Azara Blog: December 2010 archive complete

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Date published: 2010/12/28

Tory government wants to waste even more money on petitions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A plan to allow popular online petitions to be debated in Parliament within a year has been given the go-ahead by the government.

Ministers will seek agreement with the authorities, including the House of Commons Procedure Committee, to give the petitions parliamentary time.

Those receiving most support - probably 100,000 signatures - would be debated, with some possibly becoming bills.

But Labour said the plans would mean "crazy ideas" being discussed by MPs.

The government intends to shut down the e-petitions part of the Number 10 website, which has been suspended since the general election, and open a similar facility on the Directgov website.

This would be more closely moderated, with petitions checked closely for "eligibility".
The government envisages using the private member's bill procedure, which would require an individual MP to support the measure and would be easy for other members to block.

The Tory government is almost laughably bad. They seem intent on aping the worst aspects of the previous Labour government. Even worse, they seem intent on smashing everything to do with the previous government, and then resuscitating it under another guise, wasting even more money in the process.

This petition idea really is crackers. 100k signatures might sound like a lot of people, but it is less than 0.2% of the population, and means nothing. It will be easy for Facebook campaigns, helped by accommodating media like the BBC, to get petitions going with that many signatures. And, even worse, it will just be another way for well-funded middle class special interest pressure groups (like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the RSPB, etc.) to hijack the democratic process (as already happens with "public consultations" on many issues).

And the private member's bill procedure is an inane way of bringing such petitions to Parliament. Private member's bills are for MPs with a particular interest in something, and they hardly ever become law. If the government really thinks that petitions should be heard in Parliament, then they should provide government time to do so. Using the private member's bill procedure just indicates that the government wants to pretend to be interested in these petitions, without having to take any risk that they might become law.

Yes, this is totally consistent with the Blair / Brown level of political cynicism. Welcome to the Cameron / Osborne government. Hopefully some intentionally idiotic petition will be the first one to pass the 100k hurdle, in order to humiliate the government for wasting money on such cynicism.

Surprise, rich kids are more likely to have a computer at home than poor kids (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than a million school children in the UK still lack access to a computer at home, research suggests.

And almost 2m are unable to go online at home, according to leading digital education charity, the E-Learning Foundation.

It also claims those from the poorest families are two-and-a-half-times less likely to have the internet at home than children from the richest homes.
It is warning that many of the UK's poorest children face being severely educationally disadvantaged by their lack of access to technology as a result.

In November more than half of teachers who took part in a survey for the Times Education Supplement said pupils without access to internet or a computer at home were hampered in their learning.

Another completely trite piece of "research" by a special interest pressure group with a vested interest in the results. It is trivially obvious that rich kids will have better access than poor kids to just about everything in life, so not just computers but also books, travel opportunities, jobs, etc. No doubt the "solution" to this "problem" as far as the E-Learning Foundation (and the BBC) is concerned is to throw more money at poor kids, and if so they should just say so and stop pretending that they are neutral in this matter. It is unfortunate that the BBC perpetually publishes such articles without any analysis but just as a way of putting pressure on the government to tax and spend more.

Cambridge city council wants to cut down the only oak tree on Midsummer Common (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

A Cambridge resident has launched a one-man campaign to prevent what he calls a 'Midsummer murder' - the axing of an oak tree on the city's Midsummer Common.

Hugh Kellett has attached a notice to the tree - and some Christmas baubles - asking people to support him in trying to save it.

The oak is one of 14 trees on the common and on Jesus Green that are scheduled for removal by the city council.

The council says most of them are diseased, failing to grow, or dying.

But Mr Kellett, who lives in Maid's Causeway, said the oak is only deformed. He said: "I don't see that is reason to remove it."
The Friends of Midsummer Common, a residents' group, have not opposed moves to cut down the oak.

The group's spokesman, Dick Baxter, described it as "a disgrace to the English oak because it is malformed," adding: "It will denude the scene for a year or so."

The city council's environment director Simon Payne said council had carried out "extensive and thorough public consultation about replacing the tree".
"The oak tree is a young tree but is a poor specimen. The proposal is to replace the poorly formed oak tree with a willow tree."

