Azara Blog: April 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/04/30

Climate Change and Ecosystem Services (permanent blog link)

Robert Watson gave the seventh, and final, talk in the 6th Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development. His title was "Climate Change and Ecosystem Services: Science, Economics and Ethics".

Watson is best known for having been the chair of the IPCC from 1997 until 2002, when the Bush administration had him removed at the behest of the oil industry. But he's been involved with lots of public bureaucracies over time, including the Clinton administration, NASA, the World Bank, and currently as Chief Scientific Advisor to DEFRA in the UK.

He gave a fairly lengthy and detailed Powerpoint presentation. It's pretty obvious he's given pretty much the same presentation over and over and over again, because he zipped through it without pause for breath. He started by pointing out that climate change should not be considered in isolation but as related to other issues such as air quality, water, forestry, biodiversity, and desertification. He bemoaned that most people and organisations seem to focus on one thing rather than the broader picture.

He went through the usual evidence about the link between emissions and climate change, and how climate change would affect the poor more than the rich (surprise), and how "perverse policies" on subsidies for agriculture and energy were making things worse. His one cute quote was that all the countries of the world would have to work together to get things to work out, but that they could be hindered by "one arrogant country that tries to dominate the world".

As part of the litany, he produced slide after slide saying how most things were going to get worse rather than better. For example, wet countries would generally get wetter, and dry countries generally dryer. And it's interesting that almost all the news from an increase in temperature is claimed to be negative. Well, it's possible that the Earth happened to be residing in a Goldilocks scenario before 1800, and so any change (e.g. upwards or downwards in temperature) is bad. But far more likely is that the real issue is the rate of change, not the change itself.

He said that in some assessment he had been involved with on food production, they had ignored GM technology. The way he put it was that they "did not assume that GM crops would succeed". Well, that could be deemed to be a cautious approach, but it is also rather naive. Malthus thought our population increase was not "sustainable", because he ignored new technology. But Watson seems to have a particular gripe against GM technology, not only for food, but also for trees (so, for example, to make fast-growing ones which could thrive in arid conditions). This is probably because he is concerned about biodiversity, and he evidently thinks that that consideration trumps pretty much anything else. That is a position that an academic can take.

On other issues he was not so dogmatic as are most so-called environmentalists. So he was not anti-nuclear (but there were the obvious issues with nuclear). And he was not against carbon capture and storage, seeing that as a crucial piece of the puzzle (since coal was not going to go away). At the end he even said he was willing to contemplate some of the proposed (generally wacky) geoengineering "solutions" to climate change, if the planet needed an emergency short-term fix. For example, the Greenland ice sheet seems to be melting faster than models predict, and if it was thought that it would all melt in short order, then some crazy things would have to be considered. Otherwise we would have to cope with a 7m sea-level rise.

On most issues he toed the straight party line. So ecosystem services were not valued by the markets, and that was leading to bad ecosystem management. Well, in some ways this is trivially obvious and is worth considering. But would or should anyone trust the alleged value put on some ecosystem service by some expert (most of whom have an axe to grind, in particular do not like the markets)? And another problem with this approach is that it works best for issues which can be isolated to one nation. For issues like emissions, it makes perfectly good sense for any given nation not to worry, because most of the consequences of its own emissions will be borne by other nations.

He claimed that if the melting of the Arctic ice had been known about during the Cold War, then the US and Russians would be amongst the most enthusiastic about doing something about emissions, rather than amongst the least enthusiastic, because allegedly they would have seen a navigable Arctic Ocean as a security threat. Well, this is a bit of wishful thinking.

What he wanted as a way forward was (1) a price put on carbon (either via a tax, or some trading system, or regulation), and (2) lots of new technology developed, and (3) the behaviour of everyone changed. Well, a tax on carbon makes perfectly good sense (and while we're at it, how about a tax on all other polluting activities). And only the most luddite of the so-called environmentalists oppose technological advances towards a "carbon free" economy. But when people start talking about changing behaviour, it's a sure sign that they are fully paid up members of the academic middle class, who seem to believe that if they control freak enough then the world would be a better place. Unfortunately, most societies with strict controls on behaviour are not the kind of societies that most people want to belong to.

On the issue of public perception, Watson even made the astonishing claim that the scientists were "not getting the message across". Well, anyone who reads the BBC website (for example) is daily innundated with messages about climate change and how the world is about to end. The problem is not that the message is not getting across. The problem is that people do not like the proposed solutions to the problem, which as far as they are concerned amount to a reduction in their living standards. The odd scientists crops up who says "if we go to a carbon-free economy then we will actually be richer, not poorer". But nobody believes this. All they see is that the ruling elite want to screw them for driving a car, or getting into a plane (both activities which the ruling elite take for granted for themselves, of course).

His take on this "message" issue was that the scientists had to convince the public that they would personally suffer if emissions were not reduced. So one way was to talk about the impact on people's children and grandchildren. (But just having children is the single most environmentally damaging thing anyone can do, so this consideration is slightly ironic.) And another was to say that, for example, people's health would be directly and negatively impacted. So apparently, in the Clinton administration they tried to use poor air quality as the threat, but nobody cared much for that argument, perhaps because air quality in the US is perfectly good. But apparently a good health scare was just the ticket to make the people stand up and take notice. This kind of negative argumentation is unfortunate. It's exactly what the Bush administration does with terrorism. You whip up fear so that people are willing to have their rights and freedoms trampled. (Well, in the climate change case people believe the message, with Bush he just made it up so he could assume frightening executive power.)

Right at the end Watson mentioned that we were spending too much time and effort on climate research itself, since it was already obvious that man-made emissions were the reason behind climate change. He wanted more money spent on adaptation and mitigation. Although bizarrely enough he added that he especially wanted money spent on economists and social scientists. Needless to say, it would be far better to spend money on (real) scientists and engineers.

Nuclear power's carbon emissions could allegedly rise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The case for nuclear power as a low carbon energy source to replace fossil fuels has been challenged in a new report by Australian academics.

It suggests greenhouse emissions from the mining of uranium - on which nuclear power relies - are on the rise.

Availability of high-grade uranium ore is set to decline with time, it says, making the fuel less environmentally friendly and more costly to extract.
...
A significant proportion of greenhouse emissions from nuclear power stem from the fuel supply stage, which includes uranium mining, milling, enrichment and fuel manufacturing.

Others sources of carbon include construction of the plant - including the manufacturing of steel and concrete materials - and decomissioning.

It is good that someone is looking at this. It is of course only one study, and the motives of the authors are not clear. But this kind of analysis needs to be done. It should also be done for other so-called carbon-free sources of energy, including solar and wind and hydropower.

Labour budget hits all post-2000 "polluting" cars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has denied claims it concealed the full extent of changes in car tax set out in this year's Budget.

Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in March he wanted to encourage manufacturers to produce cleaner cars.

But he did not say explicitly owners of the most polluting cars registered after March 2001 would have to pay more than £400 in tax from next year.

The Conservatives accused the Treasury of "duplicity". The AA said more should have been done to explain the changes.

In his Budget speech, Mr Darling set out "a major reform to Vehicle Excise Duty" (VED) which he said would "encourage manufacturers to produce cleaner cars".

And he said by introducing new bands of tax there would be "an incentive to encourage drivers to choose the least polluting car."

He also said it was "right that if people choose to buy a more polluting car that they should pay more in the first year to reflect the environmental cost."

However, he did not say explicitly higher charges would apply to anyone who bought a car from 1 March 2001.

One of the worst aspects of Gordon Brown as Chancellor was that he determinedly gave only positive spin in the Budget speech and all the negative details were leaked out later in dribs and drabs. Unfortunately, now that we have this tradition it is never going to stop (especially given Cameron's background in PR).

And you can see why Darling didn't want to come clean on this tax. Because making the tax retrospective shows that it blatantly has nothing to do with trying to "encourage manufacturers to produce cleaner cars".

Date published: 2008/04/29

Impington residents do not like lorries parking outside their front door (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Lorry drivers parking outside houses overnight are making residents' lives a living hell.

They urinate in bushes, wake up residents by starting engines in the early hours of the morning and leave the street untidy, said Julie Caporaso, who lives in Cambridge Road, Impington.

Ms Caporaso, 30, has been campaigning for two years to stop the vehicles from pulling off the A14 and parking outside her and her neighbours' homes, describing it as "like living in a truck stop".

Ms Caporaso said: "It's been awful. Sometimes we get six back to back on the street. They park right outside the houses and start their engines up at all hours.

"We had a lorry driver urinating in the bushes, it was disgusting. There is no toilet facility around here as it's a residential area so they go in public.

"Why should we have to put up with this when this is the street where my neighbours' kids play out?"

Ms Caporaso said she wanted double yellow lines painted on the road or signs saying lorries were not allowed to park in the road overnight.

Councillor John Reynolds, Cambridgeshire County Council's member for corporate services, said the council was aware that short and long-term solutions were needed.

Cllr Reynolds said: "We are now getting all the partners, the police, Highways Agency, district councils, etc, to come together and we want to have a meeting next month about the whole of the A14 and to see what we can do in the short term to try to get HGVs to park in areas where they will not cause problems to residents.
...
Many complaints have come about because there is a lack of overnight parking facilities along the A14 north of Cambridge, a problem which has been made even worse with the closure of the lorry park at Alconbury.

The last paragraph says it all. Lorry drivers have to park somewhere, and Reynolds does not even seem to recognise that simple fact (well, neither does Caporaso, but she is just in it for her own interest, whereas Reynolds is supposed to be in it to solve problems).

