Azara Blog: June 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/06/30

New Labour wants health funding based on patients' ratings (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Patients' rating of the quality of their NHS care will affect hospitals' and GPs' funding in England in the future, ministers have announced.

So if a hospital does not have enough money to provide quality care then it will be punished and have even less money next year. Great, eh. And, needless to say, hospitals and GPs will give clear messages to their patients that if they want more money in future for X, Y and Z then they had better give perfect 10 ratings. So needless to say the quality rating will monotonically increase year on year, without any increase in the quality itself.

European Commission introduces voluntary register of lobbyists (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The European Commission has defended its new voluntary register of lobbyists amid criticism from groups who say it is not transparent enough.

A day after its launch, the register had 42 lobbyists listed.
An estimated 15,000 lobbyists seek to influence EU legislation. Critics want more regulation of their activities.
The European Parliament has called for a mandatory register of lobbyists covering not only the parliament itself, but also the Commission and the Council of Ministers, which together approve legislation.

The three legislative branches are setting up a joint working group to establish a common register, which the parliament hopes will be in place by the next European elections, in a year's time.

A register is a good idea. Eurocrats and politicians spend most of their time being pestered (and so influenced) by zillions of lobbyists, both for corporations and for NGOs, and citizens have the right to know who is pestering whom. On the other hand, the US has a mandatory register but that has not stopped the American political system from being incredibly corrupt.

Date published: 2008/06/29

Government wants to speed up drug approval by NICE (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is to set out plans to speed up approval of drugs used in the National Health Service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) can take up to two years to make a decision but ministers want this cut to six months.

Patients will have their legal rights to drugs recommended by NICE laid out in the planned NHS constitution.

Health trusts will no longer be able to refuse drugs on cost grounds alone.

The draft version of the constitution is expected to set out what patients and staff are entitled to from the NHS.

This includes "fundamental principles" such as universal access to healthcare, and to drugs and treatments approved by NICE.

This seems reasonable enough. However it depends what they mean by "trusts will no longer be able to refuse drugs on cost grounds alone". Obviously every trust has a budget, and has to live within that budget. If some expensive drug has to be paid for, then less of some other treatment will be available. On the other hand it should be up to NICE and not the individual health trusts what drugs should and should not be paid for by the NHS. But the most unfortunate aspect of this announcement is that the real aim of the government is probably not to improve the performance of the NHS but rather just to avoid bad media coverage when some cancer patient or other complains that some drug or other is not available on the NHS. This is not the way to run a health service.

Date published: 2008/06/28

Towns built on greenfield sites are allegedly unsustainable (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times has a few anti-eco-town articles today and needless to say, one of them is by their architectural critic, Edwin Heathcote:

Eco has become a prefix which, when attached to any other word, imbues it with an automatic moral authority. Yet the idea of an eco-town is spurious.

Lord Rogers, one of the few powerful and persistent advocates of sustainability and good design in the Lords, recently launched a stinging attack on eco-towns, describing them as the "biggest mistake this government could make".

On top of that, residents around the designated sites - each with a potential for 20,000 homes - are protesting loudly. So, too, is the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which believes the loss of agricultural land and beautiful landscapes would be unacceptable.

The problem is that an eco-town, built on a greenfield site, is inherently unsustainable.

A new town demands an enormous outlay of energy in its new infrastructure, the public buildings required to sustain civil life and the homes themselves.

Civil engineering and architecture consume energy, which takes centuries to claw back through energy efficiency savings.

Designed by the architect Bill Dunster, BedZed is sustainable because it is carefully integrated with the city's existing infrastructure, the transport, the shops, the amenities.

The problem for housebuilders is that eco-features are seen as an add-on.

Heathcote at least seems to define "unsustainable". But he makes the bald claim that it takes "centuries to claw back" the "enormous outlay of energy", without providing any justification for this statement. And it is not at all clear that building on "brownfield" sites is any better in this regard. So BedZed also took a whacking great amount of energy to build. Indeed, it would be interesting to see if there is any activity on the planet that is really "sustainable" under this kind of definition (or just about any definition of that dreadful buzz word).

In the Cambridge area there are two proposed eco-towns. One, Northstowe, is north of Cambridge and is already in the pipeline and is supported by the local politicians and bureaucracy. The second, Hanley Grange, is south of Cambridge and is violently opposed by the local politicians and bureaucracy (and local residents). Hanley Grange is a greenfield site. Northstowe is deemed to be a brownfield site because some of it was once an airbase. But most of it is just as greenfield as Hanley Grange. (The Cambridge airport site, which is stupidly supposed to be converted to housing, is another brownfield site which is in fact a greenfield site.)

As Heathcote says, the local residents and the CPRE are hysterical about most of these new proposed eco-towns (not just Hanley Grange). But that is because they are always hysterical about building anything. They think that they should be able to live in a nice (highly subsidised) rural area but that nobody else should be allowed to. They have no serious arguments. Indeed, Hanley Grange is a perfect example of a site which is not by any stretch of the imagination a "beautiful landscape". It is of course currently agricultural land, because pretty much all greenfield sites are such, and this is neither here nor there. Perhaps the houses that these people live in should be demolished, so that more land can be converted to this allegedly wonderful agricultural ideal.

Cyclists allegedly break the rules because of safety (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cyclists break the law and ride anti-socially because the Highway Code rules are set against them, a national cyclists' organisation has claimed.

CTC says cyclists flout some of the rules, such as turning left on a red light, as it helps them to stay safe.

It has called for the code to be re-written to protect cyclists.

More nonsense from the cycling lobby. Unfortunately the BBC regularly publishes what amounts to press releases from middle class special interest pressure groups without bothering to provide any criticial analysis. (But the BBC is ever so middle class, which is why they do this.) It is patently obvious (certainly in Cambridge, the cycling capitol of Britain) that cyclists do not flout rules because of safety, they flout them because of convenience.

For example, most of Sidney Street in Cambridge is one-way, but many cyclists regularly ride up it the wrong way (and it's quite dangerous to pedestrians and other cyclists and vehicles going the correct way). They do this because otherwise they would have to cycle a few more meters up Trinity Street and Market Street.

As another, less dangerous, example of the same thing, it seems that technically cycling up Senate House Passage is illegal (and pathetic policemen occasionally try to enforce this since they obviously have nothing better to do with their lives). But there is probably not a cyclist in the city who would not cycle up this. Again, the alternative is to cycle a few more meters via Trinity Lane.

As another example, some traffic lights are vehicle activated. You can cycle up to these lights and literally nothing happens until the next vehicle happens to pull up. It's pretty obvious that if that is going to be a wait, most cyclists will use common sense and run the red light.

As a final example, the left turn from Milton Road onto Gilbert Road has a traffic light, and often you have to wait an extra half a minute because some pedestrian has stopped traffic to cross the road. It makes sense to cut the corner on your bike, which involves cycling on the (very wide) pavement for 20 feet or so. (Alternatively you could turn left on red.)

None of these are for reasons of safety, and to pretend otherwise is totally dishonest. It is just to get where you want to go faster. Politicians and bureaucrats haven't a clue how real transport users behave (cyclists or drivers) and when some lobby intentionally misleads like this it does not help.

Date published: 2008/06/27

Roger Penrose gives a cosmology talk in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

Roger Penrose gave the second annual Andrew Chamblin Memorial Lecture today in Cambridge. (Chamblin got his Ph.D. in Cambridge but, as it happens, before that also briefly worked in Penrose's twistor group in Oxford.) The title of the talk was "Deep Questions of Cosmology: Did Something Happen Before the Big Bang?".

Penrose is in his mid-70s (so at an age when most people are past any productive work in maths) and quaintly used an overhead projector during the talk with hand-scribbled slides. Apparently he's been doing the rounds with pretty much this talk.

Penrose said that three years ago he would have considered the question in the talk title to be a "ridiculous" and a "crazy" question. He said that indeed it is "crazy", but that "perhaps the universe is crazy".

Before the 1980s the "standard" cosmological model was pretty much the one a physicist by the name of Friedman (also spelled Friedmann) came up with in 1922. He solved Einstein's equations of gravity assuming that the universe was homogeneous and isotropic (a reasonable first approximation). It turns out that the solutions can be characterised by a parameter K, where K < 0, K = 0 or K > 0. In all three cases the universe started in a Big Bang. In the K = 0 and K < 0 cases the universe just expands forever whereas in the K > 0 case the universe eventually re-collapses into a Big Crunch.

Back in the 1980s it was deemed that the standard model had some problems. So it seemed (although the evidence was thin) that the value of K might be nearly or even exactly 0, and why should that be the case. Further, there were allegedly acausal correlations in the Cosmic Microwave Background. A postulated (and currently fairly accepted) way out of these "problems" was something called inflation, which allegedly resulted in an exponential increase in the size of the universe in the early stages just after the Big Bang. Penrose still doesn't seem to have accepted inflation.

Penrose mentioned several theoretical physicists (Friedman, Tolman, Wheeler, etc.) had come up with the idea that if K > 0 perhaps the universe oscillates (forever) between singularities, so a Big Crunch is the next Big Bang. Well, this is a bit fanciful (or "crazy") but a variant on this idea is what Penrose was claiming.

All of this was pretty much assuming that the so-called cosmological constant was 0. In the last decade it seems there is growing evidence that it is not 0. In this case even the K > 0 universe expands forever.

Penrose talked quite a bit about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Although it has a reputation of being something very difficult to understand, he joked that it was simple because it just said that things always get worse. Anyway, the Second Law says that something called entropy (which somehow measures "disorder") was always increasing. Well, the laws of Newtonian mechanics are time reversible so this seems contradictory. If entropy increases into the future why doesn't it increase into the past. Well, the Second Law only works into the future.

If you look into the past the entropy of the universe must be decreasing, and Penrose claimed this meant that there was an enormous constraint on the spacetime geometry at the Big Bang. In particular, the Weyl tensor (part of the Riemann tensor which describes the curvature of spacetime) must be approximately zero (allegedly to 1 part in 10 to the 10 to the 123). This is back to the usual problem that our universe is allegedly *very* special.

Anyway, Penrose has always had something about the Weyl tensor, because it describes the conformal curvature of spacetime. The fundamental object in Einstein's view of the world is the metric tensor, which describes the distance between points in spacetime. But if instead of considering distance you only consider angles, then that is the conformal structure. Light rays (photons) only care about the conformal structure.

The fundamental claim of Penrose was that you only had to consider the conformal information near the Big Bang, and you could (presumably analytically) continue the geometry to before the Big Bang if you just considered the conformal structure. Well perhaps. Penrose claimed this led to a new view of a "conformal cyclic cosmology" (so even though the universe is expanding forever it turns out you can always compactify the infinite future in terms of its conformal structure). Well perhaps.

It was supposed to be a popular lecture (although anyone who didn't know a fair amount of 20th century relativity would have been pretty lost) so he didn't give any details. But he claimed at the end that he could make predictions based on his ideas, and that these were not only testable, but that someone had sent him some experimental data just today. Unfortunately he had not had time to study the data before he gave his lecture, so it's possible he has made a revolution discovery or it's possible his theory will soon be in the trash. (Well, making any prediction which is somewhat verified by experiment does not really prove very much. But making any prediction which is negated by experiment sinks the theory pretty conclusively.)

IWC governments thinking about resolving differences over whaling (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has ended with member governments agreeing to try and resolve their differences.

The next year will see intensive dialogue between pro- and anti-whaling countries, and could lead to a package deal next year.

But there is still significant water between the camps on key issues.

The meeting also decided to embark on a research programme into the impact of climate change on whales.
Environmental and animal welfare groups are divided. Some agree with Dr Hogarth's view that it might lead to a fall in the number of whales killed, while others say there should be no compromise, and are angry with anti-whaling governments including the US for pursuing the initiative.

Needless to say some groups will never be happy if any whale is killed. They have a religious objection to whales being killed. (Although many of them probably object to any animal being killed.) But hopefully the semi-sane approach that now seems to be in view will stop the idiotic sparring at IWC meetings (and elsewhere), where both sides in the past have refused to listen to anything the other side has said.

Sample of plants in France moving upwards at rate of 2.9m per year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change has caused plants to seek cooler conditions at higher altitudes, scientists suggest.

A study of 171 forest species in mountain ranges of western Europe found that many plants had climbed an average of 29 metres each decade.

