Azara Blog: July 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/07/15

Nature has allegedly produced the best of all possible worlds for humans (permanent blog link)

Jean-Christophe Vie says on the BBC:

In the world of economics, what nature provides for us is often seen in terms of immediate returns.

Forests, for example, are valued for their timber. When a country needs money, the forests can be cut down and the capital immediately released.

This may contribute to the nation's Gross Domestic Product, but in reality, the country has lost resources and becomes poorer.

The rationale for preserving wildlife is based on a variety of societal values including aesthetic, moral and spiritual ones, as well as more practical ones, such as contributing to the economy and human livelihoods.

It is also based on a precautionary approach and, in my view, common sense. If a species is there, I am firmly convinced that it has a good reason to be.

Nature has developed over millions of years to produce the most favourable environment for us to live in. Before attempting to disturb the subtle balance on which we all depend, with unknown consequences, we should look carefully at what we have and know.

It is hard to believe anyone could seriously make these arguments. Everybody knows that if a country (largely) cuts down its forests then "the country has lost resources". But it is not at all obvious that the country "becomes poorer". Of course all so-called environmentalists would plug this line, and in most cases it could well be true. But, for example, England cut down most of its forests long ago, and it would be interesting to see any real argument made that it became poorer as a result. The forest output was invested in other goods and services (including allowing people to stay warm, build ships for war, etc.).

But that is just the usual hype of so-called environmentalists, many of whom these days don't try that kind of silly argument but instead actually try and prove that it is better not to cut forests down using economic arguments.

No, what is really ridiculous is the statement that "if a species is there", then "it has a good reason to be". Sorry, species are here by semi-random, semi-directed evolution. They are not here for a "good reason", which is a meaningless phrase in this context. You might as well be a theologian.

Equally silly is the claim that "Nature has developed over millions of years to produce the most favourable environment for us to live in". No, Nature has not produced the "most favourable environment for us to live in". If Nature had done so, we would have no disease, we would have no predators (well, we've managed to kill most of them off), we would all have an infinite food supply within easy reach, etc. Nature is not optimised for us in isolation. Nature is (approximately) optimised considering everything in total (and of course it is dynamic, not static).

The rest of the (long) article is fortunately not nearly so stupid, but it also doesn't particularly say anything novel or intelligent either.

Some tree in Surrey is allegedly worth 500000 pounds (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A tree in Surrey has been valued at £500,000 by the county council.

The Oak in Weybridge has been assessed according to its size, health, history and how many people live nearby.

The tree is thought to be about 300 years old but Surrey County Council said it would not be able to get an exact figure without damaging it.

Under a new valuation system brought in by the authority, the link between high value trees and subsidence must be proved before they can be felled.

Trees are often cut down after being blamed for subsidence, when other factors may be responsible.

Needless to say, this valuation is arbitrary. They just wanted a large number, any large number, so that they could justify telling home owners to get stuffed when they complain that some tree or other is causing subsidence. If this tree were really worth 500k, and if some nearby home owner said it was causing 400k worth of subsidence, then logically the tree would not be able to be cut. Of course since it is the council that made up this arbitrary valuation, and enforces it, the council should compensate the home owner 400k and be happy, because they would have just "saved" the local area 100k by not cutting the tree down. Needless to say, instead the council will compensate the owner zero. All part of ripoff Britain, where the biggest ripoff merchant of them all is the government.

Date published: 2008/07/14

UK government fiddled its own emission targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has made "very poor progress" on reaching its own carbon emissions-cutting targets, MPs say.

Ministers want departments and agencies to reduce emissions by 12.5% by 2010/11 compared with 1999/2000 levels - and to be carbon-neutral by 2012.

But the influential environment audit committee said a cut of just 4% had been achieved by 2006/07.

Chairman Tim Yeo said this damaged the government's "moral authority" on environmental issues.
...
Members criticised the Ministry of Defence for claiming a big cut in emissions after it sold the defence agency QinetiQ.

In reality, the committee said, the government was simply moving these emissions "off-balance sheet" to the private sector.

Anybody who thinks that government has any "moral authority" on any matter whatsoever is sadly deluded. And the emissions reduction allegedly achieved by selling QinetiQ is a classic government scam. Unfortunately the EU as a whole plays the same trick. The EU has exported large amounts of emissions to China, because goods which were once made in Europe are now made in China. Emissions should not be counted by who produces a good or service but by who consumes it.

Unfortunately the BBC also makes a complete hash of the story. So the alleged 4% reduction by 2006/07 might not be that bad given the 2010/11 target of 12.5%, because it depends when the target was set, which the BBC stupidly does not mention. And did the government really say it would reduce emissions by 12.5% by 2010/11 and by 100% by the following year (in order to be allegedly carbon neutral)? That is just silly. (But presumably the government is somehow planning to buy offsets, rather than really being carbon neutral, so this is another accounting scam.)

