Azara Blog: January 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/01/31

European Parliament wants to outlaw patio heaters (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A call for a ban on outdoor heaters has been backed by the European Parliament.

MEPs voted to endorse a report that says a timetable should be set to phase out patio heaters, as well as standby modes on televisions.

Report author Fiona Hall - a British MEP - says significant steps have to be taken to cut CO2 emissions, and a ban should at least be considered.

But experts disagree about the impact outdoor heaters have on the environment compared with other appliances.

A climate change expert commissioned by the UK's biggest supplier of one of the fuels used by patio heaters, liquefied petroleum gas, Calor, said the overall impact of the heaters on emissions was "very minimal".

Dr Eric Johnson, National Expert Reviewer for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that plasma TVs produced more carbon than patio heaters under normal usage patterns.

But Fiona Hall told the BBC that figures she had seen showed that if a car was run for a year it would emit three tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the figure for an outdoor heater would be four tonnes.

The academic middle class in action. They believe they should tell you how you can and cannot spend your carbon budget. (So what we should have is a carbon tax, and then let people do what they want.) The academic middle class don't like patio heaters, so of course nobody should be able to use patio heaters. Hey, why stop at patio heaters. Let's ban barbecues, and any other outdoor fires. Let's ban newspapers (do they serve any purpose?). Let's ban cinema (definitely no useful purpose). Let's just ban everything that anyone doesn't like. (Well of course the academic middle class won't ban things that they themselves like, it's just things that other people like that they will ban.)

It would be interesting to compare the total annual emissions from all patio heaters in the UK versus the total emissions due to the existence of the European Parliament (so including travel). Not to mention that most citizens of the UK would agree that patio heaters serve more purpose in life than the European Parliament. So if it is "waste" that we are trying to eliminate, let's eliminate the European Parliament.

The UK's emissions allegedly fell a smidgeon last year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK's carbon emissions fell by just 0.1% last year, and the government has admitted it must do more to tackle climate change.

The figures would have been worse if the UK's share of pollution from global flights and shipping had been included.

Analysis of the figures highlights key trends: emissions from homes went down, while road transport emissions went up.

Not only does one year's figures mean very little (but of course the BBC has to report every swing and roundabout) but the way emissions are accounted for are completely incorrect in any case, even ignoring the issue about flights and shipping. So the emissions look at where goods are produced, not where they are consumed. Since almost everything Britain buys these days comes from China, that is a lot of hidden emissions.

Date published: 2008/01/30

Federal Reserve panics (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates for the second time in nine days as it tries to keep the US economy from entering a recession. The central bank lowered rates to 3% from 3.5% after a two-day meeting. Last week, the Fed slashed the cost of borrowing by the largest amount in 25 years in a shock move to calm tumbling global stock markets. The Fed is hoping the cuts will cushion the US economy from the worst effects of the credit crunch and housing slump.

Panic. They don't have an easy job after the stupidity of the Greenspan years (allowing the housing market to go crazy), but a 1.25% reduction in a week does not seem very wise.

Advertising Standards Authority gives Ryanair lots of free publicity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Budget airline Ryanair has been told to withdraw an advert featuring a model in schoolgirl-style clothes and a headline "hottest back to school fares".

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said the "irresponsible" image appeared to link teenage girls with sexually provocative behaviour.

The advert shows the model with a bare midriff in a short skirt, tie, shirt and knee-high socks in a classroom.
The advert, which was printed in three newspapers reaching 3.5 million readers - the Herald, Daily Mail and Scottish Daily Mail - prompted 13 complaints to the ASA from readers who found it offensive.

After an investigation, the watchdog ruled the advert breached the advertising code's rules on social responsibility and decency.
However, the airline said the model's clothing reflected what was currently fashionable among young women and that the number of complaints was insignificant compared to the three newspapers' combined readership.

Ryanair also said its advert was considerably less suggestive than some others appearing in the media.

"It is remarkable that a picture of a fully-clothed model is now claimed to cause 'serious or widespread offence', when many of the UK's leading daily newspapers regularly run pictures of topless or partially-dressed females without causing any serious or widespread offence," said Peter Sherrard, head of communications for the airline.

"This isn't advertising regulation, it is simply censorship. This bunch of unelected self-appointed dimwits are clearly incapable of fairly and impartially ruling on advertising."

Ryanair 1, Fossils at the ASA 0. Unbelievably pathetic, the ASA. But they certainly gave Ryanair lots of free publicity. (Do the members of the ASA own shares in Ryanair? The way they behave you would think they must.)

Date published: 2008/01/29

Government claims it wants a "debate" on electoral "reform" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government says it wants a debate on the voting system at general elections - including a possible move to proportional representation.

Justice Minister Michael Wills backed the current "first-past-the-post" system after the publication last week of a review of various alternatives.

But he told MPs he hoped it would stimulate debate on the issue.

Critics say the minister is keeping the door open for a deal with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.

Of the three main parties, only the Liberal Democrats are committed to proportional representation at Westminster, which it says is fairer than first past the post.

How quaint. The BBC is willing to be semi-honest about the motives of Labour, but is completely dishonest about the motives of the Lib Dems. The "Liberal Democrats are committed to proportional representation at Westminster" because they would end up with more seats. As with most things in life (e.g. taxes), the word "fairer" in this context means "we will do better out of it". The Lib Dems, not the party of principle (then again, neither are any of the others).

Tory millionaire wants to force UK to hold a referendum on EU treaty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A legal bid to force the UK to hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty has been launched by spread-betting millionaire Stuart Wheeler.

Mr Wheeler, a prominent Conservative Party donor, told the BBC he had issued a "letter before the claim" to Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown has rejected a public vote on the treaty as he says it does not change the UK constitution.

But Mr Wheeler says he wants a judicial review of the PM's decision.

Mr Wheeler has sent the letter to Mr Brown giving notice of the claim and expects to have a court hearing to decide on his request for a judicial review.

He said he expected to get permission for the review and had been told that the EU treaty - now known as the Lisbon Treaty - could not be ratified while a review was pending.

Hopefully Wheeler will be laughed out of court. Hopefully he will be left with a very large legal bill. He obviously has too much money, and nothing to do with his time. It should be up to Parliament to decide if there is a referendum, not some crackpot. Does David Cameron support this crackpot, or does he support Parliament?

Being lazy allegedly makes your genes age more quickly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Leading a sedentary lifestyle may make us genetically old before our time, a study suggests.

A study of twins found those who were physically active during their leisure time appeared biologically younger than their sedentary peers.

The researchers found key pieces of DNA called telomeres shortened more quickly in inactive people. It is thought that could signify faster cellular ageing.
An active lifestyle has been linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

However, the latest research suggests that inactivity not only makes people more vulnerable to disease, but may actually speed up the ageing process itself.

The King's team studied 2,401 white twins, asking them to fill out questionnaires on their level of physical activity, and taking a blood sample from which DNA was extracted.

They particularly focused on telomeres, the repeat sequences of DNA that sit on the ends of chromosomes, protecting them from damage.

As people age, their telomeres become shorter, leaving cells more susceptible to damage and death.

Examining white blood cells from the immune system in particular, the researchers found that, on average, telomeres lost 21 component parts - called nucleotides - every year.

But men and women who were less physically active in their leisure time had shorter leukocyte telomeres compared to those who were more active.

The average telomere length in those who took the least amount of exercise - 16 minutes of physical activity a week - was 200 nucleotides shorter than those who took the most exercise - 199 minutes of physical activity a week, such as running, tennis or aerobics.

Yes, but is this significant? Even worse, it's confusing correlation and causation. Presumably, if they could have been bothered, the researchers could have correlated the results with all kinds of things: drinking beer, watching football, going to the cinema, reading books, etc. No doubt, there are hundreds of papers just waiting to be written, all equally pointless.

Date published: 2008/01/28

EU says governments are failing on energy efficiency of housing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European governments and the European Commission are being urged to hasten the development of housing that produces no greenhouse gases.

The European Energy Network (ENR), which includes energy advisory bodies across the EU, says better enforcement of green building codes is also needed.

Less than a quarter of EU states have introduced certification schemes for houses, as required under EU law.
"One implication of our findings is that the European Commission needs to take some leadership and set a timetable for all new buildings around Europe to be zero-carbon," said Philip Sellwood, chief executive of Britain's Energy Saving Trust (EST), an ENR member.
Britain has introduced energy performance certificates and set a target of building only zero-carbon homes from 2016.

Even so, Mr Sellwood says the government has not set up the support mechanisms needed to encourage householders to invest in energy saving measures.

"In the UK, the average home has the potential to save £300 per year by just installing the most effective measures such as loft insulation and modern heating controls," said Mr Sellwood.