As it happens, there is a good location on the other side of the A14, in the continuation of the old Cambridge Road heading into Cambridge, so on land opposite the new Arbury Park development. It would not take much to turn that into a place where five or ten lorries could park (the road surface is already there). It would not be that close to any residential housing. (Well, there is a farm there literally on top of the A14, and a few houses in a private road just south of where the old Cambridge Road merges with the B1049 / Histon Road, but the situation is not comparable with what those residents of Impington are facing.)

Tesco will introduce labels allegedly showing carbon footprints of goods (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Supermaket chain Tesco has announced that a range of its own-brand products will carry labels showing the size of the goods' carbon footprints.

Tesco said it would label 20 items, including light bulbs and potatoes, during a two-year trial of the scheme, which is operated by the Carbon Trust.

Shoppers will be able to see how much carbon is emitted over the life of a product - from manufacture to disposal.

The store said it was introducing the labels in response to consumer demand.

Well, the bit about "consumer demand" is a bit of a joke. The only people who have demanded this are the academic middle class, and they generally shop in Waitrose (or some obscure corner shop) instead of Tesco.

More to the point, how accurate is the result going to be? It's extremely difficult to measure this kind of thing. Worse, it will ignore indirect carbon emissions due to labour (so someone who is paid at any point in the chain in turn uses the money they are paid to buy goods that have a carbon footprint, so those emissions are indirectly part of the whole chain). And because of all the uncertainty, no doubt two different "experts" could come up with two completely different values. Tesco will pretend the numbers are certain, when they are not.

And the academic middle class will be none too pleased when it turns out that British tomatoes (etc.) have far more emissions than tomatoes grown in Spain and trucked all the way up to Britain. Or is Tesco going to skew the results to show (or find an appropriate "expert" to claim) that British is always best.

Date published: 2008/04/28

Tomato is allegedly beneficial for protecting against UV rays (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pizza and spaghetti bolognese could become new tools in the fight against sunburn and wrinkles, a study suggests.

A team found adding five tablespoons of tomato paste to the daily diet of 10 volunteers improved the skin's ability to protect against harmful UV rays.

Damage from these rays can lead to premature ageing and even skin cancer.

The study, presented at the British Society for Investigative Dermatology, suggested the antioxidant lycopene was behind the apparent benefit.

This component of tomatoes - found at its highest concentration when the fruit has been cooked - has already been linked to a reduction in the risk of prostate cancer.

Now researchers at the universities of Manchester and Newcastle have suggested it may also help ward off skin damage by providing some protection against the effects of UV rays.

They gave 10 volunteers around 55g of standard tomato paste - which contains high levels of cooked tomatoes - and 10g of olive oil daily. A further 10 participants received just the olive oil.

After three months, skin samples from the tomato group showed they had 33% more protection against sunburn - the equivalent of a very low factor sun cream - and much higher levels of procollagen, a molecule which gives the skin its structure and keeps its firm.

At least this was much better than most health studies, in that at least it seems to have used a random sample. But the sample size was small. And more importantly, it is not clear how much this would actually achieve in real health impact. And most importantly of all, it is only looking at one thing in isolation. No doubt almost every food on the face of the planet is probably good for something or other, and probably bad for something or other.

Obama's former pastor repeats his home truths (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the US presidential hopeful Barack Obama, has hit back at critics of his fiery sermons.

In two speeches, to journalists and African-American activists, Mr Wright said that attacks on him were attacks on the black church.

And he said that his six years of service in the military was proof of his patriotism.

Senator Obama rejected Mr Wright's language in a speech last month.

Mr Wright remained silent when old sermons containing politically charged remarks were circulated on television and online in March.

But he is now conducting a publicity campaign to defend himself against the criticisms that were made after the clips were aired.

In a speech to the National Press Club, he said that the criticism of him was "not an attack on Jeremiah Wright - it's an attack on the black church".

He defended himself against charges of anti-Americanism, saying "I served six years in the military - does that me unpatriotic? How many years did [Vice President Dick] Cheney serve?"

But he refused to back down on his assertion that the 9/11 attacks were an example of "America's chickens coming home to roost".

"You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you," he said.

"Those are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles."

If you ignore the bits about religion (when he sounds just as crazy as all populist American ministers do) then most of his statements are fairly sane and correct. Unfortunately being sane and correct is not something that will endear him with most Americans, who live in a fantasy world where the US can do no wrong.

Date published: 2008/04/27

David Cameron says he loves poor people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

David Cameron has pledged to "stand up" for the low-paid who he says feel "desperately let down" by Labour.

The Tory leader refused to say whether he would reinstate the 10p tax rate if he became prime minister as he could not make "unfunded" tax pledges.

But he said he would never sanction a Budget that "singled out the poor".

How pathetic can you get. Needless to say, the Tories were against the 10p tax rate in the first place, since it was just a typical Gordon Brown gimmick. But now that Brown has abolished this rate, the Tories want to complain that it's been abolished, only they won't promise to bring it back. Such integrity these Tories have. And if they are this bad in opposition, they will be far worse in government.

Canadian polar bears are allegedly not threatened with extinction (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Polar bears in Canada are at risk from climate change but not threatened with extinction, a panel of experts has advised the Canadian government.

The government should develop a plan to protect the country's estimated 15,000 polar bears, the panel said.
...
The animals face loss of habitat on two fronts, the panel said - hunting, and melting ice in the Arctic, which is widely blamed on climate change.

While recognising both problems, the panel found that Canada's polar bear population was not declining enough to place it in the most serious category as an endangered species.

Instead, it has been classified as a species of special concern.
...
Canada's environment minister, John Baird, is obliged to accept the government-commissioned report's findings and address threats to the animal's survival, including climate change.

But a management plan for Canada's polar bears will not be required until 2014 - by which time some scientists believe the summer sea ice in the Arctic may have completely disappeared.

So the government is "obliged" to "address threats to the animal's survival", is it. Well, the government can try and do something about hunting of the animals, but the idea that they can stop climate change in its tracks (and immediately, if you want to take the BBC commentary seriously) is ridiculous.

Date published: 2008/04/26

Plastic reduces food waste in shops (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says, in an extremely long article about plastic:

According to [Dick] Searle [(chief executive of the Packaging Federation)], packaging has played an unacknowledged role in the expansion of cities beyond one million inhabitants and the emancipation of women. But his most arresting claim is undisputed: that societies without sophisticated packaging lose half their food before it reaches consumers. In the UK, waste in our supply chains is about 3 per cent. In India, it is more than 50 per cent. The difference comes later: we throw out 30 per cent of the food we buy - an environmental cost in terms of emissions equivalent to a fifth of the cars on our roads.
...
Since October last year, The Co-op has been selling cucumbers without a layer of film. "The wraps are off," says a spokeswoman. In response, the Cucumber Growers' Association (CGA) tested 20 cucumbers, which it refers to as "cues", against the new conditions, under which they are now transported in a plastic bag inside a protective cardboard box and then placed, filmless, on the supermarket shelf. (Most wrapped cucumbers are shipped on re-usable plastic trays, but these have sharp edges which would damage the naked ones). The cucumber growers argue that more packaging than the original 1.5g per item is now being used - albeit out of sight of customers - in return for a loss of more than a week of shelf-life and frost damage in the fridge. "Most people have their refrigerators set to 4C," complains Derek Johnson, of the CGA. "That's far too cold for a cue."

In the same vein, Marks & Spencer commissioned a study to find out which had less environmental impact: selling apples loose or wrapped. "We wanted to understand the actual science behind it," says Helene Roberts, head of packaging. Measured by tonne of apples sold, M&S packaged apples (four on a paper tray, covered by plastic film) needed 27 per cent less packaging than those sold loose (moved from one cardboard box to another). "It's quite a hard message to get over," admits Roberts. Other attempts to cut down on packaging have produced similarly mixed results. Asda, for instance, took all fruit and vegetables out of its packaging at its branch in Southport last year but had to suspend the trial indefinitely after the store”s wastage rate doubled.

For some reason the academic middle class has become hysterical about plastic (in particular plastic bags) the last few years. Needless to say, anything the academic middle class becomes hysterical about gets loads of media coverage, and then the government and/or business is often forced "to do something". 99 times out of 100, "doing something" that the academic middle class wants makes matters worse, not better. This is the problem with listening to people who talk, rather than people who do.

Dumping sulphate particles in atmosphere might lead to thinning of ozone layer (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Research has cast new doubt on the wisdom of using Sun-blocking sulphate particles to cool the planet.

Sulphate injections are one of several "geo-engineering" solutions to climate change being discussed by scientists.

But data published in Science journal suggests the strategy would lead to drastic thinning of the ozone layer.

Well the ozone layer is no doubt only one potential problem (and probably not even close to being the worst problem) with dumping sulphate particles into the atmosphere. There have got to be lots better engineering solutions (e.g. carbon capture and storage).

Date published: 2008/04/25

United States alleges that North Korea helped Syria build a nuclear reactor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The United States has accused North Korea of helping Syria build a nuclear reactor that "was not intended for peaceful purposes".

The site, said to be like one in North Korea, was bombed by Israel in 2007.

Syria must "come clean" about its secret nuclear programme, the White House said in a statement after CIA officials briefed members of Congress.

Syria has repeated denials that it has any nuclear weapons programme, or any such agreement with North Korea.

Needless to say we will never know the truth. The United States has an extremely poor track record with this kind of information (e.g. all the silly claims about the WMD in Iraq, to name only one example), so unfortunately anything they say can be believed. This is just one of the negative consequences of the Bush administration, which is quite possibly the worst of all time. Of course this particular information might be accurate, but who knows.

