Azara Blog: May 2005 archive complete

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Date published: 2005/05/31

Cambridge access charge in the frame (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A councillor has demanded a full investigation into the possibility of a Cambridge congestion charge after the News revealed plans to freeze the number of cars going in and out of the city.

Cambridgeshire County Council has vowed the number of vehicle movements will stay the same over the next six years, despite thousands of new houses and jobs coming to the area.

The News put in a request to the council under the new Freedom of Information Act for the traffic forecast for Cambridge.

It responded by saying its target was to have 170,000 vehicles going in and out of the city every day in 2011 - almost exactly the same figure as now.

But this will be a tough target to meet, as major developments such as Arbury Camps and Northstowe will soon start being built and more and more people will be travelling to work in the area.

Cambridge City Council's lead member for transport, Jenny Bailey, has reacted by pushing for a major study to be carried out into the possibility of a congestion charge for the city.

The county council plans to use a series of carrots and sticks as its weapons. The carrots include the park and ride system and guided bus - which still has not got the final green light from the Government - and the sticks include limiting the amount of parking spaces in the city.

The city's streets are almost at full capacity and the county council's Cambridge projects manager, Richard Preston, said the target could only be achieved if commuters were persuaded to forsake their cars for public transport.

"With all the developments taking place around Cambridge, we will be seeking funding for sustainable forms of transport - we want to get more people on buses, more people cycling and more people walking," he told the News.

"We have set ourselves the target of trying to hold traffic coming into the city at its current level and only time will tell how successful that target is."

He added: "We are encouraged to set ourselves targets that are achievable but challenging.

"In order to use a car you need space on the highway and somewhere to park - we control those two things and our strategy has to take that on board. There will not be a massive increase in parking spaces in the city, so that will be a deterrent to drivers.

"There are a lot of people who say they don't want to use public transport and the challenge for us is to make public transport more acceptable. We have to make buses reliable and we have to get a higher frequency of services which cover more areas.

"We need to give people good-quality public transport so we are giving people a viable option."

He added that public transport such as the guided bus needed to be in place "from day one" when new residents began to move into areas like Northstowe, to create a public transport culture.

But Coun Bailey said the county council should be aiming to reduce the number of cars coming into the city, not keeping the figure the same.

She said: "It is disappointing they are predicting the same amount of traffic rather than less.

"My portfolio on the council comes down to the most basic thing - making the buses run on time.

"It is a gradual process. We need to start by making the bus services a bit better and we are working with Stagecoach to do that.

"If we put bus priority measures on the roads then we will make it a bit less comfortable for cars.

"People will have the chance to gradually change their lifestyle so they get out of cars and into buses."

She called for the county council to do an in-depth study to find out whether a congestion charge would be viable for the city.

She added: "Congestion charging is a two-edged sword.

"On the plus side it means you have fewer private cars in the city so the roads are clearer and buses run more smoothly. But the downside is some companies might move out of the city and people might choose to shop in Peterborough rather than Cambridge.

"I want a full study into it before we can make any decisions."

Mr Preston added: "The Government policy seems to be moving towards a more favourable view of congestion charging.

"It has worked for London, but Cambridge is not London. We are not saying we are going to do it but we are not ruling it out."

It should not be up to Mr Preston whether or not Cambridge has a so-called congestion charge (which would not be a congestion charge, but an access charge). He is just a jumped up bureaucrat. The decision should be up to the politicians. Unfortunately when you have politicians like Jenny Bailey and the other dreadful Lib Dems who now run town, you are in trouble. At least she seems to recognise that making the city even more anti-car than it already is might encourage shops and offices to move elsewhere. And in fact if the Cambridge ruling elite so hate cars (mostly for the sake of hating cars) then perhaps they should encourage shops and offices to move elsewhere. Perhaps there should be a large commercial and/or shopping centre to the northwest of Cambridge, with decent road connections. Nobody really wants to drive into Cambridge, because drivers know full well that the Cambridge elite would rather they drop dead, and make it as difficult and expensive as possible for them. If the Cambridge ruling elite want to stick two fingers up to everybody who doesn't grovel to obtain permission to enter Cambridge, and crawl to their every command, then the people should stick up two fingers in return and take their business elsewhere. The best thing that could happen to Cambridge is to sack anyone and everyone who has anything to do with transport planning.

