Azara Blog: March 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/03/31

A14 development plan unveiled (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to improve the A14, the worst traffic bottleneck and busiest road in the region, were unveiled on Wednesday.

There are two proposals for the stretch between Ellington and Fen Ditton to improve safety and cut journey times.

In a public consultation, details of both options - one costing £490m, the other £470m - are going on display in Cambridgeshire from next week.

If one of the schemes is approved, work could begin in 2008 and the road could open within 10 years.

The first scheme is for a new dual carriageway east of Ellington connecting with the A1 at a new junction south of Brampton Hut.

From there the new road would have three lanes each way and would re-join the existing A14 at a new junction just south of Fen Drayton.

Between Fen Drayton and Fen Ditton, the new A14 would be widened to three lanes each way, following the existing road with an improved junction at Girton (M11).

The junctions at Histon, Milton and Fen Ditton would be retained.

Between Girton and Histon, there would be an additional lane in each direction to safely accommodate the traffic joining and leaving the A14.

The existing A14 around Huntingdon would be downgraded for use by local traffic and public transport only and the viaduct over the railway and Brampton Road would be demolished.

The second scheme would keep the existing A14 past Huntingdon as a dual carriageway trunk road, with a new route from Ellington to Fen Drayton as a two-lane dual carriageway.

The proposals for the A14 east of Fen Drayton are the same as the recommendations in the first scheme.

The preferred route is due to be announced in 2006 and would be opened in stages between 2011 and 2015.

One could say better late than never. But the devil will be in the detail (the public exhibitions will hopefully give more detail). The current design of the road is so dreadful they couldn't possibly make it worse (could they??). Of course the NIMBYs and so-called environmentalists could easily delay the project by another few years. So by 2020 we might at long last have an A14 fit for the 1980s.

Archbishop Rowan Williams thinks he's a politician (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on political parties not to exploit people's fears in an effort to win the general election.

In an open letter to party leaders, he complained "familiar anxieties" over terror, asylum and immigration already look like featuring in campaigns.

Proposing "reactive, damage-limiting solutions" would endanger the "deeper needs" of communities, he has warned.

He called for alternatives to prisons to "address offending behaviour".

"There are things that really should make us tremble - rootlessness and alienation among some of our urban youth, the degradation of the environment, the downward spin into chaos and violence of large parts of the poorer world," he said.

"And these simply don't lend themselves to defensive and short-term solutions."

Calling for an end to existing penal policy, he urged parties to "make history" in finding alternatives.

"Building more prisons is no answer," he said. "Why not say so and propose a better way?"

He called for more public support for stable families and marriage but not, he said, in the context of "middle class, middle England nostalgia".

"The climate of chronic family instability, sexual chaos and exploitation, drug abuse and educational disadvantage is a lethal cocktail," he said.

Efforts to address "emotionally undernourished and culturally alienated" young people were a matter of "life and death".

Dr Williams challenged parties to produce policies to reverse the "collective lack of international responsibility about the environment".

He said the "disgrace" of the international arms trade which equipped child soldiers to fight and fuelled instability in poor parts of the world like Africa must be addressed.

Such complaints were not simply "religious idealism" and must be taken seriously, he warned.

"Violent instability makes both terrorists and refugees.

"Poor provision for youth and an impossibly strained prison system breed crime," he said.

Hmmm, the politicians should not exploit issues that arise from the public's fears and "familiar anxieties" but instead should exploit the issues that arise from the archbishop's own fears and familiar anxieties. It's just as well he's not running for office, he would lose. And "chronic family instability", "sexual chaos", blah, blah, blah, haven't we all heard that litany before (in the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, ... , 300 BC, ...). "The world was such a better place when I was a kid, the kids of today, they just show no respect."

Carbon dioxide levels still increasing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has reached a new high, say US researchers.

The figures - 378 parts per million (ppm) - were gathered by a Hawaiian lab regarded by experts as one of the most reliable in climate research.

The rise in the past year is smaller than it was in the previous two years.

But the trend remains upwards, as it has for every year since measurements began on top of the Mauna Loa volcano nearly half a century ago.
...
The laboratory's director, Dr Pieter Tans, told the BBC: "The most striking thing about the data is that we've seen an increase in carbon dioxide levels every single year since 1958."
...
According to Dr Tans, one significant finding is that the annual rate at which the CO2 is rising has itself increased.

The growth rate over the past decade was about twice as fast as that found in the 1960s.

He says that variations in the growth rate year by year can be explained by natural factors; for example, changes in the rate at which plants and the oceans soak up carbon dioxide.

But he and his colleagues conclude that the steady rise overall can be attributed to man-made emissions of carbon.

Geez, what a surprise. And obviously almost certainly (to within any reasonable doubt) due to man-made emissions. But man-made emissions are also "natural factors" since man is part of nature. It is not illegal for mankind to emit carbon dioxide just like it is not illegal for plants to soak it up. Of course too large an increase could lead to dire consequences, and that is the real issue.

Date published: 2005/03/30

More money to be spent on school food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An extra £280m over three years is to be spent on improving school meals in England - as TV chef Jamie Oliver's campaign on the issue reaches a climax.

At least 50p will be spent on each primary school lunch and 60p in secondaries. Some primaries currently spend as little as 37p on ingredients.

Handing in a 271,000-name petition to Downing Street, the chef regretted it had taken a TV show to get changes.

But the education secretary insists she always planned better school lunches.

Jamie Oliver told reporters: "It is certainly very positive - 20 years too late but we are talking about the right sort of money."

He said there could always be demands for new money and he would be discussing the details but the package was a "massive improvement".

"Unfortunately, it has taken a documentary and really the hearts and emotions of the kids and families we filmed to touch the nation," he added.

Grants, to go via local education authorities, involve "new" money from Department for Education and Skills reserves.

Priority will be given to areas which currently spend the least, though all schools should get something from a £220m pot.

Another £60m is for a new School Food Trust, which will advise schools and parents on healthy menus.

It must be an election year, the government is caving in to all sorts of special interest groups. Those 271000 people were so brave signing a petition asking for someone else to pay more tax so they could have better food. Has anyone thought to ask whether the parents should pay more for the better food? Of course not, parents should never pay for anything. Around £1.50 is actually spent per pupil on lunch, but most of it gets soaked up in labour costs, hence the risible 37p left for ingredients. Imagine the kind of food that children would get if instead parents spent £1.50 on packed lunches. But of course parents should not be expected to make packed lunches, they should expect someone else to make their children's lunches and someone else should pay for it. The worst aspect of the announcement is that £60m pounds of the "new" money (i.e. over 20 percent) is going to be blown on a quango that will no doubt produce lots of patronising glossy brochures in traditional government fashion. The only good thing in all of this is that if you are going to spend £220m of other people's money, at least this amount is being spent on something useful, i.e. decent food (which is not the same as "organic" food, which yet another middle class special interest pressure group, the Soil Association, seems to think).

UN report on global environmental degradation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Deforestation, climate change, and pollution are compromising economic and social progress in the world's poorest nations, a major report has found.

The report was carried out by 1,300 researchers to collate all that is known about environmental degradation around the globe.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is one of the biggest scientific collaborations ever undertaken.

Its main findings are being released at meetings in eight world cities.

The assessment found that human activities, particularly the spread of modern agriculture, have caused irreversible changes to the natural world.

It cited as an example the over-use of water for farming, which puts pressure on fresh drinking supplies. Land that has been farmed too intensively is also becoming barren.

Such effects, the report argues, are severe enough to threaten the Millennium Development Goals.

More than 2,500 pages long, the full study contains few quick-fix solutions, but correspondents say it does provide the best view yet of the problems facing humanity.

The assessment, which is intended to inform global policy initiatives, says changes in consumption patterns, better education, new technologies and higher prices for exploiting ecosystems could all help slow the damage being done to the planet.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is a four-year, $21m effort designed by UN agencies, international scientific organisations, and development agencies .

Another "end of the world" report. Amazingly the BBC synopsis manages to not mention the number one problem, i.e. there are too many human beings. Either humanity will deal with this problem voluntarily or Mother Nature will take care of it as only she knows how (and it will not be the "end of the world", except possibly for us). Pricing ecosystems is a cute enough idea, only the main beneficiaries will be the economists doing the pricing and the land owners of the world, who will suddenly discover that their plot is worth even more than was previously imagined. (Of course governments being governments may then then just steal the assets.) And the idea that you could price anything in the ecosystem to accuracy within a factor of two is a joke, and that is not good enough. No doubt in the end some random politically haggled prices would be specified, and then the free market would take a few minutes to figure out how to exploit this to maximum effect.

The Tories hate GM food (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridgeshire MP Jim Paice has unveiled the Tories' manifesto for farming with a pledge to ban the commercial planting of genetically modified crops until there is clear proof they are safe.

The Shadow Secretary of State for Agriculture and Rural Affairs also pledged to make food labelling clearer and legislation to ensure all publicly procured food meets British standards.

Mr Paice said: "Taxpayers' money should not be used to buy food which has been produced using methods which would be illegal in Britain so we will ensure all publicly procured food is to Little Red Tractor standard."

The Cambridgeshire South East MP also promised a ban on any commercial planting of GM crops until or unless science shows this would be safe and until or unless issues of liability and crop segregation are resolved.

He said: "A legal framework is needed to protect plant species and to clarify liability for contamination before any authorisation of commercial planting is given."

Mr Paice promised legislation to reform food labelling so consumers are given clear information about the country of origin of the major ingredients and whether it meets the standards required of British farmers.

He said: "Current labelling rules mean food can be sold as British even though it has only been packaged here. By legislating to end such practices we will allow our farmers to benefit from the public's preference for home-grown produce and will end deceit of the customer."

Yes, the Tories still live in the 19th century, and it's just as well they are going to lose the forthcoming election. The phrase "clear proof they are safe" is just an excuse to cover up the real intent, i.e. "never". There is no such thing as 100% safe, for anything, and people who like to claim anything can be shown to be 100% safe are from the marketing department ("the world is black and white") rather than the engineering department ("the world is gray"), and so are ignorant and should be ignored. No matter what the evidence is to the contrary, people who hate GM crops will never accept that they are "safe", because their objections are religious.

And it's interesting that the GM haters claim there should be liability for "contamination" by GM crops, but nobody currently get compensated for contamination by conventional crops. People who live within a km or more of farms will find random plants, e.g. rape seed, growing in their gardens. Should they be compensated? So-called organic farmers have a religious objection to what they call non-organic seed landing in their fields, so why should non-organic farmers not have a religious objection to what is called organic seed landing in their fields? Ah, but so-called organic farmers are saving the world, so they are the good guys. Well, in reality this is just another fad by which the middle class can pretend they are superior to the working class (because so-called organic food costs more and so the rich can more easily afford it).

Date published: 2005/03/29

John Bolton should not be US ambasssador to the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fifty-nine former US diplomats have written to the chairman of a key Senate committee in protest at the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the UN.

The diplomats, who served under both Republican and Democrat presidents, described Mr Bolton, a known critic of the UN, as "the wrong man" for the job.

They urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block his appointment.

Mr Bolton served as under-secretary of state responsible for arms control during President Bush's first term.

Chief among the objections was Mr Bolton's stated view that the UN "is valuable only when it directly serves the United States".

In addition, Mr Bolton was criticised for his record as US arms control supremo.

He had an "exceptional record" of undermining potential improvements to US national security through arms control, the diplomats complained.

Among the most senior signatories was Arthur Hartman, former ambassador to France and the Soviet Union under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and assistant secretary of state for European affairs under President Richard Nixon.

Nothing will come of this of course. Bolton is a friend of Bush, and that is all that counts with the White House and the Republican Party that runs Congress. The Bolton nomination shows what Bush really thinks of the rest of the world. There is no point trying to reason with these people, they have no desire to be reasonable. The rest of the world should treat the US as a pariah state until civilised politicians once more take up the reigns of power in Washington (if that ever happens). Until then build up your military, because the current US administration is a threat to anyone and everyone who dares to disagree.