A handful of trade unionists bring the UK to its knees (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motorists should not buy more fuel than normal ahead of a planned refinery strike in Scotland, No 10 says.

Workers at the Grangemouth plant are due to take part in a two-day strike from Sunday in a row over pensions.

A spokeswoman said the government was encouraging both sides to get back round the negotiating table.

She said some garages may experience temporary shortages but overall there were enough reserves to keep forecourts supplied during any dispute.

The dispute looks set to close the Forties pipeline, which brings in 700,000 barrels of oil a day - a third of the UK's daily output - from the North Sea.

The academic middle class like to state that the UK should not rely on foreign supplies of energy because they are not reliable, and the UK could (in theory) be held hostage. Well, this strike shows perfectly well that the threat to the UK energy supply is not just from foreigners but can also happen because of a handful of British trade unionists (and if Thatcher were still around we would already be hearing about "the enemy within").

Date published: 2008/04/24

Joan Ruddock loves butterflies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Butterflies need a warm summer in order to help numbers recover from last year's washout, say conservationists.

Data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed that eight species were at an all-time low as a result of an unsuccessful summer in 2007.

The main reason behind the decline was an above average rainfall, which meant the insects, such as the common blue, had fewer chances to feed or breed.

Early forecasts suggest this summer could be wetter than average.

Biodiversity Minister Joan Ruddock said that the government would support recovery projects.

"Butterflies are a vital element of the British summer," she said. "Their numbers indicate whether or not there are problems in the countryside.

"Butterfly populations also indicate the speed and extent of climate change. We will provide every encouragement for those working to conserve them."

Anybody who has studied population biology for more than ten minutes knows full well that populations go up and they go down every year, and not just by trivial amounts. And if some reason this is a real long-term decline due mainly to climate change, then trying to "conserve" them is going to be a spectacular waste of time and money. It is just fighting big time against Mother Nature (something "conservationists" seem to spend most of their time doing).

Joan Ruddock does not like two-for-one offers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has criticised buy-one, get-one-free offers at supermarkets for increasing the amount of food thrown away by British shoppers.

Environment minister Joan Ruddock told MPs the deals were "deeply unhelpful" and half-price offers were preferable.

She also criticised the culture of "fast fashion", where cheap clothes are treated as disposable.

A third of all food bought in the UK is estimated to be thrown away - about six million tonnes a year.

Does Ruddock have any evidence that "buy-one get-one-free" offers contribute in any significant way to the waste of food? And needless to say, even if you want to make this argument, it is not just the quantity of items, but how much there is in each item, that counts. So 2-for-1 on a 200 gram pack is the same as 1/2-for-1 on a 400 gram pack. In any case, most consumers probably find buying two items to be convenient enough (but evidently not the puritanical academic middle class people who run England). And most of these offers are either on (relatively) non-perishable items (e.g. tinned food) or on items that can be frozen (e.g. meat).

And does Ruddock have any evidence that there is a signficant "culture" of "fast fashion"? Or is this just yet another trivial issue that the puritanical academic middle class people who run England have decided to get hysterical about?

Lots of teenagers are allegedly depressed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Depression symptoms could be a problem for large numbers of teenagers, suggest surveys for the Children's Society.

More than a quarter of 14 to 16-year-olds questioned said that they frequently felt depressed.

A leading child psychiatrist said more support, and resources, for parents was essential to tackle the problem.

But one adolescent mental health specialist said children who described feeling sad, even regularly, may not actually have a depressive illness.

This is just another survey whose main reason is to promote the agenda of just another special interest pressure group. As with all surveys, the wording will have biased the result. But even if the result is accurate (or perhaps, understated, since some people wouldn't admit to being depressed), is it a problem? Teenagers have notoriously big mood swings, so it would be rather bizarre if a lot of them were not depressed at least some of the time. And is there really anything unnatural about this? And even if you believe this is a problem, will child psychiatrists make the situation worse or better? (Well, if you believe this is a problem, you might also have some misguided faith in the abilities of child psychiatrists to deal with it.)

Date published: 2008/04/23

Google's Street View allowed to continue in UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Google's Street View technology carries a small risk of privacy invasion but should not be stopped, the UK's Information Commissioner has ruled.

The technology, which adds photos of locations to maps, sparked complaints it breaches the Data Protection Act.

A spokesman for the privacy watchdog said removing the entire service would be "disproportionate to the relatively small risk of privacy detriment".
...
Google has always said its service observed UK law and that photos were only taken from public areas. The technology was first launched, amidst some complaints, in the US in May 2007.

Privacy International had complained to the Information Commissioner along with 74 others, requesting the service be suspended, because some individual's faces were identifiable on Street View.

The technology does have automatic face blurring but some individuals were not obscured. Google said it would remove any image on Street View if a request came from a member of the public.
...
David Evans, the Information Commission's senior data protection practice manager, compared being captured by the service to passers-by filmed on TV news camera.

"It would not be in the public interest to 'turn the digital clock back'," he said.

"In the same way, there is no law against anyone taking pictures of people in the street as long as the person using the camera is not harassing people," he said.
...
Dr Ian Brown, a privacy expert at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: "The phrase 'small risk of privacy detriment' betrays the slightly wrong mindset at the Information Commissioner's office as they are having to adopt a reactive approach when it's far too late to really do anything about it.

"They should have been involved much earlier, because Google could - and should - have done a much better job and the Information Commissioner needs to be involved at a much earlier stage; in other words, when it is being designed and not finished."

He added: "I'm not saying Street View is evil and should be taken down, but it shouldn't be up to individuals to spot breaches of privacy and get them taken down.

"So far, the breaches have just been embarrassing - someone being sick, someone else leaving a sex shop - but it's possible someone could find themselves being unfairly divorced because an innocent image could be interpreted wrongly."

A victory for an open society over the closed society that some privacy fanatics unfortunately seem to prefer. If Google was not allowed Street View, then basically nobody would have the right to take photos or make video footage in a public place. Of course these privacy fanatics went after Google because Google is big and American. Fortunately the Information Commission ignored their bleating.

Brown (the so-called privacy expert) makes a particularly poor analysis. It should not be up to a photographer to try and contact every individual who is in a photograph taken in a public place to get their consent before a photograph can be used, which is in effect what Brown is demanding. And his example that "someone could find themselves being unfairly divorced because an innocent image could be interpreted wrongly" is just pathetic scare mongering over a near-zero probability hypothetical situation. Should all vehicles be stopped because there is a near-zero probability hypothetical situation that he is hit by one on the way to work?

There is an important place for concerns about privacy, especially with regard to government surveillance, but by attacking Google, and so in effect attacking every photographer on the planet, the privacy fanatics have diminished their cause.

Gordon Brown wants a flat-rate attendance allowance for MPs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Downing Street has defended plans for a flat-rate attendance allowance for MPs, saying it would encourage them to turn up to Parliament.

Under the current system MPs do not have to turn up but still get their allowances, said the PM's spokesman.

Gordon Brown intends to put his plan to scrap second homes expenses in favour of a daily rate to the vote next week.

But Lib Dem deputy Vince Cable said he believed there was so much opposition to it, it would not go through.

He told BBC One's Question Time the idea was "absurd and unworkable" and said, while there was agreement on some aspects of Mr Brown's proposals, "this particular proposal about clocking out will not go through".

There should be no flat-rate attendance allowance. MPs should just be paid a certain amount for the job, a certain amount to cover travel, and a certain amount to cover office expenses. And MPs should have an apartment in a government-owned block of flats if they want to stay in Westminister over night. Everything else is pretty much corruption. And there is a cheaper way to "encourage" MPs to turn up to Parliament, namely to publicise loud and clear which MPs are not there on any given day. On the other hand, the Tory and Lib Dem opposition to Brown's proposal seems to stem entirely from their desire to retain privileges for themselves that ordinary members of the public do not have.

Goverment screws up yet again over terrorism arrests (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The case of 12 men arrested over a suspected bomb plot in the UK who were all later released without any charges is to be independently reviewed.

Eleven Pakistani nationals are now in UK Border Agency custody and face possible deportation.

Lord Carlile of Berriew QC will look at the case as part of his ongoing role as independent reviewer of terrorism laws.

Greater Manchester Chief Constable Peter Fahy, defended the arrests, saying he was not "embarrassed".

But the Muslim Council of Britain says the government should admit it had made a mistake and claimed the way it had dealt with the men was "dishonourable".

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman told reporters: "We are seeking to remove these individuals on grounds of national security.

"The government's highest priority is to protect public safety. Where a foreign national poses a threat to the country, we will seek to exclude or deport them where appropriate."

However, lawyers for the men point out that they have not been charged and are innocent of any crime.

Brown is sinking further and further into the quagmire as he desperately tries to save his failed premiership. His actions in this case are particularly despicable. Rather than admit the government and police got it wrong (yet again) he is willing to ruin the lives of these men. It is also unfortunate that the government believes it has the right to deport people without any due process.

Date published: 2008/04/22

Competition Commission produces vacuous report on BAA (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government will review the economic regulation of the UK's airport system after a report said that operator BAA may be failing airlines and consumers.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly said the review would look at how to improve customer service, boost investment and deal with environmental concerns.

Earlier the Competition Commission said BAA dominated airports in south-east England and parts of Scotland.

BAA's seven airports include Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Edinburgh.

