Azara Blog: January 2009 archive complete

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Date published: 2009/01/31

Google thinks that Google is harmful (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Google's search service has been hit by technical problems, with users unable to access search results.

For a period on Saturday, all search results were flagged as potentially harmful, with users warned that the site "may harm your computer".

Users who clicked on their preferred search result were advised to pick another one.

Google attributed the fault to human error and said most users were affected for about 40 minutes.

"What happened? Very simply, human error," wrote Marissa Mayer, vice president, search products and user experience, on the Official Google Blog.

The internet search engine works with stopbadware.org to ascertain which sites install malicious software on people's computers and merit a warning.

Stopbadware.org investigates consumer complaints to decide which sites are dangerous.

The list of malevolent sites is regularly updated and handed to Google.

When Google updated the list on Saturday, it mistakenly flagged all sites as potentially dangerous.

"We will carefully investigate this incident and put more robust file checks in place to prevent it from happening again," Ms Mayer wrote.

What a lot of egg Google has on its face. This outage represents thousands and thousands of dollars in revenue for Google and the zillions of websites that use google ads. And it seems that some ISPs were requested by ordinary people, who took the google information at face value, to blacklist certain websites based on this false information. Hopefully that did not actually happen, but who knows.

What is particularly worrying about this massive screw up is that they might have just as easily blocked all websites in, say, Britain, or all websites for some minor ISP, and then how long would it have taken to fix the problem. Indeed, this whole sorry episode shows how much power stopbadware.org has. No doubt they are trying to do a decent job, but if they screw up (never mind if Google does) then what can any ordinary run-of-the-mill website do about it.

Google says its own websites are harmful

Date published: 2009/01/24

Scientists try to prevent the Scots breeding with foreigners (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scotland's wild red deer may be lost if they continue breeding with a foreign species, scientists have warned.

Edinburgh University researchers found Japanese sika deer, brought to the country in the 19th Century, have bred extensively with native deer.

In some areas as many as 40% of deer are of mixed breed. Such cross-breeding can alter wild deer on Scotland's mainland permanently.
...
Helen Senn, of the university's school of biological sciences, said: "The extent of cross-breeding we uncovered is worrying, and suggests that similar populations of red-sika hybrids could exist undetected elsewhere in the UK.

"This cross-breeding represents a serious threat to wild red deer on mainland Scotland.

"Thankfully legislation already exists to protect the red deer on many of the Scottish islands from cross-breeding with sika deer but the mainland red deer remain at risk."

Unfortunately, since this is the predominant attitude of the academic middle class people who run Scotland (Britain and the world), one has to take this ridiculous story seriously. Senn provides no reason why cross-breeding is a problem. So she happens to like (allegedly) pure-bred Scottish red deer. So what. Exactly what is the problem with these deer breeding with other deer?

To see how ridiculous this story is, imagine if she were instead talking about people. So the BBC might have reported: "Scotland's pure white population may be lost if they continue breeding with foreigners (i.e. black people), scientists have warned". Of course the BBC would never (at least in this day and age) produce such a blatantly racist report. (They might well have fifty or sixty years ago.) But when it comes to animals this kind of racism is supposed to be a "good" thing, and we're supposed to be impressed that the government is giving money to scientists to study and prevent inter-racial breeding.

Near-blind people allegedly want to continue to use traditional light bulbs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charities and eyesight specialists are calling on the government to halt its plans to phase out the sale of traditional light bulbs.

Campaigners want retailers to disregard a promise to phase out the incandescent bulbs by 2012.

They say replacement lower energy bulbs do not provide enough light, causing problems for people with poor vision.

The government admitted there was a problem but said that alternatives were still available.

Under European Union rules, all incandescent bulbs for sale must be replaced by energy efficient compact fluorescent lamp (Cfl) bulbs by 2016.

By September 100 watt bulbs will have been taken off UK shelves.

But David Adams, spokesman for The Royal National College for the Blind, said lower energy bulbs made things more difficult for those with a sight condition.

He said: "They do come on slowly and if there are steps or objects in the way, people can fall over, have accidents and that's the biggest danger."

He said most blind people did not have a total loss of vision and therefore would want to make the best of the amount they had left.

Greenpeace has said that the traditional bulbs waste 95% of the energy they use.

They calculated that phasing them out in the UK would save more than five million tonnes in CO2 emissions a year.

The compact fluorescent lamp bulbs have 80% less power and provide a diffused light whereas the traditional bulbs give out spots of light and have a high contrast.

John Clingan, who is partially-sighted, said he was concerned about how he would cope without the stronger light.

He said: "If I try to read a book under one of the new lights - I just can't read properly for long because the light levels are just not high enough."

It's not just near-blind people that will have a problem. There a quite a few people who suffer from low-light conditions (particularly in the winter time). Hopefully the technology for low energy light bulbs will become better soon (their light is pretty awful).

The most bizarre thing about this story, other than the fact that the BBC is juggling between its politically correct views on two fronts (energy saving and blind people), is that the BBC says: "Greenpeace has said that the traditional bulbs waste 95% of the energy they use". Who cares what Greenpeace says, they are not exactly the most reliable of organisations (even if on this one instance they happen not to be distorting the truth). Indeed, a couple of paragraphs later the BBC is happy to claim without qualification that "compact fluorescent lamp bulbs have [use??] 80% less power". The BBC should be quoting information from independent experts, not from special interest pressure groups.

Date published: 2009/01/22

Tony Juniper becomes the Green Party candidate for MP of Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge could well go Green at the next General Election, claims the party's chosen parliamentary candidate.

As the News has revealed, former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper has been chosen to fight the election - and at a press conference he said he was not dismayed by the fact the party only picked up 1,245 votes at the last election in 2005, nearly 18,000 behind the winner, David Howarth.

Mr Juniper, who has lived in the city for 20 years, said: "The Green Party has a councillor on the city council, Margaret Wright, and I think we are now much more electable. "All the big parties are coming out with the same sort of policies, whereas we have new ideas, and ones that we are sure appeal to Cambridge's thinking electorate."

Needless to say, Cambridge is dominated by the academic middle class. The Greens and the Lib Dems are both parties of the academic middle class. So they are chasing the same votes. In the 2005 election the Lib Dems got 44% of the vote, Labour 34% and the Tories 17%, with all the other candidates lost in the noise. Having a big hitter as a candidate will presumably garner enough votes for the Greens that at least they won't lose their deposit. But every vote for the Greens is in fact a vote for the Tories, who will gain relative to the other two main parties because they stand to lose the least votes amongst the three because of this challenge.

The Lib Dems won Cambridge last time because of the Iraq War. That is no longer the dominant issue, so it's possible Labour will still pose a strong challenge (not everybody in Cambridge is academic middle class, just the people who run the place). But it's also quite possible that because of the economy and the general tiredness of the public for the Labour Party, that the Tories will become the major challenge to the Lib Dems in Cambridge. Juniper will help them in that challenge.

Juniper and the Greens, like most of the academic middle class, of course like to mouth words like "sustainability" and about how keen they allegedly are about this. Well, Juniper has lived in Cambridge for many years and worked in London for many years. One of the reasons (but by no means the only one) that Cambridge housing got so expensive (especially in the centre of town) in the 1990s and 2000s (until the recent crunch) is that London commuters were pushing up house prices. This would not be so bad but for the fact that the average London commuter not only earns more than the average Cambridge worker (so trumps them in the housing market), but also gets a whacking great subsidy from the taxpayer for taking the train.