"Energy supply companies are under an obligation to help their customers become more energy efficient; but lots of householders don't trust their energy companies.

The article conflates two issues. The first is the idea that new houses should be "zero carbon". The second is the question of how to improve the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock.

Of course a "zero carbon" house is not zero carbon. A lot of carbon is emitted in the construction of the house. Hopefully only a small amount extra compared to a conventional house so that the long run savings more than makes up for the additional up-front cost. And "zero carbon" must be mainly about space heating (and even here it relies on people behaving the way the house designers think they should behave, e.g. with the level of the thermostat). People have an ever increasing number of electronic gadgets in the house, and this could easily swamp any savings made from heating.

Although "zero carbon" houses could be considered a great idea, they will make very little difference in the next 50 or 100 years, because of the huge amount of existing houses. To make existing houses significantly more energy efficient is not only more of a challenge, it is much more relevant in the medium term. And Sellwood is correct, "lots of householders don't trust their energy companies". But even more importantly, lots of householders don't trust builders. How many builders will try to sell unnecessary "improvements" to people in order to make a quick buck? Indeed, how many builders are so incompetent or crooked that the "improvements" will actually make the situation worse? Unless governments can somehow sort out this issue, householders will understandably be very reluctant to do anything substantive.

Caffeine allegedly increases blood sugar levels for type 2 diabetics (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Daily consumption of caffeine in coffee, tea or soft drinks increases blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes, research suggests.

Caffeine pills equivalent to four cups of coffee a day increased blood sugar levels by 8% over the day, US researchers report in Diabetes Care.

Cutting caffeine out of the diet may help diabetics control their blood sugar levels, the team said.

But UK experts said more research was needed before advice could be given.

The ten people who took part in the study were monitored with a tiny glucose monitor embedded under the skin.

The device meant that the researchers could track the effects of caffeine over 72-hours as the patients with type 2 diabetes went about their normal lives.
In the diabetic patients, who took caffeine pills on one day and a placebo the next, caffeine caused blood sugar levels to rise.
Cathy Moulton, care advisor at Diabetes UK, said: "Although this is interesting research, the study only examines a sample of 10 people for a 72-hour period, which proves very little.

"More research is needed before we ask people with diabetes to stop drinking coffee.

"The best way to control glucose levels is through healthy eating and exercise."

As Moulton says, the result so far is of limited scope, but it is interesting.

Date published: 2008/01/27

Obama wins South Carolina by a landslide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has secured a decisive win in the South Carolina primary election, as he bids to be the Democratic Party's candidate.

The Illinois senator beat his main rival, Hillary Clinton by 55% to 27%, with John Edwards third on 18%.

The result is a boost for Mr Obama's campaign ahead of Super Tuesday on 5 February, when 24 states vote for who they want to run for US president.
Smiling broadly as he greeted supporters at a victory rally in the state capital, Columbia, Mr Obama delivered a rousing message of unity and hope.

"The choice in this election is not about regions or religions or genders," he said. "It's not about rich versus poor, young versus old and it is not about black versus white.

"This election is about the past versus the future."

All three leading Democrat candidates are way, way, way better than any of the leading Republican candidates (who unbelievably make Bush look good). But the idea that the South Carolina contest was not about "black versus white" is plainly incorrect. 80% of black people voted for the black candidate. 80% of white people voted for one of the two white candidates. The South Carolina contest was pretty clearly about race, more than anything else.

Date published: 2008/01/26

One possible explanation of why there has been no bird flu pandemic (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists say they have identified a key reason why bird flu has so far not posed a widespread menace to humans.

So far, the H5N1 strain has mainly infected birds and poultry workers, but experts fear the virus could mutate to pass easily from human to human.

However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that to enter human respiratory cells the virus must first pick a very specific type of lock.
Flu viruses attack by binding sugar chains, called glycans, that line the airways and lungs.

The chemical linkages between the sugar molecules in these chains differ between humans and birds.

Until now it has been assumed that bird flu viruses would be adapt to humans simply by acquiring mutations that enable them to attach to the human types.

But Dr Ram Sasisekharan and colleagues found this step depends on the shape assumed by the flexible sugar chains rather than the type of linkage.

Bird flu viruses currently require cone-shaped glycans to infect birds, so the umbrella shape found in humans has protected most of us from avian flu.

This suggests that for the H5N1 bird flu virus to become pandemic it must adapt so that it can latch onto the umbrella-shaped glycans of the human upper respiratory tract.
Professor Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, said: "This new work shows that there are sublevels of sugar that the virus prefers to use to get into cells and the authors suggest this is a significant factor in why H5N1 has not yet spread to humans.

"It provides a finer level of analysis than has been done so far but it is likely that other factors, like the reduced temperate of the human upper airway, also are involved."

Interesting as far as it goes. Even more interesting is that a year or two ago we were told there was going to be an imminent global pandemic killing millions if not tens of millions of people. It certainly seems less likely now. (Of course some pandemic will eventually happen. That's just the way nature is.)

Date published: 2008/01/25

Taking the contraceptive pill allegedly decreases the risk of ovarian cancer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

At least 100,000 deaths from ovarian cancer have been prevented worldwide by the contraceptive pill over 50 years, research has concluded.

The Oxford University team said the pill's rising popularity meant 30,000 new cases will soon be avoided each year, the Lancet reported.

The findings were based on analysis of 45 previous studies.

Calls for the pill to be available without prescription were strengthened by the study, the Lancet's editor said.
The relationship between the contraceptive pill and cancer is not all good news - there have been fears about short-term increases in the risk of breast and cervical cancer.

But researcher Sir Richard Peto said that young women did not have to worry about this risk.

"The eventual reduction in ovarian cancer is bigger than any increase in other types of cancer caused by the pill," he said.

Well, at least the article partly addressed the issue that although the pill might be good for one cancer, it might be bad for others. It is rather silly just to look at one thing in isolation. But in any case, the cancer issues are of course not the main point of the pill (unless the pill happened to make some form of cancer very prevalant). The main point of the pill is to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The benefit from that far outweighs any other consideration, and it is rather unbelievable how much time and effort is spent on these cancer studies.

And presumably these 45 studies, as most health studies, have found some kind of correlation, but of course correlation is not the same thing as causation. (To do a proper study one would have to randomly put some women on the pill and some not and see what the outcome was, but of course that study will never be done, because it would be irresponsible.)

Date published: 2008/01/24

Another step forward in creating life from scratch (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An important step has been taken in the quest to create a synthetic lifeform.

A US team reports in Science magazine how it built in the lab the entire set of genetic instructions needed to drive a bacterial cell.

The group hopes eventually to use engineered genomes to make organisms that can produce clean fuels and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Publication of the research gives others the chance to scrutinise it. Some have ethical concerns.

These critics have been calling for several years now for a debate on the risks of creating "artificial life" in a test tube.

But Dr Hamilton Smith, who was part of the Science study, said the team regarded its lab-made genome - a laboratory copy of the DNA used by the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium - as a step towards synthetic, rather than artificial, life.

He told BBC News: "We like to distinguish synthetic life from artificial life.

"With synthetic life, we're re-designing the cell chromosomes; we're not creating a whole new artificial life system."

The distinction Smith is trying to make between "synthetic" and "artificial" life is rather artificial. Instead of making poor excuses to appease the naysayers, he should just be noting that it's another great step forward for biologists.

And of course some people "have ethical concerns". Some members of the academic middle class have concerns about everything, especially new technology, because they are stuck somewhere long in the past (usually 1850 or before). Fortunately, as with all other technology, they will not be able to prevent the world from moving forward (although they might be able to prevent it happening in certain countries).

American Geophysical Union makes a silly statement on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's climate is "clearly out of balance and is warming", the world's largest society of Earth and space scientists has said in a statement.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) warned that changes to the Earth's climate system were "not natural".

Changes in temperature, sea level and rainfall were best explained by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities, it added.

The union called for carbon emissions to be cut by more than 50% by 2100.

It is one thing to state that various geophysical phenomena are due to "human activities". (Most sane people believe this.) It is quite another to make the ridiculous claim that these changes are "not natural". Of course they are "natural", since humans are part of nature (last time anyone bothered checking). Some people might not like this inconvenient truth, but that's the way it is.

And "out of balance" is another rather silly phrase. The AGU of all people ought to realise that the world is never in any kind of equilibrium, and the idea that there is some kind of magic equilibrium which the world should be in is just plain naive. You can easily claim that climate change might be dangerous to humans (never mind other species). But "out of balance" is a meaningless phrase. The AGU should learn to be a bit more precise with its language.

As for the call "for carbon emissions to be cut by more than 50% by 2100", the AGU is rather behind the game on that one as well. Even many Republicans would say 60% by 2050.