Date published: 2005/05/30

EU lobbyists under scrutiny (permanent blog link)

The Guardian says:

The European commission has been accused of watering down plans to impose greater control over the activities of business lobbyists amid allegations that they have used their financial muscle and influence among legislators to secure pro-business changes to EU laws.

The Brussels "lobbycracy", thought to number 15,000 people representing 2,600 interest groups, is said to wield inordinate and unaccountable influence over the three institutions at the heart of the EU's legislative process: the commission, council of ministers and the parliament. The issue of their power has been heightened by recent disclosures that a new directive on money-laundering has been significantly softened in the European parliament by MEPs close to the financial services industry, including one who chairs a hedge fund and another who is an executive at a bank that is being investigated for money-laundering.
...
In March Siim Kallas, the commissioner for administration, audit and anti-fraud, proposed a "European transparency initiative" that could enforce a mandatory register of lobbyists. He admitted that current voluntary registers "do not provide much information on the specific interests represented or how it is financed".

He added: "Self-imposed codes of conduct have few signatories and have so far lacked serious sanctions. Lobbyists can have considerable influence on legislation ... But their transparency is too deficient in comparison to the impact of their activities." His remarks, at Nottingham Business School, raised expectations that he could opt, in a promised white paper this spring, for the full-scale, comprehensive register of lobby interests conducted in the US, notably in Congress, and Canada.

But the 25-member commission has watered down his plans, agreeing instead to set up a "study group" on whether registration is desirable or feasible - amid considerable scepticism inside the body about its purpose or effectiveness.

A green paper at most may be published later this year. The turnaround prompted 80 NGOs to launch a campaign, the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (Alter-EU), demanding mandatory disclosure rules to enable democratic scrutiny of the role of lobbyists in EU policymaking.

Erik Wesselius, of the Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory, said last night: "What Mr Kallas now seems to have in mind is just a code of conduct or a simple register. If that's the case it would be very disappointing and completely insufficient, especially as a mandatory system works marvellously in the US and Canada."

Who is he kidding? The US is one of the most corrupt political systems in the world, in spite of these allegedly marvellous lobbyist registers. Of course the EU ought to have a more transparent system, because it is also open to corruption. But the NGOs should also be registered (they are just as unaccountable as businesses), and in particular MEPs should disclose their NGO as well as their business interests. At least in the US everybody knows that the Washington elite are totally corrupt, in the EU nobody knows what is going on. But a register will not by itself make the system less corrupt.

TUC wants British employees to work fewer hours (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The TUC has launched an attack on the "myths" which it says surround the UK's opt-out on EU working hours rules.

Its report argues that Britain's long hours culture is bad for workers' health, and harming productivity.

This week the government will try to thwart a move by the European Parliament to end Britain's opt-out over the maximum 48-hour working week.

The TUC estimates 16% of the UK labour force - some 3.9m people - work more than 48 hours per week.

Tony Blair has said he wants to maintain British competitiveness.

The TUC says investigations have shown that regularly working more than 48 hours a week increases the risk of a range of illnesses, from heart disease to mental illness.

It disputes employers' claims that workers are keen to do large amounts of overtime. In fact, says the report, most of the extra hours are unpaid.

The TUC says the government's own research shows that two-thirds of workers putting in more than 48 hours a week have not signed an opt-out from the working time directive, which they are required to do by law.

The TUC also argues that excessive hours undermine economic performance. Despite working longer than most other EU members, Britain ranks only tenth in terms of productivity per hour.

Trade unions are stepping up their lobbying effort ahead of a meeting of EU employment ministers later this week.

Full-time workers in the UK work for an average of 44 hours, compared with about 40 hours in the 14 other longstanding EU member states, according go the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

The ETUC says around two-thirds of British workers are unaware of the 48-hour limit.

The UK is not the only country to opt-out from the 48-hour week.

Malta also opts-out, while Luxembourg has a limited opt-out for the hotel and catering industry.

Germany, France and Spain introduced an opt-out for the health sector after a ruling by the European Court of Justice, which said that time spent on-call counted as work.

The European Parliament has already voted to end the opt-out. But the move must also be supported by ministers.

The government says it is confident that will not happen.

