Azara Blog: May 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/05/31

IVF industry is allegedly charging too much in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The IVF industry is exploiting UK couples, charging them over the odds for treatment, fertility expert Lord Robert Winston said on Wednesday.

Speaking at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales, the Imperial College London professor also criticised the fertility watchdog the HFEA on its duty of care.

The HFEA maintained it policed clinics and provided information to patients.

One private IVF clinic said it was impossible to generalise about the private sector.

Lord Winston said couples were being overcharged for fertility treatments, and some were being offered embryo screening tests for which there was no clinical justification.

He criticised doctors in the UK for overpriced treatments, and said it was "rather depressing" to consider that some IVF treatments in London cost 10 times the fees charged in Melbourne, Australia.

There are 85 licensed fertility clinics in the UK, and treatments at private clinics cost between £4,000 and £8,000 per cycle.

According to the latest figures, more than 30,000 patients underwent IVF in 2004, and the HFEA estimates around 80% of treatments are performed privately.

Lord Winston said: "One of the major problems facing us in healthcare is that IVF has become a massive commercial industry.

"It's very easy to exploit people by the fact that they're desperate and you've got the technology which they want, which may not work."

It's also easy for Winston, or anyone like him, to remedy the situation. Just open up a competing clinic and charge way under the current rate. It's called the free market. Winston is well known from all his (rather vacuous) television appearances so he already has name recognition, and any company run or backed by him would no doubt do well.

Date published: 2007/05/30

Stansted Airport expansion public inquiry begins (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A public inquiry has begun into airport company BAA's plans to expand the capacity of Stansted Airport in Essex.

BAA wants to increase passenger numbers from 25 million to 35 million each year.

Plans were rejected by Uttlesford District Council so a final decision will now be made at the inquiry.

The Stop Stansted Expansion campaign group, which opposes the plans, staged a protest opposite Endeavour House where the inquiry is taking place.

BAA also wants permission to increase the number of air traffic movements permitted from the airport from 241,000 to 264,000 a year.

BAA said: "This is an important day for the future of Stansted Airport, and for the local community too. This independent public inquiry will take its time in the coming weeks to listen carefully to all points of view."

A spokesman for the Stop Stansted Expansion campaign told BBC News: "If Stansted were permitted to expand to maximum use of the existing runway, the local environment would suffer, the national economy would suffer and we would have taken a giant step backwards in the battle to combat climate change."

Carol Barbone, from the campaign group, said the expansion would not help the economy because it was encouraging people to go on holiday abroad.

The group said BAA's proposal of an extra 10 million passengers annually would create the same amount of additional carbon dioxide as would be saved if everybody in the UK switched from conventional to low energy light bulbs.

The only question is whether corporate interests will overrule local interests, given the additional caveat that British governments are now allegedly concerned about climate change. The corporate side is expressing the interest of the vast majority of citizens of the area who benefit from Stansted, but whose future benefits are not large enough that they would ever express an opinion one way or the other. The local side is of course expressing their own self-interest, but in addition they have the usual national academic middle class suspects, who hate the aviation industry, on their side.

Stop Stansted Expansion is a typical special interest pressure group and they only have one real reason to oppose the airport, and that is the local environment (mainly noise). The fact that the national economy would allegedly suffer and that climate change would be made worse is in reality totally irrelevant for them, they are just using these as excuses so that their campaign looks like it is more than just pure and simple NIMBYism.

Indeed, Barbone seems to be expressing the view that the citizens of Britain should not be allowed to holiday abroad. No doubt the same class of person would have said in the 19th century that the working class should not have a week's holiday at the seaside. Who is it for the middle class people who live near Stansted to decide who is and is not entitled to a holiday abroad, and when? Hopefully none of the SSE supporters ever flies anywhere, because no doubt they wouldn't want to be accused of hypocrisy. (Heathrow good, Stansted bad. Just like four legs good, two legs bad.)

Great apes allegedly under threat from climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Great apes are facing an "inevitable crisis" arising from climate change, a leading conservationist has warned.

Dr Richard Leakey said that growing pressure to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels could result in further destruction of the animals' habitats.

The chair of WildlifeDirect called for immediate action and proposed financial incentives to save forests from destruction as one possible solution.

He said: "Climate change will undoubtedly impact everything we know."

All rather obvious and you could indeed easily claim that Species X "is facing an inevitable crisis arising from climate change" for just about any X (fill in your favourite one), since of course many species will suffer from climate change. And you are always safe to make such statments since nobody would ever contradict any assertion of this point for just about any Species X, short of cockroaches, mosquitoes, rats and other species that love the presence of humans.

Date published: 2007/05/29

Oxfam wants the rich countries to throw more money at poor countries (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK must donate more money to poorer countries to help them cope with climate change, according to a charity.

Oxfam said Britain had pledged £20m in "adaptation funds" - but needed to pay a further £1.2bn.

They reached the figure by combining the amount of emissions a country produces with its ability to pay.
...
In the run-up to next month's G8 summit in Germany, Oxfam warned that £25bin was needed to fund projects in poor countries.

But the world's richest nations have so far pledged only £90m in total, the charity said.

Its report concluded developed countries should foot 80% of the bill for poorer countries to adapt.

The academic middle class people who run Oxfam have come up with an arbitrary algorithm to push for their agenda, and the academic middle class people who run the BBC just publish their numbers without question. It's hard to take these kinds of reports seriously, and since Oxfam knows full well that no government will take this report seriously, it seems that this is just a PR exercise.

Dyslexia organisations claim the term dyslexia is not meaningless (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Dyslexia charities have refuted claims that the condition is a label used by middle-class parents who do not want their children seen as low achievers.

The British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action said people with dyslexia had a "very real" problem.

They were responding to claims from Professor Julian Elliott, an educational psychologist at Durham University.

Professor Elliott said the term dyslexia was becoming meaningless.

But the British Dyslexia Association and Dyslexia Action said that, to the six million people in the UK living with dyslexia, it was very real.

"Dyslexia is a complex condition which affects each person differently and it is irrespective of intelligence, race or social background," the organisations said in a joint statement.

"The severity and different difficulties any one dyslexic person may present can vary. It is for this reason that definitions of dyslexia are not always consistent.

"Once again dyslexia seems to be making the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It is frustrating that the focus should be on whether dyslexia exists or not and claims that it does not is very upsetting to the one in 10 people that it effects.

"The question should be what can be done to help people with dyslexia and those with literacy difficulties?"

Middle-class parents also prefer the label dyslexia because it means that their children get extra time in exams (e.g. 45 minutes extra on 3 hour exams at Cambridge University). The Dyslexia organisations are of course typical special interest pressure groups who deem their special interest to be worthy of special attention by the rest of society. You can take any measure in life, and then almost by definition the bottom 10% of achievers must have some special condition, and if you can give it a medical name, suddenly these people are supposed to be deemed worthy of special attention. There are students at Cambridge University who most people would deem to have real literacy issues (and in subjects where literacy issues should not be a disqualification to their field of study, e.g. mathematics). There are other students whose parents have managed to play the system and get them labelled as dyslexic so they are given special privileges and excuses.

Date published: 2007/05/28

Alcoholic drinks will have to carry new health warning labels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Alcoholic drinks will carry new health warning labels by the end of 2008 under a voluntary agreement between ministers and the drinks industry.

The labels will detail alcoholic units and recommended safe drinking levels.

Bottles and cans currently have alcohol percentages, but only some state what this equals in alcoholic units.

Public health minister Caroline Flint says exactly what the labels will say is not decided, but the warnings will not be as strong as for cigarettes.

The measure was first proposed three years ago, but both sides have struggled to agree on a format.

It is not known how many drinks firms will sign up for the scheme, but ministers said if the industry did not comply, the government would introduce legislation.

The proposed warning labels will include words such as "know your limits" or "drink responsibly", and the number of units each drink contains.

They will also warn that drinking alcohol should be avoided if pregnant or trying to conceive.

A fairly pointless exercise. The vast majority of people drink responsibly and the ones who do not will hardly care what a label says. And once it is clear that these labels make no difference, the health control freaks will no doubt insist that the labels get bigger and harsher.

US meets with Iran about Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US has called on Iran to stop arming militants in Iraq at the first bilateral public talks between the two countries in almost 30 years.

US envoy Ryan Crocker said his Iranian counterpart had rejected the charges at the four-hour talks in Baghdad, which focused exclusively on Iraq's security.

Both countries agreed that a secure and stable Iraq was in their interests.

Iran's ambassador, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, described the meeting as a success and said there were plans for future talks.
...
Speaking after the meeting in the Green Zone, Mr Crocker said he had spelt out Washington's concerns about alleged Iranian support for insurgents who have been attacking Iraqi and US-led forces.

He said the arming of the militia groups, allegedly led by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Quds Force, needed to end and that the US would "be looking for results".

The US ambassador to Iraq acknowledged that the Iranians too had made their views clear.

"They made the assertion that the coalition presence was an occupation and that the effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces had been inadequate to the challenges faced," he said.

Mr Crocker said he had rejected the allegation by making clear that coalition forces were in Iraq at the Iraqi government's request and that the coalition had invested billions of dollars into training and equipping Iraqi forces.

Nevertheless, Mr Crocker said the talks had proceeded "positively" and there had been broad agreement for a "secure, stable, democratic, federal Iraq in control of its own security, at peace with its neighbours".

He also said Washington would consider an Iranian proposal for the setting up of a regular "trilateral security mechanism" incorporating Iraq, Iran and the US to co-ordinate on such matters.

The fact that the talks have occurred at all means that the lunatics in the US administration, led by Vice President Cheney, have temporarily lost favour. But these people still want to attack Iran, so these talks are only a small step forward. And the Iranians are correct, the US is an occupier of Iraq. The idea that the occupation is legitimised because the current Iraqi government have approved this is like saying that the Russian occupation of Eastern Europe was legitimate because the puppet governments they had installed also approved of that. It is pretty clear that the vast majority of Iraqi people do not want the Americans in Iraq. Their opinion counts for more than that of any puppet government the Americans have installed in Baghdad.

Date published: 2007/05/27

Government wants yet more powers for the police (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Proposals to allow police to stop and question anyone in the UK under new anti-terror laws have been criticised.

Opponents warned that plans to ask people about their identity and movements may harm community relations.

Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said care must be taken not to alienate whole communities.

But Home Office minister Tony McNulty said there would be plenty of time for consultation and people should wait to see exactly what the new powers were.
...
The new legislation would be similar to that already used in Northern Ireland.

Police are still likely to need a "reasonable suspicion" a crime may be committed. Anyone refusing to co-operate could be fined up to £5,000.

At present, under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, officers already have the power to stop and search people or vehicles in an area seen as being at risk from terrorism, even if they are not suspected of any breach of the law.

A Home Office spokeswoman said that the new proposals would give officers an automatic right to stop and question anyone in the UK about suspected terrorism.

When the BBC says that these proposals "may harm community relations" they of course mean that these proposals "will target Muslims". But that's only the first step. No doubt in future the police would use these powers for all sorts of acts of political repression, just like they used the current terrorism laws to remove a heckler from a Labour Party conference. People who can see no danger from this creeping repression of civil rights have no imagination.

Some consultant wants all A&E patients to be tested for HIV (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A hospital consultant is calling for widespread HIV testing for accident and emergency department patients.

Dr Kaveh Manavi, a consultant in HIV medicine at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, told the BBC everyone should be tested unless they opted out.

He said the current system, which targets high-risk groups, such as gay men and drug users, missed many people.

HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust says targeted testing by GPs and clinics would be more cost effective.

It is not acceptable that the NHS effectively forces you to have an HIV test, just because you have had an accident. The idea that the test should be "opt out" means that in reality no patient would be made aware that they have this option. Not only is this whole idea immoral, it is also probably a waste of money, as the Terrence Higgins Trust points out.

Date published: 2007/05/26

BBC business coverage deemed to be not that great (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The BBC Trust has published today (25 May 2007) the Independent Panel report into the impartiality of BBC coverage of business.

The panel, chaired by Sir Alan Budd, does not believe the BBC has a systematic bias against business. Its overall conclusion is that "most of the BBC's business output meets the required standards of impartiality". But the panel also says it "has seen a number of individual lapses and identified some trends which lead to repeated breaches of the BBC”s standards".
...
On behalf of the BBC Trust, Chairman Sir Michael Lyons has issued the following statement:
...
"Overall the Trust welcomes the report and in particular the panel's insightful analysis. The report includes reassuring evidence of good quality journalism and we are pleased that the panel found no evidence of systematic bias by the BBC against business. That said, the report also includes some clear examples of under-performance and offers some new and interesting insights, in particular the contrasts between what the panel describes as sycophantic and aggressive interviews of industry “doyens”. The Trust shares the panel's concern about the BBC's predominant focus on the consumer perspective in business reporting if it results in the audience not receiving the full story. Audiences are also investors, savers, business owners and employees with a personal and civic interest in understanding the impact of business from a range of perspectives. The Trust is clear that impartiality means providing a complete picture and full breadth of opinion and the BBC has a responsibility to deliver this."

Interestingly this story was not covered on the BBC news website, but instead buried in some press release on some obscure part of the overall BBC website. The BBC is just like any other organisation, it doesn't take criticism kindly. The BBC is run by the academic middle class, and like the academic middle class all over the world (especially in Europe), they have an innate anti-commercial bias in their world view. And the report's focus on just business coverage is missing half the picture. Not only is the BBC biased against business, it also runs uncritical stories of all the usual business-hating organisations that the academic middle class love (e.g. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF, RSPB, the Soil Association, etc.), often pretty much just regurgitating what read like press releases from these organisations (all of which are just as unaccountable to the general public as businesses).

Alan Johnson wants private schools to "lend" teachers to state schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Private schools could be required to lend teachers to state schools and share other facilities under proposals by Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

Mr Johnson, a Labour deputy leadership candidate, says independent schools in England and Wales should do more to justify their charitable status.

