Azara Blog: September 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/09/30

Price of petrol nears a pound a litre (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Petrol prices could surge to near record highs from next week after the government's 2p rise in fuel duty is introduced from midnight on Sunday.

The 2p increase could push up the average price of unleaded petrol to about 98p, while diesel could exceed £1 if the cost is passed on to motorists.

The increase, in line with inflation, was first announced in Gordon Brown's 2007 Budget when he was chancellor.

The duty rise comes amid soaring oil prices and high borrowing costs.

The Budget also outlined another rise of 2p a litre next April and a further increase of 1.84p in April 2009.

The AA has criticised the government's move, highlighting that petrol prices have risen steeply in line with the oil price, which surged to record highs past $83 a barrel last week.

The AA should be happy that Labour is in charge and not the Tories or the Lib Dems, who have both promised to screw car drivers ever more indefinitely into the future. Unfortunately the country's ruling elite has decided that drivers should pay for all the services that the country wants, and dresses it up not as the naked tax grab which it is, but instead as some environmental tax. Funnily enough, only drivers, and now, to a lesser extent, airline passengers, are supposed to pay environmental taxes. Everyone else gets off completely free. Welcome to ripoff Britain.

Date published: 2007/09/29

England and Wales have 9000 centenarians (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of people living beyond 100 years has reached a record high in England and Wales, according to official figures.

The Office for National Statistics says there are now 9,000 "centenarians" - a 90-fold increase since 1911.

Estimates suggest this will carry on rising to 40,000 by 2031.

The rapid increase in the number of very elderly people began in the 1950s and is due to improvements in housing, healthcare, nutrition and sanitation.

The proportion of the population above the age of 70 has been rising steadily, and is expected to rise further.

The over-90s are now the fastest growing age group.

Experts say this is likely to place a far greater burden on the health service, as the costs of catering for diseases of the elderly such as cancer and dementia rise too.

The same increases have been happening in other industrialised countries, the ONS says.

This is hardly surprising news. And when you are at the upper tail end of a distribution and the average moves up, it is always going to be the case that this category is going to be the "fastest growing age group" (or whatever else you happen to be talking about). Society should no longer be spending any effort trying to extend lifespan, there are zillions of other goals that are far more important (a decent education for all, decent housing for all, decent holidays for all, etc.).

Date published: 2007/09/28

Air New Zealand tests a partial biofuel mix (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Air New Zealand says it plans to mount the first test flight of a commercial airliner partially powered by biofuel.

The 747 flight is one part of a deal signed by the airline, engine producer Rolls-Royce and ircraft manufacturer Boeing to research "greener" flying.

One of the four engines will run on a mixture of kerosene and a biofuel, and is set for late 2008 or early 2009.

But Virgin Atlantic is planning to beat Air New Zealand to the punch by having its own biofuel flight early next year.

Air New Zealand's chief executive Rob Fyfe said that advances in technology had made biofuels a viable possibility for use in aviation sooner than anticipated.

The New Zealand government recently declared the objective of becoming carbon neutral, and climate change and energy minister David Parker said the national airline's initiative would help achieve that goal.

"I'm delighted that Air New Zealand has taken the lead by signing up for the first commercial trial of a biofuelled... airfraft," he said.

The partnership gave no details of the type of biofuel to be used, but said that the test flight will not carry passengers.

Whether Air New Zealand and its partners will achieve a first appears uncertain. Virgin Atlantic is planning a UK-based test flight early next year which would also see one engine of a four-engined commercial jet running partially or entirely on a biofuel.

A Virgin spokesman told the BBC that ground testing was well underway in the US in partnership with GE and Boeing. But this team also has yet to decide which fuel to use.

A spokeswoman for Rolls-Royce said taking to the skies first was not the point.

"It's not particularly a race, that's not the objective," she told BBC News.

"The objective is to gain a better understanding of the potential that biofuels might have for the future."

Once hailed as a clean green saviour, the whole field of biofuels has become more complex and controversial over the last couple of years.

Research shows that some existing technologies actually result in increased greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional fuels.

There is growing concern too about the amount of land needed to grow existing fuel crops such as rape and maize, and about the impact on wildlife.

"It's become flavour of the month for airlines to talk about biofuels, and flavour of the month for environmentalists to say they're not the answer," observed Tim Johnson, director of the Aviation Envionment Federation, a UK-based research and campaign group.

"And it's not just aviation chasing them, it's every sector; and at the end of the day, can we deliver on the supply side?"

AEF, along with many other observers, is more interested in the potential of so-called second generation biofuels, where entire plants grown specifically for fuel can be processed, rather than just parts of food crops as at present.

This approach would use land more efficiently and produce far higher carbon savings. But the technology is in its infancy, and widespread commercial use probably a decade away.

For once a balanced and sane article on the BBC about aviation. The comment about "flavour of the month" is particularly relevant. In the medium term, what we probably want is non-biofuel renewable energy for ground transport, and quite possibly biofuel-based energy (even if in a mix with more traditional fuel) for air transport. As it is, biofuels are already starting to squeeze out food crops in land use, which is pushing up the cost of food. They are not the miracle emissions cure often claimed by their supporters, and it is unfortunate that the Eurocracy has jumped onto the bandwagon that thinks biofuels should be widely used in ground transport in the medium term.

Cyclists want to be able to bring their bikes on London commuter trains (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Ken Livingstone is backing Cambridge cyclists' bid for more bike space on trains as part of a £5.5 billion rail cash boost.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel for city cyclists tired of being chucked off trains for "taking up too much room".

The Mayor of London wants more provision for commuting cyclists to take their bikes onto trains. Currently, only folding bikes are allowed on carriages at peak times. But that could change if campaigners in the city and in London get their way.

They believe the massive investment in the Thameslink line, which will provide 14,000 extra seats at peak times, is the perfect opportunity to make space for bikes.

Sure, if cyclists pay a suitable amount to have this extra space on the trains to hold their bikes, then by all means introduce this service. Unfortunately cyclists generally seem to believe that they should pay for nothing and that the rest of society should be the ones that instead cough up, and that is the implication here. Then again, this is in keeping with the general philosophy of London commuters, that the rest of society should, for some obscure reasons, subsidise their transport.

Date published: 2007/09/27

The 16 countries that matter have a meeting on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said climate change is a real problem, and world leaders should forge a new global consensus on tackling it.

At a meeting of the top 16 polluting countries, Ms Rice said nations should pursue lower-carbon energy sources.

She expressed support for UN efforts to achieve international agreements on the issue at talks in Bali in December.

Critics are concerned that the meeting might be used to press for voluntary rather than binding emission cuts.

This would dilute attempts to reach a global agreement through the UN in the next two years, ahead of the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.

The US, China, India and other major polluters have opposed mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases pressed for by the UN and some European countries.

Ms Rice challenged leaders to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels by shifting toward energy sources that would reduce global warming - without harming their economies.

She said climate change could not be dealt with entirely as an environmental question but "in a way that does not starve economies of the energy that they need to grow".
Representatives from Australia, Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the US are attending.

Together they account for more than 90% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Should anyone really care that the UN is sidelined when the only players that matter are meeting together? It will be those 16 nations that will largely determine what carbon emissions will look like in the year 2050, not the UN. The "critics" are of course correct that voluntary agreements are largely meaningless. But Rice is also correct that the situation cannot just be considered from a (naive) environmental viewpoint, the economy is also important.

Hilary Benn wants "traditional" lightbulbs phased out by 2011 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to phase out the traditional lightbulb by 2011 have been announced by Environment Secretary Hilary Benn.

Mr Benn told the Labour conference he wanted to see an end to the sale of 150-watt bulbs from next January.

Less powerful traditional bulbs would be taken off the shelves in stages under the voluntary energy-saving scheme by 2011.
Mr Benn told the conference in Bournemouth: "The major retailers and the energy suppliers are now leading a voluntary initiative with the strong support of the lighting industry and of the government to help phase out traditional, high-energy lightbulbs.

"We need to turn them off for good.

"And so our aim is for traditional 150-watt lightbulbs to be phased out by January next year, 100-watt bulbs the year after, 40-watt bulbs the year after that and all high-energy lightbulbs by 2011."

Mr Benn estimated that the move would save five million tonnes of CO2 a year and take the UK closer to its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050.

Five million tonnes is less than one percent of UK emissions, so it's not that significant, but the only way we are ever going to get real reductions is by lots of little moves rather than one big move. This is a relatively easy gain, although many people believe that the light from "traditional" lightbulbs is better than from the low-energy variants. And although Benn likes to use the word "voluntary", it is not voluntary as far as consumers are concerned, they will not be given the choice.

Date published: 2007/09/26

House of Lords committee says more money should be thrown at allergy "epidemic" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Poor care and confusing advice is being used to deal with an allergy epidemic in the UK, experts have said.

The House of Lords science and technology committee warned there were not enough specialist services and that food labelling was inadequate.

The cross-party group of peers said the UK was lagging behind western Europe.
The Lords report called for specialist allergy centres to be set up in each region similar to the models operating in Denmark and Germany.

At the moment there are over 90 clinics, but only six are led by allergy consultants that can treat and diagnose the full range of conditions.

The report said GPs and other health professionals had poor knowledge of allergies and recommended allergy training becomes a more important component of medical training.
Committee chairman Baroness Finlay said: "We have a severe shortage of expert medical provision to deal with allergies.

"The government must now take steps to deal with that problem."

Substitute "allergy" with "your favourite health condition here" and you could easily write the same report with pretty much the same claims. Surprise, everything to do with health in the UK is an "epidemic". Surprise, "the government must now take steps to deal with [the] problem". Surprise, the UK is not number one or even top ten in the world in the provision of every aspect of health. With an infinite amount of money, no doubt the UK could do better. The Lords committee members should state what services should be cut or what taxes should be increased in order to pay for everything they want. It is trivial to just ask for more money for everything under the sun.

Date published: 2007/09/25

The people of the world believe humans cause climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Large majorities in many countries now believe human activity is causing global warming, a BBC World Service poll suggests.

A sizeable majority of people agreed that major steps needed to be taken soon to address global warming.

More than 22,000 people were surveyed in 21 countries and the results show a great deal of agreement on the issue.
An average of 79% of respondents to the BBC survey agreed that "human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change".

Nine out of 10 people said action was necessary, with two-thirds of people going further, saying "it is necessary to take major steps starting very soon".
The survey found widespread support (73% of respondents) for an international agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases that would include developing countries.

In return, developing countries would get financial and technological assistance from richer nations.

Of course you can never believe any poll whose results just happen to support the agenda of the organisation that has undertaken the poll. And here, the wording "human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change", seems intended to nobble the result. But the poll results are extremely plausible (which is why everyone will take them at face value), after all, most of the world's media outside the US, including the BBC, has been plugging this idea for the last decade and more.

But words are cheap. And what the BBC has singularly failed to ask is whether the people surveyed would be willing to take a (say) 5 percent pay cut in order to help finance solutions to climate change, or otherwise make a real personal sacrifice. But the answers to these questions would also have to be taken with a pinch of salt. A more reliable guide is to look at the results of real elections. The only people who vote for so-called environmental parties are the "consumption is sin" members of the academic middle class.

Acupuncture allegedly more effective at treating back pain than conventional therapy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Acupuncture - real or sham - is more effective at treating back pain than conventional therapies, research suggests.