It is unbelievable how much time and effort and money is being wasted by the Cambridge city council cutting down trees in the city. This oak tree is not even "malformed" and is certainly not the "disgrace" that Baxter bizarrely seems to claim it is, and one wonders if Payne would deem that he himself should be "replaced" if he were considered to be a "poor specimen" by city residents.
oak tree on Midsummer Common
Unfortunately some people have a very tidy-minded (one could say tiny-minded) middle class world view, where everything needs to be in its place, or should face the chop. Although this oak tree might be saved because of the effort of Kellett, there are other trees nearby that will be destroyed. For example, there are three Leylandii on Jesus Green where it borders Thompson's Lane and Park Parade.
leylandii on Jesus Green
These are also perfectly good trees, but will be cut down allegedly because they are "of poor structural form" and "vulnerable to further limb failure in inclement conditions" (according to a notice pinned to the trees). Well, they survived the recent harsh December weather. But in any case, these trees will have few defenders because the current generation of middle class people hate Leylandii (since anything that was liked by people a couple of generations ago must be horrid).

Update: The oak tree was cut down at the end of January 2011. The three Leylandii were cut down on 10 and 11 February 2011.

Date published: 2010/12/15

Non-native species are allegedly a threat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Invasive non-native species such as the grey squirrel and Japanese knotweed cost the British economy £1.7bn a year, a report has suggested.

Researchers said crops, ecosystems and livelihoods could be damaged when such species took hold.

The study found that the rabbit was the most economically damaging species, followed by Japanese knotweed.

The research was conducted for Defra, the Scottish government and the Welsh Assembly Government.
Other damaging species included the rat, the house mouse and the mink, and plants such as the rhododendron and giant hogweed.

Needless to say, any species that is an economic threat needs to be taken seriously. On the other hand, this report looks like the usual botanic racism that exists amongst "conservationists". First of all, what is and is not deemed to be a "native" species is fairly arbitrary. Secondly, non-native species (however you want to define them) contribute billions and billions of pounds to the British economy. And thirdly, native species (however you want to define them) could also easily enough be found that damage the British economy.

Imagine if the report had said that "non-native" humans (however they were classified) were causing 1.7 billion pounds of criminal damage a year. Such a report would be correctly deemed as racist in intent, because, although perhaps factually true, it would have completely ignored that "non-natives" also contribute billions and billions to the economy and "natives" were also causing billions of pounds of criminal damage, not to mention that who is deemed to be "native" is indeed as arbitrary with humans as it is with non-human species.

Date published: 2010/12/13

Children are allegedly affected by smoke in blocks of flats (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Children living in flats have 45% more exposure to tobacco smoke than those in detached houses, a US study says.

Researchers from Harvard and Rochester Universities say that is because the smoke seeps through walls and shared ventilation systems.

They tested cotinine levels in blood samples from 5,000 children across the US for the study in Pediatrics.

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) said there was a "strong case" for making blocks of flats smoke free.

Researchers limited the sample in this study to children who live in a household where nobody smokes.

They looked for cotinine - a product of nicotine and a highly sensitive marker for tobacco - in the children's blood.

The study found that 73% of the 5,000 children analysed were exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke.

Overall, researchers found that 84.5% of children who were living in blocks of flats had a cotinine level that indicated recent tobacco-smoke exposure, compared with 79.6% of children who were living in attached houses and 70.3% who were living in detached houses.

Dr Jonathan Winickoff, study author and associate professor of paediatrics at Harvard Medical School, said: "If your neighbours are smoking then you are exposed if you live through the wall in a semi-detached house. In apartment buildings this effect is magnified. Smoke contaminates the whole building."

"This study is the last link in the chain of evidence. It demonstrates the overwhelming need for smoke-free buildings," he said.

He continued: "In years to come, people will shake their heads in disbelief that there was ever smoking in homes where children live, eat, sleep and breathe."

It's quite possible they have found a real effect here, although it is not obvious. For one thing, people who live in blocks of flats and who do not smoke might well have friends who do smoke, e.g. in the same block. If you step into a smoker's home it only takes a few seconds before the smoke sticks to your clothes and makes breathing unenjoyable. Living in blocks of flats is correlated with being poor (relative to living in detached houses) and being poor is correlated with smoking. It's quite possible that children visiting friends whose parents smoke is the problem here, more than the walls and ventilation systems. So the effect allegedly found here might be bogus.

It's always worrying when some scientist makes blatantly political statements like Winickoff does. It's quite obvious that he does not like smokers and would like to find reasons to persecute smokers. This immediately makes his scientific work less credible, because science should be driven by the need to know, not the need to back up one's own pet views.

It is also unfortunate that the BBC gave no balance to these political views. Instead they quote ASH, a well-known special interest pressure group that also does not like and wants to further persecute smokers, i.e. has exactly the same political views as Winickoff.

