Azara Blog: May 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/05/31

A small number of people protest against third runway at Heathrow (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of campaigners opposed to plans for a third runway at Heathrow joined a protest rally outside the west London airport.

An estimated 3,000 protesters marched from Hatton Cross to Sipson, the village that would be lost if the planned runway goes ahead.

They then gathered to form a giant "NO", that could be seen from the air.

Campaigners say the planned expansion would have a serious impact on hundreds of thousands of homes in the area.

But business groups and airlines claim the third runway is essential.
Protester Anna Serdaris, 50, from Athens, said: "We have the same problem at Athens airport and I felt I needed to show my support.

"It's ironic that I've had to fly here this morning to protest against airport expansion but people need to listen."
Event organiser Tamsin Omond heralded the demonstration a success.

She said: "We've had 3,000 people make the effort to come out here and tell the government we don't want a third runway. And it's not just the usual suspects."

Gee whiz, a whole 3000. That certainly merited coverage on the BBC (two stories, not just one). Unfortunately as usual the BBC did not bother challenging the arguments of the protestors (well, perhaps because their only argument is that they don't like airports, but that would be being too kind to the BBC).

Omond is incorrect in her assertion. It was just the usual suspects: disgruntled locals and the standard academic middle class protestors. It would be interesting to know how many of the protestors themselves fly. But of course, it's ok for the academic middle class to fly, it's just the peasants who should be denied the privilege.

Needless to say, on this score Serdaris takes the prize for hypocrisy (although she calls it "irony" because it sounds better). She has obviously not listened to her own message. But, again, she evidently believes it is ok for her to fly if it prevents other people from flying. Just like some anti-abortionists believe it is ok to kill in order to stop other people from "killing", even though killing is allegedly wrong.

Yet more anti-smoking proposals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cigarette vending machines and packets of 10 could be outlawed under government plans aimed at preventing children and young people smoking.

The plans, which include banning branding and logos, apply to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Similar plans have been unveiled in Scotland.

More control freakery from the academic middle class people who rule over Britain. If smoking is allegedly so evil, then why not just ban it rather than continually introduce more and more of these pathetic measures.

Date published: 2008/05/30

Tony Blair launches a so-called Faith Foundation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Former prime minister Tony Blair has launched a faith foundation to tackle global poverty, challenge conflict and unite the world's religions.

Mr Blair, who is a Roman Catholic, unveiled the foundation in New York.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation has three aims: to promote faith as a force for good, improve awareness between religions and tackle poverty and war.

Mr Blair said there was "nothing more important" than creating understanding between different faiths and cultures.

Unfortunately when you have spent the last four years of your premiership bombing the hell out of another country for no good reason other than to suck up to the president of the United States, you are not left with much credibility on this front.

At least one BBC reporter does not hate GM crops (permanent blog link)

Jeremy Cook says on the BBC:

I have to confess, until now the whole debate about genetically-modified (GM) food has pretty much passed me by.

Most of my career has been spent as a foreign correspondent.

But last summer I returned to the UK to start a new job with the BBC. I now glory in the title Rural Affairs Correspondent.

A big part of my new brief is to report on farming. It is my (sometimes painful) duty to attend agriculture conferences and seminars. I also meet many farmers on their farms.

And over the months, time and time again the issue of GM has been raised.

I have been left in no doubt that many UK farmers - and others in the food production industry - think that GM is an important tool which can improve their efficiency, but which has been denied to them.

All of this, you could argue, counts for very little. Of course, farmers want to increase yields, or get the same yield using less land, lest sprays, less fertiliser.

And anyway, did not we as a nation make up our minds about GM almost a decade ago?

You remember: environmentalists successfully branded GM "Frankenstein Food" - they warned us of the dangers of contaminating our environment, and of unleashing powerful and unpredictable forces into the British countryside.

As a nation we came down on their side of the argument. Although there is no law against growing GM in the UK, the regulations mean it is a hostile environment for the agri-business brigade. And so it remains.

So why go back to the debate? Well, two reasons strike me immediately.

The first is that - unlike 10 years ago - we are now gripped in a global food crisis. Where there were once grain mountains there are now shortages.

The second thing that has changed is the fact that in other parts of the world GM is now being grown in massive amounts. It is reckoned that an area twice the size of Britain is now under GM crops.

And guess what? There have so far been no reports of the environmental or human health disasters which we were all warned about.

So with that in mind, I set out with a question: is it time to rethink GM?

And he goes on at length from there. Needless to say, it mostly makes sense. Unfortunately the academic middle class people who opposed (and continue to oppose) GM crops mostly did so for religious reasons. That is, they dislike corporations (just because they dislike corporations) and they dislike most modern technology (just because they dislike most modern technology). And unfortunately the people who were not religious on this score were drowned out by the people who were. In particular the media (including the BBC) are partly to blame for the current situation since they allowed the religious zealots (and continue to allow the religious zealots) free air time without any intellectual challenge to their religious dogma. Europe will be a backwater for a long time on this front, if not forever.

Date published: 2008/05/29

Another review of biodiversity is made (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Damage to forests, rivers, marine life and other aspects of nature could halve living standards for the world's poor, a major report has concluded.

Current rates of natural decline might reduce global GDP by about 7% by 2050.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) review is modelled on the Stern Review of climate change.

It will be released at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Bonn, where 60 leaders have pledged to halt deforestation by 2020.
The document to be released at the CBD is an interim report into what the team acknowledges are complex, difficult and under-researched issues.

The 7% figure is largely based on loss of forests. The report will acknowledge that the costs of losing some ecosystems have barely been quantified.

The trends are understood well enough - a 50% shrinkage of wetlands over the past 100 years, a rate of species loss between 100 and 1,000 times the rate that would occur without 6.5 billion humans on the planet, a sharp decline in ocean fish stocks and one third of coral reefs damaged.

However, putting a monetary value on them is probably much more difficult, the team acknowledges, than putting a cost on climate change.

It's always interesting to see these kinds of calculations but they are by their very nature incomplete and imprecise, so in particular backed up with poor data resulting in huge error bars. And of course these kinds of reports always result in the people producing them telling us that it is the poor of the world who do worse when things go wrong. What a surprise, who would have thought it. But it is not only rather partronising to the citizens of the poor world, it is short-sighted because it ignores the citizens of the rich world. Governments of the world are elected to make their own citizens better off, not the citizens of the rest of the world. Unless ordinary citizens of rich countries see that things are being done to make their own situation better and not worse, the academic middle class people who produce these reports are asking to be ignored.

David King supports nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nuclear energy would be a good way to meet higher demands for power when electric cars grow in popularity, an ex-government scientific adviser says.

Better rechargeable batteries for cars will lead to a "shift" from petrol-fuelled vehicles to electric alternatives, Sir David King predicted.

Raising the proportion of nuclear power used by the National Grid to 35% would help to meet new demands, he added.
Greenpeace claims that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% some time after 2025.

And environmental group Friends of the Earth has warned that huge sums of taxpayers' money would be needed to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.

It has criticised the "disastrous performance, broken promises and escalating bills to the taxpayer", which it claims have resulted from the UK's nuclear programme.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks said the organisation needed to live in the "real world", however.

"Within the space of two days, Friends of the Earth have told us we not only need to wean ourselves off oil, but that we should also close our minds to nuclear power, one of the cheapest forms of low carbon energy available," he added.

What King says is all pretty obvious but of course the obvious facts rarely get much air time on the BBC because instead they give far too much air time to so-called environmental organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (needless to say, both the BBC and these organisations are run by people with the same academic middle class mentality). It is doubling amusing here to see Wicks put down FoE, as hardly any politician is ever willing to do so. And Greenpeace's comments are equally inane as those of the FoE. If one were being as disingenous as they are, one could interpret what they are saying as that they would prefer 20 or 30 new reactors instead of 10, so that an even bigger impact is made.

King's point that in the not too distant future cars will be run by electricity instead of petrol is an important point. So-called environmental organisations spend a lot of their time and effort trying to screw car drivers, who for some reason (along with airplane passengers) should be the only people in Britain to pay a carbon tax, and who, for some reason, should massively subsidise non-drivers in Britain. Of course these so-called environmental organisations would like to pretend that the reason they hate car drivers so much is because of global warming. But they know, as well as King, that in the medium term most cars will be run by electricity rather than petrol, and that electricity will more-and-more be generated from lower emission sources. So will they stop their anti-car campaign in the future, or even now and instead help to achieve this desirable goal? Probably not, because it's quite likely that what most of them really object to is an independently mobile working class. There is nothing worse than having the peasants being able to go where they want, when they want, without the academic middle class control freaks being able to stop them from doing so.

Date published: 2008/05/28

Government wants to make drawings of child abuse illegal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drawings and computer-generated images of child sex abuse would be made illegal under proposals announced by Justice Minister Maria Eagle.

Owners of such images would face up to three years in prison under the plans.

The Obscene Publications Act makes it illegal to sell or distribute photos of child abuse but it is legal to own drawings and computer-generated images.

Ms Eagle said the proposed move would "help close a loophole that we believe paedophiles are using".

If there is one thing New Labour will be remembered for, it will be for wholesale removal of civil liberties. Why stop here? Why not make it illegal to have pornography? Why not make it illegal to show violence on TV or in films or in any media? Why not make it illegal to discuss or think about anything that might be illegal? Well, no doubt New Labour (and their clones in Cameron's Tories) will eventually suggest these as also desirable. We will soon hear that anything the government doesn't like is a "loophole" (a nice, loaded term) that some criminal element or other is "using" (presumably she meant "abusing", another nice, loaded term). Britain is not a nation of shopkeepers. Britain is a nation of control freaks.

Gordon Brown seems keen on nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown has said the UK needs to increase its nuclear power capacity - raising the prospect of plants being built in new locations.

The prime minister said that with oil prices soaring, it was time to be "more ambitious" for nuclear plans.

No 10 sources said it was "open" as to whether new sites might be needed.

Ministers announced in January they backed new plants, but the focus was on replacing existing nuclear capacity as plants reached the end of their life.

And a review of possible sites published at the same time focused on 14 locations where there have been nuclear power plants before.

