Azara Blog: April 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/04/30

Urban Design and People (permanent blog link)

The Engineering Department has been running a lecture series in "Sustainable Development" for five years now. Today the Architecture Department (literally next door) has joined the fray, with a new "Sustainable Design" series. (The lectures are in the Engineering Department because the Architecture Department has no decent rooms.) The bean counters who run the university tried to close down the Architecture Department in 2005, and one of the conditions for saving it was that it would re-focus its activities on "sustainable design". Unfortunately "sustainable" is one of those dreadful buzz words that will soon enough go out of fashion. Still, the lectures can be interesting. The Architecture Department series is going to have two speakers each session, one external person and one internal person. The series kicked off today with presentations by Malcolm Smith from Arup and Koen Steemers from the Architecture Department, on the theme of "Urban Design and People".

Smith gave a slick Powerpoint presentation, "Integrated Urbanism", with many slides having only one bit of text on them. He went through a long list of issues to do with urban design (energy supply and consumption, water, population growth, housing, health and well being, etc.) Arup seems to be involved with master planning the new town northwest of Cambridge called Northstowe, but when getting down to specifics, Smith mainly talked about Dongtan, in China.

Dongtan is a new "eco city" located at the tip of an island next to Shanghai. Shanghai is exploding economically so of course needs much more housing, and Dongtan is just one city being built from scratch in the area. Dongtan is around three quarters of the size of Manhattan. Smith says it took all of seven weeks to get the planning application approved. He compared that with the seven years it took for some (relatively) small development in the East End of London that Arup was involved with. And Northstowe will be similarly painful. Of course the reason things happen so fast in China is that nobody has any rights, and no doubt the people who will be displaced will not be properly compensated. Then again, the people affected by large infrastructure projects in the UK are also not properly compensated. The main winners from the lengthy UK planning process are lawyers and consultants.

Smith quickly went through a litany of slides, showing how Dongtan was going to be more "sustainable" than existing cities (e.g. Shanghai itself). And they seem to have put a lot of effort in to make this more than just marketing spin. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and we will see come 2010 how well the vision has been implemented in reality. Like everyone who works in "sustainable" design or development, the number one enemy is the car. So they have supposedly designed Dongtan not to be overwhelmed by the car. But car ownership is increasing by 15% per annum in China, so we know what the people want.

Smith would like Dongtan not just to be a dormitory town for Shanghai. So the city will supposedly have plenty of jobs. And well it might. But that is a necessary, not a sufficient requirement. Cambridge has plenty of jobs, but that has not stopped Cambridge more and more being a dormitory town for London, with thousands of people streaming into London every day. Smith estimates that perhaps 15% of Dongtan residents will commute into Shanghai. But they are not going to make this easy. It seems that the only road connection to Shanghai will be at the other end of the island. Well, that is today. No doubt if Dongtan is successful, there will eventually be pressure to build a bridge directly to Shanghai.

Smith claimed that energy production would be generated 100% by "renewable" energy sources. But he noted that Dongtan still needed to be connected to the national grid, because "renewable" energy is not reliable enough (e.g. it is not always windy, sunny, etc.).

He also said that Dongtan was going to grow some of its own food, not on fields but in factories (which Dongtan called "food machines"), using hydroponics. It will be interesting to see how that turns out.

It will be interesting to see whether Dongtan turns into a middle class ghetto (so no poor people need apply).

Steemers then took over and went through various facts about energy use (and therefore carbon emissions) for the UK. Transport and buildings both account for large chunks. (Of course it depends into what categories you slice the pie, which is arbitrary.) And since this was a "sustainable design" lecture, he concentrated on buildings, which by some reckonings (e.g. if you include the energy taken to construct the building) could be up to 47% of UK energy consumption.

Surprise, UK energy consumption has grown and grown and correlates remarkably well with economic growth. The only reason the UK is on track to meet its Kyoto Protocol target is because of the "dash to gas" (away from coal) in the 1990s. Now that that has finished, UK emissions are once more increasing.

It seems that energy consumption per household has stayed pretty constant from 1970 to today. But that is in spite of more efficient buildings. Space heating makes up around 60% of domestic UK energy consumption, so it would seem that the problem might be because people expect their homes to be warmer these days. And Steemers claimed that the average temperature in homes today was around 18C, versus only 12C in 1970 (was it really that cold back then??), and that supposedly this represents a doubling of heating energy use (all other things being equal).

Steemers also looked at the idea that the problem is partly due to the 52% increase in detached houses since 1970. Detached houses have a higher surface to volume ratio so can lead to higher energy use. But Steemers pointed out that on average around 13% of UK domestic heating comes from passive solar, and that if you build to high density then local obstructions cause increased energy demand. And he claimed that the difference between detached and other housing was actually fairly neutral (presumably given equal floor space).

Although the energy consumption per household has stayed fairly constant since 1970, the energy consumption per person has gone up. And this is because the number of people per household has steadily decreased since 1970. In the questions at the end, one person suggested that perhaps the government should think about regulating the number of people per household and suggested that perhaps the Chinese government would be more successful at doing that compared with the UK government. Well, that idea (fortunately) got short shrift.

Steemers looked at air conditioning. He claimed that in 1950 hardly any American homes had air conditioning, but by 2001 76% did. And over the same period the number of UK homes with central heating went up from almost nothing to around 85%. So he's worried that with global warming and economies of scale, the UK might start to buy more and more air conditioners, leading to a large increase in electricity consumption. Apparently B&Q sells one for around 600 pounds and Steemers thought if that price dropped to around 100 pounds then it would become a big seller. (Steemers contrasted that with the rather pointless B&Q windmill, which sells for around 1400 pounds. He quipped you would need five of the windmills just to run the air conditioner.)

Well, we will see how air conditioners pan out in UK houses, but Steemers said that in any case the far bigger problem was the use of air conditioners not in homes. In offices, for example, this must be down to the increase in computers and other electronic equipment, which generate a lot of heat and need to be kept at a reasonable temperature in order to operate. (The university certainly seems to care less about keeping humans at a reasonable temperature.)

Steemers looked at the variability of energy consumption (presumably per capita or per m2) in UK offices and said there was a factor of 10 (and more) between the best and worst performing buildings. He attributed 2.5 of this to the building itself, 2 to the building systems and 2 to the occupants. He said that while architects and developers model the first two factors to the Nth degree, they usually ignore the last factor.

Steemers claimed there was some building he had looked at (on the Sidgwick Site?) where the difference between two pre-build estimates of energy consumption and the actual energy consumption was a factor of three. Now that is scary. Someone, somewhere, ought to do a look at dozens or hundreds of new builds to see which ones actually do well in practise and which ones do not. It is always very easy for architects (and they all do it these days) to say that their buildings are "sustainable", but are they really or is it just spin?

Cambridge ruling elite ponder trying to make Cambridge more attractive (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

An exciting new vision of what Cambridge could be like by the end of the decade has been conjured up by community leaders.

They believe the ancient city needs to adapt itself to the demands of the 21st Century and become more vibrant, more accessible - and safer.

This could involve emulating the success strategies of other top European cities, such as Barcelona, including making Cambridge livelier in the evening, revamping the market square and launching an Edinburgh-style arts festival.

And action must be taken to tackle the growing problem of crime and anti-social behaviour.

The wide-ranging blueprint for Cambridge in the years ahead has been drawn up following a brainstorming workshop organised by the city centre management team.

It was attended by 90 representatives from the business community, education, local councils and voluntary groups.
...
Among the ideas that came out of the workshop were:

Cambridge is not Barcelona. And it's not just that the weather is worse. (Although global warming has helped here.) It is also that the main residents of the city centre are students. The Grafton Centre area is as close as you get to a real part of town near the city centre. The vast majority of families live further afield. And, conversely, apart from pubs, there are few residential areas of the city with any sort of night life. Basically, England is not very good at urban planning. Go to Barcelona or Paris if you want to see how it should be done.

The city centre is definitely not "family friendly". (And most people obnoxiously mean "two adults, N children" when they talk about "families" but of course any household with more than one person in it is a family.) In particular, the city purposefully makes it as difficult and as expensive as possible to get into the city centre if you want to drive in. And the main problem at night in the city centre is not the lack of street lighting, but the fact that there are hordes of drunken yobs, just like in most other towns in England.

The one decent idea in all of this is that perhaps Cambridge should have some kind of "intellectual" festival. Certainly the city should try that out before trying to become "European Capital of Culture".

Date published: 2007/04/29

The Financial Times has a special "environment" issue in its magazine (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times apparently re-designed their Weekend newspaper, not that you could tell this except in minor ways (e.g. the Weekend section was renamed Life and Arts). Possibly to celebrate this, the main stories in the magazine were dedicated to the environment. The headline on the magazine says "Can England's middle classes save the planet?". Well, this is a bit of a joke. The middle class (i.e. the rich, but not rich enough to have a title) consume far above the national average, and so pollute and, in particular, emit carbon (directly or indirectly) far above the national average and so far, far above the world average. The middle class are part of the problem more than being part of the solution. And needless to say, readers of the FT, on average, are at the top end of the middle class. And most of the FT reflects this wealth perfectly well, with travel articles featuring exotic locations and very expensive hotels, and advice columns telling you what to do with your million pounds in the bank, how to get a million pound mortgage, etc. But never let wealth get in the way of a bit of weekend reading about the environment.

One of the best parts of the FT magazine is normally the first article, called "First Person", where someone unknown writes about some (notable) aspect of their life. Heaven knows how the FT tracks these people down, but they usually have something interesting to say. In this special environment issue, the "First Person" was about some German chap who gets his food from supermarket garbage containers, out of principle, not poverty. This chap says:

It's amazing and frustrating to see how much perfectly edible food supermarkets throw away. I estimate that one-third of the food I find in garbage containers is edible. The waste is a result of our capitalist society. When the date of expiry is near or the package is dirty or dented, supermarkets throw away perfectly good food.

Well, the main problem is with the expiry date. And you cannot blame the supermarkets for having to throw away perfectly good food after the expiry date, it would be illegal for them to do otherwise. This is not the fault of the "capitalist" society, this is the fault of the health and safety nutters. In the UK (although perhaps not in Germany) supermarkets discount food that is about to hit the expiry date, and a lot of it gets sold off that way. Supermarkets are not stupid, after all. Better to make something rather than nothing (and they have to pay for waste disposal). Indeed, in the UK if you want decent cheap food you go to Waitrose an hour or two before closing and there are often plenty of bargains to be had.

Another regular feature in the magazine is "Lunch with the FT", where some well-known person gets interviewed over lunch (usually). This weekend the interview was with James Lovelock. Lovelock is known for one thing, the so-called Gaia hypothesis. The FT describes this as the idea that:

[T]he world acts as a single, self-regulating system, which can be thought of as rather like a living organism. Each part of the organism, each living thing, has an effect on the whole; if any one part should move out of harmony, this triggers reactions from other systems that eventually compensate to bring the whole system back into equilibrium.

Who would have thought it, the world is one big ecosystem. What a genius this guy is. But the word "harmony" is bizarre, because "harmony" has no meaning in the ecosystem context. If a cat kills three mice a year are we supposed to believe the world is in "harmony", but if a cat kills six it is not? And only an extremely naive person would ever believe that the world's ecosystem is ever really in equilibrium. It might be in a pseudo-equilibrium, so fairly stable over a long period of time, but the idea that it is ever in true equilibrium is just wrong. If nothing else, the universe is always changing (e.g. the distance of the Earth from the Sun has slight variation) so the "equilibrium" is always changing.

But there is a much more serious problem with Gaia. Where are the predictions? What allegedly are we supposed to deduce from this brilliant insight that the world is one big ecosystem? During the lunch interview Lovelock suggests that humanity has got only 30 years to avert global catastrophe. This is a trivial statement to make, similar to the equally trivial claim by Martin Rees that the human race has a 50/50 chance of being extinct by 2100. If you make your predictions far enough into the future nobody ever catches you out, because you are going to be dead and/or your predictions forgotten. So you can say whatever you want. Of course in order to sell books you make the predictions fantastic. Along the same lines, Lovelock says:

If we get away with 20 per cent survival by the end of the century, we'll be doing terribly well. I can't be certain, I'm a scientist. You can't be certain in science, but that's the probability.

It would be interesting to see what equations he used to arrive at the figure of 20 per cent. Since it is 20 per cent, and not 17.8% or something equally "not round", one can only conclude that he made the number up, perhaps off the top of his head, and therefore there is no science behind it. And he also says:

From a Gaian point of view, 20 per cent survival of the species is not at all bad. People will regroup, and the population will continue at a level more compatible with Gaia.

But the whole point of Gaia is that we are one big ecosystem. How can the population level of any species be "compatible" or not? The world is as the world is, and the ecosystem follows dynamical equations that will tell you that species numbers can go down as well as up. There is no "compatible", there is no "incompatible", there just is. Or is Lovelock claiming that Gaia is wrong now but will be right if only most of humanity dies out?

Lovelock likes nuclear power and (bizarrely) coal, in preference to wind farms, which allegedly despoil the countryside. His main argument against wind power seems to be that "we've little enough countryside left". This is rubbish, the vast majority of the UK is countryside. Why anyone treats anything Lovelock says seriously is a mystery. (Gaia attracted a certain amount of new age enthusiasts because there is a certain amount of mystic mumbo-jumbo attached to it. But nobody takes new age people seriously.)

The next article in the magazine is about Ashton Hayes, a small village in north-west England which is trying to be "carbon neutral". Like many leafy villages, the residents of Ashton Hayes are richer than the UK average, so (surprise) have a bigger carbon footprint than the UK average. Well, half the village wants to do something about it. And at least they seem to have gone about it by not only trying to do something but also by asking questions, so they realise the world is not black and white. For example:

"We've planted 14,000 trees but we're not sure that they work". How much carbon a tree absorbs depends on its age and on the soil -- young trees absorb very little. There have been discussions on introducing wind-turbines to the village but it was concluded that, given the amount of energy they would provide, "it was probably a waste of time".

and

Is it better to use an electric power shower or to heat a full tank of water? What do you do about a draughty Georgian front door if you live in a conservation area? If the Ocado grocery delivery van is making just one delivery in the village, is it really better than driving to the out-of-town supermarket? And is it worth buying an energy-efficient fridge if it's less easy to repair than old ones -- and therefore has a shorter life?