Britain a Thought Police State (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A Briton charged under the Terrorism Act for allegedly having a soldier's name and address on a piece of paper has been remanded in custody.

Abu Baker Mansha, 21, appeared before Bow Street magistrates five days after his arrest in south-east London.

He was charged under Section 58 (1b) of the Terrorism Act, which deals with the collection of information which could be of use to terrorists.

Mr Mansha, of Arnott Close, Thamesmead, was remanded to reappear on 5 April.

It is alleged he was found with a newspaper cutting referring to a decorated soldier and also personal details, including that soldier's address.

The charge said he "possessed a document, namely a piece of paper, containing the name and home address of a UK soldier - information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

Well hopefully there is more to this story than the BBC relates. Otherwise this is evidence that Britain is indeed a Police State, and even worse, a Thought Police State, where you can be locked up because the Police think you have thought bad thoughts. Of course for now they will only target Muslims (and perhaps Irish people), but eventually others will be brought into this dragnet.

Date published: 2005/03/28

A new strain of "golden rice" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK scientists have developed a new genetically modified strain of "golden rice", producing more beta-carotene.

The human body converts beta-carotene into vitamin A, and this strain produces around 20 times as much as previous varieties.

It could help reduce vitamin A deficiency and childhood blindness in developing countries.

The World Health Organization estimates up to 500,000 children go blind each year because of vitamin A deficiency.

When the original strain of golden rice emerged from laboratories in Switzerland five years ago, it was hailed by some as an instant solution.

But that original strain did not produce enough beta-carotene to ensure that children would get their daily requirement from eating normal quantities of rice.

And because of concerns about GM agriculture, it still has not been grown in field trials in Asia.

The new variety, developed at the UK laboratories of the biotechnology company Syngenta, produces much more beta-carotene.

Syngenta is making the rice available for free to research centres across Asia, who will, if they are given the go-ahead by their governments, begin field trials.

Not everyone believes golden rice is the best answer to Vitamin A deficiency.

Some agricultural experts and environmental groups say aiming for a balanced diet across the board would be a better solution.

It's too early to tell whether this is as good news as it hopefully will be, but it's certainly a step forward. And kudos to Syngenta for making this available free to research centres (hopefully with not too many strings attached). It's still amazing to see some so-called environmentalists opposing GM for ideological reasons. Perhaps they are happier that millions of people are starving. (It certainly gives them a big audience to patronise with their middle class opinions.)

An academic symposium on The Smiths (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iconic 1980s indie group The Smiths are to be studied at an academic conference in Manchester, their home town.

The four-piece band, led by famously miserable singer Morrissey, will be analysed by scholars from around the world for two days next week.

The symposium, called Why Pamper Life's Complexities, will aim to assess the band's social, cultural, political and musical impact.

The Smiths are considered one of the most influential bands of the decade.

The academics will reflect on the influence of Morrissey's lyrics on gender and sexuality, race and nationality and the imagination of class.

The band will also be discussed in terms of aesthetics, fan cultures and musical innovation at Manchester Metropolitan University on 8 and 9 April.

More useless time wasting. Divert this money to real research (i.e. science). In any case, as everyone knows, New Order were much better than the Smiths.

Bourn Airfield Bank Holiday Market (permanent blog link)

You have to see the Bank Holiday Market at Bourn Airfield (10 km west of Cambridge) to believe it. First of all you have to get there by car (so it's amazing the chattering classes haven't closed it down), and there are queues just to get in and out. There are two long strips (perhaps a mile in length) with stalls along both sides and people packed in as if it were Oxford Street. Unlike (some of) Oxford Street, it's C2 heaven, you'd be hard put to spot a single ABC1 person anywhere in sight. So it's the kind of goods and atmosphere, not to mention the food, you might expect. At least one of the traders was honest: "We can't be beaten on price because it's all been nicked". The butchers provided the best entertainment value, with classic sales patter as they sold large piles of meat for (they claimed) next to nothing. Well worth the 50p parking price if you can put up with hordes of people getting in your way.

Date published: 2005/03/27

More hot air on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is not doing enough to tackle climate change, according to a report by a parliamentary committee.

The Environmental Audit Committee attacked ministers for believing that new technology and market mechanisms will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The committee says Britain and the developed world need to reduce emissions by 60-80% by 2050.

Committee chairman MP Peter Ainsworth called on the government to draw up a clear plan of action.

In its report the parliamentary committee attacked the European Emissions Trading Scheme, which is central in helping the EU to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.

The BBC's environment correspondent, Richard Black, said the committee found the scheme's regulations are too lax, have a minimal impact on emissions and may lead to windfall profits for electricity generators.

He said the government is currently embroiled in a legal dispute with the European Commission over Britain's emission allowances under the scheme.

This is a dispute which the audit committee says risks "wantonly squandering" Britain's reputation for leadership on climate change, he reported.

Britain's alleged leadership on climate change is worth nothing except a few snickers. And what a surprise, the control freaks are out again, asking for more government regulation. No matter what rules governments decide, private industry will figure out how to exploit the system to maximise profits, that is their role in life. Second-rate MPs (and civil servants) only know how to maximise verbiage. Not too long ago the goal was 60% reduction in emissions by 2050. Now it seems to have jumped to 80%, which is a further reduction of half (i.e. from 40% of 1990 levels in 2050 to 20%), so non-trivial. Don't you just love it when the ruling elite just arbitrarily halve the target? Since MPs consume far more resources and produce far more emissions than the average UK citizen, perhaps they should take the lead and accept a huge pay cut and removal of their extravagant perks.

Abortion is a Holocaust (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Abortion leads to Nazi-style birth control and lets the strong decide the fate of the weak, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor has warned.

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales wrote: "That way lies eugenics, and we know from German history where that leads."

He denounced "embryo selection on the basis of gender and genes".
...
The cardinal claimed human beings were made "instruments of other human beings", in the Sunday Telegraph article.

Britain was already on the road to Nazi-style eugenic - or selective breeding - policies, he argued.

"For what else is the termination of six million lives in the womb since the Abortion Act was introduced, and embryo selection on the basis of gender and genes?"

Cardinal Murphy O' Connor also said in an interview with Baroness Shirley Williams for the GMTV Sunday programme that it was "legitimate" for Catholics to discuss issues surrounding abortion.

But he insisted that he was not saying Catholics should vote for any one political party.

All part of the recent campaign by the UK church establishments to demonise abortion, and a bit rich coming from someone who represents one of the worst religions in the world, in particular a religion which discourages the practise of birth control. Of course he is not going to recommend any one political party, he is willing to support any dreadful politician who is anti-abortion. And one of the points of established religion is to turn human beings into "instruments of other human beings", i.e. the church establishment (who decide what is and is not "moral" according to some arbitrary interpretation of the Bible or other religious document, and then insist that their minions follow suit).

Date published: 2005/03/26

London is mega-exhibitions land (permanent blog link)

As seems to be coming more common, there are currently several mega-exhibitions on in London. The National Gallery has a wonderful exhibition of 16 paintings of Caravaggio, mostly produced during the last four years of his life, when he was on the run after having killed someone during a duel. This is one of those exhibitions where the viewers are up to three or four deep, but the paintings are large enough it does not matter that much. And keeping up to their usual standard, the audio guide is quite good. This is also an exhibition where every single one of the paintings on display is of high quality (except that a couple have not been looked after carefully), and they certainly provide ample evidence that Caravaggio was a great painter.

Meanwhile the Victoria and Albert Museum has an exhibition on International Arts and Crafts. (This is to be distinguished from the partly contemporaneous Art Nouveau, although it is not a black and white split.) The exhibition is split into four geographical sections, first Britain, then America, then Europe, and finally Japan. The British section was the most interesting and had the largest crowds, and of course contained many pieces from the V&A's own collection. The American section was the next best, and the last two sections were not so good in comparison. The exhibition naturally had examples of furniture, textiles, ceramics, jewellery, metalwork, printed material, paintings and also had several slide shows (including a quite good one of Blackwell in Windermere by Baillie Scott). The exhibition also had several room settings, including a wonderful dining room table and chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Martin House in Buffalo.

The Royal Academy has an exhibition on Matisse and his textiles. It is upstairs in the Sackler Gallery, so not very big. The main point is that Matisse was in many ways more interested in textiles than he was in painting, and the former featured largely in the latter. Matisse was not a great painter and the most interesting part of the exhibition is indeed the textiles, including five books of late 19th century silk sample books with designs which still look modern.

Date published: 2005/03/25

Wildlife cannot cope with global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many native British species are struggling to cope with the "stop-start spring", wildlife experts say.

A survey involving 65,000 wildlife sightings suggests that frogs and bumblebees are among the hardest hit.

"Climate change is not something that is happening a million miles away - it is going on in our own back gardens," said nature presenter Bill Oddie.

The findings come from Springwatch - a project being run by the Woodland Trust and the BBC between January and June.

Over 30,000 volunteers have noted their first sightings of six key species, passing the data on to researchers studying how nature is responding to global warming.

Since January the public has been invited to record first sightings of bumblebees, frog spawn, seven spot ladybirds, peacock butterfly, hawthorn flowering and swifts arriving.

Early reports suggest large fluctuations in temperature have resulted in widespread sightings of frozen frogspawn.

"If it has died it means that frogs that produced that spawn aren't going to have another chance to breed that year," said BBC environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee.

There are also concerns that some bumblebees may have been killed off, despite new reports of active nests throughout the winter.

Bumblebees have been recorded since mid-December, while frog spawn was seen in Cornwall on 1 November, several days earlier than other recent warm years and about two weeks earlier than 2001.

The peacock butterfly, not normally seen until March, has been spotted widely, with a first sighting on 28 December and well over 2,000 recordings.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Birds (RSPB) said the recent cold snap had slowed down nesting.

"When I was a lad we had 'proper' winters and spring started in April. Now that seems a thing of the past," said Bill Oddie.

"When compared to records from previous years, these results show that some of our insects and plants are appearing several weeks earlier."

He said the change may have "knock-on effects for the birds and other wildlife that depend on them for food".

Yet another "end of the world" report. Usually the annual complaint (from those people who like to complain about these things) is that spring is starting earlier and earlier. This year the first part of the winter was relatively mild but then we had a long cold spell, so of course the complaint is now that the temperature is variable, rather than just high. Next year the complaint will perhaps be about something else. You have to laugh when you hear the sentiment "when I was a lad we had 'proper' winters", but of course Oddie was a comedian.

For what it's worth (not much), in Cambridge, because of the cold spell, this spring appears to be happening later than has been usual recently, with none of the disasters mentioned in the report. In the Botanic Garden the frog spawn has just appeared this past week (loads of it). And daffodils and the (chocolate-smelling) Azara trees have only blossomed fully this past week as well. And bumblebees seem to be bumbling happily, and ladybirds (ladybugs) just waking up. The world has not ended, but maybe next week or next year.

Healthy eating a middle class preoccupation (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Even when healthy foods are affordable and accessible people continue to eat unhealthily, experts have warned.

Trials of supplying health foods to communities without good access have disappointing results, an editorial in the British Medical Journal says.

Improving retail provision - one of the government's many strategies to fight obesity - is not enough, write the authors from London and Scotland.

The government said schemes offering affordable fruit and vegetables worked.

But a spokeswoman added: "We know that change can only happen when individuals take action themselves.

Obviously the peasants have not gotten the message. "Let them eat cake" is just so yesterday. What is most amazing about this report is that the middle classes find it surprising that many people would rather eat junk food. They need to get out more.

Date published: 2005/03/24

Road charging is coming in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gridlocked roads or paying by the mile is the stark choice facing British motorists, says a group of MPs.

The influential Commons transport committee says national road charging should be introduced as long as the benefits outweigh the costs.

Ministers suggest a national scheme is not feasible before 2014 but there can be local charges in the meantime.

The MPs say the government must not duck its responsibilities for cutting jams on motorways and trunk roads.

