBC News website.

"We need to be screening wild birds and mammals in those countries where the virus has been present for some time.

"We mustn't be totally anthropocentric in our focus on H5N1. It doesn't only kill humans and poultry; it also kills a wide variety of wild birds and carnivorous mammals."

Well, you have to wonder if most people of the world would rather spend money to save the odd million people, or to spend money saving a few non-human species (most of which are on the brink for reasons related to humans, not bird flu). Of course understanding the wider environmental impact of H5N1 might help on the human front.

Date published: 2006/04/18

David Cameron still pretending he is green (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron will focus on the environment for the final phase of the local election campaign.

Mr Cameron will help distribute recycling boxes to residents, urging them to "vote blue, go green", in the lead up to the 4 May elections.

He is expected to pledge that Tory councillors will work for cross-party consensus to preserve the environment.

He will also launch a pamphlet in which he says the Tories will lead a "new green revolution" in Britain.

Speaking ahead of his campaign's launch in Brentwood, Essex, Mr Cameron said he wanted to see what he called "green growth" - a combination of economic growth and a sustainable environment.

"Some of the green lobby and a lot of the media tend to look at the environment and climate change as, look you've got a binary choice, you can either have economic growth or you can have a sustainable environment, and the truth is we've got to have both. We've got to have green growth."

In his foreword to a leaflet that will set out the Conservative environmental agenda, he says "we have to think globally and act locally".
...
Later this week he will travel to the Arctic Circle to see the impact of global warming, including a glacier which has lost almost half its mass in the past century.

More meaningless hot air from Cameron. And his lark to the Artic Circle will cause more carbon emissions in one go than many people in the world are responsible for in a year.

On the other hand, New Labour has dropped to a new low tonight with their latest party political TV ad. In it they say nothing about their policies but instead spend the whole time claiming that Cameron is a chameleon (complete with the obvious nauseating Boy George music track) who is appealing to all sectors of the electorate (blue, red, yellow and green) by just telling them what they want to hear, determined via focus groups. Hell hath no fury like a political party whose entire modus operandi has been stolen by another political party.

The European Commission allegedly showing a double standard over GMOs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Two environmental groups say they have documents which show a double standard on the safety of genetically-modified organisms in the European Commission.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace accuse the commission of telling the public GMOs are safe but admitting to safety concerns in a report.

The two groups are citing a report submitted by the commission to the World Trade Organisation.

The European Commission is the EU's executive body.

Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace are accusing the European Commission of approving GM crops and foods despite serious doubts over their impact on health and the environment.

Using freedom of information rules, they obtained the commission's report to the World Trade Organisation, which is hearing a complaint against European bans on GMOs.

The report warns that there are still large areas of scientific uncertainty and disagreement, and that based on current data there is no way to rule out the development of cancer or allergies as a result of GMOs.

It raises concerns about weeds and insects becoming resistant to the toxins in GM crops, and it warns that GM plants like oilseed rape and sugar beet can easily cross with their wild relatives.

Just two weeks ago the EU agriculture commissioner repeated that no GM products were approved unless they were completely safe.

But those assurances are not getting through. In a recent EU poll, nearly two-thirds said they were worried about the safety of GM foods.

As pointed out by the FoE and Greenpeace, the European Commission is in a pickle. The whole case of the EU to the WTO rests on pretending that their ban on GMOs is not just a trade barrier but instead due to health concerns, and this is manifestly wrong, so hopefully the WTO will treat it with the disrespect it deserves. But of course everybody also knows (including the so-called environmentalists) that no food (GMO or otherwise) can ever be shown to be "completely safe", and anybody who pretends otherwise is just a liar. So the so-called environmentalists are being just as disingenous as the EC. And the fact that two-thirds of the EU citizenry are allegedly worried about the safety of GM foods just shows how susceptible people are to hysterical and ill-informed media coverage, fanned by the so-called environmentalists and much of the rest of the chattering classes.

Stansted northern link road from M11 dropped (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Plans for an M11/A120 link road to the north and east of Stansted Airport have been dropped.

Both BAA and the Government have agreed there are other preferable options such as a significant upgrade around junction eight of the M11.

One option is to improve the existing access from junction eight and the A120.

Another is to provide additional access immediately north of junction eight from the M11 and A120.

Both are intended to reduce the growing airport's environmental impact.

BAA will shortly begin work on environmental surveys to decide which of the two schemes should be included later this year in a public consultation on road and rail requirements for an extra runway.

In addition, environmental information will be gathered in connection with the possible widening of the M11 between the M25 and junction eight.

Alastair McDermid, second runway project director, said: "As our plans continue to take shape for the second runway development, I am delighted by dropping plans for the M11/A120 link road we have removed an element of uncertainty for those living in communities to the north and east of Stansted."

He expected the planning application for the second runway to be made in the summer of 2007.

This proposed link road was one aspect of the expansion of Stansted which made little sense. It would have been expensive to build such a new road with little benefit that could not have been achieved by just giving the southbound traffic on the M11 an exit onto the (new) A120 similarly (and more easily) to how the northbound traffic now gets one. If for some reason the A120 needs more capacity then that can easily be widened further, there is plenty of space.

Date published: 2006/04/17

Some greenbelt land should be turned into forests and housing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More agricultural and green belt land should be reforested or turned into housing, a new report suggests.

A change in land use is proposed in the study Land Economy by the free market think-tank the Adam Smith Institute.

It says much of the UK's agricultural land, including land currently labelled as green belt, is not especially green.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said planning was key to ensure homes, needed for a growing population, were built in a sustainable way.

Study author Mischa Balen said modern farming techniques turned land into monocultural wastelands that did not provide proper habitats for animals.

Mr Balen called for a change in policy where some farms and green belt would be turned into housing and woodlands.

He said: "If some of these were converted to sympathetic development consisting of 90% woodland, including small lakes and rivers, and 5% each for housing and supporting infrastructure, each farm whose use was changed in this way would yield almost 200,000 square metres (2.15 million sq ft) of new woodland, together with 140 average-sized new homes."

Mr Balen proposed that 3% of all farmland be converted using this system, which would create 950,000 new houses and 130,000 hectares of woodland, which equated to about an 11% increase in the woodland cover of England and Wales.

He said: "None of these new homes would be overlooked by existing houses. Rather, they would be nestled in among new woodland.

"Current homeowners would not face a view altered by new buildings.

"On the contrary, they would see the ugly monoculture fields replaced by natural woods, carefully planted to provide a mixture of different types of trees and undergrowth."

"The fields so barren of insect, bird and animal life, would be replaced by woods rich in biodiversity and providing a habitat for birds and small mammals."

A spokesman for ODPM said: "The government believes we need more new homes for an ageing and growing population. But we also need to make sure that we build these homes in a sustainable way.

"That is why the planning system is so important.

"It is because of the changes we have already made to the planning system that over 70% of new housing developments have been built on brownfield land."

Of course the report is largely correct, but it will never get anywhere in Britain, which is a country run by people who put style above substance. A case in point is the comment from the spokesman for the ODPM. Much land that is designated as "brownfield" is as green as much of the land that is designated as "greenbelt". For example, in Cambridge, the airport is (stupidly) being encouraged to close down and it will be replaced with thousands of (terrible) homes. The airport is designated "brownfield" but it is mostly grass. Similarly, the (terrible) new development at Northstowe is partly located on a disused airfield, so is deemed "brownfield", although most of the land being built on is definitely as "green" as any "greenbelt" land. But politicians and other pseudo-environmentalists have foisted this "brownfield" claptrap on the nation, and it is not going away any time soon. The one niggle with the Adam Smith Institute report is that too much land is going to woodlands and not enough to gardens for the houses themselves. And they are also missing one of the big reasons people get hysterical about new developments. Sure, people are going to miss the view if their village expands, but they will always claim that the big problem is the increase in traffic (allegedly the end of the world), and secondly the alleged lack of services to cope with the increased population (schools, etc.). Of course if the infrastructure was planned properly none of this would be a problem, but this is Britain, and urban planning is abysmal.