The article unfortunately does not address other issues, such as that the accounting being used on carbon emissions is false in any case. One of the ways the UK (and Europe) hides its carbon emissions is by exporting them to China or India (or wherever). If you import steel from China then you are responsible for the emissions, not the Chinese, but under normal (Kyoto-style) accounting, you would not be deemed to be responsible. As a first rule of thumb, the more you earn (or the wealthier you are), the more carbon emissions you are (really) responsible for.

The next article is about food miles. The so-called environmentalists have spent a lot of time the past few years demonising food that is imported from abroad (or even from the next county), because of the transport (which is a large source of carbon emissions). The article in the FT goes over well-known territory discussing this all but includes the obvious observation that transport is only one part of the entire equation (which somehow the so-called environmentalists always manage to conveniently ignore). And on top of this, it is difficult to even know how to calculate carbon emissions correctly:

Another big question is to what extent consumer actions should be counted in the carbon assessment. Cooking, for example, is an energy-intensive activity. Take potatoes. By the time a packet of processed dried mashed potato reaches the supermarket, it would have a far heavier carbon weighting than raw potatoes, particularly those grown in the UK. Yet if the energy use of the potato after it left the supermarket were included, the picture would be difference since boiling a potato is the most energy-intensive part of its life cycle.

Along similar lines, there was one interesting observation:

"We found that a key element of carbon embedded in a crisp [ potato chip ]is the energy required to fry the potato", says Tom Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust, which studied Walkers crisps. Because farmers sell to Walkers on the basis of weight, explains Delay, they humidify potatoes with water, which requires energy to remove when frying the crisp. The Carbon Trust, a government-funded consultancy, reckons that simply changing the way potatoes are traded would allow Walkers to cut emissions generated in potato frying by up to 10 per cent.

But would it also cut emissions (and for Walkers, cost) end-to-end? Hopefully yes. The Carbon Trust, like all quangos, is generally a waste of money, but perhaps they have at least managed to do something to justify their existence.

The final article on the environment in the magazine is about "what could tip us into catastrophe". The article goes through various "feedback" mechanisms. Funnily enough, with climate change most feedback mechanisms that people have thought about seem to be positive (which is bad). This could because the scientists lack imagination to list all the negative feedback mechanisms, or perhaps it really is just that way. If so, we're screwed.

The one topic that the articles did not mention, and the most important topic of them all, is population. If the world population crashes this century by 80% as Lovelock suggests, then that in itself will probably avert the worst kinds of climate change. Less people means less emissions. No politician and hardly any so-called environmentalist is willing to stand up and state this obvious point. If UN predictions are correct and the population increases by 50% between now and 2050, then the situation is going to be 50% worse in 2050 compared with today even if nothing else happens (and generally the world economy grows per capita, which generally means more per capita carbon emissions).

Date published: 2007/04/28

Canada pretty much abandons the Kyoto Protocol (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Canadian government has published its strategy on climate change, which acknowledges that the country will not meet its Kyoto Protocol commitment.

Its new target is to cut emissions by 20% between now and 2020.

Environment groups have labelled the strategy a sham, and say that when combined with industrial policies, the country's emissions could rise.

Canada is the first nation to publicly abandon its Kyoto target without leaving the protocol.
...
The Kyoto treaty committed Canada to reducing emissions by 6% from 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012, but emissions are currently about 30% above the 1990 figure.

Many other nations inside the protocol, such as Spain and Ireland, are a long way from their own targets; and the Canadian decision opens up the possibility that others will follow suit and choose not to meet their commitments.

Announcing the strategy, environment minister John Baird blamed previous governments for failing to cut emissions.

"The plan we are presenting today does meet Kyoto, if today was 1997," he said.

"But the reality is that I didn't decide to do nothing in 1997. I can't take responsibility for 10 lost years, but I can fully, and our government is prepared to fully, accept our responsibilities today."

The government believes the strategy may reduce Canada's economic growth by 0.5%, but that striving to meet Kyoto would be ruinous.
...
The opposition Liberals, target of Mr Baird's criticism for inaction during their period in office up to the beginning of 2006, pledged to re-instate the Kyoto target.
...
The Canadian strategy has emerged at a time when the international community is struggling to find a new path to reducing emissions when the current Kyoto targets expire in 2012.

It is also grappling with the knowledge that the treaty has been far less effective than was envisaged by its architects - and that it contains no effective mechanism for compelling member countries to meet their commitments.

There is no way Canada could meet the 2012 targets given where it is today, short of having a massive depression. (To meet the target hey would have to reduce emissions by around 5% per year for the next five years.) The Liberals took no hard decisions when they were in power, which is why Canada stands where it does today, and it is not believable that the Liberals would "re-instate the Kyoto target" were they suddenly to find themselves in power. (Unless they wanted to commit electoral suicide for the next few decades.) As the article states, there will be other countries that will not meet the 2012 target. Even if Canada cuts emissions by 20% by 2020, that would still leave it almost 20% above the Kyoto target. It will be interesting to see what the next treaty will say, and in particular what baseline will be used.

A "public" consultation about human-animal hybrid embryos (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK regulators have launched a public consultation on whether scientists should be allowed to create human-animal hybrid embryos.

Ministers proposed outlawing such work after unfavourable public opinion.

But a recent report from the Science and Technology Committee warned a total ban was "unnecessarily prohibitive" and could harm UK science.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) will announce its final recommendations in the Autumn.

Applications by King's College London and the University of Newcastle for permission to produce embryos that would be 99.9% human and 0.1% animal have been sent to the HFEA, but have been put on hold.
...
There will be a public meeting in London during June where interest groups, fertility patients, members of the public and scientists will discuss the issues.

An opinion poll of 2,000 people is also planned and anyone can offer their views through an online questionnaire.

Shirley Harrison, chair of the HFEA, said: "The possibility of creating human embryos that contain animal DNA clearly raises key ethical and social questions that we need to take into consideration before deciding whether or not we can permit this type of research.

"Groups who are strongly for or against this type of research often made their views clear to us. But as this is a complex area of science, many other people might feel that they don't know enough about the issue to take part in the debate or give their views."

Another totally pointless "public" consultation. As Harrison herself pretty much admits, most people do not "know enough about the issue to take part in the debate or give their views". The large majority of people who will make their views known will either be scientists, and possibly companies, and some patient groups, who will vociferously support the technology, and, on the other side, people who have strong objections to this technology, which in this case mainly means religious people, or organisations, and also the usual suspects who hate biotechnology. A robot could write the responses.

"Experts" cannot agree about the safety, or not, of powerlines (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Experts have clashed over whether or not it is safe to build houses and schools near powerlines.

The government had asked them to look at cutting exposure to emissions from the lines - but they could not agree if there should be a ban on new builds.

The panel of 40 included scientists, representatives from the electricity industry and health campaigners.

Opinion is divided over whether electromagnetic fields from powerlines pose a health risk.

Around 1% of homes in the UK are estimated to be within 200m of high voltage National Grid power lines. Around 25,000 are within 60m.

In 2005, the Department of Health funded Draper Report found that children who lived within 200 metres of high voltage lines had a 70% higher risk of developing leukaemia than those who lived more than 600 metres away.

Experts claim this could account for five extra cases, or 1% of the 400 cases of childhood leukaemia that occur in a year.

Some scientists have suggested that other illnesses, including brain tumours and motor neurone disease could also be linked to EMF exposure.

But others say powerlines pose no health threat.

The panel's report discusses a number of options the government might consider to reduce public exposure to electromagnetic fields.

It says a 60-metre "avoidance corridor" around powerlines, within which new buildings should not be erected, would have the most dramatic effect.

Other options include burying powerlines underground, but there were concerns about how feasible this would be.

The Department of Health has found a correlation between closeness to high voltage lines and leukaemia. But of course correlation is not the same thing as causation. In particular, there could be plenty of other causes.

For example, in north Cambridge the one powerline is not far from the (extremely busy) A14 and right next to the (busy but not as busy) King's Hedges Road. You would have thought that the roads had much more of an impact on health (leukaemia or otherwise) than the powerline. The powerline crosses the site of the new Arbury Park development, and the developer decided to pay for the powerline to be buried. Presumably this was mainly because powerlines are an eyesore but partly because the developer knew full well that there is now public hysteria about powerlines. But can anyone prove that powerlines are safer buried than not buried?

And needless to say, poor people in general live closer to powerlines than rich people. And rich people are healthier than poor people. What is cause and what is effect?

(And how "expert" were some of the people on the panel? The BBC angle implies that those for and against powerlines were equally expert. Were they? And which of the panel members were unbiased?)

Date published: 2007/04/27

Alcohol Concern proposes ridiculous tightening of alcohol laws (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parents who give alcohol to children aged under 15 should be prosecuted, a charity has said.

The call comes in an Alcohol Concern report on the government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy.

The study highlights figures that suggest a large increase in the amount of alcohol being drunk by 11 to 13-year-olds.

Public health minister Caroline Flint told the BBC she did not agree with the proposals.

Alcohol Concern also wants a 16% rise in alcohol taxes, a ban on brewers selling to retailers at a loss, and a crackdown on under-age alcohol sales
...
Alcohol Concern said the drink-drive limit should be lowered from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood.

For once a government minister has it right. Alcohol Concern is one of those special intererst groups which should just be ignored. They obviously have little common sense. Their proposal to make it illegal for parents to give alcohol to children aged under 15 is particularly risible. They want to screw the majority just because a small minority cannot control itself. These proposals are so whacky it looks more like Alcohol Concern just trying to justify their existence and make themselves noticed, rather than anything else.

Rich people are healthier than poor people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The health gap between the lowest and highest paid occupational groups widens in retirement, a study has suggested.

A lifetime on a low wage physically ages a person eight years earlier than high earners, researchers found.

They followed more than 10,000 British civil servants aged 35 to 55, over a period of 20 years.

Physical health declined with age in all groups but most rapidly among those in the lowest occupational grades, the British Medical Journal reported.

The employees, working in 20 different departments and from all occupational grades, were surveyed five times between 1985 and 2004.

At retirement, despite leaving the civil service, the health gap not only continued but widened.

For example, the average physical health of a 70-year-old high earner was similar to the physical health of a low earner around eight years younger.

In mid-life, this gap was only 4.5 years.

Among high earners, retirement appeared to improve their mental health and wellbeing. But no similar improvement was seen in the lower occupational groups.

Although the researchers studied mainly white collar office workers, they believe the findings would be the same across other occupations.
...
Lead researcher Tarani Chandola, from University College London, said: "There has always been an assumption that the health gap gets narrower with age as people retire.

"But retirement does not level the playing field. These health inequalities actually increase. This is not a time to get complacent."

He suggested a number of factors could explain the differences they found - including lifestyle habits and income.

For example, a higher income might enable a pensioner to lead a more active social life and eat a healthier diet.

Hmmm, has there really "always been an assumption that the health gap gets narrower with age as people retire"? Why would anyone have assumed that to be the case? At a first guess you would assume that almost any process was linear, and it sounds like near enough that is the case here. The researchers also seem to be confusing correlation and causation. They are assuming that work position causes health outcome rather than the other way around or rather than something else. All they have really done is confirm the usual trivial observation that rich people have better health than poor people. So all in all, this was a rather pointless study.

Date published: 2007/04/26

Kew wants more money for its seed bank (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's "Noah's Ark" for plants has just collected its billionth seed.

The Millennium Seed Bank will present the seed, from an African bamboo, to Chancellor Gordon Brown, as it seeks funds to continue operating after 2010.

Part of the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) at Kew, the bank already stores material from 18,000 species, some of which have become extinct in the wild.

Seed banks are seen as an essential part of plans to curb the rapid loss of biodiversity, in Britain and worldwide.

By 2010, Kew plans to have amassed seeds from 30,000 species, representing 10% of the world's plants.

"Now we're starting to think about where we go beyond 2010," the project's head Paul Smith told the BBC News website.

"And we want to get to 25% of species stored away by 2020. If policymakers are serious about funding adaptation to climate change, seed banks are a key part of that."

Seeds are collected by Kew's partner organisations around the world and sent to the RBG site at Wakehurst Place in Sussex.

They come from all over the globe, although British varieties are particularly well represented, with seeds from 88% of its native flora sequestered away.
...
"Scientists are always asking for money," conceded Dr Smith. "But what makes us different is that we have a proven methodology here, we have the network and we know how to do what we do.

"This costs about £2,000 ($4,000) per species; so to collect a quarter of what's out there would cost about £100m ($200m).

This sounds like a no-brainer, but it isn't. Scientists are indeed "always asking for money", as is every other special-interest group in the country (and on the planet). The question is whether £2000 is value for money. For one thing, other organisations are doing similar things. For another, if "climate change" (the buzz phrase that is used justify almost anything these days) sufficiently changes the environment so that a plant will no longer grow there, then it is not obvious that that species will ever survive anywhere again in "the wild" (and could even be a weed if re-introduced into some other location). Seed banks are more useful for dealing with short-term problems (e.g. war or drought). And this seed bank has a narrow genetic sample for most species, which means that much of the biodiversity has been lost in any case. (Of course, if enough money were thrown at this problem then Kew would deal with that issue as well.) But all in all, you would rather have £100 million spent on a seed bank than on most things the government wastes money on these days (e.g. useless overpaid consultants).

Programme on Radio 4 looks at so-called organic food (permanent blog link)

The The Investigation, BBC Radio 4, says:

Sales of organic produce are booming on the back of alleged benefits to our health and the environment, as well as claims of higher standards of animal welfare. But are we being seduced by "feel good" claims that don't stand up to scientific scrutiny?
...
The Soil Association, Britain's largest certifying body for organic produce, claims there "is a growing body of research that shows organic food can be more nutritious for you". And there have been some recent studies to back this up, showing higher levels of vitamins in organic kiwi fruits and tomatoes.

This intrigued Clare Williamson from the British Nutrition Foundation who decided to study all the current research on the comparative health benefits of organic and non-organic food.

The organic lobby's claims failed to convince her. The BNF "feel it would be irresponsible to promote organic food over non organic food as being better for you as there is not enough strong evidence," Ms Williamson says of her findings.