Their report says people travelled 5.2 billion miles more on the roads last year than in 2003.

By 2015, road traffic could be up 30% on 2000 levels, according to government estimates.

Some new roads are needed but the UK cannot build its way out of its congestion problems, say the MPs.

Instead, there must be new efforts to manage demand, with road pricing the idea with most potential to cut congestion.

The most radical vision for road pricing would see a satellite tracking-based system, with drivers charged variable rates per mile depending on traffic levels on the route they used.

Contracts are now being taken out for running a lorry user charging system - which is likely to be the trailblazer for a wider pricing system.

The MPs want thorough research of the business costs of congestion so it can be judged whether road pricing is worth introducing.

Committee chairman, Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, said: "Road pricing is not pie in the sky: the country's first congestion charging scheme has successfully reduced traffic congestion in central London."

Needless to say, the charging scheme in London is not a congestion charge, it is an access charge, with congestion reduction being but one side effect. Road charging is all about getting the poor (in particular the workers) removed from the roads of Britain. There is nothing worse than a mobile working class, those dreadful peasants should be forced to travel the way the ruling elite decide they should travel.

There is not much you can do about road capacity in towns (although the only thing local government does these days is to reduce it) because there is no space, but you could easily add capacity between towns, it's just that the UK ruling elite has decided this should not happen. There is the usual fiction stated that "the UK cannot build its way out of its congestion problems". It is obvious that there is a limit to road usage, when everybody who is of driving age is in on the road in a car at the same time. We are probably not far off that scenario (perhaps within a factor of two at rush hour) but the ruling elite (in particular Gwyneth Dunwoody and the other silly MPs on the Commons transport committee) prefer to pedal the usual trite assertions rather than build a road network fit for the 21st century.

Review of use of primates in experiments (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A major study will examine what limits should be put on the continued use of non-human primates in UK experiments.

The review is being undertaken by four of Britain's leading medical and scientific organisations.

It follows the fractious arguments between the research community and the animal welfare lobby over the need for new testing centres in the country.

Some 3,000 primates - mostly marmoset and macaque monkeys - are used in British labs each year.

Three-quarters of them are employed in toxicology tests - checking to see if new drug compounds are likely to be harmful if carried forward into human trials.

The predominant view in science is that monkeys' physiological similarities to humans - we are also primates - make them powerful tools to investigate the diseases and fundamental biology of people.

But that closeness also raises an acute ethical dilemma - and there is growing pressure for the relatively small numbers of non-human primates used in tests to be reduced still further.

Now, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust are setting up a working group to examine the recent, current and future scientific basis for biological and medical research involving non-human primates.

Members of the working group, which will be chaired by Sir David Weatherall, will be drawn from outside the non-human primate research community. The group will include a broad range of scientific expertise, in addition to ethical and lay representation.

Sir David said: "We hope to establish areas where alternatives, such as genetically modified mice or computer modelling, might be an appropriate option.

"Equally, the study will examine areas of research where there is likely to be continuing need. The working group also hope to outline what, if any, new ethical, welfare or regulatory questions emerge from the conclusions of the scientific review."

Animal welfare groups will be pushing for an end to primate experiments altogether.

They argue that many of the tests induce needless suffering and provide worthless science.

Of course the animal rights groups will only accept the answer if it is that such experiments are ended. The idea that they are genuinely interested in a debate is ridiculous, and these eminent academic societies are naive if they think otherwise. The animal rights groups will keep up the pressure until the research community gives in (and the required work goes elsewhere). Of course the animal rights groups really have a common interest with the drug companies. Animal experiments are very expensive and the drug companies would like nothing better than to not have to conduct them. The only problem is that they will get sued out of existence as soon as the first patient is harmed by a drug that has not been tested on animals first, so the experiments will continue until the governments of the world make it illegal to sue drug companies for the harmful side effects of their drugs.

Date published: 2005/03/23

Iraq war a crime of aggression (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Iraq war amounted to a "crime of aggression", the former deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Office has said.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst made the claim before war in her resignation letter, obtained by the BBC News Website.

But part of the letter has not been released. A report on Channel 4 claims it shows the attorney general changed his mind on the legality of the war.

The attorney general's spokesperson said Lord Goldsmith's independent view was that action in Iraq was lawful.

Ms Wilmshurst resigned from her post on the eve of war because she did not believe military action in Iraq was legal.

In her resignation letter, Ms Wilmshurst says military action in Iraq was "an unlawful use of force" which "amounts to the crime of aggression."

"Nor can I agree with such action in circumstances which are so detrimental to the international order and the rule of law," she says.

The letter was requested by the BBC News Website's World Affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds under the Freedom of Information Act - but part of the letter was not revealed.

The Foreign Office said the missing part was covered by exemptions relating to the professional privilege applying to a law officer in the formulation of government policy.
...
According to Channel 4, in the missing piece Ms Wilmshurst says: "My views accord with the advice that has been given consistently in this Office (the foreign office legal team office) before and after the adoption of UN security council resolution 1441 and with what the Attorney General gave us to understand was his view prior to his letter of 7 March. (The view expressed in that letter has of course changed again into what is now the official line.)"

The significance of the missing paragraph is that it appears to show a late change of mind by the attorney general.

It's been pretty clear all along that Goldsmith changed his mind and that he did so because Tony Blair told him to find an excuse to change his mind. Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes. (Goldsmith too, probably.)

80000 homes need to be demolished yearly in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Eighty-thousand houses need to be demolished yearly for the next decade if the UK is to meet its climate change commitments, research suggests.

The demolition of older houses built to low environmental standards would be four times the current rate, Oxford University researchers said.

It would mean the replacement of about 14% of homes, with 220,000 new homes built and others improved.

The government plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050.

The government said the report was "timely" and that it was committed to improving energy efficiency in homes.

Just over 25% of Britain's carbon dioxide emissions come from housing - either from fossil fuels burned in the home or the use of electricity generated from fossil fuels.

At present there are about 24 million homes, with about 180,000 more built each year. Only 20,000 are demolished.

Note first that the 80000 yearly demolition figure is not, as the article claims, just for the next decade. The current figure is 20000 and the report suggests that the rate is increased so as to reach 80000 in 2016 and then it stays at that level until 2050. Also, the figure of 220000 new homes built is per annum, but the 14% of homes is the total demolished between now and 2050. So the BBC has managed to garble the report somewhat.

As for the report itself, one has to hope that they have done the sums carefully (the full report is not available on the web as of today but there is a 20 page "executive summary" available on the Oxford University Environmental Change Institute website). In particular one could estimate that the cost of demolishing and rebuilding a house can range from 60000 to 100000 pounds (and that is if you just want mediocrity, not quality), and that requires a heck of a lot of compensating energy saving to justify being done just for the reason being given. (If the houses require expensive renovation in any case the demolition is more easily justified.) One has to wonder if we are getting to the stage where the government is going to tell a home owner to demolish and rebuild their house at their own cost, or face massive fines or going to prison. This is the world we live in today, run by control freaks. (Of course they all claim they are "saving the world". Right.)

Female prisoners should be treated differently than male ones (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

As the prison population rises, more and more women are being locked up. Critics, however, believe women offenders should be treated differently from men and now the government has outlined plans to build female rehabilitation centres as an alternative to jail.

The fact the female prison population has nearly trebled in the last 10 years will be of little concern to some people. The punishment fits the crime, they may say.

But the government is investigating another option. Home Secretary Charles Clarke has just allocated £9m to build two new female rehabilitation centres, following two pioneering schemes in Glasgow and Worcester. Mr Clarke is concerned that locking up women breaks up families.

The new "community and support centres" will offer non-violent female offenders "one-stop shop" services for help with issues such as drug abuse, mental health, housing, childcare and domestic violence.

Campaigners say the rocketing numbers of women prisoners is a shocking story because most female offences are theft-related and the causes of female crime differ to male crime, so require a different response.

For instance, they claim that half of women prisoners - far more than men - have suffered physical, sexual or mental abuse.

Can you imagine the BBC running this kind of blatantly sexist story if the male and female roles were reversed? If most female offences are theft-related and that is somehow a mitigating circumstance then it ought to be just as mitigating for male prisoners incarcerated for theft, i.e. this should not be an issue of gender but of how specific crimes are punished. Also, the idea that male prisoners have not suffered physical or mental abuse or equally damaging societal treatment before they ended up as criminals beggars belief. You do not see many children of the middle class ending up as prisoners when they are adults. And it is amazing that Mr Clarke is allegedly concerned that locking up women breaks up families but he supposedly doesn't care that locking up men breaks up families. (But you have to wonder if this is the opinion of Mr Clarke or just the opinion of the BBC, distorting the opinion of Mr Clarke.)

Date published: 2005/03/22

UK annual birdwatch survey (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The house sparrow tops the table for the highest number of sightings in the UK's annual Big Garden Birdwatch.

An average of 4.56 sparrows per garden were seen during the count, conducted over the weekend of 29-30 January.

Even so, this represents a huge decline in numbers from the first such survey organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds back in 1979.

Then, an average of 10 sparrows per garden were observed; it means over the period there has been a 54% decline.

The sparrow swaps places with last year's number one - the starling. It averaged 3.63 birds per garden - again, a massive drop on 1979, when 15 could be seen over the two-day period.

The blue tit completes the top three.

Nearly 400,000 people watched their gardens and local parks during Big Garden Birdwatch.

Over six million birds were recorded and 210,000 gardens surveyed.

Richard Bashford, the Big Garden Birdwatch co-ordinator, said: "Big Garden Birdwatch allows hundreds of thousands of people to get involved with a project that tells us how some of our best loved birds are faring.

"This sort of survey enables the RSPB to understand more about the population trends of UK garden birds."

As with most of these kinds of reports on the BBC, this reads just like a press release from the RSPB. Unfortunately the survey is non-scientific so its results have to be taken with a pinch of salt. In particular back in 1979 there were almost certainly fewer people taking part in the survey, and these people were probably more expert at identifying birds, and these people were almost certainly more bird-friendly so had gardens encouraging birds, and these people were quite possibly more middle class so had bigger gardens, so all in all it is not too surprising that there were so many more birds observed in 1979. Note specifically that the survey numbers quoted are per garden not per hectare, which is already worrying just by itself. Is there any quality control done on the survey submissions? Does the RSPB not have any worries about their methodology?

Latest UK greenhouse gas emissions figures (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, rose by 2.2% in the year 2002-2003, according to new government data just released.

Environmental groups have accused ministers of failing to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions in 2003 were higher than when Labour came to power.

But the output of other greenhouse gases is falling, meaning that Britain is still on course to meet its Kyoto Protocol targets - just.

One reason behind the rise in emissions was the changing cost of basic fuels; the price of coal fell by 8% during the year, while gas rose by roughly the same amount.

But data also show that emissions from certain sectors - notably housing and transport - have been steadily rising for years.
...
The various greenhouse gases vary widely in their "global warming potential" - the relative amount of warming produced by a given amount of the gas.

Comparing the volume of various gases would be meaningless; instead, scientists combine the volume with the global warming potential and express it in units called MtC - million tonnes of carbon equivalent.

Between 1997, when Labour came to power, and 2003, Britain's output of the three most important greenhouse gases has been:

Emissions of greenhouse gases in total are now 13.4% below 1990 levels, the baseline against which Kyoto Protocol targets are measured; Britain's target is 12.5%.

But carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by only 5.6%. The government admits it will fail to meet a unilateral target, contained in Labour's manifesto for the 1997 election, of reducing CO2 by 20% from 1990 levels by the year 2010.

According to Friends of the Earth (FoE) UK, efforts to tackle climate change are "a disaster".

Of course the so-called environmentalists claim everything and anything is a "disaster" because they have to justify their existence by always claiming that the world is at an end. (Some of them also want us all to go back to living in caves.) Up to switches in fuel source (e.g. from coal to gas, as the UK has done, hence the drop since 1990), emissions are highly correlated with economic growth, something which the ruling elite often refuse to recognise (indeed, some claim the opposite).

