Azara Blog: May 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/05/31

Law Commission proposes unmarried couples be given some rights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Unmarried couples who live together could win rights to share each other's wealth if they split up under proposals being unveiled.

Rights to a share of property and pensions, to claim maintenance and lump sums could be among new measures.

The law reform body the Law Commission is to publish a consulation on the proposal with a final report in 2007.

About four million people cohabit but do not have the rights of people who are married or in civil partnerships.

Some fear such measures would undermine the status of marriage.

Cohabitees could make the same financial claims as divorcees but on a less generous basis, under the proposals being considered by the independent body.

The commission suggests that the rights should apply to those who have lived together for a certain period or who have a child.

Lawyers have suggested the entitlements should apply after couples have lived together for two years although this is being consulted on.

Cohabitees can currently claim maintenance for a child but not for themselves.

Entitlement to inheritance and pensions are also among the areas being examined.

The Civil Partnership Act, introduced last year, offers similar legal and financial protection to gay couples.

The number of people who are living together instead of getting married is expected to double over the next 15 years.

Already more than three-quarters of couples live together before marriage, and one in four children is born to parents who are cohabiting.

About bloody time. Society (mostly at the behest of the religious control freaks) has stuck its head in the sand for far too long on this score, because the majority has been happy to persecute the minority, using pathetic pseudo-moral arguments (that somehow married people are inherently morally superior, which of course they are not).

Someone wants to convert disused railway lines to roads (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A congestion-beating project that could lead to some of the UK's 9,000 miles (14,500km) of disused railway being paved with rubber, has been launched.

The flexible highways are made of panels of shredded car tyres laid over the existing tracks.

New thoroughfares could be shared by both cars and trams travelling at up to 50mph (80km/h) say Holdfast, the company behind the scheme.

But some users of disused railways do not support the scheme.

"We would like to see these routes converted into walking and cycling routes," said Gill Harrison, a spokesperson for sustainable transport charity Sustrans.

The charity has converted approximately 1,000 miles (1,600km) of disused railways into part of the National Cycle Network.

"More road space does not automatically mean less congestion," she said.

"More roads just get filled up with more cars. We're not saying that cars do not have their place, but ultimately we've all got to think about other ways of getting around."

Well that last comment ("more roads just get filled up with more cars") is a typical rant of the car-hating chattering classes. How dare the goverment build infrastructure that actually gets used (and is more than paid for by the people using the infrastructure). Far better to throw money at infrastructure (like the Dome) that nobody wants to use. And of course there is a finite supply of cars so at some point additional roads will not fill up with more cars. We are not far off that point now, since most people in Britain already commute to work by car.

But on the point of the article, Sustans is more correct about that. For example, there is a disused railway line going from Cambridge to St Ives. The county council wants to convert this into a "guided bus" route at great expense (80 million pounds and counting). But the railway line is parallel to and not far from the A14, and if and when the latter is upgraded, buses might as well use that (at very little marginal cost to society, since most traffic on the A14 is cars or lorries, so the odd bus would hardly be noticed). (This is not perfect because villages are strung along the old railway line more than along the A14.) And the disused railway line has, of course, become a perfect habitat for wildlife. Converting it to a bus route will destroy all that. Converting it to a cycle route would be much less damaging (although still damaging, because the safety nutters would insist that the area around the track be perfectly tidy). And there are no safe (or even that sensible) cycle routes from Cambridge up towards St Ives.

Date published: 2006/05/30

European Court of Justice says EU-US air passenger agreement is illegal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Court of Justice has blocked an EU-US agreement that requires airlines to transfer passenger data to the US authorities.

The court said the decision to hand over the data was not founded on an "appropriate legal basis".

European airlines have given US authorities passengers' names, addresses and credit card details.

The US said the data would help fight terrorism, but the European Parliament said the data could be misused.

The agreement demands that within 15 minutes of take-off for the United States, a European airline must send the US authorities 34 items of personal information about the passengers on board.

Washington had warned that it would impose heavy fines and deny landing rights for any airline failing to comply with the agreement.

The US authorities also said passengers would be subject to long security checks on arrival, if the data was not sent in advance.

The US demanded tighter airline security worldwide after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington by suicide hijackers.

But the European Parliament consistently opposed handing over the passenger details to the US, arguing that the US did not guarantee adequate levels of data protection.

It asked the European Court of Justice to annul the deal.

In its ruling on Tuesday, the court found that the EU Council of Ministers' decision to sign the agreement on "Passenger Name Records" lacked an adequate legal basis.

The Council and the European Commission based their actions on the EU Data Protection Directive, but the court said the directive did not apply to data collected for security purposes.

It gave the EU until 30 September 2006 to find a new legal solution.

Well that last bit is the get out clause. And it's hard to see America blinking before Europe does. And have MEPs (or pretty much anyone else) stopped travelling to America because of these rules? Of course with all this increased security and data trawling the odds are much higher that innocent people will be incorrectly fingered (and even jailed) rather than guilty people being caught. But that is the post-9/11 mentality of the American government (and British one as well).

Eurocrats wants ordinary EU citizens to save the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A campaign to convince Europeans they can help stop climate change has been launched by the European Commission.

The campaign is called "You Control Climate Change" and aims to show how everyday actions can lead to cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The 50 practical tips included in the campaign range from turning off lights, recycling materials and not using cars.

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the campaign highlighted individual responsibility.

Such comedians these Eurocrats. They consume far, far more resources and emit far, far more carbon than the average EU citizen. Of course there is one rule for the elite and another for everyone else.

Date published: 2006/05/29

More home abortions in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A record 10,000 women had an abortion at home last year, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has said.

It said nearly one-third of the 32,000 terminations it provided in the first nine weeks of pregnancy had been "medical" - involving abortion drugs.

The BPAS described the trend as a "success" for sexual health, but campaign groups have been critical.

Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) accused the BPAS of "deeply insensitive self-promotion" of abortions.

The "abortion pill" is only used in the first nine weeks of pregnancy - later, only surgical termination is allowed.
...
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the BPAS, the UK's biggest independent provider of abortions, said demand for the pills had taken off over the past two to three years - since the service started allowing women to go home after the second dose.

In 2003 BPAS clinics gave 3,500 women early medical abortions (EMAs), but this rose to 5,000 in 2004 and doubled to 10,000 in 2005, the highest ever.
...
A £1m government investment into selected NHS primary care trusts had enabled them to improve early access to abortions, she added, making BPAS the biggest provider of EMA in Europe.
...
But Pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) called BPAS's "trumpeting" its role in the 10,000 abortions "deeply insensitive self-promotion".

"Every rational person, no matter what his or her stance on the rights of the unborn child, has to agree that the ideal for any woman and the health of any nation is fewer, or better still no, abortions," a spokeswoman said.

"BPAS, instead, cannot seem to get enough - the UK figures continue to rise and the government does nothing constructive about it."

Michaela Aston, a spokeswoman for anti-abortion organisation Life, told the Times newspaper mifepristone had been responsible for at least 10 women dying.

Of course if you offer women a better kind of abortion service they are bound to take it up in increasing numbers. So this just seems to be a propaganda exercise on behalf of BPAS (the BBC provides lots of airtime for such propaganda from allegedly worthy organisations). But the anti-abortion brigade are worse. If "no abortions" is an ideal for the nation then an even bigger ideal is no unwanted children. And it's so touching that the anti-abortion brigade are allegedly so concerned about the fact that this drug might kill some women. Of course what they are really concerned about is abortion, not women. And almost every drug kills somebody, the question is whether the good outweighs the bad.

Some quango wants Heathrow re-located (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Heathrow should be replaced with a new international airport to the east of London, a planning charity claims.

The Town and County Planning Association argues 30,000 homes could be built on the "catastrophically" planned west London site instead.

A Thames Estuary hub would stop plane noise over London and further expansion of Heathrow displacing villages.

Lord Soley, who backs a third Heathrow runway, said moving the airport would mean too many job loses for the area.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The more we move investment to the East - the Thames Estuary or wherever - the greater the problems for the west of London.

"There are 70,000 jobs at Heathrow and another 100,000 dependent on it."

In the planning charity's paper, Heathrow's 60-year history was condemned as "a series of minor planning disasters that together make up one of the country's truly great planning catastrophes."

It also said the swap should happen over the next century.

But Lord Soley said Heathrow should be looking to match the capabilities of other continental airports over the next 10 to 20 years.

"You can fit a third runway in there - everybody accepts that. The argument is 'can you do it within the environmental limits laid down', and the evidence is 'yes, you can'.

"If we don't, then what we have to do is plan for the decline and closure of Heathrow in the next 10 to 20 years, not 40, and that would be a catastrophe for the west London region and profoundly serious for the rest of Britain."

The report also said a high-speed rail link from the new site would be an alternative to "environmentally damaging short-haul flights".

The report's authors, Tony Hall and Sir Peter Hall, said passengers who fumed at the "long taxiing operations culminating in a take-off queue, or at long periods spent in the four holding areas" might well echo Dr Johnson's famous remark about a dog walking on its hind legs.

"It's not that it is done well, but you are surprised to find it is done at all," wrote Dr Johnson.

They also said it would be "logistically impossible" for the airport to be phased out in a short time scale of five or 10 years.

A housing development at Heathrow could be worth more than £6.8bn, they said.

Another pointless report from another pointless quango. Presumably the new Heathrow would have a bigger area than the existing one, so if you can put 30000 houses on the existing Heathrow you can put at least that many houses on any proposed location for the new Heathrow. So that is a pointless argument for moving. And one of the reasons the M4 corridor is so desirable is because of Heathrow. Take Heathrow away and you are left with a location with very poor transport links to the rest of the world. So go ahead Britain and shoot yourself in the head. And if a high-speed rail link can be laid to the new airport it could be laid to Heathrow. Such a rail link would only be useful to cut down on UK transfer flights. Far more useful on that score would be for one or more northern airports to grow in size so that northerners did not have to come south just to fly to the States (or wherever). And although the report's authors seem to be concerned about the villages near Heathrow, they obviously have no such concern for the villages (and towns and cities) near the new airport. All in all it's amazing anyone could waste time, money and effort on such poor quality work. Of course, London already has a major airport which has plenty of room for expansion. It's called Stansted. If anything should be further developed in the London area it should be Stansted rather than creating yet another huge new development.

Cats and grey squirrels allegedly devastating songbird population (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Grey squirrels and wild cats are "devastating" Britain's songbird population, a study suggests.

Predatory animals are having as much an impact as modern farming practices, the report, commissioned by charity Songbird Survival, indicates.

When combined with the impact of predatory birds like sparrowhawks, this means up to 85% of adult songbirds are lost - with 100% of nests targeted.

Conservationists fear the number of predators is spiralling out of control.

This could have a significant long-term impact on songbird numbers throughout the UK, they say.

The study brings together previously unpublished research conducted at farms across Britain.

It suggests the major predators, grey squirrels and wild cats, are responsible for a sharp decline in farm birds.

More anti-grey-squirrel and anti-cat propaganda from the so-called conservationist lobby. Presumably their "solution" to this alleged "problem" is to exterminate grey squirrels and cats.

Date published: 2006/05/28

David King says nuclear power should be used more in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nuclear power should supply around 30% of Britain's energy needs, tackling the impact of climate change, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser suggests.

Sir David King said as many as 20 new nuclear plants could be needed to increase the power generated by the current 12 sites from the current 12%.

Combined with more renewable energy, this would cut fossil fuel use, he told BBC One's Sunday AM.
...
Sir David said he did not believe a final decision on the UK's nuclear future would be made before the publication of the government's energy review, due in July, and the report of the Stern Commission on climate change.

But he said any new nuclear power stations would not be funded through new taxes, insisting instead that the money markets would have to decide if they want to invest in them.

