Azara Blog: January 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/01/31

Cambridge Univesity deficit (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cambridge University has announced a £10.5m budget deficit for the last academic year, up from £2.2m in 2002-3.

It blamed the rise on pension costs, adding that there were "no surprises".

But the latest figures from the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate - a £6.4m profit - are included for the first time.

Without these, the deficit - on outgoings of £654m - would have risen to £16.9m. The university expects to break even within four years.

Cambridge's pro-vice-chancellor for planning and research, Tony Minson, said this was "not simply a case of balancing the books".

He added: "The university and the colleges have very high standards to maintain: world class teaching and research, unparalleled pastoral care and irreplaceable national collections and libraries - and that requires us to find new income."

Cambridge has said it will charge students the full £3,000 a year for tuition when variable fees are introduced in 2006.

The university is also increasing its fund-raising efforts, targeting former students and other donors.

Plans are in place to give individual departments more say over budgeting, to help them "decide their priorities".

"Giving individual deparments more say over budgeting" means no subsidies for any department by any other department. This is one reason why the university threatened the Architecture Department with closure. It is the bean counter view of the world. (Although obviously budgets should always be transparent so it is obvious what the subsidies are.)

Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the most highly charged topics preoccupying the governments of the world is to be thrashed out at a UK conference starting on Tuesday.

But Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, a three-day meeting at the Met Office in Exeter, is mainly about the science.

The participants, more than 200 in all, will try to agree how to define what is a danger level, and what it should be.

This, they hope, will lead to a better understanding of methods the world can employ to avoid catastrophic warming.
...
It will try to answer three questions:

The secretary of the steering committee which has organised the conference is Dr Geoff Jenkins, a veteran of 30 years' work at the Met Office.

He told the BBC News website: "The UN climate convention calls on countries to act to prevent 'dangerous anthropogenic (human-caused) interference with the climate system' from the build-up of greenhouse gases.

"So the conference will be aiming to identify what's dangerous and what that implies for greenhouse emissions, though without specifying any actual numbers.

"It'll look at the impacts for different levels of warming, but it's very unlikely to say, for example, that a rise of 2C is the limit so we shouldn't let atmospheric carbon concentrations rise beyond 450 parts per million (ppm)."

A number of the papers to be presented deal with areas where science is far from certain about what will happen but remains apprehensive - high-impact low-probability events, as they are known.

Examples include the possible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, disruption to ocean circulation, and the fate of methane hydrates - lumps of frozen methane on the seabed which could conceivably thaw and accelerate the warming process.

The European Union has said global average temperature should not rise more than 2C above its present level in order to avoid damaging climate change.

One paper, Emission Implications Of Long-term Climate Targets, says carbon dioxide concentrations will have to be stabilised at 450 ppm or lower to achieve a 50% certainty of reaching the EU target.

They are already at almost 380 ppm, up from about 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution, and have recently been rising at two ppm annually.

"High-impact low-probability events" make for sexy television but hopefully most of the conference will be about more mundane but relevant matters. (450-380) / 2 = 35 years to reach 450 ppm at the current annual increase, so if you believe that an increase of 2C is the end of the world (as many people seem to claim) then that still gives some time to sort things out. (Of course the increase could accelerate, making the "end of the world" sooner.)

Date published: 2005/01/30

Government housing plans in the southeast a disaster (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Irreversible environmental damage" will be caused by government plans to build more than one million homes in south-east England, MPs have warned.

"Sustainable communities" were being promoted without a real understanding of what "sustainable" means, the Environmental Audit Committee said.

It said issues like energy needs and transport were not properly addressed.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said the report was completed before new initiatives were announced.

He said: "We are working across government, especially with our colleagues at Defra, to create cleaner, safer and greener communities, while protecting and enhancing the environment."

The report said there was far too little attention paid to many environmental issues, including water, even though supplies in parts of the South East are already too low.

Regulations designed to ensure energy-efficient buildings are too lax, and builders routinely flout them anyway, it said.

Financing for improving transport was around one-twentieth of what would be required.

Of course anything done by government on this scale will almost certainly end up being a disaster. And interventions by MPs will almost certainly make the situation even worse. Political correctness will win out over common sense. In the housing context the use of the word "sustainable" is a sure indicator of political correctness. In future the urban planning of the 2000s will be considered to be just as dreadful as the 1960s are considered today.

In Cambridgeshire, at the top of the M11 corridor, which is supposed to receive many of the new houses, the government cannot even get its act together to make the A14 into a decent road instead of leaving it in the disasterous shape it is today. Thousands of new homes will be built without any additional transport infrastructure because it costs money to build roads and because the so-called environmentalists and NIMBYs will force that money to be diverted elsewhere.

Climate change disaster by 2026 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Dangerous levels of climate change could be reached in just over 20 years if nothing is done to stop global warming, a WWF study has warned.

At current rates, the earth will be 2C above pre-industrial levels some time between 2026 and 2060, says the report by Dr Mark New of Oxford University.

Temperatures in the Arctic could rise by three times this amount, it says.

It would lead to a loss of summer sea ice and tundra vegetation, with polar bears and other animals dying out.

Dr New said: "A very robust result from global climate models is that warming due to greenhouse gases will reduce the amount of snow and ice cover in the Arctic, which will in turn produce an additional warming as more solar radiation is absorbed by the ground and the ocean."

Ice and snow reflect more solar radiation back to space than unfrozen surfaces.

According to the WWF, the perennial ice, or summer sea ice, is currently melting at a rate of 9.6% per decade and will disappear completely by the end of the century if this continues.

The sky is falling. The BBC claimed only last week that the world would end in ten years. So now it is twenty years. Well, this WWF study only says "between 2026 and 2060", so the 2026 is just the headline scare figure. And needless to say, the WWF is a typical special interest pressure group and so one has to treat any of their reports with caution.

Iraq decision day (permanent blog link)

It is voting day in Iraq. Needless to say there have been zillions of lines of prose dedicated to the matter, most of it treading old ground. Most people hope Iraq can move forward from here, although the odds are against it, given that the Americans are involved.

The Financial Times just by itself ran many Iraq stories this weekend (the FT website is mostly a subscription service). There was a long article, "War stories", by Carne Ross, a British representative at the UN from 1998 to 2002:

All of these reasons will have contributed to a considerable bias in the information that the government received and the analyses then produced on Iraq's WMD. All of these reasons should have inspired caution; any assessment based on such information should have been heavily caveated. But, as the Butler report relates, instead of transmitting these caveats in its public presentations, such as the infamous Number 10 dossier, the government left them out. What was broadcast to the public was in effect not the summit of a hierarchy of information but a selection from a spectrum of information, a spectrum that ranged from the well-established to the highly speculative, and the selection came from the wrong end. Just as I once produced one-sided arguments to justify sanctions by ignoring all contrary evidence, the government produced a highly one-sided account of inherently unreliable information.

Of course governments in all democracies present one-sided accounts of policy. Economic statistics are always presented with the positive numbers in the forefront, the negative sidelined to footnotes or ignored. Civil servants are highly skilled in slanting information in this way. But there should be limits. When seeking to justify military action, the government has a duty to tell the whole truth, not just a partial account of it.
...
In the end, when contrasted with the complexity and uncertainty of the alternatives, war may have seemed simpler. In the strange way that governments are swept along by events without properly stopping to think, war came to be seen as the only viable course, a current strengthened in Britain no doubt by the clear determination in Washington, now amply chronicled in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, to pursue conflict.
...
If Iraq was not a threat and not collaborating with terrorists, why did the Bush and Blair governments go to war? Several plausible explanations have been offered by others: the US administration's need, after 9/11, to demonstrate its power - anywhere, anyhow; a "mission civilatrice" to democratise the world by force, an impulse given strength by the vigorous and forceful lobby of the Iraqi opposition. But less credible, given the record on sanctions, is the claim that the welfare of the Iraqi people was the primary concern.

Another possible explanation lies in the more sinister motives of oil and its control. The prospect of Iraq's huge reserves (the second largest in the world) hung in the air throughout policy deliberations in the years before the war. It was well-known that Hussein had allocated all the massively lucrative post-sanctions exploration contracts to French, Chinese, Russian and other non-US and non-British companies (and it bothered the companies a lot, as they would tell us). It is hard to believe that the immense potential for money-making and energy security did not exert some pull in the decision to invade, but the evidence for a Chomskyan sort of conspiracy led by Big Oil is hard to come by. But again, we do not know, because we have not been told. Instead we were given not the "noble lie", but the somewhat less-than-noble half-truth. The full answer will perhaps be revealed by the chief protagonists in years to come. For now, all we can know for sure is that the empirical reasons these governments have given so far simply do not add up.

Perhaps, therefore, a non-empirical reason is at the heart of this. They did it because they thought it was right. Hussein was a bad man, a potential danger in the future (if not today). And this, if true, is a legitimate reason, or at least arguable. Unfortunately, it is neither the primary reason both governments gave the UN or their peoples for going to war (though Bush alludes to it with ever greater frequency, and Tony Blair has begun to do the same), nor is it justifiable in any canon of international law (although perhaps it should be).

The FT also had an article, "Catalogue of errors bedevilled period of occupation", by Guy Dinmore, which shows that even some Americans involved with Iraq (obviously not those in the Bush White House, and nobody willing to stand up and be counted publicly) realise Iraq is not an American success:

Most agreed it was a painful, but necessary review. Officials and military personnel who had served as part of the US occupying power in Iraq reunited in Washington this week to consider the lessons of their experience.

Hosted by the US Institute of Peace, an independent body funded by Congress, the "Iraq Experience Project" had the atmosphere of a confessional as participants considered reports based on interviews with 110 Americans who had worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Several reporters attended but were asked not to name those taking part. Speakers recounted the lack of pre-war planning by the Defence Department, the misjudgments of politicians in Washington resulting from their ignorance of Iraq, and a bewildering refusal to commit the necessary resources.

Wrong conclusions were drawn from previous conflicts, such as the belief that the Balkans experience had shown early elections were a mistake. The right lessons were forgotten, such as that a sudden collapse of authoritarian regimes, as in Panama with the US invasion in 1989, will probably be followed by a breakdown in civil order and looting.