Smaller species such as ferns, which had shorter reproduction cycles, were the quickest to relocate, the researchers said.
In order to do this, the team of French and Chilean researchers compared the distribution of forest species between 1905 and 1985 with their distribution between 1986 and 2005.

"This work was possible because of two large-scale, long-term databases that have recorded the presence of forest species since 1905," [Jonathan Lenoir, the paper's lead author] explained.

"We used 171 species commonly found over French mountains, which are part of Mediterranean, temperature and mountainous forest ecosystems between 0m to 2,600m above sea level.

"We found a significant change in species' altitudinal distribution towards higher elevation of about 29 metres per decade.

"Out of the 171 species, most are shifting upwards to recover temperature conditions that are optimal for their development and reproduction."

Not surprising at all but the quantification is interesting. 100 years x 2.9 m/year = 290 m, which is not inconsiderable. And it's an average, and presumably some species are perfectly happy to stay still, so some must be moving uphill faster. This rate ought to be increasing, so, as to be expected, some species will soon enough run out of space to move.

Date published: 2008/06/26

UK Equality minister sets out plans to legalise more inequality (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Equality minister Harriet Harman has set out plans to allow firms to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minority job candidates.

She said firms should be able to choose a woman over a man of equal ability if they wanted to - or vice versa.

The new Equalities Bill will also force employers to disclose salary structures in a bid to close the gender pay gap.

The plans, which will be adopted first across England then Wales and Scotland, will also ban all age discrimination.

Setting out the plans in a Commons statement, Ms Harman said the proposed bill - due later this year - would "address the serious inequalities that still exist" in the UK.
The bill will also seek to stop pensioners being denied NHS treatment because of their age, although doctors will still be able to refuse treatment if they believe there are sound clinical reason for doing so.

Age discrimination will also be outlawed in the provision of goods and services, although there could be exemptions for things like holiday aimed at certain age groups.

Only in Britain would the "Equality" minister bring forward proposals to introduce yet more inequality into law. Although the BBC spin in the article claims that it's possible that women, and not just men, could be discriminated against, in fact the real idea is that men, in particular white middle-aged men, will be the target of government-sanctioned discrimination. And unless the NHS is going to be given millions upon millions of pounds in extra money, it is obvious that the government is forcing the NHS to throw yet more scarce money at old people (who already consume most of the NHS budget) which would be better spent on younger people.

Needless to say, in this bill the devil will be in the detail. But one of the problems with introducing a Mickey Mouse cabinet position like the Equality minister is that the minister is forced to come up with these kind of crackpot proposals in order to justify her existence. (The fact that people like her will benefit from the new discrimination is of course entirely coincidental.)

Britain is allegedly going to have zillions of new wind turbines installed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of new wind turbines could be built across the UK over the coming decade as part of a £100bn plan to boost renewable energy.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the UK should be a leader in renewable energy.

But he warned it would not come from "business as usual" and he called for a national debate on achieving the UK's target of 15% renewable energy by 2020.
Under the government's plans an extra 4,000 onshore and 3,000 offshore turbines will be needed, impacting on communities, business and the government.

Ministers say visible changes to landscapes, towns and cities are "inevitable" but in his speech Mr Brown promised local communities wind turbines would be sited in the "right" locations.
The average bill for gas and electricity for the average household is currently £1,055, but this is estimated to rise to £1,346 as a result of the implementation of greener technology.

BBC environment and science correspondent David Shukman said that savings from improved insulation and energy efficiency should bring that figure down.

Wind is one of the few so-called green energy sources that makes some sense for Britain, but time will tell whether this is just more spin from central government. The Tories allegedly support this, but you can guarantee your last pound that they will find all sorts of reasons why onshore wind farms should not be allowed (because these would be situated in rural, i.e. Tory, areas). And you can guarantee that all politicians will not be mentioning too much to voters that their energy bills are going to rocket even more than has happened recently.

Icann votes to allow explosion of new top-level internet domains (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A complete overhaul of the way in which people navigate the internet has been given the go-ahead in Paris.

The net's regulator, Icann, voted unanimously to relax the strict rules on so-called "top-level" domain names, such as .com or .uk.

The decision means that companies could turn brands into web addresses, while individuals could use their names.

A second proposal, to introduce domain names written in scripts, such as Asian and Arabic, was also approved.

It's fair enough to introduce domain names for Asian and Arabic scripts. But the idea that we need lots more top-level domain names is ridiculous. This is just a way for organisations like Icann to justify their existence and to make loads more money selling domain names. Every corporation in the world already has to buy zillions of domains just to prevent cyber squatters from making their life hell, and this is just going to exponentially explode that racket.

Date published: 2008/06/25

The world should allegedly introduce a miniscule carbon tax (permanent blog link)

Matt Prescott says on the BBC:

The principle of costing carbon emissions is not new - the international carbon trade, led by the EU market, turns over billions of dollars a year.

But the majority of the world's countries, companies and citizens play no part in the exercise. It is remote and aloof, so we need something that touches everybody.

I propose, as a first step, the establishment of a low rate of carbon tax; implemented globally, but raised and spent at the national level.

This tax could quickly be applied to every source of greenhouse gases in every nation, where it would act as an incentive for everyone to reduce his or her emissions.

To date, most carbon tax proposals have advocated that the full environmental and social costs of climate change should be reflected in the introductory rate of a carbon tax.

Sweden deliberately did this in 1991 and now has a carbon tax equivalent to $151 per barrel of oil. It has been a huge success and enabled the country to achieve a 9% reduction in its emissions while simultaneously achieving economic growth of 44% between 1990 and 2006.

Clearly, not every society can afford such a high upfront cost.

My suggestion would be to introduce the global carbon tax at a rate that everyone could afford and that allows every country and human activity to be brought on board from the outset.

A rate equivalent to $1 (£0.50) for every tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere would meet these criteria and also create a global minimum price for carbon.

Assuming a credible global carbon tax was established, this initial rate could then be increased using a pre-determined price escalator or further international negotiations.

The rate of $1 for every tonne of carbon dioxide would add roughly $0.0023 to the price of a litre of petrol, or $0.32 to a barrel of oil. This would raise a total of $6bn (£3bn) in the US, $5.5bn (£2.75bn) in China, $600m (£300m) in the UK and $700,000 (£350,000) in Afghanistan.

To help put these carbon tax costs in perspective, since December 1998 the price of a barrel of Brent Crude oil has increased from $9.10 to its present price of more than $135. So it's not going to wreck any economy.
At present human activities, such as burning fossil fuels for energy and clearing rainforests for agriculture, release approximately 29bn tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. This means that a $1 tax would generate $29bn.

Yes, there should be a carbon tax (or equivalent). Yes, the carbon tax should be global (otherwise rich people can get around the tax by getting poor people to produce the emissions on their behalf). But that is about where this article stops making sense.

You can always cherry-pick statistics, so quoting any one country (here Sweden) for any specific time period as alleged proof of anything is misleading. So Prescott claims that Sweden has achieved a "9% reduction in its emissions" between 1991 and some unspecified year (presumably around 2006). Well, the UK reduced its emissions by 15% between 1990 and 2006 (this is using total emissions, not just those due to CO2). The UK did this not by introducing a carbon tax but via a "dash to gas" for electricity generation, away from coal.

Further, you have to be careful exactly which GDP statistic you quote (so whether in constant-price local currency or in current-price local currency or relative to the US dollar, or ...). Prescott does not say which one he is quoting. According to the IMF in terms of US dollars (so allowing a semi-sane comparison between countries) between 1990 and 2006 the GDP of Sweden went up 50% but the GDP of the UK went up 124%.

All in all this hardly represents a great vindication of the Swedish model. But you can spin the story a zillion and one ways, needless to say. And, for example, the EU has successfully exported a fair amount of EU emissions to China (by getting China to make everything for the EU). Without taking that into account (because the figures might be quite different for Sweden and the UK), comparing emissions is not being done correctly.

Prescott proposes a carbon tax of 32 cents per barrel of oil. But he quotes the Swedish carbon tax as being 151 dollars per barrel, so around 472 times the amount. And the Stern report recommended a carbon tax of around 32 dollars per barrel, so around 100 times the amount. Although one might not want to immediately introduce a large carbon tax, introducing a pathetic little one will have no impact. Prescott effectively admits as much.

Well, needless to say, once any carbon tax is in place, no matter how small, the governments of the world will immediately ratchet it up. Presumably this is the real Prescott game plan. It will also not be revenue neutral, no matter how many people suggest this. (For example, in the UK car drivers pay a whacking great carbon tax already, in fact around the Sweden level, but it is not even close to being revenue neutral and only car drivers pay it.)

And finally, Prescott seems to want to tax not only obvious and easily quantifiable carbon emitting processes such as burning fossil fuels, he also seems to want to tax processes such as "clearing rainforests" where it is bloody difficult to estimate how much carbon is emitted. This is not very practical. His carbon tax is not going to raise nearly as much money as he thinks.

Rotating skyscraper proposed for Dubai (and Moscow) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's first moving building, an 80-storey tower with revolving floors giving a shifting shape, will be built in Dubai, its architect says.

The Dynamic Tower design is made up of 80 pre-fabricated apartments which will spin independently of one another.

"It's the first building that rotates, moves, and changes shape," said architect David Fisher, who is Italian, at a news conference in New York.

"This building never looks the same, not once in a lifetime," he added.

The 420-metre (1,378-foot) building's apartments would spin a full 360 degrees, at voice command, around a central column by means of 79 giant power-generating wind turbines located between each floor.

The slender building would be energy self-sufficient as the turbines would produce enough electricity to power the entire building and even feed extra power back into the grid, said the Italian architect at the unveiling of the project in New York.

The apartments, which will take between one and three hours to make a complete rotation, will cost from $3.7m to $36m.

There are also plans to build a similar, 70-storey skyscraper in Moscow.

"I call these buildings designed by time, shaped by life," said the Florence-based architect, who has never built a sky-scraper before.

"These buildings will open our vision all around, to a new life."

The skyscraper will cost an estimated $700m to build and should be up and running in Dubai in 2010.

You can tell when a country has too much money when this kind of scheme is announced. But heck, if it's ever built then it will be a tourist attraction if nothing else. However the claim that this is "energy self-sufficient" is a bit dubious. The amount of energy it will take to build these towers will be staggering, in fact $700 million worth of staggering. And the maintenance of the building is going to be a nightmare. It's unlikely there will ever be a positive payback. Basically, this is a plaything for multi-millionaires.

Cambridge County Council to set up a commission to look at congestion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Congestion problems in Cambridge are to be looked at by a team of private and public sector groups.

The new commission, which could include the city council, Addenbrooke's Hospital, police and the universities, has been set up by the county council.

The move comes after the council made a bid for £500m of government funds for a plan, including for congestion charging, which was not well supported. The commission's aim is to come up with ideas to curb the city's congestion.

Jill Tuck, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said: "We have listened carefully over the last few months and it is clear that the Transport Innovation Fund scheme we put forward for consultation last autumn does not have sufficient support either from other key organisations or the public.

"It needs, at the very least, refinement.

"The £500m we have requested is way in excess of anything we would ever raise locally but such a huge cash injection does have to be accompanied by a congestion charging scheme.

"It will be for the commission to determine what is best for Cambridge but any scheme must have support from key public and private organisations and also the public."

The first time around, the county council just came up with their proposals without asking pretty much anyone else, so not the city council, not businesses and definitely not the public. They obviously still want the central government bribe (and although the figure of £500m was put forward, that was hypothetical and not a real offer). So they have (wisely) now asked other interested parties to come up with new proposals. But one interested party they will continue to ignore will be the public. Ultimately there will be "congestion" charging in Cambridge, either before the rest of the country or (hopefully) along with the rest of the country, wheher the public wants it or not. The ruling elite of Britain have long since decided to screw motorists, and that campaign will continue for the forseeable future.

Date published: 2008/06/24

Cats are allegedly linked with eczema (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Being exposed to cat allergens early in life may spark eczema - if you carry a key gene fault, a study has suggested.

Scientists found having the mutant FLG gene increased the risk of eczema in a baby's first year twofold, but adding exposure to a cat quadrupled that risk.

The study, of 892 babies born in the UK and Denmark, was published in the Public Library of Science journal.

However, a UK expert said other research suggested cats may actually reduce the risk of eczema.

The study, led by a team at the University of Dundee, found exposure to dogs made no difference.