Date published: 2010/12/07

University wastes more money on showing it allegedly cares (permanent blog link)

The University of Cambridge says:

The University of Cambridge yesterday teamed up with local groups and charities to raise awareness of equality and diversity in the workplace.

People Matter Day - a drop-in session held at the University Centre - was designed to highlight the importance of wellbeing at work. It featured presentations from a range of University support services, including Occupational Health, Dignity at Work, Counselling and staff networks, as well as a vivid lunchtime performance by slam poet Hollie McNish.

They were joined by Cambridge and District Volunteer Centre, hate crime support group Open Out and local sexual health charity DHIVERSE.

The event was also a chance for staff to meet the University's newly appointed Equality and Diversity champions - Professor Dame Athene Donald (Gender), Professor Ian White (Race) and Dr Nick Bampos (Disability).

Speaking yesterday (Wednesday), Professor White said that while the University was more diverse now than it had ever been, it was important to keep responding to the needs and aspirations of its staff. "Needs are different, individuals are different. Understanding this is at the heart of the University staying competitive."

His words were echoed by Dr Bampos. "Cambridge cares about these matters. Members of staff and students make this University great, and we are committed to ensuring that this is a good place to learn and work."

Professor Donald, also the Director of the Women in Science, Engineering and Technology Initiative, added that the University must keep listening to, and acting on, the specific needs of women at work.

All organisations seem to love wasting money on window dressing, especially politically correct window dressing. As the university bigwigs know full well, the number one problem affecting the "wellbeing at work" of their staff is the fact that most of their research and teaching (as opposed to administrative) staff are on short-term, non-permanent, contracts, and treated as second-class citizens by the permanent staff. In terms of percentages, this particularly affects women. Rather than address this problem, the university ruling elite instead prefer to ignore (indeed, perpetuate) the situation and divert attention by wasting thousands and thousands of pounds on these kind of events.

Tory government has crazy ideas for the planning system (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Local people are to be given more say over developments in their areas, ministers have pledged.

The changes - designed to cut red tape - mean some planning responsibilities will pass from councils to official local groups.
Under the plans, people would also be given the power to approve or reject proposals for new housing developments, schools and other public buildings in their areas.

Incentives will be given to communities which agree to new homes being built.

Groups of householders will be allowed to apply to be recognised as "neighbourhoods", covering a group of streets or larger areas.

There would be a presumption that local authorities will approve the status.

Neighbourhoods could then prepare "neighbourhood plans" which would be put to referendums.

If approved, their plans would then have to be accepted by the council.

The groups would also be allowed to draw up categories of development which could be carried out without planning permission - such as extensions or loft conversions.

Is it unfortunate the the Tory government is using the distraction of a financial crisis to bombard the country with ill-thought-out legislation in other areas, presumably because they think they can get away with it, because nobody has time to fight them on all fronts.

The idea that "people" should "be given the power to approve or reject proposals for new housing developments, schools and other public buildings in their areas" is particularly bad. Well, of course it depends what they mean by the "people". But in any case, the obvious outcome is that rich (Tory, suburban/rural) areas will disallow all new housing (except for the odd squire who can twist arms) and that all new housing will instead be forced into poor (Labour, urban) areas, where (surprise) most people do not want to live. So it will perpetuate the UK housing shortage, and force up house prices even further in desirable areas, which of course is great news for the rich propertied class whose interests the Tory party represents.

Funnily enough, it seems that this empowerment of the "people" will only apply to housing. It will not apply to developments (such as the high-speed train line) that the government happens to deem to be of national interest. Well, it is already pretty clear from this that the current government bizarrely does not deem housing to be of national interest.

As for this new concept of planning power for "neighbourhoods", there is no reason to believe that anyone anywhere is asking for this. And it is unlikely that anyone anywhere will be happy for their neighbours to be given carte blanche to carry out extensions. It is already bad enough that the grounds for opposing such extensions are so limited (basically "loss of privacy").

It seems that the real reason behind this crackpot suggestion is that the Tories want to stop the rocketing cost of the planning system. Well, fragmenting it further will almost certainly increase costs in the end. And imagine a "neighbourhood" which still insists (as it will) on vetting planning applications. If someone is turned down and appeals and wins, who is going to pay the costs, the "neighbourhood" or the local authority or what? The real solution to the problem of the treacle in the planning system is to sack bureaucrats who are incompetent or who purposefully go-slow at work.

