Azara Blog: December 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/12/31

David Cameron claims he is a man of the people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Tories will become the party that represents working people rather than the rich and powerful, David Cameron has said in his New Year message.

The Tory leader also promises that next year his party will set out its alternative policies in more detail.

David Cameron is an old Etonian toff who surrounds himself with other toffs (e.g. Zac Goldsmith). Most of his half-policies announced so far are directly against the interests of working people. For example, he has announced that he believes relative poverty is a "problem", and the only way to solve that "problem" is to reduce the income of average (mostly working) people relative to poorer (often non-working) people. And he has announced that working people should be taxed out of their cars and off airplanes, so both those forms of transport should once again be limited to the rich, like himself. So he has done nothing to promote the interests of working people. But to be fair, neither have the Lib Dems nor Labour, on the whole.

Date published: 2006/12/30

Saddam Hussein is executed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Saddam Hussein's execution has closed a dark chapter in Iraq's history, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said.

Mr Maliki said the former leader had faced his fate "like all tyrants".

Shias celebrated the pre-dawn hanging while some Sunni towns saw protests. About 70 people died in attacks in two mainly Shia areas after the execution.
US President George W Bush hailed the execution as "an important milestone" on the road to building an Iraqi democracy, but warned it would not end the deadly violence there.

Unbelievable, Bush, for once, makes a statement based on reality. This execution changes nothing.

The execution was a no-brainer, new rulers always remove old rulers. But Maliki should be careful what he says. The current Iraqi government runs death squads just like Hussein did. America is losing the war and is likely to depart some time soon. Maliki and others may find themselves suffering the same fate as Hussein if they don't manage to take over or get out of Iraq before the Americans leave.

Hussein was one of the worst murderers of the last part of the twentieth century, being responsible for a couple of million deaths. But Bush is already responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths so far this century. Fortunately for Bush, he has not managed to so reduce America's power as to make it likely that he, too, would some day face trial for crimes against humanity. Iraq was a political war, not a war of self-defence, and for this, especially because he will have lost the war in this region, one of the most important in the world (unlike Vietnam), Bush will be ranked as one of the worst American presidents of all time.

Villagers do not want the Cambridge sewage works in their backyard (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Villagers campaigning to stop a sewage works being put on their doorsteps have handed in more than 1,000 responses to waste bosses.

Representatives from Fen Ditton, Horningsea, Teversham and Quy decided to meet Cambridgeshire County Council's planning team to deliver the massive stack of papers and show the strength of opposition to the plans, which would see Milton waste water treatment works moved to Honey Hill.

Residents claim the plan will damage the flagship environmental Wicken Fen project as well as the Bridge of Reeds.

Coun Mike Hellowell, chairman of Horningsea Parish Council, said: "I think they were staggered. The feeling is running very, very high.

"If you can sell Anglian Water's land at the price for house building and you can acquire a brand new site in the green belt at agricultural prices, is this ethical? There is a lot of concern about whether that should be allowed to happen. We believe there are better alternative sites if they have to move. We are looking for proof of the need to move."

He added it was not a case of "not in my back yard". Villagers did not see why the works should be moved to the green belt rather than stay where they were.

Of course it is just a case of "not in my back yard". But he is correct, why should the rich residents of Cambridge have the right to dump their sewage works on some rural area miles away. If the rich residents of Cambridge want to move their sewage works, they should offer to pay the residents who live within (say) a mile of the new site to buy their properties at (say) twice the value (and that is the value before, not after, the proposed sewage works move was announced). Needless to say, instead, no compensation will be offered to these people. And that is the crux of the problem.

Date published: 2006/12/29

Doing house work allegedly reduces the risk of breast cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women who exercise by doing the housework can reduce their risk of breast cancer, a study suggests.

The research on more than 200,000 women from nine European countries found doing household chores was far more cancer protective than playing sport.

Dusting, mopping and vacuuming was also better than having a physical job.

The women in the Cancer Research UK-funded study spent an average of 16 to 17 hours a week cooking, cleaning and doing the washing.

Experts have long known that physical exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer, probably through hormonal and metabolic changes.
The latest study looked at both pre- and post-menopausal women and a range of activities, including work, leisure and housework.

All forms of physical activity combined reduced the breast cancer risk in post-menopausal women, but had no obvious effect in pre-menopausal women.

Out of all of the activities, only housework significantly reduced the risk of both pre- and post-menopausal women getting the disease.

Housework cut breast cancer risk by 30% among the pre-menopausal women and 20% among the post-menopausal women.

The women were studied over an average of 6.4 years, during which time there were 3,423 cases of breast cancer.

A classic case of confusing correlation and causation. All they have found is a correlation (a "link"), they have no evidence of a causation, although the article effectively states there is a causation. Of course it's possible that there is a causation here, it's just that they have not proven it, so should not claim it. And until they come up with a better explanation than hand-waving about "hormonal and metabolic changes" one should treat any claim of causation with suspicion.

Cambridge cycling news (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A "dangerous" cycle route in Cambridge has been slammed by residents.

After city councillors criticised the poor provision for cyclists in King's Hedges Road, Cambridgeshire County Council has agreed to meet with users to improve safety on the busy road.

Coun Tim Ward, chairman of Cambridge City Council's north area committee, said the gaps between traffic islands and the cycle lanes are too narrow, and the cycle route cuts across the pavement and road, confusing users.

He said: "The north area committee has been successful in listening to the residents and making sure that action is taken.

"The cycleway on King's Hedges Road is clearly unsafe and we are working with county councillors to make the cycleway safe."

Coun Julian Huppert, the county councillor who has been liaising with transport chiefs, said: "The county council is now admitting that they made significant mistakes when designing the cycleway on King's Hedges Road. It involves dangerous pinch-points that put cyclists in danger. Now action is needed to make the route safe."

Yes, congratulations to the Cambridge transport bureaucrats for turning a relatively safe cycling road with a 60 mph limit into a relatively dangerous cycling road with a 30 mph limit. It's hard to make a slower road more dangerous but with their brilliant design they have succeeded. And it's not just the idiotic pinch points, it's also the crazy way they have quarter-added a cycle path on the north side of the road (it stops for no reason) and not completed the cycle path on the south side (at one spot there is a gap for no reason) and they have also managed to make the remodeled intersection of King's Hedges Road and Histon Road more dangerous for cyclists by the way they have designed the turnings. Cambridge would be a lot better off if they just sacked anyone who had anything to do with transport planning.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Evening News also says:

A new £2 million bridge for cyclists could be replaced as part of plans to create a new town.

The Jane Coston bridge links Milton to the north of Cambridge and was opened in May 2004 following a campaign for a life-saving crossing to stop pedestrians and cyclists having to cross the potentially lethal A14 roundabout.

But less than three years after its opening developer Barton Willmore Partnerhip has applied to Cambridge City Council to replace it with a new bridge for bus, pedestrian and cycle use.

Jane Coston, the Milton parish councillor whose name the bridge bears, said:

"The bridge is packed during peak times and when the roads are blocked it is the only way people from Milton can get to services such as the park and ride. It took an awful long time to get and then build, and it was designed to stay there for years."

The developer claims the council told it earlier no planning permission would be needed for the move and now it wants an official ruling on the issue.

The scheme is part of plans for Mereham, a town of 5,000 houses which could be built between Ely and Cambridge.

Construction giant Multiplex Stannifer is behind the scheme which was turned down by East Cambridgeshire District Council earlier this year. The company has lodged an appeal against that decision.

Unbelievable, only in England. Build a perfectly good bridge at great expense and then demolish it a few years later. This is a perfect example of the non-functioning of the English planning system. Of course the local councils are all against the plans for Mereham (as they are pretty much against plans for anything), so the developer's plans could well come to nothing.

Date published: 2006/12/28

The government wants to waste money on "e-credits" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is arranging "e-credits" for schools to access extra lessons for an estimated 800,000 gifted pupils.

The £65m scheme is part of its drive to ensure all children in England with special talents are given extra help.

It requires all schools to list their gifted and talented pupils in the census data it now collects each term.

Some teachers have resisted the whole idea - while others say the obvious answer is to reintroduce grammar schools in all areas.

The e-credits system is to be run by the not-for-profit CfBT Education Trust from next September.

It says each pupil would initially receive the equivalent of a number of credits - worth about £80 - which their schools could use to buy extra lessons from companies, independent schools, universities or learned bodies.

Development director Tim Emmett said: "The government is seeing this as part of school improvement rather than a lifeboat for a few bright children."

A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) declined to comment on the details because contract negotiations were continuing.

The government says it now wants schools to identify the top 10% of pupils - amounting to about 800,000 nationally.

Within those, about half would also be eligible for the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth.

But there is no requirement on schools or even guidance setting out any such figure. It is up to each school to identify its gifted and talented pupils.

Officials at the DfES say that on average last year the census in secondary schools identified "around 10%" as gifted and talented.

The department defines these as having abilities which are "developed to a level significantly ahead of their year group - or with the potential to develop those abilities".

Gifted refers to capability in academic subjects, talented covers visio-spatial or practical skills such as in games and PE, drama or art.

The government acknowledges that often the children who are identified are those who have had opportunities to develop their talents.

So it is also trying to reach children whose parents either do not bother or cannot afford to provide such extra-curricular activities.

Schools minister Lord Adonis told a "gifted and talented" conference in November: "Let's be absolutely clear that these children exist in every school.

"When the stork delivering gifted babies to the families of this country flies overhead, it doesn't carry instructions to land only on pitched roofs in the leafy suburbs."

