Azara Blog: December 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/12/31

Lib Dems say they want Cambridge residents to have a big congestion charge discount (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Congestion charging in Cambridge will not be supported by the city council unless residents get "substantial" discounts.

Cambridge City Council says plans to charge those living in Cambridge as well as people driving into the city "full whack" will unfairly penalise its inhabitants.

Coun Sian Reid, the city council's executive councillor for climate change and growth, said not only was a discount necessary to make up for a lack of public transport in the city but it needed to be "considerable".

She added the scheme would not work if it was "imposed" on Cambridge without the support of the city council.
...
A report to councillors by Brian Human, head of policy and projects, says although the council supports many of the scheme's objectives, it has a number of concerns:

Cambridgeshire County Council unveiled plans in July to charge all motorists between £3 and £5 for driving in Cambridge between 7.30am and 9.30am on weekdays.
...
Coun Roy Pegram, Cambridgeshire County Council's cabinet member for environment and community services, said he would consider the idea of a discount.

He said: "I will quite happily consider any of their views.

"I will wait until the results of the public consultation. A lot of people are in favour (of the congestion charge), a lot are against but to do nothing is not an option. Once I have the responses to the public consultation then I will make an informed judgment, not pure speculation.

"I will take it on board. The decision will be made by full council and cabinet at the county because we are the transport authority. It's no good having consultation, getting the public's views and then not taking their views on board.

The Lib Dems are funny. Normally (nationally, not just locally) they spend most of their political effort trying to screw car drivers. So you would think they would be jumping up and down with joy at the county's proposals. (And one thing the article does not mention is that the city is run by the Lib Dems but the county is run by the Tories.) But here it seems that they have for once decided to represent voters besides their usual academic middle class base. It's astonishing. Perhaps they are worried about being kicked out of office.

On the other hand, the Lib Dems know full well that the proposals barely make financial sense as things stand. Giving Cambridge residents "substantial" discounts would sink the business case irretrievably. And meanwhile how would the Tory voters away from the city respond if they were told that their own councillors supported having them pay more than the residents of Cambridge? So the Lib Dems are just posturing to sink the scheme but still claiming they (somewhat) support it.

But Pegram takes the cake here. He says "a lot of people are in favour" of the congestion charge. What he means is that a large section of the academic middle class favour the congestion charge, because it won't really affect them. In particular, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign fully supports the scheme. But why cyclists should have any say in whether or not there is a congestion charge is a mystery. It should have nothing to do with them.

And Pegram also says he is going to take the views of the public on board, but completely contradicts this by then saying that "to do nothing is not an option". So he has already made up his mind, the question is whether he can get enough of his own side to agree with him.

The odds are that central government won't give nearly as much money to the county as the latter asked for (£500 million), so this tiff between the Lib Dems and the Tories might all be irrelevant in the end.

The Tories harp on about the middle class in education (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children from the most deprived areas of England are falling further behind in school compared to more affluent pupils, say the Conservatives.

Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove highlighted figures showing a widening of the social gap in achievement.

There is a 43 percentage point gap in the proportions of wealthy and deprived pupils achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths in 2007.

In 2006, this gap in favour of the wealthiest was 28 percentage points.

This social divide in exam results shows "the education system is letting down the poorest," says Mr Gove.

The figures are based on comparisons of the GCSE results of pupils from the 10% most affluent areas and the 10% most deprived.

The growing lead reflects an accelerating improvement in the results of children from better-off families - with 68% of these pupils now reaching the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and maths, up from 57% in 2006.

Meanwhile, the results of the least well-off pupils have slipped back - down from 29% to 25% reaching this GCSE benchmark.
...
When the school population is divided into 10 bands of affluence and deprivation, the level of achievement rises in precise step with increased wealth in every subject and at every level.

Surprise, rich kids do better in school than poor kids, who would have thought it. But the large change in the figures between 2006 and 2007 would tend to indicate that the figures are not very robust, more than anything else.

And what is it about the Tories (and the Lib Dems, and to some extent Labour) that the only thing they seem to care about in education is to screw the middle class relative to the (really) poor? They don't seem to be particularly bothered about improving education for all, in particular for ordinary kids (neither rich nor poor). Well of course the Tories are the party of entrenched privilege, and most of them attended "public" (i.e. private) schools, so they probably figure any middle class family which is not willing to throw tens of thousands of pounds at private schools deserves to have their kids screwed by the State to teach them a lesson.

And what is it about the Tories (and to some extent the other parties) that they always are so keen to condemn State education (in particular, normally teachers)? How about looking at the root cause, which in many cases is the family of the child. Of course one is not allowed to ever mention this, because the State is supposed to magically sort all these social problems out, by stealing money from ordinary kids and throwing it at poor kids.

Date published: 2007/12/30

Netscape is officially killed off (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The browser that helped kick-start the commercial web is to cease development because of lack of users.

Netscape Navigator, now owned by AOL, will no longer be supported after 1 February 2008, the company has said.

In the mid-1990s the browser was used by more than 90% of the web population, but numbers have slipped to just 0.6%.

In particular, the browser has faced competition from Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE), which is now used by nearly 80% of all web users.
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It was quickly a success and dominated the browser market in the mid-1990s.

But other companies followed its success, notably Microsoft, which bundled its Explorer software with its operating systems.

This culminated in a highly-publicised legal battle, which saw Microsoft accused of anti-competitive behaviour.
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The demise of Navigator was compounded in 2003 when AOL, which bought Netscape in 1998, made redundant most of the staff working on new versions of the browser.

Many of the staff moved to the Mozilla Foundation which develops the popular Firefox browser. This browser has a 16% share of the browser market.

All good things must end. Of course the spirit of Netscape lives on in Firefox, and other related browsers. But it's always been amazing how easily Microsoft got let off from its blatantly illegal anti-competitive attack on Netscape.

Date published: 2007/12/29

Millais and Siena exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

Tate Britain currently has an exhibition, "Millais", covering the work of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. It finishes in a few weeks (13 January 2008) but then moves onto the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (from 15 February to 18 May 2008) and then oddly enough onto two musuems in Japan (Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art, Fukuoka, 7 June to 17 August 2008 and Bunkamura Museum of Art, Tokyo, 30 August to 26 October 2008), but nowhere in America. As with most exhibitions of this sort, most of the paintings come from British museums, and in particular the Tate itself. Usually, other museums that subsequently show the exhibition have also contributed much of the work, but that definitely does not seem to be the case here. So presumably there is some other quid pro quo going on here.

Millais was a gifted painter already as a child, and the exhibition has an amazing chalk work done by him when he was supposedly less than ten years old. Most twenty year old artists would have been proud to have done as well. And Millais enrolled in the Royal Academy at the age of eleven. Unlike many other boy geniuses, he lived up to expectations. He is best known for being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was easily the most talented of the lot. The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to this early work, and included many of his well known works. (Tate Britain had a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition 15 or 20 years ago where the same works were on display.) So already here the exhibition is worth seeing. The second room had some more of a similar theme.

Most artists, like most scientists, do their best work when they are young. And certainly Millais seems to be in this mould. After his great early work, the later work seems like more of the same. And he seems to have made a lot of money from doing fairly commercial work like society portraits (and he did them well). The exhibition even has a Millais painting, "Bubbles", which was bought by the Pears' Soap company to use in an advertising campaign, which must have been one of the first marketing uses of real art.

The Pre-Raphaelites had a thing about sexually frustrated women and sexually frustrated girls, and that is on full display in the exhibition. This is presumably what brought them some favour, even though the particular style was going agaist the staid academicism of the time. Millais carried on with this theme through many of his later paintings (e.g. "Spring" in room three, and "Bright Eyes" in room five).

The real surprise of the exhibition was the last room, which consisted of a dozen large landscapes that Millais did in Scotland. Much of the Pre-Raphaelite output was fairly chocolate box in flavour, and in some ways so were these landscapes. But Millais just managed to do enough to make the paintings interesting rather than pedestrian. The Scottish winter landscapes (e.g. "Glen Birnam") are particularly good.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery is also coming to the end (also on 13 January 2008) of an exhibition on renaissance art from Siena. In the early renaissance they discovered perspective, which immediately made the art more interesting, but it was mostly rather formal, indeed rather architectural, and rather lacking in emotion. That was on full display here. The point of the exhibition seems to have been to promote the idea that Siena was up there with Florence in art, but the paintings themselves seem to do the opposite. There were some good works, but mostly not as good as what you would have found in Florence. The one surprise was the last room, dedicated to work by the late renaissance painter Domenico Beccafumi. Here was some work with emotion, e.g. "The Virgin and Child with Saint Jerome and Infant Saint John the Baptist", perhaps the best work in the exhibition. As is to be expected from National Gallery exhibitions, the paintings were almost all in amazingly good shape, with vibrant colours, almost as if they had been painted yesterday.

The National Gallery is also having a small exhibition (until 17 February 2008), "Art of Light", on renaissance German stained glass windows. There was not actually that much stained glass in the exhibition, and what there was mostly came from the Victoria and Albert Museum (who do indeed have a good collection of stained glass, and not just renaissance German). So only worth going to this exhibition if you happen to be in the National Gallery in any case.

The BBC obsesses about the New Year Honours list (permanent blog link)

The UK has a ridiculous system of handing out government honours. So this time of year we have the "Queen's New Year Honours" list. Of course the Queen has nothing to do with it, the Prime Minister decides it all with some helpful suggestions from the other political parties. The fact that the ruling elite cannot even be honest about the name tells you everything you need to know. But the British do obsess about this. The BBC website splits the news into various sections, and this evening, five of the seven non-geographical sections ("Business", "Health", "Education", "Entertainment" and "Technology") had the top story being the honours list and the other two sections ("Politics" and "Science") had this as story number two or three. Well it is a slow-news day but this is ridiculous. The real point of the honours system seems to be to reward politicians and civil servants (as if their big, fat pension is not enough), but they throw in other famous people in some "it's my turn" sort of way (for academics, the more government committees you sit on the better the odds). And of course they always have to honour some random "ordinary" person (this year some bus driver) to prove that this is really all above board, and that it's not just the ruling elite patting each other on the back (which of course it is).

Wildlife Trust thinks humans should get lost (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some UK wildlife species will have to find new habitats as climate change causes temperatures to rise, the Wildlife Trusts have warned.

Animals, birds and plants will have to move north and westwards to find suitable habitats, the trusts say.

Species affected will include the dormouse and some bats and butterflies.

The Wildlife Trusts says that while some species are already moving, development and loss of habitat is preventing movement for others.

The voluntary organisation is trying to link up natural areas of woodland, heathland and pasture so creatures like pipistrelle and barbastelle bats and sand lizards can extend their habitats.