The company, which is owned by Spain's Ferrovial, also controls airports at Glasgow, Southampton and Aberdeen.
...
The Competition Commission said that the point of giving BAA ownership of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted after privatisation in 1987 was to make sure there would be adequate airport capacity in the south-east of England, but that there was still a shortage of capacity.

The regulator conceded that competition in the south-east of England was unlikely in the short term because of the lack of capacity, but suggested that having airports separately owned could help to encourage growth in capacity.

What planet does the Competition Commission live on? The lack of capacity is not down to BAA, which has been vigorously campaigning for more capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted for years, mostly to no avail. The lack of capacity is down to the academic middle class people who run Britain, who refuse to allow enough runways to be built.

The Competition Commission is of course one organisation that is allowed to operate without competition, hence its ability to produce such stunningly silly reports. BAA should have its monopoly broken up because it is a monopoly in a situation where there is no benefit from having a monopoly, not because there is a shortage of capacity.

The world allegedly needs to focus on "intrinsic" values (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Small changes to the way we live our lives are not enough to tackle the environmental challenges facing the planet, argues Tom Crompton. In this week's Green Room, he says the stark reality is that the only option is to cut the unsustainable consumption of the Earth's finite resources.

Unfortunately Crompton, from the organisation WWF-UK, then proceeds to spend 882 words saying nothing very much. His grand plan seems to rest on one paragraph, over halfway down (after he has probably lost most of his readers because he is not saying anything):

Studies find that people who engage in behaviour in pursuit of "intrinsic" goals - such as personal growth, community involvement, or a sense of connection with nature - tend to be more highly motivated and more likely to engage in environmentally friendly behaviour than individuals who are motivated by "extrinsic" goals - that is, financial success, image and the acquisition of material goods.

So people who do things that Crompton likes tend to do things that Crompton likes. Who would have thought? Not surprisingly the correlation between X and Y = X is pretty good. The man is a genius. If we only pursued "intrinsic" goals we would all be pursuing "intrinsic" goals. And on the other hand, pursuing "extrinsic" goals leads to pursuing "extrinsic" goals. Of course "intrinsic" is a nice word and "extrinsic" is a naughty word, so the former must be good, and the latter must be evil. Q.E.D.

Right at the end we get the usual mantra of the so-called environmentalists, that we should be "preparing for a world where we will inevitably need to consume not just differently, but less". Of course what he means is that we should consume less of things he doesn't like (presumably mobile phones, cars, airplanes, etc., but he doesn't bother telling us) and more of things he does like (presumably fluffy little animals who are going extinct, etc., but he doesn't bother telling us). And he doesn't even mention the number one problem in the world, i.e. population. Unfortunately for Crompton, the goal of the world should be to raise the living standards of the poorest to that of the richest, not to lower the living standards of the richest to that of the poorest.

The world would be a lot better off if instead of funding pointless organisations like WWF-UK, capable of producing words but not much else, we instead spent the money on real scientists and engineers finding real solutions to real problems.

Date published: 2008/04/21

UK bosses do not like to hire women who might become pregnant (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than half of UK bosses assess the chances of a member of staff falling pregnant before employing them, a survey suggests.

And 76% of managers admitted that they would not hire a new recruit if they knew they were going to fall pregnant within six months of starting the job.

Employment Law Advisory Services (ELAS) said discrimination was prevalent, despite legislation to outlaw it.

Just another junk survey, meant more to publicise the special interest pressure group behind it (here ELAS) than anything else. Surprise, who would have thought that bosses take into account in hiring the fact that some perspective employee might desert the ship in a matter of months (whether it is officially legal or not to do so). And then expected to bring back on board a year later as if nothing had happened in between. Of course if the survey was somehow provably reliable then at least you could say that this quantified the issue. But surveys like this are never reliable. And in this specific case, it's amazing that more managers do not take pregnancy into consideration, which tends to indicate that those who claimed otherwise are perhaps lying, to avoid appearing to condone something illegal, rather than anything else.

A plan to build world's largest hydroelectric dam (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A plan to build the largest and most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world is being discussed in London.

Financiers and African politicians will look at how to finance the $80bn (£40bn) cost of the Grand Inga project.

The plant in the Democratic Republic of Congo would generate twice as much energy as China's Three Gorges dam.

It is hoped it will boost Africa's electricity supply by a third, but opponents doubt it will help the poorest Africans without electricity.

Dams are generally not the most environmentally friendly source of electricity in the world. On the other hand, the idea that we should oppose it because it will not "help the poorest Africans without electricity" is rather ridiculous. On that excuse nothing would ever get built anywhere. Of course it is important to compensate those who would be directly affected by its construction. This did not happen with the Three Gorges dam. Then again, people in the UK who are affected by construction up and down the country (both by the State and otherwise) are not properly compensated either, so it's not as if this is an issue unique in the developing world.

Date published: 2008/04/20

Rowntree Foundation claims that Britain is a "troubled" society (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A report has painted a picture of Britain as a country troubled by its changing society, with greed and family breakdown among the new "social evils".

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced the list after an internet survey to which some 3,500 people contributed.

It also commissioned discussions with groups of people "whose voices are not usually heard".

The report said people were concerned that "our society has become more individualistic, greedy and selfish".

It went on: "The focus on greed as an issue reflects concern about the growing gulf between the rich and poor.

"Connected to all of these issues was the perception that we no longer share a set of common values and that we have lost our 'moral compass'."

In 1904 Joseph Rowntree, the founder of the social policy charity, identified poverty, war, slavery, intemperance, the opium trade, impurity and gambling as his social evils.

More than 100 years later the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) carried out a consultation to find out what people thought were today's top 10 social evils.

A web-based consultation was held from July to September 2007 at www.socialevils.org.uk. Anyone could contribute to this by visiting the website and listing their top three social evils.

Some 3,500 people took part and a further 100 responses were sent to the foundation by post.

In addition, an effort was made to consult other groups.

"In total, 60 people took part in eight discussion groups held across England and Scotland in September and October 2007," says the foundation.

"Participants were recruited through a number of charitable organisations working with groups of people whose voices are not usually heard, and included people with learning difficulties, ex-offenders, people with experience of homelessness, unemployed people, care leavers and carers.

You would have thought that the Rowntree Foundation would occasionally decide to do something useful with its money other than produce vacuous reports. The first problem with this survey is that the online consultation was of course not representative, since it was not random. And the eight discussion groups were hardly better (too small to mean anything, and it seems mostly of significance for being some politically correct collection of people).

Is it any surprise that the issues allegedly of concern to people just happen to be the issues that the academic middle class people who run the media just happen to be pushing as the issues of the day? And did Rowntree probe these views in any way? For example, did Rowntree ask all the people who thought society was more "individualistic, greedy and selfish" whether they themselves were more "individualistic, greedy and selfish" than (say) their parents? And is there really more "family breakdown" (whatever that means) or a bigger "gulf between the rich and poor" (whatever that means) now than in 1904? Has there been any time in the history of the world when the chattering classes weren't convinced that society was "troubled"?

Unfortunately the BBC seems all too happy to promote this kind of nonsense, since they provide no critical analysis of the report, and just accept that the findings are somehow valid.

Regular breastfeeding is allegedly better (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Giving regular, short breastfeeds is more beneficial than the "baby-led" method, a British study suggests.

Allowing a baby to choose when it feeds, and for how long, is often recommended to new mothers.

A study of 63 mothers in Bradford found regular feeds of up to 10 minutes on each breast led to increased weight gain and a higher breastfeeding rate.

However, midwives said the method suggested in Archives of Disease in Childhood would not apply to everyone.

Another fairly pointless health study. First of all it only consisted of 63 people. Secondly, who is to say that the increased weight gain is a good thing. But thirdly, and most importantly, this is just looking at one thing in isolation and no doubt some other research team could come up with some equally compelling reason why the exact opposite strategy is great. All in all, there is little point in paying any attention to health experts.

Date published: 2008/04/19

Germany observations (permanent blog link)

Germany of course has a pretty good public transportation system (although no doubt the Germans gripe about it just like in every other planet on the face of the Earth). The Karlsruhe area has an unusual system in that the ordinary train tracks are shared with the local trams. No doubt some clever bureaucrat decided this was a clever idea many years ago. But the difference in speed between the best national trains and the local tram is large, so this is perhaps not the best use of the track. (And the trams need two types of power converters to cope with their own track and the train track.)

Germany does have litter and graffiti on the streets and Germany does have drunken yobs on the streets, so just like Britain. Of course the academic middle class people in every country always focuses on its own population as somehow being uniquely squalid, and allegedly uniquely at this point in time. Needless to say this is just silly.

The British always claim that their television is the best in the world. Unfortunately you just have to watch ITV after midnight to see how low British television can sink. You get this young "pretty" woman trying to get callers to ring in to win prizes (an amount of money of the order of a couple of thousand pounds). The callers have to find some specific word, from some selected set, in an N x N table of letters. The calls are expensive and not only do most callers not even get through, but even those who do get through and do suggest a valid word usually don't win because the programme producers have deliberately inserted easy words into the table which are not the ones that are in the selected set. This is trash TV.

Unbelievably German television seems to have sunk even lower. On one of the channels there is a young "pretty" woman with oversized breasts dressed in a bikini. Here the idea is not to find words but to spot the difference between two pictures (so the kind of thing that five year olds can already do). No doubt the odds of getting through and winning are just as low as in the British case, and the prize is of a similar magnitude. What makes this programme particularly bad is that supposedly if someone wins the prize then the woman will remove her bikini top and, even worse, the woman pleads with the viewers to ring in because she allegedly really wants to remove her bikini. This is super-trash TV.