Since then Business Secretary John Hutton has said he wants the nuclear industry to go beyond replacing its 23 ageing reactors, which provide 20% of the UK's electricity.
Energy companies, rather than the government, build power stations and the January statement was important in encouraging private firms to invest in new plants.

The planning system is already being changed to make it easier for key infrastructure projects such as nuclear power to get planning permission.

French firm EDF has said it plans to construct four plants without subsidies in the UK - the first by 2017.

But critics of nuclear energy say it is expensive, creates radioactive waste and could become a target for terrorists.

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

The Greenpeace statement is just the silliness one expects from them. You can always state that any specific X, Y or Z is only a few percent of emissions. It hardly means one shouldn't go for these reductions. There is no magic bullet with emissions (at least not yet). Major reductions in carbon emissions will take lots of little contributions adding up to a big total. Unfortunately Greenpeace and other so-called environmentalists live in a black and white world, and behave like spoiled brats when anyone dares to suggest that the world is in fact grey.

On the other hand, it is probably no coincidence that the BBC also chose to run a competing story on the same day (since the BBC is dominated by the same academic middle class people that run Greenpeace, and so are mostly anti-nuclear):

The cost of cleaning up the UK's ageing nuclear facilities, including some described as "dangerous", looks set to rise above £73bn, the BBC has learned.

A senior official at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority said the bill would rise by billions of pounds.

Nineteen sites across the country, some dating from the 1950s, are due to be dismantled in the coming decades.

A spokesman for the Department for Business said it was ready for an adjustment in the clean-up costs.

In January, the National Audit Office said that the cost of decommissioning ageing power sites had risen from £12bn to £73bn.

Needless to say, the clean-up costs were somthing that was never budgeted for properly when nuclear plants were first commissioned, and it's not at all clear that the situation has changed since the 1950s. So it's quite possible that Gordon Brown is lumbering future generations with equally massive clean-up bills (of course this will be denied). Right now, though, nuclear looks like an important technology for the medium term.

Date published: 2008/05/27

MPs might stop expenses and instead get a huge pay rise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

MPs could seek to avoid future expenses criticism by awarding themselves an automatic lump sum of £23,000 a year for second homes, it has emerged.

A Commons Members Estimate Committee review of MPs' expenses, led by Speaker Michael Martin, is looking at the plan.

It would avoid the need for MPs to submit claims backed by receipts. But Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker said: "It's an outrageous idea."

A spokesman for the committee said it was too early to specify its findings.

This would cover payments for a mortgage around 250k pounds in size (plus or minus, depending on term, interest rate, etc.). You couldn't buy a closet in London for that, but it would obviously be a big boost towards buying a house. But why should the public be subsidising MPs' housing? This whole expenses fiasco started because MPs wanted to award themselves a large pay rise but also wanted to pretend it wasn't a pay rise. Well, that is what this is, and they shouldn't still go around pretending it is anything else, using phrases such as "automatic lump sum".

Phoenix spacecraft lands on Mars (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nasa says its Phoenix spacecraft is in good health after making the first successful landing in the north polar region of Mars.

Images sent back show a flat valley floor with polygonal features that give the ground a "paved" appearance.

These are believed to be a sign of the water-ice that lies just beneath the surface at these high latitudes.

The ice should be within reach of the probe's 2.35m-long robotic arm, which is due to be deployed this week.

The arm can dig through the topsoil to the ice beneath and scoop up samples to return to the lander's deck for analysis.

Humans manage to land another probe on Mars without crashing it, it shouldn't be big news in 2008 but is. And the bonus is that there is now some exciting science to come.

Date published: 2008/05/26

Some group of MPs plugs "personal carbon credits" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government should go ahead with a system of personal "carbon credits" to meet emissions targets, MPs have said.

The Environmental Audit Committee said the scheme would be more effective than taxes for cutting carbon emissions.

Under the scheme people would be given an annual carbon limit for fuel and energy use - which they could exceed by buying credits from those who use less.

Environment minister Hilary Benn said there were practical drawbacks to the plan although it did have "potential".
Committee chairman Tim Yeo said it found that personal carbon trading had "real potential to engage the population in the fight against climate change and to achieve significant emissions reductions in a progressive way".

He said "green" taxes, such as a petrol tax, cost poor people more because everyone - "billionaires and paupers" - paid the same amount.

"Under the personal carbon trading, someone who perhaps doesn't have an enormous house or swimming pool, someone who doesn't take several holidays in the Caribbean every year, will actually get a cash benefit if they keep a low carbon footprint."

He said it could be administered by the private sector, following the model of supermarket loyalty schemes in which a complex computer system is accessed by a "single plastic card".

But Mr Benn said there were problems with the plan: "It's got potential but, in essence, it's ahead of its time, the cost of implementing it would be quite high, and there are a lot of practical problems to overcome."

Mr Benn said that the report found the cost of introducing the scheme would be between £700 million and £2 billion, and would cost £1bn-£2bn a year to run.

There would also be difficulties in deciding how to set the rations, taking into account a person's age, location and health.

It is unbelievable that Yeo (who, along with many other MPs, is one of the biggest carbon emitters in Britain, much of it paid for by the taxpayer), can put his name to such a report. In effect this proposal for "personal carbon credits" is just a very expensive, impractical and second-rate version of a carbon tax.

And to directly contradict one of Yeo's remarks, the whole point of a carbon tax should be that everyone (and this includes companies, not just individuals) pays the same amount. Otherwise there is every incentive for some people (e.g. the rich citizens of the EU) to pay other people (e.g. the poor citizens of China) to produce emissions on their behalf, while pretending that their own emissions have been reduced.

Even the committee itself mentions many major problems with their proposal (and leaves out many others, e.g. cost):

Any system they come up with will be fairly arbitrary and therefore rightly deemed to be unfair by millions of people.

A straight-forward carbon tax makes much more sense than this proposal. You can easily change the tax and benefit system so that poorer people end up no worse off under a carbon tax (e.g. by raising personal allowance thresholds). It is just that some theoreticians insist on doing something complicated and expensive rather than simple and cheap. Needless to say, it keeps them employed, but it is not much use to anyone else.

Joan Ruddock sticks two fingers up to the workers of Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is coming under mounting pressure from hauliers and its own MPs to change its mind on measures that threaten to raise the cost of driving.

The Labour MPs say poorer motorists will suffer most from plans to increase road taxes on more polluting cars.

Road hauliers are also angry that fuel duty is set to rise by 2p this autumn.

But environment minister Joan Ruddock said that while she sympathised with motorists, the government "could not lose sight of the environment agenda".
Ms Ruddock said the government had already shown sympathy for motorists by delaying the 2p increase in fuel duty until the autumn.

She said the environment would benefit from the plan to increase road taxes on more polluting cars.

The changes, due to come into effect next year, will mean cars will be put in one of 13 bands from A to M, based on their carbon emissions.

Owners of the most polluting cars in band M will pay £440 in tax. And from April 2010, people buying the most polluting cars would pay a one-off "showroom tax" of up to £950.

Ms Ruddock added: "What we can't do is lose sight of the environment agenda because this is everybody's future, the future of the planet."

She denied the retrospective aspect of the policy was unfair.

"Over a 10 year period...I think the direction we have been going in has been clear to people at the time," she said.

Although the Labour government has long since passed its sell-by date, one nice thing that this government has achieved over the previous Tory government is that Labour ministers have generally been a lot less arrogant than their Tory predecessors (Michael Howard, Kenneth Clarke, etc.). Unfortunately Joan Ruddock seems to want to prove that she can be just as ridiculous as the Tories. It is blatantly obvious that any retrospective tax measure is unfair. She is rich, so will not suffer. Unfortunately the entire tenet of the so-called environmental movement in Britain seems to be to screw the working class. And given that all three main UK political parties are fairly well dominated by the academic middle class, it is pretty obvious that no matter which party is in power the working class is going to get screwed. At some point some populist (so someone similar to Blair, not the old Etonian Cameron) will step in and the academic middle class will discover that most of the country don't actually support them or their ideas. Meanwhile the Labour government will find that, although the Tories and Lib Dems are willing to hammer car drivers just as much as Labour is, the people will take it out on Labour at the next election.

Jimmy Carter claims Israel has 150 nuclear weapons or more (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ex-US President Jimmy Carter has said Israel has at least 150 atomic weapons in its arsenal.

The Israelis have never confirmed they have nuclear weapons, but this has been widely assumed since a scientist leaked details in the 1980s.

Mr Carter made his comments on Israel's weapons at a press conference at the annual literary Hay Festival in Wales.

He also described Israeli treatment of Palestinians as "one of the greatest human rights crimes on earth".

Mr Carter gave the figure for the Israeli nuclear arsenal in response to a question on US policy on a possible nuclear-armed Iran, arguing that any country newly armed with atomic weapons faced overwhelming odds.

"The US has more than 12,000 nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union (sic) has about the same; Great Britain and France have several hundred, and Israel has 150 or more," he said.

"We have a phalanx of enormous capabilities, not only of weaponry but also of rockets to deliver every one of those missiles on a pinpoint accuracy target."

Most experts estimate that Israel has between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads, largely based on information leaked to the Sunday Times newspaper in the 1980s by Mordechai Vanunu, a former worker at the country's Dimona nuclear reactor.

The US, a key ally of Israel, has in general followed the country's policy of "nuclear ambiguity", neither confirming or denying the existence of its assumed arsenal.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert included Israel among a list of nuclear states in comments in December 2006, a week after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates used a similar form of words during a Senate hearing.

Former Israeli military intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi-Farkash told Reuters news agency he considered Mr Carter's comments "irresponsible".

"The problem is that there are those who can use these statements when it comes to discussing the international effort to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons," he said.

The media is hilarious. Jimmy Carter (a nice enough chap) can mention some semi-random figure off the top of his head and the media treat it like a deep and thorough analysis, worthy of reporting to the world, whereas other people eminently more qualified would just be ignored.

But Zeevi-Farkash's comments take the biscuit. So it seems that if someone dares to point out that Israel has loads of nuclear weapons then people might think that perhaps there is no real reason why Iran should not have some as well. Well, he is the one who evidently thinks this is true.

