Azara Blog: July 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/07/29

'Impressionist' and Dalí exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

The Royal Academy has a show with title "Impressionists by the Sea" in the Sackler Gallery (so it's smallish). The title is slightly misleading in that around half the work is not impressionist, but of course if they had used a more accurate title they would have gotten less punters through the door (and it worked, the gallery was packed). The period covered is roughly 1850 to 1890.

The exhibition is at the RA until 30 September 2007, before moving to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC (20 October 2007 to 13 January 2008) and then up to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut (9 February to 11 May 2008).

Although a good part of the exhibition is not impressionist, it is still interesting to see pre-impressionist and not-very-impressionist painters (some rather obscure) working on much the same subject. Easily the largest selection of works by one painter is by Monet (very impressionist), with over a dozen in the show. And as usual, his work stands out. But there were also very good paintings by Jean Baptiste Antoine Guillemet ("The Cliffs of Puys at Low Tide", 1877) and Léon Germain Pelouse ("Grandcamp, Low Tide", 1884) and others. It's definitely worth a visit.

Of course these seaside paintings became fashionable because holidaying at the seaside became fashionable at the same time. This was because railways allowed many urban dwellers to get to the seaside. Of course today railways have been replaced with airplanes as a means to go on holiday. And you can imagine that in the same way that the so-called environmentalists today get hysterical about airplanes, their equivalents in the late 19th century must have been equally hysterical about railways (and ironically, most so-called environmentalists today of course have nothing but praise to give rail transport as an idea).

Meanwhile at Tate Modern there is an exhibition with title "Dalí and Film", on until 9 September 2007, before moving to Los Angeles County Museum of Art (14 October 2007 to 6 January 2008), then Salvidor Dalí Museum, St Petersburg Florida (1 February to 1 June 2008) and finally to the Museum of Modern Art, New York (29 June to 15 September 2008). This exhibition was also packed.

The main thrust of the exhibition is that Dalí was influenced a lot by film. They provide some good evidence that this was the case. Indeed they show half a dozen films with which Dalí was involved. And if you want to watch all these films, add an hour and a half (or more) to what you would normally take to see an exhibition. Given that Dalí was a surrealist, you know what to expect from the films. The first, "Un Chien andalou" (done with Luis Buñuel) is notable mostly for (seemingly) showing an eye being sliced by a knife, and for a scene with a man imagining (or not?) himself groping some woman (clothed and naked). You can imagine what controversy that must have caused (no doubt the intent). The second film, "L'Age d'or" (also with Buñuel) was notable mostly for being rather boring.

The best film was perhaps an animation collaboration with Disney, called "Destino". This was started in 1946, but was abandoned after a few months. It was finally revived in 2003, and besides being surreal (so not very commercial) it is fairly typical of good Disney animation. Unfortunately, this was not available to buy in the Tate Modern shop and they claimed it was because Disney would not allow it to be sold. That's a pity.

Meanwhile, the paintings on display included many of his famous ones (e.g. "Sleep", "The Persistence of Memory" and "Metamorphosis of Narcissus") and even more of his not so famous works. Needless to say, they all confirm that he was one screwed up man, especially sexually.

Anybody who has any interest in Dalí should definitely go see the exhibition.

Heathrow Airport protestors think they are above the law (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The owner of Heathrow, BAA, wants to ban 15 campaign groups from taking part in an eight-day protest "camp" at the airport next month.

Top of its list are the organisers of the Camp for Climate Action itself, who are planning 24 hours of "direct action" against the airport - and its passengers - at one of the busiest times of the year.

Also included are 10 other groups such as the National Trust, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust.

They have been listed because of their membership of umbrella organisation, Airport Watch, which unites green bodies and community groups opposed to the expansion of the aviation industry.

Not all of these groups are comfortable with the idea of direct action.

In previous protests, camp activists have occupied buildings and blocked roads.

Spokeswoman for the camp Anna Jackson said: "It's likely there will be some disruption for people going to the airport.

"I can't say exactly how much because that will be decided by the protesters themselves at the camp."

She said there would be no attempt to access runways, but insisted that causing problems for ordinary holidaymakers was justified.

"150,000 people die each year around the world because of climate change.

"Those people have a right to life more than people here have a right to fly.

Jackson sounds just like the anti-abortion nutters in the US (and elsewhere), which is not very surprising, given that fundamentalists everywhere think they have a right to be above the law and do what they want because they are "saving" the world. And unfortunately for Jackson's argument, flights are not even close to being the number one source of climate emissions. Far, far worse is people having children. Population is the real problem. And you have to wonder how many protestors in these camps have (or will have) children. The second biggest climate change issue is that rich people produce more emissions than poor people. Since these protestors are middle class, they are much more a cause of the problem than they are the solution. Perhaps someone should go and picket their homes in protest at their excessive consumption and lifestyle.

Of course peaceful protest should be allowed. And BAA seems to be reacting over the top. But if these protestors cause any damage or interrupt operations or harass either employees or passengers, then they should be held directly financially and criminally liable. Let them be responsible for their actions, for once. Unfortunately when the middle class misbehave, they are considered heroes by the media (especially the BBC) and let off by the courts. When the working class behaves this way, they are called hooligans and sent to prison or given ASBOs.

Sun allegedly reduces the risk of multiple sclerosis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who spend more time in the sun as children subsequently have a lower risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS), a US study shows. The University of Southern California team suggest UV rays offer protection by altering the cell immune responses or by boosting vitamin D levels.

An earlier study found women who took vitamin D supplements were 40% less likely to develop MS.

