Azara Blog: October 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/10/31

Competition Commission says we should have more, not fewer, supermarkets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A revamp of the planning system to allow more supermarkets to open in some areas of the UK has been called for by the Competition Commission.

In its preliminary report it suggests forcing supermarkets to sell land they own in areas where there are not enough different chains of retailers.

But the report said that in most areas the UK groceries market was delivering "a good deal for consumers".

The commission also called for further measures to protect suppliers.
The report dismissed suggestions that the market-leader, Tesco, is too strong, saying: "Tesco is not in such a strong position that other retailers cannot compete".

It pointed to the fact that other grocers are still expanding as evidence that Tesco is not too powerful.

This is not the outcome desired by the academic middle class, and as expected they were whining on the Today Programme this morning on Radio 4 (but one of the usual suspects was stunningly put in his place by one of the other, sane, interviewees). The academic middle class are food snobs and hate supermarkets, and so obviously want fewer, not more, supermarkets. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the academic middle class is out of touch with what the ordinary people of Britain want. The ordinary people (mostly) love supermarkets.

House of Commons committee produces report on abortion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There is no reason why women seeking an abortion should need the approval of two doctors, a group of MPs has said.

A report by the Commons science and technology committee found the requirement did not serve a useful purpose and might be causing delays.

MPs also rejected calls to lower the 24-week legal limit for an abortion in England, Wales and Scotland.

They said although survival rates for babies born at 24 weeks had improved, they had not done so below that point.

Not all members of the cross-party committee agreed with the report's findings, however.

Conservative MPs Nadine Dorries and Bob Spink published their own separate report, claiming they had been misled on survival rates and also on the question of whether foetuses could feel pain.

The main report also called for more involvement by nurses in early abortions.

Unbelievable, a report by a committee of MPs that is actually sane. This is practically a first. One of the ways to make sure fewer women want abortions around 24 weeks is to make it easier for them to get abortions in the first place, such as by removing the ridiculous requirement that women should get the approval of two doctors. (Doctors, at the best of times, are control freaks, and having to deal with two rather than one just makes everything that much worse.)

Another study of studies looking at cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Even those who are not overweight should slim down if they want to cut their risk of cancer, a major international study has claimed.

The World Cancer Research Fund carried out the largest ever inquiry into lifestyle and cancer, and issued several stark recommendations.

They include not gaining weight as an adult, avoiding sugary drinks and alcohol, and not eating bacon or ham.

Everyone must also aim to be as thin as possible without becoming underweight.

People with a Body Mass Index (BMI), a calculation which takes into account height and weight, of between 18.5 and 25, are deemed to be within a "healthy" weight range.

There is no new research involved in this document: the panel examined 7,000 existing studies over five years.

The result, they say, is the most comprehensive investigation ever into the risks of certain lifestyle choices.

They see body fat as a key factor in the development of cancer, estimating its significance to be much higher than previously thought.
However, two-thirds of cancer cases are not thought to be related to lifestyle, and there is little people can do to prevent the disease in these circumstances.
Cancers of the colon and breast are some of the most common forms of the disease, and the report says the evidence is "convincing" that body fat plays a key role in the development of these tumours.

The report also links the kind of food consumed to cancers, especially colorectal ones.

In particular, researchers say people should stop eating processed meats, such as ham, bacon and salami, and limit the consumption of red meat to 500g a week - although this still means you could eat, for instance, five hamburgers each week.

From a cancer perspective, all alcohol should be avoided, although researchers accepted drinking small amounts could have protective benefits for other diseases.

The recommendation is therefore no more than two drinks a day for a man, and no more than one for a woman, slightly less than current UK government guidelines.

There are several worrying things about this study. First of all, they seem to have made a classic confusion between correlation and causation. In particular, many of the things they mention are also correlated with wealth (or lack of it). And health is well known to correlate with wealth. So are they just observing yet another correlation or are they really observing a causation? Hardly any health studies are done with randomised sampling. So it is unlikely that any causation has been proven. Of course, there could well be the causation they imply, and since a lot of people, the authors no doubt included, believe this causation holds, they can easily get away with claiming it without most people noticing there is no sound basis for the claim.

Another problem with this kind of study is that it looks at one thing in isolation, here cancer. It's quite possible that things that are bad for cancer are good for other things, as even the panel recognised with alcohol.

Another worrying sign is that the BBC claims the panel examined 7000 studies. Nobody can look at even a small fraction of that many studies with any element of care. So unless the panel contained several hundred people (and then who guaranteed a similar analysis by all concerned?), the analysis must have been fairly superficial.

Date published: 2007/10/30

Government allows councils to charge for waste by household (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

English councils are to be allowed to pilot plans to charge households according to rubbish they throw out.

A full roll-out of the pay-as-you-throw charge was dropped last week, apparently after opposition from No 10.

But powers to pilot the charges are in the Climate Change Bill, leading to Tory claims it had been "slipped out".

It comes as MPs warn the UK could face fines of up to £180m a year from the European Commission if it does not cut the amount of waste dumped in landfill.

The Department for the Environment has said the controversial pay-as-you-throw charges could help reduce this.

Plans outlined earlier this year would be for households to get an annual discount of up to £50 or extra charges of up to £50 depending on rubbish not recycled.

Any rubbish charges would have to be revenue neutral overall - the total amount of money charged by councils would not be able to be increased.

This is ultimately driven by the need to meet EU targets, and is a perfect example of where EU meddling is causing bad policy making. (And why should it be up to the EU how Britain disposes of its waste?) Of course this bad policy making will have one positive side effect, namely that less waste will end up in landfill. But more waste will end up strewn over the landscape, as some irresponsible people try to avoid the charge (they will be a minority, the question is how big a minority).

If this policy was really about making people pay for their waste, then the government would charge for both "recycled" and ordinary waste, since they both carry a cost. Unfortunately the EU ruling elite has decided that "recycled" waste is holy, and all other waste is evil. And unfortunately the EU has the ability to impose it silly views upon Britain.

At least the government is going to consider pilot trials before it imposes this on the entire country. Of course the people who judge whether the pilot trials are a success will all have a vested interest in saying that the trials are a success, since they will either be local councils trying to justify their decision, or worse, be part of the lobby which has foisted this bad policy on the EU in the first place.

Folic acid may lead to long term health problems (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fortifying flour with folic acid to cut birth defects may lead to a range of health problems, warn scientists.

The move was approved earlier this year by the Food Standards Agency as a way to reduce defects such as spina bifida.

However, an Institute of Food Research team has shown the liver could easily become saturated by folic acid.

Writing in the British Journal of Nutrition, they warn this could lead to unmetabolised folic acid entering the blood, which could damage health.

The latest study follows a letter to the Food Standards Agency from Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer of England, requesting further expert consideration of two recent studies linking folic acid to bowel cancer before the government gives the final go-ahead for mandatory fortification.

But the Food Standards Agency said fortification was safe.
[ Researcher Dr Sian ] Astley warned it could take 20 years for any potential harmful effects of unmetabolised folic acid to become apparent.

It has already been shown that folic acid forticifation can cause harm to some people.

For example, studies have confirmed that unmetabolised folic acid accelerates cognitive decline in the elderly with low levels of vitamin B12.

Well, at least someone is looking at this. The government is about to embark on a mass medication of the public, for the benefit of a small minority (babies of pregnant women). Far better would be to leave it to be the responsibility of pregnant women to take enough folic acid. It is outrageous that an irresponsible small minority of a small minority (pregnant women who would not take a folic acid supplement) is forcing the rest of the UK to take unnecessary and possibly harmful medication.

Date published: 2007/10/29

Some small amount of GM maize is being grown in the EU (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Figures published on Monday show the area planted with genetically modified crops in Europe has grown by 77% since last year.

This year more than 1,000 sq km (386 sq miles) of GM maize was harvested.

The biotech industry says this proves its products are appealing to farmers and are safe for the environment.

The only genetically modified crop grown widely in Europe is maize resistant to the corn borer - a moth larva which eats the stem.

The maize is cultivated for animal feed - not for human consumption.

Planted in Spain for the last 10 years, the maize is now proving popular in France where the acreage has tripled in a year and also in Germany and the Czech Republic.

Neither the pest nor the GM maize is found in Britain.

One thousand sq km (386 sq miles) is still a small fraction of the total farmed area of Europe and also tiny compared with the one million sq km (0.38 million sq miles) under GM around the world - an expanse four times the size of Britain.

Some environmental groups claim beneficial insects could also be harmed by the crop; and in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has suspended all GM plantings until next year.

Clare Oxborrow is a Friends of the Earth food campaigner. She told the BBC that the increase in the area planted with GM crops should not be viewed as beneficial.

"The reality is, these crops have failed to deliver benefits, and more and more evidence is, in fact, coming to light showing that there are increased concerns about their environmental risks," she said. "GM crops, GM industry is not competitive, it is not creating jobs, it is not creating any new environmental benefits, it's not accepted by consumers, and I think we need to take a long, hard look. These figures today are more about the industry trying to reassure its investors than any significant success."

This amount of crop is indeed small beer. But the main reason it is small beer is that the EU ruling elite have refused to allow most GM crops to be planted. And the so-called environmentalists, like FoE, have run a successful scare campaign against GM crops. The EU will be left behind, but that is what the ruling elite want. Societies that are incapable of using new technologies are societies that fail. Of course it will not be the ruling elite, like Clare Oxborrow, who suffer the consequence.

A possible cure for frog killing disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New Zealand scientists have found what appears to be a cure for the disease that is responsible for wiping out many of the world's frog populations.

Chloramphenicol, currently used as an eye ointment for humans, may be a lifesaver for the amphibians, they say.

The researchers found frogs bathed in the solution became resistant to the killer disease, chytridiomycosis.

The fungal disease has been blamed for the extinction of one-third of the 120 species lost since 1980.
The researchers tried using chloramphenicol as both an ointment, applied to the frogs' backs, and as a solution.

They found that placing the animals in the solution delivered the best results. The team has admitted it was surprised by the outcome.

"You don't usually expect antibiotics to do anything to fungi at all. And it does. We don't understand why it does, but it does," said Russell Poulter. v Professor Poulter, the molecular biologist who hunted down chloramphenicol, added: "It's also got the great advantage that it's incredibly cheap."

It's early days but this indeed sounds like good news. The downside so far is the method, having to place the frogs in a bath. But hopefully they will be able to sort out a more practical alternative soon enough.

Organic food allegedly has more antioxidants and less fatty acids (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Organic produce is better for you than ordinary food, a major European Union-funded study says.

The £12m four-year project, led by Newcastle University, found a general trend showing organic food contained more antioxidants and less fatty acids.

But researchers did admit the study showed some variations.

The findings call into question the current stance of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which says there is no evidence that organic food is better.

Researchers grew fruit, vegetables and reared cattle on adjacent organic and non-organic sites across Europe, including a 725-acre farm attached to Newcastle University.

They found levels of antioxidants in milk from organic cattle were between 50% and 80% higher than normal milk.

Organic wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, onions and lettuce had between 20% and 40% more nutrients.

But the study, which is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, also showed there were significant variations.

Project co-ordinator Professor Carlo Leifert said: "We have shown there are more of certain nutritionally desirable compounds and less of the baddies in organic foods.

"Our research is now trying to find out where the difference between organic and conventional food comes from.

"What we're really interested in is finding out why there is so much variability with respect to the differences. What in the agricultural system gives a higher nutritional content and less of the baddies in the food?"

He said he hoped the findings would help farmers in organic to improve the quality of their produce.

Final results of the project are due to be published over the next 12 months.

Well at least they have done a study. The problem is whether they matched the growing methodology of real farmers. And so-called organic food ought to be a *lot* better for you, because it is a lot more expensive. There better be some value in that cost. So the real question is whether the virtues listed in the study, along with any alleged reductions in externalities imposed on the environment, are worth that extra cost.

Date published: 2007/10/28

Children are allegedly being over-protected (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Youngsters are missing out on their childhood because we over-protect them, a child play expert claims.

A reluctance to let children take risks could stop them developing vital skills needed to protect themselves, he adds.