One of the alleged claims of so-called environmentalists is that people should pay for the costs of the services they use. And they mean not only the direct costs (e.g. the cost to keep a car maintained) but also the indirect costs (e.g. the cost of pollution). But funnily enough they never apply this logic to train services. Somehow train services above everything else should be highly subsidised by government. They believe that train passengers should not pay for the service they are using. Indeed the Greens (and most of the rest of the academic middle class) believe that train services should be subsidised even more than they are already. Needless to say this just encourages people to live further from work than they otherwise would. This massive public subsidy is one reason there are literally thousands of people milling around the Cambridge train station every weekday morning. The policies of Tony Juniper and the Green Party would make that worse. (To be fair, so would the policies of the Lib Dems.)

A service cannot be deemed to be "sustainable" if the only way it can be sustained is if the taxpayer has to subsidise it. For years Tony Juniper has lived an unsustainable lifestyle. Yet he will tell you that travelling over a hundred miles a day by train (not to mention the extra journeys at both ends) is "sustainable" but driving a car a few miles around Cambridge is not. Funnily enough, he is wrong.

Many years ago the Labour government had a silly "consultation" about GM crops and GM food. As usual, this was not a real consultation, but just an excuse to let the academic middle class hijack the public debate. One of the meetings the government held was in Cambridge, and Tony Juniper was one of the main speakers against GM technology. Well, he started his first blurb by saying that he had nothing against GM technology. He then spent the rest of his considerable time saying how horrible GM technology was. No doubt a lot of his best friends are also Jewish / black / gay.

The incredibly destructive anti-GM activities of the so-called environmentalists in the UK and Europe generally has set back food science years if not decades. And not just food science, but also other related areas, such as GM trees for paper. It's quite possible that over the years billions of people will go hungry because of this blinkered approach, driven by ideology rather than anything else. It is unbelievable that in the UK it is still impossible to buy GM food, because a religious cult has stopped it.

Tony Juniper is a poster boy for what is wrong with the modern so-called environmental movement. It makes him a perfect candidate for the academic middle class as MP for Cambridge.

Heating of buildings is a large fraction of UK carbon emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Energy experts are meeting to generate new ideas for the "greening" of heating, which produces 47% of the UK's CO2 emissions.

Heating, the Cinderella of the energy debate, consumes 49% of final energy in the UK but attracts a tiny fraction of the publicity afforded to electricity generation and transport.

What a surprise. The academic middle class who run Britain are hysterical mainly about transport. Of course they claim that if you do naive extrapolations of air transport forty years into the future (in particular assume that air travel will alway use fossil fuels) and if you assume that the UK will actually meet the target of cutting overall emissions by 80% by 2050 (ignoring that the calculation is bogus because a large chunk of UK emissions are "off balance sheet"), then hey presto, air transport will account for a huge fraction of emissions in 2050. But the real problem that the academic middle class have with the two modes of transport, cars and aviation, that they are always hysterical about, is that they don't like the ordinary people of Britain having that kind of mobility. Meanwhile the real issues of the day are ignored. The BBC, unfortunately, is one of the worst offenders. One anodyne article does not make a difference.

Date published: 2009/01/21

The Lib Dems have no clue about what to do about the economy (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Lib Dems publish this "newsletter" (i.e. propaganda sheet) called the Cambridge Herald. The top headline in the current issue, which has just dropped through letter boxes, is that "Lib Dem economics expert Vince Cable MP tells the Herald what the British economy needs". Hallelujah, the messiah has arrived to tell us what to do, and to tell us where Gordon is getting it all wrong.

And what is this fantastic advice Cable has (allegedly) given the Herald:

What Britain needs now, and urgently, is practical action to help people who are struggling - to put money back in their pockets, to cut their energy bills, and help them keep their homes.

We need a serious plan to get Britain's economy up and running again.

Our plan will cost £12.5bn, which would be paid for by scrapping the proposed VAT cut.
...
Our plan would include the following:

And that is it, unbelievably.

On their first point, this probably escaped the notice of Vince Cable and the other Lib Dem economic geniuses, but the VAT cut is exactly "cutting taxes for struggling families" (whatever that phrase is taken to mean). VAT is a regressive tax and so cutting it helps the poor (relatively) more than the rich. There is the question of whether cutting taxes is a sane strategy, compared with increasing government spending. The Lib Dems do not address that.

Their second point, about "lowering energy bills" is of course blatantly misleading because they use the word "you" and they do not mean "you". They mean some certain fraction of the poorest members of society. For everybody else (the majority, in particular the workers of the world) they of course want "you" to pay more for energy. After all, the Lib Dems claim to be serious about climate change. Thus the Lib Dems are keen on carbon taxes. Carbon taxes will increase the cost of energy. (Duh, that is the whole point.)

On their third point, the Labour government has of course announced measures to partly deal with this issue. Unfortunately the Lib Dems provide no details about how they would actually do things differently.

Meanwhile back in Cambridge, the city has a Lib Dem MP, David Howarth. He has done nothing since he was elected in 2005 to promote the city economically. Indeed the major Lib Dem proposal for Cambridge is to encourage one of the largest private sector firms (Marshalls) to get lost. Yes, how stupid can they get. The Lib Dems have no clue about the economy, which is not that surprising given that they are typical members of the academic middle class (i.e. the non-workers of the world).

Cambridge Cycling Campaign threatens to cut off its nose to spite its face (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cyclists are opposing a 40mph speed limit on the new Addenbrooke's access road, saying it will endanger them.

Trumpington Residents Association and local councillor Anne Kent are also concerned over the planned speed limit between Hauxton Road and Shelford Road, saying it will pose a safety risk, be noisy and make the road feel like a bypass.

The speed limit along the new route, which could be used by up to 21,500 vehicles a day by 2023, will fall to 30mph on the stretch between Shelford Road and the Addenbrooke's site, which will have houses built either side of it and lower traffic levels of around 10,000 vehicles a day.

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign claims the 40mph limit does not fit with the city's cycling demonstration status as it poses a danger to cyclists.

Campaigners say unless the proposed 40mph section is reduced to 30mph, it will raise the issue with Cycling England, which is behind a grant for cycling facilities along the Addenbrooke's access road.

The Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee will consider the issue on Monday.
...
John Clough, capital programme manager for Cambridgeshire County Council, pointed out the limit would fall to 30mph as the road went to Addenbrooke's from Shelford Road.

"To improve safety for cyclists there is a two-way segregated cycle/pedestrian footpath that is off the road and two cycle lanes on the road. The suggested limit conforms to national and county guidelines of a road of its type."

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) is a typical special interest pressure group that tries to force the rest of society to put the group's interest above the interests of society as a whole. The CCC is run by the academic middle class, and Cambridge is run by the academic middle class, so the CCC often gets its way.

A 40mph road is not necessarily dangerous for cyclists. King's Hedges Road was perfectly safe for cyclists when it was 40mph along its western half (and indeed, 60mph at the Histon Road end). It only became dangerous for cyclists when the useless Cambridge transport planners re-designed the road because of the Arbury Park development (at which point, as it happens, the speed limit was reduced to 30mph).