A potentially classic case where researchers have confused correlation and causation, although here it's quite possibly valid since it is not obvious how these two events might be otherwise linked. But the fact that some unidentified UK "expert" suggests that even the correlation is probably weak. And it's amazing how often cats get a bum press.

The Cambridge LMB is going to get a new building (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A £67m investment by the government has cleared the way for the rebuilding of the internationally-renowned Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB).

The Cambridge-based laboratory has produced 13 Nobel Prize winners and is where DNA coding was first unravelled.

The funds enable the Medical Research Council, which runs LMB, to meet the £197m cost of a replacement for the 40-year-old building.

The current building is unbelievably dilapidated. There are fridges haphazardly lining some of the corridors (it is amazing that the health and safety control freaks have not shut the place down). Permanent staff are shoehorned into pathetic shoebox-sized offices (some of them have space for one child-sized desk and two chairs and that is it). The computational facilities are out of the ark. The whole building just feels rundown. Needless to say, this has not stopped world class research from being done in the past, but the building is now beyond a joke. Hopefully the new building will improve the situation. And it will be interesting to see what happens to the old building, which had a later extension which was laughingly tailored on the outside to allegedly make one think of King's College Chapel (it does not).

Date published: 2008/06/23

Cambridgeshire County Council might drop their "congestion charge" proposal (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Brakes have been put on plans for congestion charging in Cambridge.

In a shock announcement, Cambridgeshire County Council has said it is going "back to the drawing board" over the proposals.

It had planned to charge everyone driving in Cambridge between 7.30am and 9.30am Monday to Friday, including residents, between £3 and £5.

Citing "lack of support" from the public and businesses, the council is to set up a commission involving key public and private sector groups including Cambridge University and the business community which will listen to evidence on the controversial subject.

Plans for congestion charging were met with a storm of protest when they were unveiled last summer, despite the prospect of up to £500 million upfront to be spent on transport improvements before a charge would be introduced.

Cambridge Chamber of Commerce dealt a blow to the council's plans last month when it launched the People Against Congestion Charge Alliance.

Members of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign rallied to the defence of congestion charging a few days ago with the UnclogCambridge campaign.

It ain't over until the fat lady sings. So this announcement does not necessarily mean the end of the scheme. Needless to say, the proposals worked against the interests of the ordinary workers of Cambridgeshire. Needless to say, the main proponents were the usual car-hating academic middle class people (including the Cambridge Cycling Cambridge) who dominate Cambridge (well, Britain). With these kinds of proposals, if the car-hating bureaucrats and politicians can get business on board, they can afford to just ignore the views of the ordinary people. But if, as seems to have been the case here, larges swathes of business object, then that is a sign of trouble. Central government (half-)offered a bribe to local government to try and kickstart this scheme. Now local government will have to offer some kind of bribe to business to get the scheme back up and running. Meanwhile local government will continue to perfectly happily persecute car drivers the old-fashioned way (reducing capacity to make congestion worse, charging extortionate car parking fees, etc.).

The CERN LHC is allegedly not going to cause the universe to end (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Our planet is not at risk from the world's most powerful particle physics experiment, a report has concluded.

The document addresses fears that the Large Hadron Collider is so energetic, it could have unforeseen consequences.

Critics are worried that mini-black holes made at the soon-to-open facility on the French-Swiss border might threaten the Earth's very existence.

But the report, issued the European Organization for Nuclear Research, says there is "no conceivable danger".

The organization - known better by its French acronym, Cern - will operate the collider underground in a 27km-long tunnel near Geneva.

This Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is a powerful and complicated machine, which will smash together protons at super-fast speeds in a bid to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

Six "detectors" - individual experiments - will count, trace and analyse the particles that emerge from the collisions.

Most physicists believe the risk of a cataclysm lies in the realms of science fiction. But there have been fears about the possibility of a mini-black hole - produced in the collider - swelling so that it gobbles up the Earth.

Critics have previously raised concerns that the production of weird hypothetical particles called strangelets in the LHC could trigger the mass conversion of nuclei in ordinary atoms into more strange matter - transforming the Earth into a hot, dead lump.

The lay language summary of the report, which has been written by Cern's top theorists, states: "Over the past billions of years, nature has already generated on Earth as many collisions as about a million LHC experiments - and the planet still exists."

Needless to say, any report issued by CERN saying that there is no problem with the LHC is not going to impress anyone, in particular, the nutters who believe that the world will end if the LHC (or pretty much any random bit of technology they don't like) goes into operation. (In any case, if the world is going to end, this alleged method is about as good as it gets. Far better than most scenarios, if somewhat sooner.)

Date published: 2008/06/22

Some Tory MP wants to commit mass murder against grey squirrels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Not enough is being done to back a mass cull of grey squirrels aimed at saving the red squirrel population, according to Conservative MP David MacLean.

The reds are in drastic decline, and Mr MacLean, an MP in Cumbria, wants a pilot scheme run in Northumberland rolled out across the UK.

The scheme saw 17,000 greys destroyed, and supporters say this has led to a revival for the smaller red squirrels.

The RSPCA has said it questions whether culling is a long-term solution.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Redesdale has been overseeing the scheme in Northumberland, and says he has almost rid the area of the grey squirrel.

This has been achieved with a government grant of just under £150,000, a professional trapper and 300 volunteers.

By trapping the greys and then shooting them, Lord Redesdale said he was recreating space for the native red squirrels.

But Andrew Tyler, the director of Animal Aid, told Five Live the project was "absurd".

"It's hateful and bigoted," he said.

"The reason the red squirrel is endangered in terms of its population is because it is being persecuted by people.

"Up until the 1950s people killed them by the hundreds of thousands because they were considered pests, just like the grey."

There are only 140,000 red squirrels in the country, in comparison with 2.5m greys. It is believed that the greys have thrived because of their greater ability to compete for food.

Mr MacLean has accused the government of not providing a "small investment" which he says could see, in the long-term, a native British species to thrive again.

It is unbelievable how many people (and indeed people who allegedly care about nature) whose "solution" to a "problem" in nature is mass murder. Even worse, MacLean wants to do it over the entire country. The grey squirrel could well be displaced by black squirrels some day and one can imagine that the morons of the future will then take the opportunity to complain about the poor grey squirrel being rare and that all black squirrels should be murdered. Repeat, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. Nature can look after itself a lot better than a bunch of murderous middle class control freaks who want to play god. Why the taxpayer should fund this stupidity is not clear.

Date published: 2008/06/21

Alison Richard writes to alumnae and alumni (permanent blog link)

Now and again Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor (i.e. the real head) of Cambridge University writes to "alumnae and alumni". Needless to say, this is all about fundraising, but the British are ever so quaint about this. Her latest effort (dated June 2008) starts out with:

In 2009, a few short months away, we will celebrate the University's 800th year and centuries of intellectual inquiry and teaching that have given the world a stream of transforming ideas and people.

This is followed by two dense sides of A4 with general blurbs about the university and also its relation to the world. There is no way anybody is going to read this entire letter unless they literally have nothing else to do with their time. Finally, in the last sentence, we come to the real point of the exercise:

We hope that in our Anniversay year all alumni will give what support they can to ensure that the future of Cambridge is as bright as ever.

Well, Cambridge is perfectly good at raising money (at least by UK standards) but this kind of arcane letter is not really going to help.

Britain is allegedly going to throw a lot of money at "green" energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

As many as a quarter of British homes could be fitted with solar heating panels under new government plans for a "green revolution".

Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the new proposals are "the most ambitious" such strategy that Britain has seen.

The goal is to meet the EU target of 15% of energy from renewables by 2020.

But at a time of consumer anger over fuel prices, the plan concedes that green power will cost more.

The plan will also call for 3,500 new wind turbines to be erected across the UK, the Guardian newspaper reported.

The total price tag for the proposals is pegged at £100 billion.

Mr Wicks said the plans, which may include measures to force homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, were aimed at dramatically increasing Britain's energy supplies from renewables by 2020.
Robin Webster, energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said the plan was a positive step.

"Harnessing the UK's natural abundance of wind and wave power, and developing a comprehensive energy efficiency programme will create thriving new industries and generate thousands of jobs."

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said the plans for solar panels on seven million roofs and other steps to reduce the use of fossil fuels make sense regardless of the price of oil or the state of the climate.

This sounds like desperation (because the EU has held a gun to the head of Britain) and spin more than anything else.

For once the comment by an FoE person makes some sense. On the other hand, the comment by the Greenpeace person does not make sense. Solar panels are completely the wrong technology for Britain (in 2008). Funnily enough, it's not very sunny in Britain, and the payback period for solar installations is effectively infinite. Not only that, but it would rely on having a halfway competent army of solar power installers and maintenance engineers. Britain's track record on that kind of thing is woeful, and unlikely to get better. In 2008, Britain should be investing in large-scale wind, and possibly wave, technologies, not in solar power. (Of course, there are potential benefits from passive solar heating, but that is a separate issue.)

Britain might actually get around to building more train lines (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Five new high-speed main lines crossing the width and breadth of the UK may be built as part of a review of the rail network, Network Rail says.

The network operator will announce on Monday it is to commission a study looking into what could be the largest track build since the 19th century.

The study will consider laying new lines alongside five of the UK's busiest routes by 2025.

They include the East Coast main line and West Coast main line.
Richard Dyer, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "Expanding Britain's railways by building new high speed lines is potentially very exciting - and could play an important role in weaning Britain off fossil fuels and developing a low carbon economy."

The one thing that of course is not mentioned in the article is who is going to pay for this? For some reason, rail passengers always seem to think that someone else should subsidise their journey. And presumably these new rail lines will indeed be heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.

The Dyer comment is bizarre. For some reason some people seem to think that railways have something to do with a "low carbon" economy. These new trains will be powered by electricity and most electricity is still generated by extremely carbon intensive sources. Indeed, high-speed trains in particular consume a lot of electricity. Sure, some day most electricity might be generated by less carbon intensive sources. By then most cars could also well be electric, but you can bet your last pound that the FoE of the day will still campaign against cars and for trains.

In related jargon, no service which is subsidised by others can be deemed to be "sustainable", no matter what kind of energy it uses. It is extremely unlikely that any train service will ever be "sustainable", because no government is willing to force train users to pay the actual cost of their journeys.

Date published: 2008/06/20

Environment Minister claims he wants a "debate" on GM crops (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is ready to argue for a greater role for genetically-modified (GM) crops, says Environment Minister Phil Woolas.

He wants a debate on the benefits, amid rising food prices, of GM crops possibly offering greater yields, particularly in the developing world.

The government's position could alarm campaigners who have expressed fears about the crops' safety in the past

Any minister who says he "wants a debate" about any issue is either lying or foolish. And specifically with GM crops there is no point in a "debate" because the people who oppose GM crops will always oppose GM crops no matter what the evidence shows. The basic point is that they do not oppose GM crops because of "fears about the crops' safety" but for religious reasons (mostly that they hate US corporations, although many of them also hate pretty much any technology which is post-industrial revolution). Unfortunately most of the academic middle class people who run the UK (certainly who run the media) fall into this particular religious camp.

Smoking in children is linked with non-"inclusive" school environments (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Pupils who experience positive and inclusive social environments in school are less likely to take up smoking, according to new research.

A study of high-school children suggested that current school-based anti-smoking interventions were "largely ineffective".

But the Medical Research Council (MRC) found that the wider school environment made a difference.

It looked at more than 5,000 pupils in 24 Scottish schools.

The study was led by Marion Henderson of the MRC social and public health sciences unit in Glasgow.

She said: "The social environment of schools, in particular the quality of teacher-pupil relationships, pupils' attitude to school and the school's focus on caring and inclusiveness, all influence both boys' and girls' smoking habits."
The research showed "school effects" remained even after other factors, such as whether pupils smoked before joining, whether they lived with both parents and how much personal spending money they had, were taken into account.

It's possible this is true. But it just seems like another classic example of confusing correlation with causation. So, for example, are working class kids more likely to smoke than middle class kids? And are middle class kids more likely to attend "inclusive" schools? It seems that the researchers tried to take into account some factors but the article doesn't mention class as being one of the factors. And no doubt the researchers could have found a zillion and one other correlations, but for some reason decided to focus on this specific one, perhaps because they believed it to be true before they started. All in all, it's amazing how much the UK wastes on this kind of research.

