Azara Blog: January 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/01/31

Study about reintroducing wolves into Scotland (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Reintroducing wild wolves to the Scottish Highlands would help the local ecosystem, a study suggests.

Wolves, which were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the late 1700s, would help control the numbers of red deer, the team from the UK and Norway said.

This would aid the re-establishment of plants and birds - currently hampered by the deer population, they write in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

But farmers say more livestock would be killed if wolves are reintroduced.

The researchers' findings used a predator/prey model to assess the probable consequences on the Highland's red deer population.

Why would anyone trust a simple-minded predator/prey model by a bunch of academics, especially ones who no doubt would like to see wolves reintroduced, so are hardly unbiased? The world does not have a good track record when it comes to (re)introducing one species to prey on a second species. Quite often there are severe unintended consequences.

And the farmers are no doubt right, more livestock would be killed (that is a forseen, so an intended, consequence). The real question is how many, and would the farmers be compensated as a result? Of course farmers are a minority and so their rights can be trampled by the urban majority. It's called "democracy".

Rape convictions are allegedly too low (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Police and prosecutors are failing to implement measures to boost the rape conviction rate, watchdogs have warned.

The police and the Crown Prosecution Service watchdogs said more effort should be made to build stronger cases.

Their report says too many rape claims in England and Wales are wrongly dismissed as unfounded.

Only 5% of reported rapes end in a conviction. The director of public prosecutions says he is "determined" to improve the way rape cases are handled.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Mike O'Brien said the government was considering a change in the law in an effort to raise the number of convictions.

He said: "Most people who are victims of rape know their perpetrator and the issue is therefore consent. What we need to do is make sure that the issue of consent goes before a jury."

It is slightly bizarre that the issue being touted is the need to increase the conviction rate. What they should really want is guilty people to be found guilty and innocent people to be found innocent. What they should also want is for the State to have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone is guilty. Unfortunately, they just seem to want to increase the conviction rate.

One of the major problems here does seem to be the question of consent. Apparently the government is thinking of changing the law so that if the woman is drunk then almost by definition any sex is rape. If the woman is so drunk that she cannot reason (which is very, very drunk, and in particular is way beyond what the police would consider to be drunk when you are driving), and if also the man is not similarly drunk, then this could be considered to be plausible. But what is almost certainly likely to happen (given that the sole need seems to be to increase the conviction rate) is that if the woman says she was drunk (beyond reason?) (and how will that be determined?) (and ignoring what condition the man was in?) then that is that.

No doubt a lot more guilty men will go to prison, but inevitably so won't a lot more innocent ones. One thing the Blair government has been consistent about is that they do not care how many innocent people go to prison, as long as more guilty ones do.

Date published: 2007/01/30

Revised plans for a second Stansted runway unveiled (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans for a second runway and terminal at Stansted Airport in Essex have been unveiled by airport operator BAA.

The development would take up less land than originally planned and have opening costs of £1.4bn - £300m less than was initially estimated, said BAA.

Uttlesford District Council last year blocked plans to extend the existing runway at Stansted.

Members of the Stop Stansted Expansion (SSE) campaign group are to continue their protest against the plans.

BAA said the overall cost of the project would run up to £2.2bn down from the £2.7bn forecast in 2005.

Subject to planning permission, the runway could be operating by 2015 and accommodate an extra 10m passengers a year.

It is expected that one runway will be used for landings, and one for take-offs.

You can guarantee that Uttlesford District Council will turn down this planning application (when it comes). But why is some Mickey Mouse District Council determining whether an infrastructure project of national importance gets to go ahead, or not? This is the stupidity of the British planning system. They will have years and years of inquiries, and in the end the decision will be appealed by BAA to central government. The ploy of SSE is to try and delay the application for so long that central government will have meanwhile gone against airport expansion. Meanwhile, the only real winners are the extremely expensive lawyers and consultants hired to argue the case for both sides. The real losers are the people of Britain.

Cardinal shows why his opinion should be ignored (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers have been accused of trying to impose "a new morality" by ruling Catholic adoption agencies should not be exempt from gay rights laws.

Tony Blair has ruled against an opt-out despite agencies saying they will close rather than act against their beliefs.

However they are to be given 21 months to adjust to the new regulations.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said he was disappointed, but said he hoped there might still be some way the agencies could "continue their work".

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the head of Catholics in England and Wales, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Some legislation, however well intended, in fact does create a new kind of morality, a new kind of norm - as this does."

He added: "It does seem to me we are having a new norm for what marriage is, because I think normally children should be brought up by a father and a mother and I think that we hold that that is extremely important.

"The government has a right to legislate and homosexual couples are also able to adopt in other agencies but we want to hold onto this principle."

He said the move risked forcing religious people out of public life.

"Here the Catholic Church and its adoption services are wishing to act according to its principles and conscience and the government is saying: 'No, we won't allow you to ... you have no space, you have no place in the public life of this country.'

"Now that seems to me to be just one step and there will be further ones."

Unbelievable. If the Catholic Church wants to remain in the 14th century then they have the right to do so, but the rest of society has the right to move into the 21st century. With the backwards attitude on display here, hopefully so-called religious people will be forced out of public life, they have little to offer except bigotry, it seems. Next the cardinal will complain about single people and unmarried people and non-Catholics, and everyone else who doesn't fit into his narrow doctrinal view of the world. The Catholic Church would be better advised to deal with paedophile priests than spout endless nonsense against homosexuals.

Cambridge extorts more money from car drivers (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Controversial increases in parking fees will help pay for a £2 million city centre building project.

Cambridge City Council wants to bring in a raft of new charges to fund a two-year refurbishment scheme at the Grafton East car park. Work at the multi-storey is due to start in the summer and be staggered to limit disruption.

Shoppers can expect to pay up to 20p more an hour when parking at the busiest city centre car parks at the Grafton, Lion Yard and Park Street.

John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, said: "It sends out a message the council is opposed to people coming into the city by car. The feedback we are getting back from members is that they already feel car parking charges are too high in Cambridge.
...
The increased cash from parking fees will also be used for other council services, such as street and toilet cleaning.

It's fair enough that people using car parks pay for maintenance of the car parks. Unfortunately in Cambridge the city has a monopoly on car parks, so extorts money from car drivers to pay for lots of other things. But the national government does the same. Break up the monopoly on car parks and the city will soon enough start to behave itself.

And Bridge needs to wake up to reality. Of course "the council is opposed to people coming into the city by car", does he really believe otherwise? The Lib Dems dominate the council and the bureaucrats are of a similar mentality, and they both believe that cars are the source of all evil on the planet (except for the cars that they themselves drive, of course, because they are the ruling elite). (Well, the ruling elite also find it trendy these days to claim that airplanes are also the source of all evil on the planet, except for the ones they are flying on.)

Date published: 2007/01/29

Mountain glaciers disappearing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mountain glaciers are shrinking three times faster than they were in the 1980s, scientists have announced.

The World Glacier Monitoring Service, which continuously studies a sample of 30 glaciers around the world, says the acceleration is down to climate change.
...
The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), based in Switzerland, continuously studies a set of 30 mountain glaciers in different parts of the world. It is not quite a representative sample of all mountain glaciers, but does give a reliable indication of global trends.

The latest survey, just released, shows accelerating decline. During 2005, this sample of 30 glaciers became, on average, 60-70cm thinner.

This figure is 1.6 times more than the average annual loss during the 1990s, and three times faster than in the 1980s.

With mountain glaciers typically only tens of metres thick, this meant, said WGMS director Wilfried Haeberli, that many would disappear on a timescale of decades if the trend continued.

Nothing that surprising here. But the quantification is worthwhile, although it might well be too late to do much about this.

Has Ryanair cut emissions by half in five years? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ryanair has retracted a claim that it had cut emissions of carbon dioxide by half over the past five years.

The airline's chief executive, Michael O'Leary, has admitted that his statement was "an error".

His comments followed an investigation by BBC Newsnight, which demonstrated that the claim could not be true.

Ryanair had initially threatened the programme with legal action if it aired the report. Ryanair describes itself as Europe's greenest, cleanest airline.

The airline has now conceded its fuel use has increased eight-fold between 1998 and 2006.

Experts says this means Ryanair emissions of carbon dioxide will have also risen eight-fold over the same period.
...
A BBC enquiry demonstrated that the airline had originally planned to make a different claim, that it had cut carbon dioxide emissions by half, per passenger.

The words "per passenger" were subsequently removed by the company.

The BBC is the one taking the piss. Did anyone, hearing the claim, believe that the figure was not "per passenger"? When your passenger numbers and flights have sky-rocketed, as have those of Ryanair, nobody would believe that the total amount of emissions had dropped. And the total is a (largely) misleading number to look at. It is the per passenger (well, per passenger-mile) amount that means something, if you are keeping score in a sensible way. And if that has really dropped by half in five years then that is pretty good. Perhaps the BBC can tell us if this claim is true (or mostly true) or not, instead of wasting time on silly news stories.

Date published: 2007/01/28

Sinn Fein votes to support Northern Ireland's police (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sinn Fein members have voted to support policing in Northern Ireland for the first time in the party's history.

About 900 party members voted on the motion at a special party conference (ard fheis) in Dublin which was attended by more than 2,000 people.

Sinn Fein support for policing and DUP commitment to power-sharing are seen as essential to restoring NI devolution.

A six hour debate was cut short as the leadership forced a vote which was carried with 90% support.

The decision gives Sinn Fein's ruling executive the authority to declare its support for the PSNI and the criminal justice system when devolution is restored and policing and justice powers are transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Speaking after the vote, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the decision was truly historic.

Historic indeed. A good day for Northern Ireland, although there is still a long way to go. Hopefully the Unionists will reciprocate and start to behave like adults.

Apparently air-transported food cannot be "organic" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Organic food that is imported into the UK by air may be denied the right to label itself organic, under proposals from the UK's main certification body.

The Soil Association said it was considering the move due to concern about greenhouse gas emissions from flights carrying food around the world.

It has now launched a one-year consultation on the issue.

The Soil Association said there was a growing demand to cut the environmental impact of food distribution.

Just another illustration that the definition of what is and is not allegedly "organic" has little to do with farming, and more to do with ideology. The next logical step is to say that any food that is delivered by lorry is not "organic". Let's go back to the good old days (which for the Soil Association means the 19th century, if not before), and just say that for food to be "organic" it needs to be brought to market by horse and cart.

Of course this particular proposal is also a barrier to trade, but that is presumably a secondary consideration for the Soil Association. The Competition Commission should take a look at the Soil Association.

Date published: 2007/01/27

High-definition DVDs have been hacked (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The encryption on high-definition DVDs has been bypassed, the consortium backing the copy protection system on discs has confirmed.

At the end of last year a hacker claimed he had defeated the protection on a number of HD-DVD titles, leading to fears the entire system was broken.

But the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) Licensing Authority has said the breach is limited.

"It does not represent an attack on the AACS system itself," the group said.

The AACS group has admitted that a hacker had managed to decrypt some discs and other people were now able to make copies of certain titles.

The hacker, known as muslix64, has been able to access the encryption keys which pass between certain discs and the player. Once those keys have been obtained the disc can be stripped of its encryption enabling the digital content to be played on any machine.

A spokesman for the AACS group said the large size of the files and the high cost of writable hi-def discs made widespread copying of the movies impractical.

The AACS response is slightly disingenuous. If "widespread copying of the movies [is] impractical" then why bother with a copy protection system in the first place. It just shows once again how difficult it is to produce a good copy protection system.

Date published: 2007/01/26

Surprise, pollution is bad for you (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Living too near a busy road could stunt a child's lung development, US research involving 3,677 children suggests.

Children who lived within 500 metres of a major road, such as a motorway, were shown to have lung impairment in tests.

