Azara Blog: July 2009 archive complete

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Date published: 2009/07/29

DNA "barcode" for plants is proposed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An international team of scientists has agreed on a standard "DNA barcode" for plants that will allow botanists to identify species quickly and easily.

They hope the agreement will lead to the formation of a global plant DNA library, which can be shared by the scientific community.

The barcodes are expected to have a number of uses, including identifying illegal trade in endangered species.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
...
The four-year project was carried out by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL) Plant Working Group, which consists of 52 scientists from 10 nations.

Unfortunately the paper was not yet available on the PNAS website when the BBC published this article. Fortunately a Nature news story on the paper adds details that the glowing BBC article fails to mention:

...
A Who's Who of barcoding scientists can be found in the 52 authors of the new paper, which compares seven different DNA regions and assesses their suitability for a unique identifier for plants. The authors recommend that the barcode combine two regions, known as rbcL and matK.

Together these provide unique identification of 72% of the species tested and identify the correct species group for the rest.
...
[David Schindel, executive secretary of the CBOL] told Nature that providing the CBOL's plant working group can submit its recommendation within the next two weeks a decision should be made in the following six weeks. A final decision will come down to one of three possibilities, he says: the two-loci suggestion from the expert group, a three-loci code and a two-loci code plus an optional "insurance policy" region.

"I would say the first is the most likely, but I don't want to short-circuit the process," says Schindel. When a final decision comes, he says, "It's going to open up the flood gates."

Well 72% is pretty pathetic, although apparently this figure could improve over time. And given that low figure, the Schindel statement is rather worrying. So one of the points of this barcode better be that it is good enough for a very long time (decades), because if and when it gets changed all the barcoding is going to have to happen all over again. And it seems likely that a > 2-loci code makes more sense in the medium to long term, if not in the short term. So the CBOL is perhaps too anxious to make a decision which allows the "flood gates" to open, i.e. grants to be awarded based on the barcode having been defined. (And the biologists of the future will no doubt be happy to have to do the work all over again since that means more grant money then.)

The CBOL press release adds another caveat:

The selected plant barcode involves portions of two genes (rbcL and matK) from the plastid genome. Plastids are structures that are found in most plant cells and among other things, are involved in the process of photosynthesis.

So the relevant genome is not even in all plant cells. Still, it's a start.

Organic food allegedly has no health benefits (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Organic food is no healthier than ordinary food, a large independent review has concluded.

There is little difference in nutritional value and no evidence of any extra health benefits from eating organic produce, UK researchers found.

The Food Standards Agency who commissioned the report said the findings would help people make an "informed choice".

But the Soil Association criticised the study and called for better research.
...
[Gill Fine, FSA director of consumer choice and dietary health, said] that the FSA was neither pro nor anti organic food and recognised there were many reasons why people choose to eat organic, including animal welfare or environmental concerns.

Of course the Soil Association is going to criticise the study. They are the major organisation demonising ordinary food and they are almost a de facto monopoly in deciding what is and is not deemed to be "organic", and so have a large commercial interest in perpetuating the idea that "organic" food of course must be better.

Gill Fine makes the important point that the "organic" lobby also claims other advantages, but the Soil Association constantly promotes the health angle as significant (and no doubt can find some study or other claiming this is true in some way).

And Fine didn't mention the psychological advantages from eating "organic" food, since the people who do so are largely middle class people who think better of themselves for eating "organic", and that in itself could be a health advantage (but probably the only one, if you believe this study). (Rich people love looking down on poor people, and the ability to buy "organic" food is just one example of that in the early 21st century.)

Date published: 2009/07/28

British woodlands are allegedly less biodiverse than 70 years ago (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British woodlands are less biologically distinctive than they were 70 years ago, says a team of UK researchers.

The use of fertilisers in farming had increased soil fertility, while tree canopies had grown thicker and cut light levels, they explained.

As a result, the woodlands were becoming home to the same species, resulting in the unique characteristics of individual sites being lost.
...
"This study shows that increased pollution and poor countryside management have led to increasing homogenisation of biodiversity in British woodlands," said co-author Professor James Bullock, an ecologist from CEH.