Surprise, more maternity leave means fewer employment prospects (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The extension of maternity leave may be sabotaging women's careers, the head of the new equality watchdog has warned.

Nicola Brewer, chief executive of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, said employers were thinking twice about offering them jobs or promotion.

This, she said in an interview with The Times, was because women were now entitled to a year off for each child.

She said current laws had unintentionally made "women a less attractive prospect to employers".

Who would have thought it? You make yourself (in effect) more expensive to hire, so it's trivially obvious you make yourself less attractive to an employer. But to describe this as an "unintentional" side effect of the law is not credible. Anybody with half a brain would have figured that one out ahead of time.

Date published: 2008/07/13

Gay bishop gets heckled in church (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Openly gay US bishop Gene Robinson was forced to halt a sermon at a west London church after being heckled.

As Bishop Robinson began his sermon a member of the congregation repeatedly called him a "heretic" and said "repent, repent, repent".

He began his sermon by saying how sad it was that the Anglican Communion was tearing itself apart.

But he was stopped when the man in the congregation shouted that the schism was the bishop's fault.

The man's protest was followed by slow hand-clapping by members of the congregation, and Bishop Robinson halted his sermon while a hymn was sung and the protester was escorted from the church in Putney, south west London.

It's amazing how backwards some people are. Then again, when some jerk stands up like this and utters some nonsense, there is always the question of whether the whole scene was orchestrated by others to cause trouble. Whatever, anyone who hates gay people this much is the one who needs to "repent".

Date published: 2008/07/12

OFT hands out large fines over allegedly illegal tobacco pricing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Six retailers and tobacco firms have agreed to pay a maximum of £173.3m in combined fines after admitting unlawful tobacco pricing practices.

The news comes after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in April accused a number of retailers and tobacco companies of anti-competitive retail pricing.

Asda, Somerfield, First Quench, TM Retail, One Stop Stores and tobacco firm Gallaher have agreed to the fines.

The OFT is continuing its investigation into a further six firms.

They are Imperial Tobacco, Tesco, Shell, the Co-operative Group, Morrisons and Safeway.

Let's see. It's ok for the government to extort over 4 pounds tax per packet of 20 cigarettes from smokers (and this comprises over three quarters of the cost of cigarettes). But if companies collude to extort perhaps 10 p per packet from smokers the OFT decides to get involved and fine them an extortionate amount. Well that makes sense. And here the money doesn't go to the people who suffered, i.e. the smokers, but to the biggest extorter of them all, i.e. the government.

Date published: 2008/07/11

A third of coral species are allegedly facing extinction (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A third of the world's reef-building coral species are facing extinction.

That is the stark conclusion from the first global study to assess the extinction risks of corals.

Writing in the journal Science, researchers say climate change, coastal development, overfishing, and pollution are the major threats.

The economic value of the world's reefs has been estimated at over $30bn (£15bn) per year, through tourism, fisheries and coastal protection.

Nothing that surprising here, and indeed it looks like the world is going to see what happens when large swathes of coral disappear.

New solar power dye technology (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new way of capturing the energy from the Sun could increase the power generated by solar panels tenfold, a team of American scientists has shown.

The new technique involves coating glass with a specific mixture of transparent dyes which redirect light to photovoltaic cells in the frame.

The technology, outlined in the journal Science, could be used to convert glass buildings into vast energy plants.

The technology could be in production within three years, the team said.

Ignoring the BBC hype, it sounds like an interesting advance, and no doubt time will tell whether there is any reality behind the hype.

Date published: 2008/07/10

Government hammers 9 million motorists with increased road tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An estimated 9.4 million motorists will have to pay more road tax under reforms aimed at punishing "gas-guzzling" vehicles, the government has admitted.

Official estimates say vehicle excise duty will rise for 43% of vehicles made since 2001 - by up to £245 for the most polluting ones - but will fall for 18%.

The AA said the figures, for 2010-11, confirmed "our worst fears", while the Tories said the PM misled Parliament.

No 10 rejected that suggestion and said the aim was to cut carbon emissions.

Environmental groups have urged the government to "stand firm" on plans to raise excise duty.

Friends of the Earth has also called on ministers to invest the money raised in better public transport, which it said was a "greener" alternative to the car.
...
It is calculated that the Exchequer will receive more than £1 billion in additional revenue from the scheme by 2011.