Date published: 2006/04/16

MPs write yet another report on energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks has accused a group of MPs of "over-egging" the risk of electricity shortages.

The Commons Environmental Audit Committee had warned the UK cannot wait for a new generation of nuclear power stations and needed gas-fired stations.

A government energy review this year is expected to request more nuclear power.

Mr Wicks, who leads the review, said no decision had been taken but the extra cost of cleaner energy like nuclear was a price to pay for saving the planet.

Speaking on BBC's Radio Five Live, he said there were concerns about what do with nuclear waste and the threat of terror attacks on nuclear stations.

But he added: "I think in favour of nuclear - despite what the Lib Dems say - is the scientific evidence that nuclear is a cleaner form of energy.

"It helps us with climate change, but we've got to look at the economics, and then we've got to weigh all these things before we make our recommendation to the prime minister and the government."

Earlier the committee said the UK faced a "generation gap" which nuclear power could not bridge.

The first nuclear power plants would not come online until 2017, and the proposed network would not be generating at full capacity until as late as 2030.

It said an "extensive" programme of gas-powered stations needed to be set up, and that cleaner stations would not necessarily mean more carbon emissions.

The committee also claimed it was "scandalous" that not enough research was being carried out into alternative technologies such as carbon capture, which could limit the emissions from fossil fuels.

It said renewable energy sources could provide 20% the UK's electricity by the year 2020.

Nothing new here, with the same old tired lines being repeated. As everybody knows, it is not just nuclear that has problems, gas also does (carbon emissions and lack of security of supply), as do all forms of energy generation. The current UK government certainly seems to be lax when it comes to future energy generation, and this could come back to haunt us in a decade or two.

Michelangelo and Modernism exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

As usual, lots of nice exhibitions are on in London. At the British Museum there is an exhibition of Michelangelo drawings (on until 25 June), seemingly all from the collections of the Ashmolean Museum (in Oxford), the Teyler Museum (in Haarlem) and the British Museum itself. This seems to be a "blockbuster" exhibition and entries are timed to ten minutes and show up even one minute early (or presumably one minute late) and you will get short shrift. Definitely book this one ahead of time. Even if you arrive early (e.g. if you leave plenty of time to make sure you don't arrive late, given the state of the British transport system), there is obviously so much to see in the rest of the museum you could not possibly get bored.

Michelangelo was not as great a painter as Raphael or as eccentric a genius as Leonardo, but he was really a Renaissance man par excellent, mastering drawing, painting, sculpture architecture, and it is claimed in this exhibition, poetry (although that has obviously dated much more than his other artistic output). The drawings are more subtle than his paintings, so well worth seeing, although some of the drawings included in the exhibition are little more than a few scribbles (but presumably a Michelangelo scribble is worth even more than a Picasso scribble).

Meanwhile over at the Victoria and Albert Museum there is their latest exhibition featuring 20th century design, this one entitled "Modernism: 1914-1939" (on until 23 July). Now there were some great iconic modernist houses, and some of those have photos, or are part of videos, included in the exhibition (e.g. the Villa Savoye of Le Corbusier). These are definitely the highlight of the exhibition, although since this was not an architecture exhibition there are few architectural plans shown.

Unfortunately modernist design for house interiors was generally pretty woeful, and this exhibition provides a perfect sample of that. Considering they supposedly were concerned with function, they made an awful lot of impractical things (e.g. chairs you would not want to sit in).

The 1920s also seems to have been a heyday for conceptual art (with several examples included in the exhibition) of the form still considered wonderful by certain sections of the chattering classes. It was just as pretentious and shallow then as it is now.

It is interesting that the health craze (complete with lots of exercise) started long before Hitler appropriated it as part of his Aryan masterplan. The Czechs had a movement called Sokol, founded in 1862, and these were complete with mass exercise displays that could have been straight out of the Nazi playbook, although apparently the movement was anti-fascist (and was banned by Hitler after he invaded Czechoslovakia). Of course the communists in the Soviet Union had similar ideas.

Not too surprisingly, a lot of this health craze, when it was not blatantly political, seems to have been about displaying pretty young women, preferably half-naked or naked (there was even an early exercise video of such included in the exhibition, with naked young women prancing about supposedly for the benefit of their health).

Although the exhibition showed how poor much of modernist design and ideology was, it's still worth going to, and the hefty catalogue is worth purchasing.

Middle class protesters brag about disrupting road building (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The anti-road building protests of the 1990s led to a huge increase in the cost of road building, environmentalists have claimed.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the campaign against the M11 extension contributed to a 100% increase in costs.

The Newbury bypass - the scene of Britain's most notorious road protest - was 50% over budget.

Protesters are warning of a similar campaign against airport expansion.

They say the projects ran over budget because of their action, but a spokesman for the Highways Agency said the protesters were only one factor that caused budgets to overrun.

During the M11 campaign protesters barricaded themselves inside houses in east London, which were later bulldozed.

In Newbury they dug tunnels and took to the trees.

The road cost in excess of £100m and took 34 months to complete. It was opened in November 1998.

In total more than 1,000 people were arrested.

It's amazing how disruptive middle class protesters can get away with bragging about their anti-social behaviour. Needless to say their actions did not prevent the roads being built. All they did was guarantee that a lot of money was spent on lawyers and security rather than on transport, schools and hospitals. Either make them pay the cost of their actions or throw them in prison. Unfortunately being middle class, this never happens.

Date published: 2006/04/15

Yet another middle class consultancy complaining about UK consumption (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is about to run out of its own natural resources and become dependent on supplies from abroad, a report says.

A study by the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and the Open University says 16 April is the day when the nation goes into "ecological debt" this year.

It warns if annual global consumption levels matched the UK's, it would take 3.1 Earths to meet the demand.

But bio-geography professor Philip Stott criticised the "doomsday report", arguing it would hit poorer nations.

"What we tend to have - not just with this report but alternative reports on the other side - are two theological positions," said Prof Stott, of London University.

"This one is the kind of Doomsday report - on the other hand the total free-traders are far too optimistic."

He went on: "If we did follow this report for example the damage to the Third World would be very great indeed because of course trade is the main dynamo of growth."

More hand-wringing from the comfortable middle classes. Unfortunately Britain is rich enough that it is plagued by consultancies such as Nef, that produce nothing but hot air, and survive off handouts from the rest of society. Needless to say, they are amongst the well off in society, and if they are so offended by Britain allegedly sponging off the rest of the world, they can stop their own sponging and give away their possessions and become poor.

Bush doesn't want to sack Rumsfeld (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has assured Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld of his "full support" in the wake of criticism by retired generals.

In a statement, the president rejected calls for Mr Rumsfeld to step down.

Mr Bush praised Mr Rumsfeld for his "energetic and steady leadership" during his years at the Pentagon.

Six retired generals have spoken out against Mr Rumsfeld's handling of the war in Iraq and apparent disdain for experienced military commanders.

The defence secretary has also personally dismissed suggestions that he should resign.

"Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defence of the United States it would be like a merry-go-round," he told Arabic TV channel al-Arabiya.

But he did admit to regrets over the abuse of prisoners by US troops at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail.
...
Mr Bush's support comes as US-based Human Rights Watch said Mr Rumsfeld could be "criminally liable" for what it described as the torture of a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

Of course Rumsfeld should be held accountable for the totally incompetent way the Defence Department planned the war on Iraq, in particular because he ignored advice on all fronts (e.g. on troop numbers) that didn't happen to fit with his pre-conceived ideas, and most of that advice turned out to be correct.

But of course Bush will not sack Rumsfeld. If Rumsfeld were to be held accountable, Bush would have to be held doubly accountable. And if there's one thing you can say about Bush, the buck does not stop on his desk.