"These two issues must be addressed in future if we wish to restore the diverse woodland communities of the past."

It is constantly amazing how backwards looking so many so-called conservationists and/or ecologists are. So allegedly there was some halcyon past and if only they were allowed to control freak more over the rest of society (here in the guise of "countryside management") then we could get back to that halcyon past. Of course they also assume that biodiversity is somehow inherently a good thing. It might well be in some circumstances, but they provide no evidence that it is a desirable goal in the narrow area of concern addressed here. All in all, this whole study just amounts to more of the usual academic middle class diatribe against modern life. (Funnily enough, the middle class, being rich, are the main beneficiaries of modern life.)

Divorce allegedly causes ill health (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Divorce has a lingering, detrimental impact on health that even remarriage cannot fully repair, a study suggests.

A Chicago study involving 8,652 people aged 51 to 61 found divorced people have 20% more chronic illnesses such as cancer than those who never marry.

The figure only drops to 12% for those who remarry, researchers write in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.

They say we start adulthood with a "health stock" that is kept or eroded depending on our marital experience.

A classic confusion of correlation and causation. So is divorce causing ill health, as the BBC would have it, or are people who are less healthy more likely to divorce, or is there some other cause which leads to both results? Of course the prejudice of the academic middle class (chief cheerleader the BBC) is that divorce is evil and so must be causing all sorts of problems in the world, which is why this kind of sloppy reasoning slips through without comment. The same kind of nonsense is often used to promote that idea that marriage is allegedly better than non-marriage.

It's amazing how much money is wasted on this kind of pointless "research".

Date published: 2009/07/25

Cambridge "congestion" charge kicked into the long grass (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Cambridge should bid for hundreds of millions of pounds to transform the city's transport and should not rule out introducing a congestion charge after 2017, according to a key report.

The Cambridgeshire Transport Commission published its findings after gathering evidence from experts, councils, residents and businesses.

The commission warned that Cambridgeshire County Council faces a "stark, time-limited, choice" - make a bid to the Government's Transport Innovation Fund (TIF) with local public support while the one-off funding is still on the table, or confront the "certainty" of increased congestion with the existing budget.

The commission criticised the Government for saying that councils could only win TIF cash if they introduce "demand management" - congestion charging or charges for workplace parking.

It recommended that the county council should keep congestion charging as a "potential, longer-term option", only to be introduced after 2017 once TIF-funded transport improvements are in place.

The county council should explain its position to the public, winning support to "convince" the Government to remove congestion charging as a precondition of funding, the commission's report said.

This is kicking the so-called congestion charge (which is really an access charge) into the long grass. The Tories, who run the county council and who proposed this crazy scheme in the first place, now seem to be getting cold feet. Of course the anti-car county transport bureaucrats will not be pleased that the so-called congestion charge is not going ahead, nor will the usual anti-car academic middle class suspects (e.g. the Cambridge Cycling Campaign), who vociferously campaigned for the charge all along.

It's extremely unlikely the current (central) government will "remove congestion charging as a precondition of funding". On the other hand, the next (Tory) government will likely drop this link. But if and when they do, it's pretty obvious that Cambridgeshire will get a lot less money than the 500 million pounds that the county wants. So not only is that number ridiculously high given how small Cambridgeshire is (relative to the country as a whole), but it was that high in the first place only because it was being used as a bribe to try and force the citizens of Cambridge to accept this so-called congestion charge. Further, the county council never could explain exactly what it would do with, or why it needed, this 500 million pounds. The politicians and bureaucrats just saw money being waved in front of their faces, and reacted like Pavlov's dog.

The RCN no longer opposes assisted suicide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has dropped its opposition to the concept of helping patients to commit suicide.

The college has now adopted a neutral stance, neither supporting nor opposing a change in the law.

Health staff who provide patients with the drugs needed to kill themselves can face up to 14 years in prison.

The move comes as a survey for a newspaper suggests 74% of people want doctors to be able to help people to end their lives.