The latest research is published in the journal Neurology.

MS is among the most common neurological diseases affecting around two million people worldwide.

However, it is more common at higher latitudes, which generally have lower levels of ultraviolet radiation - the type produced by the sun.

People in these countries are exposed to less sunlight, which triggers a chemical reaction in the body leading to vitamin D production.

For the study, researchers surveyed 79 pairs of identical twins who had the same genetic risk of MS.

In each pair, one of the twins had MS.

The twins were asked to specify whether they or their twin spent more time outdoors during hot days, cold days, and summer, and which one spent more time basking in the sun, going to the beach and playing team sports as a child.

The researchers found the twin with MS spent less time in the sun as a child than the twin who did not have MS.

Depending on the activity, the twin who spent more hours outdoors had up to a 57% reduced risk of developing MS.

There is always a risk with health studies of confusing correlation and causation. Here they have not proven a causation, but they have gotten pretty close. But as with other health studies, they have only looked at one thing in isolation. Everybody also knows that too much sun is not very healthy for you either. So unless they can give a prescription for how much sun is needed, and how to balance that against the risk of too much sun, and unless they can say who is at risk from MS (most people are not), then the research is of limited use.

Date published: 2007/07/27

Cannabis use and schizophrenia are correlated (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cannabis users are 40% more likely than non-users to suffer a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia, say UK experts.

Writing in the Lancet, a team led by Dr Stanley Zammit from Bristol and Cardiff Universities said young people needed to be made aware of the dangers.

In an additional article, experts said up to 800 schizophrenia cases a year in the UK could be linked to cannabis use.

The researchers looked at 35 studies on the drug and mental health - but some experts urged caution over the results.

The study found the most frequent users of cannabis have twice the risk of non-users of developing psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions.

But the evidence for a link with depression and anxiety was less clear, they said.

The authors said the risk to any individual of getting schizophrenia remained low overall, but because cannabis use was so common, they estimated it could be a factor in 14% of psychotic problems among young adults in the UK.

However, they said they could not rule out the possibility that people at a higher risk of mental illness were more likely to use the drug.

Study author, Professor Glyn Lewis, professor of psychiatric epidemiology, said: "It is possible that the people who use cannabis might have other characteristics that themselves increase risk of psychotic illness.

"However, all the studies have found an association and it seems appropriate to warn members of the public about the possible risk."

He added he would particularly advise users who were developing mental health problems or who had a family history of psychotic illness to quit using the drug.
...
But Professor Leslie Iverson, from the University of Oxford, said there was still no conclusive evidence that cannabis use causes psychotic illness.

"Their prediction that 14% of psychotic outcomes in young adults in the UK may be due to cannabis use is not supported by the fact that the incidence of schizophrenia has not shown any significant change in the past 30 years."

In one paragraph the authors of the study admit perfectly well that they are in danger of confusing correlation and causation, but unfortunately the bias of most of the article is towards exactly pushing the idea that they have found a causation, i.e. that using cannabis is responsible for schizophrenia, and they have shown no such thing. The comment by Iverson that "the incidence of schizophrenia has not shown any significant change in the past 30 years" is one that gives a good reason to doubt the half-claim of causation by the authors of the study. As with most health studies, all we have is a correlation, not a causation, and it is unfortunate that researchers (and the BBC) insist on using misleading language to imply a causation.

English students allegedly live in a wonderful world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pupils want their schools to use renewable energy sources and rainwater resources, a survey finds.

The poll of 850 13 to 15-year-olds in England found 81% backed the use of these forms of energy in schools.

Of those surveyed, 70% wanted to know where the ingredients in their school dinners had come from.

The survey was commissioned by the Department for Children Schools and Families to support its sustainable schools initiative.

Over two thirds of the teenagers surveyed said they would take action if they saw someone not being included or welcomed at their school.

And 73% of pupils felt their school was a welcoming place.

What pathetic third-rate propaganda. Most surveys are suspect but this survey is even more suspect, being undertaken by the government and just happening to show that the world is a wonderful place. Perhaps the government should have asked if the students would be willing to give up their weekly allowance to pay for "renewable energy sources and rainwater resources" to be used in their schools. And if "73% of pupils felt their school was a welcoming place", why do so many students hate school? Why does the BBC publish such unfiltered rubbish?

Date published: 2007/07/26

Ground-level ozone is allegedly an important driver of climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ozone could be a much more important driver of climate change than scientists had previously predicted, according to a study in Nature journal.

The authors say the effects of this greenhouse gas - known by the formula O3 - have been largely overlooked.

Ozone near the ground damages plants, reducing their ability to mop up carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

As a consequence, more CO2 will build up in the atmosphere instead of being taken up by plants.

This in turn will speed up climate change, say the Nature authors.

"Ozone could be twice as important as we previously thought as a driver of climate change," co-author Peter Cox, from the University of Exeter, UK, told the BBC News website.

Scientists already knew that ozone higher up in the atmosphere acted as a "direct" greenhouse gas, trapping infrared heat energy that would otherwise escape into space.

Ozone closer to the ground is formed in a reaction between sunlight and other greenhouse gases such as nitrogen oxides, methane and carbon monoxide.

Greenhouse emissions stemming from human activities have led to elevated ozone levels across large tracts of the Earth's surface.

This study is described as significant because it shows that O3 also has a large, indirect effect in the lower part of the atmosphere.

Research into ground-level ozone has tended to concentrate on its harmful effects on human lungs.

But the gas also damages plants, reducing their effectiveness as a "carbon sink" to soak up excess CO2 from the atmosphere.