He added that new technologies - such as using bioethenol (virtually carbon free) and hybrid cars in the future as well as nuclear power - would allow consumers to continue the current extent of car and plane use.

"We can all live at the same comfort levels but looking at different energy sources and better energy efficiency," he said.

Asked what proportion of Britain's energy needs should be supplied by nuclear power, Sir David said: "My favoured figure is around 30%.

"We would then have baseline energy through the year from nuclear plus renewables and we can then diminish our dependence on fossil fuels."

Jonathan Porritt, the chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission which advises the government on environmentally-friendly growth, accepted policy-makers had to consider whether nuclear power should play a part in Britain's energy future.

But he said the potential reductions in CO2 emissions which could be gained from switching to atomic power came to only around 8% of Britain's output - far less than could be saved by simply using current energy supplies more efficiently.

"If the prime minister wants to make nuclear power the test of his leadership on climate change here in the UK, he is genuinely deluded," Mr Porritt told Sunday AM.

The role of government was to "fashion the markets" to make the choice for consumers easier, he said.

It need not be "the end of life as we know it", he said, but may mean people making short journeys on foot or bike and paying for the carbon cost as well as the travel costs for foreign holidays.

King's pronouncements will certainly not please most of the so-called environmentalists, who hate nuclear power (as they hate anything big and corporate). And if Porritt thinks that Blair is "genuinely deluded" for promoting nuclear power, then he himself is even more deluded if he thinks that what we mainly need is to be more energy efficient. That will come by itself because of higher energy costs, but most people have better things to do with their lives than spend every single waking moment worrying about exactly how much energy they are using. (Of course the non-workers like Porritt have nothing else to do with their time except to worry about such things.) And you have to wonder if Porritt will be keen for train commuters (and other allegedly politically correct consumers of energy) to pay the carbon cost of their journeys, or is he only going to persecute car drivers and airplane passengers.

UK Attorney General wants more people convicted of serious offences (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conviction rates for serious offences such as wounding and rape are too low, the Attorney General has admitted.

Lord Goldsmith said victims had a right to be worried but the government was working to tackle the problem and more offenders were being taken to court.

He was responding to an Observer study which claimed convictions for crimes such as rape and wounding had fallen below 10% since Labour came to power.

The Tories said it showed ministers were losing control of violent crime.

The newspaper reported that cases of serious wounding had risen by more than half in the last 10 years to almost 20,000 annually, while the conviction rate in prosecutions for the offence had fallen from 14.8% to 9.7%.

Police recorded nearly 13,000 rapes in 2004-05, double the total for 1997, while the conviction rate plunged from 9.2% to 5.5% in the same period.

Criminal charges should only be brought when the State believes there is a good possibility of conviction. Unless crime is going up then if you bring more cases to court that means you are almost certainly bringing many dubious cases to court, hence are much less likely to achieve convictions. Serious wounding cases are up by a half but convictions are down by a third. That means (it's simple arithemetic) that almost the same number of people (in absolute terms) are being convicted, which means that almost every one of the extra cases is being thrown out. Similarly rape cases doubled but convictions fell by almost half, hence the same conclusion holds. It seems that the State is charging a lot more people because "something must be done", but the extra cases are so dubious that there are barely any extra convictions. Of course the State can change the rules so that more people are convicted. And that is the usual Blair methodology. It will mean that more guilty people will go to prison, but it will also mean that far more innocent people will go to prison. Of course Blair does not care about that, he only cares that he receives sympathetic headlines in the papers about being tough on crime.

Date published: 2006/05/27

Sick picture warnings on cigarette packets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The public are being asked to choose a series of picture warnings to appear on cigarette packets from next year.

People can give their opinion on a range of images designed to highlight the dangers of smoking on a website set up by the Department of Health.

Evidence shows that images have a greater impact than written health warnings alone, and they have already been introduced in some countries.

Images include diseased lungs, a dying smoker and a foetus in the womb.

People visiting the website will be able to choose images to support 14 health messages such as 'Smoking causes fatal lung cancer' or Smoking may reduce blood flow and causes impotence'.

The final images will cover 40% of the back of packets sold from autumn 2007.

More health fascism from the UK ruling elite. If people want to smoke they should be allowed to without having to listen to the rest of society rant all the time about it.

Date published: 2006/05/26

Trumpington does not want a waste recycling centre (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Trumpington residents fear plans for a waste recycling centre at the bottom of their gardens have moved a step closer.

Their concerns were raised when land at Glebe Farm, Trumpington, was included in a list of possible mineral and waste sites to cater for the county's growth over the next 15 years.

This week, council chiefs agreed not to sell Glebe Farm for housing in case they need to use the site for a household waste recycling centre.

At a meeting of Cambridgeshire County Council's cabinet, councillors agreed to look for alternative sites for a recycling centre in the south of the city, but said it wanted to keep "all their options open".

If no more suitable site is found, they will back building of the centre on the county council-owned land at Glebe Farm.

Before the decision, Stephen Brown presented a petition of 70 signatures on behalf of Trumpington Residents' Association.

He said the association supported the need for a recycling facility, but believed it should be situated well away from residential areas.

"We object most strongly to an industrial facility being placed within a residential area," he said.

"On health and safety grounds, the site is completely unacceptable."

Totally typical. Everybody (amongst the chattering classes) loves recycling (it sounds so good) but ultimately it is just another form of waste collection and disposal, and nobody likes a dump in their back yard. But the Glebe Farm site is not "within a residential area", it is at the edge of it. And no matter where you place such a site, there is bound to be some human presence not far away (even the Milton dump is). Perhaps the city should stick this recycling centre in Newnham, since the rich people who live there run Cambridge and are probably the keenest on recycling as allegedly a great social good. Of course if it does end up on the Glebe Farm site you can guarantee the local residents will not be compensated at all, which is part of the problem.

Date published: 2006/05/25

London might monitor carbon emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

London could soon have a network of scientific stations to monitor the great city's carbon "footprint".

The system would deploy instruments to track flows of gases such as carbon dioxide to get an idea of the capital's true contribution to climate change.

The proposal comes from researchers at King's College London.

The project's data could be used to guide future development decisions, ensuring London's carbon footprint is kept as small as possible.

"We know that cities are a major source of carbon but we don't understand the detail; there are very few studies," said KCL Professor Sue Grimmond.

Those that have been done in places such as Tokyo, Rome, Marseille and Copenhagen, show - not unexpectedly - that downtown areas produce large amounts of carbon, especially in winter months and in drive times when the roads are full of vehicles pumping out CO2.

Less well understood are the carbon contributions of the leafy suburbs of cities.

Well interesting enough. But these people are not measuring London's "carbon footprint". They are only measuring geographically based carbon emissions, not emissions produced elsewhere. If your electricity is generated miles away, you are responsible for those emissions, but the proposed measure would not count that. Similarly if you put up an office building in London then the carbon emissions produced when making the steel and concrete is not counted, but it should be. Etc. So this proposal does not even come close to measuring London's "true contribution to climate change".

UK government makes pension proposals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The state pension age is to rise to 68 from 2044, as part of government proposals to strengthen pension provision in the UK.

The link between the state pension and earnings will also be restored within the next Parliament, Pensions Secretary John Hutton said.

A new savings scheme will be set up with automatic enrolment for staff and compulsory employers' contributions.
...
The key aspects of the proposals, the biggest shake-up of pensions for years, are:

From 2012, people will be automatically enrolled into a new, low-cost national savings scheme, albeit with the chance to opt out if it is not suitable for them.

The proposed changes will have little impact on anyone currently over the age of 47.
...
Employees will be asked to pay 4% of their salary into the new National Pension Savings scheme.

Employers must, in turn, contribute 3% while the government will contribute 1% in the form of tax relief.

Pretty much all of this has been well trailed in the media. One of the main outstanding problems is that the state pension is not being based on residency (as was sensibly recommended in the Turner Report). And we'll see in 2012 whether the government of the day is still willing to index pensions to earnings rather than prices.

Date published: 2006/05/24

International nuclear fusion agreement moves ahead (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Seven international parties involved in an experimental nuclear fusion reactor project have initialled a 10bn-euro (£682m) agreement on the plan.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) will be the most expensive joint scientific project after the International Space Station.

Wednesday's agreement in Brussels gives the go-ahead for practical work on the project to start.

Nuclear fusion taps energy from reactions like those that heat the Sun.

The seven-party consortium, which includes the European Union, the US, Japan, China, Russia and others, agreed last year to build Iter in Cadarache, in the southern French region of Provence.

The parties say fusion will lead to a cheaper, safer, cleaner and endless energy resource in the years ahead.
...
Officials project that 10% to 20% of the world's energy could come from fusion by the end of the century. However environmental groups have criticised the project, saying there was no guarantee that the billions of euros would result in a commercially viable energy source.

"Investment in energy efficiency and renewables is the only reliable way to guarantee energy security," said Silvia Hermann, from Friends of the Earth Europe. "Giving billions of euros to a single nuclear project that is so far from reality is ill judged and irresponsible."

It's hard to know whose comments are sillier, the pro-fusion brigade or the so-called environmentalists. The former have promised endless riches for decades, and we are still decades away from that. And the latter are just up to their usual anti-technology ranting, with "big" being by definition bad and "small" being by definition good. Having a "cheap", "safe", "endless" energy resource would be a disaster for the so-called environmentalists since it would mean mankind could shape the environment even more than now. (Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch.) But investing billions of Euros in science and technology is rarely a waste of money in the long run. Nobody knows what the best energy technology will be in fifty years and it's best to try quite a few things. That the EU will be lead party in this technology is great news for Europe.

MPs produce another vacuous report on the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government is a "climate laggard" when it comes to policies on tackling global warming, MPs say.

A report for the all-party environment group of MPs says current efforts are failing to curb emissions from businesses, transport and homes.

It says ministers have failed to "turn rhetoric into reality" when it comes to delivering plans to reduce emissions.

Meanwhile naturalist David Attenborough has urged society to help stop global warming becoming a "catastrophe".

The broadcaster told the BBC's 10 O'Clock News climate change was an issue that "everybody needs to be involved in".

"We almost have to feel that if we waste we are morally responsible."

Mr Attenborough said politicians would address environmental issues "if the electorate demands it".

He said he would have spoken out on the issue of global warming 10 years ago had the evidence existed, but now had "no hesitation" in saying the Earth was warming up at a faster rate than for many years, "and we are contributing to the rise".

The MPs' report was compiled by the Institute for European Environmental Policy.

The group's chairman, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, said: "This comprehensive independent report provides a clear snapshot to show how the government is measuring up to the challenges of climate change.

"Sadly, the answer is not very well. The analysis shows that while the government has been innovative in some areas, it has time and again fallen down on delivery."

The report's conclusions include:

The report did applaud the government's promotion of the European emissions trading scheme (ETS), saying that the UK had "benefited both in terms of reputation and economically from this proactive approach".

Well you would hardly call a report on the environment from the Institute for European Environmental Policy independent. And who are these MPs kidding. They are some of the worst offenders for carbon emissions. If they think it's such a pressing issue then let them sort their own activities out before they start lecturing the rest of the country. And the plague of consultancies who produce these kinds of reports (not just environmental ones but also social, economic and political ones) are also a part of the problem, not a part of the solution.

And even dear old David Attenborough (who easily makes the best nature programmes on television) is responsible for far, far more carbon emissions than your average British citizen. (He must fly tens of thousands of miles per year, for starters.) He has made a two-part series for BBC called "Are We Changing Planet Earth?". What a silly question. Of course we have. Just fly over Britain for ten minutes and you can see it writ large. Trees have also changed Planet Earth. So what? The question is whether the proposals of those who want to stop humans from changing the planet too dramatically are worse (in whatever measure you want to use) than the "business as usual" approach that most of humanity practises. And the number one problem is over-population, which nobody ever wants to address.

