Azara Blog: June 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/06/30

Prion proteins allegedly involved in protecting against Alzheimer's disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Proteins which cause mad cow disease may also protect against Alzheimer's disease, UK researchers say.

Prions naturally present in the brain appear to prevent the build up of a key protein associated with the condition.

In laboratory tests, beta amyloid, the building block of Alzheimer's "plaques", did not accumulate if high levels of the prions were present.
In variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), the human version of mad cow disease, the normal version of the prion protein present in brain cells is corrupted by infectious prions causing it to change shape, resulting in brain damage and death.

But little is known about purpose of the normal prion proteins.

Due to the similarities between Alzheimer's and diseases such as variant CJD, researchers at the University of Leeds, looked for a link.

They found that in cells in the laboratory, high levels of the prions reduced the build-up of beta-amyloid protein, which is found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.

In comparison, when the level of the prions was low or absent, beta amyloid formation was found to go back up again, suggesting they have a preventive effect on the development of the condition.

The researchers also looked at mice who had been genetically engineered to lack the prion proteins and again found that the harmful beta-amyloid proteins were able to form.

Study leader Professor Nigel Hooper said they now needed to look at whether ageing had an affect on the ability of the prion proteins to protect against Alzheimer's.

"Until now, the normal function of prion proteins has remained unclear, but our findings clearly identify a role for normal prion proteins in regulating the production of beta-amyloid and in doing so preventing formation of Alzheimer's plaques.

It's early days but it sounds quite interesting (and one would think that prion proteins would have a bigger role than just this).

Date published: 2007/06/29

Another group points out the downside of biofuels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A furious attack on the drive to grow more biofuels has been launched by a charity supporting poor farmers in developing countries.

The charity - called Grain - says their research shows the rush for biofuels is causing much more environmental and social damage than previously realised.

Biofuels from crops are being heavily promoted by the US and Europe as a welcome solution to climate change.

In theory their emissions are much lower than from fossil fuels.

But the report from the charity Grain amplifies recent warnings from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that some biofuels produce hardly any carbon savings at all.

The UN says basic food prices for poor countries are being pushed up by competition for land from biofuels.
[ Grain ] says the media has been spun into using the attractive term biofuels - and wants them referred to as "agro-fuels" instead.

The plant fuel industry accepts that there is a limit to the energy to be obtained from crops - but believes plant fuels can be produced sustainably on a large scale. The EU wants to see at least 10% of road fuel derived from plants by 2020.

Oil firms believe this target is achievable using farm surpluses combined with fuel digested by bacteria from waste - so called second generation biofuels.

All fairly obvious stuff. Sure, if biofuel is generated from "waste" then everybody would be happy. But that is not where we are at today or in the medium term. Unfortunately the EU has been sucked into promoting biofuels as part of an alleged reduction of EU carbon emissions. In 20 or 30 years this could well be deemed to be one of the biggest policy disasters ever of the EU (but probably not as bad as the CAP).

Obese people allegedly more susceptible to dementia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rising rates of obesity will lead to dramatic increases in the number of people with Alzheimer's disease, experts have predicted.

In 50 years time, up to 2.5m people in the UK could have dementia unless steps are taken to stem the obesity epidemic, the Alzheimer's Society warned.

Better diet, more exercise and lower blood pressure would all help to reduce people's risk of the condition.

Around 700,000 people currently suffer from dementia in the UK.

The biggest risk factor for all types of dementia, of which Alzheimer's disease is the most common, is age.

Because people are living longer, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 1m in 20 years time and 1.5 million in 50 years time.

But experts are also starting to realise that lifestyle factors also have a big impact on a person's risk.

Obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and cholesterol all increase the risk of dementia because they can lead to damage of the blood vessels in the brain, which in turn leads to the death of brain cells.

Professor Clive Ballard director of research at the Alzheimer's Society said: "Obesity is a huge risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

"People who are obese at 60 are twice as likely to develop dementia by the time they are 75.

"If we're not careful, it might be 2m or 2.5m people who have dementia in 50 years. This is a real opportunity to reduce the numbers."

Seemingly just part of the continual demonisation of obese people by the chattering classes. Now presumably if you are obese you don't generally live as long. Yet the article claims that "the biggest risk factor for all types of dementia ... is age". Also, we all have to die of something eventually. If obese people are more likely to die of one thing, then they must be less likely to die of something else. Yet you never see scare stories about how "non-obese people more likely to die of X". Which goes to show, this is more about the victimisation of obese people than anything else. Or perhaps the chattering classes believe that it is acceptable to die of some things but not of others.

Date published: 2007/06/28

Desertification is allegedly the greatest environmental challenge of our times (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tens of millions of people could be driven from their homes by encroaching deserts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, a report says.

The study by the United Nations University suggests climate change is making desertification "the greatest environmental challenge of our times".

If action is not taken, the report warns that some 50 million people could be displaced within the next 10 years.
"Desertification has emerged as an environmental crisis of global proportions, currently affecting an estimated 100 to 200 million people, and threatening the lives and livelihoods of a much larger number," the study said.

The overexploitation of land and unsustainable irrigation practices are making matters worse, while climate change is also a major factor degrading the soil, it says.
The largest area affected was probably sub-Saharan Africa, where people are moving to northern Africa or to Europe, while the second area is the former Soviet republics in central Asia, he added.

There is nothing new in this report. And it's amazing how many things are "the greatest environmental challenge of our times". Of course every environmental report these days has to put the biggest blame on climate change, hence the downplaying here of "the overexploitation of land and unsustainable irrigation practices". The common issue underlying all these problems, including climate change, is overpopulation, and the UN (and most so-called environmentalists) never wants to address this.

Lots of the UK ruling elite went to private school (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than half of the leading figures in UK politics, law, medicine, business and journalism went to independent schools, research suggests.

A survey of 1,000 people for the Sutton Trust said the proportion had fallen only marginally in the past 20 years - from 58% a generation ago, to 53%.

However, among those who had been to a UK university the proportion from Oxbridge fell from 61% to 47%.
Lee Elliot Major of the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, compared the school and university background of 500 people currently at the top of their fields with 500 similarly successful people 20 years ago.

He found 53% of today's leading figures across five different sectors had been educated at independent schools. Overall, private schools educate just 7% of school-age children.

A generation ago, 58% of leading people in the same sectors had been privately educated.

Just under a third of the leading figures today were educated at grammar schools, while only 17% went to state comprehensives.

Dr Elliot Major said: "This analysis shows that the school you attend at age 11 has a huge impact on your life chances, and particularly how likely you are to reach the top of your chosen profession.

"We are still to a large extent a society divided by wealth, with future elites groomed at particular schools and universities, while the educational opportunities available to those from non-privileged backgrounds make it much more difficult for them to reach the top."
The chairman and founder of the trust, Sir Peter Lampl, said: "The first priority should be to improve our underperforming state schools but we also need to recognise that we have a socially selective school system.

"The top 20% of our secondary schools - independents, grammars and leading comprehensives - are effectively closed to those from non-privileged backgrounds.

"We should open up independent day schools to children from all backgrounds on the basis of merit alone."

All of the Sutton Trust reports read like they come from people with (several) chips on their shoulders about private schools and Oxbridge. If the Sutton Trust (i.e. Peter Lampl) spent less money on pointless reports and more money on education, the world would be a better place.

And unfortunately the author of the report, Elliot Major, makes a classic confusion between correlation and causation when he states that "this analysis shows that the school you attend at age 11 has a huge impact on your life chances". When you use a phrase like "has a huge impact" you are implying a causation, when of course all they have shown is a correlation. But needless to say, the Sutton Trust believes the causation, so is happy to fall into the trap. (And the BBC, as usual, holds the same views, so is also happy to let the claim pass without querying it.)

At least Lampl wants to "improve our underperforming state schools", but he ignores whether they are "underperforming" because the funding is inadequate or because the students are worse (on average) or because the curriculum is hopelessly skewed by the government (or some combination). One thing is clear, large chunks of the middle class have no faith in state schools.

And the suggestion by Lampl that "we should open up independent day schools to children from all backgrounds on the basis of merit alone" is based on fantasy. Private schools need to make money. Parents are not going to be happy to have to throw even more money at private schools just because the government wants to force private schools to subsidise ever more non-paying students. So the uptake of these "merit" places (i.e. places for children of pushy working class parents) will be limited. And the state schools will decline.

The real solution is to make sure that all state schools are good enough that parents want their children to go to them. You would not think that was too much to ask for.

Date published: 2007/06/27

BMA says first trimester abortions should only need to be approved by one doctor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Doctors have called for a relaxation of the rules to allow women quicker access to abortions in early pregnancy.

The British Medical Association conference backed a motion calling for abortions to be approved by just one doctor, rather than the current two.

The call only covers terminations in the first trimester, effectively the first three months of pregnancy.

However, the Department of Health said there were no plans to modify the current legislation.

The vote at the conference in Torquay - passed by 67% to 33% - effectively means doctors want abortion to be carried out on an "informed consent" basis - assuming that one doctor explaining the pros and cons is enough.

This would make it as easy to obtain as other treatments.

However, BMA representatives rejected proposals to allow nurses and midwives to carry out terminations.
Abortions before the nine-week mark can be done using drugs, rather than surgically.

But with waits of up to seven weeks in areas, some women are denied this option.
Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, said: "There is no justification in making women seek the permission and approval of two doctors to have an abortion, so we are delighted that the BMA has voted in favour of removing this criteria.

"We are disappointed that the BMA has voted not to extend the role of performing abortion to other trained professionals and the premises where abortion takes place, as the evidence to support this change is clear."

Julia Millington, of the ProLife Alliance, said there was clear evidence that the UK already had abortion on demand.

The UK does not currently have "abortion on demand", so Millington's claim is the usual fatuous response one expects from the anti-abortion zealots. Of course the BMA proposal is sane and will make it easier for women to get abortions, so is a good thing. On the other hand, the BMA is a trade union, and their decision to reject proposals "to allow nurses and midwives to carry out terminations" should just be viewed as a trade union trying to protect its turf, so not that surprising.

UK interest rates are allegedly too low (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK interest rates are too low and are helping to drive demand for loans and credit, Sir John Gieve, deputy governor of the Bank of England, has said.

Speaking in Guildford, Surrey, Sir John explained why he was one of four rate setters who voted to raise interest rates at the Bank's last meeting.

Rates are at 5.5%, their highest in six years as inflation has quickened.

However, business leaders warned that consumers were already feeling the pinch as retail sales growth slowed.
Sir John noted that there was a risk that "we may increase interest rates too fast or push them up too far, with an unnecessary loss of growth".

However, he also warned that "we may raise rates too slowly with a cost in higher inflation and potentially higher interest rates and a sharper slowdown in the end".

In some ways this is just trivial commentary from Gieve. On the other hand, the Bank of England did lower interest rates too much a couple of years ago, and so it is partly their fault that the current situation exists. And interest rates are a blunt instrument, taking a year or more to feed through the system. It's quite possible that they will "increase interest rates too fast", given their track record. Unfortunately the people who decide interest rates face no consequences for poor decision making.

Date published: 2007/06/26

BBC prints a misleading press release from Barnardo's (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A campaign designed to change people's attitudes towards troubled youngsters has been launched by UK children's charity Barnardo's.

Double-page adverts are being placed in newspapers and a radio feature has been voiced by James Bond star Daniel Craig.

It comes as Barnardo's publishes a survey suggesting about a quarter of adults feel disruptive children are beyond help by the time they are 13.

Two-thirds of respondents said it was never too late to help young people.

But around a fifth of the 1,000 people questioned in the poll, conducted by NOP GfK, thought youngsters were beyond help by the age of 10.

Barnardo's has worked with young people for more than 100 years, but says that children have never have been so widely dismissed.

The charity said the advertisements feature the stories of troubled youngsters who might have alienated people but who it feels are worth supporting.

People are being asked to show they "believe" in children by sending Barnardo's a text message or by adding their names to a page on its website

"Some children's behaviour is unacceptable and it has to be challenged," said Barnardo's chief executive Martin Narey. "But we must not use that as an excuse to write off a generation."

Another BBC story which just reads like a press release for a special interest pressure group, this time Barnardo's. There is no attempt at critical analysis. First of all, all surveys are pretty meaningless and this one is typical. The question is black and white and is far too simplistic for any answer to be meaningful. And no matter what the result was, Barnardo's could have written their press release saying the same thing. Of course every special interest pressure group has to constantly complain that the world is at an end, and here that is made with the statement that "children have never been so widely dismissed", which is a ridiculous claim, made without any evidence to back it up. And then we are told that we should not "write off a generation". Well, hardly any kids are "troubled" (by any definition Barnardo's would care to use) so that hardly counts as an entire generation, even if some adults allegedly believe that this small minority is "beyond help". And no doubt if enough money was thrown at a kid, almost any kid, we would suddenly find they are not "beyond help", but the next leader of the Conservative Party.

Date published: 2007/06/25

Alison Richard sends out bizarre letter to Cambridge University alumni (permanent blog link)

Alison Richard, the Vice Chancellor (i.e. the real head) of Cambridge University, has written a bizarre letter to "alumni and alumnae". She says "I write to you about the diverging scales at which, increasingly, we work: can Cambridge be big and small at the same time?" Huh? The rest of the (long) letter just rambles on about this and that without really ever getting to what she is trying to accomplish with her letter. Presumably what she really wants is money. But she cannot get herself to just give the obvious plugs ("if we have X million pounds we can do Y", or "we are aiming to raise W over the next N years and so far have raised Z"). Instead she just rambles: "The distinction between 'useful' and 'not-useful' subjects and research is bogus, and Cambridge's track record tells us that fundamental research is often at the root of transformational changes in the world." Well any A-Level student could have told you that.

Alzheimer's drug case goes to the High Court (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A decision by the government's health watchdog to deny Alzheimer's drugs to patients with mild-stage disease is being challenged at the High Court.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) ruled the medicines - donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine - were not cost effective.

But critics argue the decision process was flawed and did not take into account the benefits to carers.

It is the first time a judicial review has been sought on a NICE decision.