Another pathetic government education policy. How ever did Adonis get to be so influential? It's good to know that he believes that babies are delivered by stork, but more seriously, even if poorer people on average have babies just as inherently bright at birth as richer people do, by the time they are six or seven, poorer children will have had a far worse intellectual environment, and that counts for just as much as, if not more than, inherent ability. By the time children are at an age when anyone is capable of determining that they are allegedly "gifted and talented", it is far too late to do much about it for the disadvantaged in society.

Further, who is the crackpot who came up with the idea of e-credits? It sounds like the government is going to pay over and over again for the very same material. When a school has a book in its library, many, many children, year after year, can read that book. When a school has a teacher, more than one child can benefit from a lesson and the child also (normally) receives sensible feedback. With these e-credits it sounds like one child at one point in time is going to pay to see some (possibly useless) webpage. And even if the CfBT Education Trust is "not-for-profit", no doubt the people who run it are well paid, and the companies they farm out much of the money to will be private. Who is going to control the quality and is this whole scheme just another gravy train for the consultants who New Labour seem to be so fond of?

FDA says cloned animals are safe for human consumption (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Meat and milk from cloned animals is safe for human consumption, the US food regulator said in a draft ruling.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that cloned cattle, pigs and goats produced food "as safe as the food we eat every day".

The recommendation, coming after a five-year study, is a major step towards allowing food from animals onto US supermarket shelves.

A public consultation period will take place before final approval is given.

Opponents say a majority of US consumers are against animal cloning.

The FDA study examined meat and milk products from cattle, pigs and goats, but not sheep.

It concluded that the cloned animals produced food products virtually indistinguishable from more traditional offerings.

The agency suggested that the results meant it would be unlikely to recommend placing special labels on food from cloned animals.

A final decision on labelling would not be taken until the end of the public consultation period due to begin soon, an FDA official said.

Unfortunately any policy that comes out of the Bush Administration is immediately suspect. But here the FDA is probably correct, or as correct as any sensible use of the word "safe" would imply. Needless to say, the anti-technology nutters (here masquarading as alleged friends of the consumer) will never believe any study showing any biotech food (GM or cloned) is "safe". There will no doubt be some unforseen disaster, but all technology, old and new, has problems. In a hundred years everyone will wonder what the fuss was all about (assuming anybody even remembers there was an issue).

Tories want to blow billions of pounds on high-speed trains (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Conservatives are to look at the possibility of introducing 300mph magnetic levitation trains to the UK.

The party said it would also study whether high-speed rail links like those in France were feasible.

Shadow transport secretary Chris Grayling said it was important to develop new technology to "help our battle against global warming".

He also said a dedicated freight route between ports, the Channel Tunnel and business centres would be examined.

The Tories said it was discussing options with other groups, including the high speed rail panel of the Institution of Civil Engineers to provide an independent assessment of the options.

Last month the Institution of Civil Engineers said that spending public money on introducing Maglev magnetic levitation trains in the UK would be "inappropriate and irresponsible" as it was "not yet a mature technology".
And Sir Rod Eddington, a former British Airways chief executive, said in his report on transport requirements this month that a new north-south high-speed rail link was a low priority.

The Conservative Party said it would look into constructing:

Mr Grayling said: "Transport is one of Britain's big headaches.
He added: "Any of the three options we are looking at would be expensive, and would probably need to be developed in phases in the way our motorway network was.

"But we would not be doing our job properly if we were not looking at the longer term as well as short- term challenges."

Dear oh dear, the new Tories are rather like old Labour. They only need to mention the "white heat of technology" and we will be back to the 1960s, with government deciding what should be technology winners. Although some high-speed trains might make economic sense, the case is not nearly so clear-cut as in France, because Britain (or at least the populated part of Britain) is so much more compact. And, for example, although few French people would consider commuting every day from Lyon to Paris (although there is a good high-speed train service), if the UK put in a high-speed link between Manchester and London you can guarantee there would be loads more people commuting every day between the two cities. Perhaps Mr Grayling could explain how these zillions of extra train miles "help our battle against global warming". It is an unfortunate tendency of the UK ruling elite (including most of the so-called environmentalists) to believe that train travel is somehow environmentally friendly, almost by definition, although it is not.

Date published: 2006/12/27

Gerald Ford dies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has paid tribute to former President Gerald Ford, who has died at the age of 93.

Speaking from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Mr Bush remembered President Ford as a "gentleman who reflected the best in America's character".

Mr Ford was never elected president but took office after Richard Nixon quit over the Watergate scandal in 1974.

He served for two years but lost to Jimmy Carter in 1976, a year after the US accepted defeat in the Vietnam War.

In a televised address, Mr Bush said Americans "came to know President Ford as a man of complete integrity".

Gerald Ford will be remembered for only a few things. He was the only president who was never elected by the entire electorate to any office (all other presidents either being elected as president or as vice-president). He pardoned Nixon (no doubt one of the criteria Nixon had when he appointed Ford after his original vice-president, Spiro Agnew, had to resign for being a crook). On the plus side, he was a better man than the jerks who run the Republican party these days.

Having children is not good for you (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Having a large number of children is bad for parents' health - particularly that of mothers, a study suggests.

US researchers looked at 21,000 couples living in Utah between 1860 and 1985, who bore a total of 174,000 children.

It was found the more children couples had, the worse their health and the more likely they were to die early.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science study is historical, but the experts say it helps explain both the menopause and modern family planning.

Who would have thought it? Does anyone in the world believe otherwise? And does it matter? More rather pointless "research".

Date published: 2006/12/23

UN Security Council passes sanctions against Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously voted to impose sanctions against Iran over its failure to halt uranium enrichment.

The sanctions ban the supply of nuclear-related technology and materials and impose an asset freeze on key individuals and companies. v The US representative warned that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons would make it less, not more, secure.

Iran says its programme is for peaceful purposes and has vowed to continue.

The resolution demands that Tehran end all uranium enrichment work, which can produce fuel for nuclear plants as well as for bombs.

Of course this resolution would never have been introduced if Iran had sucked up to America, instead of telling Bush to get lost. This is also America behaving like a two-year old, still not having come to terms with the Iranian hostage taking from thirty years ago. (Of course that brought Reagan to power, so the Republicans were glad back then that it happened.) And needless to say, the permanent members of the security council all have nuclear power and nuclear weapons, it's just that they (or at least the US and the UK) think that nobody else should be allowed to have the same. Unfortunately for the US, Iran has lots of oil, so these sanctions will not have much of a real impact.

The Project for the New American Century winds up (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The neo-conservative dream faded in 2006.

The ambitions proclaimed when the neo-cons' mission statement "The Project for the New American Century" was declared in 1997 have turned into disappointment and recriminations as the crisis in Iraq has grown.

"The Project for the New American Century" has been reduced to a voice-mail box and a ghostly website. A single employee has been left to wrap things up.

The idea of the "Project" was to project American power and influence around the world.

The 1997 statement (written during the administration of President Bill Clinton) said:

"We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan Administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States' global responsibilities."

Among the signatories were many of the senior officials who would later determine policy under President George W Bush - Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams and Lewis Libby - as well as thinkers including Francis Fukuyama, Norman Podheretz and Frank Gaffney.

The whole concept of the "Project for the New American Century" was completely obnoxious and the people behind it were completely obnoxious, so it's just as well it's failed. On the other hand, these people just migrate to other positions where they promulgate similar nonsense about the world.

Date published: 2006/12/22

The BBC license fee is not going up as much as the BBC wanted (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The culture secretary and chancellor have agreed a below-inflation rise for the TV licence fee, the BBC has learnt.

The agreement reached by Tessa Jowell and Gordon Brown has not yet been approved by Tony Blair.

Under the plan, the fee would rise by 3% next year and the year after, and 2% for the following three years. The Retail Price Index is currently 3.9%.

The decision would mean the licence fee rising to £135.45 next year from its current level of £131.50.

By 2012, the cost of a TV licence could be as low as £148.05 or as high as £151.

The level of increase is unclear for year six, because of the uncertainty over the financial cost of the changeover from analogue to digital TV.

The BBC, which had asked for an increase of 1.8% above inflation for seven years, said discussions continued and it awaited an announcement in the new year.

The agreement would mean the BBC had failed to convince ministers of its case for an above inflation increase, which it has often enjoyed in the past.

The settlement would also bring the BBC more closely into line with other public sector bodies, as the licence fee will not be linked to inflation at all in future.

The license fee is archaic and the BBC should just be funded from general taxation (which would remove the cost of collecting the license fee). But given this archaic system, there is no good reason the license fee should be rising at a level substantially above inflation. Further, the Retail Price Index is not the measure of inflation that the government uses, for example, to set interest rates. And the article completely ignores the question of how many licenses there are. The income from the license fee is of course the product of the license fee times the number of licenses. Given that the number of households in the UK is increasing, the BBC license fee income is (probably) going to be increasing more than is implied in the article.

Yet another warning about a global flu pandemic (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A global flu pandemic could kill 62 million people, experts have warned.

The 1918 pandemic claimed 50 million lives, and experts in The Lancet predict the toll today would be higher than this, despite medical advances.

The world's poorest nations would be hardest hit, fuelled by factors such as HIV and malaria infections, the Harvard University researchers believe.

Yet developing countries can least afford to prepare for a pandemic, which needs to be addressed, they say.

Lethal global flu epidemics tend to occur three or four times a century.

Some scientists believe a new one may be imminent and could be triggered by bird flu.

They run this story every year. And of course sooner or later they will be correct. But it's a bit ridiculous. The death toll of 62 million people is pretty much just made up. And the population of the world now is over three times what it was in 1918, so the comparison with the death toll then is misleading. And surprise, poor people do worse than rich people when there is a pandemic. Who would have thought that?

Date published: 2006/12/21

More pointless "research" looking into the future (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, according to a study by the British government.

If granted, countries would be obliged to provide social benefits including housing and even "robo-healthcare", the report says.