A German team found almost half the patients treated with acupuncture felt pain relief.

But the Archives of Internal Medicine study also suggests fake acupuncture works nearly as well as the real thing.

In contrast, only about a quarter who received drugs and other Western therapies felt better.

The researchers, from the Ruhr University Bochum, say their findings suggest that the body may react positively to any thin needle prick - or that acupuncture may simply trigger a placebo effect.
More than 1,100 patients took part in the study. They were given either conventional therapy, acupuncture or a sham version.

Although needles were used in the sham therapy, they were not inserted as deeply as in standard acupuncture. Neither were they inserted at points thought key to producing a therapeutic effect, or manipulated and rotated once in position.

After six months 47% of patients in the acupuncture group reported a significant improvement in pain symptoms, compared to 44% in the sham group, and just 27% in the group who received conventional therapy.

It's only one study but interesting nonetheless. This certainly sounds like a placebo effect, and it just goes to show how useless so-called conventional therapy is at dealing with back pain, more than anything else.

Date published: 2007/09/24

British Museum has the First Emperor exhibition (permanent blog link)

The British Museum has the London mega-exhibition of the autumn season, "The First Emperor: China's Terracotta Army", on until 6 April 2008. Well over 100000 tickets were sold even before the exhibition opened. And you get what you expect with these mega-exhibitions: ten minute timed entry and over crowded viewing. The catalogue is worth buying, as usual.

The first half of the exhibition is approximately linear and as a result had the worst of the queuing. And it was just artefacts related to the terracotta army (e.g. coins, bells, etc.) and so just a warm-up act to the real stars of the show, ten (or so) terracotta warriors. Fortunately the warriors were placed in an open area and viewing was possible from multiple spots, so the squeeze was not that bad. In fact, perhaps the earlier queuing helped avoid worse viewing conditions of the warriors.

The warriors are of course impressive, but you can easily imagine the Chinese could fake them and 99.99% of the population would be none the wiser. You can get within a couple of feet of the warriors, apparently much better than at the site in China. Apart from the warriors, the most interesting part of the exhibition was a bronze crane. Unfortunately this was placed next to where crowds of people watch a (perpetually repeated) film, so could easily be missed.

The Chinese seem to have taken the wise decision to leave the actual tomb mound unexcavated, assuming that some day non-intrusive techniques will make it possible to investigate the interior. The warriors and related objects are all from outlying areas.

Meanwhile, the British Museum has another splendid exhibition, "Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan", on for only a few more weeks, until 21 October 2008. This is mainly the works of the "Living National Treasures" of Japan (a cute concept). And as expected, these are the works of not just artists, but also craftsmen (and a few women). You can tell that most of them put a ridiculous amount of time and effort into the work on display. In contrast to the First Emperor exhibition, here there was about one person or less per item, so very relaxed viewing.

The best pieces on display were the ceramics (e.g. bowl with clematis design, by Yoshita Minori, 1992; bowl 'Genesis', by Tokuda Yasokichi III, 1991; bowl with striped design, by Itō Sekisui V, 1985) and the laquer (e.g. ornamental box, by Kuroda Tatsuaki, c. 1957; incense tray with wave design, by Isoi Masami, 1966; box 'Dragonfly', by Matsuda Gonroku; letter box with crane design, by Ōba Shogyō, 1973).

But there were also interesting pieces in metal and wood, and a couple of works in glass. Then leading up the rear were some kimonos and dolls (no doubt great if you like that kind of thing). The catalogue has reasonable photographs on the whole (with the first ceramic bowl mentioned above being a notable exception), and also includes biographies of the artists, but has minimal descriptions of the exhibition items.

Amazon apparently behaved differently in the 2005 drought than expected (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Amazon rainforest may be more resistant to rising temperatures than has been believed.

Researchers found that during the 2005 drought, many parts of the rainforest "greened", apparently growing faster.

This finding contrasts with some computer models of climate change, which forecast that the Amazon would dry out and become savannah.

Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say it is unclear how the forest would respond to a long drought.

"We measured the changes between the drought (of July to September 2005) and an average year," explained study leader Scott Saleska from the University of Arizona, Tucson, US.

"And what we saw was that there was more photosynthesis going on, more capacity to take up carbon dioxide than in an average year," he told the BBC News website.

The scientists used the Modis (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument on the US space agency's (Nasa) Terra satellite to make their observations.

Some areas of the Amazon had seen reduced growth during the drought, but these were regions heavily impacted by human activities.

It has been thought that stressed trees in drought conditions would try to preserve their water by reducing loss through leaves (transpiration), with this shut-down having a consequent knock-on for photosynthesis.

This, in turn, would be expected to exacerbate the drought by interrupting the supply of water into the atmosphere, a supply which contributes to rainfall.

"Some of the models, in particular the Hadley Centre group (part of the UK Met Office), became famous for predicting collapse of the Amazon and a change into savannah," said Dr Saleska.

"There's a prompt response to the initial drought: trees down (transpiration), they release less water to the atmosphere so there's less to recycle as rain; and in that model world, it pushes the forest over the edge.

"We've tested whether that mechanism is there, and found it's not there on a short timescale. That doesn't mean the forest won't collapse, but it says that the scenario in that model is not right in that particular [situation]."

Although increased photosynthesis in drought conditions might appear counter-intuitive, the group said it could be explained if the trees were still able to access water reserves with deep root systems.

Persistent bright skies during a drought would allow more sunlight through to the leaves, driving photosynthesis and leading to the "greening" seen from space.

Chris Jones from the UK's Hadley Centre for Climate Change commended the study, and said it demonstrated the importance of using real-world observations to challenge and fine-tune the models.

Of course it is only one study and over a short time scale. But at least it was done with real data (the old fashioned scientific way) and not just with a model.

New agreement on phasing out HCFCs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nearly 200 governments have agreed a faster timetable for phasing out chemicals that deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming.

The schedule for eliminating hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) comes forward by 10 years under the agreement signed at a UN meeting in Montreal.

HCFCs are used in applications such as refrigeration and fire-fighting.

A finance package to help developing countries switch technologies has yet to be agreed.
Under the new deal, developing countries will phase out HCFC production and use by 2030, 10 years ahead of the previous target date.

They will also bring forward the date at which production and use must be frozen, from 2015 to 2013.

How this will be financed is not clear. A Unep statement says: "Governments agreed to commission a short study by experts to fully assess the likely costs of the acceleration."

Industrialised countries have so far spent more than $2bn (£1bn) to help developing nations clean up ozone-depleting installations.

Developed countries also face an accelerated timetable for phasing out HCFCs.

The Montreal Protocol was initially designed as a way of stopping destruction of the ozone layer, but in recent years it has become clear that it also provides a way of curbing global warming.

HCFCs and related chemicals such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are potent greenhouse gases.

The US administration says the new deal will be twice as effective as the Kyoto Protocol in controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

Well, you can never believe anything the current US administration says, but the Kyoto Protocol is a particularly ineffective way of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, so the last claim might well be true (there is also the question of cost-effectiveness). Of course until the world agrees who will pay what and when under this agreement, the deal is not yet done.

Date published: 2007/09/23

Merck stops trials of HIV vaccine (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

International drug company Merck has halted trials on an HIV vaccine that was regarded as one of the most promising in the fight against Aids.

Merck stopped testing the vaccine after it was judged to be ineffective.

In trials, the vaccine failed to prevent HIV infections among volunteers who were at risk of catching the virus, including gay men and sex workers.

Merck had previously expressed high hopes for the drug, which it spent 10 years developing.

Merck's international trial, called Step, began in 2004 and involved 3,000 HIV-negative volunteers from diverse backgrounds, between the ages of 18 and 45.

Merck said that 24 of 741 volunteers who got the vaccine became infected with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

Out of a group of 762 volunteers who were given a dummy version of the jab, 21 became infected with HIV.

An independent monitoring panel recommended discontinuing the vaccination of volunteers, saying the trial was headed for failure.
The vaccine contained a common cold virus loaded with copies of three HIV genes.

A bad day for everyone. And it just goes to show that so-called rational drug design is not yet with us.

Date published: 2007/09/22

The Chinese like their cars just like the rest of the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China is holding a No Car Day in more than 100 cities as it tries to reduce smog ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Cars have been banned on some central streets in Beijing and all drivers are being encouraged to leave their cars at home voluntarily.

But correspondents say that in the capital National No Car Day appears to be making little impact.

Millions of vehicles are on the roads every day in Beijing, causing massive air pollution.

The BBC's James Reynolds in Beijing says that cars are coming and going as normal, and most streets in Beijing are not adhering to No Car Day.

Environmental campaigners say China must overhaul its transport system, not just with a few ad hoc No Car Days but by putting in cycle lanes, reducing the price of public transport and making it much more difficult for people to buy private cars.

Oh right, cycle lanes will make a big difference. This is how out of touch with reality so-called environmentalists are. It's pretty obvious that most people in China, as in the rest of the world, prefer to travel by car rather than by bicycle (or bus). Needless to say, the only thing that makes people not use cars is to make it either prohibitively expensive so that only rich people can afford to drive, or to just make it illegal, period. The former approach is the usual one taken (e.g. London, Singapore, etc.). The so-called environmentalists are on the side of the rich, not the working class, on this issue (as with so many issues).

Arctic ice seems to be disappearing faster than predicted (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Arctic sea ice shrank to the smallest area on record this year, US scientists have confirmed.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said the minimum extent of 4.13 million sq km (1.59 million sq miles) was reached on 16 September.

The figure shatters all previous satellite surveys, including the previous record low of 5.32 million sq km measured in 2005.

Earlier this month, it was reported that the Northwest Passage was open.
In December 2006, a study by US researchers forecast that the Arctic could be ice-free in summers by 2040.

The Arctic ice certainly seems to be disappearing faster than predicted, and 2040 looks rather optimistic.

Date published: 2007/09/21

Ofsted notices link between teaching and attendance (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

When lessons are interesting pupils are less likely to play truant from school, suggests research into attendance.

A report from watchdog Ofsted says the higher the quality of teaching, the better the rate of attendance.
Secondary schools with high quality teaching and learning were found to have the best levels of attendance.

Strong leadership and management also had a positive effect on attendance along with a curriculum that met the needs of pupils.

It is unbelievable that Ofsted does not understand the difference between correlation and causation. There is no doubt a link between family wealth and "high quality teaching" and also a link between family wealth and attendance, so it is not very surprising that there is a link between high quality teaching and attendance. None of this proves that any factor is the cause of any other factor. The reason Ofsted gets away with this sloppy report is that everybody believes the claim they are making, so believes that the correlation somehow provides confirmatory evidence that the causative claim is true. It does not. Of course the claim might well be true, it's just that Ofsted has no evidence for this one way or the other. The people at Ofsted should go back to school and take some lessons in Logic 101 (and similarly all BBC reporters).

Apparently older women are not aware that breast cancer risk increases with age (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Most British women are unaware that breast cancer risk increases with age, a poll suggests.

A survey of 1,000 people by charity Breast Cancer Care found nearly six out of 10 women did not know getting older was a strong risk factor.

More than 44,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK and 80% of all cases occur in over-50s.

Experts said many young women can worry unnecessarily while older women do not realise they are at risk.

The poll found that 58% did not know that the older they get, the higher their risk of breast cancer.