Drugs company Eisai brought the case to the High Court with support from fellow drugs firm Pfizer and the Alzheimer's Society.
NICE guidance in 2001 recommended the drugs - which can make it easier to carry out everyday tasks - should be used as standard.

But guidance published in November 2006, after months of appeals, stated that the drugs should only be prescribed to people with moderate-stage disease.

NICE's analysis of the evidence showed the drugs, which cost about £2.50 a day, did not make enough of a difference to recommend them for all patients and were not good value for money.

Campaigners are angry that people suffering from Alzheimer's have to get worse before they are eligible for treatment.

They argue that NICE did not properly evaluate the impact of the drugs on the quality of life of carers and that the figures on the cost of long-term care used in their analysis were too low.

It is ridiculous that health decisions are reviewed by courts rather than by experts. If the courts rule that the government has to fund these drugs then perhaps the courts will also rule what treatments the NHS should cut in compensation (it is a zero-sum game, after all). Who should suffer so that the Alzheimer's sufferers do not? (We have already had this problem with breast cancer sufferers. They played the media brilliantly so that the government caved into them, and the media of course ignored the issue of who was going to pay for it all.)

And it is ridiculous that drug companies with a blatant self-interest in the outcome are using a horrid disease as a way of having the country subsidise their existence. If the drug companies feel so much empathy towards Alzheimer's sufferers then they should cut their arbitrary price for the drugs and hence make them more affordable.

The UK's education policy is allegedly failing the poor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A cross-party commission should be set up to examine the reasons behind the UK's very low social mobility, an education charity says.

The Sutton Trust says the government's education policy has failed to give poorer children the chance to improve quality of life.

Its founder Sir Peter Lampl says the problem "goes beyond party politics".

Tory leader David Cameron backed the call for a commission, saying there was "a problem of fairness" in the UK.

Sir Peter said: "Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have acknowledged the seriousness of this issue, but our low level of social mobility is a problem that goes beyond party politics.

"It is a national issue which requires a national solution. We urgently need an independent cross-party commission to examine why our record is so poor and how we can address this."

The study found that children born in the 1950s had a better chance of escaping poverty than those born in 1970.

The decline in social mobility seen during the 1970s and 1980s has now flattened off, the report concludes, but shows no sign of reversing.

The UK comes bottom of the table of developed countries for which there is data available, it adds.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Cameron said: "To me it's a problem of fairness, because if people aren't achieving according to their talents, according to their potential, it's a huge waste for them, it's a huge waste for society, but it's also deeply unfair."

Cameron should know. He epitomises the problem, being born in 1966 and being where he is today because he was born into the upper class and so received the best education and privileges money could buy. And Cameron's "solution" to the problem is to screw the people in the middle, allegedly for the benefit of the people at the bottom. Needless to say, the people at the top, like himself, will continue to live as if they deserve the entitlements which their class has bequeathed them. Unfortunately nobody in this country seems to be interested in making education work for everybody. And nobody in this country seems to be focussing on the parents of the poor, as if parents should be absolved of all responsibility of how their children are educated.

Date published: 2007/06/24

Chartered Institute of Housing wants to steal money from landlords (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tax changes to discourage people buying property to let it out have been called for by a housing body.

The Chartered Institute of Housing says there is a crisis in affordable housing in the UK.

It blames the tax relief given to buy-to-let landlords on the interest paid on their mortgage.

Landlords say the crisis is caused by a shortage of new homes and ending tax relief would force many landlords out of business.

Paul Diggory, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, told BBC Radio 4's Money Box programme: "Our main concern is the acute lack of affordable housing across the UK.

"We've got many examples now in many cities where properties are being secured on buy-to-let mortgages but are being kept empty."

Although empty property does not get any tax relief, when a property is rented out the cost of the interest on the mortgage can be deducted from the rent before tax is calculated.

That effectively gives tax relief on much of the cost of the mortgage, costing taxpayers an estimated £2bn a year.

Around 175,000 of the 1.3m homes sold with mortgages in 2006 went to buy-to-let landlords.

Paul Diggory said: "Buy-to-let owners [have] a financial advantage over those trying to buy their first home, pushing prices even higher - further out of reach. Why does the government still offer tax incentives to those who buy simply to rent?"

But the National Association of Landlords told the programme that any change in the tax situation would be disastrous.

Vice chairman John Socha told Money Box that buy-to-let purchasers have to find much bigger deposits than owner-occupiers and pay capital gains tax when they sell the property.

Buy-to-let is effectively a business. Businesses get to deduct business expenses from sales before paying tax on the rest (i.e. the profit). Interest on a mortgage is a business expense. Landlords can also deduct other business expenses (e.g. building insurance, maintenance, etc.). This is so trivially obvious that it's amazing anyone would even suggest otherwise. Indeed, should the government follow the advice of the Chartered Institute of Housing then you can what landlords would do is to just make their buy-to-let officially a business (which would also give them capital gains tax advantages). Well, because of the capital gains tax, existing landlords might not do so, but new ones would. Of course it is new landlords that Diggory is aiming at more than existing ones.

Further, what Diggory is saying is that the government should arbitrarily change the rules which landlords have used as a basis for their financial planning. In other words, the government is being asked to steal £2bn pounds a year from landlords. If you spread that over 20 years (so a typical mortgage length) with a 10% discount factor then that is 17 billion pounds in total. This kind of arbitrary change of rules is what gives governments a bad name. Of course governments always do this kind of thing, and Gordon Brown did it in the past with pensions, so is perfectly capable of doing it in the future with landlords. Although the government ought to like landlords, because they have to pay capital gains tax (unlike people on their own residence, which really is unfair).

And Diggory fails to recognise that some people do want to rent. For example, Cambridge has a large transient population, and for them, rental makes much more sense than buying. And, as it happens, the overall percentage of rented housing in Britain has stayed fairly constant the last few decades, the main change has been that there are now more buy-to-let and less corporate landlords.

Finally, as Diggory also fails to recognise, the main reason house prices have gone crazy is not buy-to-let but the lack of new houses being built, down to the lack of building land being made available. Indeed, around 40 years ago the proportion of the cost of a building due to the price of the land itself was around 15-20% and now it is over 50%. As much as Diggory would like to blame landlords, the real villains in the piece are the ruling elite, who refuse to allow enough housing to be built.

E-voting open to fraud (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British democracy could be undermined by moves to use electronic voting in elections, warns a report.

The risks involved in swapping paper ballots for touch screens far outweigh any benefits they may have, says the Open Rights Group report.

It based its conclusions on reports from observers who watched e-voting trials in May's local elections.

The group called for a halt to e-voting until it is reliable, easy to oversee and has proven its integrity.

Observers acting for the ORG scrutinised local elections in England which tried out e-voting as well as Scottish elections using electronic counting systems to tally votes.

What the observers saw led the ORG to express "serious concerns" about e-voting and whether it should be used local and national elections. In England, e-voting systems using kiosks, laptops, touch screens and mobile phones have been tried.

The ORG's main objection was that e-voting was currently a "black box" system which stopped voters seeing how their votes were recorded or counted.

This, said the ORG, made oversight of elections "impossible" and left them open to "error and fraud".

The report criticised the lack of a rigorous certification scheme to ensure that the hardware and software used in e-voting schemes were free from vulnerabilities and protected the integrity of the voting system.

The government was warned about all of this and chose to ignore all advice except from people with a vested interest in seeing the system go ahead. Some day all voting will be e-voting, but until someone half competent sets up the system so it is not open to abuse, it is best to stick with paper.

Date published: 2007/06/23

Campaigners want to use World Heritage as a way to force emission cuts (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Campaigners say the UN must take urgent action to protect six World Heritage sites, including Mount Everest, from the impact of climate change.

Groups, including Greenpeace and the Climate Justice Programme, have been petitioning the global body to list the locations as "in danger".

Nations that have signed the UN World Heritage Convention have a legal duty to cut emissions, the campaigners say.

The convention's committee is currently meeting in New Zealand.

The campaigners are taking the piss. What they want to do is stop the world (i.e. cut emissions now, dramatically). They have not been able to convince enough governments of the world that this should happen. So instead they are trying to do an end run around the goverments using the World Heritage Committee. They might well convince the latter (who in good style have just caused a huge amount of emissions by flying all the way to New Zealand to have their meeting). Only if the Committee does as the campaigners want then the governments of the world would just either pull out of the Convention (unlikely) or ignore the Committee (more likely). No government is going to shut down a coal power station because Mount Everest is allegedly in danger. This whole campaign is just gesture politics, but of course that is all the likes of Greenpeace and the others are good for.

Schoolgirl claims that an anti-sex ring is a Christian symbol (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A 16-year-old girl has gone to the High Court to accuse her school of discriminating against Christians by banning the wearing of "purity rings".

Lydia Playfoot was told by Millais School in Horsham, West Sussex, to remove her ring, which symbolises chastity, or face expulsion.

The school denies breaching her human rights, insisting the ring is not an essential part of the Christian faith.

On Friday, judgement in the case was reserved to a future date.

Miss Playfoot says Sikh and Muslim pupils can wear bangles and headscarves in class.

BBC News religious affairs correspondent Robert Piggott said a group of girls at the school were wearing the rings as part of a movement called the "Silver Ring Thing" (SRT).

Human rights barrister Paul Diamond told the High Court the school's action was "forbidden" by law.

"Secular authorities and institutions cannot be arbiters of religious faith," Mr Diamond said.

He said a question the judge would have to answer was: "What are the religious rights of schoolchildren in the school context?"
Miss Playfoot's school said her ring broke uniform rules and ordered her to remove it.

When she refused, she was taken out of lessons and made to study on her own.

She told BBC Breakfast: "In the Bible it says you should remain sexually pure and I think this is a way I want to express my faith."

Miss Playfoot is seeking a judicial review under Article Nine of the Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of religious expression.

She says that should protect her right to wear the ring.

In a written statement to Deputy Judge Michael Supperstone QC, Miss Playfoot said young girls faced a "moral and ethical crisis" and that other teenage girls at her school had become pregnant.

She said other pupils regularly broke the uniform code with nose rings, tongue studs, badges and dyed hair.

The only reason for banning the rings was because the school refused to "give respect to aspects of the Christian faith they are not familiar with", Miss Playfoot said.

"The real reason for the extreme hostility to the wearing of the SRT purity ring is the dislike of the message of sexual restraint which is counter cultural and contrary to societal and governmental policy," she added.

But headteacher Leon Nettley, said the school was applying a basic uniform policy, which "has the overwhelming support of pupils and parents".

He said her ring was "not a Christian symbol, and is not required to be worn by any branch within Christianity", adding that Lydia was free to display her faith in other ways.

Lawyers for the school will insist that it is not operating a discriminatory policy because allowances made for Sikhs and Muslims only occur for items integral to their religious beliefs.

It argues that a Christian pupil would be allowed to wear a crucifix.

The school is correct. (But being correct does not mean that they will win the case.) The ring is not a Christian symbol, it is an anti-sex symbol.

Playfoot is taking the piss when she claims that "sexual restraint is counter ... to societal and government policy". Has she been taught in school that she should have sex? Has she been sent leaflets by the government urging her to have sex? Indeed, has she been encouraged by anyone besides her peers to have sex?

The judges can easily answer Playfoot's barrister's question: "What are the religious rights of schoolchildren in the school context?" Schoolchildren no more have the right to decide what is allegedly a religious symbol than they have the right to decide what is taught in a maths lesson.

Date published: 2007/06/22

Icebergs are "ecological hotspots" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drifting icebergs are "ecological hotspots" that enable the surrounding waters to absorb an increased volume of carbon dioxide, a study suggests.

US scientists found that minerals released from the melting ice triggered blooms of CO2-absorbing phytoplankton.

These microscopic plants were then eaten by krill (shrimp-like organisms), whose waste material containing the carbon sank to the ocean floor.

Interesting stuff.

Another pointless report on the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The NHS - one of the world's largest public bodies - has been urged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Each year, the UK's health service spent £400m on energy and emitted about one million tonnes of carbon, think tank New Economics Foundation said.

Its NHS Confederation-commissioned report said 5% of UK road transport emissions were from NHS-related trips.

The authors also warned that a more variable climate could see an increase in heat-related deaths and diseases.

The report - Taking the Temperature: Towards an NHS Response to Global Warming - says staff, patients and visitors travelled almost 25 billion passenger miles in 2001, predominately by cars and vans.

Waste was also an area for concern: "One in every 100 tonnes of domestic waste generated in the UK comes from the NHS, with the vast majority going to landfill."

Another pointless report by the New Economics Foundation, one of the countless consultancies which are a drain on the national resources. Think how many carbon emissions would be saved if they were just shut down (all of them). The NHS consumes 8% of UK GDP, so it is not that surprising that the NHS is responsible for 5% of UK road transport, or 1% of domestic waste (which indeed sounds surprisingly low).

Date published: 2007/06/21

"Building Britain" debate in New Hall (permanent blog link)

It is Architecture Week in the UK and as part of that BBC television ran a programme on Monday night in the East region called "Building Britain" featuring Germaine Greer giving her views on housing in East Anglia, and in particular in Cambridge. Germaine Greer is not an architect, she is not an urban designer, and she has nothing to do with building, but because she's outspoken and a minor celebrity the BBC gave her some free air time to spout her stuff.

Her fundamental premise was that "suburbia is a bad idea". So apparently the only places people should live are in cities or in rural areas. Well needless to say there is no firm boundary between rural and suburban, or between suburban and urban, so this kind of cheap sloganisation is meaningless. Greer herself lives in a rather anodyne village called Great Chesterford about ten miles south of Cambridge. And what she doesn't like, in common with much of the comfortable middle class, is that more housing is being built in her back yard. How dare anyone else be allowed to aspire to live in a village in East Anglia.

Funnily enough, she talked with a pub owner in Great Chesterford on the programme and tried to goad him into saying how horrid London commuters were (Greer is only a Cambridge commuter, so that is ok). But not only did he not take that bait, he even said that he would prefer for the village to grow (more bums on his seats, of course).