Blair wants to keep religion out of politics (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Religion should not play the same role in British politics that it does in America, Tony Blair has said.

Mr Blair said he did not want a system where politicians went out "beating their chests about our faith".

The prime minister was speaking to a Christian group already addressed by the Tory and Lib Dem leaders.

During a questions session, he warned that "we are piling up problems for the future" when inner city women start families when "very, very young".

"It is important that they get role models at school and in the community, where they see it is not a great life, trying to bring up a single parent family aged 17 or 18 - actually it is pretty miserable," he said.

Downing Street later insisted Mr Blair did not want to blame any particular group for the ills of society.

Mr Blair was speaking to church leaders, other faith representatives and community activists in London about his vision for the role of faith in the UK.

The lecture was organised by the Faithworks Movement, which hopes faith will be a hotly contested election issue.

In the questions session after his speech, Mr Blair was asked about reports that Alastair Campbell had once told an interviewer who asked about Mr Blair's faith: "I'm sorry, we don't do God."

Mr Blair said faith was very important on a personal level but could quickly become misinterpreted.

"I don't want to end up with an American-style type of politics with us all going out there and beating our chests about our faith," he said.

People were defined by their faith but it was "a bit unhealthy" if it became used in the political process.

What is happening with our prime minister, he's starting to make sense, after several years of doing and saying everything wrong. We definitely don't want the religious nutters involved in the running of Britain like those that run and have ruined America.

Date published: 2005/03/21

Condoleezza Rice a natural born comedian (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has warned North Korea it faces "other options" if it does not co-operate in six-nation talks on its nuclear plans.

She was speaking in China at the end of a Asian tour that has focused on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Ms Rice also said a new Chinese law targeting Taiwan secession highlighted the risk of the EU's plan to lift its arms embargo on China.

The EU imposed the embargo after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Ms Rice appealed to China to reduce tensions with Taiwan, which Beijing sees as part of its territory.

"The anti-secession law was not a welcome development because anything that is unilateral that increases tensions, which clearly, the anti-secession law did increase tensions, is not good," Ms Rice told journalists after talks with Chinese leaders.

"Anything that is unilateral that increases tensions is not good." That joke will be told again and again in the corridors of power in China. It's amazing they managed to keep a straight face when she said this (perhaps the irony was lost in translation). They must have wondered if this was the best person that George Bush could have chosen to represent America. Needless to say, the Chinese don't really care what the Americans think. The US is digging its own hole on its way down and China is playing the long game on the way up.

G8 conference in Derby (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environment and development ministers from the G8 group of leading countries have committed themselves to tackling the problem of illegal logging.

They have also agreed that action is needed to protect Africa from the consequences of climate change.

Their statement of intent came at the end of a meeting in Derby, UK, and will be considered at the G8 summit in July.
...
The Commission for Africa report, released during the week preceding the conference, formed the basis for many of the discussions.

It labelled subsidies as "environmentally destructive" and "ethically indefensible", and said that trade tariffs should be dismantled within five years.

But the G8 ministers' statement steers clear of such issues; it acknowledges that Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change, that it represents a threat to development, that measures to reduce vulnerability are needed and that African nations need assistance in understanding climate risks.

On forestry, the statement commits G8 nations to "encourage, adopt or extend public timber procurement policies that favour legal timber", and to assist producer countries to tackle illegal logging through combating corruption and strengthening law enforcement.

Mostly hot air, mostly because of US obstructionism and unilateralism.

UK GM crop study (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The fourth and final test of a GM crop grown under UK farm conditions has highlighted the detrimental effects the novel plants can have on wildlife.

The tests of a winter-sown oilseed rape showed the management of the biotech crop could reduce the weeds and seeds available to some birds and insects.

And scientists found these effects could linger in fields year after year. But they also stressed the picture was complex and there were circumstances in which GM might be beneficial as well.

The results for three other types of engineered crops (a spring-sown oilseed rape, a sugar beet and a maize) were published in October 2003.

The £6m UK Farm-Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of genetically modified (GM) plants have been described as the biggest ecological experiment in the world and a model for measuring the impact of new farming techniques on the environment.

And scientists believe they have raised major questions about how we farm and manage the countryside - over and above what type of crop technology is used in the field.

"The FSEs have drawn attention to an issue of balance," said Professor Chris Pollock, the chair of the FSEs' Scientific Steering Committee.

"They've highlighted that what's good for the farmer is not always good for the population of weeds, insects and birds that share that space.

"It is the way in which different forms of agriculture affect this balance that is exposed so clearly in the FSEs."

"What's good for the farmer is not always good for the population of weeds, insects and birds that share that space." Give these guys a gold medal for such brilliant observations. The whole study is absurd and was carried out only because the UK government was trying to find an excuse for not allowing GM crops to be sowed. If what is "good for weeds, insects and birds" is going to be the prime determinant of UK policy then the government had better stop all human activity in the British Isles and make it one big nature reserve. And of course no matter what these studies show, the anti-GM fanatics would not care. Their objections are religious. (They had one of the usual suspects on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning and when pressed whether he could say anything positive about GM he said no. So it is as black and white as that. This is a technology, perhaps the only technology, for which there is no good and only evil.)

Date published: 2005/03/20

Anti-war protests in London (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Protesters in the UK have been marching against the war in Iraq - two years after the US-led assault began.

Police say about 45,000 people joined a demonstration in London, while organisers put the figure at 100,000.

There was also a protest in Glasgow and demonstrations took place in over 30 cities across the world as part of an international day of action.

Protesters placed a coffin outside the American Embassy in London with the words "100,000 dead" written on it.

A reasonable turnout given that it's already two years since the illegal war started. It will only mean something if Blair and/or Bush are charged with war crimes by an international tribunal.

Archbishop Williams hates abortion (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has joined the debate on abortion by calling for an urgent review of the current law.

Rowan Williams said scientific progress and the "rising number" of abortions made a debate on the issue essential.

Last week, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, called for abortion to become an election issue.

Dr Williams, writing in the Sunday Times, said he hoped the questioning of candidates could prompt a wider debate.

Tory leader Michael Howard supports a reduction in the legal limit when abortions are allowed from 24 weeks to 20 and has said current rules are "tantamount to abortion on demand".

But Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it clear he has no plans to change the law.

He says abortion should not be an election issue, arguing it is a matter for individual conscience.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said he had previously voted for a 22-week limit but medical advances mean "I don't know what I would do now".

Dr Williams said the large majority of Christians considered abortion "the deliberate termination of a human life".

The current law had created a "groundswell of distaste" in the country at large, he said.

Dr Williams said technological advances had provided a clearer picture of foetuses' consciousness and sensitivity to pain, and helped to keep prematurely-born babies alive.

That had prompted "a sharper recognition of the foetus as a natural candidate for 'rights' of some kind", he said.

Dr Williams said raising the issue with parliamentary candidates - though unlikely to lead to any electoral pledges - could help to open up a necessary public debate.

"It would be a real failure if agreeing that it was not an electoral issue provided an alibi for taking it seriously as a public issue," he wrote.

Dr Williams insisted that Christians must be allowed to take part in that debate.

He said the idea that it entailed capitulating to what he called "a Neanderthal Christian Right that was plotting a takeover" was alarmist nonsense.

Williams hates gays and hates abortion and is part of the Neanderthal Christian Right (a.k.a. fundamentalist Christian nutters, like the people who run America). Isn't it amusing that the religious fanatics start quoting science to try and justify their fundamentally anti-scientific position. It is just the usual disingenous commentary one comes to expect from such people. They are not interested in reducing the legal limit for abortions from 24 to 22 or 20 weeks, they are interested in abolishing abortions completely, and if they were honest about their intentions they might get a bit more respect.

On this issue Blair seems to be the only reasonable party leader, although he will swing in the wind if and when public opinion does change. Too bad he screwed up so badly in Iraq, he might have been remembered as a reasonable prime minister otherwise.

Date published: 2005/03/18

New A14 Speed Cameras (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A new type of speed camera which is being installed on the A14 will cause more accidents, not fewer, a driving organisation has claimed.

As reported by the News, the Highways Agency has announced £2 million worth of measures to cut the accident rate on the road between Cambridge and Huntingdon.

A new speed limit of 60 mph will be policed by the Specs camera system which measures motorists' average speed over a stretch of road instead of at a particular point.

The cameras work by capturing a car's number plate twice and then using the time elapsed between the two points - which can be several miles apart - to calculate the average speed.

But the Association of British Drivers (ABD) has attacked the plan, saying Specs cameras are even worse than the notorious Gatso cameras because motorists will be concentrating on their speedometers rather than the road.

But road safety officers in Nottingham, where the cameras were first used, say fatalities were cut by 100 per cent in the first three years and other injuries were cut by a third.

Nigel Humphries from the ABD said: "In theory the Gatsos are supposed to be placed at accident blackspots but these cameras just cover a whole stretch of road so people will drive along looking at their speedometer and switch off to what is going on around them.

"A whole army of children could walk into the road and you wouldn't see them. I think the number of accidents on the A14 will go up with these cameras.

"Most of the accidents on the A14 are not caused by speeding. They are caused by people running into the back of stationary traffic. It's just amazing ignorance that they think this will work.

"That stretch of the A14 needs to be upgraded into a motorway - that would solve the problem. They have failed to invest in the proper road that Cambridgeshire needs and so they are trying to divert attention onto the motorists and blame individual drivers for what's happening.

"At the end of the day the accidents are happening because that road is too busy, not because people are speeding."

Specs cameras were first introduced on two notorious stretches in Nottingham in 2000 and Scott Talbot, project co-ordinator of the city's safety camera network, says it has had a major effect on the way people drive.

He said: "We had lots of nasty accidents and casualties and we couldn't do much with the roads because they had shops and buildings by the side of them.

"The initial system covered about 1.5 km of road and within that 1.5 km there were about two deaths a year, they were very bad roads. In the three years after the cameras were installed there have been no fatalities on those stretches, a 100 per cent reduction.

"Before they were installed the average speed was well above the speed limit but since then the average speed has been reduced by about four miles per hour.

"People driving along those roads have commented that there is a lot less congestion because the faster cars go the bigger the gap they have to leave. Now pretty much everybody on those roads drives at the same speed so you get a much smoother flow of traffic."

Well, you never know, the cameras might reduce accidents. Average drivers do drive less safely when there are cameras because of constantly having to pay attention to the speedometer, but wreckless drivers might be slightly less wreckless, so the overall situation might improve. The real problem here is indeed the A14 itself, and the police should lock up Blair and his cronies for criminal neglect for doing nothing about this, rather than harassing drivers. The idea that one of the two most important roads for Cambridge has to have a 60 mile an hour speed limit is an indictment of the squalid state of transport in Britain after eight years of Labour misrule.

UK Directory Enquiries (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Consumers are paying more to obtain phone numbers than they did prior to abolition of the 192 directory services, an official report says.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has been looking at the replacement, in August 2003, of 192 with more than 100 helplines, all pre-fixed with 118.

Edward Leigh MP, chairman of the public accounts committee, said the public "has lost out" through the changeover.

But Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, said services had recently been improving.

The NAO report concluded:

Mr Leigh was damning in his assessment of the role of Oftel, the forerunner of Ofcom, in deregulation.

"This is an instance where competition was not needed and is not helpful. "

"Yet Oftel almost had a blind faith that competition was always good and jumped in feet first."

"The general public has lost out. Most of us are paying more and do not appear to be getting a better service."

The problem was not so much with Oftel as a whole but with the economists who worked for Oftel who used models that were so simplistic (in particular missing indirect costs and benefits such as simplicity and belief in the good intentions of a service) that they couldn't even see that competition was not necessarily a good thing for consumers.

Date published: 2005/03/16

UK 2005 budget (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown has doubled the level at which house buyers pay stamp duty to £120,000 as he put the economy at the heart of Labour's election campaign.

The chancellor also unveiled a one-off £200 council tax refund and free local bus travel for pensioners.