Private schools claim many of them would close if not for the annual £100m in tax breaks from being a charity.

Conservatives accused Mr Johnson of making "clumsy threats" over the issue.

New charity rules mean private schools now have to pass a public benefit test showing how they add to communities.

Some teachers told the BBC that they found it patronising of Mr Johnson to imply that state school teachers needed the help of private school teachers.

And a spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said it was not "a one-way street".

"Private schools have a massive amount to learn from state schools.

"Teaching 30-35 pupils is very different from teaching 15 and requires a totally different set of skills and is much more demanding. That's the big problem that private school teachers will have," she said.

She might have said "teaching 30-35 working class pupils is very different from teaching 15 middle class pupils". It seems like Johnson is just trying to play the Old Labour class card to win the deputy leadership election.

Date published: 2007/05/25

Surprise, spring arrived "early" in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A warm spring has brought about the early arrival of some UK wildlife, the first results of the Springwatch 2007 survey suggest.

Over the past few months, amateur naturalists have logged more than 24,000 first sightings of six key species of plants and animals.

Some, such as the peacock butterfly and frogspawn, have been spotted earlier than expected.
...
Mr Collinson [, head of conservation policy at the Woodland Trust, ] was worried about the possible impact of increasingly warm springs.

He said: "We are concerned because the change seems to be so rapid.

"And we know there is a mismatch of timing, so, for example, when insects would pollinate flowers, the flowers are coming out earlier than the insects are available, and we know this is happening.

"It is very difficult to tell what that means, but certainly we know that wildlife is under pressure."

They run the same story every year.

Manchester wants to introduce an access tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motorists face congestion charges of up to £5 to drive into central Manchester and out again on the busiest roads at the busiest times.

They will pay a deposit for an electric tag, which will monitor journeys on 15 main routes into the city in the morning and evening rush periods.

The scheme proposed by the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities (AGMA) will need government approval.

Opponents say the announcement is "bad news for drivers across Britain".

Greater Manchester's plans could be in place by 2012, and pave the way for similar schemes in England.

A public consultation will be carried out before the proposals are put to the government.

The plans envisage discounts for vulnerable groups, essential service vehicles will not be charged and delivery drivers will pay a capped rate.

Entering an outer cordon around the M60, encircling the city, will cost £2, with people charged another £1 to get into the centre.

An extra £1 will be charged to leave each of the zones.

The charges will apply between 0700-0930 and 1600-1830.

Outside those times motorists will pay nothing.

Even in the busy periods, journeys which do not pass a charging point will not incur a fee.
...
Motoring groups have reacted with anger to the announcement, with the Manchester Against Tolls group describing Friday as a "bad day for drivers all over Britain".

The group called the maximum £5 charge a "Trojan horse" and said this would just be the start of charges for road users.

"Ken Livingstone has already demonstrated in London what will happen - he increased the £5 charge to £8 and has doubled the size of the charge zone," a spokesman said.

"Road pricing is just another poll tax and will hit less well off drivers the hardest. The intention can only be to try and force them off the road."

As with the London scheme, this is not a congestion tax, it is an access tax (one of whose side effects is to reduce congestion). But they have done it slightly more cleverly than London, so it is slightly more related to congestion. And it seems that people who live in the middle of Manchester will pretty much get off scot free, which means that they will almost certainly support the scheme. Of course businesses might well decide to move out of Manchester so that their employees don't have to pay the tax, but the proposed charge is low enough that it would have very little impact. On the other hand, Manchester Against Tolls is no doubt correct. Politicians are addicted to tax, and once they get the scheme up and running they will undoubtedly put up the charge much faster than the rate of inflation. Welcome to ripoff Britain, where the worst ripoffs are brought to you courtesy of the government.

Date published: 2007/05/24

Government announces another waste "strategy" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who fail to recycle household rubbish could have to pay more than those who do, under plans to cut waste.

Environment Secretary David Miliband wants English councils to be able to bring in charges - and to give cash "rewards" for those who recycle.

The Waste Strategy gives examples which suggest "green" homes could get £30 a year back from their council, while non-recyclers pay an extra £30.

It also suggests a clampdown on direct mail and free plastic shopping bags.

Unveiling the first waste strategy for England since 2000, Mr Miliband said the country was still "lagging far behind much of Europe" on waste, despite increased recycling.

He told MPs the government would set higher recycling targets for businesses and local councils.

Mr Miliband said councils who wanted to introduce variable charges for rubbish would have to provide adequate kerbside recycling facilities.

Councils would also not be able to use the charges to raise extra funds, and would have to take into account size of households, whether people had young children or whether they were on council tax benefit.

It would be up to councils to decide if they want to operate such a system and what system they want to use.

Examples in a consultation document published alongside the Waste Strategy include the "Flanders" wheelie bin-weighing system and the "Maastricht" system where special sacks have to be bought for non-recycled rubbish.

Oh wow, they are going to clamp down on free plastic shopping bags. That will reduce Britain's landfill and emissions by 0.0001%. It's good to know that the British ruling elite manage to tackle the tough problems of the day.

And why should charges "take into account size of households, whether people had young children or whether they were on council tax benefit"? If two people live in one household should they get a discount for handing over exactly the same amount of waste as two households with one person each in them? Well, if you want to account for the labour cost of picking up the waste, then perhaps yes, but this is becoming ridiculous. And similarly for households with children, are parents somehow saintly people so as to be deserving of (yet another) tax break? Waste is waste is waste. It's simple, really.

The government should also charge for "recyclable" waste, since that also has a real and an environmental cost. Unfortunately the British ruling elite believe that recycling is some kind of holy exercise, and as long as you do it, it does not matter how much waste you produce. This is a classic example of the externalisation of cost.

As mentioned in the article, there are two obvious systems for charging. You can base it on weight or on volume. The former makes more sense. The problem with the latter is that it will just encourage people (certainly middle class people) to buy garbage compactors to reduce the cost of the waste. And just imagine how much electricity that will consume. Another great victory for the environment. (The cost of electricity currently does not properly take into account carbon emissions. The cost of landfill is being taxed at a rate way over what would take into account carbon emissions. So the cost of electricity used will be less than what is saved on waste, but the carbon emissions may well increase.)

Hatfield Forest allegedly under threat from Stansted Airport (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the last remaining ancient forests in Europe will be put at risk if the Stansted Airport expansion goes ahead, the National Trust has warned.

A public inquiry into British Airport Authority (BAA) plans for a second runway at the airport starts on 30 May.

The National Trust said the expansion will increase pollution and threaten the future of nearby Hatfield Forest.

But BAA said major roads such as the M11 near the forest produce a greater environmental impact on the woods.

The National Trust on Thursday told BBC News of its concerns about plans to increase the passenger numbers at Stansted from 25 to 35 million each year.

The trust said the Essex forest is home to nearly 1,000 ancient trees, several hundred species of rare moth, flies, plant, fungi and lichen and 65 species of breeding birds.

Some of the trees have been in the forest for 600 years.

The trust said it believes air pollution threatens the forest's species and long-term stability, while noise from aircraft could destroy its tranquillity.

Keith Turner, National Trust area manager for Essex, Suffolk and Hertfordshire, said: "We have opposed the incremental expansion of Stansted Airport for over 25 years, due to its unknown impact on the Forest.

Most of the nearby pollution is caused by cars on the M11 and A120. Most of the cars on those roads have nothing to do with the airport. This is just typical academic middle class scare mongering. And as Turner says, the Trust has opposed Stansted Airport forever, and yet the forest is still there, so the world has not ended. And how do the National Trust moaners get to Hatfield Forest themselves? No doubt by car. The same academic middle class people will eventually manage to abolish cars with hydrocarbon-based engines, so the special pleading will be even less relevant then.

Date published: 2007/05/23

Government publishes its latest White Paper on Energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nuclear power is needed to help reduce carbon emissions and to ensure that the UK has secure energy supplies in the future, Tony Blair has told MPs.

He spoke as the government's Energy White Paper backed a rise in renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

It also says the "preliminary view" is to for more nuclear plants, with a new consultation launched on its merits.

But critics called the consultation a "farce" and nuclear power would be a "dangerous, dirty white elephant".

Industry Secretary Alistair Darling told MPs a decision on nuclear power was needed by the end of the year because many nuclear and coal-fired power stations are due to close within the next 20 years.

Other key points include:

Mr Darling said the measures outlined could save between 22 million and 33 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2020.

All well trailed well in advance, so nothing new here.

Cambridge Lib Dems are keen on road pricing (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

City leaders have officially come out in favour of charging motorists for driving into Cambridge.

Liberal Democrats have put road pricing on the agenda for the coming year but want to use it to tackle climate change rather than just reducing congestion.

The move comes as the Government published its Draft Local Transport Bill - Cambridgeshire County Council is one of 10 local authorities considering running congestion charging trials.

At the city council's annual meeting tomorrow Lib Dems will set out their vision, including a pledge to "advocate to the county council that they introduce a road pricing scheme which discounts the price of road use for low emission vehicles".

Coun Sian Reid, executive councillor for planning and transport, said Cambridge could not deal with thousands of new homes unless something was done to reduce the number of cars coming into the city.

Lib Dems want to reward drivers who choose environmentally friendly cars with lower charges - just as owners of low emission cars pay less for season tickets in the city's car parks.

Yes, the Cambridge ruling elite hate drivers. (Excepting themselves of course, since obviously the Cambridge ruling elite needs to be able to get around.) The national government has always pretended that road pricing is about reducing congestion (i.e. kicking poor people off the roads), not carbon emissions. Indeed, there is already a perfectly good carbon tax on cars called the petrol tax. So adding another one (which is not even as good a proxy for carbon emissions) is not very bright. But nobody expects Lib Dems to be very bright, and certainly not the ones who lord over Cambridge. Nationally the Lib Dems have claimed that "the government must be open and honest with people about its intentions to push forward with road pricing", so hopefully the local Lib Dems will tell the voters loud and clear what they want to charge for people to drive around Cambridge. Reid lives in a mansion on Millington Road, so of course a tax of five or ten pounds a day to drive around Cambridge would mean nothing to her.

Date published: 2007/05/22

Climate change will mean that some species will go extinct (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Action is needed to prevent the loss of some of the UK's best-loved plants and wildlife to climate change, the authors of a report have suggested.

The seven-year research programme known as Monarch was developed to assess the impacts of projected climate change on wildlife in the UK and Ireland.

The authors warn that some species, such as the capercaillie, could vanish from Britain by the 2050s.

But other species, including the stone curlew, may spread to more of the UK.

Species likely to do best in the hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters predicted by climate scientists are species whose strongholds are currently in continental and Mediterranean Europe.
...
Conservationists say the report reminds us that helping wildlife adapt will become an increasingly important strand of British conservation work - not just for the threatened species but for thousands of others that will also need to move to find more suitable climes.

They suggest creating wildlife "corridors" through urban areas to help species travel and adapt.

Surprise, a special interest pressure group declares that "action is needed". What these so-called conservationists are saying is that we should outsmart Nature and figure out how to save certain species that might otherwise disappear. Perhaps you could do it if you threw enough money at it, but trying to preserve species whose environment has literally disappeared is not a great idea. Of course "wildlife corridors" might provide a way for some species to migrate to a new, compatible, environment. But it is not urban areas that need to provide these corridors but rural areas. Cambridge is more suburban than urban and yet the town is completely built up, with the exception of a few parks. And those parks are biological deserts, with their main biological contribution to the city being acres of grass and a few trees. What we could have instead are large chunks of countryside that are not intefered with by the control freak conservationists but instead are left alone. Nature will then sort itself out perfectly happily. And some species will go extinct, because they, or their food supply, will not be able to adapt quickly enough to climate change.

Road pricing pushes full steam ahead (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is pushing ahead with plans to introduce road pricing schemes in England and Wales despite a huge public campaign against them.

It has published a draft Bill updating the rules for local authorities who want to set up charging trials.

It insists there are no plans yet for a national scheme but critics say it is not being open about its intentions.

A petition against road pricing on the Downing Street website received nearly two million online signatories.

Widespread road pricing is at least 10 years away technically - but 10 local authorities have expressed an interest in developing charging systems in their areas.

The draft Local Transport Bill will ensure any local schemes are consistent with each other and interoperable.

But a Transport department spokesman said this did not mean the government was pressing ahead with a national pay-as-you-drive scheme.

"No decision has been made on a national scheme. We have got to see the results of the pilot schemes," he said.

He said there would be a three month consultation period for those in favour and against road pricing to have their say before a final Bill is drawn up.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his February reply to the Downing Street website petition, also insisted no decision had been made on national road pricing.

But he said congestion could not be allowed to grow unchecked and any scheme would not be used as a "stealth tax".

Conservative Transport Spokesman Chris Grayling said: "If the rumours about the Bill are right, it is clear that Gordon Brown has his eye on the revenue a national scheme would bring in.

"This Bill, from Douglas Alexander, one of his key lieutenants, shows Brown's determination to introduce national road pricing is just as strong as Tony Blair's was."

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Alistair Carmichael accused the government of not being open about its plans for a nationwide scheme.

"The government must be open and honest with people about its intentions to push forward with road pricing.

"They must commit to a system which does not mean motorists as a whole paying more, but just paying differently.

"If the public feel that road user pricing is just another cash cow for the Treasury, then it will meet stiff resistance and a real opportunity to reduce congestion will be missed."

The government better have pilot trials. Having a national rollout "cold turkey" would no doubt lead to a disaster. Of course whether these pilot trials really reflect what would happen with a national rollout is a different question. The pilot trials may well be voluntary, in which case they might prove that certain technology would or would not work, but that is all. It will not tell us how people would react to road pricing, although it is clear that the real aim is to kick poor people off the roads so that companies and rich people can more easily go about their business.