Greer then proceeded to conflate this issue with several others, without bothering to even blink in between. So she then denigrated the quality of new builds, which is a completely separate issue to *where* houses are built. She then visited Wells on the Norfolk coast to complain about second home owners, with a mandatory interview with a local complaining about being priced out of a home by the non-locals, which again is another issue completely. (And she managed to rather sink even this part of her argument by claiming that the fishing industry in town had seriously declined. So it's just as well that someone else wants to have a house there.)

She then proceeded onto Cambridge specifically. Her brilliant idea here was to put half a dozen 75-storey tower blocks on Cambridge airport to "solve" the housing problem and minimise the amount of land used. (The airport is earmarked for housing in the local plan.) Greer believes that housing land is some sort of wasteland (except for her boutique cottage, no doubt), so wants to minimise this footprint on the ground. Well, it is only a wasteland when it is built to high density, with no allowance for gardens. So suburban housing is (or can be) green, and urban housing usually is not.

Greer even managed to rope in Ted Cullinan ("an old friend") to enthuse on camera about the scheme. But she talked with some Cambridge architecture students and they all said it was a stupid idea. At which point she bemoaned that the youth of today are so against "new" ideas. Well, the ideas are not new (Le Corbusier and others were already promoting tower blocks before the war). And it's possible the students weren't against "new" ideas, they were just against crap ones. One of the students even pointed out that "hi-rise living has never been a problem for the rich" (but of course are usually a problem for the poor).

Greer didn't leave it at the tower blocks. She also insisted that none of the tenants could have pets, and that they also couldn't have cars. Well the pets issue is bizarre (maybe Greer hates animals), but the car one is just the typical attitude of the academic middle class. She doesn't use cars so nobody else should be allowed to. (Or perhaps she does use cars and is just a hypocrite, you can never tell with the academic middle class.) The people living in these tower blocks would supposedly get into Cambridge by using some raised walkway (or transit line?). More expense for no great reason. And what if they wanted to go somewhere besides Cambridge city centre? Tough.

The whole point of this wacky proposal seems to have been to generate publicity for her programme. And BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and RIBA responded by sponsoring a "debate" on the programme this evening in New Hall. Much of the audience were the usual suspects (e.g. planning bureaucrats). Most of the audience was old (i.e. over forty, even over fifty).

The chair for the debate was a BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter called Christopher South. He started out by joking that these proposed towers were so tall that they would even be seen in Great Chesterford, so it showed Greer was not a NIMBY. But of course she is a NIMBY, the whole point is that she wants to force the peasants to live in a tower block in Cambridge, not in her back yard.

South then introduced the panel: John Oldham (from Countryside Properties; several others claimed they were a good developer, but one has to wonder if that was out of politeness), Peter Studdert (ex-director of planning at Cambridge City Council and now working for the quango Cambridge Horizons, responsible for making sure that all the new houses and infrastructure supposedly being built over the next decade or two works), Wyndham Thomas (supposedly responsible for building much of post-war Peterborough and now with the Town and Country Planning Association), Simon Ward (representing some organisation called the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists), and Greg Luton (from English Heritage).

All the panellists belittled Greer and her tower blocks. For example, Thomas called it a "flight of fancy" and "not practicable" and "not new", and that it "runs against the wishes of a huge majority of people". And Luton and Oldham both said the key to tower blocks is where you put them. They might make sense in London. They don't in Cambridge. Luton also pointed out that Greer was in fact very conservative and middle class. Studdert said that her ideas were "completely off the wall". Ward did a quick calculation of housing density for Greer's tower blocks. Assuming four flats per floor (a reasonable enough assumption given what was shown in Greer's programme) and assuming six tower blocks (as shown in the programme), this gave around 6 x 4 x 75 = 1800 units. Well, the low-rise solution that will almost certainly be built would be expected to have around 10 households per acre on the 600 acre site, leading to 6000 units. So Greer's high-density housing is not any more efficient. You would have to have 20 tower blocks.

Only one person in the audience supported tower blocks in Cambridge. She said that she had seen some great tower blocks in the woods near Helsinki many years ago. Wonderful, that means we should have them in Cambridge as well. (And the questioner lives in a typical two-storey house in Cambridge.)

There was some discussion about "high density" housing. John Hipkin (ex-Lib Dem and ex-mayor of Cambridge) managed to sing the praises of the relatively high density Accordia (a new development off Brooklands Avenue) and denigrate the lower density Arbury ("boring housing"). Well it's bizarre that Accordia gets so many complements. It was at least designed by architects, not (just) developers, but it's not that great. Indeed it is rather boring, considering how new it is. And the next person in the audience had a good riposte to Hipkin, because he lived in Arbury and he liked living there (and his house had a garden, unlike most of the Accordia housing).

Sian Reid (a Lib Dem politician) asked the panel how high they would consider building on the airport site. Oldham jokingly said no more than 12 storeys because that is what Ralph Erskine said (apparently that is how far you can shout). But the consensus seemed to be that the airport would be built at a height of all the other new developments on the edge of Cambridge, i.e. mainly three storeys but perhaps five or six in some "core" area. Reid also liked high density development. Funnily enough, she lives on Millington Road in a big house with a huge garden. But obviously there is one rule for the elite and another for the peasants.

Thomas was perhaps the most sensible of the panellists. Several times (including at this point in the proceedings) he said "give people what they want: a house on the ground with a garden". But of course the urban planning elite (and most architects) don't like this. Heaven forbid that people get what they want. Funnily enough, the urban planning elite (and most architects) consider themselves to be socialists. But evidently socialists who think that the working class are scum and should live where the academic middle class think they should live.

Thomas also pointed out a couple of times that in fact there was no land shortage. Currently around 9% of East Anglia (?) is built up and even if we expanded the housing area by 25% (and that is not happening) then that only gets us up to 11%. Oldham agreed and pointed out that the British (or at least the academic middle class) have an obsession with land and the alleged rural idyll (so Greer fits this description completely). There is plenty of land.

A young person (one of the few in the audience) complained that young people might like to live in tower blocks and didn't like gardens and wanted to be close to the centre of Cambridge. Studdert pointed out that in fact plenty of flats have been built in Cambridge recently near the centre of town. (Well, they are extortionate in price, not surprisingly, and mainly aimed at London commuters. So not that affordable by people in their twenties.) And while perhaps people in their twenties want to live in flats, by the time you have a family, most people do not want to live in flats. So that is a minority interest.

One of the claims of Greer were that her tower blocks would promote biodiversity. But one of the audience pointed out that in fact suburban gardens have much more biodiversity than agricultural fields (or indeed of public parks). So biodiversity is in fact improved with suburban living. (They were not called "garden cities" for nothing.) Some architect said we should concentrate on developing brownfield sites before we move onto the greenbelt. But in Cambridge there are not many brownfield sites (unless you want to claim that back gardens of houses are brownfield, which is how they are currently ridiculously classified), because Cambridge never had much industry. Perhaps this is why the Cambridge government has pretty much had no opposition to the plans to build on the greenbelt right up to the city boundary (except off Trumpington Road towards the Cam, where the rich people who live nearby have stopped it).

Another young person complained that he couldn't afford a house on his salary. Well this is nothing really new, young people have been complaining about this for years. (And it is not any worse now than it was in the late 1980s.) On this point, Thomas said that forty or so years ago there were around 350000 houses built per year and now only around 150000 (and the size is smaller, because households are smaller, so in terms of population it is even worse). And Thomas also said that forty or so years ago the land would typically make up 15-20% of the cost of a house and now it is over 50%. It is a question of supply and demand. It is criminal that the British ruling elite have allowed the situation to get this bad.

A couple of subjects did not come up. One of the problems in Cambridge (as in Great Chesterford) is that London commuters have driven prices up. And a lot of the new housing in Cambridge is aimed at them, not at people who work in Cambridge. So building new housing does not necessarily solve the housing problem.

And it was not discussed why Cambridge wants to build houses on the airport in the first place. The airport is one of the town's largest and best employers. The airport site is an economic use of greenbelt land (the airport, as well as being classified as brownfield, is also greenbelt, which shows how silly it all is). Most of the greenbelt near Cambridge is not economic. That should be built on in preference to the airport site.

Interestingly the debate showed that a large number of people in or around Cambridge are actually fairly sane. The worst people were the architects.

Date published: 2007/06/20

China is now allegedly the world's biggest emitter of carbon (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China is now building about two power stations every week, the top climate change official at the UK Foreign Office, John Ashton, has said.

He said there was no point blaming China for rising global CO2 emissions.

Rich nations had to set an example of low-carbon development for China to follow, Mr Ashton told the BBC.

His statement came as a new report suggested that China may have already become the world's biggest polluter - much earlier than expected.

The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency said China's CO2 emissions had risen by 9% last year, compared with 1.4% in the US.
"Responsibility for China's soaring emissions lies not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo," said Greenpeace UK director John Sauven.

"All we've done is export a great slice of the West's carbon footprint to China, and today we see the result.

"Let us not forget that the average Chinese emits just 3.5 tonnes of CO2 per year, whereas Britons emit nearly 10 tonnes and Americans 20 tonnes.

For once Greenpeace has the story just about right. The West has exported carbon emissions to China. The way emissions are calculated by the Kyoto Treaty, for example, is bogus, because it ignores imports and exports. On the other hand, just looking at per capita emissions as the perpetual basis for equity is not very equitable. The per capita calculation implies that any country that expands its population is given an overall increased quota. So any country that breeds irresponsibly is rewarded, and the others would have to decrease their per capita emissions, to balance out the increase, even though these countries have meanwhile done nothing different. This is not equitable. The so-called environmentalists always ignore the population issue because it doesn't fit in well with their propaganda (and they breed, often irresponsibly, just like everybody else).

Some committee wants all girls to be vaccinated against virus that causes cervical cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

All girls aged between 12 and 13 in the UK should be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer, a government panel has recommended.

The government in England said while it accepted the advice "in principle", it would have to decide if the programme was financially viable.

It is thought that vaccinating against human papillomavirus (HPV) could save hundreds of lives in the UK each year.

But experts say it could be 20 years before the first benefits are seen.

It will also prove expensive, costing around £250 for three doses over six months.

However, campaigners say it represents value for money given how effective it is in combating HPV, which is held responsible for around 70% of cervical cancer cases.

The disease kills 274,000 women worldwide every year, including 1,120 in the UK.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) examined the evidence surrounding the vaccines before concluding that 12-and 13-year-old girls should all be immunised.
Following the announcement from the JCVI, health minister Caroline Flint said she was "delighted to announce that we intend, in principle, to introduce an HPV vaccine into the national immunisation programme".

But there were conditions, a Department of Health statement added. The programme would have to undergo an "independent peer review of the cost-benefit analysis", and funding for it would be "considered in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review".

The vaccine costs more than all the immunisations each child receives put together, said Dr David Elliman, a consultant In Community Child Health at Great Ormond Street Hospital For Children.

Hopefully the government will indeed do an "independent peer review of the cost-benefit analysis", since this is an extremely expensive vaccine. According to the article, 70% x 1120 = 784 women will be "saved" each year in the long run, if the vaccine is 100% effective (and apparently if it is given before girls are sexually active, it is pretty effective). (And if the 70% also applies to deaths from cervical cancer and not just occurrence.) If you assume 400000 girls are immunised per year, then the cost is 100 million pounds. So that is over 100000 pounds per life "saved" (and "saved" far off into the future, so the discounted cash calculation is much worse). Of course no life is ever saved, it is just extended, since we all have to die of something. If at great expense you extend a life from 70 to 80, it is hardly a great victory for the world. If you extend it from 30 to 70 (in a state of good health) then it is a different matter. The article also completely ignores the question of whether girls will be forced to be immunised whether they (and their parents) want it or not. This looks suspiciously like a bunch of control freak doctors have decided once again that they know best and that they will force their views on everyone else. Further, all drugs have side effects and some girls will be harmed by this drug. This also needs to be quantified, and set against the benefit of the drug, and honestly explained to girls and their parents, not covered up.

Desalination plants are allegedly not the solution for water scarcity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Turning salt water into drinking water is not a solution to tackle global water scarcity, the WWF has said.

A report by the environmental group said a growth in the energy intensive technology would increase emissions and damage coastal and river habitats.

More attention should instead be paid to conserving supplies, it suggested.

The study was published as Australia announced plans to build one of the world's biggest desalination plants to supply drinking water to Melbourne.
Desalination plants already play a major role in providing water for drinking and irrigation in areas such as the Middle East, where freshwater supplies are scarce.

But many other nations, including the US, China and Spain are turning to the technology to meet growing demands.
The WWF report acknowledges that the technology had a "limited place in water supply", but each project should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, it argued.

It recommended: "Desalination plants... should only be constructed where they are found to meet a genuine need to increase water supply and are the best and least damaging method."

A gold medal to the WWF for writing a report stating the totally obvious. They almost seem to believe that people are building these plants for the fun of it. It's trivially obvious that when you spend tens of millions of pounds building something then it has been "assessed on a case-by-case basis". If the WWF spent less time writing silly reports and more time funding research into solving real problems, the world would be a better place.

Date published: 2007/06/19

Government wants to open up more coastline to walkers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The public is being consulted on plans to open up the whole of the English coastline to walkers.

The government proposal would allow access to about 30% of land currently out of bounds.

Ramblers have welcomed the move but some landowners are concerned they will receive no compensation and have little say in how the path is created.

There is already a right of access to Scotland's coast and the creation of a coastal path in Wales is under way.

More theft by the State on behalf of the urban elite at the expense of the rural elite.

Spring arriving earlier in the Arctic (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Spring in the Arctic is arriving "weeks earlier" than a decade ago, a team of Danish researchers have reported.

Ice in north-east Greenland is melting an average of 14.6 days earlier than in the mid-1990s, bringing forward the date plants flower and birds lay eggs.

The team warned that the observed changes could disrupt the region's ecosystems and food chain, affecting the long-term survival of some species.
Observation of 21 species - six plants, 12 arthropods and three birds - revealed that the organisms had brought forward their flowering, emergence or egg-laying in line with the earlier ice melt.

Nothing really surprising or new here, although the quantification is useful.