At the same time, what also came across strongly in the intense discussion was how committed many of the volunteers had been to the idea of liberating the Iraqi people from repression. There was a sense from some of the speakers that the costs in lives, American and Iraqi, had been too high and the mission a failure. The more positive view was that nation-building in the middle of a war is a fiercely difficult task. The biggest mistakes were made before the war began, the participants concluded. The first was to entrust the task of reconstruction to the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary who had openly declared his lack of enthusiasm for nation-building. This lack of inter-agency co-ordination led to a turf war where Defence Department officials were even barred from talking to their colleagues at the State Department, which pursued its own "Future of Iraq" project.

Such a strong belief existed at the top of the US administration in its own propaganda about the enormous threat posed by Iraq, that no one saw the country was a crumbling wreck weakened by wars, sanctions and rampant corruption. This, speakers said, stemmed partly from the lack of intelligence, but also the influence of exiled Iraqis.

Even an interview with Malcolm Gladwell about his new book, "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking", managed to mention Iraq:

"There is this myth that the US military did no planning. They did do planning. It's just that the planning was preposterous. They were just massively overconfident, they knew that country, they had been there 10 years before, they thought they knew Saddam Hussein, they thought that they had all the pieces."

It's hard to know the real reason Blair was so keen to attack Iraq. He's a fantasist so he probably even gives himself different reasons from day to day. Bush is a different matter. His main concern in life is money, for him and his cronies. Power is the key to that money. Invading Iraq was an easy way to make Bush look like a war hero, and the pre-war posturing helped the Republicans to keep control of the Senate in the 2002 mid-term elections. A foreign war against a country with a comparably pathetic military which you can easily squash always looks like a good idea to American presidents. (Reagan invaded Grenada as one way to divert attention from the disasterous American foray into Lebanon.)

Date published: 2005/01/29

UK house stamp duty (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government income from residential stamp duty has risen nine-fold over the last 10 years, new figures show.

Spiralling house prices have seen revenue go from £465m in 1993-4 to £4.3bn in the current tax year.

The Halifax Bank of Scotland poll found 81% believed the current tax regime was unfair on new buyers.

Seven in 10 thought the threshold for stamp duty, which currently stands at £60,000, should be raised to reflect rising house prices.

The bank has worked out that the lower stamp duty threshold of £60,000 would now be £156,900 if it had risen in proportion with house prices.

Stamp duty would not be so bad if it were not for its totally idiotic implementation. The rate is (currently) 1% on sales over £60000, 3% on sales over £250000 and 4% on sales over £500000. But this rate is absolute, not marginal, so for example at £250000 if you add £1 to the purchase price of a house you pay 3% - 1% = 2% more of tax, i.e. £5000. This has got to be the largest marginal rate of tax anywhere, and only the British government would have dreamt it up. They must have a hard time doing maths in the Treasury, so difficult formulas like

tax = sum_i ( (rate_i - rate_{i-1}) * max(price - threshold_i, 0) )

are beyond their ability.

Needless to say the rates and thresholds are in any case totally arbitrary, as with all taxes. The Labour government introduced the higher bands because Tony Blair promised no increases in income tax rates so they had to find the money elsewhere, and those horrid middle class home owners are an obvious target (along with those horrid car drivers and horrid smokers). Of course Gordon Brown himself should take the blame for the introduction of the extra bands while maintaining the rates as absolute rather than relative.

Concerning the direct point in the story, the reason thresholds do not keep up with inflation is because this is an easy way for governments to increase taxes while claiming they are not. So this is one of the many cynical Labour "stealth taxes".

Note that the BBC does not give any of the real facts behind the story, and print what reads just like a press release from the Halifax.

Genomic Conflict and the Divided Self (permanent blog link)

The second lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2005 was by David Haig, about genetic conflicts and the "divided self". The first question he asked was why do we have a subjective experience of internal conflict, is it because:

On the first point he noted that natural selection is retrospective (i.e. organisms have adapted to cope with the past rather than the present environment). Evolutionary responses are limited by the pool of available genetic variability. And natural selection is not influenced by weak selective forces (random environmental variability providing more impact).

On the second point he noted that there could be different adaptive solutions determined, for example, by instinct, culture and reason. If so how does the individual decide between the different choices. Sometimes culture is more important a determining factor in some locations at some point in time than in other locations at other points in time (the example he mentioned was infidelity). It could be that the arbitration between the various choices is difficult because they are expressed in different "currencies" (for example, with infidelity how do you weigh the potential extra benefits of reproduction of your genes against the potential discovery of infidelity by your original partner).

Haig spent most of the lecture discussing the third point. There could, for example, be a conflict amongst memes (Richard Dawkins terminology) or between memes and genes or amongst genes.

He quoted one variant of a J.B.S. Haldane story that said that Haldane would be willing to give his life to save the life of more than two brothers or more than eight cousins. The argument is that each brother shares half of your genes and each cousin an eighth of your genes (on average). So if more than two brothers are saved then more than one copy of your genes (on average) are saved, versus only one lost if you die. And similarly with cousins. (This argument only makes sense if you believe that survival of one's genes is the driving force for humans.)

Unfortunately (or fortunately) it is not as simple as that. If instead of brothers you consider half-brothers then on average you share one quarter of your genes. So in theory if you save three half-brothers that is not enough to be worth sacrificing yourself, since on average only three quarters of your genes are saved versus one lost. This is true as it stands but ignores possible differences between genes inherited from your mother and genes inherited from your father. If the half-brothers have the same mother (and so a different father) then the three of them have one and a half copies (on average) of your maternal genes and zero copies (exactly) of your paternal genes.

It seems natural to believe that maternal genes and paternal genes are no different. After all the paternal genes might have come from the grandmother, not the grandfather, and similarly with the maternal genes. But it seems that these two sets of genes are different. (Ignoring the obvious X/Y differences.)

He quoted a paper by Barton, Surani and Norris (1984) which looked at mouse embryos with two fathers (so-called androgenetic embryos) and ones with two mothers (gynogenetic). None of these embryos came to term. Barton, et al. observed that in the androgenetic case the placental sacs were large and the embryos were small and in the gynogenetic case the placental sacs were small and the embryos were large.

Later on someone (else?) managed to get around the non-viability by producing so-called chimeric mice by joining two fertilised eggs, only one of which was androgenetic or gynogenetic. At birth the former had large bodies and small brains, and the latter small bodies and large brains. He quoted another study, by Keverne, et al. (1996), which showed that androgenetic mice had a larger hypothalamus and smaller neocortex, and vice versa for gynogenetic mice.

So past environment is important for genes. It seems that molecular biologists do still not understand the reasons for this (after the lecture Haig mentioned that DNA methylation might be one mechanism, but said it was known it could not be the only one).

He ended the lecture by talking about incest. Apparently some people believe that there is an innate biological aversion to incest. But apparently Freud already figured out that was probably a bogus belief, since if there is supposed to be such a natural aversion then why is there need for such a strong cultural taboo against incest.

Haig mentioned a simple model of incest where a father has no opportunity cost and the daughter's opportunity cost is the reduced fitness of the inbred offspring. (So this is isolating the biological from the cultural issues.) Without going into any detail he showed graphs which indicated that, not surprisingly given the model, the father's genes benefit in most cases and in two thirds of cases the daughter's genes do not. But in half of the cases (where the relative fitness of the inbred child was more than half a non-inbred child) the daughter's paternal genes benefited and always the daughter's maternal genes did not benefit. Haig suggested this asymmetry between the benefits for the paternal and maternal genes of the daughter might be one reason why there is so much psychological trauma for incest victims. But that sounds a step beyond the existing evidence.

Date published: 2005/01/28

The evils of blogs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Online journals and camera phones are a "paedophiles' dream" which have increased the risk to children, the Scottish Parliament has been warned.

The Justice 1 Committee is examining a bill to create the specific offence of "grooming" and bringing in 10-year jail terms for meeting children for sex.

A forensic psychologist spoke about the dangers of online journals, or blogs, and pictures posted directly online.

Rachel O'Connell said adults could use weblogs to learn about children.

Dr O'Connell said that the emergence of moblogs - mobile weblogs - allowed even faster transfer of pictures to the internet using mobile telephones with cameras.

She said: "This is just a paedophile's dream because you have children uploading pictures, giving out details of their everyday life because it's an online journal."

More ridiculous hysteria generated by and for the chattering classes.

Channel 4 apology (permanent blog link)

Channel 4 News ran a story about Auschwitz last night where they twice mentioned it as being a "Polish" camp. Either the switchboard lit up or they were inundated with emails or someone in their own production team immediately spotted the goof, because Jon Snow made a correction at the end of the programme (they are generally good about doing that). Today they sent out a grovelling email. Too grovelling really, but anyway:

I am the Press and Publicity Manager for Channel 4 News and I wish to sincerely apologise for the insulting and regrettable mistake we made on air last night when references were made to Auschwitz being a 'Polish death camp'. This was unforgivable and unprofessional. We realise that such a terrible mistake is both offensive and of course completely inaccurate. The error in the script was spotted and Jon Snow made an on-air correction, making clear our error and that Auschwitz was of course a Nazi death camp located in occupied Poland. We realise this was far too little too late and hope that you accept our sincerest apologies. This is a mistake that simply should not have happened and we are very sorry.

Date published: 2005/01/27

End of weekly bin collections (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Black bins will be collected once a fortnight from October.

The debate over scrapping weekly collections has been rumbling on for several months at the Guildhall but now officers have the green light to push ahead with the plans.

The council will also be bringing in a scheme to collect plastic from people's doorsteps for recycling at the same time.

From October, black bins will be collected one week and green bins the next, alongside the black box and plastic collections. The Liberal Democrat council leadership says the scheme is essential to encourage city residents to recycle more.

The city could be faced with tough Government fines if the council does not meet landfill targets.

This is what happens when the chattering classes run Europe. Recycling for recycling's sake.

Philip Johnson dies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the best-known architects in the United States, Philip Johnson, has died at the age of 98.

Johnson designed in a range of styles during his long career, but was best-known for his use of glass.

His buildings include a glass cube in the woods of Connecticut - which became his own home - and a greenhouse-style cathedral in Los Angeles.

Johnson was also the architect of the Seagram building in New York, where he organised pioneering exhibitions.

Like most well-known architects, Johnson was a good self-promoter. Like all architects, he will mostly be remembered because of his buildings. (Just as well in Johnson's case since apparently he had a thing for Hitler in the 1930s.) His iconic Glass House compound in Connecticut is now supposed to be opened to the public for visits.