And if Clough is not lying, and there is a separate cycle/pedestrian path off the road, then the CCC is really spouting nonsense. For incompetent amateur cyclists who are incapable of cycling safely in traffic, there is that alternative. For pro cyclists there is no problem with a 40mph speed limit if the road is otherwise designed properly (which of course it might not be, given that the Cambridge transport planners had something to do with it). The anoraks who run the CCC are of course all pro cyclists. They are just being silly with their bleating.

And their threat to "raise the issue with Cycling England" is even more bizarre. Fine, encourage Cycling England to take the money away from Cambridge. See how far that gets cycling facilities in Cambridge. So it seems that unless the county gives into the CCC threats, then the CCC is going to cut off its nose to spite its face. How typical of the academic middle class. Emotional age, 2.

Young(ish) women are allegedly good at spotting cute babies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Women are better at spotting a cute baby than men, according to a study.

Psychologists at St Andrews University discovered that women could determine a pretty baby instinctively by its chubby cheeks, big round eyes and button nose.

They used computer image manipulation to discover how subtle variations in attractiveness were picked up differently by the sexes.

The team suggests that cuteness sensitivity is affected by female reproductive hormones.

The researchers at St Andrews, along with colleagues at the universities of Bern, Bielefeld and York, chose 10 images from a pool over over 100 baby photos and combined them into a composite of a typically attractive baby face.

They also selected 10 images to create a less appealing baby face shape.

They found that women aged 19-26 and 45-51 were more sensitive to differences in infant cuteness than men aged 19-26 and 53-60.

However, women aged 53-60 performed at the same level as the men when determining the attractiveness of the newborns.

Dr Reiner Sprengelmeyer explained: "Because average age at menopause is 51 years in the UK, these findings suggest the possible involvement of reproductive hormones in cuteness sensitivity.

"We therefore compared cuteness discrimination in pre and post menopausal women of the same age alongside women taking and not taking oral contraceptives (progesterone and oestrogen).

"Pre-menopausal women and young women taking oral contraceptives - which raise hormone levels artificially - were more sensitive to variations of cuteness than their respective comparison groups.

"Given that cuteness is considered an indicator of being young, helpless, and in need of care, we hypothesise that the ability to detect small variations in the degree of cuteness may have evolved to guide the allocation of necessary maternal resources to the infant."

So the researchers get to decide what is and is not cute. That is the first flaw. (And, needless to say, all babies are ugly. The only thing uglier than a baby human is a baby bird.) More worrying, though, is their claim that the result follows because "cuteness is considered an indicator of being young, helpless, and in need of care". Why is cuteness considered to be such an indicator? And is it such an indicator? Much more likely is that people prefer more attractive faces, as an indicator of fitness. But with this kind of research you can just make up any plausible explanation and unless it sounds totally ridiculous the media will just go along with it.

Date published: 2009/01/20

Rethinking Personal Mobility: Policy, Technology and Systems Thinking (permanent blog link)

Bernie Bulkin (of the so-called Sustainable Development Commission, and many other things) gave a talk today in St Edmund's College as part of a series on "Adaptation to Climate Change". The title of his talk was "Rethinking Personal Mobility: Policy, Technology and Systems Thinking".

Transport is not responsible for that high a percentage of world carbon emissions, but almost all of transport uses oil as the fundamental source of the fuel. Bulkin showed a graph of global energy supply and what happens to it, and the claim is that overall something like 60% of energy is wasted (in the sense of not producing effective work, rather than in the sense of somebody doing something you happen not to like), but with transport it is more like 75%.

He claimed that after the 1973 oil embargo the fuel efficiency of US (and European) vehicles almost doubled, and that the same could happen again now without any technological breakthrough. Well, if so, that is obviously some "low hanging fruit" that the world should be aiming to pick on the path to low emissions.

He said he was interested in a systems approach, and scathingly remarked how poor government was at doing a proper analysis of anything, and often made the situation worse because they have not thought the situation through properly. He mentioned the so-called London congestion charge as an example. This just treated the symptom (crowded roads) rather than the fundamental problem (how and why people get around). So after an initial drop the congestion gets worse again and the government of course increases the tax. (All the time blaming the car driver.) Repeat ad infinitum.

Bulkin claimed that he once had a chat with Alistair Darling (when he was Transport Secretary) about road pricing (the academic middle class solution to all transport problems) and asked whether this would actually reduce carbon emissions. Unbelievably apparently Darling (a) didn't know and (b) didn't care.

Bulkin next talked about biofuels. So, do biofuels have a significant impact on food prices. Well he didn't give a definitive view, but he did point out that from a farmer's point of view, biofuels are useful because it provides a source of diversification of demand. In any case, the biofuels that Bulkin wanted to push are those that come from waste products. So apparently even at the best paper mills in the world, half the tree that comes in does not get converted to paper, but instead ends up as a "black liquor". Bulkin claimed that at around 45 dollars a barrel for oil then it was viable to convert this "waste" product into fuel. (He didn't have time to go into the details.)

He then moved onto the electrification of road transport. He quoted David MacKay's Sustainable Energy - without the hot air as saying that the average UK vehicle currently uses around 80 kwh per 100 km driven and that the average electric vehicle requires only about 15 kwh. Well, it is pretty obvious that cars are going to be electric in a decade or two, so that is an "easy" factor of 5 gain in efficiency. (Needless to say, this will not please many academic middle class people because they are philosophically opposed to cars, except for those that they themselves drive of course.)

One idea that might be plausible is that when there are N million electric cars plugged into the grid then it could be possible to balance out other electricity demand by sucking power from the cars some of the time (when the car's owner decided this was ok, in particular, given the right price) instead of always just charging the car battery. Well, this is a clever enough idea, the question is can it be made to work sensibly. (Never trust academics on this kind of thing. The power engineers would have a better idea.)

He then moved onto high speed rail travel, by which he meant trains that go faster than 350 km/hr. He believed that Britain should build a complete parallel network for these trains. And he produced some figures which purport to show that train travel from London to Paris is six times as efficient as air travel, and that train travel is almost twice as efficient as car travel (with a suitable assumption of load factors). Unfortunately, as always, he was only quoting the direct energy cost and not the (huge) indirect energy cost (mostly down to labour). So these numbers have to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

And he completely left open the question of who is going to pay for this development. For some reason train passengers always think that the rest of society should subsidise their "sustainable" journey (of course since the passenger is not willing to pay the full cost of their journey, it is really not "sustainable"). Bulkin pointed out that most of the benefit of the current train system goes to the middle class and the upper middle class. But one reason is because the service is massively subsidised. If they paid for it then it would be hard to quibble with the outcome (although no doubt someone would).

As a side remark, he noted that passenger numbers had gone up again since privatisation and credited the latter with this.

At the end there were questions. Someone bizarrely tried to blame the current love affair with the car on some law passed in the 1640s. Apparently you cannot be paid to drive someone in your car (unless you are licensed, etc.). Well, the idea that this is why people like driving their car alone is a bizarre academic middle class fantasy.

There were a couple of good questions. Someone pointed out that all this conversion to an electrified road transport system meant there was going to be a large amount of emissions (well, or equivalently, cost) up front and nobody ever talked about how long the payback period was. Bulkin just said that this could be analysed (but funnily enough, not many people talk about it). He even said that one of the problems with analysing these investments where the system was going to be in place decades was that the discount factor meant that any value after (say) 15 years was pretty well ignored. Well, perhaps the discount factor is wrong, one would be stupid not to look at the sensitivity to that. Bulkin mentioned the Victorian infrastructure that Britain was still happy to use. Well of course Britain is still happy to use it. That doesn't mean that the Victorians should have been happy to pay for this over-engineering. (And of course in some sense they didn't. They raped and pillaged their colonies to pay for this stuff.)