Co-author Stephen Sitch, from the Met Office's Hadley Centre, said: "Calculations of the efficiency of land ecosystems to take up carbon would be less efficient than we thought previously."

Furthermore, Peter Cox said: "The indirect effect is of a similar magnitude, or even larger, than the direct effect."

There are uncertainties, Professor Cox admits; but he added: "Arguably, we have been looking in the wrong place for the key impacts of ozone."

Ozone enters plants through pores, called stomata, in the leaves. Interfering with the reactions involved in photosynthesis, it leaves the plants weakened and undersized.

However, efforts to determine how rising levels of ozone will affect global plant growth are complicated by other factors.

High levels of both CO2 and O3 cause stomata to close. This means they take up less of the carbon dioxide they need for photosynthesis, but also absorb less of the harmful ozone.

The researchers built a computer model to estimate the impact of predicted changes in ozone levels on the land carbon sink over a period running from 1900 to 2100.

This model was designed to take into account the effect of ozone on plant photosynthesis and the interactions between O3 and CO2 through the closure of pores.

They used two scenarios, depending on whether plants were deemed to have high or low sensitivity to ozone.

Under the high scenario, ozone reduced plant productivity by 23%; under the low scenario, productivity was reduced by 14%.

It's only one study, and unfortunately deduced using a computer model (you would have thought this claimed effect could be observed directly), but it's interesting none-the-less.

Security queues at airports allegedly a cause for concern (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Heightened security checks at airports could create a potential new target for terrorists, MPs have warned.

A report by the Commons transport select committee said queues of hundreds of passengers in cramped spaces could become a security hazard.

The committee recommended that reducing queues at security and speeding up check-in times should be a priority.

What a trivial observation. There are queues of people in zillions of places in the country, and a ten-year old could have told you that these are more likely terrorist targets. And of course there are many non-security queues of people in airports, namely at check-in desks. The Commons transport select committee proves once again that it serves little purpose in the world.

Date published: 2007/07/25

Another study shows that mobile phone masts have no health implications (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mobile phone masts are not responsible for the symptoms of ill health some blame them for, a major UK study says.

Dozens of people who believed the masts trigger symptoms such as anxiety, nausea and tiredness could not detect if signals were on or off in trials.

But when they thought the signal was on they reported more distress, suggesting the problem has a psychological basis.

However, the Environmental Health Perspectives study stressed people were nonetheless suffering "real symptoms".

"Belief is a very powerful thing," said Professor Elaine Fox, of the University of Essex, who led the three year study.

"If you really believe something is going to do you some harm, it will."

Mast Sanity, a campaign group, dismissed the findings on the basis that 12 sufferers who had initially signed up to the trials had dropped due to ill health. This skewed the results, they argued, as it elimiated those most likely to have shown an effect.

The study was funded by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research programme, a body which is itself funded by industry and government.

This kind of study is largely a waste of time and money, because no matter what the evidence is, the people who suffer ill health will never believe the result, especially, as here, when the study is funded by an industry group. And as with everything other misfortune in life, people always want to blame somebody or something for their ill health.

The middle class do not like patio heaters (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People are being told to wear jumpers instead of relying on patio heaters, in an attempt to cut carbon emissions.

The Energy Saving Trust has urged retailers to stop selling the heaters after a report suggesting their use will almost double over the next year.

It says the number of privately owned units in the UK will rise from 1.2 million to 2.3 million.

Each heater uses the same amount of energy in six months as a kitchen gas hob does in a year, the Trust said.

Chief executive Philip Sellwood said: "Why don't people just wear a jumper?"

The fact that Sellwood can ask that question already tells you how out of touch he is. People also heat their homes a lot more than they used to 30 or 40 years ago, and you could ask the same silly question about that (and the Sellwoods of the world do). You could also ask why people just don't stay at home for their holiday instead of going to Spain (and the Sellwoods of the world do). Funnily enough, it is not the people who use patio heaters (so the ordinary people of Britain) who are responsible for most carbon emissions in the country, but middle class people like Sellwood. Let the Sellwoods of the world stop their wasteful carbon emissions first before they lecture ordinary people how to behave.

Date published: 2007/07/24

Buffalo and Orlando observations (permanent blog link)

Buffalo is a city which was thriving once upon a time, as is witnessed by its great turn-of-the-century buildings, such as the Ellicott Square Building and the Guaranty Building, and later buildings, such as half a dozen Frank Lloyd Wright houses. But now Buffalo is seemingly in decline. There are dozens of buildings right in the downtown which are or look derelict or semi-derelict. Apparently the population is still decreasing, although some of the nearby suburbs are thriving (well, where would you rather live, in a leafy suburban house with a decent plot or in a downtown apartment block surrounded by concrete and asphalt). Hopefully the good downtown buildings will be saved and somehow thrive. The Ellicott Square Building is in good shape and the Guaranty Building is being restored. Some of the other buildings (e.g. a wonderful Art Deco building at Court Street and Delaware Avenue) do not seem to be so well looked after.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Orlando seems to be thriving today. This is mostly due to Disney World and all the other amusement parks which subsequently opened up in the area. No doubt most people visit Orlando for the amusement parks. But there are other, more compelling, reasons to visit central Florida.