Date published: 2006/04/14

Cambridge now wants to close down Victoria Avenue and Maid's Causeway (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

People are being asked to have their say on plans to stop motorists using two streets as a rat run.

Residents asked Cambridgeshire County Council to look at Maid's Causeway and Victoria Avenue in Cambridge after traffic levels rose in the streets.

The two roads were the only ones inside the inner ring road not to be included in the council's core scheme - an initiative to improve safety and reduce through-traffic in Cambridge's city centre.

But now the scheme has been extended to include the streets.

Traffic monitoring suggested up to 60 per cent of the 15,000 vehicles using Maid's Causeway and Victoria Avenue each day are just travelling through the area.

The county council is now asking residents to choose between three options for the area.

Option A is to introduce a parttime tidal closure similar to the one which operates in Silver Street. This would remove traffic and improve air quality in the area but would push more traffic into using Elizabeth Way and Chesterton Road.

Option B would see the route stay open to vehicles but some form of traffic management scheme would be adopted.

The final choice - option C - is to do nothing.

The "dead tree" version of the story, in the Town Crier, also says:

Cllr Julian Huppert, chairman of the Cambridge traffic management area joint committee, said: "... This next stage will look at addressing streets that are being used as rat runs as a result of changes elsewhere".
...
Leaflets will be delivered to those directly affected by the plans.

The Cambridge ruling elite are not very bright, and this, the latest of their crackpot transport planning, is a perfect example. Huppert himself admits the increased traffic on Victoria Avenue is due to "changes elsewhere" introduced by, you guessed it, the Cambridge ruling elite. The algorithm seems to be:

  1. Ask the residents of a road whether anybody else should be allowed to use it (gee whiz, what do you suppose the answer is)
  2. Promise a wider consultation, but of course at the same time denigrate anybody who dares to use the relevant roads as "rat runners"
  3. Ignore what anybody says unless they support the proposal (and of course the middle class, especially the cycling lobby and residents on the roads concerned, stuff the ballot boxes)
  4. Close the road (of course)
  5. Stare in amazement as the road traffic diverts around the closure so the problems move elsewhere (well, at least in this case they admit this will be exactly the consequence)
  6. Go back to step 1 (hey, a job for life for transport planners)

Needless to say, Victoria Avenue gets a lot more traffic than it used to because the council closed down Bridge Street in 1997. The only way to get to the Park Street car park now is via either Victoria Avenue or Maid's Causeway. So if the city brilliantly selects option A (and on past form that is what will happen) then they might as well close down the Park Street car park and stop taking the piss.

There are four road crossings of the Cam in Cambridge: Elizabeth Way, Victoria Avenue, Silver Street and Fen Causeway. A couple of years ago the Cambridge ruling elite partly closed down Silver Street. Now they are almost certainly going to do the same to Victoria Avenue. Yes, the Cambridge ruling elite think the people who live west and north of the river are scum, and want to keep them out of the city. How dare the peasants cross the river and spoil the life of the rich.

You have to love the touch that "leaflets will be delivered to those directly affected by the plans". This is completely incorrect. Leaflets are only going to be delivered to those people who live or work in the immdediate area. Tens of thousands of other people who are directly affected by the plans (because they use Victoria Avenue and/or Maid's Causeway) will not be receiving leaflets. That is, a small minority will receive the leaflets (those who will nominally benefit), the vast majority will not (those who will definitely lose out). This is one way to make sure the consulation is biased.

This kind of consulation is also typical of the "cult of the selfish" that dominates current political life. Most current politicians (certainly the Lib Dems who run Cambridge) seem to believe that if a small (usually middle class, i.e. rich) group of people object to other people using the roads in front of their houses then the roads should be closed, so that society as a whole is held hostage by the rich few. These politicians might as well quote the Thatcher doctrine that "there is no such thing as society", since society obviously counts for nothing, relative to the selfish views of a few.

Needless to say, the council does not even define what it means by "through traffic". If you take the definition literally, then 99% of traffic on Victoria Avenue must be through traffic, because there are no buildings on Victoria Avenue south of the river (well, people are allowed to park cars there on Sundays, but that hardly counts). Victoria Avenue is a city artery, it is supposed to be a through road. Why is it that the council believes that "through" traffic is evil but "non-through" traffic is not? After all, even "non-through" traffic must have gone through some other road (unless the journey is ridiculously short). If people on Histon Road were as rich as the people on Maid's Causeway, no doubt some day we would be hearing that Histon Road is a "rat run" which should be closed to "through traffic". And similarly Milton Road, Hungtingdon Road (where the rich are already biasing the A14 transport policy of the local council, but have not yet managed to get the road closed down), etc.

Ironically Victoria Avenue is one of the best roads in Cambridge to cycle down, there is absolutely no problem with cars because the road is fairly wide (there is a small problem with buses because cyclists have to share a lane with them when heading northbound). Indeed, if you are heading to the south of the city from the north on a bicycle, given the choice between Histon Road and Victoria Avenue, for reasons of scenery and safety you would far and away prefer to cycle down Victoria Avenue. You can guarantee that no matter what the Cambridge ruling elite do, they will make the road worse for cyclists. (They already have recently by making the two pedestrian traffic lights along the road last much longer than they used to.)

Unfortunately, until Blair is removed from office, Cambridge seems to be stuck with the Lib Dems lording over the town. Some day we will be emancipated.

The world is probably going to get at least 3C warmer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world is likely to suffer a temperature rise of more than 3C, the government's chief scientist warned.

That would put up to 400 million people worldwide at risk of hunger, said Professor Sir David King in a report based on computer predictions.

He told the BBC the world had to act now to tackle global warming expected to happen over the next 100 years.

He said even if international agreement could be reached on limiting emissions, climate change was inevitable.

The UK Government and the EU want to stabilise the climate at an increase of no more than 2C, but the US refuses to cut emissions and those of India and China are rising quickly.

The government report says a 3C rise would cause a drop worldwide of between 20 and 400 million tonnes in cereal crops and put about 400 million more people at risk of hunger.

Nothing new here. The world is going to have to learn to cope with increased temperatures (unless the models are seriously wrong, which is possible, since nobody really knows what technology lies around the corner). Perhaps the BBC can show some public spirit and lead the way by pledging never to pay for its employees to fly anywhere. We don't really need all those journalists flying all over the place just so they can report on news that they could perfectly well report from home.

Date published: 2006/04/13

The Blair dictatorship programme slowly advances (permanent blog link)

Lot's of stories in the news about the Blair dictatorship agenda.

The BBC says:

A High Court judge has ruled control orders, a major part of government legislation to deal with terror suspects, is "conspicuously unfair". BBC legal affairs analyst Jon Silverman looks at the implications.

It is no great surprise that the government has lost the first round of its legal battle over control orders.

During the stormy passage of the 2005 Terrorism Bill, the parliamentary joint committee on human rights warned that it was "highly unlikely" that the orders were compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article 6 of the ECHR enshrines the right to a fair trial. A control order is designed to prevent a future crime rather than punish for a past act.

Thus, says the government, it is not punitive. But Strasbourg case law takes the view that the executive is nevertheless obliged to provide access to a court. The access established by the Terrorism Act 2005 does not fulfil this requirement.

The ruling turned on the amount of information a judge is entitled to see when reviewing the home secretary's decision to impose a control order.

As it stands, this is limited to material which was before the home secretary and excludes other, potentially exculpatory, facts.

This, said Mr Justice Sullivan, is "conspicuously unfair."

A temporary victory which the government will no doubt figure out how to work around. But the idea that control orders are not punitive is 1984-speak, which is what one expects from Blair and his cronies.

The BBC also says:

A controversial piece of legislation which critics fear would give sweeping powers to ministers to change any law is to be rethought.

Ministers wanted powers to scrap red tape but opponents said they could use the same bill to by-pass Parliament and change criminal or constitutional laws.

Now Cabinet Office Minister Jim Murphy had confirmed amendments will be brought in limiting the powers.