And someone pointed out that although rail passenger numbers had increased, rail passenger miles had increased even more, because people were living further and further from their workplace. And high speed rail was bound to make this worse. Bulkin remarked that some MIT study showed that people were willing to put up with a commute of an hour a day. (Well, perhaps that is the case in the US. In the UK many people do more than that one way.) The questioner wanted to know whether it was a good thing that high speed rail would encourage people to live even further from their work, and Bulkin didn't really answer that. Again, if rail passengers actually paid for their journeys then it wouldn't matter that they lived further and further from their workplace, because it should be up to people how to live their lives.

Then the usual academic middle class question one gets in these kinds of talks came up. The questioner wanted to know why Bulkin wasn't going to force people to change their lifestyle, i.e. not drive cars. This is an academic middle class control freak fixation. How dare the peasants drive their cars without the permission of the academic middle class. The peasants should be forced to take buses. Bulkin unfortunately just mumbled a few words and didn't try and take the questioner on. Well he is a member of the Sustainable Development Committee, which is run by these kind of academic middle class control freaks. So perhaps he has some sympathy with this pernicious view.

European clean air has increased European temperatures (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Quite what Keats would have made of it is anyone's guess, but "mist and mellow fruitfulness" appears to be on the decline in Europe.

The number of foggy, misty and hazy days is diminishing across the continent, say scientists who have analysed the meteorological data.

The researchers found this clearing of the air in the past 30 years may have amplified the warming of Europe.
...
Since the 1970s, European temperatures have risen by about half-a-degree Celsius per decade.

This warming rate is faster than the global mean change (roughly equal to 0.18C per decade) and the trend averaged over all the Earth's land (roughly equal to 0.27C per decade) during the same period.

The regional climate models used by scientists have failed to simulate the European experience, say Vautard and colleagues; and they point to legislation that has cleaned up Europe's air as the probable cause.

This has limited the presence of the tiny particles, or aerosols, in the atmosphere which help trigger the low-visibility phenomena.

With fewer fogs, mists and haze, more of the Sun's energy has been reaching the surface, leading to a rise a rise in temperatures, they tell Nature Geoscience.

The team's analysis suggests the clearer air's contribution to the background warming trend may have been about 10-20% across Europe as a whole; and in Eastern Europe specifically, it may have been as much as 50%.

This is not a new idea, but the quantification is worthwhile. An interesting related question is that although the air in Europe (and America) might be cleaner, has the pollution just been exported to other countries (e.g. China), who now make a lot of goods for the rich (or once rich) West?

Egyptian fisheries allegedly benefit from agricultural fertilizer run-off (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fertilisers and sewage discharges entering the Nile delta have boosted fish stocks in Mediterranean coastal waters nearby, a study suggests.

A team of researchers found that the dramatic increase in fish populations coincided with a sharp rise in the amount of fertilisers used by farmers.

At least 60% of the area's fishery production is supported by the run-off entering the Nile's water, they added.
...
"This is really a story about how people unintentionally impact ecosystems," explained co-author Autumn Oczkowski from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
...
Ms Oczkowski acknowledged that the findings differed from the prevailing view that excess sewage or fertilisers entering bodies of water was detrimental to marine ecosystems.

"We're programmed in the West to think of nutrient enrichment of coastal systems as bad," she said.

"It's a major issue in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico where run-off of fertilisers... into the Mississippi River has caused a dead zone in the Gulf.

"But the Egyptians don't think it's a bad thing.

"For them, it's producing tonnes of fish and feeding millions of hungry people."

However, she added: "It remains to be seen how sustainable these 'artificial fisheries' will be over the long-term.

"Some preliminary evidence indicates that increasing nutrient loads may stimulate (fish) landings up to a point, beyond which the fisheries decline [as a result of] poor water quality or overfishing."

It's only one study, so has to be taken with a pinch of salt. But it's definitely produced an interesting result, if it is indeed the correct interpretation.

Obama finally takes over the presidency (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New US President Barack Obama has used his inaugural address to pledge a "new era of responsibility" in a time of crisis at home and abroad.

Mr Obama spoke after taking the oath of office as America's 44th president - and its first African-American leader.

More than one million people gathered in the National Mall in a wintry Washington DC, to see Mr Obama take the oath shortly after 1200 (1700 GMT).

One the one hand Obama has a low bar for achievement because of the utter awfulness of the Bush administration. On the other hand, the utter awfulness of the Bush administration means that there is a hell of a mess to clean up.

Date published: 2009/01/17

Cambridge University celebrates its 800th anniversary (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Thousands of people are expected to take part in global celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University.

A specially-commissioned light show charting the university's history will start the celebrations later.

Church bell-ringers around the world will also simultaneously play a new piece composed for the occasion.
...
The light show which will be projected on to the Senate House and Old Schools has been produced by artist Ross Ashton and contains images of iconic moments and illustrations by Downing College alumnus and former Children's Laureate Quentin Blake.
...
Four churches in central Cambridge - Great St Mary's, St Bene't's, St Edward King and Martyr and St Andrew the Great, will take part in the mass bell-ringing and perform a piece by Clare College alumnus Phil Earis.

They will be joined by bell-ringers in churches across the world.
...
The celebrations will begin at 1915 GMT in Senate House Yard, Cambridge.

Perhaps a couple of thousand people showed up to see the launch of the light show (on for three nights) and the bell-ringing. It was fairly lucky that the rain and wind did not arrive until around 2100. The light show (about ten minutes long and showed over and over again on a loop) was fairly good although it wasn't clear why all the images were shown, e.g. a buddha and what looked like it might be the CERN LHC. Perhaps the best clip was one of Newton with falling apples (one of the Blake contributions). The bell-ringing was inconsequential for anyone who was not a bell-ringer (peals all sound pretty much the same).

Date published: 2009/01/16

Tories produce a non-report on an "energy revolution" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Street plug-points for electric cars, smart meters, and energy efficiency loans for homes are among Tory plans for an "energy revolution".

David Cameron launched plans he said would lower carbon emissions, create jobs and reduce oil and gas imports.

He said a £1bn upgrade for the national grid would encourage people to generate their own power and boost renewables.

Energy Secretary Ed Miliband dismissed the plans as "a bad combination of the reheated and the uncosted".

Launching what the party calls its green paper on low carbon, Mr Cameron said even those who were not convinced by climate change had to recognise the need for "energy security" - reducing reliance on countries like Russia and the Middle East for oil and gas.

And he said there was no reason why, if electricity networks were updated to include computer intelligence, people should not be saving money in future.

This would include a "smart grid" and smart meters in homes - which monitor kitchen appliances every second, altering the amount of power that is sent down the line to ensure only the minimum necessary is used.

Mr Cameron said it would make it possible to have "the Holy Trinity of big supplies of secure energy, green low-carbon energy and cheap energy", by removing the requirement for the grid to have huge excess capacity in order to meet fluctuating demand.

