Azara Blog: December 2009 archive complete

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Date published: 2009/12/29

Cambridge has expensive second-rate housing (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Eight of the 10 most expensive streets in East Anglia are in Cambridge and six of these are close to the main university area.

The most expensive street is Sedley Taylor Road, off Long Road, where the average property costs ££958,440, according to Halifax building society.

But in a city short of affordable housing, central Government recently dealt a blow to funding for the much-needed cheaper accommodation.

The fact that the Cambridge News thinks the Halifax is still a building society is a bit worrying.

The fact that the Halifax thinks that Sedley Taylor Road is the most expensive street in Cambridge shows why they nearly went bust in January 2009, through sheer incompetence.

Sedley Taylor Road is possibly the most expensive street on the "wrong side" of the railway tracks, although Luard Road must be close. But as can be seen, in Cambridge there are millionaires living even on the "wrong side" of the rail line. But all the most expensive streets are on the university side, for example Newton Road, Bentley Road, Latham Road, Chaucer Road and Millington Road.

And it is unfortunate that when anyone talks about the ridiculous house prices in Cambridge (or elsewhere in England) the first mention is that there is a shortage of "affordable" housing. But "affordable" housing is generally not very good and it is certainly not exceptional.

The real problem is that there is no decent housing being built. This means that streets like Sedley Taylor Road have house price inflation way above average house price inflation. Unfortunately many of the people who run Cambridge live in these super expensive streets and it is in their self interest to make sure no more decent housing is ever built.

Instead we get rabbit hutches with no garden outside and no space inside. Even new million pounds houses have no garden and not much space inside. Meanwhile the peasants are built crap.

The average house standard in Cambridge is declining, not increasing, and given that Cambridge is now full of London commuters and hi-tech millionaires, the housing situation has become a bad joke.

Government wastes money on pointless and patronising guide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Advice on using "tough love" to motivate children to find a job and leave home after university is being issued to parents by the government.

The guide from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills admits graduates could find things difficult in the current financial climate.

It warns against nagging but also against being "too supportive".

This is a perfect summary of everything that is wrong with government. This "guide" is the usual pointless and patronising drivel that government loves to bombard its citizens with. It is a complete waste of money, and given that the government is about to slash important expenditure by a tenth or a quarter, for example, with regard to universities, it is unbelievable that they have the nerve to waste money on crap like this.

Date published: 2009/12/12

Tories choose parliamentary prospective candidate for Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The UK general election is only a matter of months away, and bizarrely enough the Tory prospective parliamentary candidate for Cambridge suddenly resigned a few weeks ago. So the Conservative Party had to choose a new candidate. The Tory central office provided a shortlist of six people, and to help decide amongst them, they held a novel open meeting today where anyone who is resident in the constituency could attend and vote. This is a slightly dangerous strategy in that in theory people from opposing parties could try and game the system. It happens all the time in American presidential primaries. It did not seem to happen here.

Less than a hundred people showed up to the selection meeting, perhaps half members of the local Conservative association (average age 60+) and half not (average age 30+). The meeting was supposed to start at 9.30 but didn't start until 10. And the general organisation was rather amateurish. If this is how the Tory party is going to run the country after the election, then it is not a good sign.

They got Michael White of the Guardian to run the question and answer sessions with the candidates. White admitted up front that he knew very little about Cambridge. Then again, most of the candidates didn't know much about Cambridge either, although on the whole they had swotted up more than White had, for obvious reasons. In spite of his not being a Cambridge person, he did a fairly reasonable job of running the show.

For each candidate, White asked four questions, roughly "why Cambridge", "what are the economic priorities", "what about foreign affairs" and finally "what about public services". He then allowed some questions from the floor. And then the candidate was allowed to spend three minutes saying what they wanted.

The Tories should have a reasonable chance of winning Cambridge at the forthcoming election, since the sitting Lib Dem MP, David Howarth, is stepping down. He never really did much for Cambridge but did the usual MP chores well enough and did not get caught in the MP expenses scandal, so almost certainly would have won re-election.

In spite of this, the Tories chose not to send anyone suitably high profile, who might catch the public imagination. So it seems that Tory high command does not view Cambridge as that winnable. Of the six candidates, only one, Sarah El-Neil was local. She is chair of the Cambridge City Conservative Association, and rumour has it that it was she who engineered the downfall of the previous candidate.