Many children live and go to schools near to busy roads and could be at risk, the University of Southern California authors warn in The Lancet.

Experts already know toxic traffic fumes can trigger lung conditions such as asthma.

But the latest work suggests pollution can stop the lung from growing to its full potential - even in children who are otherwise healthy.

Who would have thought that pollution causes health problems. Give these guys a bonus. (And hopefully they factored out the possible contributory effect that poorer people live nearer major roads than rich people, and poorer people generally have worse health than richer people.)

Date published: 2007/01/25

Yet another report charting the way forward for renewable energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Half of the world's energy needs in 2050 could be met by renewables and improved efficiency, a study has said.

It said alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, could provide nearly 70% of the world's electricity and 65% of global heat demand.

Following a "business as usual" scenario would see demand for energy double by 2050, the authors warned.

The study, by the German Aerospace Center, was commissioned by Greenpeace and Europe's Renewable Energy Council.

The report, Energy Revolution: a sustainable world energy outlook, provided a "roadmap" for meeting future energy needs without fuelling climate change, said Sven Teske from Greenpeace International.

"We have shown that the world can have safe, robust renewable energy, that we can achieve the efficiencies needed and we can do all of this while enjoying global economic growth," he said.

He added that the strategy outlined in the report showed that it was economically feasible to cut global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by almost 50% over the next 43 years.

Given who commissioned the report, one has to take the whole thing with a pinch of salt. A lot of the report is about presumed increases in energy efficiency (e.g. graph on page 8). Well anybody can play that game, it has nothing to do with whether renewable energy is used, or not. Of course they also want to decrease fossil fuel consumption. (And who knows, maybe China will soon stop opening up a new coal power plant every N weeks.)

For various reasons they do not consider nuclear power (but of course these people never liked nuclear power). Along the same line, they have a political goal of decentralised power generation (but of course these people never liked corporations). That has yet to be proven to be sensible. But at least they consider hydropower, along with their favourite pet technologies (like solar).

As a taste of the flavour of the report, consider these paragraphs (page 5):

By choosing renewable energy and energy efficiency, developing countries can virtually stabilise their CO2 emissions, whilst at the same time increasing energy consumption through economic growth. OECD countries will have to reduce their emissions by up to 80%.

There is no need to "freeze in the dark" for this to happen. Strict technical standards will ensure that only the most efficient fridges, heating systems, computers and vehicles will be on sale. Consumers have a right to buy products that don”t increase their energy bills and won”t destroy the climate.

The UK government has promised 60% reductions in emissions by 2050, so of course no self-respecting so-called environmentalist can now ask for anything less than 80% (and indeed, some are clamouring for 90%).

And how touching that they believe that consumers "have a right to buy products that don't increase their energy bills". Since "only the most efficient fridges", etc., will be allowed to be on sale, evidently there is no "right to buy products that do increase energy bills". So what they really mean to say is that consumers will only have the "right" to buy things that the ruling elite decides they can buy.

They are evidently keen to stress the message that nobody will "freeze in the dark". (The same phrase is used in the BBC report.) They have evidently learned that their usual negative tirade against the alleged consumptive evils of Western society doesn't go down too well amongst ordinary people.

Of course a lot of emissions come from transport. The report claims (page 80) that "Use of hybrid vehicles (electric/combustion) and other efficiency measures could reduce energy consumption in passenger cars by up to 80% in 2050". Well, it will be interesting to see if that happens. (And if it does happen, whatever will the hysterical anti-car brigade think to complain about next when it comes to cars.)

Oddly, there is no mention of air transport, and many people claim (for mainly political reasons) that air transport will dominate carbon emissions in 2050.

Let's see if these people put their money where their mouths are, and actually try and make these things happen (by doing some science and engineering), instead of just writing reports.

UK government tries to justify wasting £20bn on new nuclear submarines (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Replacing the UK's nuclear weapons is a "rational" way to deal with increased threats from abroad, Defence Secretary Des Browne has said.

Countries such as Iran and North Korea could pose a danger in future, he told students at King's College, London.

Mr Browne added: "It's unfortunate that the image of deterrents has become so associated with the cold war."

Ministers have outlined plans to build a new generation of nuclear submarines, at an estimated cost of £20bn.
...
Mr Browne said: "I would like take this opportunity to re-affirm that the UK would only consider using nuclear weapons in the most extreme situations of self defence.

"But it is precisely those situations which those who argue against maintaining our nuclear deterrent need to think about."

Browne is rather taking the piss. These nuclear so-called deterrents are "associated with the cold war" because that was their original (mostly fallacious) justification. They provide no deterrent against the main threats facing the UK today. They provided no deterrent against the 7/7 terrorist attack (nor did they provide America, with a gigantic arsenal, against the 9/11 terrorist attack). The only point of these nuclear missiles is to provide corporate welfare to the companies that make them.

Cambridge ruling elite wring their hands over Newmarket Road traffic (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A series of congestion busting measures are being considered for Cambridge's clogged up Newmarket Road.

Transport bosses have come up with a range of options for cutting queues in a bid to get the traffic moving including taking out bus lanes and banning right turns into the road at various junctions.

Barnwell Road roundabout, the Cambridge Retail Park junctions, B&Q junction and the Coldham's Lane junctions have been identified as major problem areas and officers will use a computer modelling programme to see which changes would be most effective.

Residents warned of traffic chaos when a 300-metre stretch of bus lane was put in near the Tesco store in 2004 and now it could be taken out.

Even members of Cambridge traffic management area joint committee said they were confused by the route.

Coun Nichola Harrison said: "I went to Tesco along there and I just don't know how to do it. You're ducking in and out, looking at the dotted lines and thinking 'am I inside or outside the law?'."
...
Coun Catherine Smart said:

"One quibble I have is that it just talks about Newmarket Road whereas traffic at the Coldham's Lane junction with Newmarket Road is a very serious problem.

"Very frequently there is traffic backed up off the map.

"It would be better if it referred just occasionally to Coldham's Lane and suggested what mitigation there should be for both roads."

Congestion charging could also have an effect on traffic management.

Coun Nichola Harrison said: "Congestion charging is going to have a big effect on the issue.

"This is where congestion charging is really needed in the Cambridge area.

"Very few roads suffer congestion as much as this one."

Richard Preston, head of network management, said:

"Congestion charging is a very relevant comment.

Yes, Newmarket Road and Coldham's Lane are a complete disaster. And it is almost entirely the fault of the Cambridge ruling elite. It is they who decided to pile retail shop after retail shop all in this one area. It is they who approved the wacky bus lanes on Newmarket Road which effectively cut the capacity on the main stretch by half. And it is they who seem to have so little common sense that they are surprised that there is a problem. Will any lessons be learned? Will anybody take responsibility for this mess? Will anyone be sacked or resign? No, instead they blame car drivers. How convenient.

Date published: 2007/01/24

Charles Kennel gives C.P. Snow lecture at Christ's (permanent blog link)

Charles Kennel, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, gave the annual C.P. Snow lecture at Christ's College in Cambridge this afternoon, on "Global Earth Sciences and Sustainability".

C.P. Snow is mainly known for his "two cultures" thesis (first promulgated in 1959), namely that there was allegedly a growing and worrying gulf between science and the humanities. Well, as Snow (a second-rate scientist and a second-rate novelist) saw it, humanities people were usually pig-ignorant of basic science, and seemed to think this was ok, whereas any scientist who didn't profess a great interest in (say) Shakespeare was allegedly uncultured. In those days the humanities had great influence. But in more recent years the sciences have become ascendant over the humanities, mainly because you can make money in the sciences.

Since it was the C.P. Snow lecture, Kennel felt obliged to mention the two cultures, and to claim his lecture was somehow about that. But it was really about another gulf, namely between science and technology on the one hand, and public policy, in particular with regard to the environment, on the other.

Kennel is an earth scientist by trade, and the interesting thing was that he already saw over twenty years ago that geophysics (i.e. rocks, volcanos, etc.) was not so much the future as geobiology (i.e. the environment). With that shift he has managed to oversee a large increase in research and data collection. He showed a slide with the dozen or more satellites now circling the earth collecting data. (He claimed that one of the satellites was sending back a terabyte of data per day.) And there are now also thousands (and growing) sensors floating in the oceans collecting data. They have so much data that now they have a Global Earth Observing System of Systems, i.e. an attempt to make all that data accessible. (You have to figure that most data in the world goes completely unanalysed. And making it difficult to get hold of is just one step in that direction.)

The point of his lecture was that this science was all very well, but how could you influence public policy. And specifically, what role should universities play. He seemed to think that universities would be somehow held to account if they didn't play a more active role in relevant environmental research, with expertise that is missing both from government agencies and NGOs. Well, it's hard to see what that really means in practise. If the research councils prioritise certain research then universities will obviously go down that route. Otherwise not. But any political interference in research is almost bound to just lead to money being wasted.

Some criticism of the Stern report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

When the Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change came out last year, it was showered with praise.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called it, "the most important report on the future ever published by this government".

But expert critics of the review now claim that it overestimates the risk of severe global warming, and underestimates the cost of acting to stop it.

The message from the report's chief author, the economist Sir Nicholas Stern, was simple: if we did nothing about climate change, it would cost us the equivalent of at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever.

But if we acted today, we could prevent a catastrophe.

This point was emphasised at the report's launch by Mr Blair who warned we would see the disastrous consequences of climate change - not in some science fiction future, but in our lifetimes.

These figures sounded scary and imminent. But if you read the report in detail, that is not what it actually says.

The 5% damage to global GDP figure will not happen for well over one hundred years, according to Stern's predictions. And the review certainly does not forecast disastrous consequences in our lifetimes.
...
Richard Tol is a professor at both Hamburg and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and is one of the world's leading environmental economists.

The Stern Review cites his work 63 times; but that does not mean he agrees with it.

"If a student of mine were to hand in this report as a Masters thesis, perhaps if I were in a good mood I would give him a 'D' for diligence; but more likely I would give him an 'F' for fail.

"There is a whole range of very basic economics mistakes that somebody who claims to be a Professor of Economics simply should not make," he told The Investigation on BBC Radio 4.

At the core of the Stern Review is an economic comparison between the damage caused by climate change with the costs of cutting our greenhouse gases.

Professor Tol believes the figures for damage are exaggerated.

"Stern consistently picks the most pessimistic for every choice that one can make. He overestimates through cherry-picking, he double counts particularly the risks and he underestimates what development and adaptation will do to impacts," he said.

Many economists are also sceptical about the figures Stern uses to estimate the costs of reducing are greenhouse gas emissions.

The review suggests this will cost only 1% of GDP but according to Yale University Economist Robert Mendelsohn, this is far too optimistic and the figure could easily be much higher.

"One of the depressing things about the greenhouse gas problem is that the cost of eliminating [it] is quite high. We will actually have to sacrifice a great deal to cut emissions dramatically," he said.
...
Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its fourth report.

It is designed to be the authoritative statement on the state of global warming science. Anyone expecting to see the scary figures of the Stern report repeated is going to be disappointed.

The predictions in the IPCC report will be significantly lower. For instance, the Stern review comes up with a figure for temperature increase by 2050 of 2-3 degrees, whereas the IPCC says this will probably not happen until the end of the century.

Professor Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, believes that when the IPCC report comes out next week, there will be a big difference between the science it contains and the climate debate in the UK.

"The IPCC is not going to talk about tipping points; it's not going to talk about 5m rises in sea level; it's not going to talk about the next ice age because the Gulf Stream collapses; and it's going to have none of the economics of the Stern Review," he said.

"It's almost as if a credibility gap has emerged between what the British public thinks and what the international science community think."