Not surprisingly, most people in life do not carry detailed knowledge about the exact risk factors of every disease on the face of the planet. (Although it is fairly reasonable to assume that the older you get the more susceptible you are to just about every disease.) Only a small fraction of women die from breast cancer (about 1 in 20 in the UK), and what this survey shows more than anything else is that the breast cancer charities have not yet managed to scare absolutely every older woman senseless that she is doomed to die of breast cancer, whereas younger women have already received so much propaganda about breast cancer that they are unduly worried.

Army head complains about the alleged poor treatment of soldiers by the people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The head of the British Army says he is becoming increasingly concerned about "the growing gulf between the Army and the nation".

Gen Sir Richard Dannatt said soldiers were sometimes greeted with indifference on returning from service.

A "willingness to serve in such an atmosphere again" could be sapped, he said in a speech in London.
Gen Dannatt told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London: "Soldiers want to be understood and they want to be respected for their commitment.

"When a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand, he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing and why."

"Soldiers are genuinely concerned when they come back from Iraq to hear the population that sent them being occasionally dismissive or indifferent about their achievements," he added.

Is this guy naive or what? Iraq is an unpopular and illegal war and you can hardly expect "people in the local pub" to enthuse about the war with returning soldiers. (And many people just treat the war in Afghanistan as an extension of the war in Iraq.) Of course it is not the fault of the soldiers that they are in an unpopular and illegal war. But it's not the fault of the people either. And you can bet your last pound that the people treat the returning soldiers better than the MOD does.

Date published: 2007/09/20

Doctors want to make organ donation opt-out instead of opt-in (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Health Secretary Alan Johnson has asked advisers to look at whether everyone in England should be put on the organ donor register unless they opt out.

The move has been recommended by England's chief medical officer to tackle the chronic shortage of organs.

But the proposal to force people to opt out of the system, as opposed to voluntarily opting in, is contentious.

"This is a sensitive issue," Mr Johnson said, but he stressed it was "vital" all possible options were explored.

There are currently more than 8,000 people in the UK who need an organ donation but only 3,000 transplants are carried out each year. It is estimated that one person dies each day waiting for an organ.

Only 24% of the population - or 14.6 million - are on the register, despite the fact that in surveys as many as 90% of people say they want to donate their organs after death.

The incompetence of the State in getting people onto the register is no excuse for shifting the burden of action from the State to the people.

The Sutton Trust puts out its latest content-free press release (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The school that a pupil attended remains a bigger factor in whether they get into a top university than having good A-level grades, research suggests.

The Sutton Trust charity, which analysed admissions from 2002-06, says state school youngsters are losing out.

The trust found the number of pupils at the top 30 comprehensives who went to Oxbridge was just a third of what might be expected if based on ability.

But at the top 30 independent schools, more than expected got Oxbridge places.

But almost all people admitted to Cambridge, for example, have top A-level grades (and the ones who don't tend to be access candidates). So there is no way to discriminate based on A-level grades. Of course the Sutton Trust (a.k.a. Peter Lampl) knows this perfectly well, so one can only assume this latest press release is just another political diatribe with no real value. Why the BBC gives so much attention to this one (filthy rich) man is a mystery.

Date published: 2007/09/19

One Cambridge businessman thinks the congestion charge is a done deal (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A leading Cambridge businessman fears proposed consultations will make little difference to the introduction of the controversial congestion charge.

At a meeting hosted by the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, Cambridgeshire County Council leader Shona Johnstone and deputy chief executive Brian Smith committed to extensive consultations with local businesses over road toll plans.

But Nick Clarke, chairman of Cambridge's Federation of Small Businesses, said he felt the charge would go ahead whatever after hearing the council's line at a meeting at the city's University Arms hotel.

He said: "I think there will be a greater openness now with businesses, but I do not think the county council is likely to change its view that it has to include the congestion charge as part of its scheme."

He added: "Many people at the meeting felt the congestion charge was a smokescreen hiding the real problem that the infrastructure in Cambridge is not good enough. We need to get our infrastructure correct first, and then if there is still a need to reduce congestion we should consider a charge."

The Government has said it will make £500 million available to Cambridge, but only if the scheme, which could see drivers paying up to £5 to enter or leave the city, is adopted.

Mr Clarke said: "Saying that £500 million would only be available with an inclusion of congestion charge to me sounds like bribery or blackmail. I think if Cambridge needs that infrastructure it should get it anyway, not as a congestion charge."

Clarke is right about the main reason the charge is being introduced now, it's all part of government bribery and blackmail. But other than the usual academic middle class suspects, the only people the Cambridge bureaucrats and politicians do listen to is the business sector. Indeed the business community has already managed to (at least temporarily) sink some of the wackier ideas of the Cambridge so-called transport planners, e.g. the closure of Maid's Causeway. And if it were not for the seriously negative impact it would have on businesses in Cambridge, the city's ruling elite would have long since closed all of Cambridge to cars (except for their own, because of course they need to get around, being the ruling elite, it's just the peasants who should be forced to take the bus or walk or cycle everywhere).

If Clarke has come away with the impression that even the business community is going to be ignored this time around, then Johnstone must have made a particularly bad impression at the meeting, which is another indication that she is up to no good. The ruling elite certainly won't pay any attention to what ordinary citizens say, and perhaps this time around they will indeed also ignore the business community.

The Lib Dems (surprise) don't like plastic bags (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lib Dem activists have called on the leadership to consider introducing a "plastic bag tax" despite warnings that it could drive up carbon emissions.

Party leaders had wanted a deposit scheme, with customers charged for disposable shopping bags and refunded when they are returned.

But members backed an amendment calling for consideration of a levy on plastic bags, as used in Ireland since 2002.

Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson said packaging cost the average family £470 a year.

She claimed research showed that using bags made from materials other than plastic could lead to more carbon emissions.

A container which could transport 1.5 million plastic bags, could only carry just over 50,000 paper bags, which would push up road haulage emissions.

However, a deposit scheme, rather than penalising shoppers for using plastic bags, would encourage their reuse, she said.

How quaint. One of the big issues of the Lib Dem conference is plastic bags, one of the perennial hate figures of the academic middle class. At least Swinson pointed out that the anti-plastic-bag hysteria is not necessarily even justified on environmental grounds (and she completely ignored the re-use issue, namely that plastic bags can be re-used more easily than paper ones). But to claim that "packaging cost the average family £470 a year" is just to take some arbitrary estimate of what packaging actually costs to make (and never trust an estimate made by people with an axe to grind), and ignoring all the benefits that packaging provides (e.g. food does not go off so easily), which translates into cost savings. The Lib Dems really are way too academic, they need to get out into the real world a bit more often.

Date published: 2007/09/18

Many businesses do not like the idea of a Cambridge congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Business leaders met to thrash out the pros and cons of controversial congestion charge plans in Cambridge.

Hundreds packed into a meeting at the University Arms hotel in the city last night to debate what impact a congestion charge might have and air some of their fears and grievances about the proposals.

John Bridge, chief executive of the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, which hosted the debate, was one of those to call foul over the way funding for public transport improvements is being linked to the congestion charge.

The Government has said it will make £500 million available in Cambridgeshire, but only if the congestion charge scheme is adopted. The proposals could see a charge of up to £5 to enter or leave the city at peak times.

Mr Bridge said: "We're being told we have a choice: getting £500 million for our infrastructure and introducing congestion charging, or not getting that money at all. I find that quite iniquitous.

"We have to ask, do we want to be blackmailed? Because that is what it is; there's no other word for it, it is £500 million with strings attached."

He called for any economic impact assessment of the proposals to be independently verified and demanded the public be given the final say on whether the congestion charge is adopted, through a referendum.

Bridge is exactly correct. The government is behaving outrageously by linking these two matters. The county council was trying to be clever by only having the charge from 7.30 to 9.30 in the morning, Monday to Friday, because that way they figured they would buy off the retail sector, since not much business gets done before 9.30. Unfortunately for the council, the business sector seems not to have been entirely bought off. Even if not much business gets done before 9.30, of course one's employees have to get to work, and if they are paying this extra tax, they are going to expect a pay rise in compensation. And the huge cost of implementing this new tax will mean that it is not even close to being a zero sum game. The bottom line is that the council is proposing to make it much more expensive to operate a business in Cambridge, for purely political reasons. If lots of businesses actively oppose these measures, the council is going to have to retreat. The bureaucrats and politicians don't care what the people think (outside of the academic middle class), but they do have to pay some attention to the business sector.

And it should definitely be a requirement that "the proposals [should] be independently verified", preferably by the people themselves (Cambridge after all has lots of people who can do sums) rather than by some expensive consultant (because all transport consultants have a financial interest in seeing these new taxes introduced since it leads to potential new business opportunities for them). The council has fairly obviously not bothered with any real analysis or business plan yet, since they have so far refused to release any details to the public. This is far too important a change in life in Cambridge to be passed with a wink and a nod by the bunch of amateurs who run Cambridge.

Easyjet naively asks the government for a "green" tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The budget airline Easyjet has announced its support for a green tax on air travel. The carrier says current air passenger duty should be scrapped and replaced with a tax based on the amount of carbon dioxide produced on each flight.

It believes such a tax would mean Easyjet passengers would pay less than they do with passenger duty.

Ministers say including aviation in the EU's carbon trading scheme is the best way to ensure meeting emission targets.

The BBC's transport correspondent Tom Symonds said Easyjet's routes were relatively short compared with full service carriers and it used newer aircraft.

This meant the no-frills airline believed its carbon emissions would be lower per passenger than many of its rivals, he said.

Earlier this year, the government came in for heavy criticism from the UK's leading airlines for doubling the UK Air Passenger Duty (APD).

Easyjet described the charge as "an ineffective environmental tax" which failed to recognise that some airlines have more efficient planes than others.

In its latest report, Towards Greener Skies: The Surprising Truth About Flying And The Environment, Easyjet has urged the government to bring in a tax based on aircraft types and distance travelled.

The most sane "green" tax on airlines would be levied on fuel. That is by far the best proxy for carbon emissions. But a tax based on aircraft type and distance travelled is a second best. Easyjet of course is not being "green", they just want to help their business model. On the other hand, Easyjet must be completely naive to think that if the (current or any future) government were to introduce this new tax, they would at the same time reduce air passenger duty so as to make the change tax neutral. You can bet that at the end of the day all airline journeys, even those of Easyjet (and Ryanair), will have a much higher tax in the future than exists today. Politicians are addicted to tax and airline journeys are an easy target since the ruling elite have managed to put out the propaganda that air travel is evil (courtesy of the BBC and much of the rest of the chattering classes that run large parts of the UK media).

California loses frivilous lawsuit against car companies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A US federal judge has dismissed a case brought by California against six leading carmakers over alleged damage caused by cars' CO2 emissions.

The legal action, the first of its kind, demanded millions of dollars in compensation from General Motors, Ford, Honda, Toyota, Chrysler and Nissan.

But the judge ruled that the issue of whether carmarkers were accountable was a political, not legal, matter.

Officials said they were disappointed, adding they may appeal the ruling.

The lawsuit, filed by California's former Attorney-General Bill Lockyer in September 2006, wanted to make the manufacturers liable for the damage he said was caused by greenhouse gas emissions from the state's estimated 32 million registered vehicles.