Mr Brown froze petrol duty but slapped 1p a pint on beer, 4p on a bottle of wine and 7p on 20 cigarettes.

The stamp duty threshold change will help nobody, it just means that all buyers under that threshold have more money to spend on the house they want to buy, and so will, and so the price will increase to compensate. And at £120000 the stamp duty increases from £0 to £1200. Hardly rational.

The one-off council tax rebate is a blatant election bribe.

All-in-all a typical package from Gordon Brown. In the next few days the usual hidden gotchas he hasn't mentioned will become clearer.

UK farmers allegedly want to grow GM crops (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The president of US biotechnology giant Monsanto says genetically-modified crops could be grown in the UK within five to 10 years.

Hugh Grant told Radio 4's Farming Today programme that his firm's research suggests the majority of UK farmers want the chance to grow GM crops.

Following a five-year national debate, the government said last year GM crops can be grown on certain conditions.

Critics say more research is needed to determine if GM crops are safe.

Monsanto, which pioneered GM crops, announced it would close its European seed cereal business in the UK in 2003.

Mr Grant told the programme he finds the pace of change in Europe frustratingly slow and rejects the view that UK consumers are worried about the safety of GM products.

He says more than 1bn acres of GM crops have been planted around the world and farmers from China to Brazil are literally reaping the benefits.

He also insisted that GM technology could be used in future to produce a range of crops with distinct health benefits.

However, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth said biotechnology firms have been promising such "super crops" for years and failing to deliver and that much more research is needed into the effects of GM food.

The usual wishful thinking from Monsanto in support of GM crops and the usual disingenuous talk from FoE in opposition to GM crops. Europe will be left in the GM backwater, which no doubt pleases the FoE and their supporters in the chattering classes.

Practical Sustainable Development: the challenge of long term strategy in day to day Government (permanent blog link)

The fifth lecture of the university's Third Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2005) was given today by Nick Mabey of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit (PMSU), London. He was trained as a (mechanical) engineer but became the chief economist of WWF before moving on to the Foreign Office and now the PMSU.

All the previous speakers in the series were old and it was starting to look like Sustainable Development was a field populated by people on an easy path to retirement. So it was good to see a fresh young face. And as you would expect from someone in the PMSU, he gave the impression of being a clever technocrat. Clever enough in fact that you wonder whether people like that should be wasting their time in or near government rather than working in engineering actually solving the problems of the world rather than just diagramming them.

He made a joke at the beginning that he was going to zip through his slides and that that kind of style was called "Shock and Awe" in the PMSU. (Something about being able to get through 200 slides in half an hour proving that you are providing value for money.) He then proceeded to indeed zip through his slides (probably less than 200, but hard to know for sure).

His first slide said "the views expressed in this presentation are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect official UK government policy". Then he launched into a general discussion of how to accomplish change progressing towards sustainable development, before discussing three specific recent projects at the PMSU: fisheries policy, energy policy and countries at risk of political instability.

Now the presentation was extremely professional (lots of boxes with arrows going between them) and having been both a poacher and a gamekeeper he did a good job of pointing out both sides of the various issues, between the ideals of sustainable development and the practicalities of dealing with government departments and politicians. The latter in particular don't like complexities, they just want a simple solution with a pithy strapline, and part of the game of this kind of technocrat is to make sure the politicians pick the desired strapline.

On fisheries policy he said that nobody (neither the scientists nor the fishermen) trusted the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). He claimed that the problems with the CFP were often thought to stem from politicians not listening to scientists, but in fact the failure was instead systemic. In particular compliance (or more accurately, lack of compliance) was a major issue. Apparently it is a common view amongst the bureaucrats of Europe that the fishermen are all to blame for the situation. Apparently fishermen are dismissed with the sneering comment "fishermen are hunters" (and so will seek out and destroy fish no matter what the rules).

So some bureaucrats apparently believe that the only solution to the fishing problem is to regulate the fishermen even harder. Well, Mabey said that the annual fishing industry revenue in the UK was around 546 million pounds, the profit was around 125 million pounds and the cost of government regulation of the industry was around 120 million pounds. So there is not a lot of point to increasing regulatory cost. But currently less than 1 percent of boats are inspected at sea. So the only way forward is to create a culture where compliance is the norm. (Easier said than done.)

He did mention that global warming was going to make a nonsense of a lot of the models predicting fish stocks, and so scientists were going to have to adjust their thinking as well. (And if global warming is going to kill off a species in the near future then there is little point worrying how much fishermen catch today. But it would be a brave scientist who had enough confidence in any of their own predictions to say so.)

On energy policy he said that by 2020 80% of UK oil demand and 84% of UK gas demand would have to be imported (equating to 75% of UK energy supply). This is a turn-around from recent times for the UK (because of the North Sea). But he said other countries coped so the UK should be able to, but we needed to worry about the security of supply, etc.

Blair has signed up to the idea of reducing UK CO2 (all greenhouse gas?) emissions by 60% by 2050 from the 1990 levels. Of course Blair can promise anything he wants about 2050, he'll be dead by then so won't be held accountable. In order to add some credibility they said the target would also be 20% by 2010 and perhaps around 30% by 2020. Now the 20% target might not be met, but the only reason we are anywhere close is because of the "dash for gas" (which Mabey did not mention), which in its own way is a disaster in the making (wasting a precious lightweight energy source on fixed location uses like power generation, rather than saving it for mobility).

Mabey claimed that a lot of these energy targets are really there for diplomatic reasons as much as anything else, to convince other countries to do something about global warming. (But this seems a bit implausible. A lot of it is to pander to the chattering classes in the UK who believe the world is about to end.)

Later he said that one way to get people to pay more attention to problems is to "reframe" the issues. What this means is to come up with catch phrases which people like. So instead of saying "we are going to cut emissions by 60%", which sounds drastic and bound to harm the economy, you instead say "climate change is about investing to secure the benefits of a stable climate". Well this summarises the problems with modern goverment, it is the victory of style over substance. (Bush is at the top of this game, with his administration producing fake "news" videos for distribution which are just propaganda for administration policies. Blair is not far behind.)

On countries at risk, Mabey did not have that much interesting to say. Except that apparently the PMSU has designed a tool to do risk assessment for these countries (http://www.policyhub.gov.uk). It's hard to take this seriously, but what the heck.

At the end there were a couple of questions from the audience. One chap complained that people still used GDP to measure progress and this was all wrong, some other measure (NDP, net domestic product) was the way to go. Well Mabey pointed out that at least GDP had a theoretical underpinning, which a lot of the suggested alternatives did not. And is it not amazing how the comfortable middle classes always think GDP is irrelevant. It's ok if you have a comfortable middle class job. This same chap asked about the "joined up government" which Blair had promised. This chap had been on the council of English Nature and he said when they laid out their objectives it was clear that the biggest obstacles to achieving these were not corporations but were other government departments. Mabey dealt with this one deftly as well, saying that where there were obvious silly incompatibilities between goals of different departments then these were easy to fix, but normally the incompatibilities came about because different departments (quite reasonably) had different priorities. And you have to wonder if anyone who works for English Nature ever had the thought that perhaps they were the obstructors, and not the other side. (No doubt the other side thought so.)

Date published: 2005/03/15

Harlequin ladybirds deemed to be evil (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A UK-wide survey is being launched to track an alien ladybird that threatens the existence of native species.

The harlequin (Harmonia axyridis) was first spotted in Britain in September last year and is largely confined to the South East.

But the invader is a voracious predator that easily out-competes home bugs for food and is likely to spread north.

Scientists want gardeners and wildlife enthusiasts to report sightings of the pest to www.harlequin-survey.org.

The launch of the survey, which takes place at London's Natural History Museum, is timed to coincide with the coming of milder spring weather.

"I understand from the Met Office that we could have temperatures of 17-19 Celsius by the end of the week and that will wake the ladybirds up," Dr Michael Majerus, of Cambridge University, told the BBC News website.

"We're hoping not only to monitor the harlequin and its impact but also to use the whole study as a model for how to deal with invasive species."

Yes, so-called conservationists are control freaks and like to play God. They decide which species are allegedly acceptable in the UK and which are not, dependent on some arbitrary date when the species first arrived. And those "alien" species that are too new and "troublesome" by some arbitrary criterion should be exterminated and the "native" ones encouraged. If anyone used the same phraseology when talking about humans as these scientists do when talking about plants and animals then they would be deemed racist and beyond the pale.

As it happens, it is not that easy to identify this ladybird (just go to the websites and see if you can really figure it out) and one can just imagine hordes of enthusiasts up and down the country massacring ladybirds (= ladybugs to some people) with little discrimination. Around ten years ago in Cambridge there was one summer where there was a "plague" of ladybirds and ever since then there have hardly been any, so perhaps this new species will bring the overall population up again.

Abortion as an election issue (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair does not believe abortion should be an election issue, arguing it is a matter for individual conscience. The prime minister's spokesman set out Mr Blair's view after the top Catholic in England and Wales backed Michael Howard's stance on abortions.

The Tory leader supports a reduction in the legal limit from 24 weeks to 20 and has said current rules are "tantamount to abortion on demand".

The prime minister has made it clear he has no plans to the change the law.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "The Catholic church has a well-known position on this issue and it was one of many issues the Cardinal mentioned and therefore it should be seen in that context."

His words came as Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, backed Mr Howard's stance and distanced himself from Labour.

In a statement, he said abortion was a "very key issue", saying: "The policy supported by Mr Howard is one that we would commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion."

Cardinal O'Connor claimed Labour had "developed" the notion that it was the natural party of Catholics, but he said: "We are not going to suggest people support one particular party."

For once Blair is making sense. And as usual Howard is not. (To call the current situation "abortion on demand" is ludicrous.) Some people believe the cardinal should not speak out on political matters, but he is as entitled as the next person to do so. Of course we are also entitled to point out that his views are medieval and should be ignored. Unlike America, abortion is an unimportant electoral issue in the UK, so this is all a storm in a teacup.

Talking shop for environment and energy ministers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environment and energy ministers from 20 countries are meeting in the UK to discuss climate change and how to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

As well as representatives from the G8 group of rich nations, ministers from emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil are taking part.

The two-day brainstorming session, which will take place in London, will not involve binding commitments.

Instead, ministers will exchange ideas and discuss new technologies.
...
The Kyoto treaty, which came into effect last month, aims to cut the carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions of industrialised nations to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

But the US administration has argued that meeting the target would cost millions of US jobs, many of them "exported" to developing countries where pollution would continue anyway.

"The target that was given to the United States was so unreasonable in our ability to meet it that the only way we could have met it was to shift energy intensive manufacturing to other countries," James Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environment Quality, told the BBC.

"That has economic effects and that also has job effects."

Unless some real scientists and engineers are involved in the talks, its hard to see this as being anything more for most of the attendees other than a convenient excuse to be a tourist in London. But Connaughton has one point, which the so-called environmentalists usually miss, and that is that since China is not bound by Kyoto, just shifting high-greenhouse-gas jobs to China from the West does not actually accomplish very much. The net benefit to the planet is zero or possibly negative.

Date published: 2005/03/14

Genetic tests and insurance in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers have struck a deal to extend a moratorium on the use of genetic test results to deny people insurance.

The current agreement with the Association of British Insurers was due to run out next year.

But Health Secretary John Reid announced on Monday the moratorium would be extended to November 2011.

Ministers hope the deal will reassure people who might be put off taking a test for fear the results could prevent them obtaining insurance.

At present, few predictive genetic tests are available, but it is likely that many more will soon come on stream.

Their use could potentially help save lives.

The new framework will mean that at present the only people who will have to disclose their test results are those who have undergone a test for Huntington's disease, and who are seeking life insurance cover for more than £500,000.

The Huntington's test is currently the only one approved by the government's Genetics and Insurance Committee (GAIC).

Insurers will be able to ask for the results of any future tests also approved by the GAIC.

But any life insurance policy for less than £500,000, and any critical illness or income protection policy for less than £300,000 will be exempt.

