Azara Blog: November 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/11/30

Labour doesn't want homes to be built on Marshall site (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Labour city councillors claim plans to build 12,000 new homes could cause transport chaos in Cambridge.

And it wants more assurances from the county council about how it would deal with the extra homes.

Cambridge City council and South Cambridgeshire District Council have drawn up a blueprint for the homes on the eastern edge of Cambridge, called the Cambridge East Area Action Plan.

A planning inquiry has since been held to decide whether the scheme is workable.

But the city Labour group believe the validity of the inspector's report is marred by lack of evidence that the transport implications have been addressed.

Labour councillors will be presenting petitions to both the city and county councils objecting to both the contents of these proposals, and the way in which they are being handled.

Coun Ben Bradnack, deputy leader of the Cambridge Labour group, said 1,600 names have been collected for the petition which calls for the plan to be abandoned until other options have been examined, to solve existing congestion problems first and to rule out new transport or guided bus routes over open spaces such as Coldham's Common.

Coun Bradnack said: "We believe Waterbeach Barracks would be a better option. It has existing transport links, such as the railway station, and there is enough space.

This is not currently included in the local development plan.

"We just cannot see how the Marshall plan can be positive.

Routes into Cambridge are already congested daily and building this many homes is only going to make things worse."

Coun David Bard, South Cambridgeshire District Council portfolio holder for growth and sustainable communities, said: "I am pleased that the inspector has declared the Cambridge East Area Action Plan sound.

"This now enables us, in collaboration with Marshalls airport, Cambridge City Council and Cambridgeshire County Council, to move forward on bringing forward this major urban extension of Cambridge, which is an essential component of the growth identified in the structure plan.

Labour has been harping on about this for several years now, but of course they are being ignored because the Tories and Lib Dems have decided this is the way forward. It's unlikely to be quite the disaster the Labour people are predicting, except that the transport planners of Cambridge are dreadful and will almost certainly design the situation such that it ends up being far, far worse than it needs to be. (The transport planners of Cambridge, after all, are responsible for the current dreadful situation on Newmarket Road. Like most transport planners in the UK, they hate their number one customer, drivers. And the rest follows from that.)

What nobody is asking is whether all these homes really are needed. Cambridge is stupidly asking one of its biggest and best employers, Marshall, to get lost. And in place of those jobs it is placing thousands of homes. Go figure. It's possible that the hospital and the university between them will expand enough to justify the new homes, but don't count on it.

Surprise, fishing communities do better if they manage their resources (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Marine reserves, co-managed by local communities, can help alleviate the impact of poverty, a study suggests.

Research into four successful schemes showed that getting villagers involved in protection projects reduced harmful overfishing and protected incomes.

Average incomes of people who had established no-fish zones were more than double those who did not have protected areas, the authors found.

The researchers produced the report for the Nature Conservancy, a US group.

They said the case studies provided a global blueprint for fishing villages.

Their report, Nature's Investment Bank, examined four marine protection areas in Fiji, Indonesia, Philippines and the Solomon Islands, to assess what constituted a successful scheme.

"The key finding is that local communities have to be involved in the management of the fisheries," said co-author Craig Leisher, a policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy.

"It lowers the enforcement costs dramatically, and it ensures locals benefit financially."
...
The report - co-funded by the Nature Conservancy, WWF Indonesia, the Australian government and Holland's Vrije University - was based on more than 1,100 interviews with locals and opinion formers.

Mr Leisher said the researchers had deliberately chosen areas where the introduction of conservation schemes had been successful.

This is a typically bad BBC report. It reads just like a press release from the special interest pressure group, here the Nature Conservancy. Not surprisingly, the press release says that this non-independent study just happens to "prove" that the policies supported by the special interest pressure group are jolly good. Would the BBC publish an equivalent press release from Shell Oil, saying how jolly good oil exploration had proven to be for Indonesia (or wherever)? Of course not. But the BBC journalists are academic middle class (and anti-commercial), so gladly publish press releases from the academic middle class (and not, generally, from big corporations, fortunately, unless they happen to fit in with some specific academic middle class view, such as on climate change).

And since the "researchers had deliberately chosen areas where the introduction of conservation schemes had been successful" one can only conclude that the study has been extremely biased, so has to be ignored. After all, how do we know what factors differentiated the "successful" ones from the "unsuccessful" ones if only the "successful" ones were looked at. And it was also based on interviews, a far from perfect way to determine what the situation actually is.

On the other hand, it's pretty trivial that the political message behind this press release has some merit. Surprise, people do better if they can manage their own resources. It's called the benefit of having a resource (or property) owning class.

Date published: 2007/11/29

Christians as the downtrodden citizens of the world (permanent blog link)

The Telegraph says:

The Royal Commonwealth Society is at the centre of an embarrassing row after it barred a well-known Roman Catholic commentator from attacking intolerance towards Christians at its annual carol service.

Cristina Odone, the former deputy editor of the New Statesman, was to be one of the "celebrity readers" at the service in St Martin in the Fields church in central London next month, which is attended by diplomats and politicians.

But she has pulled out of the event, accusing the society of demonstrating exactly the kind of intolerance she had planned to criticise.

"I am incandescent," she said. "I was told that the words I had written were not appropriate because the congregation would include people of little or no faith who presumably would be upset. Even more insultingly, I was asked instead to read a passage from Bertrand Russell, a militant atheist."

Ms Odone was invited three months ago to take part in the service alongside George Alagiah, the broadcaster, Gareth Thomas, the Government minister, and Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth Secretary General.

As an experienced writer and broadcaster on religion, she was asked to write a short piece on the theme of "opportunities for all" that could be "political and controversial".

She developed the theme of secular intolerance towards believers of all faiths, from the British Airways worker suspended for wearing a cross to the Muslim schoolgirl banned from wearing the veil.

"When it comes to expressing their faith, this country's believers have found that opportunities are blocked," Ms Odone wrote.

"Whether it is the boss at work or the head at school, the local authority or the chattering classes, people of faith know that their worldview is under siege, and their allegiances under suspicion.

"To parade this allegiance by wearing a cross, a cap or a veil is red rag to the secularist bull. What little opportunity believers have to bear witness to their faith is being quashed. If you are black or gay or female, your plea for equal opportunity is met with respect, and your campaign is applauded by supporters. But not if you are a believer. In a culture increasingly hostile to God and his followers, expressions of faith have become taboo. The only opportunity we have is for silence."

Stuart Mole, the director-general of the society, an educational charity that promotes the Commonwealth and whose patron is the Queen, told her the script was not acceptable.

He said it did not fit in with the overall theme of the readings, adding: "We also need to be mindful of the congregation, which will probably include quite a few drawn by the occasion and by the carols but who do not hold a deep (or even a shallow) faith."

Yesterday Ms Odone said: "I think there is a tremendous move to down play this country's Christian heritage, to silence, ridicule and marginalise religious belief.

"They have shown precisely the kind of intolerance and disapproval of Christianity that I am talking about."

Mr Mole said he was "deeply sorry" Ms Odone felt unable to participate in the service but the tone of her script was too polemical for a "multi-faith" carol service.

The poor little Christians. They only run most of the richest countries in the world. Yet here we go again with faux anger about how they are the downtrodden citizens of the world. It's a good comedy routine, but not very plausible.

It is amazing how much airtime Odone managed to get over this speech. She was on Today on Radio 4 this morning, and Channel 4 News let her read out the entire speech on its show tonight. And it's pretty clear why the Royal Commonwealth Society might not have wanted her to give this speech at its carol service. The carol service is supposed to be uplifting, not a nasty third-rate political rant, which is what her speech was.

And if Odone was insulted to be asked to read something written by Bertrand Russell, then perhaps she should reflect on what Russell has written. Indeed, if the word "Christian" has any positive meaning (and when it comes to Catholicism this is a dubious proposition), then the pacifist Russell was far more Christian than Odone. And if Odone doesn't recognise how much damage religion has done, and continues to do, to the world then she needs to read the newspaper a bit more.

Obnoxious overt religiosity (as distinct from faith) of the sort preached by Odone has helped ruin a large chunk of the American political system, and we don't need it wrecking the British one as well.

Studying Venus being sold as a way of helping with climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Observations of the planet Venus might assist efforts to tackle the threat of climate change here on Earth.

Data from a European probe orbiting Venus paints a picture of a planet that may once have been like Earth, but later evolved in a very different way.

Venus has undergone runaway greenhouse warming, where trapped solar radiation has heated the surface to an average temperature of 467C (872F).

New results from the Venus Express mission appear in Nature journal.

In size, mass and composition, Earth and Venus are remarkably similar. Venus is closer to the Sun, but this alone does not explain the differences with Earth.

Venus lacks the Earth's magnetic shield, which means that its atmosphere feels the full onslaught of the solar wind - a stream of charged particles from our star - and cosmic radiation, and has done so for billions of years.

The absence of this shield means that hydrogen, helium and oxygen are blown away by the solar wind much faster than happens on Earth.

The scientists think that Venus may once have held copious amounts of water on its surface.

But the solar wind removed most of it during the first billion years or so after the formation of the Solar System.

Studying Venus is interesting. Studying Mars is interesting. Studying any planet is interesting. It might give us more clues about planet formation. It might help disprove ideas garnered from studying a single planet (i.e. the Earth). It might help us figure out how to colonise the planet. But it does not "assist efforts to tackle the threat of climate change". It is ridiculous that anyone is pretending that studying Venus has some relevance to sorting out climate change. Presumably this claim is being made as a way of justifying the (not insignificant) cost of planetary research.

Date published: 2007/11/28

Train fares going up by more than the rate of inflation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Passengers are to be hit by above-inflation rate fare increases.

Season tickets and saver and standard day returns will rise by 4.8% on average, says the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc).

Others, such as cheap day returns and long-distance open and advance fares will go up by 5.4%. The increases will come into effect in the New Year.

The Transport Salaried Staffs' Association said commuters travelling to London would be worst hit.

What is it about train commuters that they think the rest of the country should constantly subsidise their commute to work? Apparently what we have here is a reduced government subsidy and so increased fares. Of course this extremely biased BBC story gives not one reason why reducing these subsidies might be a good idea. They quote the train trade unions (surprise, they want more money thrown at trains) and they quote train special interest pressure groups (surprise, they want more money thrown at trains), but they do not quote a single organisation without a pro-train or anti-government bias. This is what passes for transportation analysis in the UK.

Surprise, middle class people live longer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Men in routine jobs, such as bus drivers and refuse collectors, are more likely to die early figures show.

The Office for National Statistics data showed routine workers were 2.8 times more likely to die by the age of 64 than high-level managers.

Professionals, such as lawyers and architects, also had low early deaths rates in England and Wales.

Experts said these workers were least likely to die in accidents, violent attacks and from suicide.

Professor Danny Dorling, an expert in health inequalities at Sheffield University, said: "It is not the professions that are causing the deaths, unlike when miners were dying.

"Instead, the biggest causes of death in this age group are accidents, violence and suicide and that is linked to the how much you are paid and valued in your job.

"Those in better paid, more prestigious jobs are less likely to suffer violence, behave differently, are treated better and value their work more."