Which? wants even more control on "junk food" advertising (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Junk food advertising makes it difficult to feed children a healthy diet, a consumer survey suggests.

Which? found 83% of those polled believed irresponsible marketing was making it harder to encourage children to eat well.

And most of the 2,000 questioned want the government to do more to control the marketing of unhealthy food to children.

But industry leaders said advertising in the UK is already heavily regulated.

A ban on adverts for junk food during television programmes aimed at children under 16 came into force in January.

However, campaigners had called for a complete ban before the 9pm watershed.

Which? said rules governing junk food advertising on the internet and on packaging were weak or non-existent, while current regulations on television advertising did not apply to the programmes most watched by children.

The poll of people over the age of 16 found 84% think there should be stronger controls on junk food advertising to children.

Which? is the organisation run by and on behalf of the academic middle class, so of course has the usual academic middle class control freak tendencies to ban everything they don't like. This survey should be treated with the usual suspicion of all surveys. First of all, the sample was probably not random. Secondly, the wording of the survey was probably biased. Unfortunately Which? doesn't seem to have put any further information on their website to indicate how this survey was conducted. Even more unfortunately, this kind of junk survey all too easily gets free publicity in the media without any critical analysis.

Date published: 2008/04/15

China allegedly already produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China has already overtaken the US as the world's "biggest polluter", a report to be published next month says.

The research suggests the country's greenhouse gas emissions have been underestimated, and probably passed those of the US in 2006-2007.

The University of California team will report their work in the Journal of Environment Economics and Management.

They warn that unchecked future growth will dwarf any emissions cuts made by rich nations under the Kyoto Protocol.

The team admit there is some uncertainty over the date when China may have become the biggest emitter of CO2, as their analysis is based on 2004 data.

Until now it has been generally believed that the US remains "Polluter Number One".
...
America's per capita emissions are five to six times higher than China's, even though China has become the top manufacturing economy.

Surprise, bigger nations (eventually) have bigger emissions. So what. The per capita emissions are a much more sane measure. On the other hand, population should have some impact on how we view the situation. A country should not be able to expropriate (say) 10% extra emissions for itself just by adding 10% more people. Countries that breed responsibly should not be expected to carry the can for countries that do not.

Even worse than all of this, though, is that emissions should not be counted where goods are produced but where they are consumed. Much of China's emissions are not down to goods for Chinese consumption but for American and European consumption. So the whole concept behind the article is misguided.

Another prediction that sea levels could rise by more than a meter by 2100 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Sea levels could rise by up to one-and-a-half metres by the end of this century, according to a new scientific analysis.

This is substantially more than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast in last year's landmark assessment of climate science.

Sea level rise of this magnitude would have major impacts on low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.
...
The new analysis comes from a UK/Finnish team which has built a computer model linking temperatures to sea levels for the last two millennia.

"For the past 2,000 years, the [global average] sea level was very stable, it only varied by about 20cm," said Svetlana Jevrejeva from the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL), near Liverpool, UK.

"But by the end of the century, we predict it will rise by between 0.8m and 1.5m.
...
Last year, German researcher Stefan Rahmstorf used different methodology but reached a similar conclusion to Dr Jevrejeva's group, projecting a sea level rise of between 0.5m and 1.4m by 2100.

It's not clear why the BBC gives Bangladesh a special mention, since a sea level rise of 1.5m would have a "major" impact on lots of countries, including the UK.

On the serious point, it will be interesting to see if this kind of forecast becomes the scientific consensus, because if it's true the world had better figure out where to move lots of people.

A link between pollution and pneumonia is allegedly found (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

High levels of pollution may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of people in England from pneumonia in recent years, a study suggests.

A team at the University of Birmingham examined death rates from the disease and pollution levels in 352 local authorities between 1996 and 2004.

Writing in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, they reported a "strong correlation" between the two.

But the researchers conceded that social factors may also be at play.
...
But lung specialists said more detailed research was needed before a clear link between pneumonia and exhaust fumes was declared.

"What this paper does show, however, is that there is clear geographical variation in deaths from pneumonia, lung cancer and COPD," said Richard Hubbard of the British Lung Foundation.

"This would suggest that social factors such as deprivation and smoking, and possibly pollution, are important and that there is great potential to prevent deaths from lung disease."

A typical health study. It is easy to find correlations but they prove nothing. It is hard to prove causations so researchers rarely do. Thus the game is to find a correlation and then with a magic "wink, wink, nudge, nudge", imply that in fact the correlation implies a causation. (Hey, we all know that exhaust fumes are bad, so they must be the cause of everything in life that is bad.) Unbelievably, for once the BBC actually points out that the researchers have proven nothing. Usually the BBC just lets the sloppy argument go by without comment.

Date published: 2008/04/14

GCSE geography is supposed to be given a modern make-over (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The impact of Tesco on local high streets is to become part of the syllabus in a modern "make-over" for GCSE geography.

The OCR exam board wants a more contemporary feel for the subject - including topics such as examining the influence of retail giants.

It also proposes studying climate change and the type of flooding that hit Tewkesbury last year.
...
The move to make geography more engaging follows a highly-critical report earlier this year from Ofsted inspectors - who warned that the subject was too often boring and lacking in relevance for young people.
...
This issues-based approach to geography was backed by Friends of the Earth as a sign of "geography GCSE moving with the times".

The environmental campaigners' education co-ordinator, Vicki Felgate, says that "issues such as how our consumer choices impact upon the world around us is vital to giving young people an understanding of how they can be responsible citizens".
...
Robert Whelan, deputy director of the think-tank Civitas, says geography has become a vehicle for promoting environmentalism - which "spoon feeds pious truisms".

"It's part of a process of removing academic content and replacing it with politically correct dogma," he said

These are issues that certainly seem like they ought to be on a modern geography course. The only problem, as Whelan points out, is that it is extremly likely that there will be an academic middle class bias in the presentation. Indeed, the fact that Friends of the Earth (a typical academic middle class organisation) is so keen on the idea already tells you how biased it is likely to be. So when Felgate talks about "giving young people an understanding of how they can be responsible citizens" what she means is that she wants to brainwash kids to believe that Tesco is evil (and indeed, that all corporations above a certain size are evil). Of course the majority of people in the UK do not believe that Tesco is evil, because they shop there (and at other equivalent supermarkets). This drives the academic middle class ballistic. How dare the peasants not do as instructed by the clever clogs of the academic middle class. Unfortunately for FoE (and the other members of the academic middle class), decades of spoon-feeding religious propaganda to students has had little effect, and forcing anti-corporation propaganda down their throats is unlikely to have much effect either (the academic middle class students largely already believe this crap, and the other students will just ignore it).

The Russians allegedly want to send macaques to Mars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

They won't utter Yuri Gagarin's famous phrase "Let's go!" But the monkeys of Sochi have already proven their worth as trailblazers in space - and now they are being groomed for a trip to Mars.

The macaques will be the first to experience the radiation that poses a big risk to astronauts - or Russian cosmonauts - on any flight to the Red Planet.
...
"People and monkeys have approximately identical sensitivity to small and large radiation doses," explains the institute's director, Boris Lapin. "So it is better to experiment on the macaques, but not on dogs or other animals."

The institute will select macaques that may eventually fly to Mars before humans do. After two years of experiments the most suitable 40 monkeys will be sent to the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, where scientists study aerospace biomedicine.
...
In addition to the effects of radiation, space scientists want to see how the monkeys react to prolonged weightless conditions, isolation and a special diet of juices and pureed food.
...
Today Russia is one of the few countries where experiments on primates are carried out.

"Humanity sacrifices more than 100 million animals a year in the name of health and beauty. It's time to think of an alternative to experiments with animals," says Andrei Zbarsky of the international nature conservation group WWF.

"I'm sure scientists will repeat the story of Laika, the first dog in space. Today it's no secret that the dog died from the nervous stress immediately after the rocket launch and its dead body revolved in orbit for two weeks."

Mr Lapin admits that his institute has received some objections from European colleagues concerned about the animal experiments.

A researcher at the institute, Anaida Shaginyan, says "certainly, I feel sorry for the monkeys, they might die, but the experiments are necessary to preserve the lives of the cosmonauts who will fly to Mars in future".

Although these animals are a drop in the ocean of animals used in experiments, it still seems pretty ridiculous that this kind of research is being carried out. Is there a single astronaut anywhere who would not be willing to fly to Mars without having macaques go there first? Even if you ignore the alleged radiation danger, the odds that there would be a successful round trip is probably no better than 50/50 in any case, because of all the spacecraft reliability issues. So all in all this just seems like a colossal waste of time and money.

Date published: 2008/04/13

IMF recognises that food price inflation is a problem for the poor (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that hundreds of thousands of people will face starvation if food prices keep rising.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn said that social unrest from continuing food price inflation could cause conflict.

There have been food riots recently in a number of countries, including Haiti, the Philippines and Egypt.

Meeting in Washington, the IMF called for strong action on food prices and the international financial crisis.

Well it's good that at least some of the top-ranking bureaucrats seem to be paying some attention to this problem. But what can the IMF (or anyone else) do about rising food price inflation, which is caused by huge oil price inflation, increasing populations and quite possibly climate change (both via diversion of land use from food to biofuel crops, and possibly via worse agricultural conditions)? They will just have to hope (like everyone else) that increases in food production might be forthcoming.

Date published: 2008/04/12

Tories agree with Labour about government powers to halt inquiries (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Tories have backed government plans for new attorney general powers to halt inquiries in the national interest.