It said that the producers has created a "public nuisance" by making "millions of vehicles that collectively emit massive quantities of carbon dioxide".

This is California, in particular Lockyer, taking the piss. If Lockyer thinks that cars are a "public nuisance" then there is an easy step he can take. He can try to get the state government to ban cars in California. But of course he doesn't want to do that, that might inconvenience him and millions of other Californians, because, well, cars are not a public nuisance, they in fact provide quite a useful service to the public (e.g. allowing people to get to work and to shops). Instead of banning cars, Lockyer wants to extort billions of dollars from car company shareholders, i.e. from the rest of the world.

Date published: 2007/09/17

The Lib Dems declare war on Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Lib Dems have backed a radical series of proposals to tackle climate change - including a ban on petrol powered cars by 2040. Environment spokesman Chris Huhne said tackling global warming would need an "enormous economic change". He set out plans to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050 at the party's annual conference in Brighton.
Some of the other key proposals in the Liberal Democrats' Zero Carbon Britain plan are:

The conference voted to reject a call by MEP Chris Davies to end the party's opposition to nuclear power.

Before his conference speech, Mr Huhne told reporters: "With these plans we can restructure the economy towards a basis that is based on renewable energy not on fossil fuels.

"It's an enormous economic change but it's an economic change in line with changes which we've seen in the past, for example between the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century moving from steam power to the petrol engine, moving from gas light to electric light."

Mr Huhne's proposals received the overwhelming backing of the party conference.

Not surprisingly some of their proposals make sense but many do not. They want to introduce a carbon tax but refuse to make it fair or leave it at that. So they want to introduce super-carbon taxes on airplanes and super-duper-carbon taxes on (petrol) cars. Drivers are currently the only people who pay more than a fair carbon tax, but don't let that get in the way of the Lib Dems. And for airplanes they will introduce extra arbitrary taxes, such as the £10 tax on domestic flights (except for flights to Lib Dem Scottish constituencies, or as they quaintly call it, "essential “lifeline” flights", so once again the people of England will be forced to subsidise the Scottish). And heating of households will escape carbon taxes completely.

And they want to throw more money at the rail network. So one minute they are complaining that "those who produce greenhouse gas do not face the full social costs of their actions themselves" and the next minute they see no irony in subsidising energy consumption by their favoured form of transport. Rail users do not come even close to facing the "full social cost of their actions". Unfortunately, London rail commuters run the country, so will never have to pay the full cost of their journeys.

On the (seriously flawed) Kyoto Protocol they say "Liberal Democrats would seek to broaden engagement to include the key Parties outside the Kyoto Protocol, the US and Australia" but unbelievably fail to mention China and India, except that "industrialised country emissions would be allocated on a per capita basis, whereas developing countries will take on emission limitation targets or intensity targets or no commitments at all, depending on their level of development". They even brazenly say we should have "mechanisms to prevent unfair competition from the small minority of countries that refuse to accept their obligations to reduce their emissions". Well, what do they think China is doing? The Lib Dems evidently believe that if Britain produces steel it is immoral, but if China produces it for Britain it is ok. (And the fact that China does it with much dirtier technology is beside the point.)

So the Lib Dems have promised to screw the ordinary people of Britain and give others a free pass. That ought to be a vote winner. And they have steadfastly refused to deal with the real underlying problem, which is over-population. So a per capita allocation is fundamentally flawed in that countries which breed irresponsibly are rewarded, and the exact opposite should be the case.

And you have to laugh when Huhne says that this "enormous economic change" is only what happened a hundred years ago. A hundred years ago governments had no real hand in the change. Here, in contrast, the Lib Dems think they can masterplan the world in order to accomplish this change. Given that the Lib Dems, like the Greens, are just the academic middle class, this is not very credible. They are masterful control freaks, but not much else.

Microsoft loses appeal in Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Microsoft has lost its appeal against a record 497m euro (£343m; $690m) fine imposed by the European Commission in a long-running competition dispute.

The European Court of First Instance upheld the ruling that Microsoft had abused its dominant market position.

A probe concluded in 2004 that Microsoft was guilty of freezing out rivals in server software and products such as media players.

Microsoft has two months to appeal at the European Court of Justice.

Microsoft has clearly "abused its dominant market position" for years. On the other hand, the fine is arbitrary, and you can guarantee that if Microsoft had been a European company then there would have been no lawsuit and no fine.

Date published: 2007/09/16

BedZED opens for London Open House (permanent blog link)

This is the one weekend in the year when many public and private buildings open up courtesy of London Open House. The most popular buildings (e.g. the Gherkin) get booked up almost instantly, but there are still plenty of other buildings to see. BedZED is one of the more interesting housing developments of recent years (2002). "Bed" stands for Beddington, where it is located. And ZED stands for "Zero Energy Development". There are 100 households and also spots for ten businesses. The householders have obviously been overwhelmed with curious visitors, so the rules of engagement were pretty bleak (no photos even outside, which is silly given that you can take photos from a public road, and no visits to any real household).

BedZED was designed by the architect Bill Dunster in collaboration with a company by the name of BioRegional (a dreadful name, it sounds like a biotech company). Of course the main claim is that it is ZED, but that is not quite true. For example, just to build the housing in the first place you have to expend quite a bit of energy. (Although they did use some reclaimed materials, but of course even that involves energy expenditure for collection and processing.) So by "zero" energy they really mean this operationally, ignoring maintenance costs. And the main accomplishment is indeed that all the housing should not need to have any space heating at all, which is quite good and significant.

They also produce all their own power on site. It's a good question how few or how many households one power plant should serve. It is flavour of the minute amongst most so-called environmentalists and amongst some politicians and bureaucrats that we should all produce our own power. This is just plain silly. (Sure, some people want to and can do it, but that is a niche of a niche.) BedZED seems to be a more realistic situation with the power needs of 100 households all the responsibility of the housing association, the Peabody Trust, that built the development. Even this might be too small a number. And, as it happens, BedZED used a supplier for a CHP (combined heat and power) plant who went bust, so that has been idle for the past year (nobody else seems to know how to maintain it).

They also have solar panels on lots of the walls and roofs, all combined into one site network. Again here the technology at the time was really not up to much. So the payback period is almost 100 years, i.e. never since it will have to be replaced by then. And the performance is not quite up to the manufacturer's claim (surprise). So the solar panels are more for show than for anything else. (And wind power is not suitable at the site.)

The houses themselves have very thick (30 cm) exterior walls, in order to be well insulated. This means that the interior spaces are smaller in compensation. BioRegional is located on site and has a show home next to their office. And the show home gives an immediate impression of how small the interior space is, especially the kitchen and lounge. On the other hand, one of the nice features of the housing is conservatory space along the south-facing walls, which helps (a lot) with passive heating. But many of the houses have their (tiny) garden space over a (narrow) road via a bridge. This site could all be a bit of a nightmare to maintain in future, but fortunately that is all down to the Peabody Trust, not the households.

On the transport side, BedZED is of course anti-car, and allowed just under one space per household, lower than the area figure of 1.5. But apparently 25% of the site uses a car share scheme, and that has obviously helped. People with petrol cars have to pay a couple of hundred pounds per year for a parking permit, and people with electric cars do not and also apparently get free electricity (from charging points on site) to recharge their cars. But surprise, surprise, there were hardly any electric cars on site. Electric cars are not there yet. (And of course just because a car is electric does not make it environmentally friendly, since there is the question of how the electricity was generated in the first place. At BedZED it is on-site, but if every household there had an electric car that might not be feasible.)

BioRegional seems to be a fairly clued up organisation. They are not totally dogmatic about the world. Even so, the marketing information in their office borders on propaganda. And they like to hammer home that allegedly the average British person is responsible for 3 planets worth of consumption. Well, take that figure with a grain of salt, and of course a lot of our consumption (oil) is from the past, so we do not have to be at <= 1 planet to survive into the near future.

Worse, the problem of population is completely ignored by the 3 planet crowd. Between now and 2050 the world's population is going to increase by 50%, but not in Britain or in rich countries, instead mainly in poor countries. If you believe that you should just take the planet and divide by the number of people to get your share, then that says the British have to reduce their consumption by a third by 2050 just because other countries have irresponsibly allowed their population to increase (ignoring the claim that we already consume too much). Population should be taken into account under any system of fairness. The more children you have, the less your quota should be.

The main question about BedZED is whether it scales up in any way, or is it just going to end up as a middle class enclave the way the Eric Lyon 1950s and 1960s Span developments did (the underlying philosophy is pretty much the same). For example, to run the CHP plant (when it was running) BedZed used wood scrap from Croydon city council. But that does not scale up very well (there is not nearly enough wood available). And similarly, there is only so much reclaimed building material to go around (but obviously it is better that at least someone uses it). Even BedZED had to use (new) concrete. And in spite of what the ruling elite believe, most people want a car.

The real indication that BedZED has actually played any significant role in the world is if it scales up and is widely used. Otherwise it is just a model village, of interest only to the few residents and to the academic middle class as a day out for London Open House. (BioRegional is doing more developments in several countries, but it's still small-scale.)

Cameron spouts nonsense about UK debt (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is to blame for the crisis at Northern Rock, Conservative leader David Cameron has said.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he accused Gordon Brown of presiding over a huge rise in public and private debt.
Ken Clarke, the last Conservative chancellor, said the problems at the bank should not lead to tough new restrictions on borrowing.

"I think the development of ready access to credit is one of the best ways of boosting a market," he told , told BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House.

"So I do hope the reaction to the recent nonsense is not that we need a great flood of new regulation, that everybody gets hair-shirted again."

Why oh why didn't the Tories choose Ken Clarke to lead them, he at least has a scintilla of sense. In particular, Cameron is just plain lying when he says that Brown has presided over a "huge rise" in public debt. Of course the absolute value of the debt in 2007 is higher than it was in 1997, because the economy has grown so much over the same period. But what really matters is the debt per GDP. And, surprise, surprise, government statistics show that that was at 43.8% in 1997 (the highest level since the 1980s), which was the last year the Tories were in power. In July 2007 it stood at 36.4% (but going up), way lower. If Cameron wanted to make a real point he would have noted that these statistics pretty much reflect the state of the international economy, rather than the actions of the UK government. (And the Labour government has also hidden some debt via PFI.)

And as for private debt, the main problem, of course, is house prices. Prices have rocketed so of course debt has as well. And why have house prices rocketed? Because Britain is not building enough houses, because the privileged elite (led by the Tories) refuse to allow enough housing to be built. Cameron's Tories are a big part of the problem, they are not part of the solution.

Date published: 2007/09/15

Northwest Passage allegedly fully clear of ice this year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The most direct shipping route from Europe to Asia is fully clear of ice for the first time since records began, the European Space Agency (Esa) says.

Historically, the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has been ice-bound through the year.

But the agency says ice cover has been steadily shrinking, and this summer's reduction has made the route navigable.

The findings, based on satellite images, raised concerns about the speed of global warming.
Canada says it has full rights over those parts of the Northwest Passage that pass through its territory and that it can bar transit there.

But this has been disputed by the US and the European Union.

They argue that the new route should be an international strait that any vessel can use.

So it seems that some years earlier than expected we might well have a new international trade route. And one can imagine Canada being able to stand up to the EU (a military paper tiger), but what are they going to do if American ships start going that way.