The British public think what the chattering classes who run the media tell them to think. Unfortunately the so-called environmentalists have an undue influence on most of the media, and the media also loves scare stories, so the UK media is always full of end-of-the-world reports. (The BBC is often a source of such reports.) To reduce carbon emissions you have to reduce the world population (which nobody ever suggests) and/or find technological fixes (which is what most people want) and/or hammer the carbon-based economy (which is what the so-called environmentalists want). About the only benefit of the Stern report is that it opened up some discussion (but not about population).

Church of England says it is just as homophobic as the Catholic Church (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Church of England has backed the Catholic Church in its bid to be exempt from laws on adoption by gay couples.

Catholic leaders in England and Wales say its teachings prevent its agencies placing children with homosexuals and they will close if bound by the rules.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, have written to the PM.

They say "rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning".

The Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation.

So the Church of England is just as homophobic as the Catholic Church, what a surprise. Would Rowan Williams accept it as a "right of conscience" if black people, or poor people, or women, or Muslims or ... (name your favourite category) were refused service by some church-run alleged-public-service agency? This is not a "right of conscience", this is a "right of bigotry". Adoption agencies should be looking after the best interests of the children, not the bigoted interests of the people who run the agencies. Channel 4 News was claiming tonight that Blair wanted to grant an exemption, but that most of the rest of the cabinet told him to get lost, so he has supposedly backed down. We shall see.

Date published: 2007/01/23

Catholic Church tries to blackmail the UK over gay rights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has said adoption agencies will close if they cannot opt out of new gay rights laws.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has written to Cabinet ministers saying church teaching prevented its agencies placing children with homosexuals.

Forcing people to act against their consciences would mean discrimination on the grounds of belief, he added.

Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly, a devout Catholic, was reported at the weekend to be considering an opt-out which would cover Catholic adoption agencies.

The Equality Act, due to come into effect in England, Wales and Scotland in April, outlaws discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexual orientation.

It works in a similar way to rules on sex and race discrimination.

However, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said Roman Catholic teaching about the foundations of family life ruled out the choice of homosexual adoptive parents.

He said the closure of seven agencies would represent a wholly avoidable "tragedy".

The so-called church teaching is just made up. Murphy-O'Connor could equally well claim they should only consider married couples. And only Catholics. And no doubt once upon a time he would have spouted about how church teaching allegedly said that only white people should be allowed to adopt children. Etc. If Murphy-O'Connor wants to be a bigot that is his right, but the UK government should not encourage him in his bigotry. His emotional blackmail should be ignored. (Unfortunately Blair's wife is Catholic, so Blair is likely to give these people an exemption.)

European Parliament approves report on CIA torture flights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A European Parliament committee has approved a report which says EU states knew of secret CIA flights over Europe.

The report says the governments also knew of the abduction of terror suspects by US agents and the US's use of clandestine detention centres.

But it says claims that the CIA had a secret prison in Poland are unproven.

The report, which goes to a vote of the full parliament next month, also says the UK, Italy and Poland were reluctant to co-operate with the investigation.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator Gijs de Vries are accused of failing to reveal all they knew to the special parliamentary committee.

The report says more than 1,000 covert CIA flights crossed European airspace or stopped at European airports.

The volume of flights was greatest in the UK, Germany and Ireland, it adds.

The MEPs say the UK, Poland, Italy, Germany and seven other countries knew of the flights and the detention programme, which may have violated EU human rights law.

US President George Bush admitted in September that terror suspects had been held in CIA-run prisons overseas, but he did not say where the prisons were located.

A BBC investigation last year revealed that a well-known CIA Gulfstream plane, the N379P, had made several landings at Szymany airport in northern Poland in 2003.

The airport's flight log also showed that a Boeing 737 had flown direct from Kabul to the airport, which is not far from a Polish intelligence base in the village of Stare Kiejkuty.

The committee's original draft report stated that: "In the light of... serious circumstantial evidence, a temporary secret detention facility may have been located at the intelligence training centre at Stare Kiejkuty."

That sentence has now been amended, to read: "It is not possible to acknowledge that secret special centres were based in Poland."

The fact that certain people and governments refused to cooperate will tell everyone what the reality was. The UK has long been a slave to American foreign policy, but it is amazing how sordid the Polish government was willing to be, given their recent freedom from having to endure similar behaviour by Russia.

UK airlines complain about air passenger duty being doubled (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chancellor Gordon Brown's air passenger tax has been attacked by three of the UK's leading airlines as the wrong way to fight climate change.

British Airways, EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic, appearing jointly before MPs for the first time, insisted they were serious about cutting emissions.

But Mr Brown's air passenger duty did not create an incentive to invest in cleaner technology, they said.

All three backed carbon trading as the best way to reduce emissions.

In his November pre-Budget report, Mr Brown increased air passenger duty (APD) from £5 to £10 on short haul flights. Long haul passengers will pay up to £80 extra.

But Barry Humphreys, Virgin Atlantic's director of external affairs and route development, said the chancellor's scheme was "a poor environmental tax".

"It does not achieve any environmental objectives. There must be better ways of achieving those objectives," he told the Commons Treasury Committee.

He said the European Emissions Trading Scheme, which airlines are due to join in 2012, was a more effective system.

He said Virgin Atlantic, which has said it will donate future profits to developing green technology, was trying to persuade US airlines to join a global carbon trading scheme, although the final decision would be taken at government level.

They "would be far happier" with the tax "if the money collected by the chancellor was used for environmental purposes", said Mr Humphreys.

Andrew Kershaw, British Airways' environmental affairs manager, called on air passenger duty to be replaced by a carbon trading scheme.

"We believe it would be more suitable to have something more in line with emissions trading rather than based on taxation, which we don't believe is environmentally effective.

"Equally, we believe that once emissions trading was in place as a more effective mechanism, there would be no purpose in having an APD or other environmental tax."

Andrew Barker, EasyJet's planning director, also criticised the chancellor's tax.

"The problem with any tax is that it takes money away from us to invest in the new technology that reduces emissions."

He added: "If we pay tax, it has to be something that forces good behaviour on airlines and forces the end result of fewer emissions."

Roger Wiltshire, of the British Air Transport Association (BATA), dismissed reports that allowing aviation into the European emissions trading scheme would create windfall profits for airlines from the allocation of carbon quotas.

"Quite frankly we laughed when we heard that comment. The only way an airline in an overall capped scheme could make a profit would be to close up shop," he said.

The airline could sell all of its carbon quotas, but then it would have to cease trading, he explained.

Gordon Brown has never seen a tax he didn't like. And he knew that he would receive no negative coverage of this particular tax by the chattering classes in the media. And he was indeed encouraged to make this move by the pseudo-environmentalists who now dominate the Tory, Lib Dem and Green parties. The fact that air passenger duty has no direct relationship with emissions is entirely lost on these second-rate and third-rate politicians. Emissions trading is definitely a more sensible option (if implemented sensibly) but even better would have been a tax on airline fuel. Emissions trading is perverse in that airlines that are rubbish, and so lose market share, benefit, and airlines that are successful are penalised. Of course the so-called environmentalists just want to destroy airlines, and they don't really care how it is done, so their idea is just to tax air travel to death, no matter whether the tax has any direct relationship with the environmental damage caused, and no matter that other sources of carbon, for example train travel, pay no carbon tax (indeed train travel incurs a negative carbon tax because it is subsidised).

Date published: 2007/01/22

Owning a dog allegedly makes you healthier (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

If you want to live a healthier life get a dog, research suggests.

The companionship offered by many pets is thought to be good for you, but the benefits of owning a dog outstrip those of cat owners, the study says.

A psychologist from Queen's University, Belfast, said dog owners tended to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Writing in the British Journal of Health Psychology, she says that regular 'walkies' may partly explain the difference.

Dr Deborah Wells reviewed dozens of earlier research papers which looked at the health benefits of pet ownership.

She confirmed that pet owners tended in general to be healthier than the average member of the population.

However, her research suggested that dog ownership produced more positive influence than cat ownership.

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. Property P is observed in group G, therefore if you force everyone into group G, everyone will have property P. It completely ignores the fact that having property P might make it more likely you are in group G in the first place. Here, it is not unreasonable that healthier people are more likely to have pets (they have the energy to look after them, after all). And similarly with the alleged dog / cat dichotomy. You need to be able to look after dogs by walking them, so it is not unreasonable that dog owners are healthier than cat owners in the first place.

Well, the personality of dog and cat owners is also fairly different. Dogs look up to humans, and want to be part of the pack, and dog owners are people who respond to that. Similarly, cats look down on humans, and hate everything and anything that is alive, except the hand that feeds them, and that too probably is a reflection of the personality of cat owners. These (over-generalised) personality traits could well reflect some underlying physical health situation.

Anti-war protestor wins a court case (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Anti-war protester Brian Haw has won his latest legal battle to maintain his demonstration in Parliament Square.

Police claimed Mr Haw, 57, from Redditch, Worcestershire, posed a threat as terrorists could hide bombs under his many banners and placards.

But District Judge Quentin Purdy said he had not breached conditions imposed on him by the Metropolitan Police (Met) as they were unclear and invalid.

Mr Haw has held a continuous vigil outside Parliament since 2 June 2001.

A small victory against Blair's attempts at a police state, but only a small victory. It does nothing for the British people as a whole, only for Mr Haw.

Date published: 2007/01/21

Cameron says he might legalise cannabis for medicinal use (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron says he would be "relaxed" about legalising cannabis for medicinal use if there were evidence of its health benefits.

In response to a question posted on his internet site, he said he would be "guided by the science and evidence".

Mr Cameron said he opposed making cannabis legal but added: "If it could be proved there was a real medicinal benefit I would be relaxed by that."

Mr Cameron made clear he did not favour legalising the drug's recreational use.

At least the first part is sensible, it is ridiculous that cannabis cannot be used for medicinal reasons. (Of course Cameron smoked cannabis recreationally when he was younger, but funnily enough thinks others should be criminalised for doing so.)

Tesco wants to calculate the carbon emissions of its products (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Supermarket giant Tesco has unveiled wide ranging plans to cut carbon emissions and encourage its customers to buy green.

Tesco said it aimed to develop a carbon footprint labelling measure for all products sold in store, and cut the cost of many energy-efficient goods.

The new "green" labels would allow customers to compare and shop for items which required less energy to produce.
...
The group also plans to cut emissions from existing stores worldwide by at least 50% by 2020, and would seek to restrict air transport to less than 1% of the firm's products, he added.

Well good on Tesco for trying. But the devil, as always, is in the detail. In particular, how are they going to measure the carbon footprint? Transport is only one contribution. There is also the energy taken to produce the goods. And many non-food goods, and even some food goods, have parts that come from multiple sources. And there is the large, indirect, carbon emission due to labour, which is always ignored but should not be. (Paying someone a salary means that in turn they have money to spend on energy consumption. So having a British worker means that more carbon emissions are created indirectly than having an African one.) Hopefully Tesco will be able to make some headway here and come up with a reasonable measure. A first approximation is that the more something costs, the more carbon emissions have gone into its production. (It is obviously not that simple, because of subsidies, taxation, etc.) Unfortunately there is real uncertainty in any calculation and it is unlikely that they can come up with a truly "correct" value to even with 50%. That is not good. But at least Tesco has no axe to grind when calculating the carbon emissions, unlike the so-called environmentalists. Unfortunately Tesco will rely on other people, who may well have an axe to grind, to do the sums. Hopefully they will ask hard questions of these people.

Date published: 2007/01/20

Hillary Clinton is running for president (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton has taken the first step towards running for the US presidency in 2008.

Ms Clinton, 59, wife of former president Bill, announced her move on her website, saying "I'm in to win".

The former First Lady has set up a presidential exploratory committee, testing the waters for a full bid.

Her announcement comes days after African-American Democratic Senator Barack Obama said he had formed an exploratory committee.