According to the survey of 1,500 people for the Times, support for assisted suicide was especially strong among those aged between 55 and 64.

The poll also suggests that six out of 10 people want friends and relatives to be able to help loved ones to die without fear of prosecution.
...
The RCN vote follows a three-month consultation of members, which drew over 1,200 individual responses.

Of those, 49% supported assisted suicide, but 40% were opposed to the concept.

Overall, the RCN represents 400,000 members.

Well you cannot trust any opinion poll, especially one carried out by a newspaper. And even the RCN "consultation" is a bit meaningless, since only 0.3 percent of their members bothered to respond. On the other hand, it is good that finally one medical organisation has stopped its opposition to assisted suicide. It is perhaps the beginning of the end for the academic (religious) middle class control freaks who think they should decide how and when people should die. It will be interesting to see how long it takes the BMA (which represents doctors, who are much worse control freaks than nurses) to reach the same conclusion. Of course it's also possible that the RCN will be forced by the control freaks to switch back to opposing assisted suicide.

Another vacuous report from the Commons Transport Committee (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Motoring taxes have been handled so badly that drivers no longer trust what ministers say the charges pay for, an MPs' report says.

Inconsistency over justification for green taxes "tarnished their image", according to the transport committee.

Ministers should also abandon the link between unpopular congestion charge schemes and transport funding, it adds.
...
Voluntary road pricing schemes - such as allowing drivers to pay charges related to distance, time or congestion instead of car tax or fuel duty - could be an option, the committee suggested.
...
It also says car parking charges must be "proportional" and local authorities should not be charging excessive prices to pay for non-related services.

Although it said it had no evidence this was happening, the public was concerned about the issue.

So-called "green" taxes are just a scam, and everybody knows it. For one thing, only car drivers and airplane passengers are deemed worthy of paying a carbon tax. All other producers and consumers of carbon are given a free pass. So it is pretty clear that the real point of the scam is just to raise more tax off certain sectors of the public. Unfortunately all the main political parties support this scam, as do most of the academic middle class people who run the country (including the BBC).

And the MPs must have not looked very hard if they could find "no evidence" that local authorities were not "charging excessive prices" for car parking charges. They obviously did not bother to look at Cambridge, where the city council practically brags about how much it extorts motorists to park in the city car parking garages, which the city gets away with because it has a monopoly. (It's funny how government thinks monopolies are bad until government itself has one.)

The BBC also completely failed to mention in this article one of the other main conclusions of the report. Fortunately, this did get mentioned in a side article, the so-called Harrabin's Notes:

Contrary to popular opinion, driving is getting cheaper compared with other forms of transport, according to a report from the Commons Transport Committee.

The MPs say if the government is to hit its targets for reducing emissions, it has to prevent car use becoming even cheaper than using the bus or train.
...
Transport minister Paul Clark, responding to a parliamentary question from Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, said government figures showed that the real cost of motoring had declined by 17% between 1979 and 2008.

Yet, during the same period, bus and coach fares had risen by 55%, while rail fares had gone up by 49%.

The growing disparity creates a vicious spiral in which travellers reject buses because they're expensive; that reduces passenger numbers which forces bus firms to put up prices and reduce services, resulting in even more people using their cars.

It is unbelievable how feeble reports from Commons committees are. So they looked at the timeline 1979 to 2008. What if they had looked at another period, e.g. 1998 to 2008? The numbers would look very different. Anyone can play games like this. Choose your favourite time period to make your pre-conceived ideas look correct. They also seem to have ignored costs like car insurance.

But suppose that in some sense the "real cost of motoring" has gone down relative to bus and rail fares. What does this mean? Well, most of the "real cost of motoring" is down to the price of oil and how efficient cars are. However the Transport Committee includes government taxation in their definition of "real cost of motoring". But this is not part of the "real cost", this is just the largest (and totally artificial) contribution to the actual cost. On the other hand, the "real cost" of bus and rail is largely the actual expense of providing the service. However the Transport Committee includes the whacking great government subsidy as part of the "real cost". But this is not part of the "real cost", this is just a large (and totally artificial) negative contribution to the actual cost. So what the Transport Committee is really complaining about is that motoring is allegedly not taxed enough and buses and rails are allegedly not subsidised enough. What a surprise, that the academic middle class MPs think this.