A select committee of MPs will be able to veto ministers' decisions.

And the Regulatory Reform Bill will not allow any powers to make constitutional changes.

If one didn't know Blair better, one could think that the original proposals were just badly phrased by mistake. But Blair's government is totally untrustworthy, so one must assume he and his cronies were up to no good, as usual.

The BBC also says:

New laws making it illegal to glorify terrorism and distribute terrorist publications have come into force.

The Terrorism Act 2006 allows groups or organisations to be banned for those offences and covers anyone who gives or receives training.

The act designates nuclear sites as areas where trespass can become a terrorist offence.

Human rights campaigners argue the law is drawn far too widely and it faced stiff opposition in the House of Lords.

Peers were worried it would curb free speech and rejected the plans five times before voting them through in March.

Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs voted against the Terrorism Bill, saying existing legislation already covered the glorification offence.

Yet another fundamental attack on civil liberties courtesy of Blair and New Labour. This law will be twisted soon enough to be used against political opponents rather than real terrorists.

Organic light-emitting diodes as possible replacement for light bulbs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A natural light source that could put the traditional light bulb in the shade has been invented by US scientists.

The organic light-emitting diode (OLED) emits a brilliant white light when attached to an electricity supply.

The material, described in the journal Nature, can be printed in wafer thin sheets that could transform walls, ceilings or even furniture into lights.

The OLEDs do not heat up like today's light bulbs and so are far more energy efficient and should last longer.

"We're hoping that this will lead to significantly longer device times lifetimes in addition to higher efficiency," said Professor Mark Thompson of the University of Southern California, one of the authors of the paper.
...
The researchers believe that eventually this material could be 100% efficient, meaning it could be capable of converting all of the electricity to light, without the heat loss associated with traditional bulbs.

The new material can also be printed onto glass or plastic and so in theory could create large areas of lighting, relatively cheaply.

Before this becomes a reality, the scientists need to work out a way to seal the LEDs from moisture which can contaminate the sensitive material, causing it to no longer work.

Sounds good, but obviously it's early days. There are already low-energy alternatives to traditional light bulbs, but most people don't like them (they are more expensive to buy and the light they produce is not as good).

City council wants cycle parking removed from near Kellett Lodge (permanent blog link)

An email does the rounds of university departments located on the Old Addenbrooke's site, from a university employee. The email says:

I'm meeting City Council officers next week about the Kellett Lodge cycle parking - they have already made it clear that they only agreed to the provision of cycle parking there on a temporary basis while the Gurdon Institute building was being built, and want the garden re-instated, to preserve the setting of the Lodge, which is a grade II listed building.

Absolutely unbelievable. Because of the Gurdon Institute being built we need more, not less cycle parking. Indeed we needed more, not less, car parking, but that has already been reduced. But the Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, so that one was a no-brainer. On the other hand they allegedly like cycling. But obviously not really.

Kellett Lodge and cycle parking

Kellett Lodge is a completely unimpressive building. How it ever became Grade II listed is unbelievable, and this perfectly illustrates the fact that the UK lists far, far too many buildings. Even though it is listed, the idea that the cycle parking somehow detracts from its setting is a joke. Kellett Lodge is completely surrounded and overshadowed by university science buildings. (Well, Tennis Court Road and a large ugly brick wall bounding Downing College are on one side, but those hardly make a positive contribution.) In comparison a few cycles make no difference. Indeed, the cycles on the raised section at the left in the photo will remain, as will cycle parking on the other side of the building, it is only the cycle parking on ground level on this side that will be removed. If only the middle class control freaks who run Britain would get lost. Unfortunately instead we have to pay taxes so that they can be paid to wreak their havoc.

Date published: 2006/04/12

Court of Appeal forces Primary Care Trust to fund Herceptin (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A breast cancer patient should have the drug Herceptin, according to a landmark ruling from the Court of Appeal.

Ann Marie Rogers of Swindon, Wilts, was appealing against an earlier High Court decision upholding Swindon Primary Care Trust's refusal to fund Herceptin.

Ms Rogers, 53, had said she faced a "death sentence" without Herceptin.

The Appeal Court ruling does not force local NHS bodies to fund the drug, but it said it was irrational to treat one patient but not another.

The judges said the ruling would not "open the floodgates" as only women who met the clinical criteria for Herceptin would qualify for the drug.
...
Ms Rogers, said she was "extremely delighted and relieved" at the Appeal Court's "humanitarian" judgement.

"I've got my life back. It's like winning the lottery.
...
A year's treatment with the drug costs an estimated £20,000.

The treatment is currently licensed for the treatment of advanced breast cancer but not for early-stage breast cancer, which research has suggested it could also help.

Makers Roche submitted their licence application for early-stage breast cancer to European drug authorities in February.

Once that is granted, NHS drugs watchdog the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) promised to fast-track its appraisal if Herceptin is cost-effective .

What a way to run a health service. Rogers is entirely correct, she has won the lottery. Especially given that the cost of the drug is 20000 pounds per year. The number of people who wrote into the BBC today saying that "cost does not matter if one life is saved" (which was allegedly not the issue here, although it should have been part of it) are living in cloud cuckoo land. What they are really saying is that the taxation rate should be 100%. After all, we wouldn't want any treatment to be refused for reasons of cost. Ask them whether they would be willing to pay 100% in tax and see what response you get. At least the people of NICE understand the cost issue. Unfortunately the breast cancer pressure groups, with the support of the media, are only interested in promoting their cause above all others, independent of cost, and they have already bounced the government into support for the drug, so that NICE will have to approve the drug no matter what the cost. No doubt Roche made up the figure of 20000 because it is extortionate but not so extortionate as to make it totally unaffordable. Hopefully the breast cancer pressure groups will now tell us what other treatments should be refused on the NHS because of all the money that will be diverted towards Herceptin and similar drugs.

Drug companies allegedly inventing diseases (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pharmaceutical firms are inventing diseases to sell more drugs, researchers have warned.

Disease-mongering promotes non-existent diseases and exaggerates mild problems to boost profits, the Public Library of Science Medicine reported.

Researchers at Newcastle University in Australia said firms were putting healthy people at risk by medicalising conditions such as menopause.

But the pharmaceutical industry denied it invented diseases.

Report authors David Henry and Ray Moynihan criticised attempts to convince the public in the US that 43% of women live with sexual dysfunction.

They also said that risk factors like high cholesterol and osteoporosis were being presented as diseases - and rare conditions such as restless leg condition and mild problems of irritable bowel syndrome were exaggerated.

The report said: "Disease-mongering is the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments.

"It is exemplified mostly explicitly by many pharmaceutical industry-funded disease awareness campaigns - more often designed to sell drugs than to illuminate or to inform or educate about the prevention of illness or the maintenance of health."

More middle class hand-wringing. You can always cherry-pick these kinds of alleged abuses by the pharmaceutical industry, especially when you have a political axe to grind. The question is whether this is significant in the global view. And it's hardly surprising that pharmaceutical companies are more interested in selling drugs than in educating the public. The latter is not their job and the former is. And these kinds of alleged abuses can only succeed because most people are hypochondriacs who believe there must be a cure for every problem in life. And one way for doctors to get rid of these hypochondriacs is to hand out pills like candy. Far worse than the drug industry is the beauty industry. At least most drugs do something positive, beauty products do nothing except soothe people's vanity.

Labour ministers like to fly courtesy of the RAF (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers have been urged to explain why they took hundreds of journeys on the Queen's Flight.

Tony Blair has flown in RAF jets 670 times, at a cost of £1.2m, since becoming prime minister in 1997.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett took 106 RAF flights between 2002 and December 2004 - many to East Midlands airport, near her home in Derbyshire.

Conservative transport spokesman Chris Grayling accused ministers of using the planes as a "private taxi service".

Government officials said it was cheaper than commercial airlines and stressed the flights were within the ministerial rules.
...
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said many of Mrs Beckett's meetings in Brussels "often end at unpredictable hours in the middle of the night when there is no alternative transport available".