And these scientists expect to be treated seriously?

Date published: 2008/01/23

EU officially announces "low carbon" policy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has announced "historic" plans to make Europe "the first economy for the low-carbon age".

He said Europeans wanted "a vision and a plan of action" against climate change and the measures would cost 3 euros (£2.10) a week for every citizen.

The aim would be a 20% cut in the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, which could rise to 30% with a global deal.

He told the European Parliament there was a cost, "but it was manageable".

Mr Barroso put the figure at 60bn euros a year until 2020: "a real commitment, but not a bad deal." It would mean a rise in electricity prices of 10-15% but there would be less reliance on energy imports.

He said work had to start to cut global emissions in half by 2050 and he said Europe could lead the way.

Addressing business critics who have complained that the proposals might drive industry away from the European Union, the commission president said energy-intensive industries would be given emission allowances free of charge.

He told MEPs the package was "not in favour of the environment and against the economy".

"We don't want to export our jobs to other parts of the world," he said.
The commission's proposals would see the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) extended to include more industrial sectors in the years between 2013 and 2020.

Apart from a few exempt industries, the power sector would lose the right to free emission allocations and have to buy all its permits at auction from 2013. Aviation and other industries would move gradually to a full auction.

Companies' carbon allowances would be decided at European level, replacing the current system where nations submit bids to the commission.

The aim would be to reduce allowances so that by 2020, emissions from the sectors included would be about 21% below the level they were when the ETS started in 2005.

For emissions not covered by the ETS, such as transport, buildings and agriculture, the commission has proposed national targets.

Richer nations would have to cut their emissions: the target for Denmark and the Irish Republic is a 20% reduction and the UK's is 16%. The poorest would be allowed to increase emissions, Bulgaria by 20% and Romania by 19%.

Each country has been given a national target for renewable energy.

The UK's is 15%. Sweden which already has a thriving renewables industry has been given a tougher figure of 49%.
The target of powering 10% of Europe's road transport with biofuels has been retained.

But the Commission has drawn up a set of criteria designed to ensure the fuels used bring carbon savings of at least 35% compared to petrol or diesel, without causing other environmental problems.

Nothing here that hasn't been widely trailed in the media already. But Barroso is just speaking rubbish on a key point. He says "we don't want to export our jobs to other parts of the world", but the way the EU is going about this gives every incentive for countries to export jobs in carbon intensive industries. If you make steel in your own country, the EU claims you are a high carbon emitter. If you import steel made in China or India, the EU claims you are a low carbon emitter. It's complete nonsense, and is because the EU (and most of the rest of the world, for that matter) is fixated on counting emissions where they are produced, rather than where the goods (or services) are consumed. This is a fundamental flaw in the entire system of accounting, and means that the real carbon emissions of the EU could actually even rise, rather than fall (although this is unlikely). The fact that the targets are just semi-randomly chosen from country to country and from industry to industry just further goes to show how bad the entire procedure is.

And the biofuels target for road transport is just plain silly. Is there even any current large-scale biofuel that actually meets their criteria? And you can just imagine that the EU is going to have to hire zillions of consultants to assess whether every source of biofuel is, or is not, bringing "carbon savings of at least 35% compared to petrol or diesel without causing other environmental problems". Another N million euros down the drain.

Government is wasting money on an anti-obesity campaign (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A £372m strategy aimed at cutting levels of obesity in England has been launched by the government.

The strategy includes £75m for an "aggressive" campaign to promote healthy living to parents.

Several "healthy towns" will be created at a cost of £30m with comprehensive cycle routes and pedestrian areas.

Ministers said measures could potentially include offering obese people vouchers for gyms as an incentive to exercise.

First of all the article does not identify what all the alleged 372 million pounds is being spent on, so that figure is probably just made up to sound high, and it is ridiculously high unless they can more than save that money as a consequence. That seems unlikely, since in particular, the 75 million pounds being spent on an "aggressive" campaign is just 75 million pounds being spent on marketing and spin, and it will almost certainly be a complete waste of money. It's no wonder the government is running such a huge budget deficit, it seems incapable of not throwing zillions of pounds at useless consultancies and spin merchants, all with very little to show for it. (Have no fear, the next Tory government will waste money in even more imaginative ways.)

Date published: 2008/01/22

Another pointless education report, this time on ethnic minority students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Universities need to act urgently to ensure ethnic minority students are not discriminated against, a report argues.

Government statistics show students from minority ethnic groups are less likely than their white peers to achieve top marks in their degrees.

The report said the exact reasons for this were complex and hard to identify.
The top three reasons that those surveyed gave for differential attainment were the need to undertake paid employment while studying, social class and prior family background of university.

But the researchers also said racism and ethnic discrimination in society was an important, but hard to quantify, issue affecting progression and attainment of students.

The top three reasons of those surveyed sound eminently reasonable, and no doubt could have been determined after three seconds thought without doing any expensive research. Unfortunately the researchers have decided to inject a hint of racism into their analysis because either that is their bias or the bias of the people who paid for this work, or because it makes it more likely that the (anti-university) media will pick up the story. The UK should stop wasting money on this kind of pointless research and instead spend the money on education.

Broccoli allegedly protects against heart disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Eating broccoli may protect against heart disease, US research suggests.

Rats were fed an extract of the vegetable for a month, and the effect on their heart muscle was measured.

Compared with animals whose diet did not change, the hearts of the broccoli rats functioned better and displayed less damage when deprived of oxygen.

At least these researchers have (presumably) used a randomised sample, since their subjects were rats rather than people. So at least they have probably observed a real causal effect. On the other hand, rats are not people, so the odds that the results would perfectly reflect what happens in humans are not that high. And did they give the rats a reasonable amount of broccoli or stuff them silly?

Needless to say, this research suffers from the usual health research problem that they are looking at one thing in isolation. Broccoli might be good for heart disease. It might be bad for a zillion and one other things. This kind of research is rather pointless unless it can be used to pinpoint a physiological effect.

Surprise, men drink more than women (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Men are drinking twice as much alcohol as women, figures for 2006 suggest.

Data from the Office for National Statistics suggest men drink an average of 18.7 units a week, compared with 9.0 units for women.
The figures also suggest that alcohol consumption is higher among the middle classes.
The figures - the first to use a new method of assessing intake - suggest that overall alcohol consumption may be in decline.

The researchers warn that it is not possible to make direct comparisons between data assessed under the old and new methods.

Surprise, men drink more than women, who would have thought it. And how dreadful, rich poeple drink more than poor people. And then the BBC gives the wonderful punch line "overall alcohol consumption may be in decline". So this is a complete non-story, then. Given the way the entire article is phrased, it seems likely that the quality of the underlying data is also suspect. For one thing, it is based on surveys, which can be skewed by inaccurate and dishonest reporting. Unfortunately, now that the academic middle class control freaks have successfully persecuted smokers, they have moved onto other targets for their control freakery: obese people and drinkers.

Date published: 2008/01/21

Caffeine is allegedly linked with miscarriages in early pregnancy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pregnant women should consider avoiding caffeine, say researchers who found even moderate consumption in early pregnancy raises the miscarriage risk.

Currently, the Food Standards Agency sets an upper limit during pregnancy of 300mg - or four cups of coffee a day.

But an American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology study found more than 200mg of caffeine a day doubled the risk compared to abstainers.
For the latest research, Dr De-Kun Li and colleagues at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, studied 1,063 women who had become pregnant in the last month or two.

They asked the women to provide a detailed diary about their caffeine intake up to their 20th week of pregnancy.

When they compared this information with how many of the women had miscarried by 20 weeks gestation, 172 of the women in total, they found a link.

Compared with non-users, women who consumed up to 200mg of caffeine a day had an increased risk of miscarriage - 15% versus 12%.

For women who drank more than 200mg, the risk increased to 25%.

A classic confusion of correlation and causation, so the research, like most health-related research, really proves nothing. It's a very easy game to play. You come up with a list of things you don't like. You come of with a list of negative effects. You have a bunch of people fill in a questionnaire asking about both lists. You look for correlations. You are bound to find some. You publish your correlations. The BBC and other media pick up the story and forget that it is a correlation and imply it must be a causation. You get publicity and money to do more research. Is it at all surprising that nobody does health studies properly (with random samples) when you can be perpetually funded for doing such weak research? Of course here there could be a causation, as in theory there could be a causation whenever there is a correlation. It's just that the researchers have no evidence there is a causation, so the wink, wink, nudge, nudge implication that there is a causation is just wrong.

Mobile phone use allegedly makes it harder to get to deep sleep (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Using a mobile phone before going to bed could stop you getting a decent night's sleep, research suggests.

The study, funded by mobile phone companies, suggests radiation from the handset can cause insomnia, headaches and confusion.