The Tories and Lib Dems are just pathetic. They both want road pricing (since they both pretend they are "green", which for the chattering class means you hate car drivers) but they also both want to play silly political games. All governments (Labour, Tory, Lib Dem) will use road pricing as a cash cow, in the same way that all governments now use petrol tax as a cash cow. Road pricing cannot even be tax neutral since someone has to pay for the huge cost of implementing the system, and of course that will be drivers. If the Tories or Lib Dems were even half-honest they would admit this, and tell the country what they would do differently.

Date published: 2007/05/21

Government proposes changes to the planning system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gaining permission for major building projects such as airport terminals and power stations would become quicker under government plans.

Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly wants to replace large planning inquiries in England with an independent commission.

She also told MPs the government would give "national planning statements" on needs for the next 10 to 25 years.

Environmentalists oppose the proposals, which the Tories say will "dump developments on local communities".

Ms Kelly said the Independent Planning Commission - proposed in a white paper published on Monday - would take into account the potential local impact of large projects, such as on air quality, noise and traffic problems

It would "bring together experts" like lawyers and planners to help decide policy and there would be "better public engagement at every step of the way", she added.

Ms Kelly said smaller planning applications - such as home extensions and conservatories - would be speeded up.

To this end, planning documents would be "streamlined", she added.

Developers would also have a "legal duty" to consult the public, Ms Kelly said, and described the current system as "inaccessible and sometimes baffling".

But Neil Sinden, policy director at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "We are not as reassured as we would like to be about these safeguards."

He added: "The planning system is there to help us debate issues....

"Inquiries do take time. These issues are complex. We need to balance national and local issues."

There was a danger the proposed new system would "strip democratic accountability out of the planning system", he added.

Hugh Ellis, of Friends of the Earth, said: "The planning white paper will give the green light to massive new developments while stripping away opportunities for affected communities or the wider public to input on the decisions.

"This is policy making at its worse. It will destroy local communities and exacerbate climate change."

Liberal Democrat housing spokesperson Dan Rogerson said: "All the indications suggest the changes will help Labour's friends in the nuclear and supermarket industries, rather than giving local people a genuine say in planning."

The white paper will also suggest minor projects like conservatories and home extensions should no longer need planning permission where there is little impact on neighbours.

The proof will be in the pudding but the principles are sensible. Of course the Tories are likely to take over after the next election so they can just reverse what the current government will do. The opponents of the proposal (the Tories, the Lib Dems, the CPRE, FoE, etc.) all represent the middle class, who have entrenched privileges which of course they don't want to lose. They want the world to stop, so pretty much oppose almost all planning applications as a matter of course.

The CPRE is wrong when it claims the new system would "strip democratic accountability". The CPRE has no democratic mandate. They are just a typical unacccountable special interest pressure group pushing their own narrow partisan minority special interest at the expense of the interest of the majority. The FoE is the same (and they cry wolf complete with the mandatory reference to "climate change"). These organisations guarantee that the biggest winners from the current planning system are lawyers and consultants.

Nobody, including the BBC, picks up one of the big problems with the current planning system, namely that the losers are not properly compensated for their losses and the winners pay no tax on their winnings. This is one reason that the special interest pressure groups are so successful, because they can hijack the grievances of the losers and so push their special interest.

Panorama launches pathetic attack on wireless networks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have said there is no evidence to suggest a link between the use of wi-fi and damage to health.

BBC programme Panorama found that radiation levels from wi-fi in one school was up to three times the level of mobile phone mast radiation.

The readings were 600 times below the government's safety limits but there is ongoing debate about wi-fi use.

"Wi-fi seems unlikely to pose any risk to health," said Professor Lawrie Challis, of Nottingham University.

Prof Challis, chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR) programme management committee, said: "Wi-fi exposures are usually very small - the transmitters are low power and some distance from the body.

"They can be near to the body, however, when a laptop is on one's lap and my own view is that just as we encourage young children not to use mobile phones we should also encourage them to use their laptops on a table rather than their lap, if they are going online for a long time."
...
Medical physics expert Professor Malcolm Sperrin told BBC News that the fact wi-fi radiation in a particular school was three times higher than a mobile phone mast was irrelevant, unless there was any evidence of a link to health effects.

"Wi-fi is a technique using very low intensity radio waves. Whilst similar in wavelength to domestic microwave radiation, the intensity of wi-fi radiation is 100,000 times less than that of a domestic microwave oven.

"Furthermore, tissue can only be effectively heated by a wavelength that is closely matched to the absorption, and there are strict guidelines for ensuring such absorption peaks are avoided."

The type of radiation emitted by radio waves (wi-fi), visible light, microwaves and mobile phones has been shown to raise the temperature of tissue at very high levels of exposure - called a thermal interaction - but there is no evidence that low levels cause damage.

The Health Protection Agency has said that sitting in a wi-fi hotspot for a year results in receiving the same dose of radio waves as making a 20-minute mobile phone call.

"Some people suspect a non-thermal interaction but there is no evidence to suggest that this exists and indeed it is unlikely," said Prof Sperrin.
...
Professor Will J Stewart, fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: "Science has studied the safety of mobile phones for many years and the overwhelming body of evidence shows little cause for concern.

"As for wi-fi, although these devices operate at a modestly different frequency to mobiles they also operate at a lower power level over a much shorter-range.
...
Professor Sperrin said one of the difficulties around wi-fi research was that it was impossible to prove a negative.

"It's impossible to prove that something has no effect," he said.

He said there was no justification in discarding wi-fi until it could be proved safe.

"The educational benefits from using laptops and having access to information far outweigh any unproven fears over the safety of wi-fi. I am more concerned about the heat laptops generate and the impact that could on sensitive parts of the body."

If this is the best Panorama can come up with they should pack up and go home. This fear mongering over wireless networks all comes from the usual anti-technology health and safety nutters. Of course Panorama managed to dredge up a few people who support their hysterical view, as one can always do for anything. Sperrin nails it on the head. The heat from laptops is far more likely to cause harm than the wireless. And 101 other things. Of course the health and safety nutters will wheel out the so-called precautionary principle. This means that they have no argument but don't like wireless, so believe the rest of the world has to prove that the technology is "100% safe" (which is impossible). Blair and Bush invaded Iraq based on the precautionary principle (after all, Iraq might theoretically have attacked the UK or US). Blair and Bush want to lock up all Muslims they don't like the look of based on the precautionary principle (after all, one of them might be a terrorist). If you wanted to prevent crime you would lock up all males over the age of 10 based on the precautionary principle (after all, many of them will be criminals). The precautionary principle is a joke at best (in the hands of the health and safety nutters) and sinister at worst (in the hands of governments).

The NSPCC believes the world is at an end for children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Violence is seen as a "major problem for young people" by more than 80% of 11 to 16-year-olds, according to a survey for a children's charity.

The NSPCC survey found that 42% of children had been hit, punched or kicked at secondary school.

Three-quarters had been bullied at school, while one in four had seen adults in the family being violent.

The charity wants Gordon Brown to use his first 100 days as prime minister to tackle violence against children.

According to the survey, large number of UK youngsters were witnesses to violence, with 59% saying they had seen violence or bullying between young people on the street.

Of the 1,172 boys and girls asked by GfK NOP about violence in their lives, 81% said violence was "a major problem for young people nowadays".

And it left them fearful, with 22% frightened of violence towards them at school and 38% "really scared" of attacks against them by young people they did not know.

Less than half of those questioned thought there was enough support for them to deal with violence (44%), and 28% said they would like specialist anti-bullying counsellors and school lessons on how to stay safe.

Gordon Brown has not yet taken over as prime minister and already the special interest pressure groups are crawling out of their holes to push their special interest as somehow worthy of his immediate special attention. The NSPCC survey is a typically meaningless survey where you put the questions you want so that you get the answers you want. Are 38% of children "really scared" of attacks against them and is there any basis in reality for this fear or is it just because various organisations, such as the media and the NSPCC, want to push this fear onto children. And it's amazing the NSPCC only managed to sign up 28% of children to its agenda for "specialist anti-bullying counsellors and school lessons on how to stay safe". After all it's something for nothing, but it looks like the majority of children can see what a waste of money this all would be. Perhaps they should have asked the children how many of them instead wanted free game players and whether that should be taught in school. Unfortunately the NSPCC has to justify its existence by constantly portraying the world as being at an end for children. The way they spin it, it's amazing that anyone manages to survive to become an adult.

Date published: 2007/05/20

Energy White Paper will support building more nuclear power stations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nuclear power should be "part of the mix" of Britain's energy supplies in the future, Alistair Darling has said.

An energy White Paper will be published on Wednesday - Tony Blair has already said he supports replacing Britain's ageing nuclear power stations.

The Observer newspaper reported that his successor Gordon Brown will also support the plans this week.

Trade and Industry Secretary Mr Darling told the BBC that renewable energy sources alone would not be sufficient.

He told BBC One's The Politics Show that it was not sensible to rule out nuclear power which could help to fight climate change and to make sure Britain does not become dependent on imported gas and oil.

But asked whether reports that up to eight new power stations would be built in the next 15 years were true, he said: "I don't have a firm number in my mind as to the actual proportion or the number of power stations.

"What I do know is that you do need a mix.

"The trouble with renewables is they're very good in providing you with low carbon electricity generation, but of course on very hot days or very cold days, if the wind doesn't blow, then you would have a big problem.

"That's where nuclear has provided a base load of electricity for many years now."
...
But the Green Party has condemned the plans as "astronomically expensive" and "dirty and dangerous" while Greenpeace say it is misguided.

Greenpeace's Stephen Tindale has accused Mr Blair of being "fixated" with nuclear power, adding: "Anything substantial in this review that supports clean green energy will be fatally undermined as long as Blair remains prime minister."

Of course the so-called environmentalists are "fixated" on not using nuclear power, but presumably their academic middle class fixation is somehow better than Mr Blair's alleged fixation. (And presumably Tindale's soundbite digest will soon be edited to replace "Blair" with "Brown", since even he will have noticed that Blair will not be prime minister in a few weeks.)

And the BBC fails to mention that it is not just Mr Blair and Mr Brown who will decide whether or not there is a future for nuclear power in the UK. The Lib Dems are opposed to nuclear power and it seems likely that the Tories are heading down the same path (given that Cameron is best buddies with that other spoiled rich kid, Zac Goldsmith). So the odds are high that nuclear (fission) power is dead (or soon will be dead) in the UK, no matter what the current government says.

Margaret Hodge plays the economic migrant card (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Established British families should be given priority over economic migrants for council housing, government minister Margaret Hodge has said.

She has called for a rethink of social housing policy, to take account of length of residence, citizenship and national insurance contributions.

Social housing was limited and British families had a "legitimate sense of entitlement" to have their own homes.

The Lib Dems said the fault lay with Labour for selling off council homes.

Industry Minister Mrs Hodge, who was born in Egypt, said rules should "promote tolerance rather than inviting division".

She told the BBC she was aware it was a difficult issue, but she was trying to listen to her constituents' concerns and wanted to start a debate.

She said she understood the reasons why genuine refugees needed access to public resources, but said most new families were economic migrants who had chosen to come to Britain to live and work.

"In exercising that choice as an economic migrant, should they then presume to have automatic access immediately to public social housing?," she said.

"Of course it's true that we need to develop more social housing," she said.

"But however much social housing you do create, you will nevertheless have to take decisions to ration what will always be a finite resource."

How many so-called economic migrants (an obnoxious term introduced by the Thatcher government but which the Blair government is equally happy to use) actually require and are eligible for social housing? This seems just like an excuse to pander to the tabloid press, and it would be interesting to know how expensive this policy is going to be to implement.

Date published: 2007/05/19

Opposition parties want a television debate with Gordon Brown (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown should take part in a series of head-to-head television debates with opposition leaders, Sir Menzies Campbell has said.

The Liberal Democrat leader told the BBC's The World Tonight he wants a public showdown after the chancellor was elected Labour leader unopposed.

The idea is backed by Conservative leader David Cameron, who says a TV debate would "bring politics to life".

However a Labour source said the calls for a TV debate were "a silly stunt".

Yes, this whole idea is just silly. Of course the media love it because they love distractions. Why Campbell and Cameron would stoop so low is another matter. You would think that they had better things to do with their lives, like offer real policies.

Dubai ruler says he will set up educational foundation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, says he is giving $10bn (£5bn) to set up an educational foundation in the Middle East.

The money is meant to improve the standard of education and research in the region, and aims to stimulate job creation, Sheikh Mohammed said.

It is thought to be one of the largest charitable donations in history.

The announcement was made to widespread applause at the World Economic Forum, which is being held in Jordan.

Sheikh Mohammed, known as a successful racehorse owner as well as ruler of Dubai, said his personal initiative was aimed at creating what he called "a knowledge-based society" in the Middle East.

At the moment, he explained, there was high illiteracy in the region - where more than 40% of Arab women cannot read or write.

The whole Arab world publishes fewer books than the country of Turkey.

And spending on scientific research is only a tiny fraction of that in developed countries.

"There is a wide knowledge gap between us and the developed world in the West and in Asia. Our only choice is to bridge this gap as quickly as possible, because our age is defined by knowledge," the sheikh said.

It's about time one of these ridiculously rich rulers (who have done nothing to earn their wealth) does something in return. And of course one of the problems with education in Arab countries is that on the whole these countries are unbelievably sexist. They will need to sort that out first.

Date published: 2007/05/18

Southern Ocean carbon sink allegedly not keeping up with emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of Earth's most important absorbers of carbon dioxide (CO2) is failing to soak up as much of the greenhouse gas as it was expected to, scientists say.

The decline of Antarctica's Southern Ocean carbon "sink" - or reservoir - means that atmospheric CO2 levels may be higher in future than predicted.