There is very little that is new or substantive in this report. It could have easily been written by Labour or the Lib Dems, since it is mostly Mom and Apple Pie stuff.

On one issue the BBC seems to be misquoting the Tories, about "altering the amount of power that is sent down the line to ensure only the minimum necessary is used". That statement doesn't make much sense. There is the statement in the report that says "a smart grid can manage domestic and commercial appliances to use more energy when it is abundant and less at peak times". The one example they manage to come up with is recharging batteries for electric cars. But not a heck of a lot of domestic appliances use batteries. And even for those that do (e.g. portable computers), should the government really be deciding when they should be recharged and not the consumer? Sure, charge more for electricity when the demand is high and less when the demand is low. But let people decide how to spend their money, not the government. You would think that the Tories would recognise that No Control = Dumb Not Smart. Just imagine this "smart" grid deciding to turn off your freezer in the middle of a summer heat wave.

And one can see why politicians would like to talk about the Holy Trinity where energy is low-carbon and secure and cheap. Everyone is a winner, and all with no sacrifice or hard work. But cheap energy would be a complete disaster for the academic middle class people who run the country. Cheap energy means that the working class can afford to consume things. There is nothing that irritates the academic middle class more than the working class being able to consume things (or go places or whatever). Cheap energy means human beings have ever more ability to control and change the environment. In reality, the academic middle class want energy to be expensive.

Cambridge should allegedly grow to over 300k people by 2031 (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge could become a city of between 300,000 and 400,000 people by 2031 to support huge economic and population growth, planners said today.

A new town of more than 20,000 homes on the site of the disused Alconbury airfield has also been proposed by consultants working for the East of England Regional Assembly (EERA).

The plans have been criticised as "premature" given the current economic and housing slump, but EERA said long-term growth is expected to return, and that Cambridgeshire needs to be prepared for it.

Cambridge has already been earmarked for significant growth over the next 20 years.

The population projections include outlying villages such as Fulbourn and Histon and have been drawn up to test the scale of growth that would be required to keep up with economic development, and commitments to providing affordable housing.

Cambridge has been picked out alongside Norwich and Chelmsford as a tier of "regional cities" able to compete with major centres elsewhere in the UK.

But the report concedes it would be difficult for Cambridge to grow at a faster rate than has already been outlined.

This is just someone having a laugh. Cambridge today has around 110k people, so they are talking about tripling it and more, all in twenty years or so. Cambridge has never grown anything like that in recent history. Cambridge has been built on almost to its boundaries. So if they want to expand the boundary and suck a few more villages into what is called Cambridge then possibly they might be able to get to those numbers.

Crops should allegedly be used that reflect more solar energy back into space (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Farmers could help curb rising global temperatures by selecting crop varieties that reflect solar energy back into space, researchers say.

Scientists at Bristol University calculate that switching crops in North America and Europe could reduce global temperatures by about 0.1C.

Temperatures have risen by about 0.7C since the dawn of the industrial age.

Other experts say the idea is feasible but could not cool the world enough to combat rising greenhouse gas levels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that by the end of the century, the average global temperature will have risen by 1.8-4.0C from 1990 levels.

The scientists behind the new research suggest that compared to other engineering concepts for curbing temperature rise, the farming switch would probably have no downside and would be easy to do.
...
The principle, expounded in the scientific journal Current Biology, is certainly simple enough.

Some crop varieties are naturally more reflective than others. A field of more reflective leaves will send more solar energy back into space than a field of a more absorbent variety.

Hey, why not. But this seems like one of those ideas that the BBC loves to trumpet that 20 years down the road nobody has ever heard about again. The claim that there this idea "would probably have no downside" is bold but might or might not be true. And it has been suggested for years, for example, that people have white roofs in order to reflect solar energy, and nothing has ever come of that idea (not even on new builds, where presumably it would be cheap to implement).

Date published: 2009/01/15

Government allows third runway at Heathrow (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has given the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow, saying it is "right" for the UK but opponents have vowed to fight the plans.

Environmental campaigners, residents and many MPs attacked the decision but business groups and unions welcomed it.

Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs that strict measures would be put in place to limit noise and emissions.
...
Alongside the commitment to a new runway and a sixth terminal, Mr Hoon also announced increased investment in public transport, including the possibility of new high-speed rail links from the airport.

In an effort to appease critics he said airlines using the new runway would be required to use the newest, least-polluting aircraft.

He told MPs the government was satisfied environmental targets could be met, as it would put an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway of 125,000 a year, would ensure new slots were "green slots" used by only the "cleanest planes" and would set a new target on aircraft emissions - that they would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.

Usually when a weak government has to compromise the final result ends up being far, far worse than the original proposal. This time, however, it seems like it might be better, dependent of course on the details and how everything pans out. And needless to say, nobody knows what will happen in 2050. It's not unlikely that Britain will be even further down the league of wealthy nations by then, and Britain could well be a pathetic backwater in 2050, which would make this much capacity at Heathrow largely an irrelevancy.

The Tories (allegedly) oppose this third runway so it is quite possible it will never happen (because they are likely to win the next election).

It makes more sense to allow Stansted to have another runway, but it's hard to see that happening. Stansted generally is a far better location for an airport than Heathrow, but the hysterical anti-aviation brigade cannot even accept that. (Well, most of them are not hysterical enough to stop flying themselves. They think it's the peasants who shouldn't be allowed to fly.)

In a related story, the BBC says:

A village near Heathrow is to be razed after the government approved controversial plans to allow a third runway to be built at the airport.

Sipson sits on land destined for the runway and its 700 homes and school will effectively be wiped from the map.
...
Residents and local businesses are expected to be the subject of compulsory purchase orders (CPO) as plans proceed to demolish the entire village to make way for the construction.

The CPOs will be used by the government or local authority as a last resort when an agreement cannot be reached with the home or land owners.

Those affected can appeal against the CPOs through the courts.

But if they fail in their appeal they will be entitled to the market value of the property and land as well as the cost of vacating properties and relocating.

They could also be entitled to a home-loss payment to reflect and recognise the distress and discomfort of being compelled to move out of their home.

People will not be found alternative homes but the government will be expected to help them find suitable properties. The level of compensation will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Hopefully the affected people will be promptly and handsomely compensated for all the trouble they are going to have to go through. That is one thing the British government has never been good at. And BAA should pick up the bill. (Those compensated should of course not include the spoiled academic middle class protestors who are trying to make the CPO system grind to a halt by playing malicious games. It is because of people like this that the UK spends far too much money on lawyers and not enough on engineering.)

Some inter-city buses will have wifi access (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Passengers on the X5 bus route linking Cambridge and St Neots will enjoy free broadband connection and leather seats after a £3.5 million investment by Stagecoach.

Well the leather seats are largely irrelevant, but the broadband is bound to be a hit, if it is at all any good and if passengers can actually use their computers without smashing their elbows into the neighbouring passengers. Although buses are generally a horrid way to get around, this is an attractive proposition.

Government admits that there was government maladministration over Equitable collapse (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government will compensate those policyholders "hardest hit" by the collapse of life insurer Equitable Life, the Treasury has announced.

Minister Yvette Cooper also apologised to the million-and-a-half policyholders who had lost money.

A former appeal court judge will advise the government on who will receive payment and how much.

Opposition MPs and campaigners, however, have said the scheme does not go far enough.

Liz Kwantes, of the Equitable Life Members Help Group, said she was worried about further delays.