The Department of Trade and Industry estimated that, in spring 2003, 20.4% of full-time employees usually worked more than 48 hours, compared to 23.3% in spring 1998.

First and foremost this article shows, as to be expected, that the various interested parties cannot even agree on the data. Interestingly the DTI estimates more British employees work more than 48 hours than the TUC does. And although the ETUC says the average full-time UK employee works 44 hours versus 40 for the other 14 "longstanding" EU member state, a chart in the BBC article implies that Eurostat estimates, for example, 43 hours for the UK and nearly 41 for France (which allegedly has a 35-hour working week). This is not a huge difference. And there is no good reason for the averages to be exactly the same, or to aim for that.

And what can you make of the statement: "Despite working longer than most other EU members, Britain ranks only tenth in terms of productivity per hour." Well if Britain only ranks tenth in productivity per hour then that is a bloody good reason why British workers need to work longer hours than other EU workers. Of course the TUC might argue that you could cut working hours and still maintain the same amount of overall productivity. Probably not too many people believe that. And who is it for the TUC or anyone else to say that someone cannot work longer hours if they want to, as long as the general (e.g. safety) rules are followed.

Date published: 2005/05/29

France rejects the EU constitution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

French voters have rejected the proposed EU constitution in Sunday's referendum, according to exit polls.

The polls give the "No" side 55% - in line with surveys published in the run-up to the vote.

If confirmed, the result will be a blow to President Jacques Chirac and France's two main political parties, which campaigned for a "Yes".

It could deal a fatal blow to the EU constitution, which the Union has been working on since the start of 2002.

The constitution cannot come into force unless it is ratified by all 25 EU members. So far nine had done so.
...
Those who rejected the treaty included Communists, various left-wing groups, dissident socialists and far-right parties.

Not a great surprise. So the French people have rejected the constitution written largely by the French elite. The centre has been outflanked by the extremes on the right and the left. The right largely voted against this because they are French nationalists (so akin to the people who dominate the UK Tory party). And the left largely voted against this because either they wanted to kick Chirac (a worthy cause, but not the issue at stake) or because they live in a fantasy world where in a global economy the French can be wealthy yet not work. In America a small majority of deluded voters delivered Bush into the White House although Bush works against most of their interests. (Well, there is some question whether Bush really got an honest majority or only achieved one through dubious disenfranchisement of Democrat voters.) Now in France a small majority of deluded voters has said they want to stop the planet and get off. The citizens of which nation are more deluded?

Date published: 2005/05/28

Phthalates are allegedly evil chemicals (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chemicals found in many everyday products can harm male reproductive development, research suggests.

Phthalates are used in the manufacture of plastics, lubricants and solvents, and are found in cosmetics, medical equipment, toys, paints and packaging.

The University of Rochester team, New York, found exposure to the chemicals was linked to a higher risk of genital abnormalities in baby boys.

The study features in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Previous research on animals has suggested phthalates may damage reproductive development by disrupting hormone levels.

But until now evidence of a similar effect on humans has proved inconclusive.

The Rochester team, who examined 134 boys, found women with higher levels of phthalate-related chemicals in their blood were more likely to give birth to boys with undescended, or small testicles, small penises, or a shorter distance than usual between the genitals and anus.
...
The conservation group WWF, which campaigns against harmful environmental chemicals, described the findings as "startling".

Gwynne Lyons, toxics advisor to WWF UK, said: "This research highlights the need for tougher controls of gender bending chemicals.

"At the moment regulation of the chemicals industry is woefully inadequate, and something needs to be done about this immediately."

One assumes the scientists did the research properly and made sure there was no correlation with any other chemicals (and of course, correlation does not prove causation, although the case here would on first sight be strong). The WWF makes the expected comments, presumably describing all findings that support their anti-chemical campaign as "startling". And is there any cause they support where they don't say "something needs to be done immediately".

Right to Roam extended to Wales and northern England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Hundreds of ramblers took advantage of the "right to roam" as large areas of northern England were opened up.

Walkers got "open access" to more than 500,000 hectares after a ceremony at Ribblehead in the Yorkshire Dales.

The weekend also marks the beginning of the right of access in Wales as part of the roll-out of access areas.

But landowners have warned the "right to roam" could falsely lead people to believe they could "drive in to the countryside and then just set out".