Date published: 2008/06/19

Government wants to "reward" people who recycle a lot (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Households could be rewarded or fined according to the amount of rubbish they recycle, under pilot schemes due to run in five parts of England next year.

Each council would be able to fix its own policy but environment minister Joan Ruddock said payments generally worked well in other parts of Europe.

The sums in question were likely to be in the range of £50, she suggested.

The Local Government Association said action was needed because Britain was now "the dustbin of Europe".

Under the trial, due to begin next April, households which recycled the most rubbish and left the least in their bin would receive a rebate.

Those in the worst-performing homes would be charged for the rubbish they left, and it would be the money from them which would cover the costs of rewards for active recyclers.

Local authorities are being invited to submit proposals for schemes, should they wish to be considered for the trial.

The government will not consider extending these so-called "pay-as-you-throw" measures across England until the evidence from the five pilots is assessed.

Its guidelines made clear the councils chosen for the pilots must have measures in place to discourage and penalise fly-tipping.

Ms Ruddock referred to a scheme in Sweden, where recycling had increased by 49% and waste levels had fallen by 19% within a year of residents being charged according to the weight of their unrecyclable rubbish.

There were similar results with different schemes in Italy and the Netherlands, she added.

It is trivially obvious that people will respond to incentives. And here that means that people will produce less unrecyclable waste but also that there will be increased fly-tipping. The government may require councils to "have measures in place to discourage and penalise fly-tipping" but that is meaningless. Whether the decrease in unrecyclable waste makes up for the increase in fly-tipping is a hard question.

It also seems that people who compost their own organic waste will be financially penalised relative to people who just hand it all over to the State to deal with, since the former will have "recycled" less than the latter (according to the official State definition). And beer drinkers will be financially penalised relative to wine drinkers, since tin cans weigh less than glass bottles. And people who don't buy newspapers will be financially penalised relative to people who buy loads of newspapers, because the latter will be considered to be gold star citizens if they can be bothered to put their newspapers in the recycling bin. Etc.

If you believe that it makes sense to charge for "pay-as-you-throw" then what should happen, of course, is that everyone is charged for both unrecyclable and for recyclable waste, but possibly at different rates, to reflect the cost of collecting and processing the waste, and also to reflect the cost of any environmental side effects. Unfortunately the EU elite have decided that recyclying is holy, so the more the merrier. It does not matter how much waste you produce, as long as you recycle a certain percentage of it (and hand it over to the State to do so). This is environmental madness.

Bristol is given money to promote cycling (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Bristol has become England's first "cycling city" in a £100m government scheme aimed at encouraging cycling.

The city intends to double the number of cyclists over the next three years with a series of innovations.

Sharing the funding will be York, Stoke, Blackpool, Cambridge, Chester, Colchester, Leighton Buzzard, Southend, Shrewsbury, Southport and Woking.

Among the features in Bristol will be the UK's first major bicycle rental network, modelled on a scheme in Paris.

The government is giving Bristol £11.4m to transform cycling by creating dedicated cycle lanes, better facilities and more training for children.

The local area will match this funding to bring the total investment package to about £23m.
The Public Health Minister and Bristol South MP Dawn Primarolo said the scheme would help tackle growing levels of obesity in the UK.

"For most people, a great way to keep healthy is by building physical activity into everyday life, such as cycling to work or school," she said.

Cycling should certainly receive some money from the taxpayer. Whether this is a fair amount is another question. Needless to say, this scheme has nothing to do with the desire to "tackle growing levels of obesity in the UK". (And one wonders whether Primarolo has ever herself been on a bicycle except as a PR exercise.) It is all about trying to convince the workers to get out of their cars and instead cycle to work. Unfortunately this will be more about stick (making traffic congestion worse to cater for cyclists, buses and pedestrians, and just general nastiness towards drivers) than it will be about carrot. And as with most government schemes, a lot of this money will be completely wasted. For example, it seems that cycles will be provided "free of charge to deprived communities". No doubt some enterprising sort will set up a business to people in these "deprived" commnunities to sell on their free bike for a tenner so they can then be sold on again for double that price or more. And everybody it seems will be entitled to a "Develop a Personalised Travel Plan", a complete and utter waste of money. Fundamentally, the academic middle class people who run Britain utterly fail to realise or accept that most people do not want to cycle to get to work (or shop).

Date published: 2008/06/18

Bush proposes yet again that offshore drilling be allowed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

President George W Bush has called on Congress to end a 27-year ban on drilling for oil in US coastal waters, to reduce dependence on imports.

Mr Bush said existing restrictions on offshore drilling were "outdated and counter-productive".
Kassie Siegel, climate programme director at the California-based Center for Biological Diversity, condemned the Bush offshore initiative.

"This is the culmination of the failed Bush-Cheney energy policy of the last eight years," she told the BBC News website.

"It would do absolutely nothing for petrol prices because it would take at least a decade to produce any oil and even if the oil did flow, there would be the greenhouse gases from the additional fossil fuel development."

She points out that the US government recently calculated there was a 33-51% chance of a major spill in the lifetime of an offshore oil and gas lease in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

Such a spill, defined as a release of 1,000 barrels or more from a platform or pipeline, could affect bowhead whales, polar bears and other wildlife.

However, the government's environmental impact statement concluded that "an area affected by such a spill relative to the size of the Chukchi Sea decreases the likelihood that the resources would be widely contacted by the spill".

Bush has obviously never seen a barrel of oil he did not like. So he's not exactly unbiased in the matter, and, like in most other things, one is safest just to ignore anything he proposes. The main fault with this proposal is that it just considers supply in isolation. Bush is incapable of producing a sensible energy policy which also considers energy efficiency (the one globally appealing way to reduce demand) and also a carbon tax.

On the other hand, the remarks of Siegel are also rather inane. Arguing that this shouldn't happen because the impact is a decade off is rather silly, since the oil situation is likely to get worse in time, not better, and since she is one of many who have been fighting to prevent this happening the last two decades, so is responsible for the delay. And although it will add to the global amount of carbon emissions due to oil, it might (temporarily) divert even worse carbon emissions due to (say) coal. And it will slightly (but not substantively) reduce American dependence on foreign oil. And Siegel is implicitly arguing that oil spills in the US are bad, but oil spills somewhere else are acceptable. After all, the oil is coming from somewhere. But it is common for rich countries to export pollution to other countries.

New Hall is given £30m and renames itself (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A college at Cambridge University has been renamed after a former student who donated £30m.

New Hall will become Murray Edwards College after donors Ros and Steve Edwards and founder Dame Rosemary Murray.

New Hall has been looking for a suitably large donation since it was founded in 1954, in order to have a proper name, and it appears that £30m is the going price. New Hall is one of only two remaining single-sex colleges in Cambridge (the other, Newnham, is also all-female) and does not have a great academic reputation, so this money ought to come in handy to improve standards.

Date published: 2008/06/17

So-called lyrical terrorist wins appeal against conviction (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A former Heathrow worker, who called herself the "lyrical terrorist" because of the extremist poems she wrote, has won an appeal against her conviction.

Samina Malik, 24, from west London, was found guilty in November of collecting information likely to be useful to those preparing for a terrorism act.

The Court of Appeal has now quashed the conviction after prosecution lawyers conceded it was unsafe.
Giving judgement, Lord Phillips said: "We consider that there is a very real danger that the jury became confused and that the prosecution have rightly conceded that this conviction is unsafe."

He went on to explain how in February this year, the Court of Appeal had studied Section 58 of the Terrorism Act in detail.

It had concluded that an offence would be committed under the act only if a document was of a kind likely to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

Propagandist or theological material did not fall within Section 58, Lord Phillips said.

In Ms Malik's case, some of the documents used as evidence were therefore ruled not to fall within the section.

Lord Phillips added: "The jury was required to consider not only documents which were capable of being of practical utility for a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, but a large number of documents that were not.

"We consider that there was scope for the jury to have become confused."
Sue Hemming, head of the CPS's counter terrorism division, said 21 documents the prosecution relied on in Ms Malik's trial "would no longer be held capable of giving practical assistance to terrorists".

"However, other documents in her possession, including the al-Qaeda Manual, the Terrorist's Handbook, the Mujahideen Poisons Handbook and several military manuals, clearly retain that potential.

"We therefore have no doubt that it was right to bring this prosecution."

But taking into account the time Ms Malik had spent on remand before her first trial and the likely non-custodial sentence she would receive upon conviction in a retrial meant the CPS had decided not to take the case to court again, she said.

"Ms Malik was not prosecuted for her poetry. She was prosecuted for possessing documents that could provide practical assistance to terrorists," she added.

A small bit of sanity returns to the British courtroom. But it is rather patronising of Phillips to claim that the jury might have become "confused". The jury is given evidence and it is up to the lawyers and judge(s) to make sure that the jury understands what the law is. Further, what is really worrying is not so much that the jury got it wrong, but that the CPS got it so wrong. The jury is made up of legal amateurs, the CPS is allegedly made up of legal professionals. Is anybody in the CPS going to be disciplined for this clear and basic misunderstanding of the law?

Even the alleged illegality of some of the documents does the reputation of British justice no good. Why shouldn't people be able to read what the nutters in al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are saying? It is unfortunate that Blair was so keen to introduce the thought police into the British legal system.

Standards in UK universities are allegedly declining (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Universities are turning a blind eye to cheating to boost degree results, a leading academic has said.

Buckingham University's Professor Geoffrey Alderman says league tables create pressure to award high marks.

The number of first-class honours degrees awarded has risen by more than 100% in the past decade. The number of undergraduates is up by just over 40%.

Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said all courses were subject to regular internal monitoring.

Professor Alderman, who used to set standards at the University of London, will say in a lecture that academics are under pressure to turn a blind eye to plagiarism and "mark positively", which could lead to a collapse in degree standards.

The government provides every incentive for universities to behave as claimed by Alderman, and needless to say universities respond to incentives just like everyone else. On the other hand, in the matter of cheating, it is normally pretty easy to convince colleagues that such and such a student has cheated. But how many people would be willing to stand up in a court of law and defend this claim rigourously, and how many universities would be willing to risk an awful lot of money doing so? Perhaps not many cheaters would go to court but the universities don't know who would. It's quite possible that this is a more important factor in why cheats get away with it than the requirement to boost grade outcomes.

Date published: 2008/06/16

David Cameron does more posturing on the environment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has said he will not be diverted from his "green" agenda by the economic downturn.

In a speech at Westminster's Royal Horticultural Halls, he said Britain "can't afford not to go green".

He called for rules ensuring all new coal-fired power stations include measures to trap CO2 and to encourage the development of "greener" cars.
In his speech, Mr Cameron said he would not ignore the financial pressures on people, but would not drop his environmental agenda.

He said any "green taxes" introduced by the Conservatives would be put into a separate fund for tax relief for families.
Fighting climate change was not a "costly diversion" and over-reliance on oil and gas was "bad for our national security," he said.

"The era of cheap oil is well and truly over," he added.

"So whether we need to cut our carbon or not- which we do, whether you believe in climate change or not - which you should, for the sake of our future prosperity and our current cost of living, we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels and go green."

Mr Cameron said all new coal-fired power stations should have to include measures to trap CO2 emissions and said a Tory government would make researching tidal power in Britain a priority.

He also promised to improve energy efficiency in the home, to encourage "micro-renewables" like homeowners' wind turbines and solar panels by paying them a guaranteed price for energy they create.

And he pledged to draw up a long-term national transport plan aimed at aiding the economy and the environment - arguing that the government's arguments for a third runway at Heathrow airport fell apart under scrutiny.

This speech was obviously intended to mollify the academic middle class people who currently vote Lib Dem or Green.

He is going to keep Heathrow as one of the world's worst airports. If he wants to argue that capacity should be being diverted to a more sensible airport, such as Stansted (including building an extra runway there), then all well and good, but of course this is not what he is proposing. He is just anti-aviation industry. (Well, except that of course he will continue to fly everywhere, mostly paid for by the taxpayer.)

Guaranteeing the price for the (little) power that home wind turbines and solar panels generate is just saying that the ordinary tax payer of Britain should be subsidising the academic middle class people who want to pretend they are saving the world by playing at being amateur energy producers.