Date published: 2008/05/25

Boris Johnson scraps deal with Venezuela (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Boris Johnson has decided not to renew the controversial oil deal agreed by his predecessor with Venezuela.

The deal with Caracas, was essentially an oil-for-advice exchange, an exchange that Mr Johnson labelled "crackers" during his election campaign
Mayor Johnson will be quick to point to this decision as well as his move to scrap "the Mayor's personal newspaper" The Londoner, which had an annual budget of £2.9 million, as evidence that he isn't taking long to live up to his manifesto pledge of getting better value for money from City Hall's £11 billion annual budget.
Ken Livingstone argued that the deal his administration agreed with Venezuela's state oil company would lead to a quarter of a million of the poorest Londoners benefiting from half price bus and tram travel.

Mr Livingstone maintained that the scheme, whose beneficiaries were those receiving Income Support payments from the government, would lead to a rise in the living standards of some of the most deprived people in the capital.

He has repeated that claim today, and it may well be echoed by those benefiting from the discounted travel.

Boris Johnson has said he will honour the concessions that the scheme provides until its original end date - August this year - but those that had taken it up will be asking where they will find the money to cover the dent in their back pockets.

Transport for London figures show that after three months of the scheme 56,000 people had taken it up.

And whilst this may not quite be as many as the 250,000 claimed by Mr Livingstone there may still be some disgruntled Londoners for Mr Johnson to soothe; how, or if he'll do this he hasn't said.

Johnson does not have to worry too much about these "disgruntled Londoners" since probably hardly any of them voted for him. This Venezuela deal was particularly unsavoury (stealing money from the dirt poor of Venezuela to help the somewhat poor of London in order to improve the image of Chavez) and so it is good that Johnson has at least scrapped that.

And of course it's early days in the Johnson administration so it remains to be seen whether he can really permanently cut back on the marketing and spin that characterises all bureaucracies in search of self-glorification and self-justification.

Beavers being re-introduced into Scotland (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European beaver is to be reintroduced to Scotland for the first time in more than 400 years, the Scottish Government has announced.

Environment Minister Michael Russell has given the go-ahead for up to four beaver families to be released in Knapdale, Argyll, on a trial basis.

The beavers will be caught in Norway and released in spring 2009.

Mr Russell said: "This is an exciting development for wildlife enthusiasts all over Scotland and beyond."

The beavers, which will be captured in autumn 2008, will be put into quarantine for six months before three to four families are released. Five lochs have been proposed for the release.

This will be the first-ever formal reintroduction of a native mammal into the wild in the UK.

The trial will be run over five years by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) monitoring the project.

Mr Russell added: "The beaver was hunted to extinction in this country in the 16th Century and I am delighted that this wonderful species will be making a comeback.

This is not really the "reintroduction of a native mammal" since these beavers are not the same as the ones that were hunted to extinction half a millennium ago. Beavers are wonderful creatures but this reintroduction is really no better (and no worse) than the introduction of any random species. It is humans playing god. In the (low probability) event that this causes some serious environmental or economic repercussions, will any of these people who are pushing for this reintroduction (for no great reason) going to face any consequences?

IPPR proposes that the school summer holiday gets cut to a month (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Long school holidays should be abolished to prevent children falling behind in class, a report has said.

The Institute for Public Policy Research said studies suggested pupils' reading and maths abilities regressed because the summer break was too long.

Instead, the think-tank said the school year could have five eight-week terms, with a month off in the summer and two weeks between the rest of the terms.

The report said the change could benefit pupils, parents and teachers.
Ms Sodha told BBC Radio 5 Live that the current structure of the school year was a relic from the time when children were needed to help out on family farms during the summer fruit-picking season.

The report co-author tells how the system should be reformed

She said there were two strong arguments for making a change.

"The first is that children regress with respect to their academic skills. Their reading and maths skills tend to decline when they're away from school and this is particularly true for children from poorer backgrounds.

"And that actually brings us on to the second reason. Not all children have the same access to out of school activities during the summer holidays and kids from more advantaged backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to get to go to these activities.

"That's reflected in statistics on anti-social behaviour and youth offending, and we know that those levels are higher during the summer holiday, particularly towards the end."

The IPPR suggested the summer holiday should run from mid-July to mid-August, followed by two eight-week terms before Christmas.
The IPPR said the change could help parents who find it difficult to keep children occupied during the six-week summer break.

It would also provide opportunities to take holidays at different times of year, potentially saving money by avoiding peak periods.

Have the authors of this report bothered to ask any children whether they want their summer holiday cut short in this way? Do we really want children to effectively be permanently at school? And it is hard to see this proposal making it cheaper "to take holidays at different times of year" since holidays are expensive when schools are out, period, and this shortens the time in the summer when families can have holidays so would likely make the summer holiday even more expensive if anything.

Date published: 2008/05/24

Google means people find information on the web more easily (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Web users are getting more ruthless and selfish when they go online, reveals research.

The annual report into web habits by usability guru Jakob Nielsen shows people are becoming much less patient when they go online.

Instead of dawdling on websites many users want simply to reach a site quickly, complete a task and leave.
Success rates measuring whether people achieve what they set out to do online are now about 75%, said Dr Nielsen. In 1999 this figure stood at 60%.

There were two reasons for this, he said.

"The designs have become better but also users have become accustomed to that interactive environment," Dr Nielsen told BBC News.

Now, when people go online they know what they want and how to do it, he said.
There has also been a big change in the way that people get to the places where they can complete pressing tasks, he said.

In 2004, about 40% of people visited a homepage and then drilled down to where they wanted to go and 60% use a deep link that took them directly to a page or destination inside a site. In 2008, said Dr Nielsen, only 25% of people travel via a homepage. The rest search and get straight there.

"Basically search engines rule the web," he said.

These are not really two reasons but just one, because the whole reason people have a higher success rate (and so "know what they want and how to do it") is because of search engines, specifically Google. There are not many websites in the world where it is easier to find information contained in the website starting from the home page than it is just to put a search string into Google and navigate from there. And this is hardly "ruthless" or "selfish" behaviour.

Date published: 2008/05/23

Extra methane in atmosphere might be down to wetlands (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Higher atmospheric levels of the greenhouse gas methane noted last year are probably related to emissions from wetlands, especially around the Arctic.

Scientists have found indications that extra amounts of the gas in the Arctic region are of biological origin.

Global levels of methane had been roughly stable for almost a decade.

Rising levels in the Arctic could mean that some of the methane stored away in permafrost is being released, which would have major climatic implications.

The gas is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, though it survives for a shorter time in the atmosphere before being broken down by natural chemical processes.
Methane concentrations had been more or less stable since about 1999 following years of rapid increases, with industrial reform in the former Soviet bloc, changes to rice farming methods and the capture of methane from landfill sites all contributing to the levelling off.

In the recent past, concentrations have risen during El Nino events, whereas the world is currently amid the opposite climatic pattern, La Nina.

This is not exactly unexpected (given the increase), and it's only one study, but nonetheless it's an interesting analysis.

Date published: 2008/05/22

Working class kids should not be getting into Oxbridge as much as middle class kids (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Working class people have lower IQs than those from wealthy backgrounds and should not expect to win places at top universities, an academic has claimed.

Newcastle University's Bruce Charlton said fewer working class students at elite universities was the "natural outcome" of class IQ differences.

The reader in evolutionary psychiatry questioned drives to get more poorer students into top universities.

The government has criticised Dr Charlton's comments.

Dr Charlton said: "The UK Government has spent a great deal of time and effort in asserting that universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, are unfairly excluding people from low social-class backgrounds and privileging those from higher social classes.

"Yet in all this debate a simple and vital fact has been missed: higher social classes have a significantly higher average IQ than lower social classes."

The fact that so few students from poor families get into Oxbridge is not down to "prejudice" but "meritocracy", he said.

Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said: "These arguments have a definite tone of 'people should know their place'.

"There are young people with talent, ability and the potential to benefit from higher education who do not currently do so. That should concern us all."

In some sense it is good that at least someone has mentioned this obvious fact, and it is rather amazing that the BBC covered this story, since the BBC is the ultimate bastion of academic middle class political correctness (even if a large chunk of them went to Oxbridge).

On the other hand, Charlton misses the bigger picture. IQ is a very narrow measure of what constitutes intelligence (although it probably correlates well with how people achieve in university). And the variation in IQ (or any other purported measure of intelligence) is presumably much higher inside a social class than between social classes, and the variation between classes is probably not the overriding reason for observed differences in ability at 18.

Probably the main reason the "higher" social classes do better in getting into Oxbridge is that they receive a far better education, both at home and in school. The home environment is much more conducive to academic achievement for the "higher" social classes. State education in ordinary schools is fairly appalling, on the whole. Rather than admit to this, the government has (not surprisingly) decided to blame Oxbridge for not attempting to magically make up for 18 years of home and State neglect. If someone has not learned any proper maths by the time they are 18, it is not up to Oxbridge to figure out how to start teaching them analysis (etc.).

So by mistake, Charlton is correct that the posturing by the government with regard to Oxbridge is completely misguided.

San Francisco tries to introduce its own carbon tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New rules have been passed in the San Francisco Bay Area that will require businesses to pay fees for the amount of carbon dioxide they emit.

The rules, due to come into effect on 1 July, could cost big emitters more than $50,000 (£25,000) a year, but most firms will pay less than $1 (50p).

Backers say the move sets an important precedent for the rest of the US.

But opponents say it may interfere with plans to introduce much tougher emissions targets across California.

There are a couple of problems. First, how are they measuring emissions? Second, unless the sums are trivial relative to a given firm's turnover, there is every incentive to move outside the jurisdiction, which is rather small geographically speaking. This is presumably why "most firms will pay less than $1", and indeed if that is the case, then the administrative cost of this new tax (whoops, "fee") would swamp the actual revenue for "most firms". This is gesture politics.

Date published: 2008/05/21

Another vacuous report on the aviation industry (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK ministers have been urged to halt airport expansion until the true costs and benefits of the proposed increase in flying are properly understood.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have been examining aviation policy for a year.