Date published: 2006/05/23

Some of Britain's doctors criticise complementary medicine (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some of Britain's leading doctors have urged NHS trusts to stop using complementary therapies and to pay only for medicine "based on solid evidence".

In a letter, reproduced in the Times, they raised concern the NHS is backing "unproven or disproved treatments", like homeopathy.

One doctor said the NHS was funding "bogus" therapies when patients struggled to get drugs like Herceptin.

Prince Charles is to make a speech in Geneva backing complementary therapies.

He is expected to renew his call for a more integrated approach, using proven complementary treatments alongside conventional medicines in order to tackle long-term, chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, in a speech to the World Health Assembly.

The letter, on behalf of 13 people and sent to 476 acute and primary care trusts, is being seen as a direct challenge to the prince's campaign.

These folks are onto a losing battle. Belief in complementary medicine, in particular homeopathy, is just that, a matter of faith, not science, and many people in the world are unfortunately guided by faith rather than by reason. The fact that Charles believes in this claptrap is not very surprising, given his general wooly beliefs.

Another possible global warming mechanism (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global temperatures will rise further in the future than previous studies have indicated, according to new research from two scientific teams.

They both used historical records to calculate the likely amplification of warming as higher temperatures induce release of CO2 from ecosystems.

They both conclude that current estimates of warming are too low, by anything up to 75%.

That figure, known as the climate sensitivity, results from a combination of two factors:

The new research adds a third component, by calculating the likely contribution of carbon dioxide released from natural ecosystems such as soil as temperatures rise.

This would add to the CO2 produced through human activities, raising temperatures still further.

To calculate this extra warming, both research groups have looked back into the Earth's history.

Regularly, spells of relatively high temperatures have produced rises in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which have fallen again as colder conditions took over.

The theory is that in warm spells, ecosystems such as soils, forests and oceans retain less carbon.

As the Earth's surface is now warming again, the process might be expected to repeat itself, with higher temperatures again causing the biological world to release CO2 into the atmosphere, complementing the gas coming from homes, factories and vehicles.

To calculate the relationship between temperature rise and carbon release, the US study examined a period of about 400,000 years using data from the Vostok ice core of Antarctica.

Well cute, and it could be correct, but the evidence sounds rather tenuous.

Date published: 2006/05/22

Cameron says be happy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron says there is more to life than making money, arguing that improving people's happiness is a key challenge for politicians.

In a speech to the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference, he said the focus should not just be on financial wealth.

Under a Tory government, the public sector would become "the world leader in progressive employment practice".

But he conceded that some on the right would believe people's well-being was nothing to do with politics.

However, Mr Cameron says improving society's sense of happiness is of the utmost importance.

He insists that the old Protestant work ethic should move to a "modern vision of ethical work" and highlighted examples of good practice in flexible working.

"It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being," he said.

"Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.

"Improving our society's sense of well-being is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

Dear oh dear, reach for the sick bag. And isn't it amazing that it is always rich people who say that there is more to life than money. Of course this verbiage is also largely content-free, it's like saying that he is for motherhood and apple pie. What is he really suggesting in terms of policy?

Reid wants victims of crime to be on parole boards (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Victims of crime could be given a say on whether offenders should be freed from jail, under plans being considered by the home secretary.

John Reid said victims or their representatives would be appointed to parole boards from next month.

It comes amid increasing concern that the rights of offenders are being given too much prominence and controversy over the early release of criminals.
...
Mr Reid said: "I tell you today that I want to go further in ensuring that victims or their representatives get a greater say about the release of offenders back into the community.

"I believe that the victim's voice must be heard more clearly than it has in the past.

"That is why we're already interviewing for members, with experience of either being a victim, or of a victim support organisation.

"And I can tell you that by June, the first members with that experience will have been appointed to parole boards."

But the Home Office said the victim of a particular crime would not be sitting on the parole board hearing of that offender.

When the BBC says there is "increasing concern that the rights or offenders are being given too much prominence", what they mean is that Blair decided the other day to divert attention from all the scandals and screw ups hitting the government, so latched onto that old favourite, law and order, to shoot his mouth off on. And this latest pronouncement just follows in the line of other silly pronouncements on the subject. It's policy making at the level of the school playground.

Date published: 2006/05/21

Some exhibitions at the National Gallery in London (permanent blog link)

As usual, the National Gallery in London has some good exhibitions on. Closing today (and then moving onto the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and then onto the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) was "Americans in Paris: 1860-1900". The paintings were pretty much all of high quality. There were many from well-known figures like Whistler (including "Portrait of the Artist's Mother", but more interestingly "The White Girl"), John Singer Sargent (including an amazing portrait of Carolus-Duran), Winslow Homer and Mary Cassatt (mostly the usual mother and child stuff, with "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" being the best). But the majority of the works in the exhibition were by artists who are long forgotten (except by experts), and so worth seeing just for that.

The National Gallery also has a small exhibition (until 25 June) called "Bellini and the East", about the Venetian artist Gentile Bellini, who from 1479-1481 worked for Mehmed II (Mehmet the Conqueror) in Istanbul, as part of Venetian diplomacy. Anyone who has visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul will have come across his name, and it is interesting to see how he is presented from the "western" perspective. There is not a heck of a lot left from Bellini's trip to Istanbul, and the exhibition includes only one Bellini oil portrait of Mehmed II and a few more general sketches. So an exhibition worth going to only if you happen to be near the National Gallery in any case.

Home Office labels thousands of innocent people as criminals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some 2,700 people have been wrongly labelled as criminals by the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB), it has emerged.

The mistakes have led to some people being turned down for jobs.

The Home Office said the errors arose when personal details were similar to those of people with a conviction, but were "a tiny proportion of cases".

It said 90% of disputes were resolved within 21 days and, while errors were regrettable, it would not apologise for its "caution".

Education Secretary Alan Johnson told the BBC only 0.03% of the nine million "disclosures" the agency makes had been wrong, so the issue had to be put "into context".
...
The Home Office said customer satisfaction about the checks was "now at an all-time high" and said last year's checks prevented 25,000 unsuitable people being recruited.

It said it made "no apology for erring on the side of caution".

A spokesman said: "The Criminal Records Bureau's first and foremost priority is to help protect children and vulnerable adults by assisting organisations who are recruiting people into positions of trust.

"We err on the side of caution in these rare cases precisely because it is vital to ensure that the disclosure individuals do not fraudulently try to claim they have no criminal convictions when in fact they have."

More breath-taking arrogance and incompetence (a lethal combination) from the Blair government. There are bound to be mistakes, but when you make mistakes you grovel and fix them promptly, you don't dismiss them as justifiable casualties in the war against criminals. Of course the government uses the same logic in the war against terror, that it doesn't matter if dozens or hundreds of innocent people are detained without charge for as long as the government sees fit, as long as most of society is (allegedly) protected because of its draconian measures.

When you have any system like this you get true positives (people who are identified correctly as having criminal records) and you get true negatives (people who are identified correctly as not having criminal records). The real problems are the false negatives (people who are not identified as having criminal records but do) and false positives (people who are identified as having criminal records but do not). Generally, before the Blair government took over, false positives were considered much worse than false negatives. (This is why in many countries jury results have to be unanimous.) Unfortunately Blair and his ilk consider the opposite to be true. (Under the so-called "precautionary principle", which is not so much a principle as a statement of unjustifiable beliefs.)

Given the figures in the article, it looks like there were around 9 million true negatives, around 25000 true positives and around 2700 false positives. (Well, it is not clear whether the figures pertain to the same time period, but let's assume so.) There is no estimate for the number of false negatives. Although the Home Office quotes the ratio of 2700 over 9 million (around 0.03%) to justify the problem as being small, the real ratio to look at is 2700 over 27700, i.e. around 10% of the positive results were false. That is fairly scandalous. And it is likely that many of the 25000 true positives are not really "unsuitable people", making the figures even worse. Of course no members of the ruling elite, or their families, will fall into the false positive category, so they don't really care how many false positives there are.

Date published: 2006/05/20

Al Gore preaches the global warming gospel at Cannes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Former US vice-president Al Gore, who is at the Cannes Film Festival, has warned the world is facing a "planetary emergency" due to global warming.

A documentary based on the politician's environmental campaigning is being screened at the festival.

Mr Gore said the world faced a stark choice between the end of civilisation and a future for its children.

He also said he was not considering running again for presidential office in 2008.

Mr Gore said global warming was a "challenge to our moral imagination to understand it and then to respond to it urgently".

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth is based on lectures Al Gore has been delivering about environmental crisis for many years.

The film shows photographs of changes to glaciers around the world, with snow disappearing from the Alps, Antarctica and the South Pole.

"People have been moved by it," Mr Gore said. "People coming out feeling a sense of urgency."

He stressed the problem was moral, not political, and said he hoped the current US government would re-think its environmental strategy and sign up to the successor to the Kyoto treaty.

Well at least Gore, like Jimmy Carter, is trying to do something useful in his retirement. (You can guarantee that Bush will just try to further line his own pockets.) On the other hand, if you spend all your time travelling around the world, mostly by airplane and car, complaining about global warming, then it looks like you are avoiding your own "inconvenient truth".

Iraq has a new government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

World leaders have welcomed the formation of the first full-term Iraqi government since the 2003 invasion.

US President George W Bush said the future was a great challenge but there was an "opportunity for progress".

Iraq's parliament on Saturday approved the government, which includes Shia, Kurd and Sunni party members.

Three crucial ministries - national security, interior and defence - have still to be agreed but new PM Nouri Maliki vowed to heal sectarian strife.

In a keynote speech Mr Maliki said Iraqis must "denounce terrorism" and find an "objective timetable" for international forces to leave.

He told parliament that Iraqis needed to unite in a spirit of love and tolerance and "close up divisions that have emerged through sectarianism".

Mr Maliki laid out a 34-point government programme that included tackling terrorism, integrating militias into the security structure and getting electricity and water back on line.

Well this must be a good thing, but whether it will actually have any real impact in the short or medium term is not obvious. The Americans have created a big mess in Iraq, and it is not obvious to anybody how to sort that mess out.

Date published: 2006/05/19

Rail fares are allegedly exorbitant (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Passengers are being driven off the railways thanks to the "exorbitant" fares charged by train operators.

The cross-party Commons transport committee said passengers were "held to ransom" by companies which tried to "see how much we can get away with".

They criticised government complacency for failing to ensure value for money.

The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) said the report was "over the top" and cutting fares would mean a "huge increase in subsidy".

A total of £87m a week of public funds are poured into the rail network.
...
MPs were particularly critical of steep rises in the cost of open tickets bought on the day of travel which, it said, were now "absurdly high".

"The 'see how much we can get away with' attitude of operators has put the thumbscrews on those passengers who have no option but to travel on peak-hour trains using fully flexible open fares," the report said.

The "deeply fragmented and highly complex" array of tickets offered by companies were an "insult" to passengers, it added.

"It is unacceptable that in order to purchase a rail ticket passengers are faced with up to a dozen different products, most of which have subtly different conditions and restrictions," it said.

And it said companies appeared to exploit the Christmas holiday rush to maximise profits.

The decision to allow multiple train operators was crazy, and the ridiculously complicated fare structures is one of the results of that. But the fact that rail services receive a whacking great public subsidy (even ignoring the large indirect ones) means that the "exorbitant" fares are obviously not quite exorbitant enough. Why is it that the people who live and work in Cambridge are forced to subsidise (the more highly paid) people who live in Cambridge and work in London? The more that rail fares are subsidised, the more it encourages people to live further and further from work.