Wildlife made a similar move in search of food and homes following the last Ice Age, the trusts said.

John Everitt, the organisation's head of rebuilding biodiversity said: "This time there are unexpected barriers: cities, motorways and expanses of hostile countryside.

"We need to ensure that we give our wildlife room to move or its future is threatened."

This is all well known and trivially obvious. But it is amazing how every special interest pressure group on the planet uses climate change as the magic reason why their proposed policies should be followed. So don't bother giving a real analysis, with carefully thought out details about costs and benefits. Just mention climate change and assume everybody will do whatever you ask.

Although some motorways probably cause some barrier to some species, only the academic middle class would ever mention this as a real issue to worry about (and funnily enough, there is no mention of railway lines or canals, because of course the academic middle class love 19th century and older technology, it's just 20th century technology they have a problem with).

And cities only occupy a small fraction of the entire UK land area, so in no way cause a real barrier to most species. But of course the academic middle class always think that more and more people (excepting themselves) should be squashed into smaller and smaller areas. Rather than have zillions of acres of "hostile countryside" (i.e. farms) we could have more suburban gardens (the biggest guarantor of biodiversity in the UK), but the academic middle class always fight tooth and nail against that.

Date published: 2007/12/28

TUC general secretary wants "rich" people to pay more tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A union leader has called for greater equality in society, saying the "soar-away super-rich" are becoming cut off from the rest.

Low pay for public sector workers could also cause "simmering resentment", TUC general secretary Brendan Barber warned in his New Year message.

He urged more help for workers "at the bottom", faster progress on ending child poverty and fairer workplaces.

Mr Barber said tax loopholes should be closed so the rich pay a "fair share".

He said the "super-rich" took advantage of tax loopholes, and their lives were "cut off from the rest of us".

"This is not just bad for social cohesion, but distorts the economy.

"If the super-rich and big companies are not paying their fair share it means that the rest of us - including small and medium sized businesses are paying too much, that public services are not getting the growth they need and that we do not have the resources to end child poverty," he added.

"No-one particularly enjoys paying tax but it is the price tag for a civilised society, and it's about time that we had a proper debate about whether those who can afford it are paying their fair share."

What is a "rich" person? Well, of course, it's someone who earns more money than you do, since nobody ever thinks they themselves are rich (except the odd billionaire). Being the head of the TUC, Barber himself is no doubt in the top 10% (and perhaps even top 5%) of UK earners, and you could easily deem that to be rich. It's unfortunate that in modern life there is never any "proper debate" about tax. People like Barber always want more money to be spent on government services but never want to pay for it. Indeed, the "price tag for a civilised society" seems to be that other people should pay for the services that you want, and that the only "fair" tax is one paid by someone else.

Date published: 2007/12/27

Surprise, humans are pushing out other species (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Almost 80% of the Earth's surface has experienced a sharp fall in the number of large mammals as a result of human activities, a study suggests.

By examining records dating back to AD1500, US researchers found that at least 35% of mammals over 20kg had seen their range cut by more than half.

They said urgent action was needed to protect the animals, which were being hunted or suffering habitat loss.
...
The research, carried out by a team of scientists from Princeton University and conservation group WWF-US, has been described as the first "measurement of human impacts on biodiversity based on the absence of native, large mammals".

Is anyone surprised by any of this? Humans have taken over most of the planet, so it is trivially obvious that many other species will have diminished as a result. And it is unfortunate that a special interest pressure group, WWF, was included in the research because that immediately makes the spin of the work suspect. Indeed, WWF could have written the phrase "urgent action was needed" before doing any research, since they claim this about pretty much everything they are involved with.

Surprise, some teachers do not end up teaching (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than 250,000 qualified teachers no longer work in England's schools, the Conservative Party says.

And nearly 100,000 switched careers between 2000 and 2005 - more than double the number that left in the preceding five-year period.

The Tories say their findings - based on government figures - point to rising numbers leaving the profession because of poor class discipline and red tape.

But Schools Minister Jim Knight said recruitment was "buoyant".

Figures also show that thousands of people who train and qualify as teachers never go on to work in schools and this appears to have increased in recent years.

The government statistics show that of those who qualified in 2000, 2,100 never taught in schools. This rose steadily to 2005 (the latest available), when 7,900 of those who qualified have never taught.

An incredibly bad BBC article, just amounting to a repeat of what is effectively a Tory press release. The Tories can well claim that teachers leave teaching because of "poor class discipline and red tape" but they present no evidence. And the figures quoted for teachers who qualify and do not go on to teach in schools has no context given so we have no way of knowing whether these numbers are good or bad or (most likely) indifferent. The BBC should have quoted the absolute number of teachers qualifying in 2000 and 2005, and should have compared the percentage of teachers who don't end up teaching with percentages for other professions, e.g. the medical and legal professions. Otherwise the numbers are meaningless. All in all this article is just Tory propaganda kindly regurgitated by the BBC. (The BBC, trying to be "objective", gives some space to government counter-spin at the bottom of the article, but that is hardly worth anything either.)

Date published: 2007/12/23

Sea cucumber might help in fight against malaria (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sea cucumbers could provide a potential new weapon to block transmission of the malaria parasite, a study suggests.

The slug-like creature produces a protein, lectin, which impairs development of the parasites.

An international team genetically engineered mosquitoes - which carry the malaria parasite - to produce the same protein in their gut when feeding.

The PLoS Pathogens study found the protein disrupted development of the parasites inside the insects' stomach.

Malaria causes severe illness in 500 million people worldwide each year, and kills more than one million.

It is estimated that 40% of the world's population are at risk of the disease.

To stimulate the mosquitoes to produce lectin, the researchers fused part of the gene from the sea cucumber which produces the protein with a gene from the insect.

The results showed that the technique was effective against several of the parasites which cause malaria.
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Researcher Professor Bob Sinden, from Imperial College London, said: "These results are very promising and show that genetically engineering mosquitoes in this way has a clear impact on the parasites' ability to multiply inside the mosquito host."

However, he said much more work still had to be done before the technique could be used to curb the spread of malaria.

"Although the sea cucumber protein significantly reduced the number of parasites in mosquitoes, it did not totally remove them from all insects.

"At the current stage of development, the genetically modified mosquitoes would remain dangerous to humans.

"Ultimately, one aim of our field is to find a way of genetically engineering mosquitoes so that the malaria parasite cannot develop inside them."
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Dr Ron Behrens, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the technique showed promise in theory - but he warned that introducing genetically modified mosquitoes could be fraught with practical difficulties.

"You would have to get the modified version to become the predominant species, and that has never been done in any setting before," he said.

Behrens nails the first problem on the head. How do you convince other mosquitoes to mate with these mosquitoes in a big way? Well you could produce zillions of these new mosquitoes, and so try to overwhelm existing mosquitoes numerically. But that does not seem very practical. Or you could make these new mosquitoes very sexually attractive, somehow. And even when you have solved that problem, you still have to convince the world that releasing these new mosquitoes will not cause some unforseen negative side effect. It will be interesting to see what the so-called environmentalists say. They spent a lot of time and effort (successfully) demonising this kind of technology when it came to food (and no time or effort trying to do anything positive). So will they try demonisation again when it comes to disease, especially a disease of the poor? (And the so-called environmentalists always claim they care about the poor of the world, and indeed one of their many dubious claims against GM food was that it was allegedly not sufficiently beneficial to the poor.)

Date published: 2007/12/22

Archbishop of Wales complains about "atheistic fundamentalism" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has described a rise in "fundamentalism" as one of the great problems facing the world.

He focused on what he described as "atheistic fundamentalism".

He said it led to situations such as councils calling Christmas "Winterval", schools refusing to put on nativity plays and crosses removed from chapels.

In his Christmas message, he said: "Any kind of fundamentalism, be it Biblical, atheistic or Islamic, is dangerous."

The archbishop said "atheistic fundamentalism" was a new phenomenon.

He said it advocated that religion in general and Christianity in particular have no substance, and that some view the faith as "superstitious nonsense".

Well, he is right, religion is "superstitious nonsense". If he wants to believe this nonsense it is his right, but there's no point him crying when others are willing to state the obvious, and it's quite ridiculous to call it "atheistic fundamentalism". And the other examples he gives of this alleged "atheistic fundamentalism" are just people (no doubt mostly Christian, not atheists) believing they are behaving in such a way as to not offend non-Christians. You can easily argue this belief is silly (do non-Christians really care that there is a Christmas, which after all originated as a pagan holiday, not a Christian holiday, it's just that the Christians hijacked it for their own purposes). But this belief is not "fundamentalist". A "fundamentalist", for example, is someone who believes that their religion gives them the "right" to kill people who do not agree with them (e.g. about abortion or homosexuality or anything else). A "fundamentalist" is someone who believes that some random bit of "superstitious nonsense" is literally true just because he chooses to believe it (and on this score, any Archbishop would be deemed to be a fundamentalist).

Date published: 2007/12/21

More countries join the Schengen agreement (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Forty-eight hours of celebrations are taking place to mark nine new states joining a European border-free zone.

The Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel across the area, now embraces 24 nations.

Some 2,000 people celebrated in the town of Frankfurt on Oder at Germany's border with Poland, amid fireworks and the EU anthem, Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the zone.

It's great news for Europe. Perhaps some day Britain will stop its inward-looking, backwards-looking, and xenophobic attitude to the rest of Europe, and join the club.

Date published: 2007/12/20

EU ministers want aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU ministers have agreed to impose carbon emissions quotas on airlines in an attempt to fight climate change.

The Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, said a strong signal had to be sent, although MEPs had wanted carriers to be included in the EU emissions trading scheme in 2011, not 2012.

The United States opposes the idea and has threatened legal action.

And the airline industry fears the cost of the carbon trading scheme could force some carriers out of business.

But Mr Dimas, said that aviation was responsible for 3% of carbon emissions, more than the steel industry which was already part of the trading scheme.

He said aviation emissions had doubled since 1990 and were predicted to double again by 2020.

Under the trading system, the EU limits the amount of carbon dioxide that industry is allowed to emit.

The airlines would have to meet their quotas, either by cutting their emissions or by buying credits from other industries.

Environment ministers meeting in Brussels agreed that airlines would have to buy 10% of permits upfront at auction in 2012, substantially lower than the proportion suggested by the European Parliament.

They also set the cap on emissions at the average level from 2004-2006.

Smaller operators would be exempt from the scheme because of the potential threat to their survival.