The predictions are contained in nearly 250 papers that look ahead at developments over the next 50 years.

Other papers, or "scans", examine the future of space flight and methods to dramatically lengthen life spans.

"We're not in the business of predicting the future, but we do need to explore the broadest range of different possibilities to help ensure government is prepared in the long-term and considers issues across the spectrum in its planning," said Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser.

"The scans are aimed at stimulating debate and critical discussion to enhance government's short and long term policy and strategy."

The research was commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre.

The 246 summary papers, called the Sigma and Delta scans, were complied by futures researchers, Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF).

Is this an April Fool's joke? Why is the government wasting money on this kind of irrelevant "research"? If there is one prediction you can make about the future, it is that all these papers that look far into the future will be almost completely wrong (and what they get right will be by luck). They might as well pay physicists to start figuring out protocols for congested traffic in wormholes. (Well, perhaps this is indeed the subject of one of the 246 papers.)

Some "think tank" produces another pointless report about universities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A growing trend among young people to study close to home may be contributing to a breakdown in the hierarchy of universities, a think tank has said.

The Higher Education Policy Institute describes a "hierarchy of esteem" in which students apply to the most prestigious places their results allow.

But it says this could collapse as students choose to stay closer to home.

It also says more information is now available, allowing students to make more sophisticated choices.

This includes information about job outcomes, facilities, the number of teaching hours and the quality of tuition.

The institute's views are outlined in a memo prepared for the Commons select committee on education and skills ahead of its review of the future sustainability of the higher education sector.

It says there is a widespread and probably accurate perception that degrees from some universities are more valuable in the job market than others.

Although it may be regrettable, students tend to apply to the most prestigious institutions that they think they can get into, it adds.

Institutions then select the most able and employers favour candidates for jobs from those institutions.

This it describes as "a vicious (or virtuous) circle that perpetuates the hierarchy of esteem".

The memo says that while factors may play a part in breaking this pattern, the only way to ensure it is broken would be for the government to control admissions to universities and deny freedom of choice to students.

This could mean admissions based on catchment areas as in other countries.

In America many students choose to study at the local, often state-subsidised, university because it is cheaper. For example, in Massachusetts many students might end up studying at the University of Massachusetts, not because they want to but because that is all they can afford. This does not mean that Harvard and Yale have lost their "esteem", quite the contrary.

Further, basing admissions on catchment areas is silly. Firstly, as happens with schools, rich parents would just move to the areas with the best universities. Secondly, what is the catchment area of Cambridge, for example, going to be? Would any government really destroy Cambridge by insisting that only people from East Anglia could attend it? Even Old Labour is not that stupid (is it?).

Why is this pointless "research" being funded? Sack all educationalists and instead spend the money on education.

Date published: 2006/12/20

EU brings airlines into emissions trading scheme (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Airlines operating in the EU should pay for any increase in carbon emissions above current levels, the European Commission has proposed.

Commissioners called on the industry to make a "fair contribution" to the fight against climate change.

They proposed bringing internal EU flights inside the bloc's emissions trading scheme from 2011, with all other flights following in 2012.

Environmental groups said the proposals did not go far enough.

"Aviation emissions need to be brought under control, because they are rising very fast," said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

"Since 1990, they have gone up about 90% and, by 2020, they are going to be doubled, if business continues as usual."

He added that the rapid growth of aviation emissions threatened to undermine progress in cutting emissions in other sectors.

The commission says that someone flying from London to New York and back makes a bigger contribution to global warming than heating an average European home for a year.
The Commission said it expected short-haul air tickets to rise by 1.8 euros (£1.20) to 9 euros each by 2020.

It added that the scheme would prevent aviation emissions rising by 100% and limit the growth to 54%. However, part of this reduction would be achieved by other participants in the ETS, which would sell permits to the airlines.

The European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) estimated the scheme would cut aviation emissions themselves by only 3%.

So far the EU carbon trading scheme has been a bit of a disaster, providing billions of euros of unearned profits for power companies. Presumably the same will not be allowed to happen now that the airlines have joined the scheme. The EU could, and should, have instead opted for a tax on airplane fuel, which is simpler and makes more sense.

Of course, we will find that airline passengers, like car drivers, are more than willing to pay a fair carbon tax. And the EU ruling elite will then decide to keep raising the (de facto) airplane tax to a level above any reasonably fair value, as has already happened with the car petrol tax.

It is all the other producers of carbon (e.g. domestic heating) that are not paying any carbon tax, and the ruling elite, including most of the so-called environmentalists, have shown no interest in promoting this obvious, and fair, idea. All carbon emissions should be taxed, not just ones the ruling elite happen not to like.

(Well, the ruling elite only do not like car and airplane usage by ordinary people, they themselves will continue to heavily use these methods of transport. They are paid out of public money for much of their transport use, so will suffer not at all, and besides, restrictions on mobility are obviously only for the little people.)

Some British sea life has adjusted to climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's barnacles, limpets and seaweeds are moving north and east in response to climate change.

A four-year research project, funded by a number of government agencies, mapped 57 species across the British Isles.

Comparing current sightings with data from 50 years ago shows that many have moved, some by over 100 miles (150km).

The finding follows other studies showing that many marine creatures including some fish and plankton, but not all, are shifting northwards.

The quantification is interesting but otherwise nothing that new here. And is all the movement completely down to climate change?

Date published: 2006/12/19

Addenbrooke's Hospital development plan panned by the county (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Failures in a multimillion pound plan to double the size of Addenbrooke's Hospital have led a council to oppose the ambitious scheme.

The hospital's 2020 Vision project would see a 70-acre site expansion with more space for scientific research and education, plus landscaping, parking and the transfer of Papworth Hospital to the Addenbrooke's campus.

But Cambridgeshire County Council officers have told their cabinet to object to an outline application because the transport assessment is not good enough - the scheme does not include contribution towards the southern corridor areas transport plan, cycle paths, footpaths, bridleways or buses.

Officers fear the scheme could cause gridlock if it is allowed to go ahead as planned.

They are also concerned hospital bosses have underestimated the number of people who will visit the site each day, especially as up to 3,500 homes are planned in that area of the city.

No doubt the plan is not perfect, but the "failures" are mostly in the minds of the petty bureaucrats and politicians who lord over Cambridge, and anything they contribute to the plan will inevitably make it worse. It is entirely the fault of the city ruling elite that the road access to Addenbrooke's is rubbish and there is inadequate parking on the site. Sack the bureaucrats and kick the politicians out and the city would be much better off.

Electrical gadgets becoming a way of life in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British consumers will buy about 30 million electrical and electronic items over the coming six months, according to the Energy Saving Trust (EST).

Its research shows many Britons regard items such as cordless phones and electric toothbrushes as "essential".

Electrical consumption by consumer gadgets is expected almost to double over the next five years.

The trust is calling for gadgets to carry labels warning shoppers how much they will cost to run.

It believes labelling might persuade shoppers either to buy less or to choose more energy-efficient models.

"On televisions, for example, we would like to see labels saying 'if you watch it, it will cost x pence per hour, if you leave it on standby, it will cost y pence'. Then you can present the environmental cost in monetary terms," he told BBC News.

It would indeed be useful to know how much it costs per hour (although of course it depends on the exact price of electricity, which varies from supplier to supplier, and on some contracts by time of day, and from month to month).

The so-called environmentalists always love to say that airplane traffic is the largest growing contributor to carbon emissions (because airplane traffic as a whole is insignificant, which does not lead to great scare stories in the media). Needless to say you can cut the pie up into as many pieces you want, and it's fairly easy to find a cut which makes your pet hatred the largest growing contributor. So here we have a cut which is such that airplane traffic is not the largest growing contributor, because the electrical consumption from gadgets is growing much more quickly. Well, the so-called environmentalists hate gadgets as well (they live in the 18th century), but perhaps the lazy media will haul them up the next time they harp on about the growth of airplane emissions being the "largest". It's not only irrelevant, it's based on some arbitrary cut of the pie, and there are others where it is not true.

Date published: 2006/12/18

Farmer withdraws from GM potato trial (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A farmer who agreed to grow genetically modified potatoes for a scientific trial has withdrawn because he fears for his safety.

The government was planning two trials of a GM variety that should be resistant to potato blight.

One trial was to be held in Cambridge and the other at a farm in Derbyshire.

But the Derbyshire farmer pulled out after receiving anonymous phone calls. He feared for his family's safety and was worried about potential protests.

The GM potatoes, which were engineered by German chemical company BASF, were due to be planted next spring.

The farmer's decision has been welcomed by the organic lobby.

What a surprise, the terrorists have won again. That the so-called organic lobby has allegedly welcomed this decision just shows how dreadful they are. There are too many religious fundamentalists in the world (and so-called organic farming is a typical modern day religion, complete with high priests who get to determine who can be admitted to the cult) who think that they should be able to terrorise the rest of society into submitting to their brand of religious fundamentalism. (The animal rights terrorists are similar.)

Planting trees in high latitude regions might do nothing for carbon emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Planting forests to combat global warming may be a waste of time, especially if those trees are at high latitudes, new research suggests.

Scientists say the benefits that come from trees reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide can be outweighed by their capacity to trap heat near the ground.

Computer modelling indicates that trees only really work to cool the planet if they are planted in the tropics.
"What we have found is in the so-called mid-latitude region where the United States is located and majority of European countries are located, the climate benefits of planting will be nearly zero," said ecologist Govindasamy Bala of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"[In] the seasonally snow-covered regions [at even higher latitudes], planting new trees could be actually counter-productive," he told BBC News.
"Our study shows that tropical forests are very beneficial to the climate because they take up carbon and increase cloudiness, which in turn helps cool the planet," explained Dr Bala.
The further you move from the equator, though, these gains are eroded; and the team's modelling predicts that planting more trees in mid- and high-latitude locations could lead to a net warming of a few degrees by the year 2100.