Tim Gill's new book says that instead of creating a "nanny state" we should build a society where communities look out for each other and youngsters.

The book explores several key areas, including children's play, anti-social behaviour and fear of strangers.

In No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, Mr Gill argues that childhood is being undermined by the growth of risk aversion and its intrusion into every aspect of children's lives.

Activities that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought - like walking to school on their own - have been re-labelled as troubling or dangerous and the adults who permit them branded as irresponsible, he argues.

It's easy to write books like this, because it's easy to cherry-pick examples. And of course many people believe the underlying thesis of the book is true, which helps. And it might well be true, since the health and safety nutters have inflicted this kind of risk averse attitude on all of society. But the main fault must lie with the media, which continually plays up dangers in an attempt to sell copy (there's nothing like a good piece of sensationalism) and/or to have a go at the government that "something must be done", with the attendant farcical belief that all danger could be removed from the world if only the government legislated it away and threw enough money at the problem (and the government knows it will be crucified if anything goes wrong, whether it is their fault or not). The media never worries about any cost benefit analysis (about anything, for that matter), hence providing cover for the health and safety nutters to impose additional cost on society with no analysis of whether the benefit justifies the cost.

Date published: 2007/10/27

Biofuels are allegedly a crime against humanity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for petrol as a crime against humanity.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger.

The growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels.

Mr Ziegler's remarks, made at the UN headquarters in New York, are clearly designed to grab attention.

He complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel, which created a recipe for disaster.

It was, he said, a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel.

He called for a five-year ban on the practice.

Within that time, according to Mr Ziegler, technological advances would enable the use of agricultural waste, such as corn cobs and banana leaves, rather than crops themselves to produce fuel.

Well Ziegler is correct about biofuels being over-hyped right now (and they are not nearly as environmentally friendly as the zealots claim). But to call it a "crime against humanity" is ridiculous. Soon enough everything will be labelled a "crime against humanity". Driving a car, eating a burger, watching a film, buying a newspaper. Perhaps the BBC is right, he's just saying this to get some attention.

Anti-abortion campaigners rally in London (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Religious and anti-abortion groups have been holding a rally to mark 40 years since abortion was legalised.

Activists met at the Houses of Parliament to call for a reduction in the upper time limit for abortion.

They later walked to Westminster Cathedral for a service commemorating 6.7m abortions performed since 1967.

Marie Stopes International said that although abortion rates needed to come down, the 1967 act had made it safer for women to terminate pregnancies.
In the 40 years since abortion has been legal in Britain, the number of terminations taking place each year has increased from 22,000 to almost 200,000.
Julia Millington, political co-ordinator for Alive and Kicking, the pro-life alliance organising Saturday's events, said the campaign was intended to raise awareness of the rising number of abortions and call for a change in the law.

She said nothing had persuaded the Department of Health that survival rates had improved for extremely premature babies born before that time.

She said: "We believe there is increasing public concern about these latest figures and we want to draw attention to this anniversary."

Lord Steel, who piloted the 1967 act, suggested he would like to see lower abortion rates, but he said there was no such thing as a "correct" number and that each case had to be considered "on its merits".

The anti-abortionists are disingenuous as always. They don't really care about the upper time limit for abortions. All they care about is stopping abortion. They have lost the argument about that so are trying to win the argument via the back door, by making abortion more and more difficult to obtain. Unfortunately these religious nutters will never go away.

Date published: 2007/10/26

Government wants all girls to be vaccinated against HPV (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Schoolgirls in Britain will be vaccinated against the virus that causes cervical cancer from September 2008, ministers have announced.

This goes further than recommended by experts, with all aged 12-13 eligible, and a catch-up campaign up to 18.

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

The vaccine is given in three injections over six months at a cost of around £300 a course.

Earlier this year the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended routine vaccination for 11 to 12-year olds, including the possibility of a catch-up campaign - but only up to the age of 16.
It will most likely be done in schools but individual primary care trusts will be responsible for working out how to implement vaccination.
[P]arents would have the final say as to whether their child received the injection.
Sarah Lotzof is a GP at Dedicated Doctors, a private clinic that has been offering the vaccine. She told BBC Radio 5 Live the vaccines were needed.
"We can stop possibly 85% of people who would have died of cancer dying - and at the moment over 1,000 women are dying of this disease in this country now."

About 80% of sexually active women can expect to have an HPV infection at some point in their lives.

It is held responsible for some 70% of cervical cancer cases, a disease which kills 274,000 women worldwide every year, including 1,120 in the UK.
Other European countries including Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, France, Norway, Luxembourg and Belgium have approved a vaccination programme.

Experts said the programme would be more expensive than all other childhood immunisations and the benefits would not be seen for decades, but eventually it would be worth the cost.

Health secretary Alan Johnson said: "As a society we need to do more to prevent disease and not just treat it.
He added that 400 lives could potentially be saved each year, with many women prevented from getting HPV in the first place.

The BBC article quotes a per course cost but not a total cost, and it seems that it will run into 100 million pounds per year. If Johnson's figures are correct, and 400 lives are "saved" (i.e. prolonged) then that equates to society paying 250000 pounds per life (and this, far out into the future). And this is completely ignoring the possible short term and long term side effects of these drugs. As with any drug, some girls will suffer immediate negative reactions, and we will only find out decades in the future whether there are any long term problems. Apparently the effect of the drugs has to last for 20 years for the cost to make any sense, and apparently so far these drugs have only been shown to work for 5 years. And it will be interesting to see how much parental choice there really will be. The medical profession in the UK (as elsewhere) is very good at ignoring the views of people and just doing what it wants (hey, they're doctors, they must be right).

England needs more houses being built (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

England is heading for a housing crisis despite the government's pledge to build an extra three million homes by 2020, according to a report.

The independent body set up to advise ministers on new homes said 270,000 more were needed each year.

The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit said average prices in England were more than seven times average salaries.

And it said they were set to reach nine-and-a-half times this by 2026.

It added that, even if the extra homes were built, they would still be less affordable.

Professor Stephen Nickell, who helped write the report, told the BBC: "We built more than that number back in the 1930s in Britain when we had a considerably smaller population.

"And most other countries in the developed world, proportionately speaking, build houses at a faster rate than we do."

The report comes on the same day as Housing Minister Yvette Cooper unveiled funding to encourage local councils to help create new homes.

She said that some councils were being difficult about building new houses.

"Some of them say they don't want more homes in their area, and the problem with that argument is that it's just not fair - every other area needs to do its bit."

The plans have been criticised by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE).

Senior planner Kate Gordon said: "This could have horrendous consequences in terms of environment, landscape and also quality of life - traffic congestion, pollution and the like.

There are also issues like access to water supply for these homes and the likelihood of them being built in flood-risk areas."

She said development should not be foisted on the country's most pressured regions, calling instead for a planned approach which made better use of existing buildings and derelict land.
[C]ouncillor Paul Bettison, from the Local Government Association, said simply building more homes was not the answer.

"For too long we've been pushing the simple figure of more and more houses, without thinking about the infrastructure.

"It's no good building houses if there's no roads to get to them."
Councils who aggressively target empty properties, including through compulsory purchase orders, will share in the fund to help pay for the projects.

There are an estimated 670,000 homes and properties currently standing empty, and nearly 300,000 in England that are long-term vacant.

Yes, England is not building enough houses, and it is because the NIMBYs like the CPRE are preventing enough houses from being built. Outside the M25 there is plenty of land to build on, but the ruling elite refuse to allow it to be used. And needless to say, we also get the usual reaction from the Local Government Association, whose main purpose in life seems to be to beg for more money. It is trivially obvious that it is not just homes, but also supporting infrastructure that is needed. Hopefully the LGA will manage to contribute more to sorting out housing than this anodyne observation.

Date published: 2007/10/25

Soil Association does not like the developing world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Food flown into the UK will be stripped of its organic status unless it meets new stricter ethical standards, the Soil Association has warned.

The association, which certifies 70% of the UK's £1.9bn organic food sector, says firms must show trade brings real benefit to developing world farmers.

It wants all air-freighted food to meet tough "ethical trade" standards.

But Trade and Development Minister Gareth Thomas said he feared the changes could harm African farmers.

The Soil Association is totally unaccountable to the public and should be stripped of its self-declared right to determine what is and is not "organic". They are just typical members of the academic middle class who believe that Britain should revert to life as it was in the pre-industrial era. Hopefully the supermarkets will stand up to them on this one and choose another association to certify their food. Of course these associations are pretty much all run by the academic middle class, but the Soil Association is the one with far too much power, and indeed could do with referral to the Competition Commission.

RSPB makes trivial observation about gardens (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK householders can halt the decline of many birds by making their gardens more wildlife-friendly, a charity says.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said simple measures can help preserve populations of house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes.
Dr Moorcroft, RSPB head of conservation management advice, said "gardens are the richest wildlife habitat on earth".

So is the RSPB going to campaign for all new housing to have decent gardens? Or are they in the camp that believes that the peasants should live in high-density urban slums, and that only the academic middle class like themselves should be allowed to have a decent garden?

Another end-of-the-world report from the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Continuing destruction of the natural world is affecting the health, wealth and well-being of people around the globe, according to a major UN report.

The Global Environment Outlook says most trends are going the wrong way.

It lists degradation of farmland, loss of forest cover, pollution, dwindling fresh water supplies and overfishing among society's environmental ills.

The UN Environment Programme (Unep) says there is a "remarkable lack of urgency" to reverse these trends.

Nothing new here. And the number one problem is population, but practically nobody wants to face up to that.

Date published: 2007/10/24

Warmer climate allegedly means less biodiversity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global temperatures predicted for the coming centuries could trigger a mass extinction, UK scientists have warned.

The temperatures are within the range of greenhouse phases early in the Earth's history when up to 95% of plants and animals died out, they say.

Experts examined the link between climate and diversity over 520 million years, almost the entire fossil record.

They found that global diversity is high during cool (icehouse) periods and low during warm (greenhouse) phases.

"Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner," said Dr Peter Mayhew, one of the paper's co-authors.

"If our results hold for current warming, the magnitude of which is comparable with the long-term fluctuations in the Earth's climate, they suggest that extinctions will increase."

The study by researchers from the Universites of York and Leeds, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, compared data sets on marine and land diversity against estimates of sea surface temperatures for the same period.

They found that four out of the five mass extinction events on Earth are associated with greenhouse phases (warmer, wetter conditions) rather than icehouse phases (cold, dry conditions).

These include Earth's worst mass extinction 251 million years ago when some 95% of all species were lost.

"We could - at worst - be experiencing that in the next century - only a few human generations down the line," Dr Mayhew told BBC News.

"We need to know why temperatures and extinctions are linked in this way."

Of course the parts of the (present day) Earth with the biggest biodiversity are the warmest, and the parts with the least biodiversity are the coldest, so the scientists certainly have some explaining to do. And one of the main reasons biodiversity is suffering now is because homo sapiens has managed to appropriate more and more of the planet's resources, which is not directly (but is indirectly) related to climate change.

Craig Venter in London to promote his book and his work (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Synthetic biology can help in the fight against emerging infections, rather than aid the design of bioweapons, controversial scientist Craig Venter has told reporters.

The US scientist, who led the private sector race to map the human genome, used a briefing in central London to allay fears that his work may fall into the wrong hands.

Critics of Dr Venter's research, which aims to design the world's first synthetic life, have expressed concern.

They say that artificial microbes may have dangerous consequences, such as either escaping into the environment or being used to manufacture bioweapons.

"If Venter succeeds in creating a working bacteria then he also lifts the lid on creating bacterial bioweapons, such as anthrax, in the near future," said Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, a Canadian campaign group that has concerns over the development of genetic technology.

"An equally real concern in the longer term is bio-error, the synthetic creation of organisms that escape out of our control," he added.

Dr Venter insisted that such worries about synthetic organisms were unfounded.

He maintained that antibiotic-resistant infections, such as MRSA, were much more of a threat.

According to the maverick scientist, synthetic biology could provide the most effective way of stopping infections in developing countries, such as malaria, and emerging drug-resistant superbugs.