First there is the Kennedy Space Center, on the coast, an hour's drive east of Orlando. They have made a real effort to promote their work with their visitor complex and site tours, far above and beyond anything you would ever see in Britain from a government agency. Not surprisingly most of the films portray the successes and the smiles. But there are also a couple of digs at NASA. In the IMAX "Walking on the Moon 3D" with narrator Tom Hanks, they show (no doubt carefully filtered) "interviews" with children where most of them cannot even name a single astronaut (and the rest only know of Neil Armstrong). And in a film at the Apollo / Saturn V Center they show various American rockets blowing up at launch, in response to the Soviet Sputnik and later successes. (One newspaper headline mentions "Flopnik", although there are not many Americans who would remember that fraught start to the American rocket program.) And in another film at that center, they show an astronaut singing a nursery rhyme ("I was walking on the moon one day"), which pretty much symbolises why the Apollo program was axed early (what is the point of spending billions of dollars just so that a few men can sing silly songs on the moon). Perhaps the most impressive exhibit on display is the Saturn V rocket in that building. Those were bloody big rockets. And to think they put it all together in a few years. NASA would never be able to do that today (currently they are planning to get back to the moon around 2020).

In Lakeland, an hour's drive southwest of Orlando, Florida Southern College has around a dozen (depending how you count) buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, apparently the largest single-site collection of Wright buildings anywhere. For some reason this site does not gather that much attention (e.g. there is not even a book about the site, although one is being written). It seems that there was some fallout which meant that some of the Wright faithful have tried to eliminate Florida Southern from the Wright lexicon. Whatever, any Wright fan would be crazy not to pay a visit if they are anywhere near Lakeland. The best building is the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel (constructed from 1939 to 1941). The site is currently being renovated. There is also a covered walkway (an "esplanade") connecting the Wright buildings. In true Wright style this is so low as to feel claustrophobic, but does provide protection from the rain. (And Florida does seem to get lots of rain, in spite of pretending to be the sunshine state.)

Not far from Disney World is Celebration, which was Disney's attempt to recreate the allegedly wonderful life in 1950s America. (The same nostalgia exists in certain quarters in Britain.) Not surprisingly, the city is rather anodyne, with no real shops and no great architecture (but at least the houses are not identical, even if they share a similar turn-of-the-millennium feel, and all have their yards cut in exactly the same way). Apparently a lot of the housing is empty. In spite of that, it seems that other new cities copying the Celebration idea are being created.

Another hidden gem near Orlando is the Morse Museum, located in Winter Park (a very posh suburb of Orlando). The museum is not huge, but has a fantastic collection of work by (Louis Comfort) Tiffany, including, spectacularly, a chapel interior which Tiffany exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (it later was at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York and afterwards was situated at Tiffany's summer house, Laurelton Hall, on Long Island, before being rescued from neglect by Hugh F. McKean, the museum's founder). In addition to the work by Tiffany, the museum also has some other Art Nouveau (including some glass and a desk by Gallé) and Arts and Crafts work.

Of course no matter where you are in America, they serve you far too much food. A single meal or portion is more than adequate for two. It is no wonder they have an obesity problem.

Date published: 2007/07/08

David Cameron thinks Britain is a "broken society" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has said mending Britain's "broken society" is the biggest challenge facing the UK.

Citing high crime rates, drug abuse and teenage pregnancies, he said there was something "deeply wrong" and "long-term generational change" was needed.

Mr Cameron was speaking to the BBC's Sunday AM show ahead of a report by the party's Social Justice Policy Group.

A rise in the tax on alcohol to help tackle binge drinking is among the proposals it will contain.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Cameron called for changes to the tax and benefits system to encourage couples to stay together and marry.

"We need a big cultural change in favour of fatherhood, in favour of parenting, in favour of marriage," he added.
...
Its idea on higher alcohol taxes would add about 7p to the cost of a pint, and raise an extra £400m a year to help fund treatment of alcohol abuse.

You have to wonder how many people really think that Britain is a "broken society", or is it just something that a certain section of the chattering classes like to repeat, especially the Tories, who obviously have nothing better to complain about. And unfortunately the Tory "solutions" to these "problems" are rather pathetic.

On the proposal for an increase in the tax on alcohol, not only is this penalising the vast majority of drinkers who are socially responsible, it will also have little effect on the tiny minority of drinkers who are socially irresponsible, because 7p on the cost of a pint of beer is too little to be significant.

And on the proposal for a subsidy of marriage, this is so misguided that it begs belief that any major party would even consider proposing it. Why should married people be given a tax break? Why should millions of ordinary workers of Britain hand over more taxes so that David Cameron and lots of other rich people should get to pay less? Why is David Cameron risking alienating millions of voters, just to give a bribe to another set of millions of voters? The people who will lose out will surely be more aggrieved than the people who will gain.

It's hard to take the Tories seriously. Their policies are all over the place and none of them seem to have been thought through or make much sense.

Alastair Campbell publishes a book about the Blair years (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Going to war with Iraq was the "most difficult decision" of Tony Blair's life, his former media chief Alastair Campbell has told the BBC's Sunday AM.

Who would have thought it. Hopefully Campbell's kiss-and-tell book has something slightly less trivial to report. Of course neither Campbell nor Blair is yet willing to admit that the illegal invasion of Iraq has been a complete disaster and that Iraq was never a threat to the UK and instead the war was politically motivated.

Date published: 2007/07/07

Car companies are allegedly piling weight onto cars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Market forces have sparked an obesity epidemic in the car industry, according to automotive industry expert Professor Garel Rhys of Cardiff Business School.

"We looked into it and to our amazement, we found that cars are getting heavier," says Professor Rhys, speaking as the car industry body SMMT released its latest report on the emission of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming.

"The weight element has gone straight out of the window."

"Weight has been increasing by about 1.5% per year over the last 10 years," confirms Greg Archer, director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership.