The move comes after the High Court said the Serious Fraud Office acted unlawfully by dropping its corruption inquiry into the al-Yamamah arms deal.

The SFO is now considering whether to or not to re-open its investigation.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said the question remained whether the al-Yamamah investigation was called off for reasons that were exceptional.

But he strongly backed the principle that governments should be able to set aside an investigation if there is a serious threat to national security.

Increasing the attorney general's power to do so is an element of the government's new Constitutional Renewal Bill.
...
The Liberal Democrats maintain that the attorney general should not get new powers, and want the SFO's investigation re-opened.

For once the Tories and Labour pretty much make sense. But of course the al-Yamamah investigation was not called off because of "a serious threat to national security", it was called off because of a threat to national jobs. But the government ought to have the right to consider that as well, although it would then also be sensible that the courts be allowed a judicial review of each case. And nothing being considered here would of course stop any international investigation of the alleged bribery.

TUC wants the 10p tax rate re-introduced (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Trade unions are urging the government to introduce measures to compensate millions of low-paid workers affected by the abolition of the 10p tax rate.

The TUC says the impact of the changes on the low-paid, combined with generous tax breaks for the super rich, is causing "huge resentment".

It estimates it would cost £550m to help five million affected workers.

Well, when the TUC says "compensate" what they mean of course is that the 10p tax rate should not have been abolished, because any "compensation" would mean exactly that, unless for some reason they think the 10p tax rate should only apply to certain members of the public (the "millions of low-paid workers" who just happen to be TUC members).

And the "huge resentment" at the alleged "generous tax breaks for the super rich" is just there, if it really exists at all, because the TUC and others have come up with this straw man (that if only we soaked rich people even more than we already do, especially rich foreigners, then we would all be better off). Unfortunately the media, including the BBC, is only too happy to oblige to repeat this nonsense without any critical analysis.

For some reason the BBC runs a story about teachers and the credit crunch (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some teachers are being hit by the ongoing credit crunch as their salaries fail to keep pace with their mortgages.

Grants to cash-strapped teachers from the Teacher Support Network charity rose 70% in the first quarter of 2008.

And more teachers struggling with their mortgages sought help from the National Association of School Masters Union of Women Teachers' benevolent fund.

What a bizarre story from the BBC. Are teachers special in any way with regard to the credit crunch? No, so why do they get a special mention? This just sounds like a press release for a special interest pressure group (teachers and their trade unions).

Date published: 2008/04/11

Addenbrooke's management does not like "congestion charge" (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cancer patients needing chemotherapy could be hit by the Cambridge congestion charge, Addenbrooke's Hospital's boss has warned.

Gareth Goodier, chief executive of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, has written a "strongly-worded" letter to Cambridgeshire County Council opposing initial plans which include the hospital in the charging zone.

That could mean patients, visitors and staff arriving between 7.30am and 9.30am being hit by a daily charge of between £3 and £5 - on top of parking fees at the hospital that cost visitors up to £15.

Mr Goodier has warned Brian Smith, the council's deputy chief executive of environment and community services, that the charge would be "prohibitively expensive" for patients undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis, treatments which require regular visits to hospital.

Mr Goodier told the News that his letter expressed the worries of staff, patients and visitors.

He said: "The overwhelming feedback we've received opposes the proposal and calls for the hospital to be outside the congestion charging zone."

Oh, so it is ok for the hospital to extort its staff, patients and visitors huge amounts of money for parking, but it is not ok for the council to extort money from people who drive in Cambridge. Funny that. And surprise, everybody thinks that the congestion charge (which is not a congestion charge, since it bears little relationship to congestion) should not apply to themselves, just to everyone else. As it happens, Addenbrooke's is responsible for a reasonable chunk of the traffic in Cambridge, and certainly on that side of town. Still, everybody (except people who will not suffer, e.g. the cycling brigade) hates the idea of this new tax, and it seems very unlikely it will ever come to fruition.

Cam between Cambridge and Grantchester will not have motorised punts (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to run motorised punts on the River Cam in Cambridge have been scrapped due to concerns over wildlife.

River authority the Cam Conservators has bowed to protests and said engines on punts for public use would be banned from the upper stretch of the river.

The scheme would have shortened journeys to Grantchester for tourists.

The initial planning application to Cambridge City Council prompted about 1,000 people to sign a petition objecting to the plans.

Entrepreneurs Matt Garlick and Alex Ramsey proposed the scheme, claiming it would have cut the journey to Grantchester to half an hour.

This would have made it possible for tourists to make the journey in a single afternoon or morning.

However, the river authority has now sided with environmentalists such as local activist Simon Crowhurst, who described the stretch of river just above the city as "particularly beautiful and ecologically sensitive."

The people who opposed this were not "environmentalists", they were typical academic middle class people who refuse to accept that the world should ever change. And the academic middle class people of Cambridge always particularly get hysterical about the land between Cambridge and Grantchester.

The claim that that stretch of the river is "ecologically sensitive" is a bit of a joke. If so, why allow punts at all? (Many of which are conducted by very drunk students who cause much more damage than any motorised punt would.) Still, Cambridge likes to pretend it is still living in the 17th century (just look at how college Fellows wine and dine) and that stretch of the river epitomises the 17th century idyll. So it would have been crazy to allow motorised punts there just to make a bunch of tourists happy.

Date published: 2008/04/10

Surprise, students do not like paying for university education (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Students have voiced resentment at paying thousands of pounds in fees for only a few hours of lectures a week.

Arts undergraduates on a "student jury" set up by ministers said they should pay less than those on science courses, because they had less teaching time.

Others expressed anxiety about how they would repay the student loans they take out to pay their yearly fees of £3,000.

There should be more transparency about what they were paying fees for, the government report for England said.

Another pointless waste of government money. Surprise, students don't want to pay for their education. Surprise, the immediate government response is to try and force yet more bureaucracy into the system.

Of course the yearly fees have been arbitrarily set to 3000 pounds. But the students are lucky. The actual market value would be much higher. So they should be careful about whinging too much or they will play straight into government hands, and the fees will be doubled and tripled. And since arts degrees do very little for the nation, and science degrees are useful for the nation, you can easily argue that if anything the cost of arts courses should be higher than for science courses.

Date published: 2008/04/09

New York state rejects New York City "congestion charge" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to ease transport gridlock in Manhattan with a congestion charge has been blocked by the state's assembly.

The scheme would have charged most drivers $8 to enter the city's centre between 0600 and 1800 on weekdays.

New York will now forfeit a $354m federal grant intended to kick-start the initiative, which aimed to persuade drivers to use public transport.

The assembly rejected the plan after days of closed-door negotiations.

This proposed new tax would have been an access charge, not a congestion charge, so similar to London. The fact that its proponents cannot even be honest about the name already tells you they are up to no good. But the reason this lost is not because the proponents were dishonest, but because the people who were going to suffer (i.e. the ordinary people of the area, in particular those who do not live in Manhattan) were represented in the assembly (although many were not, e.g. the residents of New Jersey). The reason the London scheme went ahead is because the ordinary people had no say.

It is interesting that the federal bribe seems to have been one of the main arguments put forward as to why this new tax was a good idea. (Well, there are also the usual spurious environmental reasons, which are really all about kicking ordinary people off the roads so that rich people like Bloomberg can get about more easily.) In the same way, the people who want to put a similar scheme in place in Cambridge (England) are using a supposed bribe from central government to justify their scheme. Unbelievably the proposed bribe in Cambridge is allegedly of the order of 500 million pounds, i.e. a billion dollars, so three times what the US federal government was going to bribe New York City with, even though the population of the New York City area is around fifty or a hundred times what that of the Cambridge area is. So in reality the New York City bribe was pathetically small beer, and the Cambridge bribe is ridiculously large, and unlikely to ever manifest itself (at such a high level).

(These schemes are also incredibly inefficient to run. The London scheme makes money only because of penalty notices. So the net "benefit" to the economy is almost certainly negative. Even if you hate cars, this is a bad tax. But hey, why let common sense get in the way of the spite of the ruling elite.)

The British are allegedly no happier now than in 1973 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

After 30 years of unprecedented economic growth, the British are richer, healthier - but no happier than in 1973.

The latest Social Trends, the annual survey on the state of the nation from the Office for National Statistics, looks at how Britain has changed over the last few decades.

It shows that household income has gone up by 60%, and household wealth has more than doubled, in the past twenty years.

The main reason for the rise in wealth has been the increase in house prices.

But the growing wealth has not led to greater happiness.

In 1973, 86% of people said they were satisfied with their standard of living, while in 2006 85% were satisfied.

The figures follow trends from around the world that show that happiness and satisfaction do not correlate with average income once countries reach "middle-income" levels.

And one in six UK adults reported that they suffered from a variety of mental health problems in the latest survey, of which the largest category was "mild anxiety and depression."

Just ask the academic middle class people who write this kind of nonsense for the BBC if they would be happy to have a 40% pay cut and they would soon enough admit that indeed, this story is just nonsense. You are never going to get 100% of people to say that they are happy, and even if you did, does that mean that nobody wants to earn an extra penny? The real question is how many of these people would be happy to go back to the living standards of 1973 (or earlier)? Pretty much nobody (except for some of the usual suspects in the academic middle class who seem to want to go back to 1773, or before).

Date published: 2008/04/08

Depression allegedly linked with Alzheimer's (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who have had depression may be more prone to Alzheimer's disease, two studies suggest.

Dutch researchers found Alzheimer's was 2.5 times more likely in people with a history of depression.

Similarly, US researchers, examining Catholic clergy, found those with signs of depression were more likely to go on to develop Alzheimer's.