"In the US, MRSA kills more people than Aids," he said.

Campaigners say that there are currently no international laws or oversight mechanisms to assess the safety of synthetic organisms.

They suggest that an international process is needed to put in place controls before anything is commercialised.

Dr Venter defended himself against any claims that he was exploiting the human genome for financial gain.

"If you look at the record, my institution has no human gene patents, yet my biggest critics do," he said. "The Human Gene Project has human gene patents."

In an effort to explain why his work had attracted so much critical attention, he pointed out that a similar controversy occurred at the beginning of the molecular biology era.

He said: "When there is a big shift of knowledge, we go through a cycle of fear, in which people are afraid of the unknown."

The luddites will of course try to stop this technology as they try to stop all technology. But in the end the economics will win the day, assuming that Venter, or some other team, manages to make something useful with this technology.

Date published: 2007/10/23

Another carbon study with a negative outcome (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere have risen 35% faster than expected since 2000, says a study.

International scientists found that inefficiency in the use of fossil fuels increased levels of CO2 by 17%.

The other 18% came from a decline in the natural ability of land and oceans to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere.

About half of emissions from human activity are absorbed by natural "sinks" but the efficiency of these sinks has fallen, the study suggests.

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was carried out by the Global Carbon Project, the University of East Anglia, UK, and the British Antarctic Survey.

It found that improvements in the carbon intensity of the global economy have stalled since 2000, leading to an unexpected jump in atmospheric CO2.

"In addition to the growth of global population and wealth, we now know that significant contributions to the growth of atmospheric CO2 arise from the slow-down of natural sinks and the halt to improvements in the carbon intensity of wealth production," said the study's lead author, Dr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project.

Another study indicating things are getting worse faster than expected. The carbon intensity half of the increase is puzzling, because there seems to particular reason for it to have behaved as claimed. Of course it's only one study so it will be interesting to see if this 35% figure is verified by anyone else, because it's not good news.

The UK population is allegedly going to increase more than recently forecast (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The population of the UK is set to increase by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016, according to new projections.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates 2.3 million of the rise would be a natural increase and 2.1 million down to migration.

Further projections say the population would reach 71 million by 2031 and 77 million in 2051.

Forecasts of fertility, life expectancy and inward migration have all increased since they were last made in 2004.
Jonathon Porritt, patron of the Optimum Population Trust think-tank, called for an "intelligent debate" on growing numbers of people in the UK.

He said: "If it quickly defaults into pro or anti-immigration - which is an extremely unhelpful place for the debate to go - it means we constantly avoid the discussion about human numbers.

"We miss the subtle debate about the impact of population on an already congested island."

The projections are wildly different than they were three years ago, so they could just as easily be wildy different in three years, and certainly any projection decades into the future is meaningless. The only reason anybody takes these numbers as gospel is for political (i.e. anti-immigration) reasons, and the politicians have responded as expected.

But Porritt takes the biscuit. Any organisation called "Optimum Population" is obviously up to no good. Who is it for these people (the academic middle class) to decide what is the "optimum" population (even if such a thing were meaningful). Hopefully the sanctimonious people in this outfit have had no children, if they are so concerned about population and are not just anti-immigrant. And what these kind of people always fail to mention is that outside the M25, Britain is not that "congested". There is plenty of land for building houses, etc., it's just that the ruling elite refuse to allow any of it to be used except for agriculture.

Date published: 2007/10/22

Emotional state allegedly has not direct bearing on cancer survival (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The power of the mind has been overestimated when it comes to fighting cancer, US scientists say.

They said they found that a patient's positive or negative emotional state had no direct bearing on cancer survival or disease progression.

The University of Pennsylvania team followed more than 1,000 patients with head and neck cancer.

But experts said the Cancer journal study should not deter people from adopting a "fighting spirit".

Indeed, a positive outlook can help patients cope with gruelling cancer therapies and resume a "normal" life, a spokeswoman for Macmillan Cancer Support said.

It's only one study, and not actually that useful since human nature is such that nobody is going to tell a patient not to "fight" the cancer. But it is interesting because it negates (up to the various caveats) a bit of pop psychology.

UK Chief Scientist recommends a badger cull (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government's chief scientist has advised ministers that badgers should be killed to prevent the spread of TB among cattle.

Sir David King says culling could be effective in areas that are contained, for example, by the sea or motorways.

His report follows a previous study that said culling badgers would be ineffective.

The Independent Scientific Group found that targeting one site would only cause badgers to flee to other farms.
Sir David said: "Together with five well-respected experts, I have assessed the ISG report and other research relating to badgers and TB in cattle.

"It is clear that badgers are a continuing source of infection for cattle and could account for 40% of cattle breakdowns in some areas.

"Cattle controls remain essential but I consider that, in certain circumstances and under strict conditions, badger removal can reduce the overall incidence of TB in cattle."

About 2,500 cattle a year get bovine tuberculosis (bTB), and some 30,000 stock are killed every year because of the disease, according to the National Farmers' Union.

The union also believes a cull is necessary to curb TB in cattle.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the issue was "extremely difficult".

It was committed to "evidence-based policy decisions" but no decisions were imminent, it said.

The Independent Scientific Group (ISG) assessed the results of a nine-year experiment to discover whether killing badgers would stem the spread of disease.

Its findings, published in June, said badgers did play a role in the spread of bTB.

However, it warned that the culling would have to be so extensive it would be uneconomical.

It found that although TB infection dropped in the immediate area of the cull, it increased on adjoining farms, in effect shifting rather than solving the problem.

Professor John Bourne, author of the ISG report, said Sir David's recommendations were not consistent with the scientific findings of his report but were "consistent with the political need to do something about it".

"If you wish to go down the culling route, you have to do what the Irish are doing in large parts of their country and that is eliminate," he added.
While most cattle farmers may support a cull, it would prove unpopular with the public.

A government consultation of more than 47,000 people found that more than 95% of people were opposed to the idea.

You would not want to be the person who has to make this decision. The ISG analysis seems pretty sensible, but farmers are a powerful lobby, even with the Labour government. The anti-culling figure quoted from the government consultation with the "public" is a bit meaningless since these consultations are dominated by the academic middle class, and of course the academic middle class love badgers. But any culling decision would certainly cause a certain amount of antagonism towards the government. And if the ISG analysis is correct, culling is not a very useful approach.

The academic middle class of Cambridge do not like Tesco (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

More than 4,000 people have signed up to stop Tesco opening a new supermarket in Cambridge.

A 4,136-signature petition was formally handed to Cambridge City Council on Friday.

The No Mill Road Tesco campaign has gained momentum in recent weeks thanks to public meetings, street busking events and a growing online presence, including a protest website and Facebook group.

Several hundred objections have also been sent to the council's planning team, which extended a deadline for comments following the postal strike.

The furore surrounds three planning applications submitted by Tesco to convert the former Wilco building in Mill Road into a store.

The latest email, sent on Friday evening from the group, said: "Our campaign has received support from the MP, David Howarth, and the leader of the council, Ian Nimmo-Smith. We are delighted to have cross-party support and hope the combination of political support and, most importantly, the enormous strength of public feeling will persuade Tesco they are not wanted on Mill Road.

"We have also formally submitted our objections to Tesco's planning applications. We made 11 separate planning objections to the proposed extension, all based on solid planning grounds."
The council is expected to make a decision by mid-November.

The academic middle class in action. But since Cambridge is run by the academic middle class there is every chance that Tesco's application will be turned down. (If you don't like a planning application you can just say the magic word "traffic" as a justification, so if the council wants to turn it down that will no doubt be top of their excuses.) On the other hand, Tesco already has four much bigger stores in the Cambridge area, so they must have had some influence on the planning system in the past. Do we need another supermarket in that part of town? Probably not, given that the big Sainsbury's is not far from there. (And no doubt Sainsbury is happy for the academic middle class to help keep out the competition.) If anywhere could do with a supermarket it is north-west Cambridge. There was a perfect opportunity to put a Sainsbury's on the Arbury Park site a decade ago, but unfortunately interested parties stopped that from happening.

Date published: 2007/10/21

Lib Dem leadership election seems set to be a non-event (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The two contenders for the Liberal Democrat leadership have said there are no fundamental differences between them on policy.

Environment spokesman Chris Huhne said the party would have to choose "who is going to best present" its case.

Home Affairs spokesman Nick Clegg also stressed communication skills in an interview with BBC One's Sunday AM.

He said he could speak in a "plain, direct" way to disaffected voters and create a sense of "dynamism".

The contest to replace Sir Menzies Campbell, who quit as leader on Monday, is looking increasingly like a two-horse race after a series of senior figures ruled themselves out.

Mr Clegg and Mr Huhne share similar backgrounds, having attended Westminster School, served in the European Parliament and become MPs in 2005.

Clegg seems to be the likely winner. And in the same way that Cameron is a clone of (the early) Blair, Clegg is a clone of Cameron (and Huhne not that different). It is amazing in this day and age that such privileged people (private school and Oxbridge) are going to be heading two of the three main political parties (and if Blair was still around it would be three out of three).

Date published: 2007/10/20

Oceans are allegedly absorbing less CO2 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the world's oceans has reduced, scientists have said.

University of East Anglia researchers gauged CO2 absorption through more than 90,000 measurements from merchant ships equipped with automatic instruments.

Results of their 10-year study in the North Atlantic show CO2 uptake halved between the mid-90s and 2000 to 2005.

Scientists believe global warming might get worse if the oceans soak up less of the greenhouse gas.

Researchers said the findings, published in a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research, were surprising and worrying because there were grounds for believing that, in time, the ocean might become saturated with our emissions.

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin said: "The researchers don't know if the change is due to climate change or to natural variations.

"But they say it is a tremendous surprise and very worrying because there were grounds for believing that in time the ocean might become 'saturated' with our emissions - unable to soak up any more."

He said that would "leave all our emissions to warm the atmosphere".

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

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

An interesting observation but the short time scale of the measurements means it leads to more questions than answers.

Apparently short people feel less healthy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Short people complain of poorer mental and physical health than those of average height, a study reveals.

Danish researchers examined more than 14,000 responses to the 2003 Health Survey for England.

Men shorter than 5ft 4in (162cm) and women shorter than 5ft (151cm) reported much lower well-being than others, Clinical Endocrinology journal says.

The authors urged more work to clarify precisely why the shorter someone is, the worse they feel about their health.

The results predicted that increasing height could help boost feelings of wellbeing.

If men could add just 7cm (2.7in) to their height and women 6cm (2.3in), their health-related quality of life could be improved by 6.1%.

This is an equivalent improvement to an obese person losing 10-15kg (22-33lb).

However, the study did not ascertain how healthy the individuals actually were.

It's unbelievable that anyone could do such a study without considering "how healthy the individuals actually were", it makes the study all but worthless.

And you have to wonder which reporter wrote the immortal words "if men could just add 7cm to their height...", and then compares this to losing weight. Hmmm, apparently the BBC believes people can choose to be tall or not. Of course what they meant to write was that "for every 7cm additional height for men, and 6cm for women, some random quality of life measure improves by 6.1%". (But presumably only for some narrow range of heights, something the BBC fails to mention. Being 2.5m tall is probably not very conducive to good health.) The way the BBC has written this the statement is silly, but if for some reason it was not silly and people could change their height, it would instead be a classic confusion between correlation and causation.

Date published: 2007/10/19

Estimate of emissions from all the world's shipping (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global emissions of carbon dioxide from shipping are twice the level of aviation, one of the maritime industry's key bodies has said.

A report prepared by Intertanko, which represents the majority of the world's tanker operators, says emissions have risen sharply in the past six years.

Previous International Maritime Organisation estimates suggested levels were comparable with those of planes.

Some 90,000 ships from tankers to small freighters ply the world's oceans.

Intertanko says its figures are the most realistic estimation of the current levels of CO2 from ships.

Its estimate suggests that the world's shipping uses between 350 and 410 million tonnes of fuel each year, which equates to 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions.