Date published: 2005/01/26

Further UK human rights abuse (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Detention of foreign terror suspects without trial will be replaced with a range of new powers including house arrest, Charles Clarke has proposed.

The home secretary's planned "control orders" would also cover UK citizens. They follow a law lords ruling that the detentions broke human rights laws.
...
The proposed changes would mean the home secretary could order British citizens to be held under house arrest without putting them on trial.

They, or foreign suspects who cannot be deported, could also face lesser measures such as tagging, curfews, restrictions on their movements or limits on their use of telephones and the internet.

British citizens are being included in the changes after the law lords said the current powers were discriminatory because they could only be used on foreign suspects.

Mr Clarke also said intelligence reports showed some British nationals were now playing a more significant role in terror threats.

Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith condemned the plans as a "further abuse of human rights in Britain".

Mr Clarke said prosecutions were the government's first preference and promised the powers would only be used in "serious" cases, with independent scrutiny from judges.

He told MPs: "There remains a public emergency threatening the life of the nation."

There is no "emergency threatening the life of the nation", this is bogus government scare mongering. The biggest threat to the "life of the nation" is the current government. They should all be put under house arrest.

Date published: 2005/01/25

Macclesfield Psalter (permanent blog link)

Cambridge University says:

Following the launch last September of a high-profile Art Fund campaign to save the export-stopped Macclesfield Psalter, this remarkable medieval manuscript has been secured for the University of Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum.

£1.7 million had to be found February 10 2005 deadline, and the money has finally been raised with just two weeks to go. If the Fitzwilliam's bid to buy the Psalter had failed, it would have departed for the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Fitzwilliam has now made a matching offer to the owner, and the Getty has gracefully withdrawn its interest.

The campaign was kicked-off with a £500,000 grant from the independent charity the National Art Collections Fund (Art Fund) and captured the public imagination. ... When the Art Fund launched a public appeal on the BBC's Culture Show, people responded enthusiastically with donations ranging from £1 to an anonymous contribution of £15,000.

The public appeal raised £180,000 in all. The National Heritage Memorial Fund - the Government's heritage fund of last resort - also played a crucial role, awarding a major grant of £860,000 which gave a tremendous mid-way boost to the fundraising attempt and brought the target within reach. The Fitzwilliam and its Friends allocated £150,000 from their own funds, and many other trusts and foundations generously added their support.

Well of course it's always nice to have such manuscripts. But was it worth the money? For most people the only access to it would be if it were scanned and put on the internet, and whether the server is in California or England does not matter. For the few British people who will be allowed to view it by hand, of course it is easier to do this in Cambridge than in Los Angeles, but that is a lot of money to spend for the benefit of a handful of people.

The real problem is that 80% of the money was raised via government quangos (excluding the Fitzwilliam's own contribution, some of which might also have come from the government indirectly). So the psalter was not really saved by people willing to hand over their own contributions. Instead as usual this is the (unelected and unaccountable) British ruling classes deciding how the public's money should be spent. Perhaps there is no other way.

Campaign to control house prices (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

House prices should be regulated to allow more people to buy their own property, a new pressure group says.

The House Price Control campaign has been set up by Bob Goodall, who started the Save Our Building Societies group.

He wants campaigners to lobby MPs and other organisations to highlight issues such as availability and affordability.
...
Campaigner Bob Goodall argues that high house prices represent an "illusion" of wealth that result in higher costs such as insurance.

"A person only realises the wealth if they sell their home then the 'wealth' is gone when they buy another one unless they move away," Mr Goodall explained.

The best way for raising the overall standard of living in Britain, he said, was to control the biggest financial burden in people's lives - housing.

Mr Goodall is calling on MPs and property organisations to start a debate on what measures to take to control house price inflation, using government regulation if necessary.

"Regulation is a free tool for the government that costs nothing financially," he said.

Limited supply of land and rising demand through a booming population means that prices will continue to soar, he said.

Well some of that makes sense but most of it is nonsense. How could anyone say with a straight face that "regulation is a free tool for the government that costs nothing financially"? And how would this regulation work? In the last few years house prices have risen circa 10% to 20% year on year. Let's say the regulation dictates that you cannot sell your house for more than a 5% year on year increase. What will you do? Well for one thing you will not improve your house. (And because of the huge house price increases many people recently have extended their existing house rather than move to a bigger house.) Indeed it would be worthwhile not maintaining your house and allowing it to degrade to such an extent that its real value has only gone up by 5% per annum, so you do not lose out. We could end up with a country full of semi-derelict houses. Why does the BBC run stories like this? (You can guarantee that most people sending press releases to the BBC get ignored.)

Oxford foreign student intake (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Oxford University could reduce its number of UK students by 1,000 in an effort to improve its finances.

It should replace them with extra overseas undergraduates, who pay full fees of up to £20,000 a year, according to a green paper.

The university said the extra money would allow it to pay staff more and improve standards.

The changes - cutting the number of UK undergraduates from 11,000 to 10,000 - are likely to take five years.

Oxford, like most other leading universities, will charge the full £3,000 a year for all courses when "variable" tuition fees start are brought in next year.

However, it costs £55,800 on average to put each undergraduate through a three-year degree.

A logical consequence of the way universities are funded in the UK. With increasing government interference for reasons of social engineering, the next logical step is for Oxford (Cambridge, ...) to go private.

Date published: 2005/01/24

Five year home strategy (permanent blog link)

The ODPM (John Prescott) says:

More people on low and middle incomes will be able to step onto the home ownership ladder over the next five years, thanks to a programme of opportunities announced by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott today.

Homes for All, the ODPM's Five Year Plan, includes a wide range of measures to extend opportunities for home ownership, including:

At the same time, Mr Prescott announced plans to deliver housing growth responsibly in the South, and as well:

He set out plans to extend quality and choice for people renting their homes:

And the Deputy Prime Minister set out further plans to provide more support for people with particular housing needs through:

Launching the package, Mr Prescott said the proposals offered opportunity, choice and fairness in housing, across the country.

"Tackling the nation's chronic housing needs and giving people more choice is not just about them gaining a roof over their head, it's about giving people a stronger financial future and ensuring greater social justice.

"We are offering the most comprehensive, fair and flexible policies ever to deliver sustainable homeownership. It means more first time buyers, more people in social housing and more key workers like nurses and teachers being able to get on to the housing ladder."

Later this month a partner document, People, Places and Prosperity, will set out a five year plan of action for revitalising communities, invigorating local democracy and strengthen accountability from neighbourhoods to regions.

Well the "chronic housing need" is something Labour has done nothing to make better and everything to make worse since it came to power. Quite simply, not enough homes have been built where they are needed. "Protecting the environment" and "sustainable buildings" are jargon which means forcing people to live in high-density slums, with no access to cars. 10000 extra social homes a year is a drop in the ocean. All people should have a "decent home", not just "social tenants and seven out of 10 vulnerable people in the private sector".

First-time buyers and "local people" and "key workers" are not the only people in the UK suffering from the crazy house prices. Everybody is suffering, and subsidising certain politically correct groups is not "social justice" but socially divisive. ("Key workers" is a particularly ludicrous phrase. It means "people who work for the government". People who work in food stores and banks are much more "key" than teachers. But in fact labelling any particular category of worker as "key" is obnoxious beyond belief.)

Instead of building better homes than the current average, the government is intent on building worse homes. This mistake was already made in the 1960s and should not be repeated.

Iran's nuclear bomb (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iran could build a nuclear bomb in less than three years, the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency has warned.

Speaking to MPs in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, Meir Dagan said Iran's nuclear programme was nearing the "point of no return".

If Iran successfully enriched uranium in 2005 it could have a nuclear weapon two years later, Mr Dagan said.

Iran says that it is developing a civilian nuclear energy programme, but the US and Israel reject this.

They maintain the Islamic state is using the energy programme as a front for a covert weapons programme.

Well the nutters that run the US and Israel have nuclear bombs, so why not the nutters that run Iran. The Iranians would be crazy not to be developing as many weapon systems as possible, given the explicit military threat to them from both the US and Israel. (Iraq never even came close to threatening the US and look what happened to them.) And unfortunately nothing stated by the US or Israel on this front is believable, since they have no reason to be honest and every reason to be dishonest.

Climate crisis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The world may have little more than a decade to avert catastrophic climate change, politicians and scientists say.

A report by the International Climate Change Taskforce says it is vital that global temperatures do not rise by more than 2C above pre-industrial levels.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that would trigger this rise could possibly be reached in about 10 years or so.
...
It says they would involve substantial agricultural losses, widespread adverse health effects and greatly increased risks of water shortage.

Many coral reefs and even the Amazon rainforest could suffer irreversible damage, the report says.

It says: "Above the 2C level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated or runaway climate change also increase.
...
It says the circulation of water in the North Atlantic could also shut down, altering the Gulf Stream which warms north-west Europe.

The report says limiting temperature rise to 2C is likely to mean making sure atmospheric CO2 concentrations do not rise above about 400 parts per million (ppm).

They have already reached about 380 ppm, and have been rising recently at more than 2 ppm annually, meaning the taskforce's threshold could be crossed by about 2015.
...
The taskforce's other recommendations include:

So yet another "end of the world" report. We're all dead in ten years. It's hard to know who is producing bigger nightmares to try and scare the populace, Bush and Blair with their "terrorist under every bed" scenario, or the climate scientists and so-called environmentalists with their "disasterous climate change" scenario. Unfortunately the latter could well be correct. Sooner or later every species has a population crash and this could be ours.

Date published: 2005/01/23

Cambridgeshire Country Council 2005-6 council tax (permanent blog link)

Cambridgeshire Country Council (CCC) is going to increase the council tax in 2005-6 by 3%, 4% or 5%. They are holding public consultations to see what the public think. Unfortunately most public consultations are seriously flawed, since the response is not representative of the public but instead representative only of activists (people with axes to grind).

As part of this process, CCC held a meeting yesterday where a random sample of 50-100 people were invited to attend. This is certainly more representative but not totally representative because obviously activists are more likely to say yes to accepting such an invitation than the general public. But the CCC tried to make that less likely to happen by paying people £50 to attend. (They claimed this actually made the meeting less expensive since less people had to be phoned in order to get enough acceptances.)

So far so good. Unfortunately the meeting provided no real information to the attendees to allow them to make an informed choice. Instead there were presentations from various interested parties (e.g. headmasters of local schools, although because central government dictates how much money is spent on education, the school budget will be the same no matter which of the three options is chosen, so their presence was irrelevant).