Yet another trivial observation, and is anyone supposed to be surprised? And Dorling's claim that "it is not the professions that are causing the deaths" seems to be contradicted by his other statements. After all, if you have accidents or suffer violence at work, that is part of your risk of employment, just like if you mine coal, then breathing in coal dust is part of the risk of employment. All in all, yet another pointless health study.

Surprise, middle class people do better out of the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The NHS is a "divisive influence" which favours the assertive middle classes over poorer people, a study says.

The report by centre-right think-tank Civitas said the health service was not providing equal treatment to all.

It pointed out that people in deprived areas were often more in need of treatment, but less likely to get hip replacements or key x-rays.

The report called for more use of the private sector, but other experts said this would just widen inequalities.

Report author Nick Seddon said studies had shown that those on lower incomes made more use of primary care, but were less likely to be referred on for hospital treatment.

He highlighted York University research which showed those in deprived areas were more likely to need hip replacements but less likely to get them.

And the report also mentioned another study which found angiograhy - x-rays of arteries and veins - rates among the lowest socio-economic groups were 30% lower that in the highest.

Mr Seddon said this was partly attributable to the fact that middle classes were more assertive, articulate and confident in dealing with health professionals.
...
But Alex Nunns, of the Keep Our NHS Public campaign group, which represents health professionals, the public and academics, said: "The middle classes will always make the best of a system.

"In fact, there is evidence to show that when you involve the private sector, it just exacerbates the situation."

Indeed, this Civitas report just seems to be clutching at straws to find spurious reasons to privatise the NHS. It might have escaped Seddon's notice that middle class people, like himself, do very well in life, thank you very much, no matter what the circumstance. If it were up to organisations like Civitas, you can imagine a future privatised health service where working class and poor people could not even afford to have health care. Unfortunately the UK has far too many useless "think" tanks like Civitas.

Date published: 2007/11/27

More UK population projections (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK population could almost double over the coming 75 years, according to official government projections.

The previously unpublished figures suggest the British population could hit almost 110m in 2081, if immigration fertility and longevity rates are high.

The figures are higher than those released just a month ago by the Office for National Statistics.

In October, the ONS projected the population could go from around 60m today to as high as 77m in 2051.

In fact, although the BBC tries to play up this story as somehow significant, the new projections are not that different from the previous ones, it is just that the ONS is looking at more extreme possibilities with this projection. So the doubling is extremely unlikely to happen. And of course any projection 75 years into the future is pretty much ignorable. And if you listen to the doomsayers (chief cheerleader, the BBC), then the world is going to end long before 2081, so the UK (and world) population will crash long before then.

David King says GM crop technology should not be scorned (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, is to call for a rethink on GM crops in his farewell speech before leaving his post.
...
Professor King has always been in favour of GM crops, provided they are shown to be safe.

Speaking to BBC News, he said: "I would love to see Britain back at the forefront of positive use of GM technology."

He added: "The process of GM technology should not be banned. The products of GM technology should be clearly monitored one by one."

He believes there is a moral case for the UK and the rest of Europe to grow GM crops, and thinks Europe's backing would kick-start a technology that would help the world's poorest in Africa.

He says GM crops will be essential to deal with an ever-growing population and diminishing water supplies.

"Have we got the technology to deliver that? Absolutely; it is called GM technology," he said.

King is unfortunately a bit too naive for his own good. He seems to think that the anti-GM mentality of the UK ruling elite is somehow down to some rational analysis of the technology. It is not, it is just a fundamentalist religious view (that GM technology is bad). If there is one thing you can say about fundamentalists, it is that they are immune to reason. As long as the government of the UK (and of Europe) listens to the academic middle class (led by the so-called environmentalists), GM technology has little future in the UK (and Europe). The rest of the world will develop it and the UK (and Europe) will sink into a scientific back water on this front.

Air pollution in cities allegedly causes greater risk of getting breast cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women living and working in the city have a higher risk of breast cancer, researchers say.

The study of 972 women by London's private Princess Grace Hospital found city women had much denser breasts.

Previous research has shown those with the densest breast were four times more likely to develop cancer.

Researchers, presenting the study to the Radiological Society of North America, said air pollution was likely to be the cause of denser breasts.

It is thought air pollution contains tiny particles that mimic female sex hormones and can disrupt the make up of breasts.
...
But Professor Stephen Duffy, Cancer Research UK's professor of screening, said the findings may be related to weight.

"The Health Survey for England found that women living in London were the thinnest in the country, and breast density is known to be inversely related to body weight."

But he added whatever the reasons, the study did demonstrate the need for careful attention to breast screening as "greater breast density makes mammography a more challenging job".

The researchers have made the classic mistake of confusing correlation and causation. All they have found is a correlation, but all health researchers like to trumpet an alleged causation, so what better cause this time than air pollution. We all know that air pollution is bad, so anyone can say anything about it causing some problem or other and pretty much nobody will pick them up on it. Here, though, Duffy has found an alternative possibility, and no doubt there are zillions of other possibilities (e.g. women in cities are probably more stressed, and stress is also correlated with, and might even somewhat cause, ill health; and stress is more likely to be linked to the rat race and to the high population density in cities than to air pollution).

Date published: 2007/11/26

Ocean scientists want more money to be spent on ocean science (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Warming seas, overfishing and pollution mean it is vital to improve the system for monitoring the world's oceans, says a group of distinguished scientists.

The researchers say more data is needed to ensure the world is able to respond effectively to any potential threats.

An "adequate initial system" would include an integrated network of buoys, research vessels, satellites and tagging marine animals, they added.

The scientists want the global scheme to be completed within the next decade.

The call for action has been made by the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (Pogo), which includes many of the world's leading oceanographic research centres.
...
According to Pogo, completing such a system over the next 10 years would cost an estimated $2-3bn (£1-1.5bn).

Surprise, the BBC has found a group of scientists who say more money should be spent on their own science (and so, directly or indirectly, on their own research). Who would have thought? And the price tag is not small beer.

London Olympics still claiming they will have a low carbon footprint (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A low-carbon Olympic flame will light up the 2012 Games provided a way can be found for it to be bright enough.

A carbon-neutral flame is difficult to see so Olympic organisers are looking for a suitable bio-fuel.

It is part of many measures announced by London 2012 organisers aimed at making the event the greenest ever.

It includes a carbon footprint study, a sustainable food strategy and a pledge to ensure no waste is sent to landfill during the Games.
...
The London Organising Committee (LOC) and EDF Energy have begun to search for a suitable bio-fuel for the flame, due to stand outside the stadium in Stratford.
...
Gareth Wynn, of EDF Energy, said that the low carbon flame "will definitely happen".

One possible answer is a bio gas, perhaps methane, using an organic material such as tree cuttings, he suggested.

One of the big PR exercises for the Olympic games. And unfortunately most biofuels are not carbon-neutral, indeed some produce more carbon than they save, when you consider the end-to-end account. Perhaps tree cuttings are one of the better biofuels. This is assuming that those tree cuttings are not already being used by someone else (otherwise the Olympics are just using their infinite budget to displace carbon from their balance sheet to someone else's). And it is assuming that they don't produce more carbon processing and transporting the tree cuttings than they end up saving from just using some other source for the flame.

Of course the big problem with this PR exercise is that there is no way the Olympics can even come close to being carbon neutral. Zillions of rich people and thousands of atheletes are flying in from all over the world, and will consume vast quantity of the earth's resources while they are in London, all part of the spectacle. Not to mention the huge amount of marketing, security and other resources expended on the show (which all comes down to consumption of energy in the end). Not to mention the extravagent construction of athletics facilities and stadia, many of which will not prove viable in the long run. The Olympics may be great for sport (and even that is a dubious proposition) but it is not "green" by any stretch of the imagination.

Date published: 2007/11/25

Addenbrooke's Hospital site needs an architect (permanent blog link)

There's a saying, if you want to die then go to a hospital (to be treated). Well, if you're not being treated, it might be ok to go to one. Addenbrooke's Hospital is the big Cambridge and regional hospital. The site also has several university departments on it, and also the famous MRC LMB building (famous for who worked inside, not for the building itself, which is dreadful).

One of the perpetual problems with the Addenbrooke's site is the parking, or more specifically the lack of parking. The last decade or so the Addenbrooke's management, in connivance with the ruling elite of the city of Cambridge, has practically leant over backwards to make parking as bad as possible, for patients, for visitors and for staff, although there is plenty of land on which one could provide car parking.

Even on a visit to Addenbrooke's on a Sunday late afternoon, the parking is difficult. First of all, you might drop someone at A&E (unbelievably, they haven't stopped you from doing that yet). Then it is pot luck (being dark) if you can find the car park they intend for you to use. You drive past empty car park after empty car park (obviously not intended for the peasants) semi-directed by a bunch of signs appearing now and again to Car Park F. You even drive past the new(ish) multi-storey car park, which has loads of spaces (or so the sign says) but evidently you are not allowed to use it.

Eventually, after a circling of practically the entire site, assuming you have not accidentally gone the wrong way having missed one of the small, tatty signs, you come across Car Park F, and can park (assuming it's not full, which given how full it is on a late Sunday afternoon, it looks like it probably quite often is). But this is not the end of your trouble.

The signage from the car park is practically nil, so just start walking semi-randomly trying to find where you want to go. There is an entrance to the shiny new Addenbrooke's Treatment Centre just across the road, and it seems anyone can just wander in there. There's nobody on reception, so nobody to ask. And the signage inside does not include any helpful clues about how to get to A&E. But if you happen to wander towards what is signed as the "main hospital", at least you are heading in the correct direction. But when you get to the main entrance to the "main hospital" there is still no sign for A&E. And unbelievably you have to go outside to go the last 50 m to get there (or so it at least seems).

If they spent less money on management consultants and more money on (sensible, rather than egoistic) architects, this would not have happened.

But one thing can be said, at least A&E seems to have gotten a lot quicker at seeing people the last decade. And it's just as well, given the extortionate amount of money they charge for parking (2.50 pounds for the first two hours, even on Sundays and evenings). Of course extortionate charges for parking is another one of those fine Cambridge traditions.

Date published: 2007/11/24

BBC promotes "Buy Nothing Day" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Buy Nothing Day - an annual moratorium on shopping - has made little impression over the years. But campaigners marking this year's day of inaction, on Saturday, sense the tide is starting to turn.

The mere thought is almost enough to bring Maryann Poole out in a cold sweat - a day dedicated to not shopping.

Maryann, a freelance journalist from west London, says she "genuinely enjoys" shopping.

"I admire things. I like looking at the difference between products. I like going into shops and choosing things. Having a good long talk with the shop assistant - so long as they know their stuff.

"And then getting home and taking whatever it is out of the nice packaging,"

It's "a lot to do with who I am - the whole process gives me real pleasure".

Maryann is a retailer's dream. But she is also the worst nightmare of the Buy Nothing Day campaign, dedicated as it is to curbing consumerism.

She is a walking embodiment of the fact that huge numbers of people have come to enjoy shopping for its own sake. They get a thrill not for the difference that the products can make to their lives - but out of the process itself.

This "shopping as sport" phenomenon has, some say, helped to drive a wave of consumerism unprecedented in history. Never before has the world spent so much, consumed so much, and thrown so much away.

And with the biggest shopping bonanza of them all, Christmas, just a month off, the shops will be thronging with people.