Intertanko says that growth in global trade coupled with ships burning more fuel to deliver freight faster has contributed significantly to the increase.

Dragos Routa, the technical director of Intertanko, told the BBC the figures were a work in progress but the levels of emissions had risen sharply.

While there are few accurate measures and even fewer restrictions on the amounts of carbon dioxide that ships can emit at present, governments in many parts of the world are considering a clampdown as part of their efforts to tackle global warming.

But Mr Routa suggested that the much greater tonnage carried by each vessel, compared with aircraft, meant that shipping was still a much greener form of transporting freight around the globe.

The fact that the total amount of emissions from shipping might or might not be twice the level of aviation is a red herring. What matters is the bang per buck, and whether sources of emissions are paying a carbon tax (which most forms of transport, including trains, do not). There is more global trade now so of course the emissions from shipping will have increased. And the BBC seems to be complaining that "ships burning more fuel to deliver freight faster has contributed significantly to the increase". Funnily enough the BBC never complains that fast trains like the TGV and Eurostar are "burning more fuel to deliver passengers faster". Funnily enough the chattering class (led by the BBC) thinks trains are some kind of sacrosanct form of transport and that all other forms of motorised transport are somehow evil. Of course all forms of transport (and indeed all carbon emitters) should pay a carbon tax, not just forms of transport that the chattering class randomly deems to be politically incorrect.

Latest EU treaty to be presented to Parliament (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown faces a battle to get the EU treaty through Parliament after it was agreed by EU leaders in Lisbon.

The prime minister ruled out a referendum saying he had already "safeguarded the national interest" with "red line" opt-outs in key areas.

But Tory leader David Cameron accused him of treating Britons "like fools" and pledged to fight for a referendum when MPs debate ratification next year.

It has to be ratified by all EU states before coming into effect in 2009.

Cameron never has anything intelligent to say about Europe, he is a one trick pony. He, like most of his party, hates the EU and wants to withdraw, and he wants a referendum only because he knows the British public would reject any EU treaty, no matter what it said, and he thinks this would be a first step towards withdrawal. During a campaign for a referendum you can guarantee he would say nothing about the treaty and, helped by the usual media suspects, we would instead get endless hours of invective against the EU.

Brown, meanwhile, is playing a dangerous game. He doesn't want a referendum because he knows it would be rejected. If he can't get the vote through Parliament he is finished.

Date published: 2007/10/18

Wild farmland birds seemingly in decline (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of wild farmland bird species breeding in England is at the lowest level since records began, a key government wildlife "indicator" shows.

The RSPB called the UK government's Wild Bird Populations 2006 indicator "extremely depressing".

The data showed that these species had declined by about 60% since 1970.

The charity warned that cuts in "set-aside" payments, which take land out of food production, could hit bird numbers even harder in the future.
Defra suggested that the decline of species included in the index was a result of changes to agricultural processes, "including the loss of mixed farming, the switch to autumn sowing of cereals... and the loss of field margins and hedges".
Other bird populations covered by the indicator are: woodland birds, which have seen a 20% decline since 1970; and seabird species, which have risen by 30% over the same period.

The world does not stand still. Some species do better over time and some do worse. It is not clear the government should be getting hysterical over farmland birds in particular. Of course one way to reverse the decline would be to make the agricultural system provide a more sympathetic environment. But that comes at a cost. Of course the RSPB is happy to have the country pay the cost, but it's not clear the average citizen of Britain would be (in practise, not just in opinion polls).

Another vacuous report by a committee of MPs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain should not rely on migrant workers to fill gaps in its own labour markets, a committee of MPs has warned.

The influx of eastern European workers is likely to slow or reverse, as other EU states ease restrictions or as wages improve in their countries, MPs said.

The trade and industry committee urged ministers and businesses to ensure a "labour vacuum" was not left behind.

Between May 2004 and June 2007 683,000 people from eight of the EU accession countries registered to work in the UK.

Workers from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia had helped plug gaps in the British labour force, the committee said.

But it said many of those who came seeking work were the "best and brightest" and were overqualified for the jobs they took.

In agriculture there were already signs of labour shortages in agriculture, which had relied heavily on eastern European workers - as they moved on to more skilled jobs.

If this is the best this committee of MPs can contribute, they might as well disband. Exactly how is the government or business supposed to "ensure a labour vacuum [is] not left behind"? These are hard, low-paid, low-skill jobs which hardly any British person wants to take. Do the MPs want the government to run ads on television saying that in fact these jobs are sexy and just the ticket for ambitious young people? The only thing business can do if the foreigners leave is to pay more (and they will have to), but then more food (for example) will be imported because it will be cheaper, so some British firms might go bust.

Costa Rica given some money to preserve some woods (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US and conservation groups will cut $26m (£12.8m) from Costa Rican debt in return for the country spending the same sum on forest protection.

Costa Rica will spend the money over the next 16 years on large swathes of its tropical forest.

It hopes to help conserve such endangered species as the jaguar, squirrel monkey and scarlet macaw.

Areas targeted include the Talamanca Highlands that contain the country's largest untouched tract of rainforest.

Environment minister Roberto Dobles told the BBC that the money would help the government enlarge protected areas, support local communities in their conservation efforts, and encourage tourism.

"We in Costa Rica protect four to five per cent of the world's biodiversity, and our territory is much, much smaller than four to five per cent of the global territory," Mr Dobles said.

"So we feel that we are also protecting humanity's biodiversity, so all the support such as this one is always welcome."

The settlement is the largest of its kind reached under the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act, says BBC Americas editor Will Grant.

Guatemala, Belize and Peru have benefited from similar deals in recent years.

Under the plan, the US will contribute $12.6m. A further $3m will be contributed by conservation groups the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International.

This is how it should be done. Well, not necessarily via cutting debt, but via handing money over (and whether it is via cutting debt or via adding money to the budget it all amounts to the same thing). If the rich countries think preserving tropical forests is important, the rich countries should hand over money to allow this to happen.

Date published: 2007/10/17

Another pointless report on obesity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Individuals can no longer be held responsible for obesity and government must act to stop Britain "sleepwalking" into a crisis, a report has concluded.

The largest ever UK study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our "obesogenic" society.

Dramatic and comprehensive action was required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050, they said.

The government pledged to draw up a strategy to address the issue.

But the report authors admitted proof that any anti-obesity policy worked "was scant".

Nonetheless, they said every level of society, from individuals to the upper echelons of government, had to become involved in the campaign against a condition which carried such great social and economic consequences.

In 2002, those who were overweight or obese cost nearly £7bn in treatment, state benefits and indirect costs such as loss of earnings and reduced productivity.

In 40 years' time, that figure could reach nearly £46bn, as health services struggle to cope with the ill-health such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and stroke which can be associated with excess weight.

An obese person dies on average nine years earlier than somebody of normal weight, while a very obese person's life is cut short by an average of 13 years.
Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense and cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.
From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed - believed to slow down infant weight gain - the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

Another "end of the world" report. The health control freaks have managed to successfully persecute smokers so are now turning their attention to another easy target, obesity. The attitude of the authors is perfectly well illustrated by the idea that society should be "placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed". And the figures given of the cost of obesity should be taken with a pinch of salt, since they seem to have ignored the fact that "obese" people live on average 13 years less, which reduces the pension bill substantially (but we're not allowed to mention that). And we have the ritual academic middle class denunciation of "cheap foods" and "motorised transport", but the authors have managed to add a few new alleged evils: "labour-saving devices" and "sedentary work". You have a feeling these people will not be happy until Britain reverts to an agrarian society, with an occasional mass starvation to keep the peasants in check.

Surprise, wealthy kids do better than poorer kids at school (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The social divide in schools in England shows little sign of closing, says the annual report from Ofsted inspectors.

Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert warned that poorer children still had "odds stacked against them" - achieving lower results than wealthier children.

Deprived areas were also much more likely to account for a persistent number of struggling schools.

We hardly need Ofsted to point out the trivially obvious. Of course nobody is ever allowed to ask how much of this is the fault of the families and how much is the fault of the government, and with the latter, how many more tens of billions of pounds of expenditure would be required every year in order to make a difference. This constantly repeated trivial observation that wealthy kids do better in education (and, surprise, everything else in life) is almost akin to pointing out that gravity acts downwards on the planet.

Date published: 2007/10/16

The middle class is allegedly drinking too much (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drinking at levels which are hazardous to health is rife in affluent middle class areas in England, research shows.

Richer areas dominated the list of areas with the highest proportion of men drinking 22-50 units a week, and women drinking 15-35 units a week.

However, Liverpool John Moores University found the proportion of those who drank to real excess was highest in poorer areas.

Manchester topped this table followed by Liverpool.

Harmful drinking - when people binge on alcohol - was defined as more than 50 units/week for men, and more than 35 units/week for women.

The study found the proportion of people drinking at this level ranged from 3.2% to 8.8% of the adult population.

The lowest rates were found in more affluent areas, with the wealthy town of Winchester recording the lowest rate of all.

But richer areas fared much worse when it came to hazardous levels of drinking - for instance more than one large glass of wine every evening.

Yet another "end of the world" report. For some obscure reason, the media have loved the fact that allegedly the middle class might be drinking too much. But who cares which social class allegedly drinks too much, it is completely irrelevant to the alleged problem at hand. Needless to say, this report has prompted the usual health control freaks to suggest that the tax on alcohol should be raised. So once again, the majority is supposed to pay through the nose because a minority is allegedly drinking too much. And this is assuming that you accept their definition of "hazardous" drinking.

A proposal for a Higher Education Achievement Report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

University exam results should be supplemented with more detailed information about students' achievements, says a report.

But an inquiry conducted by university leaders says it has not found any better degree classification system.

So grades such as first class, 2:1 and 2:2 will continue alongside a pilot scheme giving more detailed exam marks.

This will give employers more "fine grain" information about graduates' abilities, says their report.

The inquiry team, chaired by Professor Bob Burgess of Leicester University, has been considering how to improve the system of showing students' achievements.

An initial inquiry report, in 2004, argued that the current system was "no longer fit for purpose".

And there have been concerns that the broad brush of the present grades - in which almost 60% of students receive a first or 2:1 - fails to distinguish between candidates.

Their concluding report still argues that the "degree classification system needs updating".

But it proposes retaining the current grades - on the basis that there is no evidence of an acceptable alternative.

"Would it make good sense to take the classifications away? I doubt it," said Prof Burgess - who says his committee considered many other systems used worldwide but failed to find any likely to be adopted in the UK.

"The way forward is building upon the current classification system and augmenting it."

The inquiry rejected ideas such as introducing more grades within the 2:1 band; having a simplified system of pass, fail and distinction, or using a specific percentage mark.

Instead, it proposes piloting a parallel system - to be called a Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear) - which would provide a detailed breakdown of marks in exam papers and course modules.

Another pointless inquiry. When hiring someone, even more important than the raw grades is whether the person fits into the organisation and is or is not lazy. The former can hopefully be determined in interview and the latter can hopefully be determined by references. Having "more fine grain information" about exam results might be useful if the job actually relied on skills supposedly learned in the degree course, but that is not likely. All in all, this whole exercise is a waste of time, although at least in this case they seemed to have gone for the least worst option (assuming you want to "do something").

Date published: 2007/10/15

Another silly political attack on Oxbridge (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Oxbridge should work harder to recruit state school pupils, a think tank says.

The Institute for Public Policy Research says the two universities should be more "proactive" in reaching youngsters with suitable grades.

Oxford and Cambridge have both reached agreement with the access regulator to increase their shares of students from a wider range of backgrounds.

They say they do make great efforts to encourage interest, but cannot take those who do not submit applications.

The institute's co-director Lisa Harker said: "Students getting three A grade A-levels at state schools are significantly under represented at both universities.

"Oxford and Cambridge must stop blaming a lack of applications for their failure to make progress.

"It does not matter how many bursaries they offer or how many students visit their campuses if students from non-traditional backgrounds are not applying."
A spokeswoman for Cambridge University said it was committed to taking the brightest and the best students irrespective of their backgrounds.