On the tax front, you can pretty much guarantee that, as now, the whacking great new so-called green taxes that the Tories are just dying to introduce (at least on motoring and aviation) will not be revenue neutral. As for who will allegedly be compensated, who are these "families" that will subsequently be given tax breaks? Everybody in Britain belongs to a family, but unfortunately the Tories, in truly divisive New Labour style, seem to consider that everybody who does not have children under 18 is not in a family. Needless to say, having children at all is about the most unenvironmentally friendly thing you can do, but funnily enough, Cameron never mentions this.

Honda begins commercial production of hydrogen fuel-cell car (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Japanese car manufacturer Honda has begun the first commercial production of a zero-emission, hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicle.

The four-seater, called FCX Clarity, runs on electricity produced by combining hydrogen with oxygen, and emits water vapour.

Honda claims the vehicle offers three times better fuel efficiency than a traditional, petrol-powered car.

Honda plans to produce 200 of the cars over the next three years.

One of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of wider adoption of fuel-cell vehicles is the lack of hydrogen fuelling stations.

Critics also point out that hydrogen is costly to produce and the most common way to produce hydrogen is still from fossil fuels.

Analysis of the environmental impact of different fuel technologies has shown that the overall carbon dioxide emissions from hydrogen powered cars can be higher than that from petrol or diesel-powered vehicles.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles were being over-hyped a few years ago, and we still get that hype in this article with the claim in the first paragraph that it is "zero-emission". However at least by the sixth and seventh paragraphs a bit of reality enters, and indeed it is pointed out that as of now the technology is far from "zero-emission". Still, it is an advance and it will be interesting to see what technology wins out in the end on the electric car front.

Date published: 2008/06/15

Norwich Union drops "Pay As You Drive" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's biggest insurer has suspended a flagship car insurance scheme less than two years after its roll out.

Norwich Union's "pay as you drive" policy used satellite technology to track every journey via a black box installed in customers' cars.

It resulted in cheaper premiums for people who avoided driving at high risk times like rush hour and late at night.

The company said too few customers had joined, and blamed a slow take-up rate of the technology amongst car makers.
Norwich Union had set a target of 100,000 drivers. The company would not reveal exactly how many people had signed up but said it was "not less than 10,000"
Graeme Trudgill from the British Insurance Brokers' Association thinks many drivers did not like the idea of being constantly monitored:

"The customers don't like the whole Big Brother attitude," he told the programme.

"They don't like the fact that someone is going to know exactly where they're going, at what time and at what speed as well," he added.

The suspension of "Pay as you drive" could have repercussions beyond just car insurance.

Any road pricing scheme introduced by the government is likely to use similar technology to send back data.

Edmund King, president of the AA, says the government will now no longer be able to benefit from the insurance industry piloting these systems:

"The fact that people aren't really accepting it as quickly as people thought is probably putting the government plans on the back burner."

Another good idea bites the dust. Norwich Union blaming the car makers is a bit pathetic. Their business model was obviously woefully optimistic. On the other hand, they were just ahead of the times, and some day this idea will come back.

The claim that this will have any impact on the government introduction of road pricing is fanciful. The big difference between the government and Norwich Union is of course that the government can force everyone to use this technology whether they like it or not.

Interestingly the media has just been spinning the government line that the majority of people in the country support the ability of the government to lock up people for 42 days (well, or no doubt any arbitrarily long period) without any judicial oversight. So it would seem that if you can spin loss of civil liberties as the only way to "defeat" the terrorists then the majority of people will follow like sheep, whereas with permanent tracking of people's movements the government has not yet found a way to scare people into submission, althougn perhaps they will soon enough link this with fighting terrorism as well.

Date published: 2008/06/14

Surprise, house building in the UK has gone over a cliff (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of new homes built this year will be under half that promised by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the House Builders Association has said.

The body says only 110,000 are likely to be built by end of this year, far short of Mr Brown's target of 240,000. That could fall to just 80,000 in 2009.

The association said the construction industry was facing its toughest time since the 1930s.

All pretty obvious (although the quantification is worthwhile) and all pretty grim. This is what happens at the end of a speculative bubble.

The EU patronises Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

EU policy chief Javier Solana has said the new package of incentives offered by world powers to Iran to halt nuclear enrichment is "full of opportunities".

Mr Solana, who made the offer in Tehran, said the six powers were ready to help develop Iran's nuclear energy programme for peaceful purposes.

The deal also involves trade benefits but Iran has warned it will reject any demands to halt uranium enrichment.

The West fears the enriched uranium could be used to make nuclear weapons.

Well Iran fears that the West is going to attack it. And the West already has zillions of nuclear weapons, so is being totally hypocritical. So why should Iran pay attention to anything the EU (or the US) has to say on this matter? The crazies in Washington are happy to bomb Iran no matter what it says or does.

Date published: 2008/06/13

Thousands of allegedly bright children never make it to university (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One in 10 academically promising state school pupils in England do not go on to university, a report has claimed.

The study also says thousands of bright pupils are let down by schools because they fall back after high levels of early achievement.

The report for education charity the Sutton Trust says 60,000 high achievers do not go on to university every year.
The research, based on analysis of the attainment of pupils starting secondary school in 1997, tried to estimate the educational "attrition rates" of academically gifted pupils long before they think of applying for university.

It found the number of high-achieving state pupils shrank from about 88,000 at the age of 11, to just over 50,000 at age 16. Some 32,000 of these end up going to university.

It also found high rates of "leakage" among the least privileged of pupils - those qualifying for free school meals (FSM).

Yet another fairly bogus report produced by the Sutton Trust (a.k.a. Peter Lampl). They seem to think that academic achievement is some kind of frozen attribute. Well, this kind of "leakage" already happens long before age 11. Many 5 year olds can seem bright and academically talented but by age 7 or 8 have drifted out of view. Most of this is not down to the schools, it is down to the family circumstance. But when these pupils drop down the scale of academic achievement the drop is real. It is not imaginary, as the biased first paragraph of the article tries to imply. These pupils should not be going to university if at age 16 they are no longer "academic achievers".

And unfortunately it seems to be the view of certain people that the State is somehow supposed to magically all sort this out, by (presumably) spending far more education resource on poor people and consequently far less on non-poor people (which generally means ordinary people, since rich people send their kids to private schools).

Moratorium on results of genetic tests being provided to insurance companies extended to 2014 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A temporary ban on the results of genetic tests being made available to insurance companies has been extended by three years.

The moratorium which ran out in 2011 will now stand until 2014.

It means people seeking insurance do not have to reveal the results of genetic tests which could point to the risk of serious illness in the future.

The temporary ban has been in place since 2001 and campaigners have urged for it to be extended.

The voluntary UK moratorium covers income protection policies up to the value of £30,000 per year, critical illness up to the value of £300,000, and life insurance of £500,000. It accounts for about 97% of insurance policies.

Life insurers already use complex calculations based on age, existing illnesses, lifestyle and weight to calculate the expected lifespan, and the risk of disease in someone applying for a policy.

Some health professionals say that there are genetic "markers" for common serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

But campaigners fear unfair discrimination such as increased premiums or a rejection of insurance if disclosure of genetic tests was granted.

They argue that a positive test for a "disease" gene does not mean illness is certain.

Well it's trivially obvious (and everyone would agree) that "a positive test for a 'disease' gene does not mean illness is certain". Insurance companies do not deal in certainty, they deal in probabilities. People who are positive for one of these tests are more likely to have worse health outcomes. This is why the results of these tests would be useful for insurance companies. So these so-called campaigners are either ignorant or disingenuous, or the BBC is misrepresenting their views. (We do not know since the BBC does not say who they are, or provide any attributable quotes.)

Anything that insurance companies can do to discriminate the likelihood (and quantity) of a payout helps them provide lower prices for certain groups of people and will force other groups of people to pay a higher price. As mentioned in the article, this kind of discrimination already exists for plenty of conditions. The reasons genetic conditions are special is that one cannot do anything about one's genes (although many illnesses are pre-conditioned on both genetic and environmental factors). Well, it's possible that things like obesity are also genetically based, but people do not see it that way, and obesity is also something that is obvious for all to see. Genetic conditions are often not obvious to see, and if they could be used in a discriminatory fashion then people might not see medical help. That is the real point of this moratorium.

On the other hand, people can now take genetic tests and if they find some dreadful result they can immediately go out and buy (say) life insurance knowing full well that there is a reasonable chance their family will financially gain as a result. The rest of society has to carry the can for this. This is why there is some limit on the values allowed for insurance policies covered by this moratorium.

Date published: 2008/06/12

Severn Barrage is allegedly not a good idea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The power generated by the proposed Severn Barrage could be produced more cheaply using other green technologies, a report says.

The £15bn dam across the Severn estuary from Cardiff to Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset could supply 5% of the UK's electricity within 14 years.

But an independent report commissioned by 10 environmental groups said it was not a good use of taxpayers' money.

Campaigners have also spelt out the damage to wildlife it could cause.
The government previously said the scale of the 10-mile barrage and the impact it could have on securing energy supplies and tackling climate change was "breathtaking".

But a report published by Frontier Economics, an economic consultancy, said the barrage would be an expensive option compared to other renewable energy and the government's renewable energy target could probably be met using cheaper green technologies.

Gee whiz, a bunch of so-called environmentalists hire a consultancy to produce a report, and the consultants just happen to provide the result that their paymasters wanted. And then the BBC has the nerve to say that this is an "independent report". And worse, Frontier Economics is an economic, not an engineering, consultancy. The Severn Barrage would no doubt be very expensive, and inevitably even more than its proponents claim, but why would anyone treat this report seriously? As is customary, the BBC just point blank accepts the assertions of the so-called environmentalists without any questions.

Date published: 2008/06/11

Gordon Brown bribes the DUP to extend terror suspect holding period to 42 days (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has narrowly won a House of Commons vote on extending the maximum time police can hold terror suspects to 42 days.

Thirty-six Labour MPs joined forces with Conservatives and Lib Dems to vote against the proposals.

But that was not enough to defeat them - although the government still faces a battle in the House of Lords.

The 42-day proposal was passed by 315 MPs to 306 - with votes by the nine DUP MPs proving crucial.

But there was uproar in the Commons as the result of the key vote on 42 days was announced after five hours of tense debate - with Tory and Lib Dem MPs shouting "You've been bought" at the DUP benches.

They claim the DUP was offered a string of inducements - including extra financial help for Northern Ireland - to guarantee its support.

Labour rebels claimed the DUP had obtained guarantees that the government would block efforts to use the Human Embryology and Fertility Bill, currently going through Parliament, to loosen abortion rules in Northern Ireland.

They are also said to have cut a deal to keep revenue from water rates, which Westminster had been set to claw back.

But the DUP denies it was promised any financial support and insists it voted out of principle.

It's at times like this when the rest of the UK wished that Northern Ireland would just disappear down a black hole. The current Labour government is starting to resemble the last Tory government, selling out to the DUP for the sake of passing bad legislation. Of course it's not over yet. The Lords will almost certainly reject this, and when it comes back to the Commons perhaps a few more Labour MPs will decide to put the interests of the country above the interests of Gordon Brown. And if it does become law, then when the Tories come to power in a year or two it will be interesting to see if they reverse this, as they claim they will, or decide that the ability to lock people up for a long time, just because the government wants to, is a good idea after all.

Standard online UK address checking software is fatally flawed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Loopholes in the way addresses are checked by online stores are helping fraudsters cash in, say experts.

The flaw means goods bought with stolen credit cards do not trigger security systems that check addresses.

Security firm The Third Man said it stumbled over fraudsters committing the crime while overseeing transactions on a retail website.

But the UK's payments association said it had seen no evidence that the novel crime was being carried out.
The scam exploits the mechanics of the Address Verification System (AVS) that many retail sites use to check the address of those using a credit card at an online store.

When carrying out address checks AVS compares the house number of a customer plus the digits in their post code to those input during a transaction.

For instance, if the Prime Minister bought goods at an online store with a credit card, AVS would use numbers in the address - 10 Downing St, SW1A 2AA - to help verify his identity.

In this case AVS would use 1012 as a shorthand ID check.

By finding an alternative address that has the same house number and digits in a very different post code, fraudsters could convince AVS the address was genuine even though it was completely different.

It's unbelievable how such sloppy software was ever allowed to be used. If you assume that a typical UK address has a number from 1 to 100 and that the two numbers in the postcode are fairly random distributed, then there are only around 10000 numbers in total that the system uses. A fraudster who has access to 10k credit card details is very likely to be able to find a match for just about any address they care to use. This is not a big number. (And quite possibly they have access to many addresses.)