The spokesman added: "Returning to the UK immediately allows attendance at high level meetings early the next morning and represents savings on hotel accommodation."

The environment department spokesman added: "Conscious of the environmental impact of aviation, all ministerial flights during the EU presidency last year were carbon offset as were emissions from all other sources."

What a surprise. The ruling elite have spent the last few years complaining about global warming but of course they are far and away the worst offenders. And the Tories are totally hypocritical, since they would do the same as Labour should they happen to win the next election. And the environment department spokesman is just taking the piss. Having the taxpayer pay twice, once for the flight and a second time to allegedly cover the damage to the environment, is just adding insult to injury. Unless ministers personally pay for the environmental damage, it counts for nothing. They have no incentive to travel by any other method.

Date published: 2006/04/11

Italy electorate divided (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Italy's centre-left leader Romano Prodi says he has won the right to become the country's prime minister following a narrow victory in the general election.

Latest results give Mr Prodi's bloc 49.8% against 49.7% for the ruling centre-right in the lower house.

An official projection shows a slim majority in the Senate - the upper house - for Mr Prodi's bloc.

But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition is disputing the results and refusing to admit defeat.

So it's not just in America where you can fool half of the people all of the time. Berlusconi is a criminal and a clown, not a very good combination. The one thing he has on Bush is that he is not responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

Teaching trade unionist wants complete change in teaching (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The national curriculum should be fundamentally reformed with more focus on skills rather than specific subjects, a teachers' union has said.

Tests for under-16s in England should also go, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers argues.

It wants ministers to give children "entitlements" to broad skills, such as creativity and physical co-ordination, rather than specific knowledge.

The Department for Education said tests provided objective benchmarks.

ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said the current system was "not fit for purpose".

Speaking at the union's annual conference in Gateshead, she said "skills" were needed, rather than knowledge on its own. Subjects could be used to "illustrate" them.

Dr Bousted said: "It's important to understand the world we are moving towards, where what people need to know changes very often."

Under the ATL proposal, schools or councils would be able to set their own curriculum content and to replace "artificially divided" subjects.

For example, they would decide what is studied in history, allowing more crossover with other areas such as geography.

Asked whether this meant children would be able to go from the age of five to 16 without studying any British history, Dr Bousted replied that it was "extremely unlikely" but "not impossible".

The ATL's proposals say the national curriculum should be replaced with a "framework of entitlements" ensuring:

Dr Bousted said there could be some role for government, such as ensuring all pupils learnt some British history or Shakespeare, but further debate was needed.

Dear, oh dear, and they said the loony left had disappeared from Britain. The one thing Britain could do with is the sacking of anyone who wants to completely change the entire educational system from top to bottom. And indeed sack all educationalists. And you have to wonder where maths and science fit in this grandiose waffle, but most educationalists are artsies so haven't a clue about maths or science. And most of what students "need to know" does not "change very often". Unless she wants to teach in maths that 2+2=5, or that French is now German, or that most of history is somehow different in 2006 than in 2005.

Teachers want 4x4s banned (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Danger signs should be placed on 4x4 vehicles to prevent parents from using them on the school run, teachers say.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers will vote on plans to put warnings on dashboards.

History teacher Phil Whalley said 4x4s and sports utility vehicles were more likely than conventional cars to kill children and the danger was increased when bull bars were attached.

He urged the government to carry out further research into the risks.

Mr Whalley, whose Hardenhuish School is in a rural area of Wiltshire, said many parents bought 4x4s as "status symbols".

He added: "This is not about bashing the toffs in their Chelsea tractors or town against country.

"It's not about environmental issues. It's about child safety and education."

He said international research showed 4x4s were more likely to kill small children than normal, lower, cars, as they tended to collide with their chests or heads.

The driver's high vantage point also made it harder to see pedestrians.

Which is worse, toffs with 4x4s, or the envy of the comfortable middle class? Let's just bring this argument to its logical conclusion. If "child safety" is so important, just ban all cars from anywhere near schools. And certainly ban school buses. And although everyone can have a good laugh at this, needless to say if the control (and health and safety) freaks succeed in banning 4x4s, they will next move onto other cars (not buses, because those are politically correct, whereas cars are not).

Date published: 2006/04/10

Bush White House softens up the US for an attack on Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US has rejected suggestions that it might be preparing to use nuclear weapons against targets in Iran.

A report in The New Yorker magazine said the US was increasing planning for a possible air attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

It said one option being considered was a tactical nuclear strike against underground nuclear sites.

Dan Bartlett, a senior adviser to President George W Bush, said the report was "ill-informed".
...
UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said talk of a US nuclear strike was "completely nuts".

Iran has branded the reports as a "psychological war launched by Americans because they feel angry and desperate regarding Iran's nuclear dossier".

"We will stand by our right to nuclear technology... Iran is not afraid of threatening language," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on Sunday.
...
The US magazine article, by journalist Seymour Hersh, makes three main claims:

Mr Hersh also quoted a former senior intelligence official as saying that President Bush and others in the White House were referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a potential Adolf Hitler threatening another world war.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Hersh said many US allies felt Iran was two to 10 years away from developing a nuclear bomb and that the real aim was regime change.

"No matter what Iran would do, I think in the short run some people are afraid the president will want to go - just as he wanted to go on Iraq," he said.

He said he believed the president felt military action against Iran was something only he could do. "It's messianic, I quote somebody as saying," he said.

Well, sad to say, the Iranian government seems to be making the most sense above, because the Hersh report certainly just sounds like a disinformation campaign waged by the crazies in the Bush White House. Talk about a nuclear attack (which would indeed be "nuts", even by the Bush standard), and then hope that either the Iranians will blink (and they probably won't, since they are also crazy, and on this issue they are more in the right than the US and its allies) or if an attack is launched then people will be relieved when it is "only" a massive conventional bombing attack. Bush has obviously learned no lessons from his disasterous foray in Iraq. But given his low standing in the US, he presumably sees this as another opportunity to play the "patriotism" card and hence gain politically. The US has rarely been governed by someone so out of his depth and so damaging to the interests of his own country (not to mention the rest of the world).

More rapists now cautioned than a decade ago (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of rapists given a caution and freed instead of facing jail has more than doubled in the past decade in England and Wales, figures show.

In 2004, 40 offenders were cautioned for rape - compared with 19 in 1994.

The Home Office said cautions were used only in the most exceptional cases, but campaign group Rape Crisis said it was "shocked" by the statistics.
...
Criminal barrister Kirsty Brimelow, who has defended men in rape cases, said about half of those cautioned in 2004 were under 18 years old.

She said some of the others were likely to be historic rape allegations, where the crime was committed decades earlier.

"Sometimes in those cases the victim just wants an admission from the defendant, but doesn't want a trial so that would result in a caution," she said.

Claire Ward from the Crown Prosecution Service said people were now encouraged to make historic allegations.

She also pointed out the numbers of rapists receiving cautions had remained fairly constant since 2000.

A typically silly story stirred up by the British chattering classes. When you have a trivial number of cases of something (far and away the vast majority of rapes do not fall in this category) then a doubling is hardly meaningful of anything, except that in this case perhaps the police are trawling through more rape cases than they used to and in certain of these cases convictions are unlikely (indeed the number of reported rapes has more than doubled during the same period). But of course all the usual special interest pressure groups come out of the woodwork, because they can get lots of free publicity on the BBC with their trivial soundbites about how it is all "shocking", and then hope to push their agenda during the next day or two on the usual chatterbox programs (e.g. Women's Hour on Radio 4).

Government humiliated by the courts over 'sham' marriages (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tough government rules to prevent sham marriages discriminate against immigrants, the High Court has ruled.

In a significant defeat for the government, Mr Justice Silber said the rules were unreasonable and breached human rights.

Campaigners said the law was discriminatory because it effectively labelled some immigrants as fraudsters.