It may also cut our amount of deep sleep - interfering with the body's ability to refresh itself.

The study was carried out by Sweden's Karolinska Institute and Wayne State University in the US.

Funded by the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, the scientists studied 35 men and 36 women aged between 18 and 45.

Some were exposed to radiation equivalent to that received when using a mobile phone, others were placed in the same conditions, but given only "sham" exposure.

Those exposed to radiation took longer to enter the first of the deeper stages of sleep, and spent less time in the deepest one.

The scientists concluded: "The study indicates that during laboratory exposure to 884 MHz wireless signals components of sleep believed to be important for recovery from daily wear and tear are adversely affected."

Researcher Professor Bengt Arnetz said: "The study strongly suggests that mobile phone use is associated with specific changes in the areas of the brain responsible for activating and coordinating the stress system."

Another theory is that radiation may disrupt production of the hormone melatonin, which controls the body's internal rhythms.

About half the people in the study believed themselves to be "electrosensitive", reporting symptoms such as headaches and impaired cognitive function from mobile phone use.

But they proved to be unable to tell if they had been exposed to the radiation in the test.
Mike Dolan, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association, said the study was inconsistent with other research.

He said: "It is really one small piece in a very large scientific jigsaw. It is a very small effect, one researcher likened it to less than the effect you would see from a cup of coffee."

Last September a major six-year study by the UK Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHRP) concluded that mobile phone use posed no short-term risk to the brain.

However, the researchers said they could not rule out the possibility that long-term use may raise the risk of cancer.

Wow, a real study which seems to have a real (causal, rather than correlated) negative health effect from using mobile phones. Unfortunately, the Karolinska Institute has a track record of producing anti-mobile-phone studies (where previously the effect discovered was irrelevant), and (pretty much) nobody else ever does.

And the study has a ridiculously small sample. And half of the people in the study were pretty much proven to be hypochondriacs, so not really very representative of the general public (although the claim seems to be that there was no difference between them and the other people in the study, although this is not stated explicitly).

And unfortunately the BBC fails to state how near to sleep this radiation was given. And unfortunately the BBC fails to state how long the radiation was given.

So one has to take this all with a pinch of salt. Perhaps a larger study will be done, and by someone else. And a real physiological effect ought to be proven, not just hand-waving.

MPs also don't like biofuels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The EU should abandon its biofuels targets because they are damaging the environment, a committee of MPs says.

The Environmental Audit Committee says biofuels are ineffective at cutting greenhouse gases and can be expensive.
The report comes in the week the EU launches a huge, over-arching climate change strategy which includes rules aimed at reducing damage from biofuels.

In a draft, the EU admits that the current target of 5.75% biofuels on the roads by 2010 is unlikely to be achieved. But it maintains its target of 10% road biofuel by 2020.

It states that in future biofuels should not be grown on forest land, wetland - including peat - or permanent grassland, a move that will please critics.

The EU will also stipulate that biofuels should achieve a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings.

But these figures have been contested, and it looks as though the calculation will exclude the carbon released by disturbing soil when the biofuels are planted. That would prove very controversial.

It is also unclear how the EU will ensure that its biofuels production on agricultural land does not push up food prices or displace food production, forcing local communities or agri-businesses into felling virgin forest to grow crops.

Nothing new here, it's just MPs jumping on the anti-biofuels bandwagon, long after everyone else has pointed out the same thing. The EU policy is quite clearly disasterous.

Date published: 2008/01/20

Nick Clegg launches cowardly attack on the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has launched an attack on the way the NHS is run, describing it as a service in "crisis".

In his first major television interview since becoming leader, Mr Clegg said: "It is one of the most unequal health services in the modern world."
The Lib Dems would introduce locally elected health boards, Mr Clegg told the Andrew Marr show, and if patients' needs were not met they would be able to have private treatment paid for by the NHS.
He said the "great crisis" in the NHS is that after 10 years of "unprecedented" spending, it was full of inequalities because of the centralised "top down" way in which it is managed.

"If only the National Health Service was a national health service.

"It is one of the most unequal health services in the modern world.

"In Sheffield, the city where I'm an MP, if you are a child born in the poorest ward in Sheffield, you will die, today in 2008, 14 years before a child born five miles down the road in the wealthiest ward and the Health Service, the National Health Service, isn't providing equitable outcome.

If this is the best argument Clegg can make, he should quit now before he makes a further fool of himself. No institution in the world produces "equitable outcome" if by "equitable outcome" you mean that all social classes have to have the same outcome, no matter what. Most people would deem it "equitable" if everyone were given equal opportunities in life, not if everyone ends up in exactly the same situation as everyone else.

And it is not the fault of the NHS that poor people do worse in life. Poor people just do worse. Period. Perhaps the Lib Dems believe the government can magically socially engineer the universe so that poor people do not end up at the bottom of the pile and that rich people do. Funnily enough, Clegg's brilliant "solution" to the "problem", namely to "introduce locally elected health boards", would make no difference whatsoever to any social divide.

Of course Clegg is one of those spoiled rich people who has done very well in life because of the situation he was born into, rather than because he has any talent, so perhaps this speech is just an attempt to pretend that he can slum it with the best. If he wants to condemn his own privilege in life, and admit that he got where he is because of who his parents were, then let him do so, rather than cowardly attacking the NHS. If Britain had a few less upper class twits in parliament and a few more people with brains, the world would be a better place.

MPs produce a pointless report about the Lisbon Treaty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parts of the Lisbon Treaty, signed by Gordon Brown last month, are no different from the abandoned EU Constitution, a report by MPs has said.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said foreign policy in the treaty was the same as in the constitution, on which Labour promised a referendum.

It also accused the government of publicly downplaying the importance of some new EU institutions and roles.

Ministers argue no referendum is needed as the treaty is not constitutional.
But shadow foreign secretary William Hague, speaking on BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend, said the treaty was widely seen as being "90% or 95% the same" as the failed EU constitution, on which all parties had promised a vote.

"I see it as a very straightforward issue of trust in politics. And one of the ways of restoring trust in politics is to hold that referendum," said Mr Hague.

It's hard to know who is more pathetic, the government, the MPs or the Tories. Nobody ever said the treaty had no common parts with the abandoned EU Constitution. You can argue about whether it has changed enough to be deemed to be "very" different, but that's a completely irrelevant discussion, you might as well be arguing about how many angels dance on the head of a pin. The Tories, trying to make this an issue of trust, are completely showing why nobody trusts them. They do not really care about the referendum, they just don't like the treaty. If they were honest they would say "We don't like the treaty and would like to defeat it. We do not have a majority in the Commons behind us, so we want a referendum because we know the people of Britain would turn down the treaty. (If there was a good chance they would vote for the treaty, we would of course not want a referendum.)" See, that's not difficult, but of course it doesn't make the Tories look high and mighty. But lying about what they want doesn't make the Tories look high and mighty either. And yes, the government (stupidly) promised a referendum about the constitution, and now they don't want to hold any referendum on the EU because they would lose (any vote, it doesn't matter the subject). So they are also not very honest. And the MPs are not much better, wasting time and money on this pointless report.

Why is Britain incapable of holding a debate about the merits of the treaty, rather than about this pathetic question about a referendum? You can guarantee that 99% of the country doesn't know a single issue raised in the treaty, but you can also guarantee that most of the country would be willing to vote it down because it is allegedly bad.

Date published: 2008/01/19

Medicinal plants are at risk of extinction (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of medicinal plants are at risk of extinction, threatening the discovery of future cures for disease, according to experts.

Over 50% of prescription drugs are derived from chemicals first identified in plants.

But the Botanic Gardens Conservation International said many were at risk from over-collection and deforestation.
They identified 400 plants that were at risk of extinction.
Many of the chemicals from the at-risk plants are now created in the lab.

Well, millions of species are at risk of extinction, so it pretty obviously follows from this that hundreds (well, no doubt tens of thousands) of medicinal plants are also at risk of extinction. But at least they have done some work, since they have explicitly identified 400 plants, rather than just making the usual end-of-the-world political point.

The sea is rising (surprise, even in the Mediterranean) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The level of the Mediterranean Sea is rising rapidly and could increase by up to half a metre in the next 50 years, scientists in Spain have warned.

A study by the Spanish Oceanographic Institute says levels have been rising since the 1970s with the rate of increase growing in recent years.

It says even a small rise could have serious consequences in coastal areas.

The study noted that the findings were consistent with other investigations into the effects of climate change.

The study, entitled Climate Change in the Spanish Mediterranean, said the sea had risen "between 2.5mm and 10mm (0.1 and 0.4in) per year since the 1990s".

If the trend continued it would have "very serious consequences" in low-lying coastal areas even in the case of a small rise, and "catastrophic consequences" if a half-metre increase occurred, the study warned.