The automotive weight-gain is counter-intuitive, given that cars these days are built using lighter and more rigid steel than in the past.
...
The industry tends to blame the additional weight on regulation that requires them to load cars with heavy safety equipment.

Professor Rhys sees a couple of additional reasons. As vehicle weight came down, their designers saw it as "a chance to load up with seven speakers", Professor Rhys adds.

Manufacturers have been adding a slew of electronic wizardry to their cars - ranging from satellite navigation systems and climate control units, to electric sunroofs and doors that close at the touch of a button - all to boost sales and profits.

Indeed, as electronics prices have come down, such added extras have in effect bolstered the carmakers' hard-pressed margins.

Moreover, as is often the case in humans, the automotive weight gain has been coupled with bulkier shapes.

Increasingly, observes Professor Rhys, car makers steer away from the aerodynamic "egg-shape" as they struggle to make their cars appear different from those made by rivals.

"The market has become so competitive," observes Professor Rhys, "it's desperation to get your share of the market."

The result of all this added weight being piled into cars - which have been designed more for visual impact than for efficient streamlining - is increased fuel consumption and, thus, a rise in emissions of carbon dioxide.

Who is this guy kidding? Is he saying that cars in (say) the 1950s or 1970s were more aerodynamic than today? Does he really believe that (say) GPS systems are only being added to cars "to boost sales and profits"? Well, if he sees no advantage for the consumer in having (say) GPS systems then it's lucky he is not in business selling cars. Car companies that failed to provide GPS systems would be failing their customers. GPS systems provide a useful service. And Rhys doesn't answer the real question. How much of the additional weight in cars these days is due to all the health and safety regulation and how much to other things? Rhys is also talking as if the only thing car companies should be considering is how much their cars weigh, which is a rather silly idea.

Drug companies are allegedly bombarding GPs with marketing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drug companies are bombarding GPs with promotional materials and inducements, campaigners say.

A poll of 200 GPs by consumer group Which? found they received four visits per month on average from drug reps.

They also received five promotional mailings about new drugs a week, and inducements to attend conferences.

Which? said it raised questions about drugs patients were being given by GPs, but a drug industry spokesman said it was vital doctors were kept up to date.
...
Neil Fowler, of Which?, said: "When you get a prescription from your GP, you want to know you've been prescribed the right drugs, not drugs produced by the company that spent a lot of money on promotion and inducements.

"We want to see more sources of independent information on drugs so that GPs can make balanced decisions, more limits on the marketing of drugs, and transparency about funding."

Richard Ley, spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said: "I make no apologies for the fact that pharmaceutical companies are in close contact with doctors about new medicines.

"It is right and proper that they inform GPs about new medicines, and how they might benefit their patients, so that doctors are kept up to date."

Considering how much unsolicited junk mail Which sends out, they have a bit of a nerve. If they have something specific to complain about, let them do it. Instead the are just making general insinuations.

Date published: 2007/07/06

Greenland was allegedly once warm enough to have lush forests (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Armies of insects once crawled through lush forests in a region of Greenland now covered by more than 2000m of ice.

DNA extracted from ice cores show that moths and butterflies were living in forests of spruce and pine in the area between 450,000 and 800,000 years ago.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say they believe the DNAs are the oldest pure samples obtained.

The ice cores also suggest that the ice sheet is more resistant to warming than previously thought, the scientists say.

"We have shown for the first time that southern Greenland, which is currently hidden under more than 2km of ice, was once very different to the Greenland we see today," said Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the paper.

"What we've learned is that this part of the world was significantly warmer than most people thought," said Professor Martin Sharp from the University of Alberta and a co-author of the paper.

The ancient boreal forests were thought to cover southern Greenland during a period of increased global temperatures, known as an interglacial.

Temperatures at the time were probably between 10C in summer and -17C in winter.

When the temperatures dropped again 450,000 years ago, the forests and their inhabitants were covered by the advancing ice, effectively freezing them in time.

Studies suggest that even during the last interglacial (116,000-130,000 years ago), when temperatures were thought to be 5C warmer than today, the ice persevered, keeping the delicate samples entombed and free from contamination and decay.

At the time the ice is estimated to have been between 1,000 and 1,500m thick.

"If our data is correct, then this means that the southern Greenland ice cap is more stable than previously thought," said Professor Willerslev. "This may have implications for how the ice sheets respond to global warming."

Research by Australian scientists has suggested that a 3C rise in global temperatures would be enough to trigger the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

In 2006, research conducted by researchers at Nasa suggested that the rate of melting of the giant ice sheet had tripled since 2004.

While in February 2006, researchers found that Greenland's glaciers were moving much faster than before, meaning that more of its ice was entering the sea.

And in 1996, Greenland was losing about 100 cubic km per year in mass from its ice sheet; by 2005, this had increased to about 220 cubic km.

A complete melt of the ice sheet would cause a global sea level rise of about 7m; but the current picture indicates that while some regions are thinning, others are apparently getting thicker.

Although the results are interesting, this is only one very limited study and, in spite of their claims, does not really have that much relevance to what is happening to Greenland today.

Another pointless education report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Recruiting more male teachers will not help close the gap between boys' and girls' educational achievement, government researchers say.

Ministers plan to increase the number of men in the classroom as part of plans to help boys get better grades.

But a report released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families suggested the approach was "simplistic" and could back-fire.

Using more boy-friendly teaching styles was also unlikely to help, it added.

The report - Gender and Education: The Evidence on Pupils in England - was a review of previous research into the fact that girls consistently out-perform boys at GCSE, especially in subjects like English.