Douglas Chalmers from the Country, Land and Business Association said: "What does worry us is that people think this right to roam phrase has been used in the media, that they think they can just get in their cars, drive in to the countryside and then just set out".

The opening of land has also prompted fears among some landowners that farmland will be damaged and privacy infringed.

The "right to roam," granted by the Countryside Act, allows walkers, runners and climbers to roam the access areas. Vehicles are not allowed.

It also excludes access to cultivated farmland and gardens, and roamers must obey local restrictions.

Out and out theft by the State from the landowners on behalf of the chattering classes, most of whom are members of the urban elite. Obviously most ramblers behave themselves, but a minority do not, and the landowners will be expected to pay for the damage they cause.

Date published: 2005/05/27

Chief executives demand action on climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A group of Britain's leading industrialists has written to the prime minister urgently demanding long-term policies to combat climate change.

The heads of the 12 leading firms say climate change is a huge challenge that needs serious investment by business.

But they say they cannot invest because they are not sure what future government policies on climate will be.

The letter is signed off by the heads of BP, Shell, HSBC Bank, BAA, John Lewis, Scottish Power and more.

Between them the firms employ tens of thousands of people and have a turnover of £452bn.
...
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) successfully lobbied against proposed cuts last year. They said the measure would harm British business.

The Department of Trade and Industry and the prime minister have so far been backing the position of the CBI.

But in their letter the business leaders say they believe emissions cuts of 60% can be achieved in the UK without damaging competitiveness if firms use energy more wisely and harness new technology.

They believe measures to hold CO2 emissions to a safe level would reduce economic growth by no more than 2% by 2050.

They say bold policy action could actually boost Britain's profits by making the UK a world leader in low carbon technology.

The group say some of the technologies to achieve this goal already exist but need to be developed. Some are yet to be invented.

They point to a study showing that even if the UK starts seriously developing the market for zero emissions cars now, total emissions from cars will not start to fall until 2040.

The business leaders demand that the government establishes a long-term value for carbon emissions reductions and consistently supports and provides incentives for the development of new technologies.

Well that's one for the history books. You can ignore what so-called environmentalists say since they always claim it is the end of the world, and have zero experience actually doing anything (except writing Word documents and marketing their end-of-the-world hysteria). But business leaders have to be treated seriously. Of course big business loves nothing better than certainty, and a "level" playing field, so perhaps this letter is not that surprising. Especially given that they make the usual pleading for subsidies from government (now there is a surprise). And it's amazing that anyone can talk about the impact of measures in 2050 claiming that they know that the effect on economic growth of their (vague) proposals is exactly 2%. One should read this letter as a PR exercise from businesses keen to imply they are good citizens. Apparently Blair effectively asked for this letter to be written so he could cover his back side when he makes low carbon proposals. Needless to say, it will not be CEOs or Blair or so-called environmentalists who suffer from any such proposals. It will be the ordinary workers of Britain.

Suburbia a garden paradise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The urban gardener can now make even the smallest outdoor space a haven for wildlife, and buy in ladybirds, bumblebees and worms. Can suburbia rival the countryside for biodiversity?

With 15 million nationwide, the UK's domestic gardens cover an area greater than all of the designated National Nature Reserves in the country, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

And far from just manicured lawns and gnomes, many of them are being transformed into eco-friendly wildlife havens. Dumped are the packets of pesticides, instead it's pots of natural predators, such as ladybirds, that are flying off garden centre shelves.

Experts now think domestic gardens can provide richer habitats for wildlife and biodiversity than many found in nature. Research has also found while species are disappearing from the countryside, there has been a rise in diversity in the nation's backyards.

Up until now suburbia had been largely ignored by ecologists, and more was known about the world's remotest regions than the UK's own backyards. But recent studies have discovered domestic gardens are not the wildlife deserts many people assume.

Give (some of) the chattering classes at the BBC a gold star for stating the obvious. Unfortunately most of the UK chattering classes have still not gotten this far. In Cambridge, for example, garden after garden is being destroyed for the sake of squeezing another house (or sometimes a whole block of flats) onto the plot. The chattering classes on the whole still think that the monoculture industrial agricultural land that dominates the UK landscape is far more desirable than suburban gardens. As with most things in life, they are wrong. The countryside is sterile in comparison with your typical large suburban garden. (Of course the chattering classes might claim a lot of it is the "wrong" sort of biodiversity since it doesn't fall into one of their politically correct categories.)