Date published: 2007/06/18

Badger cull is allegedly not cost-effective (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Culling badgers is unlikely to be a cost-effective way of controlling cattle tuberculosis, scientists advising the government have concluded.

Farmers say the spread of cattle TB by badgers is destroying the industry and that culling would control it.

But independent government advisers said culling would have to be so extensive it would be uneconomical.

Conservationists suggest tighter restrictions on cattle movements could help control the disease's spread.

The government is currently considering whether to introduce a cull.

It set up the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) to examine the links between TB in cattle and the spread of badgers in the countryside.

ISG chairman Professor John Bourne told BBC Radio 4's Farming Today: "One has to recognise that what we are dealing with is primarily a disease of cattle, although badgers in hot spot areas do make a significant contribution."

The dilemma for farmers and ministers is that there was no sustainable way of treating the badger issue, he said.
A consultation mounted recently by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suggested public opinion is firmly against a cull.

Past research has shown that culling is associated with increased TB in the badgers; areas which had received four culls saw a doubling of the rate.

It appears that badgers move more freely and more widely in culled areas thereby increasing contact with each other.

The data comes from the Randomised Badger Culling Trial, sometimes known as the Krebs trial after Sir John Krebs, the government scientist who instigated it.

The government is in a no-win situation here. And so it is clever that they are claiming that a cull is not cost-effective, because that plays to both sides (the farmers because the government is saying that a cull could work, and the so-called conservationists because a cull will not happen). From the evidence so far, it definitely seems like a cull is a bad idea. Hopefully another, scientific, way forward will be found.

The BBC is has an "innate liberal bias" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The BBC needs to take more care to ensure it is impartial, according to a report commissioned by the corporation.

It accused the BBC of breaking its own guidelines by screening an episode of The Vicar of Dibley which promoted the Make Poverty History campaign.

The report also quoted former political editor Andrew Marr, who said the BBC has an "innate liberal bias".

However, it added that the BBC is "generally seen as impartial" and set out new guidelines for avoiding bias.
It uses the introduction of the BBC's 3D weather maps in 2005 as an example of how the corporation can be seen as biased towards the south-east of England.

Because of the way the maps were tilted, they appeared to suggest that northern Scotland was on the periphery.

Although the problem was quickly ironed out, the report warned that "the continuing practice of giving temperature forecasts for conurbations rather than rural areas may suggest a presumption that the bulk of the audience lives in large cities, whereas the opposite is in fact the case".
The report went on to warn that the London Olympics will provide a similar test of the BBC's impartiality.

"Coverage of international championships has sometimes drawn criticism that the British media are too preoccupied with British competitors," it said.

"That pull will be all the greater when the Olympic flame reaches British soil in what is likely to be the year of the Queen's diamond jubilee".

All institutions are biased, so the BBC is. Certain parts of the BBC (the news website and especially Radio 4) have a very academic middle class bias. So for example, pretty much all so-called environmental pressure groups (e.g. RSPB, FoE, WWF, Greenpeace, etc.) receive no critical coverage, and some stories are pretty much just regurgitations of these groups' press releases. And most parts of the BBC are hopeless at covering business stories, because the BBC (in line with most of the ruling elite of Europe) has an anti-commercial bias. In spite of that all, because of the amount of resource it has, the BBC still produces the best news reports.

And talk about a politically correct report. Northern Scotland *is* "on the periphery" of Britain (as is Cornwall). And, since not every town and village in the country can be mentioned, most people would rather see temperature forecasts for the big cities than for some obscure villages in the middle of nowhere. (In any case, temperature forecasts are given for regions away from bit cities.) And the British (not just the BBC) coverage of any sporting event, in particular the Olympics, is indeed nauseatingly pro-British (to the extent that any sport where any British person or team has any hope of a medal is covered ad nauseum and any sport where the British has no competitor is just ignored completely). But the coverage of the media in other countries of the world is, if anything, even worse. This is a problem with international sport more than with the BBC per se.

Date published: 2007/06/17

Germaine Greer spouts nonsense about Cambridge housing (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

If Germaine Greer has her way, the world-famous perpendicular gothic spires of King's College could have a skyline rival - 70-storey "needles" that will provide homes for thousands of people.

The massive towers would be built on the site of Cambridge Airport in the east of the city, and be visible for miles around.

Her astonishing idea features in a BBC East programme on Monday, focusing on how the region should be tackling its housing problems.

She will argue that further urban sprawl will ruin the countryside around Cambridge, and that the "needles" would leave the smallest possible footprint while at the same time providing lots of new residential space.
Coun Catherine Smart, executive councillor for housing on the city council, told the News: "I find nothing to attract me in this idea - it puts far more emphasis on preserving grass and too little on how people want to live.

"Very few people, and even fewer families, want to live in very tall buildings. Most people want dwellings that are on a human scale.

"If we build really good houses and apartments on the airport site they could be the listed buildings of the future that Prof Greer's successor will be battling to preserve.

"To me, the most difficult element in the East Cambridge plans is not the one she focuses on, but the way the people living there will travel to the rest of Cambridge. I want a tunnel under Coldham's Common but there are other possibilities. I wish Prof Greer had put her undoubted ability to imagining something spectacular and innovative by way of transport - but she seems to ignore it."

Coun Lewis Herbert, leader of the council's Labour group, said: "Local Labour councillors are in favour of bold thinking, given the urgent need for thousands more affordable homes in and near Cambridge. But this is a loopy, nightmarish scheme that would even get rejected by the planners in multi-storey heavens like Hong Kong and Dubai.

"Where's the badly-needed family housing going? They will not want to live on the 40th floor. And do you really want to destroy classic Cambridge views like King's College? No-one will support this."

Well, the councillors say it all. Greer is one of those people who has to constantly bask in public attention by saying outrageous things (usually stupid, since she's not bright enough to say anything intelligent).

(Not that building a tunnel under Coldham's Common, as suggested by Smart, is any less crazy. Not only would that be very expensive, it actually wouldn't help that much, since it would just move the traffic congestion further into town, at the corner of Newmarket Road and Coldham's Lane. Of course the current local government has made the traffic on Newmarket Road a nightmare on purpose, by hugely increasing the amount of retail and halving the capacity of the road in the retail section.)

Ofsted complains that religion is taught by rote (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

RE teachers must provide children with a more sophisticated understanding of the subject in a post-11 September world, Ofsted says.

After a five-year inspection of RE classes which began in the year of the attacks on the US, Ofsted says rote learning of RE is no longer adequate.

It says teachers should include ways in which religion is not always a force for good.
In many schools, religion is linked with contemporary religious and moral issues, such as whether the war in Iraq was morally justified.

But all too often, say the inspectors, the exam system encourages "standard, mechanistic responses" running the risk of "trivialising significant religious issues".

The school (exam and inspection) system encourages "standard, mechanistic responses" and "rote learning" in pretty much all subjects, what's new? Ofsted is part of the system that encourages this approach to education, so if Ofsted doesn't like it, Ofsted should close itself down.

Date published: 2007/06/16

Royal Academy Summer Show and Surreal Things exhibition at the V&A (permanent blog link)

The Royal Academy's annual Summer Show has now opened. It is of the usual standard, with some good works (mostly not by Academicians) and quite a bit of dross (quite often by Academicians).

The Academy forecourt has a few large, rusting, steel animal cutouts by the Chapman brothers. This was the first (but by no means the last) work in the show this year whose price was listed in the catalogue as "* (Refer to Sales Desk)", i.e. if you have to ask the price you can't afford it.

Many Academicians take the Summer Show as an opportunity to ask a silly price for some silly work. After all, some sucker might fall for the bait. In the first room there is a mediocre (and that is being kind) self-portrait by R B Kitaj for £125000. And Gary Hume had four works in the second room, and another in a later room, all made out of an aluminum backing with some scrunched up plastic stuck in various arrangements (yawn), at prices ranging from £45000 to £70000. If you have more money than taste, then these artists would be happy for you to visit the Summer Show.

As usual, the Large and Small Weston Rooms not only had the most works of art on display, they had more interesting stuff on display than in the rest of the exhibition. This year the outstanding example was a large portrait by Chuck Close, with the strange title "Lucas Paper/Pulp", a "stencilled handmade paper print" in an edition of 50 at £23000 each (so not cheap). Sasa Marinkov also had a couple of interesting woodcuts (at a much more reasonable £255/£385, both in editions of 30). And Mark Clark had his by now customary three works (the maximum by a non-Academician), as usual all nudes (£195 for the two smaller ones, edition of 120, and £285 for the larger one, edition of 75).

The best painting in the show, as it often is, was by Douglas Hamilton Fraser (an Academician), entitled Beachscape II 2007 (and sold already, no doubt even before the show opened to the public earlier this week). There was also Beachscape I 2007, which was pretty good as well. Unfortunately Hamilton Fraser seems to also do silkscreens these days (three out of six this year), which do not capture the mood nearly so well as his oil paintings (but given that they occur in large editions at modest prices make him a lot more money overall).

The architecture room was fairly standard this year as well, with the usual suspects (Rogers, Foster, etc.). Only there were no private houses and not even much in the way of housing at all. But lots of art museums, public buildings and commercial buildings. Nothing really stood out that much, although of course Richard Rogers Barajas Airport in Madrid won the RIBA Stirling Prize this year.

By the time one has finished the architecture room one is normally starting to have had enough, which makes it convenient that the worst rooms in the show are the rooms after this, because one can get through in good time, and this year was no exception. Gallery VIII was easily the worst in the show, but with only seven works on show, who cares.

David Mach seems to have found his great niche in life, cleverly composing images out of thousands of bits of copies of a single (totally unrelated) photo (four works this time around, each at £25000). He had one of the few interesting works in the later rooms.

Meanwhile over at the Victoria and Albert Museum the "Surreal Things" exhibition is in its final five weeks. Surrealism was the first art movement which successfully managed to take the piss and make money from it. The surrealists also seemed to be even more screwed up sexually than your typical artist, and to boot many of the men seemed to be misogynists (just witness the mannequins on display). But in spite of this, the exhibition is worth seeing (and the catalogue is also good).

One of the most interesting aspects was seeing how some surrealists were harking back to the Art Nouveau period (e.g. a wonderful console by Emilio Terry, with palm fronds as legs). And although much of the stuff is just plain silly, it was also interesting to see how a rather boring work by Joan Miró is transformed into something quite good by being made into a tapestry. Indeed, textiles seem to be the best medium for surrealism.

There was a British fan of surrealism by the name of Edward James. He wrecked a perfectly good Lutyens house, Monkton, by giving it a surrealist makeover from 1930 . But James also was a patron of Dalí and the latter developed the idea for the Mae West lips sofa while staying with James at his house in London. (And it was good to see that the V&A did not miss an obvious trick. There was a reproduction of the lips sofa on sale for a mere £1000 in the exhibition store.) And James commissioned a cute plaster and glass light fixture with a pair of hands holding the light globe (designed by Nicolas de Molas), and also commissioned a fine surrealist tea set from Royal Crown Derby (supposedly designed by Dalí). (A reproduction of the tea cups and saucers were also on sale in the exhibition store.)

Another interesting architectural contribution to the exhibition was an apartment designed by Le Corbusier for Carlos de Beistegui on the Champs Elysées in Paris in 1930. This is around the same time that Le Corbusier was working on the Villa Savoye near Paris, and one can easily see an overlap of ideas used in both buildings, including the odd surrealist feature (particular on the roof). But for some reason de Beistegui chose to have neo-Baroque furniture, which completely clashed with the pure Le Corbusier lines.

Date published: 2007/06/15

The latest plans for the Cambridge railway station re-development (permanent blog link)

The first proposal Ashwell made for the re-development of the Cambridge railway station area was rejected point blank by the Cambridge City Council. It seems that unbelievably the two parties did not discuss the application before it was made, which is totally irresponsible (it has put the whole thing back by a year).

Ashwell has just proposed a modified scheme. This time around it seems that, fortunately, the two sides have had discussions, so it is fairly likely to be approved. The modified scheme is not hugely different, which is hardly surprising given all the constraints. The car approach to the multi-storey car park has been changed slightly, and the cycle parking will now be part of that rather than separate. The tallest buildings have been lowered a couple of storeys. The number of households has been decreased. Kett House is no longer part of the development so will not be demolished.

As a result of the changes, the profit has gone down, and although the academic middle class who run Cambridge probably think this is jolly good, it is of course the citizens of Cambridge who will pay for this reduction, not Ashwell. In particular, the section 106 money that Ashwell will provide Cambridge (for infrastructure and services) will be vastly reduced (perhaps halved). Put it this way, Ashwell (and any other developer) will not do a development unless they make a certain return on capital. If Cambridge doesn't like it, Cambridge can get stuffed.

The new proposal so far concentrates mainly on transport, since that is one thing the city did not like the last time around. This is because Ashwell was not anti-car enough. The Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, and the more they can do to screw car drivers the happier they are. Indeed, the only consideration that ever gets any real attention by the Cambridge ruling elite is how to screw car drivers forever more. So they never worry about making sure Cambridge has enough decent jobs, or any of the other important things in life, just how to screw car drivers. By stressing over and over that cars are really at the bottom of the pile in all their considerations, Ashwell is playing the game properly this time around.

Ashwell is still teaming up with Richard Rogers (magically now part of something called Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners) for the development. Apparently Rogers will appear in person to wow the Cambridge planning meeting. And indeed since he is himself anti-car (surprise, he's an architect) then he will no doubt successfully wow the Cambridge ruling elite. Rogers does the odd decent building but his plans for the re-development of the South Bank in London a few years ago were rather silly, and time will tell whether he has anything really useful to contribute to the railway development. (He is also the architect for the rather anodyne Terminal 5 building at Heathrow, but that is mostly not his fault.)

The one interesting piece of detail so far is that Ashwell is planning to have a public plaza at the front of the station, and they think that people will actually sit around there and use the space. That seems rather fanciful. London commuters will hardly be customers (they just want to get to London in the morning and to home in the evening). There will be a fair number of office workers and residential properties nearby, but is that enough custom to keep the place going? No tourist would venture down that way (except to catch the train) and in most of the successful public spaces in the world, tourists play a big part. It's also quite tricky to create an entirely new public space that works. The recent Cattle Market development shows perfectly well how it should not be done. If Rogers can at least achieve something on this score, then he will have earned his pay.