And results last summer showed that by the age of 14 boys were 14% behind girls on average in their national test results for English.

The DCSF report said: "The increasing gender imbalance in the school workforce has raised concern that male role models are not available to boys.

"The fact that policy efforts have been made to address this imbalance reflects the theory that having more male teachers could help to raise the attainment (and/or improve the behaviour) of boys.

"However, this approach has been criticised as simplistic."

This was because research carried out last year found that two-thirds of pupils rejected the idea that the gender of their teachers mattered.

Instead children looked at the qualities of teachers, rather than their gender.

Both boys and girls said they thought teachers treated boys more harshly than girls.

The report said: "This finding is in line with other research suggesting that teachers have low expectations of boys' academic potential and such low expectations could contribute to their low achievement."

Some experts have suggested that boys perform less well than girls in schools because women teachers, who make up 84% of primary school teachers and 54% of secondary school teachers, naturally taught in ways preferred by girls.

But the report found little evidence that boys and girls had different learning styles.

It also said that there was no case for introducing boy-friendly teaching methods because anything that was likely to improve boys' grades would also improve girls' results.

This would then perpetuate the gender gap, the report argued.

Not that long ago boys were doing better than girls at school and they said it was all down to the way the system was biased towards boys, so they changed it. Of course you wouldn't expect a consistent statement from one minute to the next from educationalists since they have to justify their exsitence by continually coming up with new ways to ruin education.

And here they also clearly have some funny ideas. So they have "rejected the idea that the gender of ... teachers mattered". Why? Because "research carried out last year found that two-thrids of pupils rejected" this idea. Oh well that clinches it then. How about instead taking random selections of pupils and having them taught by random female and male teachers and seeing what the result is. That would be a bit more believable than what students allegedly think (as filtered by the educationalists and their biased surveys).

And then there is the surreal statement that "there was no case for introducing boy-friendly teaching methods because anything that was likely to improve boys' grades would also improve girls' results". Gee whiz, why would anyone want to use teaching methods that improve everybody all around, how dreadful.

If the government spent less money on these fatuous reports and more money on education the country would be better off.

Date published: 2007/07/05

Pre-packed sandwiches are allegedly salty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pre-packed sandwiches may contain as much salt as several bags of crisps, a study suggests. The health lobby group Cash looked at 140 sandwiches on sale and found over 40% had 2g or more of salt - or a third of an adult's recommended daily intake.

The "All Day Breakfast" variety were the worst offenders, but cheese and ham as well as chicken salad also featured.
...
The British Sandwich Association was critical of the findings.

"Sandwiches involve the assembly of ingredients," said Jim Winship, director of the organisation.

"The fact is that the salt is already in the ingredients - e.g. bacon or ham - so if consumers choose a sandwich containing these they are bound to have a higher salt content."

But he stressed that on average, the sandwiches surveyed had 2g of salt - or a third of the recommended daily intake - and that these levels were not unreasonable.

Cash admitted that, given a sandwich was often the main constituent of one of three meals in the day, containing a third of the recommended daily intake of salt was not necessarily a problem.

"But it's often combined with other things," says Jo Butten, the group's nutritionist.

"Once you have had a packet of crisps with your sandwich and finished off with some biscuits, you may well have gone over your limit."

What a desperately sad group Cash is, if this is the best they can come up with. They seem to be just one of the zillions of academic middle class special interest pressure groups with nothing to offer the country. Of course the hysteria is about salt today, but they (and the others) will move onto something else tomorrow.

Organic food is allegedly better for the heart (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Organic fruit and vegetables may be better for you than conventionally grown crops, US research suggests.

A ten-year study comparing organic tomatoes with standard produce found almost double the level of flavonoids - a type of antioxidant.

Flavonoids have been shown to reduce high blood pressure, lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke.
...
New Scientist magazine reported that the different levels of flavonoids in tomatoes are probably due to the absence of fertilisers in organic farming.

Flavonoids are produced as a defence mechanism that can be triggered by nutrient deficiency, such as a lack of nitrogen in the soil.

The inorganic nitrogen in conventional fertiliser is easily available to plants and so, the researchers suggests, the lower levels of flavonoids are probably caused by over-fertilisation.

Flavonoids have also been linked with reduced rates of some types of cancer and dementia.

The Food Standards Agency says there is some evidence that flavonoids can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and they are currently carrying out a study to look at the health benefits in more detail.

However, a spokesperson said there was no evidence that organic food was healthier.

"Our long-standing advice on organic food is there can be some nutrient differences but it doesn't mean it's necessarily better for you."
...
Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director said: "We welcome the now rapidly growing body of evidence which shows significant differences between the nutritional composition of organic and non-organic food.

"This is the second recent American study to find significant differences between organic and non-organic fruit.

"These findings also confirm recent European research, which showed that organic tomatoes, peaches and processed apples all have higher nutritional quality than non-organic."

The FSA has it right (surprisingly). And unfortunately this particular study is symptomatic of all health studies, they focus on one thing and so miss the bigger picture. Of course organic food ought to be better than non-organic food since it costs so much more to produce. Poor old Melchett though, the Soil Association has been around for years and they are still clutching at straws to justify their existence.

Date published: 2007/07/04

Electronic gadgets consuming more and more energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The growing popularity of hi-tech devices, such as flat-screen TVs and digital radios, threaten to undermine efforts to save energy, a report says.

UK consumers spend £12bn a year on electronics, much of which is less efficient than older technology, a study by the Energy Saving Trust found.

By 2020, the gadgets will account for about 45% of electricity used in UK households, the organisation projected.