So far the EU carbon trading scheme has been a bit of a disaster, with companies making huge pots of money for nothing. But hopefully the EU will sort this aspect out. It is certainly reasonable that airlines are included, but if the EU ends up only being able to impose this on EU airlines then it will not be fair. And hopefully with this additional taxation imposed on aviation, which bears some relationship to carbon emissions, the UK will reduce its arbitrary air passenger duty (which has nothing to do with carbon emissions and everything to do with the government wanting to rake money in).

Harriet Harman wants to make it illegal to pay for sex (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Commons Leader Harriet Harman has told the BBC she wants the law to be changed to make it illegal to pay for sex.

She said ministers were to look at how Sweden brought in such a law, and said a "big debate" was needed in the UK.

It would counter international human trafficking which sees girls bought and sold by criminals in the UK, she added.

Buying or selling sex is legal, but many activities related to prostitution such as kerb crawling, brothel keeping, pimping and soliciting are not.
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The Sexual Offences Act 2003 made it illegal to buy sex from anyone aged under 18 and introduced tough penalties for trafficking adults and children for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

It is not illegal for an individual aged over 18 to work as a prostitute in off-street premises but where there is more than one prostitute, the owner of the premises can be prosecuted for keeping a brothel.

Many of the activities associated with street prostitution, such as soliciting and kerb-crawling, are also illegal and it is against the law to advertise sexual services on cards in telephone boxes.

Well it sounds like the current laws already cover all the activities specifically mentioned (in particular, "international human trafficking"). So it just seems like Harman is trying to make excuses for the current set of laws not working. And prostitution is usually deemed to be the world's oldest profession, and no doubt better and wiser people than Harman have unsuccessfully tried to stamp it out over the past zillion years. So what will the prostitutes and men do here to get around this law? Well, besides just ignoring it, they could try to claim that the sex is free but the room service is not.

Date published: 2007/12/19

Independent commission might be given power to appoint peers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown says he wants to remove from the prime minister the final say over who gets awarded peerages.

Mr Brown told reporters at 10 Downing Street that the final decision should instead be taken by an independent appointments commission.

At the moment the commission can advise on nominees but PMs have the final say.

Mr Brown, speaking after MPs called for curbs to political control over Lords appointments, also urged "probity and national interest" checks on nominees.

A report by the Commons public administration committee says parties are not trusted to appoint new peers on merit.

There should be explicit criteria for membership of the House of Lords and parties should submit a "long list" of nominations, with explanations of why they deserve a seat, it adds.

New peers could then be picked by a "clearly independent body" from the lists, the report adds.

Well, well. Gordon Brown might be remembered for taking away two powers from the government: the determination of UK interest rates, and the selection of members of the House of Lords. Of course this appointments commission could end up being extremely biased, in particular biased against commercial people and towards senior civil servants and other members of the academic middle class. Time will tell.

EU fisheries ministers decide quotas (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Union fisheries ministers are to allow fishermen to catch more cod in the North Sea, against the recommendations of environmentalists.

The quota for North Sea cod was increased by 11% under a deal reached after a marathon night of negotiations on fishing quotas for 2008.

In other sectors, quotas for cod were reduced, but not by the 25% urged by the European Commission.

However, there will be a cut in the number of days fishermen spend at sea.

They argue current restrictions are already decimating their industry.

Details of the deal are still emerging, but ministers said measures to be taken would include moves to reduce catches of unwanted fish.

The last point is the key. There is an obscene amount of fish killed that cannot be used. The EU should be sorting that first and foremost.

Date published: 2007/12/18

Nick Clegg is elected leader of the Lib Dems (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nick Clegg has won the race to become the next Liberal Democrat leader.

The 40-year-old beat Chris Huhne to become the party's third leader in two years - in a contest which turned out to be even closer than expected.

Mr Clegg, an ex-journalist and former Euro MP, won 20,988 votes to the 20,477 votes cast for Mr Huhne by members.

Huhne and Clegg are almost carbon copies of each other on policy, so the only thing to distinguish between them is age and media presense. Clegg is much more telegenic, which for most parties would have made him a shoo-in, but the Lib Dems are academic middle class, so many reacted against that. Clegg looks set to continue the academic middle class bent of the Lib Dems, so they will continue with their niche 15-20% of the vote.

Clegg looks and sounds like David Cameron, with not a heck of a lot of real world experience (the media and PR do not count) and lots of earnest sounding but fairly content free speeches. And of course they are both public (i.e. private) school boys (as is Huhne, for that matter). It is comforting to know that in Britain, no matter how high you start out in life, you can still reach the top.

Allegedly green offices allegedly cost more to build (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says:

Zero-carbon shops and offices would cost up to 30 per cent more than conventional buildings, according to a new report.

The finding comes as ministers consider the possibility of a new green policy for commercial property.

The government is already insisting that all new homes must be zero-carbon by 2016.

It asked the Green Buildings Council (GBC), which represents an array of developers such as Arup and Land Securities, to assess the practicality of cutting carbon reductions in new commercial buildings.

The report said this was unlikely to be achieved purely through on-site renewable energy - for example through solar power or biomass plants.

However, net carbon emissions could be cut to zero through better energy efficiency and the production of renewable energy at off-site locations nearby. However, the report - commissioned by the Department for Communities and Local Government - admits that this would come at a cost.

A green office block or shopping centre that met the new criteria could have a premium over other buildings of anything from 5 per cent to 30 per cent.

Of course these buildings are not really "zero-carbon". They are just "zero-carbon" in some narrow operational sense, so ignoring the construction, installation and maintenance of the building, and ignoring the same factors in how the "renewable" energy is provided. So, in particular, these building take a heck of a lot of energy to build, which is why they cost more in the first place. This makes sense if that energy is eventually more than saved, which hopefully it will be.

Date published: 2007/12/17

Sea level rise could be 1.6m this century (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's sea levels could rise twice as high this century as UN climate scientists have previously predicted, according to a study.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change proposes a maximum sea level rise of 81cm (32in) this century.

But in the journal Nature Geoscience, researchers say the true maximum could be about twice that: 163cm (64in).
...
In the latest study, researchers came up with their estimates by looking at the so-called interglacial period, some 124,000 to 119,000 years ago, when Earth's climate was warmer than it is now due to a different configuration of the planet's orbit around the Sun.

That was the last time sea levels reached up to 6m (20ft) above where they are now, fuelled by the melting of ice sheets that covered Greenland and Antarctica.
...
Back then, Greenland was 3C to 5C (5.4F to 9F) warmer than now - which is similar to the warming period expected in the next 50 to 100 years, Dr Rohling said.

Current models of ice sheet activity do not predict rates of change this large. However, they also do not include many of the dynamic processes already being observed by glaciologists, the researchers said.

"The average rise of 1.6m per century that we find is roughly twice as high as the maximum estimates in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, and so offers the first potential constraint on the dynamic ice sheet component that was not included in the headline IPCC values," explained Dr Rohling.

Well, it's only one study, and no doubt the error bars are large, and then was then and now is now, and the two situations are not perfectly comparable. But at what point will people living in coastal areas start to believe these stories and begin to move inland?

Government backs down over failed pension schemes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Campaigners have welcomed a £2.9bn rescue package for 140,000 workers who lost their pensions when their companies went bust.

Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain has set out plans to restore 90% of the value of their pensions.

That brings them in line with other workers covered by the Pension Protection Fund (PPF).
...
The government says the settlement will benefit 130,000 workers already eligible for the Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS).

It will also cover another 11,000 workers who are members of failed pension schemes belonging to solvent employers.

The latter group had been excluded from the FAS.

Under the proposals, workers will now be entitled to 90% of their expected pension, and not the narrower "core pension" protected under the original terms of the FAS.

Payments will increase in line with inflation, and will be paid from each failed scheme's normal retirement age.
...
The Financial Assistance Scheme (FAS) was designed to offer a safety net to people whose pension schemes collapsed between January 1997 and April 2005.

The Pension Protection Fund (PPF) covers members of pension schemes that have gone under since then.

Despite various concessions since its inception, the FAS was significantly less generous than the PPF.

It's about time. But it doesn't address the fundamental underlying issue. Companies were allowed to, and still can, arbitrarily steal pensioners' money. Government should not be the one picking up the bill, instead the companies should not be allowed to steal this money in the first place.

Date published: 2007/12/16

Google is going to produce its own encyclopedia (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Google has kicked off a project to create an authoritative store of information about any and every topic.

The search giant has already started inviting people to write about the subject on which they are known to be an expert.

Google said it would not act as editor for the project but will provide the tools and infrastructure for the pages.

Many experts see the initiative as an attack on the widely used Wikipedia communal encyclopaedia.
...
By getting respected authors to write about their specialism Google hopes to start putting some of that information in better order.

The system will centre around authored articles created with a tool Google has dubbed "knol" - the word denotes a unit of knowledge - that will make webpages with a distinctive livery to identify them as authoritative.

Mr Manber wrote: "A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read."

The knol pages will get search rankings to reflect their usefulness. Knols will also come with tools that readers can use to rate the information, add comments, suggest edits or additional content.

Revenue from any adverts on a knol page will be shared with its author.

Industry commentator Nicholas Carr said the knol project was a "head-on competitor" with Wikipedia. He said it was an attempt by Google to knock ad-free Wikipedia entries on similar subjects down the rankings.

We shall see. This immediately makes the google rankings suspect, since they will no doubt push their encyclopaedia above Wikipedia. The perceived independence of the Google search results was a big reason they became the number one search engine, and they play with the trust that engenders at their own peril. And how are they deciding who is a suitable expert? In many fields, there are a lot of amateur anoraks out there who know a lot more than your average professional.

School buses are allegedly wonderful, at least in Manchester (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Yellow school buses are cutting congestion and improving pupils' behaviour and attendance in Greater Manchester, according to a report.

Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Authority (GMPTA) pays for the services to 22 schools, providing journeys for more than 2,000 pupils.

A report to the authority said the buses had taken about 265,000 car miles off the road this school year.

Anti-social behaviour on school buses has reduced by 75%.

Schools have also praised the services, based on the American school buses, for improving attendance records, the authority said.
...
Councillor Alan Whitehead, chairman of GMPTA's transport network committee, said: "We already know from anecdotal evidence that they are popular, but this report really highlights the benefits of the service.

"The services are really helping to tackle local congestion caused by the school run, as well as offering a safe travelling environment for pupils."

Pupils using the buses have to sign up to a code of conduct, use the same seatbelt-equipped seats every day and have regular drivers.

Any report produced by or for a self-interested party has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The BBC of course fails to mention who pays for the bus service. Needless to say, when you want to write a glowing article, instead of just repeating what some special interest pressure group (here the GMPTA) is telling you, the least you should do is give the cost of the service, and who is paying for it. If you throw enough money at anything, then of course you are going to get results. The question, as always, is whether it's value for money.