These carbon sinks are vital as they mop up excess CO2 from the atmosphere, slowing down global warming.

The study, by an international team, is published in the journal Science.

This effect had been predicted by climate scientists, and is taken into account - to some extent - by climate models. But it appears to be happening 40 years ahead of schedule.

The data will help refine models of the Earth's climate, including those upon which the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are based.

Of all the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, only half of it stays there; the rest goes into carbon sinks.

There are two major natural carbon sinks: the oceans and the land "biosphere". They are equivalent in size, each absorbing a quarter of all CO2 emissions.

The Southern Ocean is thought to account for about 15% of all carbon sinks.

It was assumed that, as human activities released more CO2 into the atmosphere, ocean sinks would keep pace, absorbing a comparable percentage of this greenhouse gas.

The breakdown in efficiency of these sinks was an expected outcome, but not until the second half of the 21st Century.

Lead researcher Corinne Le Quere and colleagues collected atmospheric CO2 data from 11 stations in the Southern Ocean and 40 stations across the globe.

Measurements of atmospheric CO2 allowed them to infer how much carbon dioxide was taken up by sinks. The team was then able to see how efficient they were in comparison to one another at absorbing CO2.

"Ever since observations started in 1981, we see that the sinks have not increased [in their absorption of CO2]," Corinne LeQuere told the BBC's Science in Action programme.

"They have remained the same as they were 24 years ago even though the emissions have risen by 40%."

It's only one study and it relies on an indirect estimate to infer their major conclusion. So more needs to be done to confirm this result. But if true, it evidently has a major impact.

FSA wants to add folic acid to flour or bread (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Bread should be fortified with folic acid to reduce birth defects such as spina bifida, a watchdog says.

The recommendation was agreed by the Food Standards Agency and will now be passed to ministers for approval.

Research shows folic acid cuts the risk of neural tube defects, which affect hundreds of pregnancies a year.

But there is concern that adding the vitamin to bread could harm some elderly patients, as it could mask a deficiency in B12 vitamin.

In extreme cases, this can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system.

Folic acid is a source of folate, a vitamin found in broccoli, sprouts, peas, chickpeas, brown rice and fruit.

It is important for the development of the spine in the first stages of pregnancy and women are advised to eat extra folic acid when trying to get pregnant.

However, research suggests that only half of such women adhere to this advice.

Also, up to half of pregnancies are unplanned, meaning women may miss the opportunity.

Mandatory fortification has already been introduced in the US, Canada and Chile, where it cut defect rates by up to half.

The evidence has prompted the FSA board to agree to the measure after rejecting it five years ago.
...
The FSA board could not agree on whether folic acid should be added to bread or to flour, which would mean it would also be included in biscuits and cakes, although this technicality will be resolved next month.

And it called for more debate on how products fortified with folic acid should be labelled.

Why is the majority having unrequired chemicals legally forced into its food just because a minority cannot seem to regulate their diet correctly? As even the FSA admits, folic acid has risks for other people, and no doubt more widely than the article states.

And if the government decides to require folic acid to be put into bread directly, rather than into flour, then is everyone who sells a loaf of bread at a school or church fair going to be liable to prosecution if they have not added folic acid (it is not exactly a common ingredient lying around household kitchens)?

It's amazing that the so-called organic food community has not complained about this proposal. They get hysterical about a few odd bits of extraneous DNA getting into their food, and here a completely arbitrary molecule is being added to food in non-trivial amounts.

Date published: 2007/05/17

A half-baked proposal to limit petrol supplies in the EU (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Imagine a time when petrol supplies are strictly rationed to help combat global warming.

In such a world, a country's annual quota could mean prices sky-rocketing towards the end of the year as supplies dwindle, before crashing back down again in January.

It would certainly reduce Christmas trips to visit relatives, while roads would likely be gridlocked at the start of each year.

Such a system might seem unworkable - or at least unpalatable - but it is being seriously proposed by Dublin-based think tank, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (Feasta).

And to help get the public on board, under their plans every adult citizen would be able to make some money from the scheme - at least before they are stung by soaring prices at the pumps.

Under Feasta's proposals, the European Union or member states would determine the maximum allowed levels of annual C02 emissions from the road transport sector.

They would then divide this figure by the number of adult citizens to come up with a theoretical personal allowance.

Each and every adult would then be given an annual paper certificate at the start of the year, allowing them to produce a certain amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), for example three tonnes per person, from their cars or other motor vehicles.

It sounds like a reasonable enough idea. But why just the road transport sector? Is it ok that London train commuters do not even come close to paying for their carbon emissions? (They get a whacking great public subsidy, so do not even come close to paying for the actual cost of their journeys, never mind the environmental cost.) And when they say the road transport sector, they probably mean the hydrocarbon-based road transport sector. So presumably electric cars will also be let off scot free. But the electricity had to be generated somehow, and currently most of that electricity is generated by fossil fuels. All in all, the idea is illogical because it does not go far enough. If carbon emissions are the problem, then all carbon emissions are part of the problem, not just carbon emissions that come from one sector the academic middle class happens not to like.

Government backs down over hybrid embryos (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers have bowed to pressure to allow the creation of human animal hybrid embryos for research.

When the ban was proposed last year there were fears among scientists it would hamper medical breakthroughs.

Hybrid embryos will only be allowed for research into serious disease and scientists will require a licence.

Scientists welcomed the proposals put forward in the draft fertility bill, but opponents questioned the ethics of using human cells in this way.
...
The draft bill allows the creation of human embryos that have been physically mixed with one or more animal cells. However, true animal-animal hybrids, made by the fusion of sperm and eggs, remain outlawed.

And in all cases it would be illegal to allow embryos to grow for more than 14 days or be implanted into a womb.

One small step forward.

Date published: 2007/05/16

Middle class academic frets about patio heaters and plasma televisions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Governments should tax plasma screen televisions because of the large amount of energy they consume, according to a leading expert on climate change.

Professor Paul Ekins, who studies the economics of climate change, said taxing plasma screens would reflect their "greater climate change burden".

This would encourage development and take-up of more energy efficient diode screens, Professor Ekins said.

He said government could label energy hungry appliances as a first step.

Plasma televisions, which are 50% bigger than their cathode-ray tube equivalents, consume about four times more energy, according to the government-funded Energy Saving Trust.
...
But some researchers say exact comparisons are difficult because of the size difference between plasmas and other screen types: cathode-ray tube and Liquid Crystal Display (LCD).

"At the very least you might think that government would provide some differential incentives to accelerate the development of more energy efficient diode screens and encourage their take-up," said Professor Ekins, co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).
...
He also singled out patio heaters as especially energy-intensive.
...
But Robert Gross, head of technology and policy assessment at UKERC, said debates on energy efficiency could become too pre-occupied by prices and incentives.

"When you are looking at consumer appliances, buildings and vehicles and you are looking at people not responding very well to price-based incentives - for a variety of reasons - there's an absolutely fundamental role for straightforward legislation to improve the efficiency of these devices," he told journalists.

The academic middle class in action. Patio heaters and plasma televisions as the source of all evil on the planet. But why just single out these, the government should be concerned about all energy consumption. The answer is a carbon tax on all producers of carbon (or a carbon allowance for the country). It should not be up to the academic middle class to decide what consumption of energy is allegedly ok and what is not, it should be up to the people of Britain, as long as they pay an appropriate price (which in most cases they do not).

Date published: 2007/05/15

Council almost stops film festival on Midsummer Common (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A film festival is set to take place on Midsummer Common despite objections from residents.

The Strawberry Fair Film Festival has become an annual event, taking place in a big top tent the night before the main festival, which this year is on Saturday, June 2.

But the city council told organisers they could not hold the event after pressure from the recently formed group Friends of Midsummer Common.

The festival organisers were furious and claimed the group was trying to stop people using the common. The group's chairman says it was simply trying to protect the green space.

After a furious row, the council has changed its mind and agreed the film event can go ahead.
...
The event uses a screen and projector borrowed from the Arts Picturehouse and shows short films made by amateur film makers, most of them local.

One of the organisers Simon Mullen, a local film enthusiast, said: "The residents' principle objection is the potential for disturbance, but I can give them three years of evidence that there won't be any, because there has never been any."

Geoffrey King, chairman of the Friends of Midsummer Common, said: "The biggest problem is the number of events and the impact it has on the infrastructure and the quality of the common, which has gone downhill over the years.

"Midsummer Common isn't a fair ground. We are very lucky to have such a large green space so close to the city centre and it needs to be looked after."

The so-called Friends of Midsummer Common is just another special interest pressure group trying to preserve its own special interest at the cost of the rest of society. The people who live near Midsummer Common are rich and evidently don't like the peasants being able to enjoy something that they themselves enjoy every day. Fortunately in this case the council seems to have told them to get lost. There was a similar ridiculous discussion a few years ago about having a skateboard area on Jesus Green. And you can of course make the trivial statement that "Midsummer Common isn't a fair ground", because Midsummer Common is so much more. But events like Strawberry Fair and the File Festival are exactly the kind of events that should be happening on Midsummer Common (or Parker's Piece, or Jesus Green). This "large green space" is only "green" because it is full of grass, which is well used to being trampled by people and equipment and even eaten by cows. There was a typical amusement arcade on Midsummer Common a week or two ago and the grass is already pretty much back to normal. Midsummer Common does not need "protection" except from the middle class control freaks of the world who want to stop everyone else from using it.

People who are treated unfairly allegedly suffer more from heart disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who feel they are treated unfairly, including in the home and community, may have a higher risk of developing heart disease, a study says.

University College London researchers studied 8,000 people, says the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

They found those with a profound sense of injustice had a 55% higher chance of suffering serious heart disease.

Experts believe a sense of unfairness engenders negative emotions which may prompt biochemical changes in the body.

However, lead researcher Dr Roberto de Vogli said more research was needed to confirm the mechanism linking unfairness to health.

The team looked at a study of 8,000 senior civil servants working for the UK government.

However, they were not assessing unfairness experienced at work and used statistics to remove the effects of this factor, and of risk factors such as obesity and smoking, from their tests.

The results showed that unfair treatment in other aspects of life was linked to increased risk of heart disease.
...
Dr de Vogli said perception of unfairness in all areas was important.

"I understand that this is a long shot, but the key message is that we must try to promote fairness in society."

Neil Poulter, professor of preventive cardiovascular medicine at Imperial College London, said: "I would think that if you are treated unfairly by society then that would be a likely stress factor which could adversely affect your health."

But he warned it was difficult to separate the effects of unfairness from other risk factors.

Yet another (pointless) health study which confuses correlation and causation. The game runs like this. Everybody believes that A causes B. So show that there is a correlation (link) between A and B and report your finding in such a way that everybody is led to believe you have proven that A causes B. But the causation could perfectly well be the other way around, or (the most likely case) it is something else entirely which just happens to correlate with both A and B. Here, for example, it's possible that people of poor health are grumpier than people who are not and therefore are more likely to feel that the world is out to get them. And the de Vogli take-home message that "we must try to promote fairness in society" is so devoid of any meaningful content as to be not worth uttering except by a politician trying to win office.

Date published: 2007/05/14

Bioclimatic Architecture (permanent blog link)

The third seminar in the Architecture Department's "Sustainable Design" series was presented by Alexandros Tombazis (from Athens) and Alan Short (Cambridge and London), on the theme of "Bioclimatic Architecture". Whatever that means.

Tombazis gave a presentation based on a recent book he has published, called "Letter to a Young Architect". Per se this does not have a lot to do with the theme of the lecture series. And one of the problems with the Architecture Department in Cambridge is that it is top-heavy with old architects, so he was not addressing a large chunk of the audience (although over half were "young"). The presentation was very slick, with five or six words per slide on top of one or two fairly decent photographs of this, that and the other (many, it seems, taken by Tombazis himself, he evidently gets around the world quite a lot).

This was philosophy, more than anything else. So we got lots of stock phrases, e.g. "All buildings are living organisms" and "Architecture is sculpture with function" and "Architects should love the laws of nature". All very well (and it was fairly well presented, given the theme) but not much to do with "sustainable design".

Then Short gave a presentation on some of the buildings his firm has worked on. He started out quoting the usual statistic that half of energy consumption in the UK is from buildings (and he asked the obvious question, how does anyone know this). So to reduce carbon emissions we need to do something here. He was mainly concerned with non-residential buildings.

Short is evidently keen on using natural ventilation to improve the energy performance of buildings. (He kept saying by an order of magnitude but it was never clear whether this was just for heating and cooling, or also included lighting, etc.) There have been a few examples in Cambridge where these kind of ideas have been put into practise e.g. the Ionica HQ and the university maths buildings (and Ted Cullinan was in the audience, but the CMS never got mentioned). It is not always clear after the fact how well these buildings have actually performed (with energy use and comfort levels) in practise. Short gave several examples of his own buildings which he says have performed well.

But Short has no standard way of implementing natural ventilation, pretty much approaching every building differently (as might be expected). And he never really explained (there was no time) why a given approach was taken in any of the cases. Natural ventilation relies on air flow achieved via temperature gradients. And it seems that when the physicists have examined the actual flow once the buildings were up, they sometimes noticed results fairly different from the theoretical modelling done at the design stage. So it seems there is a long way to go with this approach, although obviously worth pursuing.

Why aren't more architects using this approach? Well, it is fairly complex, especially the modelling. Lots of architects probably don't feel up to this. And it seems that in the UK the fire regulations are a major stumbling block. Short did not explain why, but it seems to be down to the large amount of space without a fire barrier. It seems that in the UK the fire regulations are prescriptive and to use any design that falls outside the prescription you have to have a lengthy argument with the fire services. Indeed Short said that it took a year or two to get the fire certificate for a couple of his buildings. Needless to say, not many architects or developers are going to be very keen to go down that route.