Nobody said "if you choose x% then this particular budgetary area will be cut by y%, and that means the following services will be cut", which is the information you need to make an informed decision. There was time in the meeting for a few questions to be asked, but without basic data that is difficult to do sensibly.

Keith Walters, the Tory representative and head of the council, said that 3% was drastic, and 5% was not much of an improvement on 4%, so he recommended 4%. Ian Kidman, the Labour representative, and Alex Reid, the LibDem representative, both said they personally would prefer 5% but that their parties could live with 4% and they were waiting to see what the public consultation produced.

With a 4% increase the typical (Band D) house would have a weekly increase in the bill of 62p and with 5% it would be 78p. To many people in Cambridge this extra 16p would not seem like a big deal. (Driving your car for a minute or two consumes that much in petrol.) (Note, the CCC charge is only one, but the biggest, part of the council tax. There are separate charges for the police, fire and local councils. So the total increase would be slightly higher.)

However the big controversy with the council tax is that it has increased much faster than the rate of inflation the last few years. This is because central government has decided not to increase the income tax rates (except indirectly via indexation). This has become a bit of an election issue since the rate of increase of the state pension has not kept up with the increase in the council tax. There are ways this could be solved (e.g. giving every household with all adults over age 65 a 50% discount, or by increasing the state pension, or by decreasing the council tax by increasing income tax), but currently pensioners pay the same as everyone else and many are suffering. 16p extra a week does mean something to many pensioners.

There will be a national election in May 2005 so the central government this year has decided that in order to avoid controversy, councils will not be allowed to increase the council tax by more than 5% just for this year (hence the upper limit on the choices being considered by the CCC). What a way to run a country.

CCC will almost certainly opt for a 4% increase. The consultation is largely a a waste of time and money.

Why didn't the Allies bomb Auschwitz? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Should the Allies have heeded calls to bomb Auschwitz when they learnt the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust?

It is one of the enduring controversies of World War II.

By the summer of 1944, detailed information about the true nature of the death camps had reached the West, but it was not until months later that Auschwitz was finally liberated by the advancing Red Army.

During that time, thousands more had perished in the gas chambers.

Whether a precision strike was militarily possible or would have been effective in halting the killings is still hotly contested.

But many - including survivors of the camp - say the Allies should have acted whatever the mission's chances of success.

The debate also leads to wider questions of why more was not done around the world to save the Jews from Nazi persecution.

A completely pointless article. The Allies did not fight the Nazis to save the Jews, they fought the Nazis to save themselves. The Allies were hardly going to divert time and resources to something which they did not consider to be a military priority. Would the clever pundits in the BBC have done differently?

Galileo satellite system (permanent blog link)

From an interview with Neil Kinnock in the The Financial Times (subscription service):

In response to a question about whether he enjoyed his time in Brussels, he launches into a list of his achievements. Particular emphasis is given to the introduction of the Galileo satellite navigation system, which Kinnock estimates will be worth "about $30bn a year to the European economy, and will savagely reduce, if not eliminate, some traffic problems".

The Americans are not very happy about Galileo, because it is a competitor of their own GPS system, and they feel militarily challenged by Galileo. The GPS can be nobbled by the Americans for military reasons and so it makes sense for the Europeans to have decided to build an independent system which provides excellent coverage for Europe. If Galileo works well (and since it is a European project it is not obvious it will work well) then the Americans will no doubt try and find excuses to shut it down. (If the political hysteria in future is still the same as it is today then the word "terrorist" will feature largely in their excuses.) One has to wonder if the first use of Star Wars technology will be to blast Galileo out of the skies. The only good competitor is a dead competitor.

Date published: 2005/01/22

Airbus jobs (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

About 8,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created in the UK through the pan-European Airbus A380 project, boosting the hard-pressed industrial sector, according to a study.

Philip Lawrence, head of the aerospace research centre at the University of the West of England in Bristol, estimates the jobs have been split about equally between the UK operations of Toulouse-based Airbus and several hundred UK suppliers.
...
According to industry projections, UK-based companies stand to win contracts related to the A380 programme worth an average £1bn a year over the next 30 years, sustaining 20,000 jobs in manufacturing and a further 40,000 in services.

Britain is one of four European countries to have provided repayable launch aid to finance the programme. Total UK taxpayer support for the project, including £250m to help the aerospace company Rolls-Royce build engines for the aircraft, has worked out at £780m - or about £100,000 per created job, if Prof Lawrence's calculations are accurate.

That's a lot of money to create a job. Boeing of the US also gets subsidies (e.g. because of military contracts) and of course there is great friction between the US and Europe over these civilian aircraft subsidies. However given that the US is no longer a trusted or trustworthy partner in the world, Europe had better subsidise its aircraft industry no matter what, to make sure it can retain an independent military capability.

Cambridge parking charges (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

City and county councillors have vowed to freeze the charges in car parks and on-street for 2005 in Cambridge and also the price of using the park and ride service.

But Cambridge Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Bridge said that rather than just being frozen, parking charges should come down to help businesses attract people into the city.

He said: "I think businesses will welcome this price freeze. We are going to go through a period of disruption with the Grand Arcade development and I think they should be looking to reduce the charges during that period.

"We are going through a very difficult time where there will be a lot of obstacles stopping people from coming to the city centre and a lot of businesses are very concerned about this."

In recent years, drivers and city centre business people have reacted angrily to repeated rises which mean that Cambridge is now the most expensive city to park in East Anglia. Park and ride tickets also went up last year by 20 per cent, from £1.50 to £1.80.

The Cambridge ruling elite hate cars (there is nothing worse than having an independently mobile working class). As part of this policy they charge extortionate rates (e.g. £13 for five hours) in order to discourage people from using Lion Yard (the central car park). Come to the centre of Cambridge the way they want you to or get lost ("the customer is always wrong").

Businesses always grumble no matter what. But Cambridge is indeed in danger of shooting itself in the foot. It's lucky that Cambridge has a captive audience of students, who are pretty much forced to shop in the city centre. And tourists shop there as well. But the city is piling more and more shopping into the Newmarket Road area of town (without doing anything about improving the roads there, of course, indeed making them worse by installing wacky bus lanes) and that is eventually going to hit the centre of town. And many shoppers will just give up on Cambridge completely and go elsewhere where they are appreciated instead of treated like a problem.

The people of Cambridge (and the villages) who live west of the river (especially north-west of the river) are particularly badly affected by the situation, because there is no major shopping centre on that side of the river and the ruling elite have made it harder and harder for those people to get to the shopping, which is all on the east side of the river.

First-time house buyers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

First-time buyers cannot afford to buy a home in 92% of UK towns, a survey from the Halifax bank suggests.

Average-priced homes in 548 out of 597 main UK postal towns were beyond the means of people on average salaries, according to the study.
...
Halifax defined a town as unaffordable for first-time buyers if the average property price was more than 4.37 times the average salary.

Using this method, Halifax found that 95% of towns in the South East, East Anglia and the South West were unaffordable for first-time buyers.

But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, just 19% and 25% of towns respectively were deemed unaffordable.

UK house prices have gone crazy the last few years because of low interest rates, and because many people have diverted money from stocks to property, and because the UK is not building enough new houses. The long-term solution is to build enough houses, but the so-called environmentalists and the NIMBYs make that difficult to be achieved.

On the other hand, the Halifax criterion for affordability is stupid. First-time buyers do not, and should not expect to, buy average properties. They generally enter the property ladder where most first-time buyers have in the past, at the bottom. So using average property prices as an indication of anything is silly. Also, should single people expect to be able to afford to buy their own house (i.e. by themselves)? Most people buy properties in partnership. It is household income rather than single-person income that is relevant.

And the crazy house prices are not a problem just for first-time buyers. The crazy house prices are a problem for everyone except the developers and the people exiting the house market (e.g. moving abroad or dying). Almost nobody who does not currently have a property in London can afford to take a job and live there because house prices in London are astronomical.

With these kinds of hysterical reports the government is forced by the media to respond (apparently Blair has already to this report). Unfortunately the "solution" is usually worse than the problem. In this case the usual suggestion is to remove stamp duty (a purchase tax) for first-time buyers. First of all, many first-time buyers are rich, for example, they have worked abroad for N years and then come back to the UK with a huge pile of cash to spend on a house. Why should they get a tax break? More generally, why are first-time buyers more worthy than any other buyer?

Finally, subsidising first-time buyers (or any buyers) by itself pushes up house prices (they have more money to spend). Of course the Halifax and other mortgage companies benefit from loads of new mortgages and from house price inflation, which is perhaps why they periodically float stories like this.

Date published: 2005/01/21

The Power of Nightmares, Part 3 (permanent blog link)

Part 3 of The Power of Nightmares was scarier than both Parts 1 and 2, because it concentrated on the post 9/11 manufactured hysteria. The maker, Adam Curtis, provided a reasonable line of argument to suggest that the supposed global reach of the Al Qaeda network was largely an invention of the US government (of course Bin Laden was happy to go along). They showed one clip with Donald Rumsfeld showing a vast James-Bond-like underground cavern in Afghanistan which was supposedly one of only many that Al Qaeda had. Needless to say, no such caverns were ever found (just like no WMD have ever been found in Iraq).

The Detroit "sleeper cell" case was amazing (VO = voiceover):

VO ... in Detroit. Four Arab men were arrested on suspicion of being an Al Qaeda sleeper cell. They had been accused by another immigrant called Mr Hmimssa. But Mr Hmimssa was, in reality, an international con man with 12 aliases and wanted for fraud across America. Despite this, the FBI offered to reduce his sentence for fraud if he testified against the men. And to back up Mr Hmimssa's allegations, the FBI turned to the videotape. On the surface it was the innocent record of a trip to Disneyland by a group of teenagers who had nothing to do with the accused, but the government had discovered a hidden and sinister purpose to the tape.

RON HANSEN, REPORTER, THE DETROIT NEWS : The government expert who has looked into surveillance tapes, "casing tapes," as he referred to them, said that one of the objectives of making these kinds of tapes is to disguise the nature, the real purpose, of the tape, and he explained it that the tape is made to look benign, made to look like a tourist tape to obscure its real purpose as a tape to case Disneyland, and that the very appearance of it as being just a tourist tape is actually evidence that it's not a tourist tape.