You can perhaps understand why AVS might not want to use the entire postcode, since new postcodes come into being all the time, and not all databases are updated in sync. But you would have thought they would at least have used the postcode sector (so in the BBC example this would be SW1A 2). There are around 10k postcode sectors, and so now the fraudster would need to have around 10k credit card details just to have a 1% chance for a match to any other specific address. Well, even that is a bit too big for comfort, so far better would be for an exact full postcode check and if it didn't match then a manual check (by a human) of the full address (using an address database) would seem like the reasonable approach. Presumably the decision not to use even postcode sectors is because once in a great while new ones of these are introduced as well (whereas they will never introduce new numbers between 00 and 99). But this is truly pathetic, given the arithmetic.

Date published: 2008/06/10

Surprise, some people in the UK face negative equity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than 23,200 people who took out 100% mortgages in the year to 31 March could face negative equity, according to figures obtained by the BBC.

Falling house prices mean the amount borrowed could be greater than the value of their properties.

The BBC, like the rest of the media, love to run hysterical housing stories. It is trivially obvious that when the housing market is past the peak, and when loads of people took out 100% mortgages at or near the peak, then many of them will be in negative equity. The fact that it is currently only 23200 is more to the point, because that seems amazingly low, although of course that number will steadily grow the next year or two (or more). And no doubt the BBC will run similarly hysterical stories over the next few years saying the same thing over and over again, with updated numbers. The media loves nothing better than a bad news story.

Israeli ambassador claims Britain is anti-Israeli (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has hit back at claims by Israel's ambassador to Britain that the UK has become a "hotbed for radical anti-Israeli views".

In a Daily Telegraph article, Ron Prosor wrote that a "climate of hatred" towards Israel had been stirred up on British university campuses.

But Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell denied Mr Prosor's remarks.

He said any such "uncomfortable or distasteful" views were held only by a "small minority".

Mr Prosor said that he admired Britain's tradition of decency and fair play, but that the debate over Israel had been "hijacked by extremists".

Israel had been cast as the "pantomime villain", he added, and media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "routinely tainted with bias".

"Britain has become a hotbed for radical anti-Israeli views and a haven for disingenuous calls for a 'one-state solution', a euphemistic name for a movement advocating Israel's destruction," he said.

"Over-simplifications, half-truths and lies have been swallowed as reality and disseminated as truth.

"The complexities of the situation are overlooked, as are the responsibilities of other actors in the region."

He said that most Britons would be unaware of the "1,400 rockets and 1,500 mortar bombs" which had landed on Israeli soil since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.

The ambassador also attacked a decision by lecturers to explore the possibility of a boycott of Israeli universities, which he said would be a licence to "harass, humiliate and victimise".

The ambassador doth protest too much. It is the Israeli state, not the Palestinian quasi-state, which kills (far) more people. That is usually a good indication of who is more in the wrong. And the ambassador provides no real examples of anyone mainstream (e.g. in the national media or at the university level) calling for a "one-state solution". And that is what Israel itself used to advocate, and probably still really wants, as long as it is the one state. Indeed, Israel has occupied more and more of what most of the rest of the world deems not to be part of Israel, presumably as part of its own one-state goal.

As for the academic boycott, that could easily be argued to be silly and/or counter-productive, especially since many Israeli academics are fairly sane politically, unlike many of their compatriots. It could also easily be argued that it is stupidly selective. So why not boycott Chinese academics, American academics, etc.? Indeed why not advocate that the rest of the world boycott British academics because of the blatantly illegal war that the UK is co-conducting in Iraq? But to say that the proposed boycott is a license to "harass, humiliate and victimise" is pathetic. Israel is not the main victim in the Middle East.

Date published: 2008/06/09

Government gives ok to Manchester to introduce so-called congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has approved a peak-time congestion charging scheme for drivers entering and leaving Manchester.

Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly outlined its provisional support for a two-ring scheme, charging up to £5 from 2013.

She told MPs it would be combined with £2.8bn of investment to create a "world-class public transport system".

The Tories accused her of "bullying" the people of Manchester into accepting the scheme, which will need final approval from councillors in the city.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers called for a referendum on the plans.

A public consultation will be held on the plans. They must gain the support of two-thirds of councillors in Greater Manchester in order to proceed further.
Ms Kelly told the Commons that the government had provisionally made available £1.5bn to support the scheme.

The rest of the £2.8bn will come from the city authorities themselves.
The leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, earlier told the BBC that fewer than 20% of motorists in Greater Manchester would have to pay the charge.

And he said the scheme would be of great benefit to more than 30% of households who relied entirely on public transport and currently struggled to get to work.

Of all the cities proposing to introduce a so-called congestion charge (which as usual, is not a congestion charge but an access charge), the one for Manchester by far and away makes the most sense. But as usual, the devil is in the detail. The BBC article abjectly fails to mention how much this scheme will allegedly cost to implement, nor what the alleged annual revenue raised and the alleged annual operating cost and the alleged annual saving from reduced congestion will be, which are all crucial numbers to determining how worthy the scheme is for the country. (Manchester is getting lots of free money thrown at it, so it's hard to believe Manchester as a whole will be worse off.)

Villiers should not be claiming that the government is "bullying" the people of Manchester. Rather the government is bribing them, and not with the headline figure of £2.8 billion but with the figured buried in the article of roughtly half that, £1.5 billion (assuming that this is not a typical New Labour exaggeration). Even this smaller figure is a fairly astonishing number, and of course it is forcibly being handed over by the rest of the UK. Scaling up to the size of the UK this would be on the order of 40 or 50 billion pounds. If this investment is allegedly so needed (and not just for Manchester) then why is it just not being done without all this so-called congestion charging be added in as a side issue? It's the same problem with the bogus reason why the country allegedly had to pour billions of pounds down the drain to sponsor the 2012 Olympics, namely that the regeneration of the east side of London could not possibly occur (for some unknown reason) without the Olympics to push it along. This is extremely poor governance.

And Leese is pretty much admitting that he is relying on the fact that the scheme is going to screw a small(ish) minority, allegedly for the benefit of a larger minority (and indeed, perhaps for the benefit of the majority if he could be bothered to be concerned about people besides those who rely entirely on public transport). Heaven forbid the novel concept that people who use public transport should actually pay for the service they are getting. Evidently only car drivers should be liable (five times over) for that distinction.

The next generation of broadband is claimed to have no real economic benefit for the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Moving to the next generation of broadband technology could deliver huge economic rewards, says a report.

The Broadband Stakeholder Group report said the benefit could be in excess of £16bn - the estimated cost of upgrading the UK's net infrastructure.

But those benefits should not tempt a rush to invest too quickly and boost speeds, it said.

It warned that some of the benefits will only materialise when high-speed networks have reached most UK homes.

Let's see, a group with an interest in promoting broadband says that the alleged benefit is pretty much the same as the alleged cost. Well how can anyone seriously even suggest that it be done then? No doubt the excuse will be that there are zillions of pounds of unexpected benefits just waiting to be discovered. This could of course be true since, after all, the authors of this report are only alleged experts and could hardly be expected to get the sums correct.

Date published: 2008/06/08

NFU advisor believes GM soya should be allowed to be used to feed chickens (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says:

Spiralling food prices are placing supermarkets under pressure from farmers' leaders to put poultry fed with genetically modified products back on their shelves.

The National Farmers Union has held talks with the product managers of all the major supermarkets to explain that shortages of non-GM soyabeans - the key protein source for poultry - was making it both extremely expensive and increasingly difficult to source the GM-free products demanded by retailers.

Robert Newbery, chief poultry adviser to the National Farmers' Union, said: "We”re really struggling to work out where we”re going to get non-GM soya from." The meetings followed letters earlier this year from the NFU to all the main retailers. The letters suggested supermarkets get rid of non-GM requirements for all their foods except their organic ranges.

There is no sign yet that the campaign has forced a change in policy but Mr Newbery said the supermarkets would have to give way before too long. Food producers say the UK's resistance to GM crops hurts British consumers by raising prices.
Supermarkets stopped selling poultry products (including eggs) from animals reared on GM-feed in the late 1990s following a consumer backlash.

At the time, regular soya was only slightly more expensive than GM soya for British farmers. But as the world”s biggest soya exporters have devoted more land to GM crops, the cost of unmodified soyabeans is rising. British farmers are currently paying around £276 per tonne for GM soya, and £293/t for non-GM.

With the US, the world”s biggest soyabean producer, now 95 per cent GM, the UK has looked to Brazil for a GM-free alternative. But Brazil, the world”s second biggest soya exporter, is expected to increase GM plantings from 54 per cent of its total crop to 65 per cent next year and 80 per cent over the next decade.

Mr Newbery said supermarkets should alter their policies on GM voluntarily before changes are forced on them. "Ultimately they will change because [the non-GM feed] will run out... The Brazilians are not going to bother growing non-GM just for the UK."

It will be interesting to see if Newberry is correct. The "consumer backlash" of the 1990s was fomented by the academic middle class people who run the country, and in particular who run the media (e.g. the BBC), and who object to so-called GM products for religious reasons (i.e. they hate corporations, and in particular hate American corporations). These people actually want food to be more expensive, and in particular want chicken to be more expensive, so in some sense they have achieved victory on all fronts. But sooner or later some supermarket (e.g. Tesco or Sainsbury) will break ranks and decide to put the interests of their customers above the narrow, partisan, misguided interests of the academic middle class. Sooner or later Britain will be carried kicking and screaming into the 21st century, long after most of the rest of the world. (Well, to be fair, on this issue, most of the EU is as bad as the UK.)

UK is unlikely to build three million new homes by 2020 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers are "very unlikely" to achieve housing targets, the UK's chief advisor on home building has warned.

Professor Stephen Nickell said that, unless conditions change, the target of three million new homes in England by 2020 will not be met.

To get to this target, the housing industry needs to be building 240,000 homes a year, a figure that few think they will achieve this year.

The industry is already behind in its construction targets.

Just over 200,000 new homes were built last year.

Homebuilders have cut back new building this year as a lack of mortgage products and falling house prices have cut demand.

Mr Nickell, who heads the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, believes that alongside the financial constraints local authorities are also holding up new house building.

"Unless local authorities are given a strong incentive to allow house building in their locality, it seems to me very unlikely that we will hit the housing targets," he said.

"And if you don't keep building these houses the prices just keep going up relative to people's incomes."
Figures from the Nationwide this month showed a 2.5% drop in house prices in May, with some predicting a 20% drop by the end of 2008.

But despite falling house prices, Professor Nickell said the current situation seemed to be only benefiting the richer parts of society.

"The wealthier people in society can satisfy their housing demands, more or less, as they get richer. While the rest of us get squashed into smaller and smaller houses." he said.

And he added that if present trends continue, things are looking bleak for the future of housing in England.

"If the present situation continues we will be less well housed than the majority of people in Europe, Australia or the United States," he said.

This is all pretty obvious, if hardly ever stated. Given the looming recession and given that the Tories are about to take over the country, and are very anti-house building, it seems extremely unlikely that the UK will build anywhere near 3m new houses by 2020. On the other hand, it's also not clear exactly how many new houses the UK will need by then. After the eastern European countries joined the EU, there was a massive wave of immigration into the UK. But there are already indications this wave is already starting to go the other way, and given that the Tories are Little Englanders (i.e. xenophobic), they will actively encourage this trend when they take over, so perhaps the country doesn't need 3m new houses by 2020.

Nickells' comments about how the housing for most people is getting worse and worse cannot be over-emphasized. The academic middle class people who run Britain (and the BBC) seem to spend most of their time actively trying to make the standard of living of the average citizen worse, not better.

Date published: 2008/06/07

US Embassy attacks new UK aviation tax (permanent blog link)

The Daily Telegraph says:

Gordon Brown is embroiled in a major diplomatic row with the United States over controversial plans for new airline taxes which could see British families paying £400 extra for transatlantic flights.

An official letter sent by the US Embassy to the British Government - which has been leaked to The Daily Telegraph - reveals the Americans have "deep concerns with the proposal". They threaten the Treasury with legal action over the planned tax increase.

Ministers are planning to sharply increase the amount of money raised from airline taxes in a move that will net an extra £520 million annually.

Airlines - already struggling to deal with record fuel prices - calculate that the tax per person on a flight to America or other long-haul destinations will rise from £40 to about £100 from next year. The levy will be passed on to passengers.