"The darkening of the surface by new forest canopies in the high-latitude boreal regions allows absorption of more sunlight that helps to warm the surface," Dr Bala said.

"In fact, planting more trees in high latitudes could be counterproductive from a climate perspective."

The study finds little or no climate benefit when trees are planted in temperate regions.

The scientists warn that many schemes designed to offset emissions of carbon by planting trees may not be appropriate.

It is well known (or at least believed) that tropical forests do more for the planet than temperate ones. This particular study should (as always) be taken with a pinch of salt because it is just a modelling exercise. And the way this is being publicised is possibly going to do more harm than good. Are they really suggesting that temperate forests should be cut down? Sure, if you had to choose between cutting down a temperate forest and cutting down a tropical one, you might well opt for the former. But otherwise they are falling into the classic trap of looking at one thing in isolation. On the other hand, it is useful if occasionally someone reminds the American and European conservationists who are so keen on protecting their own forests (which generally means that more tropical forests are indeed cut down) that they are quite possibly doing global harm (not that they care about that of course, it is their own backyard they most care about).

Rome observations (permanent blog link)

Rome is the baroque capital of the world. Between the Vatican museum and basilicas and the "ordinary" Roman churches, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the riches on display. The Vatican museum provides the finest examples of baroque interior room design. There is room after room of amazing wall and ceiling decoration. The museum has some of the finest Roman statues anywhere (and even plenty of Egyptian artefacts) but in many ways these pale into insignificance compared with the interiors.

And the Vatican allows photography almost everywhere, even with flash in most circumstances. An exception is the Sistine Chapel, where a poor guard wages a fruitless battle to stop people taking photos (and some people unbelievably used flashes, although they are generally so pathetic as to do no good and no harm). They even seemingly allow flash photography in their main tapestry room, which is bizarre in that the light is especially low to protect the tapestries. Fortunately not many people care about tapestries so people were not using their flashes there. (Flash was also allowed in St Peter's Basilica, which again seems odd.)

The Vatican lets individuals in to the museum starting at 8.45 AM. But they let (at least some) groups in already by around 8. And the queue for individuals is already forming by around 8 and by opening time, even on a Saturday in winter, stretches for quite some distance. (Presumably it is not so bad on weekdays.) But there is no great wait for most people since the Vatican seems not to care how many people are in the museum in one go and just try and allow everybody in as quickly as possible. Which is good in that everybody can get in, but is bad in that by the nearly final, most important, rooms, it is a mad scrum trying to see anything.

The Vatican museum signage is rather appalling. It is quite common to have two directions being possible, and both say "Sistine Chapel". So you soon get completely disoriented and most people probably miss quite a few things by mistake. Of course by the end you are so overwhelmed by it all that it doesn't really matter if you miss half of it. And many of the visitors just seem to treat the whole event like a Sunday stroll through the park, just walking through the galleries one after the other without even stopping to admire the art.

The Vatican museum shops (there are several along the way) are a bit disappointing, with only the usual high-level overviews, especially of the most famous parts of the collection (e.g. the art by Michelangelo and Raphael). So, for example, only one of the books had any photos of the tapestries, and then only one, at a not very big scale, and the Roman statues were equally slighted.

In contrast to the Baroque splendors, the Roman ruins in Rome are rather tawdry. Even the Colosseum is rather sad looking, at least in comparison with some of the (of course smaller) Roman colosseums in, for example, Turkey. The Colosseum ticket also gets you in to see the Palatine Hill ruins. There is not much left, and what is left is so badly sign-posted as to lead one to endlessly walk around in circles. For example, Casa Livia is supposed to be one of the highlights but there were no signs indicating how to get there, and in the end it turned out to be closed for restoration in any case.

Some of the best Roman ruins are the Arch of Constantine (next to the Colosseum) and the Trajan Column (just north of the Colosseum, and being worked on but still mostly visible).

From England both Easyjet and Ryanair serve Rome, flying into Ciampino airport. Ciampino is only around 15 km south of Rome. There are a couple of bus companies which will take you into Rome Termini, the most significant of which is Terravision, which seem to have done some deal with Ryanair (and perhaps also Easyjet). You can buy single (one-way) tickets on the Ryanair flight for 8 Euros, the same cost as is charged in the terminal building. But it is a better idea to purchase a round trip ticket in the terminal building, not only because it is slightly cheaper (14 Euros instead of 8x2=16) but because people with tickets have priority coming back from Rome Termini to Ciampino.

An alternative to taking the bus all the way into Rome Termini is to catch a bus to the final stop of the metro A line at Anagnina, and then catch the metro in. This is probably slightly slower but obviously dependent on traffic. It is the cheapest option, costing 1 Euro for the bus ticket and 1 Euro for the metro ticket (for one way). However even in the middle of the day the best thing that can be said about the area around the Anagnina metro station is that it is grim.

Ryanair, as part of its campaign to pretend that the air tickets are free, has now started charging for internet check-in (it seems Easyjet is doing the same). But they have so far missed the trick of charging extra for the front three seats, which are the only ones with decent legroom. Ryanair has also started to play an irritating ditty if the plane lands on time. On the return flight they had a competition where first prize was a "free" Ryanair ticket, so of course the obvious quip is that second prize was two free tickets. As everyone knows, Ryanair is just a bus service in the sky (although an extremely efficient one).

Date published: 2006/12/14

The government says it wants new runways at Heathrow and Stansted (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has reaffirmed its commitment to airport expansion plans despite opposition from green groups.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander told MPs the government was committed to a third, short runway at Heathrow airport and a new runway at Stansted.

The "progress report" on the 2003 Aviation White Paper has angered environmentalists, who want a curb on flights and expansion.

The Tories said Labour's air policy clashed with its climate change stance.

The White Paper proposed a new runway at Stansted by 2011-12 and a third runway at Heathrow, subject to meeting environmental targets, around the middle of the next decade.

The Stansted timetable has slipped and there was a further complication last month when Uttlesford Council turned down airport owner BAA's planning application to increase passenger numbers to 35 million a year.

This application did not include the new runway, for which a separate application will have to be put forward.

How bizarre, the government has told the hysterical anti-airport chattering classes, including the NIMBYs and so-called environmentalists, to get lost. Who would have thought the government had the nerve. Of course since the Tories and Lib Dems have already announced that only rich people should be allowed to fly, these expansion plans will probably be dropped after the next election.

Asia's greenhouse gas emissions will increase (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Asia's greenhouse gas emissions will treble over the next 25 years, according to a report commissioned by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The report provides detailed analysis of the link between transport and climate change in Asia.

It says that its estimate of future levels of greenhouse gas could even be an optimistic assessment.

Air pollution and congestion will seriously hamper the ability to move people and goods effectively, it warns.

The report, Energy Efficiency and Climate Change: Considerations for On-Road Transport in Asia, says that Asia currently has low levels of personal motorized transport, which in many cases are motorcycles.

But it says that these levels are likely to increase significantly as incomes in these countries grows and the urban population becomes bigger.

The report points out that China is already the world's fourth largest economy, and the number of cars and utility vehicles could increase by 15 times more than present levels to more than 190 million vehicles over the next 30 years.

In India, traffic growth is likely to increase by similar levels over the same time period, the report says.

Nothing new here, is anybody supposed to be surprised by any of this? The ruling elite in some of Europe (in particular, the UK) have already decided that the workers should be forced out of their cars, and no doubt the ruling elite in Asia will follow suit soon enough, egged on by these kinds of reports from the comfortable rich (who of course all drive cars or get driven everywhere, and will continue to do so).

Date published: 2006/12/13

Ruth Kelly wants all new homes to be "carbon neutral" by 2016 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

All new homes in England will have to be carbon neutral by 2016, under proposals announced by Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly.

The scheme includes tightening building and planning rules, and a star rating system that reveals a property's energy efficiency to potential home buyers.

The UK's 21 million homes are responsible for 27% of CO2 emissions.
A zero carbon house is defined as a property with "zero net emissions of carbon dioxide from all energy use in the home".

This includes energy consumed by appliances such as TVs and cookers, not just other uses that are currently part of building regulations, including heating, hot water and ventilation.

Mrs Kelly said that the decision to exempt carbon zero homes from stamp duty, announced by Gordon Brown in his Pre-Budget Report, would act as a financial incentive to developers.

Another piece of spin from New Labour. A house can be designed so that if it was occupied by a typical family, of the size for which it was designed, then at the time it was first occupied there might be "zero net emissions of carbon dioxide". But energy demand goes up in time (generally). And who is to say the family is typical? And heating is a complex matter, are they going to count passive solar, or force everyone to live in a box with no windows?

But far, far worse, this completely ignores the emissions made when the house was built in the first place. Making the house have less emissions when people live in it means that more money must be spent (and hence more emissions created) when the house is built. But if the job is done properly then the total amount of emissions in the long run is reduced. But the total is not zero. And it ignores the annual maintenance of the house, which also leads to emissions.

Getting a sea creature to mop up carbon dioxide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A simple sea creature could help to address the problem of global warming, a scientist claims.

Tiny tube-like salps mop up greenhouse gases by feasting on carbon-dioxide soaked algae from the oceans.

The US researcher told the American Geophysical Union meeting of his plans adjust nutrient levels in the ocean to boost the sea animals populations.

But other scientists warned of the unknown consequences of meddling with the ocean's complex ecosystem.

The salp is a transparent hollow tube, no bigger than an unshelled peanut, that swims around vacuuming up microscopic plants.

Because it is efficient in sucking up marine algae that have absorbed dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2), the salp is seen by one scientist as the key to sequestering excess atmospheric gas to the ocean bottom.