And the charming line "anti-social behaviour on school buses has reduced by 75%" fails to mention what that is relative to. School buses in America are notoriously prone to cliques (well, gangs) of kids picking on other kids. A school bus is not how you want to get to school if you are not part of the gang. Far better to walk or cycle.

John Major whines about Tony Blair and Labour (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major has accused Labour of presiding over "systemic sleaze" during its 10 years in government.

Sir John said the government had become "institutionally careless", citing as examples the Bernie Ecclestone affair and the David Abrahams funding row.

He said Tories had misbehaved when he was PM as individuals not members of government.

Labour accused Sir John of "backward-looking mud-slinging".

Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr Show, Sir John also accused Labour of carrying out a "McCarthyite" campaign against his Conservative government.

Sir John said Tony Blair should apologise for what he had said about the Conservatives in the 1990s, and that he had behaved in an "unscrupulous" way.

Kettle meet pot. And Major has got to be kidding. The last Tory government was one of the worst in history, including selling off government assets at a fraction of what they were worth, which is about as sleazy as it gets.

Date published: 2007/12/15

Bali climate conference completely missing the point (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US has said the climate change negotiating process it agreed to in Bali must ensure developing states take their fair share of emission cuts.

The deal did not meet this principle fully, the White House said - climate change could not be curbed by emission cuts from developed countries alone.

Environmentalists have criticised the lack of firm reduction targets in the plan which the US initially rejected.

Well, the so-called environmentalists would criticise anything that doesn't fit 100% with their narrow partisan ideology, that is the way they are. And it is unfortunate how many people have focussed on which countries should cut what "fair share" of emissions. This is completely missing the real point, which is that global carbon emissions need to come down. The way country emission accounts are calculated is completely misleading, since it looks at production and not consumption. So saying that Europe needs to reduce emissions by X% by year Y, and that China has some weak or no requirement, will just make the situation worse, because Europe will get the Chinese to emit carbon on their behalf. So Europe will stop making steel and instead import it from China, and according to Kyoto/Bali, Europe will have reduced emissions. It's a nonsense. What we need is a global carbon tax, or (not so good) a cap and trade system, and then everybody is on a level playing field and emissions will be correctly accounted for. If America happens to be most efficient at producing goods per unit of carbon emitted then they will be able to emit (relatively) more, and similarly for China, and the global total will come down as required. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be pushing this agenda. The academic middle class so-called environmentalists seem to be keen just to screw the working class citizens of their own countries, all allegedly for the benefit of the working class of the poor countries.

Another academic middle class rant against gadgets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An obsession with hi-tech gadgets is sending the carbon cost of Christmas rocketing, according to new research.

Independent think tank the New Economics Foundation (Nef) says "a frenzy of mass consumption" is threatening efforts to cut emissions.

It warns if one in 25 UK homes buys one of this year's "must have" presents - a digital photo frame - annual CO2 emissions will rise by 11,000 tonnes.

This is equivalent to about 14,000 people flying from London to New York.

Nef said its calculations were based on a 15-watt photo frame being used for an average of six hours a day for a year, and a "standard" figure of 0.77 tonnes of C02 emitted per passenger.
...
Nef has drawn up a 10-point guide to a climate-friendly Christmas, which includes advice about switching off the TV, sending fewer cards, and wasting less food.

Yes, Nef is very academic middle class, and this rant is just typically academic middle class. The fact that the BBC continually publishes rants like this just shows how academic middle class the BBC is as well. How dare the peasants buy anything with their hard-earned money. Far better would be to take it all away in tax and hand it over to one of the zillions of useless consultancies like Nef that plague the nation. And don't forget to make sure the peasants don't get any holidays either, they'll only fly off somewhere sunny and we can't possibly have that.

Date published: 2007/12/14

Some people are looking into putting solar panels in space (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists are assessing the possibility of embarking on a space engineering project that would eclipse the effort to construct the International Space Station.

Researchers from Europe, Japan and the US are considering the viability of building giant solar panels in a low earth orbit that would supply cheap, inexhaustible energy to industry and homes.

Building a huge array outside the Earth's atmosphere would have the advantage of having no clouds to interrupt the flow of solar energy to the arrays.

Yet the sizeable downside would be the technical challenges of construction and of getting the power down to the ground.
...
It would require an armada of rockets carrying tonnes of material into space on a regular basis, says Lieutenant Colonel Paul Damphousse of the Pentagon's National Security Space Office.

"That's going to require repeated sorties; not one sortie every other week or every other month," he explains.

"We're talking hundreds of sorties every week and every month."

They've been talking about this for years. So far it's just science fiction. And the story spun by the BBC is rather contradictory. On the one hand we have zillions of rockets going into space. On the other hand, this is allegedly going to be a "cheap, inexhaustible energy" supply. Well, that is presumably ignoring the cost of the zillions of rockets. Of course protagonists for solar energy on the ground also conveniently ignore the construction, installation and maintenance side of solar panels when they claim that solar energy is "zero carbon". Unfortunately it is the total end-to-end cost of anything that matters, not one small bit picked out because it happens to look good. And another negative aspect of beaming in power from space is that it will change the energy balance for the Earth, which is unlikely to be without consequence.

Date published: 2007/12/13

Surprise, middle class kids get pushed more than working class kids (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Clever children from poor families face being overtaken by less bright children from affluent homes, research suggests.

The findings are part of a study for the Sutton Trust which says UK social mobility has not improved since 1970.

It says rich children are catching up with poorer peers in developmental tests between ages three and five and will overtake them by the age of seven.
...
The report said: "Children in the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at age three to the 65th percentile at age five."

Meanwhile those from the richest households who are least able at age three move up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by age five.

The Sutton Trust, a.k.a. Peter Lampl, is a one-trick pony. He hates the middle class (although he is rich himself) and spends all his time and effort trying to screw the middle class. This report is just the latest comical effort to push this agenda. First of all he is asserting here that a test at age three or five or seven proves something. Secondly, who in particular is he going to blame for this alleged "injustice"? Well, the only people you can possibly blame at that stage in life are the parents. Middle class parents push their kids more than working class parents do (on average). Lampl might not like this little bit of reality, but unfortunately it is the reality. If he wants to spend his money pushing working class kids harder, then by all means do it. It would be better than wasting money on this continuous stream of vacuous reports.

County proposes wasting 400000 pounds on speed cameras for Mill Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Speed cameras could be coming to a Cambridge street which has one of the worst accident records in the county.

The £400,000 high-tech camera system and a 20mph speed limit could be installed in Mill Road after 86 injury accidents on either side of the bridge in the last three years.

The accident rate puts Mill Road at number three in the rankings of 195 accident blackspots in Cambridgeshire. Sixty per cent of the accidents involved cyclists.

The Watchman cameras, which use number plate recognition technology, would record anyone who goes over the speed limit and also film traffic on the street - keeping an eye on cyclists and walkers as well as cars.

Up to 11 cameras could go along the mile-long stretch.

Anyone caught speeding would be sent a warning letter.

But if officers spot the same people repeatedly breaking the limit, they could get a knock on the door from the police.

Non-motorists could also fall foul of the cameras, such as children who do not use pedestrian crossings to cross the road, who may get a visit to their school.
...
Coun Ben Bradnack, Petersfield, queried the expense.

He said: "I'm not hostile to it. It's a recommendation which first of all came from the residents quite a long time ago.

"It's more use in relation to Tenison Road than Mill Road. The possibility of driving at more than 20 mph on Mill Road is pretty slight with the present situation of lighting, illegal parking and the narrowness all the way along.

"I don't think it's going to be easy, in my experience, to enforce 20mph. I'm not sure how good value for money it represents."

Is Mill Road really an "accident blackspot"? Of is it just that there are both a lot of motorised vehicles and other traffic using the road? In other words, per potential incident, is Mill Road really any worse than anywhere else?

Even more of an issue, how many of these accidents involved someone driving more than 20 mph? As Bradnack quite sensibly points out, it would be unusual to be able to drive at more than 20 mph along Mill Road except at night. So how many of these 86 accidents were caused by drivers doing more than 20 mph?

But the most worrying aspect of the article is the claim that "children who do not use pedestrian crossings to cross the road ... may get a visit to their school". So are the police now going to waste time trying to figure out who each and every person is that jaywalks along Mill Road? And then terrorise some poor kid by visiting him in school? Is this what Cambridge has come to?

So the same county that always claims it is short of money wants to waste 400k pounds on this scheme?? Sack everyone and anyone who has anything to do with transport planning in Cambridge.

Date published: 2007/12/12

A link between smoking and diabetes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Smoking is linked to a significantly increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, US research suggests.

The University of Lausanne looked at 25 studies involving 1.2m patients.

They found smokers had a 44% increased risk of type 2 diabetes compared with non-smokers - with the risk rising with the number of cigarettes smoked.

The Journal of the American Medical Association study found the increased risk for those who smoked at least 20 cigarettes a day rose to 61%.

For lighter smokers the risk was 29% higher than for a non-smoker.

The increased risk of developing diabetes in former smokers was 23%.

The researchers said: "We conclude that the relevant question should no longer be whether this association exists, but rather whether this established connection is causal."
...
Previous research has linked smoking to insulin resistance - a condition which often leads to diabetes.

However, proving a link is very difficult because smokers tend to indulge in other unhealthy habits, such as not exercising enough and eating unhealthy foods.

Unbelievable, a health story on the BBC where it is mentioned (far down the story, mind you) that there is a difference between correlation and causation. Of course this is not because BBC journalists have suddenly woken up, it's because the scientists behind this study were honest and clued up.

Overweight women allegedly less likely to get pregnant (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An overweight woman's chance of getting pregnant steadily falls as her weight increases, a major study has found.

Among 3,000 women with fertility problems, there was a 4% drop in the chance of pregnancy for every body mass unit (BMI) rise above a certain point.

Dutch scientists, writing for the journal Human Reproduction, said that very obese women fared the worst.
...
The standard unit of weight is body mass index (BMI), which is the weight in kilograms divided by the height squared.

Anything above 25 is considered overweight, while exceeding 30 is defined as "obese".

All the women in the study had come to see fertility doctors, but there was no obvious reason for their failure to conceive, as they were still ovulating normally.

Some women with "unexplained infertility" do go on to become pregnant naturally.

The study found that there was a clear relationship between their BMI and their likelihood of achieving this.

Compared with women with a BMI between 21 and 29, for every BMI point between 30 and 35 there was a 4% drop in conception rates.

Severely obese women, with a BMI of over 35, were between 26% and 49% less likely to conceive compared with a BMI between 21 and 29.

Dr Jan Willem van der Steeg, who led the study, said: "Given the increased prevalence of obesity, this is a worrying finding.