Irish badger cull has allegedly done nothing to stop bovine TB (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new report claims the "virtual extermination" of badgers in the Republic of Ireland has failed to stop the spread of bovine TB.

Although so many badgers have been killed that they are extinct in many areas, the level of TB in cattle is twice as high as in Britain, it says.

The study comes from Badgerwatch Ireland and the UK Badger Trust.

It has been released just before the British government receives an advisory report considering a similar cull.
...
The farming industry and many vets are adamant that badgers help spread the disease among cattle.

They would like to see a targeted cull aimed at infected populations of badgers, in "hotspot" areas including parts of South West England and in Wales.

The UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says the government will assess the science, including data from the Irish experience, before deciding on the most appropriate solution to tackle bovine TB.

It is due to receive recommendations from the Independent Science Group on Cattle TB this summer.

Badgerwatch Ireland and the UK Badger Trust have reviewed documents relating to the systematic destruction of badgers in the so-called Four Areas Project which operated in Cork, Monaghan, Donegal and Kilkenny from 1997 to 2002.

The project compared proactive and reactive culling of badgers in outbreak areas to try to determine which approach would have the greatest impact on the incidence of TB in cattle.

A review of the project for Defra found it to be the "best evidence yet of the fact of badgers contributing to bovine TB in cattle"; and the National Farmers' Union highlights data in the project which it says shows effective badger control reduced cases of TB in cattle by up to 96%.

But the two conservation groups concentrate on what they regard as flaws in the project - and in the Irish Republic's current control methods.
...
The groups believe their assessment supports the view that bovine TB in Ireland is largely spread by cattle. They say the disease rocketed in Ireland when pre-movement TB testing for cattle was abandoned in 1996.

Unfortunately, the organisations behind this report obviously have an axe to grind (they don't want badgers killed), which means their conclusions have to be taken with a pinch of salt. But hopefully the government will get some independent advice (if it can find anyone who is independent) to look at the Irish approach, and if indeed there is reasonable evidence that the cull has proven to be pointless, then hopefully the UK will not continue down the same road.

Breastfeeding is either doing better, or not, in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fewer than one in a hundred women follow government advice to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, figures show.

The Infant Feeding Survey shows in 2005 76% of UK mothers started out breastfeeding - up 7% from 2000.

However, most resort to formula within weeks, and fewer than half still breastfeed by the time their child is six weeks old.

By six months, just one in four are still breastfeeding.

The survey, which has been carried out every five years since 1975, also found that well educated, professional women aged over 30 who were first time mothers were the most likely group to breastfeed.

Professor Denise Lievesley, of the Information Centre, which produced the study, said the overall message was positive as more women were breastfeeding for longer.

This is a classic BBC health story where they try to spin both sides of the story at the same time. So first we are told that only "1 in 100 women follow government advice to breasfeed exclusively for the first six months". Then we are told that in fact "1 in 4 are still breastfeeding" at six months. And at the end we are told that "the overall message was positive". Well, since 1 in 4 are still breastfeeding at six months, the original claim that it is only 1 in 100 means that the BBC must be relying on that key word "exclusively". So presumably if a women bottle feeds a baby just once in the first six months, then she is deemed to have spurned government advice, and evidently almost every woman (99 in 100) does this. How dare the peasants revolt in this way. If the government paints the world as black and white, the peasants better just accept that view without question.

It seems that the negative spin in the first sentence is intended to show that the government must do more to encourage breastfeeding, e.g. by making it illegal for anyone to object to breastfeeding in public. And the positive spin at the end is presumably to show that the people behind the survey are doing a jolly good job and should continue to get government support.

And is anyone surprised that "well educated, professional women aged over 30 who were first time mothers were the most likely group to breastfeed"?

Date published: 2007/05/13

Yet another pointless government consultation, on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government, business and consumers need to cooperate to reduce climate change, Environment Secretary David Miliband has said.

Mr Miliband was speaking at the first Climate Change Citizens' Summit in London, part of a draft Climate Change Bill consultation process.

"I hope this summit will encourage people to take action," he said.

The draft Climate Change Bill is the first of its kind in the world and will set a framework to cut carbon emissions

The summit, organised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), will help shape official policy to help keep people informed and aware of the issue.
...
A panel of 150 people from six areas of the country will be asked three questions.

Defra has said the draft bill would have a full public consultation along with pre-legislative scrutiny in parliament.

Poor Mr Miliband. He does mean well (or at least seems to mean well). But how were the 150 people chosen? If they are mainly the usual suspects (the academic middle class, etc.) then you could write up the conclusions already. So, the answers are:

If instead the panel is made up of some randomly chosen members of the general public, then how much time and effort is going to be put in so that they actually have any hope of understanding the complexities of the issues, in order to that they might give any kind of sensible input. Probably no time or effort, so the result will just be what DEFRA wants the result to be (i.e. the above, academic middle class, answers). This whole "consultation" process is just a big waste of money.

Trying to reduce methane emissions from hydro-electric dams (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists in Brazil have claimed that a major source of greenhouse gas emissions could be curbed by capturing and burning methane given off by large hydro-electric dams.

The team at the country's National Space Research Institute (INPE) is developing prototype equipment designed to stop the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere.

The technology will extract the methane from the water to supplement the energy produced by the dam turbines.

The scientists estimate that worldwide the technique could prevent emissions equivalent to more than the total annual burning of fossil fuels in the UK - and reduce the pressure to build new dams in sensitive areas such as the Amazon.

The project follows a long-running controversy over how clean hydro-electric power really is.

Critics of the industry have claimed that in tropical areas of Brazil - which supplies more than 90% of its electricity from large dams - some reservoirs emit so much methane that their contribution to climate change is greater than an equivalent power station burning fossil fuels like coal or gas.

Methane is produced mainly by bacteria that break down organic matter where there is little or no oxygen, for example at the bottom of lakes and reservoirs.

Since intake pipes for hydroelectric turbines tend to be placed quite deep, methane-rich water is suddenly transferred from conditions of high-pressure to the open air.

The lead scientist of the INPE project, Fernando Ramos, told the BBC's Science In Action programme: "It's like opening a bottle of soda. A large part of the methane is dissolved in the water bubbles, and it's released to the atmosphere.

"That's the reason big hydro-electric dams built in tropical areas are harmful to the environment."

There is still great uncertainty about the precise amount of methane added to the atmosphere in this way, as each dam behaves in very different ways depending on the amount of vegetation in the water, the temperature, the shape of the reservoir and many other factors.

However, a statistical analysis carried out by the INPE scientists has estimated that large dams could be responsible for worldwide annual emissions equivalent to some 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

To put that in perspective, last year's total greenhouse gas emissions from the UK were around 660 million tonnes.
...
INPE hopes to develop prototype equipment to demonstrate the process later this year.

It's good that someone is looking at this, although the proposed process (illustrated in the BBC article) does not look that trivial to implement nor necessarily that efficient, so INPE will indeed need to have a pretty convincing demonstration that their claims add up.

Another report saying biofuels are not as good for the environment as claimed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The drive to switch over to biofuels could lead to rising food prices and deforestation, a report has warned.

The government and EU have said by the year 2020 they want 10% of all fuel in cars to come from biofuels.

But a study by the Co-op Insurance Society suggests achieving this could have a severe environmental impact.

It comes days after a UN report with similar warnings said that biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power, rather than in transport.

Biofuels can be anything made with vegetable matter that burns.

They are seen as a potential solution to climate change because they can reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Co-op report claims there is a future for biofuels, but current targets for growing so much fuel could have unintended consequences, BBC correspondent Damian Kahya says.

Professor Dieter Helm, a senior advisor to the British government, told the BBC: "The sort of targets being set for biofuels will have quite radical effects on agriculture and therefore will have very substantial consequences for food prices and agriculture more generally."

The report says that around nine per cent of the world's agricultural land may be needed to replace just 10% of the world's transport fuels.

This means the production of biofuels could lead to a decrease in land available for food production in countries where famine already exists.

"People are felling rainforests to plant crops to grow energy fuels, biofuels," Professor Helm said.

"Think of the energy involved in felling those rainforests. Think about the damage to the climate being done by the loss of those trees. Think about the ploughing and the cultivation of fields.

"Think about the transport of those fuels, and you start to realise the carbon imprints are about much more than simply what happens to grow in a particular field at a particular point in time."

All pretty much the same ground as the UN report covered. The question is whether anyone in the EU is listening. Unfortunately the EU seems to be focussing on one narrow thing, the nominal EU carbon emissions. (The emissions are nominal since they only measure direct EU emissions, they do not measure the vast indirect emissions that are due to imported goods and services minus those from exported goods and services.)

Date published: 2007/05/12

Reid complains about human rights laws (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Home Secretary John Reid has called for human rights laws to be rewritten to protect people against terrorism.

In a speech in Venice to ministers of the six largest EU nations, he said the current situation was unacceptable.

Citizens were not being protected by politicians who followed case law "to the letter", Mr Reid said.
...
In his speech, Mr Reid told the summit, that the international legal system needed modernising and that the distinction between armed conflict and criminal acts was out of date.

He said: "We need to work to modernise the law - still protecting human rights and still providing equity and justice - but reflecting the reality of the conflicts and struggles we now face.

"We need leadership to do this. It can't be left solely to the lawyers.

"Politicians must expose these issues and set a lead, so that we can protect the rights of all our citizens, including all those threatened by terrorism."

What planet is this guy living on? It's just as well he is going to leave office when Blair does. Does anyone, anywhere, believe that laws are "left solely to the lawyers"? Governments make laws, not lawyers. And you would bloody hope that politicians "followed case law to the letter". Does Reid think that he should be able to pick and choose which laws he wants to observe? One of the problems with the Blair government is that it consistently broke the law. It wanted to lock people up without charge and without anybody except the government having a say in the matter. Unfortunately, British Home Secretary after British Home Secretary tries to prove over and over that they are the worst British Home Secretary of all time.

Date published: 2007/05/11

Gordon Brown wants to be prime minister (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown said he had the "new ideas and vision" to govern Britain as he launched his long-awaited campaign to lead Labour and become prime minister.

He praised Tony Blair and said he wanted to make the UK "one of the great success stories of the new century".

But the launch suffered a hitch with Mr Brown's face obscured on TV coverage of his speech by glass autocues.

Mr Blair earlier endorsed Mr Brown's bid to succeed him as prime minister, saying "he has what it takes".
...
Mr Brown ... suggested Britain could get its first written constitution, saying: "We need a constitution that is clear about the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen in Britain today."

On Iraq, Mr Brown said: "I accept that mistakes have been made."

He said he would be visiting Britain's troops and "listening to what the government of Iraq says".

So far it's just words. Time will tell whether Brown has anything to contribute as prime minister. The screw-up with the autocue possibly tells us that Brown's spin doctors are not quite so competent as Blair's, or it could tell us that Brown's spin doctors are super-clever to have arranged the autocue so that we are left with the impression that his spin doctors are not quite so competent as Blair's.

Aspirin might help prevent bowel cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Taking aspirin each day can prevent bowel cancer developing, a study says.

Oxford University researchers said taking a dose of 300mg a day for five years offered the protection.

Long-term aspirin use is generally not backed because of the risk of stomach problems, but the team said it could benefit those at high-risk of cancer.
...
The researchers looked at the results from two large-scale UK trials carried out in the late 1970s and early 1980s covering over 7,500 people which had given some people 300, 500 or 1,200mg per day doses of aspirin or a dummy pill for five to seven years.

The people in the study were then followed for up to 20 years, and deaths from bowel cancer were logged.

The team say it takes at least 10 years to see an effect, because that is how long it takes for a pre-cancerous growths to develop into cancer.

Other studies have examined aspirin's benefits.

However, this was the first where people were allocated to take different doses of the drug, or the fake version, rather than looking back at the aspirin use of bowel cancer patients and comparing them with healthy people.

The researchers found that taking 300mg of aspirin - the equivalent of one pill - a day for five years reduced the incidence of bowel cancer by 74% in the subsequent 10 to 15 years.

An accompanying review of 30 observational studies suggested taking medium-to-high doses of aspirin for 10 years or more reduced the risk of developing the disease by 50%-70%.

The protective effect of aspirin appeared to be consistent regardless of age, sex, race or country of origin.

It was also seen in individuals who had a close family relative with bowel cancer, which normally raises the lifetime risk two to four times.

Professor Peter Rothwell, who led the research, said: "What we are saying is that for a subgroup of people at high risk of bowel cancer, they probably aren't going to be dramatically harmed by taking aspirin.

"They may have some risk of bleeding in the stomach, but they will see potentially significant benefits in the reduction of their colon cancer risk.

"In that situation, I think taking aspirin daily would be worthwhile."

So one day the BBC tells us that aspirin may increase the risk of strokes and the next day they tell us that aspirin is a wonder drug for bowel cancer. At least this study seems to have been done properly (unlike most health studies) in that the "people were allocated to take different doses of the drug, or the fake version, rather than looking back at the aspirin use of bowel cancer patients and comparing them with healthy people". This is the main way you can prove a causation rather than just a correlation. (Well, this is assuming the people were assigned to the groups randomly.)

Date published: 2007/05/10

Blair finally formally announces his resignation date (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has announced he will stand down as prime minister on 27 June. He made the announcement in a speech to party activists in his Sedgefield constituency, after earlier briefing the Cabinet on his plans.

He acknowledged his government had not always lived up to high expectations but said he had been "very blessed" to lead "the greatest nation on earth".
...
In an emotional speech, Mr Blair said he had been prime minister for 10 years which was "long enough" for the country and himself.

He thanked the British people for their support and apologised for when "I have fallen short".

It was for others to judge whether he had made mistakes, said Mr Blair, adding: "I have always done what I thought was right."

He said expectations had probably been "too high" in 1997, but he defended his government's record in office.