The government and its independent watchdog, the Food Standards Agency are equally adamant there is no proof organic food is better for our health. But science alone cannot prove the point, says Lord Peter Melchett, a director of the Soil Association, who believes consumers must trust their instincts.

"Science doesn't tell us the answers so some of it we have to go on feelings," he says.

One fact that can't be disputed is that organic farming uses far fewer pesticides than conventional agriculture. The Soil Association's booklet Organic Food and Farming: Myth and Reality, is clear what this means: "pesticides have a harmful impact on human health".

So organic must be better for your health as it rarely uses pesticides... Currently the amount of pesticide residues on fruit and vegetables isn't high enough to harm us, says the Food Standards Agency.

And Professor Anthony Trewevas, an expert in plant and molecular biology, believes the argument against pesticides is disingenuous and simplistic since we are already eating huge numbers of natural toxic pesticides which plants use to kill off insects.

"All of us on average consume several thousand a day," says to Professor Trewevas, who estimates this amounts to a quarter of a teaspoon a day. These natural pesticides don't adversely affect us, he says.

"You do not come out in tumours; you do not become sick from nerve toxins."
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Laurence Woodward, director of the nearby Elm Farm Organic Research centre, believes Sheepdrove is a perfect advert for the environmental benefits of organic farming.

"There is no question that organic farming is better for the environment than conventional farming, there is mounting evidence from government studies," he says.

But, as with the health claims, can we prove organic really is better for the planet?

That's exactly what the government and organisations like the Soil Association have been trying to find out. Earlier this year, Ken Green, professor of environmental management at Manchester University Business School, was commissioned by the government to conduct the first comprehensive study of the environmental impact of food production.

His findings weren't good news for the organic industry. "The studies that exist show there is not a clear cut thing that says let's go organic and that will have a big environmental impact compared to traditional methods of farming," says Mr Green, summarising his findings.

The organic lobby rounded on the study accusing it of bad science because it was only a "literature review" rather one based on original research. But Lord Melchett, readily concedes there are "still some big gaps in our knowledge about this". He is confident future research will prove organic is better for the environment.

But few studies have actually tried to analyse the environmental benefits of organic farming. Mr Woodward believes there's a good reason for this: "It's almost impossible to do a sensible comparison of organic and conventional farming systems. The systems are so different".

Yet this hasn't stopped bodies like the Soil Association from claiming that "Organic farming is friendlier to the environment".

All food is "organic" in the true, chemical, sense of the word (since it contains carbon). The so-called environmentalists have hijacked the word to take it to mean farming techniques that they happen to like, mainly because they are 19th century or older. The Soil Association is unaccountable and should be investigated by the government not only for truth in advertising but also for being a near-monopoly in the UK for deciding what is and is not allegedly organic.

Of course it would be rather astounding if so-called organic food, by whatever arbitrary definition anyone cares to use, were not better somehow or other. After all, it is a lot more expensive to produce. When you pay twice as much for a Bosch washing machine as for an ordinary brand you expect it to be a lot better, in particular to last a lot longer. But just like a Bosch washing machine is meant for the middle class, so is so-called organic food. It is a way for the middle class to implicitly claim that they are morally superior to the working class (which of course they are not, they are just richer).

Well, perhaps so-called organic food is more expensive mainly because it happens to cover environmental costs that are normally externalised by the farming community. It would be useful for someone to look at this in detail. But is there anybody who can be trusted to do this? Most experts (certainly the Soil Association and other so-called environmentalists) are extremely biased.

It is rather astonishing for Radio 4 to produce a programme like this. Radio 4 is the BBC radio station produced by and for the middle class, and it is usually totally biased towards so-called organic food (and against supermarkets, where the peasants shop). You just have to listen to the sanctimonious presenters on the Food Programme (the worst programme on Radio 4) for five minutes to be given shovel fulls of this bias.

Date published: 2007/04/25

Why sustainable development might be bad for the environment (permanent blog link)

The sixth (scheduled) lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by Susan Owens, from the Department of Geography. (The fifth scheduled lecture was cancelled.) She gave the audience just what they wanted (or at least what most of them wanted). Damn the government and the world for not paying enough attention to the so-called environmentalists. Damn "free market" capitalism. Damn the aviation industry. Damn patio heaters (seriously, she mentioned this, and this seems to be the number one pet hate of the academic middle class these days, pathetically enough).

Her thesis was that "sustainable development" isn't what it used to be. Way back in 1987, when the Brundtland report introduced the phrase, most people took it as a call to "save the world" by "saving" the environment. But in fact the report talked about meeting the "needs" of people, so had an economic and social viewpoint as well. Her take was that in the twenty years before that, the so-called environmentalists and the people who wanted the world economy to grow were at each other's throat. And allegedly this report magically brought them all on board because it offered something to everyone. The economy and the environment were inter-linked and the way forward was going to be win-win.

She claimed that after a period in which the environmental viewpoint dominated, the economic and social viewpoints started to be mentioned more and more, to the detriment of the environmental viewpoint. So she said there have been three periods post-1987 for what "sustainable development" meant. The first period was "environmentally led", the second period was one of "integrative interpretation", and the third, current, period is one of "environment lost". The "integrative interpretation" period was one when economic and social considerations started to be taken into account in "sustainable development", because it was supposed to be win-win. But Owens believes the environmental considerations just got dropped or sidelined. This is why "sustainable development" is allegedly "bad" for the environment. Well, the so-called environmentalists don't like not getting things entirely their own way. So the mere suggestion that perhaps sometimes there are good economic or social reasons to do things where the environment has to take second or third place doesn't seem ever to be accepted by them. Unfortunately, back in the real world most people understand that choices are not black and white. Owens constantly referred to anyone who disagreed with her viewpoint as "Panglossian". She did not like the concept of win-win because somewhere, somehow, she was going to find someone who had lost. (As if that proves anything.)

She gave a few examples where the current UK government has given "sustainable development" a bad name. The first was the "sustainable communities" plan dating from 2003. Basically, the government wants to build hundreds of thousands of new homes in the south-east of the country, where there is a serious shortage of housing. Well, it has been the case for years that anyone and everyone has plastered the word "sustainable" on everything they want to do, it is just marketing spin. The "sustainable communities" plan is just an example of that. Needless to say, in the reality of building the houses, the environment is often far down the list of things considered. Cambridge academics of course have the easy prerogative to sit in their ivory towers and tut-tut at the government trying to build enough houses where people want to live. If the country was run by the acadmic middle class, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Her second example was aviation. How dare the government build more runways? You will only encourage the peasants to fly, and that opportunity should be left to the middle class (like herself). She quoted the simplistic government projections that the number of air passengers will more than double by 2030. The 2003 aviation white paper was allegedly just about "predict and provide", with that projection in mind. Well, this is just the so-called environmentalists getting in a tizzy again because they have not got everything their way. Owens even said we should not build wind farms in the wilds of Scotland "just" so that the peasants can have their "cheap" flights. Well, it should not be up to the academic middle class how people spend their carbon allowance. And Labour will soon enough be kicked out of office, and both the Tories and the Lib Dems have said the peasants should not be allowed to fly, so Owens and the rest of the academic middle class will soon get their way on aviation. (They themselves will continue to fly, of course, often at public expense.)

Owens is of the school that believes you should not (or cannot) put a price on the environment. Well, if you want to limit carbon emissions you can either make it illegal for people to emit carbon in certain ways, or you can set up a tax or trading mechanism so that the total carbon emitted was capped. Owens seems to be in the former camp, but most people in the world are in the latter. Who, after all, has the right to decide which sources of carbon (or other environmental damage) are allegedly morally ok and which are allegedly not. Owens doesn't like patio heaters so would ban them. But there are no doubt plenty of activities that Owens enjoys which other people would be perfectly happy to ban.

As a natural follow-on from this, Owens also expressed the typical academic middle class view that society is far too interested in economic growth compared with what allegedly really matters: happiness. She said that she asks her students whether they are happier than their grandmothers at the same stage of their lives. Apparently most students express the belief that their grandmothers were happier. This is supposed to lead to the conclusion that all the wealth we now have doesn't matter. Well, not only is it unbelievable that anybody would ask such a question seriously (i.e. rather than as a bit of fun), but it is unbelievable that they would then arrive at this conclusion from the given answers. For one thing, most students would not know how happy their grandmothers were when they were young. For another, most human beings (especially teenagers) are inherently not happy and when prodded will claim that people (certainly other people, and even they themselves) were happier in the past. It's a combination of nostalgia and the view that "the grass is always greener on the other side". You would have thought that a Cambridge academic could have figured that one out. And if you want to claim that the women of two generations ago were happier, then you could easily arrive at the conclusion that this was because they stayed at home and looked after the family. Presumably Owens doesn't want to go down that (equally fatuous) road. It's interesting that most people who claim that happiness matters more than economic growth are in the academic middle class, so are rich or (if students) in future will be rich (and Owens, for example, is a professor, so earns far, far more than the median UK income).

During the question session, someone suggested that 5% of the people agreed with Owens and 95% did not, and would it be more useful if the government were able to be "more controlling". Well, at least Owens answered that question sensibly. By "more controlling" what the questioner really meant was "totalitarian". And funnily enough totalitarian regimes were not any better at looking after the environment than democratic ones. So she voted for democracy. (Well, in theory. But as a member of the ruling elite, she of course has far more influence on public policy than most of the population.)

At this point, she also decried the proposal that the government should relax planning rules for big nationally important infrastructure projects, since allegedly this was not democratic. Her take was that planning inquiries were a great way for the middle class to derail planning applications. But in fact all they have accomplished in most cases is to guarantee that millions of pounds of taxpayers' money has ended up in the pockets of lawyers and consultants, and that the projects are delayed by years. A vociferous minority should not be allowed to arbitrarily blackmail the country. That is not democracy, that is the tyranny of the academic middle class. And similarly, so-called public consultations are pointless, because they are just hijacked by activists and do not present representative views.

The final question was about increased household numbers in the UK (because of more divorce, etc.) and increased population numbers elsewhere in the world. In some sense anything an individual could do in the UK for the environment is easily wiped out by these two issues. Most so-called environmentalists (and all politicians) ignore this issue. For one thing, they rely on a guilt complex to push their message, and that doesn't work too well if people can point elsewhere. At least Owens agreed that population was a problem worth discussing. She of course stated that it was "unfair" that the UK consumed an order of magnitude more resources per capita than the people of China or India. But she didn't connect the dots and mention that it is equally unfair that some countries have irresponsibly allowed their populations to mushroom. The world population is supposed to be 50% higher in 2050. Is it fair that the people of Britain have to cut back their consumption by 33% by 2050 just to counteract that increase happening elsewhere?

Fortnightly rubbish collections allegedly increases recycling (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Councils that have switched from weekly to fortnightly rubbish collections achieve higher recycling rates, a study has suggested.

It shows an average recycling rate of 30% for these councils, compared with 23% for those that had not switched.

The Local Government Association (LGA) study found some had already exceeded their targets for 2010.

But fortnightly collections have been criticised, with complaints about bad smells, maggots and vermin.
...
The LGA, which represents local councils in England, said such an increase in recycling across the country would save taxpayers about £22m a year in taxes on landfill.
...
More than a third of councils in England have now abandoned weekly collections of rubbish, amid increasing pressure to dump less waste in landfills.

Some campaigners have claimed some councils made the switch at the same time as the introduction of recycling schemes, hence the increase in recycling figures.

Local authorities that have switched to fortnightly collections tend to alternate the collection of general refuse with that of recyclables such as paper or garden waste.

Fortnightly rubbish collections probably help the recycling rate, but introducing, or adding to, recycling options also obviously plays a factor. But it doesn't matter one way or the other. What matters is whether recycling really is the environmentally wonderful option (compared with landfill) that its promoters claim (without offering any proof). And also whether the downside of fortnightly rubbish collections (increased vermin and dumping of waste on the streets) outweighs the alleged benefit.

And by recycling more, the country does not "save taxpayers about £22m a year in taxes", it just saves that much in landfill taxes. Tax is a zero sum game (well, usually a negative sum game because the government takes more and more tax every year). What the country pays less in one tax, it ends up paying more in another tax. Of course the EU has set some arbitrary recycling rates, and if the UK fails to meet those targets then the country might end up paying a fine (i.e. a tax) to Brussels. That would not be good.

The government wants unisex toilets in secondary schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Unisex lavatories - with blurred glass walls - could help in the battle against school bullies, government guidelines for England suggest.

The recommendations for new secondary schools also include putting toilet blocks close to staffrooms or offices for subtle supervision.

If the ideas are taken up, urinals would be a thing of the past and privacy would be protected.

Campaigners say crumbling facilities damage pupils' health and well-being.

They say school toilets are recognised as being a trouble-spot for bullying, with some children avoiding going, possibly leading to continence problems.
...
It is suggested that making toilets unisex would discourage pupils from congregating in the area.

This sounds a bit like a late April Fool's joke. Not because they are proposing unisex toilets, but because they are proposing that this somehow solves the bullying problem. Why would unisex toilets "discourage pupils from congregating in the area"? If anything it might just encourage unisex gangs. And needless to say unisex toilets provide a perfect location for sex (consensual or, even worse, not). And glass walls raise a privacy issue ("blurred" just means you cannot see specific details, but that is not good enough).

Date published: 2007/04/24

Blair gives his latest revisionist statement about terrorism (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has warned that terrorism continues to be a "global" threat and needs to be fought whether it is in "Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else".

He said his view was "not popular", but the "large part of the Western world" which blamed George Bush was wrong.

"This is a very deep-rooted problem right round the world... if we don't fight it it's going to come after us," the prime minister told the BBC.

More revisionism from Blair. Afghanistan had plenty to do with "global" terrorism. And therefore a "large part of the Western world" supported the attack on Afghanistan. But Iraq had nothing (or very little) to do with "global" terrorism, no matter how much Bush and Cheney and Blair want to pretend otherwise. Therefore a "large part of the Western world" did not support this unprovoked and unwarranted and illegal attack against Iraq, which ironically has now caused Iraq to be a potential source of terrorism. And the global situation is far, far worse than it otherwise would have been. This is the fundamental problem which Blair refuses to acknowledge. Starting a "fight" for a fatuous reason (US domestic political purposes) is not very bright. George Bush is indeed the main person to blame. But Blair shares the blame.