While the Blair administration will be remembered for the idiotic invasion of Iraq and for wholesale removal of civil liberties, the Brown administration will be remembered for messing up practically every fiscal decision it has made. Of course since 43% of owners are worse off, this means that 57% are not worse off, and the latter is the silly angle that the government has been plugging. But the fact that only 18% are better off should have told any sensible politician they were being politically dumb. Those 18% will probably not even be very grateful. But the 43% will long remember another poke in the eye from the government.

Unfortunately for the so-called environmentalists (some of whom evidently support retrospective taxation of the sort proposed by the government) so-called public transport is not "green". Indeed, any service that is subsidised is not "green". People who use a subsidised service of any kind have managed to externalise the true cost of the service onto the rest of society. That is the ultimate definition of an "unsustainable" practise. Indeed, since car owners pay far, far, far more tax than any so-called environmentalist has ever been able to justify on environmental grounds, it is car drivers who are conducting themselves in a "sustainable" way. But so-called environmentalists never let facts get in the way of their propaganda.

However Downing Street takes the biscuit for the stupidest remark of them all. Given that the government is going to raise a lot more revenue from this tax change, it is pretty evident that this has nothing to do with carbon emissions (i.e. encouraging people to buy smaller cars) and everything to do with raising yet more tax money courtesy of drivers.

It's looking more and more likely that the Tory majority at the next election is going to swamp any majority that Blair ever managed to have. And all without the Tories even saying anything sensible.

Pretty much all residential roads should allegedly have a 20mph limit (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The introduction of 20mph speed limits in residential roads should become routine, a leading public health doctor has said.

Stockport public health director Dr Stephen Watkins said a child hit at 20mph had a 5% chance of dying compared to 50% at 30mph.

He said not introducing 20mph zones was effectively "killing our children".

The British Medical Association conference in Edinburgh backed his called in a vote.

Speed limit zones of 20mph have been introduced in recent years, but mainly concentrated by schools.

Speaking at the conference, Dr Watkins pointed out children did not just congregate by schools.

He said: "We need much more widespread introduction of 20mph zones in side streets."

He said the difference between a two mile journey at 20mph, and a two mile journey at 40mph was just three minutes.

"We are killing our children for the sake of a couple of minutes," he said.

Over 3,000 people a year die on the UK's roads.

The usual disingenuous argument. So the BBC notes that over 3000 people a year die on the UK's roads, but they fail to note how many children are killed by drivers in 30mph streets. Probably a very small number. But with his "three minutes" claim, Watkins is trying to use emotional blackmail and pretend that everytime any driver goes at 30 mph anywhere near where some random child might be, there is a high risk of death. You have to multiply the three minutes times the real journey length (often much greater than two miles) and times the number of journeys, divided by the number of deaths by children by a car driving 30mph in a 30mph zone. This is going to be zillions of minutes per death.

Further, you can use a similar kind of argument to justify dropping the limit from 20mph to 15mph, and then down to 10mph, and then down to 5mph and then down to 0mph. So, cutting the speed limit from 30mph to 20mph allegedly reduces the probability of death by a factor of 10. Well, reducing it from 20mph to 15mph probably also reduces by the same sort of factor. Etc. You might as well argue that the world should stop. So no cars, and certainly no buses or trains, which are also dangerous. Or horses or cycles, since they can both kill people as well. Let's move society back to 10000 BC, where no child died in a traffic accident.

At some point society has to accept that there is a trade-off between reward and risk, and between cost and benefit. Unfortunately Watkins seems to have no concept of this. The academic middle class in action.

Date published: 2008/07/09

Tories want to penalise people who compost their own waste (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A Tory government would encourage schemes under which people would be paid to recycle, shadow chancellor George Osborne is due to announce.

Mr Osborne will argue that current government policies are unpopular and suggest that "instead of using sticks, we can use carrots" to boost recycling.

Another dumb Tory policy. Indeed, it is hard to find any policy they have announced so far which is not dumb.

Both recycled waste and non-recycled waste carries a cost. People should pay that cost (at least in theory, although in practise there are many problems). Arbitrarily deciding that you should ignore the cost and actually positively reward people for creating recyclable waste is insane. There are many people up and down the country who currently compost their own organic waste. But if government is going to pay them to instead hand it over to the State (instead of charging them for this, like government should), then many people will stop composting. What kind of message is this? The best citizens on this front are the people who create the least amount of recycled and non-recycled waste. Unfortunately the next Tory government evidently does not believe this obvious fact. This is all part of the madness of the academic middle class people who run Europe who believe, bizarrely, that recycled waste is somehow holier than holy.

Surprise, fat men have poorer quality sperm (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Obese men have poorer quality sperm, perhaps because too much fat around their testicles causes them to heat up, scientists have suggested.

University of Aberdeen researchers looked at the sperm of over 2,000 men in couples having problems conceiving.