"There is only one government since 1945 that can say all of the following: more jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime and economic growth in every quarter. Only one government, this one," he said.

On foreign policy, Mr Blair acknowledged the terrorist "blow back" from the "bitterly controversial" invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and he urged Britain to stay the course in the fight against terror.

"I decided we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our oldest ally, and I did so out of belief," he said of his decision to support America's invasion of Iraq.

"I did what I thought was right for our country," Mr Blair said, summing up his record.

Unfortunately Blair put the best interests of the American government (not the American people) above the interests of the British people. The illegal invasion of Iraq, at the behest of Bush, was the downfall of Blair. Bush had no justification for the invasion, he wanted to do it purely for party political reasons. And so when Blair joined the foray, he had to make the evidence for war up, which he did. He is enough of a fantasist to still claim in public that it was all above board. It was not. And Iraq will go down as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of all time. It has made the so-called war on terror much worse. So even on his only claim why the war happened, he has failed miserably. A side effect of this policy was Blair's attempt at a wholesale removal of the civil liberties of British citizens. It's unfortunate, because on most of domestic policy, Blair was far more sensible than any of the other major political players in Britain, although even here he was starting to go off the rails the last year or two.

Government reduces maximum grant for domestic "low" carbon energy installations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government's decision to reduce individual grants for homeowners wanting to produce their own renewable energy has been criticised.

Changes to the Low Carbon Buildings Programme mean that future applicants will be limited to £2,500 for domestic micro-generation projects.

Previously, grants of up to £15,000 and £5,000 were available for solar energy and micro-turbine schemes respectively.

Ministers said the changes would enable more people to participate.

Demand for the scheme, introduced last year, has been intense with monthly allocations of money being fully subscribed within minutes.
...
"There is no justification for the decision in terms of strategy or support for domestic renewable electricity market," said Seb Berry, external affairs director of Solar Century, which designs and installs solar panels.

With the typical cost of buying and installing a solar panel system about £7,000, Mr Berry said the changes would make the project unviable for many people.

"You are asking individual homeowners to find £4,000 to £5,000 of their own money."

Well you would hope that homeowners would have to pay a fairly substantial fraction of the cost of buying and installing solar panels. What do these people think, that the rest of the country should subsidise their lifestyle? Sure, you might want to claim that solar power (no matter how inappropriate it is for the UK) should be given some kind of kickstart. But the government should not pour large amounts of money into the scheme (which also happens to mainly benefit the middle class). If you receive a subsidy for something, anything, then you have successfully externalised costs onto everybody else. And if there is one thing that the world has got to learn to stop doing, it is externalising costs. Instead of subsidising these "low" carbon power sources, they should instead just put a carbon tax on all sources of carbon emissions. That creates a level enough playing field.

Government throws money at programme to help children talk (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Toddlers are to get help learning how to talk in a bid to cut the numbers of children starting school with poor language skills for their age.

Half of children enter primary school unable to speak as well as they are expected to, research suggests.

The Early Talk programme which uses gestures, symbols and signing to expand vocabulary, is being piloted in 200 government-backed children's centres.

It will also be used to target youngsters with potential difficulties.

Clare Geldard, head of Early Years for the charity behind the programme, I CAN, said there were concerns that the number of pre-school children with speech and language difficulties was on the rise.

"We don't know why this is the case and I am sure there are a myriad of reasons.
...
I CAN's chief executive Virginia Beardshaw said one in 10 children across the UK were thought to have a communication disability.

She added that the Early Talk programme, which will ultimately be rolled out to 3,000 Sure Start children's centres, would foster environments "where communication is embedded".

Being the BBC, they don't give any useful information, like how much this is going to cost per child, and whether it is value for money (compared with everything else that could be done with the money). Of course the BBC, as with the rest of the chattering class, doesn't care how much anything costs. Government should just throw money at everything the chattering class wants them to. And you have to wonder about the claim that "one in 10 children across the UK were thought to have a communication disability". If you draw a distribution of anything you are not going to get a perfect spike with everybody at that point, but instead a (near enough) normal (gaussian) distribution (or log normal if the data is inherently positive), and usually fairly broad (i.e. with a significant standard deviation). And then if you come up with some arbitrary definition of what a "satisfactory" performance is (and in many circumstances many people would take the mean) then anybody below that cutoff is obviously deemed not to be "satisfactory". So if some arbitrary definition gives that one in 10 children has "unsatisfactory" performance then that says as much about the arbitrary definition as it does about anything else.

Date published: 2007/05/09

UN says biofuels should not necessarily be used for transport (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A UN report warns that a hasty switch to biofuels could have major impacts on livelihoods and the environment.

Produced by a cross-agency body, UN Energy, the report says that biofuels can bring real benefits.

But there can be serious consequences if forests are razed for plantations, if food prices rise and if communities are excluded from ownership, it says.

And it concludes that biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power rather than in transport.

"Current research concludes that using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade - and also one of the cheapest," it says.

The European Union and the US have recently set major targets for the expansion of biofuels in road vehicles, for which ethanol and biodiesel are seen as the only currently viable alternative to petroleum fuels.

All fairly obvious and well known. So why is the EU forcing biofuels to be used in road transport? Because the EU wants to reduce its nominal carbon emissions, and so the EU is completely and conveniently ignoring the side effects as detailed in the UN report.

An Encyclopedia of Life (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Long-snouted aardvarks will rub shoulders with skunk-like zorillas in an ambitious plan to provide a virtual snapshot of life on Earth.

The Encyclopedia of Life project aims to detail all 1.8 million known plant and animal species in a net archive.

Individual species pages will include photographs, video, sound and maps, collected and written by experts.

The archive, to be built over 10 years, could help conservation efforts as well as being a useful tool for education.

"The Encyclopedia of Life will provide valuable biodiversity and conservation information to anyone, anywhere, at any time," said Dr James Edwards, executive director of the $100m (£50m) project.

"[It] will ultimately make high-quality, well-organized information available on an unprecedented level."

The vast database will initially concentrate on animals, plants and fungi with microbes to follow. Fossil species may eventually be added.

A reasonable enough idea but why is it costing so much money?

Date published: 2007/05/08

Yet another international meeting on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Delegates to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol are meeting in the German city of Bonn.

The two-week summit of about 2,000 delegates from 190 countries will focus on how to forward the Kyoto Protocol.

Kyoto binds 35 nations to cut carbon emissions in a first phase until 2012.

Officials will look at how to widen the deal to include the world's richest nations and the growing economies, such as the US, China, Brazil and India.
...
The discussions are aimed at paving the way for December's meeting of environment ministers in Bali, where it is hoped delegates will reach consensus on a follow-up to Kyoto.

The travelling circus continues. Today Bonn, tomorrow Bali. Given all the carbon emissions they are producing, they better come up with something bloody good at the end of the day.

Galileo satellite system in trouble (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe's proposed satellite-navigation system, Galileo, will need more public funds if it is to be built.

Hope is receding that a private consortium asked to run the system can end its infighting and meet a 10 May deadline to move the project forward.

This is likely to mean European taxpayers stepping in to cover costs.

German Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, speaking on behalf of the EU, said: "Galileo is going through a deep and grave crisis."

He added: "We're in a dead end street. The cardinal problem is that the companies still have not been able to agree on the way forward. We need to find an alternative solution."

The consortium comprises leading aerospace and telecom concerns: EADS, Thales, Inmarsat, Alcatel-Lucent, Finmeccanica, AENA, Hispasat, and TeleOp.

The European Commission (EC) set the May deadline for them to come forward with a single company structure to run Galileo, a chief executive and common negotiating position.

But with little sign of the target being met to the Commission's satisfaction, the EC is now expected to present new proposals to overhaul the project on 16 May.

"Our view is that the current scenario to put Galileo into place cannot work," said Michele Cercone, spokesman for the EC's directorate general for transport.

Galileo's planned network of 30 satellites will beam radio signals to receiving devices on the ground, helping users pinpoint their locations.

The system's technologies are designed to bring greater accuracy and reliability to navigation and timing signals delivered from space.

The intention behind Galileo was that taxpayers in the EU would inject more than one billion euros (£0.7bn) into the early development of the project.

The deployment phase - the launch of the satellites and the construction of ground stations - was expected to cost at least two billion more, with two-thirds of the investment being borne by the private sector.

The latter was also expected to pick up all the running costs in the long term.
...
Originally, Galileo was to have started launching its 30 satellites by 2008. However, that date was postponed to 2011/12 due to previous disagreements between EU governments on how to pay for the system.

Unbelievable. You take one good idea and completely mess up the implementation by trying to run the project with a committee made up of lumbering giant corporations. The EU could have given it to some halfway competent ten-person company to build and had a better result by now.

Date published: 2007/05/07

Building and Risk (permanent blog link)

The second seminar in the Architecture Department's "Sustainable Design" series was presented by Yasemin Aysan (formerly UNDP and IFRC, Geneva) and Robin Spence (Cambridge), on the theme of "Building and Risk". There are lots of things you can cover under that title, and here the idea was to look at recovery from natural disasters, in particular earthquakes, and how reconstruction might be used to make buildings structurally better for the next time around.

Aysan started with a talk on "Disaster, Risk and Recovery". She's been working in the area of disaster recovery for quite some time, and provided a (relatively) historic overview. It sounded like the 1970s could be deemed to be the "bad old days" in disaster recovery, with well-meaning donor nations providing completely inappropriate housing (etc.) to nations affected by some natural disaster. Although it also seems that not all the lessons have been learnt, mainly because there seems to be no efficient mechanism to pass information on from one generation to the next. Indeed, she mentioned some manual put together by some international agency which details lessons learnt, but this agency won't even put this on the web as a PDF file, because they want to make money selling it, so many people working in disaster relief have apparently never even heard of it.

She showed a graph put together by some insurance agency, of the number of major natural disasters (however that was arbitrarily defined) from 1950 to 2005, and you can fit an increasing curve to the data (although the data is up and down, of course). She claimed that earthquakes had increased by a factor of two and climate-related natural disasters (e.g. floods) by a factor of seven. Well, the fact that earthquakes have allegedly increased by a factor of two tells you that this data must have very big natural variability, or perhaps is incomplete at the 1950 end, because there is no particular reason that earthquakes should have doubled in 50 years. Climate-related disasters are another matter. Everyone believes those surely must have increased. But it was interesting that they included heatwaves as disasters but didn't include freezing to death (from not being able to afford to heat one's house).

And just looking at the number of disasters is misleading in any case, since one should also look at their impact, in particular in terms of fatalities. Those are increasing even more, because with a doubling of the world's population between 1950 and today, more and more people are forced to live in high risk areas (e.g. flood plains, mountain sides liable to slip, etc.).

And it seems that there is also limited understanding by people of the risks they face. This is particularly true of earthquakes, which typically are a once in a lifetime event. And it is difficult to enforce safety requirements, with regard to both land use and building regulations, in many countries.

Aysan mentioned various ways that housing reconstruction has been approached after a disaster, over the years. One approach was labeled as "industrialised", and meant that some organisation took control and built was it deemed was to be suitable housing. Another approach was labeled as "owner built", and meant that owners were (usually) given some money and told to go and rebuild their own house. Both approaches seem to sometimes work and sometimes not. Apparently the one option that is deemed bad by pretty much everyone in the field is forced relocation. (Well, in some circumstances that might be the only option.)

One could take the destruction of housing as an opportune time to rebuild to a higher standard, in particular with regard to earthquakes. And it seems that the international agencies give lip service to this idea. But it seems that on the ground this rarely happens. And Aysan even said that in some locations people have purposefully reverted to old-style, unsafe, housing, because that is what they were used to and liked.

Aysan was not that flattering about the NGOs involved in disaster recovery. For example, after the Boxing Day tsunami they were inundated with money, much more than normal. And it seems that many of the NGOs specialise in emergency relief, and had so much money left over after this relief was no longer needed, that they branched out into reconstruction, even though they had no expertise in this, because they didn't want to (or perhaps couldn't) hand over the money to someone more expert in this area. And it seems that even more than a proliferation of disasters, we have had a proliferation of NGOs.

Robin Spence then talked about "Building for Safety in Earthquakes". He covered much of the same ground, but more from a research point of view. It seems that deaths due to earthquakes in rich countries has plummeted since 1950, but not in poor countries. This is hardly surprising, since rich people can afford to put up better buildings. In poor countries the number of deaths per million from earthquakes fluctuates quite a lot even from decade to decade (showing how rare these events are), with at worst around 15 deaths per million people per year. That does not sound like a lot. And Spence said that earthquakes account for only around a quarter of deaths from natural disasters and that deaths from natural disasters are only around a tenth of deaths from road transport.

So right there you can ask (as someone did at the end) if this is such a big deal or if there were more important things to worry about (clean water, education, etc.). Well, natural disasters provide great television for the rich countries, so always get lots of attention. Any event where a lot of people die in one event always gets more attention. Even in the UK, if four people die in a train crash the media goes hysterical for weeks on end, but many more people die on the roads and nobody pays more than five seconds attention to it.

Spence claimed, as did Aysan, that in some earthquakes vernacular buildings often did better than ones constructed using allegedly modern building standards. Well, it's hard to know how seriously to take this. He referred to a couple of people who took some photos after some disasters and came to this conclusion. But how valid is it? It wasn't clear if anyone had really done a proper study. A lot of the problem with modern buildings (at least in poor countries) is not that engineers don't know how to put them up properly, but that the people who put them up did not do so properly, presumably either out of ignorance or to save money, and nobody in authority did anything to stop this happening.

One of the things that Aysan said at the end was that usually there were no studies long after the disaster as to what worked and what didn't. The disaster agencies are happy just to tick the end-of-term boxes (number of houses built, etc.) and go onto the next disaster.

People want more state-funded social care (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An overhaul in social care with more state-funded support for the most vulnerable is needed, a survey says.