Yet campaigners behind Buy Nothing Day say its time may have come. Some thinkers are pointing to growing trends towards environmental awareness and old-fashioned thrift. These, they predict, foreshadow the end of consumerism as a national obsession.

Among the campaign's most enthusiastic supporters is Pat Thomas, editor of the Ecologist magazine.

"There is no getting away from the fact that we now live in a world of diminishing resources and increasing waste," says Ms Thomas. "The answer is always: consume less."

The BBC seems to run this kind of story at least once or twice a year, and probably has since the BBC was founded. Indeed, one can imagine that the AGBC (Ancient Greek Broadcasting Corporation) was running such stories in Plato's time. ("The kids of today, you know, they just want to play games and shop instead of study philosophy.") It's not very surprising that "never before has the world spent so much, consumed so much, and thrown so much away". The world has more people and the people are richer (on average) than in the past. How dreadful. You have the feeling that the BBC and their fellow academic middle class colleagues will not be happy until there is mass starvation in the world.

And unfortunately Thomas is a classic academic middle class hypocrite. It's not that she believes "consume less", it's that she believes "consume less of what I think you should consume less of, and oh, by the way, consume more of my magazine". So, she edits a pointless magazine. And this pointless magazine is distributed to thousands of people, and its average lifespan between arrival and placement in the recycling bin is probably at best a few days or a week (and is it even read by half those who subscribe?). Talk about a throw-away culture. But of course this pointless magazine is "intellectual" (or at least academic middle class), so that kind of consumerism is ok. It's only the people who buy gadgets or clothes who should be condemned (although their purchases at least generally last longer than a week).

Well, let's get into the spirit of Buy Nothing Day. Don't buy the Ecologist magazine and don't buy any BBC DVD's.

Prostate cancer test has been woefully wrong for obese men (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Doctors must take body weight into account when reading test results for prostate cancer as obesity may distort the findings, a US study argues.

Obese men have more blood so the concentration of antigen, a marker for the disease, is lower, a team found.

The North Carolina study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, involved 14,000 patients.

It may explain why obese men seem to have more aggressive cancers, as tumours may initially be missed.

The test for prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, is known to be notoriously unreliable.

About a third of men with raised PSA levels will not have cancer, and will undergo unnecessary invasive tests.

Meanwhile, the test sometimes misses prostate cancer, as highlighted in this study.

"We've known for a while that obese men tend to have lower PSA scores than normal weight men, but our study really proposes a reason why this happens, and points to a need for an adjustment in the way we interpret PSA scores to take body weight into account," said Dr Stephen Freedland, a urologist at the Duke Prostate Center.

"If not, we may be missing a large number of cancers each year."

At the extreme, the men in the most obese category had PSA concentrations as much as 21% lower than those of normal weight men.

Dr Chris Hiley, of the Prostate Cancer Charity, said: "This study shows us yet another downside to obesity. An obese man's true PSA level is diluted by his increased blood volume caused by excess weight.

"Doctors now need to work out how to take this into account so they can make an accurate estimate of the PSA level - important in the diagnosis and management of prostate cancer."

Unbelievable, a health study that actually seems to have done some good and found a real effect. But the remarks of Hiley are bizarre beyond belief: "This study shows us yet another downside to obesity". No, this study shows that doctors have been using an incorrect diagnosis for obese men. If for some reason doctors had originally used obese (which these days is pretty much the same as "normal") men instead of "ideal" or underweight men to calibrate the tests then we would now be finding that the latter were the men with the incorrect diagnosis. And would Hiley then be claiming: "This study shows us yet another downside to not being obese"? Of course not.

Date published: 2007/11/23

Surprise, relative pay matters to people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

On receiving a paypacket, how good a man feels depends on how much his colleague earns in comparison, scientists say.

Scans reveal that being paid more than a co-worker stimulates the "reward centre" in the male brain.

Traditional economic theory assumes the only important factor is the absolute size of the reward.
...
In the study, 38 pairs of male volunteers were asked to perform the same simple task simultaneously, and promised payment for success.

Does "traditional economic theory" really assume that only absolute size matters? (It's pretty trivially obvious to anyone who lives in the real world that relative sucess matters as well.) Does anyone think that women are any different than men? (Why limit this study to men?) Does anyone believe that you should take an indirect, non-real-world, analysis involving a few dozen men and construct a (any) grand philosophy of the universe? (It's an unfortunate tendency amongst scientists and/or journals wanting to publicise their papers to claim great things when they have examined only an epsilon of evidence.)

GP targets not necessarily good for patients (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The targets GPs have been hitting to earn massive pay rises are not good for patient care, experts say.

Family doctor pay has now hit £110,000 on average - a £30,000 rise in the first two years of the new contract.

The deal rewards GPs with a bonus for hitting certain targets, such as blood pressure testing and asthma care.

But doctors and academics say it pushes GPs to focus on point scoring instead of individually tailoring care, the British Medical Journal reports.

What a surprise, setting targets means that people target the targets. This plethora of targets is what happens when you have management consultants running the country instead of people who think and care.

Date published: 2007/11/22

Government proposes the expansion of Heathrow (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has set out proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow.

Announcing options for consultation, she said without growth the airport's status would suffer, but any expansion must meet noise and pollution tests.

Among options are a 2,200m third runway built north of Heathrow by 2020, and a sixth terminal, which will require the destruction of an entire village.

Critics say more than 50 communities and towns will suffer increased noise.

Analysis published by the government on Thursday suggests an expanded Heathrow could meet air pollution and noise limits over time.

It says three runways could be operated from 2020, without breaching air quality limits - thanks to developments like cleaner aircraft engines.

But it says take-offs and landings should be limited to 605,000 a year initially, to meet noise restrictions.

As older, noisier planes are phased out, this could rise to 702,000 by 2030. Currently there are 480,000 a year.

The third runway is among proposals in a consultation process which will run until 27 February.

Another is a sixth terminal to serve the new runway, which would require 700 properties to be bulldozed, including the village of Sipson.

In the meantime, the two existing runways could be used for both take-off and landings - currently arrivals are switched from one to the other after 3pm to give residents a break from the noise.

And agreements governing the direction in which aircraft leave and arrive at the airport could be changed.

Well, this largely makes sense, but time will tell whether any of it ever happens. Unfortunately, in the UK it seems the government has little say in these matters, the courts are the final arbiters and you can guarantee the opponents will drag things out in the courts as long as possible, hoping for a change in government. And the Tories will quite possibly form that next government, in a couple of years, and they seem to be anti-aviation (except that they themselves will continue to fly everywhere, of course, it's just the peasants who should stay at home), so they might well drop the expansion plans.

People should be allowed to die at home (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The NHS must put more resources into enabling the terminally ill to die at home, a leading cancer charity says.

Marie Curie Cancer Care says a pilot scheme carried out in Lincolnshire, in which people were offered the choice, saw home deaths increase dramatically.

The charity also says the cost of care went down as a result.

The government's cancer tsar hailed the scheme, and said he hoped key features would be incorporated into a new end of life strategy currently being drawn up.

While everyone can ask to die at home, resources do not always permit this. An estimated 64% of patients want to, but in reality only 25% do so.

Four percent want to die in hospital, but in fact 47% do so, the charity says.

Has the BBC ever started an article which spins the message of some special interest pressure group about the NHS which hasn't included the immortal words "the NHS must put more resources into XYZ"? And to boot, the article completely contradicts itself from one paragraph to the next. So first we learn that this scheme made the "cost of care" go down, then we learn that "resources do not always permit" people to die at home. So something clearly does not add up. And one of the problems with any pilot scheme is that the people behind the proposal have an even bigger incentive than normal to claim that the scheme is a success, so one has to take any such claim with a pinch of salt.

But of course people should be allowed to die at home. And people should also be allowed to choose when and how they die. Power should be taken away from control freak doctors.

Girls draw obvious conclusions about being overweight (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Girls as young as seven believe being slim and attractive will mean you are more happy, popular and successful, research suggests.

A study published by Girlguiding UK found girls associated being overweight with being bullied and sad.

However, girls polled said their families and friends made them feel happy and good about themselves.

Another pointless report. What a surprise, girls reflect the society they live in. Yes, being overweight often means that you are bullied. Yes, "slim and attractive" women/girls are more "popular and successful" (and perhaps even happier). Who would have thought.

Date published: 2007/11/21

Yet another tedious attack on grammar schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

England's grammar schools are "ghettos for the advantaged", doing little to alleviate poverty, an academic says.

Research by Professor David Jesson from York University showed just 2% of pupils in grammars received free school meals, compared with 13% nationally.

And in some grammars more than one third of pupils had come from fee-paying schools, he said.

Another study said grammars benefited pupils from lower and higher income groups - but again, access was unequal.
...
Professor Jesson said: "Far from providing 'ladders of opportunity' for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, grammar schools are more like 'ghettos of the advantaged'.

"Grammar schools do not offer a ladder of opportunity to any but a very small number of disadvantaged pupils.

"In fact, their recruitment policies tend to favour pupils from more prosperous communities where eligibility for free school meals and other measures of deprivation are at very low levels.

"Parents who can afford to send their children to private fee-paying schools have a distinct advantage in securing places at local grammar schools over pupils from state junior schools who are similarly able."

Well, Jesson obviously has an axe to grind, so anything he says has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The fact that he seems to believe that most people who send their children to private schools can "afford" to do so, shows how out of touch he is. Most people who send their children to private schools make great personal sacrifices to be able to do so. Grammar schools might not be perfect, but they are definitely better than anything Jesson and his ilk would replace them with (or have replaced them with in the past).

EU might finally start to do something about obscene EU fishing practise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fisheries Minister Jonathan Shaw has agreed that dumping thousands of tonnes of dead fish back into the sea because of EU fishing quotas is "immoral".

He said he supported the view of EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg and would be pushing for quota increases.

The fishing industry has warned it faces ruin because fish caught after quotas are exceeded have to be dumped.

But environmentalists say quotas are necessary to protect stocks, and want to see a change in fishing practices.

European Union quotas strictly limit the amount of fish that vessels can bring back to port, but there is no restriction on the amount of fish they actually catch.

BBC rural affairs correspondent Jeremy Cooke found that boats fishing in the "mixed fishery" of the North Sea often accidentally catch a species or size of fish which is above their quota and have to throw the "discard" back.

The EU estimates that between 40% and 60% of fish caught by trawlers in this area is dumped back into the sea.

Mr Borg - who is instrumental in setting the laws and limits - described such discarding of fish as "immoral" but said there was no clear solution.

"The problem is when we come to work out the details of how to eliminate discarding but at the same time have sustainable fisheries - that is the big problem."
...
Oliver Knowles, a campaigner for Greenpeace, also believes quotas are not working for the UK's mixed fisheries.

He says the only answer is to stop fishing altogether in 40% of the world's oceans.

"Most importantly, I think you have got to create marine reserves. We don't have any proper protection for the marine environment.

"We are talking about a very large scale - about 40% - and Greenpeace isn't alone in calling for protected areas at around that size."