"By the time they decide how to measure it, we've lost another year," she said.

"A lot of people have lost a lot of money. People have had a hard time - some have lost houses, their health has gone," she added.

More than eight years after the Equitable closed to new customers, the government has admitted that some regulatory bodies were partly to blame.

"We agree there has been maladministration in several areas and that government action is merited," said Ms Cooper.

"And I wish to apologise to policy holders on behalf of the public bodies and successive governments responsible for the regulation of Equitable Life between 1990 and 2001, for the maladministration we believe has taken place," she told MPs.

Unfortunately the key phrase is "hardest hit". That is fairly meaningless, since almost everyone involved lost a lot of money. No doubt some extreme, possibly politically correct, definition will be used which will be such that hardly anyone gets any money from the government.

Date published: 2009/01/12

An ecological disaster on Macquarie Island thanks to people playing god (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The removal of cats in 2000 caused "catastrophic" damage to the ecology of a sub-Antarctic island, a study says.

Since cats were removed from Macquarie Island, rabbit numbers have soared, and the animals are now devastating plants.

Cats previously kept a check on rabbits but were eradicated because they were also eating seabirds, scientists relate in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

The Australian government plans to eradicate rabbits, rats and mice from the island, a World Heritage Site.

The rabbits have now caused so much damage to the island's flora that the changes can be seen from space.

The scientists behind the research say conservation agencies must "learn lessons" from the episode.

"Our study shows that between 2000 and 2007 there has been widespread ecosystem devastation and decades of conservation effort compromised," said Dana Bergstrom from the Australian Antarctic Division.

"The lessons for conservation agencies globally is that interventions should be comprehensive and include risk assessments to explicitly consider and plan for indirect effects, or face substantial subsequent costs."

In this case, one element of the cost is the 24m Australian dollars ($17m, £11m) that authorities will spend eradicating rabbits and the rats and mice that eat seabird chicks.

Unbelievable this. Is anyone going to be held responsible for this complete and utter disaster? It's a classic case where a whole system outlook is needed, but even an ounce of common sense should have told someone that just eliminating cats was not a bright idea. Of course there is the separate question of whether man should be inflicting total death and destruction on these kinds of islands on species the conservation scientists happen not to like (so any species associated with man) all for the sake of allegedly helping the species they happen to like (so any species not associated with man). Unfortunately these people feel a compulsion to play god.

New online US travel authorisation system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New entry rules for the US will be implemented "in a reasonable manner," an embassy official has told the BBC.

Earlier, the Foreign Office warned that "thousands of tourists" could be turned away at US customs if they do not fill in an online form before travelling.

But Consul General Derwood Staeben said that was "alarmist" and the new system aimed "to encourage travel to the US".

"There will not be chaos at the border," he said. The rules came into force on Monday.

The new online registration scheme will gradually replace the green I-94 forms that people on short term visits to the US have to fill in on the flight and hand to immigration on arrival.

Known as Esta (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation), it applies to all visitors from countries which do not need visas - believed to be about 50 million people each year.

On Saturday, the Foreign Office said "thousands of Britons could potentially be turned away by immigration at US airports if they fail to register".

"British travellers who have not registered before their trip are likely to be detained and sent home."
...
The Foreign Office had said the forms must be completed at least 72 hours before departure, but Mr Staeben said that was incorrect.

"You can fill it in from an internet cafe in the airport if you want to, although obviously we do advise people to do so as far ahead of their journey as possible," he said.

Mr Staeben said there was no limit to how far in advance the form could be completed and insisted that rumours of thousands of people being turned away were incorrect.
...
The US Embassy in London said so far 99.6% of the applications had been approved - most within four seconds.

Once an application is approved, it will be valid for all visits to the US for a two-year period, or until the applicant's passport expires.

Earlier, Michael Restovich, from the US Department of Homeland Security, said: "We want to keep the bad people out."

What a trite statement: "We want to keep the bad people out." That is not the question. The question is how this is accomplished, and whether this system has any hope of doing that, relative to its cost and likelihood of going wrong with perfectly innocent people. So allegedly "99.6% of the applications had been approved". That sounds high but is not. That is saying that 4 in 1000 applications have not been approved. Or in other words, 1 in 250. So in effect one person on every jet flying to America is not allowed to do so. Needless to say, the vast majority of these people are almost certainly innocent. And there is no telling whether badly intentioned people will or will not be caught. This system is hardly going to "encourage travel to the US". But most likely it won't discourage anyone either, since most business people have no choice and most tourists won't be aware of this issue until after they have bought their tickets.

BBC publishes bad article about alleged emissions of google (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Two search requests on the internet website Google produce "as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle", according to a Harvard University academic.

US physicist Alex Wissner-Gross claims that a typical Google search on a desktop computer produces about 7g CO2.

However, these figures were disputed by Google, who say a typical search produced only 0.2g of carbon dioxide.

A recent study by American research firm Gartner suggested that IT now causes two percent of global emissions.

The Harvard academic argues that these carbon emissions stem from the electricity used by the computer terminal and by the power consumed by the large data centres operated by Google around the world.
...
Dr Wissner-Gross said he was working on a website called co2stats.com which helps companies identify "energy inefficient" aspects of their websites.

In a statement on its official blog, Google said that Dr Wissner-Gross' figures were "many times too high."

The firm said that a typical search returned a result in less than 0.2 seconds and that the search itself only used its servers for a few thousandths of a second. This, said Google, amounted to 0.0003 kWh of energy per search - equivalent to 0.2g of CO2.

An extremely bad article by the BBC. First of all they provide no link to any calculations that Wissner-Gross does or does not allegedly have. But more importantly, Wissner-Gross has a conflict of interest here because co2stats.com provides a commercial service to organisations to allegedly help them reduce the emissions impact of their websites, and so Wissner-Gross clearly has an interest in plugging these kind of scare stories to further his commercial interest. That by itself makes his claims suspicious.

The BBC also quotes Gartner as claiming that "IT now causes two percent of global emissions". Yeah, well so what. The question is the bang for the buck. If IT is particularly wasteful then there is a story, if not, then there is not.

When it comes to electric cars, the BBC perpetually gushes about how wonderful these are, in spite of the fact that most electricity these days still comes from burning of fossil fuels. But when it comes to other uses of electricity, such as websites or mobile phones or whatever, then suddenly the BBC is all coy about electricity, and these services are allegedly suspect. Well, the BBC cannot have it both ways.

And if the BBC is allegedly so concerned about website electricity usage then perhaps the BBC can tell the world how much carbon emissions their website is responsible for. And if the BBC is allegedly so concerned about google searches in particular, then perhaps they should ban all their employees from using google.

Date published: 2009/01/09

Photographs of tree destruction at Hobson's Conduit (permanent blog link)

Hobson's Conduit runs along the back of Newton Road (etc.) between Brooklands Avenue and Long Road. There is a path alongside and it has always been a pleasant place to walk or cycle. Unfortunately the city council seems to want to vandalise trees all over the city, and Hobson's Brook is the latest victim (after Parker's Piece and Byron's Pool).

The city says, in a letter dated 20 November 2008 and presumably sent to nearby residents and left at the site (by a recipient, not by the city):

The works will include pruning mature trees to make them safe, pruning and felling trees to open stretches of the brook to improve the habitat of the watercourse and felling trees to open stretches of the brook to improve the habitat of the watercourse and felling trees that have grown into the railings of the allotments.