Social care is effectively means-tested in the UK apart from Scotland where personal care is provided free.

But a poll of 2,306 found most people were against the current arrangements, although many accepted some individual contribution may be needed.

The Caring Choices, a coalition of charities, said a debate was needed on social care and the ageing population.

Speaking on Radio 4's You and Yours programme, Care Services Minister Ivan Lewis said the government were trying to free up more money to put into social care.

The proportion of people over 65 is growing - over the next 20 years projections indicate it will rise by over 50%.

That means there will be more demand on social services, but less taxpayers per pensioner to fund it.

Currently, anyone with assets of more than £20,500 has to pay for social care, although if the care is linked to health treatment it is supposed to be provided free.

What a surprise, you ask people if they want something for nothing (free social care) and they say yes. Perhaps one of the polls should be honest and tell people how much they would have to pay in increased taxes to pay for it all. "You and Yours" is one of the worst programmes on Radio 4. In almost every edition they will let some special interest group demand more money for its special interest, with no regard as to who will pay for it. In this programme the presenter claimed that some changes in how social care is paid for would "only" cost one or three pounds per person per week. Well, if you add up all the "small" demands "You and Yours" makes every day, you would soon have a doubling of income tax and more. The fundamental problem with care for the elderly is demographic. People are living longer but are not working longer (although that will change slowly over the next few decades). If the public allegedly wants all these wonderful services, the public is going to have to accept that they will have to work longer to pay for it all, or cut back on something else. But it's hard for the public to make an honest appraisal of the choices when Radio 4 produces such dishonest radio programmes.

Date published: 2007/05/06

Exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

It's a typical Bank Holiday weekend in England, i.e. overcast and not that warm. But Londoners seem to have deserted the city, and it was rather quiet, even in Trafalgar Square.

The National Gallery in London has an exhibition entitled "Renoir Landscapes: 1865-1883". It's only on for another two weeks, until 20 May. It then moves to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa from 8 June to 9 September, and then travels to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 4 October to 6 January (2008).

Now Renoir is not the world's favourite impressionist painter (that's Van Gogh) or even the second favourite (that's Monet) but he's still fairly popular. So it is a bit surprising that the exhibition was fairly quiet. You could just walk in and get a ticket for immediate entry. And, unlike typical impressionist exhibitions, there were perhaps typically only three or four people per painting, and the paintings were well spread out so it was pretty good viewing. (Mind you, some people insist on looking at these paintings from two foot away. Ok, if you are an artist who wants to study technique, fine. Otherwise, you should step back occasionally.)

And it seems it wasn't just the quiet Bank Holiday weekend, because the National Gallery reduced the price of the softback version of the exhibition catalogue from 25 pounds down to 10. (And the hardback version was also reduced but not quite so dramatically.) So they must have a lot of stock left over. (The National Gallery also reduced the price of their "Complete Illustrated Catalogue", 2001 version, from 50 to 25 pounds, supposedly only until the end of the Renoir exhibition. Presumably this means that a new edition is soon to come out.)

A lot of exhibitions in London consist mainly of works from at most two or three collections. This Renoir exhibition was completely different. There were 63 paintings in the London show (the set in Ottawa and Philadelphia will be slightly different). Around a quarter were from private collections, and the others came from over thirty museums. So all in all, this is one of those exhibitions where this will be the only time you ever see many of the paintings. (The catalogue has 73 paintings listed. A couple of the paintings shown in London are not in the catalogue. Some in the catalogue are not being shown in all three locations of the exhibition. And three paintings in the catalogue are not being shown in any of the locations.)

The quality of the works on show, as you would expect, is pretty high. Renoir is perhaps known most for his (ruddy, fully shaped) women, but, he was actually pretty good at landscape. The word "landscapes" in the title of the exhibition was stretched to include some paintings with people more prominent than the landscape, but there were several powerful, proper, landscapes in the exhibition. For example, "The Watering-place", "Springtime (in Chatou)", "The Wave" (the 1879 one), "Rocky Crags at L'Estaque", and, perhaps best of all, "The Jardin d'Essai, Algiers".

Meanwhile, over at the British Museum there is an exhibition entitled "A New World: England's first view of America", on until 17 June. This is mainly about John White, who produced some of the earliest English depiction (in watercolours) of life (the natives and nature) in the "new" world, in the 1580s. This was mainly from the British Museum's own collection. Unfortunately much of the work was damaged by water because of a fire in 1865. And White also used some pigments that discoloured with time. So we are not close to seeing the original colours in much of the work. But it does not matter that much.

Not that much seems to be known about White. He was not of the first rank (like Raleigh) but just below that. Other than these watercolours, he is probably best known for having led the disasterous expedition that created the temporary colony on Roanoke Island. (He did not die because he was sent back to seek assistance.) Indeed, the first (not so lucky) English child born in America was his grandchild.

White is not that great a painter. And some of his portraits of the natives were evidently copied from other, earlier, artists (and in turn his work was also copied by others). And part of the purpose of his work was to serve as propaganda, to convince people back home that the new world was a land of opportunity. So that further undermines any real claim to authenticity. His animal pictures were better than his human ones, but even here he seems to have gotten many details wrong. So this exhibition is almost more interesting for seeing how America was presented to the English back home rather than anything else. On the other hand, the maps (by White and others) were quite interesting, because one can assume that these were at least intended to be accurate, and they are impressive for their time, although of course not that accurate in many parts.

Sarkozy wins French presidential election (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy has won the hotly-contested French presidential election, according to early results.

With three quarters of votes counted, Mr Sarkozy has 53%, compared with 47% for socialist Segolene Royal, while turnout is put at 85%.

Mr Sarkozy, 52, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, takes over from the 74-year-old Jacques Chirac.
...
He said the US could count on France's friendship, but urged Washington to take a lead in the fight against climate change.

He also said he believed deeply in European integration, but appealed to France's partners to understand the importance of social protection.

"[Voters] have chosen to break with the habits and the ideals of the past so I will rehabilitate work, authority, morality, respect, merit!" he said.

France could do with a kick (just ask the thousands of talented young French expats who have settled in England because the work opportunities are so much better here). Whether Sarkozy is the right person to deliver the kick is another question.

Date published: 2007/05/05

South Pacific nations agree to restrict bottom trawling for fish (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A quarter of the world's oceans will be protected from fishing boats which drag heavy nets across the sea floor, South Pacific nations have agreed.

The landmark deal will restrict bottom trawling, which experts say destroys coral reefs and stirs up clouds of sediment that suffocate marine life.

Observers and monitoring systems will ensure vessels remain five nautical miles from marine ecosystems at risk.

The South Pacific contains the last pristine deep-sea marine environment.

It extends from the Equator to the Antarctic and from Australia to the western coast of South America.

The high seas encompass all areas not included in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a country.

The agreement reached in the coastal town of Renaca in Chile will come into force on 30 September.

It will close to bottom trawling areas where vulnerable marine ecosystems are known or are likely to exist, unless a prior assessment is undertaken and highly precautionary protective measures are implemented.

The delegation from New Zealand, whose fishermen are responsible for 90% of bottom trawling in the South Pacific high seas, said the restrictions would "severely constrain" its fishing vessels.

"Because of the cost implications of the necessary research and assessment and observer requirements, it may even have the effect of putting an end to bottom trawling," it said.

Well, the idea is to put an end to bottom trawling, you would have thought New Zealand could have figured that one out. And it seems likely that this is indeed the correct decision, although perhaps we will discover some day that this is not the case. The question now is who is going to enforce this agreement.

Trial of a GM potato near Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Trials of genetically modified potatoes have begun in a field near Cambridge despite protests.

German company BASF is hoping new variants of potato are more resistant to late blight and has planted thousands in a field between Girton and Histon.

The National Institute of Agricultural Botany, based in Cambridge, has provided land for the five-year trial and its experts will assess the plants' progress.

Campaign group GM Free Cambridge held a public meeting last month and 60 people joined a protest walk from Histon to Girton.

Meanwhile the Green Party criticised the trials this week, saying big business was steamrolling the interests of local people.

Protests have also been held in Hedon, Yorkshire, where BASF is hoping to hold a second trial of the potatoes after a Derbyshire farmer pulled out of the scheme.

Jim Jepps from GM Free Cambridge said: "The technology has unintended consequences. These tests could be conducted in a laboratory or inside a factory setting but they've decided to put them in the open air which means they could contaminate other organisms.

"They've put a 20-metre exclusion zone around them but we don't think that's enough. Bees travel up to three miles so it jeopardises the organic status of anyone producing organic honey.

"Once they've developed this new brand of potato they will be able to patent it. It ends up being the intellectual property of a corporation rather than something anyone can use."

The anti-GM brigade indeed have two main objections to GM crops. Firstly, they have a religious objection to corporations. Secondly, they have a religious objection to almost any technology that is not at least a hundred or preferably two hundred years old. The idea that a bee sucking on a flower of a GM plant allegedly renders the honey from that bee not to be "organic" shows what a nonsense the "organic" label is. Presumably the bee better also not suck flowers near roads, or flowers near chemical plants, or flowers near "non-organic" farms. This protest is all about religion, not science. It's interesting that the Cambridge Evening News says the trials have begun "despite protests". Why should society be held up to blackmail by these people? Is the Cambridge Evening News suggesting that even if one person objects to any trial for anything, that that trial should stop? Of course, the anti-GM brigade has shown in the past that it is perfectly willing to use criminal tactics to get their way, and rip up crops. So it is irresponsible of the authorities to even have let anyone know that this area is being used for trials. And if the anti-GM brigade so object to patents, then they should donate money to researchers to do the work on the basis that the IPR is given away for free.

Date published: 2007/05/04

Not much happens in the Cambridge local elections (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge local election results were fairly boring. Indeed, only 35% of the electorate even bothered to vote. There was no change in the composition of the council, with the Lib Dems having 29 seats and Labour 13. The Conservatives got 25% of the vote (but no seats), just behind Labour on 27%, with the Lib Dems on 33%, while the Greens managed 13%. (The academic middle class is alive and well in Cambridge.) A couple of the contests were close. The Lib Dems won Arbury by just 12 votes and Kings Hedges by just 18 votes, over Labour. If this is the best the Lib Dems can do when Labour is floundering in the polls then it seems they have probably peaked in Cambridge and will in the next couple of years start to head downhill.

Yet another mostly pointless report on greenhouse gas emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The growth in greenhouse gas emissions can be curbed at reasonable cost, experts at a major UN climate change conference in Bangkok have agreed.

Boosting renewable energy, reducing deforestation and improving energy efficiency can all help, they said.

This is the third report this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and aims to set out the costs and benefits of various policies.

IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri said the report was "stunning".

"Human society as a whole has to look for changes in consumption patterns," he told reporters at a news conference in the Thai capital.

The report suggests that if major climate impacts are to be avoided, global emissions should peak and begin declining within one or two decades.

Greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 70% since 1970, and will rise by between 25% and 90% over the next 25 years under "business as usual".

That rise will mainly be caused by an expansion in the use of fossil fuels, which are set to continue as the world's dominant energy source.

"If we continue to do what we are doing now, we are in deep trouble," observed Ogunlade Davidson, a senior author on the report.
...
The report assesses the likely costs to the global economy of stabilising greenhouse gases at various concentrations in the atmosphere.

Stabilisation at reasonable cost is possible, it concludes, commenting: "There is considerable economic potential for the mitigation of global greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades, that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels."

The sharpest cuts, keeping greenhouse gas concentrations to levels equivalent to between 445 and 535 parts per million of carbon dioxide, might cost anything up to 3% of global GDP by 2030, while milder curbs could even enhance growth.

The current atmospheric concentrations are equivalent to about 425 parts per million of CO2.

Assessing the impacts of a given concentration is not an exact science, but many researchers believe that keeping concentrations below about 450ppm CO2-eq is necessary if the average global temperature rise is to be kept below 2C, and major impacts avoided.

The IPCC suggests that concentrations between 445ppm and 490ppm would keep the temperature rise to 2.0-2.8C. European Union policy is to avoid a rise greater than 2C.

Nothing new here. And the proof is in the pudding. This is only hot air. And it is a bit rich of Pachauri to talk about "changes in consumption patterns". Let the ruling elite change their "consumption patterns", before trying to screw the ordinary people of the world. The ruling elite are responsible for far, far more emissions than anyone else.

Date published: 2007/05/03

Women are allegedly better than men in medicine (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women's better bedside manner makes them more likely than men to pass medical exams, a study suggests.

The UK study showed women had the edge over men generally because they were better at communicating with patients and examining them in clinical tests.

The research which looked at gender and racial factors in exams taken by 3,650 candidates also suggested non-white males do least well in these exams.

More white candidates - 75.5% - passed compared to 60.3% of non-whites.

The research looked at candidates taking the MRCP (UK) exam that junior doctors have to pass to become specialist physicians. The study was into the 2003-04 year group.

It was carried out by a team of senior researchers from University College London and led by Dr Neil Dewhurst, the medical director of the examination department of the UK's colleges of physicians which runs the exam.
...
[ Dewhurst ] said he thought the reason for the non-whites' lower performance was a problem with the way they were being assessed rather than their overall ability.

"It may be that we are not be measuring these doctors correctly rather than saying their performance across the board is sub-optimal," he added.

As a result the colleges would look at changing the way some of its assessments were carried out, he added.

Of course, any research these days that shows men are better at anything compared with women means that the procedure is biased against women, and that in reality women are just as good as men. But any research that shows that women are better than men means that women are just better than men.

And similarly, any research that shows that whites are better than non-whites means the procedure is biased against the non-whites. And no doubt any research that shows non-whites are better at anything compared with whites means that non-whites are just better than whites.