The 20th Century Society wants to save the Cambridge bunker (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Campaigners protesting against the demolition of a concrete Cold War bunker are calling for a public inquiry.

Cambridge City Council gave the green light for demolition of the former standby Regional Seat of Government building off Brooklands Avenue in Cambridge.

The 1950s building was intended for use in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

Developers Countryside Properties have built houses and flats on the same site and want to pull it down. But the building has a grade II listing and so the case will now have to go to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for a final ruling.

But the London-based 20th Century Society wants a full public inquiry so they can put across their case that it should be saved from the bulldozers.

The organisation's director, Catherine Croft, said: "If the Cold War threat of nuclear destruction had come to pass, the Regional Seat of Government in a leafy part of Cambridge would have been just one of a number of impenetrable headquarters from which civil servants would have attempted to counter the devastation.

"Originally built in the early 1950s, it was expanded in the early 1960s in a brutalist style. It was listed grade II in July 2003, but despite this Cambridge City Council now want to allow its demolition.

"The 20th Century Society has joined English Heritage arguing that it is a building of immense historic importance, with a potent ability to convey the true horror of a period of uncertainty and fear that many people today are too young to remember. It could be used as a storage building if museum use is not viable."

The society's chairman, Gavin Stamp, added: "Here is brutalism for a really brutal function. We rightly preserve monuments as unequivocal statements from the past, and the survival of this bunker is important, for democracy, for openness, for historical truth."

But Chris Crook, managing director of Countryside Properties said: "Cambridge City Council has given full and thorough consideration to the future of the bunker, which resulted in the decision to demolish the building.

"The Bunker Preservation Trust has assured us it has no architectural or historic merit, and should an appeal against demolishing the bunker go to public inquiry we will maintain our current position supporting its removal."

The walls of the structure are several feet thick and Countryside Properties has estimated the cost of demolition will be around half a million pounds.

The Cambridge bunker has no architectural merit (well, there is a lot of ivy growing up it which hides the brutalism) but it does have some historic merit. Perhaps in 2525 the citizens of Cambridge will rue the day the bunker was lost, but you could say that about most things, even Coke tins. Buildings with no use serve little purpose in life. Of course you could just leave the bunker to become a classic ruin, it would take a few hundred years and maybe by then it would be appreciated. A couple of the town houses on the Brooklands Avenue site were sold for 1.2 million pounds, so although Countryside complains about the cost of demolition, they will make a pretty penny if they are allowed to demolish it.

Date published: 2005/05/26

Blair still keen on ID cards (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

ID cards are needed to stop the soaring costs of identity theft, Prime Minister Tony Blair has said as proposals for a national scheme were reintroduced.

The plan is for cards to be phased in from 2008, and made compulsory later.

The Conservatives have now decided they will join the Lib Dems and some Labour in opposing the measure.

Critics claim Mr Blair is highlighting ID theft as his other reasons for the cards have not won support. The cost of the scheme has risen since November.

The Home Office will not put a figure on the cost of setting up the cards system, saying it is commercially sensitive.

But the scheme will cost an estimated £584m to run every year - a cost of £93 per card, compared with an estimated cost of £85 per card in November.

Ministers stress they have not yet decided what fees people would have to pay for the cards.

Discounts would be available to some card holders but Home Office Minister Tony McNulty refused to speculate whether other people would have to pay more than £93.

He said the latest cost estimate was more "robust" than the figure given last November.

And he argued that 70% of the cost would be spent on new biometric passports whether or not ID cards were introduced.

No doubt by the time the actual sums roll in it will cost nearer £200. No large government IT project has ever come in anywhere near on budget and anywhere near working correctly. The 70% figure might be accurate, but you can't believe anything any politician says, so it's almost certainly a misleading statement. And it is disingenuous to mention that "they have not yet decided what fees people would have to pay for the cards". The actual cost is going to be the average cost, whether they like it or not. Sure, some "deserving" people (e.g. the "poor") might get a discount but other people will have to pay more to make up for it, either directly or via the tax system. After all, this is a zero sum game. If the introduction ends up saving more than the cost (e.g. in savings due to reduced ID fraud) then you could just about justify the scheme (ignoring the civil liberty issues). But is there any evidence this is true? And on the practicality front, it will probably be only major cities where the technology will be available to make a biometric ID, so many people will be seriously inconvenienced just getting a card. (And of course that cost, although smaller, is not factored into the equation.) Blair will be long gone before this all comes in, but it's almost certainly going to be another black mark on his record.