Scientists noted that sea temperatures had also risen significantly by 0.12 to 0.5C since the 1970s.

Nothing new here. The question is, is anybody on the coast taking any of these predictions seriously? Probably not.

Date published: 2008/01/18

Another silly report on schools (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

School catchment areas should be banned to stop richer parents buying their way into good schools through the housing market, researchers have said.

Admissions policies favour parents who know how to use school information like league tables and those who can afford to pick where they live, they add.

The University of London team argued this was partly why the current system exacerbated existing inequalities.

This is a perfectly good example why all people who work in this area, such as the brilliant "University of London team" that produced this report, should just be sacked, and the money diverted to a good use, like say education.

When a parent moves to Cambridge (or anywhere else) they ask their colleagues at work what the good (and bad) schools are. They get more, and more useful, information this way than from any government league table, which in any case miss 95% of what is important. A week or two after you have moved to Cambridge, you know where your kids should be going to school. And funnily enough the areas with the best schools also have the best houses (another reason why they are expensive). Who would have thought.

And it is eternally depressing that all these "researchers", and politicians as well, spend all their time and effort trying to figure out ways to screw the middle class, rather than improve all schools.

Whatever, these "researchers" should all be forced to send their kids to sink schools, if they think that the middle class (and these "researchers" are all very middle class) have been having their own way for far too long. Let these people suffer the crap they are trying to thrust upon others.

So-called campaigners complain about EU carbon policy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Green groups have accused the European Union of planning for failure in global climate change negotiations.

Europe's leaders promised last year to cut greenhouse gases by 20% by the end of the next decade, or by 30% if other big polluters made similar efforts.

But a draft document seen by BBC News shows that the European Commission is asking member states to just plan for the lower figure for the time being.

Campaigners say the lower target could harm the EU's leadership on the issue.

A storm in a teacup. The so-called "campaigners" are people who have nothing better to do with their lives than complain about everything. So if the EU said they were aiming for 50% the "campaigners" would yell that instead we had to aim for 70%. This fixation with targets is not the way to move forward in any case. What we need is a global carbon tax. That way we don't need the EU to commit economic suicide with some random target just to please a bunch of "campaigners".

Date published: 2008/01/17

Government blames schools rather than itself for admission problems (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some schools in England may be breaking the law in the way they admit pupils, despite the introduction of new rules last year, the government has said.

Schools Minister Jim Knight said not all children had been given an equal chance of getting into a school of their choice this September.

Councils who failed to prevent this have been warned they may have flouted the new admissions code themselves.

Mr Knight said "covert admission practices" penalised poorer families.

The independent Office of the School Adjudicator, which regulates the admission system, investigated objections against 79 schools last year where admission criteria and practices had breached legislation or the code.

Some heads had asked to see parents' marriage certificates, while others invited parents to an interview - a practice banned under the new code.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said other examples of law-breaking by admission authorities included not giving the highest priority to children in care and even asking the order in which parents had ranked their school choices.

And who should be blamed for this situation? The schools, stuck between a rock and a hard place? Or the government, who promised parents that their children could go to the school of their choice, which was obviously a complete lie? (As is apparent, it is not the choice of the parents, it is the choice of the school.) And what does the government propose to do? Not make the situation better (by making sure more schools are good) but instead try and figure out a way to screw the middle class, who (not surprisingly) have a very good track record at getting their children into good schools. (Needless to say, government ministers and their children will not be amongst the middle class families who are screwed.) This would all be laughable were it not so serious. When will the UK have a political party that has an education policy that does not just involve screwing the middle class, and even the working class for that matter (since only the bottom of the pile ever gets any attention, and most working class children will continue to end up in crap schools)?

David Miliband patronises the Russians (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband has described Russia's actions against the British Council as "reprehensible" and a "stain" on the country's reputation.

He said council staff had been grilled by Russian security services on issues including their family pets' health.

Such actions were "not worthy of a great country", he said, reading out EU and US messages of support for Britain.

The council has suspended work at two Russian offices, saying "intimidation" made it impossible to continue.

Tensions have been growing since Russia refused to allow Britain to extradite a Russian businessman on suspicion of murdering a former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, in London in November 2006.
In a statement to MPs, Mr Miliband expressed "anger and dismay" at Russia's actions.
"We saw similar actions during the Cold War but frankly thought they had been put behind us," he told MPs.

"I think the whole House will agree such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country, and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates, notably international law"

He said the Russian foreign minister had made it clear that its "attacks" on the British Council "were linked" to the Litvinenko case.
He had decided not to take similar actions against Russian activities in the UK - such as masterpieces scheduled for show at the Royal Academy - and said the British Council would continue its work in Moscow.

He added: "Russia's actions against the British Council are a stain on Russian's reputation and standing."

Everybody knows that the Russian government is unsavoury (at best) and was probably involved somehow in the Litvinenko murder. But the British government has handled the situation extremely badly from day one. In particular, instead of resolving this quietly, government to government, they had to endlessly blab to the media about how dreadful the Russians were. And the statement by Miliband today is more of the same, and extremely patronising to boot.

And gee whiz, he's not going to send back the masterpieces being shown at the RA (which is of cultural benefit to the British, not the Russians, needless to say). The Russians will laugh at that joke, and fortunately the work is already here, otherwise this pathetic bear baiting might have provoked a reaction.

The British Council should only be in places where the host country is happy to have it. If any country, for whatever reason, good or bad, does not want it, the British Council should obviously leave. We do not have a British Empire any more, where the British can tell the rest of the world where to get off, although Miliband evidently thinks we still do and can.

UK allows two groups to create human-animal embryos for research (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Regulators in the UK have given scientists the green light to create human-animal embryos for research.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority granted permission after a consultation showed the public were "at ease" with the idea.

Experts said it was vital for research into life-threatening diseases.

Two centres, King's College London and Newcastle University, will now be able to begin their work under one-year research licences.

Any other centres wishing to do similar work will have to apply to the HFEA for permission, which will make a decision on a case-b-case basis.

Good news for the world. But it's unfortunate that they always have to hype this stuff (and all other biotechnology that has any relationship whatsoever with medical matters), because nothing ever lives up to the hype. The impact on "life-threatening diseases", if any, will be far down the road.

Date published: 2008/01/16

Another end-of-the-world report on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change is having a major impact on Britain's coast, the seas around the coast, and the life in those seas, a government-sponsored report concludes.

The Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) says seas are becoming more violent, causing coastal erosion and a higher risk of flooding.

Higher CO2 levels in the atmosphere are making oceans warmer and more acidic, affecting plankton, fish and birds.

2006 was the second warmest year in coastal waters since records began.

Nothing new here and you have to wonder why anyone even bothers publishing these kinds of reports. And of course, as always, there can never be any benefits from climate change, only negatives. By some miracle, the planet was in a state of climatic perfection until 1800.

European Commission does not want to lose face over carbon emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso says there will be no compromise on plans for EU countries to cut carbon emissions.

He was speaking to the European Parliament after a number of countries complained about targets due to be made public by the commission next week.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has warned Brussels against "penalising unnecessarily" the prospects of growth.

Mr Barroso said the EU should "put our money where our mouth is".

"Do not expect us to compromise on European interests," he said.

"Both our international credibility and credibility before European Union citizens depend on fulfilment of the targets."

The new targets are aimed at cutting levels of carbon dioxide by 20% and raising the proportion of renewable energy to 20% by 2020.

Other countries are also understood to have objected to the proposals and business groups fear there could be a knock-on effect for European companies.

Let's see, the entire EU stance on carbon emissions is now driven by the fact that the European Commission does not want to lose face. What a great reason for doing something. And when Barroso says that he does not want "to compromise on European interests" he means "European Commission interests", since it is pretty clear that in this area the European Commission is not considering the interests of the citizens of Europe at all.

Date published: 2008/01/15

FDA approves production of food derived from cloned animals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US government has given the green light to the production and marketing of foods derived from cloned animals.

After six years of study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that meat and milk from cloned pigs, cattle and goats and their offspring is safe.

Lack of data meant the agency could not reach a decision on sheep products.

The FDA does not expect to see a lot of products from cloned animals being sold now, because of cost. It expects clones would first be used for breeding.

The agency released almost identical draft conclusions in December 2006. Since then, new scientific information has strengthened its central view.

"After reviewing additional data and the public comments in the intervening year since the release of our draft documents on cloning, we conclude that meat and milk from cattle, swine, and goat clones are as safe as the food we eat every day," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The FDA will not require food derived from cloned animals to be labelled as such.

The agency was criticised by activist groups and by US politicians who were not convinced that enough scientific data was available to justify a decision.