This is why Dewhurst can apparently conclude, with a straight face, that his study proves that women are better than men, but that the assessment was biased against non-whites. ("Category A did better than Category B so A is better than B. Category C did better than Category D so the assessment is biased against D, and in reality C is no better than D.")

School students should allegedly be taught how to be happy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teachers should give pupils lessons in how to cope with life and be happy, a government adviser says.

Professor Lord Richard Layard, from the London School of Economics, believes the central purpose of schools should be to teach "the secrets of happiness".

He is calling for a new generation of teachers specialising in what is known as "emotional intelligence".

Teachers' leaders say they do all they can to promote children's well-being and the timetable is already crowded.

Lord Layard said people were no happier today than they were 50 years ago and that there had been a sharp fall in the numbers saying they trusted other people.

More nonsense. If Layard knows what the "secrets of happiness" are he should write a book and make a million. Presumably secret number one is to be born into the ruling elite so that you are all set up in life. And you can just imagine the lessons, some dreadful politically correct combination of meaningless mush.

Date published: 2007/05/02

The environment for a sustainable future (permanent blog link)

The final (and longest) lecture in the Department of Engineering's Fifth Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2007) was given by David King, Chief Scientific Officer for the UK. He started off with the usual definition of "sustainable" development along the lines that each generation should leave the planet in no worse shape for the next generation. He gave the usual academic middle class party line that we worry too much about GDP and not enough about "human capital" and "environmental capital".

Then he moved onto his first big topic. Unlike the other speakers in the series, he hit the number one problem straight off. It is that there are 6 billion people on the planet, and projected to grow to 8 billion by 2028 and 9 billion by around 2054. Almost all of that increase will be in poor, not rich, countries. Most countries allegedly have a period with high birth rates matching high death rates, then as the health system improves (e.g. with clean water) the death rate drops but the birth rate lags and remains high, before finally falling to match the lower death rate. Countries in the middle stage have a large population growth. The rich countries have already entered the final stage. Indeed, many rich countries (e.g. Italy, Spain) have a birth rate far below the replacement rate. Many (but not all) poor countries are still in the middle stage. Indeed, King claimed that the population of Africa is increasing by 2.4% per annum in spite of HIV/Aids.

He then mentioned that water will be a growing problem in future, with the projection that (global) demand will exceed supply by around 2050 plus or minus 10 or 15 years. And this is ignoring the problem that supply is not generally located in the same location as demand. He said that this was a technological problem, with the solution being to find a cheap(ish) way to desalinate seawater.

He then listed what he considers to be the obstacles to sustainable development:

and he said that someone in his office had removed:

He failed to mention the corrupt political leaders. The one thing in his list that is never mentioned is the problem of having multiple aid agencies and NGOs crawling over each and every poor country in the world. He said that in one African country (Tanzania?) there were 130 such organisations and the civil service had to spend much of their time answering to them rather than to their own citizens.

Well, perhaps it's not too surprising that he said he was practically booed at some international aid meeting he had gone to. But it turns out it had nothing to do with the above. It was that apparently (presumably many, rather than all of) the people who work in international development do not like scientists. And the main example he mentioned was GM food. So the anti-science and anti-technology attitudes are not so much in the people in the poor countries but more in the people from the rich countries who think they should tell the people in the poor countries how to run their country. He showed a graph of "wealth intensity" (i.e. GDP per capita, in spite of him saying we should not concentrate on that) versus "citation intensity" (in scientific journals). There is a correlation. Unfortunately, as a scientist he should have known that correlation is not the same thing as causation. So does being rich cause you to do more science or does doing more science cause you to be richer. Well, probably neither, exactly.

King got in trouble a few years ago for stating that climate change was the number one problem in the world. But he said it again in the lecture, and spent most of the rest of the lecture talking about that. He covered all the usual ground, including showing the usual temperature series showing it getting warmer. He showed the emissions trajectory for the "business as usual" scenario and then what we would need to do to go no higher than 450 ppm and 550 ppm. (As a comparison, in pre-industrial times we were at around 265 ppm, down to as low as around 200 ppm during ice ages, up to as much as 1000 to 1500 ppm during tropical eras.) The UK government (and lots of other people) say (somewhat arbitrarily) that we should aim not to get above 550 ppm and should hopefully be closer to the 450 ppm target. Well, you can look at the emissions trajectories and there is no way we are going to be as low as 450 ppm unless the world economy collapses pretty damn soon. Even 550 ppm looks suspiciously optimistic. And King said that the lead time between emissions and temperature was two to three decades. So expect it to get a lot warmer this century. (450 ppm corresponds to around 1 to 3 degrees C above the long-term average, and 550 ppm corresponds to around 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C above the long-term average.)

The British government is about to publish an energy white paper (in spite of Greenpeace, as King pointed out). The UK government wants UK emissions to be reduced by 60% by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. The white paper will tell us allegedly how we will get there:

and then there would also be "further developments" in science and technology, although he wasn't counting on them in his calculations. Well this is all very well. The one thing that will raise the most hackles is nuclear power. He said this would almost certainly be the last generation of nuclear fission plants, because they ought to last 60 years and by then nuclear fusion should be feasible (but they've been saying that fusion is around the corner for 40 years now).

He said that McKinsey had recently done a study showing how much it would cost to reduce carbon emissions in various ways. And they concluded (as others have) that there are many things that could be done (e.g. better insulation in buildings) that actually had a negative cost (so you eventually save more money than you invest).

And he mentioned that we are about to have somthing called the Energy Technology Institute, half funded by government and by industry to the tune of almost a billion pounds over 10 years, to be invested in energy research, design and development. Well, that is welcome news and hopefully they will get some good (and young) scientists involved.

In spite of overrunning by almost half an hour, they still allowed some questions. Someone asked if we would be saved because fossil fuels are running out. King claimed that if all fossil fuels were burned we would be at 2000 ppm, so no this does not help. Well, the problem here, which King did not mention, is that although oil is going to all but run out fairly soon, there is still plenty of coal in the ground, and that is far worse for carbon emissions.

Now Cambridge, in spite of being a university town with allegedly intelligent residents, has plenty of people who are anti-GM food. And one of these said that although King's lecture was great, she couldn't agree with him about GM food and that wasn't this just a way for rich people to get richer and for poor people to get poorer. Well, this is the line that the so-called environmentalists have been pushing for years, so it's not surprising that many people in the academic middle class believe it. King of course didn't have ages to explain why she was wrong, but did mention one example of GM-modified grass being grown with maize in Africa to help against a specific pest. And he mentioned that of course millions of people around the world are eating GM food with no ill effect. (Although that was not directly relevant to the question.) He even claimed that for people with allergies, GM food was even better than non-GM food, because the corporations have been specifically paranoid about that.

Someone was left with the impression that King had said that science and technology would save the world, so asked about that. King replied that he believed that was necessary but not sufficient. We also needed a carbon tax or a cap and trade system. And we needed a "cultural change". His example for that was the old favourite example of the academic middle class, namely the "Chelsea tractor" in London. People allegedly have these cars just so they can show they have more status (i.e. are rich). Well, anybody who thinks that most humans are not going to worry about status, or that status does not involve buying (often wasteful) things that other people cannot afford, is not living in the real world. The ruling elite (including King) travel around the world unimpeded, and cause far more environmental damage than a "Chelsea tractor" does (although people who own those also probably do a lot of air travel). And it should not be up to the ruling elite to decide which sources of carbon emissions are allegedly ok and which are allegedly not.

Some people want to save Milton Road School (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Campaigners are trying to stop a historic city school being demolished.

Developers want to demolish the Milton Road School building in Cambridge and build a care home and flats in its place.

The building, which dates from 1908, was used as a school until last summer when pupils moved to a new one nearby.

Residents are unhappy about losing the landmark. Campaign leaflets are being distributed in the Milton Road area.

The leaflet reads: "This is a lovely building that brings character to the whole area. It is one year off being 100-years-old. The school has been listed as a building of local interest, but in reality this doesn't protect it from being knocked down. Is it really too late to save this building, or at the very least, the facade?

"The only chance is if the council refuse planning permission for this development. This is unlikely unless there is significant local disapproval. We should urge the planners to consider alternative options for our community."

The planning application, made by Rockley Dene Homes, seeks permission to build an 88-bed care home with four studios for employees, 67 flats and a children's play area.

What is it about the middle class that they cannot cope with change. The buildings are cute enough (the Edwardians knew how to build things) but they are not that special. And the idea to save the facade is pretty silly. The current buildings are not really that suitable for the intended purpose even in outline (e.g. they are mostly single storey). On the other hand, the developer (as developers always do) is asking to put far too much on the site. But this is a common ploy. Ask for way too much, and then when you get cut back a little (or even half) at the planning application stage, you are still onto an easy multi-million pound profit, and you leave the local residents believing they have had some kind of victory. The one thing that the city ought to require is some decent quality architecture.

Date published: 2007/05/01

Arctic ice is allegedly melting faster than computer models indicate (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Arctic ice is melting faster than computer models of climate calculate, according to a group of US researchers.

Since 1979, the Arctic has been losing summer ice at about 9% per decade, but models on average produce a melting rate less than half that figure.

The scientists suggest forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may be too cautious.

The latest observations indicate that Arctic summers could be ice-free by the middle of the century.

"Somewhere in the second half of the century, it would happen," said Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado.
...
There are measurements dating back about a century on the extent of Arctic ice, but satellite observations from 1979 onwards are generally thought to provide the most accurate dataset.

The new research involved analysing two periods, 1953-2006 and 1979-2006.

Records show a shrinkage over the longer period of 7.8% per decade. When only the more recent period is analysed, the rate rises to 9.1% per decade.

For comparison, the researchers looked at a collection of 18 computer models used by the IPCC and other institutions for making projections of future climates.

Models are always verified against real-world data from the recent past to see how well their output mimics reality.

The collection scrutinised here calculated an average decline of only 2.5% per decade for 1953-2006, and 4.3% per decade since 1979 - both well short of the real-world observations.

"There are lessons here for the climate modelling community," acknowledged NCAR's Marika Holland.

"The rate of ice loss, and the location of ice loss - these are things that the models need to improve, and there are physical processes such as the release of methane from melting permafrost that the models don't include."

This is the third time in the last few months that studies have suggested the IPCC's latest major global climate analysis, the Fourth Assessment Report, is too conservative.

In December, a German team published research suggesting that sea levels could rise by 50-140cm over the coming century. The IPCC, in February, gave a range of 28-43cm.

Then, also in February, came an analysis showing that temperature and sea level rises had been rising at or above the top end of IPCC projections since the panel's previous major assessment in 2001.

This is the opposite view from that put forward by many "climate sceptics", who view the whole field of computer modelling as deeply flawed, and the IPCC as an alarmist organisation.

Because of the way it works, the IPCC is bound to be conservative, as it assesses in considerable depth research already in the public domain. This process takes time, and means the panel's conclusions will always lag behind the latest publications.

The last paragraph says it all. The IPCC had better be reasonably conservative. You don't want to make major policy decisions just because a few scientists have written one or two papers claiming that their interpretation of some experimental data allegedly proves that existing models are wrong. There needs to be a bit better consensus than that. And even with consensus you have to pay attention to error bars because both the data and the models are not perfect. On the other hand, it's not looking too good for polar bears right now.

Aspirin allegedly can do more harm than good in over 75s (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Healthy older people who take regular aspirin to prevent stroke may actually be increasing their risk.

In the past 25 years the number of strokes associated with blood-thinning drugs such as aspirin or warfarin has risen seven-fold, a UK study found.

The risk is particularly high in the over 75s and aspirin may do more harm than good in healthy older people, The Lancet Neurology paper reported.

However, people advised to take daily aspirin by their GP should not stop. v Researchers at the University of Oxford compared figures on intracerebral haemorrhagic stroke - a type of stroke caused by bleeding in the brain - from 1981-85 and 2002-06.

They found that the number of strokes caused by high blood pressure had fallen by 65%, which in the under 75s meant the overall rate of strokes had halved.

But in the over 75s the stroke rate remained the same over the 25-year period.

A closer look at the data showed there had been an increase in the number of strokes in patients taking blood thinning drugs, known as antithrombotics.

In the first study the proportion of stroke patients on antithrombotic drugs was 4% but two decades later this had risen to 40%.

People with cardiovascular disease, who have a high risk of blood clot, are prescribed drugs like aspirin to thin the blood and reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

But many healthy older people also take a regular aspirin in an attempt to ward off a stroke.

Study leader, Professor Peter Rothwell, said the increasing use of drugs such as aspirin may soon take over high blood pressure as the leading cause of intracerebral haemorrhagic stroke in the over 75s.

He warned than in healthy older adults the risks of taking aspirin may outweigh any benefits.

"GPs have been treating high blood pressure very aggressively and that is bringing dividends but there are other causes of stroke in the elderly which have become important.

"There are good reasons for taking aspirin or warfarin but there are elderly who take aspirin as a lifestyle choice and in that situation the trials have shown there's no benefit.

"And what our study suggests is that, particularly in the very elderly, the risks of aspirin outweigh the benefits," he said.

Nobody should be taking drugs unless there is a good reason. Unfortunately the BBC has so garbled this story that it's hard to know if there really is as bad a problem here as they suggest. For one thing, they talk about both the "number of strokes" and the "rate of strokes". The number of strokes is a fairly meaningless statistic because the number of people over 75 must have been higher in 2002-6 than in 1981-5, so you would expect more strokes. It is the rate of strokes (i.e. the number of strokes per capita) that really counts. The article then claims the stroke rate for the over 75s "remained the same over the 25-year period". If the stroke rate is the same then a natural conclusion is that some things might have made it better and some worse, but on average nothing has changed. So why pick on one factor as allegedly a problem? And it's also possible that the people who survived past 75 in 2002-6 whose peers would have died in 1981-5 are more susceptible to strokes. All in all, it's best to take most health stories on the BBC website with a pinch of salt.

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