Expat UK pensioners treated like trash by the government (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A case that could have led to a rise in the pensions of nearly half a million Britons who retired abroad has been rejected by the House of Lords.

Annette Carson, who emigrated to South Africa in 1989, wanted her state pension to rise in line with prices.

However, the judge described Ms Carson's claim as "unjustified."

UK expats living in the EU have their pensions increased while those living in some Commonwealth countries have their pensions frozen.
...
Under bilateral agreements with countries including US and EU members, the government has upgraded pensions for British people who retire there.

But social security agreements with other countries such as Canada, South Africa and Australia were drawn up much earlier, in the 1950s, before inflation became such an important issue.

Critics of the current system believe it is an unfair lottery - and penalises people who have paid national insurance contributions all their working lives.

Well the judge is technically correct but the decision is dreadful. And the UK government is even more dreadful for allowing this system to continue (they, unlike the judge, have the power to fix the law directly). It's amazing how Blair and Brown love to pontificate about "solving" world poverty by throwing money at it, but at the same time are happy to screw these pensioners.

Date published: 2005/05/25

Major report into animal testing released (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Efforts to cut the suffering of animals used in testing are still hampered by poor funding and a reluctance by companies to release experimental data.

That was the reaction of campaigners as a major report into the ethics of animal testing in the UK was published.

Ministers have announced more funding for a national centre for the "three R's": refinement, reduction and replacement of animals in research.

The working group behind the report did not reach agreement on key issues.

The panel, set up by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, included scientists, animal rights groups, philosophers and a lawyer.
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On Tuesday, the government announced it was awarding £3m in funds to the recently established National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research for 2006-2008.

But some still regard the funding for such initiatives as a drop in the ocean.
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Others criticise the lack of information about animal testing. The working party accepted that rivalry between different scientific research teams and commercial confidentiality in industry complicated the sharing of information.
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David Thomas, legal adviser to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav), added: "Unless we are allowed that full information we cannot in my judgement have an informed debate."
...
The report concludes that it is unrealistic to assume that all animal experiments will end in the short term. The working party therefore appealed for open and rational discussion with "due respect for all views". It gives examples of where animals have proven useful models for the study of human biology and disease, but that the issue had to be judged on a case-by-case basis.
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But Andre Menache, scientific consultant to campaign group Animal Aid, said the Nuffield report was "a missed opportunity".
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"Adverse drug reaction is the fourth biggest killer in the UK today. That points to the fact that there is something wrong with the system that relies so heavily on animal experimentation."

The people who want to stop all use of (non-human) animals in experiments make the usual disingenous comments. If "adverse drug reaction is the fourth biggest killer in the UK today" then what would it be without animal testing. The big pharmas would love nothing more than not to have to do animal tests, think of all the money they would save. If only the governments of the world would promise to pay for all lawsuits arising out of drugs, that were not tested on animals, killing people. And unfortunately the number of tests on animals is going to rise in the EU in the short term, thanks to the so-called environmentalists, because more tests now need to be done to prove chemicals are safe. No doubt better work could be done on the analysis and collection of data on animal tests, and if the report does nothing else, it hopefully will push the government in that direction.

Amnesty International release annual report on human rights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Governments around the world betrayed their commitment to human rights in 2004, Amnesty International says.

In a 300-page annual report, the group accused the US government of damaging human rights with its attitude to torture and treatment of detainees.

This granted "a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity", the human rights advocates said.

The report also criticised the world as a whole for failing to act over crises, notably in Sudan's Darfur region.

Afghanistan was slipping into a "downward spiral of lawlessness and instability", it added.

The report, published on Wednesday, accused governments of adhering stubbornly to "politically convenient" but inefficient tactics to address terrorism in 2004, despite a lack of success.