The heaviest men had a higher proportion of abnormal sperm, as well as other problems.
...
Dr Ian Campbell, chair of the charity Weight Concern, said it was known that overweight people had a tendency to have fewer children.

He said there had been a suspicion that was mainly due to lack of opportunity.

"But if weight actually has a detrimental effect on sperm quality, that's really interesting," he said.

"It's one more reason for men to lose weight."

More demonisation of fat people. It's amazing this kind of trite research gets funded. Surprise, fat people are not as healthy as non-fat people, who would have thought it. And that's one reason why there is "lack of opportunity" (which Campbell breezily dismisses, not seeming to realise this is related to health).

Date published: 2008/07/08

G8 nations adopt some kind of emission reduction target for 2050 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Five of the biggest emerging economies have urged leading industrial nations to do more to combat climate change.

Mexico, Brazil, China, India and South Africa challenged the Group of Eight countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% by 2050.

The so-called G5 countries threw down the gauntlet in a statement before they joined the G8 summit in Japan.

Earlier, the G8 restated a lower target of 50% cuts over the same period, which environmentalists said was "pathetic".
...
The five nations also urged developed countries to commit to an interim target of a 25-40% cut below 1990 levels by 2020.
...
The EU had wanted the G8 to confirm that the 50% cut would be measured from 1990 levels of CO2 - as agreed under the Kyoto climate protocol.

But when the question was raised in a press conference Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said the cuts would be measured from "current levels".

Our correspondent says this is significant in several ways, not least because a 50% cut from now is worth far less than a 50% cut from 1990 levels.

These country-by-country cuts are rather silly. First of all, rich nations can pay poor nations to emit on their behalf (obviously not all emissions, but certainly a large chunk). Secondly, what matters is global emissions. The world should be aiming to achieve a certain reduction in global emissions by 2050. Setting targets just for countries that happen to be rich now could well end up being totally irrelevant. So what if the UK is dirt poor in 2050 and India is filthy rich (it's perhaps not the most likely scenario but it could happen)? That would mean that UK emissions will have dropped remarkably just for this reason alone, and meanwhile the Indian emissions could (or would) have rocketed. What the world needs is a global carbon tax.

Ex-MI5 head speaks out against 42 day detention law (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The former head of MI5 has dismissed government plans to extend the time terror suspects can be held to 42 days as not "workable".

Baroness Manningham-Buller, who stepped down from the role last year, told peers she disagreed on a "practical basis as well as a principled one".

But the government said terror attacks were a "clear and present danger".

The House of Lords is widely expected to block the plan, which passed through the Commons by just nine votes in June.

The government wants to extend the maximum period a terror suspect can be detained without charge from 28 to 42 days - it says this is needed to deal with increasingly complex plots.

Wow, even the security services are against Gordon Brown. But hey, he can look tough on terror, so he'll stick with his 42 days unless some more Labour MPs decide to put the interests of the country above the interests of Gordon Brown.

Church of England's General Synod votes to allow female bishops (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Church of England's ruling General Synod has voted to consecrate women as bishops and approved a code of practice aimed at reassuring opponents.

However, the code will fall short of safeguards demanded by traditionalists, such as allowing male "super-bishops" to cater for those against the reforms.

Liberals said such moves would have created a two-tier episcopacy.

A Church group will now draw up a draft of the as-yet unspecified safeguards to put before Synod next February.

Some 1,300 clergy had threatened to leave the Church if safeguards were not agreed to reassure objectors.

So the Church has had one vote to join the 20th century. (They won't get around to joining the 21st century for quite some time.) Well this is at least good news. The argument of the detractors (labelled "traditionalists") was completely spurious. So, since Jesus had no female disciples, allegedly no woman could be a bishop (well, or a priest, as far as these people were concerned, but they already lost that argument). Well, Jesus had no British disciples either. But there's never been a problem having British bishops. Basically, the opponents are just sexist gits, and if they want to leave and join a sexist church like the Catholic Church, then let them.

Date published: 2008/07/07

School of the Biological Sciences Symposium 2008 (permanent blog link)

The University of Cambridge School of the Biological Sciences holds an annual Scientific Advisory Board Symposium, whose first half was today, which focussed on conservation biology and in particular on biodiversity.

Now these days "biological" generally means "molecular biological", and so non-experts have no way of understanding what is going on. But with the focus on conservation and biodiversity, almost none of this was molecular in any deep sense. So it was science the old-fashioned way, of collecting data out in the field and trying to interpret it.

There were ten speakers, which in some sense gave what amounted to sales pitches, but that is the way it goes these days and in spite of that there were some interesting talks.