The order in which the candidates were questioned was (supposedly) randomly chosen, and it is unfortunate that no matter how well people are intended, candidates who present earlier have a much harder time than ones who present later. It's just a natural human bias to be influenced by order.

The six candidates, in the order they presented, were Mark Higgins, Sarah El-Neil, Evelyn Conway, Nick Hillman, Chamali Fernando and Jane Gould. Not surprisingly, given that they had all been passed by Tory central office, they pretty much all toed the Cameron line on pretty much every issue.

One issue they all mentioned and agreed upon was that the number one economic priority was to reduce the debt. Of course they all then said that of course spending on this, that and the other was important, for example that the NHS budget and school budget should be "ring fenced". They all claimed that government waste could be cut. They did not explain how to square the idea that the debt should be cut but that public services should not be impacted. This is all straight out of the Cameron / Osborne playbook.

Another issue they all mentioned and agreed upon was that Afghanistan was the number one foreign policy problem. They pretty much all repeated the Cameron trope that Gordon Brown has allegedly not given a good story to the public about why the UK is in Afghanistan. And if only that was done then all would be well in Afghanistan.

They pretty much all opposed the so-called Cambridge congestion charge. This is a bit ironic given that it is the Tory Party, at the county level, that is scheming for this to go ahead. Of course they all said that congestion was a problem, but didn't have any real solutions to offer, other than the usual nostrums about better public transport (paid for by whom, they did not say).

Surprisingly Europe was only brought up once, by a questioner from the floor. And Copenhagen was only brought up once, again as a result of a question from the floor. And the phrase "global warming" or "climate change" was not mentioned at all by anyone. In some ways it is nice that the local Tory party, on this indication, is perhaps not rabidly anti-European. But it was rather amazing that climate change, which many people would say is the number one issue on the planet, was not considered to be more important than Afghanistan as a foreign policy issue.

Mark Higgins is a barrister. He seemed bright enough. He had no Cambridge connection but somehow tried to convince the audience that since he went to Oxford that was close enough. He claimed at one point that there could be cuts across all government departments (except for health, and presumably schools) without being "painful". That is rather deluded. He is blind, which possibly put some people off voting for him (on the idea that somehow that might affect his ability to campaign in a tough seat).

Sarah El-Neil was the only local candidate, which seemed to be the main plank in her platform. She seemed nice enough, but not obviously MP material. Someone in the audience asked her whether she would devote enough time to campaigning and being an MP, given that she is a consultant pediatrician at Addenbrooke's Hospital. None of the other candidates were asked the same kind of question, so it was a bit unfair just to ask her. But she point blank did not answer this (pretty simple) question, but just obfuscated. She mentioned that even the NHS should seek efficiencies (i.e. have their budget cut). But her justification for this was that at 3 AM on some Bank Holiday weekend she noticed that there were only 90 cars in the staff car park, and concluded that is how many people it took to run the hospital. Well, for one thing, a lot of staff are not allowed to park on site (even if they work crazy hours). And for another, it's pretty bloody obvious that there wouldn't be much in the way of medical care (e.g. operations) happening at 3 AM on a Bank Holiday weekend.

Evelyn Conway is a BBC journalist. She has no political experience and seemed almost embarrassed to be at the meeting. Although she, along with the others, said that debt was her major economic worry, she then proceeded to say she opposed the government's recent proposal to slash 600 million pounds from the higher education budget. Well, that's a good line to take in Cambridge, but with similar arguments you get to the point where the public debt is not dented. Needless to say, a future Tory government will slash the higher education budget, which will have a serious negative impact on Cambridge (which so far has largely been unaffected by the global economic crisis). She was not obviously MP material.