[ CUT TO DISNEYLAND VIDEO ; YOUTH IS SPEAKING TO CAMERA ]

YOUTH [ HOLDING IMAGINARY MICROPHONE ]: Al-Jazeera, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Hello?

[ CUT TO DISNEYLAND VIDEO ; INTERIOR OF INDIANA JONES RIDE ]

RON HANSEN : I could never get past the fact that the tape just looked like a tourist tape. The Disneyland ride, for example, was a lengthy queue, people just making their way to the ride. The camera occasionally pans to look at the rocks on the wall, made to look like an Indiana Jones movie, and after several minutes the camera pans across and shows a trash can momentarily, and then continues off to look into the crowd. The expert basically said that, by flashing on that trash can for a moment, the people who are part of this conspiracy to conduct these kinds of terrorist operations, they would understand what this is all about: how to locate a bomb in Disneyland in California.

[ CUT TO VIEW OF YOUTHS IN RESTAURANT ]

YOUTH , WAVING : Hello!

RON HANSEN : All the talking and bantering were intended to disguise the hidden message contained within the tape.

[ CUT TO VIEW OF YOUTHS DANCING ON VIDEOTAPE ]

VO: The government was convinced that the tape was full of hidden messages. A brief shot of a tree outside the group's hotel room was there, they said, to show where to place a sniper to attack the cars on the freeway.

[ CUT TO SHAKY VIEW OF SHADOW ALONG SIDEWALK AS INDIVIDUAL CARRIES CAMERA ]

VO: And what looked like a camera which had accidentally been left running was in reality a terrorist secretly counting out distances to show others where to place a bomb.

[ CUT TO VIEW OF US AIR FORCE JET LANDING ]

VO: And the government also said that the Detroit cell was planning to attack US military bases around the world. Yet again, they found hidden evidence of this in a day planner they discovered under the sofa in the house in Detroit. What looked like doodles were in reality, they said, a plan to attack a US base in Turkey.

WILLIAM SWOR, DEFENCE LAWYER, DETROIT SLEEPER CELL TRIAL, INDICATING COPY OF DRAWINGS FROM DAY PLANNER : The government brought in its security officer from the base to testify that she interpreted this as being the main runways. She identified these as being AWACS airplanes and these as being fighter jets. She said that these solid lines were lines of fire and she also said that this down here was a hardened bunker.

VO: But the drawings in the day planner were discovered to have actually been the work of a madman. They were the fantasies of a Yemeni who believed that he was the minister of defence for the whole of the Middle East. He had committed suicide a year before any of the accused had arrived in Detroit, leaving the day planner lying under the sofa in the house. Despite this, two of the accused were found guilty. But then, the government's only witness, Mr Hmimssa, told two of his cellmates that he had made the whole thing up to get his fraud charges reduced. The terrorism convictions have now been overturned by the judge in the case, but it was acclaimed by the President as the first success in the war on terror at home.

What can one say? Witch Trials. Salem. 17th century. This is where America is now at.

Then there is the "precautionary principle" (the paragraphs are independent clips):

TONY BLAIR : I just think these dangers are there, I think that it's difficult sometimes for people to see how they all come together. I think that it's my duty to tell it to you if I really believe it, and I do really believe it. I may be wrong in believing it, but I do believe it.

VO: What Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network, the politician's role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. In doing this, Blair was embracing an idea that had actually been developed by the Green movement: it was called the "precautionary principle." Back in the 1980s, thinkers within the ecology movement believed the world was being threatened by global warming, but at the time there was little scientific evidence to prove this. So they put forward the radical idea that governments had a higher duty: they couldn't wait for the evidence, because by then it would be too late; they had to act imaginatively, on intuition, in order to save the world from a looming catastrophe.

BILL DURODIE : In essence, the precautionary principle says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action as if it were a problem. That's a very famous triple-negative phrase that effectively says that action without evidence is justified. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists.

TONY BLAIR : Would Al Qaeda buy weapons of mass destruction if they could? Certainly. Does it have the financial resources? Probably. Would it use such weapons? Definitely.

BILL DURODIE : But once you start imagining what could happen, then there's no limit. What if they had access to it? What if they could effectively deploy it? What if we weren't prepared? What it is is a shift from the scientific, "what is" evidence-based decision making to this speculative, imaginary, "what if"-based, worst case scenario.

VO: And it was this principle that now began to shape government policy in the war on terror. In both America and Britain, individuals were detained in high-security prisons, not for any crimes they had committed, but because the politicians believed, or imagined, that they might commit an atrocity in the future, even though there was no evidence they intended to do this. The American attorney general explained this shift to what he called the "paradigm of prevention."

JOHN ASHCROFT : We had to make a shift in the way we thought about things, so being reactive, waiting for a crime to be committed, or waiting for there to be evidence of the commission of a crime didn't seem to us to be an appropriate way to protect the American people.

DAVID COLE : Under the preventive paradigm, instead of holding people accountable for what you can prove that they have done in the past, you lock them up based on what you think or speculate they might do in the future. And how can a person who's locked up based on what you think they might do in the future disprove your speculation? It's impossible, and so what ends up happening is the government short-circuits all the processes that are designed to distinguish the innocent from the guilty because they simply don't fit this mode of locking people up for what they might do in the future.

VO: The supporters of the precautionary principle argue that this loss of rights is the price that society has to pay when faced by the unique and terrifying threat of the Al Qaeda network. But, as this series has shown, the idea of a hidden, organised web of terror is largely a fantasy, and by embracing the precautionary principle, the politicians have become trapped in a vicious circle: they imagine the worst about an organisation that doesn't even exist. But no one questions this because the very basis of the precautionary principle is to imagine the worst without supporting evidence, and, instead, those with the darkest imaginations become the most influential.

The precautionary principle has always been a load of rubbish. It is used by religious fundamentalists (be they George Bush, Tony Blair or so-called environmentalists) because they have faith, and nothing else, to prove their case. "Minority Report" is fiction, only the rulers of the world seem to now treat it as a philosphical treatise.

Bush and Blair get away with locking up hundreds of innocent Muslims because most citizens of the US and UK don't care, because it will never happen to them, because they are not Muslim. If you really believe the precautionary principle when it comes to crime then you should imprison everybody (well, certainly all men between the age of 10 and 70). Needless to say, when the public gets bored with this Islamo-phobic story the rulers will find some other minority to pick on. Who knows, it might be gays or Jews next.

Norway to Kill Grey Wolves (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Norwegian government has decided to kill five of the country's grey wolves - a quarter of the entire population.
It says the decision is necessary to protect domestic livestock, but one campaign group has condemned the cull.
WWF-Norway says two wolves have been shot already, one of them from a pack which has not been targeted and which it fears may now not manage to survive.
Wolves are protected in Norway, and are listed as critically endangered, and WWF says many people oppose the cull.
The decision to kill five animals out of the 20 remaining in Norway was taken by the nature directorate, which advises the government. WWF-Norway is calling for an immediate halt to the hunt.

Europeans have no right to lecture poor countries in Africa and Asia about their wildlife if this is how a filthy rich country like Norway behaves.

Sex Differences in Mind (permanent blog link)

The first lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2005 was by Simon Baron-Cohen, about genetic differences between men and women. This is a notoriously thorny issue, as witness the recent brouhaha created by Larry Summers, the president of Harvard.

The main problem with the Darwin lectures is that they are broad but not deep, so you know that you are only getting a superficial glance at what is always going to be a complex story.

Baron-Cohen's main work is on autism. This condition afflicts males much more than females (he quoted 4 to 1 for autism in general, and 9 to 1 for the more narrowly defined Asperger's Syndrome). So comparisons were made between males and females in general and then people (males only?) with autism.

There was introduced the concept of the "empathy quotient" (EQ) (which is supposed to be higher for women because they are allegedly more people-oriented) and the "systemizing quotient" (SQ) (which is supposed to be higher for men because they are allegedly more system-oriented). Needless to say, defining precisely what these mean and measuring them without allowing the influence of "nurture" (rather than "nature") to creep in, are the main problems. As soon as you are more than N months old (for some small N) your parents and society are already treating you differently depending on whether you are male or female, and removing this effect is difficult.

He mentioned several tests. One was the "eye matching" test (which is supposed to be related to your EQ), where you are shown a small slice of a human face with only the eyes showing, and are given four words that describe emotional states (e.g. "depressed") and you must guess which represents the "true" emotion of the person. The results were as follows (maximum score 25). (And here and below the autism category might be only the more narrowly defined Asperger's Syndrome.) (And the sample size was not stated.)

average stdev
male 19.5 2.6
female 22.1 2.0
autistic 16.6 2.9

So women are better at recognising the emotion of someone and autistic people (men?) are worse than men in general. It was claimed all these differences were significant (in a statistical sense). It is interesting that the difference between men and women is approximately the same as one standard deviation between men by themselves and between women by themselves. Thus although women score higher than men on average there is a reasonable number of men who score higher than a reasonable number of women.

Similarly there was the "finding the targets" test (which is supposed to be related to your SQ), where you were given a geometric outline and had to find it in a somewhat elaborate design. Here the scores were (in seconds for a certain number of examples?):

average stdev
male 46.2 20.5
female 66.7 36.7
autistic 32.2 27.0

with similar conclusions to the "eye matching" test except that here the men do better and the autistic people best of all.

He also mentioned other another EQ test where you answer questions like "I really enjoy caring for people" (women score higher) and a similar SQ test with questions like "When I listen to a piece of music I always notice the way it's structured" (men score higher). Both of these can have bias, for example one question he mentioned for the SQ test was about feeling confident about doing electrical wiring work in the home, and obviously if you are more experienced with that kind of thing (which quite likely today more men are) then you would score higher.

Then he mentioned some tests on children, including a "Faux Pas" test (reading a pretend conversation and figuring out if a social "faux pas" was made) and on children less than age five girls scored higher. Of course by age five kids have already been heavily propagandized.

So he mentioned a test on babies age 24 hours. Definitely no social bias there. They filmed babies for ten minutes with (a picture of?) a mobile overhead and a picture of a face, and counted the number of times the babies looked at each. The following are the percentages of boys and girls who looked more at the mobile than the face, more at the face than the mobile, and (approximately?) equal both objects.

mobile face equal
boys 43 25 32
girls 17 36 47

So even at this age there appears to be an EQ/SQ difference between the sexes.

He then said that they were looking at pre-natal measurements, and that they had found a (statistically significant) correlation between foetal testosterone levels and later measures of EQ and SQ at ages 12 to 48 months. Of course male fetuses on average have more testosterone than female fetuses. It's unlikely the story is just as simple as that, though.