Bill Sutherland (Department of Zoology) was the first speaker and talked about "making conservation science more relevant to policy makers". As an example of the problem, he mentioned that Bush had elevated biofuels as an important policy in his 2006 State of the Union address, that the EU had been pushing biofuels, etc., and that conservation biologists were caught unaware and did not have firm data about, or publicise, how much damage biofuels actually cause. (Tom Blundell picked him up a bit on this later. So Sutherland tried to pretend that the biofuels craze was all down to Bush when of course it was not.)

So it seems that the buzz word conservation biologists are now using is "horizon scanning", i.e. crystal ball gazing, trying to identify potential looming "threats", in particular with regard to biodiversity. So, for example, Sutherland set up a discussion with 37 organisations and 654+ people where they came up with the "100 ecological questions of high policy relevance for the UK" (e.g. nanotechnology "debris", artificial life as invasive species, etc.).

And apparently this proved a big hit in the media, which seems to count for more in conservation biology than almost anything else. So we are now onto round two, where he is doing the exercise all over again but now with a global outlook. So this seems to be the latest trick of conservation biologists to make a splash: make a list.

He mentioned that for people actually on the ground working in conservation, all the academic work was, well, a bit academic. So in particular it was hard to get hold of scientific information that might be relevant, e.g. because journals are not free online. So he publicised a new online journal, Conservation Evidence which he hoped would help.

But he didn't mention that one of the biggest problems in conservation biology is that scientists are ridiculously protective of their data. There is no requirement to make your data freely and publicly available (unlike in stuctural biology, where you cannot publish your results unless you have deposited some specified information in a public database). Valuable data, which has generally been paid for by the taxpayer, is just lost. Conservation biologists always complain about the lack of data, but they have been more part of the problem than part of the solution.

The most amusing thing Sutherland said was that conservation was "underfunded". Well, name anybody on the face of the earth who doesn't think that their pet interest is "underfunded".

Julian Drewe (Departments of Zoology and Veterinary Medicine) was next. He spoke about TB in meerkats, which apparently kills about 25% of meerkats in the Kalahari. His main point was that disease in wild animals needed to have an "ecosystem health" approach, rather than just looking at an individual or a given species in isolation. Well, this is ecology 101, and although he had made great progress understanding the disease mechanics of TB in meerkats, he still had a lot of work to do to understand how it was related to TB in cattle and humans.

David Coomes (Department of Plant Sciences) spoke next, about deforestation, and how this resulted in potential problems with fragmentation of ecosystems. So one thing he was interested in was a measure of fragmentation, where he showed one graph which showed there was some weak relationship between forest "similarity" and the distance from the edge of the forest. But then he showed a map (of some part of New Zealand) with "similarity" overlaid and it was not obvious that there was much of a relationship with distance from the edge of the forest.

Even worse, he looked at how Hawkweed invaded into these forest habitats. Apparently conservationists believed that the more species there were in an area (so, in some sense, the more biodiversity) the less likely that an invading species would take hold. Well here they found the exact opposite. Whoops, one argument against biodiversity. (And nobody throughout the entire symposium gave any convincing reason why biodiversity was allegedly so inherently worthwhile.)

Rhys Green (Department of Zoology and the RSPB) talked about the dramatic decline of vultures in South Asia, so from tens of millions down to thousands, and with the annual percentage of decline a remarkable 15 to 50 percent. Well, vultures do (or rather did) so well in India because dead cows are just dumped, so providing lots of food for vultures. So in some sense the tens of millions was a number which was pushed up by humans.

But now the same food source is causing the problem. It seems that the culprit is a specific drug called Diclofenac, which is used as an anti-inflammatory drug in cattle. Apparently it went off patent and so Indian drug companies started to massively produce it and very cheaply. Anyway, this is an example where some scientist(s) did the hard work of finding the cause, and it was banned in 2006.

However, the problem has not yet gone away because farmers are still using the drug illegally. Apparently there is an alternative, but it is (currently) twice the cost and also does not act quite so quickly. Whatever, even if Diclofenac disappeared tomorrow, it would take decades for the vulture population to recover.

Ed Turner (Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire and Peterborough Wildlife Trust and Department of Zoology) talked about whether oil palm plantations are the "green deserts" that many people claim they are. And the bottom line was that in some regards they were, but in some regards not.

David Aldridge (Department of Zoology) talked about a specific aquatic invader, the zebra mussel (Dreissera polymorpha). They orginate in the Black and Caspian Seas and apparently cause 2 or 3 billion dollars of damage per year in America. Apparently the current favoured eradication method was chlorination, but this was not very effective because the mussel detected the toxin and so stayed shut for 2-3 weeks, and that amount of continual chlorination would cause serious side effects.

So instead Aldridge (and presumably others) came up with a way of coating toxins in a nice tasty package (well, tasty to zebra mussels, at least). This is now a commercial spin-out (BioBullet) so not all details were forthcoming. Some graphs he presented showed it was relatively effective but it wasn't clear whether it was effective enough, and safe enough. (Time will tell.)