They conclude that so much fundamental data is disputed that an independent inquiry is needed to sort it out.

The government said it had serious objections to the report's findings.

Among the main areas of dispute are:

The SDC/IPPR report said all the uncertainty had eroded people's confidence in government policy.

They want to see a full investigation - and airport expansion frozen until it is completed.

Another pointless report by people who have nothing to contribute to the debate on aviation. The only people whose "confidence" has been "eroded" are the academic middle class people, like the people who wrote this report, who have always opposed the aviation industry and basically want to kill it off. (Fortunately for these academic middle class do-nothing types, the high price of oil will accomplish much in this regard.)

You might as well complain that we don't really understand the full impact of the paper industry on the world and so should not allow any increase in the number of books that can be published until some committee of the great and the good spends years assessing the situation.

You might as well complain that we don't really understand the full impact of the electronics industry on the world and so should not allow any increase in the number of computers until some committee of the great and the good spends years assessing the situation.

You might as well complain that we don't really understand the full impact of the food industry on the world and so should not allow any increase in the amount of food produced until some committee of the great and the good spends years assessing the situation.

Basically, these people are just taking the piss. Why is the UK wasting so much money supporting such useless quangos (the SDC) and such useless consultancies (the IPPR)?

So-called pro-life campaigners lose the latest vote on abortion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pro-life campaigners have vowed to continue their fight to cut the abortion limit after the next election.

MPs voted to keep the current 24-week cut-off following an impassioned Commons debate and a series of attempts to lower it to 12, 16 or 22 weeks.

There was a free vote but Labour MPs mostly backed the status quo - leaving anti-abortion campaigners pinning their hopes on a change of government.
The closest vote, on a 22-week limit, was thrown out by 304 votes to 233. Tory MP Nadine Dorries' proposal for a 20 week limit was defeated by 332 votes to 190.

Most Conservative MPs voted for a 22 week limit, while Lib Dem MPs split into two camps - with most senior figures voting for the status quo.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and most of the cabinet voted to keep the existing 24 limit, as did Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

But Catholic cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy voted for the lowest option - 12 weeks.

Conservative leader David Cameron voted for a 20 week limit and then for a cut to a 22 week limit - which was backed by most of the shadow cabinet.

Surprise, people who hate abortion will "continue their fight" to stop abortion. Their strategy for quite some time has been to make it more and more difficult to have an abortion, rather than seek an outright ban, because they know they have practically zero support in the country for that, except amongst diehard religious (mainly Catholic) nutters. It seems fairly likely that the 24 week limit will be reduced when the next Tory government takes over. This would be less of a problem if they would also at the same time take the step of making an abortion easier to have in the first place, so that women don't stray into later abortions through no fault of their own. But of course since it is abortion that they oppose, rather than any specific time limit, this is unlikely to be considered.

Date published: 2008/05/20

First small part of NIAB site application is approved (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Plans for more than 1,600 homes to be built in Cambridge are a step closer to being finalised this week despite protests from residents.

Planning chiefs for Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council, and South Cambridgeshire District Council agreed two planning applications for the development on the former National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) site just off Huntingdon Road, including one for a new headquarters for the company.

A further application covering the whole site is due to be considered later in the year following amendments and a public consultation, but the permission granted in the past week allows for 187 new dwellings and a new access road from Huntingdon Road as well as the new headquarters which includes state-of-the-art laboratory facilities.
However, residents in the area are concerned the development will cause misery on the roads, does not adequately protect the area from flood risk, and will overcrowd existing residents.

Norman Lightfoot, of Tavistock Road, said: "The application is just the start of a housing development that will change the area significantly; the numbers of new dwellings involved in total are equivalent to superimposing a population the size of a large village next to the existing residents.

"Sustainability seems to be a byword in local planning, but maintaining the quality of life for residents in this area should also be paramount."

Jonathan Mackenzie, resident of Howes Place, says the new headquarters planned for the site will dwarf the homes in the road and increase noise and light pollution.

"We are also very concerned that there will be a significant increase in noise and light pollution."

Only one step out of a hundred, but at least some progress is being made. Unfortunately here, as elsewhere, we have to put up with existing residents angling to keep their privileges in life. So evidently it is ok for the residents of Howes Place to create noise and light pollution but not for anyone else. And evidently dumping hundreds of homes in the Tavistock Road area in the 1960s/1970s was fine and dandy for the residents who now live there, but we shouldn't allow any similar development now. This kind of academic middle class agitating is going to cause this new development to end up being much worse than it otherwise would be. For example, there will be extremely poor road access from the NIAB site into Cambridge, and that by itself will cause more "misery on the roads" than would otherwise be the case.

The head of CABE does not like cars (permanent blog link)

John Sorrell (chairman of CABE) says on the BBC:

Some people think that cutting carbon means denying ourselves the things that make life enjoyable - no shopping, no fun - but I see it differently.

Tackling climate change isn't about self-denial, it's about reinvention; reinventing towns and cities, redesigning the way they work, and changing the way we all manage our lives.

Unfortunately he then goes down the usual path of wanting to deny things to people "that make life enjoyable". The academic middle class people who run Britain hate cars (at least those driven by the peasants) and Sorrell is just your typical academic middle class person. So he says:

It is interesting that the biggest carbon savings at BedZed, the UK's veteran eco-housing development, have been made as a result of establishing a car sharing scheme.

Cutting private car use generally means civic leaders being prepared to risk a few brave decisions.

For example, when a new suburb was built in the German city of Freiburg, they ran a tram service from the moment the first resident moved in.

This meant empty trams at first, but now nearly half of its residents are car free. Not so foolish after all.

So my second test for a sustainable city is whether you have a genuine transport choice.

Is it just as cheap and convenient to go by bus, tram and local train as it is by car?

Until it is, heavy traffic will continue to put most people off walking and cycling, which are the personal transport options that score best for fitness and protecting the planet.

Some people don't like driving so are happy to get about otherwise. But most people prefer to travel by car. You just have to look at China, where many people can now afford to own a car, to see this fact writ large. People are not "put off walking and cycling" by "heavy traffic". People just prefer to be in cars. Most people find it more comfortable and convenient.

Sorrell perhaps thinks that owning a car is "foolish" (and hopefully he does not own one). In a few decades (pretty much) all cars will be powered by electricity, and most likely by electricity generated "renewably". Will Sorrell still claim that owning a car is "foolish"? So does Sorrell hate cars because they are allegedly un-green or because, being an academic middle class control freak, he hates the peasants being independently mobile? And does he think that people who travel by so-called public transport should be subsidised by the rest of society to support their lifestyle?

Sorrell makes two other points, which are valid but trite. So one is that we should make our buildings more energy efficient. The second point is that we should have more greenery in cities, including on roofs. Well, who would have thought? This is Architecture 101. The fact that little of this is happening now is as good an indication as any that CABE is a complete failure.

One study claims carbon nanotubes could cause health problems (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Carbon nanotubes, the poster child of the burgeoning nanotechnology industry, could trigger diseases similar to those caused by asbestos, a study suggests.

Specific lengths of the tiny fibres were found to cause "asbestos-like" inflammation and lesions in mice.
The nanotubes show certain superficial similarities to other fibres, such as asbestos, which are known to cause harm and diseases including cancers.

"For a fibre to be harmful, it has to be thin, long and insoluble in the lung," explained Dr Ken Donaldson, one of the authors of the paper published in Nature Nanotechnology.

Nanotubes' thinness and toughness are well established, so the researchers set out to examine the effect of their length.

In a series of experiments, the researchers injected different lengths of multi-walled nanotubes - which comprise two to 50 concentric cylinders - into the abdomen of mice.
The researchers looked in particular at a membrane that forms the lining of body cavities, such as the chest and the abdomen, called the mesothelium. The lining around the lungs is known to be prone to the cancer mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos.

"What we found was that the long nanotubes were pathogenic - they caused inflammation and scar formation. The short nanotubes were not," said Dr Donaldson.

"The problem seems to be that the cells that usually deal with particles can't deal with a long, straight shape."
However, the researchers said the link between long, straight, multi-walled carbon nanotubes and cancers was not proven.

"We are a long way from saying that any form of carbon nanotubes causes mesothelioma," said Dr Donaldson.

Interesting as far as it goes, but it doesn't really prove anything. Unfortunately the anti-technology zealots (e.g. almost all so-called environmentalists) will jump on this report as a reason to stop the world when it comes to nano-technology.

Date published: 2008/05/19

MPs allow hybrid embryo research (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has survived two big challenges to its controversial plans to change the law on embryo research for the first time in 20 years.

A cross-party attempt to ban hybrid human animal embryos was defeated on a free vote, by 336 to 176.

Catholic cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy voted for a ban. PM Gordon Brown and Tory leader David Cameron both opposed it.

A bid to ban "saviour siblings" was voted down by 342 votes to 163.
Mr Cameron, along with Mr Brown, has backed the use of hybrid embryos as a means to develop treatments for cancer and conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. They also both support the creation of "saviour siblings".

Britain is dragged into the 21st century. Unfortunately after the next election the Tories, with their generally reactionary view on life, will likely be back in power. Fortunately, not only will it be too late to do much about it, but Cameron remarkably seems to be on board.

British people are allegedly driving less (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

High prices of petrol and diesel are making UK drivers think twice about travelling by car, a survey suggests.

The AA polled 17,500 members, and found 27% had cut back on other areas of spending, 16% had decided to travel less by car, and 21% had done both.

Petrol prices have risen sharply this year, although government figures have only shown car traffic falling 2%.

What a surprise, the fundamental laws of economics do hold after all. When prices rise, demand falls. Traditionally petrol has been a commodity where prices have to rise a lot for there to be much of a fall in demand. And if (for some reason) prices eventually stablise, no matter what the level, then eventually demand will start to creep up again.

And, needless to say, the government figures and the AA figures are not obviously inconsistent. Even if everbody is driving less, it doesn't mean they are driving much less.

Date published: 2008/05/18

Clay Farm development gets outline planning approval (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A major new development which forms part of plans to extend Cambridge to the south has been approved.