"It's just a feeding tube," said Phil Kithil, CEO of Atmocean Inc, a private research firm in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "It eats at one end and excretes at the other."

The solid carbon pellet that emerges from the salp sinks and dissolves deep enough in the ocean to be effectively taken out of the carbon cycle.

Mr Kithil wants to increase the algae-eating salp population in the world's oceans by boosting its food supply.
But some climate scientists warn the possible side-effects of tinkering with the Earth's climate do not justify the risk.

"The ocean is such an alien system for us to be tinkering with based on the current level of science," said Jim Bishop, a bio-geochemist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"We don't understand the ecosystem dynamics well enough to predict what will happen.

This is worth a more detailed look, but mankind does not have a very good track record at playing god like this.

Date published: 2006/12/12

Tony Blair tries to blame Iran for the mess in the Middle East (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has said Iran poses a "major strategic threat" to the Middle East and is "deliberately causing" problems.

At his monthly media briefing the prime minister said the Iranian regime was "deeply extreme".
"Iran is deliberately causing maximum problems for moderate governments and for ourselves in the region - in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq."

He said there was "little point" in including Iran and Syria in regional issues, such as Iraq, "unless they are prepared to be constructive".

"There is no point in hiding the fact that Iran poses a major strategic threat to the cohesion of the entire region," Mr Blair told reporters.

There were "major, major problems" in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, but "all of this is now overshadowed by the issue of Iran".

He said it would be a "major challenge" to deal with Iran.

Mr Blair is evidently playing a party game where you have to decode his secret message to see what he really means. So let's just substitute Iran with the US and see if it makes sense:

Tony Blair has said the US poses a "major strategic threat" to the Middle East and is "deliberately causing" problems.

At his monthly media briefing the prime minister said the US regime was "deeply extreme".
"The US is deliberately causing maximum problems for moderate governments and for ourselves in the region - in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq."

He said there was "little point" in including the US and Syria in regional issues, such as Iraq, "unless they are prepared to be constructive".

"There is no point in hiding the fact that the US poses a major strategic threat to the cohesion of the entire region," Mr Blair told reporters.

There were "major, major problems" in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, but "all of this is now overshadowed by the issue of the US".

He said it would be a "major challenge" to deal with the US.

Hmmm, yes that makes sense, that must be what Blair really meant to say.

Arctic all-year-round ice could disappear by 2040 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Arctic may be close to a tipping point that sees all-year-round ice disappear very rapidly in the next few decades, US scientists have warned.

The latest data presented at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting suggests the ice is no longer showing a robust recovery from the summer melt.

Last month, the sea that was frozen covered an area that was two million sq km less than the historical average.

"That's an area the size of Alaska," said leading ice expert Mark Serreze.

"We're no longer recovering well in autumn anymore. The ice pack may now be starting to get preconditioned, perhaps to show very rapid losses in the near future," the University of Colorado researcher added.

The sea ice reached its minimum extent this year on 14 September, making 2006 the fourth lowest on record in 29 years of satellite record-keeping and just shy of the all time minimum of 2005.

Dr Serreze's concern was underlined by new computer modelling which concludes that the Arctic may be free of all summer ice by as early as 2040.

The new study, by a team of scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the University of Washington, and McGill University, found that the ice system could be being weakened to such a degree by global warming that it soon accelerates its own decline.

"As the ice retreats, the ocean transports more heat to the Arctic and the open water absorbs more sunlight, further accelerating the rate of warming and leading to the loss of more ice," explained Dr Marika Holland.

"This is a positive feedback loop with dramatic implications for the entire Arctic region."

Eventually, she said, the system would be "kicked over the edge", probably not even by a dramatic event but by one year slightly warmer than normal. Very rapid retreat would then follow.

Locally, this would have major consequences for wildlife in the region, not least polar bears which traverse ice-floes in search of food.

Loss of summer ice would seriously compromise the lifestyles of the region's indigenous peoples, though it could also bring new trading opportunities as sea routes opened up.

On a global scale, the Earth would lose a major reflective surface and so absorb more solar energy, potentially accelerating climatic change across the world.

A (seemingly) inevitable consequence of global warming. Although the BBC article implies otherwise, this possibility of an accelerated decrease in Arctic ice is well known. Of course treat any computer modelling with a pinch of salt, especially predictions of dates when events driven by nonlinear dynamics are allegedly going to happen. But one can imagine the cruise ships are already lining up for the boom in visits to the North Pole.

Date published: 2006/12/11

Tony Blair says he wants to cut red tape (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has outlined 500 measures to cut the £14bn cost of red tape to individuals, firms and charities.

The aim is to save up to £2bn a year from measures which include simplifying forms for planning applications and rules covering fire certificates.
The target to cut unnecessary bureaucracy by 25% by 2010 was "ambitious", the head of the better regulation executive at the Cabinet Office, William Sergeant, said.
There have been a large number of initiatives to cut red tape, by both the last Conservative government, and the current Labour government.

Cabinet Office minister Pat McFadden acknowledged businesses might "feel they have heard it before", but he stressed it was not just "a new pledge but a detailed and specific plan of action".

Yes, they are taking the piss. Every time they say they are going to cut red tape they end up piling on even more. The British ruling elite are control freaks and the politicians and bureaucrats in particular have to justify their existence by coming up with ever new imaginitive ways to control freak over the nation. Perhaps all the Cabinet Office bureaucrats who have come up with this 25% target should agree that their (overly generous) civil service pensions will be withheld if the current £14bn cost of red tape is not cut by £2bn by 2010 (note, this equates to 14%, not 25%, and is the target that really matters, not some arbitrary measure in terms of the number of regulations).

David Miliband likes the idea of carbon "credit cards" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Carbon "credit cards" could be issued as part of a nationwide carbon rationing scheme, Environment Secretary David Miliband has suggested.

An annual allowance would be allocated, with the card being swiped on various items such as travel, energy or food.

Mr Miliband said people who used less than their allowance could sell any surplus to those who wanted more.

A feasibility study says many questions remain on such a plan, but Mr Miliband says "bold thinking" is needed.

Mr Miliband told the Guardian that the scheme had "a simplicity and beauty that would reward carbon thrift".

Mr Miliband, who commissioned the feasibility study, said the scheme could be working within five years.

Individuals and communities had to be empowered to tackle climate change - "the mass mobilising movement of our age".

"You cannot just rely on the state," he said.

The feasibility study was carried out by the Centre for Sustainable Energy for the Department of the Environment (Defra).

It says there are questions over whether a scheme would be acceptable for politicians and the public, but could be fairer than imposing carbon taxes.

Why is this "fairer than imposing carbon taxes"? People who work need to get to work so ought to have a higher carbon allowance than people who don't work. Is this "credit card" going to take this into account? And is the scheme going to include household energy? If not it's missing half the picture (for individuals). How is the government going to determine how much carbon has been produced by any product or service that comes from abroad? No doubt consultants like the Centre for Sustainable Energy love this kind of idea, because it means they will have a job for life coming up with the arbitrary rules behind this scheme. It's a complete and utter waste of time and money. They might as well just tax the carbon production at source (which would still require someone making up some halfway believable value for imports), and increase the value of benefits for those people at the bottom so as to at least partially offset their expected carbon tax bill.

Date published: 2006/12/10

David Cameron sticks up two fingers to everyone who is not in a "family" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron has said families are the "ultimate source of our society's strength or weakness".

He said his party must "look at ways of supporting families and also supporting marriage so that couples are encouraged to get together and stay together".

The UK would be better off with more marriages and fewer divorces, he added.

First of all what does Cameron mean by a "family"? From the sound of it he means people who are married and have children. So is he saying that people who live by themselves are scum? Is he saying that people who live together but are not married are scum? Is he saying that people who are married but have no children are scum? They all contribute just as much to society as the "families" of Britain and it is unbelievably gratuitously insulting for anyone, let alone someone leading a major political party, to suggest otherwise. What Cameron seems to want to do is to force the rest of society to subsidise his antiquated idea of what a "family" is. And if Cameron wants fewer divorces then it's pretty obvious he should be advocating fewer, not more, marriages. People should certainly not be getting married just in order to get a tax break courtesy of the Tories.

Six Gulf states want to develop nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Six oil-rich Gulf nations have said they are considering seeking nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Officials from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also urged a peaceful settlement to the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme.

The six Arab states said they were exploring the possibility of creating a shared nuclear programme.

They stressed their right to nuclear energy and emphasised that any programme would be peaceful.
"It is not a threat... It is an announcement so that there will be no misinterpretation for what we are doing," Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters.
The grouping of Gulf states said they wanted a region free of weapons of destruction and called on Israel to renounce nuclear weapons.

An interesting development. They don't have the scientific or technological depth to achieve this goal by themselves, so presumably they are going to buy in Western or Asian expertise. So, who will sell it to them?

Financial Times complains about "cost" of civil partnerships (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

A rush of same-sex couples registering their civil partnerships since the law changed a year ago has brought a far greater-than-expected cost to the government.

Tax experts say the government's initial estimates of 22,000 civil partnerships by 2010 is likely to be breached in the next few months, four years ahead of target.

The cost to the chancellor has been compounded as the strongest demand for civil partnership ceremonies has been seen in London and the south-east, where property prices are highest meaning households are far more likely to be hit by inheritance tax.

Gay and lesbian couples who form civil partnerships gain the same rights and responsibilities as husbands and wives in areas such as tax and pensions. Just like in marriage, civil partners can inherit from each other with a special spouse exemption from tax. They can also pass assets such as property and shares between each other.

Maurice Fitzpatrick, senior tax manager at Grant Thornton, the accountancy group, said the fact that many of the tax benefits have been taken up by people in wealthier areas has significantly increased the cost to the government, as these people would typically be liable for larger tax charges.