What a surprise, Hillary is running for president. The Democrats are lucky to have several first-rate candidates. The Republicans candidates look extremely weak in comparison. And the Republicans have made such a mess of running the country that the Democrats should win. But that would be ignoring the lessons of history. The Republicans have successfully dominated the political discourse in the country, partly down to being the party of the rich, partly down to corruption, partly down to running Fox and having loony right-wing radio talk show hosts dominating the air, partly down to playing the (faux-)religious and (faux-)patriotism cards, and partly down to a willingness to run extremely nastly campaigns.

Some people believe that arrests at 6.30 AM are jolly good (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Police have warned senior Labour figures to stop putting "undue pressure" on officers investigating "cash-for-honours" claims.

Several senior Labour MPs have called the arrest on Friday of Number 10 aide Ruth Turner, who denies any wrongdoing, unnecessary and "theatrical".

But the Metropolitan Police Federation said this was not an "appropriate moment" to make such comments.

The Liberal Democrats said police were acting professionally and normally.

Ms Turner was questioned on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and was later released.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said she was "slightly bewildered" as to why the arrest had happened early in the morning, with four policemen knocking on Ms Turner's door - who was then released without charge.

"She has fully cooperated and she is a person of utter decency and conscientiousness and I am surprised," she said.
...
Len Duvall, the Labour politician who chairs the Metropolitan Police Authority, called on others not to try to "manipulate or pressurise" officers.

In a statement, he told critics that "no one in this country is above the law".

Liberal Democrat spokesman Lord Thomas of Gresford said: "Once the police had formed a reasonable suspicion of her perverting the course of justice, as they must have, it was their duty to act swiftly and professionally to preserve any evidence.

"That is commonplace, as any criminal lawyer knows.

If the police thought that there was an imminent threat of harm to the public, or an imminent threat to evidence, or an immenent threat that Kelly would leave the country, then yes, they would have had some reason to knock on her door at 6.30 AM (with four police, it beggers belief). Did some compelling reason for the arrest only come up at 5.30 AM? As it is, this is much more likely to be a typical case where the police are up to no good. That fact that the police behave like this towards lots of people, and not just Turner, is hardly comforting or a justification. Britain, for now, is not a police state, and unfortunately their behaviour in this case (and others) would indicate that the police sometimes think otherwise. And for the Lib Dems to defend the police here is unbelievable. The Lib Dems are more and more becoming the Illiberal Democrats. Who needs them when you have the Tories and New Labour doing the same.

Date published: 2007/01/19

Police arrest an advisor to Tony Blair (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Downing Street political adviser Ruth Turner has become the fourth person to be arrested by police investigating the cash-for-honours allegations.

Ms Turner was arrested at 0630 GMT but later released on police bail after being quizzed for several hours.

What is it about the police that they think they can, and should, arrest people at 6.30 in the morning, for no good reason. We need a police force that does its job, not one that tries to intimidate people because it can.

China allegedly blasts a weather satellite with a missile (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China is facing international criticism over a weapons test it reportedly carried out in space last week.

Japan has expressed concern, as have the US and Australia.

It is thought that the Chinese used a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite that had been launched in 1999.

Correspondents say this is the first known satellite intercept test for more than 20 years. China's foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the report.

While the technology is not new, it does underline the growing capabilities of China's armed forces, according to the BBC's Dan Griffiths in Beijing.

Late on Thursday, US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirmed an article in the magazine American Aviation Week and Space Technology, which reported that the test had taken place.

The report said that a Chinese Feng Yun 1C polar orbit weather satellite was destroyed by an anti-satellite system launched from or near China's Xichang Space Centre on 11 January.

The test is thought to have occurred at more than 537 miles (865km) above the Earth.
...
The test, if confirmed, would mean that China could now theoretically shoot down spy satellites operated by other nations.

It would be the first such test since the 1980s, when both the US and the Soviet Union destroyed satellites in space.

These tests were halted over concerns that the debris they produced could harm civilian and military satellite operations.

The same concerns have been raised about this latest reported test.

American Aviation Week and Space Technology said the move could have left "considerable space debris in an orbit used by many different satellites".

While the US may be unhappy about China's actions, the Washington administration has recently opposed international calls to end such tests.

It revised US space policy last October to state that Washington had the right to freedom of action in space, and the US is known to be researching such "satellite-killing" weapons itself.

Yes, blasting a satellite like this is not the most brilliant thing to do, there is enough space junk up there already. Unfortunately, when you have a regime like China (and a regime like America) it is hardly surprising that this kind of militaristic posturing takes place.

Date published: 2007/01/18

Call for review into use of zolpidem for patients with persistent vegetative state (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state who was given an experimental treatment has said she would not have wanted the drug.

A court ruled the 53-year old woman should be given sleeping pill zolpidem - against her family's wishes.

The treatment, which has worked in a handful of cases, was unsuccessful and the woman was allowed to die.

Her husband called for a review into use of the drug in such cases "without the pressure of a court case".

Early research showed that zolpidem can bring people out of a vegetative state, but it has only been successful in a handful of cases to date.

Laurence Oates, the outgoing Official Solicitor, proposed that the woman, who was diagnosed with PVS after a brain haemorrhage while on holiday in August 2003, undertake a three-day trial of the drug.

Her family did not want her to take part in the trial, preferring to let her die, as she may be left seriously disabled.

They were also concerned she might awake temporarily and realise the condition that she was in.

Sir Mark Potter, head of the High Court's family division, gave the go-ahead for the zolpidem to be given in November 2006.

Her husband, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told the BBC that his wife had told family members she would not want to be rescued "against all odds" if she was going to be left with a very poor quality of life.

"We didn't want her to suddenly awake and find she had lost her higher faculties, that she was crippled because of tendon contraction and so on.

"In my opinion, while I recognise that the Official Solicitor was attempting to cover all the bases, he wasn't actually acting in my wife's best interests in that the family and everyone who knew her would have said she wouldn't have wanted the drug trial."

When she was given her treatment, her husband, daughter, mother and brother were at her bedside fearful of what would happen if she did awake.

"We were all there on the basis that, although we had been told it would be very unlikely she would respond other than by going to sleep, we couldn't bear the thought of her waking up in a strange room with strange faces, not knowing what was going on.

"There was a palpable relief when 15 minutes or so after she was given the drug she just fell asleep."

He said no-one had considered what would have happened if his wife had woken up and said she did not want to live like this.

"If the Official Solicitor is appointed to represent the interests of the patient they should be representing those interests and trying to find out what the people who would have known her views would have said were her best interests.

"I do think it needs to be reviewed. It should be looked at without the pressure of a court case waiting to be heard," he said.

After his wife's nutritional support was withdrawn, it took 14 days for her to die, which he said was not a dignified death.

"If she was a dog and we said it was incurable and we said I'm going to lock it in its kennel and not feed it, I think the RSPCA would be knocking at your door."

A spokesman for the Official Solicitor said the drug had been given to ensure that everything possible had been done.

"Where, as a result of mental incapacity, an adult is unable to reach his or her own decisions about medical treatment the High Court may be asked to declare what is in the best interests of that person.

"The Official Solicitor provides legal help for vulnerable people in these circumstances in the interests of achieving justice and providing an independent voice."

Good on the husband for bringing this issue forward. It is disgraceful how the State and the doctors and the religious fundamentalists think they have the right to torture people, all in the name of prolonging the period until death, and with no consideration given about quality of life. As the man said, they wouldn't treat dogs like this. Britain (and the world) has too many control freaks with a warped sense of morality.

Non-teachers should be able to head schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Schools could be led by business and community leaders, a report for the government suggests.

Ministers should look at removing barriers to such appointments, although only teachers should be in charge of teaching and learning, it recommends.

The study, by PricewaterhouseCoopers, comes as heads complain teachers are put off applying for the top job by bureaucracy and a lack of rewards.
...
Schools Minister Jim Knight said that the report's recommendations would be fully discussed with the teaching and support staff unions before any action was taken.
...
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), said head teachers were given an "unending task" because of government initiatives but recruiting from outside the profession was not the answer.

"Moves to divorce the leadership of schools from teaching and learning and replacing heads with chief executives will make things worse," he said.

Leaders of head teachers' unions were divided in their reaction to the idea of non-teachers leading schools.

Mick Brookes of the National Association of Head Teachers told BBC Radio Four's Today programme: "We have no objection whatsoever to people who are outside the education arena working with school teams, indeed being school leaders in charge of schools.

"But we think the direction should still come from somebody who has that deep base and understanding about how schools work how children learn and those skills of teaching that you can only get by doing the job."

The Association of School and College Leaders had proposed the idea to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"We were not saying that people can be brought in from industry to run schools," said its general secretary, John Dunford.

"But the possibility should be opened up that the best of school leaders who are not qualified teachers - the bursars and business managers - should be able to come through to the top job, provided that the person in charge of teaching and learning is a qualified teacher."

Some of the teaching trade unions (especially the NUT) unfortunately still seem to believe it is the 1970s. A good portion of Cambridge colleges are headed by people from a non-academic background and funnily enough the world has not ended. (Unfortunately the outsiders generally come from the Civil Service rather than business, but that is because senior civil servants have an Oxbridge mentality, and most business people do not.) On the other hand, why does New Labour insist on wasting taxpayer's money on vacuous reports from overpaid consultants? Spend the money on something useful, like education.

Date published: 2007/01/17

British science is allegedly in danger from Asia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British science is in danger of being sidelined by Asian research within 10 years, a report has warned.

UK think-tank Demos said China, India and South Korea were "innovation hotspots" and were shifting research dominance from west to east.

It cautioned that the UK must "wake up to what is unfolding" and not respond with "too little, too late".

But it added the developments should not be seen as a threat as they could open up many opportunities for the UK.

Report co-author James Wilsdon, head of science and innovation at Demos, said the pace of innovation had been changing very quickly in Asia.

He said factors such as rapidly growing markets, injections of state spending on research, and the "brain gain" as researchers returned home from the US were driving the boost in science-based innovation.

South Korea, following its rapid industrial development 30 years ago, has recently doubled its investment in research and has augmented its scientific workforce; China has also gained huge amounts of state science funding; while India produces 2.5 million IT, science and engineering graduates a year, the report said.
...
The authors made several recommendations, including:

Mr Wilsdon said: "We just can't sit back and think: 'Oh well, I'm sure this will all work out'.

The first thing the British government should do is stop wasting money on these silly reports and instead spend the money on science and engineering research. Anybody who talks about creating "knowledge banks and research programmes that solve the global public interest" obviously has spent too much time in consulting and not enough time in science or engineering. Britain will continue to punch above its weight in science as long as government stops its politically correct interventions in universities, and ignores this profusion of consultant babble, and just lets the scientists get on with it. The biggest danger facing British science is not coming from Asia but from Britain.

It is allegedly 5 minutes to midnight (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Experts assessing the dangers posed to civilisation have added climate change to the prospect of nuclear annihilation as the greatest threats to humankind.

As a result, the group has moved the minute hand on its famous "Doomsday Clock" two minutes closer to midnight.

The concept timepiece, devised by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, now stands at five minutes to the hour.

The clock was first featured by the magazine 60 years ago, shortly after the US dropped its A-bombs on Japan.

Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the Bulletin, which covers global security issues, felt the need to place the minute hand so close to midnight.

Presumably the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, fearing condemnation to an obscure future, chose to pull the usual current rabbit out of the hat, climate change, to make themselves look relevant once more. After 60 years of crying wolf (they have always put us at less than 20 minutes to midnight), it is no wonder that people are getting bored with this whole lark. Of course since all species eventually go extinct, eventually these people will be proved to be correct. Civilisation will end. With or without nuclear bombs.