Date published: 2005/01/20

Second Bush term (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

George W Bush will display a more consensual approach to world politics as he begins his second term as US President, Tony Blair has said.

The prime minister said Mr Bush had learned military force was not the only way to fight terrorism.

He understood that "the best prospect of peaceful co-existence lies in the spread of democracy and human rights", Mr Blair told the Guardian newspaper.

It's hard to know who is more of a fantasist, Blair or Bush. Bush Term 2 will have the same kind of "smash and grab" policies as featured in Bush Term 1. Anybody who thinks Bush will become reasonable is deluded. If anything he will behave worse. He is single-handedly managing to sink the American empire.

Channel 4 News reported that John Kerry, the defeated Democrat, was booed at the inauguration of Bush. This is a perfect illustration of how the Republican scum behave (one could call them storm troopers only they are too fat, lazy and stupid to be capable of storming anything except the bar to get their next beer).

The Power of Nightmares, Part 2 (permanent blog link)

Part 2 of The Power of Nightmares was not quite as scary as the Part 1 but did contain the following gem from Robert Bork:

In the Merck manual -- Merck is a pharmaceutical company -- they have a manual listing various disorders, and they listed "sociopath." And if you look at "sociopath," it describes Clinton exactly. Somebody who”s charming, who has no particular feeling at all for the people he”s charming, unable to resist instant gratification, and so on and so on. Goes right down the list. We had a very dysfunctional man in the Presidency. That was very dangerous, both as a model and as, if a crisis had arisen, I had no confidence that he would meet it.

The same description could apply to Tony Blair, George Bush, etc. Are all these people "sociopaths"? We are lucky Bork never became a Supreme Court judge, if this is the level of his intellect. (The point of the discourse was that the fundamentalist Republican nutters were trying to find any and all excuses to overthrow the Clinton presidency.)

Supercity of the North (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A vision of a northern England in which people could live in Hull, commute to Liverpool, shop in Leeds and go out in Manchester in one day has gone on show.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott mooted the idea of a "super city" stretching from coast to coast along the M62 in February 2004.

Architect Will Alsop has now unveiled his idea of how the 80-mile long, 15-mile wide conurbation would look.
...
Mr Alsop's vision includes innovative solutions to urban sprawl such as extending Liverpool into the sea by erecting buildings on stilts up to a mile from the coast.

He also proposes transforming the South Yorkshire town of Barnsley by modelling it on a Tuscan hill village, complete with its own walls.

Other ideas, such as Stack - a vertical "village" where 5,000 people can live, work, worship and play - offers a twist on the skyscraper solution to population increase.

Mr Prescott has said he sees a northern super city as a potential rival to London's economic power and size.

Nicknamed "Prezzagrad", it would be similar to the USA's heavily populated east coast which stretches from Boston through New York to Washington.

Interesting that a "solution" to urban sprawl is to make it even bigger, including extending it into the sea. Interesting that living in Hull (on the east coast of England), working in Liverpool (on the west coast) and spending leisure time in Manchester and Leeds (in the middle) is considered to be a lifestyle we should be aiming for, with its crazy high energy consumption and hours of travel. Interesting that one building is deemed to make a "village".

These people are taking the piss. Barnsley as a Tuscan hill village?? Barnsley is in Yorkshire, not Italy, perhaps someone should inform Alsop. He did a reasonable library in Peckham several years ago. But his ideas about urban planning are dreadful (he had an awful series on television several months ago spouting similar stuff) and unfortunately this is the way the urban planning elite treat the citizens of the UK. The proposals are even worse than the garbage inflicted on the country in the 1960s. (Go to the BBC website to see the photos.) Fortunately these proposals will never get off the ground, they are far too impractical and would be far too expensive.

All very amusing for the chattering classes. But let's give some time and money to people with sensible rather than crackpot ideas for urban planning.

Date published: 2005/01/19

The Power of Nightmares, Part 1 (permanent blog link)

The BBC is re-running a three-part series called the Power of Nightmares, in which Adam Curtis suggests that governments of the world have long since given up trying to promote a positive message for the future and instead try and promote a nightmarish view of the future so people will be scared into giving the politicians more and more power. Certainly the post-9/11 hysteria in the US promoted by the Bush administration is a good example, but of course the Americans have been crying wolf since World War II.

The BBC does not have a transcript of the program on their website but it is available elsewhere on the web, via a simple google search (for example here).

In Part 1 the scariest thing that came out is that the fantasists who cried wolf about the Soviet Union's military threat in the 1970s and 1980s still claim today that their fantasies were true, although there never was any evidence to support this. And even worse, they are in charge in Washington today, and so rule the US and the world.

A small sampling of the fantasies (VO = voiceover):

VO: To persuade the President, the neoconservatives set out to prove that the Soviet threat was far greater than anyone, even Team B, had previously shown. They would demonstrate that the majority of terrorism and revolutionary movements around the world were actually part of a secret network, coordinated by Moscow, to take over the world. The main proponent of this theory was a leading neoconservative who was the special adviser to the Secretary of State. His name was Michael Ledeen, and he had been influenced by a best-selling book called The Terror Network. It alleged that terrorism was not the fragmented phenomenon that it appeared to be. In reality, all terrorist groups, from the PLO to the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, and the Provisional IRA, all of them were a part of a coordinated strategy of terror run by the Soviet Union. But the CIA completely disagreed. They said this was just another neoconservative fantasy.

MICHAEL LEDEEN, Special Adviser to the US Secretary of State 1981-1982: The CIA denied it. They tried to convince people that we were really crazy. I mean, they never believed that the Soviet Union was a driving force in the international terror network. They always wanted to believe that terrorist organizations were just what they said they were: local groups trying to avenge terrible evils done to them, or trying to rectify terrible social conditions, and things like that. And the CIA really did buy into the rhetoric. I don't know what their motive was. I mean, I don't know what people's motives are, hardly ever. And I don't much worry about motives.

VO: But the neoconservatives had a powerful ally. He was William Casey, and he was the new head of the CIA. Casey was sympathetic to the neoconservative view. And when he read the Terror Network book, he was convinced. He called a meeting of the CIA's Soviet analysts at their headquarters, and told them to produce a report for the President that proved this hidden network existed. But the analysts told him that this would be impossible, because much of the information in the book came from black propaganda the CIA themselves had invented to smear the Soviet Union. They knew that the terror network didn&';t exist, because they themselves had made it up.

MELVIN GOODMAN, Head of Soviet Affairs CIA, 1976-87: And when we looked through the book, we found very clear episodes where CIA black propaganda -- clandestine information that was designed under a covert action plan to be planted in European newspapers -- were picked up and put in this book. A lot of it was made up. It was made up out of whole cloth.

INTERVIEWER (off-camera): You told him this?

GOODMAN : We told him that, point blank. And we even had the operations people to tell Bill Casey this. I thought maybe this might have an impact, but all of us were dismissed. Casey had made up his mind. He knew the Soviets were involved in terrorism, so there was nothing we could tell him to disabuse him. Lies became reality.

VO: In the end, Casey found a university professor who described himself as a terror expert, and he produced a dossier that confirmed that the hidden terror network did, in fact, exist. Under such intense lobbying, Reagan agreed to give the neoconservatives what they wanted, and in 1983 he signed a secret document that fundamentally changed American foreign policy. The country would now fund covert wars to push back the hidden Soviet threat around the world.

As Kevin Drum would say, you couldn't make this stuff up.

'Genetically Modified' Beet (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some genetically-modified crops can be managed in a way that is beneficial to wildlife, a UK research team believes.
Their work, published by the Royal Society, says there is "conclusive evidence" of benefits to wildlife from GM sugar beet crops.
They say their findings mean everyone involved in the debate about GM crops should rethink where they now stand.
But anti-GM campaigners say the work changes nothing, and are still opposed to any use of the crops in the UK.

Well anti-GM campaigners are anti-GM for theological reasons (they hate big corporations and they hate most technology that is less than 200 years old), so obviously they would never be convinced by any evidence about anything. Religous zealots rely on faith for their guidance.

It is bizarre in any case that whether a crop should be allowed to be grown is totally dependent on whether or not some arbitrary set of studies allegedly shows it is "good" or "not so good" as existing crops for wildlife. This is a cop out, set up as a criterion by the British ruling classes so they can forbid GM without having to come up with any real reason for doing so. With this crazy idea you might as well ban all crops which aren't "best in class" for this extremely narrow condition.

On BBC Radio 4 this morning one of the anti-GM campaigners suggested another reason GM crops shouldn't be grown is that "the people" don't want GM food. Well this is because the campaigners have run a successful scare campaign. It is amusing that on this one issue they are prepared to listen to "the people" but not on other issues such as car usage and low-density housing where "the people" should shut up and do as they are told.

Date published: 2005/01/18

Recycling Targets in England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Recycling rates from local authorities show England is on track to reach its 17% target for 2003/4, the government has said.
...
The 17% target is set in line with the European Union directive on landfill, and rises to 25% by the end of 2005/6.
...
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Margaret Beckett welcomed Tuesday's figures.
...
"While there is still a lot of work to do to raise levels of recycling even higher, this is a strong indication that the nation is adjusting to more sustainable waste practices."
...
Britain is also near the bottom of the class compared with the rest of Europe's recycling performance.

Stella Bland, of environmental charity Forum for the Future, said that looking at waste reduction was the key to recycling as much waste as other European countries.

"We would like to see variable charging so that local authorities are given the ability to charge households according to the amount of waste they create," she said.

Friends of the Earth's recycling campaigner Georgina Bloomfield welcomed improvements from some local councils but called on the Government to set more ambitious recycling targets for 2010 (currently 30%) and 2015 (currently 33%).

"This country still languishes a long way behind many of our European neighbours. The government must set more ambitious recycling targets," she said.

"We should be recycling at least 50% of our rubbish by 2010, an achievable target that would give us a recycling record to be proud of."

The only halfway sane comment in all of that is by Stella Bland of Forum for the Future. The chattering classes (also known amusingly as the middle classes, i.e. the rich), such as Margaret Beckett and Friends of the Earth, seem to love recycling for recycling's sake. This is because they can continue to create vast amounts of waste (which they do, because they are rich) and still pretend that by recycling they are "saving the world". Rich people also have plenty of space in their residences to collect the recycling and the really rich just get their servants to sort it all out. Recycling is not particularly environmentally friendly, and it is far more important to reduce waste than to increase the recycling rate. The main problem in the UK is that there are far too many non-workers (e.g. politicians and the FOE) who spend their entire lives being control freaks over the workers.