The Dutch appears in the journal Neurology and the US study in Archives of General Psychiatry.

The Dutch study was small - 486 people over an average of six years, with just 33 people developing Alzheimer's.

But it found that people who showed signs of depression before the age of 60 were four times more likely to develop Alzheimer's.

The researchers, from the Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, said more work was needed to fully understand the link between Alzheimer's and depression.

Lead researcher Dr Monique Breteler said: "We don't know yet whether depression contributes to the development of Alzheimer's disease, or whether another unknown factor causes both depression and dementia."

Yes, this is a classic case where it is easy to confuse correlation and causation. You could no doubt look at a zillion and one illnesses (not just mental illness like depression) and find a nice little correlation with Alzheimer's for half a zillion of them. (Especially when you have a small sample of people.) It proves nothing, but of course the BBC is always happy to give such research a nice little bit of publicity implying that the causation must be true.

EU loses latest round in WTO banana ruling (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European Union import duties on bananas flout global trade rules, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has ruled.

The WTO case was brought by Ecuador, which, along with other Latin American countries, claims the EU favours Caribbean and African producers.
...
The EU has been accused of giving preferential treatment to its members' ex-colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific region.

EU officials have been working furiously to hammer out new trade deals with about 80 countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) to end special trade relationships that have been in place since the 1950s.

These allowed a range of products, including banana crops from ACP states, to enter the EU with no duty to pay, while Latin America exports were charged.

The EU is clearly in the wrong. These preferential trade relationships are just the tail end of European colonialism. (Spanish colonialism in Latin America presumably did not result in any special deals because Spain entered the EU too late in the game.)

Labour Minister tries to social engineer universities yet again (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

England's universities will be required to have "transparent" admissions policies to convince people they are not biased, the government has decided.

The announcement, by Universities Secretary John Denham, is part of a redoubling of efforts to get 50% of young people into higher education.

He said he wanted universities to show that their staff were implementing their admissions policies fairly.
...
"On the one hand, universities that try to take a student's individual background, the challenges they have faced, into account, are liable to be accused of political correctness and social engineering," he said.

"But on the other, there are plenty of people prepared to take the fact of a disproportionate number of students from more privileged backgrounds at a particular university as prima facie evidence of snobbery and social bias on the part of admissions staff."

Mr Denham added: "While there is no evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with most admissions, ultimately the debate is corrosive of public confidence in the system."

He argued that the answer lay in each university having a published admissions policy and being able to show it could equip all those involved in admissions to implement the policy accurately and fairly - and assure itself that this was happening.

Denham is unbelievable. It is the people who hang around the Labour government who are the people who are interested in social engineering. It is not some anonymous third force. It is these same middle class people who always bleat about alleged bias in admissions (although of course they are happy that their own kids are pushed to the front of the Oxbridge queue). Universities already have published admissions policies (just visit any of their websites). What Denham seems to be really asking for is some perfect algorithmic formula which "proves" that poor kids are just as likely to get into university as rich kids. Unfortunately the phrase "just as likely" is going to be based on school population, not university applications, and since the latter are skewed towards the rich, what Denham and his ilk really want is an admissions procedure provably heavily biased towards the poor. Needless to say, these kids are poorly educated thanks to the crap school system that Denham and the Labour government have done nothing to improve over the past decade for the ordinary kids of Britain. But as always, Denham and the Labour government expect universities to miraculously fix the problem. (The next Tory government will be no better.)

Date published: 2008/04/07

Tories want to ban and forget about disruptive students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Conservatives have outlined plans to ban classroom troublemakers and give powers to protect teachers in England.

Party leader David Cameron said schools would not have to be "penalised" financially for removing persistently badly behaved children.

Good schools would not have to take pupils from bad ones and parents of excluded children would lose the right to appeal to an independent panel.
...
But Schools Minister Jim Knight said the Conservatives' proposals had not been adequately thought through.

He said: "Head teachers have the clear power to exclude disruptive pupils, but they tell us they do not want the appeals process to be abolished as that would see them being dragged through the courts to defend their decisions.

"If head teachers keep the funding for a pupil after they've been excluded, how will the Tories afford to give excluded kids the help and education they need to get back on track?"

Another poorly thought out policy from the Tories. They seem to have no proposals about what will actually happen to these excluded students. Presumably they are happy for them to be roaming the street causing trouble in the community instead of in school.

EADS takes over Surrey Satellite Technology (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe's largest space company, EADS Astrium, looks set to acquire the British satellite manufacturer SSTL.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited started as a spin-out from the University of Surrey in 1985.

It has become the world's leading manufacturer of small satellites, producing low-cost platforms for Earth observation missions.

It also built Giove-A, the first test satellite for Europe's forthcoming Galileo satellite-navigation service.

This is probably the best outcome for all concerned. It means that the British might well get more satellite business in future, and it will also be good for Europe because Surrey Satellite Technology builds satellites pretty cheaply.

Date published: 2008/04/06

New corporate homicide law comes into effect (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new law has come into force which is intended to make it easier to prosecute companies accused of causing death because of negligence.

Under the new offence of corporate manslaughter, employers may face large fines if it is proved they failed to take proper safety precautions.

The old law was criticised for making it too hard to bring prosecutions.

Proof is no longer needed that a single senior official was to blame, only that senior management played a role.

Under the new UK-wide legislation companies may face higher fines of up to 10% of turnover, or more in the most serious cases.

And for the first time the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act will make government bodies liable for prosecution by lifting their Crown immunity.

Justice minister Maria Eagle said: "From Sunday the law ensures improved justice for victims of corporate failures.

Does the new law apply to government ministers? If so, transport ministers could be (and ought to be) prosecuted for homicide every time someone dies on the A14 (or any other road) because the government cannot be bothered to improve the road. And health ministers could be prosecuted for homicide every time someone dies in the NHS due to negligent care brought on by lack of funding. Etc. Soon enough the entire cabinet would be behind bars. But, after all, governmental homicide is just as bad as corporate homicide, so fair is fair.

UK families allegedly in meltdown (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A senior family court judge has hit out at the government over what he says is an "epidemic" of family failure that will have "catastrophic" effects.

In a speech, Mr Justice Coleridge, a Family Division judge for England and Wales, warned the results could be as destructive as global warming.

He said ministers are not doing enough about a "meltdown" in family life.
...
Using very strong language, Mr Justice Coleridge warned of a bleak future if the UK did not address the problems he described.

He said "the effects of family breakdown" would, within the next 20 years, be "as marked and as destructive as the effects of global warming".

"We are experiencing a period of family meltdown whose effects will be as catastrophic as the meltdown of the ice caps," said the judge, who added that its effects pose "as big a threat to the future of our society as terrorism, street crime or drugs".

Mr Justice Coleridge said the collapse of family life is at a scale and severity that would have been unimaginable even 10 years ago.

"What is certain is that almost all of society's social ills can be traced directly to the collapse of the family life," he said.

Anyone who wants to claim that the world is at an end, and then says that "ministers are not doing enough", ought to, at the very least, explain what he thinks ministers should be doing. Otherwise he might as well be complaining that gravity is down instead of up.

Date published: 2008/04/05

Gordon Brown says not a lot about the global financial crisis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world is facing "the first truly global financial crisis", the prime minister has told leaders.

Gordon Brown said institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations need reform to tackle the double threat of economic turmoil and climate change.

Speaking at the start of the Progressive Governance conference of centre-left leaders and politicians, Mr Brown said that the old institutions established in the aftermath of World War II were now unable to cope.
...
"We now have to reshape our global rules and global institutions for this new era," he said.

"We are facing a global financial crisis which is probably the first truly global financial crisis of the modern world.

"We have to reform our global financial institutions. It is absolutely clear that the national supervision that we have is inadequate and we need a global agreement."

The prime minister said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) needed complete re-structuring so it could act as an "early warning system" for the international economy.

He said the World Bank should help developing nations move towards cleaner economic development.

Where would we be without Gordon Brown? We hardly need the IMF to be an "early warning system". There were plenty of sane economists (and others) who predicted a bad end to the housing boom in the States (and the UK). It's just that as long as a pyramid scheme is on the up, there are many people who are willing to play along with the idea that the laws of economics have somehow been suspended. And it was never going to be perfectly predictable exactly when the pyramid scheme would go bust. It just happens to have gone bust in 2007, and the whole world is now feeling the impact. It is not helped by the fact that we could be at or near peak oil, so the price of energy, and hence everything else, has soared. For some reason the governments of the world seem less concerned about that.

Date published: 2008/04/04

Some doctor thinks there are too many female medical students (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The rising number of female doctors is "bad for medicine", and universities should recruit more men, a GP warns.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Dr Brian McKinstry said female doctors were more likely to work part-time, leading to staffing problems.

Women, who now outnumber men in medical schools, were also less likely to take part in training or research, he said.

But opponents said the best candidates should be chosen regardless of gender and flexible working policies improved.
...
Women now outnumber men in most UK medical schools by three to two.
...
"I think medical school numbers should reflect society generally and we need a more even split between men and women."

In Scotland where he works, figures show that women GPs contribute about 60% of the activity of their male counterparts in training, teaching, research and committee work, he said.

A separate piece in the BMJ pointed out costs associated with poor performance, litigation, re-education, and rehabilitation were consistently higher for male doctors.

All a bit silly and sterile this discussion. Hopefully UK medical schools are more worried about the competence of their students than anything else (since a lot of doctors seem not to be). On the other hand, in any area where men outnumber women we are told that the world is at an end and that women are being blatantly discriminated against.