Nick Hillman is chief of staff for the MP David Willetts. He supposedly is interested in education above all else, as a policy issue. He certainly gave the most attention of all the candidates to this issue. He was asked by Michael White about the university fees cap (currently 3000 pounds per annum), and obfuscated in true political style by talking about an independent review (New Labour's answer to everything, and soon to be the Tory's answer to everything), enough so that he was asked explicitly by someone in the audience to state his own personal view. (This someone was the husband of Sheila Lawlor, who was one of the originators, along with David Willets, of the poll tax, way back in the 1980s.) And Hillman then stated he was personally opposed to raising the cap, although the review should not be prejudged. He had earlier mentioned that he thought Anne Campbell, the Labour MP for Cambridge until David Howarth took over in 2005, had lost her seat because of the Labour government's introduction of university fees. (Well, Iraq was probably a bigger issue.) So presumably his line on fees was because he did not want to anger potential student voters. Then again if university fees are not raised, it is pretty clear that universities, facing 600 million (around 6 percent) in cuts, will seriously suffer. He squared that circle by saying that university money (well, at least on the research front) should be more biased towards Cambridge. Well, it's hard to see that happening.

Chamali Fernando is a barrister, who was on the Tory shortlist for the mayor of London. She said that her connection to Cambridge was that she studied politics at some private crammer called Cambridge Seminars (not impressive). She was a recent defector from the Lib Dems and claimed that because of that she might attract Lib Dem voters better than other candidates. She did not mention the university at all, which is rather a shortcoming in Cambridge. But she was good on bluster, which seems to be her main selling point. But you have to wonder about the political sense of someone who puts on their flyer that they are "more than just a Cameron cutie".

Jane Gould was the last candidate. She used to be a senior manager in a local inkjet company, but has never lived in Cambridge (at that point she lived in Burwell), and for some time has not even lived in the area. She said she was impressed with the Cambridge City (Lib Dem) council website, and in particular the idea of local "recycling champions". Well, recycling is one of those activities that is largely pointless, but unfortunately the middle class people who run Cambridge (and the world) always are jolly keen on it. She has little political experience, just having been elected (for the first time) on the town council in Shaftesbury. She doesn't have to work for a living (she remarried recently and she implied that that is the reason).

There were three rounds of voting. In the first round, both Mark Higgins and Evelyn Conway were eliminated. In the second round, Jane Gould was eliminated. And in the final round, Nick Hillman won enough votes to become the prospective parliamentary candidate. He really was the most credible.

A couple of people mentioned that Cambridge was a three-way race. Well, in fact this time around it is a four-way race, because of Tony Juniper and the Greens. It is fortunate for the Tories that he is running, because he will largely siphon votes away from the Lib Dems, which might allow the Tories to win. It is all up to the Lib Dems now to win or lose, depending on whether they choose a credible candidate or not.

A website that outlines government spending (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Online tools can now help citizens curious about what their taxes are being spent on.

The Where Does My Money Go website has combined spending figures with visualisation tools to show how the cash is divided.

The data can be explored through a series of maps, timelines and graphs.

Created by the Open Knowledge Foundation, it brings together figures since 2003 that are currently held by many official departments and agencies.
While the US has legislation that requires government departments and agencies to put spending figures in one place, the UK has no such laws.

As a result, said the Open Knowledge Foundation, "spending figures often require background knowledge to interpret and can be hard put into context".

The initial site has been put together with figures from HM Treasury but, said the Foundation, it was working to include numbers from many more sources to make it more comprehensive. Eventually visitors will be able to drill down to find out spending at local levels.

This kind of effort is to be applauded. Unfortunately in its current ("prototype") state, it suffers from exactly the problem that the Open Knowledge Foundation points out, namely that one needs "background knowledge to interpret" the data and it "can be hard put into context". From looking at their (very pretty) graphs, it's not obvious if anything is amiss or not unless you are a complete anorak about government spending (in which case you don't need this website).

For example, they have spending figures as a function of time, but it's not even clear if they have adjusted for inflation in any way (probably not). As another example, they have graphs showing regional per capita spending variations relative to the national average, and (surprise) the richer areas on the whole put more money in than they get out. But that's as it should be, so the real question is not that but whether (for example) governments bias spending towards areas for electoral reasons (almost certainly the case, not surprisingly).

No doubt the website will improve with time. And its ultimate worth will be when someone spots some blatant waste or fraud using their data.

Tony Blair comes with another excuse for the invasion of Iraq (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair is facing strong criticism after he said he would have gone to war in Iraq even if he had known there were not any weapons of mass destruction.

The former prime minister said it was the "notion" of Saddam as a threat to the region which tilted him in favour of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

He added that he would have used different arguments to justify the war.