What ever happened to Amnesty International? Does anyone care about them any more? Everyone knows the US government uses torture and this is bound to be bad for human rights around the world. The US government doesn't care what anybody thinks, never mind Amnesty International. The US is run by a bunch of power mad religious nutters who think God allows them to kill anybody and everybody who gets in their way. (Funny that they oppose abortion on the ground that human life is sacred.)

Yet another climate change pressure group (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke has said his fears over climate change prompted him to back a Friends of the Earth campaign to reduce carbon emissions.

The Big Ask campaign urges ministers to bring in new laws to reduce British CO2 emissions by 3% a year.

Mr Yorke said: "A 3% reduction in carbon emissions year on year is the only sane solution to this problem."

An NOP survey for Friends of the Earth suggests 73% of people think ministers are not doing enough on climate change.

Rich rocks stars are part of the problem (as are rich people in general). They are not part of the solution. Let them reduce their excessive consumption before pontificating about the environment. The Big Ask website (subsumed into the FOE website it seems) is relatively content free. But that is par for the course. And with all surveys, you can get the answers you want if you ask the questions with the slant you want. Ask people whether they are willing to take a 50% pay cut (directly, or indirectly via higher costs for goods and services), for the benefit of the environment. You might get a different answer. Of course, as usual, the BBC publishes what reads like a press release without question.

Date published: 2005/05/24

Wormhole Engineering 101 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

For budding time travellers, the future (or should that be the past?) is starting to look bleak.

Hypothetical tunnels called wormholes once looked like the best bet for constructing a real time machine.

These cosmic shortcuts, which link one point in the Universe to another, are favoured by science fiction writers as a means both of explaining time travel and of circumventing the limitations imposed by the speed of light.
...
But according to a new study by Stephen Hsu and Roman Buniy, of the University of Oregon, US, this method of building a traversable wormhole may be fatally flawed. In a paper published on the arXiv pre-print server, the authors looked at a kind of wormhole in which the space-time "tube" shows only weak deviations from the laws of classical physics.

These "semi-classical" wormholes are the most desirable type for time travel because they potentially allow travellers to predict where and when they would emerge.

Wormholes entirely governed by the laws of quantum mechanics, on the other hand, would likely transport their payloads to an undesired time and place.

Calculations by the Oregon researchers show a wormhole that combines exotic matter with semi-classical space-time would be fundamentally unstable.

This result relies in part on a previous paper in which Hsu and Buniy argued that systems which violate a physical principle known as the null energy condition become unstable.

"We aren't saying you can't build a wormhole. But the ones you would like to build - the predictable ones where you can say Mr Spock will land in New York at 2pm on this day - those look like they will fall apart," Dr Hsu said.

A separate study by Chris Fewster, of the University of York, UK, and Thomas Roman, of Central Connecticut State University, US, takes a different approach to tackling the question of wormholes.

Amongst other things, their analysis deals with the proposal that wormhole throats could be kept open using arbitrarily small amounts of exotic matter.

Fewster and Roman calculated that, even if it were possible to build such a wormhole, its throat would probably be too small for time travel.

It might - in theory - be possible to carefully fine-tune the geometry of the wormhole so that the wormhole throat became big enough for a person to fit through, says Fewster.

But building a wormhole with a throat radius big enough to just fit a proton would require fine-tuning to within one part in 10 to the power of 30. A human-sized wormhole would require fine-tuning to within one part in 10 to the power of 60.

"Frankly no engineer is going to be able to do that," said the York researcher.
...
However, there is still support for the idea of traversable wormholes in the scientific community. One physicist told BBC News there could be problems with Hsu's and Buniy's conclusions.

"Violations of the null energy condition are known to occur in a number of situations. And their argument would prohibit any violation of it," the scientist commented.

"If that's true, then don't worry about Hawking radiation from a black hole; the entire black hole vacuum becomes unstable."

The underlying physics of wormholes was not in doubt, the researcher argued. The real challenge was in explaining how to engineer wormholes big enough to be of practical use.

A bit of a joke this story. In fact, what is it doing in the "science" section of the BBC website, it ought to be under "entertainment". Theoretical physicists have been out in left field for decades now, and a good indication of that is all the quotes in the article about "engineering" wormholes. We can fairly safely predict that the following will happen long before the human race has to worry about the etiquette of wormhole traversal, listed in order of increasing difficulty:

The kind of theoretical physics being discussed is sterile (well, it's a religion, which is much the same thing). Put the money into something more useful. (For example, any of the problems listed above. Especially the Cubs.)