Student loan petition on Downing Street website (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has denied claims that graduates are being overcharged in the way they pay back their student loans.

More than 62,000 people have signed a petition on the Downing Street website which says - wrongly - that interest repayments are being miscalculated.

It assumes borrowers are being charged interest on their loan for the whole year despite paying it off in monthly instalments through their salaries.

Number 10 says interest is calculated daily with payments taken into account.
...
A government statement placed on the petition website said the confusion had arisen from the fact that the Student Loan Company updates borrowers' accounts annually.
...
"The total annual repayment received from each borrower is credited to their account as 12 equal monthly payments in the year they were made, and the interest on the remaining balance is calculated on a daily basis each month to match."

The petitioners had thought that the money from the payments had been earning interest for the government.

But Downing Street added: "We can assure you that the government does not gain any extra income nor does any borrower pay too much interest.

"It is also worth adding that interest paid on student loans reflects inflation, and is not a commercial rate of interest like those charged for bank loans."

Downing Street will rue the day they ever allowed the petition website to be set up. This student loan petition will end up being one of the most signed so far. And yet it is based on a complete fantasy. (Unless Downing Street is lying completely, which seems unlikely, for once.) So 62000 people have been sucked in by some viral marketing campaign. It will be interesting to see how many more people sign the petition in spite of the clear statement on the petition page that this is indeed all based on a fundamental misunderstanding. And of course if the government had wanted student loan interest not to be calculated on a daily basis then they would have been perfectly right to have done so, if they made it clear this was what they were doing. There are still plenty of mortgages where if you pay extra money in (often under a certain amount), it doesn't count against the capital until the end of the year. This is not a novel concept.

Concern about the alleged danger of robots (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have expressed concern about the use of autonomous decision-making robots, particularly for military use.

As they become more common, these machines could also have negative impacts on areas such as surveillance and elderly care, the roboticists warn.
...
Autonomous robots are able to make decisions without human intervention. At a simple level, these can include robot vacuum cleaners that "decide" for themselves when to move from room to room or to head back to a base station to recharge.
...
The researchers criticised recent research commissioned by the UK Office of Science and Innovation's Horizon Scanning Centre and released in December 2006.

The discussion paper was titled Utopian Dream or Rise of the Machines? It addressed issues such as the "rights" of robots, and examined developments in artificial intelligence and how this might impact on law and politics.

In particular, it predicted that robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans, including housing and even "robo-healthcare".

"It's poorly informed, poorly supported by science and it is sensationalist," said Professor Owen Holland of the University of Essex.

"My concern is that we should have an informed debate and it should be an informed debate about the right issues."

The robo-rights scan was one of 246 papers, commissioned by the UK government, and complied by a group of futures researchers, the Outsights-Ipsos Mori partnership and the US-based Institute for the Future (IFTF).
...
"I think that concerns about robot rights are just a distraction," said Professor Winfield.

"The more pressing and serious problem is the extent to which society is prepared to trust autonomous robots and entrust others into the care of autonomous robots."

It's good to see that at least someone is pointing out that this robot rights study was a complete waste of money. On the other hand, worrying about autonomous robots is not that much more pressing. The human race already has plenty of machines that act "autonomously". When your car crashes your air bag deploys without asking you whether it should. (And it happens occasionally that it causes you more damage than the crash would have, so it is not a cost-free autonomy.) When a fire starts in a building the sprinklers (hopefully) go on without asking anyone for permission. There are plenty of trains in the world which are driverless. Etc. If and when there is a specific situation when a new "autonomous" robot has some dangerous feature which requires further analysis, no doubt this will happen, either before or after the first disaster. Indeed, there are thousands of consultants and other hangers on in society who have nothing better to do with their lives than worry about health and safety. This is not a new problem.

Date published: 2007/04/23

Some teachers' union wants investigation of the safety of wi-fi networks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teachers want an investigation into whether there are any health risks from wireless computer networks in schools.

The PAT teachers' union is writing to the education secretary for a clarification on wi-fi safety.

"There's a concern the potential health risk of this technology hasn't been investigated fully," says the union's general secretary, Philip Parkin.

The Health Protection Agency says "wi-fi devices are of very low power, much lower than mobile phones".

Mr Parkin, leader of the Professional Association of Teachers, is writing to Education Secretary Alan Johnson to ask for a "full scientific investigation into the effects of wi-fi networks in schools".

"I am concerned that so many wireless networks are being installed in schools and colleges without any understanding of the possible long-term consequences.

"I am not saying there is a danger, but I have enough concern to ask for it to be investigated."

The union highlights the case of Michael Bevington, a classics teacher at Stowe school in Buckinghamshire.

Mr Bevington "had never had any problems before the wi-fi. When it was put into his classroom he suffered nausea, blinding headaches and a lack of concentration. When the school removed the wi-fi his condition improved".

Many primary and secondary schools use wi-fi networks - but the teachers' union believes that there is insufficient long-term evidence to show whether such networks are safe.

The Health Protection Agency points to the low power levels of such wi-fi networks, compared to mobile phones.

But while the HPA declines to back health fears about wi-fi, the agency also offers no clear guarantee of its safety.

In a statement, the agency says its chair Sir William Stewart, is being "pressed by lobbyists to condemn wi-fi and is unprepared to do so. He has not taken a position on wi-fi".

"The HPA and Sir William have always pressed for more research into these new technologies. The only firm precautionary advice issued by the HPA is about children's use of mobile phones."

The need for greater research into health hazards from such technology is reflected in the minutes of an HPA meeting last month - where on the issue of "electrosensitivity" it was said that "scientific investigations conducted so far very seldom give clear answers".

A two-day meeting of experts on electrosensitivity, with a "political and scientific remit", was proposed by the HPA for early next year.

Studies for the HPA have so far been unable to confirm or disprove claims about electrosensitivity.

Part of the problem for researchers is that it is difficult to isolate the individual effect of technology such as wi-fi networks - when people might also be exposed to more powerful signals, such as from mobile phones.

You would have thought that the PAT could have figured out that the main reason "there is insufficient long-term evidence to show whether such networks are safe" is because wi-fi devices have only been around for a few years (even in the lab). Sure these health issues should be investigated, but so should lots of other things so it should be looked at proportionately. And you would have thought that the PAT would know that giving one case (or even a few cases) where allegedly some person has suffered ill health correlated with a wi-fi network proves very little (it's only one example, and no doubt plenty of other things were happening at the same time). Of course there are plenty of technophobes in the world (led by the so-called environmentalists and other luddites) who believe that all electromagnetic radiation, even in small doses, is the end of the world, and will accept no evidence, no matter how extensive, that there is no real problem. You have to wonder if these kinds of people were complaining about the effects of radio and television when they were first introduced.

Date published: 2007/04/22

Award for stopping overfishing of Atlantic wild salmon (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An Icelandic businessman's fight to save Atlantic wild salmon from being wiped out by overfishing has been awarded a top environmental prize.

Orri Vigfusson, 64, won a Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts, which have led to a resurgence in salmon numbers in the North Atlantic.

He founded an organisation that buys fishermen's netting rights in areas along the migration route of the fish.
...
We have been killing too many fish for too long," he said, explaining what prompted him 17 years ago to set up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF), a coalition of conservation groups that works alongside governments and fishermen to end commercial salmon fishing.

"Having been a sport fisherman for over 20 years, I had been seeing the salmon stocks in rivers decline every year," he told BBC News.

"I said that we had to do something about this or the fish would simply disappear."

The NASF assessed the situation and decided that the most destructive element was overfishing.

"We had to ensure that the salmon came back from the feeding grounds all over the Atlantic," Mr Vigfusson explained.

The problem began in the 1950s when it was discovered that salmon from rivers in the US and Canada, as well as from Europe, gathered in the sea around Greenland and the Faroe Isles.

A massive commercial fishing industry was established in the region, resulting in thousands of miles of driftnets across the routes taken by the fish.

After an initial surge in salmon catches, the numbers crashed. Between 1979 and 1990, catches fell from four million to 700,000.

Mr Vigfusson's philosophy was simple - to pay licensed netsmen not to fish salmon.

If driftnet fishermen, who intercepted salmon migrating along the coast to rivers, sold their licences to the NASF they received generous compensation in return.

"We believe in commercial agreements," he explained. "Over the past 17 years we have made commercial agreements all over the northern Atlantic."

The NASF began by striking deals in Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, but have now expanded across much of Europe, including Scotland, which is home to about 80% of the UK's salmon stock.

By raising $35m (£17.5m), Mr Vigfusson's coalition has been able to "retire" net licences around many of the continent's key salmon spawning rivers.

As well as offering compensation, the NASF also finds alternative employment for the netsmen, either in sustainable fisheries or in the revived angling tourism industry, boosted by the replenished rivers.

Perhaps the EU can get this guy in to sort out the other EU fish stocks which are in danger. We could do with someone who is not dogmatic and who can strike sensible commercial deals with fishermen.

A programme aimed at obese children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A community programme which aims to encourage obese children to be more healthy has proved highly successful, a study has found.

A year after the nine-week programme, the eight to 12-year-olds were fitter healthier, and more confident.

Details of the Mend programme, now running in 100 areas across England, will be presented to an obesity conference in Budapest on Monday.

One expert said the scheme could underpin work to cut childhood obesity.

Around 30% of UK children are now considered to be overweight or obese.

The trial of the Mend programme (which stands for Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do-it!) involved 107 moderately obese children.

The programme involves the whole family and aims to teach both parents and children about healthy attitudes and behaviours relating to eating and activity, and to help children see being active as fun.

About 1,000 children have now been through the Mend programme.
...
Over the next three years, it is hoped 26,000 can take part in 300 areas.

Funding for the scheme, which will cost £11m in total, is coming from the Big Lottery Fund, Sainsbury's and Sport England.

There is hardly a government (or any other organisation) programme which isn't claimed to be a great success. The question here is whether the programme is value for money (always the first thing to ask, which the chattering classes never do), and whether the impact is permanent or temporary, and whether it will scale up (hopefully it will). But when you take a dedicated team with a small number of participants you can get a good result for almost anything you care to measure. The quoted cost for the next three years comes in at over 400 pounds per child, which is not insignificant. If you threw that much money at individual maths tuition (or whatever) you would not be surprised to find those results getting better as well.

Date published: 2007/04/21

Canada is in trouble over Kyoto emission targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Canada could see a deep recession if it were to meet its Kyoto targets for reducing emissions, the country's environment minister has warned.

John Baird claimed petrol prices would leap and thousands of jobs would vanish if Canada tried to reduce greenhouse gases by 6% from 1990 levels by 2012.

Canada was one of the first countries to adopt the Kyoto Protocol in 1998.

But the ruling Conservatives have tried to ditch the treaty, which was adopted by a previous Liberal government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who came to power in January last year, has argued the Kyoto timetable is unattainable.

Yet his minority government could be faced with implementing the measures after an opposition Liberal bill was passed by the Canadian parliament's lower House.

It will now be considered by the Senate, the unelected upper house, which traditionally rubber-stamps legislation passed to it by the House of Commons.

Mr Baird told a Senate committee the only way the government could meet its Kyoto commitment was to impose costs on the entire economy and, in effect, "manufacture a recession".

A steep rise in natural gas prices, electricity and petrol, driven by the additional carbon price of generating fossil fuels, would have a huge impact on the cost of running a business and would lead to a 25% increase in Canada's unemployment rate by 2009, he said.

Some opposition MPs and environmentalists countered that Mr Baird's findings were based on assumptions chosen for their frightening conclusions.

Perhaps the world has a critical test case here. Think of the 1970s Cream of Wheat commercial with kid brother Mikey replaced by Canada: "let Canada try it". If there is no great impact from meeting the commitment then the government can stop bleating. But if there is a big recession then the so-called environmentalists will have guaranteed that the people of Canada will pay no attention to them for a generation and more. Of course the Liberals might well want a big recession so they can claim the country should vote for them next time. It would depend whether the country blames them or the Conservatives for the recession, so it would depend which party is better at getting its propaganda across.

The BBC unfortunately leaves out some crucial information from the story. By just mentioning the 6% cut Canada promised to make in greenhouse gases from 1990 to 2012, they leave the impression (no doubt on purpose) that the Canadian government is just whinging and that to reach the goal now must be a piece of cake. After all, surely Canada is already well on its way to meeting the goal (since 2007 is over three quarters of the way from 1990 to 2012). But no, by 2003 Canada had not reduced its emissions at all but instead they had gone up by 24%, which equates to being around 32% above the 2012 target. Presumably the 2007 figure is if anything worse, although the recent steep rise in energy prices might already be having some impact on emissions. If Canada is now (say) 33% above the 2012 target then it must reduce its emissions by 25% by then, i.e. in five years. Now that is non-trivial.

Immigration is allegedly at a tipping point (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Immigration could lead to the political break-up of Britain, according to right-wing think-tank Civitas.

A pamphlet by the group suggests that Britain may have reached a "tipping point" beyond which it could no longer be seen as a single nation.

Shadow home secretary David Davis has called on the government to put a cap on those coming to the UK.

The Home Office said it had already announced a tough new points system aimed at immigrants.

The Civitas pamphlet - A Nation of Immigrants? - said the "seemingly reckless pace and scale" of immigration was bound to cause concern for people who saw the UK as a model of tolerance and freedom.

This scare-mongering by Civitas is pathetic. What are they suggesting, that, say, London (with perhaps the highest concentration of immigrants in the country) is going to break away from Britain? Exactly which virtues are they suggesting the British believe in but the immigrants allegedly do not. It's amazing that an organisation which is so blatantly intolerant seems to believe the UK is a "model of tolerance". (And obviously they have never been to a football match in Britain.) Civitas is just another one of the zillions of useless "think" tanks which plague the nation.

Date published: 2007/04/20

Stress is allegedly threatening the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The stress of everyday life threatens to fuel an epidemic of cardiovascular disease, a report warns.

The study says high blood pressure is rife, and implicates modern, frantic lifestyles, warning many under-estimate the problem at their peril.

The team of international experts warns that one in four adults already has the condition - but if nothing is done that figure could rise by 60% over 20 years.

The study was unveiled at the European Parliament in Brussels.