Clay Farm will see 2,300 homes, a new secondary and primary school, a community centre, healthcare centre, library and 120 acres of parkland built on land between Long Road and Shelford Road.

The development is described as "a new sustainable garden suburb" by developers Countryside Properties which is promoting the scheme and forms part of the Cambridge southern fringe.
Work will now start on the detailed design of the new neighbourhoods, which will be the subject of further local consultation later in the year, and a start on site is expected in 2009.

John Oldham, director and group chief town planner for Countryside Properties, said: "This planning consent is the green light for a much needed and sustainable extension to Cambridge.

"At Clay Farm the majority of the new homes will be family houses with gardens to counter the shortage of family housing in Cambridge.

"Our plans have been strongly guided by local residents and stakeholders so community ideas and aspirations have been built into the proposals."
Approval of the outline planning application was given by the Cambridge Fringes Joint Development Control Committee.

It is quite good that this is going ahead. For one thing, the city could do with more housing near the hospital. For another, it means that the horrible access road from the M11 through Trumpington to Addenbrooke's will look a bit less like a brutal swipe through the countryside, and more like a conventional road with sensible development along the side, at least on the northern half.

On the other hand, all developments claim to be "sustainable", it is one of those dreadful buzzwords that has come to haunt the English language. Unfortunately it is usually taken to mean that the new residents will be given poor access by road to the city (but presumably not back down the access road to the M11 to escape the city).

Further, most of the plans for new developments in Cambridge "have been strongly guided by local residents and stakeholders". Unfortunately these people are not the people who will be living in the new housing, and needless to say not only will the former have put their interests above the interests of the latter, but the academic middle class people who dominate these kinds of proceedings do not have a clue about urban planning. This does not forebode well, although ultimately this gush from the developer is probably just part of the game to get planning permission, rather than any real sentiment.

And although "the majority of the new homes will be family houses with gardens", this apparently means only 60%, which is still far below the historic average for housing in the UK. So another way of stating this is that another 1000 flats are going to be dumped on the city.

Date published: 2008/05/17

Government advisor says plastic bag hatred is a diversion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to ban or charge for single-use plastic bags are a diversion from the real environmental issues, one of the government's own advisers has said.

Waste and recycling expert Professor Chris Coggins said such a government policy allowed the supermarkets to pass on responsibility to customers.

He said supermarkets could be helping to influence packaging rather than shifting the problem on to consumers.

The government said the public wanted to see action to curb use of the bags.

"Supermarkets have a much bigger role to play in influencing the packaging they use," said Professor Chris Coggins, who was appointed research managing agent for the Department of Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) waste research programme in 2005.

"They [supermarkets] have power in terms of what they buy and how it's packed. The problem is, by focusing on the consumer end, they are to some extent diverting attention from what they should be doing."

Coggins is correct about one thing. Banning plastic bags is a silly diversion. But on his other point he is taking the piss. It is not the supermarkets who have been getting hysterical about plastic bags the last few years. It is the academic middle class people who run the country, and in particular who run the media (e.g. the BBC), who have been getting hysterical about plastic bags. (It is quaint that the BBC refers to these people as "the public", when in fact they are only a very narrow partisan slice of the public.) The only positive thing about this diversion is that as a result they have had less time to get hysterical about some other non-issue.

The world's wildlife is allegedly being wiped out (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Between a quarter and a third of the world's wildlife has been lost since 1970, according to data compiled by the Zoological Society of London.

Populations of land-based species fell by 25%, marine by 28% and freshwater by 29%, it says.

Humans are wiping out about 1% of all other species every year, and one of the "great extinction episodes" in the Earth's history is under way, it says.

Pollution, farming and urban expansion, over-fishing and hunting are blamed.

The Living Planet Index, compiled by the society in partnership with the wildlife group WWF, tracks the fortunes of more than 1,400 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, using scientific publications and online databases.
The WWF said that over the next 30 years, climate change was also expected to become a significant threat to species.

Another "end of the world" report. Of course there is no way of knowing whether the species sampled are in any way representative of all (non-human) species. But the human population almost doubled between 1970 and today, so it would not be very surprising if humanity is crowding out a substantive amount of other life. There is only so much biomass to go around. Should this be something that humans should worry about? And, if so, is anyone volunteering to be part of a reduction of the human population? (Well, the WWF never mentions population reduction. Their preferred alternative seems to be to make the rich world poor.)

Date published: 2008/05/16

Surprise, obese people eat more food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Obese people are contributing to the world food crisis and climate change, experts say.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine calculated the obese consume 18% more calories than average.

They are also responsible for using more fuel, which has an environmental impact and drives up food prices as transport and agriculture both use oil.

The result is that the poor struggle to afford food and greenhouse gas emissions rise, the Lancet reported.

Who would have thought it, eh? Obese people eat more food. Unfortunately this kind of trivial remark is also meaningless when it comes to the blame game that the authors are evidently playing. If you spend more on food, you spend less on other goods and services that also have an environmental impact. Further, the authors no doubt provide no evidence that if the people in the rich world ate less that the people of the poor world would suddenly be able to eat more. Food is not a zero sum game.

This attempt to blame obese people for every ill on the planet is just out and out obnoxious. So when are we going to get headlines that "people who buy more books are causing the Amazon jungle to be razed to create paper"? Or that "people who watch television are contributing to global poverty because every watt of power they use means that some poor person cannot use that electricity"? Or that "people who are thin are contributing to poor people going cold because thin people need heftier jumpers to stay warm, so less wool is left for poor people"? Etc. Well, one can easily imagine the same kind of academic middle class people who are so keen to condemn obese people would be happy to play the blame game in other, equally silly, ways.

Of course later in the article we find out another motive of the researchers is to promote the usual academic middle class anti-car propaganda:

Phil Edwards, who co-authored the article, said: "Urban transport policies that promote walking and cycling would reduce food prices by reducing the global demand for oil and promotion of a normal weight.

And they added: "Decreased car use would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Transport and food policy and the importance of sustainable transport must not be overlooked."

Why is this kind of junk research being funded?

Four glasses of apple juice a day will allegedly keep the clogged arteries away (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Juices made from apples or purple grapes - and the fruit themselves - protect against developing clogged arteries, a study suggests.

Researchers fed hamsters the fruit and juice or water, plus a fatty diet.

The animals who were fed grape juice had the lowest risk of developing artery problems, Molecular Nutrition and Food Research reports.

The University of Montpellier team said the juice's benefits came from its high levels of phenols - an antioxidant.

Antioxidants in various foods have been regularly cited as being beneficial to heart health.

The French team looked at how juicing affected the phenol content of fruit - because most studies look at raw fruit.

They then looked at how being fed various kinds of fruit affected the hamsters' risk of atherosclerosis - the build-up of fatty plaque deposits in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

The amount of fruit the hamsters consumed was equivalent to three apples or three bunches of grapes daily for a human.

Hamsters given juice drank the equivalent of four glasses daily for a person weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds).

At least this study (presumably) used randomised sampling, so has some validity. But as a counterweight to that is the fact that it was done on hamsters, not humans, so it should not be taken as the gospel truth when it comes to human health. Further, as with all these health studies, it is only looking at one thing in isolation. So it's quite possible that four glasses of apple (or grape) juice a day would cause some negative effect to counter this positive effect.

Small-scale biomass power plants allegedly not as green as large-scale ones (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Small-scale biomass power plants can have a greater environmental impact than other renewables, a study says.

UK researchers found that although the facilities offered carbon savings, they produced more pollutants per unit of electricity than larger biomass plants.

They suggested the way the feedstock was transported produced proportionally more pollutants than larger sites.

The findings challenged the view that such schemes offer an green alternative to grid-based electricity, they added.

Supporters of community biomass schemes say the power plants are sustainable because the fuel, such as wood chips, can be sourced from the local area.

Study co-author Patricia Thornley, from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the University of Manchester, said the results did surprise the team.

"The fact that the carbon savings were pretty constant across the technologies, yet the emissions varied hugely was a surprise," she told BBC News.
Described as the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, four airborne pollutants - carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and volatile organic compounds - were tracked across each system's life cycle - from field to power plant.

This is only one study, but it's important that this kind of work be done, because it is all too easy for zealots of one technology or another to claim that their specific technology is wonderful, because they ignore the total end-to-end cost and just focus on one narrow aspect where the technology looks good. In particular, the "sustainability" claim that is attributed to "supporters of community biomass schemes" is ignoring the bigger picture.

But it's pretty amusing to see the claim that "the carbon savings were pretty constant across the technologies" when in fact Thornley then in the same sentence claims the opposite, i.e. that "the emissions varied hugely" (which seems to be the real result of this study).

Date published: 2008/05/15

Polar bear listed as threatened species by US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The United States has listed the polar bear as a threatened species, because its Arctic sea ice habitat is melting due to climate change.

US government scientists predict that two-thirds of the polar bear population of 25,000 could disappear by 2050.

However, the government stressed the listing would not lead to measures to prevent global warming.

Environmentalists have expressed disappointment that more will not be done to protect the bear's habitat.

US Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the government had made the decision on the advice of scientists, but he suggested the impact of the move would be limited.

"While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act compel me to list the polar bear as threatened," he said, "I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting."

The polar bear could be made the poster child of global warming, but Kempthorne is probably correct that the listing will do little to save the polar bear. Of course some so-called environmentalists will probably use this listing to try and get some court somewhere to rule that the world should be shut down, but they are unlikely to succeed in this endeavour (even if the court rules it, the world will not shut down).

Date published: 2008/05/14

UK might reward households for recycling waste (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has denied it is guilty of a "wholehearted retreat" on plans to bring in a system of charges or rewards to encourage people to recycle more.

Last year ministers said all councils in England would be able to introduce "bin tax" schemes, but this was later restricted to five pilot authorities.

The Commons local government committee has said this will mean EU targets on waste will be harder to reach.
In the Climate Change Bill there are proposals for five areas to pilot a scheme aimed at getting more people to recycle waste.

Householders who recycle the most would get a financial reward; those who recycle the least would face a fine.