A bit late in the day Greenspan pans Bush (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The former chairman of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan has said President George W Bush pays too little attention to financial discipline.

In a book to be published next week, Mr Greenspan says Mr Bush ignored his advice to veto "out-of-control" bills that sent the US deeper into deficit.

And Mr Bush's Republicans deserved to lose control of Congress in last year's elections, he charges.
"Little value was placed on rigorous economic policy debate or the weighing of long-term consequences," he says of the Bush administration.

And he charges that Republicans in Congress "swapped principle for power" and "ended up with neither".

Of course it would have been better if Greenspan had not provided cover for Bush's economic policy back when Greenspan was running the Federal Reserve. And everybody knows now that "little value was placed on rigorous economic debate" when it came to the budget. No matter what the economic problem was (or is), according to Bush the solution was (or is) tax cuts, with no equivalent cuts in spending (so in fact the tax was just being shifted to future generations of tax payers, it was not really a tax cut). We don't really need Greenspan to tell us this.

The lack of "rigorous debate" is the hallmark of the Bush White House with regard to all subjects, not just economics. They are not interested in analysis, just dogma. It is easily one of the worst administrations of all time.

Date published: 2007/09/14

EU fishermen throw a heck of a lot of fish back in the water (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Despite cod stocks in UK waters being at risk, fishermen are being forced to throw thousands of tonnes back into the sea dead.
Since the introduction of the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983, the UK's white fish fleet has reduced by 70% while the UK's cod quota has reduced from more than 100,000 tonnes to just 18,000.

Other countries have also suffered big cuts. But stocks have failed to recover.

A recent report highlighted the problem that every year thousands of tonnes of cod are caught and then thrown back dead into the sea to comply with the rules of the European Commission's Common Fisheries Policy.

Fish which are undersize or exceed the permitted quota for particular species has to be thrown back into the sea but less than 1% of discarded fish survive so most is wasted.

Last year more than 8,000 tonnes of North Sea cod was discarded, that is more than 30% of the amount brought in and sold.

The report just released from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) shows that in "Subarea 7" - the English Channel, Western Approaches, Celtic and Irish Seas - 63% by number and 35% by weight of all fish caught are discarded.

Dr Joe Horwood, the chief scientist at CEFAS says:

"The large majority of cod thrown back are below the minimum landing size. This is set to deter fishermen from areas where small fish are but unfortunately small cod is found in many places so they will catch them.

The fishing industry agrees that the level of discard is an appalling waste.

"It really is a shocking waste. Not only are the fish killed unnecessarily - the economic value has been lost and the source of food to the consumer - but they are no longer there to reproduce so it is a double whammy. This is one of the fundamental failures of the cod recovery plan," says Doug Beveridge, assistant chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations.

Yes, this is obscene. And the EU has to sort out this appalling waste of natural resource.

Doctors want to give babies a cholesterol test (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children should receive a cholesterol test alongside their routine vaccinations at the age of 15 months, experts say.

The tests would identify those with an inherited cholesterol disorder which increases the risk of heart disease.

Parents of affected children would also be tested and treated, the British Medical Journal article states.

Various screening options, including DNA testing, are being considered by the government's health watchdog.

Familial hypercholesterolaemia is an inherited condition which affects about one in 500 people in which the body does not get rid of cholesterol in the usual way and it accumulates.

Adults aged 20-39 years with the condition have a 100-fold increased risk of dying from coronary heart disease.

But treatment with statins to lower cholesterol reduces the risk substantially.

A nationwide screening programme is being piloted in relatives of adults diagnosed with the familial hypercholesterolaemia but about four-fifths of people with the condition would not be found this way.

Analysis of 13 studies by researchers at Barts and the London Queen Mary's School of Medicine suggests testing children would identify most cases of the disorder.

Cholesterol tests in children between the age of one and nine years are the most accurate because as people get older their cholesterol gets higher for other reasons, such as an unhealthy diet, they say.

And the most obvious time to do the screening, which would involve a blood spot test, would be when children present for their routine vaccinations at 15 months.

For every child with the condition, one parent would also have to be affected and they could also be tested and treated.
The team are planning a pilot to assess feasibility and staff and parent acceptance.

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence is also looking at the issue and is due to report at the end of this year on what would be the best method for identifying those with the condition.

Dr Tony Wierzbecki, chairman of Heart UK's medical scientific and research committee, said in theory it was a good idea although tests were probably even more accurate in four to six year olds.

It's a reasonable enough idea but should only be done with parental approval (i.e. on a case by case basis). It should not be left up to doctors (or the government) what is deemed to be best for the world. And although the blood test will have been pointless for 499 out of 500 children for this specific disorder, once doctors have the blood sample one can imagine they will end up using it for lots of reasons, including adding every child to the national DNA database.

Date published: 2007/09/13

Tories present their "quality of life" report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tax rises for UK short-haul flights and for "gas-guzzling" cars are needed to combat climate change, a Conservative policy review group has said.

The Quality of Life Group said it was "illogical" cars and trains were taxed more than flights, adding the UK should be a "world leader on green growth".

It wants to suspend airport expansion and increase investment in railways.

If Cameron accepts these proposals, then the Tories, like the Lib Dems, will have declared war on the working class. There is of course plenty wrong with the current tax policy on flights. Air passenger duty is completely unrelated to carbon emissions. The only sensible policy is to tax airplane fuel. Instead the Tories, like the Lib Dems before them, are proposing not very sensible half measures, like VAT on flights inside Britain.

And you have to laugh at the Tories claiming it is "illogical" that "cars and trains were taxed more than flights". First of all, trains are not taxed more than flights. Rail passengers receive a whacking great subsidy from the government year on year, so in fact rail passengers pay a negative tax. (And the Tories, and the Lib Dems, want to increase this subsidy, that is what they mean by "increased investment".) In contrast, the tax rate on short haul flights can easily be 50%, given the stupidity of air passenger duty.

Of course the Tories are correct that cars are taxed at more than flights. Cars are taxed at a higher rate than just about anything. Fuel duty is around a 300% tax. This is way above what a carbon tax should be. And the last Tory government were the ones who made this happen (and Labour followed on for a few years until the fuel protests). And of course the Tories now want to hammer car drivers even more. So it is a bit rich them complaining that car tax is higher than airplane tax.

The people who wrote this report are far, far richer than the average UK citizen. They write: "If society at large can shift its thinking away from “what can I buy?” to “what do I want from life?” or “what needs do I have?” then perhaps we can decouple economic growth from resource input." Only a rich person would write such words. They have everything in life. And how dare the peasants dare to aspire to the same lifestyle. The authors of this report are part of the problem, they are not part of the solution. We do not need obnoxious and patronising sermons from them.

MPs produce yet another vacuous "green" report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers are making lots of speeches urging people to adopt greener lifestyles but are "doing little" to help them do so, says a report by MPs.

An MPs' committee said "much more" needs to be done on green taxes, making homes energy efficient and to help people generate their own power.
The report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee says making households most efficient is the single most cost-effective way of cutting carbon emissions.

It points out research suggesting household equipment like stereos, TVs and DVD players on standby produces 3.1m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year and calls on the government to work towards an "end of standby" with manufacturers.

The "zero carbon" standard for new homes should be brought in well before the current target of 2016, the report said.

It added that home owners were often put off on installing solar water heating, wind turbines and photovoltaic systems by the cost, planning restrictions and confusion over what grants were available.
Other suggestions include - a stamp duty rebate for home-buyers who improve energy efficiency within a year, tougher carbon reduction targets for energy suppliers, more detailed energy billing within 12 months and more demanding building regulations.

This is just the current laundry list being advocated by the chattering classes up and down the country. You would think that MPs would have been able to produce a slightly more serious analysis than what one gets down at the pub. The most bizarre idea is that we need "to help people generate their own power". Why? It's like saying we need to help people grow their own food. This is just a sop for the academic middle class. Not surprisingly, after thousands of years of civilisation we have arrived at the point where most people do not want to grow their own food, generate their own power, sink their own wells, etc. The UK chattering classes do not get it and have never gotten it.

There are not many British postgraduate students in science and engineering (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Foreign students are propping up British universities in key subject areas like science and engineering, a report for UK vice-chancellors says.

More than a fifth of students in subjects deemed "strategic" by the government come from overseas, the Universities UK (UUK) report found.

Only 29% of postgraduate students in these areas are from the UK, with more than half coming from non-EU countries.
Strategic subjects are defined as those which are vital on the grounds of wealth creation, diplomacy, international relations and cultural grounds.

They include science subjects, mathematics, technology, engineering and languages.

Chairman of UUK's long term strategy group Professor Geoffrey Crossick said the lack of UK-born postgraduate students was leading universities to fill their posts with foreign applicants.

The figures underscored "the importance of international students, not only for the financial health of UK higher education, but also for the renewal of disciplines in many areas and in underpinning the UK's world-class research base."

He added: "The concern is that should people return home, the flow of researchers will dry up and that will cause problems for the UK economy.

"The important thing for UK universities now is not to have fewer researchers from abroad but to build up more from the UK."

This is just part of the trend of the globalisation of science. And the main point of studying science or engineering at the undergraduate or postgraduate level for most people is that it opens up lots of non-research jobs (e.g. in the City). Most students do not end up doing research, since there are not that many (quasi-permanent) research jobs either in universities or in the real world (and they also don't pay well). So all in all it's not clear whether anyone should be worried about this trend.

Date published: 2007/09/12

Mobile phone use found yet again not to be harmful (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The long-term cancer risk of mobile phone use cannot be ruled out, experts have concluded.

A major six-year research programme found a "hint" of a higher cancer risk.

But the UK Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHRP) did rule out short-term adverse effects to brain and cell function.

Researchers are now expanding the programme to look at phone use over 10 years, and the specific impact on children, which has not been studied.

The MTHRP programme, funded by the government and communications industry, has carried out 23 separate studies into the health impact of mobile phones, masts and base stations.
There are now 70 million mobile phone handsets in the UK, and around 50 thousand masts.

Both emit radio signals and electromagnetic fields that can penetrate the human brain, and campaigners fear that this could seriously damage human health.
A spokeswoman for the Mast Sanity campaign group said: "We believe mobiles are harmful to health, plenty of other studies have shown this.

"The programme has not really got to the bottom of this, it is too close to industry."

The anti-mobile phone people will never be convinced by any evidence about anything that does not fall into line with their narrow, partisan, anti-scientific world view. And unfortunately the BBC manages to blur two issues. The first is whether mast radio signals are harmful, and the study concluded not (although the committee wants some more research with regard to some radio signals such as TETRA). The second is whether holding a mobile phone against your head for hours on end is harmful, and just for contact reasons (pressing against the ear) one might suspect this could be a problem. But as far as the radio signals from the mobile phone, again the study concluded there was no real evidence there was any problem. Hopefully some day someone will look at the contact issue and not just the radio issue, because the report has supposedly found a "hint" of a problem (although the word "hint" is not used in the report except in a completely unrelated context). Ignoring one issue means that incorrect conclusions could easily be made.

Throwing £4bn at poor children will allegedly solve the educational achievement gap (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Poor children are as much as two years behind their peers in educational achievement by age 14 and heading for a "downward spiral", a report says.

Research for the Campaign to End Child Poverty says children from poor homes are up to nine months behind their peers before they even get to school.

This gap in achievement widens at every stage from then on, it says.