The researchers say much more work is needed to tackle high blood pressure - not least a switch to healthier, less hectic lifestyles.

They warn that unless people modify their lifestyles, and diagnosis and treatment improve, recent gains in treating cardiovascular disease could be reversed.

They report says that every year, high blood pressure is implicated in an estimated 7.1 million deaths worldwide.

The problem is growing most rapidly in emerging countries with westernised economies, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, Turkey and the Central European states.

Another pointless, end-of-the-world, health study whose main purpose in life is to promote the work of the people doing the study. And what better place to promote this than in the European Parliament, which is stock full of people who do no work but who get paid far more than the average European citizen, and mostly tax free and with huge expense accounts to boot. And we also get the usual patonising litany about how all those dreadful developing countries and their "westernised" economies are just following suit. Obviously these countries would be much better off if they had just remained poor so that we could instead patronise them about how dreadful their economy was and how lazy they allegedly were.

British beaches are allegedly drowning in litter (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The amount of litter on Britain's beaches has increased by more than 90% since 1994, says an annual survey.

The Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) Beachwatch survey of 358 areas found an average of two items of litter for each metre (3.3ft) of beach.

Individuals are the worst offenders, either for direct litter-dropping or wrongly flushing items, such as cotton buds, that end up on beaches.

Fishing debris was another key source, accounting for about 11% of litter.

The survey recorded litter levels of 1,988.7 items per kilometre (0.62 miles) in 2006, up from 1,045 items per kilometre in 1994

MCS said individuals were responsible for more than a third of the litter and many of the top ten items.
...
Its 2006 report is based on data collected by more than 4,000 volunteers on 358 UK beaches - covering 187 km (116 miles) of coastline - during September 16 and 17 2006.

The implicit spin of the report is that the average British citizen today litters twice as much as in 1994. This is bound to be wrong (that's only 13 years ago, and no habits change that quickly). There are almost certainly several factors coming into play that MCS does not want to acknowledge:

So not only is the average British citizen probably no worse (and conversely, no better) today than in 1994, the entire claim about the doubling of litter is probably also misleading. Of course MCS wants to spin the alleged doubling because, like all special-interest pressure groups, it wants attention, and nobody gets attention unless they claim the world is at an end.

Date published: 2007/04/19

NATO discusses latest US star wars proposal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nato member states say a US missile defence system - strongly opposed by Russia - must protect all of them.

The anti-missile shield is being discussed at Nato headquarters in Brussels and a Russian delegation is presenting its objections there too.

A Nato spokesman said Nato members agreed that "there is a threat to Europe of missiles" and that their security must be "indivisible".

The US wants parts of the shield to be sited in the Czech Republic and Poland.
...
Iran was named as a country that "could potentially pose a missile threat to Europe and the Euro-Atlantic community," he said.

The plan is to base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland with an associated radar in the Czech Republic.
...
[Nato spokesman James] Appathurai said there was a feeling at the meeting that the proposed system "cannot pose any threat to Russia's capabilities nor change the strategic balance," the AFP news agency reported.

How ridiculous to point the finger at Iran. The only reason Iran would ever even think of launching a missile towards Europe (or beyond), even if it could, is if the US (or NATO) attacked them. So a far cheaper solution to this alleged threat is for the US (and to a lesser extent Europe) to just stop threatening Iran.

And how pathetic can Appathurai get to claim that this "cannot pose any threat to Russia's capabilities nor change the strategic balance". The day the Russian spokesperson says this is the day you might be willing to believe it.

HRT increases the risk of ovarian cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A large UK study has found hormone replacement therapy significantly increases the risk of ovarian cancer.

Figures from the Million Women Study suggest 1,000 extra women in the UK died from ovarian cancer between 1991 and 2005 because they were using HRT.

The researchers, writing in the Lancet, said HRT increased the risk of ovarian, breast and womb cancers.

Experts said current advice would not change and women should be on HRT for the shortest possible time.

Previous results from the Million Women Study, published in 2003, showed use of combined HRT doubles the risk of breast cancer.

The findings prompted recommendations that women weigh up the risks and benefits of HRT and take the smallest possible dose for the shortest possible time.

The new analysis of 948,576 postmenopausal women showed a 20% increased risk of developing and dying from ovarian cancer in HRT users, compared with those who had never used the treatment.

This translates to one extra case of ovarian cancer for every 2,500 women taking HRT and one extra death from ovarian cancer in every 3,300 users.

As with many cancer scare stories, most of the figures given in the article are fairly meaningless when trying to decide whether taking HRT is worth the risk. It is only in the last paragraph that any useful number is given. Women will have to decide whether it is worth the extra 1 in 2500 chance of getting ovarian cancer (and no doubt there are similar figures for breast cancer) as a trade-off for the benefit of taking HRT.

Date published: 2007/04/18

Ethanol vehicles might have negative impact on human health (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ethanol vehicles may have worse effects on human health than conventional petrol, US scientists have warned.

A computer model set up to simulate air quality in 2020 found that in some areas ozone levels would increase if all cars were run on bioethanol.

Deaths from respiratory problems and asthma attacks would increase with such levels, the researchers reported in Environmental Science and Technology.

The EU has agreed that biofuels should be used in 10% of transport by 2020.

Mark Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University in California, used a computer model which took into account factors such as temperatures, sunlight, clouds and rain to simulate air quality in 2020 for two different scenarios.

In one simulation all vehicles were fuelled by petrol and in the other all vehicles were fuelled by E85 - a mix of 85% ethanol and 15% petrol.

If all cars were run on E85, he found that in some parts of the US there were significant increases in ozone - a pollutant with harmful effects on the human respiratory system - compared with petrol cars.

In the study, the increase in smog translated to an extra 200 deaths per year in the whole of the US, with 120 occurring in Los Angeles alone.

Increases in ozone in some areas of the US would be offset by decreases in other areas but overall there would be 770 additional visits to accident and emergency and 990 additional hospitalisations for asthma and other respiratory problems, the results showed.

Although ethanol was found to reduce levels of two atmospheric carcinogens, levels of others increased so associated cancers would be the same as with pollution caused by petrol fumes, the study showed.

It's only one study and it's a computer model, so to be taken with a pinch of salt. And if you believe (and even this is not obvious) that biofuel vehicles lead to (end-to-end) decreases in carbon emissions, and that excess greenhouse gases are the number one problem in the world, then you might put up with a bit more ozone and a few more cancers. Surprise, there is no such thing as a free lunch. And as more potential problems are discovered (e.g. even more of the Amazon gets chopped down to grow crops for biofuels), this headlong rush into biofuel production could well be looked back upon in thirty or forty years as one big disaster.

Decline in leaves might be behind decline in amphibians in Costa Rica (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A decline in the amount of leaves on the ground could be behind the rapid demise of frog species, a study of a rainforest in Costa Rica has suggested.

Until now, the prime suspect for the amphibians' population crash was a deadly fungal infection.

By studying data over a 35-year period, researchers found that lizards, which were not susceptible to the infection, had also declined by a similar rate.
...
The international team of scientists examined data of amphibian and common reptile populations in La Selva, a protected area of rainforest in Costa Rica.

Between 1970 and 2005, the data showed that the number of amphibians had declined by about 75%, which supported the idea that frogs were being wiped out by the chytrid fungus.

However, the data also showed a similar fall in the area's reptiles, which were not susceptible to the fungus.

Over the same period, the data showed that there had been a 75% reduction in the density of leaves falling to the ground from the rainforest's canopy.

Leaf litter provides a vital habitat, offering food and shelter, for the amphibians and lizards.

The team, from Florida International University, the University of Costa Rica and San Diego State University, suggested shifts in the area's climate had led to a decline in the habitat needed to sustain the creatures.

"The increasingly warm and wet conditions of the past two decades could negatively influence standing litter mass by affecting rates of litterfall or litter decomposition," the authors wrote.

It sounds halfway plausible but so doesn't the idea that the problem for frogs is the fungal infection. Basically, ecosystems are complex, and models and theories are sometimes just hopelessly incomplete and naive, and it's also sometimes difficult to figure out what is a cause and what is an effect.

Britain stages a climate change debate at the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The United Nations Security Council has held its first ever debate on climate change with some members arguing it was not the place for such a discussion.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett justified the debate by linking the issue to security.

But Russia and China said that as an international security watchdog, the 15-member council was not the right forum to debate climate change.

Mrs Beckett said an unstable climate could lead to increased world conflict.

The debate was initiated by the UK, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month.

No resolution or statement arose from the discussion, in which 55 member states spoke.

Sure climate change affects security, but so don't a lot of things. In particular, (over)population, which is one of the main drivers of conflict in the world, and of climate change, yet which nobody ever wants to talk about. All in all this debate just looks like the British government posing to the world. And if Beckett is allegedly so concerned about climate change, did she really need to put in all those air miles to deliver the message or could the British UN ambassador have done the job perfectly well in her place?

Date published: 2007/04/17

Kilimanjaro glaciers allegedly will be around for longer than thought (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A fresh assessment suggests the famous ice fields on Africa's tallest mountain will be around for decades yet.

Recent concerns that climate warming would rob Mount Kilimanjaro of all its glaciers within 20 years are overly pessimistic, say Austrian scientists.

Their weather station data and modelling work indicate the tropical ice should last well beyond 2040.

Precipitation and not temperature is the key to the white peak's future, the University of Innsbruck-led team says.

"About five years ago Kilimanjaro was being used as an icon for global warming. We know now that this was far too simplistic a view," said Thomas Moelg.

"We have done different kinds of modelling and we expect the plateau glaciers to be gone roughly within 30 or 40 years from now, but we have a certain expectation that the slope glaciers may last longer," added colleague Georg Kaser.

Well, this seems to have been a fairly careful analysis but it's only one study. Still, glaciers have been some of the most evocative poster children of global warming, so the result is interesting.

Government wants to tempt some motorists to take up road pricing (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridge motorists could be offered financial incentives to take part in road-pricing experiments under Government plans to reduce traffic congestion.

But Coun John Reynolds, Cambridgeshire County Council's cabinet member for the environment, said it would not back the scheme - and it is still in the middle of its own evaluation of congestion-busting options.

The Department for Transport is developing an approach where drivers are offered a choice of continuing to pay motoring taxes or switch to a road-pricing meter in the car.

Drivers could be offered a discount on fuel duty in return for agreeing to pay a distance based charge, which would vary according to the level of congestion.

An on-board "black box" would use satellite positioning and a digital map to record the vehicle's movements.

Drivers would be able to see the true cost of their journey mounting up as they sat behind the wheel and might decide to travel at a cheaper time, by a cheaper route or on public transport.

The county council was awarded almost £1.5 million by the Government last year to look at whether congestion charging would reduce the number of cars coming into Cambridge and boost public transport.

Coun Reynolds said:

"Our submission to the Government put forward a cost-neutral system for the average motorist who might get something off their fuel, income tax or Council Tax for participating.

The only extra charges would be for those who drove excessively.

"We're going through a long process to look at a range of options, and we're halfway through this, so it would be foolish to comment.

"We're not, therefore, supporting this scheme.

"All we know is it is getting worse. There needs to be a consensus between drivers, cyclists, motorcyclists and others to find a longer-term solution."

He said the city's park and ride has been very successful at taking motorists off the road and is used by 1.8 million people a year. But he said despite an increase in bus services and passenger numbers, there is a 3 to 4 per cent growth in road traffic.

No road pricing system can be "cost neutral" because someone has to pay for all this technology. The fact that the politicians cannot even be honest about this shows perfectly well that (surprise) they are up to no good.

The Department of Transport idea of offering drivers a choice is obviously only going to tempt drivers who think that they will be better off. If that happens then, all other things being equal, the government will end up being worse off, especially once the cost of the technology is taken into account. Since the government will not stand losing this revenue, their policy must be to either increase fuel duty to compensate, or to soon force all drivers to accept road pricing. Whatever, because of the great cost of the technology, on average drivers will be worse off. (With the great alleged benefit being a reduction in congestion.)

And although the park and ride in Cambridge has allegedly been successful, it is no surprise that Cambridge congestion is getting worse because the Cambridge ruling elite has purposefully made it worse by reducing road capacity (e.g. Newmarket Road being one of the worst examples). And road traffic growth is highly correlated with economic growth, in spite of what the chattering classes like to pretend. The only way to get around that is to in effect make it illegal or prohibitively expensive to drive, which is the real aim of the ruling elite.

And why Reynolds thinks cyclists have anything to do with the situation, one way or the other, is unfathomable. It is also obnoxious beyond belief for him to casually state that "the only extra charges would be for those who drove excessively". Who is he to decide what is and is not "excessive" driving. Some people have to drive a long way to get to work just to earn enough money to pay taxes to keep these useless politicians (and bureaucrats) in business.

Date published: 2007/04/16

The UK government wants to lock up more mentally ill people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers face a fight to get controversial new laws on detaining mentally ill people through Parliament.

The bill, which will allow people to be held against their will even if they have not committed a crime, has been attacked by the Tories as "punitive".

They joined forces with the Lib Dems and mental health experts to condemn the plan which they said would prevent sufferers from seeking help.

Ministers say the proposals will help keep the public safe.
...
In February the Lords voted against the idea of compulsion, saying treatment should be given only if it was likely to help the patient.
...
Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said the government had not learned the right lessons from a series of high-profile killings.

He added: "Countless inquiries into these homicides tell us that it's the services and access to services that makes the biggest difference - not changing the law."

But Wendy Robinson of the Zito Trust, whose daughter Georgina was killed in 1993 by a psychiatric patient, said she backed the stronger powers in the bill.

"So many people have died this last year, and over the last years, because no action has been taken," she said.

Tony Zigmond, a psychiatrist with 31 years experience and the honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the link between mental health and homicide was rare.

"The vast majority of people present no danger to anyone."

He added that those who did commit homicide "were not in contact with mental health services and had never been".

Health Minister Rosie Winterton has said that the bill "strikes the right balance between getting treatment to those who need it, putting in place patient safeguards and minimising the risk to the public".

Some of the arguments in the article make sense and some do not. The BBC claims that "ministers say the proposals will help keep the public safe". Putting it that way makes no sense. If keeping "the public safe" is allegedly the main goal of government, then you should just lock everybody up. (After all, anyone could be a criminal.) On the other hand, the government statement at the end about "balance" makes some sense (in which case the real argument is where the line is to be drawn, and government has made little attempt to justify that).