High density housing is not a bright idea (permanent blog link)

Richard Fuller, in the BBC says:

We are fast becoming an urban species. More than half of the world's people now live in cities, and in the UK around 90% of us are urbanites.

As human populations increase, demand for new housing seems insatiable.

Over the past few decades, this has resulted in the rapid development of urban sprawl - vast expanses of low density suburban housing that have progressively eaten into the countryside around our cities.

Suburban sprawl means that many of us now live miles from "local" shops, our workplaces, friends' houses, and also miles from the nearest park or piece of countryside.

This can result in car-dependence, a lack of exercise, and exhausting, environmentally damaging daily journeys to and from scattered locations across our cities.

Proponents of the compact city have a new vision, which has captured the attention of governments.

They envisage smaller, high density cities that reduce the amount of countryside that needs to be swallowed up by urbanisation; places where people can live closer to work, more journeys can be made on foot or by bicycle, with less air and noise pollution, and a reduced collective carbon footprint to boot.

With such reductions in land-take in mind, the UK government now recommends that all new housing is built at 30-50 dwellings per hectare, more-or-less double the current density. That's an average of more than one household in an area the size of a tennis court.

This will pack a lot more people into the same space than we currently do. It is perhaps the single most important piece of housing legislation for decades, yet it is not well known and the potential consequences of it have not been widely debated.

There are significant downsides to the alluring vision of the compact city. Evidence from the UK tells us that green space is one of the first casualties of high density urban development.

Green spaces, including our own domestic gardens, are important even to the most hardened city slickers among us. They are places to sit and contemplate, meet with friends, walk the dog, go for a run, feed the ducks, for children to play.

Scientists have shown that green spaces promote community togetherness, reduce crime, improve our physical health and enhance our psychological well-being. They promote inward investment into cities, and even increase house prices.
The sprawling version of surburbia often supports a great variety of plants and animals. On top of this, there is a real danger that the quality of life of us all will suffer.

Although it is good to see someone argue against the high density rabbit hutches currently promoted by the urban planning elite, the arguments given are rather lacking. First of all, looking at household density rather than population density is missing the point that households are smaller these days (on average), so we are not squashing as many extra people in per acre as is implied in the article.

And the claim that "suburban sprawl means that many of us now live miles from ... the nearest park or piece of countryside" is both wrong and misleading. So-called suburban sprawl occurs, almost by definition, closer to the countryside than to the city. And the big benefit of suburban sprawl is that many people end up with decent gardens. And it is in private gardens that one finds the best biodiversity, not (most) parks and not (a lot of) countryside (which is mostly covered with industrial agriculture). The public parks in Cambridge are fairly typical. They have acres of grass and a few trees and not much else. They are green wastelands. They are useful for recreation, that is all. And the countryside near Cambridge is not much better, with a few exceptions (e.g. along the river outside of town). The university Botanic Garden is a park with a lot more than just grass and a few trees. However it is faux biodiversity, consisting mainly of non-native species collected for botanic, not biodiversity, reasons.

And if you stick people in hi-rise apartment blocks, as advocated by Le Corbusier and almost every other architect since, there is plenty of space for parks. It's just that these parks are not very useful from an environmental viewpoint. They are not really green except in colour.

And high density developments do not necessarily mean that people live closer to work. There are plenty of high density Victorian terraces near the railway station in Cambridge, but a large fraction of their occupants commute to London every day by train. Of course the ruling elite push the propaganda that since it is by train, rather than by car, it is somehow ok. It is not. The carbon footprint of London commuters, even those who live inside the M25, is huge.

Most people want to live in suburbia. But the ruling elite have decided that people should instead live in urban areas, whether they like it or not.

Date published: 2007/06/14

Obese children should allegedly be taken away from their parents (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Obesity has been a factor in at least 20 child protection cases in the last year, the BBC has learned.

Some doctors now believe in extreme cases overfeeding a young child should be seen as a form of abuse or neglect.

The BBC contacted almost 50 consultant paediatricians around the UK to ask if they believe childhood obesity can ever be a child protection issue.

The British Medical Association is due to debate a motion on this issue at its annual conference at the end of June.
Dr Matt Capehorn is the Rotherham GP who put forward the motion as a result of his own experience of running an obesity clinic.

He told the BBC: "My colleagues and I were concerned because we noticed a discrepancy in the way society, the medical profession and the courts treat an obese child compared with a malnourished child.

"There is outrage if a child is skin and bone but it only happens in extreme cases with obese children."

Oh wow, a whole 20 cases. The world must be at an end. Doctors are some of the worst control freaks in the country, and this is more about their power than anything else. Indeed one doctor on the radio this morning was upset because these allegedly negligent parents were not listening to his advice. How dare the peasants not listen to the ruling elite? Doctors (and others) have successfully persecuted smokers so are now moving onto obese people. Indeed, the academic middle class could no doubt come up with an endless list of things that they don't approve of where they would be more than happy to have children taken away from their parents. The parents smoke. Take the children away. The parents give chocolate to their chidren. Take the children away. The parents don't read books to their children. Take the children away. The parents let their children watch television. Take the children away. The State is not very good at looking after children who have been taken away from their parents. It should only happen in extreme circumstances and indeed that is generally the case. It is not helpful for doctors to single out some sector of society which they want sanctioned. Doctors are barely capable of practising medicine competently (a much bigger cause for concern) and are not qualified social workers.

Lots of old people are allegedly being abused (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of thousands of elderly people are being abused in their own homes, research suggests.

The study, funded by the government and Comic Relief, suggests that in eight out of 10 cases the abuser is someone well known to the elderly person.

It can involve physical abuse or neglect and sometimes financial mistreatment.

Ivan Lewis, the care services minister, said there would soon be new guidelines for official handling of abuse cases.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that abusers of older people should be treated in a similar way to child abusers by the courts.

"The findings [of the study] are disturbing. I think there are real cultural issues in our society in the way we treat older people," said Mr Lewis

"What we need to aim for is a society where we are as outraged by the abuse and neglect of an older person as we are by the abuse of a child, and we are a long, long way from it."

None of this is surprising. And the BBC singularly fails to state whether the alleged abuse figures are worse than for any other relatively powerless sector of society. Abuse is abuse is abuse, no matter who it happens to. Of course every story has to be painted as extreme (or be silly) in order to see the light of day in the modern media.

UK has a residential property problem (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Homes are springing up in back yards as the property boom continues. MPs are fighting for a bill to curtail the practice, but does the squeeze on land mean gardens are endangered?

So there you are living in leafy suburbia, children playing in immaculately coiffured gardens and along comes a property developer.

Sadly, the only trees he's interested in are the ones that go to make banknotes. And he has a plan for that house for sale next door.
An increasingly solitary population, immigration, wealthy second home-owners and the general mania for house-buying are putting immense pressure on some areas of the country.

One of the results is "garden grabbing". Developers buy a house with a generous garden, apply for planning permission to demolish the house and build either flats, or even a mini-estate in its place.
This is happening because the law allows gardens to be classified as "brownfield" sites, in the same category as former industrial and commercial property. Councils have targets to meet for new houses and for brownfield building - thus gardens are being lost, the campaigners say.
For the property developers, the motivations are obvious. Without the need for new roads or services, profit margins might be higher. And a dense development in an established suburb can be a safer bet than a genuine brownfield site.

Put bluntly, given the choice of moving to a purpose-built flat on the site of an old heavy metals factory, many buyers find they hanker for a berth in Acacia Avenue.
Apart from the loss of green spaces, trees and barriers to traffic noise, current occupants are often left facing a brick wall through their kitchen window. In particularly expensive areas like London, new buildings perch uncomfortably in former gardens, looking rather like a game of residential hide-and-seek.
[ The Department for Communities and Local Government ] says 18% of all new dwellings are on residential land, up from 11% in 1997. But that includes a house being turned into flats, or a demolish-and-rebuild project that occupies the same amount of space. It keeps no separate statistics on how much garden space has been lost.
There is immense pressure on the government to provide more houses, and some wonder whether greenbelt land will have to be sacrificed in order to meet the need for affordable houses.

Television gardener Diarmuid Gavin said the loss of gardens, while sad, might be viewed as acceptable if it saves vast areas of the countryside from being built on.

There is plenty of land, at least outside the M25. It's just that the ruling elite refuse to let most of it be developed (witness the statement by Gavin). And the BBC is incorrect in its claim that old industrial and commercial property is somehow more brownfield than most back gardens. In Cambridge, the airport will some day be redeveloped. It is classified as brownfield although most of it is as green as any of the parks in the city centre that the academic middle class rave about. And similarly, Oakington airfield is about to be redeveloped, and it is classified as brownfield, but again it is as green as any of the nearby agricultural fields. Indeed, given that it has been fairly neglected the last few years, it is if anything more green.

The real problem with building on back gardens is that the neighbours are not compensated for the resulting decline in the value of their own property. Indeed, you cannot object to any planning proposal based on economic loss, only loss of privacy and other less important matters. So if your neighbour wants to build a block of flats on their back garden, you are effectively being forced to write a cheque to them for possibly tens of thousands of pounds. If this anomaly was ended (i.e. neighbours were properly compensated) then building on back gardens would be less of an issue and would indeed happen less frequently.

Meanwhile, the BBC also says:

The Liberal Democrats want to "ensure the face of council housing is changed forever" by building a million social homes over the next 10 years.

Sir Menzies Campbell said it was a "national disgrace" that cities are "too often known for 'sink estates'".

He also suggested councils could buy land from farmers then sell it on at a profit to developers.
Sir Menzies said more radical action was needed and he called for a "revolution" in social housing, with 100,000 low-cost homes to be built per year.

"Social housing has become ghettoised - assigned only to the poorest and most vulnerable - with just one third of working age tenants in full-time jobs," said Sir Menzies.

"We need to break the pattern of the past 10 years with a revolution in housing policy."
Sir Menzies suggested those priced out of the property market could be helped by local authorities selling council houses at cost price, but retaining part ownership and allowing them to control the price of future sales.

When buying green field sites, farmers would be told that planning permission would only be granted if they sold the land to the council.

The council would then secure planning permission and sell the plot on to developers, keeping the profit to pay for local services.

The Lib Dems said landowners would take part because they could still sell for more money than the land was worth without permission.

But the Lib Dem scheme was criticised by the Country Land and Business Association, who described it as "completely divorced from reality".

President David Fursdon said the system was "open to so much abuse" as councils would be deciding whether to grant permission for schemes that would make them huge sums of money.

"And why is it that it's OK for the local authority to do something on the land when it's not for the private landowner?" he asked.

This is slightly bizarre. Campbell says cities are allegedly known for sink estates but then wants to build lots more. And the idea that local authorties should "control the price of future sales" of council houses is outrageous. Part equity is already a poor idea in many ways (e.g. because it discourages anyone from upgrading the property) but not getting a market rate at sale time is far worse.

On the other hand, the answer to why "it's OK for the local authority to do something on the land when it's not for the private landowner" is because the government is supposed to look after the interests of everybody, not just the few. And the government has exactly this right to take over land for building motorways, etc. Of course this power should not be used lightly. And Fursdon is at least correct that local authorities would likely behave corruptly (selling on the land at less than market value to their friends). The current, section 106, rules are already fairly corrupt (since the procedure is not open). Where this is a load of money to be made, corruption is bound to follow.

Date published: 2007/06/12

EU is not anywhere near meeting its R&D spending target (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Union's vision of building a hi-tech economy could be left in the dirt if businesses do not spend more on research and development (R&D).

That is the conclusion of a European Commission report comparing R&D in the EU with that of its competitors.

Europe will be outdone by China, Japan and South Korea unless EU member states take urgent action, it says.

The report says boosting R&D spend is essential if Europe's economy is to remain competitive in the future.

It sought to make Europe "the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010.

Key to this vision was boosting investment in R&D to 3% of GDP by that same deadline. But Europe looks set to miss this objective.

The report, which contains new data on Europe and its main competitors, says that R&D intensity (R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP) in Europe has stagnated since the mid-1990s.

At the same time, Japan, China or South Korea have been able to increase substantially their R&D effort.
The European Commission says that differences in the industrial structure of the EU compared with countries such as the US are the main cause for this low level of business R&D spend.

The EU has a smaller high-tech industrial sector, that area of the economy which usually spends most on R&D.

The article's statement that "Europe looks set to miss this [ the 3%] objective" is a bit of an understatement. The current level is around 1.8% and has been the same for the last ten and more years. The EU is not poor yet, but it might well be in future.

Blair complains about the media (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has said the media can operate like "a feral beast" and its relationship with politicians is "damaged" and in need of repair.

The prime minister said relations had always been fraught, but now threatened politicians' "capacity to take the right decisions for the country".

The arrival of web-based news and blogs and 24-hour television news channels meant reports were "driven by impact".
He said fierce competition for stories meant that the modern media now hunted "in a pack".

"In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no-one dares miss out," he said.

The result was that the media was increasingly "and to a dangerous degree" driven by "impact" which was, in turn, "unravelling standards, driving them down," he said.

Mr Blair, who will step down as prime minister on 27 June, admitted that New Labour's own attempts to "court" and "assuage" the media in the early days of his government may have contributed to the problem.
The associate editor of the Sun newspaper, Trevor Kavanagh, said Mr Blair's comments were rather "sour" and "ill-advised" and out of character.

He added that Mr Blair and his government had received the most benign coverage of any leader in recent years.

That benign coverage only changed after the self-confessed "mistakes" made in putting the case for the Iraq war, not because of any change in the way the media operated, he said.

Kavanagh is correct. Of course it was the Sun and the other Murdoch papers that were glowing in their praise for Blair up until recently largely because Blair sucked up to Murdoch (and similar ilk) and had policies which Murdoch liked. As everyone knows full well, Blair's fall from grace came about because of the deceitful, illegal and incompetent invasion of Iraq (which Murdoch supported). It had nothing to do with 24-hour news and everything to do with Mr Blair putting the political interests of George Bush (and friends) above the interests of the citizens of Great Britain.