Date published: 2006/05/18

Lib Dems propose silly "green" taxes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The owners of cars which generate the most pollution would face annual road taxes of £2,000 under Liberal Democrat plans to tackle climate change.

The figure - 10 times the current rate - would cover high-end cars such as BMW's 7 series, Bentley Continentals and the four-by-four Porsche Cayenne.

It would apply only to new cars, with exemptions for "essential" vehicles.

Airlines would also be taxed per flight rather than by passenger, to penalise companies operating half-full planes.

The party's environmental spokesman Chris Huhne said it was vital "to use green taxes as a lever in order to make our behaviour sustainable".

He said he wanted to "change the cars that we buy rather than the cars that we're using at the moment".

This was because it was important "people know exactly what they're letting themselves in for" when considering a purchase.

Mr Huhne insisted the increase would not lead to motorists retaining dilapidated cars instead of replacing them.

"The idea is not to encourage people to go on driving 'rust-buckets' but actually to encourage them when they're purchasing a new car to buy a car which is consistent with their environmental obligations," he said.

One of the fundamental principles of carbon taxes should be that they are proportional to the carbon produced. The annual road tax has nothing to do with the carbon produced, you pay the same amount whether you drive your car ten miles or ten thousand miles per year. (The fuel duty is different, that is a sensible carbon tax.) So this Lib Dem proposal (as supported by loads of other members of the chattering classes) is classic stupidity (or envy, depending on your viewpoint). And airlines should not be taxed per flight. They should be taxed on fuel consumed. Otherwise there is no incentive to use more efficient airplanes. So more Lib Dem stupidity. And needless to say, Chris Huhne himself contributes much more to carbon emissions than your average British citizen (as do all members of the chattering classes, because they are rich). In particular, when he was running for party leader he didn't mind taking a plane instead of going by train or car. Of course there is one rule for the ruling elite and another for everyone else.

New antibiotic discovered (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A potent antibiotic which kills many bacteria, including MRSA, has been discovered by scientists.

The researchers, from the drug company Merck, isolated platensimycin from a sample of South African soil.

If the compound passes clinical trials it will become only the third entirely new antibiotic developed in the last four decades.

Details in the journal Nature reveal the antibiotic works in a completely different way to all others.

It acts to block enzymes involved in the synthesis of fatty acids, which bacteria need to construct cell membranes.

Most classes of antibiotic were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, and work by blocking synthesis of the cell wall, DNA and proteins within bacteria.

Most of today's antibiotics are simply tweaks of this basic format.

The fact that they work in similar ways may be one reason why bacteria are proving so adept at developing resistance.

Thus a new class of antibiotics with a different method of action could represent a major breakthrough.

Sounds good. If this drug comes to market hopefully South Africa will get some of the money the revenue (but what are the odds).

Date published: 2006/05/17

More so-called affordable housing should be built in rural areas (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A big increase in subsidised housing to stop low-earners being priced out of rural areas in England is being called for by a government-backed group.

A report by the Affordable Rural Housing Commission says at least 11,000 new homes a year must be built.

It suggests a new tax on second homes and more restrictions on the right to buy council houses in rural areas.

Without such action, rural communities will be reduced to retirement towns and "dormitories" for the wealthy, it adds.

The commission has also emphasised the obligation on national park authorities to play their part in building affordable homes, as well as the involvement of planners and rural communities themselves.

Commission chair Elinor Goodman said: "We recommend that 11,000 affordable homes need to be built. That's equivalent to around six new houses a year in each rural ward in England.

"Villages and country towns must be allowed to evolve in the way they did in the past - they can't just be preserved in aspic.

"Most can probably absorb some more houses, as long as they are in scale and character and maintain the identity of individual communities."

She said the issue of second homes was not a major problem across the country, but was a real concern in some areas where there was a disproportionately high number.

Professor Martin Shucksmith, also of the commission, told BBC News that commuters buying up property is the main difficulty.

But other groups, such as people retiring to the countryside, are causing concerns.

This is not just a problem for rural areas, it is a problem almost anywhere that is attractive. Cambridge, for example, has loads of London commuters, and most of the new housing in town is aimed at them rather than at locals. And they push up house prices for everybody, so that many locals are forced to live in the nearby villages rather than in Cambridge itself (so displacing people there). There are several fundamental problems here. London commuters are being subsidised by the rest of the country (since allegedly commuting 50 or 100 miles to work on a train is "sustainable" so deserves a whacking great goverment subsidy in order to sustain it) so commuters live further from London than they should. And almost all housebuilding in England is under the control of developers, who are not interested in "organic" growth but just want to dump as many houses in a plot as they can possibly get away with (a policy encouraged by urban planners, who love high density rubbish housing). And that in turn means that the propertied classes have an easy case to argue that their entrenched interests should have priority over any development (and these people run the country and include the members of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission).

Ofsted says school mathematics teaching is not great (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Too many schools are "teaching to the test" in mathematics, stifling genuinely stimulating thinking about the subject, a report suggests.

Education watchdog Ofsted looked at 26 schools, sixth forms and other colleges in England and found that about half of lessons failed in this regard.

Many 14 to 19-year-olds "did not expect to understand mathematics", it said.
...
Ofsted found many lessons "lacked sufficient flair, imagination and challenge to get the best from students".

They did not allow them to develop their "ability to reason and discover solutions for themselves".

In a few GCSE lessons, they were given "incorrect, incomplete, inappropriate or misleading information".

Ofsted recommended that teaching at this stage should focus on "high levels of performance and secure understanding" to prepare students for going on to A-level.
...
Ofsted's director of education, Miriam Rosen, said: "At present too many students do not expect to understand mathematics.

"Students try to pass exams by memorising lots of unconnected facts rather than a few guiding principles.
...
The Association of School and College Leaders said Ofsted's criticism of schools and colleges for teaching to the test in maths was amazingly hypocritical.

General secretary John Dunford said: "Schools are judged by Ofsted on the results of those tests, and head teachers are losing their jobs when Ofsted decides that pupils are not doing well enough in the tests.

"Instead of criticising the teaching, Ofsted should be criticising the tests, on which schools not unreasonably base their classroom work."

Yes, Ofsted is being totally hypocritical. Ofsted is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And this problem does not occur just in maths, but in all subjects. When schools are rewarded for "teaching to the test", it is not that surprising when they do.

Date published: 2006/05/16

Blair backs nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Tony Blair has given his strongest signal yet that he backs the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK.

The prime minister told the CBI annual dinner that the issue was "back on the agenda with a vengeance".

He said Britain faced the prospect of being largely reliant on foreign gas imports for its future energy needs.

Critics claim Mr Blair had decided to opt for nuclear power even before the government energy review launched.

In the speech Mr Blair revealed he had seen a "first cut" of the government-commissioned energy review, due by the end of July.

Chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission Lord Porrit said: "It would be damaging to this government's credibility if it were to pre-empt the conclusions of its own energy review, by making premature and insufficiently considered announcements on nuclear power."

Well this is not a very surprising development, everybody has been saying for months that this is what Blair wants. Of course it no longer matters that much what Blair wants, what really matters is what Brown wants. And he has been silent on the issue. And Porrit and other so-called environmentalists are dogmatic in their comments. They continually make "premature and insufficiently considered announcements" against nuclear power, because they oppose it under all conditions, no questions asked. Needless to say, it is up to the nuclear industry to prove its case, in particular with regard to waste disposal.

European Court of Justice says NHS should pay for treatment in Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK patients forced to wait longer than they should for NHS treatment are entitled to reclaim the cost of being treated in Europe, a court has ruled.

The European Court of Justice said the NHS must refund costs if patients waited longer than clinicians advised, even if waiting time targets were met.

The court was ruling in the case of Yvonne Watts, 75, of Bedford, who paid £3,900 for a hip operation in France.

But it said in her case UK courts would have to decide if she got a refund.

Mrs Watts said the news was "wonderful" and that if she got the money back she would donate it to a medical charity.

The case, which centres on the definition of "undue delay", could have a significant impact on the NHS.

It will allow any patient facing an unacceptable delay who has the funds to pay for an operation upfront to seek treatment abroad and recoup the costs from the NHS.

A rather ridiculous judgement. It says that if people want to then they can queue jump health treatment. And if you can be treated for free in Europe then how is that morally different than being able to opt for private treatment in the UK, at taxpayers' expense, if there is an "undue delay" in the NHS. (And as far as every patient is concerned, any delay is "undue".)

Slovenia to join the Eurozone (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The first new entrant since 2003 to the twelve-member eurozone has been agreed by the European Commission.

Slovenia's application to join the single currency on 1 January 2007 was accepted by the Commission.

The application by the former communist state must now be approved by the European Parliament and EU member states, who will set the exchange rate.

However, Lithuania's application for euro membership was rejected because its inflation rate was too high.

If all goes to plan, EU finance ministers will fix the exchange rate between the euro and the tolar, the Slovenian currency, on 11 July.

The euro could be legal tender in the new year, with just a two-week transition period during which it circulates alongside the Slovene tolar.

The Slovenian central bank would have the task of distributing 155 million euro coins and 42 million bank notes by 1 January.

The news was generally welcomed in the small Alpine nation of two million people, which borders Italy and Austria but was formerly part of communist Yugoslavia.

"This is a matter of prestige. I'm boasting to visitors that Slovenia will be the first [of the new EU members] to adopt the euro," said Franjo Bobinac, chief executive of Slovenia's largest household appliances maker Gorenje.

The government hopes that euro membership will boost tourism and foreign investment.

Hopefully good news for Slovenia, and rather pathetic that the UK is still (and for the foreseeable future) outside the Eurozone.

Date published: 2006/05/15

Study of the "bleaching" of coral in the Seychelles (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rising ocean temperatures look set to cause lasting devastation to coral reef systems, a study suggests.

An international team of researchers looked at reefs in the Seychelles, where an ocean warming event in 1998 killed much of the live coral.

The group found the oceanic reef had experienced fish extinctions, algal growth, and only limited recovery.

Details have been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The 1998 event saw Indian Ocean surface temperatures rise to unprecedented levels, killing off - or "bleaching" - more than 90% of the inner Seychelles coral. Coral bleaching has been described as a vivid demonstration of climate change in action.

"[Bleaching events] are becoming more frequent and are predicted to become more severe in coming decades. They are directly linked to increases in sea surface temperatures," said lead author Nick Graham, of the University of Newcastle, UK.
...
Since 1998, another three bleaching events have been recorded in the Indian Ocean and at least two in the Pacific.

"Various [computer simulations] suggest we'll be having a 1998-scale bleaching event annually within 30 years, so the outlook is pretty bleak for how common these events will become," said Dr Graham.

Worldwide, coral reefs cover an estimated 284,300 sq km and support over 25% of all known marine species.

Nothing that new here, it is well known that coral are going to be some of the first victims of global warming. But worth studying specific examples, all the same.

Government wants "core British values" to be part of school curriculum (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is to review whether "core British values" should become a compulsory part of the curriculum for 11 to 16-year-olds in England.

In response to last year's London bombings, ministers want to adapt the current citizenship classes in an attempt to make society more unified.

Education minister Bill Rammell criticised "narrow and unhelpful" interpretations of Islam.

He ordered an urgent review of university Islamic courses.

But critics say a government definition of British values would be too vague and that education cannot prevent extremism.

The six-month-long schools review will ask how all children can develop a strong sense of British identity by learning about Britain's culture and traditions, including the contributions from different communities.

Mr Rammell said: "We know that young people of all faiths and of none are more prone to become radicalised than other groups in society.

"This is true in terms of extreme left and extreme right politics, as well as extremist religious views."