"We think that women should be informed about their lower pregnancy chances due to their overweight.

"We hypothesise that losing weight will increase the chance to conceive without treatment."

This position is shared by the British Fertility Society, which issued guidelines to its members last month urging them to withhold fertility treatment from obese women until they lost weight.

Mr Tony Rutherford, who helped draw up the guidance, said: "Over the last few years there has been evidence that obesity can harm the fertility of women.

"It decreases the chances of getting pregnant, and increases the risks of pregnancy - to both mother and child.

A classic confusion between correlation and causation. So is it the weight that is causing the problem, or is their some other (no doubt complicated) factor which is causing both the increased weight and the many other correlations observed between weight and health. Van der Steeg does indirectly mention the one way to really check whether what they have observed is a causation rather than just a correlation. Take two random groups of obese women, make sure (somehow) that one of the groups loses weight and the other does not, and see what happens with pregnancy. Well, even here this might just show a correlation, because people who are not overweight might be more likely to have sex, so all of that, and other factors, would have to be controlled for as well. This study will never be done.

Arctic ice might disappear in the summers by 2013 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists in the US have presented one of the most dramatic forecasts yet for the disappearance of Arctic sea ice.

Their latest modelling studies indicate northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers within just 5-6 years.

Professor Wieslaw Maslowski told an American Geophysical Union meeting that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss.

Summer melting this year reduced the ice cover to 4.13 million sq km, the smallest ever extent in modern times.

Remarkably, this stunning low point was not even incorporated into the model runs of Professor Maslowski and his team, which used data sets from 1979 to 2004 to constrain their future projections.

"Our projection of 2013 for the removal of ice in summer is not accounting for the last two minima, in 2005 and 2007," the researcher from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, explained to the BBC.

"So given that fact, you can argue that may be our projection of 2013 is already too conservative."

Using supercomputers to crunch through possible future outcomes has become a standard part of climate science in recent years.

Professor Maslowski's group, which includes co-workers at Nasa and the Institute of Oceanology, Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS), is well known for producing modelled dates that are in advance of other teams.

These other teams have variously produced dates for an open summer ocean that, broadly speaking, go out from about 2040 to 2100.

But the Monterey researcher believes these models have seriously underestimated some key melting processes. In particular, Professor Maslowski is adamant that models need to incorporate more realistic representations of the way warm water is moving into the Arctic basin from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Well, all the models are just models, and nonlinear dynamics is tricky to get right, but it certainly seems plausible that the ice will disappear in the summer sooner rather than later. And the cruise ships are no doubt already lining up to bring tourists to the North Pole, not to mention all the trade ships that will take the Arctic as a shortcut.

Date published: 2007/12/11

Human genetic change is allegedly higher now than before (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Humans have moved into the evolutionary fast lane and are becoming increasingly different, a genetic study suggests.

In the past 5,000 years, genetic change has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period, say scientists in the US.

This is in contrast with the widely-held belief that recent human evolution has halted.

Professor Henry Harpending, an author of the study from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, US, said: "The dogma has been these [differences] are cultural fluctuations, but almost any temperament trait you look at is under strong genetic influences.

"Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin," he added. "We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity."

This is happening, he said, because "there has not been much flow" between different regions since modern humans left Africa to colonise the rest of the world. And there is no evidence that it is slowing down, he added.

"The technology can't detect anything beyond about 2,000 years ago, but we see no sign of [human evolution] slowing down. So I would suspect it is continuing," he told BBC News.
...
However, geneticist Professor Steve Jones of University College London said suggesting a large population size could increase the speed of evolution was "a contentious issue".
...
"The general picture that evolution has speeded up in the last 10,000 years as we change from, to put it bluntly, being animals to being humans is clearly true," he explained. "To suggest it is happening at this instant, I would suggest, is probably wrong."

The claim is interesting but the interpretation is obviously open to debate. No doubt this one will run for awhile.

Government orders NHS to shave several minutes from ambulance response time (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ambulance unions and some doctors fear plans for vehicles manned by one person to answer more 999 calls in England could put patients at risk.

NHS bosses are splitting up many two-person ambulance crews in an effort to meet new response-time targets.

Some staff say "solo-responders" are not always appropriate and that it is a bid to get the service on the cheap.

But ministers insist the move "does not present a risk to patients" and that it will free up resources for other calls.

From next April, the 10 ambulance trusts in England will have to respond to three quarters of the most serious emergencies within eight minutes from the point the call is answered.

To date, the clock has only started ticking once details, including telephone number, address and problem, had been taken.

Critics said this process had been taking several minutes in some cases, masking the true response times.

It is a bit ridiculous to start the clock from when the call is picked up, given that you can't start driving until you know where you are driving to. Ministers have decided that chopping several minutes off the response time is going to result in better outcomes for patients than having two-person crews. Hopefully ministers have some good evidence that this is the case. But what are the odds that they made this policy up without any such evidence? The fact that they claim the move "does not present a risk to patients" shows they probably don't have any evidence (otherwise they would have mentioned the trade-off) and are just trying to deny reality. On the other hand, to describe this move as a "bid to get the service on the cheap" is a bit of a non-statement. Every organisation in the world has to balance cost versus efficiency. There is no infinite money supply waiting to be spent. And as a result, some people will die who might otherwise have not.

Date published: 2007/12/10

Government allegedly wants "all" power to be generated by wind power by 2020 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

All UK homes could be powered by offshore wind farms by 2020 as part of the fight against climate change, under plans unveiled by John Hutton.

Up to 7,000 turbines could be installed to boost wind produced energy 60-fold by 2020.

The business secretary admitted it would change Britain's coastline, and mean higher electricity bills.

Senior Tory Alan Duncan backed the plans, adding: "We're an island nation. There's a lot of wind around."
...
Mr Hutton conceded that having a wind installation every half-mile around the coast was "going to change our coastline".

"There is no way of making the shift to low-carbon technology without making a change and that change being visible to people," he said.

"We've got a choice as a country whether we rise to the challenge... or stick our head in the sand and hope it (climate change) goes away. It is not going to go away."

Asked what would happen if there was no wind for a few days, Mr Hutton said that was why there had to be a mix of energy sources - including nuclear power - to cover for calm weather periods.
...
However, the Royal Academy of Engineering said it was so concerned about the UK's ability "to meet these aspirational targets" it was starting a new study on the engineering challenges of offshore wind projects to report next year.
...
"Wind power cannot provide all our electricity - the engineering effort to build 7,000 large offshore turbines by 2020 would be enormous, unprecedented and is probably underestimated."

Given the choice between listening to a politician (any politician) or an engineer, obviously one would trust an engineer. So Hutton and the other politicians have evidently not thought about this issue very carefully. And given the serious problem that the wind is not always there, the amount of replication in the power network is going to be large, i.e. wind power is not particularly efficient. The fact that Hutton tried to avoid this issue shows that he is up to no good and that this is more of a PR exercise than anything else.

And it's unfortunate that so much emphasis is being placed on off-shore rather than on-shore wind installations. The former are much more expensive to build and to run. That is, the amount of energy taken to put them up in the first place, and keep them maintained, is massive. So wind power is not really zero carbon, it is just zero carbon if you ignore the energy taken to build and run the turbines. (The so-called environmentalists always point this out about nuclear power but funnily enough never about wind power.)

Date published: 2007/12/09

Middle class control freaks want to tell Olympic visitors what to eat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Healthy and sustainable food must be promoted at the 2012 Olympic Games, according to a new report.

The Soil Association (SA) said the benefits of local, seasonal and organic food could be showcased while imported food should meet Fairtrade standards.

Peter Melchatt from the SA said in the face of the current obesity crisis organisers "must promote healthy as well as sustainable food".

London 2012 said it was committed to a "sustainable food strategy".

The report by the Soil Association, the new economics foundation (nef) and the food and farming alliance Sustain, also noted that the Games could help promote sustainable fish consumption.

It called on 2012 sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald's to serve 75% unprocessed, 50% locally sourced and 30% organic food and drink.

Yet more control freakery from the academic middle class. Presumably atheletes will largely import their own food, to avoid having to eat English stodge. On the other hand, what visitors want, and expect, from Coca-Cola and McDonald's is (surprise) a coke and a burger. Hopefully (and presumably) the sponsors will just ignore these busy bodies and serve what the people want. But the BBC, as ever, gives a free platform to the academic middle class to push their agenda.

Yet another inquiry into advertising and children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is launching an inquiry into the possible harmful effects of advertising on children.

The probe, part of a 10-year plan for children in England to be published next week, comes amid fears about the commercialisation of childhood.

It will look at evidence of links between adverts and dissatisfaction, anxiety, eating disorders and drinking.

Children see some 10,000 TV adverts a year and recognise 400 brands by age 10, Children's Secretary Ed Balls says.

He said many parents were concerned about youngsters being bombarded with adverts and media images that encouraged the "sexualisation" of girls.

Mr Balls said the inquiry would be carried out by leading child psychologists and academics.

They would look at the cumulative impact of advertising on different aspects of childhood and well-being, to see whether commercial pressure had a "negative impact".

"We need to look at the evidence around commercialisation before we jump to any conclusions," he said.

The academic middle class control freaks in action once more. Can Balls even find a "leading" child psychologist or academic who is not anti-commercial? No doubt, this kind of "fear about the commercialisation of childhood" was already hyped up in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and will be again in the 2010s, 2020s, etc. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst the academic middle class to always portray the world as being at an end, but it would all be ok if only the academic middle class were allowed to banish everything they didn't like. Welcome to Control Freak Britain in the 21st century.

Date published: 2007/12/08

MacKay's complains about proposed introduction of "congestion charge" (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Another Cambridge company fears the introduction of a congestion charge could force it to move out of the city after nearly 100 years of trading.

Don MacKay, chairman of MacKay's, an East Road-based tool specialist, said: We might have to.

It is not a question of whether we want to.

Mr MacKay, 82, has been at the helm of the well-known firm for more than 50 years.

MacKay's customers include builders and tradesmen who rely on being able to pop in to his city centre store opposite The Grafton shopping centre.

He says if Cambridgeshire County Council introduces a £5 charge between 7.30am and 9.30am Monday to Friday, his customers could go elsewhere.

He said: Most of our customers are in the building trade. They come into us in the morning, get the stuff they need to do their job for the day. They are not going to want to pay an extra £5 a day to do that.

City solicitors Miller Sands has already left Cambridge after 80 years.

It said the prospect of the charge was the last straw and management made the decision to move to Impington in October.