Currently, 97% of policies are for cover less than these amounts.

In addition, genetic tests taken as part of a research study will not have to be disclosed to insurers.

This will ensure that insurance worries will not affect patient recruitment to scientific trials.

It would be a brave person who trusted the medical profession, the government and the insurance industry enough to be reassured by this all.

Date published: 2005/03/13

Labour wants to win Cambridge at the General Election (permanent blog link)

Labour, like the Lib Dems, is gearing up for the forthcoming General Election (in May). Anne Campbell is the Labour candidate and is the incumbent MP for Cambridge. Two nights in a row Labour leaflets have dropped through the letter box. Needless to say the leaflets are typical party political fodder, of more use in the recycling bin than anything else.

In one of the leaflets there is the claim that "Lib Dems cost you more" on the council tax, with a misleading graph to "prove" the point. The graph is misleading because the y axis (showing the Band D monthly charge) goes from 95 to 155 pounds instead of 0 to 155, hence magnifying the size of the increase (a typical ploy amongst people who are trying to deceive). There could be three reasons why the tax has been increasing faster in the last few years (when the Lib Dems have run Cambridge) than it did in the few years before that (when Labour did): (1) the Lib Dems waste more money; (2) the Lib Dems are providing more services; or (3) central government has not been fair in its allocation to Cambridge (most of the money for local services comes from the central government rather than via the council tax, and a small shortfall in the former thus requires a large increase in the latter). Needless to say nobody is going to give an unbiased opinion of which combination of these three things is responsible for the increased tax, so the voter is left in the dark.

In the same leaflet there is a statement in another article that students at Manor Community College "were using new whiteboards purchased with money made available by the Government". Well if that's the best that Labour can do for education in Arbury then it's pretty pathetic.

One of the other leaflets suggested "five things you can do without leaving home", of which one was:

Keep an eye on our opponents. Let us know if the opposition deliver a leaflet or canvass you. Don't throw their leaflets away, send them to us, we want to see them.

This looks like it is going to get nasty.

Two million people to die in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government plans to tackle a predicted bird flu pandemic have been attacked by a scientist who fears an outbreak could kill two million people in the UK.

Professor Hugh Pennington, president of the Society for General Microbiology, criticised ministers' "optimism" and said a vaccine needs to be ordered now.

Experts predict bird flu will mutate with human flu leading to a pandemic.

The government says its plans to tackle an outbreak - which include stockpiling antiviral drugs - are comprehensive.

Bird flu has killed at least 47 people in South East Asia over 15 months and there are suspected cases of the virus being passed between humans.

The World Health Organization (WHO) fears 100 million people could be killed worldwide - the 1918 pandemic killed 50 million, including more than 200,000 in the UK.

Professor Pennington, who says the 2 million death toll is an estimate, said: "They (the government) are being very optimistic about how they see it developing over the next year or two.

"We know that the virus, when it gets into people - which doesn't happen very often but has happened in the Far East - is very, very lethal, much more than the ordinary kind of flu virus that we're used to," he told BBC News 24.

"If it does that and it keeps this ability to kill, where it kills between 60% and 80% of the people it infects, that's were these big numbers of deaths come from."

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday, he said the government hoped the problem would "go away" and likened its attitude to the BSE crisis.
...
However, BBC medical correspondent Fergus Walsh said Professor Pennington's estimation could be too low.

He said, based on WHO estimates that one in four Britons could become infected and a mortality rate of 75%, the figure would be about 11 million.

The government says vaccines cannot be prepared for any human-to-human outbreak as it is not known what form the virus would take and how it would mutate.

But Prof Pennington said the structure of the virus had not changed a great deal in recent years and countries such as the US were already ordering supplies.

He said that while it may never be needed, Britain could get stuck "in a queue" for a vaccine if it waits too long.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Liam Donaldson has previously said: "The plan set out recently outlines many other steps which will be needed to reduce the pandemic's impact.

"The NHS and the government are taking steps to ensure we are as well prepared as we can be to cope with this."

Yet another article claiming the world is about to end. The general public has no way of knowing whether this is just more alarmist nonsense or a real threat.

Date published: 2005/03/12

The problem of an ageing population (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Employment ministers from the G8 countries are meeting in London to discuss the challenges posed by their ageing populations.

The UK is currently chairing the group, comprising seven of the world's leading industrialised nations, and Russia.

All G8 nations have working populations that are declining as a percentage of their overall populations.

The ministers will be looking at how to raise employment rates, particularly among older workers.

"All countries need to face up to the consequences of an ageing society," said UK pensions minister Alan Johnson.

"A declining working age population means we need to redouble our efforts to get as many people in employment as possible so they are able to save and plan for their retirement."

Many developing nations, however, are facing a different kind of demographic change and the problem of youth unemployment there will also be on the agenda.

Migration between countries of the world is one way to help mitigate this problem. Of course many people are xenophobes so migration is not generally considered to be a politically acceptable option. Migration could work in two directions. The old-population countries could send old people to young-population countries to be looked after in retirement. (For example British retirees could move to India. At least the weather is better. And the cost of looking after them is lower.) And young-population countries could send young people to old-population countries to fill out the workforce. (This is the more traditional direction of migration. But for obvious reasons it usually sucks out talented people from the originating country, rather than a random sample.)

UK inheritance tax takings soar (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The number of properties worth more than the inheritance tax (IHT) threshold could nearly double to four million by 2015, the Halifax has said.

The threshold for paying inheritance tax, currently £263,000, has not been keeping pace with house prices.

As a result, the amount of money the government makes from IHT has risen from £1.6bn to £3.3bn since 1997.
...
The Halifax calculated that the IHT threshold would be £390,000 if it had been increased in line with house price inflation over the past 10 years.

More special pleading from the financial services industry for less tax on things that (indirectly) affect their business. Needless to say the IHT threshold is arbitrary and the tax rate above the threshold (40%) is arbitrary, but everything to do with tax is arbitrary. Perhaps the "principle" should be that everything gets indexed with inflation. That might mean that we could get rid of all the civil servants who spend all their time tinkering with the tax rules (and perhaps we could get rid of Gordon Brown as well). The government is addicted to tax and its entire strategy is to suck up additional tax from groups who don't complain loudly enough to the media. (The biggest victims currently being car drivers, smokers and people who don't breed like rabbits.)

Date published: 2005/03/11

Live in a Violent Universe (permanent blog link)

The eighth and final lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2005 was by Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist who worked in Britain for many years before moving to Australia (currently at Macquarie University, Sidney).

Whereas previous lectures in this Darwin "Conflict" series were about conflicts between humans, this lecture was about "violent" events in the universe, so completely different. Cosmologists have a hard time justifying their existence these days, and one of their best angles is to talk about possible extraterrestial initiated catastrophes which could wipe out much life on Earth. These are low probability events, but ones which have occurred in the past. And low probability events have become all the rage in society because they cause such big effects. (Terrorism being the main current example, just look at all the hysteria politicians have created over that because they want to scare their citizens into submission.)

Davies talked about three types of catastrophe, in growing magnitude of disaster. First he mentioned the well discussed cosmic impacts, e.g. from a comet or asteroid hitting the Earth. The solar system is around 4.5 billion years old, and apparently for the first 700 odd million of those years the Earth was regularly pounded by objects up to several hundred kms across. Indeed it is believed that a Mars-sized object once hit the Earth and as a result enough matter was ejected to create the Moon. These kinds of impacts can cause mass extinctions. The last such mass extinction was around 65 million years ago and the current view is that an object around 20 km across was responsible for that catastrophe.

Perhaps once a century we have an impact by an object of 10s of meters across, the last one being in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, and that did some serious damage. Davies claimed that a 1 km object impact would possibly kill a billion people. Of course you can say just about anything you want when catastrophes get that big, for who is going to prove otherwise. Davies claimed that if you added up all the possible probabilities of collision by objects of various sizes, multiplied by the numbers killed in each case, and took the average, then there was around one in a million chance that any of us would die this month. That sounds high, and even if the calculation is theoretically correct, it is a bit meaningless since the frequency and impact of the low probability events are basically "finger in the air" jobs.

Of course Davies said that we would all be much better prepared if only government funded astronomers (and cosmologists) to look out for these deadly asteroids. Well, all scientists always want more money for their own field, and if you have to peddle scare stories to achieve that, then that is apparently a price worth paying.

He did at least mention that catastrophes may be bad for some species but they might be good for others. For example, the object that wiped out the dinosaurs created the environment in which mankind would eventually flourish. And Davies claimed that the Cambrian explosion around 580 million years ago, when the number of species shot up, might have been the result of the impact of an object which created just the right environment for life to take off.

He next talked about exploding stars (or supernovae) as a possible disaster for life on Earth. A supernova explosion can be of order 10^30 hydrogen bombs, so huge. If one happened close to Earth it would all be over (and fairly quickly). Apparently some scientists have recently claimed that there was a supernova explosion around 2.8 million years ago which was close enough to Earth that it left some detectable debris (with an iron-60 signature). But not close enough to cause serious problems. And a few weeks ago it was reported that there was a neutron star with a glitch in its magnetic field which spewed out as much energy in a tenth of a second as the Sun does in 100000 years. This would have been a problem if it had happened within 10 light years of Earth, but fortunately was around 50000 light years away.

Supernova also have their good points. For example, it is believed that the big bang created only hydrogen and helium, but carbon (generally believed to be crucial to life) can be created in the cores of stars, and supernova can spew this carbon into the interstellar medium.

Davies next talked about the big bang itself. Apparently this was equivalent to around 10^55 hydrogen bombs. Of course life would not exist at all without the big bang. Now the big bang created a largely uniform distribution of matter in the (observed) universe, with the fluctations being measured in the last few years to be of order 1 in 100000. These fluctuations led to the formation of galaxies, and apparently if the fluctuations were much bigger the universe would just have made monster black holes, and if the fluctuations were much smaller the universe would just have been boring nothingness. So it is a lucky "coincidence" that the fluctuations were of the size they were, otherwise we wouldn't be here. (And since we wouldn't be here it is obvious that the "coincidence" had to have happened.)

This led him on to state that there were ten or fifteen such "coincidences". (He specifically mentioned one first noticed by Hoyle, that to get carbon you need three heliums to collide in just the right way, and this just happens to work in stars because there is a resonance at just the right energy.) And what are the odds of all these coincidences? Well this is the kind of pseudo-philosophical question which has led cosmology to more and more resemble religion the last decade or two. Cosmologists can say whatever they want about these types of questions because there is no way to test the theories one way or the other. Apparently they are even talking about our universe being only one part of a vast "multiverse" (or "megaverse"). It's amazing that they can talk about this stuff with a straight face.

UK backs down on CO2 emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK government has announced tougher limits on greenhouse gas emissions following pressure from the European Commission.

The announcement will enable UK firms to join fully with the fledgling European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), a key component in EU plans to combat global warming.

It may also allow the government to avoid a damaging political row at an electorally sensitive time.

Under the ETS, every EU member country has to set a limit - a National Allocations Plan (NAP) - on the amount of carbon dioxide which its industrial plants can produce during the next three years.

Each government must then divide up this limit between the companies involved, each company receiving an 'allowance', which it can trade with other companies at a rate set by the market.

The aim is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a business-friendly fashion.

Britain published what it called a 'draft' figure in April; the government calculated that during the period 2005-7, UK companies involved in the scheme should produce no more than 736 million tonnes of CO2.

With some small caveats, the European Commission approved the plan.

Then, in October, the government revised its limit upwards, to 756 million tonnes; the reason, said Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett, was that forecasts of Britain's energy demand had changed - the country would need more energy in the next three years, and so would need to produce more CO2.

Environmental groups accused the government of caving in to demands from big business, and the Commission was clearly not convinced that the UK, alone among EU countries, had a case for raising its emissions cap.

The result has been a stand-off, which the Commission has clearly won; the government has gone back to its original figure of 736 million tonnes, though it aims to take legal action against the Commission.