And the MPs of course failed to wonder that if buses and trains are allegedly so efficient, then why do they need a whacking great subsidy (i.e. in effect a negative carbon tax) in the first place.

Some think-tank wants more charges for health care (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Patients should be charged £20 to see a GP in a bid to limit demands placed on the health service, a centre-right think-tank says.

The Social Market Foundation said forcing people to pay a fee for an appointment could help the NHS cope in the tight financial times ahead.

The group said it would not breach the values of the NHS as charges already applied to dentistry and prescriptions

But both the government and doctors said they were against such a move.
...
The Social Market Foundation said the only way for the NHS to cope was to raise taxes to put more money into the system, limit demand or work more effectively.

The NHS is already looking to make savings and the think-tank said there was little appetite for tax rises.

Instead, they said charging for GPs would be a good way to reduce demand.

Report author David Furness said: "It would get people thinking twice about whether the visit was essential.
...
He said the move was not about making money and insisted even a small charge like this could help reduce appointments by about 5%.

He said children and those receiving tax credits should not be charged and said the think-tank was opposed to fees being levied on any form of emergency care.

The Social Market Foundation is one of the zillions of "think tanks" plaguing the nation. 20 pounds might seem like a trifling amount to the rich academic middle class people in the Social Market Foundation, but it's a huge amount for a large chunk of the nation, and not just for people receiving tax credits. And if they are going to advocate charges in this regard, then why are they "opposed to fees being levied on any form of emergency care"? It's just a nonsense, and of course would also mean that people would be far more tempted to just head to the emergency room rather than their GP to receive medical advice. But Economics 101 was never a strong suit of the "think tanks".

And the fact that the government is opposed to this is rather irrelevant. The question is whether the Tories, who will form the next government, are for or against this. It is bizarre that the BBC failed to ask this question.

Date published: 2009/07/17

BBC journalists hate plastic bags (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Efforts to cut by half the number of plastic carrier bags supermarkets give their customers have narrowly failed.

Last year seven supermarkets signed up to the voluntary scheme which aimed for a 50% cut in bags given out compared to figures recorded for 2006.

However figures suggest 346m fewer carrier bags are being used every month than they were in 2006.

Plastic bags harm the environment because they take a long time to decompose and can endanger wildlife.

In May 2006, 718m bags were being given out but by May 2009 this had almost halved to 372m, which amounts to a reduction of 48%.
...
The British Retail Consortium believes consumer behaviour has now changed, helped by supermarkets giving out free re-usable bags and awarding loyalty points to customers who bring their own bags.

As a result, some environmentalists are now calling for a charge of up to 15 pence for each disposable carrier bag.

This is a terrible piece of hacky journalism. So the headline on the story is "Retailers miss plastic bag target" which is a distortion of what happened. This distortion would have been partly mitigated by the first paragraph of the story were it not for the cynical use of the word "failed". So the BBC could have said that "efforts ... have narrowly been missed". Even that is really missing the point of what happened. So the fact that the use of plastic bags has (near enough) halved in a few years is pretty remarkable. Especially since it was a voluntary target. But the BBC instead had to plug "failure".

The BBC then trots out the trite comment that "plastic bags harm the environment because they take a long time to decompose and can endanger wildlife". Well pretty much all human activities "harm the environment" directly or indirectly (including pretty much all of the BBC activities) so what is it about plastic bags that deserves special mention? Well, it's just that the academic middle class control freaks (chief cheerleader, the BBC) hate plastic bags. But the amount of environmental damage they do (at least in the UK) is insignificant compared to many other things, and certainly compared with the amount of attention the academic middle class give to the issue.