How surprising, Greenpeace, and other so-called environmentalists, are calling for huge marine reserves, at no cost to themselves, and at substantive cost to others. What brave and honourable souls they are. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the EU had better figure out a sensible way to stop this appalling waste of fish. In effect, the fishing industry seems to be catching twice as much fish as stated in the quota, and so half of it has to be junked. How obscene can you get.

Date published: 2007/11/17

An online survey of English children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nearly half of all 10 to 15-year-olds in England have tried alcohol, a survey for schools' inspectors suggests.

One in seven 12 to 15-year-olds has tried illegal drugs and a fifth have been drunk, the Ofsted research on lifestyle, habits and concerns shows.

Around a third of school pupils said they had been bullied and half said their greatest worry was exams.

Four out of five of the 111,000 children questioned said they wanted lessons to be more fun and interesting.

The vast majority (86%) of children considered themselves to be quite or very healthy.

Children also have a strong sense of community and 65% have helped raise money for charity or a local group.

The TellUs2 online survey targeted children aged between 10 and 15 in England.

It asked them about their habits, lifestyle and general concerns and anxieties.

First of all, it's an online survey, so quite likely not representative. Was there even any way of confirming that the respondents were aged 10 to 15? Secondly, there's no way of knowing whether anyone is telling the truth, or whether many respondents just put down what they think they ought to put down. So all in all, the figures are rather meaningless.

However it is rather amusing that the BBC leads the story with "nearly half of all 10 to 15-year-olds in England have tried alcohol". Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Presumably the corresponding figure is higher in France, which the British chattering class always like to point out as a country with sensible alcohol use. So perhaps the figure should be deemed good, or if anything not nearly high enough. But presumably the BBC, as part of the current British chattering hysteria about alcohol, thinks instead that this figure is way too high, so a bad thing.

Date published: 2007/11/16

Latest IPCC report on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change may bring "abrupt and irreversible" impacts, the UN's climate advisory panel is set to announce.

Delegates to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agreed a summary of its landmark report during overnight negotiations here.

Discussions were said to have been robust, with the US and other delegations keen to moderate language.

The summary will be officially launched by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon on Saturday.

It brings together elements of the three reports that the Nobel Prize-winning IPCC has already released this year, on the science of climate change, impacts and adaptation, and options for mitigating the problem.

Among its top-line conclusions are that climate change is "unequivocal", that humankind's emissions of greenhouse gases are more than 90% likely to be the main cause, and that impacts can be reduced at reasonable cost.

Nothing new here. Almost nothing that humans can do to the planet is "irreversible" in any really meaningful sense of the word, but that is just political marketing spin. The only substantive claim that is controversial is that "impacts can be reduced at reasonable cost". The (rich) members of the IPCC will not be the people who pay this cost.

The LGA wants more money for flood defences (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government's pledged increased spending on flood defences will not come soon enough, councils have warned.

Action is needed "urgently" to protect critical infrastructure, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.

The prime minister has pledged to boost funding from £600m a year to £800m by 2010/2011, after the summer floods.

But in its submission to the Pitt Review into flooding in Yorkshire and the Midlands, the LGA said: "Three years is simply too long to wait."

Surprise, the LGA wants more money. When does the LGA not want more money? The national government should be deciding how much money is spent on flood defences, not local government.

Date published: 2007/11/15

Yet another anti-biofuels comment from the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The biofuels bonanza will crash unless producers can guarantee their crops have been produced responsibly, the UN's environment agency chief has said.

Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Programme (Unep) said there was an urgent need for standards to make sure rainforests weren't being destroyed.

Biofuel makers also had to show their products did not produce more CO2 than they negated, he told BBC News.

Critics say biofuels will lead to food shortages and destroy rainforests.

They point to the destruction of Indonesia's peat swamps as an example of biofuel folly.

The swamps are one the richest stores of carbon on the planet and they are being burned to produce palm oil.

Mr Steiner implied that because of Indonesia's inability to police its land use, biofuels from palm oil grown by the nation might never be deemed to be sustainable.

But he said some biofuels could be considered sustainable. He highlighted ethanol production in Brazil, and a dry land crop called jatropha, which is resistant to pests and droughts.

Mr Steiner urged investors not to turn their backs on developing second or third generation fuels that would use non-food crops and burnable waste.

He feared that beneficial biofuels might be lost as part of a consumer backlash.

The anti-biofuels lobby is getting all the press these days, and unfortunately they are largely correct. The question that is most important for the UK in this context is whether the EU will press ahead with their demand for the use of biofuels in transport, or whether they will finally admit that this policy is going to do more harm than good.

An early European civilisation might have collapsed for ecological reasons (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of Western Europe's earliest known urban societies may have sown the seeds of its own downfall, a study suggests.

Mystery surrounded the fall of the Bronze Age Argaric people in south-east Spain - Europe's driest area.

Data suggests the early civilisation exhausted precious natural resources, helping bring about its own ruin.

The study provides early evidence for cultural collapse caused - at least in part - by humans meddling with the environment, say researchers.

It could also provide lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions.

The findings were based on pollen preserved in a peat deposit located in the mountains of eastern Andalucia, Spain.

The researchers drilled a sediment core from the Canada del Gitano basin high up in Andalucia's Sierra de Baza region.

By studying the abundances of different pollen types - along with other indicators - preserved in sedimentary deposits, researchers can reconstruct what kind of vegetation covered the area in ancient times.

They can compile a pollen sequence, which shows how vegetation changed over thousands of years. This can give them clues to how human settlement and climate affected ecosystems.

The Argaric culture emerged in south-eastern Spain 4,300 years ago. This civilisation, which inhabited small fortified towns, was one of the first in Western Europe to adopt bronze working.

But about 3,600 years ago, the culture mysteriously vanished from the archaeological record.

"Archaeologists are convinced that something happened in the ecological structure of the area just prior to the collapse of the Argaric culture," said Jose Carrion, from the University of Murcia, Spain.

There are no doubt plenty of civilisations that disappeared for "ecological" reasons (including because of disease, climate change, resource depletion, etc.). (The other real option for collapse being military conquest.) Unfortunately archaeologists in particular seem to be fond of constructing grand theories of the universe based on very little evidence. And whatever the truth is, it provides very few "lessons for modern populations living in water-stressed regions". Everybody already knows that you have to be careful with water in such regions, and that over-population is going to cause problems because it will stress the available resources. Tell us something we don't know.

Date published: 2007/11/14

Cloned primate embryos (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Experts have for the first time created cloned embryos from an adult monkey - a technical breakthrough that could bring efficient human cloning a step closer.

A team in the US created dozens of cloned embryos from a 10-year-old male macaque, the journal Nature reports.

This could make it easier to clone human embryos for use in research.

It raises the prospect of developing transplant tissues to treat diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's that will not be rejected by the body.

The American group was able to extract stem cells from some of the cloned monkey embryos, persuading them to develop into mature heart and nerve cells in the laboratory.

It's early days, but it's obviously potentially a big (although expected) advance. Unfortunately, the potential medical breakthroughs always have to be hyped in articles like this, and it rather detracts from the story, which is one of basic science moving forward.

The world should allegedly stop so that children can play (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children are being pushed out of public places because of excessive traffic and adults' fear of anti-social behaviour, says a report from a play charity.

There are now three times more cars than children in the UK says a report commissioned by Play England.

The disappearance of places where children can play demands a "robust and urgent response", says the report.

The report calls for a hotline to identify anti-social adults who obstruct children from playing outside.

"With cars outnumbering children by three to one, the acceleration of house building, and the privatisation of public space, places once used by young people for playing and exploring rites of childhood are quickly being swallowed up," says the report's co-author, Celia Hannon.

There are 33 million cars in the UK, says the report, compared to a population of 11 million dependent children.

The report, produced for Play England by think-tank Demos, proposes that more cities should adopt 20 miles per hour limits in residential streets where children might be playing.

And it highlights community projects which have temporarily closed roads to cars.

But the report presents a picture in which too few children walk to school and too many are shuttled in cars between their front door, school, shops and organised activities.

Yes, the problem is not one of cars, but one of parents, who refuse to let their kids grow up as they once grew up. Of course Demos, one of the zillions of useless consultancies that plague the nation, and Play England, one of the zillions of dreadful special interest pressure groups that plague the nation, hate cars, so the message has to be an anti-car one.

And why is it relevant how many cars there are relative to how many children there are? Surprise, there are a lot more adults than children, and a majority of adults have cars. How dreadful. How dare the peasants go about getting to work, when the number one priority of the nation should evidently be to let children play. (Of course it is not very surprising that the non-workers of the world, such as Demos and Play England, think little of the workers.)

And hopefully Demos and Play England will pay for a hotline to identify anti-social children who "play" outside the houses of adults. Even better, hopefully these children will go "play" outside the house of Celia Hannon, so she can see how wonderful it is to have children wreak havoc on the world.

Date published: 2007/11/13

Lib Dem MEP wants to do something about population growth (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rapid world population growth must be halted to stop mankind "swamping the planet" like a "virus", a British MEP has warned.

Liberal Democrat Chris Davies told the BBC that politicians had to break a "taboo" and discuss the subject.

The North West England MEP added that families should be encouraged to have no more than one child in an effort to combat climate change.
...
Mr Davies said there were "many questions" on the best way to restrict population increase, adding that he was keen not to "penalise" families by taxing couples for having more than one child.

He added: "I'm happy for someone to come up with some ideas. That would at least be the first stage in a debate on the issue."

Barring compulsion (which hardly anybody would support), the only way to do this is exactly via the tax and benefit system. In the UK, as in most rich countries, the tax and benefit system gives huge subsidies to parents, for example through free education, time off work, etc. As with carbon emissions, if you want to change behaviour you have to make people pay for the consequences of their actions, instead of allowing them to externalise the cost onto other people. However, this will never happen with regard to population, because most people want to have children, and any political party that had a sensible proposal about children would never be elected.

Control freaks still complaining about food adverts on television (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Restrictions on television junk food adverts do not properly protect children, say researchers.

A report by Which? magazine concludes children are still exposed to adverts promoting foods with high sugar, salt and fat content.

It found 12 of the 20 programmes most popular with under-10s were not covered by the current restrictions.

However, the advertising industry rejected a call for a total ban before 9pm as too simplistic.

Which? argues that such a hard line approach on any product loaded with fat, salt or sugar is the only effective way to protect children.

The academic middle class control freaks in action yet again. Of course what they really want is a ban on advertising for anything they don't like. They just happen to dress this up as being for the benefit of children because they can get away with patronising children. And of course the reason that many programmes are not covered by the current (already over-the-top) restrictions is because the latter were imposed on programmes aimed at children, and needless to say children also watch other programmes, aimed at adults (perhaps because programmes aimed at children are also pretty patronising, and of course also because most adult programmes are not exactly intellectually challenging). The citizens of the UK (adults and children) do not need the academic middle class to tell they what they should and should not be able to watch, or eat.

Date published: 2007/11/12

ADHD drugs allegedly do more harm than good in the long run (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Treating children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with drugs is not effective in the long-term, research has shown.

A study obtained by the BBC's Panorama programme says drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta work no better than therapy after three years of treatment.

The findings by an influential US study also suggested long-term use of the drugs could stunt children's growth.

It said that the benefits of drugs had previously been exaggerated.

The Multimodal Treatment Study of Children with ADHD has been monitoring the treatment of 600 children across the US since the 1990s.