In May last year the government said all 354 local authorities in England would be allowed to introduce the scheme - but this was restricted when the bill was published in November. An England-wide rollout was put back until 2012/13.

Under the current proposals, local authorities would not be able to raise any money from the schemes themselves - all revenue taken would be redistributed in rewards.

The EU targets are silly. They focus only on the percentage of "recycled" waste (i.e. waste handed over to the government for industrial re-processing) rather than on the quantity of waste, period. Hence we get the silly proposal that "householders who recycle the most would get a financial reward". Thus householders who compost all their own organic waste, and who re-use glass jars and bottles, and who don't buy newspapers, will be condemned as unworthy citizens. And householders who buy far too much food and end up throwing most of it in the green bin, or who buy tonnes of glass items or newspapers, and are competent enough to recycle them, will be treated as model citizens (and showered with cash).

All waste should be charged for, recycled and non-recycled. The less waste a household creates, the smaller the bill should be. (At least theoretically. In practise there are all sorts of issues such as controlling illegal dumping of waste by irresponsible people. So this whole idea of pay-as-you-waste is suspect. But it keeps the bureaucrats happy.)

Gordon Brown wants to link hospital pay with performance (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hospitals are to have pay linked to performance by using patient experience to measure the quality of care.

Gordon Brown, in his draft version of the Queen's Speech, said it was part of making the NHS more "patient-centred".

It is likely to mean a tweak to the payment by results funding system under which hospitals in England are paid a set price for each treatment.

But experts remained sceptical over how performance could be incorporated into an "already complicated" system.

The government is not setting out the full details of the changes.

Well if there is one thing that Gordon Brown will be remembered for, it is over-complicating all aspects of the relationship between the government and the citizen. Here it will be interesting to see how the government decides to measure the "patient experience" and how long it will take for hospitals to figure out how to game the system.

Date published: 2008/05/13

A link between small particulate pollution and blood clots (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Breathing in air pollution from traffic fumes can raise the risk of potentially deadly blood clots, a US study says.

Exposure to small particulates - tiny chemicals caused by burning fossil fuels - is known to increase the chances of heart disease and stroke.

But the Harvard School of Public Health found it also affected development of deep vein thrombosis - blood clots in the legs - in a study of 2,000 people.

Researchers said the pollution made the blood more sticky and likely to clot.

The team looked at people living in Italy - nearly 900 of whom developed DVT.
Researchers obtained pollution readings from the areas they lived and found those exposed to higher levels of small particulates in the year before diagnosis were more likely to develop blood clots.

The Archives of Internal Medicine report said for every 10 microgrammes per square metre increase in small particulates, the risk of developing a DVT went up by 70%.

This is a classic confusion between correlation and causation. In particular, people who are poor are more likely to be unhealthy (generally) so might be more susceptible to DVT. And people who are poor might well be more likely to live in areas with higher levels of small particulate pollution. So there could be other underlying causes for the observed correlation. As with most of these kinds of health studies, they have all sorts of plausible reasons which give credence to why the causation might be true (and it could be true, even though they haven't proven it). Of course this plausibility is why they can get away with implying that the correlation is a causation.

Alistair Darling throws 2.7 billion pounds at tax problem (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chancellor Alistair Darling has put up the personal tax allowance by £600 - meaning anyone earning up to £40,835 will gain £120 this year.

His £2.7bn tax cut for this year came as part of measures to help those hit by the axing of the 10p tax rate.

He told MPs he would lower the level at which 40p tax is paid - so higher earners did not gain from the change.

This seems like a semi-sensible an idea. One problem is that 2/3 of the tax cut is going to people who already benefitted from a tax cut in the budget. Another problem is that this is adding to UK debt. Otherwise it's as good a solution as any to the political problem New Labour found itself in, since it's not (that) complicated or (that) expensive to implement.

Date published: 2008/05/12

Gordon Brown wants to "reform" the social care system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pledged to reform the social care system for England's ageing population.

He says that without a radical shake up, the care system in England alone faces a £6bn shortfall within 20 years.

His speech kicks off a six-month public consultation focused on making care services fairer and affordable.

In Scotland, personal and nursing care is free, whereas Northern Ireland and Wales still have the means-tested system that England has.
Speaking to charities, NHS workers, trade unions and local government leaders, Mr Brown said that the current means-tested system could seem unfair.

He said he understood the anxieties of families who fear having to sell their own homes to pay for long-term care, and of losing assets they would otherwise have passed onto family or friends.

To combat this, he suggested ideas including better collaboration between health and social services, and helping people to save for their old age while protecting their homes and inheritance.

He also said he wanted care to be more responsive to demands for independence and it must be made easier for people to stay in their own homes.

Needless to say, the words "fairer" (to citizens) and "affordable" (for the government) are contradictions. Any citizen will tell you that the only "fair" system is one that perfectly takes care of the individual in question but that other people have to pay for. And "affordable" for the government means that taxes have to be raised, or service standards lowered. Here Brown is trying to square that circle by somehow conning people to save even more for their old age and/or by keeping people in their own homes for longer so that the burden of looking after them falls even more on the family in question.

But it is rather ridiculous that the rest of the UK is forced to subsidise the Scots in this (as in many other things). Needless to say, Brown doesn't want to push that point too much.

David Cameron takes the piss over government by management consultant (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British people have been living under a regime of government by "management consultant" where social values do not matter, David Cameron has argued.

He blamed Labour for "an explosion of bureaucracy, cost and irritation", resulting in the closure of libraries, Post Offices and GP surgeries.

The Tory leader said a culture that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing has been spawned.

Cameron has never had an original thought. He is just trying to bounce the perpetual statement that the Thatcherite Tories knew the price of everything and the value of nothing, and make it stick to New Labour. And if any government besides New Labour would be by management consultant, it will be the next Tory government under Cameron, a feeble Blair clone whose only job in life, outside of politics, was in PR, and who is surrounded by slick management consultant types.

Date published: 2008/05/11

Chinese consortium wants to break the Boeing and Airbus duopoly (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China has launched a new commercial plane maker which it hopes will one day compete with the likes of Boeing and Airbus, state media have reported.

China Commercial Aircraft will aim to develop regional aircraft able to carry more than 150 passengers, Xinhua said.

With $2.7bn (£1.4bn) in initial funding, the Shanghai firm is backed by state and regional governments.

China is currently building a 90-seat regional jet but previous efforts at breaking into the market have failed.

Beijing is keen to develop large-scale aviation capacity of its own to reduce its reliance on Airbus and Boeing as consumer demand for flying continues to surge in China.

Studies have suggested that demand for new planes from Chinese airlines will increase fivefold over the next 20 years, requiring about 2,650 additional aircraft.
Analysts said it could take China up to 20 years to become a credible force in commercial aviation and that it would only succeed if it attracted sufficient private investment.

The way things are heading right now, and given the size of their home market, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later China will be a big player in this, as in most other industries.

Interestingly enough, if this kind of announcement had happened in Britain then you can guarantee that the BBC would have quoted at least one if not two so-called environmentalists complaining that now was not the time to be building airplanes (because of climate change and all that).

Date published: 2008/05/10

Children with smaller vocabularies linked with depressed fathers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children whose fathers are depressed have smaller vocabularies than those who do not, a US study suggests.

But the Eastern Virginia Medical School study of 5,000 families found language development in children whose mothers had similar symptoms seemed unaffected.

Researchers said by the age of two, children with depressed fathers used 1.5 fewer words than the average of 29.

This could be because depressed fathers spent less time reading to their children, they wrote in New Scientist.

This seems to be a classic case of confusing correlation and causation. The researchers could have checked a zillion things to see which correlated with vocabularies, and would have found perhaps a squillion of the zillion had correlations as least as large as this one. They could have then created a grand philosophical statement why each of these gave a "natural" explanation of their implied causation. Unfortunately, it is all rather meaningless.

Government solar power grants allegedly halved in number (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of government grants made to people who want to fit solar panels or other green energy systems to their homes has halved, the BBC has learned.

It comes after the low carbon buildings programme cut the maximum grant on offer from £7,500 to £2,500.

The Renewable Energy Association, which says the programme is failing, has accused ministers of complacency.

But the government says uptake went up considerably last month after the need for planning permission was removed.

Needless to say the BBC completely fails to ask the important question, namely should there be any grants at all? Solar power, in its current guise, is not a particularly "green" technology for Britain. Handing out government grants to middle class people who want to pretend that they are saving the world, when they are not, is not a particularly good use of government money. Worse, it means that these people are externalising the cost of their preferred method of energy consumption onto the rest of the country. One thing the world should be doing is moving away from subsidising energy consumption (certainly by middle class, i.e. rich, people), either directly via government grants or indirectly via a lack of a tax on carbon emissions.

Date published: 2008/05/09

Gordon Ramsay doesn't like non-British food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay says British restaurants should be fined if they serve fruit and vegetables which are not in season.

He told the BBC that fruit and vegetables should be locally-sourced and only on menus when in season.

Mr Ramsay said he had already spoken to Prime Minister Gordon Brown about outlawing out-of-season produce.

He says it would cut carbon emissions as less food would be imported and also lead to improved standards of cooking.

The TV chef said it was "fundamentally important" for chefs to provide locally-sourced food.

"Fruit and veg should be seasonal," he said. "Chefs should be fined if they haven't got ingredients in season on their menu.

"I don't want to see asparagus on in the middle of December. I don't want to see strawberries from Kenya in the middle of March. I want to see it home grown."

Ramsay, whose London restaurants include Petrus, The Savoy Grill and Maze, added that Britain had become a nation of lazy eaters, following trends and fads, rather than substance.

He also said chefs became "lazy" when excited by "frills", and making out-of-season produce illegal would raise "levels of inspiration".

"There should be stringent laws, licensing laws, to make sure produce is only used in season and season only," he said.

"If we don't restrict our movements within this industry of seasonal-produce only, then the whole thing will spiral out of control."

Following the chef's comments, Oxfam's head of research, Duncan Green, said he was sure "the million farmers in east Africa who rely on exporting their goods to scrape a living would see Gordon Ramsay's assertions as a recipe for disaster".