But she said the IPPR report did not take into account the nature of A-levels. Not all are regarded as equal and some are not deemed suitable by the university as qualifications for undergraduate entry.

The IPPR is one of the zillions of useless consultancies which plague the nation. The fact that they have not distinguished between the difficulty of different types of A-levels already tells you they are just spouting political propaganda rather than making a serious analysis. And even ignoring that point, it's getting more and more difficult to use A-level grades to determine the best students since there has been so much grade inflation that pretty much every applicant gets top marks. If the nation stopped wasting money on organisations like the IPPR and instead put the money into improving teaching at State schools, we would all be a lot better off. Perhaps as a first step, the IPPR could stop producing these useless reports and instead spend time going to schools to encourage students from "non-traditional backgrounds" to apply to Oxbridge.

It's difficult to find an NHS dentist in England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many NHS dental patients in England are being forced to pay for private care, go without treatment or even pull out their own teeth, a survey suggests.

The survey of 5,200 patients for an NHS feedback body found 20% had refused treatment because of high cost and 6% had treated themselves at some point.

Most of those going private said they could not get NHS treatment locally.

The Health Committee, a group of MPs, has announced an inquiry into the new dental contract, introduced last year.

Of 750 dentists polled, 84% said their new contract had failed to improve access to NHS services for patients.

Is this news? Getting an NHS dentist has been difficult for years. It seems that most dentists think the State should be throwing more money at them before they are willing to help tackle the problem.

Date published: 2007/10/14

The NHS is allegedly not doing enough screening of heart conditions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of young people with potentially fatal heart conditions are not being given screening tests which could save many lives.

Every day in Britain, one person aged under 35 dies from the range of conditions known as sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS).

NHS guidelines recommend screening for families with genetic heart problems.

But an investigation for BBC Radio's 5live Report reveals failures in NHS procedures mean many are not tested.

Under current guidelines, screening on the NHS should be offered to anyone reporting symptoms of heart problems, as well as the families of people who have already died from an unexplained heart condition.

But cardiologists report people with symptoms are not being referred and in many cases coroners are failing to correctly diagnose SADS as the cause of death.

There are around 400 deaths a year from SADS which campaigners say could be prevented if simple electrocardiogram tests were used more widely.

A typically weasly article from the BBC. Take the favourite disease of some special interest pressure group. Then notice that the NHS does not treat the disease with perfection (surprise). Then claim the world is at an end. Here we also have the extra weasly words that "many are not tested" and allegedly that 400 deaths "could" be prevented. There is no context given. How many is "many"? Are 400 deaths significant in this context? How much is this all going to cost (something the BBC never worries about)? Is it value for money? Perhaps yes, but since the BBC just publishes what amounts to a press release for some special interest pressure group (in this case, it seems, just some BBC programme, although perhaps there is a real special interest pressure group in the background), the reader is left none the wiser. And finally, the BBC commits perhaps the worst sin of all. Later in the article they mention one young person who died from a heart condition, complete with the requisite distraught mother. The problem is that it's only one example. One example (usually) proves nothing, but the BBC, like most of the media, figure that if they can put some emotive example into a story then it makes the story more plausible. It does not. (The one example would prove something if the NHS claimed it never got anything wrong ever.)

Obesity in the UK is allegedly a huge crisis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The public health threat posed by obesity in the UK is a "potential crisis on the scale of climate change", the health secretary has warned.

Alan Johnson said the magnitude of the problem was becoming clear for the first time and "it is in everybody's interest to turn things round".

Details have emerged of a government study which says half the population could be obese within 25 years.

Ministers are drawing up a long-term action plan to tackle obesity.

The government-commissioned Foresight report is expected to report on Wednesday.

It suggests the cost of the epidemic, in terms of health care provision and lost work hours, could reach £45bn a year by 2050, according to the Observer.

Professor Klim McPherson, of Oxford University, and Tim Marsh, of the National Heart Foundation, predict that within 15 years 86% of men will be overweight - but not necessarily obese - and within 20 years, 70% of women.

Another end of the world report. No doubt we will have promoters of other issues trying to also up the ante and claim they have the biggest crisis in the universe. And the real problem with all this hysteria is that the control freaks will no doubt come up with new ways to control freak over the nation, all justified by the worst slogan of the modern political era, that "something must be done".

Date published: 2007/10/13

General Sanchez says Bush guilty of dereliction of duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A former US military chief in Iraq has condemned the current strategy in the conflict, which he warned was "a nightmare with no end in sight".

Retired Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez also labelled US political leaders as "incompetent" and "corrupted".

He said they would have faced courts martial for dereliction of duty had they been in the military.

The best the US could manage under the current approach in Iraq was to "stave off defeat", Gen Sanchez warned.

"There is no question that America is living a nightmare with no end in sight," he said, addressing journalists at Arlington, near Washington.

You do not get much more damning than that. It seems that even the military, one of the most conservative parts of the American establishment, thinks that Bush is a complete plonker. If only a few of these people had resigned when it mattered, rather than waited until now to tell us the obvious (that Iraq is a complete disaster).

Household sprays allegedly linked with asthma (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Giving your house a weekly clean could be enough to give you asthma, according to research.

A study found using household cleaning sprays and air fresheners as little as once a week raised the risk of asthma.

Heavy use of such products has already been linked with occupational asthma, but the latest work suggests occasional use in the home also poses a threat.

The Spanish study of more than 3,500 is published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The risk of developing asthma increased with frequency of cleaning and the number of different sprays used.

Spray air fresheners, furniture cleaners and glass cleaners carried the highest risk.

Exposure to cleaning products could account for as much as 15%, or one in seven adult asthma cases, the researchers suggest.

On average, the risk was 30-50% higher in people regularly used the sprays than in others.

And the incidence of physician-diagnosed asthma was higher among those using sprays at least four days per week

The study authors, Dr Jan-Paul Zock and colleagues from the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona, said work was needed to determine the biological mechanism behind the increased risk.

As usual with health studies, all they have shown is a correlation, not a causation. Here there seem to be some plausible reasons why there might be a causation, but they need to do further work, for example by finding some real biological mechanism, before the research is really useful.

Date published: 2007/10/12

Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Al Gore says his Nobel Peace Prize is an "honour" and a chance to "elevate global consciousness" about the threat posed by climate change.

The former US vice-president was awarded the prestigious prize jointly with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The committee cited "their efforts to build up and disseminate knowledge about man-made climate change".

Mr Gore won an Oscar for his climate change film An Inconvenient Truth.

He said he accepted the award on behalf of scientists - like those in the IPCC - who had worked tirelessly for years to get the message about global warming out.

For once the rumours turned out to be true. It must have been a bad year for peace if campaigning about climate change was somehow deemed to be the top effort. But given that the prize is now evidently deemed to be about anything, Gore was as deserving as anyone.

Primary school children allegedly stressed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Primary school children and their parents are suffering from "deep anxiety" about modern life, according to a study of education in England.

The Cambridge-based Primary Review's report said the pressure of Sats tests dominated the last two primary years.

Researchers ran 87 discussions with groups of children, parents, teachers and others; 750 people took part.

The government said most children lived in better conditions than 10 years ago and rejected criticism of testing.

Primary Review director Professor Robin Alexander told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that young children faced a range of pressures.

"What people wanted to talk about was the stress of government tests, then life outside school, road safety, physical dangers, the sense young children are having to grow up too soon."

He also talked about the values children are subjected to, such as consumerism and materialism.

But he added that every generation had its stresses and some children had endured "unimaginable hardships".

Among those quoted in the Primary Review report are children themselves.

Many expressed concern about climate change, global warming and pollution, the gulf between rich and poor, and terrorism.

"Some were also worried by the gloomy tenor of 'what you hear on the news' or by a generalised fear of strangers, burglars and street violence," the report said.

More junk research. If this study had been done at any time in the last five thousand years, would they have come to any different conclusion? Of course these people have to justify their existence by constantly finding problems where none really exist. The fact that Alexander mentions "consumerism and materialism" and the other standard chattering class talking points (e.g. "young children are having to grow up too soon") already indicates he is just a typical member of the academic middle class, and that any analysis he makes is bound to be biased. Primary school children are not capable of making judgements about "climate change, global warming and pollution, the gulf between rich and poor, and terrorism". It reminds one of the middle class kid in "Seven Up" who claims at age 7 to be reading the Times.

Date published: 2007/10/11

One Cambridge business claims it's leaving town because of the congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Fears of a mass exodus of Cambridge businesses have been played down as a city firm relocates to escape the congestion charge.

Solicitors Miller Sands, based in Regent Street, says the prospect of a charge was the final straw.

Coun Shona Johnstone, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said she did not expect an exodus as the council would enter into full consultation with businesses and the general public.
Senior partner of Miller Sands, Julian Landy, said clients found it difficult enough to get to and park at its city centre offices already.

He said if visitors have to pay the congestion charge on top then the firm's clientele would dwindle.

Mr Landy said: "I think there will be other businesses following us out of the city. I know it is not certain, but it looks like it will go through. I just don't know what will happen to the centre of Cambridge.

"The Grand Arcade and the return of Robert Sayle is good, but that is shopping. I don't now what will happen to firms like ours."

John Bridge, chief executive of the Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "I don't think the council understands the fact that we should be making life easier for businesses. If we make it harder they will vote with their feet.

"We are worried that the congestion charge will force people to work outside the city.

"I think it is premature to say it will create an exodus, and I hope that other companies will wait and see how our discussion goes with the county council."

One small firm leaving means very little. But many small firms have already left the centre of Cambridge the last decade, to be replaced with shops and restaurants. The congestion charge (well, tax) will actually hurt businesses at the edge of town more than businesses in the middle, because for most people there is some kind of viable alternative to the car to get into the centre of town, but there is no sane alternative to the car (i.e. without taking hours to get to work) to get to work on the edge of the city. The Science Park area will probably be hit the hardest. They are getting the guided bus, but that will be of use to only a narrow band of households. Business parks outside the congestion zone will benefit the most.

Latest plans for the Cambridge railway station area (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Major redevelopment plans for the Cambridge station area include more than 1,200 flats, homes and a huge shopping square.

The News was given an exclusive first look at the new master plan for cb1, which features sweeping changes to designs published earlier this year.

Residents were not happy with the height and mass of the project so developers Ashwell have had to have a rethink.

Ashwell and architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH + P) unveiled their vision for the area surrounding Cambridge's 19th Century railway station. It is believed the project will cost more than £850 million.

A health centre with space for three surgeries would be built alongside cafes, restaurants and seven offices.

The creation of the "largest urban green area in Cambridge" and a new police station for transport officers also feature, as does a significant redesign of the station foyer and roundabout outside.

Planners claim the development will have a "neutral impact" on local traffic, with the number of office car parking spaces "kept to a minimum."

The major change from the earlier plan is the switch from mainly privately owned accommodation to 1,250 apartments for Anglia Ruskin University students.

A total of 250 apartments, which will mostly be one or two bedroom, will be available for private ownership.

Developers say 40 per cent of these will be for key workers, such as staff from Addenbrooke's Hospital.

Improvements to the outside of the station are seen as key to the scheme's success.
Currently, the outside of the station is regularly congested with buses, taxis and private cars dropping off and collecting passengers. The master plan aims to take away all on-street parking in Station Road to expand the entry route to the station.

Taxi ranks, bus stops and stops for the Guided Bus scheme will be spread to either side of the station entrance so that a regular flow of vehicles pass through.

Inside the station, the Marks and Spencer shop would move to provide space for a wider entrance area.

There will be 3,000 spaces for bicycles and a covered car park with spaces for 600 vehicles. For cyclists, this represents six times more storage space, but for car owners the parking provision remains the same level.

Space for buses and taxis will also be the same capacity.

A paved area, which will be double the size of Cambridge's market square, will be the main feature.

Situated to the front of the station, it will be surrounded by shops - the exact number has yet to be finalised.

In Station Road and side streets, further cafes and restaurants are planned. Seven offices will be built across the site, varying in size and replacing existing spaces. A mass of parkland cuts through the middle of the site.