Paul Farmer makes perfect sense. The main problem with mental health services in the UK is that they were run into the ground by Thatcher, and Labour has done little to correct the situation. Mentally ill people have just been cut adrift and people seem to be surprised when sometimes it goes horribly wrong.

Wendy Robinson makes the wrong conclusion. It is the unfortunate "something must be done" attitude of the tabloid press, without considering whether what is being proposed makes any sense.

Tony Zigmund states that "the vast majority of people present no danger to anyone", which is true, but this is missing an important point. If 1 in N people of some (arbitrary) categorisation were known to go on to commit murder, the real question is at what value of N (and below) would it be ok for society to arbitrarily lock up all people in that category. Even N = 3 implies that "the vast majority of people present no danger to anyone" (i.e. 2/3). But if the real value was N = 3 then society could probably justify this draconian action. Needless to say, N is much, much higher than 3. Let's say N = 1000. Is it really ok for society to arbitrarily lock up 1000 people just because 1 of them is going to commit a murder? The only people who support this proposition are people who believe they will never be one of the 999.

And this is assuming that the mental health services would do a reasonable job in judging the situation. Does anyone really have any faith in that happening?

All in all, the House of Lords is on the correct side, and the government is not.

Every household in the UK might get an electricity monitor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Every household in the UK will be able to request a free device that shows how much electricity is being used in the home at any one particular moment.

Ministers are set to announce the plan in the forthcoming Energy White Paper.

They hope "real-time monitors" will help cut greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of energy wasted by appliances being left on standby.

The government recently committed itself to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050.

Households in the UK are responsible for about one third of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, and have been the focus of a number of recent ministerial initiatives to reduce energy consumption.

Well it sounds like a good idea. But how much do these monitors cost and will they work in a useful way, and is the alleged benefit going to outweigh the cost?

Hilary Benn derides the concept of the "war on terror" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

President George W Bush's concept of a "war on terror" has given strength to terrorists by making them feel part of something bigger, Hilary Benn has said.

The international development secretary told a meeting in New York the phrase gives a shared identity to small groups with widely differing aims.

And Mr Benn, a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership, confirmed that UK officials would stop using the term.

The White House coined the phrase after the attacks of 11 September 2001.

Mr Benn said: "In the UK, we do not use the phrase 'war on terror' because we can't win by military means alone.

"And because this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives."

It is "the vast majority of the people in the world" against "a small number of loose, shifting and disparate groups who have relatively little in common", he said.

"What these groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence.

"And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength."

All totally obvious. Of course the US and UK have also tried "to force their individual and narrow values on others ... through violence" (although they had a minimal amount of misleading debate). And the US and UK are responsible for many more deaths than the terrorists. But Benn could not mention those equally obvious points. Bush of course wanted a "war on terror" so that he could be a war president and thus play the patriotism card and also give himself unwarranted powers to detain, torture and kill people. Blair was happy to play along but perhaps the Labour Party is now ready to move on from this dreadful position.

Date published: 2007/04/15

Tories play kindergarten games over Defence Secretary (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has said Defence Secretary Des Browne may have to resign unless he can show the armed forces have confidence in him.

He told the BBC Mr Browne had to give a "full account" of why sailors held by Iran were able to sell their stories.

The defence secretary is due to report to the Commons on Monday.

The Lib Dems said Mr Browne had made a "terrible mistake", but Home Secretary John Reid called him "courageous to say we got this thing wrong".

Sanctimonious gits, the Tories and the Lib Dems. This is a complete non-story and the fact that the chattering classes want to spend so much time chattering about it tells you more about the chattering classes than anything else.

Date published: 2007/04/14

Google's dominance in search market allegedly being challenged (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Google's dominance of the search market, which in the UK stands at 75%, is increasingly being challenged by rivals desperate to become popular with a generation of web users growing up with Google as their homepage.

Given that search is the number one web activity and intrinsic to the fabric of online life it is perhaps strange that most people are content to limit their information-seeking to just one search engine.

With few studies to prove that Google's results are significantly better than its rivals, search engines such as Ask are keen to persuade users to experiment with the alternatives.

But it is going to be hard to break the Google habit.

"There is nothing to stop people using other search engines," said Nate Elliot, analyst with research firm Jupiter.

"It isn't much trouble to go to another but people increasingly have Google on their browser window and even for those that type it in each time it has become a habitual thing,"

It wasn't always so. Mr Elliot remembers a time when searchers were a "far more fickle bunch", with search engines such as AltaVista and HotBot flavours of the month.

Google's popularity was partly kick started by its clean, uncluttered homepage which won many admirers.

No, Google's popularity was not kick started by its uncluttered homepage. Altavista was the first serious search engine and could have been the Google of the world but made a big, big mistake, in that they ranked a webpage higher if the owner paid them money. This meant that you often got loads of dross from a query before you got anything useful. Google did not do this. And Google had an innovative, and sensible, algorithm in that they ranked a webpage higher if other websites linked to it. Google queries did (and still do) usually give good results. This is why people started using (and still use) Google. Until the pretenders have a worthwhile "unique selling point", or Google shoots itself in the foot, Google will continue to dominate.

A warm (and sunny) April in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is basking in warm sunshine - with the highest temperatures of the year so far expected over the weekend.

Forecasters are predicting it could reach 24-25C before Sunday evening - about 10 degrees above spring average.

The BBC Weather Centre reported a temperature of 25C in the Solent on Saturday, with Manchester reaching 24.2C and Bournemouth 24C.

The Met Office has said there is a 60% chance that 2007 will beat 1998 as the hottest year worldwide on record.

And the Easter bank holiday was mostly warm and sunny as well. Unbelievable. Oh well, this is one of the pluses of global warming. Funnily enough the BBC didn't take the opportunity to tell us that we are all sinners and that the world will end because of the warm temperatures.

Date published: 2007/04/13

Surprise: house prices in the UK are high (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Public sector workers such as teachers, nurses, police and firefighters cannot afford to buy homes in seven out of 10 UK towns, the Halifax bank has said.

Halifax arrived at its conclusions by dividing average regional property prices by average annual wages.

It said property was most unaffordable in London and South-East England but property costs were also racing away from wages in other parts of the UK.
...
Of 517 towns and local authorities surveyed by the bank, 363 (70%) were deemed unaffordable.

Halifax defined a town as unaffordable if the average price of a house was more than 4.46 times the average wage of the workers - it is also the average multiple of income a first-time buyer pays for a property.
...
In 2002, just over a third of towns were beyond the means of public sector workers looking to buy property, last year that figure rose to 65%.

This is just the latest in a long line of garbage reports by Halifax on the property market. First of all, they fall for the dreadful government propaganda that says that the only people who matter in the world are public sector workers. But nearly everyone in the UK is in the same boat as public sector workers, i.e. unable to afford the housing they should be able to, given how rich the UK is.

Secondly, the Halifax is looking at the wages of single people, and most people who buy houses in the UK have two incomes, or are wealthy enough not to need two incomes. It's been like that for many years, and no single person, public sector worker or not, should really expect to be able to afford an average house. It goes without saying that it is households on average wages that should be able to afford an average house. So the entire report is based on a disingenous proposition.

And of course the figures they quote have gotten worse recently because house prices have gone ballistic recently. Unfortunately the result of all these kind of garbage reports, and the associated taunting of the government by the media, is that the government will throw more money at housing, not by building more houses, but by subsidising more public-sector workers even more than they do already. This helps nobody except financial institutions like the Halifax (who rake in ever more money from the housing market) and the (relatively) few public-sector workers who qualify for the handout. And indeed the rest of the country ends up worse off (because the main effect of any government subsidy of the housing market is to push prices up even more than they otherwise would).

What we really need in the UK is more housing, and much better quality housing. That is the one thing we never get. The UK ruling elite think the peasants should just put up with crap.

First evidence of a genetic component to obesity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists say they have identified the clearest genetic link to obesity yet.

They found people with two copies of a "fat" version of a gene had a 70% higher risk of obesity than those with none, and weighed 3kg (6.5lb) more.

The work in Science by the Peninsula Medical School and Oxford University studied data from about 40,000 people.

The findings suggest that although improving lifestyle is key to reducing obesity, some people may find it harder to lose weight because of their genes.

Half of white Europeans carry one copy of the variant and one in six has two copies, experts estimate.
...
People carrying one copy of the "fat" FTO variant had a 30% increased risk of being obese compared to a person with no copies of that version.

Those carrying two copies of the variant had a 70% increased risk of being obese, and were on average 3kg (6.6lb) heavier than a similar person with no copies.

Professor Andrew Hattersley of the Peninsula Medical School said this could explain why two people can seem to eat the same things and do the same amount of exercise yet one may struggle to lose weight more than the other.

He said: "The typical message has been that if you are overweight it is due to sloth and gluttony and it is your fault.

"This work is suggesting that there is also a genetic component."

And he said although a 3kg difference in weight sounds relatively small, it is enough to make a big change in the risks of obesity.

So far all we have is a correlation, not a causation although here it seems likely that these genes must play some role in obesity, perhaps in concert with other genes. Until there is an understood molecular mechanism, rather than just a correlation, the science is not resolved. Of course everybody always thought there was a genetic component to obesity, but environmental factors, in particular diet, pretty clearly play a bigger role. (People today are on average a lot fatter than they were thirty years ago, but the gene pool has not changed that much.) So this study is not nearly as remarkable in consequence as some in the media would have you believe.

Ashwell is going to propose new scheme for Cambridge railway area (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Developers have scrapped their unpopular £725 million plans for revamping the Station Road area of Cambridge.

Ashwell has announced it is shelving an appeal against Cambridge City Council's decision to refuse planning permission for the cb1 scheme.

The company, which is now working on new plans for the 21.5 acre development with its architects, has been in top secret talks with Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council for months.

Bosses said in December they were postponing the appeal against the city's decision while discussions continued.

Now, almost a year after ambitious plans for a transport interchange, 1,400 flats, a hotel, offices and a multi-storey car park, were dismissed, Ashwell has announced it is taking the plans off the table and will not be pursuing the appeal.

Cambridge City Council put aside £200,000 to fight the company after rejecting the scheme on 25 grounds.

The new scheme is still in its early stages and Ashwell expects to begin public consultation in the summer.

The company said it hoped to address the concerns raised by the first application and create a scheme residents and councillors will be happy with.

Paul Thwaites, chief executive of Ashwell Property Group, said:

"We are making excellent progress working in consultation with officers at the city and county councils on the key principles for the redevelopment of cb1.

"At the heart of the redesign is a focus on delivering a high quality transport interchange, which will enable people living, working or visiting this great city to move between transport by bicycle, bus, train and car with ease."

Cambridge City Council's planning committee said last April that redevelopment of the site was a "once in a lifetime" opportunity and the original plans failed to meet the needs of rail users, public transport users, taxi users, pedestrians and cyclists.

The fact that we are in this situation at all is a condemnation of both sides in the dispute. They should have been in discussions years ago about all these details. Needless to say, wherever the city is involved, the design is almost certain to be worse than it would otherwise be. In particular, note how Thwaites mentions cars but the city council does not. You can pretty much guarantee that the city will try to enforce that there be poor access to the station for cars. Everything else about this development is of no great use to Cambridge. The flats will be built for London commuters, not the workers of Cambridge.

Date published: 2007/04/12

Correlation found between persistent organic pesticides and insulin resistance (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More evidence has emerged suggesting a link between pollutants found in oily fish and type two diabetes.

An international team found high levels of persistent organic pesticides (POPs) in the blood correlated to insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.

POPs are stored in fatty tissues - the study suggested this may be why obese people are more vulnerable to diabetes.

However, experts have said that the study published in Diabetes Care is far from conclusive.

Patients resistant to the hormone insulin are unable to remove excess glucose from their blood, and this is normally an important step in the onset of type two diabetes.

The new research therefore suggests that POPs act critically at a very early stage in the development of diabetes.
...
But the work does not confirm a causal link - it is possible that that having insulin resistance could reduce people's ability to clear POPs from their system, thus explaining the association.

Lead author Professor Duk-Hee Lee said the evidence needed to be replicated and developed in other studies, and called for molecular studies to explain the link between pesticides and insulin resistance.

Astonishing, the BBC for once points out that a health study has only proven a correlation, not a causation. Unfortunately the standard method of health-related studies these days seems to be to pick on some chemical (e.g. POPs) that is deemed suspect, and look for correlations between that chemical and anything and everything that is deemed to be bad (e.g. insulin resistance) and as soon as some correlation is found, imply that in fact this is a causation and that therefore the chemical is indeed at fault. Of course the chemical might well be at fault, only it is not at all proven.

A-level students should allegedly be bribed to study science (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A-level students should be paid for passing exams in science and maths, a report recommends.

Such action is needed to stop the fall in numbers of people studying those subjects, the report says.

Since 2002, there has been a 15% fall in the numbers taking maths at A-level in England, while those taking physics fell 14% and computer sciences 47%.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson said the UK needed more science and maths graduates to stay competitive.

The report, published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education and IT consultancy LogicaCMG, warns that businesses in the UK will face a shortage of qualified employees within the next few years unless government funding is found for the development of "Stem" subjects: science, technology, engineering, mathematics.

As well as offering financial incentives, there should be extra training for teachers because it was only through inspired teaching that pupils would be encouraged to continue with such subjects.

The report said that pupils were forced to specialise too early in their school careers, often limiting their options.

LogicaCMG's Dr Martin Read said a payment of about £500 might be enough to encourage students to stick with Stem subjects.

Another pointless report on education. Students are just responding to the real-world situation, where a lot of UK "Stem" jobs have been, and will continue to be, exported to elsewhere in the world. Instead of bribing students with little interest in the subject, and instead of wasting money on educational consultants, the government should just give more money to science, i.e. to the UK research councils.

Date published: 2007/04/11

The latest UK Social Trends report is released (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britons are increasingly likely to live in single-parent families, stay at home for longer, marry later and struggle to afford a house, official figures show.

The Office for National Statistics said children in the UK were three times more likely to live in one-parent households than they were in 1972.

Last year almost 60% of men and 40% of women aged between 20 and 24 in England still lived with their parents.