Presumably Ramsay has another book or television series to flog, so has to say something stupid to get some attention. He doesn't even seem to realise that importing food can actually mean that fewer emissions are generated when you look at the entire end-to-end accounting. And it would be interesting to see his tally of air miles, if he is allegedly so concerned about emissions.

Date published: 2008/05/08

Great Tits are allegedly adapting to climate change in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

At least one of Britain's birds appears to be coping well as climate change alters the availability of a key food.

Researchers found that great tits are laying eggs earlier in the spring than they used to, keeping step with the earlier emergence of caterpillars.

Writing in the journal Science, they point out that the same birds in Holland have not managed to adjust.

Understanding why some species in some places are affected more than others by climatic shifts is vital, they say.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) commented that other species are likely to fare much worse than great tits as temperatures rise.

It's obvious that with most environmental change some species will do better and some will do worse, so the RSPB statement is trivial (and one-sided). There will be a long litany of research like this appearing over the next decade, but whether it actually helps with understanding how to adapt to climate change is not obvious.

The English allegedly throw out a third of the food they buy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People are needlessly throwing away 3.6m tonnes of food each year in England and Wales, research suggests.

The Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that salad, fruit and bread were most commonly wasted and 60% of all dumped food was untouched.

The study analysed the waste disposed of by 2,138 households.

Environment Minister Joan Ruddock said the findings were "staggering" at a time of global food shortages and WRAP added it was an environmental issue.

It's only one study, although it seems to have been done reasonably thoroughly. Of course you are always going to get some wastage and 5% or 10% would be a figure which it would be hard to believe you would get much below (given that 99% of the UK is not on a starvation diet). The BBC article does not give the estimated percentage of food waste overall (just of "needless" waste) but the WRAP press release (and related publications) claims it is around a third. So the claim is that we are way above where we should be. This is as good an indication as any that for most people in the UK, food is not an issue, which of course is how it should be, but just with less waste.

Date published: 2008/05/07

Britain should allegedly cut emissions by 90% by 2030 (permanent blog link)

Ann Pettifor says on the BBC (way down an opinion piece about inaction on climate change that says amazingly little given the number of words):

Britain's only Christian campaign dedicated exclusively to climate change, Operation Noah, pressures government to take much more radical action - to cut emissions by 90% by 2030, not 2050.

We may not have got it right, but we are trying to pressure government to act urgently, and to mobilise society in the way that Jubilee 2000 mobilised millions of people to cancel third world debt.

"We may not have got it right" is a bit of an understatement. And to start with, she fails to mention that current government policy is to cut emissions by 60% by 2050, not 90%, although there is some move to change that to 80%. But why would you expect a Christian to be honest and above board? The game here seems to be to take an extreme number and make it more extreme, just so you can get some attention. And the BBC obliges her. And on the substantive point, does she have any evidence that we should be cutting emissions by 90% by 2030, and does she have any way of doing that without massively undermining the standard of living of British citizens? (Well, perhaps she wants the Britain to be much poorer, and if so, she should so, loud and clear.)

(There is also the problem that emissions are not currently properly accounted for. So currently the UK can export emissions to other countries, like China, by exporting industrial production there, and then pretend that emissions have been cut, when in fact all that has happened is that they have been transferred, or possibly even been made worse given that UK factories might be more energy efficient than, say, Chinese ones.)

UK to move cannabis back from class C to class B (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cannabis is to be reclassified as a class B drug, Jacqui Smith has said.

The home secretary said she wanted to reverse Tony Blair's 2004 downgrading of the drug because of "uncertainty" over its impact on mental health.

The move from class C means the maximum prison sentence for possessing cannabis rises from two years to five years.

Her statement to MPs came despite the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs' review - commissioned by Gordon Brown - saying it should stay class C.
Ms Smith, who has admitted smoking cannabis while she was a student, told MPs: "There is a compelling case for us to act now, rather than risk the future health of young people.

The worst sort of pathetic pandering to tabloid newspapers and their ilk. And in this case, since Smith has admitted smoking cannabis, she should certainly go to prison for five years in order to act as a deterrent to others.

Date published: 2008/05/06

Cambridge County Council releases "congestion" charge survey results (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge's controversial congestion charge scheme has been given another thumbs-down.

A public consultation exercise carried out on behalf of Cambridgeshire County Council, the body proposing the idea, found that 61 per cent of people who responded to the survey were against it in principle.

However, asked how they would feel if "attractive alternatives" for travelling into the city were in place, a majority of at-home interviewees said they would then support congestion charging.

And people would also be less against road tolls if the money raised were spent on improving public transport, the study found.
Some members of the audience at the presentation - held at New Hall - were critical of the council's public consultation on the controversial scheme.

Douglas de Lacey, of Girton parish council, accused the researchers of feeding answers to the interviewees, and several city councillors asked whether information could be provided on exactly how many city residents took part, and what their responses were to each question.

After the meeting, John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, said: "If you ask people hypothetical questions, you get hypothetical answers, and despite what the figures seem to show, I still don't think there is much support for congestion charging. The data, it seems to me, is very flawed."

Of course the survey was flawed. For one thing, it was not representative (being no doubt extremely biased towards the academic middle class who answer surveys). For another, they included cyclists and other irrelevant groups in the survey, which would have seriously biased it towards support for the (so-called) congestion charge. (They hate cars and they won't suffer, so what do they care.)

The county council unfortunately seems still to be under the delusion that central goverment is going to cough up 500 million pounds as a bribe to go forward with this scheme. But it would be ridiculous if central government came anywhere near throwing that much (additional) money at a small provincial town like Cambridge. In any case, any county councillor who votes for this scheme will find that this new tax is not going to be anywhere nearly as popular as suggested by this rigged survey.

Another study which claims that breastfeeding raises IQ (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More evidence is being put forward that breastfed babies eventually become more intelligent than those who are fed with formula milk.

Canada's McGill University found breastfed babies ended up performing better in IQ tests by the age of six.

But the researchers were unsure whether it was related to the breast milk itself or the bond from breastfeeding.

The study of nearly 14,000 children is the latest in a series of reports to have found such a positive link.

However, one problem has been that some of the research has struggled to identify whether the findings were related to the fact that mothers from more affluent backgrounds were more likely to breastfeed and it was factors related to the family circumstances that was really influencing intelligence.

But the latest study attempted to take this into account by following the progress of children born in hospitals in Belarus, some of which ran breastfeeding promotion schemes to boost rates across all groups.

They found that those who breastfed exclusively for the first three months - with many also continuing to 12 months - scored an average of 5.9 points higher on IQ tests in childhood.

Unfortunately this is just another classic confusion between correlation and causation. The hospitals might have promoted the schemes "across all groups" but it does not say that the take-up was the same across all groups. And indeed, the fact that some mothers were more willing to take this up could be taken as prima facie evidence that they were more motivated in the first place, hence might be better mothers, completely independently of whether they breastfed their children or not. So it is misleading to state that it is unclear whether this result "was related to the breast milk itself or the bond from breastfeeding". It could just be related to the fact that correlation is not the same thing as causation. The only way to do this study properly would be to randomly select which mothers breastfeed and which do not. Needless to say, that study will (probably) never be done.

UK postal service "liberalisation" not a benefit to small businesses and households (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The liberalisation of the UK postal service has produced "no significant benefits" for either households or small businesses, a report has said.

That is the initial finding of an independent review of the UK postal sector commissioned by the government.

It warned there was now a threat to the Royal Mail's financial stability.

The Royal Mail's 350-year monopoly ended at the start of 2006, when other licensed operators were given the right to collect and deliver mail.
While the initial report said homes and small firms had not gained from the increased competition, it said large companies had "seen clear benefits from liberalisation - choice, lower prices and more assurance about the quality of the mail service".

Who would have thought, eh? The whole point of the "liberalisation" of the postal service was to end the subsidy of the service by large companies for the benefit of small companies and households. So it's not very surprising that the former have gained and the latter have lost.

Date published: 2008/05/05

The BBC complains about the Ryanair business model (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ryanair is to increase its check-in charges by £1 to £4 per passenger and by £2 to £8 per bag from Tuesday to try and reduce its airport costs.

The Irish no frills airline is encouraging travellers to check-in online and take only hand luggage.
Many Ryanair passengers will find that they pay more in taxes, fees and charges than for the flight itself.

To take one example, an early one-way flight from London Stansted to Dublin on Saturday 10 May is currently advertised at £14.99.

On top of that, passengers will pay £19.75 in taxes and fees.

In addition, there's £4.37 for aviation insurance and the "wheelchair levy".

If you want to check-in in person at the airport, that will cost you an extra £4 from Tuesday.

And for every piece of luggage you want to check-in, add £8.

Plus, at the end of the transaction, you will be charged £3 if you pay by credit card or £1 by debit card.

So, if you travelled to Dublin on Saturday with two pieces of luggage, you could end up paying an additional £47.12 on top of your £14.99 flight.

Ryanair has optimised the model that says you get what you pay for, no more and no less. Indeed, this is the model that economists would probably claim is best for the world (whether it is or not). But it's disingenuous of the BBC to complain about this fact. Especially when the BBC complains that passengers can "pay more in taxes, fees and charges than for the flight itself". The largest chunk of that cost is for taxes and fees, which the BBC knows full well Ryanair can do nothing about. Indeed, the academic middle class people who work for the BBC constantly agitate for airplane taxes to be increased even more (saving the world, and all that), so it's doubly disingenuous of the BBC to run with this argument. But never let facts get in the way of a good story.

IPPR wants UK to spend £500m more on teacher training (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Training days for England's teachers should be quadrupled to 20 a year, costing £75m, a think tank proposes.

The Institute for Public Policy Research says the difference between excellent and bad teachers means pupils achieve more than a GCSE grade extra.

It argues that teaching does not attract the best graduates nor equip them adequately for the challenges of teaching in the 21st Century.

The government and teachers' unions say the country has the best teachers ever.

The IPPR commissioned the Centre for Market and Public Organisation to calculate the impact of teachers on pupils' attainment.