Most of the estimated 500,000 children in Britain with ADHD receive no treatment at all.

But of those that do, most - about 55,000 last year - are prescribed stimulants like Ritalin and Concerta.

The cost of these drugs to the NHS is about £28m.

In 1999, the American study concluded that after one year medication worked better than behavioural therapy for ADHD.

This finding influenced medical practice on both sides of the Atlantic, and prescription rates in the UK have since tripled.

But now after longer-term analysis, the report's co-author, Professor William Pelham of the University of Buffalo, said: "I think that we exaggerated the beneficial impact of medication in the first study.

"We had thought that children medicated longer would have better outcomes. That didn't happen to be the case.

"There's no indication that medication's better than nothing in the long run."

Prof Pelham said there were "no beneficial effects" of medication and the impact was seemingly negative instead.

"The children had a substantial decrease in their rate of growth so they weren't growing as much as other kids both in terms of their height and in terms of their weight," he said.

Is anybody seriously surprised by this? Pushing drugs on kids is all part of the medicalisation of every aspect of behaviour. Presumably we will now start getting lawsuits.

Cameron uses rape as a lesson in morality (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has called for tougher sentences for rapists, saying too many men "think they can get away with it".

England and Wales have the lowest conviction rate - 5.7% - among leading European countries, he said.

He pledged longer-term funding for rape crisis centres, to change attitudes towards rape through sex education and announced a Tory review of sentencing.
...
In a speech at the Conservative Women's Organisation conference, Mr Cameron said: "Studies have shown that as many as one in two young men believe there are some circumstances when it's okay to force a woman to have sex.

"To my mind, this is an example of moral collapse."

He also called for compulsory sex education in schools to drive home the message that sex without consent is a criminal offence.
...
Mr Cameron announced that shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert will carry out a review of rape punishments to ensure they are "proportionate to the crime".

BBC Radio 4 carried several balanced discussions about this Cameron speech, unfortunately the BBC website failed to follow suit and just lets Cameron get away with quoting selectively. In particular, it is difficult to compare conviction rates between countries because in some countries, like the UK, there is much more likely to be a trial in the first place. As with all crimes, the more you are willing to try, the less you are going to convict (because the weight of evidence becomes less and less). And his all-but-promise to make the sentencing higher could well result in fewer convictions. Juries know that to convict an innocent person of a heinous crime like rape is a very serious matter, and the higher the punishment, the higher the bar must be to achieve conviction. Unfortunately Cameron either seems not to understand this, or will happily counteract this effect by forcing the bar to be made lower in order to achieve a higher conviction rate. You can easily imagine that some day men accused of rape will have to prove they are innocent, the State will not have to prove they are guilty. This is the Blair/Cameron view of justice, where it is ok to sacrifice some innocent people (like the Brazilian killed by the British police) just to play it safe. All in all, expect that many more innocent men will go to prison.

But the worst aspect of Cameron's speech is not his abuse of statistics or inability to think through the consequence of what he has said. The worst aspect of Cameron's speech is his claim that rape somehow has something to do with the "moral collapse" of the nation. Who is he kidding? Does he think that rape is a 21st century phenomenon? Does he think that rape victims received a more sympathetic hearing (from the courts, the press, etc.) in the 1950s or the Victorian era (the two periods the Tories always hark back to) compared with today? Does he think that on the whole men treated women better in the past than today? Unfortunately this clown is likely to be running the country in a few years.

Gwyneth Dunwoody does not like Galileo (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK "must do everything in its power" to stop the EU's Galileo sat-nav system going ahead until concerns over funding have been resolved, say MPs.

The Transport Select Committee warned that the EU was "sleep walking" into the multi-billion pound project, which would be paid for by taxpayers.

The European Commission (EC) said a £1.7bn gap in the scheme's budget should be financed by EU funds.

A number of nations, including the UK, have opposed the EC's proposals.
...
"What taxpayers in the United Kingdom and other European countries really need and want is better railways and roads, not giant signature projects in the sky," said committee chairwoman Gwyneth Dunwoody.

"The government must stop this folly and endeavour to bring the European Commission to its senses," the Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich added.

She called for independent evidence that proceeding with Galileo - a rival to the US GPS system - was worthwhile and offered value for money.
...
The commission wants the new network because it will give EU states guaranteed access to a space-borne precise timing and location service independent of the United States.

Dunwoody misses the main, strategic, point of the Galileo project, namely that it provides the EU with a service which is independent of the United States. The US can nobble the GPS, and have in the past. They claim they will not in future, but that is only because the EU, and others, have now threatened their monopoly. Sure, the EU should be forced to justify the Galileo budget (and as with all of these EU projects, there is no doubt a lot of corruption involved, so it will not be done as cheaply as it could). But it does not help if naive MPs make naive statements, missing the bigger picture.

Date published: 2007/11/11

Oxford apparently wants more "black" applicants (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A campaign to encourage more black students to apply to Oxford University is being supported by US human rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson.

Only 151 Oxford applicants last year were black, with 26 of them going on to win a place there, figures show.

The Aspire programme aims to discover why so few apply in the first place.
...
The success rate for the 31 Caribbean black applicants was 16% - compared with an average of 28% among the total 13,000 undergraduate applications.
...
The project will focus on contributing to mentoring schemes already in place and carrying out research to identify the stumbling blocks preventing youngsters from applying to university.

One student who beat the odds and made it to Oxford is 19-year-old Michael Isola, who grew up on a south-east London council estate and went through the state education system.
...
[ He said: ] "The biggest challenge has been the academic leap and I have felt short-changed by the state system, but there has been so much support from the college and when I have struggled and needed extra help, my tutors have been available."

Like many stories on the BBC website, this reads just like a press release from the organisation concerned. And as seems mandatory in these kinds of stories, they have to give one example, in order to provide the "human interest" angle, as if one example proves anything about the general situation. And unfortunately they only quote a very selective statistic. And indeed, almost certainly the most important factor in Oxbridge applicants, as in all similar things in life, is the socioeconomic status of the applicant. There is the question of the residual importance of race, but almost certainly that is not nearly as significant as socioeconomic status. And there are no doubt several issues underlying the socioeconomic divide. One is that rich families can (on average) provide many more opportunities in life, including a better education. And indeed, the one thing that Isola picks up on, which all the Oxbridge-hating ruling elite always fail to mention, is that this chap felt he was "short-changed by the state system". And indeed, large swathes of the state education system are mediocre at best. But of course government ministers don't want to accept any responsibility for the failed education of any of the children of the UK. Instead they blame Oxbridge for "not doing enough". But it is not up to Oxbridge to correct the screw-ups of the previous decade plus of an applicant's education. By age 18 it is too late. This problem needs fixing at age 5 to 10. The government claims they recognise this, but the fact that they still insist on bashing Oxbridge (and private schools), means they are at best disingenous and at worst not really willing to do what it takes to make education great for everyone and not just for the middle class. The opposition parties are no better. They all seem to want to bring the education of the middle class down, rather than the education of everyone else up.

Date published: 2007/11/10

Government is allegedly going to be told to whack up the cost of motoring (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drivers of big, high emission cars - including family saloons - could be penalised by a £1,000 hike in their motoring costs, it has been reported.

The move is expected among a raft of bold proposals from a Government-commissioned review of low carbon cars which reports in February.

Recommendations are likely to include higher excise duties and a purchase tax for larger cars, the Times reports.

Grants may be given to drivers who opt for more environmentally-friendly cars.

Motoring organisations have attacked the plans, with the RAC insisting that for big families a larger car is a necessity not a luxury.

Professor Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, who heads the review, believes cars powered by rechargeable electric batteries are the best option.

She conceded that ministers might find it politically difficult to adopt all her proposals, but insisted there must be a mix of penalties and incentives.
...
The proposals arising from the review aim to cut the carbon dioxide that the average car emits per mile by at least 30% in 10 years.

Monkey see, monkey do. The so-called environmentalists (led on the political front by the Greens and Lib Dems, the parties of the academic middle class) have been calling for this kind of move, so naturally the rest of the car-hating ruling elite fall into step. And of course it will eventually happen, because all governments are addicted to tax, and what better tax to increase than one you can claim you are increasing because you love the environment. Taking this report as the excuse, the government will first whack up the cost for a small minority of drivers, and then year on year will whack more and more drivers. Government ministers being driven to work in their big cars will of course not be affected, because they don't pay for any of the cost of their journeys. And the fact that drivers already more than pay the environmental cost of their journeys, and no other group of transport users does (in particular, train commuters do not), is of course something that is conveniently ignored by the ruling elite.

Date published: 2007/11/09

The Lib Dems hate GM crops (surprise) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers must not approve commercial planting of GM crops in England, until it is proved safe, say the Lib Dems.

Chris Huhne said responses to a Defra survey show planting should not be allowed until ministers can prove non-GM crops will not be contaminated.

Most respondents opposed Defra's plan to allow GM crops to be grown in fields at least 35m (114ft) from non-GM crops.

A Defra spokesman said they would await the results of three reports, due next spring, before plans are taken further.

No commercial GM crops are yet grown in the UK and are not expected for several years, but the government wants to have measures in place in England for the "coexistence" of GM, conventional and organic crops.

EU regulations state that food containing more than 0.9% of genetically modified ingredients have to be labelled as GM produce - even if they were grown as a conventional crop.

The government is proposing having compulsory separation distances between crops to minimise cross pollination of non-GM varieties.

And farmers intending to sow GM crops would be required to notify neighbouring farmers.

The three-month consultation attracted 11,676 responses - 11,442 from "members of the public".

Defra said about 80% were in the form of stock letters or petitions, which conveyed a "basic disagreement" with Defra's proposals and said 0.9% was too high and in organic produce, it should be less than 0.1%.

Chris Huhne and the Lib Dems (the party of the academic middle class) are not fit for office. Britain does not need a political party which is harking back to a medieval past, with a blatantly anti-scientific and anti-technological bias. There is no way to prove that anything is "safe" in the way any of the anti-GM zealots take this word to mean. In fact, with their definition, nothing in life is "safe", not even conventional farming (or getting out of bed in the morning). So this requirement is totally disingenuous, and Huhne knows it, yet he still insists on peddling this nonsense.

And the so-called public consultation was not representative of the public. No consultation is. The academic middle class is always way overrepresented. And people with an axe to grind are always way overrepresented. Here the so-called organic movement (whose members have a religious view of what should and should not be allowed in farming) will have been the one group that is way, way overrepresented, since they both have an axe to grind and are fully paid up members of the academic middle class. The general public, meanwhile, will have been way, way underrepresented. In fact, probably not represented at all.

Government wants to massively increase speeding penalties (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motorists caught driving well over the speed limit could face tougher penalties, under plans to be considered by the government.

The worst offenders, such as those doing 45mph in a 30mph zone, could have six points added to their licence.

This could result a driving ban - given when 12 points are accumulated within three years - for just two offences.

Transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick said the government was "determined" to cut levels of "excessive" speeding.
...
The Department for Transport is launching a consultation within the next few months, with the findings expected next year.

Under the plans, people driving at 45mph or above in a 30mph limit could receive a fixed penalty of six points and a £100 fine.

Those caught doing 70mph in a 50mph zone or 94mph in a 70mph zone would face the same sanction, it adds.