He calculated that the cost to HM Revenue & Customs would already have been around £10m and he expected that this would increase significantly over coming years.

It's unbelievable that the FT would run such a dreadful story. Are they saying that gay and lesbian people should be discriminated against just because the government might lose a bit of money? If the heterosexual marriage rate suddenly shoots up (and marriage comes and goes in fashion) then would the FT complain that the government is losing money? Further, the underlying basis of the story is also nonsense. This inheritance tax is not avoided so much as deferred (unless the surviving partner either spends the inheritance or marries someone who survives them, etc., ad infinitum). The main problem with the inheritance tax exemption is not that civil partners have the right to the exemption but instead that it still arbitrarily excludes large numbers of people, e.g. co-habiting couples and siblings who live together. Although the inheritance tax is reasonable in theory, this blatant discrimination immediately says that it should be abolished.

Date published: 2006/12/09

Thousands more post offices set to be closed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The closure of thousands of post offices looks set to be announced next week, with rural loss-making outlets likely to bear the brunt of the cuts.

The Royal Mail has told the government it could shut 10,000 outlets and still run a viable commercial service.

The Department of Trade and Industry said that scale of cuts was "not on the table" but the current size of the network was "unsustainable".
The post office network was 18,000-strong in 1999, but now stands at about 14,000.

The network is said to be making huge losses, and a current £150m-a-year subsidy for the rural network is due to be withdrawn in 2008.

Newspaper reports say the government will propose closing 2,500-3,000 post offices, which is about a fifth of the network.

Closures are likely to be phased in over several years.

Rural life is "unsustainable" in that it needs large subsidies in order to be sustained. (And not just with the post office.) If people who live in villages do not like losing all their services then they always have the option of moving into more densely populated areas. On the other hand, this is just the latest example of how the bean counters have taken over the world. Bean counters know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is the same attitude which leads to road pricing and charging for university education. Hardly anything any more is deemed to be a socially provided service. Everything has to have a price put on it.

Geoff Hoon claims the UK tried to stop the US disbanding the Iraqi army (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain tried to stop the US disbanding the army in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Europe Minister Geoff Hoon has said.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mr Hoon says British ministers "lost the argument".

His comments come after a senior US official described the relationship between the British and American governments as "totally one-sided".

Downing Street said the two countries had "a very close" relationship.

Isn't it amazing how the people who started the Iraq fiasco are now all trying to blame each other for the mess? (Well, some Americans, with amazing gall, are also trying to blame the Iraqis.) No doubt Britain did have a more sane approach to the war. Unfortunately America was calling the shots. But the whole idea was so misguided it's hard to see how it could have turned out ok in the end. Blair signed up, so Blair shares the blame with Bush.

Cambridge city plastic bottle recycling (permanent blog link)

The latest "Cambridge Matters", the Cambridge City council blurb on recycling, drops through the letter box. They obviously feel compelled to distribute a pre-Christmas edition to remind us that Christmas cards, packaging and (real) trees can be recycled. Thanks, we didn't know that.

They do have one interesting article this time around, stating that the city is no longer shipping its plastic bottles to China for "recycling" but instead dealing with these in the UK. That is a step forward. Unfortunately they give no numbers to tell us whether this recycling is a good idea or not. In particular they do not specify how much energy is consumed during the entire recycling process.

Apparently the entire recycling process is:

  1. pick up the bottles on the doorstep and bring them to a facility in Waterbeach
  2. crush the bottles into bales and then transport them to a facility in Loughborough
  3. tip them onto a vibrating mesh so that small bits of junk are discarded
  4. separate them by type on a conveyor belt using clever sensors and "powerful jets of air" (the stuff that is not of the right type is "disposed of")
  5. chop them into tiny bits
  6. put them through a "dry washing process where the labels are rubbed off and sucked away by a gentle vacuum"
  7. melt the tiny bits into pellets

These are all additional costs (in particular, additional energy consumed) to what would be incurred from just throwing the bottles in the ordinary trash. So even the first step is an additional cost because they have a special pick-up just for the plastic bottles. Of course there are two savings: a bit less landfill is being used and the plastic does not have to be made from scratch.

So is this entire process a net benefit to the environment? It might well be but the city does not want to let us know. We are all just supposed to accept the propaganda of the ruling elite that recycling by the state at an industrial level is better than landfill.

Date published: 2006/12/08

Tories allegedly worried about family break-up (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The break-up of co-habiting couples leads to severe social problems, a Conservative report has warned.

Half of co-habiting parents split by their child's fifth birthday, while only one in 12 married couples did, the social justice group report says.

It puts the cost of this family breakdown - in poverty, drug abuse and debt - at £20bn a year.

Iain Duncan Smith's group, which is shaping Tory policy on poverty, publishes its interim report next week.

The report, Breakdown Britain, will also warn of the collapse of what it calls "the welfare society", the informal support network within families and communities.

Mr Duncan Smith - a former Conservative leader - said: "What we found was one of the fastest growing groups that are having children in society are co-habiting parents but what was startling about the figures that showed as co-habitees one of two of them is going to break and become a single parent household before the child is five."

He said the consequences were that "the state picked up the pieces", as single mothers were left bringing up children on a greatly reduced income.

"We need to ask ourselves what's going on why do we have such high levels of family breakdown," he said.

He insisted that the focus of the report was not to "lecture" people to get married, but to help couples, both married and co-habiting, to stabilise their relationships.

"We can't have a stable workforce and a productive economy if a growing number of people at the bottom end of society are workless, and without hope," he said.

Phew, it looked like Duncan Smith was making his trite, pathetic observations out of concern for co-habiting couples who have broken up. But no, what's really important is that the nation has "a stable workforce and a productive economy". This report could have been written at any time in the last ten thousand years (and probably has been many times over the last hundred). Isn't it amazing that society is still around at all, given its eternal "collapse". And it's just as well he doesn't want to "lecture people to get married" since that would be confusing correlation and causation.

Blair decides to give a speech about Islamic extremism (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People entering the UK must be prepared to be tolerant or not become part of society, Tony Blair has said.

In a speech at Downing Street, the prime minister said that tolerance was "what makes Britain" and warned "we must be ready to defend this attitude".

The threat came not from "generalised extremism" but "a new and virulent form of ideology associated with a minority of our Muslim community".

The Muslim Association of Britain said Mr Blair's speech was "alarming".

A spokesman said the prime minister should be "investing in our society" to help the deprived, rather than investing "millions and billions in illegal occupations" which had "not helped to promote multiculturalism in this country".
The failure of that part of the community to integrate did not mean multiculturalism was dead, said Mr Blair, but it would be useful to define "common values" all citizens were "expected to conform to".

"When it comes to our essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage - then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common."

Mr Blair also said: "If you come here lawfully, we welcome you. If you are permitted to stay here permanently, you become an equal member of our community and become one of us.

"The right to be different, the duty to integrate: that is what being British means.

Another speech from Blair meant to distract. The two extremist acts during his term of office were the 7 July 2005 bombs in London (which he is now fixated upon, since it turns the spotlight on someone else's extremism), and, far worse in terms of death and destruction, his own illegal invasion of Iraq (2003-6 and counting). If he doesn't like extremism he should avoid being extremist himself. And since when is the "duty to integrate ... is what being British means"? How many Brits integrate when they go abroad?

Date published: 2006/12/07

Air travel industry is not impressed with Gordon Brown (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmental taxes announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown have failed to impress opposition parties, businesses and green campaigners.

Mr Brown announced fuel duty would rise and air passenger duty would increase from £5 to £10 for most flights.
British Air Transport Association said doubling passenger tax was "a mistake".

The association's Roger Wiltshire said the tax would not encourage the aviation industry to find solutions for cleaner engines.

"The government and ourselves were both agreed for some time that the right approach to environment and aviation was emissions trading.

"Air passenger duty is already paid to the extent of a billion pounds. This announcement today will double that to two billion pounds.

"Not a penny of that is going to be spent on improving the emissions or performance of aircraft," he added.

Low-cost airline Easyjet was also unhappy with the increase in passenger tax.

Chief executive Andy Harrison said it was "a blunt instrument" which treated all airlines the same when they were not.

His own airline "emits 30% fewer emissions per passenger kilometre than a traditional airline" because it used newer planes and flew at 85% full.

Air passenger duty is a ridiculously blunt instrument, because it bears only a crude relation with the environmental damage done. So the comments of the airline industry are largely correct and it's obvious Brown was just introducing yet another tax hike while pandering to the so-called green agenda. Of course the so-called environmentalists are unhappy because they want to make air travel prohibitively expensive for everyone but the rich, like themselves. The tax on air travel should be a tax on airplane fuel, although emissions trading offers an alternative.

European Commission wants some cuts in catches of some fish species (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has called for cuts in catches of cod, herring, plaice, whiting and haddock for 2007.

Announcing its annual recommendations to European ministers, the commission said there had been no significant improvement in cod stocks.

Conservation groups say the commission's proposed 25% cut in cod catch would make little impact.

In October, the EU's scientific advisory body recommended that no cod or anchovy should be caught next year.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices) has made this recommendation on cod four years running, but each year the commission has recommended more modest cuts which have been made still more modest by European ministers.
Stocks showing signs of recovery include populations of hake around northern Europe and some populations of mackerel, for which the commission recommends increases in the annual catch.

But these are the exception. The commission wants quotas cut for cod, herring, plaice, pollack, skate, sole, whiting, ling, Norway lobster, tusk, and most haddock populations.

In November, a vast global study of fisheries projected that without major changes in fishing behaviour there would be nothing left to fish from the world's seas by 2050.

Environmental groups have condemned what they describe as "modest" recommendations from the European Commission.