It did this primarily using data collected between 1999 and 2002 to evaluate the introduction of performance-related pay for teachers.

This involved about 6,000 pupils and 300 teachers in 40 schools which, it acknowledges, were not representative of all England's schools.

The study found a pupil taking eight GCSEs and taught by eight "good" teachers would score four to five more GCSE points than the same pupil in the same school taught by eight "poor" teachers. An "excellent" teacher had an even greater impact.
The IPPR has several pages of recommendations, including a national written test for those wanting to train as teachers supplemented by psychometric testing, two years of training not one, more appraisals and 20 days' development a year - up from the current five.

It estimates that moving to a two-year training course would double the cost to £850m a year, while the extra development days would cost roughly four times the current amount, at £75m.

It is interesting how the BBC mentions a cost figure of £75m in the first paragraph, yet buried deep down the article we find out that in fact the real cost of the IPPR proposals is at least £500m. And the IPPR seems to have very little evidence to support the cost effectiveness of their proposals. And it's not just that they admit that their sampling was not representative. There is no mention whether quadrupling the training time of "poor" teachers would actually have much effect. Finally, the fact that the IPPR promotes psychometric testing fairly well discredits the entire exercise. The UK should stop wasting money on these pointless (and expensive) consultancies and instead spend the money on education.

But the prize for the most amusing sentence in the article has to be for the claim that "the government and teachers' unions say the country has the best teachers ever".

Last chance to give views over NATS airspace management plans (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Residents, parish and town councils have until 15 May to give their views on flight paths over Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.

Suffolk Coastal District Council wants peoples' views to help it provide a response to a consultation by the National Air Traffic Service (NATS).

NATS is looking to alter the way planes are directed to fly in eastern England.

Andrew Nunn, cabinet member for the environment, said the plans had nothing to do with airport expansion proposals.

"This consultation by NATS is strictly about the way flights are managed in our region," he said.

"The proposals would see a change in the way that the airspace is controlled over Suffolk, Cambridge and Essex.

"I would recommend that people have a look at the detailed proposals on and then let us know their views."

Another pointless public consultation. People who believe they are badly affected by the proposals (whether this is true or not) will complain endlessly and loudly. Everybody else (from the public) could care less. Unless NATS did something stupid (which is always a possibility) then presumably their suggestions are eminently sensible. In any case, this is something which the public is extremely unqualified to judge, so why is the government asking for the opinions of the public? And if 99.9% of those people writing in object to the plans, will the goverment pay any attention? Or, more to the point, will the courts force them to pay attention, since the government has stupidly set up this consultation in the first place under some claim to be interested in people's views?

Date published: 2008/05/04

Head teachers claim that Ofsted puts off people from becoming head teachers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

School leaders are being driven out of the profession by "pernicious systems of accountability", head teachers say.

Ministers had to learn to trust teachers, said National Association of Head Teachers leader Mick Brookes.

The current Ofsted regime encouraged schools to deny problems for fear of being publicly shamed, he told his annual conference in Liverpool.

Research published by the NAHT suggests 86% of school leaders think Ofsted pressures deter would-be head teachers.
The NAHT survey of 500 members, released at the conference, found 86% thought the impact of Ofsted inspections meant potential head teachers were put off applying.

More than two-thirds thought the impact on their school was at best neutral, and at worst very unhelpful.

The research found 86% of members thought inspections increased vulnerability and insecurity.

Ofsted said inspections were effective, but it had a responsibility to assess their impact on education.

It said it did not necessarily accept the verdict of small sample surveys, not compiled by recognised polling organisations.

These kinds of surveys are fairly meaningless. But here the sample size is not the issue. Rather the problem is that the sample is biased (people with an axe to grind are more likely to respond), and in most surveys the questions are usually biased as well. (Has anyone ever come across a survey which didn't allegedly prove the point that the organisation which conducted the survey was trying to promote?) For example, here did they ask the 500 people surveyed whether they personally had allegedly been put off becoming a head teacher (evidently not, since they are head teachers)? And in any case, if prospective head teachers believe they should not be held to account, should they really become head teachers? Schools are for the benefit of the children, not the head teachers.

On the other hand, the basic point is correct. There is very little reason to have these inspections, since they are more a game than anything to do with education. Needless to say, Ofsted is going to claim that inspections are "effective" because to believe otherwise would be to believe that Ofsted should not exist.

Date published: 2008/05/03

Trade unionist wants parents rewarded for spending "quality time" with their children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Parents who spend quality time with their children should be rewarded through the benefits system, head teachers' leaders have said.

Punitive steps like fining parents for truanting children rarely worked, National Association of Head Teachers president Clarissa Williams argued.
Perhaps parents who spent time reading to their children, going to school parents evenings or helping out in their school, could get higher payments, she suggested.

She acknowledged it was a complex area and that there would always be some parents that would be hard to reach, but that did not mean it should not be tried.

"We all know what good parenting is, and in fact unless we actually show that and reward that in ways that people see the rewards, which - let's be honest - financial rewards are quite important.

Why is it that teachers' trade unions seem to come up with the craziest ideas? The claim that "we all know what good parenting is" is all very well (although blatantly false), but are we going to have thousands of bureaucrats up and down the country visiting every family and deciding, using some checklist, whether the parents are spending "quality time" with their children? In particular, for the one example she actually mentions, how is the State going to determine if parents are reading to their children (and for how long)? And needless to say, during the one or two hours these time wasters are visiting a family, there will be lots of "quality time" being demonstrated.

The other two suggestions she makes have to do with the school (surprise, since teachers have a vested self-interest in this one). Now in what way is going to school parents evenings (which is at least something that the State could sign off on without undue silliness) have anything to do with spending "quality time" with one's children? On the other hand, "helping out in school" is something that middle class parents will be much more likely to be able to do. And indeed, given the way the world works, the middle class will be much more successful at playing this game than the working class, so ultimately all this crackpot scheme would do is entrench middle class advantage, and in particular allow middle class parents to get yet more subsidy from the State for no reason.

Court wants to rule whether there should be a referendum on Lisbon Treaty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Millionaire Stuart Wheeler has won his battle to force a High Court review into whether the government should hold a referendum on the EU's Lisbon treaty.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has ruled out a public vote on the treaty, saying it does not alter the UK constitution.

But Mr Wheeler said a vote was promised on the EU constitution and says the Lisbon treaty is virtually identical.
Mr Wheeler, 73, a Conservative Party donor, said his legal challenge was "not trying to interfere with Parliament".

He claims voters had a "legitimate expectation" that a referendum would be held after one was promised in Labour's last election manifesto on the EU constitution.

Unbelievable. It should not be up to the courts to decide what is and is not official government policy. It now seems that anything that gets mentioned in a manifesto, no matter how indirectly (as here, since the treaty is not the constitution), has to be implemented or the courts will claim they can review the situation. This is totally absurd.

Date published: 2008/05/02

Cambridge remains a Lib Dem town, but Arbury votes for Labour (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge has two new parties in the council chamber after a night of surprises in the local government elections.

The Green Party made history by winning its first-ever seat, ousting a Labour councillor of more than 20 years' standing, John Durrant, in Abbey ward.

And after two years with no representation on the council at all, the Conservatives are back. They too won a seat from Labour, in Coleridge.

Former mayor John Hipkin, who split from the Lib Dems after a big row last year, is back on the council as an independent. He won the Castle seat.

The Lib Dems remain the ruling party by a big margin. They still have 28 seats - the same as their tally before yesterday's election. But Labour has dropped from 13 to 11.

The Tories barely won in Coleridge, by 14 votes. The election of a Green candidate is pretty remarkable, although she will have no power and make no difference (the Lib Dems don't have to listen to anybody, not even the non-elite in their own party, never mind anyone else).

Against the tide of the country and the city, the people of Arbury voted in a Labour candidate, Mike Todd-Jones, over the sitting Lib Dem incumbent, Rhodri James, by a mere 33 votes. Last time around Todd-Jones lost to another Lib Dem councillor by only 12 votes. Further, between the last and this election, the Tories actually went down in Arbury, from 504 to 468. And the Greens also went down, from 211 to 187. There was a new party contesting the election this time around, the so-called English Democrats, but they only got 161 votes (presumably mostly from the Tories).

Why Arbury is swimming against the tide is a mystery. It's not as if the Lib Dems have done or have not done anything to particularly irritate the citizens of Arbury. The Lib Dems did not take Arbury for granted, since they easily distributed many more leaflets than all the other parties combined. (But the most expensive leaflet distributed was a two-page glossy one from the English Democrats, who must have some sugar daddy backing them.) Of course the Lib Dems patronise Arbury. In particular, they seem to think that everyone in Arbury lives in social housing. But all the political parties patronise Arbury.

Date published: 2008/05/01

Global warming might pause for the next decade (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Earth's temperature may stay roughly the same for a decade, as natural climate cycles enter a cooling phase, scientists have predicted.

A new computer model developed by German researchers, reported in the journal Nature, suggests the cooling will counter greenhouse warming.

However, temperatures will again be rising quickly by about 2020, they say.
The projection does not come as a surprise to climate scientists, though it may to a public that has perhaps become used to the idea that the rapid temperature rises seen through the 1990s are a permanent phenomenon.

Interesting, although it's only one study, and as stated in the last paragraph, it is not surprising. There are always natural variations in the temperature.

An alleged link between trees and (lack of) asthma (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children who live in tree-lined streets have lower rates of asthma, a New York-based study suggests.

Columbia University researchers found that asthma rates among children aged four and five fell by 25% for every extra 343 trees per square kilometre.

They believe more trees may aid air quality or simply encourage children to play outside, although they say the true reason for the finding is unclear.
The link between numbers of trees and asthma cases held true even after taking into account sources of pollution, levels of affluence and population density, the researchers said.

However, once these factors were taken into account, the number of trees in a street did not appear to have any impact on the number of children whose asthma was so severe that they required hospital treatment.

At least these researchers tried to account for some of the obvious factors (in particular wealth). But they still have not demonstrated that they have found any causation rather than just a correlation. And the last paragraph is an indication that whatever effect there might be could prove not to be significant in the cases that most matter.

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