"The FDA has acted recklessly, and I am profoundly disappointed in their rush to approve cloned foods," said Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, co-sponsor of a bill amendment passed by the US Senate which asked the FDA not to rule until further research was available.

"Just because something was created in a lab, doesn't mean we should have to eat it."
US authorities do not expect to see a wave of products derived from cloned animals on the shelves immediately.

Creating a clone is far more expensive than breeding animals conventionally. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) believes it is more likely that companies will produce clones with "desirable" traits, breed them, and bring products from the offspring into the food chain.

The USDA is asking companies not to market products immediately, but to continue observing the moratorium they agreed to in 2001 when the FDA began its deliberations.

"USDA encourages the cloning industry continue its voluntary moratorium for a sufficient period of time to prepare so that a smooth and seamless transition into the marketplace can occur," it said in a statement.

The US developments will be watched closely in Europe, where evaulation of cloned animals is at an earlier stage.

Last week the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) initiated a public consultation on its draft guidance.

The draft concluded, among other things, that:

The EU has indicated that if products from cloned animals were approved, they would have to be labelled.

This contrasts directly with the US position, opening up the possibility of trade disputes similar to the lengthy and costly row between the EU and US over genetically modified foods.

The EU approach on labelling makes more sense. And the FDA approach is no doubt biased by the views of the current US administration, so their approach might change when the next president takes over. Perhaps more research should be done evaluating this new technology, but you can guarantee your last dollar that the usual suspects (including the so-called environmentalists and the so-called organic food lobby) will oppose this technology no matter what the science shows. They will find some torturous example where the new technology is not quite as good in some way as the old technology. But ultimately, consumers should decide, not the usual academic middle class anti-technology control freaks. Mind you, these people successfully demonised GM food in Europe with their hysterical press releases, and that is bound to happen all over again. Come back in 100 years when everyone will wonder what the fuss was all about.

EU carbon plans could transfer jobs to outside EU (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Trade unions and business leaders say EU plans to cut carbon emissions could harm European jobs and industry.

The European Trade Union Confederation fears up to 50,000 steelworkers' jobs could go if their industry moves to areas with lower costs for polluters.

And lobby group BusinessEurope says companies will lose competitiveness if they are forced to buy all their rights to emit carbon dioxide.

The European Commission's proposals will be revealed next week.

But the aim of the new rules on fighting climate change is clear.

It is to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, by increasing the use of renewable energy and revamping the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Launched in 2005, the scheme has been criticised for allowing big polluters free carbon credits.

Companies are set CO2 limits and then buy or sell permits if they miss or beat their targets.

It is thought the commission will now try to reduce the number of free credits substantially, requiring industry to buy most of them at auction.

BusinessEurope's Secretary General Philippe de Buck has written to commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, warning that "the competitiveness of European companies" will be harmed by the auctioning of allowances and "exacerbated" by increasing electricity prices.

Trade unions are concerned that a new permits system would force heavy industry to move operations out of the EU, to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Ukraine and Russia.

"What we don't want is for companies to fire people in Europe and relocate to cheaper, dirtier locations," says European Trade Union Confederation General Secretary John Monks.

Unions fear such a change could lead to 50,000 of the steel industry's 350,000 jobs being lost.

Mr Monk's solution is for a carbon tax on imports from countries that are not trying to cut CO2 emissions.

He believes that such a tax would "equalise carbon costs", although he accepts that it might fall foul of World Trade Organization rules.

Monk, unbelievably, is just about correct. The problem with the EU, and indeed the current international community, view of carbon emissions is that it looks at where goods are produced rather than where they are consumed. So the EU claim that it will "reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020" is mostly nonsense, instead what will happen is that much of the emissions will be exported to other countries. Of course this (bogus) strategy only works as long as the EU can produce lower carbon goods of equal value, for export. And when the strategy stops working (as it eventually will) it means that the citizens of the EU will become poorer, unless the rest of the world has meanwhile introduced similar carbon taxes. Of course there are many in the EU ruling elite (including the so-called environmentalists) who probably want the citizens of the EU to become poorer. (They think that the peasants are far too rich and consume far too much.)

The real problem with Monk's proposal is that it is difficult to calculate a proper carbon tax on imports, since most goods are of mixed origin. What the world really needs is a global carbon tax on carbon at source, because then the cost will be passed onto the people who should really be paying it, i.e. the consumer of the goods.

Date published: 2008/01/14

It's biofuel bashing day on the BBC (permanent blog link)

Biofuels have been getting a (deservedly) bad press recently and the BBC decided that today is the day to run several articles all saying the same thing. The first says:

Europe's environment chief has admitted that the EU did not foresee the problems raised by its policy to get 10% of Europe's road fuels from plants.

Recent reports have warned of rising food prices and rainforest destruction from increased biofuel production.

The EU has promised new guidelines to ensure that its target is not damaging.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said it would be better to miss the target than achieve it by harming the poor or damaging the environment.

A couple of years ago biofuels looked like the perfect get-out-of-jail free card for car manufacturers under pressure to cut carbon emissions.

Instead of just revolutionising car design they could reduce transport pollution overall if drivers used more fuel from plants which would have soaked up CO2 while they were growing.

The EU leapt at the idea - and set their biofuels targets.

Since then reports have warned that some biofuels barely cut emissions at all - and others can lead to rainforest destruction, drive up food prices, or prompt rich firms to drive poor people off their land to convert it to fuel crops.

"We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were. So we have to move very carefully," Mr Dimas told the BBC.

"We have to have criteria for sustainability, including social and environmental issues, because there are some benefits from biofuels."

He said the EU would introduce a certification scheme for biofuels and promised a clampdown on biodiesel from palm oil which is leading to forest destruction in Indonesia.

Some analysts doubt that "sustainable" palm oil exists because any palm oil used for fuel simply swells the demand for the product oil on the global market which is mainly governed by food firms.

Indeed. There will no doubt be some "sustainable" biofuel sources that (1) don't wreak environmental damage, (2) don't cause almost as much emissions as they "save" and (3) don't diplace food production. But that day is not upon us yet. So the EU targets are ridiculously optimistic and could easily end up doing much more damage than good.

Along the same lines, the second BBC article says:

Committing 27 EU states to slashing their carbon emissions was always going to be easier than following it through.

But the European Commission will try to make a significant step towards that target when it reveals its proposals on 23 January to raise the proportion of renewable energy consumption to 20% by 2020.

It still intends for one-tenth of Europe's energy to come from plants.

And, in response to negative reports on the effects of biofuels on the environment, officials have promised to come up with measures that will have a positive impact on carbon emissions.

Commission spokesman Ferran Tarradellas says the criteria will be "very demanding" and they will have four aims:

While there may appear to be little controversy in those ambitions, there is concern that the commission is not going far enough.

According to an early draft, it wants a minimum saving of greenhouse gas in comparison with the extraction of fossil fuels, although the figure involved is being kept under wraps.

The European Parliament's environment committee has already called for the minimum saving to be 50%.

Dutch MEP, Dorette Corbey, accepts the figure is "a little bit unlikely".

She says some of the plants currently being used are almost as polluting as fossil fuels. Among those that are not, she singles out sugar cane, rape seed and palm oil.

Indeed, and when you count up everything, it's possible these are even more polluting than some fossil fuels.

Finally, the third BBC article says:

Biofuels may play a role in curbing climate change, says Britain's Royal Society, but may create environmental problems unless implemented with care.

In a new report, the Society suggests current EU and UK policies are not guaranteed to reduce emissions.

It advocates more research into all aspects of biofuel production and use.

The report says the British government should use financial incentives to ensure companies adopt cutting-edge and carbon-efficient technologies.
Launching the Royal Society report, Professor Pickett noted that current EU and US policies did not mandate that biofuels should achieve any carbon saving.

The report said that the UK government's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which mandates that 5% of fuel sold on filling station forecourts by 2010 must come from renewable sources, suffers from the same flaw, though changes are being discussed in Whitehall.

As a result, the report concludes, these policies "will do more for economic development and energy security than combating climate change".

On the UK policy front, the Society advocates:

More generally, it says research into new biofuel technologies should be encouraged through financial incentives.

Nothing specifically that original here. And it is bizarre that a Royal Society report could be written which says that carbon pricing should be "extended" to transport fuels. Transport fuels already pay a huge carbon tax (called fuel duty). Indeed, the recent Stern report recommended a carbon tax of around a dollar a US gallon, so around 13p per liter, on petrol (gasoline). But the current tax is around 59p per liter. Of course some of this tax pays for roads to be built and maintained, and for other negative effects of cars such as ill health, but it is abundantly clear that drivers already pay more than enough of a carbon tax. What we need in Britain is for other sources of carbon to be properly taxed. But of course the British ruling elite hate cars and airplanes (except when they themselves use them, of course) so illogically believe that only these sources of carbon should be taxed. It's a bit pathetic when an allegedly reputable scientific body cannot even figure that one out.