In Station Road, where much of the office space will be provided, buildings are to be set back from the road.

Overall, the scale of the project is 23 per cent less than the first plan, which was unveiled in May. Planners say the new design deals with earlier concerns from residents.

When they say "concerns from residents" they mean that the usual academic middle class suspects objected, as they object to any change in the world. Of course developers always ask for too much development the first time around, because they know full well the usual academic middle class suspects will object, and so developers pad things out so that when they eventually cut things back, they will be left with some kind of viable plan. Apparently the current plan is close to being unviable.

As mentioned in the article, the one big change from last time, beside the reduction in height of some of the buildings, is the introduction of student housing for Anglia Ruskin. Apparently this makes some kind of sense, but it's hard to see why putting a student ghetto in one of the most expensive parts of town makes financial sense. Of course it allows the developer to get away without providing car parking spaces, and students can be squeezed in like battery hens, so perhaps these are the main drivers (politically and economically). It will be interesting to see who owns these flats and whether they will be able to be flogged on the open market in short order (you knock three or four together and soon enough you have a reasonable flat).

And unfortunately that obnoxious phrase "key workers", again rears its ugly head. People who work for Addenbrooke's Hospital are no more and no less "key" than any of the other workers in town, in particular university workers. Without the university, Cambridge would just be a provincial outpost at the edge of a swamp. There would be no Addenbrooke's. Unfortunately government, with the complicity of the media, continues to stick two fingers up to non-public sector workers.

As with all these grandiose schemes, time will tell whether any of this works if and when it is implemented.

Date published: 2007/10/10

Atmosphere becoming more humid (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The atmosphere is becoming more humid in a pattern consistent with man-made climate change, researchers have found.

Their study, reported in the journal Nature, confirms the global increase in humidity found in previous studies.

They say that the pattern of humidity increases in various parts of the world resembles that projected by computer models of man-made global warming.

Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, and it is thought that having more of it in the air could amplify temperature rise.

The major report released earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that this amplification was the largest "positive feedback" mechanism they had identified.

Previous research has shown that humidity increases in Europe, a response to higher temperatures, were amplifying the temperature rise by about a factor of two.

Nothing unexpected here.

Surprise, mankind influences Nature (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pregnant moose seek out human company when they are about to give birth, moving closer to roads and camps to escape the threat of bears.

US scientists say Yellowstone moose have adopted the strategy to try to outwit their road-shy predators.

The study in Biology Letters suggests human pressures are having unexpected effects on wild animals.

Other species, including monkeys, deer and elephants, have also been shown to use people as cover from predators.

Although amusing enough because it is moose (not the world's brightest animal), it is hardly surprising. Mankind is part of Nature (something which many people conveniently forget) and so mankind influences Nature. You would have to be a pretty poor biologist to think otherwise. (The cheetahs in the "Big Cat Diary" on the BBC figured out soon enough that jumping on stationary vehicles filming them is a good way to escape predators.)

Date published: 2007/10/09

Alistair Darling delivers pre-Budget report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chancellor Alistair Darling has doubled the inheritance tax threshold for married couples to £600,000.

He also targeted private equity bosses and "non-domiciles" in his pre-Budget report - and pledged to switch green air taxes to flights, not passengers.
At the moment, inheritance tax is charged at 40% on assets worth more than £300,000 that someone leaves behind when they die, unless it is left to a spouse.

When the spouse dies the same £300,000 rate applies.

Mr Darling has simply made the individual inheritance tax threshold transferable - allowing couples to combine their allowances and so escape tax on the first £600,000 of an estate. The measure will be backdated "indefinitely" - and it will increase to £700,000 by 2010.

Analysts say many couples already arrange their tax affairs so that their allowances are combined, meaning the changes may have little effect in practice.
In other pre-Budget measures, Mr Darling announced a crackdown on private equity bosses, saying from next April the government would withdraw the capital gains tax taper relief, which can be as low as 10%, and put in its place a single rate of 18%.

Ignoring the policies themselves, does anyone find it bizarre that with a stroke of a pen the government can arbitrarily take tens of thousands of pounds from some people and give tens of thousands of pounds to other people? How can anyone be expected to do any financial planning in this kind of circumstance? Is there any wonder that politicians and governments are treated with such contempt by people?

Onto the policies themselves. The one real problem with inheritance tax is that married people and civil partners escape it when their partner dies, and nobody else does. This by itself means inheritance tax should be abolished. But the government has done nothing on this front, instead they have made the bias towards married people and civil partners worse (although it is their inheritors who stand to really benefit).

And on capital gains, Labour (i.e. Gordon Brown) arbitrarily changed from a system of indexation to taper relief ten years ago. And now they have arbitrarily removed taper relief. For individuals the rate has changed from somewhere between 20% and 40% (depending on the taper relief) down to 18%. For no particular reason. The rate is one thing (but given that it is lower than the top rate of income tax there will now be additional games played by accountants). But the lack of indexation is another. Even with a low inflation (and so say indexation) rate of 2% per annum, after 20 years that represents an inflation rate of 50%. So the government is claiming you have made a profit of 50%, to be taxed at 18%, even if you have just (effectively) stood still. And if inflation ever becomes high again, this lack of indexation will become manifestly unfair after a very short time span, so some future government will again have to arbitrarily change the rules.

Breast cancer in women linked with hip size of mother (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women whose mothers have big hips may be more likely to develop breast cancer, research suggests.

A study led by the University of Southampton found breast cancer rates were more than three times higher among women whose mothers had wide hips.

Rates were more than seven times higher if those mothers had already given birth to one or more children.

The American Journal of Human Biology study suggests high levels of the sex hormone oestrogen are to blame.

It is widely thought that oestrogen can increase the risk of breast cancer in some hormone-sensitive women, possibly by causing instability in the DNA.

And women with big hips are thought to have high levels of oestrogen.

The researchers believe that breast cancer risk may be raised for a daughter during the first weeks of pregnancy if the embryo's developing breast tissue are exposed to particularly high levels of oestrogen circulating in the mother's blood.

The researchers examined the records of more than 6,000 women born in Helsinki between 1934 and 1944. Of these 300 developed breast cancer, and 48 went on to die from the disease.

The study specifically linked a woman's chances of breast cancer to her mother's intercristal diameter - the widest distance between the wing-like structures at the top of the hip bone.

Women were at the greatest risk if their mother's intercristal distance was more than 30cm.

The risk was even higher if these wing-like structures were also round.

The researchers said their work supported the hypothesis that wide, round hips reflect high levels of sex hormone production at puberty, which continue into adult life, and impact on the embryo during pregnancy.

Lead researcher Professor David Barker said: "A woman's hips are shaped at puberty when the growth of her hip bones is controlled by sex hormones, and also influenced by the level of nutrition.

"Every woman has a unique sex hormone profile which is established at puberty and persists through her reproductive life.

"Our findings show for the first time that the growth spurt of girls at puberty is strongly associated with the risk of breast cancer in their daughters."

All they have really found is a correlation, not causation (hence the phrase "strongly associated"). But unlike most health studies, at least here they have some plausible explanation of what is going on, which could indicate a causation.

Date published: 2007/10/08

The Coming Revolution in Fundamental Physics (permanent blog link)

David Gross (of UCSB) gave a talk this afternoon at the CMS entitled "The Coming Revolution in Fundamental Physics". Gross is in the majority camp of theoretical high energy physicists which believes in String Theory. Indeed, he was quite dismissive about people (e.g. Lee Smolin) who do not adhere to this particular belief. Funnily enough, he said at one point that he could not have given his talk thirty years ago, because of advances since then, but he could have given an almost identical talk twenty years ago. Not that much has happened the last couple of decades except for the theoretical elaboration of String Theory, with no experimental evidence to support it or not.

Gross' talk was at least accessible to a wide audience. He went through the usual litany of the unification of electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions, which is supposedly giving good predictions down to 10^{-18} cm, indeed all particle physicists believe (with no real evidence except dimensional analysis) that it will be good down to 10^{-33} cm, the so-called Planck length. And general relativity gives answers good out to the size of the universe. So between these various forces of nature, we can make predictions over 60 orders of magnitude. And you can make simple-minded extrapolations which indicate that although the forces of nature are of vastly differing strengths in the "low energy" world in which we now inhabit, at much higher energies (so in the early universe) the forces would (or could) all be the same strength. This comes about because symmetries that are manifest at high energies are "broken" at low energies.

But it turns out that these simple-minded extrapolations indicate the various strengths of the forces do not all become equal at the same energy. Enter supersymmetry, which is a symmetry which relates particles of odd spin with particles of even spin. This allegedly saves the day. So far there is no experimental evidence for supersymmetry, but with the new LHC ring at CERN in Geneva, this evidence might be forthcoming.

Superstring theory is a particular supersymmetric theory, and most theoretical physicists believe this is the most promising approach. In particular, it might help "explain" the dark matter problem, namely that around 90% of the matter in the universe can allegedly not be seen (very easily). It might also explain the ratios of masses that are observed.

Superstring theory treat objects as 1-dimensional strings instead of 0-dimensional particles, and with certain variants it avoids the singularities you find when you do ordinary quantum field theory of point particles. (Each harmonic frequency of the string represents a specific particle.) But it does this by insisting there are extra dimensions other than the four space-time ones that Einstein talked about. The story goes that these dimensions are small enough that you would not notice them, hence we just think that we live in four dimensions. Sure, but why are we left with four? And there are plenty of other problems. Superstring theory allegedly has no arbitrary constants, but in fact it implicitly does, because why is one solution (e.g. for what form the extra dimensions take) any better than any other solution.

Gross said that the problem with String Theory is that nobody is sure what it is. There is no law and no dynamical principle, just solutions of equations. Of course he is convinced enough that it will all come right in the end. Having worked a few decades on the subject it would be surprising if he said anything else. These people are relying on the LHC to provide some evidence for supersymmetry, a basic pre-condition for superstring theory to even be plausible. It will be interesting to see what is found.

Some people are worried about some things (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One in seven adults is reluctant to have children and one in four puts off planning for the future because of world troubles, according to a survey.

The Mental Health Foundation's YouGov survey found that for 70% of people terrorism is their greatest fear.

Immigration concerns worried 58% of people, with 38% saying they had fears over climate change and 23% fearing a natural disaster.

The survey was carried out ahead of World Mental Health Day on Wednesday.

The YouGov survey found world events left some people feeling powerless (56%), angry (50%), anxious (35%) and depressed (26%).

Another junk survey. As with all such surveys, you immediately have to distrust the results since the group behind the survey has an interest in spinning things to promote their cause (surprise, they want more money spent on their special interest). Here, it is even worse, because we have no way of knowing whether these numbers are good, bad or indifferent. In particular, are we supposed to be worried that one in seven adults is allegedly reluctant to have children because that number is too low or because that number is too high. The most important problem on the planet is over-population, and if (say) six in seven adults were reluctant to have children the world would be in better shape. So perhaps we should be trying to worry people even more than they (allegedly) are already.

Date published: 2007/10/07

The Windscale fallout was allegedly worse than estimated 50 years ago (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The radioactive fallout from a nuclear accident that rocked Britain 50 years ago was underestimated, scientists say.

In 1957, a fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor in Cumbria led to a release of radioactive material that spread across the UK and Europe.

But new research claims the incident generated twice as much radioactive material and caused dozens more cancers than was previously thought.
At the time of the accident the levels and spread of the radioactive materials was estimated, and measures were put in place to limit radioactive contamination.

But a new study carried out by John Garland, formerly of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and Richard Wakeford, a visiting professor at the University of Manchester, suggests the contamination of the environment may have been much higher.

The team carried out a re-analysis of data taken from environmental monitoring of air, grass and vegetation and combined this with computer models that revealed how the radioactive cloud would have spread from the reactor with the meteorological conditions at that time.
Previously, it was thought that the radiation would have eventually led to about 200 cases of cancer, but the new contamination figures suggest it could have caused about 240.

Interesting in some ways, but it's hard to belive that the uncertainty in the estimate of cancer cases (never mind deaths) is less than 240-200=40, and both the numbers are anyway incredibly small, so the impact of this study does not seem very significant.