The BBC also has the nerve to claim that "as a result, some environmentalists are now calling for a charge of up to 15 pence for each disposable carrier bag". But so-called environmentalists have always been calling for a charge for "disposable carrier bags". It has nothing to do, or not to do, with this "result". Indeed, if anything it is perfectly obvious that the "result" supports the exact opposite of what the BBC has written. So-called environmentalists hate the "consumer" society and they just use plastic bags (amongst other things) as a proxy hate figure for this. This is what is really behind the interminable academic middle class anti-plastic-bag hysteria. It's all rather pathetic.

Cambridge County Council does not believe in integrated transport (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Transport chiefs have outlined plans for a new £3 million bus, pedestrian and cycle route to Cambridge railway station.

The 'Cambridge Gateway' will run from the junction of Hills Road and Brooklands Avenue into the station area.

It will also link with the guided bus at the station.
...
Cllr Roy Pegram, Cambridgeshire county councillor for growth and infrastructure, said: "This new junction will provide an important gateway to the city and provide much-needed bus, cycle and pedestrian improvements into the station area.

"It is part of our vision of making sure transport is linked and provides safer and greater choice for our existing and new communities.

There is nothing new on the Cambridgeshire county website so it's not clear if this is just a recycled news story. But the key sentiment is expressed by Pegram. So he claims that he has a "vision of making sure transport is linked" but fails to mention one of the most important transport sectors, i.e. cars (including taxis). It is typical of Cambridge (and indeed UK) transport planning that the hatred of the car is the main driving force for policy, and so we will never have an integrated transport system.

More assisted suicides (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The deaths of British conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, have reopened the assisted suicide debate.

Sir Edward, 85, who was losing his sight and hearing, died on Friday alongside his terminally ill wife, 74, at Swiss right-to-die centre, Dignitas.

In a statement, their family said the couple "died peacefully, and under circumstances of their own choosing".

The Metropolitan Police said it was investigating, as campaigners called for more safeguards to be put in place.

The "campaigners" are the usual collection of academic middle class control freaks who think that they have a better idea of when someone should die than the person who is dying, and even more bizarrely think should have a say in whether someone chooses to die. They in effect want to force people to die in a potentially agonising and prolonged fashion. Some day the UK will grow up and allow people to die when they want to.

Date published: 2009/07/12

IATA wants the UK government not to increase air passenger duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world's airline industry is urging the UK government to abandon a rise in air passenger duty, which would mean long-haul flight prices rising.

The International Air Transport Association warns the levy is damaging an industry already on its knees.

Britain is the only place to have such a tax and the Treasury now wants to base it on how far people fly.

Ministers say flying is relatively "undertaxed" and the changes "better reflect the environmental costs".

The duty is currently £10 for short-haul flights and £40 for longer journeys, costs which airlines pass on to passengers.

Under the government's plans, the tax will rise to £85 for Australia and £60 to the US by November next year.
...
But Darren Johnson, from the Green Party, said it was a good thing if people were discouraged from flying.

"We need to be increasing the air passenger duty," he said. "Aviation is simply not paying its way in terms of the environmental damage it causes."

UK car drivers already pay a carbon tax that is way, way over what it should be. Perhaps this is what the "ministers" mean when they say that flying is relatively "undertaxed". But the current level of tax for airlines is already over what most people calculate the carbon tax should be (although no doubt those figures might be low). So the government evidently thinks it needs to extort airline passengers the way it extorts car drivers (it's not called "ripoff Britain" for no reason). And of course, the passenger-based taxes are particularly stupid because the tax should instead be based on fuel consumed. So the current tax penalises energy-efficient airlines and rewards energy-inefficient airlines. But never let it be said that the government is fair or logical.

Of course the Green Party hates flying (there's nothing worse than the peasants being able to go places where only the middle class, like the Green Party members, used to be able to go). But if there is one transport sector that "is simply not paying its way in terms of the environmental damage it causes" then it is not aviation but the railways. So not only do train passengers not pay any carbon tax, they are hugely subsidised by the taxpayer, which means in effect they are paying a negative carbon tax. Funnily enough, the Green Party loves this particular subsidy. So evidently they believe that some carbon emissions are holier than others.

UK government wants to throw money at households that produce energy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Households that contribute electricity to the National Grid are to receive payments under a new government scheme.