Mike Brooke (Department of Zoology) talked about eliminating "alien" vertebrates from the world's islands. Apparently if you throw enough money at it you cannot wipe out certain species (rat, cat, goat) on islands up to size 1000 km2. Brooke is a bird man and bird people hate mammals, especially mammals associated with humans. Brooke provided no motivation why he should be given money to wipe out animals (through shooting and poisoning) to allegedly help some random rare bird species survive. It is just supposed to be accepted as fact that rare birds justify mass murder of mammals.

And he had also cottoned on to this idea of making a list. So he has made a list of islands in some order of priority for his mass murder of mammals, based on cost divided by the alleged benefit. Well, the cost is a real number, even if it is based on estimates. But the benefit is something arbitrary, based, in this case, on some weighting dependent on how rare a given bird species was, how much impact an "alien" species was allegedly making, and how many islands the bird had as habitat.

The bottom line is that Brooke loves his list, because he can now go around to funding sources and tell them these are the priorities and they should now fund it. It turns out that on his benefit to cost ratio, in general smaller islands are higher up the list, because the cost increases for larger islands faster than the alleged benefit.

It is a pity that so many conservation biologists spend so much of their time trying to kill plants and animals they don't happen to like.

Ana Rodrigues (Department of Zoology) talked about the 2007 Potsdam Initiative on Biodiversity, which conservation biologists hope will do for conservation biology what the Stern Report did for climate change. So conservation biologists for years have been claiming that if only mankind did X, Y and Z (which generally involves humans disappearing from somewhere or other) then mankind would miraculously accrue much more benefit than the cost of taking the action.

Well, nobody has paid them much attention. So it seems they are hoping that some economist can take sums they are giving him and turn it into a new Stern-like report, complete with lots of publicity in the media.

The immediate contribution here was to define a conceptual framework and also provide an overview of the state of play in ecological knowledge. The conceptual framework is the usual. You take costs and benefits in the "business as usual" scenario, and then look at the alternative costs and benefits in the "business as conservation biologists would like it" scenario (i.e. no business at all). Given the existing scientific papers on the subject, it is 99.999% certain that they will show that the alternative scenario is far better.

Mark Avery (RSPB) talked about non-university conservation work in the Cambridge area.

Andrew Balmford ended up the day by talking about the so-called Cambridge Conservation Initiative. One of the remits will be more "horizon scanning". But the main point seems to consist of constructing a grand new building next to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre up Huntingdon Road. This will house not only university but also non-university organisations involved with conservation work. The architect is Edward Cullinan and it seems that the budget is going to be vast (apparently conservation is flavour of the minute in the university). There will be a master programme in "conservation leadership" from 2010, with about 10-20 students per year.

Balmford apparently wants this initiative to help with getting researchers more closely communicating with government policy makers, i.e. to put conservation higher up the priority list in decision making than it currently is. Whether this works remains to be seen. Apparently they have hired some (presumably senior) civil servant to act as a bridge (at some crazy salary?), but he didn't mention her name.

Anyway, it seems that conservation is not so "underfunded" after all, at least in Cambridge.

UK government rejects badger culls (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government will not issue licences to cull badgers to prevent cattle TB in England, Hilary Benn has confirmed.

In a Commons statement, the environment secretary said that while a large-scale cull could improve the situation, it could also make the problem worse.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) is taking legal advice on the decision, details of which were obtained by BBC News on Friday.

About 4,000 herds were affected by the disease last year.

These were mainly localised to the south-west of England.

Rather than culling, vaccination will form a cornerstone of bovine TB policy, and the government is to invest £20m into research.

The government based its decision on advice from the Independent Scientific Group which it established to review research on the issue.

The ISG concluded that culling would not be an economic solution to the problem, as did the Environment and Rural Affairs select committee.

A subsequent analysis led by the government's former chief scientific advisor Sir David King came down in favour of culling.
...
Mr Benn indicated his belief that vaccination - either of badgers or cattle or both - should be an effective strategy as soon as vaccines can be developed.

The correct decision, although it is unbelievable how much time and effort has been wasted (and will continue to be wasted) on this decision making when much more time and effort should have been spent on actually developing vaccines.

Gordon Brown patronises people about food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britons must stop wasting food in an effort to help combat rising living costs, Gordon Brown has said as world leaders discuss rising prices

The PM said "unnecessary" purchases were contributing to price rises, and urged people to plan meals in advance and store food properly.

A government study says the UK wastes 4m tonnes of food every year, adding £420 to a family's shopping bills.

Shorter Gordon Brown: "Let Them Eat Cake".