The European Commission has political considerations to make, and Ices and the so-called environmentalists do not. Given climate change it's likely that many fish species will collapse even if there were an immediate ban on catches. So the future of large-scale fishing is precarious.

Date published: 2006/12/06

Bush policy in Iraq hammered by the Iraq Study Group (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A major report on US policy in Iraq has called for a new approach and urgent action to stop "a slide towards chaos".

The current US strategy of staying the course was no longer viable, Iraq Study Group leader James Baker said.

The report says US troops should be withdrawn from combat and instead used to train Iraqis.

It urges talks with Iran and Syria, a move which the US has so far rejected. President George W Bush said the report would be taken "very seriously".

He also pledged to "act in a timely fashion".

An amazingly blunt telling off of Bush 43 from politicians of the Bush 41 era. As they said, "the current policy is not working". Unfortunately Bush 43 has shown no indication either in the past or present that he is willing to listen to any reasonable analysis. Fortunately his power is vastly diminished and nobody takes him seriously any more.

Of course there is no magic bullet for Iraq. Bush 43 has created a bigger mess than anybody could possibly have imagined back in 2003. The situation is going to get worse before it gets better. And the outcome seems to be beyond the control of America.

There is allegedly no link between cancer and mobile phone use (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Long or short-term mobile phone use is not associated with increased risk of cancer, a major study has found.

Mobile phone antennas emit electromagnetic fields that can penetrate the human brain.

But a Danish team found no evidence that this was linked to an increased risk of tumours in the head or neck as had been feared.

The study, of more than 420,000 mobile phone users, appears in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The researchers, from the Danish Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Copenhagen, looked at data on people who had been using mobile phones from as far back as 1982.

More than 56,000 had been using a mobile phone for at least 10 years.

They found no evidence to suggest users had a higher risk of tumours in the brain, eye, or salivary gland, or leukaemia.

Professor Tricia McKinney, Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Leeds, said: "The results of this Danish cohort study are important as they have analysed data from mobile phone company records and do not rely on users remembering for up to 10 years in the past how often they used their phone.

"The large numbers of subscribers in the study mean we can have some confidence in the results that have not linked mobile phone use to a risk of any cancer, including brain tumours."

Of course it's only one study. But it's a valuable study. Finding a positive link proves little (it just proves a correlation, not a causation), whereas proving there is no positive link is significant (since there is no causation if there is no correlation). Note that the study says nothing about the risk from mobile phone base stations.

Australian parliament approves some human embryo cloning (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Australia's parliament has lifted a ban on cloning human embryos for stem cell research, despite opposition from the prime minister and other party leaders.

The House of Representatives approved the legislation by a vote of 82 to 62. It was passed by the Senate last month.

It will clear the way for researchers to engage in therapeutic cloning.
Members of parliament were permitted a conscience vote - meaning they were not bound by their party's policy - following heated debate.

Despite strong support for the bill, both Prime Minister John Howard and new Labor leader Kevin Rudd made impassioned speeches against repealing the ban.

"I think what we're talking about here is a moral absolute and that is why I cannot support the legislation," Mr Howard said.

Good for the Australian parliament for putting science above second-rate religious hysteria. What here is a "moral absolute"?

Date published: 2006/12/05

The Barker Review of the planning system is published (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

England needs a new national planning body to have the final say on major infrastructure projects such as power stations, a report has said.

The Barker Review also calls on local authorities to allow more building in green belt boundaries in their areas.

The study also says that England's planning system must be made both quicker and more simple, and the appeals process needs speeding up.

Environment groups have already voiced their opposition to the report.

They fear it will lead to more construction on green belt land, and projects like airport extensions, motorways and new power stations being pushed through against local objections.

Yet critics of the current planning system, especially companies, have long said the creation of a new national planning body is vital.

They argue that, at present, some local councillors are ducking difficult planning decisions in the face of political pressures, such as strong local opposition to a new housing scheme.

The report's key author, economist Kate Barker, points out that contrary to public perception just under 13.5% of England is actually developed, while the green belt surrounding cities covers almost 13% of the country.

"The land that can be developed with the least likely environmental or wider social impact is low-value agricultural land with little landscape quality and limited public access," says the report.

"Regional and local planning bodies should review their green belt boundaries to ensure they remain relevant and appropriate."

Yet it adds that a windfall tax on profits from the development of greenfield sites should come into effect after 2008.

The Barker Report further calls for the planning system to resume presumption in favour, meaning that an application should be approved unless there is strong reasons against it.

And it says household applications for simple home extensions should be fast-track approved if there is no opposition from neighbours.

All incredibly sensible, which means much of it is likely to be ignored. As it happens, the green belt boundaries in Cambridge are already being moved outwards. For example, the NIAB site is about to be developed on the northwest boundary of the city, and that is a perfect example of "agricultural land with little landscape quality". And major infrastructure projects like power stations and airport expansion should not just be decided by some local council, they are far too important for that.

On the other hand, people should also be fully compensated if they suffer financial loss because of these kind of infrastructure projects, and that usually does not happen to an adequate level. (Unfortunately, on the other side of the coin, there are many people who benefit from such projects, mainly from increased house values. And because these people do not have to pay capital gains tax on their primary residence, the government cannot claw back any financial gain achieved, and that is equally bad.)

Of course the so-called environmentalists oppose this report, since they would not be able to hijack the planning process as effectively as they do now. Currently a huge amount of development money is wasted on lawyers instead of being spent on architects and engineers.

Rice harvest harmed by "brown clouds" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pollution-laden clouds may be partly to blame for India's dwindling rice harvests, according to research.

A US team found brown clouds, which cloak much of South Asia, have a negative impact on rice output by reducing sunlight and rainfall.

They discovered elevated levels of greenhouse gases also reduced yields.
Since the 1980s, India has faced ever-declining growth rates in harvests of its staple food, raising concerns that shortages could occur.

To investigate the cause, researchers looked at the impact of the "brown clouds" or "Asian haze" which cover the region.

South Asia has one of the most widespread atmospheric brown clouds on the planet.

These layers of air pollution, which contain soot and other fine particles, are primarily created from burning fossil fuels and other organic matter.

The clouds interfere with the local climate by blocking the Sun's radiation from reaching the ground, leading to cooler and dimmer conditions. Recent research has revealed the polluted haze can also reduce rainfall.

Using climate models and historical data on Indian rice harvests, the team built up a picture of the brown clouds' effect on rice growth over the years.

"We found if there had been no atmospheric brown clouds between 1985 and 1998, the annual rice harvest yield would have been 11% higher than it was," said Maximilian Auffhammer of the University of California at Berkeley.

The team concluded the clouds had a negative effect on rice yields.

He said while the cooler night-time temperatures caused by the clouds were beneficial for the rice, the negative impact of the decreasing rainfall outweighed these benefits.

All fairly obvious but worth the quantification.

Date published: 2006/12/04

Blair wants to blow 20 billion pounds on new nuclear weapons (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has told MPs it would be "unwise and dangerous" for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons.

The prime minister outlined plans to spend up to £20bn on a new generation of submarines for Trident missiles.

He said submarine numbers may be cut from four to three, while the number of nuclear warheads would be cut by 20%.

Mr Blair said although the Cold War had ended the UK needed nuclear weapons as no-one could be sure another nuclear threat would not emerge in the future.

A waste of money. The main reasons seem to be macho posturing and the requirement to suck up to America (who will be raking up much of that 20 billion). The people who run the US are crazy enough to use nuclear weapons, but on this side of the pond, even Blair, although he is one of the craziest of British prime ministers, would not be crazy enough to use them. So UK nuclear weapons provide no real deterrent to anyone attacking the UK, and they especially provide no deterrent to terrorists.

EU agrees deal on "toxic chemicals" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Parliament and EU governments have struck a deal on wide-ranging legislation to control the use of toxic chemicals in industry.

The draft law, due to come into force next year, is designed to make firms prove the chemicals they use are safe.

The deal comes after drawn-out talks, with environmentalists wanting tough action and industry groups seeking to avoid laborious rules.

The rules affecting 30,000 chemicals still require EU assembly approval.
A newly-established agency in Finland will oversee the way the firms assess the chemicals they use.

"The most fundamental thing of all is that it reverses the burden of proof. Manufacturers and importers have to demonstrate that products they put on the market are safe," said Chris Davies of the Liberal Democrats.

But the higher standards would also mean a significant rise in animal testing, he said.

Of course nothing is 100% "safe", but the politicians like to play to the peanut gallery and pretend otherwise. The key point here is that because of the anti-chemical-industry hatred of the so-called environmentalists, millions of animals (additional to the ones that are already used for drug tests) will have to be tortured and killed, for no great reason.

Date published: 2006/12/03

The world is going to have to develop new crop strains (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The global network of agricultural research centres warns that famines lie ahead unless new crop strains adapted to a warmer future are developed.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) says yields of existing varieties will fall.

New forecasts say warming will shrink South Asia's wheat area by half.

CGIAR is announcing plans to accelerate efforts aimed at developing new strains of staple crops including maize, wheat, rice and sorghum.
The most significant impact of climate change on agriculture is probably changes in rainfall. Some regions are forecast to receive more rain, others to receive less; above all, it will become more variable.

But increasing temperatures can also affect crops. Photosynthesis slows down as the thermometer rises, which also slows the plants' growth and capacity to reproduce.

Research published two years ago shows rice yields are declining by 10% for every degree Celsius increase in night-time temperature.

It's good that at least someone is worrying about adapting to climate change, because it seems pretty inevitable. As with the related area of moving to a so-called carbon-free economy, the world is going to need scientific breakthroughs to avoid disaster. Here, GM technology is likely to play a big part of the solution, no matter how much the so-called environmentalists don't like it (unfortunately they have successfully hindered this research in Europe).

Douglas Alexander can't wait for road pricing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

National road tolls could be brought in within a decade, Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander has said.