It said flat-screen TVs and digital radios were among the worst offenders.

Paula Owen, author of the report called The Ampere Strikes Back, said household appliances currently consumed about a third of an average home's electricity.

But she warned this was likely to increase as a result of people buying more energy-intensive devices.

"Your old-fashioned, bulky cathode ray tube TV on average consumed about 100 watts of electricity when it was switched on," Dr Owen explained.

"What we are seeing now is a trend for much bigger flat-screened TVs. On average, we are seeing a three-fold increase in the energy needed to power these TVs.
...
The equivalent of 14 power stations will be needed just to power consumer electronic devices by 2020, the report warned.

By that time televisions on standby will consume 1.4% of all domestic electricity, it predicted.

Digital radios were also singled out by the report as being energy intensive.

"Traditional analogue radios consume about two watts when they are switched on," Dr Owen said.

"We've looked at digital radios and the average consumption of these is eight watts."

She added that listening to the radio via digital TVs or set-top boxes had an average consumption of more than 100 watts.

The BBC included a chart in the story which showed that per square inch new TVs in fact are not "less efficient than older technology". It is just that people are buying bigger TVs. And heaven forbid that the peasants are allowed to do that. And to complain about eight watts versus two watts for digital versus analog radio is pathetic, they are both incredibly low numbers, and digital radio is better for other reasons. 100 watts to listen to radio via TV is more of an issue. Of course most people haven't a clue about how much energy any gadget uses, and that is the one area which needs improvement.

Alison Richard asks for more money from the government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK could lose its place at the top of world university rankings within 10 years, the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University has warned.

Professor Alison Richard told MPs the quality of research in the UK must not be undermined by the drive to raise student numbers.

Ministers want 50% of 18-30 year olds to attend university by 2010.

Prof Richard also said the government must invest more in higher education if the UK was to remain a world leader.

League table rankings published in the Times Higher Education Supplement last year showed that Cambridge and Oxford were among the few world universities to challenge the global dominance of US institutions.

Harvard in the US was top, followed by Cambridge and then Oxford. Britain had 29 universities in the list of the world's top 200.

Nothing surprising here, just someone asking for more money for their own area. And the THES rankings are fairly meaningless, since the THES is British so is biased towards Oxbridge. The real question is what the rest of the world thinks.

Date published: 2007/07/03

RSPB lobbies Gordon Brown using the BBC (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown must ensure the protection of the UK's marine wildlife, the RSPB has urged.

It says UK seas support 18 endangered species of fish, mammal, bird and reptile but that there are only three protected marine sites of importance.

The government launched its long-awaited White Paper, aimed at protecting the UK's seas and marine life, in March.

The RSPB says the PM must ensure laws form part of the 2007 Queen's Speech.

The proposed legislation, a manifesto commitment at the 2005 general election, goes out for consultation with the aim of passing a bill next year.

New government, so all the usual suspects have to come out with press releases with their special pleading. Hopefully the government will pass a bill considering the interest of all the people and not just the RSPB. Once again the BBC publishes what is in effect just a press release for a special interest pressure group, without any critical analysis.

Hebridean wind farm will allegedly kill some golden eagles (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Golden eagles are gravely threatened by a £200m wind farm scheme proposed for the Hebridean island of Lewis, campaigners have warned.

Three of the predatory birds a year could be killed in collisions with turbine blades - the highest mortality from any wind power project in the UK.

The figures come from the developer's own environmental statement.

The planned 205 megawatt (mW) Pairc wind farm in south-eastern Lewis would comprise 57 turbines.

Campaigners are also alarmed at the possibility of peat slides in some areas where the 145 metre (475ft) structures are to stand.

Developer Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) found 10 infrastructure sites on the Pairc peninsula were at a high risk of peat slides, a further 16 were considered to be at moderate risk.

"The eagle kill is pretty horrific, as is the threat of peat slide," said Catriona Campbell, of anti-wind farm group Moorland Without Turbines (MWT).

Golden eagles are on the Amber list of birds of conservation concern and are afforded the highest level of protection under UK law. There are about 60 pairs in total on Lewis.

"[Pairc] is a significant site, not only for golden eagles but also for sea eagles," said Martin Scott, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Western Isles conservation officer.

The site has a high density of eagles in a relatively small area. There are three to four golden eagle pairs in the vicinity of the wind farm, with one pair nesting at the heart of the site.

Extrapolating the figure of three deaths per year over the project's 25-year lifetime arrives at a figure of 76 golden eagles killed in collisions over the course of the scheme.

Proponents of the wind farm say the actual figure would be much lower. They argue that once the pair whose territory is centred on the new farm is lost, a void will exist, causing the eagle mortality to drop off after the first few years.

Every source of energy has downsides, and bird death is one of the downsides of wind power. On the other hand, the way the "campaigners" are treating the situation is just political opportunism. Hopefully the Scottish executive will be able to make a sensible decision on the application considering all the factors.

Date published: 2007/07/02

Sainsbury's wants lorries to help it power light bulbs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Delivery lorries are to be used to generate power for a supermarket chain. Pressure from vehicles passing over metal plates outside a Sainsbury's depot in Northampton will trigger pumps in an electricity generator.

The supermarket said it hoped to be the first company in Europe to use the system, trialled in the US, in September.

The company said the system should provide enough power for 10,000 light bulbs per year during the trial.

A Sainsbury's spokesman said 2% of the depot's energy needs would be met by the system, based on the number of lorries expected to drive over the road plates.

Roger Burnley, supply chain director for Sainsbury's, said: "This is one of several sustainable measures being implemented at our Northampton depot, which leads the way in reducing energy emissions and waste."