The existing flat rate for speeding is three points on a licence and a £60 fine.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said: "We welcome measures where people who are grossly above the speed limit get tougher penalty points.

"It is not getting at the ordinary motorist. It is getting at those who flagrantly break the speed limit."

Another fatuous public consultation, where the academic middle class will dominate the proceedings. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is evidently typical of the health and safety nutters who are ruining the country. (They have evidently never been on a motorway, where 99% of drivers break the speed limit. So this is an attack on the "ordinary" motorist.) The minister Fitzpatrick has less of an excuse for his silly comments. If the government at least pretended to be interested in reducing accidents that would be one thing. Instead they are obviously only interested in cutting levels of "excessive" speeding.

The proposals take no context into account. For example, most speed limits do not vary according to the time of day, or the weather. There are plenty of rural roads where the speed limit is 60mph and that is crazily too high, and there are equally plenty of roads near towns where the speed limit is 40mph and that is crazily too low. Indeed, on many roads in the country, the speed limit has recently arbitrarily been reduced from 60mph to 40mph, or from 40mph to 30mph. So one day you can be driving at a speed which does not rate a mention, but the next day the same speed is deemed to be a danger to the world.

And as anyone who drives knows (and you have to wonder how many of the people who proposed this new regime are drivers), the speed limits often change arbitrarily from one section of road to the next. And unless you spend your entire driving effort paying attention to each and every sign, rather than driving, you can easily miss a sign. Of course the anti-car zealots (who run the transport planning in the UK) don't care. Their entire purpose in life is to screw car drivers.

And the ruling elite wonder why the people of Britain think they are scum.

Cambridge gives outline planning permission for Addenbrooke's expansion (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Addenbrooke's Hospital is set to double in size, thanks to council planners.

The ambitious £1 billion scheme, which will make the hospital the largest biomedical campus in Europe, has cleared a major hurdle with Cambridge City Council.

Outline planning permission has been granted to expand the site from 70 acres to 140 acres.

The plan, known as the 2020 Vision, will create "at least 8,000 jobs" and aim to turn Addenbrooke's into an international centre of excellence.

It will form the Cambridge Biomedical Campus which will host clinical care, research and teaching.

The site will have room for new clinical facilities, including a children's hospital and relocated Papworth Hospital. It also hopes to build research labs where worldleading scientists will come to work.

Plans also include a conference centre, a hotel, accommodation for staff - with transport connections via the guided busway - and a new link to the M11.

Wow, the city council has at least half come to their senses, they were acting at one point as if they would prefer this expansion not to happen. The city council is a negative, not a positive, contribution to Cambridge. They don't even understand why Cambridge exists (and it's not because of the great contributions to the world by the council). Unfortunately, if they have anything to do with the actual planning of the site (which they will), the outcome will be worse, not better. Their one and only fixation in life is with traffic, not with whether Cambridge is world class.

Date published: 2007/11/08

New Cambridge John Lewis opens (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Shop workers were today bracing themselves for a New Year-style sales rush.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony by Andy Street, managing director of the John Lewis Partnership, was the signal for the new John Lewis store to open its doors in Cambridge.
...
The John Lewis shop is three times the size of the old Robert Sayle store.

A big day for the academic middle class of Cambridge. Their favourite store is back where it belongs. There was a huge crush of people for the opening (average age well over 50). The store does not really seem to be three times the size it was, but presumably it must be. The interior is typical John Lewis. Well, in fact it is typical of every department store on the face of the earth aimed at the middle class. And indeed, the building itself is nothing special, it could be located anywhere in the world:
new John Lewis store in Cambridge

Some Tory councillors apparently are opposed to the Cambridge congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Rebel Conservatives could scupper controversial plans for a congestion charge in Cambridge.

Coun Lister Wilson, who represents Bourn ward, has blasted the scheme which he believes would cost city residents as much as £1,000 per year and "turn hardworking families into hard-pressed ones".

And he believes more than half of his fellow Tories on Cambridgeshire County Council are opposed to the proposals, fronted by leader Shona Johnstone, which would see residents and visitors paying £3- £5 to use the city's roads between 7.30am and 9.30am.

He told the News: "We think we can identify at least 22 Conservative councillors who are opposed to the congestion charge."

Coun Wilson criticised the elaborate £20 million system of 37 detection cameras and roaming detection vans which would enforce the charge, saying: "It will be a system of surveillance unrivalled outside prisoner-of-war camps, and you will be spotted even tying your shoelace."

He said the move could place a massive financial burden on less well-of f households in Cambridge.

The Litlington resident said: "Politically we Conservatives don't raise taxes, we like to cut them, and we certainly don't impose new ones.

"It will turn hard-working families into hard-pressed ones. In this I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the leader of the Labour group, Martin Ballard, because of the excess burden it will place on the poor and the rise in the cost of living it will impose on the rest."

He claimed the charge would amount to an extra tax on people living and working in the city, and could have massive knockon effects with drivers trying to avoid paying the charge.

Coun Wilson added: "It will be a bigger burden to the poor, people will not find it convenient to pay unless they buy a special 'chip' for their cars, people will re-schedule their journeys to avoid the tax and queue outside the city waiting for free access, and few will know in advance how many journeys they're going to make."
...
[ Coun Johnstone, Tory leader of the council, ] disputed the projected £1,000 per year cost, saying the charge is expected to be "considerably less" than £5.

She said: "How many people do you know who work 52 weeks a year? That's what the £1,000 figure is based on. I'm not saying the cost would not be significant, but it would not be as much as that."

Johnstone has been totally disingenous about the (so-called) congestion charge from day one. If she wants to claim this new tax will be £3 instead of £5 then she should say so directly rather than make silly comments. Most people work over 200 days per year. So at £5 that works out at over £1000.

And one thing that nobody seems to have pointed out is that a large fraction of this £1000 is going to go to some horrible company (like Capita) running the scheme. This means that the people of Cambridgeshire are effectively handing over millions of pounds to the rest of the UK for no great reason. Even worse, the Cambridge scheme will be totally redundant and pointless a few years after its introduction, because there will then be a national road pricing scheme, so we are throwing away a large capital investment almost immediately. All in all, the council might as well just take a large fraction of their council tax revenue and put it on a bonfire in their car park. This is what the people of Cambridgeshire are effectively being asked to do.

The two main victims of this new tax are the workers and the school run. While very few people have much sympathy for the school run, it is ridiculous that the workers are being asked to shoulder the largest burden of everyone. Meanwhile, shoppers (i.e. the non-workers) get away not paying a penny. Workers will be forced either to cough up or to work even more anti-social hours than they do already (unless they have a lenient employer who does not mind if they show up to work at 10 AM). This is the first generation of politicians who have devoted themselves to purposefully making the lives of their workers worse.

There is very little actually worthwhile in the proposed scheme. But Cambridge being Cambridge, a large section of the ruling elite (including all the transport planners) hate drivers (except for themselves of course) and so are happy to screw drivers, whether or not it makes any sense.

Some doctors want mass chickenpox vaccination of children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Vaccinating all children is the only way to prevent severe illness and death from chickenpox, researchers have said.

In one 13-month period in the UK and Irish Republic, there were six deaths and 112 cases of severe complications among children, they said.

Problems included blood poisoning and pneumonia and did not just affect those with other health problems, said teams including health experts from Scotland.

Ministers are awaiting a report on whether England should have a vaccine.
...
In an accompanying editorial, clinicians from Bristol Children's Hospital said that even if all children were not vaccinated, a smaller strategy of immunising teenagers who had not suffered the illness would prevent cases of severe disease in adults.

They said that one option for universal vaccination - adding the chickenpox jab to the existing MMR vaccine - might not win public support.
...
They also raised the possibility that rates of shingles, caused in adults by the same virus, might rise if all children were vaccinated against it.

Adults who have already suffered a bout of chickenpox do not usually develop it again, but the virus lives on in their nerves and if their immunity falls later in life, it can flare up as a painful rash.

However, living in households with children who have chickenpox acts as a "booster" to their immunity, and reduces the chances of a shingles attack.

Nigel Scott, from the Herpes Viruses Association, said: "If we had to choose between the two, we would advocate vaccinating the elderly, as shingles is far more likely to cause serious health problems in many more people than is chickenpox in the young.

"Any benefits to children from a chickenpox vaccine would have to be offset against any potential increase in adult chickenpox and shingles in the elderly.

"The effect on the whole population needs to be considered, not just one age group."

Unbelievable this. First of all, the proposal of these experts might actually do more harm than good, when you take the population as a whole. Secondly, the cost of this mass vaccination is not even mentioned. It would have to be almost zero for any cost-benefit analysis to show this idea is worthwhile, given how few children (about a hundred a year ) this would even benefit a lot (even ignoring the adults for whom this would be a negative). Unfortunately the media, especially the BBC, rarely worries about the cost of anything. They just think the government has an infinite pile of cash to spend and it's only because politicians are wicked and lazy and stupid that every possible health treatment on the face of the earth is not funded.

Date published: 2007/11/07

IEA predicts massive increase in energy demand by 2030 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The global demand for energy is set to grow inexorably through to 2030 if governments do not change their policies, warns a top energy official.

Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), said such a rise would threaten energy security and accelerate climate change.

He said energy needs in 2030 could be more than 50% above current levels, with fossil fuels still dominant.
...
The World Energy Outlook 2007 report warned that much of the increased demand for energy would be met by coal.

As a result, energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could rise by 57% - from 27 giga-tonnes in 2005 to 42 giga-tonnes in 2030, it said.

Even in the report's "alternative policy scenario", which takes into account the governments' proposed action to save energy and cut emissions, CO2 levels are set to rise by 25%.

But it offered a glimmer of hope within its "450 Stabilisation" case study.

It described a notional strategy for governments to stabilise CO2 levels in the atmosphere at about 450 parts per million (ppm), which some scientists and policy makers suggest is an acceptable concentration.

"Emissions savings come from improved efficiency in industry, buildings and transport, switching to nuclear power and renewables, and the widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage," the report said.

This approach would see global emissions peak in 2012 then fall sharply below 2005 levels by 2030, it suggested.

But it added: "Exceptionally quick and vigourous policy action by all countries, and unprecedented technological advances, entailing substantial costs, would be needed to make this case a reality."

The IEA at least has no particular axe to grind, so their analysis can be taken at face value. This does not mean it is correct. Energy is getting a lot more expensive, which will eventually hit demand. But the idea that emissions will peak in 2012 seems fanciful, unless they believe that the world economy is going to have a serious, long-lasting crash by then (and you never know), or unless they believe that increased energy prices are going to hit demand pretty quickly.

Their stated reasons for a peak in 2012 are not very plausible. Carbon capture and storage is a technology in its infancy. In many countries nuclear power is off the political agenda, and in any case it takes a decade and more to get such plants off the ground. Most buildings that will exist in 2012 already exist today, and there is not that much scope for massive improvements in efficiency on this front in such a short period. And similarly with transport, and even industry. Five years is the blink of an eye in terms of changing energy demand patterns.

Increased weight correlated with increased cancer risk (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

About 6,000 middle-aged or older women in the UK develop cancer each year because they are obese or overweight, a Cancer Research UK-funded study says.