This is one example where big business is on the side of the workers and the so-called environmentalists are on the side of the rich. The rich are happy to dictate to the poor that the latter should not consume any more, and that is what these rules will really mean. Big business of course wants the workers to consume more, because they can then make bigger profits.

UK terror law passes (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The marathon debate over new anti-terror proposals has finally ended after more than 30 hours with the government's bill being passed.

The end to the stalemate came after the Conservatives accepted Prime Minister Tony Blair's promise that MPs would be able to review the bill within a year.

The PM denied it was the Tory-proposed "sunset clause in all but name". The bill, which prompted the third longest recorded sitting of the House of Lords, later received royal assent.

Well the UK is now officially a police state. The government can order you to be detained without any real evidence against you other than tattle from the police or the security services. Blair should now be held personally responsible for any terrorist incident in the UK, since this dreadful bill was supposedly required to prevent terrorism, and it will do no such thing. It will just be used to harrass first Muslims, and then other dissidents.

Date published: 2005/03/10

BBC Question Time in Shanghai (permanent blog link)

BBC Question Time held a special edition in Shanghai, China, tonight. It was interesting mostly to see what some people were prepared to say and what the government spokespeople were not prepared to say. David Dimbleby (the chair) said at the beginning that the Chinese government had allowed the audience to be picked by the BBC (some of these were expats) except for some small (unstated) percentage "suggested" by the Chinese goverment. It was pretty obvious during the show which of the commentators from the audience were independent and which were government plants. (In the UK version of the programme there are always low-level representatives from the various political parties in the audience, so it is only subtly different.)

The five people on the panel were Chris Patten (the ex-governor of Hong Kong), David Tang (a fashion designer), Long Yongtu (chief Chinese negotiator on trade), Isabel Hilton (journalist) and Liu Jianchao (government spokesman). Needless to say the two Chinese government representatives were the most regressive. But of the two, Jianchao was much more reasonable, perhaps because he was younger, or perhaps because he was just better at spin. Tang stood out above all the other panellists because he went against the party line, although always carefully.

There were five questions discussed. The first one was about whether Hong Kong should have democratic elections and when. (Or course the current chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, has just resigned, so now is an opportune moment.) Pretty much everyone said yes, there should be elections, at least eventually, although Yongtu gave the usual party line of "what is democracy anyway?". (This is not a totally vacuous question because the US claims to be "one person one vote" but ex-felons in America are not allowed to vote because the Republicans want to lower the Democratic vote. So the US is not really "one person one vote".) Of course the fact that the British had ruled Hong Kong for a hundred years without having any elections was mentioned several times. So British views carry no weight in China.

The second question was about the Chinese view of Taiwan, and in particular whether China should have passed a recent law saying that if Taiwan proclaimed independence then China had the "right" to invade. This is the kind of question where the Chinese prove they are just as petty and stupid as all the other peoples of the world. (Tang excepted.) The bottom line for most Chinese people is "Taiwan is China". Whether or not Taiwan wants to be with China is not considered to be relevant. A couple of people brought up Argentina/The Falklands/Britain and Spain/Gibraltar/Britain to supposedly prove that Britain is just as bad as China. Unfortunately (which Patten and Hilton stupidly did not point out) these are examples which show the exact opposite. The people of both the Falklands and Gibraltar want to be British. The people of Taiwain (currently) do not want to be Chinese. It is Argentina and Spain that are more like China. (But of course the UK behaves stupidly nationalistic on other issues.)

The third question was about whether Chinese kids today are too spoiled and too materialistic. This is the kind of dumb thing which many people like to claim in all societies. The Romans and Greeks no doubt claimed the same. One person in the audience remarkably said he had come back to China after ten years in the States and he was actually impressed with the Chinese youth. And another person in the audience unbelievably claimed that actually many kids of rich people were more interested in spiritual matters rather than money, and it was those horrid poor people who were so materialistic. Yeah, right.

The fourth question was about a recent US State Department report that human rights were being violated in China. Of course nobody takes anything the US says seriously any more, and here this is especially true given the serious US human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and in all US prisons. Indeed Patten said that if the West wanted to be treated seriously by China on human rights then perhaps the West should get its own act together first. Both Patten and Hilton said that China did indeed abuse human rights, and in ways more seriously than in many other countries. (Dimbleby mentioned an Amnesty International report on China which Hilton certainly took more seriously than anything the US government said.) Jianchao gave a lame excuse that China had human rights enshrined in law. (Well, that's ok if the rule of law is obeyed.) Yongtu took an even harder line, comparing human rights name-calling between countries with similar name-calling on trade, but refusing to admit there were any problems in China. Tang again made the bravest stand. He said that he did not know about specifics but said that when he went abroad he was constantly questioned about human rights abuses and at those times he felt ashamed to be Chinese.

The final question was about whether China would overtake the US to be the world's number one economy by 2030 or 2040. Well several people mentioned that this depends whether you are counting GDP or GDP per capita, but even on the latter count it seems China could pass the US by 2050. Patten claimed that in pre-industrial times (so presumably in the 17th century) China created 30% of the world's GDP (well, he said wealth, but presumably he meant GDP), but by 1950 that was down to 5%, however it was expected to climb to 20% by 2030. So fairly amazing.

India wins landmark patent battle (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

India has won a 10-year-long battle at the European Patent Office (EPO) against a patent granted on an anti-fungal product, derived from neem.

EPO initially granted the patent to the US Department of Agriculture and multinational WR Grace in 1995.

But the Indian government successfully argued that the medicinal neem tree is part of traditional Indian knowledge.

The winning challenge comes after years of campaigning and legal efforts against so-called "bio-piracy".

Leading the campaign in the neem case was the EU Parliament's Green Party, India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE) and the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
...
A challenge was first mounted against the patent when it was granted in 1995. In 2000, it was victorious, but the US multinational mounted an appeal. On Tuesday this week, that appeal was lost.

The backbone of RFSTE's challenge was that the fungicide qualities of the neem tree and its use had been known in India for over 2,000 years.

The neem derivatives have also been used traditionally to make insect repellents, soaps, cosmetics, tooth cleaners and contraceptives.

In 1995, WR Grace patented neem-based bio pesticides, including Neemix, for use on food crops. Neemix suppresses insect feeding behaviour and growth in more than 200 species of insects.

But the EPO agreed that the process for which the patent had been granted had actually been in use in India for many years.

Under normal circumstances, a patent application should always be rejected if there is prior existing knowledge about the product.

But in the United States, "prior existing knowledge" is only recognised if it is published in a journal - not if it has been passed down through generations of oral and folk traditions.

Three cheers for a victory for common sense over corporate interests. For once the Green Party has done something useful. And it's nice to see Europe telling the US to get lost over its predatory IPR policies.

British Airways sponsors Kylie (permanent blog link)

British Airways sends out regular emails, and today we discover:

British Airways is delighted to be The Official Airline of the forthcoming Kylie Show Girl Tour.

Kylie Minogue starts her tour in Glasgow Saturday, 19 March and travels to major cities in the UK before visiting Europe, ending her tour in her native Australia.

We would love you to share our excitement and we have a number of tickets available at venues in the UK to give away to lucky winners.
...
We are unable to offer travel arrangements to the concert venues, so all winners must ensure that they make their own travel arrangements.

Don't keep this to yourself. Click here to send details of Kylie's Show Girl Tour to a friend.

Good Luck

Yours sincerely

Andrew Shelton Head of Leisure Marketing, British Airways

British Airways: The Official Airline of The Kylie Showgirl Tour

BA using sex to sell airplane tickets. How the mighty have fallen.

Date published: 2005/03/09

Nuclear powered space rockets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The US space agency (Nasa) is progressing with ambitious plans to explore the Solar System using nuclear power.

Their hope, eventually, is to use electricity generated by nuclear power to propel a space probe and power its instruments on a voyage to the icy moons of Jupiter, satellites that just possibly might harbour life beneath their ice.

Before then, nuclear technology could be proved with a less ambitious mission, perhaps a nuclear-powered probe to the Moon.
...
Many space scientists agree that nuclear power is the only viable way of exploring the outer Solar System.

Would you trust NASA not to have a rocket blow up in the atmosphere and spread nuclear material everywhere? Then again, that might be the best thing that ever happened to Florida.

Volcanoes spell the end of the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Geologists have called for a taskforce to be set up to consider emergency management in the event of a massive volcanic eruption, or super-eruption.

The recommendation comes in a report timed to coincide with a BBC TV drama that depicts a fictional super-eruption at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, US.

Experts say such an event would have a colossal impact on a global scale.

A super-eruption is also five to 10 times more likely to happen than an asteroid impact, the report claims.

The authors want to highlight the issue, which they feel is being ignored by governments. They emphasise that while catastrophic eruptions of this kind are rare in terms of a human lifetime, they are surprisingly common on a geological scale.

The effects, say the authors, "could be sufficiently severe to threaten the fabric of civilisation" - putting events such as the Asian tsunami into the shade.

The fallout from a super-eruption could cause a "volcanic winter", devastating global agriculture and causing mass starvation.

More hype from scientists pleading for more money for their own research. Hardly anything "factual" gets on TV any more unless it proclaims the end of the world is near. The bit about "common on a geological scale" is a good laugh. We don't need to plan on a geological time scale. Spending billions or millions of euros worrying about an extremely low probability event, which will cause massive destruction no matter what we do, is a waste of money. But it makes for great television, which is why the BBC is giving this story air time.

Date published: 2005/03/08

European Union patent law (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Controversial European Union proposals setting out a new patent regime for the software industry cleared an important hurdle yesterday, when EU industry ministers broke a 10-month stalemate and voted in favour of the draft law.

Their decision sets the scene for a fierce battle with the European parliament, which is deeply sceptical of the law but which must back the proposal before it can take effect.

The legislation has already caused a deep rift within the high-tech industry: while large companies such as Nokia, Philips and Siemens are strongly in favour, smaller companies and individual software developers are opposed. In its present form, the law - often described as the software patents directive - would allow companies to register a patent for software that makes a "technical contribution". But critics argue that the text is too generous, and would also allow patents on "pure" software such as Microsoft's Windows operating system. They say such patents would prevent developers from building on widely used lines of code, which would stifle innovation and concentrate patents in the hands of big corporations.

Supporters of the law dismiss such fears. They warn that companies will stop investing in research and development if they cannot win protection for their inventions.

Companies will not stop investing in research and development if this dreadful law does not pass. Much more likely they will invest more in research and less in lawyers. And big companies are not the engine of growth and innovation in the world, small companies are. This law will just allow big companies to squash small companies by out-spending them on lawyers, or of a threat to do so. A bad day for Europe.

Europe pushes for fusion site (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Europe has made it clear it will not wait beyond June to reach international agreement on where to site Iter, the experimental nuclear fusion reactor.

EU ministers said on Monday they wanted the matter resolved before the current Luxembourg presidency ends.

Europe believes Iter should be built at Cadarache in France, but other project members are backing Rokkasho in Japan.
...
After the International Space Station, it would be the largest global research and development collaboration.

But the six international partners - the EU, Russia, China, the US, Japan and South Korea - are deadlocked on a location decision.

The only reason this is still being discussed is because the Americans decided to back Japan out of spite against France over the Iraq war. Europe, Russia and China should tell the others to get lost and get on with it. It wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing to have two sites in any case.

Date published: 2005/03/07

House of Lords votes against Blair on terror bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Peers have defeated the government over its anti-terror bill, voting by 249 to 119 to ensure all control orders will be made by courts and not ministers.

The government had wanted only the more serious control orders involving house arrest to be overseen by judges.

Among 20 Labour rebels was ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine - Tony Blair's boss when he was studying for the Bar.