Towns and villages will be encouraged to generate their own power with wind, water and solar energies, and then be paid for how much they produce.

Critics warn that small-scale production is expensive and projects may require government subsidy.

But Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband said the project will "help create the clean energy of the future".
...
Since so-called "feed-in tariffs" were introduced in Germany, some 400,000 homes, particularly in the sunnier south of the country, have installed solar panels.

But the government has had to subsidise such projects in order to keep them viable.

If the government (any government) has "to subsidise such projects in order to keep them viable" then by definition they are not viable. One of the reasons there is a problem with carbon is that (most) users of carbon are implicitly subsidised (car drivers in the UK are not). Whenever anyone gets an implicit or explicit subsidy it means that they have more money to spend on consuming other sources of energy (most of which produce carbon). It is completely the wrong approach. And the reason that "small-scale production is expensive" is because it is a stupidly inefficient approach to producing energy. The main beneficiaries of this kind of subsidy are the academic middle class, who love producing their own energy because they can pretend to be "green", when in fact they are not.

Date published: 2009/07/09

David Cameron claims he would work for nothing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron has defended expenses claims for his second home and said he would do the job for "half the money, twice the money or no money".

Cameron is wealthy. Cameron (along with most other MPs) has been soaking the taxpayer with second home expense claims (in particular for mortgage payments). If Cameron says that he is willing to work for nothing then the taxpayer should take him up on the offer. The government could pay a few teachers in lieu of what Cameron is paid.

Prince Charles warns about "environmental catastrophe" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Prince of Wales has issued a fresh warning of environmental catastrophe, telling an audience in London "if we fail the Earth, we fail humanity".

Prince Charles said we must "urgently confront" the risks to avoid "destroying our children's future".

Given that Prince Charles is one of the richest people on the planet, he is also responsible for more of the environmental damage on the planet than most. He should "urgently confront" his own lifestyle before he worries about what the rest of the world is up to.

Keep Britain Tidy freaks out over car litter (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Drivers who drop litter from their cars should be penalised with a point on their licence, say campaigners.

Keep Britain Tidy says its research has shown it is a better deterrent than fines, which are already handed out.

It argues that as it is difficult to identify who has actually thrown the litter, all the blame should fall on the car owner.

The group says culprits should still face fines and even those who discard apple cores ought to be punished.

Keep Britain Tidy is one of the countless organisations in Britain that serves no purpose. This particular idea is really dumb. Why should owners be blamed just because "it is difficult to identify who has actually thrown the litter"? This is like saying that if there is a murder in a house then the owner should be blamed because "it is difficult to identify who has actually committed the murder".

And in many contexts, discarding apple cores ought to be perfectly acceptable. But evidently the academic middle class control freaks who run Keep Britain Tidy have nothing better to do with their lives than worry about inconsequential matters like this.

If David Cameron is looking for quangos to shut down than he could do worse than to start with Keep Britain Tidy.

Date published: 2009/07/08

Survey on commuting and health in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge-based MRC Epidemiology Unit is conducting a survey on Commuting and health in Cambridge (that link might only be temporary). They say:

Most people have to commute to and from work. For some of us, the journey might be a pleasant walk, an invigorating bike ride, a chance to collect our thoughts, or an easy way to get some exercise. For others, the journey might involve traffic jams, crowded public transport, or having to pick up children and shopping on the way home.

The way we travel can affect our health and the health of people around us. We want to find out more about how people travel and how this is related to their overall physical activity, health and wellbeing. We are particularly interested in why people choose to use different modes of transport and how this is related to where they live, where they work, and what travel options are available to them. The information collected during this study will give us a better understanding of the health impacts of commuting. We hope this will help make sure that future transport policy takes account of people's health needs.

We are surveying people who travel to work in Cambridge. We intend to repeat the survey in 2010 and again in 2011 to find out how things have changed and how these changes have affected the health and wellbeing of commuters like you.

We will be asking everyone in the study to complete a questionnaire. We will also be asking some people to wear a small activity monitor around their waist for a week. These activity monitors are light, matchbox-sized devices that measure human movement much like a step counter. They provide much more detailed and accurate information about how physically active people are at different times throughout the week.