For the sake of a bit of maths, let's assume that civilisation is 10000 years old (that's above what most historians would say it was, but let's be conservative), and let's assume that this represents the beginning of the 24 hours of the clock. Then 5 minutes out of 24 hours represents around 35 years. It's always a good idea when you are proclaiming the end of the world to make sure it is far enough in the future that nobody is around to care when you are proven to be wrong (and certainly nobody is around to care if by some miracle you are proven to be correct). As it happens, the average time to midnight since 1947 has been around 8.3 minutes, which on the same assumptions represents around 57 years. So the world should have ended in 2004. And indeed, many people viewed the re-election of Bush in 2004 as the end of the world.

Police seem to believe that camping in the Lake District is suspicious (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the alleged 21 July bombers came to the notice of police three times before the attacks, a court has heard.

Muktar Said Ibrahim was photographed by surveillance officers alongside four of his five co-defendants at a camping trip in the lake district in May 2004.
...
Woolwich Crown Court was told that Mr Ibrahim was part of a group alongside Hussein Osman, Yassin Omar, Ramzi Mohammed and Adel Yahya camping in Cumbria 15 months before the alleged suicide bomb attacks.

Mr Yahya is accused of helping to plan the alleged attacks while the others and Manfo Asiedu are all said to have set out on 21 July 2005 to bomb London's transport network.

Photographs showed the group as they packed up and prepared to leave a campsite on a farm in the Elterwater area of the Lake District.

The jury heard several men - including Mr Osman, Mr Yahya, Mr Mohammed and Mr Omar - appeared to line up at one stage and engage in Islamic prayer.

Two Metropolitan Police officers were the first witnesses to begin giving evidence at the trial.

One officer said a group also seemed to be taking part in some kind of organised running activity while wearing rucksacks.

"They did not appear to be running randomly," he said.

"It appeared as though there were a series of men in a line running up and down."

How suspicious can you get. You go to the Lake District and you walk or run up a hill. Not randomly (huh?). And wearing a rucksack. Well that narrows down the possible terrorists in Britain to the odd few million people. Oh of course, these people prayed. How dare devout Muslims pray in the Lake District. What do these Muslims think, that we have freedom of religion in Britain? That they can pray brazenly in front of police telephoto lenses?

If this is the quality of evidence the government chooses to bring to court then we are all in trouble.

Date published: 2007/01/16

People in Richmond allegedly want to crucify "gas-guzzling" car owners (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Residents in part of south-west London have backed a controversial scheme to charge the owners of so-called gas guzzling cars more for parking permits.

Jaguars, Mercedes or 4x4s in Richmond would incur three times the normal parking fee, while a family with two large cars could pay up to £750.

In a survey of residents, a narrow majority voted for the scheme, linking parking permit costs to car emissions.

The leader of Richmond Council, Serge Lourie, was "delighted" by the results.
...
The local authority's survey showed 49% supported the plan, with 39% opposed - although a majority thought the extra charges for second car permits were "too punitive".

Richmond Council is just taking the piss. All surveys are suspect, and ones carried out by local councils in support of their own decisions are doubly suspect. And even if this survey, by some miracle, really reflects public opinion, all it would prove is that a majority of the citizens of Richmond are happy to crucify a minority, just because they can. (In the same way that the non-smokers of Britain are happy to crucify smokers by charging extortionate tax on cigarettes, just because they can.) A great victory for democracy.

Car clubs might be coming to Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A car borrowing club which has echoes of the disastrous green bike scheme is being considered in Cambridge.

The initiative, which is being considered by Cambridgeshire County Council, would provide members with a pool of cars which can be booked and used as and when required.

The idea is to give residents an alternative to owning their own car which will complement public transport, to help reduce congestion, pollution and parking problems in the city.

Although the proposals are still in their early stages, it is hoped the scheme could be piloted in Romsey or King's Hedges. And if the trial goes ahead, residents' parking bays could be commandeered for use by the car club vehicles.

The plans, which are being considered by the council's Cambridge Environment and Traffic Management Area Joint Committee, are reminiscent of the failed green bike scheme which was launched in 1993.
...
However, Coun Alan Baker, chairman of the environment and traffic management joint committee, said today (Tuesday, 16 January) it would be wrong to draw comparisons between the doomed scheme and the car club, which would be run as a commercial enterprise.

He said: "Cars are very different from bikes in so many ways. This would be a commercial operation and would have to be very carefully managed.

"The green bike scheme was a nice idea at the time but it did not work, and of course bikes are much more vulnerable to theft than cars.

"The car club proposals are quite innovative. I am not aware of any other places where this is practised on the scale being proposed here.

"We all know Cambridge has problems with traffic congestion and this is one of a number of ways of trying to reduce it. On paper, at least, it looks interesting."

It is just plain silly to compare car clubs with the green bike scheme. On this point Baker is correct. But on the substantive points he is mostly wrong. Car clubs might reduce parking problems, since many people share the one car, but it could well increase parking problems, since it ought to just encourage people who currently don't use cars to start using one. And indeed, unless car clubs manage to reduce driving by existing drivers, car clubs will lead to increased pollution and congestion, since more people will be using cars. Well, perhaps the Lib Dem plan is to steal so many parking places from non-car club people that only car club people will be able to have access to a car, and then you make it so inconvenient to get hold of one that drivers just give up. (The Illiberal Democrats who lord over Cambridge would just love to be able to force the peasants to petition them every time they had the nerve to want to get in a car. Only the ruling elite should be allowed to drive.)

Date published: 2007/01/15

Marks and Spencer claims it will become carbon neutral (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

High Street chain Marks & Spencer has announced a £200m, five-year plan to make the company carbon neutral.

Under its "eco-plan", the company says it will cut energy consumption, stop using landfill sites and stock more products made from recycled materials.

Chief executive Stuart Rose, who has overseen a recovery in M&S's fortunes, said the project would "change beyond recognition" the way it operated.

He insisted extra costs under the plan would not be passed on to customers.
...
Businesses or homes which offset the carbon emissions they produce, by planting trees for example, are described as being carbon neutral.

M&S said the carbon savings it aimed to achieve under its plan would be like taking 100,000 cars off the road each year.

As well as cutting energy and using more renewable materials, M&S will aim to source its food from the UK and the Republic of Ireland as a "priority" in an attempt to reduce air freight.

Well good on M&S for trying, but the devil will be in the detail, especially since many things that are currently described as carbon neutral (e.g. wind power) are not. But even if it is not carbon neutral, if it is a lot less carbon intensive, that will be no bad thing. If only the UK government would do the same, instead of just sucking up ever more of the UK consumption of energy and everything else.

Tesco is building flats for a few employees (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tesco is set to build homes for its staff to combat the lack of affordable housing in London.

The UK's largest supermarket has allocated 13 to staff of the 250 flats it is building alongside the Streatham store in south London.
...
The flats will be sold to a housing association and staff will not be treated any differently to other tenants, retaining the right to stay in the property even if they stop working for the supermarket giant.

However, if flats become vacant, staff will be offered them first.

Key workers, who are often priced out of the London housing market, are intended to benefit from the pioneering project, in addition to Tesco employees.

Not that revolutionary a concept, but at least Tesco is thinking about it. (The Victorians did this properly, but jobs were longer term in those days.) On the other hand, what is it about the media that they insist on using the obnoxious New Labour phrase "key workers". They don't even define what that is. Frankly, for most people, Tesco employees are pretty bloody key (it's where people get their food), so it is rather ridiculous for the BBC to state otherwise. New Labour, New Social Division. (If you are not some politically correct State employee, you can go to hell, as far as housing is concerned.)

Date published: 2007/01/14

Cheney says only America should be allowed to interfere in Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Vice President Dick Cheney has warned Iran not to interfere in Iraq.

The US government thought it was very important that the Iranians should "keep their folks at home", he said.

His comments come after US forces detained several Iranians in northern Iraq on suspicion of aiding insurgents, accusations rejected by Tehran.

Mr Cheney is the latest member of the Bush administration to warn that the US will take steps against those trying to destabilise the situation in Iraq.

US officials say five Iranian nationals arrested during a military raid in Irbil on Thursday are linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard which they accuse of training and arming Shia insurgents in Iraq.

Iran's foreign ministry says the men are diplomats and were working at the Iranian liaison office in Irbil. It has demanded their immediate release.

Washington has often accused Iran, or factions within the Iranian government, of aiding Shia groups in Iraq militarily and politically, but has offered little proof of Tehran's alleged activities.

President George W Bush on Wednesday warned that the US would take a tough stance towards Iran and Syria, which he accused of destabilising Iraq.

Mr Cheney told Fox News that Iran was "fishing in troubled waters" by aiding attacks on US forces and backing Shia militias involved in sectarian violence.

"I think the message that the president sent clearly is that we do not want (Iran) doing what they can to try to destabilise the situation inside Iraq.

"We think it's very important that they keep their folks at home" he said, adding that the Iranian threat was growing, multi-dimensional and of concern to everybody in the region.

The US is the main, illegal, occupier of Iraq, perhaps they should "keep their folks at home". These comments by Cheney (and Bush and Rice), are intended to divert attention away from the mess the US has made in Iraq, and to warm people up for their next illegal act, the bombing of Iran (either directly or using their proxy Israel). That will get Bush a few patriotic headlines in the American press, as the rest of the world is left to sort out yet another mess the Americans will have created.

Chickens lay eggs containing potentially cancer-fighting proteins (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK scientists have developed genetically modified chickens capable of laying eggs containing proteins needed to make cancer-fighting drugs.

The breakthrough has been announced by the same research centre that created the cloned sheep, Dolly.

The Roslin Institute, near Edinburgh, says it has produced five generations of birds that can produce useful levels of life-saving proteins in their eggs.

The work could lead to a range of drugs that are cheaper and easier to make.

Professor Harry Griffin, director of the institute, said: "One of the characteristics of lots of medical treatments these days is that they're very expensive.

"The idea of producing the proteins involved in treatments of flocks of laying hens means they can produce in bulk, they can produce cheaply and indeed the raw material for this production system is quite literally chicken feed."

BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh told BBC News 24 that the scientists, who have bred 500 birds, had been working on the project for seven years.

But it could be another five years before patient trials get the go-ahead and 10 years until a medicine is fully developed, he said.

It's still early days, but advances along this line are bound to become more and more frequent. Now will the so-called environmentalists, who always rant on and on (for religious reasons) about how horrid GM food is, be willing to take any medicine made in this way?

Date published: 2007/01/13

UK Treasury causes chaos at the airports (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Passengers are being warned of possible chaos at airports next month as some airlines seek to charge extra air tax for tickets bought months ago.

From 1 February the Air Passenger Duty will go up by between £5 and £40.

Most airlines raised fares as soon as Chancellor Gordon Brown announced the hike on 6 December.

But some are demanding further payment for tickets booked before the rise. Ryanair said those who do not pay before flying will be turned away.

The chancellor's critics say two months was too short notice for the duty increase and it is unfair to charge customers who booked months earlier but will fly after 1 February.
...
But the Treasury says the aviation industry was not meeting its environmental responsibilities so a decision was taken to introduce the duty increase swiftly.

It says the extra £1bn in duty will go towards better public transport and the environment.

The Treasury is pathetic. No tax is earmarked in the way they have implied. And they should indeed have increased the air passenger duty only for new tickets, not for already purchased ones. Not to mention that they should be taxing air fuel, not air passengers, if they really want to pretend to be worried about the environment, rather than just using that as a pretext for yet another stealth tax.

You would almost think the Labour government was trying to destroy the UK airline industry, what with bogus terrorist alerts leading to ridiculous security requirements, and now this. Needless to say, the Tories and Lib Dems would be just as bad. (They have already stated that they want to destroy the UK airline industry.) The politicians don't care, it's not their money they are playing games with.

And the BBC is incorrect to state that "most airlines raised fares as soon as...". They did not raise their fares, they just raised the amount of tax collected. They are not the ones who are running the racketeering scheme, the government is.