Is this an April Fool's joke? The energy is not free, it is coming from the lorries. This sounds akin to the idea that banks should be able to shave fractions of pennies off bank accounts, because nobody would notice the difference except the banks themselves, which would make a tidy profit. Of course if for some reason here the road plates really need to be driven over by the lorries in any case, and if what Sainsbury's has implemented does not cause further damage to or loss of energy from the lorries, then so be it.

Another pointless health study, this time anti-cat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More people develop allergic reactions to cats than thought, research suggests - even those not specifically allergic to the animals.

The Imperial College London study of 2,000 people found 25% got breathing problems due to cat allergens.

About 15% of the population is allergic to cats.
...
Lead researcher Susan Chinn said the findings were "surprising".

"We presupposed that we would find increased responsiveness only in those individuals who were exposed to cat allergen and whose blood tests showed that they were allergic to cats.

"But our study suggests that all allergic individuals have signs of asthmatic responses if exposed to cat allergen, even if blood tests show that they are not allergic to cats.

"It appears that many individuals could benefit from reduced cat ownership and exposure."

The persecution against cats continues. Perhaps the people allegedly affected should have been exposed to more cat allergen, and earlier in life. Instead we have the idea that we need to wrap human beings in cotton wool. And is this pointless research going to go further and test dogs, rabbits, parrots and anything else that interacts with humanity? Let's just kill every other species on the planet, in case they cause us some harm.

Date published: 2007/07/01

UK introduces an electronics waste law courtesy of the EU (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A much-delayed law that makes British producers and importers of electronic goods responsible for the recycling of their products has come into force.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requires 4kg of "e-waste" to be recycled per person.

Manufacturers have to fund recycling schemes, while retailers must offer take-back services to customers.

The legislation was supposed to be operational by August 2005 but was delayed by "major difficulties".

"E-waste", which includes PCs, games consoles, microwaves and washing machines, is the fastest-growing form of rubbish in the European Union.

The UK produces an estimated 1.2m tonnes of e-waste each year, most of which has been ending up in landfill sites.

"I think this is an absolutely great piece of legislation," said Jonathan Wright, a senior supply chain executive for Accenture, the management consultancy.

"In the past, all that companies focused on was getting products made and getting them out to customers," he explained.

"Now, organisations are having to think about what is going to happen after the product has been sold."

Gee whiz, producers have been "focused on" products. Who would have thought it. If this is the level of genius commentary that Wright has to offer, hopefully nobody will hire Accenture to take advantage of his talent. Why HP, IBM, etc., should suddenly become recyling experts instead of electronics experts is a question Wright doesn't seem to worry about. And no doubt the reason he thinks this is "an absolutely great piece of legislation" is because unfortunately some companies will be forced to hire the like of Accenture to try and figure out how to comply with this directive. And this directive imposes nothing on consumers, who can still choose how to dispose of their electronic equipment.

The requirement that "4 kg of 'e-waste' [ should ] be recycled per person" is the typical EU approach to waste. It does not matter how much you produce, as long as you "recycle" (i.e. carefully hand over to the State for industrial re-processing) a certain amount of it. As a comparison, according to the figures in the article, the UK is currently producing around 20 kg of e-waste per person per year. So a hugely expensive system is being put in place for not much gain. (Of course, all the Eurocrats have to justify their existence so will introduce more legislation on this front in future.)

And there is yet another negative point of the directive:

[ HP's takeback compliance manager, Kirstie McIntyre, ] voiced concern that the EU directive did not offer the same incentives as WEEE legislation in Japan.

"What they have done in Japan is introduce a more individual producers' responsibility approach," she said.

"Instead of HP being responsible for any old IT and recycling it, we are only responsible for HP equipment."

This had a number of additional environmental benefits, she added.

"Most of the environmental impact in complex manufactured goods is decided at the design stage.

"If we design our products to be more recyclable at the end-of-life stage, we not only reap the economic benefits but also the design decisions that we have made.

"Why should we make [components] easier to remove when we are getting everybody else's laptop back.

"At the end of the day, we have shareholders and we have to make a very strong business case for any changes that we make.

"At the moment, we do have design changes that we can make, but we cannot make the business case stack up because we do not get enough of our own products back."

How stupid can the EU get?

Folate allegedly helps against depression (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Adding folic acid to bread could help prevent depression, a new study shows. York University researchers said there was a link between mental health issues and low levels of folate.

They said folate could produce "feel good" chemicals in the brain and have called for large-scale trials to take place.

Studies have previously shown that adding the supplements to foods such as bread could also prevent strokes and birth defects.

The York scientists looked at 11 previous studies involving more than 15,300 volunteers which had been completed recently.

Last month, the Food Standards Agency urged health ministers to make it compulsory for folic acid to be added to bread or flour to help prevent birth defects.

Dr Simon Gilbody, who led the study, said: "Our study is unique in that for the first time all the relevant evidence in this controversial area has been brought together.

"Although the research does not prove that low folate causes depression, we can now be sure that the two are linked."

As with most health studies, all they have is a correlation, not a causation. They also fail to mention any possible negative side-effects of folate. It is unbelievable that the entire nation is being forced to take medicine that is mainly of use to pregnant women. Pregnant women ought to be responsible enough to take folate themselves, without requiring tens of millions of other people to be force fed the medicine at the same time, for no great reason. (Presumably, the pro-folate camp has been trawling lots of studies looking for correlations between folate and "good" things, so as to justify this mass medication. Needless to say, correlations between folate and "bad" things will never get mentioned.)

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