It's a sad state of affairs when the unelected House of Lords is the only body standing in the way of a proposed law which gives the UK executive the authority to lock anybody up without charge and without due process. The elected House of Commons is pathetically shameful in comparison. The fact that Blair's buddy Irvine (who amongst other things introduced Blair to his wife) voted against Blair is the most telling blow. "Et tu, Brute?" You might hope that Blair would get the hint, but unfortunately his messianic style will mean he will continue to pursue the original course. Only the Labour parliamentary party will be able to kill Blair off, and that will not happen this side of the election (and perhaps not even after the election, since Blair is likely to win big again). Blair is easily the biggest threat to democracy in the UK.

Date published: 2005/03/06

A terrorist under every bed in the UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens says more than 200 Al-Qaeda "terrorists" are operating in UK and the threat of attacks is real.

He has backed proposed anti-terror laws, saying critics were naive about the "brutal" threat posed by fanatics.

Sir John, writing in the News of the World, said militants trained by Osama bin Laden "fester" across the country.

More hype from one of the usual suspects. Stevens doesn't really know how many Al-Qaeda operatives are in the UK, he's just making the figure up because it makes for a good story. Given the track record of both the intelligence services and the police, his statement carries little credibility. And the proposed anti-terror laws would do nothing to deal with this situation, since most of the guilty are not known (and most of those locked up will be innocent).

Date published: 2005/03/05

Fly and get someone else to pay for the environmental damage (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK is set to announce a scheme to promote clean energy in developing countries by paying into a fund every time a minister or civil servant takes a trip by air.

The idea is to offset the climate change impact of the carbon dioxide emissions from flying.

The scheme will begin next month in at least three departments - The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development (Dfid).

These are the major travellers and the fund from their flights could raise around £500,000 a year.

The proceeds will be invested in projects such as solar cookers in India, home insulation in the townships of South Africa and micro-hydro in Sri Lanka.

Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic. It's not as if the politicians and bureaucrats are paying for this out of their own salary. So why would they care how much this costs. Some of these people will probably even be happier to take more flights as they can thus force more money to be spent on foreign aid, and pretend they are "saving" the world. The only impact of this crackpot scheme is that more tax will be have to be paid by the workers of Britain to fund it.

Drop in numbers of Asian post-graduate students in UK (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Universities are experiencing a dramatic fall in the number of students from Asia enrolling on post-graduate courses, endangering the financial viability of some science departments.

The number of students from China signing up to courses has fallen by about 50 per cent at some British institutions, according to a survey from Universities UK, the umbrella body for higher education. Admissions departments say there has been a greater decline in recruiting to post-graduate research posts and courses than to undergraduate programmes.

Recruitment from China, Japan, Malaysia, India, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore, as well as the US, Norway and Turkey, has been adversely affected by increased visa extension costs and bad publicity surrounding changes to the immigration regime as well as the strength of sterling, UUK said.

The association called for the British government to follow the US, which last month abandoned tighter anti-terrorist immigration policies after Ivy League and state universities experienced recruitment difficulties. Students from outside the European Union provide £1.25bn in tuition fees, and 7 per cent of the total higher education budget, according to UUK. Many institutions have become increasingly dependent on this income.

Well the caveat "at some British universities" should be noted. But if the UK insists on treating foreign students badly then they will go elsewhere. It's not as if UK post-graduate education is the best in the world.

Date published: 2005/03/04

Cambridge snow photos (permanent blog link)

Cambridge had a small amount of snow this morning, it did not last very long but see here for some photos.

Jack Straw says Syria should leave Lebanon (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has warned Syria it risks being "treated as a pariah" if it fails to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

In a BBC interview, Mr Straw said more UN peacekeepers could be deployed in Lebanon to replace Syrian troops.

His comments come a day after Russia and Saudi Arabia joined growing calls for Syria to withdraw its forces.

Syria has come under intense pressure to pull out of Lebanon since a massive car bomb blast there on 14 February.

Lebanese opposition groups have blamed Syria for the attack, which killed popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - a charge Syria has strongly denied.

Mr Straw said Syria had no choice but to leave Lebanon, where there are about 15,000 Syrian troops and thousands of Syrian intelligence personnel.

"It has got to, it is very clear," he said, noting "every one of its neighbours is saying you have got to leave".

Pot, kettle, black. Perhaps the UK and USA should leave Iraq. Perhaps the UK should leave Gibraltar since "every one of its neighbours is saying you have got to leave" (in this case, the one neighbour Spain). Perhaps Israel should leave the Middle East. And it is interesting that Straw does not call Israel a "pariah" state although Israel has occupied the West Bank longer than Syria has occupied Lebanon. And we don't know who killed Hariri, it could easily have been the CIA or one of its sister organisations.

ID fraud allegedly rampant in UK (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A quarter of UK adults have had their identity stolen or know someone who has fallen victim to ID fraud, a Which? magazine survey has suggested.

Nevertheless, only one in three people said they shredded bills or used different passwords for every account.

ID thieves access accounts, run up bills, launder money, carry out benefit fraud and take out fraudulent loans.

ID fraud is one of the UK's fastest-growing crimes, with criminals netting an estimated £1.3bn last year.

The survey of 975 people found seven out of 10 favoured compulsory ID cards as a way to fight fraud.

This looks like the BBC has just regurgitated a press release from Which magazine. And not a very impressive press release. First of all the survey was (as usual) almost certainly not scientific (i.e. a random sample) so it is meaningless. Secondly it is a bit ridiculous to count people who are allegedly victims together with people who know someone who is allegedly a victim to arrive at the scary headline figure of one in four people. This would be like running a headline "95% of UK adults are homosexual, or know someone who is a homosexual". And the idea that compulsory ID cards would help fight ID fraud is dubious, it could end up being just another card with which to commit fraud.

Date published: 2005/03/03

Eat local food to save the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Local food is usually more "green" than organic food, according to a report published in the journal Food Policy. The authors say organic farming is also valuable, but people can help the environment even more by buying food from within a 20km (12-mile) radius. They calculate that moving food long distances can cause more harm than non-organic farming methods. Furthermore, "road miles" account for proportionately more environmental damage than "air miles", they claim.

Typical thoughts from the chattering classes who run the UK, and all part of the campaign to demonise cheap food. (Cheap food is ever so lower class. The peasants should eat what the chattering classes tell them to eat.) Unfortunately for the authors of the report, road transport is the only economic activity in the UK which pays for its environmental damage, so if consumers want to buy food which has come by road transport, they should be able to.

Date published: 2005/03/02

Trade, Environment and Development: Issues, linkages, challenges and opportunities (permanent blog link)

The fourth lecture of the university's Third Annual Lecture Series in Sustainable Development (2005) was given today by Paul Ekins of the Policy Studies Institute, London. He classified himself as an environmental economist, so more on the policy than on the technology side of sustainable development.

He gave an overview of some of the issues to do with trade and the environment, but without offering any real way forward one way or the other. It is obvious that he falls more on the environment rather than the trade side of these issues.

He started with globalisation, which he said some people (read, economists) think of as "liberation" (so offering democracy, poverty eradication, etc.) and others (read, so-called environmentalists) think of as "enslavement" (corporate control, environmental degradation, etc.). (Well, now that Bush has started using the word "democracy" in every other sentence, it suddenly has a sinister meaning. But let's take the positive, traditional, meaning of that word here.) He claimed, as is the standard view, that globalism is more and more of a factor in the world.

He then talked about multilateralism. The issues here are the impact of such things as EU integration, the emerging developing country superpowers (China, India and Brazil), the nutty US administration pursuing its national interest, religious fundamentalism and international terrorism.

He then listed some of the obvious environmental problems: climate change, biodiversity, chemical pollution. He gave the usual line that we don't know, and may never know, the impact of these if allowed to continue as now, but by the time we do know the environmental degradation may be very costly and irreversible. He claimed the current situation was "unprecedented". Don't they always say that. Unfortunately you have to give a better argument than that something bad might happen unless you stop the world here and now (the so-called precautionary principle). If you can't give coherent quantitative analyses with error bars then you should not be allowed to have any input on public policy.

He then got onto the main points about trade versus the environment. The 1948 GATT Treaty prescribed non-discrimination in trade between nations, through reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers. Article XX allowed an out, namely a nation could put up barriers to trade for reasons of health or natural resources.

Most economists believe that trade provides a win-win situation, because of the theory of "competitive advantage". (It is certainly win-win for economists since they get paid far too much money given how useless most of them are.) But Ekins said this theory relies on capital not being mobile, and of course it is these days. So it's possible that trade is not win-win. And Ekins recommended that rather than relying on theories, economists should actually do empirical work to see what is the impact of trade. (Well, no doubt some of them do.)

Of course this is all complex. And the most complex area of them all is agriculture, which has additional concerns to do with security of supply. (You can do without a digital camera but you cannot do without food.) Here we got the usual British comfortable middle class view that agriculture should not just be there to produce food at the lowest possible cost. This is all very well for rich people to state.

Apparently GATT (and its replacement since 1995, the WTO) provided for special and differential access for the poorest countries. But needless to say things have gone almost the exact opposite way, particularly in service industries, where rich countries have enforced rigid and debilitating IPR rules on the rest of the world, and in agriculture, where rich countries have vastly subsidised their farmers to the detriment of farmers elsewhere. (But when the energy cost of transport skyrockets this might not have been a bad thing all along.)

You can see that politicians and civil servants and academics could produce endless reports on this subject with all the politically correct jargon in it. But it's hard to see any of this is advancing "sustainable" development.

Date published: 2005/03/01

Addenbrooke's Hospital staff car parking (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Staff who park at Cambridge's Addenbrooke's Hospital have been hit by higher parking charges.

The cost of parking will rise in April by 66 per cent - from 60p a day to £1.

Hospital worker Richard Grenfell was shocked to discover a sign stuck on the car park gates telling staff of the change.

"They have been increasing the charges by about 10p per year for the last few years -but this is a huge increase," he said.

"I can understand why they are doing it as they are trying to encourage people to use the park and ride buses.

"I think it will push a lot of cars on to the side roads and will not succeed in decreasing congestion around the hospital."

Dr Wyn Hughes, service development manager at Addenbrooke's, said staff parking changes were first announced in January 2004 and have been discussed with union representatives.

He said the reason for increasing charges was to encourage staff to use other methods of travelling to the hospital.

A year or two ago the Addenbrooke's managers were moaning that it was hard to get staff to work there, and conveniently blamed it on the high price of housing in Cambridge. Perhaps they ought to have looked closer to home. If you treat your staff like this then they won't want to work for you. Hint for the bosses: the best way to get to the hospital for most people (staff and customers) is by car. Remember, the customer is always right and your staff are always right. Repeat three times.

There is plenty of space for car parking on the Addenbrooke's site, only the Cambridge ruling elite have decided not to provide it. Mary Archer, the Addenbrooke's Trust chair, blames this on the city politicians not allowing more parking. But if the Addenbrooke's management wanted to do something about it they could force the city to stop being idiotic, and so since they do nothing we can only assume the management does not want to do anything about it except blame their staff (and customers).

Wolfowitz heading for the World Bank? (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Paul Wolfowitz, US deputy secretary of defence, has emerged as a leading candidate to replace James Wolfensohn as the president of the World Bank.

Mr Wolfowitz is one of a small number of people being considered for the US nomination, administration insiders said.

The nomination of Mr Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the Iraq war and a former US ambassador to Indonesia, would likely be highly controversial, and could raise new questions about the process by which the World Bank chief is selected. One administration official said his nomination "would have enormous repercussions within the development community".

Others on the US shortlist include Randall Tobias, former head of Eli Lilly and the administration's co-ordinator on Aids.

Leadership of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund is decided by all the shareholders in the institutions. But the US and Europe in effect divide up the top jobs, with an American heading the bank and a European running the fund.

So far this is just gossip, but it's hard to imagine Wolfowitz would be any better or worse than anybody else Bush nominated. Bush only cares about loyalty, not talent or integrity. Just because Wolfowitz was deeply involved with the Iraq fiasco does not mean he is a con (but the name "neocon" rather gives the game away). And he is still widely admired in Indonesia, and presumably elsewhere in Asia, so he might do a better job than expected (a low threshold, given that Bush manages to screw up everything he touches).

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