Date published: 2010/12/01

Leading Christians cry wolf (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Christians who believe their faith is "under attack" in Britain have launched a "Not Ashamed Day" campaign.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey claimed Christians of "deep faith" faced discrimination.

Campaigners say a mounting number of cases of workers being disciplined over their beliefs show Christianity is being "airbrushed" from UK society.

But the National Secular Society said "zealots" were wrong to claim the faith was being deliberately undermined.
In the leaflet, Lord Carey said the attempt to "airbrush" the Christian faith "out of the picture" was especially obvious as Christmas approaches.

He said: "The cards that used to carry Christmas wishes now bear 'Season's greetings'. The local school nativity play is watered down or disappears altogether.
Christian Concern has also highlighted the fact that Catholic adoption agencies no longer have the right to refuse gay couples as prospective adoptive parents.
Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, said: "Time and again the various claims of discrimination against Christians that have been tested in the courts have been assessed by impartial judges and found baseless.

"Discrimination against non-Christians is in fact far more widespread than discrimination against Christians, and Christianity is still overly privileged in the UK.

"In almost one third of our state schools, preference is given to Christian parents in admissions over non-Christians, and to Christian staff over non-Christian staff."

The Christian think tank Ekklesia said that there was "no evidence" to back up the Not Ashamed campaign.

Co-Director Jonathan Batley said: "Since 2005, when we first predicted the growth in claims of 'persecution', we have been closely examining individual cases and what lies behind them [and] have found no evidence to back up the claim of the Not Ashamed campaign that Christians as a group are being systematically marginalised in Britain.

"We have found consistent evidence, however, of Christians misleading people and exaggerating what is really going on, as well as treating other Christians, those of other faith and those of no faith in discriminatory ways."

The poor little Christians, eh. They only run society. Carey happens to be in the House of Lords for no other reason than that he was an archbishop and yet he whines.

In America there is the annual cry-baby ranting by extreme right-wing nutters about the "war" on Christmas and it is unfortunate that an ex-archbishop falls into the same kind of silliness. People use "Season's Greetings" on cards because most people send cards at Christmas to friends who do not celebrate Christmas because it is a convenient end-of-year wrap-up. And it is not a coincidence that there were pagan celebrations that time of year long before the Christians hijacked 25 December as allegedly the day when Jesus was born.

And there is the bogus talking point by Christian Concern about gay couples adopting children. The point is that society has fortunately decided that anti-gay bigotry should not be tolerated. If some so-called Christian people want to be bigots, then that is up to them, but they should not expect society to support them in their bigotry. And these people should not expect that their bigotry is excused because their faith allegedly tells them to be bigoted.

Women are allegedly not worried enough about heart disease (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Only one in 10 women aged 50 or older say they have discussed their risk of heart disease during a GP visit, according to a survey.

The British Heart Foundation poll of more than 4,000 UK women also found many unaware of the symptoms of a heart attack.

It says that both women, and doctors, should be more aware of the threat.

"Health MOTs" for all over-40s including heart health checks, are currently being introduced in England.

While the death toll from heart disease in middle age is lower for women than for men, it still kills more than 40,000 UK women each year.

Specialists say that spotting more cases early could make a marked difference to the number of heart attacks and deaths.

There may be a greater opportunity to do this for women, who are frequently more regular visitors to GP surgeries than men.

The survey suggested that, despite this, only 10% had had a conversation about risk factors for heart disease with their GP.

A second poll of 2,829 women suggested that fewer than half of women would dial 999 if they were suffering some of the best-known symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain.

In fact 11% said they would just go to bed, and 7% would ignore the symptoms and try to carry on as normal.

Dr Mike Knapton, a GP and associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "These results show serious gaps in the way women are thinking about heart health - they highlight the common myth that heart disease is a middle-aged male health problem which simply doesn't affect women in the same way."

The British Heart Foundation evidently wanted some free publicity for its agenda and the BBC, as usual, obliged with a totally uncritical analysis. Needless to say, heart disease is only one health issue. Every health-related special interest pressure group no doubt believes that GPs should focus a huge amount of attention on their one pet issue. If they all got their way, GPs would be spending hours on each and every patient.

And the comment by Knapton is misleading. The results (from some survey which might or might not have been scientifically conducted) do not indicate anything much except that most people (women as well as men) do not spend all their lives fretting about health issues as much as the middle class control freaks in the health profession would like. In particular the results do not "highlight the common myth that heart disease is a middle-aged male health problem which simply doesn't affect women in the same way" because there is no reason to believe that men would not have responded in almost exactly the same way to the survey.

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