This "congestion" (well, access) "charge" (well, tax), is likely to be set at £4 rather than £5, but that doesn't really make a difference to the argument. Needless to say, the council doesn't really care what the people think (unless they happen to agree with what it wants to do), but it does pay some attention to what business people say. One of the reasons the time is being set as 7.30 to 9.30 AM is because that won't really affect most of the retail trade, and that was done so that the council can buy off shops like John Lewis. (But this means that the council wants to screw workers, who make the country run, but not shoppers, who just spend money. Priorities, priorities.) Of course some shops do carry out trade early in the morning, so will suffer. Ridgeon's is another such business, and much bigger than MacKay's so likely to carry much more weight.

Depression linked with osteoporosis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Depression may increase the risk of the bone disorder osteoporosis in premenopausal women, a study suggests.

A US study found 17% of depressed women but just 2% of those not depressed, had thinner bone in a part of the hip.

It found depressed women had overactive immune systems, making too many chemicals that promote inflammation including one that promotes bone loss.

The Archives of Internal Medicine study compared 89 depressed women with 44 non-depressed women, all aged 21 to 45.

Another classic confusion of correlation and causation. Does depression cause overactive immune systems, or do overactive immune systems cause depression, or is it something more complicated than either statement? You could take a zillion and one medical conditions and find links with a zillion and one other medical conditions. It's an unfortunate tendency of most health studies to do this. It doesn't really prove very much.

Date published: 2007/12/07

Tories want to speed up buying and selling of houses (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Tories have launched a review aimed at speeding up the way homes are bought and sold in England and Wales.

The party has recruited property expert Kirstie Allsopp to help come up with ideas to make the process less expensive and stressful.

Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps says the party would start by ditching the new Home Information Packs (HIPs).

The government attacked the Conservative proposals as a "bad deal for first time buyers".

But Mr Shapps said HIPs had "introduced wasteful red tape and up-front costs to the seller with little or no appreciable advantage to the buyer".

He said the Tories would keep the government's Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) but wanted to "improve the process of moving home".
...
The Conservatives have also signed up property expert Owen Inskip to focus on the housing industry, seeking the views of estate agents, surveyors, solicitors and mortgage lenders.

The making and accepting of an offer on a house could be made legally binding to end gazumping, in one of the proposals being considered.
...
Housing Minister Iain Wright said: "First time buyers would have to pay for the information they now get for free, and would be bound in to an offer even when they haven't been given the facts about problems with the property.

"The Tories have no explanation about how they would provide Energy Performance Certificates which help cut carbon emissions and save families money."

Well for once the Tories are speaking slightly less nonsense than the Labour Party. Wright has not a clue. No sane buyer would accept any information in the HIP, which means a large part of the information in it will need to be replicated by the buyer's solicitor. The Tories seem to recognise this, although they don't seem to accept that the EPC is also largely a waste of money.

Wright's comments on the EPC are really bizarre. It is trivially obvious how the Tories "would provide Energy Performance Certificates". It's the same way they are provided now. For example, in October 2008, landlords are going to have to provide EPCs for their tenants, and needless to say, they are going to do this without having to produce a HIP. So EPCs can be produced whether or not a HIP is produced. And Wright's claim that EPCs "cut carbon emissions" is just a fantasy of the ruling elite, without any evidence to support it.

But the Tories are not in the clear either. It is an extremely bad idea that "making and accepting of an offer on a house could be made legally binding to end gazumping". One can imagine that estate agents and surveyors would be dead keen on this idea, because it would make the jobs of the former much easier and it would produce far, far more work for the latter because it would force countless buyers to do surveys just in order to make an offer. It's not uncommon for five or more buyers to bid for a house. Imagine if they all had to get surveys (again, nobody sane is going to believe a survey by the seller).

And gazumping only happens because it takes so ridiculously long to complete on the purchase of a house, and because house prices were rising so fast that the value of the house just before exchange was significantly more than the value when the offer was made. Any government that can sort either of those problems out will have made gazumping go away. And that is a far better way to deal with this issue than to force a huge number of surveys to be made.

House price inflation is fairly easy to sort out. It's called supply and demand. Build more houses. The lengthy process of buying a house is not so easy to sort out. One of the problem is solicitors. There are of course two solicitors involved in the transaction, and surprise, surprise, they always blame delay after delay on the other side. And the number one aim of the solicitor is to cover their backside so they can't be sued, so they go crazy on silly aspects. (For example: some neighbouring property has a convenant dating back a long time saying that the light in some window cannot be blocked, but the window is far from being obstructed and that is obviously something that would not be allowed in any case by the planning office, but a solicitor could spend hours fretting about that because it means they have allegedly done a good job. Well, and it pads the expenses as well.)

The other problem is that many house purchases involve a long chain. Buying a house is not like buying a car where you can do without one for a few weeks. So this long chain needs to be all coordinated, which means that even more solicitors are involved. The fact that some chains break is not that surprising.

So the Tories can talk the talk, but the probability that they can or will do anything useful is not high.

Fishermen should fish less today so as to make more tomorrow (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fishermen would make even more money than previously thought if they let depleted stocks rebuild, according to research from Australia and the US.

When fish are more plentiful it becomes easier and cheaper to catch them.

Now researchers have shown how bigger stocks would bring bigger profits for those in the industry.
...
"This is what some people may have suspected before, but we're the first to actually show the result," said research leader Quentin Grafton from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

"As soon as you start saying 'we're going to reduce the harvest', fishermen say 'you're going to make us worse off'; but we're saying 'if you reduce the harvest now, you'll actually be better off'."

Traditional fisheries management centres around a concept known as Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) - the highest catches that can be taken year after year without running stocks down.

Many fisheries authorities that claim to aim for MSY are failing to achieve their target. The UN calculates that 75% of commercial fisheries globally are exploited either up to or beyond their sustainable limits.

While MSY management might yield the biggest catches, Professor Grafton's team calculated that fishermen would earn more if they kept stocks at a higher level, which they have named Maximum Economic Yield (MEY).
...
With advice from scientists at ANU, the Australian federal government is to introduce MEY-based management for 26 species from the beginning of 2008, Professor Grafton said.
...
Martin Pastoors, chair of the Advisory Committee on Fishery Management within the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (Ices), which provides the EU's scientific advice on fisheries, commented: "The simple logic of lower costs at bigger stock size seems plausible, and therefore higher profits at MEY above MSY.

Well it's extremely plausible that there is an MEY above the MSY. The question is whether the models that anybody uses are capable of calculating either of these quantities very well, and whether the difference between the two is small relative to the error in the calculations. And how many fishermen will believe any calculations of scientists, who pretty much always put the interest of the fish above the interest of the fishermen. Grafton says "fishermen say 'you're going to make us worse off'; but we're saying 'if you reduce the harvest now, you'll actually be better off'". Well, he fails to mention the crucial phrase "in the future", and of course that is a big qualification. There is no point being rich tomorrow if you are going to starve today. Perhaps the scientists will be willing to have their grant cut in half so that the remainder can be used to subsidise fishermen while the latter wait for this alleged future golden period.

Date published: 2007/12/06

Labour wants to detain people without charge for six weeks (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced plans to extend the period that terrorism suspects can be held without charge for up to 42 days.

In an attempt to win over critics, it is planned to give MPs a role in any decision to let police hold suspects for more than the current 28-day limit.

Ms Smith said 42 days would be needed only in "exceptional circumstances".

Ministers have come up against strong opposition from Tories, Lib Dems and some Labour MPs over terror detentions.
...
The home secretary will have the power to set a 42-day limit.

Ms Smith said: "To emphasise that the higher limit is exceptional, it must be approved by Parliament within 30 days."

Ministers recently proposed extending the terror detention limit to 56 or 58 days.

The 28-day limit was itself a compromise, after former prime minister Tony Blair failed to convince Parliament to increase it to 90 days in 2005.

How pathetic can you get? The BBC has been making much play today of the phrase "exceptional circumstances" because it is just such a ridiculous one to use. Not too long ago the limit was 7 days. That is already exceptional, or is New Labour thinking of making routine imprisonment of large numbers of the population a standard practise? Blair then went crazy (as part of his post hoc justification for his illegal invasion of Iraq) and asked for 90, and got 28, and now for no particular reason Brown is pushing for 42. Douglas Adams might approve. Groucho Marx might say "why a duck?". Labour just make it up as they go along. And how gracious of the government to let Parliament approve the proposal. But the idea that MPs should look at individual cases over the 28-day limit is unbelievable. MPs have a job to do. Being a judge is not one of them. The judiciary is the proper place for these cases to be decided.

A link between exercise and mental health (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Being a slob puts you at risk of mental health problems, experts have warned. A lack of physical activity leads to depression and dementia, evidence presented at the British Nutrition Foundation conference shows.

It comes as new research from the University of Bristol found that being active cuts the risk of Alzheimer's disease by around a third.

Currently only 35% of men and 24% of women reach the recommended weekly amount of physical activity.

Professor Nanette Mutrie, an expert in exercise and sport psychology at the University of Strathclyde, told the conference that mental health was not a trivial issue.

"It's only recently that people have begun to see the link between physical activity and mental health.

"It's important for increasing people's self esteem, general mood, coping with stress and even sleeping better.

"And we now have very strong evidence that physical activity can prevent depression."

She said inactive people had twice the risk of becoming depressed and there was also very good evidence that exercise is a useful treatment for depression.

A classic case of confusion between correlation and causation. Mutrie even happily intersperses words like "link" (correlation) and "prevent" (causation). Here, you could imagine that the idea that depression causes people to exercise less (depressed people don't want to do much in life) is if anything more likely than the claim that exercising less causes people to be depressed, although almost certainly it's much more complex than either statement would imply. (And no doubt there is a temporal issue here, but the article doesn't say how time enters into consideration, e.g. whether exercise is alleged to have an effect decades ahead of time.) It's amazing how many scientists, especially those working in health-related areas, haven't a clue about the difference between correlation and causation.

Date published: 2007/12/05

NHS "stop smoking" clinics allegedly a success (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

NHS "stop smoking" clinics have been hailed a success after figures showed particular progress in deprived areas.

The study found 8.8% of smokers in poorer areas had quit at the four-week mark, compared with 7.8% elsewhere.

The comparison is particularly relevant as smoking is a key factor in health inequalities with those from deprived backgrounds more likely to smoke.

The Bath University-led team compiled the data from the 1.5m people using the clinics in England from 2003 to 2006.

Smoking cessation clinics, offering counselling and treatment in the form of nicotine replacement therapy, were set up in 1999.

Lead researcher Dr Linda Bault, who worked with experts from Edinburgh University, said: "Our study shows that the NHS stop smoking services are helping to reduce the health gap between rich and poor, which is good news for the overall health of the nation."