The government says it is working to improve opportunities for children from poor families.

The campaigners say the government must invest £4bn to meet its pledge of freeing children from poverty by 2020.

The report, Chicken and egg: child poverty and educational inequalities, focuses on the cycle of poverty into which poorer children are born and struggle to escape.

Is it supposed to be surprising that the gap widens as children get older? And is throwing money at poor people the "solution" to the "problem"? The name "chicken and egg" is appropriate. There is a correlation between poverty and poor education and poor health and just about anything else you care to mention. But what is the cause and what is the effect?

Date published: 2007/09/11

Proposal for an alleged eco-town in Norfolk (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A disused Norfolk airbase could be transformed into a £9bn eco-community combining homes, jobs, and a brand new broad, under proposals by a developer.

The vision for RAF Coltishall would make it a carbon-neutral settlement, developer Richard Davies has said.

The scheme could provide up to 10,000 homes and 2,000 jobs in a self-contained sustainable community.
Plans show the old runway turned into an island with luxury waterside homes, a lake containing a wind farm, a wetlands centre, nature boardwalks and a boatyard.

The scheme also includes calls for a spur road off the planned Norwich northern bypass, and an eco-friendly electric bus route to the city.
Mr Davies said: "We would like it to be an exemplary eco-settlement with a zero carbon footprint because it has to be economically and socially sustainable with renewable energy."
Mr Davies' plans will be sent to the government in time for an end of October deadline for eco-settlement schemes.

Eco-communities, dubbed Brown Towns, need to have 5,000-20,000 homes, a zero carbon output, 30-50% affordable housing, a good range of facilities and one exemplary area of environmental sustainability.

Every developer claims they are building "sustainable" communities, it is just part of the jargon one uses to pacify the urban planning elite. But it is largely meaningless terminology. Here specifically, why should an "eco" community have to have between 5000 and 20000 homes, why should it have 30%-50% so-called affordable housing, and shouldn't all new communities trivially be required to have "a good range of facilities"? These have nothing to do with any supposed environmental stewardship. And what does it mean to have "zero carbon output"? Are they ignoring the massive carbon emissions to build the housing in the first place? Are they ignoring the massive carbon emissions to maintain the housing for decades if not hundreds of years? Is it even really "zero carbon" in any weak (operational) sense? Will the residents just get in their cars and drive to work in Norwich (or wherever) just like everybody else? And according to the UK wind database, Norfolk is not a particularly good place for a wind farm, so why is that being trumpeted as a suitable technology for this development?

Unauthorised absences from school allegedly a problem (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Overall truancy in England's secondary schools decreased last autumn then worsened in spring, new figures show.

A minister urged parents not to take children on holiday during term, as more than 5.4 million days were lost for that reason in all schools.
Of the total days lost due to holidays, 530,000 had not been authorised by the schools though in the vast majority of cases schools had agreed to the children's absences.

Schools can grant up to 10 days authorised holiday per year, though official guidance to head teachers says this should not be an automatic right for parents.

[ Children's Minister Kevin ] Brennan said: "While it's fair that heads should have the discretion to allow parents up to a fortnight for holidays in exceptional circumstances, local authorities should not tolerate instances where parents wilfully take their child out of school without authorisation."

He added: "Travel companies have a role to play in keeping prices competitive during school holidays."

Agreed family holidays accounted for 12% of the reasons for absence (17% in primary schools and 8% in secondaries).

The figures 53% were because of illness, with a further 7% for medical appointments.

Arriving late accounted for just over 1% of unauthorised absences.

The middle class control freaks in action yet again. How dare parents do anything without grovelling to the school first. No doubt many parents don't want to ask the schools about in-term holidays because they don't want to be lectured to by the school head about how dreadful they are (allegedly) behaving. And although the BBC makes every effort in the story to mix statistics between percentages and absolute numbers, it seems from the above that less than 10% of days lost to holidays were not authorised by schools, and since agreed family holidays accounted for 12% of absences, presumably unauthorised holidays therefore accounted for around 1% of absences. Is this something worth getting hysterical about, or even writing a story about? And travel companies are simply following the usual laws of economics with regard to supply and demand. If the government doesn't like it, the government should spread the demand out by spreading the holiday weeks out between differing schools. That would make out-of-term holidays cheaper much more effectively than making silly statements about travel companies allegedly having a role to play in denying the laws of economics.

Date published: 2007/09/10

Middle class pushed higher than working class in school (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children from working class backgrounds are being placed in lower sets than their ability merits, a study suggests.

Middle class pupils were more likely to be in higher sets, irrespective of their ability, research looking at 168 schools in England also discovered.

Half of the children were placed in sets on the basis of their ability - measured by test results at age 11.

The other half were grouped on a number of other issues, predominantly social class, an educational conference heard.
This was likely to be down to a complex range of interconnecting factors, she said, adding that it raised issues which were implicit rather than explicit.

But [ Professor Judy Sebba ] highlighted the fact that schools as a whole are likely to have a "middle class culture as an institution".

"Language, speech and all of that" will come into it along with parental pressure, she added.

Middle class parents are thought to understand the school system better and would therefore be more likely to push for their children to be taught in higher sets.

However, the team acknowledged that other factors such as teacher assessments, teacher judgements and pupil characteristics were also likely to influence set placements.

This is not very surprising, although it's only one study so the exact details should be taken with caution. And it's just the way the world works for obvious reasons. And you can guarantee that anything the government tries to do to "fix" the "problem" will just make things arbitrarily worse in other ways (or even the same way).

De La Warr Pavilion (permanent blog link)

The De La Warr Pavilion, by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, is one of the most famous modernist buildings in the UK. It was opened in 2006 after an extensive renovation, although the western end of the building is still being worked on. These buildings have to be painted white, and so they look best in blue sky. And needless to say, the south-facing facade has a suitable amount of glass. The huge roof terrace (one thing the modernists did well) was designed for exercise displays (a big fad of the day). But the star of the show is the majestic spiral staircase and in particular the staircase chandelier. The town of Bexhill-on-Sea does not look capable of supporting the building by itself, it really requires tourists, and lots of them. But the tourism is seasonal, and September is already getting to be a quiet period. Unfortunately the beach is not great (horrid stone), which does not help bring the tourists in.

Date published: 2007/09/09

The Pope believes we are all wasting our Sundays by not being in church (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pope Benedict XVI has appealed for renewed respect for Sundays as he celebrated Mass at St Stephen's cathedral in the heart of Vienna.

He was speaking on the final day of his three-day visit to Austria.

In his sermon, the Pope said leisure was a good thing amid the mad rush of the modern world, but warned of the dangers of it becoming wasted time.

Who is the Pope to decide what is and is not "wasted" time? Of course what he means is that people should all go to Catholic Church on each and every Sunday. Now that would be a huge waste of time. (Of course he also believes we should all be Catholic in the first place, otherwise he might have conceded that perhaps Friday or Saturday would be an acceptable alternative day not to "waste".)

Government wants to throw more money at pregnant women (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pregnant women will get about £200 paid into their bank account to spend on healthy food under a government initiative, the BBC has learned.

From April 2009, expectant mothers in England would receive a one-off payment from their 29th week of pregnancy to encourage them to eat well.

Health secretary Alan Johnson will announce the "Health in Pregnancy Grant" on Wednesday.

Charities welcomed the idea but warned it may not be effective.

For example, there is no measure to ensure the cash is spent on healthy food and babies also need good nutrition before 29 weeks.
The Health in Pregnancy Grant would not be means-tested.

Another completely crackpot idea from the do-gooders, who unfortunately pop up now and again in the Labour (or indeed any) government. Calling it a Health in Pregnancy Grant is completely meaningless, the mothers can spend the money on whatever they want, and it could not possibly be any other way. Why are the responsible minority (people who do not breed) forced over and over again to cough up money to the irresponsible majority (people who have children, whether they can afford it or not). Why are poor families without children being forced to pay more tax so that rich people with children can get yet another unneeded State handout. And how much money will it cost to administer this new wheeze?

TUC general secretary wants the "super-rich" to pay more tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The "super-rich" should pay more tax in an effort to reduce child poverty and fight crime, says the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Brendan Barber said "loopholes" for UK citizens who spent time abroad meant tax breaks worth £4bn a year, putting a greater burden on lower earners.

These had to be closed, with the money raised spent on reducing child poverty - a key cause of crime - he added.

But Mr Barber denied his campaign was guided by the "politics of envy".

Speaking ahead of the TUC annual congress, which starts in Brighton on Monday, he said: "Today a significant group of super-rich float free from the rest of society, and think that tax is for the little people.

"Today the rest of society pays a heavy price for the wealth gap - whether middle, low or no income."

Mr Barber said this "distorted" the housing market, adding: "The gap harms social cohesion - and without joining the moral panic about crime rates in the UK, it's noticeable that many countries with a fairer distribution of income have lower crime rates."

Some 112,000 people currently benefit from "non-domiciliary tax breaks", he added.

When asked about the size of City bonuses, Mr Barber said they had reached £14bn in total this year.

But he added that the TUC was not calling for a change in the rate of income tax for the highest earners.

Unions, he said, had to "build support for a new progressive consensus of equality and redistribution - not based on the old politics of envy but on a new politics of cutting the costs of inequality".

Poverty costs the UK economy £40bn a year - more than £600 a person - according to the TUC.

The BBC unfortunately just repeats what Barber says without any critical analysis. First of all, what is a "super-rich" person? Is it the top 0.1% or the top 1% or the top 5% or what? Whatever percentage you choose, it better not be very big, otherwise the term is meaningless rhetoric. And given that it is a small percentage, it is ludicrous to say that these people "distort" the housing market. The reason the house market is "distorted" (i.e. prices have risen sharply the last decade) is because not enough houses are being built, pure and simple. This is because the middle class refuses to allow enough houses to be built, in particular enough land to be released for housing. It has nothing to do with the "super-rich". (And also, the market is not "distorted", it is just supply and demand, i.e. Economics 101.)

And the tax "loopholes" he is talking about could perfectly easily be closed, only the government knows full well if they did so it would have little impact on government tax take, because these people would just move elsewhere. London needs the super-rich more than the super-rich need London. This is the problem with this pathetically dated world view of Barber.

And what does it mean that "poverty costs the UK economy £40 billion a year"? Presumably Barber is referring to direct governmental costs like social benefits and indirect governmental costs like health care. But what is his "solution" to this "problem", if it is not to tax high earners more and take that money and hand it over to poor people. So the direct costs remain and presumably Barber is going to claim that miraculously the indirect costs would disappear. This is to confuse correlation (poor people are less healthy) and causation (poverty "causes" ill health, so to eliminate ill health you throw money at poor people).

Date published: 2007/09/08

APEC leaders sign weak statement on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Asia-Pacific leaders meeting in Sydney have agreed an "aspirational" goal to restrain the rise of greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change.

China and the US - two of the world's biggest polluters - are among the 21 nations that have signed the statement, which contains no firm commitments.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard called it "a very important milestone" towards an international deal.

Environmentalists said the declaration was symbolic rather than concrete.
The Apec statement included a non-binding goal of reducing "energy intensity" - the amount of energy used to produce a dollar of gross domestic product - by at least 25% by 2030.