Boeing tests a small hydrogen-powered plane (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The first manned, hydrogen-powered plane has been successfully tested in the skies above Spain, its makers say.

The small, propeller-driven craft, developed by aviation giant Boeing, made three short flights at an airfield south of Madrid, the company said.

It was powered by hydrogen fuel cells, which produce only heat and water as exhaust products.

The tests could pave the way for a new generation of greener aircraft, the company said.
...
Three test flights of the two-seater aircraft took place in February and March at an airfield at Ocana, south of Madrid. The plane was modified to include a hybrid battery and fuel cell system developed by UK firm Intelligent Energy.
...
During take-off the planes batteries were used to provide an additional boost, but whilst in the air, the plane relied entirely on the cells.

Boeing said the plane has a flying time of 45 minutes but tests were limited to around half that time.

Although the test had been successful, the firm said it did not believe fuel cells could be the primary power source for large passenger aircraft.

However, it could be used as a secondary source of energy for large planes, according to Nieves Lapena, the engineer responsible for the test flights, but this may take some time to develop.

"In my opinion, we are talking about a delay of about twenty years," she said.

Right now an interesting curiosity, but it will need a major leap forward, in particular to do with battery technology, before this is useful. And unfortunately the BBC falls into the usual hydrogen-fuel hype of only looking at what happens when the hydrogen is burned (which as the article says, only produces heat and water), not how the hydrogen is produced in the first place. It is the same problem when they discuss wind, solar or even nuclear power. There is little point looking at one small part of a system lifecycle and claiming something is "green" just because of that. One has to look at the entire end-to-end system.

Date published: 2008/04/02

EU heavy industry emissions up by 1.1% in 2007 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Carbon dioxide emissions from Europe's heavy industry sectors rose by 1.1% in 2007, say carbon market analysts.

The estimate is based on initial data from the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which includes more than 10,000 large industrial plants.

Environmentalists say it shows that the scheme, the EU's main mechanism to meet its Kyoto target, is not working.

But market watchers say the ETS, in the long term, will help deliver the EU goal of cutting emissions by 20%.

It would be better to have a carbon tax than the ETS, which has been, and can be, gamed. On the other hand, the so-called environmentalists are wrong (as usual). This rise does not show that the scheme "is not working". First of all, it is only one year, and anybody who treats one data point as significant of anything is more interested in political posturing than in reality. Secondly, we have no way of knowing what would have happened without the ETS. The rise could easily have been more. Unfortunately, there is one fatal flaw of the ETS, and of any scheme that just involves Europe, namely that to get around the tax, European countries can just export (at least some of) their emissions to China (and elsewhere).

UK homes are not very energy efficient and there is little incentive to be so (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government must do more to improve the energy efficiency of existing homes, MPs have said.

A drive for improvements in new homes means "insufficient priority" for existing stock, the communities and local government committee said.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn agreed the energy efficiency of older buildings must be improved, adding that "simple steps" would cut emissions.
...
Ministers have promised to make every new home built in England "zero carbon" from 2016.

But the committee said current housing policy "risks neglecting the environmental impact" of the UK's existing housing stock of more than 25 million homes.
...
The committee also proposes that energy performance certificates, contained in Home Information Packs (HIPs), be required for homeowners seeking planning permission.
...
"We need neither a mass demolition programme followed by the construction of replacement eco-homes nor to preserve every last pre-1919 building precisely as it was on the day it was built."

MPs have a habit of producing reports that say nothing new, and this one is no exception. Their one suggestion quoted in the article, that "energy performance certificates ... be required for homeowners seeking planning permission" (of any sort???) is just plain silly. It's just adding cost to what is already a ridiculously over-bureaucratic (and hence over-costly) procedure, for no real reason and no real gain.

In a coordinated article, the BBC says:

UK home-owners are not prepared to make the changes needed to live in "zero carbon" homes, according to a report.

People felt the eco-friendly buildings would require extra maintenance and that they would have to cut back on certain appliances, it added.

The National House-Building Council (NHBC) Foundation study said buyers also feared the homes would cost more.
...
The findings of the report were based on more than 500 interviews with homeowners and nine focus groups, which were carried out by research organisation EPR.

Despite widespread media coverage of climate change, the study found that energy efficiency was not a major factor when it came to choosing a new home.

Instead, it said, most respondents would prefer a better kitchen or bathroom.

NHBC chief executive Imtiaz Farookhi said the results came as no surprise.

"What has happened since the Stern Review is that there has been a general understanding of global warming and carbon emissions," he told BBC News.

But the debate about house building has largely been between government, regulators and the construction industry; in short, the supply side.

"The demand side - home-buyers and home-owners - actually haven't been involved in this process.

"Unless people actually understand and engage in this, they are not going to be willing to buy these homes and change their lifestyles."

Any study carried out by the NHBC of course has to be taken with a pinch of salt. But they are correct. The ruling elite have ignored home-buyers and home-owners because who cares what the peasants think. Most of the scare stories about global warming that the ruling elite place in the media focus on the alleged evil of the car and plane, and nothing else, and certainly not homes. And the government has set the tax on domestic gas and electricity supplies to be just 5%, so way below the near 400% tax it puts on petrol. So it's really not at all surprising that home owners would rather worry about their kitchen than about their insulation. They are not paying anywhere near the correct environmental price for their domestic energy consumption.

Surprise, seeds last longer in fields than expected (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Seeds of some genetically modified crops can endure in soil for at least 10 years, scientists have discovered.

Researchers in Sweden examined a field planted with experimental oilseed rape a decade ago, and found transgenic specimens were still growing there.

This was despite intensive efforts in the intervening years to remove seeds.

No GM crop has been found to endure so long; and critics say it shows that genetically modified organisms cannot be contained once released.
...
Non-GM varieties were used in the 10-year-old study as well, and some of these had also survived.

"I wouldn't say that the transgenic varieties are able to survive better," said Dr D'Hertefeldt. "It's just that oilseed rape is a tough plant."

Jeremy Sweet, a former head of the UK's National Institute of Agricultural Botany and now an independent consultant on biotech crops, agreed.

"It's been known for some time that oilseed rape is a bit of a problem because of the survival of its seed," he told BBC News.

"It means that if farmers want to swap [from growing GM rape] to conventional varieties, they will have to wait for a number of years."
...
Two years ago, the UK government published a consultation paper (which refers to England only - Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland regulations are dealt with by the devolved administrations) including proposals on issues such as minimum distances between fields growing biotech and conventional varieties, compensation, and labelling of GM foods.

Campaign groups say the proposals are too weak, notably that farmers would not be liable for environmental impacts of the crops they grow.

Surprise, Mother Nature trumps all.

If "campaign groups" want GM farmers to "be liable for environmental impacts of the crops they grow" then hopefully they also want non-GM farmers to be liable in the same way. Anyone who lives anywhere near an oilseed rape field will now and again find oilseed rape plants growing in their garden. Should they be able to sue the farmer? (And it is not just oilseed rape plants, of course. Should you be able to sue your neighbour for dandelions?)

And this idea that it is the end of the world if there is an odd GM plant in a generally non-GM field is driven by ideology rather than common sense or science. Why should farmers "have to wait for a number of years"? Only because "campaign groups" dictate that this should be the case because they get hysterical about the odd molecule for which they have religious objections.

Europe, as usual, is extremely backwards when it comes to GM crops. The BBC unfortunately fails to give a sensible analysis.

Date published: 2008/04/01

Government wants to offer health checks to everyone aged 40 to 74 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Everyone aged 40 to 74 in England will be offered health checks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and kidney disease under new government plans.

Ministers believe the assessments will save lives and cut the number of people affected by these conditions.

Patients will visit a practice nurse or healthcare assistant and have a blood test. They will then be given advice or any necessary preventative treatment.

But doctors have doubts over how effective the screening will be.
...
Ministers said that computer modelling shows that offering the checks to those aged 40 to 74 - approximately a third of the population - will save 2,000 lives a year and prevent 9,500 heart attacks and strokes.

This plan will not "save 2,000 lives a year". It might prolong lives, it will not "save" them, since everybody eventually has to die. The question that is unfortunately not asked by the BBC is whether this plan is good value for money. The government should distribute their wonderful computer model for others to verify.

Some House of Lords committee does not like immigrants (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Record levels of immigration have had "little or no impact" on the economic well-being of Britons, an influential House of Lords committee has said.

It says competition from immigrants has had a negative impact on the low paid and training for young UK workers, and has contributed to high house prices.

The peers want a limit on immigration levels - a view backed by the Tories.

Minister Liam Byrne says migration has added £6bn to the economy and a points system is preferable to a cap.

In their report, The Economic Impact of Immigration, the peers said the government "should have an explicit target range" for immigration and set rules to keep within that limit.
...
They rejected claims by ministers that a high level of immigration was needed to prevent labour shortages as "fundamentally flawed".

The Little Englanders in the House of Lords have spoken, and mostly nonsense (although you can always spin things as you see fit). There are hundreds if not thousands of companies up and down the country who will tell you that they would be in serious trouble were it not for immigrants. Immigrants do work that the Brits do not want to do, and mostly better than the Brits would do even if the Brits did want to do the work. The House of Lords committee heard testimony about this and seems to have just ignored it, since it evidently didn't fit their prejudice.

And you can bet your last pound that the very same people who wrote this report take full advantage of using immigrant workers themselves.

Hopefully the government will ignore this report. But the next government will likely be Tory, and so the Little Englanders will then be running the country. Expect Fortress England to head downhill.

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