The media is not blameless. Journalists are, if anything, worse than politicians. They make things up and concentrate on personalities rather than issues. In 1997 and 2001 Blair had massive parliamentary majorities. He could have used them to squash the media's fascination with personalities. He could have allowed Labour Party politicians to speak their mind and to allow an open debate about issues. Instead Blair was a complete control freak. Labour politicians were not allowed to speak openly and honestly. This is the traditional British parliamentary game which the media loves, where everybody gets to pretend that gray is black or gray is white, where sex scandals get more attention than anything that matters, and where any hint of disagreement on policy gets blown up into a major incident where there is no discussion of the policy but lots of discussion of personalities.

Date published: 2007/06/11

Yet another article complaining about air travel (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

If you want to know how the low-cost airlines have revolutionised the world of travel you need to go to Stansted airport.

Ninety per cent of flights from here are with low-cost carriers - 23 million people passed through here last year.
It is partly due to the growth in low-cost air travel, not just here but all around the world that carbon emissions from aircraft have risen by 111% in the past 15 years.

"There are major consequences for the ever-increasing use of low-cost airlines" said James Abbot, from the Green Party in Essex.

"These include expanding airports, less countryside, more road traffic and of course it is adding to climate change"

The Bishop of London has reportedly said flying was a sin.

His colleague, the Right Reverend Tony Footit, former Bishop of Lynn and now environmental advisor to the Diocese of Norwich, has said we all need to think much more carefully about travel.

"I think it is immoral to fly within the United Kingdom or Western Europe when it perfectly possible to travel by train but it seems perfectly reasonable to fly to the United States or far east but we ought to really ration it and ask if the trip is really necessary," he said.

Although aircraft emissions are rising it is worth keeping this debate in perspective.

According to Defra, aircraft emissions accounted for only 6.3% of all carbon emissions in Britain last year.
Even if low cost air travel continues unchecked, aircraft will still only account for a very small percentage of carbon emissions.

But critics said it is an unnecessary increase at a time when we should be doing everything possible to stave off climate change.

And they argue that if we care about climate change we have a moral duty to think very carefully about everything we do - and that includes flying.

The BBC runs this kind of article every month or two. The academic middle class (e.g. the people who run the BBC) do not like the fact that the peasants can now fly, whereas once upon a time only the middle class (and above) could.

One should take anything said by any bishop with a pinch of salt. If anything is a sin, organised religion is. And you can bet your least pound that bishops on average fly far more than the average UK citizen (since they are far richer than the average UK citizen). The claim that flying to some destinations is "immoral" but to others is not, is also just silly. As with everything in life, there is the time of travel to be considered. To get from (say) Newcastle to (say) Amsterdam by train takes far too long compared with air (and indeed, because the route is so indirect, the train is probably not even much better in terms of emissions). Perhaps bishops, like the rest of the academic middle class, have no time constraints, but back in the real world most people do.

And the Green Party makes the usual disingenous comments. Air flight is much better than trains in terms of the amount of loss of countryside, because you only need a few square miles in a few dozen spots to be able to get from anywhere to anywhere, whereas you need thousands of miles of train track to do the same. And similarly, the view that road traffic is seriously impacted by airline travel is pathetic. It is far more impacted by train travel, specifically London commuters driving to their local train station. And everything adds to climate change, so presumably the Green Party just wants the world to stop.

And funnily enough, the idea that "we have a moral duty to think very carefully about everything we do" only ever seems to apply to car driving and flying. It never applies, for example, to getting to work by train. Even more seriously, it never applies to having children, which is by far and away the worst damage to the environment that anyone can cause. Somehow the so-called environmentalists never bring this up, perhaps because they are busy breeding just like everybody else.

Rich children are already ahead of poor children by the age of three (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

By the age of three, children from disadvantaged homes are up to a year behind in their learning than those from more privileged backgrounds.

Graduates' children were seen to be 12 months ahead of those of the least well educated in tests on their grasp of letters, numbers, colours and shapes.

And disadvantaged children's vocabulary skills were 10 months behind their more advantaged peers, the study added.

The Institute of Education research was based on a survey of 12,000 children.

In the longitudinal study of children born in 2000 to 2002, girls were educationally three months ahead of boys on average.

The poorest children were 10 months behind their wealthier peers in tests of their grasp of shapes, numbers, letters and colours known as "school readiness" tests.

And they were five months behind their wealthier peers in vocabulary tests.
These results will not be a surprise to education experts or government policy advisers who have long known that parents' educational achievement and family income are indicators of a child's educational success.

As the article says, the result is hardly surprising. It would be interesting to know how much of the effect is (directly) genetic, how much is due to middle class parents already intellectually engaging their children from day one (which might be deemed to be an environmental effect but is an indirect genetic effect since the parents of course have produced the kids in the first place), and how much is due to the fact that middle class children, for example, have access to better food. One might be able to disentangle this by looking at adopted children, but this is not clear since people who adopt children might not be average in ways that matter.

First so-called zero-emission house unveiled (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is set to unveil the first zero-emission house that will set the environmental standard for all new homes in future.

The two-bedroom house is insulated so that it loses two-thirds less heat than a standard home.

It also features solar panels, a biomass boiler and water efficiency devices such as rainwater harvesting.

The design meets rules which will apply by 2016, as the UK tries to make its housing stock more energy efficient.

The Kingspan Off-Site's Lighthouse design is the first to achieve level six of the Code for Sustainable Homes.
Chancellor Gordon Brown announced in his Budget in March that zero-carbon houses would be exempt from stamp duty.

Biomass boilers run on organic fuels such as wood pellets and count as zero-emission because the amount of carbon dioxide they give off when they are burned is offset by the amount that was absorbed when the crop was grown.

Unfortunately "zero-emission" is a lie. First of all, there are a huge amount of emissions created just to build the house in the first place. Itt also ignores the cost of maintenance (which creates more emissions). And the idea that biomass burners are zero-emission is fanciful, since it completely ignores the emissions created sowing, looking after, harvesting and treating the crop and then delivering the fuel (most likely by petrol-driven vehicle). Of course all the spin these days has to be about "zero-emission", so that is the propaganda we get.

And are these houses going to be any good to live in? No doubt the ruling elite don't care, since they won't be the ones forced to live in these houses.

Date published: 2007/06/10

Government claims the CIA did not use UK airports for illegal activities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has backed a police investigation that found no evidence the CIA had used UK airports to transport terrorism suspects illegally.

Ministers said the 18-month inquiry into "extraordinary rendition" tallied with their research into the issue.

Human rights groups have labelled the police report a whitewash, claiming 210 flights had been in the UK since 2001.

What a surprise. The government, which has made an art out of sucking up to the Americans, says the Americans have never used UK airports for any of their well-documented illegal activities. Nobody will believe the government.

Government targets carbon emissions from IT equipment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the production, operation and disposal of computers is to be the aim of a new government taskforce.

Computers and other IT equipment have been blamed for causing as much global warming as the airline industry.

The taskforce will oversee the piloting of a "green PC" service in which individual machines use 98% less energy than standard PCs.

IT equipment is thought to generate 35m tonnes of harmful CO2 gas each year.

The public-private "Green Shift" taskforce will be led by Manchester City Council.

The "green PC" service works by hosting functions such as office applications, email and internet surfing on data centres rather than on individual computers.

The data centres will be energy efficient and can be accessed through a small desktop box.

A rather sloppy BBC article. Normally the chattering classes demonise the airline industry because it is allegedly the "fastest growing" source of carbon emissions (which is a meaningless statement since it depends entirely on how you cut up the pie). Now, since everybody "knows" how bad the airline industry allegedly is, everything else gets compared with that as if it tells us anything. So you could equally say that "terraced houses are responsible for as much global warming as the airline industry", with the good BBC tut-tut tone meaning that you should then demonise people who live in terraced houses. (Or pick on any group you happen not to like.)

So here in this article the BBC is demonising computers. No doubt the academic middle class don't like the idea that the peasants can now afford computers where a few years ago only the rich could. (The same "problem" as with airline flights.) Well, perhaps the BBC should remove all computers from their own offices if they think they are allegedly so bad. An indication of the slant of the article is clear in the one sentence: "IT equipment is thought to generate 35m tonnes of harmful CO2 gas each year". Why did they add the word "harmful" except to indicate that computers are allegedly evil? Or does the BBC perhaps think that some CO2 emissions are not "harmful"?

And the idea that data centres are the way forward is a bit of a joke. Sure, some organisations might want to go down that route (government being the obvious target). But a lot of these organisations already have their own central data servers. And there are not many people at home who would ever trust any central data service for most software. Sun Computers has spent the last two decades claiming that central servers are the way forward (mainly because they make them), and they have yet to be shown to be correct.

And the claim that "individual machines would use 98% less energy" is meaningless, since you also have to take into account the energy used in the data centres (wonderfully described with good spin as "energy efficient"). Data centre computers can never be turned off. Computers at home and in the office can be (although perhaps most are not).

Date published: 2007/06/09

Craig Venter wants to patent a method to create synthetic organisms (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists working to build a life form from scratch have applied to patent the broad method they plan to use to create their "synthetic organism".

Dr Craig Venter, the man who led the private sector effort to sequence the human genome, has been working for years to create a man-made organism.

But constructing a primitive microbe from a kit of genes is a daunting task.

Dr Venter says, eventually, these life forms could be designed to make biofuels and absorb greenhouse gases.

The publication of the patent application has angered some environmentalists.

The Canada-based ETC group, which monitors developments in biotechnology, called on patent offices to reject applications on synthetic life forms.

The J Craig Venter Institute's US patent application claims exclusive ownership of a set of essential genes and a synthetic "free-living organism that can grow and replicate" made using those genes.

It has also filed an international application at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) which names more than 100 countries where the institute may seek monopoly patents.

Venter should be able to patent whole processes but not specific genes (unless he has invented a new gene, which he hasn't). And whatever patent he does get should not be ridiculously broad, which unfortunately many of them are these days. Courtesy of the American corporate world, patents have become nothing but an extortion racket over the last couple of decades.

The BBC runs more anti-car-driver propaganda (permanent blog link)

The BBC is the voice of the British academic middle class. As such they hate cars, or at least cars driven by people other than themselves. Today the BBC has two blatant anti-car stories. The first story is propaganda for the usual car-hating cycling fraternity:

About 700 cyclists in various states of undress have cycled through central London in another leg of the World Naked Bike Ride.

The naked cyclists - and others with strategically-placed body paint, sticky tape or bum bags - were highlighting the damage caused by car dependency.

They were also promoting the environmental benefits of cycling.

Needless to say the BBC would never run such a story were it anti-cyclist instead of anti-car. Cambridge has a high percentage of cyclists, and any neutral observer (e.g. people who are both cyclists and drivers) would agree that in Cambridge the cyclists on average behave much worse than the drivers. Of course the consequences from cyclists behaving badly is generally not so serious as from drivers behaving badly, which is why cyclists never worry about their poor behaviour.

Cyclists everywhere suffer from this delusion that somehow they are morally superior to drivers. They are not. They are just rich enough to live near enough to their place of work to be able to cycle. They are also typical representatives of the "cult of the selfish". Unfortunately in modern political life it is deemed acceptable behaviour that if you don't do something, then you should be able to insist that nobody else should be allowed to do it either. This is just selfishness, pure and simple.

Cyclists also benefit from good roads, courtesy of all the taxes paid by drivers. But instead of being thankful that some poor soul is subsidising their route to work, they just complain. Cyclists are not just selfish, they are ungrateful.

If cyclists spent more time promoting cycling and less time complaining about drivers, they might be take more seriously by the people that matter, i.e. the public (not the academic middle class).

The second story is propaganda for the safety nutter bridgade:

Psychological assessments should become part of the UK driving test, a road safety expert has urged.

Robert Gifford, director of a road safety charity, told BBC Radio Five Live the current system failed to root out drivers prone to breaking rules.

He said psychometric tests could help to identify people with the wrong attitude to the road.

What planet does this guy live on? Does he know any drivers who are not prone to breaking rules, especially the insanely low speed limits on motorways? Surprise, motorists drive how they think they should drive, not how the safety nutters think they should drive. The government knows this full well, which is why they have bombarded the roads with speed cameras. And how are they going to determine what is the "wrong" attitude? Why of course they are going to ask silly and patronising questions, which any driver with an IQ higher than 80 will know how the government wants answered, independently of how they would actually behave. (For example, "If you see a beggar in the middle of the road, do you (A) run him over, (B) just miss him and swear out the window that he is an idiot, or (C) slow down and wait until he gets out of the way and drop him a tenner because he is obviously hard up?" Hmmm, which answer does the government want?)

Teachers want more money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A teaching union is mounting a campaign for a review of teachers' pay.

Ministers have reneged on a promise to review rises of 2.5% a year in 2006-08 for England's teachers in the light of higher inflation, the NUT says.

The call comes as the teacher Training and Development Agency for Schools urged the teachers' pay review body to ensure pay rates remained competitive.

Ministers say inflation will return to expected levels by the end of 2008 and point to a 15% pay rise since 1997.
Last week three other classroom unions which, unlike the NUT, are in "social partnership" with the government - the ATL, NASUWT and PAT - called for above-inflation pay rises in the forthcoming 2008-11 settlement.

Meanwhile the NUT wants to see pay rises of 10% or £3,000 a year, whichever is greater, from 2008.

Surprise, teachers want more money. Lots more money. Hopefully the government will ignore them. The BBC is slightly naughty in mentioning a "15% pay rise since 1997". Later in the article they quote a government spokesman as saying "There has been a 15% real terms increase in teachers' average pay since 1997." Of course one can't believe anything a government spokesman says, but there is a big difference between a 15% pay rise and a 15% real terms pay rise. The BBC ought to at least have the sense to get that right, and to provide correct and accurately quoted figures.

Date published: 2007/06/08

Europe's seas are allegedly in a "serious state of decline" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe's seas are in a "serious state of decline" as a result of coastal development, overfishing and pollution from agriculture, warn scientists.

The continent's regional seas will deteriorate even further unless action is taken to curb the threats, they add.