The leaders also called for increased forest cover in the Asia-Pacific region of at least 20m hectares (50m acres) by 2020.
Apec's 21 members, which also include Russia and Japan, together account for about 60% of annual greenhouse gas emissions.

This is rather weak. The US decreased its energy intensity by 40% over the period 1980-2004, so just a bit longer than the period from now until 2030. So a 25% reduction by 2030 is not that difficult a target. And the more difficult question is carbon per GDP, which happens to have fallen in the US by just over 40% from 1980-2004 (so the carbon - energy mix was evidently fairly constant averaged over all sources during that period). But with oil demand exceeding supply, more countries could well turn to coal over the next couple of decades, so the carbon per GDP figure could get worse. And this is not to mention the carbon figure, period.

Date published: 2007/09/07

FoE and Greenpeace take their toys and go home over nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Green groups have pulled out of the debate over whether the UK should build new nuclear power stations.

Organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are unhappy with the way the government has presented the arguments to the public.

As a result the groups are withdrawing from the process, which includes public meetings across the UK on Saturday.

The poor dears, they evidently have concluded they wouldn't be able to hijack the proceedings. Of course these groups don't really want a debate since they have long since taken the position that we should not build new nuclear power stations. They are the ones with the closed minds.

WHO wants more money spent on depression (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Depression is a more disabling condition than angina, arthritis, asthma and diabetes, World Health Organization research shows.

And those with depression plus a chronic illness, such as diabetes, fare particularly badly, the study of more than 245,000 people suggests.

Better treatment for depression would improve people's overall health, the researchers concluded in the Lancet.

Experts called for better funding for mental health services.

What a surprise, "experts called for better funding". Why bother adding "for mental health services", you might as well put "for everything on the face of the planet". The BBC, and the rest of the chattering classes, seem to think there is infinite money and it is only because government is fully of nasty people that this money isn't being thrown at the infinite collection of causes which demand more money.

Date published: 2007/09/06

Some combination of seven additives apparently effects behaviour of children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parents have been warned of the effects of food additives on their children's behaviour after new research found a possible link to hyperactivity.

A Food Standards Agency (FSA) study of 300 random children found they behaved impulsively and lost concentration after a drink containing additives.

The FSA now says hyperactive children might benefit from fewer additives.
The Food Standards Agency paid for Southampton University researchers to examine whether giving additives to a group of ordinary three-year-olds and eight or nine-year-olds had any effect on their behaviour.

The children were randomly given one of three drinks, either a potent mix of colourings and additives, a drink that roughly matched the average daily additive intake of a child of their age, or a "placebo" drink which had no additives.

Their hyperactivity levels were measured before and after the drink was taken. Mix "A", with the high levels of additives, had a "significantly adverse" effect compared with the inactive placebo drink.

The older children showed some adverse effects after the second, less potent mix, although the response varied significantly from child to child.

Lead researcher Professor Jim Stevenson said the study, published in the Lancet, showed that certain mixtures of artificial food colours, alongside sodium benzoate, a preservative used in ice cream and confectionary, were linked to increases in hyperactivity.

He added: "However, parents should not think that simply taking these additives out of food will prevent hyperactive disorders.

"We know that many other influences are at work but this at least is one a child can avoid."

He said it was not possible to say which of the ingredients in the additives cocktail affected the children.

Between 5% and 10% of school-age children suffer some degree of ADHD - attention deficit hyperactivity disorder - researchers suggest, with symptoms such as impulsiveness, inability to concentrate and excessive activity.

More boys than girls are diagnosed with the condition, and children with ADHD can struggle academically, often behaving poorly in school.

Andrea Bilbow, from ADHD support group ADDISS, said most parents of children with ADHD had tried diet changes.

While more than half had reported some improvement, this tended to be modest when compared with the effect of medication, she said.

"In some respects the question of food additives is a little bit of a red herring.

"While in some cases, a poor diet could make ADHD even worse, a better diet is not going to make it much better," she said.

At least this health study seems to have been done properly, with the three groups chosen randomly. (And presumably the researchers marking the behaviour of the children did not know who was in which group.) So the effect seems real, although its significance is another matter. Of course the usual suspects (including many in the media) came out of the woodwork and said (all?) additives should be banned. But there are zillions of additives and this study only looked at one combination of seven of them (so it's possible only one or two of the seven were causing the effect). So the implication of the results is rather limited. Unfortunately the knee-jerk reaction of the control freaks who dominate Britain (and Europe) is to ban just about anything and everything they don't like.

A virus might be responsible for bee colony collapse in the US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A virus has emerged as a strong suspect in the hunt for the mystery disease killing off North American honeybees.

Genetic research showed that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) turned up regularly in hives affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Over the last three years, between 50% and 90% of commercial bee colonies in the US have been affected by CCD.
The honeybee decline can be traced back at least 20 years, and the introducton of the parasitic varroa mite is one of the principal causes.

But in 2004, beekeepers began seeing and reporting a new and serious phenomenon, in which entire colonies would desert their hives, leaving behind their brood and stocks of food - a syndrome that was later labelled Colony Collapse Disorder.

Theories on what is causing it have ranged from mobile phone radiation to pesticides, from genetically-modified crops to climate change.
The researchers ... found genes from parasites, fungi, and viruses, in both healthy hives and in those which had undergone collapse. But IAPV only appeared in samples from CCD populations.

"This virus appears to be strongly associated with CCD," commented Dr Cox-Foster, "but whether it's the causative agent or just a very good marker (of the syndrome) is the next question we need to address."

And if it is a cause, it might not be the only one.

"I still believe that multiple factors are involved in CCD," said Jeff Pettis, "and what we need to do is look at combinations such as parasites, stress and nutrition (together with the virus)."

Meanwhile, theories connected with mobile phones, climate change and GM crops can probably be discounted, the researcher suggested.
If IAPV does turn out to be a major factor causing CCD, there may be little that scientists or beekeepers can do about it.

"We're unlikely to come up with a treatment for viruses in bees," said Dr Pettis, "and so beekeepers are likely just to have to keep the other things that might affect CCD, such as mites, under control."

With commercial honeybees worth an estimated $14bn to US agriculture, the political pressure on scientists to come up with some answers is considerable.

Interesting work. And at least these scientists seem to understand the difference between causation and correlation.

Date published: 2007/09/05

BBC bins "Planet Relief" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The BBC has scrapped plans for Planet Relief, a TV special on climate change.

The decision comes after executives said it was not the BBC's job to lead opinion on climate change.

Celebrities such as Ricky Gervais were said to be interested in presenting the show, which would have involved viewers in a mass "switch-off" to save energy.

The BBC says it cut the special because audiences prefer factual output on climate change. Environmentalists slammed the decision as "cowardice".
It is believed that poor ratings in the UK and elsewhere for July's Live Earth concert may have confirmed the internal belief that the public do not like being "lectured to" on climate change.

Well it seems the BBC has saved the "celebrities" the effort, and the "switch-off" of this latest attempt at mass indoctrination will certainly "save energy", if nothing else. The BBC is correct that it should concentrate on "factual output on climate change" rather than on hours of unfiltered and patronising propaganda by the academic middle class. Needless to say, celebrities and other hangers on who feature in these kinds of programmes are much more part of the problem than they are part of the solution. And, for example, is Gervais now going to campaign for people to switch off his television programmes? (They are definitely a waste of energy.)

HFEA agrees that human-animal embryos can in principle be used in research (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Regulators have agreed in principle to allow human-animal embryos to be created and used for research.

But scientists wanting to use hybrids will still need to make individual applications, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said.

An HFEA consultation showed the public were "at ease" with the idea when told it could pave the way for therapies for conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

Opponents have said many people would be "horrified" by such a move
The government originally proposed banning the technique in a white paper last year.

But it reversed its decision this year in a bill which indicated ministers were minded to allow hybrid embryos which were 99.9% human and 0.1% animal, following a backlash by scientists and patient groups.

But the HFEA has carried out its own review ahead of parliament passing the legislation so as not to hold back research.

The regulator can grant licences to scientists to pursue such research, but will have to change its criteria if future rules contradicted its own practices.

A small step forward. Of course the opponents try to use the same kind of scare tactics that the so-called environmentalists used to demonise so-called GM food. But here the scientists have the health trump card to play. Everybody (pretty much) wants medical advances, and although the possible advances permitted by this technology are no doubt hyped, at least this story line keeps the public on side and makes them less susceptible to scare tactics.

Surprise, birds don't like dogs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Taking your dog for a walk could be having an impact on local birdlife, a study suggests.

An Australian team found dog-walking was prompting birds to take flight, causing numbers to plummet by 41%.

The researchers, writing in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, said the birds were fleeing because they viewed the dogs as potential predators.

Charity Birdlife International said the longer-term effects of the dogs' presence now needed to be looked at.

More pathetic "research". Birds don't particularly like humans trotting around either, or anything that could be construed as a predator. Who would have thought it, eh. This just seems to be more of the anti-mammal hatred that the bird community constantly foments.

Date published: 2007/09/04

EU aviation will allegedly ruin EU climate goals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Union proposals to reduce the climate impact of flying will not work, a report concludes.

The EU plans to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

But analysts at the Tyndall Centre, a prestigious UK climate research body, say this will have minimal effect without a major rise in carbon prices.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) which funded the study wants mandatory efficiency goals for aircraft, tax on aviation fuel and curbs on airport expansion.

Once again the BBC prints what looks just like a press release for a special interest pressure group, this time the FoE, without any critical analysis of their claims. The BBC would not print a press release from the aviation industry without some critical comment. And any report funded by a special interest pressure group is obviously suspect to start with, especially one which just happens to justify the positions that the special interest pressure group has taken all along (as of course they always do, otherwise they would never see the light of day).

Needless to say, the "prestigious" Tyndall Centre can do a perfectly reasonable analysis, no matter what the bias. But the bias should be made clear by the BBC. Here the bias is in the assumptions underlying the report. The assumptions pretty much trivially lead to the desired conclusion. So one key assumption is that the world should not go above 450ppmv CO2 equivalents. Once upon a time that would have been 550ppmv. Since the world is already at 380ppmv and climbing, this is a big assumption. A second key assumption is that we should no longer aim to cut emissions by certain percentages (relative to the 1990 level) by some dates or other in the future, instead we should not allow more than a cumulative amount of emissions, period. A third key assumption is that we should ignore what is going on in the rest of the world and just apportion some fraction of that cumulative amount to the EU. It is easy enough to justify making these assumptions, but it is easy enough to justify other assumptions, which would lead to other conclusions. Unfortunately the BBC just prints the FoE sound bites without pointing any of this out.

If the FoE spent more time and money trying to make the aviation industry more environmentally friendly and less time and money on press releases, the world would be a better place.

Men allegedly go for beauty and women allegedly go for wealth (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Men look for beauty, while women go for wealth when it comes to assessing future partners, researchers say.

An Indiana University team looked at the behaviour of 46 people taking part in a speed-dating session.

They found that the men were more likely to go for the more attractive women, while women opted for those who could give the best financial security.
Speed-dating is becoming an increasingly popular way for singles to meet, involving scores of mini-dates whereby couples get a few minutes to get to know each other.
Dr Glenn Wilson, a relationships expert at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, added: "It is well known that men select women for fairly superficial reasons, whereas women think much more about the long-term and the qualities and resources needed to bring up children.