Critics have said Mr Blair misled Parliament and "tailored his arguments to fit the circumstances".

Surprise, Blair has come up with his (N+1)st argument trying to justify his illegal invasion of Iraq, given that the first N were shown to be bogus. Needless to say, Israel and Iran are as big a threat to the region as Iraq ever was. And the biggest threat to the region by far was and is the US, aided and abetted by the UK. So Blair's latest argument is just as bogus as all the others. Blair's big weakness is that he is a pathological liar, so there's no real point to paying attention to anything he says.

Date published: 2009/12/05

The middle class are more a part of the problem than part of the solution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nearly all of us talk a good game about global warming and climate change - who doesn't want to save the world?

And most people think reducing our carbon footprint is a Good Thing.
Data analysts Experian have broken the UK population into 10 different categories.

They range from the self-explanatory, "eco-evangelists" to the equally blunt, "wasteful and unconvinced". "Confused but well-behaved" and "too busy to change" are somewhere in between.

Experian have found a direct link between wealth and willingness to embrace a green agenda; those most concerned about climate change tend to live in the wealthiest parts of the country.

But here's the rub. The company has also found that the richest constituencies... are also the most polluting.

What a surprise. Of course rich people pollute more. And of course the people who are into the "green" agenda are largely academic middle class (i.e. rich). Is this news to the BBC?

Which naturally brings up the latest middle-class orchestrated event in Britain. So the BBC says:

Demonstrations have taken place around the UK to urge action on climate change ahead of the Copenhagen summit.

Organisers Stop Climate Chaos want world leaders to reach a tough new deal on cutting emissions.

In London, police say about 20,000 people have been taking part, while about 7,000 turned out in Glasgow. A protest also took place in Belfast.

Wow, a whole 20 thousand people took part in London. Contrast that with the millions of people who instead went to shop for Christmas, e.g. on Oxford Street. It seems that the consumer lifestyle that the academic middle class constantly rails against is far more attractive than the "green" agenda.

Met Office will supposedly publish raw climate data (permanent blog link)

The BBC says (link later trampled by the BBC and replaced with another story):

The Met Office (MO) is to announce it will publish the raw data it uses to analyse man-made global warming.

It follows a row about the reliability of data from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia which has been dubbed "Climategate".

The MO has written to 188 countries for permission to publish the historic data it says proves that the world is warming up due to man-made emissions.

A spokesman denied reports ministers had tried to block the publication.

The material, dating back 160 years from more than 1,000 weather stations around the world, is expected to be released this week.
An MO spokesman denied it would spend up to three years re-examining the climate change data, and said it had already planned to publish the material long before the "Climategate" controversy broke.

But the spokesman admitted the e-mail row had made the whole exercise more urgent.

Well this is possibly the only beneficial outcome of the spurious "ClimateGate" controversy. This kind of data should have been made public years ago but unfortunately governments decided that their commercial interest overrode scientific responsibility. Scientific journals should have insisted and should insist that pretty much all data underpinning published articles should be available free for others to download. This already happens in some areas, e.g. structural biology, but does not happen in others, e.g. conservation biology. This data is almost all paid for by the public (via taxes) and should be available to the public and not kept in the hands of the few.

Surprise, humans have an effect on birds (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Bird-feeders, hung in many a garden, can affect the way our feathered friends evolve, say scientists.

European birds called blackcaps follow a different "evolutionary path" if they spend the winter eating food put out for them in UK gardens.

The birds' natural wintering ground is southern Spain, where they feed on the fruits that grow there.
Dr Martin Schaefer from the University of Freiburg in Germany led the research.

He and his team found that blackcaps that migrated to the UK for the winter were in the very earliest stages of forming a new species.

He explained that some blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) would always have migrated "a little further north" than others and eventually "ended up in Britain in the winter".

"But those birds would have had nothing to eat," he said.

It was when garden bird feeders became more popular in the UK, that an evolutionary division began to emerge.

Really, does anyone find any of this surprising? "Humans impact non-humans" is a rather "dog bites man" sort of story. Of course there are also other issues here, such as climate change, but those are also largely induced by humans.

All material not included from other sources is copyright For further information or questions email: info [at] cambridge2000 [dot] com (replace "[at]" with "@" and "[dot]" with ".").