Michael Moore in his book "Stupid White Men" says:

I think recycling is like going to church -- you show up once a week, it makes you feel good, and you've done your duty. Then you can get back to all the fun of sinning!

Well to be fair his main complaint was that in the US much material that is supposedly going to be recycled never ends up even being recycled. Hopefully at least that is less of a problem in the UK.

City Centre Cycling Ban (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The cycle ban in the centre of Cambridge is to be lifted, the News can reveal.

The unexpected announcement was made at a joint county and city council meeting on Monday.

The ban on cycling during the day in the city centre was highly controversial when it was first proposed and it had to go before a public inquiry before it was finally put into force in 1993. It is currently in effect between 10am and 4pm.

Now councillors say the time has come for a rethink.

They have agreed to suspend the ban this summer for up to 18 months and then decide on a permanent policy after a public survey.

Lib Dems and Tories on the Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee joined forces behind the plan but Labour councillors were up in arms over the proposals, saying it was a case of testing the scheme "by trial and bloodshed on the streets".
...
Coun Julian Huppert, Lib Dem county councillor, said: "It is a very tough problem in a historic city centre such as Cambridge to try and find a way everybody can fit in."

"There is a simple answer - make Cambridge bigger and make the roads wider - but assuming we don't have the budget to move all the colleges around we will have to consider a scheme like this instead.

"Let's see what happens. If it turns out there is a high accident record at the end of the trial period then it will transpire that I'm wrong and it won't be safe to go ahead with it permanently.

"But if we see few accidents then I would hope we would go ahead with it. The only way to test something of this magnitude is to go ahead with it and see what happens."

A typically flippant set of comments from a typical Cambridge politician who thinks he is too clever by half. The best thing that could ever happen to Cambridge would be the abolition of the Cambridge Environment and Transport Area Joint Committee.

The city centre ban only applies to a couple of roads near the market but not all roads near the market. It does not apply, for example, to Trinity Street or King's Parade, because student cyclists would just ignore it anyway in their rush to get to lectures (apparently there is not such a rush to go back the other way). The ban on Sidney Street is ignored by many cyclists already. Indeed many cyclists cycle up that one-way street the wrong way, and similarly also Trinity Street, and this is even more dangerous for pedestrians.

The basic problem is that a large fraction of cyclists misbehave, whether or not there is a ban. But removing the ban will only encourage them to misbehave further. Pedestrians do not have any organisation pushing their interests (although there are plenty of rich pedestrians who live near the centre of Cambridge who are happy to express their opinions as individuals). On the other hand the Cambridge Cycling Campaign is a vocal and typical special interest pressure group pushing the cycling agenda. Special interest groups should normally be ignored when instead of informing policy they advocate it.

Date published: 2005/01/17

Millennium Development Goals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A major UN report on world poverty has urged a vast increase in development aid to the world's poorest countries.

The Millennium Development Goals report says developed nations could do much more to prevent poverty, hunger and disease around the world.

Correspondents say targets to halve poverty by 2015 are way off track.

Disease, war and incompetence combined with a lack of will in the developed world have already made them virtually meaningless, they say.

Trade rules need to be changed and infrastructure developed in poorer countries to allow them to compete, the report adds.

It also calls for financing of workable poverty-reduction schemes put forward by the poorest nations themselves.

Written by former Harvard economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs, the report calls for much higher spending on development.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who received the report from Dr Sachs, said the goals of the project were not utopian but "eminently achievable".
...
Dr Sachs singled out malaria, which kills as many people as in the whole Indian Ocean wave disaster every month and could be easily remedied by such measures as the provision of mosquito nets.

Dr Sachs added that the resources needed were well within the means of the world's richest nations.
...
The report will recommend that some well-governed poor countries should be fast-tracked for aid, whereas others with poor human rights records should get no large-scale aid.

However, the tying of aid to a list of demands over how well countries are run has been highly controversial.

The United Nations says:

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today launched a 3,000-page document which research team leader, Special Adviser Jeffrey Sachs, called "a unique report" recommending that rich countries double their investments in poor countries to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving extreme poverty by 2015 and going beyond to eliminate it by 2025.

The report comes at a time when more than one billion of the world's six billion people live on less that $1 day, and 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day.
...
The report contains feasibility studies for improving the economies of many developing and transitional countries and calls for specific investments across a wide spectrum of problems, not for handouts or charity.

Low-income countries need investments of $70 to $80 per head per year from 2006, rising to $120 to $160 per year in 2015, it says, adding that many middle-income countries could fund those investments themselves, given adequate debt relief and appropriate, specialized technical assistance.

Starting from ideas put forward by Mr. Annan, Mr. Sachs said, the team of 265 experts and graduate students took three years to collect and analyze the data.

Obviously a lot of effort has gone into the preparation of this report, but needless to say there have been countless similar reports in the past. The report makes no real mention of the number one problem in the world, namely over-population. The goal should be to get the poor people of the world up to the standard of living of the middle people of the rich world, and it's hard to see that being feasible without a drastic reduction in population. And for any of this to happen the governments of the rich world need to be well-intended in many areas (e.g. trade) where they have shown little inclination to good behaviour in the past. And unfortunately the most important rich country, the US, is now a rogue state, with the Bush administration more intent on being macho and killing people than on doing anything constructive for the world.

Date published: 2005/01/16

Enemy of the State (permanent blog link)

Enemy of the State (1998, director Tony Scott) is an amazing film of the paranoia genre. Will Smith is a lawyer who accidentally and unknowingly receives a tape which shows a rogue team (led by Jon Voight) inside the National Security Agency (NSA) killing a "too liberal" Republican congressman. For the rest of the film the NSA is after him and also Gene Hackman (an ex-NSA operative). Some of the details are silly in the usual Hollywood fashion (unbelievable image processing, competence by the bad guys, ridiculous ending, etc.), but the basic premise is believable and relevant in the post-9/11 climate: the government can and will track you if they want to (but hopefully not yet in the real time shown in the film). It's hard to imagine such a film being made now.

US - UK extradition treaty (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Ian Norris, former chief executive of Morgan Crucible, the British engineering company, has been arrested and charged with a series of price-fixing offences, in a ground-breaking bid by US authorities to secure the first extradition in a cartel case.
News of the move is likely to exacerbate fears that the American authorities are becoming increasingly active in seeking the extradition of white-collar suspects, particularly in the wake of new treaty arrangements between the UK and the US.
...
The new extradition arrangements have been in the spotlight because of efforts by the US authorities to extradite three British investment bankers to face Enron-related fraud charges.
The case has caused controversy, raising issues about whether individual human rights are sufficiently protected under the new regime.

What the FT fails to mention is what the fundamental problems with the treaty are. The treaty is yet another example of Blair putting the interests of the US above the interests of the UK. Statewatch says:

The UK-US Treaty has three main effects:
(1) it removes the requirement on the US to provide prima facie evidence when requesting the extradition of people from the UK but maintains the requirement on the UK to satisfy the "probable cause" requirement in the US when seeking the extradition of US nationals;
(2) it removes or restricts key protections currently open to suspects and defendants;
(3) it implements the EU-US Treaty on extradition, signed in Washington on 25 June 2003, but far exceeds the provisions in this agreement.

Statewatch goes on at length to explain the various issues.

Date published: 2005/01/15

Babylon wrecked by the Americans (permanent blog link)

The Guardian says (registration required):

Troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, according to a damning report released today by the British Museum.

John Curtis, keeper of the museum's Ancient Near East department and an authority on Iraq's many archaeological sites, found "substantial damage" on an investigative visit to Babylon last month.

The ancient city has been used by US and Polish forces as a military depot for the past two years, despite objections from archaeologists.

"This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain," says the report, which has been seen by the Guardian.

Among the damage found by Mr Curtis, who was invited to Babylon by Iraqi antiquities experts, were cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate.

He saw a 2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits.

Vast amounts of sand and earth, visibly mixed with archaeological fragments, were gouged from the site to fill thousands of sandbags and metal mesh baskets. When this practice was stopped, large quantities of sand and earth were brought in from elsewhere, contaminating the site for future generations of archaeologists.

Mr Curtis called for an international investigation by archaeologists chosen by the Iraqis to record all the damage done by the occupation forces.

Last night the US military defended its operations at the site, but said all earth-moving projects had been stopped and it was considering moving troops away to protect the ruins.
...
In his report, Mr Curtis accepted that initially the US military presence helped protect the site from looters. But he described as "regrettable" the decision to set up a base in such an important spot.
...
Tim Schadla Hall, reader in public archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, said: "In this case we see an international conflict in which the US has failed to take into account the requirements of the Hague convention ... to protect major archaeological sites - just another convention it seems happy to ignore."

Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, a US military spokes man in Baghdad, said engineering works at the camp were discussed with the head of the Babylon museum. "An archaeologist examined every construction initiative for its impact on historical ruins."

He said plans were being considered to move some of the units in order "to better preserve the Babylon ruins."

"The significance of Babylon is not lost on the coalition," he added. "The site dates back to the time of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, but there are very few visible original remains to the untrained eye."

Unbelievable even if only half true. The US/UK war on Iraq has become more and more of a disaster. The Guardian has two further reports here and here.

Date published: 2005/01/14

Cambridge University architecture department saved (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cambridge University's architecture department is to be saved following a vote by academics. Its future had been placed in doubt because of concerns that the quality of its research was not good enough.
Cambridge's general board voted unanimously to keep the department open, although six of its 17 academic staff must take early retirement.
...
A closure date of 2008 - when the last of the current students are due to finish their courses - was suggested.
However, the general board voted instead for a "new academic strategy", placing more of the department's focus on "sustainable design".
This change in policy, the university said, was the reason for the planned early retirements.

The problem was that the department was only ranked 4* (the top mark being 5*) in the last research assessment, which meant that central government had slashed the amount of funding. And unfortunately the university is not doing very well financially and so the bean counters wanted to close the department down. The turn around by the university is because of a well organised fight against the closure announcement, including a scathing letter to the Guardian by the top architects in the country (Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, etc.).

The department is spread across several rather ramshackle old buildings, which has probably not helped. It could do with a shiny new building, although that is unlikely to be forthcoming.