EU bureaucrats want mandatory efficiency standards on new cars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The cost of "gas-guzzling" cars could soar in five years' time under plans from the European Commission.

The commission wants to impose mandatory efficiency standards on all new vehicles sold in Europe as part of a master plan to combat climate change.

Some of the UK's best-known carmakers could be hardest-hit.

Currently the EU has a voluntary agreement with motor manufacturers - but they have infuriated the commission by missing their target by almost 50%.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas now wants mandatory standards that will allow the average car to emit just 120 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per kilometre.

That would mean a 1.6 litre petrol Ford Focus would need to cut emissions by a third to qualify as an average vehicle under the new regime.

Car manufacturers will be able to average out their overall CO2 targets over their entire range of vehicles.
...
Mr Dimas told BBC News that people should start talking about climate change as a war.

It could lead to the death of millions of people, and it could transform the world economy into a war economy, where every sector was involved in the fight against climate change.

As a result, he said rising emissions from transport were a problem that had to be tackled.

Some kind of mandatory targets make sense. Whether they should be exactly these is a different matter. Of course an EU commissioner is responsible for far, far more carbon emissions (and pollution generally), including from transport, than your average EU citizen. So if it's war we are talking about, let the people at the top take their fair share of responsibility (for once). Let Dimas and his fellow overpaid bureaucrats make the first move and accept an immediate 50% pay and benefits cut. That would make his pathetic emotional blackmail a bit more acceptable. (Note the similarity in tone with the emotional blackmail that Bush and Blair use when trying to justify their illegal war in Iraq. When you don't have a real argument you use emotional blackmail.)

Date published: 2007/01/12

First non-residential Arbury Park planning application turned down (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Plans for a hotel at a "gateway" to Cambridge have been rejected as uninspiring.

Planners were unimpressed with the scheme from Whitbread and Gallagher Estates, saying it did not meet aspirations for a "unique" landmark building at the entry to Cambridge off the A14.

The scheme would have seen a 137-room hotel with a bar and restaurant on the new Arbury Park development.

The hotel was designed to be a buffer between the A14 and the new houses.

But South Cambridgeshire councillors said when the estate was being designed, a hotel was never intended for the site - industrial units had originally been planned. And there were concerns the fivestorey hotel would reflect noise from the busy road back towards homes in Impington.

Coun Mike Mason suggested it may have to be moved back if the A14 is expanded to eight lanes, as suggested by the Highways Agency.

Coun Ann Elsby, Gamlingay, said: "Looking at the design of this it seems to be what you get up and down the country. There is nothing to say 'this is Cambridge, we are proud to welcome you to it'."

The hotel design might have been uninspiring but the housing they are putting up is also "what you get up and down the country". Is anyone surprised? There were lots of warm words from the developers a couple of years ago but there is very little to show for it.

Cambridge ruling elite wring their hands over Newmarket Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Traffic chaos on Cambridge's Newmarket Road looks set to continue, with the route expected to still be gridlocked in 15 years' time after thousands of new homes have been built on the Marshall's airport site.

Transport bosses have commissioned a number of studies to look at ways of getting the city moving, and want 60 per cent of journeys from new developments in Cambridge East to be car-free by 2021.

Martin Higgitt, from consultants Steer Davies Gleave, which has been drafting the Cambridge East sustainable transport study, claims thousands of new homes built on and around Cambridge airport will not generate extra traffic because fewer people will use their cars to commute into the city as they move into the new homes.

But Mr Higgitt admitted there was no hope of reducing gridlock on Newmarket Road in its current form because drivers would always use roads to capacity.
...
The city council's environment scrutiny committee said the answer could be to reduce road capacity, forcing people out of their cars and on to buses, bikes and pavements.

Coun Marian Holness, East Chesterton, said: "It's very well known if you increase capacity for cars on roads, that capacity will be reached.

If we want to reduce the number of cars coming in on Newmarket Road and reach our goal, why not make it one lane?"

Mr Higgitt said: "You could argue that by building more on Newmarket Road you are reducing capacity.

The problems on Newmarket Road are principally due to the Cambridge ruling elite, including the city council and transport bureaucrats. They are the ones that have allowed endless retail development in that one spot. They are the ones that have effectively made Newmarket Road one lane right at the retail parks (how Councillor Holness has the temerity to say it is not already one lane is amazing, you have to wonder if she has ever been on Newmarket Road).

The ruling elite always say there is no point in adding road capacity since the space just fills up (those dreadful peasants insist on driving their cars). Well if you add demand and remove supply it does not take a genius to figure out the situation will get worse. But of course that is what has happened and what will happen more in future. The algorithm of the ruling elite is simple:

  1. Notice that the roads are congested.
  2. Increase demand for and decrease supply of road space.
  3. Notice that congestion gets worse and complain about drivers.
  4. Go to step (2).

The fundamental problems are that the ruling elite have no clue about urban or transport design, and instead of doing anything positive, they just spend all their time trying to screw car drivers. Of course eventually they will succeed, because they will ban ordinary people from driving (by introduction of a "congestion" charge, if nothing else).

Date published: 2007/01/11

Consultation over hybrid human-animal embryos (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The public will be asked whether scientists should be allowed to create hybrid human-animal embryos, regulators have announced.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority says it will not rule on any research applications until a consultation has been completed.

Ministers proposed outlawing such work after unfavourable public opinion.

Two UK teams have put in requests to mix human and animal cells in order to find cures for degenerative diseases.

This kind of consultation is pointless, the activists just hijack the proceedings. The only question here is whether the scientists can muster more of their side to overcome the religious fundamentalists who oppose any such research. The consultation will not reflect public opinion (most people could probably care less whether the research goes ahead or not, with a leaning towards yes if they are told there might be medical advances as a result).

Trade in wild birds to be banned in the EU (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The trade in wild birds is to be permanently banned across the European Union starting in July, EU animal health officials have decided.

The move will replace a temporary ban imposed by Brussels in 2005 as part of measures to prevent outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.

Animal welfare campaigners say the permanent ban will save millions of birds, including many rare species.

Only captive-bred birds from approved countries will be allowed into the EU.

Tighter controls on the health and quarantine of imported birds are also to be imposed.

This will have little or no impact on public health, that is a complete red herring. It might do some good for saving rare species, but unless the rest of the world follows suit, and unless the ban is enforced in source countries (where documents can of course be forged), even that impact will be minimal.

Date published: 2007/01/10

The EU bureaucrats produce a so-called energy strategy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has unveiled a new energy strategy, calling on member states to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 20% by 2020.

EC President Jose Manuel Barroso said there must be a common European response to climate change.

New policies were needed to face a new reality - to make European's energy supplies more secure, he said.

The urgency of the change was stressed by Russia's oil row with Belarus which hit EU states Germany and Poland.

The EU's civil service wants more investment in renewable energy, arguing that the old fuels have a political as well as clear environmental cost.

"We need new policies to face a new reality - policies which maintain Europe's competitiveness, protect our environment and make our energy supplies more secure," said Mr Barroso.

"Europe must lead the world into a new, or maybe one should say, post-industrial revolution, the development of a low-carbon economy."

The report demands a 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 for developed countries in international negotiations.

But the EU should also adopt a unilateral commitment to reduce EU greenhouse emissions by at least 20% by 2020 as compared to 1990 levels.

"This will send a clear signal on how seriously we take the future of our planet," Mr Barroso added.

Well let the EU civil service put its money where its mouth is, and promise that its own extortionate use of energy will be reduced by 30% by 2020. Needless to say, that will be the one part of the EU that will never reduce its energy consumption. These cuts will be aimed at the ordinary people of Europe, not the ruling elite.

The BBSRC awards some grants and makes big play of it for some reason (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British crop scientists have been awarded £13.3m for a series of research projects, including one aimed at keeping broccoli greener for longer.

The University of Warwick team will analyse DNA from the vegetable in an attempt to improve its shelf life.

Other schemes include an attempt to develop crops which are able to withstand attacks from insects.

In all, 18 projects will get grants from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The University of Warwick researchers have been awarded almost £500,000 to identify genes in broccoli that will extend its shelf life and maintain its nutritional value for longer.

"One of the problems is that it actually turns yellow in the fridge quite quickly," said David Pink, from Warwick HRI, University of Warwick.
...
When questioned whether their work would require delving into the field of genetically modified (GM) crops, the researchers told reporters it would not.

Talking about his project, Professor Pink said: "It will all be using natural variations that are available in broccoli, or we could also go and look for genes that are currently in cabbage or cauliflower because they are [in the same plant group] but are not in the broccoli gene pool."

However, he did say that there was a GM option available to his team.

"We would use a different approach where we would actually shut down the response of the flower head to ethylene, one of the gases that causes the yellowing."

"But we are not going down that route because GM is not acceptable at the moment, and not acceptable to our plant breeding partner," he said.

Professor Julia Goodfellow, BBSRC chief executive, said the grants were awarded to ensure the UK remained home to some of the best plant science in the world.

Why is the BBSRC and the BBC giving these particular grants so much attention? There are zillions of grants given every year, all doing work as interesting and important as that mentioned here, so it's bizarre that these should get such prominence. And what does it say about the state of plant science in Britain that the team cannot use one important technology, so-called GM, for no good reason. The so-called environmentalists don't like this technology, for religious reasons, and they have managed to scupper the technology in Europe. So Goodfellow is wrong, these grants show exactly the opposite of what she claims. The UK (and Europe) is not "home to some of the best plant science in the world", since much of modern plant science is apparently not even allowed to be done. And this is not to mention that £13 million is but a drop in the ocean. The BBSRC would have been better placed not to have a press meeting where it had to be admitted that British plant science has been successfully intimidated by the so-called environmentalists.

Date published: 2007/01/09

Tony Blair says people should be allowed to fly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has said he will not give up long-haul holiday flights - and said a green agenda should not lead to people feeling they cannot have a "good time".

The prime minister, just back from Florida, told Sky News science could allow responsible economic growth.

He warned against "putting people off the green agenda by saying you must not have a good time anymore".

Greenpeace said he should be setting an example, while Friends of the Earth called his comments "disappointing".

Asked whether he would give up long-haul flights, Mr Blair said: "I personally think these things are a bit impractical actually to expect people to do that.

"I think that what we need to do is to look at how you make air travel more energy efficient, how you develop the new fuels that will allow us to burn less energy and emit less.

"How - for example - in the new frames for the aircraft, they are far more energy efficient."

He added: "You know, I'm still waiting for the first politician who's actually running for office who's going to come out and say it (that people should not fly) - and they're not.

"It's like telling people you shouldn't drive anywhere."

Demands placed on people had to be reasonable to prevent putting people off climate change sacrifices altogether, Mr Blair added.

He said: "Britain is 2% of the world's emissions. We shut down all of Britain's emissions tomorrow - the growth in China will make up the difference within two years.

"So we've got to be realistic about how much obligation we've got to put on ourselves."
...
Greenpeace campaigner Emily Armistead said: "Tony Blair is crossing his fingers and hoping someone will invent aeroplanes that don't cause climate change.

"But that's like holding out for cigarettes that don't cause cancer."

Friends of the Earth head of campaigns Mike Childs said: "It's disappointing that Tony Blair is refusing to set an example on tackling climate change."

No, it is not "disappointing that Tony Blair is refusing to set an example on tackling climate change". It is the so-called environmentalists, not Tony Blair, who believe that the world must stop tomorrow. They themselves should "set an example" and promise that they, their staff, and their families will never fly anywhere. Ever. Period. For any reason. Not even to grandstand at the next G8 (or similar) conference.

Blair has never criticised others for flying so he is perfectly well entitled to fly. But he is wrong that no politician has said that people should not fly. The Lib Dem environment spokesperson, Chris Huhne, has said so pretty clearly, in spite of the fact that he himself was perfectly happy to fly up and down Britain when he was running to become Lib Dem leader. And the Tories (e.g. Steven Norris) have also pretty clearly stated that they think ordinary people should not be allowed to fly. It is possible that Gordon Brown will follow suit. So at the next election, it is possible that all political parties will be pushing an anti-airplane agenda. (Of course the ruling elite will continue to fly, often at the expense of the taxpayer.)