Mr Rammell added: "I want to be very clear that none of this is about silencing voices - far from it.

"It is quite legitimate to voice concern, dissent, frustration, even anger. Of course, that must be at the heart of our democracy."

He said: "There is reason to think that in some cases students are being exposed more than any of us would like to wrong-headed influences, under the name of religion.

"In particular, exposed to teachings that either explicitly condone terrorism, or foster a climate of opinion which is at least sympathetic to terrorists' motivation.

"I am worried about this, so are colleagues in government, so above all are Muslims that I have spoken to."

The UK was multicultural but there needed to be a debate about the things shared by all communities, which bound society together, he added.

In a speech at South Bank University, Mr Rammell said the Islam review followed nine months of conversations with Muslim students about their grievances in education.

But Shadow Higher Education Minister Boris Johnson said: "It is not a question of teaching British values; it is a question of teaching British history.

"There is nothing exclusive or divisive in pointing out the fantastic achievements of the British people.

"For 30 years the British education establishment has cow-towed to the doctrines of multiculturalism and they have deprecated all the institutions and symbols that unite the country."

British history is not quite as "fantastic" as Boris Johnson would have us believe. In particular, Britain was not exactly a wonderful colonial ruler. And there are not many institutions that unite Britain. The main institutions that get people excited are the sports teams (in particular the football team) and that is not British but English / Welsh / Scottish / Northern Irish. But at least Johnson is correct that teaching history is far more important than teaching "core British values", which is bound to just be politically correct tripe.

Date published: 2006/05/14

Blair says he will sign animal testing petition (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Anti-vivisectionists have criticised Tony Blair's pledge to sign an online petition which backs animal testing.

The prime minister, who condemned the "appalling" actions of animal rights extremists, will join around 13,000 people on the People's Petition.

He said threats against GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) shareholders showed why those in medical research had to be protected.

However, the National Anti-Vivisection Society described Mr Blair's commitment as "hugely irresponsible".

Jan Creamer, the society's chief executive, said: "We understand this petition has only 13,000 names.

"This is compared to over 20 times that number of people who support animal welfare groups on non-animal research, plus the overwhelming public support for replacement of animals in testing.

"This petition is being run by an extremist group of vested interests representing a very narrow area of medical research.

"They want to see the UK continue with an outdated method of research as opposed to taking up more advanced, non-animal scientific methods."

Rather silly the comments by Creamer. Most people in the UK suport animal testing for medical purposes (rightly or wrongly), and the people supporting the petition are hardly extremist by any definition. And if you ask people whether they would like animals replaced in testing they are hardly going to say no, so it's a totally meaningless statistic. And you would expect the anti-vivisection groups to get much more support for their petitions (or whatever) since they feel much more strongly about the issue than the people on the other side, so that is another meaningless statistic. Quoting meaningless statistics hardly promotes your cause. And perhaps the anti-vivisection groups should put their money where their mouths are and put money into a new drug company that would use these wonderful "advanced, non-animal scientific methods" and see how far they get.

Date published: 2006/05/13

Blair wants to water down Human Rights Act (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government might have to bring in new legislation to prevent the Human Rights Act endangering public safety, the lord chancellor has said.

Lord Falconer said cases such as that of rapist Anthony Rice, who murdered a woman while on parole, raised concerns over how the law was working.

The act was also cited when a court ruled nine Afghan asylum seekers who hijacked a plane could stay in the UK.

Human rights groups said the current concerns were not a fault of the act.

"Amending our human rights act because of gross public service failures is like handing a repeat burglar the key to your house," said Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty.

"Without the act, ordinary people in Britain would have precious little protection from maladministration."

The European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law in 1998 through the Human Rights Act.

Well if this was not New Labour you would think that perhaps they were just intending to make things better (since the Human Rights Act can be abused). As it is, however, the only logical conclusion is that this is all part of the Blair programme for the removal of civil liberties.

Bush claims that spying on Americans is legal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has used his weekly radio address to launch a strong defence of his administration's domestic surveillance programme.

It follows claims the phone records of tens of millions of Americans are being collected by a US intelligence agency.

Mr Bush stressed that all intelligence activities he authorised were "lawful" and "strictly target" al-Qaeda.

"The privacy of all Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities," he insisted.

"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. We are not trawling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."

Bush is still in the running for being the worst president of all time. The only reason he can claim that these activities are "legal" is because he believes he has the right to decide what is and is not "legal", independent of Congress and the judiciary.

Date published: 2006/05/12

Labour government chooses half measures on pensions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A deal on pensions has been agreed between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown following months of wrangling, the prime minister has confirmed. Under the agreement, the link between the state pension and earnings will be restored - probably in 2012.

There is understood to be a deal on raising the state pension age to 68 by 2050. More details are being discussed.
...
The changes will not happen until at least 2012 - two years after the date recommended by Lord Turner's commission on pensions.

And firms employing fewer than five people will not have to pay into a proposed new national pension savings scheme, the BBC understands.

Medium-sized businesses will pay half of any rate, and although there will be no discount for large companies, the changes will be phased in over three years.

Much of the new deal will be paid for by equalising the retirement age for women with men, but womens' entitlement to a pension will be based on about 30 years of contributions rather than the current 39, the BBC has been told.

But the deal is understood to mean that large tax rises in this Parliament will be avoided.

As usual, New Labour fudges the hard issues. The whole point of course is to avoid "large tax rises in this Parliament". It's the usual trick of second-rate politicians. The delay until 2012 is bad enough (of course when Brown takes over he'll probably find an excuse to delay it further). But worse, the state pension should be determined by residency, not by how many years you have allegedly worked (since child minding and all sorts of other voluntary work does not count). Instead of doing that (the only sensible way forward) it seems New Labour have gone down the idiotic route of allowing women to claim a full pension after 30 years rather than 39. Of course this is blatantly sexist. And it seems the BBC story might be misleading, since such blatant sexism is against EU law. So presumably certainly politically correct voluntary work (such as child rearing) will be counted, whether you are female or male. But having this idiotic complexity (a certain sign that Brown is involved) is what happens when dogma wins over common sense.

Lords vote down terminally ill patient bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The progress of a controversial bill which would allow terminally ill people to be helped to die has been blocked by the House of Lords.

Lord Joffe's bill would give doctors the right to prescribe drugs that a terminally ill patient in severe pain could use to end their own life.

But peers backed an amendment to delay the bill by six months by 48 votes.

Lord Joffe said the move was intended to end the debate, but pledged to reintroduce his bill at a later date.

The government has said it will not block a further hearing of the bill.

Peers had spent the day in a passionate debate on whether or not it was right to allow people who were terminally ill to be given drugs they could then use to end their life.

Lord Joffe had told the house that patients should not have to endure unbearable pain "for the good of society as a whole".

The crossbench peer said: "We must find a solution to the unbearable suffering of patients whose needs cannot be met by palliative care."

But Lord Carlile said the bill would end with doctors giving lethal drugs.

The Lib Dem peer said: "Everybody in your Lordships' house knows that those who are moving this bill have the clear intention of it leading to voluntary euthanasia.

"That has always been the aim and it remains the aim now."

The bill, which had its second reading on Friday, proposed that after signing a legal declaration that they wanted to die, patients could be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to take.

Only people with less than six months to live, who were suffering unbearably and were deemed to be of sound mind and not depressed would be able to end their life under Lord Joffe's proposal.

It's hard to see this bill becoming law anytime soon. There are just far too many control freaks in the world (and in this particular case, religious control freaks), who somehow see it as their duty to make people suffer a horrible death. Joffe is wrong that patients endure pain "for the good of society as a whole". How can it be described as good for society that people are effectively tortured to death. Somehow we can figure out the right thing to do when it comes to cats and dogs, but not humans.

Cambridge might get road pricing sooner than the rest of the UK (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening says:

New Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander has said Cambridge could lead the way in using road pricing to cut urban traffic jams.

In his first major speech in his new Cabinet job, he highlighted the work being done in the city to develop a workable congestion charging scheme.

He told a conference in York:

"We need to explore the scope for developing a national system of road pricing.

"We know that, on paper, road pricing has the potential to cut congestion long-term by nearly half, with only 4 per cent less cars using the road.

"The big challenge is to take road pricing off the drawing board and make it work for road users.

Only a few days on the job and Alexander already knows how to put spin above substance. Road pricing is not meant to "make it work for road users", it is just another tax raising scheme. And if reducing the amount of traffic on the roads by "only 4 percent" cuts congestion by "nearly half" then presumably increasing the amount of capacity by "only 4 percent" would achieve much the same result. But we wouldn't want to do that, far better to screw the motorist (in particular the non-rich motorist, since this is a completely regressive tax).

The Cambridge Evening also says:

Congestion charging has been slammed as a misguided money-making scheme by business chiefs in Cambridge.

New transport minister Douglas Alexander has revealed he is in favour of congestion charging in the city, highlighting work being done on road pricing in Cambridge during his first major speech since coming into office this week.

But John Bridge, Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce chief executive, said: "I'm yet to be convinced. The Government already takes significant tax from motorists through fuel duty and VAT and puts a fraction back in as investment in infrastructure.

"This seems to be another way of getting yet more money out of motorists and businesses, rather than a genuine attempt to solve the problem.

"I have to say Cambridgeshire already has less than its share of investment in return - we all know the A14 is significantly behind schedule.

"While people are pumping their money into shopping developments which will make Cambridge a more vibrant place to live and work, the last thing investors want to see is people being put off coming into the city."

Cambridgeshire County Council has been given ££385,000 to investigate possible schemes, but Coun John Reynolds, environment and community services cabinet member, also reacted with caution to Mr Alexander's enthusiasm for the idea, insisting charging motorists was just one idea for cutting traffic.

He said: "One of the things we will be looking into is what role further demand-management measures, such as roaduser charging, can play in helping us address the traffic issues.

"However, the study will also look into other ways congestion can be tackled, such as better public transport.

"We are looking to build on the successes of our current schemes, which keep Cambridge moving and traffic levels in the city centre down.

"The council has no plans to introduce a London-style congestion charge. The study we are doing will look into a variety of demand management measures that would cost the average traveller no more than it does now."

Coun Jenny Bailey, Cambridge City Council's planning and transport executive member, said road pricing had the potential for freeing up the city's streets, but could go horribly wrong.

She said: "The county has commissioned a study into road pricing in Cambridge and we're all waiting the outcome of that.

Depending on how it is implemented, it could either free-up the roads and help buses and cyclists flow a lot easier and make Cambridge more accessible and attractive, or if the county gets it wrong, it could price people out of Cambridge and nobody will want to go in."

So even some of the usual suspects amongst the car hating Cambridge ruling elite seem to recognise there are problems with so-called congestion charging. But Reynolds is taking the piss when he says that the "current schemes" (i.e. closing roads down and putting in wacky bus lanes) helps "keep Cambridge moving". He has obviously not been in Cambridge recently, since outside the "core" (where cars are all but banned) it is one big disaster area. And Bailey also spouts some nonsense, since cyclists already have no problem getting around (that is, after all, one of the points of being on a bicycle), and Cambridge is no longer really accessible. And the only reason it is attractive is the reason it has always been attractive, namely the university and colleges. Just about anything the city has been responsible for has made it less attractive. There are not that many people who "want to go in" to Cambridge now, never mind in future, but the ruling elite have decreed that all shopping has to be in Cambridge, so people are forced to go there.

Date published: 2006/05/11

Ken Livingstone wants to raise car access tax again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

London's mayor has been accused of using the congestion charge to "boost his coffers" after announcing plans to raise it to £10 a day by 2008.

In a televised debate, Ken Livingstone said the £2 rise could be included in his next manifesto, and any extra money would go back into public transport.