The department's annual Social Trends report studies patterns in UK society.

Among the findings this year was that wages rose on average by 92% from 1995 to 2005, but house prices rocketed by 204%.
...
Since 1971 the proportion of all people living in "traditional" family households of married couples with dependent children has fallen from 52% to 37%.

Over the same period, the proportion of people living in couples with no children rose from 19% to 25%.

Nearly a quarter of children lived with only one parent last year and nine out of 10 of those households were headed by lone mothers.
...
David Green, director of the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you take almost any measure - how well children do in school, whether they turn to crime, whether they commit suicide, etc - it's better to have two parents.

"It's also the biggest disadvantage of lone parenthood that you're much more likely to be poor."

Of course if you compare almost anything about life today with life in 1971 you are going to find big differences. It is more interesting to look at the trend over (say) the last ten years. Needless to say this would not be so remarkable, which is why the spin is about 1971 (the ONS needs to justify its existence so needs to make a splash).

That 25% of people are couples with no children shows that such people are an important minority. (And they are the only people who are environmentally friendly, since having children is the single most environmentally damaging thing you can do.) But they are only a minority, which is why every year, the government (no matter which political party is in charge) insists that this minority must hand over more and more money to the majority, i.e. people with children. There is always the excuse that this is a "family" friendly policy, as if people without children do not belong to families. Or there is the excuse that "children are the future", as if the workers (who are presumably "the present") and pensioners (who are presumably "the past") should count for nothing.

And David Green makes the classic mistake of confusing correlation and causation. He could equally well have said "It's also the biggest disadvantage of being poor that you're much more likely to be a lone parent". But of course he wants to market the spin that single parents cause poverty (not that there's just a correlation) and that poverty is all that counts when it comes to raising children (so who cares if both parents are constantly rowing with each other, as long as a large amount of money is coming into the household).

Galapagos Islands allegedly under threat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa has declared the Galapagos Islands, home to dozens of endangered species, at risk and a national priority for action.

The islands, Ecuador's top tourist draw, were suffering an environmental and social crisis, he said.

Mr Correa's call came as a UN delegation was visiting to see if the islands should be declared "in danger".

The Galapagos Islands were made a World Heritage Site 30 years ago for their unique plant and animal life.

"We are pushing for a series of actions to overcome the huge institutional, environmental and social crises in the islands," Mr Correa said, adding that these problems were the result of years of neglect by previous governments.

He did not detail the measures, but indicated Ecuador would consider suspending some tourism permits, Reuters news agency reported.

The islands, located some 1,000km (620 miles) off Ecuador's mainland, are home to an array of species, including giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and marine iguanas.

About 20,000 people, working mainly in fishing and tourism, also live there.
...
Last month, several rangers of the ecological reserve in the islands clashed with members of the Ecuadorean Armed Forces over what the rangers say was illegal fishing in protected waters.

The incident provoked an outcry in Ecuador as it illustrated for many the practices which are damaging the site.

Mr Correa announced that a number of military officials had been suspended pending an investigation.

However, ecologists say the problems in the Galapagos run much deeper than the government has acknowledged.

They fear that a rapid increase in the human population and the gradual introduction of external species of flora and fauna are threatening the entire ecosystem on the islands.

Representatives of the UN's scientific, educational and cultural body, Unesco, have travelled to its research station on the Galapagos to inspect the state of conservation there.

If there are too many people visiting the island then that needs to be cut, and not just tourists but also scientists and VIPs like the UNESCO visitors. There should be a quota and it should be first come (or first reserved) first served. But it seems that tourists are not the only problem. If agents of the government are causing substantive damage then there is little hope for the islands.

Date published: 2007/04/10

Forests in the far northern hemisphere allegedly bad for global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Planting trees in snowy areas may worsen global warming as their canopies absorb sunlight which would otherwise be reflected by the snow, a study says.

The report in US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the pine forests of Europe, Siberia and Canada may contribute to warming.

Only tropical forests effectively cool the earth by absorbing carbon dioxide and creating clouds, the report says.

But the report's authors stress they are not advocating chopping down trees.

They say forests are a valuable resource and remain vital for bio-diversity, providing a home for animals and plants.

This is not that original an idea. And the classic problem with looking at one thing in isolation is that it indeed misses the bigger picture. So in spite of the caveat in the article, it will indeed encourage some people to advocate removing forests. A far bigger, and more sensible, contribution to lessening global warming would be for everyone to have less, or no, children. But of course nobody ever wants to mention, or publish, that (also not very original) idea.

EU court rules a woman does not have right to use embryos without partner's consent (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A woman left infertile after cancer therapy has lost her fight to use embryos fertilised by an ex-partner.

Natallie Evans, from Trowbridge, Wilts, and Howard Johnston began IVF treatment in 2001 but he withdrew consent for the embryos to be used after they split up.

She turned to the European courts after exhausting the UK legal process.

Ms Evans, 35, said she was "distraught" after the Grand Chamber of the European Court ruling, but Mr Johnston said "common sense had prevailed."

Ms Evans was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001, but six of the couple's fertilised embryos were frozen and stored prior to her treatment.

But she and Mr Johnston, who lives in Gloucester, split up in 2002 and he wrote to the clinic asking for the embryos to be destroyed.

Ms Evans took the case to the High Court in 2003 asking to be allowed to use them without Mr Johnston's permission.

She has argued he had already consented to their creation, storage and use, and should not be allowed to change his mind.

Current UK laws require both the man and woman to give consent, and allows either party to withdraw that consent up to the point where the embryos are implanted.

Ms Evans lost both the case and the appeal and was told she could not take the case to the House of Lords.

She then appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which again ruled against her a year ago.

Her appeal to the Grand Chamber of the European Court under three articles of the European Convention of Human Rights represented her last chance to save the embryos.

The court ruled unanimously that there had been no breach of the right to life, but on the right to respect for private and family life and on the prohibition of discrimination the 17 judges ruled 13 to four.

A small bit of sanity. The alternative ruling would have meant that for some obscure reason women should be given preferential control over embryos.

The BBC claims the Belgians have a waste paradise (permanent blog link)

John Andrew of the BBC says:

Councils in England could soon be allowed to charge residents for the amount of rubbish they throw away. But what effect have "pay as you throw" systems had in other countries?

When I visited the Flanders town of Lokeren - half-way between Antwerp and Ghent - I was following in the footsteps of environment minister Ben Bradshaw.

He went with a team of officials last year to see how this part of Belgium recycles more than 70% of its household waste.

In Lokeren itself, the rate is nearly 80% - more than three times that in England as a whole. So how do the Flemish do it?

Not long ago the cost of rubbish collection and disposal was "hidden" in the main local tax - as it is in Britain.

But a few years ago the Flemish moved to a system where people pay a separate annual waste fee. In Lokeren, it's set at 80 euros (£56).

On top of that, they pay variable charges based on the weight and volume of waste they leave for collection.

The idea is to encourage people to produce less waste and recycle more.

For the keenest recyclers, the total final bill for the year including the fixed charge can be as little as £70.

For those who don't control their waste, it can climb to nearly £180.

The bins are weighed before and after they're emptied on the truck and the weights recorded in the cab.

The system also reads a microchip under the bin lid which identifies it as belonging to that household.

Some papers have dubbed this the "spy in the bin", but it can't see what you throw away, it merely confirms that the bin is yours.

At first, some families were hostile.

Suspicious householders even weighed their bins on their bathroom scales because they didn't trust the council's measurement.

Now, though, the vast majority accept the system as the best way of encouraging recycling and helping the environment.

Although people were given the chance to buy locks for their bins to stop neighbours dumping their rubbish in them, only 300 out of 40,000 households asked for one.

There was no significant rise in fly-tipping, and where illegal dumps did spring up the council quickly pounced on them and put up warning notices.

One family I met said the payment-by-weight system had changed their behaviour.

They now tend to buy food with less packaging, like fresh fruit and vegetables.

And because they are also charged for food and garden waste - though at a lower rate than other rubbish - they avoid using the green bin at all through a mixture of composting and using chickens, which gobble up much of their left-over food.

Of course you have to be suspicious of any article which claims it is greener on the other side of the fence. And any article which mentions "one family I met" is extremely suspicious (one example of anything proves very little). But it seems at face value that Belgium at least has thought this through logically, even charging for organic waste collection (and hopefully for other material intended for recycling as well). One of the problems with the chattering classes of Britain is that they don't seem to recognise that so-called recycling (by which is meant the collection and industrial processing of certain material by the State) has a cost just like landfill.

And one of the reasons a comparison with Belgium is not exact is that Britain has much more land than Belgium, so landfill waste should be correspondingly cheaper. The cost borne by the householder for collection of waste (of whatever type) should be the cost to dispose of the waste (including externalities, if any). Perhaps this is the case in Belgium. It is unlikely to be the case in Britain, where an arbitrary tax level will almost certainly be set.

And perhaps the Belgians are perfectly law-abiding and there has been "no significant rise in fly-tipping". It would be amazing if the British turn out to be equally well behaved. People already dump plenty of household waste even though it is currently (effectively) free to have the State collect it. One can also imagine British people will start to dump more waste at work, and let their company pick up the bill. So the Belgian waste paradise sounds all very good, but meanwhile back in the real world it is unlikely to be as perfect as the BBC would have you believe.

Date published: 2007/04/09

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tell the US to get lost (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shias have demonstrated in the holy city of Najaf, calling for US-led troops to leave Iraq. The protesters were responding to an appeal by cleric Moqtada Sadr, who branded US forces "your arch enemy" in a statement. The demonstration marks four years since US troops entered Baghdad and ended the rule of Saddam Hussein.
...
In a statement issued on Sunday, the cleric asked Iraqis not to "walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your arch enemy" and to turn all their efforts on US forces. But he warned followers against violence, urging the Mehdi Army and Iraqi security forces "to be to be patient and to unite your efforts against the enemy and not against the sons of Iraq".
...
Some demonstrators burned US flags and shouted slogans: "No, no, no to America... Moqtada, yes, yes, yes.". One member of Mr Sadr's organisation, Salah al-Obaydi, called the rally a "call for liberation".

Does anyone in the US, outside of the nutters who run the White House, believe that the (illegal) invasion of Iraq is not (easily) the biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of America? The US has spent over a trillion dollars putting the Shias in power and what is there to show for it, other than a dead Saddam Hussein?

Poor children do better if they go to good schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children who go to grammar schools in England achieve better grades than those of similar ability who are not in selective areas, researchers claim.

A Bristol University study suggested pupils from poorer backgrounds do particularly well.

But relatively few children from the poorest families go to grammar schools.

"If access could be widened then the case for keeping selective education would be greatly enhanced," it said.

The research examined the 19 education authorities - out of a total of 150 - that still have substantial academic selection for secondary schools.

This selection, at the age of 10, typically leads to 25% of pupils being chosen for the 164 remaining grammar schools.
...
Overall there is little or no impact on attainment, but the quarter of children educated in grammar schools do substantially better than their peers in similar non-selective areas.
...
"In part these effects stem from the substantive under-representation of poorer and special-needs children in grammar schools," said the academics, from Bristol's Centre for Market and Public Organisation.

The change in the social mix of schools raised attainment in the grammar schools but had "moderately adverse effects" for the rest.

"The paradox is that, for the minority of poor children who do gain a place in a grammar school, the advantage this bestows appears to be greater than for more affluent children," they reported.

"If access could be widened then the case for keeping selective education would be greatly enhanced."

What a surprise, if you put poor kids (in particular ones whose parents are pushy) into good schools they do better than if you leave them in poor schools. And the poor schools then also do worse on average, having lost these children. It's amazing this kind of useless "research" gets funded. They should just sack all educationalists and instead give the money to something useful, like the school system.

Date published: 2007/04/08

A proposal to introduce an arbitrary inter-country carbon tax (permanent blog link)

John Hontelez, representing some organisation called the European Environmental Bureau, says on the BBC:

With rapidly mounting signs that carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming, how should we deal with countries which haven't ratified the Kyoto Protocol and don't impose a "carbon charge" on their exports?

These countries unfairly favour their own goods and discriminate against nations that do apply such a charge, as the European Union is doing with its Emissions Trading Scheme, and some of its members with carbon taxes.

Can we rebalance the economic burden of shifting to a low-carbon society?

Border Tax Adjustments (BTAs) might be the answer which allows the EU to develop responsible climate policies without having to wait for other countries.

They would result in products imported from the US being taxed to compensate for resulting differences in production costs. Thus EU firms would be protected against unfair, carbon-careless competition from outside.

BTAs can redress the balance between, say, EU companies that pay for their CO2 emissions, and companies from the USA which do not because the White House won't take climate change seriously.

Sure, this sounds like a fair enough idea. Only why stop at carbon emissions, why not tax imports from companies that pollute the water, etc. Of course the big problem is that many products consist of sub-products from other companies and countries, so it is extremely difficult to do the sums properly (and taxing something at double the rate it should be is no better than not taxing it at all). Needless to say, the one underlying principle underlying this tax is that it should be fair, in particular the (unit) rate should be the same for all carbon emissions, independent of source. But no, Hontelez doesn't want to do that, instead his proposal is just anti-American political grandstanding:

There are several important aspects regarding border taxes.

It's clear the tax shouldn't apply to imports from poor countries with low per-capita carbon emissions; the real onus is on countries with major responsibility for climate change which refuse to take necessary measures.

At present, this list shouldn't include China, which as a developing country has a relatively low emissions-to-population ratio.

A "Kyoto tax" shouldn't be abused to respond to low labour costs in other countries.

However, exempting specific US states from a BTA targeting that nation, if technically feasible, would be great, as it would pressure the rest of the US to fall in line.

So Hontelez, and by association the European Environmental Bureau, cannot be treated seriously. He just wants to introduce an arbitrary tax. He is just taking the piss.

Date published: 2007/04/07

Most of the Cambridgeshire ruling elite have called for the A14 to be upgraded (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridgeshire has united in a rallying call to the Government to upgrade the A14 as soon as possible.

Community leaders, including all five district councils, Addenbrooke's Hospital, and Cambridgeshire Horizons, the team overseeing the delivery of 47,500 homes across the county, are so fed up with waiting for improvements they have joined together to send a stronglyworded letter demanding the vital scheme is pushed through.