Economic growth and the expansion of the EU, the researchers suggested, had contributed to the state of the waters.

The findings were presented in an EU-funded report, involving more than 100 scientists from 15 nations.

The three-year project, European Lifestyles and Marine Ecosystems (ELME), examined the relationship between human activities and the impact on the region's marine ecosystems.

It focused on the continent's four regional seas: the North-East Atlantic Ocean, and the Black, Baltic and Mediterranean seas.
The expansion of the 27-nation EU bloc and economic growth were helping to exacerbate the problems, he said.

"Affluence is leading to a lot of additional environmental pressures, which we really have to recognise and tackle."

The pressures included the growth of resorts and a huge increase in second homes around the Mediterranean coastline.

Another end-of-the-world report. And what is the main problem? "Affluence". Well there you have it, there is a high correlation between wealth and pollution, who would have thought it. So maybe these scientists should just bluntly state that what they really want is for Europe to become poor. Well, perhaps they "just" want the entire coast to be put off limits to anything other than scientific work (they need to get to the seas, of course, it's just the peasants that should be put off). But needless to say, that would just move the problem somewhere else. People with money are going to want and expect to spend it.

Wireless power transmission (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A clean-cut vision of a future freed from the rat's nest of cables needed to power today's electronic gadgets has come one step closer to reality.

US researchers have successfully tested an experimental system to deliver power to devices without the need for wires.

The setup, reported in the journal Science, made a 60W light bulb glow from a distance of 2m (7ft).

WiTricity, as it is called, exploits simple physics and could be adapted to charge other devices such as laptops.

"There is nothing in this that would have prevented them inventing this 10 or even 20 years ago," commented Professor Sir John Pendry of Imperial College London who has seen the experiments.

"But I think there is an issue of time. In the last few years we have seen an exponential growth of mobile devices that need power. The power cable is the last wire to be cut in a wireless connection."

Professor Moti Segev of the Israel Institute of Technology described the work as "truly pioneering".

The researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who carried out the work outlined a similar theoretical setup in 2006, but this is the first time that it has been shown to work.
Measurements showed that the setup could transfer energy with 40% efficiency across the gap.

The bulb was even made to glow when obstructions such as wood, metal and electronic devices were placed between the two coils.

"These results are encouraging. The numbers are not far from where you would want for this to be useful," said Professor Soljacic.

Great stuff, although with 40% efficiency you can already hear the so-called environmentalists whining in the background about this new technology. (No doubt the efficiency can be improved but it's hard to believe it would ever be anywhere near 100%.) And when will we get the first lawsuit claiming this causes cancer?

Date published: 2007/06/07

Non-delivery lorries will be banned from Maid's Causeway (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Residents could succeed in their bid to stop lorries thundering past their homes.

People living along Maid's Causeway in Cambridge have been complaining about heavy traffic for some time and claim when lorries drive down the street their homes literally shake.

Now transport bosses have begun public consultation on plans to impose a 7.5- tonne weight limit on Maid's Causeway and Newmarket Road, between the Four Lamps and Elizabeth Way roundabouts, which would mean only lorry drivers who needed to make a delivery or collection between the two could use it.

Cambridgeshire County Council is also considering putting a zebra crossing on Maid's Causeway and there are two options for where it could go, outside The Zebra pub or slightly to the east of Parsonage Street.

Residents demanded action last year and the council agreed to look at lorry restrictions, a 20mph speed limit and a pedestrian crossing near James Street after deciding not to restrict traffic using bollards last July.

A lorry survey commissioned by the council earlier this year found 51 HGVs travelling along the route which did not stop to make a delivery or collection. If the proposals are accepted, those vehicles would have to find another way through the city.

The council hopes the proposed crossing will be used by pedestrians and cyclists travelling between Midsummer Common and The Grafton centre, although legally cyclists will have to dismount.

So the rich residents of Maid's Causeway have managed to browbeat the county council into removing lorries from their road. The article says it all, these "vehicles [ will ] have to find another way through the city". So needless to say, other residents of Cambridge will have to suffer more, in order that the rich residents of Maid's Causeway suffer less. Indeed, these lorries are currently taking an optimal route (almost by definition) and banning them in this way will force them to tak a sub-optimal route, which means that they will be traveling more through the city. So it is quite likely that, taken overall, more residents will end up suffering. In this case, the residents of Chesterton Road and Elizabeth Way are likely to be those who will bear the brunt. Of course since they have yet to feel the impact, they will almost certainly not complain about the proposals as much as the residents of Maid's Causeway will push for their way. Unfortunately the bureaucrats and politicians that run Cambridge always fail to take such things into account. Some special interest pressure group complains about something and they get their way because effectively only their views are considered and not the views of all the stakeholders concerned. This is extremely poor governance.

John Reid pronounces more rubbish on so-called terror laws (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Home Secretary John Reid has outlined a raft of proposals to toughen counter terror laws - including reviewing the 28-day limit on pre-charge detention.

He said he wanted cross-party agreement on the measures, which also include a law change to allow terrorist suspects to be questioned after being charged.

Plans also include a sex offender-style terrorist register, and a review into courts using intercept evidence.

But MPs were told "stop and question" powers were not among current plans.

The measures are in a three-page consultation document rather than a draft bill because Mr Reid said he wanted to get cross-party support before announcing more concrete measures in a counter-terrorism bill later this year.

He said he personally believed, as did Prime Minister Tony Blair and the next prime minister Gordon Brown, that 28-day detention in terrorist cases was not enough.

He did not say whether there would be a fresh attempt to extend the limit as far as 90 days, which was the issue that led to Mr Blair's first Commons defeat as prime minister.

But he said action was needed given that suspects had "unconstrained intent... to murder people in their thousands, or potentially, millions".
Mr Reid told MPs he was now proposing new measures to toughen control orders relating to fingerprinting, DNA and police powers of entry.

But he appeared to talk down the possibility of opting out of parts of European human rights laws, favouring instead an overall rethink of them.

This was needed because at the time they were drafted, only nation states could inflict the level of casualties that one individual could now, he said.

Reid is just taking the piss. First of all, he is not going to be Home Secretary in a month, so anything he proposes is irrelevant. Secondly, the claim that "at the time they were drafted, only nation states could inflict the level of casualties that one individual could now" is complete and utter rubbish. Flying airplanes into buildings and blowing up bombs in the underground has been possible for a very long time. And the US and UK have demonstrated perfectly well in Iraq that nation states are willing and capable of inflicting a far higher level of causualties on the world than any terrorist ever has or likely will.

More species on Britain's endangered list (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of species on the endangered list in Britain has almost doubled in 13 years, according to a new study.

There are now 1,149 species of plants, mammals, birds and insects, and 67 different types of habitat under threat from climate change and human activity.

Grahame Madge from the RSPB said there must be serious action to restore a "healthy countryside rich in wildlife".

Among the much-loved species are the skylark, dormouse, red squirrel, grass snake and several species of bat.

The list has been compiled by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP) and was the result of two years research by more 500 wildlife experts and a large number of volunteers.

They blame a range of factors including farming techniques and inappropriate rural and urban planning.

DEFRA say the increase is largely due to the fact that "more accurate information on threatened species has been gathered".

Surprisingly DEFRA probably has it just about right. Having a list twice as long does not necessarily mean the real problem is twice as bad. The more you look for problems the more you will find them. And urban and rural planning is not that different today from what it was 50 or even 100 years ago, so it's hard to believe that lies at the core of this alleged problem. Climate change and farming techniques seem far more likely suspects. And if climate change is making environments less suitable for some species with a narrow geographic range, then the only way those species will survive is if a suitable environment by some chance opens up in another location.

Date published: 2007/06/06

Some Antarctic glaciers measured to be flowing faster (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Satellite data confirms glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are flowing faster.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists used Europe's ERS-1 and -2 spacecraft to track the flow rate of over 300 "ice rivers".

They found a 12% increase in the speed of the glaciers over the period from 1993 to 2003.

The team, which reports its work in the Journal of Geophysical Research, says the study will inform estimates of future sea level rise.

The BAS scientists calculate this group of glaciers alone is currently contributing about 0.047mm a year to global ocean height.

"The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced some of the fastest warming on Earth, nearly 3C over the last half-century," explained lead author Dr Hamish Pritchard.

"Eighty-seven percent of its glaciers have been retreating during this period and now we see these glaciers are also speeding up."

Interesting quantification but that is about it, since everybody would have expected this kind of result.

Sport allegedly help unruly and disaffected pupils (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The results and attitudes to school of unruly and disaffected pupils can be improved by having one or two hours of extra sport a week, research suggests.

Across the UK, 11,000 pupils have been taking part in a scheme called Living for Sport, doing such things as archery, martial arts and boxing.

Loughborough University's Institute of Youth Sport found more than 75% of them later had better attitudes to teachers.

The pupils, aged 11 to 16, also had better attendance and punctuality.

More than 70% showed improved behaviour during the project and a similar proportion increased self-confidence.

Among teachers, 85% felt the project had benefited the pupils taking part.

The Living for Sport programme is organised by the charity the Youth Sport Trust (YST) and is aimed at children who are disengaged from school life and learning - mostly white boys.

Teachers put forward pupils whom they felt could benefit from the scheme and most were selected because of incidents of disruptive behaviour, as well as teachers' perceptions that they had low self-esteem.

In its first three years, more than 500 schools have been involved, offering activities such as martial arts, dance, rock climbing, archery, football and cricket to groups of up to 15 pupils.
In a review of the first three years of the project, the Institute of Youth Sport at Loughborough found pupils and teachers noticed an improvement in behaviour and attitudes.

One pupil said: "I enjoy not getting into trouble and now I see what I am capable of doing."

Another said: "The project is good... we are learning about how to defend yourself... it makes us more confident."

A teacher was quoted as having noticed lots of changes among the pupils taking part. "They've become more confident and they've become more able to teach other people."

Senior development officer at the YST, Jenny Rouse, said: "When young people can appreciate discipline in a sporting context, it helps them to understand why their English or maths teacher wants them to sit still and pay attention.

"It is the same as their boxing coach asking them to do 10 press-ups."

Is is sport, or is it just having more care and attention paid to them? And you would certainly hope that if you throw time and money at something, you get some pay back. And quoting specific students or teachers, as the article does, is a classic, meaningless, way of trying to prove a general point by providing specific examples. Unfortunately the media does this all the time. And Loughborough University's Institute of Youth Sport says on their website that "the Youth Sport Trust has worked closely with the Institute as a key partner since the Institute's inception", so this review of the Living for Sport programme could hardly be deemd to be independent.

Date published: 2007/06/05

EU carbon trading scheme is allegedly not working (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The EU's carbon trading scheme has increased electricity bills, given a windfall to power companies and failed to cut greenhouse gases, it is claimed.

An investigation by BBC Radio 4's File on 4 programme has found that after two and half years the scheme has yet to cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

The consumer body Energywatch said customers are getting a raw deal.

But a government minister has promised that the scheme's next phase will be a big improvement.

The EU's Emission Trading Scheme - a key part of the UK Government's drive to combat climate change - began in 2005 and created a trade in carbon allowances.

It is essentially a permit to pollute.

Power generators received their allowances free of charge but were allowed to reflect the value of those in increased prices to customers, as if the companies had actually had to buy the allowances.

Energywatch believes this increased electricity bills by about 7% in 2005.

And according to one government estimate, that delivered windfall profits of up to £1.3bn to the generators in that year - higher than environmental campaigners had claimed last year.

However, so far the carbon scheme has brought no clear payback in terms of cutting emissions.

Provisional government figures from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) suggest CO2 output in Britain actually went up, by 1.25% last year wiping out a slight drop of 0.01% in 2005.

It is also reckoned that CO2 emissions across the EU also rose by between 1 and 1.5% over the last two years.

The EU carbon trading scheme is indeed fairly poor, although no doubt it can be fixed in time. The EU should instead have imposed a flat rate carbon tax. But it's unbelievable that the BBC manages to take an increase in CO2 output in Britain as indicating anything about the failure or not of the scheme. It is stupid to compare today with yesterday when evaluating this scheme. You instead have to compare today with what today would have been without the scheme. Of course one can only make estimates of the latter. But it's quite possible (although unlikely, given how broken the scheme is right now) that the rise in emissions would have been even worse without carbon trading. Time for BBC journalists to be given a lesson in Logic 101.

Exposure to pesticides is linked with brain tumours (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Agricultural workers exposed to high levels of pesticides have a raised risk of brain tumours, research suggests.

The French study also indicated a possible higher risk among people who used pesticides on houseplants.

All agricultural workers exposed to pesticides had a slightly elevated brain tumour risk, it suggested.

But the Occupational and Environmental Medicine study found the risk was more than doubled for those exposed to the highest levels.

The risk of a type of central nervous system tumour known as a glioma was particularly heightened among this group - more than three times the risk in the general population.

Gliomas are more common in men than women, and the researchers speculate that part of the reason might be that men are more often exposed to pesticides.

However, the overall risk of developing a brain tumour remained very low.

UK experts said the findings were inconclusive.

The findings were based on an analysis of 221 cases of brain tumours by the French Institute of Public Health, Epidemiology and Development.

The research took place in the Bordeaux wine-growing region, where 80% of all pesticides used are fungicides.

The chemicals are mixed and sprayed in a mist to protect vines from fungal attack.

However, the researchers were unable to get specific enough data to pin down exactly which types of pesticide were associated with the development of brain tumours.

They also found that the use of pesticides indoors for house plants seemed to be associated with a more than two-fold increase in the risk of brain tumour.

But they admitted further work would be needed to confirm this association - again because of a lack of detail about which pesticides were used in enclosed home environments.

Josephine Querido, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "More research is needed to confirm the observations made in this study as the results were based on people's recollection of pesticide exposure.

"Brain tumours are relatively rare and, although workers exposed to high levels of pesticides in industry or farming may be at higher risk of certain cancers, current evidence is inconclusive and any risks are likely to be very small."

Kathy Oliver, secretary of the International Brain Tumour Alliance, said: "Our organisation maintains contact with the world's leading specialists in brain tumours and unfortunately no single cause has yet been identified.