The judge gave leave to appeal - but the Home Office has partially suspended the rules while it considers its case.

However, Mr Justice Silber's "declaration of incompatibility" against the rules is the most severe defeat the courts can inflict on the government on human rights grounds.

It means ministers must return the law to parliament or take other steps to make sure it is fair.

The rules, introduced in February 2005, mean people born outside the EU and some bordering European nations who have only six months' permission to be in the UK must seek special permission from the Home Office to marry, irrespective of the status of their partner.

The application costs £135 and only 76 specially selected register offices can deal with the proposed marriage. If the home secretary refused permission to marry, there is no right of appeal, other than to apply to the High Court.

The only exemption is for people who marry in the Church of England.

The courts are one of the last bastions between this most wretched of governments and the civilised rule of law. And never mind human rights, the rules are blatantly racist, and could also be deemed an incitement to "religious hatred", something which the government is coincidentally trying to outlaw with a daft and poorly drafted new law (but of course the laws never apply to the government itself, oh no, laws are for the little people).

Date published: 2006/04/09

Radio frequency ID tags (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Supermarkets have already brought everything under the sun under one roof, and along the way been accused of denuding the High Street of butcher, baker and candlestick-maker.

Now they are introducing a new technology that some say threatens a fundamental invasion of our privacy.

We are all familiar with barcodes, those product fingerprints that save cashiers the bother of keying in the code number of everything we buy.

Now, meet their replacement: the RFID tag, or radio frequency ID tag.

These smart labels consist of a tiny chip surrounded by a coiled antenna.

While barcodes need to be manually scanned, RFID simply broadcasts its presence and data to electronic readers.

It means the computer networks of companies can track the position and progress of billions of products on rail, road, sea and shelf.

Albrecht Von Truchsess, from the German supermarket chain Metro Group, which uses this technology, says: "RFID really brings a revolution to everything that is transported from one point to the other, and in the future you will have it really on everything.

"That means that we don't have to do anything while the goods are on the way from the production site to our stores. It is just done automatically."

For all the benefits the technology promises, the roll-out of RFID is in danger of being derailed by the public's perception of it.
...
[Internet pioneer Vint Cerf] told Click: "What everybody worries about is that these identifiers will be used not to keep track of the object, but of the person associated with the object and then there's a Big Brother scenario that everybody worries about.

"But when the economics get to the point where the readers are inexpensive and the chips are inexpensive, then you start to ask yourself who has the ability to read the chips and what do they do with the information?"

Metro sees RFID working for it by having food traceable back to the farm, queues cut to nothing, and shelves that shout when they are empty.

But with remotely readable tags on everything from boots to beans, is it the customers or what they buy that is being labelled?

Former Australian privacy commissioner Malcolm Crompton says: "If done wrongly, it really is possible that I can buy things in one shop and be tracked in another shop, that the data, once collected, stays there for someone to come in and collect and use under circumstances that I don't know about or that I don't approve of.

"I think that is when society is on a slippery slope."

The fear is that what we buy will be forever linked to us. In the nightmare scenario, an innocently discarded soft drink can could end up in what later becomes a crime scene.
...
One solution being floated is the idea of killing the code on the chip as customers leave the shop.

A reasonable summary of the good and bad points of RFID. Hopefully destroying the chips when consumers leave the shop is not dangerous or too expensive. Stores might well have to do so, and to prove they are not storing any information about the chip against the consumer in their IT systems, whether they like it or not, in order to alleviate consumer fears. Of course governments being governments might eventually require all goods to be so tagged, so that everything can be tracked permanently by them (never mind big business). Hey, it would help solve crimes, and who could be against that?

David Cameron delivers conference speech (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

"The fire of hope is burning bright once again."

In a rhetorical flourish reminiscent of Tony Blair, David Cameron wrapped up his first major speech as Conservative leader.

Although he remained rooted behind a lectern at Manchester's International Convention Centre - not roaming the stage as he had during his leadership bid - Mr Cameron still managed to strike a visionary note as he spoke about trusting people, sharing responsibility and "breaking down the barriers" holding Britain back.

Above his head, as he addressed activists, a single word was projected on to a leafy, environmentally-friendly background in large white letters: CHANGE.

It was as if the Conservatives, having tried calling their members "the nasty party", were now resorting to subliminal advertising in an effort to get them to change their ways.

Mr Cameron mentioned change a total of 27 times during his speech.

Spin and marketing through and through. But perhaps that's what the Tories need. Unfortunately nobody yet knows what any of Cameron's froth actually means in terms of real policies.

Date published: 2006/04/08

Women live longer than men everywhere in the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women outlive men everywhere in the world thanks to fewer deaths in childbirth, research suggests.

In 2002 the World Health Organisation reported male life expectancy exceeded that of women in only six countries.

But research by Professor Danny Dorling at Sheffield University found this was no longer true anywhere in the world.

The British Medical Journal paper put the changes down to reductions in childbirth deaths, and the fact that more men smoke.

Of course the real disparity is between rich and poor, not between male and female.

Date published: 2006/04/07

Recycling is not all it is made up to be (permanent blog link)

Timothy Cooper (of the University of St Andrews) says on the BBC:

Recycling has become a moral obligation for our times.

If we do not take the trouble to wash and sort all those reusable plastics, papers and tins, then we risk - at the very least - guilt.

In some places, those found infringing the sanctity of our multiplying multi-coloured bins run the risk of being fined or face the withdrawal of their waste removal service.

But why do we go to so much trouble? How useful is recycling? Can it really solve the "waste crisis"?
...
The amount of household waste generated increased from nine million tonnes in 1939 to 14 million tonnes in 1968. By 2005 the figure had doubled, reaching about 30 million tonnes.

At first, local authorities responded to the crisis by tipping. Out-of-sight out-of-mind was the watchword, and everyone was content to forget their waste.

However, the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s made forgetting increasingly difficult. Waste was everywhere, ruining the pristine condition of nature and reducing reserves of raw materials. Rather than delivering progress, the affluent society was rapidly running into the environmental buffers.

This was not at all what capitalism was supposed to deliver, and it put the ideology of consumerism under threat. If supermarket shelves were to continue ringing up profits, if old cars were to go on being replaced with new, people had to be persuaded to forget their waste again.

What better means to achieve this than to persuade them to recycle?
...
What the revival of recycling has really done, like the myth of "ethical consumerism", is to give the impression that the environmental crisis presented by global capitalism can be indefinitely delayed if only we all do our bit.

It places the blame for environmental problems not on those who make the profits, but on a faceless mass of "consumers".

It prevents us asking the important question of capitalism: how much longer can this go on, and if it is to end then how?

This addresses one part of the issue. Indeed, EU and UK regulations directly promote the idea that it does not matter how much waste you create as long as you "recycle" a large percentage of it. But the article fails to address the important question of whether "recycling" in this way is better or worse than landfill (in terms of energy use, etc.). If it is better, then by all means do it. Unfortunately the article instead veers off into the usual academic middle class diatribe against "global capitalism". Millions of people have to work long hours doing horrid jobs and paying a lot of tax in order that the government can fund academics (amongst other things). Like it or not, it is capitalism that allows this to happen.

More effects creating global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Reduced air pollution and increased water evaporation appear to be adding to man-made global warming.

Research presented at a major European science meeting adds to other evidence that cleaner air is letting more solar energy through to the Earth's surface.

Other studies show that increased water vapour in the atmosphere is reinforcing the impact of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists suggest both trends may push temperatures higher than believed.

But they say there is an urgent need for further research, particularly at sea.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, the amount of solar energy penetrating through the atmosphere to the Earth's surface appeared to be declining, by about 2% per decade.

This trend received some publicity under the term "global dimming".

But in the 1980s, it appears to have reversed, according to two papers published last year in the journal Science.

The decline in Soviet industry and clean air laws in western countries apparently reduced concentrations of aerosols, tiny particles, in the atmosphere.