They hope their call for action and support of the so-called orange route will leave the Highways Agency in no doubt that Cambridgeshire wants the notorious "road to hell" improved immediately.

Amazingly even the Cambridgeshire Constabulary signed the letter. And supposedly Cambridge City Council did as well, although recently the LibDems who run the city council have been lukewarm, at best, about the A14 upgrade (since if the A14 is upgraded there might be more traffic on the A14, which means there might be more traffic coming into Cambridge, and we can't possibly have that). And supposedly Anglia Ruskin University signed the letter but not Cambridge University. Needless to say, they can sign all the letters they want, the government is still not going to do anything for years. The next time someone dies on the A14 because of the dreadful design of the road, they should charge cabinet ministers (and civil servants) with governmental homicide. That would make them think twice about doing nothing.

Iran claims CIA involved in the torture of one of their diplomats (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An Iranian diplomat freed last week after being abducted in Iraq in February has said he was tortured by his captors, including CIA agents.

Jalal Sharafi, the second secretary at Iran's embassy in Baghdad, told Iranian media the agents had interrogated him on his country's role in Iraq.

Mr Sharafi said he had been taken from his car by men in Iraqi army uniforms.

The White House said the US had not been involved in his detention, and it welcomed Mr Sharafi's return to Iran.

Of course we will never know. The current US government believes that kidnapping Iranians is acceptable and believes that torture is acceptable, so they could well have been involved here. And if they were not, the people who were involved could well have been agents of the Iraqi government, which means that indirectly the US would have been responsible. So the onus is more on the Americans to prove that they, or their allies, were not involved, than on the Iranians to prove otherwise.

Date published: 2007/04/06

IPCC releases latest report on the impact of climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Billions of people face shortages of food and water and increased risk of flooding, experts at a major climate change conference have warned.

The bleak conclusion came ahead of the publication of a key report by hundreds of international environmental experts.

Agreement on the final wording of the report was reached after a marathon debate through the night in Brussels.

People living in poverty would be worst affected by the effects of climate change, the gathered experts said.

"It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Mr Pachauri said those people were also the least equipped to deal with the effects of such changes.

Outlining the report's findings, Martin Parry, co-chairman of IPCC Working Group II, said evidence showed climate change was having a direct effect on animals, plants and water.

"For the first time, we are no longer arm-waving with models; this is empirical data, we can actually measure it," he told a news conference.

Key findings of the report include:

The report states that the observed increase in the global average temperature was "very likely" due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Nothing really new here. And it's particularly trivially obvious that poor people will be worst affected, they are worst affected by everything in life, has anyone seriously suggested otherwise? Needless to say the people putting this report together are the rich, and they not only contribute the most to climate change (e.g. from their air travel just getting to and from all these and other conferences), they will also be the people least affected by climate change.

Fungi in southern England doing well under climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A remarkable father-and-son research project has revealed how rising temperatures are affecting fungi in southern England.

Fungus enthusiast Edward Gange amassed 52,000 sightings of mushroom and toadstools during walks around Salisbury over a 50-year period.

Analysis by his son Alan, published in the journal Science, shows some fungi have started to fruit twice a year.

It is among the first studies to show a biological impact of warming in autumn.
...
The records included sightings of 315 species of mushrooms and toadstools which appear in the autumn, being the seasonal fruiting parts of fungi that live in the soil, on rotting wood or in tree roots.

One of the changes Professor Gange turned up was that the autumnal fruiting period has expanded. Some mushrooms and toadstools are emerging earlier each year, others later, which he thinks are responses to warmer temperatures and higher rainfall.

More spectacularly, he found that more than one third of the species recorded have started to fruit twice per year. There was no record of this before 1976; but since then, 120 species have shown an additional fruiting in spring.

A useful, if narrow, snapshot of the effect of a changing climate. And it seems that fungi in southern England quite appreciate a warmer world, so this is one small example where the world is not ending.

Date published: 2007/04/05

Committee of MPs think that hybrid embryos should not be banned (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government plans to ban the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos could potentially harm UK science, say MPs.

The science and technology select committee called for regulation of such work instead of an "unnecessary" ban.

Some researchers want to mix human and animal cells to create a source of stem cells to help fight human diseases.

The government has proposed a ban because of what it has called "public unease". Opponents say there is "global" opposition to such research.

However, as well as the report backing research, a letter from 223 medical charities and patient groups has called for the government to sanction it.

The people who oppose this kind of research are the usual suspects (mainly religious fundamentalists). All of this kind of novel research will eventually happen somewhere in the world, because some countries are sane and there is no particular reason for this work not to happen. Those countries that refuse to participate will just be relegated to the second division.

Children who spend more time in nursery are allegedly more anti-social (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Toddlers who spend three or more days a week in nursery are more likely to become anti-social, worried and upset, government research has found.

The evaluation of a £370m scheme to expand children's centres found youngsters were more likely to behave poorly the longer they spent in care.

But the report also found 30 hours in care increased children's confidence.

The research comes as teachers warn children are being "institutionalised" by the push to get mothers into work.

The study - A National Evaluation of Neighbourhood Nurseries - assessed the neighbourhood nurseries initiative, which was set up in 2001 to provide more childcare in some of the poorest parts of the country.

The report, carried out by academics at Oxford for the Department for Education and Skills, said: "The 'tipping point' for daily attendance appears to be relatively low in relation to anti-social behaviour.

"When compared with children who attended either one or two days per week, children who attended for three days per week or more were significantly more anti-social."

The number of months in day-care also affected behaviour.

"For the group as a whole, the number of months children had been attending their neighbourhood nursery also had an impact," the study said.

"The longer they had been attending their neighbourhood nursery, the more anti-social they were.

"Further analysis suggested that, when compared with children who had been attending their neighbourhood nursery for less than a year, children who had been attending for 18 months or more were rated as significantly more anti-social."

The study also found young children showed more "worried and upset behaviours" when they attended a mixed-age room with children aged four and over.

"In mixed groups, they were more likely to frown, shrug, pout or stamp their feet when given an idea for playing or to be worried about not getting enough attention, or access to toys, food or drink.

"Thus, mixed-aged groups may be better for children in terms of cognitive outcomes, but not in terms of behavioural outcomes."

However, the research found the more time children spent each week in day-care, the more confident they were and the more sociable with their peers.

It also found parents using neighbourhood nurseries were highly satisfied with the quality of care provided.

It's only one study so the result has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, the parents are supposedly satisified, and the children are allegedly "more sociable with their peers", but the children are allegedly "more anti-social". It makes you wonder how they determined that someone is "anti-social" and whether the difference between the various groups was really significant or just amplified to make the study seem more significant than it was. And were there any other significant factors (e.g. household income) that was correlated with how much time the children spent in day-care?

Date published: 2007/04/04

Insulin might be produced by GM plants (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Insulin produced by genetically modified plants - with a human gene added - could be on the market in three years, a Canadian company has claimed.

Sembiosys said it has made scientific breakthroughs and found a short cut through current drug regulations.

The firm's CEO Andrew Baum said his company could become one of the first to sell a plant-based pharmaceutical.

However, critics believe that these products pose greater environmental and health risks than GM food crops.

Most insulin is now produced by genetically modified bacteria, inside sealed tanks. The new technique uses GM plants grown out in the open.

The company is growing insulin in the seeds of safflower, a relatively little-used seed oil plant. The safflower is being grown on a trial basis in fields in Chile, the US and Canada.

Their crop is grown counter-seasonally to reduce the risks of the insulin-producing genes crossing to other plants.

Mr Baum said: "Sembiosys believes it will be one of the first - or the first - company to get a plant-based pharmaceutical on the market."

Sembiosys has predicted an "explosion" in demand for insulin because of a growing number of diabetics. Moreover, new methods of delivering the drug, like inhalation, require more insulin per dose than injections.

Mr Baum said that one large North American farm growing his safflower could meet the global demand for insulin - and that the price of the drug could be cut significantly.

If the firm can demonstrate that the plant-based insulin is identical with human insulin, it won't have to go through all the long and costly stages of full clinical trials.

Mr Baum said he saw his product as part of a new wave of GM plants which could help change public opinion - particularly in Europe - in favour of the technology.

He said: "While the first wave of products were really focussed on the farmer and improving agricultural economics, there's an increasing emphasis now in the industry on products that address more direct consumer benefits and consumer needs."
...
However Clare Oxborrow, of Friends of the Earth, said the risks of contamination from pharmaceutical plants was actually greater than from food crops.

She said there had already been contamination incidents with experimental pharmaceutical plants.

Sooner or later the so-called environmentalists will be laughed out of court. FoE again show themselves not to be so much Friends of the Earth as Enemies of the People. They managed to demonise GM food in Europe because the middle class saw no benefit for themselves from GM food and the middle class determined public policy. But with health-related GM products the so-called environmentalists will soon enough find themselves deserted by the middle class, who will see clear benefits for themselves. Whether this particular insulin product turns out to be any good in the long run of course remains to be seen. But it should certainly be given the opportunity to prove itself, and not be scuppered by a hysterical minority.

Planning permission for wind turbines and solar panels on homes is supposed to be made easier (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Installing wind turbines and solar panels on homes should not necessarily require planning permission, the government has suggested.

If there is little or no impact on neighbouring properties then homeowners should not have to apply to their council, Ruth Kelly said.

The communities secretary said planning laws should not be a barrier to tackling climate change.
...
Ms Kelly, in a speech to environmental group the Green Alliance on Wednesday, said such "microgeneration" items should not be used as a "fashion accessory".

But with routine applications taking up to three months and costing as much as £1,000, she said: "The local planning system should support efforts to tackle climate change rather than acting as a barrier.

"We need changes to ensure the system is proportionate - whilst retaining clear, common-sense safeguards on noise, siting and size."

Her department said that under the proposals, which are open for consultation, members of the public will still need to check with their council about whether they can install the technology.

If all criteria are met then it can be installed without planning permission. If it does not meet the criteria then a planning application will have to be made.

Councils will be able to restrict planning permission in "exceptional" circumstances, such as where the impact on the neighbourhood is greater than the benefit.

"A wind turbine in a built-up area with little wind" would come under this category.

The devil, as usual, is in the detail, but making it easier to install so-called sustainable energy systems makes some sense. But wind turbines in particular can have a large visual and noise impact, so these are a much trickier planning issue than solar panels. For wind turbines the most contentious areas will be built-up neighbourhoods, but fortunately these also generally happen to be the ones least suitable for wind power.

Date published: 2007/04/02

Britain will allegedly not even come close to hitting EU renewable energy targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's energy plans have been thrown into disarray by ambitious European Union targets, the BBC has learned.

Ministers had intended to aim to produce 20% of Britain's electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But EU targets state 20% of all energy - including fuel for home heating, domestic aviation and cars, as well as electricity, must come from renewables.

BBC environment correspondent Roger Harrabin says a forthcoming white paper will cover over the policy gaps.

The recently-published EU strategy will mean the UK will need to produce four times more renewable energy than had been intended.

Is this an April Fool's joke run a day late? A factor of four is merely a difference of tens, if not hundreds, of billions of pounds in investment. We also have:

Meanwhile, the UK is facing further obstacles in meeting EU targets on cutting carbon emissions.

The government is planning to obtain 5% of road fuels from plant sources by 2010.

Car firms have been pushing biofuel as a green alternative to petrol but a consortium of green groups have warned it could lead to "massive degradation" of rainforests.

It is also understood that some oil industry representatives have told the government they cannot hit their targets on biofuel without causing "unacceptable destruction" to wildlife.

It's interesting that the BBC is giving the spin that it is all the fault of the car firms that biofuel is being promoted as 'green'. Plenty of the so-called environmentalists are claiming the same thing, even though biofuels are not nearly as 'green' as their promoters claim. And on the political front, it is the EU more than the UK that is pushing biofuels. There's a good chance that in 2050 they will look back on this as one gigantic mistake (while they are busy promoting the latest fad of that day).

The British public allegedly do not like 'green' taxes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Two-fifths of Britons are doing nothing to cut energy use, although 80% believe climate change is affecting the UK, a report has suggested.

Only 4% of people went on holiday without flying, although 32% said they would consider it, the Energy Saving Trust's Green Barometer report showed.

The study suggested tougher measures such as road tolls and carbon rationing were also unpopular.

Researchers interviewed 1,192 households in February this year.

About 75% of people in the UK feel a growing pressure to change the way they live in order to reduce the impact of climate change, the report claimed.

Trying to be 'green' is regarded as a virtuous quality by 70% and reducing home energy is considered as virtuous as donating to charity, figures suggest.

But only 34% thought green taxes were socially acceptable, while the figure fell to 30% for road pricing and 28% for carbon rationing.

It's a survey so it's meaningless (for one thing, the questions were almost certainly biased in their wording). Of course the ruling elite, including all the main political parties, have decided that all sorts of alleged green measures (such as taxing flights to death) will be imposed whether the public supports them or not. (And of course the ruling elite will not change their behaviour, since restriction in lifestyle is for the little people.)

Date published: 2007/04/01

Prescription charges end in Wales (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Patients in Wales are now entitled to free prescriptions, on the day the cost rises to £6.85 in the rest of the UK.

Prescription charges had been gradually reduced to £3 - but Welsh assembly members voted earlier this year to scrap them altogether from 1 April.

GP and pharmacist representatives in Wales said scrapping the charges was "good news" for those who find paying for medicines difficult.

However, manufacturers have warned it could lead to drugs going to waste.

Indeed, giving medicine away for free is a recipe for drug prescriptions to soar, whether there is a medical need or not. Not only will more drugs be going to waste but more people will be taking drugs they don't really need.

New guidance for doctors concerned with dying people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Doctors leaders are urging people to talk about death to family and friends, so they can get the treatment they want at the end of their lives.

The British Medical Association has published fresh guidance for doctors, taking into account changes in the law which come into force this weekend.

The changes allow people to nominate someone to have the final say on their treatment, if they cannot communicate.

The BMA guidance also reflects recent court judgments.

It is also designed to ensure "patients best interests are paramount".

With anything to do with doctors, you can guarantee that the "patients best interests" are the one thing that are not "paramount". In particular, doctors believe that only they have the right to decide how and when someone dies, not the patient.

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