"The French study has identified an area warranting further investigation, however, we caution that the results should not be exaggerated.

"It is important to emphasise that more research is required before people start throwing out their cans of household pesticides."

A spokesman for the Crop Protection Association said: "Pesticides are some of the most thoroughly regulated chemicals in the world.

"There is no conclusive scientific evidence of a link between pesticides and brain tumours.

"This type of study does not demonstrate cause and effect, and the authors themselves admit that they did not identify which pesticides were used or the levels of exposure."

As with most health studies, they just show a correlation not a causation. And correlations prove very little, even if they provide juicy headlines for the media. Of course they can get away with just showing correlations because pretty much everyone believes that pesticides are bad. And even if the risk is doubled, double a very small number is still a very small number, and another problem with these articles is that they manage to dwell on the multiplier without looking at the underlying rate. Not to mention that it is only one study with a fairly small sample.

Date published: 2007/06/04

Government wants to control the teaching of Islam in universities (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The teaching of Islam in English universities is based on "out-of-date and irrelevant issues", a government commissioned report has concluded.

Academic Ataullah Siddiqui's review paints a picture of Islamic studies departments where the post-9/11 and 7 July world has largely passed them by.

It argues that more emphasis should be placed on Islam in a modern context.

Ministers will now label Islamic studies a "strategic subject" because of its role "in preventing extremism".

The review was commissioned by the DfES to assess the way in which Islam is taught and to improve support and advice available to Muslim students.

It was published as Tony Blair prepared to give a speech on Islam and the importance of British Muslims in London.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the review provided a helpful contribution to a particularly complex and sensitive subject.

"The effective and accurate delivery of Islamic studies within our universities is important for a multitude of reasons including wider community cohesion and preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam," he said.

This was why an extra £1m was being invested in the training of imams and why Islamic Studies was being designated a "strategic subject", he added.

A strategic subject is one where it is in the national interest to safeguard research and graduates with the right knowledge and skills.

Science and engineering subjects are designated strategic subjects.

Mr Rammell added that Dr Siddiqui's review, as well as other reports and conferences on Islam in higher education, suggested Islamic studies departments were concentrating too much on a Middle Eastern focus and ignore the realities of Islam in modern multi-cultural Britain.

Unbelievable, the government thinks it knows how to teach Islamic Studies better than the universities. You can guarantee that any propaganda inserted into university courses by the government will be treated with the disdain it deserves. And imagine the furore and incredulity if the BBC had written:

The teaching of Christianity in English universities is based on "out-of-date and irrelevant issues", a government commissioned report has concluded.

Academic Ataullah Siddiqui's review paints a picture of theology departments where the post-9/11 and 7 July world has largely passed them by.

But the BBC and the government can blithely write patronising rubbish about Islam without blinking an eye.

Another UN report on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of millions of livelihoods will be affected by declining snow and ice cover as a result of global warming, a UN report has warned.

The risks facing people included losing access to drinking water, and rising sea levels, the study concluded.

The findings were published by the UN's Environment Programme (Unep).

Unep chief Achim Steiner said the report showed that time was running out for political leaders to reach a global agreement on curbing emissions.
The study warns of a range of threats that could destabilise ecosystems around the world, with potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of people.

Melting glaciers in Asia's mountains could affect an estimated 40% of the world's population, who rely on ice melt for crop irrigation and drinking water.

It added that rising temperatures were already resulting in the thawing of permafrost in places such as Siberia. This was leading to the release into the atmosphere of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

The fate of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which hold almost all of the planet's freshwater ice, needed to be better understood, the UN publication urged.

It said that if emissions of greenhouse gases continued unabated, the massive ice sheets were likely to become unstable as the world continued to warm.

Without taking measures to mitigate sea level rise, an estimated 145 million people, primarily in Asia, would be exposed to the risk of flooding.
The authors also warned that less ice and snow cover was leading to more of the Sun's energy being absorbed by the land and the sea, rather than being reflected back into space.

They said this "positive feedback" could accelerate global warming and result in more abrupt shifts in the climate.

Nothing new here.

Another anti-abortion parliamentary bill introduced (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new bid to alter current abortion laws is to be made in Parliament - the third such attempt in eight months.

Ann Winterton's bill would require women to be counselled about possible ill-effects, then to wait a week to consider them before going ahead.

The Conservative MP will argue that abortion can pose a risk to women's long term mental health.

But pro-choice groups say it is the latest in a "concerted campaign" in Parliament to restrict women's rights.

Mrs Winterton, who is vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group, will argue that many women who have abortions suffer long-term mental health problems.

She wants compulsory counselling - rather than the voluntary counselling offered currently - and a seven-day "cooling off" period, to allow time for second thoughts.

And her Termination of Pregnancy (Counselling and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill will also include a provision that doctors record whether abortions are being performed on physical or mental grounds.

But the pro-choice group Abortion Rights, said the bill would force women to receive counselling regardless of their wishes.

Abortion Rights director Anne Quesney said the bill showed "no compassion for women or respect for women's ability to make their own abortion decision" and said the time delay would effectively pressurise women to change their minds.

"It is a short-sighted, desperate attempt to criminalise abortion. Forty years since abortion was legalised in Britain, it is time to move forward, not back," she added.

And the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said delaying abortions went against good medical practice.

Chief Executive Ann Furedi said women were already offered counselling and were given information about the effects, adding: "Women don't need Parliament to tell them to think carefully about abortion."

The latest ploy of the anti-abortionists. Pretend that you are concerned about the woman, not just about the foetus. Considering how much these anti-abortionists always harp on about morality, they are some of the most hypocritical and insincere people going. They have one aim and one aim only, to stop all abortions.

Date published: 2007/06/03

Gordon Brown wants to remove slightly less civil liberties than Tony Blair (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown has pledged not to put civil liberties at risk over plans to introduce new anti-terror laws.

Mr Brown wants to give police more powers - including holding suspects without charge for more than 28 days - when he takes over as prime minister.

Civil liberties campaigners warn the plan amounts to "internment".

But in a speech earlier, Mr Brown insisted he would bring in safeguards, including a judicial review of detention every seven days.

Mr Brown is also planning to summon cross-party talks in the Privy Council on the use of phone-tap evidence in court.

Such a move was resisted by Prime Minister Tony Blair because security services fear it will expose their secret surveillance methods.

Mr Brown also wants to allow police to continue questioning suspects after they have been charged.

He wants judges to make support for terrorism an aggravating factor in sentencing, as it currently is with racially aggravated crime.

On this issue Gordon Brown is not quite as draconian as Tony Blair, but he is not far off, and he is not yet even running the country. How bad will it get once he is running the country, when all the power has gone to his head?

Putin says Russia may target missiles at Europe if US Star Wars goes ahead (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Moscow may target weapons at Europe if the US builds planned missile defence facilities in the region, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said.

Russia has not pointed missiles towards Europe since the end of the Cold War.

Last week, Russia said it had tested a ballistic missile to maintain "strategic balance" in the world.

The US wants to expand its missile defences into Eastern Europe. It says the system is not aimed at Russia but Moscow says its security is threatened.
[ Putin ] repeated warnings that the US defence shield could lead to a new arms race but said it would the fault of the Americans if this happened.

He said the US had "altered the strategic balance" by unilaterally pulling out of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty in 2002.

"If the American nuclear potential grows in European territory, we have to give ourselves new targets in Europe," Mr Putin said.

"It is up to our military to define these targets, in addition to defining the choice between ballistic and cruise missiles."

Putin is an anti-democrat, but on this issue he is making perfectly good sense. The intended US Star Wars program is a prima facie threat to Russia, and Russia is perfectly within reason to treat as enemies those parts of Europe which choose to play the game with America.

Date published: 2007/06/02

The Green Party says the EU Parliament is not Green (permanent blog link)

Caroline Lucas of the Green Party says on the BBC:

Climate change doesn't just threaten a future humanitarian and economic disaster, its effects are devastatingly visible today.
It's increasingly being recognised that, to stave off its worst impacts, we must cut these emissions by as much as 80-90% over the next few decades.
EU policy makers will never be able to convince business, private individuals and other nations to take the sometimes radical steps necessary towards this goal until they have shown that they are doing so themselves.

The fact remains that the European Parliament itself is a prodigious emitter of carbon. Take, for example, its anachronistic "two seat" arrangement that sees its meetings alternate between Brussels and Strasbourg, 220 miles away.

This completely unnecessary monthly merry-go-round consists of some 2,000 parliamentary staff and interpreters, nearly 1,000 assistants, journalists and lobbyists, 785 MEPs and 15 lorry-loads of trunks and documents.

This travelling circus is responsible for emitting at least 20,000 tonnes of CO2 every year - about the same as the entire CO2 output of a small nation like Kiribati, or 4,000 London households.

A few years ago we were told we needed to cut emissions by 60% by 2050. Then 80% by 2050. Then 90% by 2050. Now 90% over "the next few decades" (so 2030??). Do we have a higher offer from the crackpot in the corner? The Green Party is completely marginalised and it seems that to make themselves still have some pretense at relevance they must keep making more and more extreme pronouncements. As an MEP, Lucas is not only responsible for the emissions of the "travelling circus", she also gets paid far, far, far above the EU median wage, so is personally responsible for far, far, far more consumption and emissions than the average EU citizen. She should propose that the salaries and perks of all EU politicians and bureaucrats are halved. While she is at it, if she thinks that bouncing back and forth between Brussels and Strasbourg is "completely unnecessary", she might as well point out that the EU Parliament in total is "completely unnecessary". If they shut down this pointless operation think how much emissions would be saved. Lucas is correct about one thing, the ordinary people of the EU have no desire to make any sacrifices while the ruling elite continue to play as if nothing has changed.

Asking students to raise their hands is allegedly a bad idea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teachers who encourage whole classes to put their hands up to answer a question, risk leaving quiet children behind, a government study suggests.

Researchers in England studied why some primary pupils, who performed well in previous years, struggled to keep up.

Some of those falling behind are described as "invisible children" who avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Education officials are not "banning" the practice, but say some respond better when taught in smaller groups.

A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokesman said: "We would categorically never prescribe what teachers do in their own classrooms like this.

"Today's report is based on what teachers and schools tell us and has been welcomed by them."

"Invisible children", the report finds, are quiet and undemanding and do not mind if they receive attention or not.

The research suggests helping these pupils by avoiding asking for children to put their hands up, instead choosing who should answer.

These pupils, the report adds, would also benefit from having 30 seconds to consider their answer.

Some pupils, meanwhile, are "anxious about taking risks and seeming to be wrong".

They do not like answering questions in front of their peers, and lack self-confidence.

There is nothing particularly wrong in life with being quiet and/or risk averse and/or not wanting to receive attention. Not everybody wants to be a celebrity or noise maker. And having the teacher pick which students should answer is not particularly better than having students raise their hands. It might even make things worse since it could make it obvious that some students are worse (although most kids will figure out the academic hierarchy soon enough, as with the social and sports hierarchy). And is the DfES seriously suggesting that the whole class will just sit still for 30 seconds while some poor student tries to stagger towards an answer, all the time getting more and more nervous because the rest of the class is staring in unison? If they just sacked all the educationalists and let teachers just teach, the world would be a better place.

Date published: 2007/06/01

Another pointless look at the admissions policy of selective schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

State schools that control their own admissions are covertly selecting pupils by ability, a think tank claims.

The IPPR study claims such schools are significantly less likely to reflect the social make-up of their locality.

The report says that admissions for all schools, including the government's flagship Academies, should be decided independently through a local system.
The IPPR study compared the progress of pupils in 3,000 secondary schools in England with the social make-up of their local area.

It found that faith schools were the least reflective of their local area.

They were nearly 10 times more likely to have a higher proportion of able pupils than their local area might suggest.

Meanwhile state foundation schools, many of which select a proportion of their pupils by ability and aptitude, were six times more likely to have a higher share of high-ability pupils than were in their local area.

Surprise, schools that can choose students choose good students. Who would have thought it? The IPPR is just another useless consultancy plaguing the nation. And the BBC article must be confused. If the "IPPR study compared the progress of pupils" then the results could be deemed to reflect how the schools have done, not how good the students were before they entered the school. If it really is progress being measured, then the IPPR study is not only pointless, it is based on misleading evidence. Of course the IPPR is made up of the usual academic middle class suspects, all of whom will guarantee that their own children get into the best schools (just like Blair has and Cameron will).

New EU chemical rules come into effect (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Legislation requiring the safety testing of tens of thousands of chemicals - many in everyday use - has come into effect across the EU.

For the first time, it will be up to industry, rather than the regulatory authorities, to prove that chemicals are safe.

But environmental and consumer groups say the new rules do not go far enough.

About 30,000 chemicals are covered by the new rules - from paints to flame retardants to fragrances in shampoos.

Safety data will be required for all of them.

The most hazardous - chemicals which can cause cancer or changes in genetic material - will have to undergo further testing.

If there is a safer alternative, producers will have to substitute it, unless there is a strong case for continuing to use the existing chemical.

But environmental campaigners say the new rules, known as REACH, leave too many loopholes.

The new requirements will be phased in between now and 2018.

The most hazardous chemicals will have to be registered first, along with those used in the largest quantities.

Producers are already working together to share the cost of testing, which the European Commission reckons at up to 10bn euros (£7bn) spread over 11 years.

But it says that is offset by the benefits to health and the environment: 97bn euros (£66bn) saved in health costs over the next three decades.

The BBC fails to tell us how many animals are going to have to be tortured and killed to "prove" that these chemicals are "safe". All courtesy of the so-called "environmental campaigners". Of course these people hate the chemical industry and what they are really trying to do is just to make it more expensive for the industry to operate. It will make research and development of new chemicals less likely. The fact that millions of animals will be needlessly tortured and killed is, for the so-called environmentalists, just a "sacrifice worth (something else) making".

And the claim that the EU will be over 3 billion Euros a year better off with REACH is not verifiable, so is worthless. Is this alleged saving being assumed in EU budgets? Perhaps they will claim that all the savings are far off in the future, when today's politicians and bureaucrats are long gone so will bear no consequence for broken promises.

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