But his political rivals and critics of the daily charge have accused him of using it to raise money.
...
When the charge - payable by motorists driving into central London - was introduced it was thought congestion fell by about a third.

When the last rise was brought in in July, it fell a further 5%-6%. It is thought another rise will bring congestion down further, which the mayor has said is vital to keep it under control.

Of course this is basically a money-making exercise, as is almost everything else goverment does with respect to driving. And the goal posts always have to move to justify the existence of the overpaid bureaucrats who are running the scheme. If the citizens of London don't like it they can always kick Livingstone out. But many of the people impacted by this tax are not citizens of London, so have no vote. If they don't like it they can always boycott London and take their business elsewhere. They could also encourage their MPs to give less funding to London cultural institutions (such as museums) since if the people of London are telling the rest of the country to get lost, then the rest of the country should subsidise London less than it does.

Report by MPs on London July bombs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A lack of resources prevented security services from intercepting the 7 July London bombers, a key report has said.

Two of the four bombers were known to security officers but the threat they posed was not realised.

But it was "understandable" the pair had not been investigated more fully, the committee of MPs concluded.

Home Secretary John Reid insisted there would be no public inquiry, as he gave the government's long-awaited account of the bombings to the Commons.
...
Mr Reid detailed the events of 7 July to the Commons, saying the whole operation to launch four separate attacks on London's transport system cost the bombers less than £8,000.

He said the bombers' motivation was "fierce antagonism to perceived injustices by the West against Muslims" and a desire for martyrdom.

Meanwhile the MPs' report said the security services had come across 30-year-old Mohammad Sidique Khan and fellow bomber Shehzad Tanweer, 22, while they were investigating other cases.

They also discovered after the attacks that they had a phone number for Russell Square bomber Germaine Lindsay, 19, on their files.

Khan and Tanweer had been observed in Pakistan, where it was "likely that they had some contact with al-Qaeda figures".

"If more resources had been in place sooner the chances of preventing the July attacks could have increased," the report stated.

"Greater coverage in Pakistan, or more resources generally in the UK, might have alerted the agencies to the intentions of the 7 July group."

But the Intelligence and Security Committee conceded there were "more pressing priorities" at the time, including the need to disrupt known plans to attack the UK.

"It was decided not to investigate [Khan and Tanweer] further or seek to identify them," said the report, adding that this decision was "understandable".

Every organisation could always do better with more resources, so this is hardly a novel claim. The problem, as always, is that resources are not infinite. And it's hard to protect against terrorist acts (an extreme form of vandalism) which only cost £2000 pounds per incident, you can put that easily enough on a credit card.

Date published: 2006/05/10

UK Attorney General calls for closure of Guantanamo Bay detention camp (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has called for the closure of the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.

He is reported to have serious doubts about whether the indefinite detention of "enemy combatants" is legal or fair.

In a speech in London, he said the camp had become a symbol of injustice and its existence was "unacceptable".
...
In the strongest worded condemnation yet from a British government minister, Lord Goldsmith said: "The existence of Guantanamo remains unacceptable.

"It is time, in my view, that it should close. Not only would it, in my personal opinion, be right to close Guantanamo as a matter of principle, I believe it would also help to remove what has become a symbol to many - right or wrong - of injustice.

"The historic tradition of the United States as a beacon of freedom, liberty and of justice deserves the removal of this symbol."
...
Lord Goldsmith told the Royal United Services Institute there was a case for limiting some rights for collective security.

But he said the right to a fair trial should never be compromised.

Perhaps Goldsmith should tell his boss Blair that "the right to a fair trial should never be compromised", since Blair wants the right to lock people up without trial for 90 days (or longer) just on his say-so, without any court intervention. Of course Guantanamo Bay, along with almost all other policies of the Bush administration, has been a complete disaster for the US, and has almost certainly made American citizens less safe in the world.

Date published: 2006/05/09

Possible method for predicting coastal earthquakes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Concentrations of the natural pigment chlorophyll in coastal waters have been shown to rise prior to earthquakes.

These chlorophyll increases are due to blooms of plankton, which use the pigment to convert solar energy to chemical energy via photosynthesis.

A joint US-Indian team of researchers analysed satellite data on ocean coastal areas lying near the epicentres of four recent quakes.

Details of the research appear in the journal Advances in Space Research.

They say that monitoring peaks in chlorophyll could provide early information on an impending earthquake.

The authors say the chlorophyll blooms are linked to a release of thermal energy prior to an earthquake.

Interesting stuff, if the method could ever really be made sensitive enough to give reasonable predictions (before, not after, an earthquake).

Yet another investigation into UK supermarkets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The market dominance of UK supermarket giants Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons is to be investigated for the third time in seven years.

The stores control almost 75% of the £120bn ($223bn) UK grocery market and the Office of Fair Trading wants the Competition Commission to take a look.

The watchdog said there was evidence that the buying power of big supermarkets could distort competition.

It was also concerned about planning rules and supermarket land holdings.

"This reference will allow the Competition Commission to examine in detail all aspects of the grocery market, ensuring that consumers are able to benefit from strong competition through even lower prices, improved quality and choice, and continuing innovation in the market," said John Fingleton, OFT chief executive.

A complete waste of time. The main losers will be the ordinary people of Britain, who love supermarkets. The main winners will be the extremely expensive consultants and lawyers who will advise all sides, and of course the Competition Commission itself, which has to continually justify its existence. And Fingleton is taking the piss when he says that by hammering the supermarkets, consumers are going "to benefit from strong competition through even lower prices, improved quality and choice". The main reason supermarkets are doing so well is because their prices are lower (for food of equal quality) and their choice is vast, and they have parking. What the anti-supermarket chattering classes really want is a return to the good old days when people had to spend hours on end shopping every other day and putting up with poor choice and high prices. But most of the zealots are more honest than Fingleton in their arguments, because they will loudly claim that food prices are far too low and that there is far too much choice (why should anyone have the right to eat strawberries in December?). Of course these investigations will continue until the anti-supermarket brigade get the result they want. What we really need is some competition for the Competition Commission.

Date published: 2006/05/08

NIAB site being developed (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Hundreds of flats and a new school could be built in Cambridge.

Developers David Wilson Homes want to build around 1,800 homes on land between Histon Road and Huntingdon Road, known as the NIAB site.

The scheme would include affordable housing, public open space, a primary school and community facilities.

David Wilson Homes hopes to apply for planning permission in the autumn and is now asking residents what they would like to see in the area.

Fritz Graves, of David Wilson Homes, said: "We very much value the input of local people, many of whom have lived in the area for many years and understand the needs of the community. It is our aim to provide a development which can be sustainably integrated into the existing community and provide the level of services and facilities required to serve this urban quarter of Cambridge."

The site was allocated for housing by Cambridge City Council in its Local Plan and David Wilson Estates has been appointed by a consortium of landowners including NIAB, Chivers Family, Chivers Farms Ltd, Christ's, St Catharine's and Sidney Sussex Colleges to deliver the project.

Another disaster in the making. Exactly the same kind of procedure happened at Arbury Camp (now renamed as Arbury Park). The "local" community (i.e. the usual suspects) were involved in various events, but at the end of the day the developer can do pretty much as they want. And in any case the local people make even stupider requests than the developer. In particular the locals almost always put their own interests above the interests of the new community. So (surprise) the number one request is that no cars be allowed. So it is ok for the rich people of Huntingdon Road and Windsor Road to have cars, but heaven forbid the new residents of the NIAB site being allowed to have any (even though they are further from town). And along the same line, you can guarantee that the road links into the site will be dreadful. This site provides a golden opportunity to put a link road between Histon Road and Huntingdon Road, but there is no way that will ever happen. And on the housing front, given the current planning rules, the new housing will all be high density and rubbish. Welcome to the slums of the 21st century, brought to you by the Cambridge ruling elite.

Stansted second runway delayed yet again (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Stansted Airport's second runway faces another delay.

Airport operator BAA is now assuming an opening date of 2015/16, pushing the project back by at least two years. It is the second time in a year the plan has been delayed.

Anti-expansion campaigners said comfort could be taken from the news. But they said BAA's recent planning application to remove its passenger limit, which currently limits it to 25 million passengers a year, indicated the company's intentions.

The Government's Air Transport White Paper called for two new runways to be built in the South East - the first at Stansted by 2011/2012 and the second at Gatwick or Heathrow no earlier than 2015.

But in May last year, BAA said the scheme had moved slower than expected due to planning complexities and challenges.

BAA should announce in June which runway option for Stansted it will take through the planning process.

Well one shouldn't necessarily take the reasons BAA gives at face value, but the planning process in England is ridiculous. Imagine taking more than ten years just to build a new runway. If BAA is serious about a second runway then they had better act quickly, because the way the political climate is moving in England, in a few years no new runways or airport expansion will be allowed (since allegedly more flights means the end of the world, so flying should be made very expensive so that only the rich can afford to fly like in the good old days).

Date published: 2006/05/07

Peter Hain apologises over all-woman shortlist (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Labour Party has apologised to the people of Blaenau Gwent for imposing an all-woman shortlist on the constituency in the 2005 general election.

Welsh Secretary Peter Hain said that while he thought having an all-woman shortlist was an honourable objective, Labour "got it wrong".

Mr Hain told BBC Wales' Politics Show he was issuing the apology on behalf of Labour at the highest levels.

Independent Peter Law defeated Labour's Maggie Jones at the election.

Blaenau Gwent was Labour's parliamentary seat in Wales, but Mr Law overturned a 19,000 majority in defeating Ms Jones.

Mr Hain said on Sunday: "I'm saying sorry to them (people in Blaenau Gwent). We got it wrong last time.

"We sought to present a choice of women only and we over-rode local party wishes and the wishes of the people of Blaenau Gwent.

"The first law of politics is you listen to the people.

Hain seems to be one of the few semi-sane people in the Blair government, which is why he's marooned in Wales. But this (supposed apology) is quite extraordinary. The main problem with all-woman shortlists is not that they are blatantly sexist but that the people who have directly benefitted from past discrimination against women, i.e. sitting male MPs, are the ones who are imposing discrimination against men who are not currently MPs. Two wrongs hardly make a right. The people who have benefitted from discrimination in the past should be the ones to suffer.

Campaign to remove Blair (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair is the victim of a left wing plot to oust him as prime minister, Home Secretary John Reid has said.

About 50 Labour MPs are thought to have signed a letter calling for Mr Blair to name a departure date to end "debilitating" leadership speculation.

But Mr Reid claimed their real agenda was to topple Mr Blair and turn the clock back on his reforms.

Of course the real agenda is to topple Blair, he is most of the problem, and is not very good at taking the hint that it's time to get lost.

Date published: 2006/05/06

Brazil opens uranium enrichment facility (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Brazil has joined the select group of countries with the capability of enriching uranium as a means of generating energy.

A new centrifuge facility was formally opened on Friday at the Resende nuclear plant in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

The Brazilian government says its technology is some of the most advanced in the world.

The official opening follows lengthy negotiations with the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

Brazil has some of the largest reserves of uranium in the world but until now the ore has had to be shipped abroad for enrichment - the process which produces nuclear fuel.

In future some of that enrichment will take place in Brazil.

The government says that within a decade the country will be able to meet all its nuclear energy needs.

Brazilian scientists insist their technology is superior to that of existing nuclear powers. They claim the type of centrifuge in use at Resende will be 25 times more efficient than facilities in France or the United States.

Sensitivity over that technology led to a standoff two years ago with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN watchdog.

Keen to protect its commercial secrets, Brazil was reluctant to give inspectors full access to its facilities and politically the negotiations were complicated by simultaneous concerns about Iran's nuclear plans.

But in the end Brazil and the IAEA agreed a system of safeguards to ensure that the new facilities would not be channelled into weapons production.