The unusual attack from the Americans - ahead of a visit to Britain by President Bush next week - is understood to be causing serious concerns within Downing Street. It could lead to yet another climb-down by the Government over a major tax policy.

The six-page letter provides a detailed rebuttal of claims made by Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, that taxes on flying are being increased to produce environmental benefits.

The letter states: "The Treasury's proposal, although cast as an environmental measure, appears in reality to constitute nothing more than a device for generating additional revenue from the airline community."

"There is no linkage between the funds collected from airlines and the mitigation of any environmental impact of airline emissions or any other environmental problem ... Moreover, the Treasury's proposal does not demonstrate that the new duty would influence airlines to adjust their fleets or their booking practices to achieve higher load factors ... Nor are any data provided to justify the levy based on an assessment of damage from aircraft emissions."

The American Embassy - which is headed by Ambassador Robert Tuttle - also warns Britain that the proposed levy threatens to damage this country's competitiveness.

"The proposed duty, by raising the overall cost of flying aircraft to the United Kingdom relative to other destinations, is likely to diminish the number of flights operating to and from the United Kingdom," the official note sent on April 15th states.

"This would seem an anomalous result, however, given the focus in the United Kingdom on, among other things, restoration of the competitiveness of Heathrow Airport with the opening of Terminal 5 and consideration of a third runway."

The Americans also warn the Treasury that the "proposed duty raises serious legal concerns".

It details a number of international treaties and agreements which would allegedly be breached by the new tax raising the spectre of international legal action. The Americans have also sent the memo to other European governments.

Unbelievable, the Americans have actually hit the nail on the head. This new tax was of course dressed up as being "green" (because Labour was being nagged by the academic middle class people who run the media to be "green") but bears little relationship with the actual emissions caused by any given aircraft. In fact, that is one thing it has in common with the existing air passenger duty (i.e. tax). The only sensible "green" tax is one on airline fuel (which the Americans would also not like, of course). It is ridiculous that this is the one tax that cannot be introduced. Instead we have silly taxes whose main point is to raise revenue, and which bear little correspondence to the actual environmental damage caused by aviation.

The BBC coverage of this story is appalling. It just repeats some of the points in the Telegraph article without repeating some other crucial ones. And then at the end we get the throw-away comment:

Critics say that the tax will not affect budget airlines - as they normally fill their planes to capacity.

Who exactly are these "critics"? Are they perhaps the usual "critics" who hate airlines and spend all their waking hours trying to kill the aviation industry? After all, the only sensible point of this new tax is that indeed it would encourage airlines to fly with fuller planes. The BBC makes it sound like some sort of criminal conspiracy against the environment that the budget airlines (in particular Ryanair) already do this. The fact that they already do this (and often have newer, more fuel efficient, planes) means that, in total contrast to this cheap BBC comment, the budget airlines are generally more environmentally friendly that the long-established airlines. Of course the "critics" and BBC journalists are academic middle class people who think the peasants should not be allowed to fly, hence their particular hatred of budget airlines (in particular Ryanair) above all else.

More excuses given why Hanley Grange should not be built (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A proposed eco-town would actually be a "Tesco town" and could harm Cambridge's water supply.

That's the message from South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC), which has declared it will fight hard against a possible 11,000-home eco-town at Hanley Grange, near Hinxton, claiming the town will be far from sustainable or green.

Cllr David Bard, the council's portfolio holder for new communities, told the News: "We have concerns about Tesco's involvement with this development. Not only because it will have effects on shopping outlets in neighbouring villages, but we have experience that if you put in a large supermarket early, it completely sterilises the town."
SCDC fears building on the Hanley Grange site, which it says includes an important bore hole, could lessen water supplies for Cambridge.

The middle class vilification of Hanley Grange continues. It would be interesting to hear what "experience" Bard is talking about, "that if you put in a large supermarket early, it completely sterilises the town." Is he talking about Bar Hill? Bar Hill is a rather horrid town but the Tesco there is one of its few saving graces. The real problem with Bar Hill (which will also be the real problem with Hanley Grange, and with Northstowe, and with all these proposed new towns) is that thousands of homes are dumped in a field in the middle of nowhere within a very short timespan, so there is dreadful similarity of design and no natural reason for the town to exist other than as a dormitory town (in Bar Hill's and Northstowe's case mainly for Cambridge, in Hanley Grange's case mainly for London). The British are just plain dreadful at urban design, mainly because the people who influence the design have no interest in what's best for the people who will live in the new development, but instead are just swayed by their own academic middle class prejudices. The SCDC itself is part of the problem, it is not part of the solution.

Obesity and Caesareans are both correlated with stillbirths (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Having a Caesarean does not raise the risk of a stillbirth in a subsequent pregnancy, a study has found.

The University of Calgary study contradicts previous research which suggested an increased risk.

The study suggests a mother's obesity - not whether she has a Caesarean - may instead be the key factor.

The study, which appears in the journal BJOG, suggests that previous research has failed to take this factor properly into account.

However, health professionals advise woman not to opt for a Caesarean lightly, as it is a major surgical procedure, with a risk of complications.

Researcher Dr Stephen Wood said the finding was particularly important as the number of Caesareans had increased in recent years.

He said obesity had been consistently linked to both Caesareans and stillbirths, but it had proved difficult to tease out its independent effect on each.

The Calgary study examined 157,029 second births, and took potentially confounding factors, such as maternal weight, into consideration.

Once they had done that they found that, among women who had previously had a Caesarean, the stillbirth rate was 2.1 per 1,000, compared with 1.6 per 1,000 in women who had no Caesarean history - not a statistically significant difference.

The researchers admit that they were not able to completely account for maternal weight, but had done so far more than previous research.

In short, there is a correlation between stillbirths and Caesareans and obesity, and as usual correlation is not the same thing as causation. So it is not clear if Caesareans or obesity is "causing" the stillbirths or even if there is yet another factor not yet discovered that is the "cause" or whether the whole situation is just too complex to ever have hope of finding the "cause". Unfortunately, in the world of health, just finding a correlation (which is a relatively trivial thing to do) is enough to get acres of media coverage, with an implied causation happily stated. So this story is happy to run with obesity as the "key factor" in stillbirths and previous stories have evidently been happy to run with "Caesareans" as the "key factor". These kinds of stories usually tell us more about the prejudices of the researchers (and the media) than anything else. The only way to do the research here properly would be to randomly choose which women receive Caesareans and which do not, and needless to say, this research will never be done.

At least this article points out that in fact this correlation between Caesareans and stillbirths should not be the most important factor when considering a Caesarean. That's another thing about these health stories and correlations implied to be causations. They usually miss the bigger picture.

Date published: 2008/06/06

Summer Show and Cranach exhibition at the Royal Academy (permanent blog link)

The Royal Academy's 2008 summer exhibition officially starts on 9 June, with the preview days for Academy "Friends" and "serious" collectors already happening.

As is traditional these days, the Burlington House forecourt is dominated by a large sculpture, this year by Anthony Caro, and it's a typical Caro (yawn). Hiding to one side of the entrance is a much more interesting sculpture called "St George's Horse" by Michael Sandle (edition of 4 bronzes for 225k pounds each).

The first room is dedicated to R.B. Kitaj, who died last year, and part of the second room is dedicated to Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson, who also died last year. Wilson will be remembered for the British Library next to St Pancras Station, and that indeed was the focus of his featured work, including a model of the original proposal (which, it seems, was to be located in the British Museum forecourt), and a model as it was eventually finished being built (35 years later).

As usual the most interesting non-architectural room was the Large Weston room, followed by the Small Weston room, and also as usual there was barely breathing space in the latter. But there was not really anything that was special, and it's just that the later rooms really did go downhill fast.

Gallery III (the largest room) had the usual large abstracts on the walls. There was one large non-abstract there called "Tuesday Afternoon" by Lisa Milroy (53k pounds), which was notably mainly because it was rather similar to that early computer screensaver of fish (without the sound effects).

David Mach had four works in his now customary style of cutting up zillions of copies of one photo and re-arranging into a completely unrelated image, and his stuff was the best in the later rooms.

But the star of the show was a piece (not for sale) by Jeff Koons called "Cracked Egg" and located in the Central Hall (apparently there are five versions).

The architecture room was up to its usual standard. And there were quite a few private houses featured this year, which was nice to see. Mind you, none of these houses were to die for, which is a pity since many of the houses were probably 7-figure in cost (at least in dollars). The best house was by Paul Koralek, located in Wicklow, Ireland, although it seems that he was responsible for an extension rather than the original house, and it was not clear from the drawings what was what. But it did look nice, at least. The best architectural piece was a pedestrian bridge in Ostrava, Czech Republic, by Eva Jiricna.

It has become customary the last couple of years for each room to have a sign saying who hung it and what pains (or not) they allegedly went through to accomplish this. All the attention this year was on the room, Gallery VIII, done by Tracey Emin. It was supposed to be "controversial" and she was the main focus of media coverage of the summer show, which makes you wonder if this is why she was made an RA (all publicity being good publicity). Emin turned the room into the artistic equivalent of the pubescent snickering one finds amongst teenage school kids, so hardly worth a mention. But at least the room was slightly better than it is in most years, and (surprise) her painting, called "Ruined" (not for sale), was actually reasonable. The naked lady doing hula hoops with barbed wire was silly (video by Sigalit Landau). But the silliest exhibition was "Hair of the First Girl I Ever Slept With", by Michael Fullerton, who presumably borrowed the idea from the great Emin herself.

Meanwhile up in the Sackler Gallery it is the final couple of days of the Lucas Cranach exhibition. And they had a very fine sample of his work. There were lots of portraits and there were lots of the mythological and religious paintings one would expect. Perhaps the most interesting painting in the exhibition was "Christ and the Virgin Mary, or Mary Magdalen" (c1515-1520, from the Museum Schloss Friedenstein) where the figure of Christ could have been drawn yesterday. Definitely a worthwhile exhibition (and they sold out of paperback copies of the catalogue, so it must have been reasonably well attended).

John Major does not support 42 day "terror" proposal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Claims by former prime minister Sir John Major that holding suspects for up to 42 days would increase terrorism have been rejected by the government.

Home Office Minister Tony McNulty urged MPs to trust the police on the issue rather than Sir John who has been "out of the loop" for the past decade.
In an interview with The Times, Sir John, who survived an IRA rocket attack during his time in Downing Street, argued the plans pose a graver threat to liberty than terrorism.

Who would have thought it, eh. The Tories as the guardians of civil liberties. Of course talk by a retired politician when the party is in opposition is cheap. No doubt when the Tories take over again in a year or two they will discover all sorts of reasons why they should trample the civil liberties of people.

Date published: 2008/06/05

United Nations so-called Clean Development Mechanism is open to corruption (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Evidence of serious flaws in the multi-billion dollar global market for carbon credits has been uncovered by a BBC World Service investigation.

The credits are generated by a United Nations-run scheme called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

The mechanism gives firms in developing countries financial incentives to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But in some cases, carbon credits are paid to projects that would have been realised without external funding.

Is this supposed to be a surprise? And the BBC didn't even bother to mention (in the very long article) that the other undeserving main beneficiary of this corrupt system besides the companies being awarded the credits are the consultants and bankers who help set up these deals.

Gordon Brown completely loses the plot over higher road tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said plans for a higher road tax on the most polluting cars are part of a "long-term trend" in many countries.

He said there were widespread moves to "discourage high-polluting vehicles" abroad and urged more research into "commercially viable" electric cars.

The Tories say the new tax, due to start next year, will be "deeply unpopular" as it includes older cars.

Many Labour MPs are concerned it will hit poorer people with old cars.

New vehicle excise duty bands aimed at penalising the highest-polluting cars are due to come into force next spring.

Ministers argue the new tax bands would save 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2020, but concerns have been raised because they will apply not just to new cars, but also to those registered since 2001.

You can blame the global situation for a lot of the current problems in the British economy, but Gordon Brown has really completely lost the plot if this is the kind of pathetic excuses he is coming up with to justify his government's ill-conceived effectively retrospective tax hike on larger old cars.

Date published: 2008/06/04

Cambridgeshire gets hysterical about Hanley Grange proposal (permanent blog link)

In an unusual move, the leaders of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and (the quango) Cambridgeshire Horizons have sent out a mass mailing (presumably to pretty much all of the citizens of Cambridgeshire) complaining about the proposed new "eco-town" called Hanley Grange. This mass mailing is just a political diatribe against the central government for allowing this proposal to even be considered, and it encourages people to "have your say about this proposal" before the deadline on 30 June. If this kind of one-sided mass mailing (of unspecified expense) is not illegal, it ought to be.