The one remaining good point about Tony Blair is that at least he has some interest in the workers of the nation. Most other politicians only care about the rich (like themselves) and the poor (who they can patronise). Tony Blair speaks for the people. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth speak for the comfortable middle class (like themselves).

Religious fundamentalists want the right to discriminate against gays (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Religious groups are to stage a protest calling for a halt to laws banning discrimination against gay people in the provision of goods and services.

Christians, Jews and Muslims will take part in the rally at Parliament.

The Sexual Orientation Regulations, they say, limits their right to live according to beliefs. Gay rights groups called it "scaremongering".

The rally will happen as Lords debate a call to scrap the law, which is already in force in Northern Ireland.

The current government plan is for the regulations to also come into force in England and Wales.

The ban on discrimination in the provision of goods, facilities and services on the basis of sexuality would mean hotels could be prosecuted for refusing to provide rooms for gay couples.

Religious groups would be obliged to rent out halls for gay wedding receptions. Equally, gay bars would not be able to ban straight couples.

This is a perfect indication, if any were needed, that gays are not the problem in the world, religious fundamentalists are.

Date published: 2007/01/08

Government wants one-to-one tuition for "struggling" students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children who fall behind in maths or English could be offered one-to-one tuition to help get them back on track.

Struggling pupils in the later years of primary and early years of secondary school will get extra help outside school hours from qualified teachers.

If the short bursts of tuition succeed in helping pupils in pilot areas, it could be rolled out across England.

The NUT welcomed the plans, saying one-to-one tuition should not just be restricted to those who can afford it.

The General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Steve Sinnott, told the BBC: "If a youngster is struggling at school and their parents have the money to be able to assist that youngster, what they do is they go and they get them a private tutor.

"We believe that access to that one-to-one tuition shouldn't be restricted simply to the children of those whose parents can afford it."

Many schools already give struggling pupils extra help in key subjects.

Who is going to decide what procedure will be used (and how expensive will this procedure be), in order to determine who qualifies for this tuition? Who is going to judge whether the pilot trials have been value for money? Is one-to-one tuition better value for money than small group tuition? Is it fair that someone infinitessimally above the cutoff line gets no extra help and someone just below it gets special help? When are we going to have an education system where everybody gets the best, instead of only a few at the top and a few at the bottom of the pile?

Date published: 2007/01/07

More art exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

As usual, the National Gallery in London has some good exhibitions on. Closing today is one entitled "Cézanne in Britain". Well Cézanne apparently never visited Britain, so this exhibition was not about paintings he made in Britain but rather about paintings he made that are held in collections in Britain. There were just over forty works in the exhibition and apparently that is just over half the total number held in Britain. The exhibition blurb promoted Cézanne as one of the world's favourite artists, which seems stretching the point a bit. About the best, and most famous, of the works on display was one version of the Card Players. Also of note were a couple of landscapes of Provence in the typical Cézanne style.

Finishing in two weeks, on 21 January, is the National Gallery's major exhibition on at the moment, on Velázquez. Of course the most important part of his works are in Spain (mostly at the Prado in Madrid) and the National Gallery somehow managed to get eleven works from there (eight from the Prado), out of the forty six on display. Now any exhibition on Velázquez could soon become a boring list of portraits of Philip IV (the king of Spain) and family. The National Gallery did a great job avoiding this potential pitfall, and the exhibition was truly magnificent, with a broad and interesting selection of work. And the catalogue is very good too. Unusually, the exhibition was not in the basement of the Sainsbury Wing but in part of the normal galleries. Presumably there would just not have been the space to do the exhibition justice in the Sainsbury Wing. As it was, the exhibition was fairly crowded, although never so bad as to make the viewing dreadful.

Instead of that exhibition, downstairs in the Sainsbury Wing was an exhibition entitled "From Manet to Picasso", on until 20 May. This is not a real exhibition in the normal sense of the word, but just the usual National Gallery collection of late 19th and early 20th century French paintings rearranged in this temporary location. (And there is no exhibition catalogue, just a book which shows about half the works, and also some other related works from the National Gallery collection.) The world's favourite painter is not Cézanne, it is Van Gogh, and the National Gallery has half a dozen of his works, and they were getting the most attention. But of course the National Gallery also has a good collection of Manet, Monet, Renoir, etc. In the four rooms of the exhibition there must have been over a billion pounds worth of paintings. And to think they let the general public just go in there and get so close.

Meanwhile over at the Royal Academy the place was pretty quiet now that the Rodin exhibition has finished and the next one has not yet taken its place. Up in the Sackler Gallery was an exhibition entitled "Chola: Sacred Bronzes of Southern India" (on until 25 February), which is enough of a minority interest not to by itself attract many visitors. And, although the bronzes are quite good (and many over a thousand years old), you would have to be a real enthusiast to get that worked up over this exhibition.

Britain allegedly dumps too much waste into landfill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK dumps more household waste into landfill than any other EU state, according to figures. It disposes of more than 27m tonnes of waste in this way each year - 7m more than any other country, the Local Government Association (LGA) says.

This is the equivalent of half a tonne per household, per year, making the UK the "dustbin of Europe", it says.
...
The LGA, which represents 400 councils in England and Wales, wants the government to allow local authorities powers to reduce council tax for households throwing out less rubbish and impose separate charges for collecting waste.

It is also calling for the manufacturers of single-use items such as nappies, disposable cameras and batteries to contribute to the cost of dealing with their disposal.

Councillor Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA's Environment Board, said: "It is time manufacturers were made to take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products. It is totally unacceptable that the council tax payer is picking up the bill for business."

It is unfortunate that the LGA is the source behind this story, since it reads like a political diatribe rather than a serious commentary. In particular, Bettison is completely wrong "that the council tax payer is picking up the bill for business". The council tax payer is picking up the bill for the council resident. It is not businesses that consume these products, but us, the citizens of Britain.

The idea of charging for waste collection by weight (say) is ok from a theoretical point of view but has some obvious practical downsides. It will lead to people sneaking inappropiate waste into the recycling bins, it will lead to increased fly tipping of waste, and it will lead to people throwing junk into other people's bins. And as soon as families with children discover that their bills have gone up there will be an outcry and we will suddenly be given all sorts of excuses why they should get a discount, i.e. why the rest of the country should once again subsidise them.

David Miliband says organic food is a "lifestyle choice" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is no evidence organic food is better for you than conventional food, minister David Miliband has said.

The environment secretary said organic food was more of a "lifestyle choice that people can make".

There is no "conclusive evidence either way" concerning the health effects of pesticides, he told the Sunday Times.

The Soil Association, which regulates organic food, said studies show a difference between organic food and food produced using industrial methods.

It was critical of Mr Miliband's suggestion that food grown with the use of pesticides and other chemicals should not be regarded as inferior.

Mr Miliband: "It's only 4% of total farm produce, not 40%, and I would not want to say that 96% of our farm produce is inferior because it's not organic."

He said despite the rise in organic sales being "exciting" for shoppers, they should not think of conventionally-produced food as "second best".

Peter Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union, added that he had seen "no evidence" to prove organic food is healthier.

"If there's a small but growing percentage of consumers who want a different product, then that's a great opportunity for members," he said.

"But I have a real problem with conventional methods being demeaned at every opportunity."

Unbelievable, someone in government has actually said that the Emperor (here in the guise of the Soil Association) has no clothes. Miliband is pretty much correct, so-called organic food is mostly a "lifestyle choice". It is for the comfortable middle class who want to convince themselves that they are morally superior to the working class, because they can spend more on food. (And why should it even be up to the Soil Association, which is completely unaccountable, to decide what is and is not "organic"? It's a money-making racket.)

Date published: 2007/01/06

Addenbrooke's link road is approved by government (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Plans for a new £18 million road in Cambridge have been given the go-ahead by the Government.

Cambridgeshire County Council is behind the plans for a link road between Addenbrooke's Hospital and Hauxton Road and Shelford Road. Up to 21,500 vehicles a day could use the road between Hauxton and Shelford Roads by 2023 and 10,200 are expected to use it between Clay Farm and Addenbrooke's.

The council's planners backed the project after being told refusal could mean losing £6 million in Government funding, and thousands of new homes which would be dependent on the road.

The road is critical to Addenbrooke's controversial 2020 Vision expansion plans which are being opposed by the county council because they are not satisfied by the proposed transport measures.

The submitted plans also have the access road in the wrong place.

The new road had to be approved by the Government because some sections fall into green belt land which should not be developed.

A series of consultation events will be held later in the month for people to have their say on minor changes.

The road will be built in two phases. The first will be between Hauxton Road and Shelford Road, phase two will complete the link to the hospital.

Assuming this goes ahead, it will be the first link road built in Cambridge in 40 odd years. It should have been built years ago, but this is Cambridge, ruled by people who hate cars (at least those driven by people other than themselves). It will be interesting to see if they ever bother to put enough car parking in at Addenbrooke's (probably not, since this is Cambridge). Fortunately, when it comes to roads, central government is slightly more sane than local government, and the former seems to have forced the hand of the latter.

Air Asia X wants to offer cheap flights between Europe and Asia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Malaysian aviation tycoon Tony Fernandes has unveiled a new no-frills long-haul airline, Air Asia X.

The venture - a tie-up between Air Asia and Fly Asian Express (FAX) - will launch in July and fly to destinations in India, China and Europe.

The new airline aims to carry half a million passengers in its first year, Mr Fernandes said.

Air Asia X will also link up with other low-cost carriers to boost its connectivity and flights network.

Earlier this week, media reports had suggested the firm was hoping to form alliances with UK no-frills carrier Easyjet and Richard Branson's airline Virgin.

The two companies later denied the reports.
...
Mr Fernandes told the BBC that Air Asia X flights to London would be priced from $80 to $450 (£41 to £231) return.

The anti-airplane middle class control freaks will not like this one bit. Of course it remains to be seen whether this airline will succeed. And it will be interesting to see whether they fly into Heathrow or perhaps instead Stansted or Luton.

Date published: 2007/01/05

A silly government minister slams Ryanair (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary has hit back at criticism from the climate change minister, saying his airline was "the greenest in Europe".

In a broad attack on airlines' efforts to tackle carbon emissions, Ian Pearson said Ryanair was the "irresponsible face of capitalism".

But Mr O'Leary said Mr Pearson was "silly" and "hadn't a clue what he is talking about".

Mr Pearson also said the attitude of US airlines to emissions was "a disgrace".

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Pearson said: "When it comes to climate change, Ryanair are not just the unacceptable face of capitalism, they are the irresponsible face of capitalism."

He also attacked British Airways, saying it was "only just playing ball" on environmental regulations, and Lufthansa, the German airline.
...
Mr O'Leary defended his company and the industry as a whole.
...
Even though his company was growing, the new planes it had invested £10bn in the last five years had cut its emissions and fuel consumption by 50%, Mr O'Leary said.

One can only assume that Pearson and his family never fly anywhere, he is so obviously opposed to airlines. Hopefully Pearson will propose that no government minister will ever fly anywhere (on business or pleasure), since it is so evidently such an evil thing to do. Or is it that the ruling elite think that they should be allowed to fly anywhere and everywhere, and it is only the peasants that should be banned from (or priced out of) flying?

Ryanair is one of the most efficient transport companies in the world. That is the main reason their fares are so cheap. If only the useless UK rail network that the government throws millions of pounds at every year were half as efficient. If only government ministers were half as competent. It is unbelievable that a government minister of any rank would attack Ryanair. But the British ruling elite (especially Old Labour and their related ilk in the Lib Dems and Greens) have always hated successful companies.