Date published: 2008/01/13

Gordon Brown apparently wants an opt-out system of organ donation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown says he wants a national debate on whether to change the system of organ donation.

He believes thousands of lives would be saved if everyone was automatically placed on the donor register.

It would mean that, unless people opted out of the register or family members objected, hospitals would be allowed to use their organs for transplants.

If they gave people a real and regularly offered choice to opt out this would be fine. Unfortunately what they will do is make it difficult to find out how to opt out, and assume that most people will be too lazy to bother trying to find out. The case for organ donation is easy for the media to make: just show someone who has benefitted or someone who is still waiting. The case against organ donation is much harder: many people suspect doctors would gladly pull the plug on someone sooner rather than later, in order to obtain an organ, and needless to say, nobody will be the wiser unless the doctor does something stupid.

Bush threatens Iran yet again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US President George W Bush has warned of the dangers he says are posed by Iran, in a speech in its Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Bush said Iran threatened the security of all nations and should be confronted "before it's too late".
The BBC's Matthew Price, travelling with Mr Bush, says the president has sounded more nuanced on this trip than previously, and has spent much of it making suggestions rather than demands.

But that may not be how it plays to the "streets" of the Middle East.

Many people will see US foreign policy as militaristic, following its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and will view Mr Bush's words on Iran as a call to arms - even though they were not, our correspondent says.

It is the BBC correspondent who is wrong, not the people on the "streets" of the Middle East. Bush invaded Iraq for no real reason (other than to bolster the Republican Party) and he has shown every inclination to bomb Iran for no real reason. The idea that "Iran threaten[s] the security of all nations" is a joke. And needless to say, the US threatens far, far more nations than Iran. Iran is a regional player, but no more.

Date published: 2008/01/12

Surprise, house prices have gone crazy the last decade (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The value of the UK's private housing stock rose by an estimated 9% in 2007 to reach £4 trillion, says the Halifax.

That figure has more than tripled over the last decade, rising by 208% from £1.3 trillion recorded in 1997.

In contrast, the headline rate of inflation (RPI) has increased by 31% over the same period.

Despite fears about slowing UK property prices, the bank says the housing stock is worth more than three times the country's outstanding mortgage debt.

It says housing assets have grown by more than mortgage debt levels in every year since 1995.

Well it's pretty clear that UK property prices are vastly over-inflated. So the numbers are soon set to take a tumble. Who knows, in a few years the housing stock might have fallen back to a "value" of 3 trillion pounds or even less.

Date published: 2008/01/11

Surprise, some teachers have misconceptions about Oxbridge (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teachers' misconceptions about Oxbridge could be preventing bright state school pupils from applying for places there, an educational charity says.

A poll of 500 teachers for the Sutton Trust suggested just 54% advised their brightest pupils to apply for Oxbridge, while some 45% rarely did so.

And nine out of 10 underestimated the proportion of state pupils at Oxbridge.

Just 8% of teachers surveyed picked the correct range of between 51% and 60%. The present figure is 54%.

The majority of teachers, some three-fifths, thought 30% or fewer Oxbridge undergraduates were from state schools.

In total, some 91% of teachers underestimated the representation of state school pupils - while only 1% over-estimated it.

The chairman of the educational charity, Sir Peter Lampl, said teachers' misconceptions about Oxbridge were alarming.

"They clearly have an impact on the number of bright state school students applying to these two great universities, despite the considerable efforts that both are making to reach out to them," he said.

Lampl (i.e. the Sutton Trust) takes the biscuit. He (with his apologist friends in the media like the BBC) is one of those who constantly claims Oxbridge is elitist, and then he wonders why some people might believe the same thing. If only the UK spent more money on education and less money on these silly, vacuous, surveys.

A minor blip in cannabis addiction in England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of adults seeking medical help for cannabis addiction has risen by 50% since Labour downgraded the drug, health authority figures show.

Over 16,500 adults sought treatment for cannabis use in England in 2006/7 compared with 11,057 two years earlier when the drug moved from Class B to C.

Currently 500 adults and children are being treated in England each week.

The Department of Health said the rise in treatment reflected improvements in drug treatment and not cannabis use.

But Marjorie Wallace of the mental health charity SANE said the reality was now that hospital beds were filling up with people suffering the effects of cannabis addiction, depriving others from treatment.
Marjorie Wallace, of the mental health charity SANE, said the figures were shocking, but not surprising.

She said: "The reality is now that hospital beds are filling up with people suffering the effects of cannabis addiction, depriving others from treatment.

"SANE been saying for years that cannabis is a dangerous drug; for some young people regular use can double the risk of developing later schizophrenia.

"You only need to see one person whose mind has been distorted and life irreparably damaged, or talk to their family, to realise that the headlines are not scaremongering but reflect daily, and preventable, tragedies."

The government might be lying when it claims "the rise in treatment reflected improvements in drug treatment not cannabis use" but that seems far and away the most plausible explanation. Some of these people might even be willing to seek help now exactly because using the drug is slightly less illegal now, so will attract less attention from the police.

And Wallace is unbelievable. She is allegedly concerned about these people (that's one of the points of her charity) but her real, horrible, view comes through with the statement that: "The reality is now that hospital beds are filling up with people suffering the effects of cannabis addiction, depriving others from treatment." So she thinks these victims are "depriving" others of treatment, does she? Perhaps she will give us the list of diseases and illnesses she officially approves being treated by the NHS. SANE is evidently not a very sane organisation.

All in all, 16500 people is not a heck of a big number under any reckoning. Why should millions of people be criminalised just because a few thousand people cannot cope? Indeed, the number of people who would positively benefit from the medical use of cannabis is almost certainly much greater than the number of people who suffer serious negative consequences from using it.

Tesco wins one round in Mill Road planning application (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Campaigners against a Tesco store have been dealt a cruel blow.

Despite a massive wave of protest, planning officers at Cambridge City Council have recommended for approval three applications to allow new signage, a cash machine and an extension at the planned store in Mill Road, Cambridge.

The supermarket giant already has permission to open a store in the street, which is famed for small shops.

A petition bearing 4,136 signatures, a 600-strong protest march through Cambridge and a 1,500-strong Facebook group entitled Tescopoly: Every Little Hurts, has failed to stop planning chiefs.

A staggering 1,200 letters against the Express shop in the "diverse and unique" road flooded council offices from across the globe.

The list of objectors reads like a Who's Who of protesters.

They include letters from Fox Studios in Australia, ex-pats in Germany, Addenbrooke's department of clinical biochemistry, the BBC studios in London, Cambridge Friends of the Earth and the narrowboat Lee, moored at Midsummer Common.

The master's secretary of St Catharine's College, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge University Press, the Britten Sinfonia and two of the city's vicars also weighed in.

But the pleas fell on deaf ears despite figures from the Competition Commission showing that Tesco controls 51 per cent of the grocery market in Cambridge - its ninth highest market share in Britain.

A David and Goliath-style fightback is now being launched with plans to turn the heat onto the Hertfordshire-based giant.

The first blow will be struck tomorrow (Saturday, 12 January) at 2pm when hundreds of people are expected to join the No Mill Road Tesco march from the Guildhall to the former Wilco garage in Mill Road.

Then next Thursday, hundreds of people are set to pack St Philip's Church in Mill Road when the council's east area planning committee meets to decide on the application.

If all else fails extreme measures could turn the heat on Tesco - including a massive boycott.

Sonia Cooter, co-ordinator of the No Mill Road Tesco campaign, said: "We haven't lost yet. We are conscious of the fact no consideration was made to the vitality and diversity of Mill Road.

"We are also gratified at the unprecedented number of objections made to the council and the fact there were no letters of support, despite Tesco claiming they had people saying they want a Tesco in Mill Road."

She warned that Mill Road could become a "ghost area" if plans for the store are approved.

She said: "Tesco would be twice the size of the Londis convenience store just across the road. It is just not needed here. If it opens we could see a lot of empty shops. Mill Road could be like a ghost town.

"Tesco already has 13 shops in Cambridge and 51 per cent of the market - we don't want Cambridge to become Tesco town. We have looked at a boycott of Tesco and various other measures."

Abdul Arain, who owns Al-Amin food store and is chairman of Mill Road Residents and Traders' Community Improvement Group, was saddened by the planners' approval.

He said: "Nothing is written in stone yet and I would urge councillors to think long and hard about allowing such an establishment in Mill Road, which is a unique and diverse area which supports small independent shops.

"With a Tesco store, the street will begin to resemble many other streets in the corner of deprived inner cities and will make many shops redundant."