These aerosols may block solar radiation directly, or help clouds to form which in turn constitute a barrier; or both effects may occur.

Nothing really new here, but obviously this is yet another effect that needs understanding better.

Date published: 2006/04/06

Cambridge railway area proposal rejected by council (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Controversial plans to revamp the area around Cambridge railway station have been turned down after planners said the ££725 million scheme failed to realise the council's aspirations.

Developer Ashwell has said it will appeal against the decision and that it had produced the "best possible scheme for Cambridge".

Cambridge City Council's plannin.committee said redevelopment of the site was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity and did not believe the proposed transport interchange catered adequately for the needs of commuters and residents.

Coun Mike Dixon said: "It is unreasonable to expect the earth from any developer. We can look at what we would like to see there as a transport interchange and there is a danger of asking too much. But what is proposed here is singularly unimaginative."

The proposal, called CB1, included 1,400 flats, a hotel, offices and a multi-storey car park.

Councillors, residents' associations and individual objectors were also concerned about the scale of the proposed development as well as a lack of school places and amenities.

Coun Alan Baker, committee chairman, said: "Ashwell needs to take its proposal back to the drawing board and take fully into account the council's ambitions for this important site."

Ashwell asked the committee to defer the application to make changes, but committee members refused.

In a statement, Ashwell said: "Ashwell Property Group is disappointed at Cambridge City Council's decision to refuse its cb1 proposals.

"With a number of piecemeal schemes for the Cambridge Station Road area having come and gone, the refusal of cb1 is also a major blow for Cambridge as a whole.

"Following consultation with stakeholders and local residents, Ashwell was confident its award-winning architects, the Richard Rogers Partnership, had produced the best possible scheme for Cambridge.

"Our proposals represent a fantastic opportunity to deliver much-needed housing, high quality office space and new retail provision, equipping Cambridge with a vibrant new commercial and residential hub fit for the 21st Century.

"With this refusal we are left with little alternative than to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate."

Council leader Coun Ian Nimmo-Smith said there was still a possibility of a revised scheme getting the go ahead but it had to meet the council's criteria for the site.

He said: "I would urge the developers to look carefully at the reasons for refusal and then to come back with a new scheme that meets the framework that the council has established."

Coun Jenny Bailey, executive councillor for planning and transport, criticised the proposal as likely to lead to serious traffic congestion and said Ashwell was trying to "squeeze in" as much as it could.

She said: "The station area is vital to transport planning in the city. This proposal would cause serious congestion that will affect the whole city.

"We need more provision than 12 bus stops and we need the facilities and shelters to match it. Ashwell's proposal doesn't provide anything like what we need to meet current and future requirements.

This represents a complete failure by the city. If the Cambridge ruling elite did not make it clear all along what they wanted from this development (e.g. how much housing) then it is not surprising that the developer is now exasperated. The city seems to have given no good reasons for such abject rejection, it just seems to be a classic case of Nimbyism. So the city could well lose the planning appeal, and instead of changing the proposal positively through dialogue, we could end up getting exactly what the developer has proposed all along. Cambridge has once again shown itself to be arrogant to the world, and not nearly bright enough to justify the arrogance.

British court says Israeli soldier murdered British citizen (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A British cameraman shot dead in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli soldier was murdered, an inquest jury has decided.

James Miller, 34, from Devon, was shot by a soldier from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) while making a film in a Palestinian refugee camp in 2003.

An Israeli investigation in April 2005 cleared a soldier of misusing firearms.

Coroner Andrew Reid had told the jury at St Pancras Coroner's Court, London, on Thursday to return a verdict of unlawful killing.

He said they had to decide in the context of the case whether he had been murdered or was a victim of manslaughter.

After around an hour of deliberation, the jury decided that Mr Miller had been deliberately shot on the night of 2 May 2003.

A jury spokeswoman said: "We, the jury, unanimously agree this was an unlawful shooting with the intention of killing Mr James Miller.

"Therefore we can come to no other conclusion than that Mr Miller was indeed murdered."

What a surprise. A citizen of country A is killed by a soldier of country B. Country B claims it is the fault of the citizen. Country A claims it is the fault of the soldier. No matter the case, foreigners are always deemed to be in the wrong (which is why you never want to get involved with the court system in a foreign country). You have to wonder if the judge and jury would have reached the same conclusion if a British soldier had killed Mr Miller. And Israel might not be the greatest country in the world, but given their circumstances, their soldiers are a lot less trigger happy than the soldiers of many other countries (certainly than American soldiers, who seem to shoot first and ask questions later, again because foreigners don't count).

Date published: 2006/04/05

Cambridge railway area proposal in trouble (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Controversial plans for regenerating Cambridge's railway station could be derailed.

Cambridge City Council's planning department has recommended councillors refuse the £725 million plan submitted by developers Ashwell, which includes a new transport interchange, 1,400 homes, shops and a hotel.

The scheme will be decided at a special meeting of the council's planning committee tomorrow (Wednesday, 05 April).

In a report to the committee, planning officer Sarah Dyer has outlined 25 reasons for turning down the scheme. She claims the transport interchange "fails to meet the needs of rail users, public transport users, taxi users, pedestrians and cyclists".

There are also concerns about increased traffic, air quality, the height and scale of the buildings and the development's impact on a conservation area. The height of the buildings, some of which will be 10 storeys, could also affect the operation of Cambridge Airport.

Michael Chisholm, secretary of Brooklands Avenue Residents' Association, urged councillors to follow the recommendation for refusal and said a more radical approach to creating a transport interchange was needed.

He said: "I hope that the councillors accept the recommendation from the officers. I think the proposal is outrageous.

There's too much to fit in to that area and they need to start from the idea that there should be a proper transport interchange between bus and rail, taxi and rail, bus and bus in the station area.

"That ought to be the thing around which all the proposals are built. The present proposals do not fulfil that at all.

"What they are proposing, I believe, would be a gross overdevelopment of the area."

Of course developers always ask for over-the-top development because they know that no matter what they ask for, the NIMBYs will oppose it. So better to start big and then cut back to what you really want so that the NIMBYs can feel like they have had a victory. The proposals are not really that bad in most respects. The area around the railway station is such a dump that you cannot really make it worse. Transport access is poor because of the existing road layout in the immediate area, and that is not going to be changed very much, except to give an additional entry point for buses from Hills Road. And on the transport front, of course the Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, and it is for this reason that Sarah Dyer and Michael Chisholm fail to even mention car access as of any concern. The proposed pedestrian and cyclist access is no worse and in some ways better than now, and as noted bus access will be better. So Dyer is being disingenuous with her comments. And the idea that we need a "more radical approach" is a joke. Firstly that is a rather meaningless statement (it really means "only do what I want you to do"). Secondly, this is Cambridge, this is England, and the transport planners are hopeless (again because their hatred of cars means that they will never propose an integrated transport system).

Religion allegedly makes you live longer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Weekly religious attendance could add years to your life, according to a medical study carried out in the US.

The effects of exercise, religious attendance and anti-cholesterol drugs on life expectancy were examined.

All three were found to be beneficial, with religious attendance adding two to three years to your life.

The results of the research were published in the March-April issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

Using age-dependent death-rate statistics, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that weekly attendance at religious services accounted for an additional two to three years.

Regular physical exercise clocked up an extra three to five years and cholesterol-reducing drugs such as Lipitor cholesterol about 2.5 to 3.5 years.

Study leader Daniel Hall, a resident in general surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told the LiveScience website that the benefits of religious attendance may stem more from social set-up, than faith.

"There is something about being knit into the type of community that religious communities embody that has a way of mediating a positive health effect," he said.

He also suggested that religion may have a role in reducing stress, or at least in boosting an individual's ability to cope.

"Being in a religious community helps you make meaning out of your life," he said.