O'Leary speaks for the people, Pearson speaks for the ruling elite.

The UK rat population is allegedly increasing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of rats in the UK has soared, posing a serious risk to public health, according to a study.

Pest controllers reported a 39% increase in call-outs to deal with brown rats from 1999 to 2005.

And the 2006 National Rodent Survey found that during those summers call-outs jumped by 69%, when rats are usually less active in urban areas.
...
The report found litter, bird feeders, compost bins and derelict urban properties were all partly to blame for the rise.

It also suggested the failure of private water companies to clear rats from the sewers they were responsible for was another contributory factor.
...
The survey suggested that "recycling mania", as well as fly-tipping and a move by councils towards fortnightly refuse collection, was fuelling the rodent population growth.

Poor maligned rodents. The filthy creatures are the humans, not the rodents. And how many of these rodents were really rats, and how many mice and other rodents? None of the reasons given for the rise seem that significant, although it is obvious that if you collect rubbish fortnightly instead of weekly, that will cause some problems. (That decision was made entirely for pseudo-environmental reasons, and it just goes to show that if you only focus on one narrow consideration in policy making then things can go wrong.)

Date published: 2007/01/04

Plastic Logic gets money to produce plastic electronic devices (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK firm Plastic Logic has said it will build the world's first factory to produce plastic electronic devices.

The Cambridge-based company has secured $100m (£50.6m) venture capital funding for the German plant.

Once built it will manufacture circuits crucial for the development of novel gadgets such as electronic paper.

Unlike silicon, plastic circuits can be made using simple printing techniques and could dramatically reduce the price of consumer electronic goods.

The factory will be built in Dresden, known for its strength in silicon technology.

Plastic Logic is a spin out from Cambridge University and has been developing plastic electronic devices since 2000.

Well it's early days, and Cambridge companies often stumble at the second phase, but this is potentially a very innovative product. Unfortunately the usual hype has accompanied this announcement. Do people really want their clothes to be "intelligent"? Electronic paper is by far and away the best idea for these devices so far.

The BBC interviews the male Green Party speaker (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Derek Wall must be the only political leader to have been banned from every Tesco supermarket in Britain.

This fact was announced with a flourish by the Green Party when Mr Wall became its "male principal speaker" - the Greens don't do leaders - in November.

But Mr Wall looks a little bashful when I bring it up. He has never tested the ban out, he says.

He is very much a peaceful protester. Apart from anything else he practises a form of Zen Buddhism.

The Tesco ban came after he was photographed up a tree in Bristol, where he was campaigning against plans to open a new store.

Mr Wall is not a fan of Tesco, or any other multinational come to that - and he wants Green Party activists to get more involved in protesting against them.
...
When we meet in a Kensington pub, round the corner from the college where he works as an economics lecturer, Mr Wall is beaming about another poll which, he says, shows the Green Party's vote has gone up from 1% to 4%.

The party has since claimed its support has reached 5% of voters.
...
He is keen to stress the "practical steps" the Greens would take if they ever got into government such as massively increasing the amount spent on renewable energy and cutting carbon emissions by 6% a year.

He also favours eco-taxes which he said would linked to redistribution, to give more help to the poorest in society.

He is fiercely anti-consumerist and is convinced that people are starting to realise "if we base our identity on more and more consumption it's not very good".

Wall seems to be a perfect example of the typical Green, being a fully paid up member of the comfortable middle class, who hates big companies, who thinks that the workers should hand ever more of their money to government to be redistributed to the non-workers, and who is "fiercly anti-consumerist".

Of course he is not opposed to consumption, he is just opposed to consumption that he, a typical middle class control freak, does not like. So no doubt he (like all Greens) hates the proliferation of electronic gadgets in the house. Heck, who needs MP3 players and computers and large televisions? All gadgets which he doesn't like should be banned. All shops (such as Tescos) which he doesn't like should be banned. This is the "cult of the selfish" that proliferates in modern political life. ("If I don't like something, nobody else should be allowed to use it.")

The Greens want far more consumption on things that they approve of, such as education and the health service, and "the poorest in society". So it's not that they oppose consumption, they just oppose (most) consumption by individuals, and they are perfectly happy for government to consume more and more of the country's resources. The Greens are obviously far more competent to spend your money than you are.

The natural level of support for the Greens is 5% or so, because the comfortable middle class is not that large, and the Greens have to split those people with the Lib Dems, who are a bit more serious (but not by much, these days).

Date published: 2007/01/03

Norway will offset carbon emissions for public sector flying (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Norway has announced plans to offset the greenhouse gases produced by public employees when they fly abroad by buying emissions credits.

The move, which is intended to fight global warming, was announced by Norway's prime minister.

He said the scheme was thought to be the most ambitious of its kind in the world and hoped others would follow.

Under the scheme the government will buy credits to be invested in projects which reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Well, it sounds like a noble idea but in fact it is not, because it is not the public employees who are going to be paying the cost, it will be the Norwegian taxpayer. So Norwegian public employees have no incentive to reduce their travel. The real principle should be that the polluter pays, not someone else. Well, no public employee is going to pay for pollution caused by workplace air travel out of their own pocket. So a far better idea here would be for the Norwegian government to pledge to increase the air miles of public employees at no more than, and preferably less than, the rate of the increase of that of the private sector. (And similarly for carbon emissions in general.) As it is, with this proposal, the Norwegian government is just taking the piss.

Immigrants allegedly don't do much for the UK economy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The contribution of immigrants to the UK economy is "very slight indeed" and the main benefits are to the migrants themselves, a pressure group has said.

Migrationwatch UK says the economic benefit is equal to 4p a week for each person in Britain.

Its chairman Sir Andrew Green accused Whitehall of trying to divert attention from the problems caused by migration.

A Home Office spokesman said there was "a clear consensus" that migrants had helped the economy to grow.
...
Susan Anderson of the Confederation of British Industry said Migrationwatch was "seeking to score a few cheap political points".

"Migrants to the UK bring valuable skills and ideas with them and help to fill job vacancies where Britons are unable or unwilling to do so," she said.

"Their taxes help pay for our public services and our pensions, long after many migrants have returned home.

"Their presence also helps keep inflation low at a time when there are many forces pushing the other way."

BBC economics editor Evan Davis said Migrationwatch was right to try to assess how immigration affected an individual's wealth, rather than relying on government figures relating to the overall size of the economy.

But he said neither the government nor Sir Andrew had tried to work out the overall economic effect of immigration, which would be "impossibly complicated".

Surprise, an anti-immigration group writes a report against immigration. Davis is correct, the overall economic situation is complicated. But it's obvious that your average immigrant is at least more motivated than your average native since the former has already had the ability to get up and leave one country and figure out how to get to another one. And in every rich country in the world, immigrants do the jobs that natives refuse to do, at the bottom of the pile. And at the top of the pile, you just have to look at the employees of Cambridge University to see how much immigrants have contributed to the UK.

Date published: 2007/01/02

Unregulated rail fares going up a lot (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Above-inflation price rises for rail tickets have come under attack from rail groups and opposition politicians.

Many areas' regulated fares, which include season tickets, have risen by 4.3% - about 1% above inflation - but some unregulated fares are up by 7.3%.

The Tories said the "galling" rises showed ministers had failed to sort out the railways. Rail watchdog Passenger Focus said fares needed simplifying.

But the Department for Transport said they "want the railways to grow".

On many main lines it is the fourth successive year in which tickets have risen by more than inflation.

Train companies say the extra money is to pay for service improvements.
...
The transport department regulates some fares, including season tickets and saver tickets.

Regulated fares account for 40% of tickets sold, and have risen by up to 4.3% in some areas, although many such fares have not increased at all.

Meanwhile, the 60% of fares which are set by private operators increased by up to 7.3%, which is nearly three times the government's 2.7% target rate of inflation.

Unregulated fares include open tickets, when passengers buy their tickets on the day they want to travel.

Anthony Smith, of Passenger Focus, described the pricing system as a "jungle" that needed to be simplified.

"It has become too much for people to travel during peak longer distance and therefore people are being pushed off the railways. It is not fair," he said.

"Pushing people towards booking ahead in advance and being less flexible, it changes the nature of the railway."

The Tory privitisation of the rail network has unfortunately led to a ridiculously complicated and obscure ticketing system. The rail network is in many senses a monopoly (although not quite, because there are other transport options in many cases). As such, rail ticket prices should be regulated, but in a way which makes the network pay for itself (why should train customers have their journeys subsidised by the rest of the country?). But it should also be regulated so that the ticket arrangements are clear and simple. Labour has singularly failed to turn around the disaster created by the Tories. Instead, millions of pounds have been wasted on useless consultancies and lawyers.

A tweaked Hepatitis C drug has been discovered (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Researchers who have found a way to bypass the legal patent on an expensive drug say others should follow suit.

Imperial College experts have developed a potentially cheaper version of an existing Hepatitis C drug by altering the molecular structure.

They have also called on other universities and charities to retain the rights to new discoveries, rather than sell them to big drugs companies.

The industry warned any such 'new' drug may need dedicated safety trials.

The work of Professor Sunil Shaunak, an expert on infectious diseases, and his colleague, Steve Brocchini, from the London School of Pharmacy, was funded by, among others, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Wellcome Trust.

The most effective drug treatment for the Hepatitis C virus is a version of a naturally-occurring molecule called interferon, which has been modified by coating it with sugar to allow it to remain in the body for longer.

The patent for the resulting drug - pegylated interferon - ruled out any other pharmaceutical which involved interferon coated with sugar.

However, the Imperial team found a way to place the necessary sugar elsewhere on the interferon molecule instead, effectively creating a new medicine not covered by the patent.

They plan to find a way to develop and market this alternative without involving pharmaceutical firms, at a fraction of the cost of the original medicine.

Cheers to the people involved for trying to produce cheap drugs. On the other hand, this story has been hyped way beyond reason (on television and radio, not just on the BBC website). This is only one drug and if it really is novel, as claimed, then presumably it does indeed need expensive drug trials to prove it does not have some serious side-effects. And with the team crowing about patent busting they are just going to encourage the pharmaceutical companies to apply for patents with ever wider scope. (This happens already in IT and telecoms.) And finally, the cost of drugs is only one part of the story. There is also the (costly) health system infrastructure required to deliver the drugs, which is lacking in many countries. It is unfortunate that scientists on step one of a lengthy and fraught process feel it is necessary and desirable to hype their story. They should stick with the biochemistry, which is no doubt impressive.

Date published: 2007/01/01

Radio 4 poll hijacked by special interest group (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Countryside Alliance has admitted conducting a drive to get people to vote for a repeal of the laws banning hunting with dogs, in a Radio 4 poll.

The Hunting Act took 52.8% of the votes to top a Today poll of the act people would most like to see reversed.

The alliance said it used its website to encourage pro-hunt activists to back an end to the ban in England and Wales.

The programme's panel had considered excluding hunting because of evidence of a campaign to affect the outcome.
...
The vote for the Hunting Act was well ahead of the second-placed European Communities Act of 1972, which took Britain into the Common Market, which gained 29.7% of the votes cast by telephone and online.

Other acts voted for included the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which requires police permission for protests in Parliament Square and attracted 6.2% of the vote, and the Human Rights Act, which got 6.1%.

There were also votes for the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Act of Settlement.

Gee whiz, an unscientific poll (i.e. one without a random sample) turns out to be, surprise, unscientific. All the (often goofy) polls which the media love to run are equally nonsensical. They don't want to do proper polls because that costs money, so instead they practically invite a special interest group to hijack the proceedings. And here, even if some group had not stuffed the ballot box, any poll run by Radio 4 would almost by definition be invalid since the only people who listen to Radio 4 are the chattering classes, which does not provide a random sample of British citizens.

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