Good on Brazil and they were fully right in being reluctant to give UN inspectors full access, since the US (and anybody else who thinks they can get away with it) use these missions more as an excuse to spy than anything else.

Date published: 2006/05/05

Blair sacks and shuffles loads of cabinet ministers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charles Clarke has been sacked as home secretary in the biggest Cabinet reshuffle of Tony Blair's career.

The prime minister is trying to regain momentum after one of the worst local election results in Labour's history.

Mr Clarke will be replaced by Defence Secretary John Reid. Margaret Beckett is the new foreign secretary, with Jack Straw becoming Commons leader.

John Prescott will stay as deputy prime minister but lose his department. Trade Secretary Alan Johnson gets education.

Labour came third in the overall share of the vote in local elections in England, losing control of 18 local authorities. The Tories were the biggest winners, gaining 316 extra councillors and 40% of the vote.

Blair is flailing around now, his days are numbered. Beckett is hardly an inspired choice for foreign secretary (but Straw was a non-foreign secretary as well, since Blair calls all the shots) and Reid is a perfect choice for being the latest worst home secretary of all time.

Goss resigns as head of the CIA (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George Bush has unexpectedly announced that the head of the CIA, Porter Goss, is stepping down.

No reason was given for the move, which was presented at a hastily arranged press call at the White House, where the two men exchanged compliments.

Mr Goss has served in the role for less than two years, since being given the job of reforming the agency after a series of intelligence failures.
...
There have also been rumblings of discontent at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

He upset some staff by bringing in several top aides from Congress, who were thought by some in the CIA to be too political.

Several high-level CIA staff have resigned recently.

Goss, a total political hack, has been a complete disaster for the CIA, but this is the normal standard of the Bush administration, which seems keen on proving how bad government can really be.

Date published: 2006/05/04

Arbury Labour Party a bit late (permanent blog link)

The poor old Labour Party in Arbury. They used to dominate the council seats but then the Lib Dems took over. There was a local election today, with one city council seat up for grabs in Arbury. And yet the first leaflet from Labour came through the door some time today. Note to the Labour Party: it is a bit late to canvas for votes when people have already voted.

MPs claim the future of university science is under threat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The future of university science is under threat, with the authorities lacking the "teeth" to save courses, a report by MPs says.

The science and technology select committee called Sussex University's proposal to close its highly rated chemistry department "disappointing".

Until stronger national guidelines were in place, further such closures were "inevitable", it added.

But Sussex University called the report "partisan and contradictory".

The MPs found declining interest in chemistry was "without doubt a national concern".

The government had failed to give the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) enough "powers or political support", but had encouraged a "market", within which vice-chancellors were very powerful.

This had left Hefce with neither "the teeth, the tools, nor the will" to do its job effectively.

The report said: "It is extremely unfortunate that in an area of higher education so crucial to the nation's future industrial strength there is now an acknowledged policy failure."

Treasury figures show the number of students graduating in chemistry fell by 7% between 2003 and 2005.
...
Sussex wants to replace its chemistry department with one offering "chemical biology" in 2007.

This is what happens when the bean counters run universities, and unfortunately government after government has given more and more power to the bean counters. But the move by Sussex towards biology is natural, since biology is where most of the action and money is these days. In Cambridge even the Faculty of Mathematics has jumped onto the biology bandwagon, along with both Chemistry and Physics. Biology (well, molecular biology) is as important now as physics was in 1945.

Date published: 2006/05/03

Yet another report on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A scientific report commissioned by the US government has concluded there is "clear evidence" of climate change caused by human activities.

The report, from the federal Climate Change Science Program, said trends seen over the last 50 years "cannot be explained by natural processes alone".

It found that temperatures have increased in the lower atmosphere as well as at the Earth's surface.

However, scientists involved in the report say better data is badly needed.

Observations down the years have suggested that the troposphere, the lower atmosphere, is not warming up, despite evidence that temperatures at the Earth's surface are rising.

This goes against generally accepted tenets of atmospheric physics, and has been used by "climate sceptics" as proof that there is no real warming.

The new report, Temperature Trends in the Lower Atmosphere, re-analyses the atmospheric data and concludes that tropospheric temperatures are rising.

This means, it says, that the impact of human activities upon the global climate are clear.

"The observed patterns of change over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural processes alone, nor by the effect of short-lived atmospheric constituents (such as aerosols and tropospheric ozone) alone," it says.

But there are some big uncertainties which still need resolving.

Globally, the report concludes, tropospheric temperatures have risen by 0.10 and 0.20C per decade since 1979, when satellite data became generally available.

The wide gap between the two figures means, says the report, that "...it is not clear whether the troposphere has warmed more or less than the surface".

Peter Thorne, of the UK Meteorological Office, who contributed to the report, ascribes this uncertainty to poor data.

"Basically, we've not been observing the atmosphere with climate in mind," he told the BBC News website.

"We're looking for very small signals in data that are very noisy. From one day to the next, the temperature can change by 10C, but we're looking for a signal in the order of 0.1C per decade."

The report shows up a particular discrepancy concerning the tropics, where it concludes that temperatures are rising by between 0.02 and 0.19C per decade, a big margin of error.

Additionally, the majority of the available datasets show more warming at the surface than in the troposphere, whereas most models predict the opposite.

Well more data, and even this re-analysis of existing data, is always welcome. But it's ridiculous that people are still even discussing this question. With 6 or 7 billion people on the planet, it's obvious that humans are impacting the climate. But that is not (yet) illegal, and, after all, humans are part of the ecosystem just like every other species. Trees also are impacting the climate (just cut them all down and see what happens). Do we need perpetual reports about that? The real question is what, if anything, needs to be done about climate change, in particular, whether any of the proposed "solutions" are going to make the planet worse or better (by whatever measure you care to specify).

British people are allegedly less happy than they used to be (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain is less happy than in the 1950s - despite the fact that we are three times richer.

The proportion of people saying they are "very happy" has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.

The opinion poll by GfK NOP for The Happiness Formula series on BBC Two provides the first evidence that Britain's happiness levels are declining - a trend already well documented in the United States.

Polling data from Gallup throughout the 1950s shows happiness levels above what they are today, suggesting that our extra wealth has not brought extra well-being.

It could even be making matters worse.

The British experience mirrors data from America, where social scientists have seen levels of life satisfaction gradually decline over the last quarter of a century.

In the early 1970s, 34% of those interviewed in the General Social Survey described themselves as "very happy".

By the late 1990s, the figure was 30% - a small but statistically significant drop.

The story of wealth failing to translate into extra happiness is the story of the Western world.

In almost every developed country, happiness levels have remained largely static over the past 50 years - despite huge increases in income.

What the happiness research suggests is that once average incomes reach about £10,000 a year, extra money does not make a country any happier.
...
Should politicians try to make us happier?

In our opinion poll we asked whether the government's prime objective should be the "greatest happiness" or the "greatest wealth".

A remarkable 81% wanted happiness as the goal. Only 13% wanted greatest wealth.

All very amusing, but unfortunately this kind of opinion poll is bound to be seriously flawed. The fact that 81% of people allegedly want the government's "prime objective" to be "greatest happiness" rather than "greatest wealth" shows how flawed it is. Instead ask people "do you want to pay more taxes so that more services can be directed at poorer people?" (which is the same question translated into actual policies) and see how they respond. And how many people have taken a pay cut to take a job that makes them happier? In particular, not many British people would be willing to see average incomes reduced to 10000 pounds per year (at least not for themselves), and anyone who promotes that kind of idea is obviously deluded.

Of course it could well be that the polls reflect some underlying reality, even if the numbers are rubbish. But perhaps people of the 1950s were less likely to want to admit to being miserable gits, whereas now it's so fashionable to be miserable that they have shows on TV just to gloat over the fact. Or perhaps it's just the case that the post-war generation had a lot more to be happy about, after all they had survived the war and things were going to get better, whereas that is not obviously the case today (the media, after all, keeps telling us that the end of the world is nigh). On a related matter, the BBC also says:

Britain's falling birth rate is being fuelled by a generation who would rather have fun and live comfortably than have children, a survey suggests.

The poll of 1,006 adults for the Guardian also suggested potential parents were forced to delay family life by career pressures.

Half of the adults quizzed said they found it increasingly difficult to find someone to have a family with.
...
Most men (64%) and most women (51%) said it was more important for women to enjoy themselves than have children.

A majority also said they believed doing well at work and earning money can count for more than bringing up children.

This survey is even more dubious than the happiness one, since depending on how the questions are precisely asked (and they are always black and white, and the world is not), you can get any result you want. This just seems part of the perpetual campaign to demonise working women and to force non-parents to hand over even more money in taxes to parents.

Americans allegedly not as healthy as the English (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

White middle-aged Americans are less healthy than their English counterparts, research suggests.

Americans aged 55 to 64 are up to twice as likely to suffer from diabetes, lung cancer and high blood pressure as English people of the same age.

The healthiest Americans had similar disease rates to the least healthy English, the Journal of the American Medical Association study found.

The US-UK research found greater links between health and wealth in the US.

The joint team from University College London, the University of London and health research organisation Rand Corporation, chose two groups of comparable white people from large, long-term health surveys in the US and in England.

In total, the study examined data on around 8,000 people in the two countries.

Each group was divided into three socio-economic groups based on their education and income.

They then compared self-reports of chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and lung disease.

The American group reported significantly higher levels of disease than the English.

Rates of diabetes were twice as high among the US group as the English.

One of the study's authors, James Smith of Rand, said: "You don't expect the health of middle-aged people in these two countries to be too different, but we found that the English are a lot healthier than the Americans."

Those on the lowest incomes in both countries reported most cases of all diseases, except for cancer, and those on the highest incomes the least.

But these health inequalities were more pronounced in the US than they were in England.

The researchers suggested the lack of social programmes in the US, which in the UK help protect those who are sick from loss of income and poverty, could partly help explain why there was a greater link between Americans' wealth and disease.

But the study also found that differences in disease rates between the two nations were not fully explained by lifestyle factors either.

Rates of smoking are similar in the US and England but alcohol consumption is higher in the UK.

Obesity is more common in the US and Americans tend to get less exercise, but even when the obesity factor was taken out, the differences persisted.

One of the researchers Professor Sir Michael Marmot, of the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, said people would automatically presume the differences were caused by the variance in healthcare systems.

US healthcare is funded through an insurance system while England's NHS is funded by taxation and is free at the point of use.

But he pointed out that Americans spent almost double per head on health care than the English do, even though the system was organised in a different way.

He said: "There is more uneven distribution in the US and something like 15% of Americans have no health insurance and (there are) a bigger number who are under-insured."

But this could not fully explain the differences because the richest Americans with access to highest levels of healthcare still had rates of poor health comparable to the worst off in England.

"We cannot blame either bad lifestyle or inadequate medical care as the main culprits in these socio-economic differences in health.

"We should look for explanation to the circumstances in which people live and work.

"We have to take a much broader look at social determinants of health in both countries.

Well at least the study's authors seem to have tried to control for the more obvious factors (like obesity). But it's only one very particular study, so there is no point trying to deduce grand conclusions from it. And it's not clear why anyone would think that the amount a country spends on healthcare should be highly correlated with disease rates, since healthcare systems are mostly about the curing of ill health, not its prevention in the first place (you don't need expensive doctors to promote the latter).

Date published: 2006/05/02

Some UK quango wants more government action on "green" lifestyles (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmental advisers to the UK government are urging more radical action to promote green lifestyles.

The Sustainable Consumption Roundtable (SCR) says people need a clear lead from government.

Its report, I Will If You Will, urges measures such as taxing flights, rewarding water conservation and banning over-fishing of cod.