A potentially classic case of confusing correlation and causation. All these people have found is a correlation, not a causation. In particular, did they factor in wealth, and the zillion and one other things which might mean that religious people live longer? This is not to say that the cause is not there, it's just that these people have in no way proven it. But never let that get in the way of a good press release. And the statement that religion "make[s] meaning out of your life" is just spin. You could equally say that "religion makes you a zombie and zombies suffer less from stress". Religion is the source of a large chunk of problems on the planet, and we need less religion, not more.

LibDems are campaining in the local elections (permanent blog link)

There must be an election on, the LibDems are dropping leaflets through the door again.

The LibDems say "The Labour government is shifting health funding from places like Oxford and Cambridge to the north of England". Hmmm, I thought the (national) LibDems approved of redistribution of wealth from the richer (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge) to the poorer (e.g. large swathes of the north of England). Perhaps the local LibDems do not.

They say (as usual) that the "Conservatives cannot win in Arbury". Well the "LibDems cannot win in the UK" but that doesn't meant you shouldn't be allowed to vote for them. And they evidently believe that Tory voters who switch would more naturally vote for the LibDems rather than for Labour. And it is true that in Cambridge the LibDems are the party of the rich, rather like "one nation" Tories. So their belief is probably true.

The greenbelt land west of Histon Road (the so-called NIAB land, although NIAB only owns part of it) will be allowed to be developed in the next structure plan. The LibDems are proud to announce that "Vehicle access will not be from residential streets such as Brownlow or Blackhall Roads". And "Access for cars ... will be directly onto Huntingdon and Histon Roads". Well this is typical of the idiotic approach the English take to urban development. The site is huge (over 100 acres) and having just two access points (one at either end) is silly. There should also be access from Brownlow Road, Blackhall Road, and Windsor Road. Otherwise the Cambridge ruling elite is just telling the new residents of these areas that they are second class citizens, with no reasonable access to (say) Gilbert Road and beyond. Indeed on these three roads there are access points already in place. And it so happens that Huntingdon Road and Histon road are also largely "residential streets", but never let the facts get in the way of the LibDems. That bit of greenbelt land could be turned into a desirable neighbourhood (kick out the developers and let people build their own houses on decent plots), instead it will be turned into just another dumping ground for crap housing and crap urban design. Three cheers for the LibDems.

Date published: 2006/04/04

Observations on Turkey (permanent blog link)

Turkey received a welcome fillip for its tourist industry because of the total solar eclipse on 29 March (normally the season doesn't start until a bit later in the year). Side, on the south coast, and the neighbouring area, was perhaps the best spot to view the eclipse. Apparently normally Side is a resort for Germans (the Brits apparently normally go elsewhere up the coast). And indeed, German was the most understood second language, but with English also fairly widely understood. Being a resort area, it is bound to be not very Turkish, until you head a few miles inland.

The day of the eclipse was perfectly sunny. The crowds gathered early in Side old town. Some group set up in the theatre with telescopes so that the show could be covered on the internet. Lots of people wandered up and down the ruins next to the Theatre. Even more people were crowded along the shore. The Temple of Athena was the main focal point. First contact arrived around half past noon. Second contact was around 2 PM. The eclipse lasted around three minutes forty seconds, and provided a fantastic view. It's all very anti-climatic as soon as third contact happens. By fourth contact people have long since moved onto other activities. It was fortunate all around as the next day it was extremely cloudy, as if Mother Nature also felt let down by the end of the show.

Around Side there are loads of Hellenistic/Roman ruins, so those too got a healthy visitation from all the tourists. (There are perhaps even more tourists in the summer, but presumably the standard German tourist is not that interested in the ruins.) Aspendos has a marvellously restored Roman theatre. Perge has a whole slew of remains. Termessos is perhaps the best ruin of all, perched 1600 m on top of a mountain. A 9 km road winds up the mountain, leaving a few hundred meters more of climbing on foot. Views are no doubt best on sunny days, but in fog the mystery of the place only grows. In particular, the necropolis, with giant rock tombs all tumbled about, is out of this world. Other more minor sites worth visiting are Seleukeia (Lyrbe) and Sillyon (Silyon on some signs), but both involve navigating rather poor roads near the end.

There is a main coastal road leading from Antalya to Side (and beyond). The ruins are mostly reasonably sign-posted from that road, in brown signs with white lettering. Only the signs are often only given on the junction itself, which is a bit late if you are speeding past (and no speed limits seem to be posted on any roads on the coast, and the alleged speed limits stated elsewhere seem to bear little relation with actual speeds, in common with the rest of the world). And the sign posts for Termessos are actually rather lacking until the one main road that leads up to the site. You can buy maps of the area but they are not very good (and one map can easily contradict another). So navigation is often reduced to gut feel.

After the eclipse, people left the coast mainly in the following few days. Many headed for Istanbul, so that also saw an influx of tourists. Istanbul of course is best known for its ancient sites, including the Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. And it is a bit of a dull city otherwise. In particular, post-war buildings seem to dominate and they are almost universally drab. But the ancient buildings are so great that Istanbul is definitely worth a visit.

Turkey is not the richest country in the world (although it used to be, once upon a time). It's a bit odd given that everybody seems to be hustling, and that kind of salesmenship has put the US at the top of the world. The south coast around Side is bad enough, with everybody wanting to either sell you a carpet and get you to eat in their restaurant. Istanbul is far, far worse. You cannot walk ten feet without getting hustled. The upside is that at least they do it with a smile. The downside is that they seem to be inveterate liars, in trivial ways that are easily found out, or at best embellishers, so of course you end up not believing anything they say, even if most of it is true. The Grand Bazaar is just the culmination of all of this.

Interestingly enough, the traders seem to be perfectly conversant in many currencies (even British pounds). (And the exchange rate offered is good.) But the currency that seems to be king is the Euro, not the dollar (or the Turkish lira).

Wind industry wants more subsidy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Offshore wind energy in the UK is unlikely to reach its full potential unless there is additional support from the government, a report shows.

The study says the fledgling industry is at a "critical stage" and economic and environmental opportunities could be lost without further assistance.

The research was commissioned by the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA).

Gee whiz, a trade association with a direct financial interest publishes a report saying they should get more State subsidy. The BBC should be a bit more critical in its reporting.

Turner's final report on pensions released (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lord Turner has used the final report of the government's Pensions Commission to defend his pension reform plans.

The commission proposed a state pension age rise from 65 to 68 by 2050 and that future increases should be linked to earnings rather than inflation.

The report has sparked a row between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown over whether the plans are affordable.

Lord Turner said that taxes may have to rise to pay for higher pensions.

He stated that the costs were "not significantly higher" than the government's current pension spending plans.

But without reducing means-testing, Lord Turner warned that the entire programme of pensions reform may not work.

He added that most pensions experts and interest groups believe the commission should have proposed a "more radical" rolling-back of means-testing.

"The government now faces the difficult decision of how far and how fast it can move to reform of the state pension," Lord Turner said.

It has been widely reported that the chancellor is unhappy at Lord Turner's proposal to end means tested pension credits and raise the state pension in line with earnings rather than inflation.
...
The Pensions Commission proposed the setting-up of the National Pension Savings Scheme (NPSS), which many workers would be automatically enrolled into.

This would allow people who were not part of an employer's pension scheme to take part in an occupational pension programme.

They would contribute 5% of their salary, with their employer paying in an extra 3%.

The NPSS proposal has drawn fire from some pensions industry insiders.

Organisations including the Association of British Insurers and the National Association of Pension Funds have said that the NPSS would be more expensive to administer than Lord Turner presumes.

In addition, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for employers to have an opt-out from the NPSS.

It suggests the costs of the NPSS would prove a heavy burden on business and could ultimately cost jobs.

Nothing much new here. Gordon Brown is the main barrier to pension reform. The retirement age should go up. Means testing (and all the other ridiculous state pension complications) should be reduced. The main worry about the proposals is the NPSS. This could have a serious impact on small business. It is also forcing people to make investments which might go wrong. The main beneficiary will be the financial services industry, not future pensioners.

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