What is the point of this survey? The obvious conclusion will be that people who cycle or the half dozen people who walk to work are healthier than those who drive or take a bus. What a surprise. The eventual report will probably miss the fact that there is a difference between correlation and causation. So for example, for people who work in Cambridge, richer people generally live closer to their workplace and are more likely to cycle, and of course richer people are generally healthier. But the way the conclusion of the study will be pushed is that if only the peasants could be forced to cycle 10 miles, or walk 5 miles across a muddy field, to get to work, then the world would be a better place.

It is unfortunate that at a time when the UK research councils are going to be forced to tighten their belts, that money is diverted from real research to this kind of pointless academic middle class exercise.

Yet another policy proposal on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An international group of academics is urging world leaders to abandon their current policies on climate change.

The authors of How to Get Climate Policy Back on Course say the strategy based on overall emissions cuts has failed and will continue to fail.

They want G8 nations and emerging economies to focus on an approach based on improving energy efficiency and decarbonising energy supply.

Critics of the report's recommendations say they are a dangerous diversion.

Emissions targets are not ideal. First of all, the current thinking is that the alleged real target should be an integration of global emissions over all history, and none of the emissions targets discussed really get that close to this. So, under the Kyoto Treaty, for example, the EU can perfectly well let China create goods, and so emit greenhouse gases, on its behalf, so it's just a transfer of emissions from one party to another.

To achieve the ideal would require a global carbon tax. (The alternative, cap-and-trade, is far from ideal because billions of pounds end up in the pockets of bankers, lawyers, traders and corporations for no reason.) One effect of a global carbon tax would be an improvement in energy efficiency and a decarbonising of the energy supply.

If implemented correctly, a global carbon tax could also naturally lead to a decrease in human population, which is another, rarely discussed, way to reduce emissions. Unfortunately pretty nearly all governments of the world deem it in their self-interest to increase their own population. The so-called environmentalists do not help on this score because they like focussing on per capita emissions rather than global emissions. (They do this because they want to claim that the citizens of their own countries are far too rich. Excepting themselves, of course.)

Date published: 2009/07/06

The NIAB site gets approval for more homes (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A controversial scheme to build nearly 1,200 homes on the north-west fringe of Cambridge has been given the go-ahead by a Government inspector.

Despite fierce opposition from residents and councillors, plans for homes on the former National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) site, off Huntingdon Road, were backed by planning inspector Robert Middleton in a report published on Friday.

He ruled the new homes would not harm the Cambridge green belt and recommended the area near the A14 should be allocated for housing.

He added the new homes would help South Cambridgeshire District Council to hit its target of building 20,000 new homes by 2016 following the delays to the Northstowe project.

The decision has been condemned by Cllr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, who represents Castle ward on Cambridgeshire County Council and has led the fight against the NIAB scheme, where plans for a further 1,780 homes are already in place.

She said: "I am appalled by this decision. Air pollution is only just below recommended levels at the moment, so this will only add to the problems.

"I don't think it's the right place for a large housing estate. Like Orchard Park, these houses will be right alongside the A14 and even with a barrier, the noise will be terrible."

Cllr Sian Reid, executive councillor for growth at Cambridge City Council, said: "Cambridge just can't cope with this extra growth.

"The county council hasn't yet worked out how it is going to deal with the traffic generated by the existing growth programme and now it has backed building these extra homes."

Cambridge can perfectly well "cope with this extra growth". Especially if the academic middle class people who run Cambridge could actually get around to designing an integrated transport system instead of just an anti-car one. And it would help if they could also get around to considering the interests of the future residents of this site, instead of the narrow, partisan interests of the existing relatively rich residents of the Huntingdon Road area. The relatively poor residents of the Histon Road area are, not surprisingly, being completely ignored, although they will, if anything, be more impacted by the development. But given past history, the residents of Arbury and Kings Hedges would probably be more supportive of this new development since they do not have the in-built hysterical reaction to change that the academic middle class seem to have.