The new focus on "sustainable design" (there is supposed to be a new professor and lecturer in this subject area) is the kind of politically correct leaning one expects in this day and age. Hopefully it will mean scientific research (e.g. into passive solar heating, less water usage, etc.) rather than sociological ranting. Currently the department is paired with the Department of History of Art. The new focus might mean that the department will tilt more towards the Department of Engineering (which already has a small "Sustainable Development" group). Of course a large chunk of architecture (structural mechanics, heating, etc.) already overlaps with engineering as a discipline, although most architects seems to view themselves more as artists than as engineers.

Date published: 2005/01/13

International flights to the US (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A British Airways jumbo jet flying to New York turned back after the US objected to one of its passengers.
Three hours after take-off on Wednesday the Boeing 747, with 239 passengers, turned around after a US request that the man should not be allowed to land.
They said his name matched one on a terrorism watch list. He was met by British police on landing and was questioned, but later released.

This is not the first time this has happened, and is unlikely to be the last. And one would hope that the Americans would use more than just a name to figure out who was a terrorist. Anyway, the message is loud and clear, the rest of the world should avoid going to America.

Date published: 2005/01/12

Comet smash (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Nasa's Deep Impact mission, which will crash a projectile into Comet Tempel 1, has launched from Cape Canaveral.
The projectile will collide with the comet on 4 July - 24 hours after its release - travelling at 37,000km/h (23,000 mph).
It could punch a crater in the comet big enough to swallow Rome's Coliseum.
...
The washing machine-sized projectile is composed of copper because this metal is not expected to appear in the natural chemical signature of the comet itself.

Once upon a time NASA (and the Russians) left all kinds of junk in Earth orbit because it "wasn't a problem". Now they are going around committing acts of gross vandalism on other objects in the solar system. (The Europeans are also into this game. The Huygens probe, built by the ESA, the European Space Agency, is about to drop onto Titan, a moon of Saturn, although the drop is intended to be controlled.) It would serve us right if the Deep Impact mission changed the orbit of the comet such that in N thousand years its orbit impacted the Earth.

Cambridge University Northwest Cambridge development (permanent blog link)

The University of Cambridge has three major future development sites, West Cambridge (south of Madingley Road), Addenbrookes (in the south of the city) and Northwest Cambridge (north of Madingley Road and south of Huntingdon Road). These are all large chunks of so-called greenbelt which are going to be developed because Cambridge is expanding (or so it is claimed) and there is not much space left to do it in.

West Cambridge has mainly been for physical-related sciences (although the Vet School is there) and Addenbrookes has mainly been for biological-related sciences (the regional hospital is also there). It is not yet clear what Northwest Cambridge will be earmarked for. It had been suggested in the past that a couple of new colleges could go there. But it seems the development cost for one college is around 100 million pounds and the university is going to have trouble raising that much money for such a cause. (Any rich Americans want to have a Cambridge college named after them? I imagine even coughing up 50 million pounds would do the trick. The last Cambridge college to be founded was named after a chap by the name of Robinson, who made his money in TV rentals.) Right now it looks like instead there will be some (non-collegiate) residential development and perhaps some research buildings.

The university sponsored an exhibition tonight to give some first thoughts about what might happen in Northwest Cambridge (with lots of verbiage about "ecology"), and to seek citizen input. Needless to say on this occasion most of the people showing up were residents local to the area being affected. The number one concern of such people is traffic. The second concern is traffic. And the third concern is traffic. Well they are also concerned about the value of their properties falling. The houses bordering the site on Huntingdon Road, Madingley Road and Storey's Way are some of the finest and most expensive in Cambridge (the first two in spite of the traffic on them), so these people are not going to stay quiet while the largely agricultural land in their back yard is concreted over. (The exhibition also attracted the usual anti-car cycling zealots who believe the whole world should revolve around them.)

This is a site whose residential development should be the kind of low-density housing seen throughout the neighbourhood. Unfortunately low-density housing is extrememly unlikely to happen on the Northwest Cambridge site. There is a conspiracy between landowners and developers, urban politicians and the urban planning elite, and certain so-called environmentalists to stuff as many people per hectare as imaginable onto any new development site. The landowners and developers support this policy because they can make loads of money. The urban politicians and urban planning elite support this policy because they hate suburbs (which, along with even more rural locations, is where most people want to live, which always drives the urban elite nuts). Some so-called environmentalists support this policy because if you treat people like battery hens there is allegedly more space left over for "green" areas, and high-density also allegedly encourages bus services, which are allegedly "green". The university allegedly has a hard time attracting top-notch talent because the housing is so expensive and rubbish in Cambridge, and building more expensive rubbish is hardly going to help.

One of the problems with transport in the area is the brain-dead way the M11, which borders the west of the site, is designed. Junction 13 (at the southwest corner of the site) stupidly has ramps only going south, not north. As a result one of only two Park and Rides serving the northwest of the city (i.e. the direction of the A14), the Madingley Road Park and Ride off of Junction 13, would normally be accessed from the A14 by driving into the city along Huntingdon Road and then out again along Madingley Road (usually using Storey's Way, which is a rat run partly because of the poor connectivity of the M11). The M11 connections to the nearby A14 (a crazy layout) and the A428 (only connected in one direction) are equally dire. This is the quality of transport planning we get in the UK. (The M11 is less than 25 years old so there is no excuse.)

Date published: 2005/01/11

Child Trust Fund (Baby Bond) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The newly-launched Child Trust Fund is a "hollow gesture" when compared to the cost of going to university, says the Liberal Democrat education spokesman.
Phil Willis says the plan to invest up to £500 on behalf of children will be dwarfed by the rising cost in university tuition fees.

Well that argument is true but it is missing the larger point. The Child Trust Fund will give £400 to all children and £800 to "poor" children (about a third of the total), some of the money at birth and some later. This is one of those crackpot New Labour ideas that nobody will speak out against because there are no losers, only winners. Well, there are losers (mid-income people with children and any-income people without children) but they are not supposed to notice the few pounds more draining away in tax, in common with other similar scams perpetuated by government in the past (e.g. the privitisation of council houses by Thatcher). The big winners are not the poor children being mentioned in the New Labour propaganda but instead rich children (there are savings tax perks being allowed) and most of all the financial services industry, which will sell financial products for parents being given this money. (Yet another subsidy of parents by non-parents and yet another subsidy of the City of London by the rest of the UK.)

Allawi bribes (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

The electoral group headed by Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, on Monday handed out cash to journalists to ensure coverage of its press conferences in a throwback to Ba'athist-era patronage ahead of parliamentary elections on January 30.

After a meeting held by Mr Allawi's campaign alliance in west Baghdad, reporters, most of whom were from the Arabic-language press, were invited upstairs where each was offered a "gift" of a $100 bill contained in an envelope.

Many of the journalists accepted the cash - about equivalent to half the starting monthly salary for a reporter at an Iraqi newspaper - and one jokingly recalled how Saddam Hussein's regime had also lavished perks on favoured reporters.

Giving gifts to journalists is common in many of the Middle East's authoritarian regimes, although reporters at the conference said the practice was not yet widespread in postwar Iraq.

Well the Bush White House can bribe reporters (with 241000 dollars, to propagandize the No Child Left Behind act), so why should an American stooge not follow suit. This is perhaps one reason why Allawi is doing so well in the opinion polls.

Date published: 2005/01/10

Citi4 timetable (permanent blog link)

Cambridge University subsidises the Citi4 bus service which goes between the West Cambridge and Addenbrookes sites, so that university members can travel for free. University staff were sent an email:

A new citi4 timetable will be introduced on Monday 10 January. The published service frequency will change from 15 minutes to 20 minutes during peak hours (07.00-09.00 and from 16.00). The published off-peak service frequency will remain 15 minutes.
The revised timetable better reflects achievable bus travel times during peak hours and should result in a more reliable service.

Hmmm, the service is now less frequent for peak service than for off-peak service. Only in England. Sure, it takes longer to get from West Cambridge to Addenbrookes during the rush hour, but you want more buses on the road at that time, not less. How many buses there are on the road at once (i.e. their frequency) has nothing to do with the time it takes a bus to get from A to B.

European Commission insurance ruling (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A proposal which would have made car insurance more expensive for most women drivers in the UK has been dropped by the European Commission.
Insurance firms offer different rates for cover based on gender and, as male drivers commit 85% of serious motoring offences, women usually pay less.
The EU Gender Directive would have made insurers treat both sexes the same.
But a deal allowing insurance firms to take gender into account when setting charges has now been reached.

What the BBC website article fails to mention is that although women would have lost out under the original EC proposal when buying car insurance they would have gained when buying a pension annuity. Currently a woman paying A for a pension annuity would receive X pension per year whereas a man of the same age would receive Y > X. This is because women on average live longer than men, so the same total pot has to be spread over more years. (If the insurance companies are doing their sums correctly women should receive the same amount as men when the appropriate total discounted payout is calculated).

The "85%" figure makes it sound like men are really *much* worse drivers than women, but in the UK men generally drive much more than women, so you would have to calculate the "serious offences per mile" to know whether men are really worse drivers than women on average. Of course insurance companies only care about claims, not claims per mile, so the financial bias against men makes sense. (Well any correlation between claims and "serious offences" is not obvious, but presumably on average the annual claims of a man is higher than for a woman, otherwise the insurance companies are being unfair.)

The Money Box programme on BBC Radio 4 interviewed Jacqui Smith (deputy minister for women and equality) (scroll down just over half way) and she claimed that the reason the EC backed down is because the benefit to women from the change due to pensions would have been not as big as anticipated. Let's hope that was not the reason they backed down (can things happen only if they benefit women?) but rather because the original idea was just stupid.

Date published: 2005/01/09

Frank Lloyd Wright on Wales (permanent blog link)

The book "The Oral History of Modern Architecture" (1994) by John Peter has interviews by him of various leading architects of the 20th century. Frank Lloyd Wright says about his own heritage (in 1957):

"I'm Welsh and the Welsh would have a great feeling for the spirit of the East. The Welsh were a spiritual people. They came from King Arthur. The Round Table was one of their official institutions. They were the original Britons. When you speak of the British you speak of the Welsh. Some of them got stranded over there on the French coast, and they called them the Britons. Those are Welsh."

So there!

Welcome (permanent blog link)

Welcome to Yet Another Blog. The topics will be varied.

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