The Council has taken advice from the Trustees of Hobson's Conduit and the Council's ecologist on the management of the brook. In places the watercourse has become shaded by overhanging trees, resulting in the loss of aquatic vegetation and a consequent reduction of insect and fish populations and the wildlife has suffered. If levels of light along the brook are not improved by thinning the trees and self set elder the bird population will continue to deplete still further so that the kingfishers may be lost completely.

Some of the mature poplars have shed substantial branches in the gales of the last few years. The trees need pruning to make them safe and to prolong their life and contribution to the landscape. There are a few dead elms and self set elder growing on the bank that are to be removed before they fall into the water or affect the flow of the water.

In Empty Common will also be felled and to plant two oak, two birch and hornbeam trees to provide a better habitat for wildlife, as advised by our ecologist. The allotments will benefit from more daylight too.

Five Lawson cypresses will be felled on the area to the north of the allotments to allow two mature birch and larch trees more daylight and room to grow and to allow more light into the allotments. By thinning the trees there will be room to plant the next generation, the replacements will be native trees -- two oak, two birch and one hornbean -- chosen with the help of the ecologist to improve the wildlife and to provide a valuable link between Hobson's Conduit, the Botanic Gardens and New Bit.

The recipient of the letter was evidently not amused and wrote on it:

The brook needs to be kept clear but the Lawson trees need to be kept. These act as a barrier away from the awful Brookland Avenue traffic. Animals like it dense NOT "Open".

What the city is basically saying in short is that "We need to kill Nature in order to save her". It is ridiculous. The city is always claiming it is short of money, yet is willing to waste all this money destroying a perfectly good environment.

Lawson cypresses in process of being destroyed:
Lawson cypresses destroyed

Remains of perfectly healthy tree that was cut down:
tree trunk left over

View of destruction along watercourse (with one tree left standing, presumably a politically correct species) (and with the Accordia development behind the fence):
view of destruction along water

Remains of tree clinging to rail:
remains of tree around rail

Date published: 2009/01/08

Photographs of tree destruction at Byron's Pool (permanent blog link)

Byron's Pool in Trumpington has been a "Local Nature Reserve" since January 2005. Unfortunately the city of Cambridge decided to massacre over 70 trees the last couple of months of 2008. The main result was the clearance of most of a large area in the middle of the reserve.

The city claims, on a notice left at the site:

These trees have been selected on the basis of the on going management objective to remove invasive non native species i.e. Sycamore and Horse Chestnut and/or are being removed due to Health and Safety risks i.e. decay. Trees have also been selected that obstruct the watercourse and/or cause severe shading of the river.

From looking at the destruction, it seems that most of the trees were removed because they were allegedly "bad" species. On the other hand, the Health and Safety excuse is just risible. What kind of "Nature Reserve" is it where they have to remove decaying trees for health and safety reasons? And only a few of the trees removed were next to the river (and so allegedly "obstructing" it).

The notice also says:

Where possible felled timber will be kept on site to create natural barriers and to provide additional dead wood habitats.

In actuality, only a couple of trees were left behind. The rest were carted off, with a dozen large piles of sawdust left behind.

Remains of perfectly healthy tree that was cut down:
tree trunk left over

Area where most trees were removed:
area cleared of most trees

One of the few trees cut down that was left behind to provide "dead wood habitats":
tree left over

Large ruts left behind by vehicles used in clearance:
large ruts

Update: The city seems to be vandalising trees everywhere, now also at Hobson's Conduit.

Bank of England cuts interest rate to 1.5% (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Bank of England has cut interest rates to 1.5%, the lowest level in its 315-year history, as it continues efforts to aid an economic recovery.

The half percentage point reduction brings interest rates below 2% for the first time since the Bank of England was founded in 1694.

Manufacturers' association EEF said the move was "too timid", and that the Bank should have cut rates further.

The Bank has now reduced rates four times from October's 5% level.

Explaining its decision, the Bank said the level of contraction in business activity had "increased during the fourth quarter of 2008, and that output is likely to continue to fall sharply during the first part of this year".

Hopefully the Bank of England knows what it is doing, because these massive interest rate cuts seem way over done.

Ofsted publishes another pointless report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children in the north of England are more emotionally secure than elsewhere in the country, according to an Ofsted survey of pupil well-being.

The poll of 150,000 10 to 15-year-olds also shows teenagers in some of the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to take drugs and alcohol.

Pupils in inner London reported the lowest rates of substance misuse. Rates were higher in London's leafy suburbs.

Children in south west England were most likely to report being bullied.

Ofsted's Tell Us survey gives each local authority a score on five different measures: happiness, bullying, participation in activities - such as sports, substance misuse and satisfaction with parks and play areas.

Its overall findings were released in October but this is the first time details of the regional differences have been published.

Ofsted is a pointless organisation whose main aim in life seems to be to justify its own existence. This report is a classic example of money being wasted on bureaucrats rather than being spent on education. It is quite amazing that the BBC can run this story with a straight face. "Pupils in inner London reported the lowest rates of substance misuse. Rates were higher in London's leafy suburbs." Oh, we are supposed to believe what people say in a survey about substance misuse, are we. That would be novel. And, if by some fluke, substance misuse really is less in "disadvantaged" areas then is this because the students are more saintly or (more likely) that they don't have as much money to blow on the stuff? Does this report really mean anything or prove anything, especially with regard to education?

Date published: 2009/01/05

David Cameron wants to throw tax money at the rich non-workers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Conservative leader David Cameron has announced plans to help savers, whom he has described as the "innocent victims" of the economic downturn.

He plans to scrap taxes paid by basic rate taxpayers' on savings interest and raise the level of non-taxable income for pensioners by £2,000 a year.

The Tories have said the tax cuts will be fully funded, paid for by lower public spending.

Labour say the Tories are making promises without having the funding.

The Lib Dems said the plan was a "fake giveaway."

Savers have suffered as interest rates have fallen to a 57-year low of 2%, with a further cut anticipated on Thursday.

In response, the Tories are proposing to help savers by ending the 20% tax paid by basic rate taxpayers on savings' interest.

According to the Tories, anyone with savings who has earnings or pension income of less than £43,875 will be better off.

They say those most dependent on income from savings, such as the retired and those not working, will benefit most and that someone with annual pension income of £12,000 would save £200 a year.
...
Mr Cameron said the tax cuts - estimated to cost about £4.1bn - would be paid for by restricting public spending increases across most of government in 2009-2010 to 1% in real terms.

Dear, oh dear. Poor Mr Cameron is desperately flailing about trying to pretend that he has something to say about the economy. Too bad that most things he says about the economy do not make much sense. And this plan is a case in point.

The higher rate of tax threshold (for the 2008-9 tax year) is at 34800 pounds. If you add in the personal allowances you get to the 43875 pounds mentioned in the article. Consider three people. Person A works for a living and earns 43875 pounds. Person B does not work for a living but earns 43875 pounds in interest (not that easy to do in this day and age, of course). Person C does not work for a living but earns 43876 pounds in interest. According to Mr Cameron, Persons A and C do not deserve any tax cut (since A is a worker and C is too rich) but Person B deserves a tax cut of 20% * 34800 = 6960 pounds, because somehow Person B is virtuous. This is nonsense. Well, it's possible the Tories will allow Person C to also have a 6960 pound tax cut, and only tax the extra 1 pound at 40%. It is just not clear from their announcement.