New book on the Knights Templar based on Vatican document (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Vatican is to publish a book which is expected to shed light on the demise of the Knights Templar, a Christian military order from the Middle Ages.

The book is based on a document known as the Chinon parchment, found in the Vatican Secret Archives six years ago after years of being incorrectly filed.

The document is a record of the heresy hearings of the Templars before Pope Clement V in the 14th Century.

The official who found the paper says it exonerates the knights entirely.

Prof Barbara Frale, who stumbled across the parchment by mistake, says that it lays bare the rituals and ceremonies over which the Templars were accused of heresy.

In the hearings before Clement V, the knights reportedly admitted spitting on the cross, denying Jesus and kissing the lower back of the man proposing them during initiation ceremonies.

However, many of the confessions were obtained under torture and knights later recanted or tried to claim that their initiation ceremony merely mimicked the humiliation the knights would suffer if they fell into the hands of the Muslim leader Saladin.

The leader of the order, Jacques de Moley, was one of those who confessed to heresy, but later recanted.

He was burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, the same year that the Pope dissolved the order.

However, according to Prof Frale, study of the document shows that the knights were not heretics as had been believed for 700 years.

In fact she says "the Pope was obliged to ask for pardons from the knights... the document we have found absolves them".

Details of the parchment will be published as part of Processus contra Templarios, a book that will be released by the Vatican's Secret Archive on 25 October.

Now that is history. Of course if the main evidence is one document, the conclusion has to be treated with caution.

Date published: 2007/10/06

2007 RIBA Stirling Prize won by David Chipperfield (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's Stirling prize for architecture has only been in place since 1996, but in just over a decade, it has established itself as the most prestigious prize in the field of architecture.

This year's winner will be announced on Saturday. But four out of the six buildings on the shortlist are not in Britain.

When the shortlist was announced, there was some debate about what this said about attitudes to architecture in Britain as compared with the rest of Europe.

Although Britain is home to some of the most admired architects in the world, there is a risk averse attitude here, which does not exist as much in the rest of Europe.

Given that Britain is a small country, it is not very surprising that many buildings by British architects are not built in Britain. This does not lead one to any conclusions about anything. And to claim that the Stirling Prize is "the most prestigious prize in the field of architecture" is an amazingly parochial British view of the world. The BBC has perhaps not heard of the Pritzker Prize.

David Chipperfield had two buildings on the shortlist, and in spite of his status has not won the Stirling Prize before, so he was the odds on favourite. And indeed, one of his buildings, the Museum of Modern Literature, in Marbach am Neckar, Germany, won. Unfortunately his other building, the America's Cup building in Valencia, Spain, was more interesting. Perhaps the middle class snobbery of the judges tilted the balance (books being good of course, and yacht races bad).

The other building on the shortlist that could have won was the Savill visitor centre at Windsor Great Park by Glenn Howell. This has a beautiful wooden roof. The main obstacle in the way of this winning the prize was that this concept is not that new, even though it is well implemented here. Indeed, back in 2002, Edward Cullinan was on the Stirling Prize shortlist for the Downland Gridshell, whose roof looked rather similar (he also did not win). Not surprisingly, the same structural engineer, Buro Happold, was involved with both buildings.

The fourth building on the shortlist was the Casa Da Musica (Porto, Portugal) by Rem Koolhaas / OMA. It is bizarre that this was even considered for the prize, but apparently Koolhaas is an honourary member of RIBA. Fortunately the judges ignored his superstar status, and it will be unfortunate if the Stirling Prize starts to be a contest which regularly considers non-British buildings by non-British architects.

The last two buildings on the shortlist were modifications of existing buildings, so did not really stand a chance. One was the renovation of the Dresden train station by Norman Foster. Foster won the Stirling Prize for the Gherkin in 2004 and for the American building at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford in 1998. He's often on the shortlist and is perhaps a bit too successful for the likes of architectural critics. It would have been a miracle if he had won. The remaining building was a renovation of the Young Vic Theatre in London by Haworth Tompkins. No matter how well it was done, it is not the kind of project which would win the Stirling Prize.

Carbon emissions should be accounted for by consumers, not producers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's increasing dependence on Chinese goods is contributing to a rise in carbon emissions, a report suggests.

The New Economic Foundation (Nef) says such reliance is adding to CO2 levels because China's factories produce more CO2 per item than British ones.
Over the last year, UK imports from China rose by 10% nearing 6.5 million tonnes, Nef reports.
"Every time we hear a government minister talking about climate change, they seem to be drawn towards scapegoating China and its rising emissions," said Nef's policy director Andrew Simms.

"But a big factor in that rise is that China has become the major factory for the western world, so their greenhouse gas emissions are largely driven by higher levels of consumption in the west."

Two years ago, US researchers calculated that 14% of China's carbon dioxide emissions were accounted for by exports to the US.

Nef believes that international negotiations on climate change should move towards a system where emissions are attributed to the end user rather than the country producing the goods.

It points out that rising production of consumer goods in China and other developing countries also contributes to local pollution, depletion of water supplies, and deforestation.

Nef also said the international trade pattern prompted higher greenhouse gas emissions from transport but had little discernible benefit for the consumer.

During 2006, the UK exported 15,845 tonnes of chocolate-covered waffles and wafers, but imported 14,137 tonnes.

During the same period, 20 tonnes of mineral water were exported by the UK to Australia, while the UK imported 21 tonnes. And thirty-four tonnes of vacuum cleaners went from the UK to Canada, with 47 tonnes travelling the other way.

"Why would that wasteful trade be more the rule than the exception?" asked Andrew Simms.

He suggested that a pricing system that reflected carbon produced in transport would be an effective way of curbing this two-way trading, by making local goods cheaper.

Like reports from most of the academic middle class consultancies that plague the nation, NEF reports are normally pretty naff. Here at least they have one valid point. They are not the first to have pointed out the trivially obvious fact that the current international accounting of emissions is bogus, since it looks at production rather than consumption. But they fail to point out that this is the fundamental flaw with the Kyoto Treaty. The EU can look very green by getting China to emit carbon on its behalf, and in some ways this makes the problem of emissions worse, not better, since Chinese factories are more polluting. And similarly with the other forms of environmental degradation which Chinese factories manage to externalise.

The academic middle class hate global trade, so of course hate global transport. Sure transport should be subject to a carbon tax. But most international trade is done via ships, and they are pretty efficient. And it would be a massive distortion of the economic system just to put a carbon tax on transport. All carbon should be taxed at source. Period. (Well, some people prefer a permit trading system to achieve the same effect.) (Note, taxing it at source means that the eventual consumers of the goods and services have to pick up the tab.) Transport is no more and no less sinful than any other form of carbon emission. And funnily enough, in the UK, private vehicles are the only forms of economic activity which (way more than) pays a carbon tax. Train commuters, in particular London train commuters, escape any form of carbon tax, heck they don't even pay their direct operational costs, never mind any form of environmental tax.

Date published: 2007/10/05

Captive species not fit for survival in the wild (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Animals bred in captivity to help conservation programmes can quickly become less fit for survival in the wild, research suggests.

US scientists found steelhead trout reared in hatcheries were much less good at reproducing than wild fish.

Writing in the journal Science, they say the use of captive breeding needs careful re-consideration.

For some animals, such as amphibians, captive breeding is being used more and more as wild habitats disappear.

"This study proves with no doubt that wild fish and hatchery fish are not the same, despite their appearances," said Michael Blouin of Oregon State University in Corvallis, US, who oversaw the research.

Steelhead populations in rivers along the US west coast are listed as threatened or endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Captive breeding and release is one of the measures being used to safeguard numbers of a fish that is much prized by anglers.

The Oregon State team had previously shown that first-generation captive-reared steelhead were just as successful reproductively as their wild-reared relatives, producing just as many young.

In the new study, they compared the success of fish hatched from two captive-bred parents with those possessing one captive-bred and one wild parent.

The results were startling, with the first group about 40% less successful than the second.

"For fish to so quickly lose their ability to reproduce is stunning; it's just remarkable," said Professor Blouin. "If it weren't our own data, I would have difficulty believing the results."

Hatchery programmes for steelhead and other salmonids (species within the salmon family) release more than five billion juvenile fish into Pacific waters each year. So if captive breeding does result in fish markedly less fit and less able to reproduce in the wild, the implications could be significant.

"It's very interesting, and it's not unexpected, it complements what we and other research groups have found for other salmonids," commented Dr Phil McGinnity from the Marine Institute of Ireland.

"The fish are kept in captivity; in domestication, which is basically selection for life in the hatcheries, and in addition relaxation of selection for traits important for life in the wild," he told the BBC News website.

"With wild Atlantic salmon, within two or three months about 90% of the eggs or the fry are dead, so you can imagine that's a large selective effect; whereas in the hatcheries, everybody gets to live, so traits that would quickly be rooted out in the wild are able to survive in the hatcheries. So we're building in that maladaptedness."

As natural habitats disappear, conservationists working on a wide range of species are looking to captive breeding as a bridge to long-term survival.

It is being actively pursued by amphibian specialists, for example.

This is an obvious problem, and everybody who is involved with such schemes must know the risks, even if for political (i.e. fundraising) reasons these problems are swept under the rug. In the same way, botanic gardens do not really preserve wild-type copies of the species they have, because the environment is (normally way) different.

Crossrail is allegedly going to go ahead (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The £16bn Crossrail scheme to build a railway link through the centre of London has been given the go-ahead by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Construction for the link - from Maidenhead, Berkshire, through to Essex - is expected to start in 2010.

It will provide 24 trains an hour into the heart of London from the east and west, improving rail links to the West End, the City and Docklands.
[Mr Brown] said the project was of "enormous importance, not just for London but for the whole country" and would generate 30,000 jobs.

The government is providing a third of the money with the rest made up from borrowing against future fares and a levy on London business rates.
Crossrail services are due to be running in about 10 years.

The idea was first proposed in the 1980s, but supporters have had difficulty in securing the funding.

Only time will tell whether this is a brilliant investment or a complete financial black hole. It is incredibly technically difficult, and the Boston Big Dig, which went massively over budget, rings bells. The project is not of "enormous importance" for "the whole country" except in as much as the rest of the country is yet again being forced to subsidise London, the way the rest of Massachusetts was forced to subsidise Boston.

Renting is much cheaper than buying with a mortgage (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The cost of renting a house in England and Wales is cheaper than the cost of buying it with a mortgage, say market analysts Hometrack.

Private rents in 2006 were two-thirds the cost of a 100% mortgage on a two- or three-bedroom house, for a young household on average incomes.

For many years, renting a home was thought to be just as expensive as buying one.

But that position has been changed by the rapid rise in house prices.

Professor Steve Wilcox of York University, who carried out the analysis, said that in many areas, people who were unable to buy a house could still afford to rent in the private sector.

"Not too long ago, there was little difference between the costs of buying and renting," he said.

"But while house prices tripled in the years since 1994, private sector rents only increased in line with earnings, and the costs of renting have as a result fallen relative to the costs of buying," he added.

The impact of the buy-to-let phenomenon on the property market is one reason why rents have been kept down, as a huge supply of properties to rent have come on the market in the past decade.

The report also found that nearly half of all households on the move were going into the private rented sector, which is now enjoying increased investment after a century of decline.

The income that first-time buyers need to get on the housing ladder has reached unprecedented levels, the report also says.

The Hometrack research shows that the ratio of house prices to income has nearly doubled in the past decade.

An average house in Britain now costs more than five times the average first-time buyer's income.

The average cost of a home in England and Wales is £176,300, according to Hometrack's figures.

This ratio of house price to income is far higher than at the peak of the last price boom in 1990.

Despite a long period of low interest rates, mortgage costs as a percentage of income - seen by some as a fairer measure of affordability - have also virtually doubled over the same period to more than 32%.

It is not very surprising to anyone who has looked at the housing market the last few years that renting is now cheaper than the equivalent mortgage.