The study, which looked at 45,000 cases of cancer in 1m women over seven years, says this is about 5% of such cases.

It is published online by the British Medical Journal and blames excess fat for 50% of cases of womb cancer and a type of oesophageal cancer.

Last week an international study warned of the link between cancer and weight.

The World Cancer Research Fund warned that carrying excess weight significantly increased the risk of cancer.
...
Lead researcher Dr Gillian Reeves, from Oxford University, said: "We estimate that being overweight or obese accounts for around 6,000 out of a total 120,000 new cases of cancer each year among middle-aged and older women in the UK.

"Our research also shows that being overweight has a much bigger impact on the risk of some cancers than others.

"Two thirds of the additional 6,000 cancers each year due to overweight or obesity would be cancers of the womb or breast."

The research found that the link between weight and risk of cancer depended on a woman's stage of life.

For example, being overweight increases the risk of breast cancer only after the menopause and the risk of bowel cancer only before the menopause.

As usual, all we have here is a correlation, not a causation, but the article is biased to imply that we have a causation. Of course there could be a causation here. But it might even go in the opposite direction. People who are ill (visibly or not) might be more likely to do less exercise and so be more likely to have increased weight. So being ill could lead to increased weight just as much as increased weight could lead to being ill. Of course the chattering classes (led by the BBC) want to demonise overweight people, so all stories these days have to imply it is that which is the cause of everything else.

Date published: 2007/11/06

The world is allegedly at an end (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet's ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week's Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we've created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

We've outgrown the planet and need radical action to avert unspeakable consequences. This - by a huge margin - has become humanity's greatest challenge.
...
Though we like to imagine we are different from other species, we humans are not exempt from the threats posed by ecological degradation.

Analysts worry, for example, about the future of food production. Climate change-induced drought and the depletion of oil and aquifers - resources on which farming and food distribution depend - could trigger famine on an unprecedented scale.

Billions could die. At the very least, we risk our children inheriting a bleak world, empty of the richness of life we take for granted.

Alarmist? Yes, but realistically so.
...
We must end world population growth, then reduce population size. That means lowering population numbers in industrialised as well as developing nations.

Scientists point to the population-environment link. But today's environmentalists avoid the subject more than any other ecological truth. Their motives range from the political to a misunderstanding of the issue.

A lot of the article (not quoted above) is the usual fuzzy ecological/economic diatribe you expect from these kinds of people. (These people are pretty near the top of the human consumption tree, but are somehow dismissive of human consumption.) But human population is indeed the number one problem on the planet. If there were half as many humans the world would be in better shape. But nobody is volunteering to leave. And unfortunately, most governments in the rich West positively encourage their own citizens to have children, and so having children is perhaps the most subsidised activity of them all, i.e. parents have successfully externalised much of the cost of child rearing onto the rest of society (mainly, but not only, via the cost of education).

The author is correct that most so-called environmentalists avoid the issue. Perhaps this is because most so-called environmentalists breed just as much as everyone else, but like to go around pretending they are actually pro-environment. There is a saying, "give someone a fish and they eat for a day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime". Well you could equally say, "be a child and damage the environment for a lifetime, have a child and damage the environment forever" (because they in turn will have children, on into infinity).

Of course nobody knows what the "optimal" human population is. And no doubt the planet will somehow cope with the 9 billion people we are expecting in 2050, it just will not be so pleasant an environment. Feeney is just stating silly trivialities to say "billions could die". First of all, we will all die, so indeed billions will die. But there could indeed be a massive famine that kills billions of people in a short period. Or a killer virus. Or a nasty world war. Or [ pick your favourite disaster scenario ]. This is not saying very much, especially with the weasel word "could". The Chicago Cubs could win the World Series next year. Would Feeney place a bet on the Cubs?

All species eventually have a crash in population. It's called Nature. And although Feeney claims to be aware that propulation crashes are a normal part of Nature (whether "caused" by humans or otherwise), Feeney evidently wants to fight this aspect of Nature so as to preserve humanity "forever" (well, until the Sun dies). If a human population crash happens in a million or a billion years then nobody should worry about it now. If Feeney wants to claim it will happen in the next decade or two then he should say so and put his money where his mouth is, rather than use weasel words like "could". Of course claims of famine due to alleged over-population have been around since Malthus. Indeed, this kind of article has probably appeared every year since Malthus. It is not very original or predictive.

An alleged genetic influence in improving breastfed children's IQ (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A single gene influences whether breastfeeding improves a child's intelligence, say London researchers.

Children with one version of the FADS2 gene scored seven points higher in IQ tests if they were breastfed.

But the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study found breastfeeding had no effect on the IQ of children with a different version.

The gene in question helps break down fatty acids from the diet, which have been linked with brain development.

Seven points difference is enough to put the child in the top third of the class, the researchers said.

Some 90% of people carry the version of the gene which was associated with better IQ scores in breastfed children.

Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, used data from two previous studies of breast-fed infants in Britain and New Zealand, which involved more than 3,000 children.

IQ was measured at various points between the ages of five and 13 years in the studies.

Previous studies on intelligence and breastfeeding have come up with conflicting results.

There has been some debate as to whether mothers who had more education or who were from more affluent backgrounds were more likely to breastfeed, skewing the results.

Professor Terrie Moffitt, a co-author on the paper, said the findings gave a fresh perspective on the arguments by showing a physiological mechanism that could account for the difference between breastfed and bottle-fed babies.
...
Since the studies used in the analysis were done, manufacturers have begun to add fatty acids to formula milk but there have been inconsistent results on the benefits.

It's unlikely to be as simple as the authors claim. And IQ is a bit of a bogus concept. And the conclusions are based on not that much data. But this study at least seems to make it plausible that these observations are more than just yet another example of everything in life being correlated with wealth (and hence with everything else). No doubt the manufacturers will eventually catch up. Of course the breastfeeding zealots are keen to force all women to breastfeed, and this is just the latest salvo in that war. ("Breastfeed your child or he/she will be stupid/anti-social/etc. and you will be guilty of child abuse.")

Date published: 2007/11/05

Head of MI5 claims there are 2000 terror suspects in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

There are at least 2,000 people in the UK who pose a threat to national security because of their support for terrorism, the head of MI5 has said.

Jonathan Evans said there had been a rise of 400 since November 2006.

He said children as young as 15 were being recruited for terrorist-related activity by al-Qaeda.

Resources that could be devoted to counter-terrorism were instead being used to protect the UK against spying by Russia, China and others, he added.
...
Speaking on Monday at the Society of Editors' annual conference, he said the number of individuals in the UK causing concern had risen in part due to better intelligence gathering in "extremist communities".

"But it is also because there remains a steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause."
...
"Long-term resolution requires identifying and addressing the root causes of the problem."

So why is there a "steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause" and what are the "root causes of the problem"? Perhaps the illegal war in Iraq and perhaps the perpetual Israeal / Palestine problem? Or is it that Saint Britain is being attacked for no reason by the perfidious foreigners? (And who else but the perfidious foreigners would be willing to recruit "children"? Well it seems Britain can send soldiers age under 18 to Iraq, but that's evidently ok since it's officially sanctioned by the government.)

Evans claims there has allegedly been a 25% increase in suspects in the past year, and then claims a lot of this is down to the splendid job MI5 is doing, and then claims there is really, really, really a growing problem. It doesn't quite add up.

Of course it just happens to be the case that the government just now wants to ask Parliament to increase the time for which terror suspects can be held. This is hardly a coincidence. Either Evans is punting for the government (surprise) or Evans wants more money for MI5 (surprise), or most likely both (surprise).

People allegedly willing to make sacrifices to address climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Most people are ready to make personal sacrifices to address climate change, according to a BBC poll of 22,000 people in 21 countries.

Four out of five people indicated they were prepared to change their lifestyle - even in the US and China, the world's two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide.

Opinion was split over tax rises on oil and coal - 44% against, 50% in favour.

Support would rise if the cash was used to boost efficiency and find new energy sources, the poll suggested.

BBC environment reporter Matt McGrath says the poll suggests that in many countries people are more willing than their governments to contemplate serious changes to their lifestyles to combat global warming.

Overall, 83% of respondents throughout the world agreed that individuals would definitely or probably have to make lifestyle changes to reduce the amount of climate-changing gases they produce.

In almost all countries in Europe, and in the US, most people said they believed the cost of fuels that contribute most to climate change would have to increase.
...
Large majorities in China said higher energy costs were necessary - although the BBC's Dan Griffiths, in Beijing, pointed out that people interviewed over the telephone were unlikely to contradict official policy.

It's a survey, so immediately suspect. International surveys are particularly difficult to do. And even the BBC admits that the results in China are almost certainly bogus. The citizens of the world have been pounded with dire warnings in the media about the end of the world because of climate change, for a decade and more, so know what the "on message" result should be. In a survey a fair fraction of people are going to give the answer they think the interviewer wants. And what counts is not what people will tell the BBC in a survey, but what they do in elections. Labour used to regularly top opinion surveys back in the early 1990s, but lost the 1992 election (many people evidently did not want to admit to the pollsters to being Tory voters, since the Tories were obviously so dreadful).

The family unit is allegedly not breaking down (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three-quarters of people in Britain are optimistic about the future for their families, a BBC poll suggests.

Despite dire political warnings about family breakdown, that figure is 24% higher than when the same question was asked in 1964.

And of 1,001 adults surveyed, 95% said their families were close - a rise of 4% since 1999.

However, 70% of people still believe family life was more successful in their parents' generation.

It's a survey, so immediately suspect (for example, were the methodologies exactly the same in 1964 as today?). But it's amusing that one of the siren songs of the chattering classes (including David Cameron), namely that the country is facing a massive social breakdown, is probably a complete load of nonsense and is just the usual nostalgia masquerading as social commentary.

Date published: 2007/11/04

Government wants to extend time for so-called terror suspects to be held (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The 28-day limit on holding terror suspects without charge is likely to be doubled by the government.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty said the government wanted to extend the limit, "probably" to 56 days.

Security Minister Lord West said "about 50" was the figure being talked about - but said safeguards would have to be in place to win over critics.

But he said efforts to extend it to 90 days had been wrong, and were handled "in the most appalling way".

It is thought the government will make an attempt to extend the current 28-day limit in the Counter Terrorism Bill to be announced in the Queen's Speech on Tuesday.

Attempts in 2005 to extend pre-charge detention to 90 days ended in Tony Blair's first Commons defeat as PM.

Instead, MPs voted to extend the period from the then limit of 14 days to 28 days.

Mr Blair warned them he hoped they would not "rue the day" and argued the police case for 90 days had been "compelling".

But Lord West told the BBC: "The 90 days I have no doubt whatsoever, was far too long.

"I think when it was tried to be done it was done in the most appalling way and we need to make sure we don't make that sort of mistake again."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he wants political consensus on the issue and has suggested one option would be to double it to 56 days.

Lord West told the BBC the complexity of some cases meant that "we really do need more time to look into them".

But he admitted he was "not sure" how the government would be able to persuade critics to accept an extension to "around 50 days".

"We have to show absolutely that we really do need this and we have to show absolutely that we have real safeguards in place, certainly judicial oversight, Parliament would have to be told... and there may be other mechanisms we can do to look after people."