Give these geniuses a bonus for spending time and money figuring out that in an artificial context (speed-dating) they can elicit trivial stereotyped conclusions from people. But what in the world is Wilson saying when he claims that "men select women for fairly superficial reasons, whereas women think much more about the long-term and the qualities and resources needed to bring up children". Since when is beauty more "superficial" than wealth? (And you have to love the BBC stating that "speed-dating is becoming an increasingly popular way for singles to meet". Speed-dating is ever so last year.)

Date published: 2007/09/03

So-called green taxes allegedly more than cover the associated environmental damage (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is raising billions of pounds more in green taxes than it needs to remove the UK's "carbon footprint", a report says.

The Taxpayers' Alliance said emissions in 2005 had done damage worth an estimated £11.7bn, but green taxes and charges in that year had made £21.9bn.

It claimed ministers were "cynically" raising revenue rather than using the money to improve the environment.

But the Treasury said the pressure group's claims were "ridiculous".

But the Taxpayers' Alliance said the £11.7bn figure covered the "social cost" of climate change to the world, such as weather changes and related disasters.

It added that UK green taxes should not exceed this figure.

The group also said that, on average, UK households were "over-paying" £400 a year.

Fuel duty and vehicle excise duty were between 30 and 40 times higher than the level needed to cover estimates of the social cost of CO2 emissions.
[I]t said the landfill tax was raising up to £620m more than was needed to meet the social costs of methane emissions from landfill.
... But a Treasury spokesman said: "The government's definition of environmental taxes includes those taxes that are designed to primarily have an environmental impact - the climate change levy, aggregates levy and landfill tax.

"We make clear, for example, when setting fuel duty rates that the Government takes into account a range of factors, including costs of motoring such as congestion, and the need to maintain sound public finances.

The Taxpayers' Alliance is just pointing out the obvious. Unfortunately most of the ruling elite (including the BBC) are in denial about this, so the obvious does need pointing out. Of course whether the Taxpayers' Alliance has done their sums correctly is another matter (and you can bet your last pound that the so-called enviromentalists would manage to come up with much bigger figures for social costs, at least for those activities they don't like -- they seem to be magically blind about the social cost of activities they do like).

And of course green taxes (especially petrol duty) serve to fill government coffers. Blair always admitted this (it was one of the few things he was honest about). And the Treasury seems to be happy to admit this as well. And fair enough, someone has to pay for all the services that the chattering classes insist the government should provide. But it is indeed a bit ridiculous that car drivers are deemed to be the one class of citizen who should carry a crazily disproportionate burden, while London (and other) train commuters pay negative taxes (they not only do not pay for the social costs of their journeys, they don't even pay for the operational costs).

And if the Taxpayers' Alliance thinks it is bad under Labour, they should pause to think how bad it would be under the Tories or the Lib Dems, who have both promised they would pile on the so-called green taxes.

Decline of hedgehogs allegedly down to suburbia becoming hostile (permanent blog link)

Hugh Warwick says on the BBC:

Hedgehogs are pretty robust critters. In some form or other they have been around since the beginning of mammals; early versions were nipping at the heels of the departing dinosaurs.

They have survived ice ages, outlasted mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers and even managed to form a symbiotic relationship with their arch-predator, humans.

So why do we suddenly have to worry about the plummeting number of hedgehogs in the UK?
So what are the reasons for the decline? Although the project is only half way through, we are already beginning to get an idea as to some of the main causes. Principal among these is habitat fragmentation.

A happy hedgehog habitat is one in which there is just the right combination of shelter and food. Despite the defensive prickles, hogs do like to keep to the edges.

In fact their natural home is woodland edge - something that we have recreated in abundance - hedges. Or at least there used to be plenty of hedges until the lunatic fashion of ecological destruction took hold.
In suburbia, humanity had created hedgehog heaven, a network of green spaces, complete with cover and food.
So what is making our guests feel so unwelcome? The refuge of suburbia, sanctuary from the ecological desert that so much of our industrialised countryside has become, is also turning hostile. And this is one of the reasons why hedgehogs are in decline.

As the roads become busier, so they also become impassable. As developments get denser, the wildlife corridors vanish.

As the gardens get turned into extensions, either literally or through decking and patio heaters, more habitat is lost.

As we manicure our green space, nuking bugs and napalming weeds, we drive hedgehogs and their food out into a wilderness with little sign of comfort.

In Cambridge, hedgehogs had a noticeable crash in population in the 1990s. Ultimately of course it is trivial to point out that it must be down to the environment not being what it once was, either for food or reproductive or lifespan reasons. But this article seems way over the top and just repeats the usual litany of the chattering classes that suburbia has allegedly all been paved over or kept too neat or dosed with killer chemicals the last decade. Oh, and let's not forget to mention patio heaters, the current pet hate of the chattering classes. But there is never any evidence provided that suburban life is really any different than it has been for the last fifty years. Cambridge certainly hasn't changed much in the last thirty or forty years, with not even that much new housing added since the early 1970s (although that is starting to change now).

(And there has never been any "lunatic fashion of ecological destruction", that is another silly claim in the article. People have done things because they thought they were the best approach given the issues of the day. And just as the current generation thinks the previous generation was clueless, the next generation will think this generation was clueless. It doesn't really add anything to the debate.)

(And unfortunately most so-called environmentalists are actively working for the destruction of suburbia since they believe that high-density urban housing is the only way forward, since allegedly that is more "sustainable". And another fetish of the so-called environmentalists is that housing should be built on brownfield sites and not greenfield sites, but the former are quite often more green than the latter.)

Date published: 2007/09/02

Pope pretends he is an environmentalist (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Catholic Church has declared Sunday "Save Creation Day" as Pope Benedict joined about 300,000 young Roman Catholics for an eco-friendly festival.

The youth festival is being held at the shrine of Loreto, in Italy.

In his main homily the Pope urged young Catholics to take better care of the planet and called for "courageous decisions" to safeguard creation.
Wearing green vestments, the pontiff told the crowd it was up to them to save the planet from development which often upset "nature's delicate equilibrium".

"Before it's too late, we need to make courageous choices that will recreate a strong alliance between man and Earth," he said.

As long as the Catholic Church discourages birth control and encourages Catholics to breed like rabbits (although fortunately most in Europe ignore the Church in this regard), the Church is directly responsible for perpetuating the biggest environmental problem on the planet. No amount of environmental window dressing on other issues by the Pope really means anything in comparison.

UK peatlands allegedly stressed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Severe erosion and climate change could result in a vast volume of carbon from the UK's peatlands being released into the atmosphere, scientists have warned.

Hotter summers and wetter winters could result in the habitat, described as the "most severely eroded in the world", becoming even less stable, they said.

But if areas were conserved properly, they could actually help the UK reduce emissions, the paper's authors added.
The UK scientists, from the universities of Manchester and Durham, said the bogs and peatlands of northern Britain stored more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon.

"Peatlands are areas where there is a high water table, and because of this you get low oxygen conditions within the saturated area that prevents organic materials from breaking down," explained Martin Evans, the paper's lead author.

"If you take the current rate of carbon loss as a result of badly eroded areas and apply this across the whole of the UK's peatlands then you lose about 1.5 million tonnes of carbon each year - that's the worst-case scenario."

Climate projections forecast the UK experiencing warmer summers and stormier, wetter winters.

Dr Evans said the shift in climatic conditions could lead to higher rates of erosion on the landscapes.

"Erosion is caused by things that stress the vegetation layer, which might be pollution or grazing, but it is also climate dryness in particular.

"On the other side of the climate coin is more intense rainfall, which also means that there is more erosive power."

He said these factors could lead to a substantial volume of carbon dioxide being released from the bogs into the atmosphere.

To understand the impact of erosion on peatlands' ability to store carbon, the team selected two sites - one in the northern Pennines, and the other in the southern reaches of the uplands.

The northern location, Rough Sike, is in the Moorhouse Nature Reserve, one of the UK's most studied moorlands.

The southern Pennine site, Upper North Grain, was situated in an area that was among the nation's most degraded.
The team found that the study area at Rough Sike had undergone extensive natural revegetation on gully slopes and beds, limiting the amount of carbon particles being washed away.

This was in contrast to their observations at Upper North Grain: "Sediment is eroded from exposed peat faces on gully walls and rapidly evacuated from the catchment (area)," they wrote.

Dr Evans said this highlighted the need for effective land management.

"If you restore and manage peatlands, you not only avoid losing stored carbon but you actually add to that store," he said.

"Revegetated gullies seem to be locking up carbon more quickly than some intact areas of the bogs.

Interesting, especially since they seem to have actually done some field work rather than rely on computer models. The article fails to mention human impact on peatlands, e.g. from hikers. If you go to the peat bogs near Kinder Scout in the Peak District, for example, the human impact seems to be quite significant.

Date published: 2007/09/01

The UK has the wettest summer since records began in 1914 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

This summer appears to have been the wettest since rainfall records began in 1914, according to provisional data from the UK's Met Office.

Britain had 358.5mm of rain, just beating the 1956 record of 358.4mm.

The main reason for the high rainfall has been the unusually southerly position of the jet stream, a band of strong winds high in the atmosphere.

Well the difference between 358.4 and 358.5 is lost in the noise, the error bars must be much higher than that. But after a few dry years, 2007 has brought back the rain with a vengeance. Of course with climate change (which unbelievably the BBC article does not mention) we were told for years that we would end up with hot, dry summers like the Mediterranean, but it seems we can still have good old-fashioned wet British summers as well. The climate change story now seems to be that the weather will just be "extreme", which of course is a safer bet to make than just saying it will be hot and dry. Well, what is "extreme"? Some people would take a record to be indicative of an extreme, which is why the BBC has been so keen the last couple of days to cheer for that extra 0.1 mm of rain (what kind of story would it have been to say it was the second wettest summer). Well, if you have recorded the same measurement N times, then the odds that the last measurement was the most extreme of all N would just be 1/N, if the distribution was not changing in time (and no doubt the climate change people would claim the distribution is changing). So since they've apparently been measuring the rainfall records since 1914, these days one expects a record roughly once a century, which sounds like an extrememly rare thing to happen. Only there are zillions of records (wettest summer, dryest summer, wettest winter, dryest May, hottest 13th of July, coldest autumn, etc.), which means there are always going to be plenty of records that are going to be broken, even without climate change, which is good news for the media because they love to report "extremes".

A woman has a second set of triplets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A woman in Ohio has given birth to her second set of triplets.

Victoria Lasita and her husband Tim conceived both sets naturally, without fertility treatments that increase the chance of multiple pregnancies.

"Holy smokes. Do you know what the odds of that are?" fertility expert Dr Glen Hofmann told the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The chances of conceiving one set of triplets naturally were about one in 8,000, making the odds of having them twice far higher, he said.

Having triplets once did not affect the chances of having triplets a second time, added Dr Hofmann, medical director of the Bethesda Center for Reproductive Health and Fertility.

Given the 1 in 8000 chance, and the claim that having triplets a second time is independent of having triplets once, this means there is theoretically a 1 in 64 million chance of this occuring. There are around 128 million births per annum in the world, so that would mean this ought be happening twice a year on average. And there are around 4 million births per annum in the US, so even there this ought to happen around once every 16 years. But in practise the odds must be lower than 1 in 64 million, because presumably many people who have triplets are sane enough to stop having children, so never test the odds of having two sets.

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