It says consultation shows that people want to adopt greener habits, but many believe individual action is futile.

Action stimulated by regulation can be effective and go down well with the public, it adds, citing the example of standards mandating energy-efficient boilers.

The SCR report comes after 18 months of consultations with members of the public, businesses and other stakeholders across Britain.

"Going green can be smart and stylish," commented SCR co-chair Ed Mayo, "but it is not yet simple.

"We want to call the bluff of politicians, to take action to make the sustainable choice the easier choice."

The report's main conclusion is that people are generally quite happy with measures which bring positive environmental results, even at some cost to themselves, so long as those measures are applied fairly.

This means, says the SCR, that government must take a lead in mandating and implementing such measures rather than waiting for consumers or business to act first.

"Government and business must focus fairly and squarely on mainstream consumers, rather than expecting the heroic minority of green shoppers to shop society's way out of unsustainability," it declares.

Among the concrete measures it proposes are:

Government could take a clear leadership role, the SCR feels, by committing to making all its own activities carbon-neutral.

The SCR is a joint initiative between the Sustainable Development Commission and the National Consumer Council, supported financially by Defra and the DTI.

Another totally pointless quango. Most of the points they make are suspect, which means that little they say has any credibility.

Are "energy-efficient" boilers really that energy efficient? Well, they are when you only consider direct energy consumption, but that ignores the indirect energy consumption due to their maintenance (which is more frequent than for traditional boilers). Maintenance means there are a lot of road miles (and hence petrol consumption) for service engineers. And do they even last as long as traditional boilers (which can easily last for 15 or 20 years)? Someone needs to do the sums properly (and that somebody is not the SCR).

And you have to laugh when people are so desperate that they claim that "going green can be smart and stylish". You might as well say "going green is for rich posers", since it means much the same thing. Similarly, describing "green" shoppers (whoever they are) as a "heroic minority" is sticking two fingers up to the majority of Britain, in the worst sort of patronising way (as to be expected from a member of the ruling elite).

And what does it mean that the (allegedly) green "measures are applied fairly"? Needless to say, what "fair" really means to most people is that in fact they themselves suffer no consequences (e.g. higher taxes) but that someone else (hopefully "the rich", whoever they are, or drivers) does. It is particularly spurious when the argument is based on what people have said so in a survey. People say one thing in public and another thing when it counts, either in the shop or at the ballot box. (Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s many people claimed they voted Labour to pollsters but the Tories always won the elections.)

Of course everybody believes that air travel (well, specifically airplane fuel) should be taxed, and it is a scandal that it is not. But if car fuel tax is anything to go by, this tax, when it arrives, will not be fair and will be way over what a real carbon tax should be. Meanwhile other bigger sources of carbon (e.g. domestic gas and electricity) will get off scot free. Anybody that mentions cars and/or airplanes without mentioning other sources of carbon should just be ignored.

And of course there is already a "major cost incentive to buy efficient cars", it's called the petrol tax, which is indeed way above what any reasonable carbon tax on petrol would be. But the effect has not been what the ruling elite want, i.e. people have not stopped driving (because the convenience still outweighs the cost). So of course the ruling elite propose much higher, completely unfair, taxes (in particular a much higher annual car tax for politically incorrect cars, even though this tax has nothing to do with petrol consumption, since the same amount is paid whether you drive your car ten miles or ten thousand miles each year).

And the mention of cod is a perfect example of how meaningless the SCR consultation has been. Many people don't even like cod, so they are hardly going to miss it. And even most people who do like cod are not going to suffer. The people who are going to suffer are the cod fishermen. But the SCR obviously does not give a damn about this small minority of British citizens. And the EU already carefully regulates fishing, needless to say, taking into account the interests of the public and the fishermen (and the fish).

And the government can never make its activities "carbon neutral". To be carbon neutral you yourself have to pay for your carbon emissions. Nobody in government pays for anything, it is all subsidised by the taxpayer. Of course one easy first step for the government would be to save lots of money (and hence energy and hence carbon emissions) by disbanding all the useless quangos, such as the SCR. How much carbon was emitted producing this useless report?

The Tories want more school buses (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Conservatives have called for the school bus system to be expanded to cut down on traffic on the roads.

In a visit to Guildford, Surrey, party leader David Cameron said school buses should be safe, clean and reliable, to be an "attractive alternative" to cars.

He said just six per cent of children in the UK go to school on a school bus.

The government's Education and Inspections Bill gives English local authorities a duty to prepare a sustainable school transport strategy.
...
Mr Cameron later announced he was launching a working group on school buses.

The group, made up of Tory parliamentary spokesmen on transport and education and councillors, will look at how a Conservative strategy on school transport provision could cut congestion and help the environment.

In a policy document, the Tory leader said the party would aim to provide "a much better range of choices for parents" who currently drive their children to school.

Education charity The Sutton Trust has called for US-style school buses to be introduced across England to improve pupil safety and ease traffic congestion.

In a report last year it said that a service costing taxpayers £124m a year would reduce the 40 deaths and 900 serious injuries caused annually by the school run.
...
The government's education bill places a duty on local authorities to provide free transport to pupils from low income families to attend any of three suitable secondary schools closest to their home, where these schools are more than two and less than six miles away.
...
The Department for Education pointed out that about 54% of primary school pupils and 32% of secondary school pupils travelled to school by either school bus or public transport.
...
The Liberal Democrats' Sarah Teather said: "With the school run now accounting for 20% of rush-hour traffic, there is an urgent need for government action. Why has it taken new Labour six years to act on its own report?

"There are almost a million children driven less than a mile to school - no wonder obesity levels among six-year-olds have doubled to nearly one in 10.

Of course everybody believes school buses should be paid for by taxpayers and not by parents, and that is the heart of the problem. But non-parents already subsidise parents to the tune of billions of pounds per year (via free education, for starters) so what's another couple hundred of million pounds between friends? Of course if someone could convincingly demonstrate that the reduction in congestion (particularly during the morning rush hour) more than made up for the increased taxes, then obviously it would be a reasonable idea. (The problem is that would you believe anyone who did the sums, because most of the experts probably have an axe to grind.) The claim about school buses being more "environmentally friendly" is spurious (when you include not only the direct but indirect energy consumption).

The Sutton Trust presumably are not claiming that all the 40 deaths and 900 serious injuries would not happen, because many students are not eligible for buses (and would not be under any proposed system, because it would be far too expensive), in particular the million children a year allegedly (according to the Lib Dems) driven less than a mile to school. And also, there are of course bus accidents. In the United States, cars cannot pass a school bus picking up or letting off a student, whereas in Britain they can, which itself can lead to cars hitting students.

School buses are also not all they are made out to be. They are particularly bad for the few students (e.g. small ones or smart ones) who are picked on by other students ganging up. The school bus is the perfect place for hooligans to rule the roost, since the driver is too busy driving to pay much attention to what is going on with the kids.

Unfortunately the politicians of Britain are far too concerned with sound bites to ever make the case for anything reasonably and sensibly, with all the appropriate caveats. The world must be displayed as black and white.

Loss of biodiversity is increasing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The polar bear and hippopotamus are for the first time listed as species threatened with extinction by the world's biodiversity agency.

They are included in the Red List of Threatened Species published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) which names more than 16,000 at-risk species.

Many sharks, and freshwater fish in Europe and Africa, are newly included.

The IUCN says loss of biodiversity is increasing despite a global convention committing governments to stem it.

"The 2006 Red List shows a clear trend; biodiversity loss is increasing, not slowing down," said IUCN director-general Achim Steiner.

"The implications of this trend for the productivity and resilience of ecosystems and the lives and livelihoods of billions of people who depend on them are far-reaching."

Overall, 16,119 species are included in this year's Red List, the most detailed and authoritative regular survey of the health of the plant, fungi and animal kingdoms.

This represents more than a third of the total number of species surveyed; the list includes one in three amphibians, a quarter of coniferous trees, and one in four mammals.

"The more species we assess, the more threatened species we find," commented Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy co-ordinator of IUCN's species programme.

"And because it is such a massive effort to assess a species, to gather all the data, get it all peer-reviewed and so on, 16,000 is a massive underestimate of the true problem," he told the BBC News website.

"The more species we assess, the more threatened species we find." Well that's a no brainer. And the people who care about the loss of biodiversity of course have to put their concern in terms of the eventual impact on people (i.e. allegedly disasterous for "the lives and livelihoods of billions of people") because otherwise inaction would be one policy option. But it's pretty obvious (and hardly news) that things are getting worse, not better, on the biodiversity front.

Date published: 2006/05/01

Power firms allegedly making windfall profit from carbon trading (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Power firms could make a £1bn windfall profit from the EU Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme, BBC News has learned.

The windfall is likely because many firms have benefited from increases in electricity prices brought about by the scheme without needing to make any extra investment in return.

Peter Bedson, from IPA Consulting, confirmed to the BBC that the unwarranted profit could reach £1bn.
...
The Conservatives said it was an example of government incompetence.

Their environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth said: "MPs warned the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) this would happen but they took no notice."

The windfall lies in the design of the EU emissions trading scheme, which works by governments setting a limit for the total amount of carbon that can be emitted from its heavy industry and the power sectors.

Instead of banning firms from exceeding the limit, governments hand the firms free pollution allowances up to a certain level.

If a firm can cheaply cut its pollution by installing better technology it will have carbon permits to spare.

If another firm is overshooting its pollution limit it will need to get hold of extra allowances. The firms can then trade carbon permits on the EU market.

Economists like it because it gives maximum pollution savings at least cost. But a true market scheme would see the permits auctioned, not given away by governments.

The system means that generators using high-carbon fuels like coal need to buy extra carbon permits.

That forces up the price of electricity overall, which benefits generators using low-carbon fuels like nuclear and gas. This is where the power firms have made their windfall profit.

Mr Bedson did a report on the issue for the DTI earlier this year.

Since then the price of carbon shot up and his revised estimates suggest that the resulting windfall will reach around £1bn.

This will depend on the future price of carbon, which is in doubt since the crash in the carbon price partly triggered by over-allocations of pollution permits to French generating.
...
Government supporters will argue that there were bound to be problems when a large complex scheme like the scheme was set up, but that it was vital to design a scheme that would be supported by big business.

They will hope that problems will be ironed out in future year when the scheme beds down.

Problems are happening across Europe. The price of carbon crashed last week, and the market is in disarray.

What a surprise, corporations know how to make money. Unfortunately the BBC fails to point out any wrong-doing, the story is just finger wagging. With so much money at stake, it is inevitable no matter what the rules of the game were, somebody was going to figure out (pretty easily) how to exploit the system. Of course the government could claw some of it back via an arbitrary windfall tax.

The UK public allegedly want annual carbon reduction law (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three quarters of the UK population would support a new law aimed at combating climate change, according to a survey by Friends of the Earth.

Some 1,233 people were asked if they would back a law requiring annual reductions in UK CO2 emissions.

While 75% said they would, 5% said they would not, with 19% of respondents saying they did not know.
...
The national online survey was conducted for Friends of the Earth by TNS.

The last sentence rather gives the game away. This was not a scientific survey (online ones never are). And as usual the precise wording can easily sway the survey ("do you believe in Mom and apple pie: (1) yes, (2) yes a lot, and (3) yes of course"). And in any case survey opinion is cheap. Perhaps FoE should do an honest survey (that would be novel) and ask people whether they are willing to pay an increase of 10% (above inflation) year-on-year for their electricity, gas prices, train tickets and car petrol, and then whoever responds "yes" should be forced to pay the increase. It's amazing how often the BBC gives a plug for this kind of junk survey done by so-called environmentalists. (The BBC sometimes does this for corporations as well, which is also ridiculous.)

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