He admitted a "still sceptical" public had yet to be won over to the benefits of road pricing - but said something had to be done to prevent gridlock.

Drivers needed first-hand experience of road pricing through pilot schemes in Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere within the next five years, he said.

Last week a transport study suggested road charges could halve congestion.

The Treasury-commissioned study led by former BA chief Rod Eddington said road pricing could benefit the economy by £28bn a year.

Asked whether road pricing was inevitable, Mr Alexander told BBC One's AM programme that it was a "debate that we need to have" and said Sir Rod's report was a major contribution to that debate.

He said the number of vehicles on British roads had gone up from 26 million in 1997 to 33 million. Ministers fear that congestion could rise by up to 25% by 2015 in big towns and cities, if nothing is done.
But he ruled out more road-building programmes as a solution, saying: "I think most informed commentators realise we can't simply build our way out of the challenge of congestion."

Alexander is taking the piss. There is no "debate". There will be no "debate". The ruling elite have spoken and road pricing is inevitable. In particular, all the main parties support it. And, contrary to the cynical comment by Alexander, nobody has suggested that building roads is all of the solution to the problem of congestion. But to say there should be no more road-building programmes is willful negligence by the government. Unfortunately most of the "informed commentators" have a philosophical hatred of cars and/or a financial interest in road pricing going ahead, so Alexander is receiving a biased analysis in his briefing papers.

Cambridge Labour Party chooses its parliamentary candidate (permanent blog link)

The Labour Party has apparently chosen its new parliamentary candidate, someone by the name of Daniel Zeichner. His CV makes him sound like Old Labour (e.g. he worked in Shire Hall, and is now a "policy and campaigns officer" for UNISON), but most Labour members in Cambridge seem to be Old Labour.

His first leaflet dropped through the door today. It is most notable for what it does not mention, i.e. Iraq. Cambridge currently has an anonymous LibDem MP, but it's hard to see Labour beating him, with the war in Iraq having gone so sour (and which is likely to get worse before it gets better). Most of the Labour Party and supporters in Cambridge were against the war, but unfortunately the two people at the top, Blair and Brown, supported it, and it's hard to see Labour winning again in Cambridge until they are both gone, and some future Labour leader apologises for the Iraq fiasco.

Date published: 2006/12/02

Ted Sorensen interview in the Financial Times (permanent blog link)

Ted Sorensen, speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, gives an interview to the Financial Times (subscription service):

Where Kennedy was right on Cuba, [Sorensen] says, illuminates where George W. Bush has erred on Iraq. "John F. Kennedy made certain that he gathered to advise him on that crisis people of varying views and backgrounds to make sure he got the best possible recommendation," he says bitterly. "Mr Bush listened only to Vice-president Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, who had been neocons for years and did not present any alternative points of view."

Sorensen intimates that Kennedy would have faced the terrorist threat very differently to George W. Bush. "I compare communism to terrorism. A lot of communists were willing to die for their beliefs just as terrorists are today. We didn't prevail in the cold war by killing all the communists. On the contrary, we prevailed by being patient, by not compromising our own values and civil liberties, and we outlasted them, and that is what we are going to have to do in the war on terrorism."

The Bush White House has never been interested in policy analysis, or in "alternative points of view" on any subject, including Iraq. Most of the blame for the Iraq fiasco should not be laid on Rumsfeld and Cheney (no matter how dreadful they are) but on Bush. He's definitely one of the worst presidents of all time.

Date published: 2006/12/01

Cambridge has a one-day meeting on "sustainable energy" (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Cambridge Energy Forum held a one-day meeting today on "Sustainable Energy". Being a scientific meeting, it largely ignored the number one problem of the world, namely over-population. As well as looking for technological fixes, all the countries of the world should also be aiming to reduce their future populations. That is not going to solve all the problem, but nothing is. Unfortunately this is the one issue that is always ignored.

Being in Cambridge, most of the people attending the meeting were old and are not going to contribute anything to the technological advances. This is one of the problems with energy research, making it interesting enough to attract the brightest and best youngsters, instead of having them waste their life, and the resources of the world, studying superstrings.

The first talk was by Daniel Nocera, from MIT. Being an American academic, he was entertaining, and, unusually, he was also informative, giving a view of the "Big Picture".

In 2000, the world energy "inventory" was around 13 TW (well, a Watt is a unit of power, not energy, and he did not say whether "inventory" was peak capacity or what, but it does not matter below, because it is the relative numbers that matter). This is with a population of around 6 billion people.

In 2050 the world population is forecast to be over 9 billion. And the forecast for the energy "inventory" is 28 TW or perhaps even 35 TW. If the whole world consumed at the rate of the US today, that would instead be 102 TW, or 84 TW at the rate of North America, or 45 TW if at the rate of Western Europe. Even if the world consumed at the rate of Equatorial Guinea today, it would be 30 TW.

Nocera falls in the camp of believing that the supply of oil and gas will not be a problem before 2050. But he also believed that is was alternative sources of energy that would largely make up the gap between the 12 TW and the 28 (or more) TW.

He said that if you converted all the existing agricultural land mass to grow biofuels, then that would provide a maximum of 7-10 TW (and nobody would get to eat). And if you had 8000 new nuclear plants, that would produce 8 TW. But 8000 nuclear plants between now and 2050 means a new nuclear plant should be being built every 2 days. (Of course nuclear power currently has waste problems, but Nocera believes those could be overcome.)

Nocera works on solar energy so his view, not surprisingly, was that solar was going to be the best long-term solution to the dual problem of energy supply and carbon emissions. (Well, during the question session he also agreed that nuclear fusion might be a good long-term energy source.)

According to Nocera, there is some fundamental chemistry research that needs doing in order to make solar power (with the associated storage problems) become the definitive new energy source. He even "promised" a Nobel Prize (or two) to anyone coming up with the answers. He said it would take ten years (at least, but the world also didn't have more time than that to wait).

Eddington report recommends road pricing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motorists should be asked to pay to drive on the nation's road network, a report commissioned by the government has recommended.

Former British Airways chief Sir Rod Eddington has examined options for modernising the UK transport network.

He has reported that road tolls could bring £28bn a year of benefits to bus and rail users.

With road charging, drivers would pay more to use roads when they were busy or more congested.

If road charging was introduced, the government would be able to examine the option of whether it could raise enough revenue to replace fuel duty and the car tax disc.

What a surprise. The ruling elite have been baying for road pricing for years, and a government-appointed and run commission now says it thinks it's a jolly good idea.

The alleged 28 billion pounds in benefits of course has to be offset against the costs. And what does this brilliant report say about the costs: "While firm estimates of the costs of such a scheme are not developed at this stage, those costs would have to be extremely high to outweigh benefits on this scale" (paragraph 1.109 in the summary volume). And those are the direct costs of implementation he is talking about. He completely ignores the indirect, social, costs of denying mobility to people.

Unfortunately all the people who work fulltime on this subject have a direct financial interest in making sure road pricing goes ahead. Hence their sums should not be trusted. At this stage of the game, you can assume that any alleged benefit should be divided by two, and that any alleged implementation cost (when they deign to give us one) should be doubled. Needless to say, the total costs will be high enough to make any alleged benefit largely vaporise.

And should these "benefits" go "to bus and rail users" (as the BBC story implies)? Well the report says that: "I have long argued that all users, including air travellers, should pay the full costs of their travel, whether those are the costs of congestion or environmental damage" (paragraph 1.44). If only bus and rail users came anywhere close to paying the full costs of their journeys. They do not come even close to paying the direct costs, never mind the indirect (e.g. environmental) costs.

One impact of road pricing is that instead of Britain having busy roads 5 or 6 hours a day, it instead will have busy roads 10 or 12 hours a day. Indeed, as shown by the graph in paragraph 1.63, the country is already heading that way. What the report calls "leisure" and "other personal" journeys already are bunched in the middle of the day, avoiding the rush hour. But these are exactly the kinds of journeys that road pricing is being introduced for to allegedly remove from the rush hour.

There is no space for more roads in most urban areas. But there is plenty of space for more roads between urban areas. Of course the ruling elite refuse to build these roads, and this is one of the major contributions to congestion.

The one saving grace in all of this is that the government has proven itself so incompetent over and over again at implementing large projects, that the date of introduction of road pricing will be far, far off into the future.

A GM potato trial is approved by the government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A plan to grow genetically modified potatoes on two trial sites in England has been approved by the government. Defra granted permission for BASF Plant Science to grow the vegetables at field sites in Cambridgeshire and Derbyshire.

The crops have been modified to include a gene from a wild species of potato in a bid to make them resistant to blight, a disease costing growers £70m a year.

But the Soil Association said it was "a stupid decision" and warned other crops risked contamination by GM.
But Professor Philip Dale, an emeritus fellow at the plant-breeding John Innes Centre, hit back at Lord Melchetts' comments.

"The Soil Association is opposing this because they have a substantial investment in the commercial future of organic agriculture and they see these kinds of advances in general agriculture to be a threat to the profitability of organic farming.

"The negative views on GM crops and foods expressed in the GM Nation public debate (as the report acknowledges) were largely influenced by campaigning groups who for their various reasons wish to stop the evaluation of GM crops. They even wish to deny farmers and consumers the choice to evaluate them."

Dale has it right, but is missing a further point. The Soil Association has religious objections to GM crops and the commercial objections just follow from this. They have arbitrarily decided that "contamination" by GM crops makes "organic" crops not "organic", no matter how small the amount, and no matter how irrelevant it is to the health impact of the crops. Well, if they really think crop "contamination" is such a big issue, perhaps they should compensate other people for the "contamination" caused by crops grown under their own rules.

Of course these two trial sites are likely to be vandalised by the anti-GM fascists, if they find out where they are.

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