But she added stop smoking services had to be accompanied by the continued successful implementation of smoking bans and rises in tobacco prices to have a wider effect.

The study, published in the Tobacco Control journal, compared data from smokers who accessed services in officially designated disadvantaged areas, called spearhead areas which have received extra funds and cover just over a quarter of the population, and compared them with other areas of the country.

The study found that quit rates were slightly lower for smokers from spearhead areas, at 53% at four weeks compared with 58% elsewhere.

But it added the services were treating them in larger numbers as a proportion of overall smokers than their more affluent neighbours, 17% compared with 13% elsewhere.

The overall effect was that a higher proportion of smokers in the more disadvantaged areas were successful in quitting.

Although previous research has shown that of those who quit after a month, less than one in four were still not smoking by the year-mark.

The first paragraph in the story is just propaganda. And the headline figures in the second paragraph are misleading. So after slogging through eight glowing paragraphs, we find in the ninth paragraph that in fact the "quit" rate in more "disadvantaged" areas was worse, and it's only because they saw many more people in the "disadvantaged" areas that the absolute numbers happened to be what they were. So yes, if you throw a lot more money at something you get a better absolute rate. The fact that the lead researcher is willing to mouth crude propaganda ("NHS stop smoking services are helping to reduce the health gap between rich and poor") in spite of the worse relative rate, tells you that the researchers have an agenda.

And needless to say, the article does not mention at all the cost of the scheme. So was it value for money? Well, since prevention is normally cheaper than cure, the scheme was almost certainly value for money. But someone independent should verify this. If the "less than one in four" figure mentioned at the end is correct, then of the 1.5m people seen in the clinics, perhaps 2%, or 30k people, were still not smoking after a year, and 1470k people were still smoking. This does not look like a great "success".

Date published: 2007/12/04

Obese women allegedly much more likely to die in pregnancy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Obesity is the fastest growing cause of women dying in pregnancy or childbirth in the UK, a report shows.

More than half the 295 women who died during or after pregnancy between 2003 and 2005 were overweight or obese.

Experts say the number of deaths - from a total of two million pregnancies - is low but the trend is very worrying.

The Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths (CEMACH) report calls for more support and advice for obese women before and during pregnancy.

Gwyneth Lewis, CEMACH director and the government's maternity tsar, said the figures showed that childbirth was very safe in the UK.

But she said the growing evidence of a link to obesity was a cause for concern.

The figures suggest that a modest amount of extra weight in pregnancy carries little extra risk, but obesity poses a significant problem.

Fifteen per cent of the mothers who died were morbid or super-morbidly obese.

Dr Lewis said: "Obese pregnant women are probably at four or five times greater risk of suffering maternal death than a woman of normal weight - and the same for their babies dying."

She is concerned many women are not aware of the risk associated with obesity.

Overall, the UK has one of the lowest rates of maternal death in the world.

However, the death rate in the UK has begun to rise. In 2003-05 it stood at almost 13.95 per 100,000 births, up from 13.07 in 2000-02, and just 9.83 in 1985-87.

More demonisation of obese people by the chattering classes. The article is fairly typical of BBC health stories in that it leaves out important facts and confuses correlation and causation (although that is not likely to be a serious complaint here).

So, the BBC tells us that "more than half the 295 women who died during or after pregnancy between 2003 and 2005 were overweight or obese". But they fail to tell us what percentage of prenant women are obese. Given that the chattering classes always claim we are now in an obesity "epidemic", it wouldn't be surprising if "more than half" of pregnant women were classified as obese, in which case the death statistics would not be anything unusual. Unfortunately the BBC leaves out this fact because they just want to scare-monger, not inform.

Then we are told that "obese pregnant women are probably at four or five times greater risk of suffering maternal death than a woman of normal weight", but that could easily be dominated by the tail of "morbid or super-morbidly obese" women. Given that the article also claims that "a modest amount of extra weight in pregnancy carries little extra risk", the tail indeed seems to be where the real problem lies.

The article at least gives the absolute death rate, which of course is miniscule. So should acres of newsprint be devoted to this obesity issue? Given the around 1 in 7600 maternal death rate, and assuming a 4 times higher death rate for obese women, this gives at worse a 1 in 1900 maternal death rate for obese women (again, skewed towards the tail). (At worse, because that would be assuming there are many more non-obese than obese women, and that is likely to be false.) So that would be 0.05% of obese women, i.e. at least 99.95% of obese women do not die in pregnancy. The world is seemingly not at an end. But that does not make a good BBC headline.

The article later commits another classic journalistic sin of looking at one example (some very obese woman), which allegedly "proves" what the story was saying all along (which of course is nonsense, since one example rarely proves anything).

Anorexia allegedly linked with hormones in womb (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Babies who go on to develop anorexia may be programmed in the womb by their mother's hormones, evidence suggests.

Women are usually much more likely than men to have the eating disorder, but a University of Sussex study found men with a female twin were more at risk.

This suggests the hormones released to aid female development may be key.

Commenting on the Archives of General Psychiatry study, a UK expert said other factors in childhood and adolescence remained important.
...
No-one is sure why women are more prone than men. Some experts suggest that the pressures of modern society are partly to blame while others look at brain changes much earlier in life.

Research into twins is a way to examine the factors involved, as the single most important period for brain development is during the months of pregnancy.

Dr Marco Procopio, from the University of Sussex, worked with Dr Paul Marriott from the University of Waterloo in Canada to look at information drawn from thousands of Swedish twins born between 1935 and 1958.

Overall, as expected, female twins were more likely to develop anorexia than male twins.

The only exception was among mixed-sex twins, where the male was as likely to develop anorexia as the female.

The researchers wrote that the most likely reason was because of sex steroid hormones released into the womb during pregnancy.

This is a bit of a grand theory given how little evidence they have for it. Not only are "other factors in childhood and adolescence" likely to be important, but even societal views (e.g. who gets classified as anorexic) could make a difference.

Date published: 2007/12/03

Cambridgeshire County Council wants to introduce a "congestion" charge (permanent blog link)

Cambridgeshire County Council would love to introduce a "congestion" charge in Cambridge. Well, first of all, as in London, it is not a congestion charge, it is an access charge. The fact that proponents of these taxes cannot even be honest about the name already tells you they are up to no good.

The county is having a public consultation about the charge. Like all public consultations, it is a waste of time, because it proves nothing. The only people who respond to these consultations are the middle class, which in Cambridge largely means the academic middle class (so even worse). Now almost all transport plans in Cambridge involve screwing motorists, but normally the proposals are so localised that not many people get that excited against them. On the other hand, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is an organised cycling group which always pushes an anti-car agenda (rather than a pro-cycling one), and they always make sure they and their members are heard way above and beyond what their small numbers should justify. So normally these consultations are way biased against cars, which is what the transport planners want, so of course they are normally happy to claim these consultations are wonderful representations of public opinion, which they are not.

This time, however, they have pissed a lot of motorists off, and so they seem to be expecting, for once, that the anti-proposal opinion will dominate the consultation, even more than the cyclists (who for some reason feel they have some contribution to make on the congestion issue, even though it has nothing to do with them, or, rather, should have nothing to do with them). Of course ultimately the council bureaucrats don't really care what people think, they will just do what they want to do unless the politicians get cold feet. So even if the consultation ends up being heavily against the proposal, it will be irrelevant. Other factors will determine what happens.

One of the major problems with transport planning in the city of Cambridge is that it is not handled by city government but by the county government. Of course the city ruling elite hate car drivers just as much as the county ones do. But the county council is run by the Tories, and the city council is run by the Lib Dems, with not a Tory councillor to be seen. So the county council in particular has no interest in what the people of Cambridge city think. And their proposals for this new charge (so tax) exactly reflects this problem. Indeed, the consultation exhibits hardly make an appearance at all in Cambridge. There is only one visit to the city centre, and that happened today, in Lion Yard. They had a pathetic little desk with hardly any space to explain what the proposals really are. At least they had some of the transport planners on hand, to justify their plans.

Cambridge is much smaller than London, so loses out on economy of scale. So they have made up for that by proposing that the entire city out to the A14 / M11 / eastern edge be covered, and that city residents should get no discount (they are not Tory voters so why should they). They even want to charge people who live at the edge of the city and drive out of the city. But they only will operate the scheme from 7.30 to 9.30 AM. This means that workers will be hammered but not shoppers, so many natural opponents (such as John Lewis and all the other zillions of shops in the city centre) can be bought off.

The proposal is happening now because it seems to be a pre-condition for Cambridge to be eligible for a whacking 500 million pounds from the government to spend on (mostly) public transport around Cambridge. They are even proposing to blow an amazing 50 million pounds on cycling, which is ridiculous. If you scale that up to Britain, that 500 million is almost the equivalent of 300 billion pounds being spent in a short period on (mostly) public transport. This is a completely unsustainable and silly amount (although of course like all groups, the transport lobby could of course spend twice as much money without blinking).

So why should the government be throwing this kind of money at a small town like Cambridge? Well, the government wants to introduce national "congestion" charging and so needs some pilot trials outside of London. And since the Cambridge ruligg elite hate cars, this is a natural town to try. But a more sensible location is Manchester, which is indeed applying for the same kind of funds. This money is only available if in turn a congestion charge is introduced.

Well, sometimes the Cambridge transport planners admit this is why this proposal is coming forward now, and sometimes they claim it is all because Cambridge is going to grow so much in a decade that congestion is going to get a lot worse in future "unless something is done". But that is way off in the future, and by then we will have a national road pricing scheme, so there is no real point in Cambridge veering off in this direction now, except that it is part of the quid pro quo for getting this large government bribe.

There is a bit of a game of bluff going on here. The county applies to the national government for money. But if the government doesn't thrown in enough of a bribe (and 500 million seems to be the crazy figure the county is demanding) then the bribe will be turned down and no congestion charge. Does Gordon Brown really want to throw 500 million pounds at Cambridge (with a Lib Dem MP surrounded by Tory MPs)? Given all the antagonism engendered by this proposal, and given this additional game of bluff, and given that some Tory councillors don't like this proposed massive (so easily 800 pound a year) tax increase on their own voters (even if they don't care about Cambridge city voters), it seems that the transport bureaucrats may well lose their precious scheme. But this has nothing to do with the public consultation.

One of the problems with Cambridge traffic is that the transport planners themselves have made it much worse the last decade. The biggest example of this is Newmarket Road, where they have introduced a completely wacky bus lane which has reduced capacity by almost half, even though a lot of drivers (bravely or foolishly) ignore large sections of it because it is so wacky. This is one of the reasons that Coldham's Lane has become completely impassable into town the last couple of years on the weekend. The other reason is that the city has allowed retail park after retail park to be put into that area. As a result, everybody who needs to buy anything useful (e.g. for DIY) has to go to that part of the city. The Cambridge ruling elite have evidently never heard of distributed shopping. In particular, the north-west side of Cambridge has to cross the river (which means Elizabeth Way) to get to this shopping. Far better would have been to have a shopping plaza with easy access to the A14 near Histon Road. But we couldn't possibly have that, no, that would have been far too logical and sensible.