If the government is so keen to lock up (quite probably) innocent people for 56 days, then the least it ought to promise is to compensate these people fully if they are not convicted of a crime for which the sentence is more than the time they were held. So say for the first week that someone is held, they get 1000 pounds compensation per day. Then for the second week, 2000 pounds per day. Then for the third week, 4000 pounds per day. And so on, doubling the amount every week. (And lest the government be tempted to arrest someone, then let them go after a week, then arrest them again ten seconds later, the time should not reset to zero.) This way the government will not be tempted to hold someone just because they are too underresourced and/or incompetent to get their work done in proper time. Or perhaps ministers should promise that for everyone held under this scheme who is not eventually convicted of a (serious) crime, then a minister will be sentenced to exactly the same amount of time in prison.

Date published: 2007/11/03

National Trust says it is an organisation of NIMBYs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The National Trust has said it would fight the government to protect the countryside from housing development.

Chairman Sir William Proby claimed some 10,000 acres of the green belt is at risk, which he said was "terrifying".

The countryside was losing its redeeming and restorative qualities "inch by inch", he told the Trust's annual general meeting in London.

The Trust's members are to be asked if it should buy more green belt land to protect it from development.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to build three million more homes by 2020 to tackle the housing crisis.

The government says that extra housing is needed to ease shortages, and it can be built while protecting the green belt.

Ministers have said the boom in house building would take place on brownfield sites and areas owned by the public sector.

In his address to the meeting in London, Sir William said plans to build more homes were driven by ministers' "obsession with economic growth".

He said more than three square miles of the green belt have been lost each year as a result of regional development plans.

Sir William said: "What is happening to the countryside? Inch by inch, year by year its redeeming, restorative qualities are being eroded."

He went on: "We are not against progress, nor do we hark back to some mythical golden past. We support the needs of all citizens for decent places to live and we know that some development must happen.

"But the sheer scale of what is being contemplated now goes way beyond this."

Sir William told the meeting that "new arguments" had to be developed to "define the benefits that green belt land and open space bring to us all".

He asked members if The National Trust, which has an annual income of £350m, should buy up green-belt areas to protect them instead of relying on the planning system to safeguard the land.

Gee whiz, a whole 10000 acres of the green belt is "at risk". That's around 15 square miles. You have to wonder how many National Trust properties would swallow up that pathetic amount of land. If Proby finds this figure "terrifying", he must live an extremely sheltered life. The National Trust is already sitting on a huge, under-utilised, stockpile of land, so threatening to buy more is hardly news.

Britain needs more housing. And unfortunately the National Trust is part of the problem, it is not part of the solution. Most of the buildings they own are effectively dead, just places that the academic middle class can visit at the weekend to amuse themselves. Buildings should be lived in, not be museums frozen in a sterile, distant past.

And now it seems the National Trust is going to actively try and thwart government policy over housing, in common with other similarly constituted organisations (e.g. the CPRE). This is perhaps not that surprising. The National Trust represents the propertied class. The propertied class works against the interests of the non-propertied class, in order to protect its own narrow partisan interests.

Hopefully the government will stand up to these dreadful NIMBYs.

Government whinges that some people are using red diesel illegally (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of motorists nationwide are filling up with illegal fuel, according to Revenue and Customs.

Customs officers have carried out spot checks at petrol stations, supermarkets and car parks to catch motorists using reduced-duty fuels.

In some areas one in five tanks in vehicles stopped were found to contain red diesel, an agricultural fuel only intended for off-road farming vehicles.

Red diesel only costs about 35p a litre - about 65p less than ordinary fuels.
...
Red diesel works in the same way as normal diesel but, because it is taxed at a lower rate, it is only to be used in agricultural vehicles.

It is chemically marked with a red dye to make it more identifiable.

Unfortunately the BBC does not bother to ask the obvious questions. Why should red diesel exist at all? Why should farmers get to burn fuel without having to cover the environmental damage they are causing? Why should government so massively subsidise one (as it happens, relatively small) industry? If the government did not allow such arbitrary subsidies, then the government would not have to whinge that people were taking advantage of the subsidies illegally.

Date published: 2007/11/02

Government spending on the National Literacy Strategy allegedly a waste of money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Costly literacy schemes in England have not paid off, with children's reading skills barely improved since the 1950s, an independent inquiry suggests.

The £500m spent has had a "relatively small impact", according to the Cambridge-based Primary Review.

Interim reports for the two-year inquiry also criticise national tests, saying teachers' views should be used.

Schools Minister Andrew Adonis rejected the claims, saying primary standards had never been higher.

These latest Primary Review reports were made by assessing existing research on England's primary schools.

Authors Peter Tymms and Christine Merrell said: "Five hundred million pounds was spent on the National Literacy Strategy with almost no impact on reading levels.

"Standards of reading have remained more or less the same over a very long time - since the 1950s.

"There was a rise following the immediate post-war period and there was a slight drop followed by a recovery after the introduction of the National Curriculum, but in essence standards have remained constant."

Maths had shown moderately rising standards, compared to a very slight improvement in reading.

However, the report goes on: "Massive efforts to bring about change have had a relatively small impact.

"These policies have cost many hundreds of millions of pounds but they have generally not had a sound research base and have not been systematically evaluated."

It is intellectually dishonest to compare reading skills from the 1950s with reading skills today and claim that any difference between the two has anything to do with any recent programme being implemented (or not). Of course the National Literacy Strategy should be "systematically evaluated", and not by people with a vested interest in claiming it is a success (or not). But when doing that evaluation the real question is how reading skills would be today if the programme had run versus if the programme had not run, and whether any (hoped for) improvement when it was run was value for money. The only way to do this properly is to take two random samples of students, and have some be served by the programme and some not (with equally skilled and motivated teachers), and see what the difference in outcome is. Comparing results with the 1950s is irrelevant. Of course the authors of the report could well be correct. This could well have been largely a waste of money. It would not be the first time that happened with a government programme. Hopefully someone independent will be able to do a sensible analysis.

Date published: 2007/11/01

Police found guilty of endangering public over de Menezes killing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

London's Metropolitan police force has been found guilty of endangering the public over the fatal shooting of a man officers mistook for a suicide bomber.

The force broke health and safety laws when officers pursued Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes to a Tube station and shot him seven times, a jury found.

It was fined £175,000 with £385,000 costs over the 22 July 2005 shooting.
...
Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said outside court that he was staying in his job - despite calls for his resignation.

Mr de Menezes's relatives said they wanted to see a "full and thorough" inquest into the electrician's death.

Harriet Wistrich, the family's solicitor, said the police had been an "unstoppable force" when they pursued him, and the defence had "descended to the gutter" to blacken his name.
...
Anna Dunwoodie, who was in the same carriage as Mr Menezes when he was shot, told the BBC how she witnessed this "horrific" moment when armed police ran on board the train.

"It didn't feel to me like I was in the middle of a police operation," she recalled.

"The men who came running in seemed quite chaotic. I'd describe them as slightly hysterical.

"Jean Charles, to my knowledge, did nothing out of the ordinary.

"I didn't notice him until he had a gun pressed to him. It felt to me like he was someone who was being picked on at random because he was nearest to the door.
...
In deciding on a penalty, the judge said he was aware that a heavy fine would result in a loss to the public purse and a reduction in essential policing.

It is ridiculous that the health and safety laws were used in this way. And to some extent it is not just the fault of the police that this dreadful assassination happened. It was a systemic failure of the entire UK ruling elite, including the media and the government (in particular Tony Blair), who fostered an anti-Muslim climate which leads to these kinds of incidents. Indeed, Tony Blair seems to have believed it was perfectly acceptable to kill the odd completely innocent person in the so-called war on terror. Of course he was not offering his own family up as potential victims. (And the fact that de Menezes was not Muslim is irrelevant. The police, like the society they serve, lump anyone looking like a foreigner into the same bucket.)

The police claimed that every action de Menezes took led them to believe he was indeed a terrorist. But since he was not a terrorist and other witnesses claimed he did nothing out of the ordinary, it seems fairly clear that every action he took would have led the police to believe he was not a terrorist if only they had not started with the opposite as the working assumption. It shows the danger of a priori assumptions and group think.

The one thing the police did badly all by themselves (and for which Ian Blair should resign) is to try and blacken the name of de Menezes.

And it is not clear why the judge worried so much about the fine. It is just going from one branch of government to another, so is totally meaningless. The police budget can easily enough be topped up to take the fine into account.

Yet another anti-biofuel report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The rush for biofuels could harm the world's poorest people, Oxfam has said.

In a new report, the UK aid charity appears to be joining a growing chorus of concern about the side-effects of Europe's drive to get fuel from plants.

The European Union wants to cut the CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels and has demanded that 10% of all transport fuels should come from plants by 2020.

But Oxfam warns poor farmers risk being forced off their land as industrial farmers cash in on the biofuel bonanza.

Its report says to meet the rise in demand, the EU will have to import biofuels made from crops like sugar cane and palm oil from developing countries.

The rush by big companies and governments in Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, Tanzania and Malaysia to win a slice of the "EU biofuel pie" threatens to force poor people from their land, it adds.

This could destroy their livelihoods, lead to the exploitation of workers and hit food availability and prices, says the report.

It is now demanding the EU reviews its biofuel policy and wants safeguards put in place to protect the poor.

The European Commission says it is working to make sure its biofuel policy does not backfire.
...
Scientists have said it takes so much energy to produce some biofuels that it would be cleaner overall to burn petrol in our cars, he said.

To make it worse, he added, valuable rainforest is still being cleared to make way for fuel crops like palm oil.

Yes, one of the grand policies of the Eurocracy is fundamentally flawed. This is just the latest in a series of similar reports by various agencies, so at least, at long last, this side of the story is getting some press. If only this had happened before the EU had jumped onto the biofuel bandwagon.

Economists suddenly discover that energy efficiency does not mean less energy is consumed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Energy savings in UK households could be up to 30% lower than previously thought, jeopardising efforts to cut the nation's carbon dioxide emissions.

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) blamed the miscalculation on "rebound effects" from energy-saving measures.

As people cut their bills by using more efficient devices, they tend to spend the extra money buying additional goods that cancel out some of the savings.

The government has set a binding target of cutting CO2 levels by 60% by 2050.

The UKERC's research director, Jim Skea, said the introduction of the legally binding CO2 target in the Climate Change Bill increased the need for accurate measurements.
...
Professor Skea said the legal requirement to meet future targets meant that the government was likely to pay close attention to factors such as rebound effects in the future.

He said: "One of the recommendations of this report is that the government should be allowing a little bit of headroom in its carbon targets in order to get the assurance that they are actually going to be met."

This is a well known, if hard to quantify effect. It's hard to believe that this is just coming to the attention of the government now, so one has to assume there is just some politics behind this story. And right on cue, in the last paragraph we get the politics.

In any case, this is only one problem with the government's view of emissions. Another serious problem is that the accounting of emissions is bogus. The UK has successfully exported emissions that it should be held responsible for. So, for example, the emissions created when making steel in China that is imported into the UK should be counted against the UK total, not the China total (and the opposite for UK steel exports), but this does not happen. (This is what turns the Kyoto Treaty from being mediocre to being fatally flawed.)

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