Does he realise how patronising he sounds? And this is a man who was on his way to the G8 summit in Japan where they have 6-course lunches and 8-course dinners, about as "unnecessary" as it gets.

Date published: 2008/07/06

Tories try to bribe motorists with talk of a fuel duty cut (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Conservatives are proposing changes to the way fuel duty is calculated which they say would let government "share the pain" of rising prices.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne told the BBC the party was looking at plans to cut fuel duty when oil prices rise and increase it when prices fall.

If introduced last March, fuel would now be 5p a litre cheaper, he said.

The Treasury told the BBC the proposals were a gamble which could leave a £3bn hole in the public finances.
...
He said the consultation process on a "fair fuel stabiliser" would begin on Sunday and conclude by the end of the year when the party would come up with a fully worked-out proposal. The policy is not yet a firm party pledge.

"What this would mean is that when the price of oil goes up, fuel duty comes down to help families, but the quid pro quo is that when the price of oil falls the duty goes up," said Mr Osborne.

"So government is sharing the pain of rising oil prices, but the government is also sharing the gain when oil prices fall."

Well you could argue this is a sensible proposal, but since the tax on petrol is arbitrary (and, as it happens, extortionate), and this alleged proposal would just change it by an arbitrary amount, it's pretty obvious this is just a cynical ploy by the Tories to try and pretend they are friends of the motorist (and they are not). The silliest claim, however, is that the the "government is sharing the pain of rising oil prices". Unless government salaries or perks are being cut in compensation for the reduced tax intake, the government is sharing no pain whatsoever. And, more generally, unless the tax cut is balanced by either tax rises elsewhere, or spending cuts somewhere, then this proposal is just passing the tax bill onto future generations. When Mr Osborne himself starts to look like he is feeling some economic pain, voters might start to believe what he has to say on this matter.

Date published: 2008/07/05

England's children are allegedly "globally illiterate" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A large slice of England's children may be left "globally illiterate" because schools are not educating them about the wider world, a charity claims.

A survey of nearly 2,000 children for education charity DEA found one in five had not discussed problems or news stories from around the world.

And only 50% said it was important to have people of different backgrounds living in the same country.

Another meaningless survey. Needless to say, every educational special interest pressure group on the face of the earth always complains that their pet interest is somehow neglected and believes that schools should be forced to divert precious time to their special interest. And it is trivial to come up with a survey which allegedly proves that the special interest is being "neglected".

With reading, writing and maths it makes sense to insist on some standard, with most other things it should be left up to the schools. Here, in particular, does it really matter if one in five students has allegedly "not discussed problems or news stories from around the world"? Does it matter if "only 50% said it was important to have people of different backgrounds living in the same country"? Indeed, is it "important to have people of different backgrounds living in the same country"? There are many countries which get by perfectly well without this happening (certainly to the extent that it happens in Britain).

Date published: 2008/07/04

The RAC timidly points out that motorists are ripped off by the government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A root and branch review of motoring taxation in the UK should be carried out by the Treasury, says motorists' organisation the RAC Foundation.
...
The RAC Foundation said sustained high oil prices had significantly affected family spending, and motorists were "paying more and more for an ever-poorer level of service".
...
The RAC claimed that income from motorists was broadly equal to spending on the road network in 1975, but the government now brought in four times as much from the motorist than it spent on the roads.

The two main motoring organisations in the UK, the RAC and the AA, are pretty useless special interest pressure groups. The fact that motorists are completely fleeced by the government, as pointed out in the last paragraph above, is perfect proof of this. Of course the RAC and AA are not helped by the fact that the BBC and most of the rest of the media is dominated by the academic middle class, who hate drivers (excepting themselves and their friends and family of course). Indeed, one cannot imagine the BBC using the word "claimed" the way they have in the last paragraph if it was some random fact asserted by a cycling special interest pressure group. And this is an easy enough fact to check, so why didn't the BBC bother to check it?

Surprise, people want free medicine (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three-quarters of people in the UK want to see prescription charges scrapped in England, a BBC poll suggests.
...
Prescription charging is the most obvious divergence of NHS policy since responsibility for healthcare was given to the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, and the Scottish Parliament.

In England, each item costs £7.10, raising approximately £430m for health service funds.

Only 12% of prescriptions are actually paid for - the vast majority are covered by exemptions for children, pensioners and those with long-lasting medical conditions such as epilepsy.

Prescriptions have been free since 2007 in Wales, and will be free from 2011 onwards in Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the issue is "under review".

Surprise, people want something for "free", who would have thought it. Did the BBC bother to ask these people how the government was supposed to make up this £430 million?

Date published: 2008/07/03

Ed Balls says primary school exams should not be "stressful" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Primary schools in England should not be inflicting stress on seven-year-olds by treating national tests like exams, the children's secretary has said.