The idea that air pollution, or the noise issue, are major concerns for Brooks-Gordon is a joke. Her main concern is that some peasants will move within spitting distance of the precious residents of Castle ward, and, even worse, those peasants will have the nerve to sometimes drive a car through Castle ward.

The logical plan is to develop the entire Histon Road, Huntingdon Road, A14 area into a beautiful new estate, with a commercial district along the A14 to help shield from the noise. Unfortunately the Cambridge ruling elite will spend their entire effort on trying to oppose this development and making it not work, rather than trying to make it a worthy addition to Cambridge.

David Cameron claims he will cut the number of quangos (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

David Cameron has pledged to cut the number of unelected quangos to save money and increase accountability.

The Tories would close one schools quango, while media regulator Ofcom would be stripped of its policy-making role, he told the Reform think-tank.

Mr Cameron will ask shadow cabinet ministers to identify which bodies within their areas should be cut back.
...
In his speech to Reform, the Conservative leader said the "growth of the quango state" was "one of the main reasons so many people feel that nothing ever changes, nothing will ever get done and that government's automatic response to any problem is to pass the buck and send people from pillar to post until they just give up in exasperated fury".

Another vacuous statement from Cameron, and indeed you can pretty much guarantee when he takes over that he will increase the number of quangos (if not at first, then eventually). And the problem isn't quangos per se. The civil service is just as incompetent and non-responsive and immune from taking responsibility as are quangos. The problem is that the government lets them all get away with it.

Date published: 2009/07/02

Some Scottish sheep are apparently getting smaller (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change is causing a breed of wild sheep in Scotland to shrink, according to research.

Scientists say milder winters help smaller sheep to survive, resulting in this "paradoxical decrease in size".

Classic evolutionary theory would predict that wild sheep gradually get bigger, as the stronger, larger animals survive into adulthood and reproduce.

Reporting in Science journal, the team says this shows the "subtle interplay" between evolution and the environment.
...
"In the past, only the big, healthy sheep and large lambs that had piled on weight in their first summer could survive the harsh winters on Hirta," said Professor Coulson.

Because of climate change, he explained, grass for food is now available for more months of the year on the island.

"Survival conditions are not so challenging - even the slower growing sheep have a chance of making it, and this means smaller individuals are becoming increasingly prevalent in the population," he said.

The team also found that younger sheep tended to give birth to smaller lambs - a phenomenon they termed "the young mum effect".

This effect, said Professor Coulson, combined with environmental changes had "overriden what we would expect through natural selection".

To say that there is "subtle interplay between evolution and the environment" is rather misleading. It is not "subtle" at all. And environmental changes have not "overriden what we would expect through natural selection". The environment is one of the main drivers of evolution. Genes that might be useful in one environmental context might not be useful (or so useful) in another.

Rate of biodiversity loss is allegedly not decreasing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An unacceptable number of species are still being lost forever despite world leaders pledging action to reverse the trend, a report has warned.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says the commitment to reduce biodiversity loss by 2010 will not be met.

It warns that a third of amphibians, a quarter of mammals and one-in-eight birds are threatened with extinction.
...
Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy head of the IUCN's Species Programme, warned that the scale of "wildlife crisis" was far worse than the current global economic crisis.

"It is time to recognise that nature is the largest company on Earth working for the benefit of 100% of humankind," he said.

Vie is completely wrong. Nature is not the "largest company on Earth". And Nature is not "working for the benefit of 100% of humankind". What Vie was really probably trying to say was that Nature happens to provide benefits for humans, such as water meadows which can help reduce flooding. But of course Nature also provides disbenefits for humans, such as viruses. The so-called conservationists just happen to always ignore the latter and focus on the former. In any case, the phrase "working for the benefit of 100% of humankind" is just completely misguided, no matter what side of the equation you are looking at. Nature just is.

On the question of extinction, there are more and more humans consuming more and more resources of the planet, and so it follows pretty trivially from that that there will be less and less of other species. So does the IUCN want there to be fewer humans or poorer humans or both? And by how much?

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