So what are these people really upset about? Presumably the main issue is that central government is proposing something which is "against the wishes of local communities and local councils". Well, these bureaucrats and politicians, like all bureaucrats and politicians, don't care if anything is or is not allegedly "against the wishes of local communities" (just witness how the so-called Cambridge congestion charge is still being promoted in spite of the fact that most people, and overwhelmingly most drivers, oppose it). What they really care about is that it is "against the wishes" of the local councils, i.e. them.

They dress this up with eight reasons why Hanley Grange is "the wrong place". These really boil down to one real complaint, namely that there are already excellent transport links for Hanley Grange, since it is bounded on one side by the A11, on another by the A505, and that the M11 is nearby. Now normally excellent transport links would be considered to be a good reason to build somewhere. But of course the ruling elite hate cars, so the situation here is considered to be a negative, not a positive. The Hanley Grange site is also very close to Whittlesford and Great Chesterford train stations. But of course people might drive to the train station, how dreadful. (Well, if they put some cycle paths in one can imagine that many people would cycle to the stations, but ignore that fact.)

They contrast this with the other proposed "eco-town" near Cambridge called Northstowe. Well, Northstowe has not great road links. The only major road it is near is the A14, which is much more congested and in worse shape than the M11. And there are no decent train links anywhere near Northstowe (Cambridge and Waterbeach stations being the closest). But what Northstowe has that Hanley Grange does not is the so-called Guided Bus, which the county council is in the midst of blowing 100 million pounds plus on. Well, needless to say, Hanley Grange could be provided with bus routes as well, it's not as if Northstowe is the only town on the planet which is served by buses. Indeed the Guided Bus itself could continue past Addenbrookes out towards the Hanley Grange direction.

So Hanley Grange wins (or could easily win) on transport links.

Hanley Grange is south of Cambridge and Northstowe is north of Cambridge. The people who live south of Cambridge are relatively rich (being dominated by London commuters), the people who live north of Cambridge are relatively poor (being dominated by Cambridge commuters). This is perhaps why Hanley Grange has received far more negative attention than Northstowe. The middle class people who run Britain do not like their comfortable rural existence impinged upon by the peasants.

Vasectomy reversals not allowed on the NHS (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A man who wants another baby after his son died of cancer has been told he cannot have a vasectomy reversal on the NHS because he still has a daughter.

Andrew Preston, of Clayton, Staffs, said he wanted to "rebuild" his family after Ben, eight, died last year.

But North Staffordshire Primary Care Trust said the family's circumstances were not exceptional enough.

The trust said the procedure would only be considered if all children in a family had died.

The government imposed a blanket ban on vasectomy reversals in 2004 after high demands for the operation put pressure on NHS services.

However, it said that the procedures would still be allowed in "exceptional circumstances", left to be determined by individual health trusts.

Mr Preston said he and his wife did not want to replace Ben, but to help rebuild the family and provide their daughter Amy with another sibling.

Unbelievable, given how much money the NHS spends on fertility treatment. And it seems that perhaps the NHS is doing too many vasectomies in the first place, if vasectomy reversals are allegedly in such "high" demand.

Date published: 2008/06/03

Lib Dems want to introduce a new road tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Road tax and fuel duty would be axed - but drivers would be charged up to 12p a kilometre - under plans put forward by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

The most polluting vehicles would incur a higher "showroom tax" and hauliers face a national lorry road user charge under a "sustainable and fair" system.

Mr Clegg also promised more high speed rail links and surcharges on most flights under a Lib Dem government.

He said the UK was "grinding to a halt" as travel costs continued to rise.

Mr Clegg's plans for a transport revamp come as Gordon Brown faces pressure over plans to increase road tax on more polluting cars bought since 2001

However, Mr Clegg said his own higher VED rates - rising to £2,000 a year on the most polluting cars - would only be a temporary measure until the tax was scrapped altogether within 10 years of a Lib Dem government.

At that time, fuel duty would be cut as well and road charging introduced at 8p a kilometre for motorways and trunk road.

This could increase to around 12p for cars that pump out the most greenhouse gas emissions, while the most efficient vehicles would pay nothing.

As usual with the Lib Dems it is all a bit wooly. So now he wants to charge an extortionate £2000 pounds per year tax on the "most polluting" cars, so around five times the "normal" rate, but in ten years he is going to charge them only one and a half times as much (12p versus 8p). Well that makes sense.

Current fuel duty in the UK, when you add in VAT (which is a tax on the tax) amounts to around 61.5 p per litre. Ignore the proposed "sinner's" tax of 12p per km and concentrate on the "normal" tax of 8p per km. So the break-even point for a driver on whether they are paying more or less tax under the current system versus the proposed Lib Dem system is 61.5/8 = 7.69 km per litre, or around 21.6 mpg (Imperial gallon). Any driver whose car does worse mileage than this is better off, and any driver whose car does better mileage than this is worse off. Yes, this is backwards.

That is the real problem with the Lib Dem proposal. This new road tax bears little relation to the amount of pollution actually caused. There is the crude 8p / 12p banding. But other than that, there is no incentive to drive more fuel efficient cars. It is a backwards step. Further, because of the huge cost of implementing this kind of road tax compared with fuel duty, the average driver is bound to be worse off (someone has to pay for the implementation and it is not going to be the non-drivers of the world).

Unfortunately the Lib Dems, like the other two main political parties in fact, are more interested in screwing car drivers (and airline passengers) than anything else. This is one reason the transport system in the UK is a mess. The ruling elite are driven by dogma and have no clue about transport design.

School maths exams have allegedly been getting easier (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

School mathematics exams in England have become easier, shallower and less demanding, according to a think tank.

Analysis of public maths exam papers taken by 16-year-olds between 1951 and 2006 shows standards have declined markedly, the report for Reform argues.
The Reform report assesses how maths exam papers changed over time in terms of their content, difficulty, style and pass standard.

It concludes that between 1951, when O-levels were introduced, and 1970, standards remained constant with a strong focus on algebra, arithmetic and geometry.

A simplification trend began in the 1980s with an attempt to show mathematics in context, but the syllabus remained comparable to that of earlier years.

But there was a steep decline in standards from 1990 onwards, once GCSEs were introduced, it says.

The content became broader and shallower, with a more restricted and less demanding syllabus, it claims.

And the difficulty and demand of questions weakened along with their style, it claims, with candidates being required to follow a series of steps rather than work their own way through.

Calculators were also allowed in some papers and formulae sheets were included in papers.

Added to that, the percentage mark required for a grade C fell to about 20% in the higher tier GCSE in 2000 and 2006.

The report claims that the apparent rise in attainment over the 1990s and 2000s is "highly misleading".

It would be surprising if this was a situation unique to maths. And it is trivially obvious that the "apparent rise in attainment" across all subjects can only really be down to two factors: (1) the exams are easier, and (2) teachers (and schools) have been incentivised to get higher and higher exam grades for their students, so are teaching more and more to the exam and making sure that students will sit exams they are most likely to do better in. You would have to be pretty naive or politically motivated to think that the students of today are so much cleverer (or dumber) than the students of yesterday.

A quarter of adult population will be on "child protection" database (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than one in four adults in England will have to register with child protection authorities next year, under an expanded safeguarding scheme.

Anyone working or volunteering with young people will have to register.

The government says 11.3 million people will be on a database, with registration costing £64 per person.

But employers giving work experience to secondary school students will not be compelled to register their staff, says the government's consultation response.

The Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA), which will launch in October 2009, will provide a single agency for vetting the suitability of staff who might work with or help young people.

Setting up the system will cost £84m says the government - with annual running costs expected to be £47m, as details of people on the register, such as changes of job or vetting status, will have to be kept up to date.

The adult population of England is about 40 million, including about 9.5 million retired people. It is proposed that more than a quarter will have to be included on this protection list.
There will be more adults on this vetting list than the total number of under-18 year olds in the country.

This is what happens when you have a hysterical population and when you have a control freak government. If you take the BBC figures as correct then they are claiming that it will cost those people who have to register a total of 64 x 11.3 = 723 million pounds to do so. And yet allegedly setting up the system will cost "only" 84 million pounds, and the annual running cost is allegedly "only" 47 million pounds. So if the government is not raking in a huge profit at the expense of people forced to register, then it looks like they are looking at a timescale of (723-84)/47 = 13.6 years for the payback period. In any case, it would be interesting to know how many crimes against children are supposedly going to be prevented by the introduction of this database, if any, and is it worth throwing nearly a billion pounds down the drain to achieve this.

Date published: 2008/06/02

South Cambridgeshire gets hysterical about Hanley Grange proposal (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

The planned eco-town of Hanley Grange has united public and political support in opposition to its ever being built.

And it has emerged that if the new settlement is built near Hinxton, it could jeopardise the flight of iconic Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum's airfield in Duxford.

The settlement is one of 15 shortlisted by the Government, which wants 10 flagship new towns to be built across the country.

But bosses at Duxford fear it could lead to problems for the historic venue.

Mick Martin, head of airfield and security, said: "I live in the local village and we work hard to maintain positive relations between the airfield and the community.

"Having houses that close to the airfield will inevitably lead to problems for us."
South Cambridgeshire councillor Peter Topping said: "It is of great concern to all of us if Duxford would have to stop operating as an airfield. The museum is of national and international renown and it would be a sad loss to the nation."
Jarrow Investments Ltd also revealed it has been forced to cut the number of homes being built in the first phase to 7,000.

It's amazing how hysterical people in the villages south of Cambridge have reacted to this announcement about Hanley Grange, with zillions of signs plastered everywhere. So evidently they have money, and evidently it's ok for them to live in the (not that great) countryside south of Cambridge but not for anyone else.

Although Duxford is a nice enough museum, this attempt to use Spitfires as part of the campaign against the development is rather pathetic. Indeed, the usual takeoff direction is in the opposite direction. Further the village of Duxford is in the same direction and a lot closer to the airfield than this proposed new town, which is about two miles away. The M11 is even closer still. Given these facts, the Duxford "bosses" better be careful what they say, because they are implying there is a serious health and safety issue with flying ancient aircraft from the site. Needless to say, existing residents who object to the air shows will take note.

Heathrow is a national embarrassment (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Service levels at Heathrow Airport are "a national embarrassment", Giovanni Bisignani, head of International Air Transport Association (Iata) has said.

He also criticised the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), saying it was allowing Heathrow to increase charges by 86% over the next five years.

Mr Bisignani said such increases could only happen in "monopolyland".

The CAA said charges were needed to pay for modernisation while BAA said it planned to invest £4bn in Heathrow.

Yes, Heathrow is a "national embarrassment". Of course part of the problem is that most of the ruling elite of Britain are hostile to the aviation industry, so spend time and effort trying to kill off Heathrow (and the other airports) rather than making sure that Heathrow runs properly.

Talking allegedly has an impact on people who experience trauma (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People who do not talk about traumatic experiences can fare better than those who "let it all out", say researchers.

The University at Buffalo study compared the progress of 3,000 people who took different approaches over two years following the 9/11 attacks.

It found people initially unwilling to talk were less likely to be adversely affected two years later.

But a UK psychologist said that other studies had suggested that for many people talking did help.

Unfortunately this study, and no doubt the related studies, make the usual classic confusion between correlation and causation. So it's quite possible (and perhaps even likely) that whether someone was willing or unwilling to talk has no (causative) bearing on how they fare later on, it's some other factor which is the real determinant. And the fact that the "experts" cannot even agree on the direction of the correlation is a telling indication.

Date published: 2008/06/01

US Secretary for Homeland Security states the obvious (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Washington has pinpointed the frontier areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan as the most pressing central point in which to win the war on terror.

Michael Chertoff, the US secretary for homeland security, told the BBC that successes against al-Qaeda should not lead to a weakening of resolve.

He warned that militants in Pakistan were training recruits who could mix inconspicuously in Western society.

Who would have thought it, eh. Needless to say, the "frontier areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan" have been the "central point" in the "war on terror" for some time. And if Bush hadn't decided for party political reasons five years ago to pretty much forget about this real war, and instead launch an illegal and ill-judged attack on Iraq, then the world would be in a lot better shape right now.

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