Who will benefit from this plan? Well, pensioners who are rich enough to earn quite a bit of interest, but not too much. But not poor pensioners. Others who will benefit will be Mrs Cameron, who doesn't work for a living but no doubt has some pretty nice interest income courtesy of her husband's whacking great income. And Mr and Mrs Cameron's children will also benefit from this plan because no doubt they have pretty nice bank accounts courtesy of their rich parents and grandparents. Why should the ordinary taxpayers of Britain fork over so much money for the benefit of rich toffs and rich pensioners? This proposal is just far too crude to make sense.

If the real aim is to help pensioners, then the Tories should propose an increase in the State Pension. Unfortunately they have not done this. Even worse, the Tories have refused to say what services they will cut to pay for this tax cut. So this is a political announcement, not a (sane) economic one. They want to get votes from the rich non-workers of the world and not annoy anyone else, although ultimately it is the latter who are going to end up paying for this proposal.

Innumerate children allegedly cost the taxpayer 2.4 billion pounds per year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children who are bad at maths at school end up costing the taxpayer up to £2.4bn a year, a report suggests.

Accountants KPMG tracked children with poor numeracy and found they were more likely to be unemployed, claim more benefits and pay less tax.

Now the Every Child a Chance Trust wants businesses to help raise £6m for projects at primary schools.

John Griffith-Jones, chairman of the trust, said he was "deeply concerned about the high costs of innumeracy".

Every Child a Chance Trust wants local businesses to make annual contributions of £12,000 each, for three years, to schools in their area.
...
The report by KPMG estimates that the long-term costs of children leaving schools unable to do maths could be as high as £44,000 per individual up to the age of 37.

Another silly report, commissioned by yet another organisation that has a self-interest in the result being just what the result happened to be. One problem with this report is that it confuses correlation and causation. And here, for example, they have (surprise) found a correlation between innumeracy and unemployment (etc.). But there is also (surprise) a correlation between illiteracy and unemployment (etc.). And between lots of other things and unemployment (etc.).

And sure, being numerate is bound to make life easier for you. Being literate is also bound to make life easier for you. As is being smart. And attractive. And from a wealthy family. To allocate any "cost" to the taxpayer of any aspect of unemployment in particular is just plain bogus.

And the way KPMG would have it, if the government would only spend 44000 pounds per innumerate child and (by some miracle) make them numerate (but not necessarily literate, etc.), then this cost would pay for itself in the long run. Does anyone believe this? 44000 pounds is near enough a full-time math tutor for one year dedicated to the one child. It is not a trivial expense.

Date published: 2009/01/02

Rail passengers whine yet again about increased fares (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New year rail fare rises which see some tickets go up by more than the rate of inflation will make passengers "shudder and shiver", a watchdog has said.

Regulated and unregulated fares in England, Scotland and Wales are to increase by averages of 6% and 7% respectively from 2 January.

But Passenger Focus said such high rises looked "very out of kilter" in the current economic climate.

Train companies have pledged the extra revenue will be reinvested.

Regulated fares - including season tickets - are generally based on a set formula which limits increases to 1% above retail price index (RPI) inflation, although there are some exceptions.

Passengers have been particularly hard hit this year because the rises are based on last July's RPI of 5%, a figure which has since dropped to 3%.

What is it about train passengers that they think the rest of the country should perpetually massively subsidise their journeys? What is is about this service that somehow it should uniquely be subsidised?

And these "high" rises are not "very out of kilter in the current economic climate". The people who do best in a recession / depression are people in work, and people who take trains are largely people in work. They are not the people who need help in the "current economic climate". It is people who have lost their jobs who need help.

And the BBC is typically disingenuous in making the RPI comparison. Sure, the RPI has dropped since July. But (assuming this continues) it will be reflected in next year's price increases, which will be far more modest. Over the long run, no matter what point in the year is chosen to use for the RPI figure, the intra-year random fluctuations average out, so there is very little point in bleating about any particular year, unless you are making a half-baked political, rather than a reality-based economic, argument.

Government claims that poor white people feel hard done by (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

White working class people on some estates feel their concerns about immigration are ignored, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears has said.

She called for a greater effort to challenge "myths" from the far right.

It follows a report suggesting many white people on estates in England feel the government has abandoned them.

For the Conservatives, Baroness Warsi called for an end to policies based on "special needs identity" and a focus on "real core problems".

The study involved interviews of 43 people in Birmingham, Milton Keynes, Norfolk and Cheshire.

The interviews took place on four, predominantly white, housing estates and found people felt a sense of resentment, unfairness and betrayal.

The report said a lack of discussion about concerns had created an atmosphere where rumours spread by the far-right were soon believed to be true.

Ms Blears told the BBC the research showed it was important to get the debate out in the open, to stop the far right from "peddling myths" such as suggestions that immigrants got priority in social housing.

"The vast majority of people who come to this country have to go into the private rented sector, they don't get council housing" she said.

"There are an awful lot of myths about that people can come into this country, they can get a council house, they get grants for thousands of pounds - a lot of that is simply not true."

But she said, in some parts of the country housing allocation policies were "not as transparent as they should be" and politicians had to be "visible" to address the issues.

The report found it was on matters of housing allocation, that white people felt they were most discriminated against.

Facts which it also highlighted included:

Tracey Phillips, a member of the National Community Forum, oversaw the report. She told the BBC: "People told us that they feel they can't say, talk about the things that really bother them for fear of being accused of being racist and that political correction stops any kind of discussions.

"And as a result of that, myths build up and stories come about about how resources are allocated and that's where we get stories about queue jumping."

They only talked to 43 people, that hardly counts as a convincing survey. Further, what are the odds that the government, and therefore the people doing the survey, already had an idea of what they wanted the 43 people to say, and so tilted the conversation to bring in these talking points. And what do you want to bet that if you asked poor non-white people the same questions you would get pretty much the same answers. So poor non-whites probably also could be led to claim that "on matters of housing allocation, ... they were most discriminated against", etc.

NICE throws more money at drugs for terminally ill patients (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drugs which give terminally ill patients a few extra months to live have a better chance of being approved on the NHS under new rules.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) is to extend the threshold at which the drugs are deemed cost-effective.
...
Any treatment to meet the criteria must be for patients with a short life expectancy, normally less than 24 months.

There must be sufficient evidence that does extend life, usually at least an additional three months, compared with current NHS treatment.

And it must have a cost-effectiveness ratio higher than the £30,000 cut-off normally used by NICE to determine good use of NHS resources.

There must also be no alternative treatments with similar benefits available on the NHS.

This story illustrates perfectly what is wrong with the way these decisions are made. So there is only discussion of quantity of life, not quality of life, or how old you are, etc. So if you have, say, six months to live, and some drug will extend that another three months at great expense, then the State needs to very seriously consider whether that drug will at least actually make you feel considerably better for those nine months. And while you can understand that the State might consider it worthwhile for someone who has family responsibilities to have an extra three months (assuming being healthy enough), should the State really be forking over tens of thousands of pounds to make sure that someone who is, say, 80, makes it to 80.3 or even 80.5? There have got to be better ways to spend the NHS budget, for example, making the end of one's life a lot less painful.

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