Ed Balls said Sats days should be like any other and that pupils should not be aware that they were being tested.

Now why does Mr Balls think that schools are "inflicting stress on seven-year-olds"? Could it be that schools are run by people who like to torture students? Or could it be that the government rewards schools that do well on exams and publicly humiliates those that do not?

Date published: 2008/07/02

Court in Georgia blocks coal power station on grounds of emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US state of Georgia has blocked construction of a new coal-fired power station because of concerns over its carbon dioxide emissions.

Environmentalists welcomed the news, and predict the decision will lead to reconsideration of many coal power plants under development in the US.

The judge cited a decision by the Supreme Court last year which issued a ruling recognising CO2 as a pollutant.

This is the first court judgement on an industrial plant based on that ruling.

Earlier this year, Georgia's Department of Natural Resources issued a permit allowing the Dynegy company to begin construction of its Longleaf coal plant.

But Fulton County Superior Court Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore has now halted construction of the 1,200 megawatt facility, ruling that the permit should have set limits on carbon emissions.

The BBC is misleading in the first paragraph. It is not the state of Georgia that has blocked construction, it is some court. And it's quite possible that some higher court will overturn this ruling. However this specific ruling is likely the shape of things to come, even though it is silly that any court rules on specific projects.

UK government to allow access by the public to certain data (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government has launched a competition to find innovative ways of using the masses of data it collects.

It is hoping to find new uses for public information in the areas of criminal justice, health and education.

The Power of Information Taskforce - headed by cabinet office minister Tom Watson - is offering a £20,000 prize fund for the best ideas.

To help with the task, the government is opening up gigabytes of information from a variety of sources.

This includes mapping information from the Ordnance Survey, medical information from the NHS , neighbourhood statistics from the Office for National Statistics and a carbon calculator from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

It's about time. The UK government has for far too long kept this kind of important data either inaccessible or extortionate in cost. The Ordnance Survey is a prime example. It's mapping data should have been opened up long ago, and it is presumably only because of google that it has (partly) done so now. But pretty much everybody uses google now and the OS has missed the boat.

Date published: 2008/07/01

Ken Clarke proposes that Scottish MPs lose vote in certain circumstances (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scottish MPs should have fewer powers over legislation which applies only to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a Conservative taskforce has said.

At present Scottish MPs can vote on measures which do not affect Scotland.

Ken Clarke's group says MPs from Wales and Northern Ireland should also lose some powers over English-only measures.

The proposals are not binding on the Conservatives, but shadow justice secretary Nick Herbert said they would "introduce greater fairness".

Mr Clarke's committee suggests there should be voting restrictions when MPs look at the "committee stage" of a bill - when most in-depth amendments are discussed.

For matters relating solely to England, only English MPs should vote, while English and Welsh MPs alone should vote on issues only affecting those two countries, it argues.

MPs from all countries could later vote to pass or reject the bill as a whole, the committee adds.
...
Mr Clarke said his plan was a "compromise", more workable than simply banning MPs from other countries from voting on England-only laws, and that this would help preserve the Union of England and Scotland.

Part of the continuing slow break-up of the Union. Although this is claimed to be a "compromise", not only is it a totally arbitrary "compromise", it also has one potentially serious negative side effect. It could quite easily happen that a government has a majority of MPs but some other party (or parties) had a majority of non-Scottish MPs. (The election of 2005 was not that far off this result.) This would mean that in some sense there would have to be two cabinets, making decisions on quite separate matters. It's all a bit silly, just like the current situation is a bit silly.

Surprise, maternal diet affects offspring (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Eating a poor diet when pregnant or breastfeeding may cause long-lasting health damage to the child, animal studies suggest.

The offspring of rats fed fatty, processed food had high levels of fat in their bloodstream and around major organs even after adolescence.

The animals had a raised diabetes risk - even if they ate healthily.
...
Studies by the same team have already shown that rats whose mothers were fed junk food during pregnancy and breastfeeding were more likely to crave similar snacks themselves.

However, the new twist is that even when weaned off this diet themselves, the damage may already have been done, they suggest.

Dr Stephanie Bayol, one of the researchers, said: "It seems that a mother's diet whilst pregnant and breastfeeding is very important for the long-term health of her child.

"We always say: 'You are what you eat', but in fact it may also be true that you are what your mother ate."

Who would have thought it, eh? Needless to say, this is all part of the demonisation both of junk food and of mothers who dare not to follow the suggestions of the academic middle class control freaks who run the country. Presumably sooner or later we will start hearing that mothers who eat junk food are guilty of child abuse. And heck, why stop at mothers. There must also be a (smaller) impact from grandmothers, etc.

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