Peter Carter, city council planning officer, explained some of the thinking behind the controversial recommendation.

He said: "There are differing arguments on the impact on other businesses. This is a relatively small extension adding to the rear of the building.

"There are a lot of issues that have to be taken into consideration as well as guidance from central Government and the Local Plan."

The academic middle class people who oppose this planning application do indeed opppose it "solely on the ground that it was a Tesco". The academic middle class hate corporations, and Tesco is just another corporation to hate. Needless to say, it is pathetic that anyone claims Mill Road would become a "ghost area" if the planning application goes ahead. There are plenty of supermarkets in Cambridge (the one real reason to oppose another one) and none of the areas they are in could be described as "ghost areas". Further, if the people who oppose Tesco really felt that the general public, rather than just the academic middle class, did not like Tesco, then they would not mind Tesco opening their store because they would believe that nobody would shop there. Of course what they are really worried about is that the general public would shop there, because, surprise, the general public, unlike the academic middle class, like supermarkets, and in particular like Tesco. So let these academic middle class control freaks organise a "massive boycott" and see if anyone (other than they themselves) pays any attention.

Date published: 2008/01/10

MPs want faster assessment of drugs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A faster, more streamlined system of assessing treatments for the NHS in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should be introduced, MPs say.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should adopt a "rough and ready" approach, similar to Scotland, a Commons committee said.

The health committee said an in-depth review of new drugs and technologies could be done later if needed.

It is now up to ministers to consider the findings.

NICE was set up in 1999 to make recommendations to the NHS about which treatments should be made available by assessing their cost effectiveness.

The directives apply to the whole of the UK, except Scotland which has its own advisory body, the Scottish Medicines Consortium.

The Scottish system has often been compared favourably to NICE as it carries out much more simple appraisals and as a result decisions are often made within a few months.

By comparison, the fastest appraisals NICE carries out take between nine months and a year on average.

The MPs also called on NICE to carry out appraisals on all new treatments - at the moment it just tends to focus on the most expensive, such as cancer drugs used in hospitals.

The report said this meant NHS trusts were overly focused on these expensive treatments often at the expense of the cheaper, but highly effective, drugs that could be prescribed by GPs.

MPs also questioned the method used by NICE to assess treatments.

New treatments are generally only used if they cost under £30,000 for each year of good health they provide, a measurement known as a Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY).

They said there was no scientific basis to the threshold, which had not changed since NICE was set up.

They said this needed to be reviewed and a two-stage assessment process introduced.

The initial "rough and ready" assessment could use tougher criteria meaning only the most effective treatments were recommended.

The idea would be to do this as soon as a treatment received a licence so that any recommendations would be in place by the time the drug was put on the market - normally four months after licensing.

Another assessment could then be carried out if evidence suggested it needed to be, but this would use a higher QALY threshold decreasing the risk a treatment would be taken out of NHS use once it had been recommended.

This more or less makes sense. And of course the £30k is arbitrary and has "no scientific basis". Any number is going to be like that. The only way you can tell whether a drug is really value for money is if people would be willing to pay for it themselves, and that kind of test is never going to be done in the NHS.

And of course if the "rough and ready" assessment uses "tougher criteria" then fewer drugs will be approved, which is not going to please the drug companies, or their prospective patients. So presumably there will have to be a secondary procedure as now to look at borderline cases more thoroughly.

Government gives go ahead for new nuclear power stations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new generation of nuclear power stations in the UK has been given formal backing by the government.

Business Secretary John Hutton told MPs they would give a "safe and affordable" way of securing the UK's future energy supplies while fighting climate change.

He said any plants would be built at or near existing reactors by private firms and said he hoped the first one would be completed "well before 2020".

Critics say new reactors will be expensive, dirty and dangerous.

The government will not be building any reactors itself - but it says it will take steps, such as streamlining the planning process and identifying likely sites, to encourage private operators to build them.

Mr Hutton conceded that no nuclear plant had been built anywhere in the world without public money - but he insisted there would be no subsidies from the UK government.
The government has also yet to decide how much new nuclear operators should pay towards the cost of building underground caverns as a permanent storage site for Britain's nuclear waste.
French energy giant EDF has already said it plans to build four nuclear plants in the UK by 2017, without subsidies, following the government's announcement.
The government is also publishing an Energy Bill designed to reduce carbon emissions and secure the UK's power supplies.

But its nuclear plans could be still be subject to a legal challenge from Greenpeace, which successfully challenged an earlier government review backing nuclear power in the High Court.

It claims research shows that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% some time after 2025.

One of the most widely trailed policy announcements of the government in recent times. And it makes sense to look at nuclear power again. However, it is ridiculous to claim that "no subsidies" exist when the government has not even decided "how much new nuclear operators should pay towards the cost of building underground caverns as a permanent storage site for Britain's nuclear waste". Needless to say, there are all sorts of implicit subsidies any time government gives planning permission for any energy plant, including for so-called renewables. And oil, gas and coal plants receive implicit subsidies because they are not paying (enough) for their carbon emissions.

On the other hand, it is also ridiculous that Greenpeace, a bunch of unelected academic middle class control freaks, should be able to blackmail the entire nation in the way they have already over nuclear power. And if 10 reactors "only" cut carbon emissions by 4%, then presumably perhaps we should build 30 or 50 to make a real difference. Of course Greenpeace doesn't want that, and it's a completely fatuous argument in any case. Carbon emissions are not going to miraculously disappear because of one, and only one technology, but from small combinations from lots of technologies (including energy efficiency).

Date published: 2008/01/09

Clinton pips Obama in New Hampshire (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US presidential race has been left wide open after Hillary Clinton and John McCain both rebounded to win victories in the New Hampshire primary.

It appeared that Mrs Clinton's campaign benefited from a surge among women voters, while fewer young voters turned out for Democratic rival Barack Obama.

John McCain appealed to New Hampshire's independent voters but his victory leaves no clear Republican frontrunner.

Attention will now focus on Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida.

Candidates are aiming to build momentum before more than 20 states hold polls on 5 February, known as Super Tuesday.

Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton's victory defied pundits and pollsters alike. Correspondents say the result leaves Mrs Clinton and Barack Obama essentially tied.

The American media practically has a full frontal hatred of Hillary, so were gloating about her demise long before the polls closed. It just goes to show what pundits are worth (nothing). And the media has generally singularly failed to mention that in both Iowa and New Hampshire, non-Democrats are allowed to vote in the Democratic election (and similarly for the Republicans). Amongst Democratic voters, Hillary won both contests hands down. It was the non-Democrats who gave Obama his big win in Iowa and his near win in New Hampshire. It would not be beyond the actions of the Republican slime machine to try and steer a win to Obama by getting their own voters to vote for him, all in the name of making mischief. And apparently in New Hampshire, some "independents" decided to vote in the Republican rather than Democratic primary at the last minute, convinced that an Obama win was a foregone conclusion. How wrong they were. This whole process is a ridiculous way to choose a presidential candidate.

Data on tropical forest cover is allegedly pretty poor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Data on tropical forest cover is so poor that we do not know if the forests are declining, a study has found.

Alan Grainger from the UK's University of Leeds examined UN analyses going back almost 30 years, and found that "evidence for a decline is unclear".
The UN admits there are problems with the data, but says tropical forests are certainly in retreat.

Dr Grainger is not so sure. "People have been assuming that forest cover is shrinking," he told BBC News, "and certainly deforestation has been taking place on a large scale."

But, he says, there is also evidence that in some countries, forests are expanding spontaneously.

"Our analysis does not prove that tropical forest decline is not happening, merely that it is is difficult to demonstrate it convincingly using available tropical forest area data," he writes in PNAS.

The UN reports are produced by the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its regular global Forest Resources Assessments (FRAs).

Assembled principally using data from national forest authorities, the FRAs are widely regarded as the most accurate estimates available, which is why they are used by many researchers in the areas of forestry, land-use change and sustainability.

For his PNAS paper, Dr Grainger looked at the four most recent FRAs, published in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2005.

Each of the individual reports showed a decline in tropical forest cover; but across the four reports, he found no trend was discernible.

This is largely because each assessment revised earlier estimates of cover. For example, in 1980 the FAO estimated natural tropical forests spanned 1,970 million hectares. But the 1990 assessment used a revised figure for 1980 of 1,910 million hectares.

The FAO says it made these revisions because better data became available, and because each assessment used different criteria.

"What you've got is a desire by the FAO for consistency inside each of its studies," commented Dr Grainger, "but that's come at the expense of consistency between studies."

It is amazing how poor this kind of data is, given how important it is to have decent data in this regard. One thing that the international community should force on researchers in this area is to make all their data permanently freely and publicly available so that data that is collected is not lost and can be validated by others.

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