The transport planner at the Lion Yard exhibition today even admitted that Newmarket Road was a disaster they had made. But Tesco on Newmarket Road (which is only one part of the retail hell in that area) he blamed on national government, since apparently local government turned it down, and then national government ruled in favour of Tesco. It seems that one of the new proposals is to put the bus lanes down the middle of Newmarket Road rather than on the outside. That still reduces the capacity by half, but it makes the bus lanes less wacky. But how will bus passengers get off to go shopping? It's all very bizarre.

The same chap said that the Cambridge scheme would be less inefficient than the London scheme in raising money. So if they keep their proposals concerning the time and zone and with no reductions for Cambridge residents, then he claimed that the scheme would cost 10 million pounds a year to run (so expect it to cost more) and the sheme would bring in 35 million pounds a year if the charge was 4 pounds (so mid-range of the 3-5 pound proposal). So that's "only" a 30% inefficiency, compared with a > 50% London inefficiency. It's still a pretty inefficient way to impose a tax. And it can possibly only make sense if with the reduction of cars the city somehow claws back more than 10 million pounds in savings. Of course the transport planners claim it will.

The other coming proposals are going to raise a lot of hackles from quite a few rich people, so the county really is asking for trouble. For example, they want to make Huntingdon Road one-way, tidally (so inwards in the morning and outwards in the afternoon). This might be prefectly good for workers zooming in from the A14, but it's going to screw all the people who live on Huntingdon Road who want to just nip into and out of Cambridge when they feel like it, not when the council feels like letting them do it.

And how do these people get back to their houses if they want to when the tide is still coming in? Well, in future they will have to drive *all* the way up Madingley Road to almost the Park and Ride, and then take a new (so yet to be built) road connecting Madingley Road with Huntingdon Road, and then back up Huntingdon Road into town. Hey, a great victory for the environment, you will need to travel twice as far as you used to. And this new road will border Lansdowne Road and Conduit Head Road (a conservation area with loads of modernist houses on it). That will not happen without a big fight.

Further, the so-called NIAB site between Huntingdon Road and Histon Road is being developed. And that will have a road connecting the top end of Histon Road with the far end of Huntingdon Road. But cars will not be able to use it, just buses. So these cars will still have to travel all the way up Histon Road. Another great victory for the environment. If the city does not block off the Windsor Road / Oxford Road rat run, then that will get even more traffic in future. But if they do block it off, then people will have to drive all the way down to Madingley Road and up and around just to get from Arbury to Girton. So a one-mile journey as the crow flies becomes a three-mile journey as the Cambridge transport planner flies. More nonsense.

There has been no new road built in Cambridge, that has not been a housing estate access road, since 1970 (Elizabeth Way). Finally this year, after a 27 year gap, they are putting in a new road, a road from Trumpington to the hospital. Unbelievably the Cambridge transport planners are proposing several new roads on top of this. One of these is a connecting road from Milton down to the proposed new Chesterton rail station. This one will not be very controversial but unfortunately it indeed seems to be coming from Milton, not the A14. So to get to it from the A14 you have to do a bit of a convoluted loop at the Milton interchange. And it doesn't help people who live in north Cambridge (unless they go up to the A14).

The other roads are more controversial. They are mostly for buses, not cars (surprise). One is for the guided bus and will run alongside the railway line until it hits Newmarket Road. So this will impact the Leper Chapel, and it's hard to believe the Cambridge Preservation Society will leave that one without a protest. Another road is supposed to run through the middle of Coldham Common.

Boy, these transport guys know how to make enemies. Normally the middle class would enthusiastically support the anti-car measures, but a lot of the proposals here (mostly independent of the "congestion" charge proposal, although unlikely to go ahead without that money) are just going to raise the hackles of a lot of middle class people. Expect trouble ahead.

Americans claim Iran is not developing nuclear weapons after all (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iran appears "less determined" to develop nuclear weapons than previously thought, US intelligence officials say.

Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 but is continuing to enrich uranium, a National Intelligence Estimate assessment has concluded.

Enriched uranium is used in nuclear bombs but Tehran says the aims of its nuclear activities are peaceful.

A senior advisor to President Bush said the report was "positive" but the risk of a nuclear Iran remained "serious".

Iran is currently under sanctions from both the UN Security Council, which is demanding the end of uranium enrichment, and unilateral US sanctions.

The declassified summary of the report, which draws together information from the US's 16 intelligence agencies, says with "high confidence" that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 "in response to international pressure".

The assessment says with "moderate confidence" that the programme has not restarted.

This is a turnaround from previous assessments, when US intelligence agencies believed Iran was trying to develop a nuclear weapon.

Iran made "significant progress" in 2007 installing gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium - a process necessary for producing the fissile nuclear material needed to build a nuclear bomb, the report says.

But the report's authors judge with "moderate confidence" that Iran "still faces significant technical problems" operating the new equipment.

And they conclude that the country is not likely to have enough highly enriched uranium to build a bomb until 2010-2015.

Needless to say you cannot trust any report that comes out of Washington (or from any government, for that matter, but Washington is near the bottom of the credibility stakes). And even though it shows the Bush/Cheney administration's desire to bomb Iran has no basis in fact, this will not stop this administration from bombing Iran. Just like every economic statistic "justified" tax cuts (no matter what the news was), every "intelligence" report "justifies" bombing Iran, no matter what the facts are. As with Iraq, the international community is unfortunately sleep-walking towards giving a green light to the Americans to bomb Iran.

CSA shows once again what a dreadful agency it is (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple is being made to pay maintenance by the Child Support Agency (CSA).

Andy Bathie, 37, from Enfield, north London, claims he was assured by the couple he would have no personal or financial involvement for the children.

He donated his sperm as a friend rather than go through a fertility clinic.

The CSA said only anonymous donors at licensed centres are exempt from being treated as the legal father of a child born as a result of their donation.

Mr Bathie, a firefighter, said he cannot afford to have children with his own wife due to the financial implications.

The lesbian couple, who approached the couple five years ago after they married in a civil ceremony, have a boy and a girl.

Mr Bathie said he reacted with "shock, anger and despair", when he was contacted by the CSA in November.

He said: "I don't have any particular ill will. It's the fact that I still even now don't see why I should have to pay for another couple's children."

A spokesman for Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) said: "The law says that men donating sperm through licensed fertility clinics are not the legal father of any child born through that donation.

"Men giving out their sperm in any other way - such as via internet arrangements - are legally the father of any children born with all the responsibilities that carries."

A spokeswoman for CSA said: "Unless the child is legally adopted, both biological parents are financially responsible for their child - the Child Support Agency legislation is not gender or partnership based."

A totally outrageous abuse of State power. On the one hand, this is the HFEA trying to justify the government as the monopoly supplier of "officially" donated sperm, which is bad enough. On the other hand, this is the CSA proving once again that it is the most obnoxious and useless government agency ever created, even worse than the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise (unbelievably).

Date published: 2007/12/02

Another international jamboree on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Final preparations are under way for a key UN climate summit that will attempt to reach a deal on what should replace the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2012.

Talks will centre on whether binding targets are needed to cut emissions.

It is the first such meeting since the IPCC, a panel of leading scientists, concluded that climate change was "very likely" caused by human activity.

The two-week gathering in Bali, Indonesia, will also debate how to help poor nations cope in a warming world.

Yet another meeting between the rich people of the rich world and the rich people of the poor world, to try and determine how best to screw the poor people of the rich world, all allegedly at the behest of the poor people of the poor world.

Kyoto was fatally flawed. In particular it accounted for emissions where they were produced, rather than where the goods were consumed. Thus it was advantageous for the rich countries to out-source emissions to China, and still pretend they were doing a jolly good job cutting emissions, but in effect the global emission tally went up. But lots of scientists wanted Kyoto because it was "something". Hopefully the "something" this time will make more sense. But that means every country has to be included and there has to be a global carbon tax (or the equivalent). Nothing else really makes sense. (Well, the rich countries could instead try and add a carbon tax on imported goods from countries without a carbon tax, in addition to having their own carbon tax, but that is just ridiculously complicated to try and implement, since many goods have mixed origin.)

UK supermarkets allegedly selling meat from cruelly raised animals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Large numbers of farm animals including the majority of the UK's Christmas turkeys, are being fattened in cruel conditions, new research shows.

Compassion in World Farming says more than 80% of turkeys sold this year by Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons will have been intensively reared.

But it found overall, supermarkets are improving their welfare policies.

Another BBC story which is just a press release for a special interest pressure group, here Compassion in World Farming. In particular it just accepts at face value that "intensively reared" (by some arbitrary definition) means "cruel". Although evidently the BBC editor that put the story on the web was not quite so sure, since the strap line was "Festive turkeys reared 'cruelly'". And it is evidently not deemed cruel in any legal sense, since no doubt the farms will not be prosecuted.

One can imagine Compassion in World Farming repeating the same press release year after year (or even more frequently, after all, this has nothing to do with Christmas), and so one can imagine the BBC running this same story year after year. It's not very informative, it's just propaganda to try and advance the agenda of the special interest pressure group.

Date published: 2007/12/01

Galileo project seems to be on again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU transport ministers have decided to press on with the multi-billion euro Galileo satellite-navigation project.

The decision was made initially without the support of Spain, but it too finally threw its backing behind the troubled and much delayed venture.

Ministers had until the end of the year to reach an agreement. The system is supposed to be in operation by 2013.

Questions remain about its cost but supporters say it will create jobs and cut dependence on the US GPS service.

"This is going to ensure economic and strategic independence," commented EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot. "Spatial navigation is really an indication of our power amongst the countries of the world."

The EU's executive had previously said that if agreement was not reached by January 2008, the long-troubled project would essentially be dead.

The current crisis was triggered by the collapse earlier in the year of the private consortium asked to build most of Galileo's infrastructure and run its services.

The transport ministers, meeting in Brussels, have now approved a plan to remodel the project, and refinance it solely from the EU budget, using spare - primarily agriculture - funds.

Once the 3.4bn-euro (£2.4bn) Galileo system is up and running, a private group is still likely to be asked to operate the network.

All in all the best way forward (especially if they managed to use agriculture money, whose massive subsidy is one of the worst EU policies). Hopefully the EU will be able to control the cost of the system (unfortunately this is one thing the EU is not very good at).

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