Many people believe the housing market is now in a big bubble, which is about to burst. But the UK is not building enough houses and interest rates now are lower than in the 1990 era. So there are several reasons why we have had such high house price inflation.

The ratio of median house price to median earnings might be higher now than in 1990, but interest rates are way lower now than in the period then, so the alleged near doubling in the ratio of mortgage cost to income seems suspicious.

And are we supposed to be blaming or congratulating the "buy-to-let phenomenon" for allegedly keeping rents down?

Date published: 2007/10/04

Fifty years after Sputnik (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ceremonies have been held in Russia to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the space age - the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik.

Former Soviet cosmonauts, engineers and officials took part in several events recalling what is considered one of the most significant moments in history.

The launch was a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union during the Cold War and began the space race with the US.
The Sputnik satellite, weighing 83kg (183lb) and only twice the size of a football, could be seen with the naked eye as it circled the Earth for 22 days. It emitted a signal that could be heard on a household radio.
Fifty years after Sputnik's launch, more than 800 satellites now orbit the Earth, used for communications, surveillance and navigation.

1957 was as an important a historical date for the world as was 1492. It has been amazing how low key the anniversary has been treated in the British media. If it were America that had launched the first satellite you can guarantee there would have been tonnes of coverage.

Date published: 2007/10/03

Another campaign to persecute grey squirrels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Researchers are trying to find a way to stop grey squirrels reproducing, but can the menace ever be stopped?

To some they are "tree rats", to others unwelcome foreign invaders. They have even been reported to launch unprovoked attacks on humans.

Hated for its stripping of tree bark, threats to wild birds, but most of all for its "displacement" of the red squirrel, there are many people who would be happy to see the grey squirrel eradicated.

Now the Forestry Commission is carrying out research funded in part by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Scottish Natural Heritage to see if contraceptives can be administered in an effort to tackle the population.

But can its spread across the UK ever be stopped and would contraception eradicate them completely?

The most realistic outcome, the commission says, is that contraception will, along with trapping and poisoning, control the population. Getting rid of the grey will never be a meaningful option.

"The concept of eradication has come up a number of times, there have been bounty schemes, but that has been found to be ineffective," says Brenda Mayle, programme manager at the Forestry Commission.
Angus Macmillan, who runs the Grey Squirrels website, believes that control of the population is unnecessary and that the idea of exterminating one animal population to make another prosper is "bordering on ethnic cleansing".

"They shouldn't be controlled and I don't think they can be controlled. There are other methods of saving the red squirrel. Nature controls species."

Grey squirrels are persecuted, at least in part, for being seen as American invaders, Mr Macmillan suggests. But the red squirrel, which is being protected by greys being killed, might not be as native as people think. With the animals hunted as pests and affected by disease, Scotland's stocks were topped up in the 19th Century with squirrels from the continent.

Any contraceptive programme will not see an end to the killing of squirrels.

"It is not an alternative to lethal options," Ms Mayle insists.

In the 19th Century it was the red that was the pest, blamed for damaging trees. The tables are now turned.

It is unbelievable how much money is wasted on trying to persecute grey squirrels. The real enemy of the red squirrel is not the grey squirrel but humanity. And, as noted in the article, the red squirrel is not really any more "native" than the grey squirrel, it just happened to arrive some years earlier. Unfortunately a certain section of the academic middle class has decided, for no substantive reason, that grey squirrels are horrible and the rest of the country is being forced to fund their dreadful campaign against the species. It is amazing how much the people who claim to be promoting Nature actually hate and want to control Nature.

Fewer school children allegedly having school meals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A lack of consultation with children and parents is partly to blame for the fall in pupils having school meals in England, inspectors have said.

Ofsted found fewer pupils taking meals in about 70% of the 27 schools visited since healthy eating rules came in.

It called on schools to work to eliminate the factors discouraging pupils from having school meals.

New guidelines announced in March 2005 limited the amount of processed meats, deep fried and high fat foods served.

They also required schools to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables.

The changes were prompted by TV chef Jamie Oliver's campaign.

But successive surveys by organisations including the School Food Trust, the body appointed to oversee the changes, have suggested take-up fell as a result.

Fewer meals were served in 19 of the 27 schools Ofsted visited, with reductions ranging from 9% to 25%.

Ofsted said the reason for the decline was "complex" and included a lack of consultation about the new arrangements with pupils and parents and poor marketing of the new menus.

It added that some pupils, particularly those from low income families, were put off by higher costs.

Ofsted flailing. It looks like a certain percentage of the school population does not like so-called healthy food. The idea that the decline happened because children and parents were not consulted is a joke. Were these people ever consulted about anything in schools, never mind the menu?

Date published: 2007/10/02

Cambridge city boundary might expand (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

More people could find themselves living in Cambridge if the boundary lines around it are redrawn.

Thousands of new homes are to be built on the Cambridge "fringe" developments, including Trumpington Meadows, the North West quarter and Arbury Park.

South Cambridgeshire District Council began exploring changing the parish boundaries of Impington and Haslingfield earlier this year.

Now many of the responses from residents, Cambridge City Council, parishes and others have suggested moving the boundary between Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire.

SCDC's electoral arrangements committee, which meets next week, has been advised to put the parish review on hold until the Government tells it whether a review of the district boundary is likely and, if so, when, and how it would work.

Coun Ray Manning, leader of SCDC, said: "The new development at Trumpington Meadows crosses the Cambridge city and the South Cambridgeshire district boundary. We have received a strong message through the parish review consultation that one body should administer the whole of Trumpington and not have separate representation at local and county level."

He said some of the consultees felt the same about Arbury Park.

Cambridge City Council welcomed a review of its boundary, said Coun Ian Nimmo-Smith, its leader.

The A14 and M11 have been the natural boundary for Cambridge on the north and west since they were built a few decades ago, and at long last it seems the political reality might catch up with the geography.

EU fudges Galileo decision (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The EU remains split on how to fund Europe's satellite navigation system but have vowed to push ahead anyway.

At a meeting in Luxembourg, ministers from Britain, the Netherlands and Germany led opposition to a proposed rescue bid for the Galileo project.

They opposed a European Commission (EC) proposal to use 2.4bn euros from EU funds to get the system back on track.

The EC is determined to have Galileo operational by 2013, but so far only one test satellite is in orbit.

In addition, only four of the eventual 30-satellite constellation has been ordered.

Unless contracts are issued for more spacecraft soon, the timetable for Europe's biggest single space project may slip again and could face calls to be scrapped altogether.

The present funding crisis was triggered by the failure to agree a Public Private Partnership (PPP), in which a consortium of aerospace and telecom companies would build much of Galileo's infrastructure and then run its services.

The aim now is for the infrastructure to be built using public funds and for the private sector to come in only as the operator.

A classic EU mess. Either they should commit to going ahead properly or they should can the project now.

Date published: 2007/10/01

Tories introduce tax gimmicks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The threshold for inheritance tax would rise from £300,000 to £1m under a Conservative government, George Osborne has told the party's conference.

Stamp duty for first-time buyers on homes worth up to £250,000 would be scrapped, the shadow chancellor added.

The cuts would be paid for with a fee charged to business people who register abroad for tax purposes.

The Lib Dems accused him of making "unfunded commitments" while Labour said his calculations were wrong.

Mr Osborne told the Conservative party conference in Blackpool that the £3.1bn cost of increasing the inheritance tax threshold and the £400m bill for scrapping stamp duty would be funded by imposing a £25,000 per year charge for non-domicile taxpayers.

There are between 150,000 and 200,000 people who live in this country but who do not pay tax on the money they make abroad, he said.
He said his party wanted to help "people whose only crime in the eyes of the taxman is that instead of spending their savings on themselves they want to pass something on to their families".

It's hard to take the Tories seriously. They are committing 3.5 billion pounds of spending, and hoping and praying they can make that much in extra tax by screwing some rich people. But there is no indication at all that the rich people are going to accept this tax, or instead just leave the country, or otherwise avoid this tax (by admitting to small amounts of offshore income). This is the kind of silliness you expect from a backwards socialist party, not an allegedly serious conservative one.

And if it is ok to have a million pounds in assets before you pay inheritance tax, then why not two million, or more, pounds? Or is it that once you get above this arbitrary magic threshold you suddenly are committing a "crime in the eyes of the taxman"? The real problem with inheritance tax is not that the arbitrary threshold is this or that level, but that married (or "civil partnered") people escape the tax and other people do not.

The stamp duty give-away is even worse. What is a "first-time buyer"? Presumably if you are a banker who has worked in the States in your twenties and then you come back to the UK to buy your first UK home, then the Tories are happy to give you back your stamp duty because you are obviously a deserving cause. Or if one person in a couple has already bought a home and not the second, then needless to say games will be played to make sure they are eligible for the give-away. And it means that people who have never owned a home will in some cases be able to leapfrog on the property ladder people who have owned a home.

But the worst thing about the stamp duty give-away is that it does not address the fundamental issue with housing in the UK, namely that demand outstrips supply. Throwing money at one small part of the population will slightly increase the demand but it will not increase the supply. The Tories are one of the dreadful organisations that have provided obstacles to increasing the supply of housing. They are part of the problem, they (and their gimmicks) are not part of the solution.

Television correlated with bad behaviour (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Toddlers who watch too much television are more likely to suffer later behavioural problems - but the damage can be reversed, say researchers.

The Johns Hopkins University experts found that under-fives who watched over two hours a day increased their risk.

However, young children who watched too much, but cut back by five years old, removed the risk, the study in the journal Pediatrics suggested.
The study, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, analysed data for 2,700 children, asking their parents about viewing habits and behaviour at two and five years old.

One in five parents reported that their children watched two hours or more of television daily at both two and five.

This "sustained" exposure was linked to behavioural problems, while parents of children who had watched little television at two, and more than two hours at five were more likely to report problems with social skill development.

Having a television in the child's bedroom at five years old was linked to behavioural problems, poor social skills and also poor sleep.

However, children who watched more than two hours a day at two years old, but who had reduced their exposure by five, showed no increased risk of any of these problems.

Dr Cynthia Minkowitz, who led the study, said: "It is vital for clinicians to emphasise the importance of reducing television viewing in early childhood among those children with early use."

Another classic confusion between correlation and causation. Of course the chattering classes who run the world believe that television is evil, so the correlation is easily palmed off to gullible audiences (like BBC reporters) as a causation since it fits the predominant world view so conveniently. The only way to do this study properly is to randomly choose children to watch differing amounts of television and see what happens. Needless to say, this kind of study is never done. And since the researchers obviously do not like television, you have to wonder if they let their prejudices bias their analysis, and so perhaps even the correlations are not that real.

So-called zero carbon houses get tax relief on stamp duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Buyers of new zero carbon homes now qualify for tax relief on stamp duty.

The government hopes the tax relief - offered during the next five years - will encourage the construction of environmentally friendly homes.

Home buyers can save up to £15,000, but the building industry warns that not many are likely to benefit soon.

A spokesman for the Homebuilders' Federation said he could not think of a single development right now that would qualify for the relief on stamp duty.

The new rules - announced in this year's Budget Report - say that buyers of new homes costing less than £500,000 will not have to pay any land tax stamp duty.

People buying more expensive zero carbon homes will get a maximum tax relief of £15,000.
However, the Treasury has yet to provide an exact definition of what actually makes a zero carbon home.

In a Budget "impact assessment" published in March, the Treasury said that a "zero-carbon home is one that does not consume fossil fuels for heat and power".

"It is highly insulated and uses renewable energy to power its needs over a year through micro generation.

"Heat and power technologies include ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic cells, solar water heaters and wind turbines."

"It will draw from the grid when the microgeneration [e.g. solar panels] is insufficient but could sell excess generation back to the grid."

The Treasury says it will have agreed a more detailed definition by the end of November.

House builders hope for a flexible definition of the term "zero carbon".

Yet another ridiculous victory of hype over substance. The government is completely ignoring the emissions to build and maintain the structure. So the resulting house is "zero carbon" as long as you don't bother to count the actual emissions. In the end, this scheme will just end up being yet another pointless subsidy of developers, as if they need more money thrown their way.

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