Date published: 2005/05/23

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paints bleak picture of the world (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

If we continue with current rates of species extinction, we will have no chance of rolling back poverty and the lives of all humans will be diminished.

That is the stark warning to come out of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), the most comprehensive audit of the health of our planet to date.

Organisms are disappearing at something like 100 to 1,000 times the "background levels" seen in the fossil record.

Scientists warn that removing so many species puts our own existence at risk.

It will certainly make it much harder to lift the world's poor out of hardship given that these people are often the most vulnerable to ecosystem degradation, the researchers say.

The message is written large in Ecosystems and Human Well-being: the Biodiversity Synthesis Report.

It is the latest in a series of detailed documents to come out of the MA, a remarkable tome drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over four years.
...
In 2002, world governments, through the Convention on Biological Diversity, set themselves the target of making a "substantial reduction in the rate of loss of biological diversity" by 2010.

The MA illustrates just how tough it will be to meet that target. What is more, there may even be occasions when progress towards that target conflicts with the even loftier 2015 Millennium Development Goals of cutting into world hunger and poverty, and improving healthcare.

A classic example is the development of rural road networks - a common feature of hunger reduction strategies - which are likely also to accelerate rates of biodiversity loss by fragmenting habitats and by opening up new areas to unsustainable harvests.

This sort of thing has been well documented in Africa where the bushmeat trade that endangers many species follows the development of transport infrastructure.

"This is a very important issue," said Dr Mace [the director of science at the Institute of Zoology, in London]. "It's clear there are going to have to be trade-offs and compromises but it's not a simple relationship. It's not a case that you can have 20% poverty and 80% biodiversity.

"If you do things the right way, if you chose the right options for poverty alleviation, you can also maximise biodiversity and sustainability."

And Dr Neville Ash, another MA synthesis team member, added: "The bottom line is that you cannot achieve long-term poverty alleviation without sustainability.

"In order to reduce hunger and poverty and increase access to clean water and sanitation, we need to have a strong base of environmental sustainability which is providing these services on which people rely for their well-being."
...
The MA has identified possible solutions - from significant shifts in consumption patterns and better education, to the adoption of new technologies and a large increase in the areas enjoying protection.
...
"Most of the approaches to achieving more sympathetic management of the natural environment and the conservation of biodiversity - I think we and governments know them already," commented Graham Wynne, the chief executive of the UK bird conservation group, the RSPB.

"The real challenge is to deploy them more extensively and more intelligently.

"And you can't get away from the fact that we simply need more money.

"The sums of money we throw at the environment in the West are relatively modest; and the sums of money the West is prepared to devote to developing countries is pitiful."

Another end of the world report. And nothing new. The number one problem, that there are too many humans, does not even get a mention, but this is the root of all the issues. What they are proposing instead is that the citizens of the rich world be made much poorer than they are today. (As implied by the statements that we need "significant shifts in consumption patterns" and that "we simply need more money", i.e. the citizens need less.) And the citizens of the poor world better not expect to get much richer (i.e. consume more). Nothing positive is offered here except for a few bland Mom and apple pie phrases such as "maximise biodiversity and sustainability" and "more sympathetic management of the natural environment". They better do a better job of convincing the rest of the world that they have some real, practical, answers which make the lives of most people better instead of worse.

BAA rockets airport charges at Stansted (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

In the same week BAA has reported a profit jump of 19 per cent to £637m, the airports authority has announced a 300 per cent increase in charges at Stansted Airport.

easyJet and Ryanair, which between them account for almost 80 per cent of Stansted's passengers, say they want to see the airport developed, but to meet their needs.

They argue that current plans are to cater for long-haul high cost airlines which do not fly from Stansted at present.

Their beef is that they, and their customers, are being asked to fund Stansted's development into a swanky airport they don't need.

BAA wants to increase charges from the current level of around £2.89 to up to £8 by 2008 to pay for Stansted's expansion. It also plans to levy a contribution of up to £1 from passengers at Heathrow and Gatwick to help pay for Stansted.

British Airways, bmi and Virgin Atlantic have previously threatened legal action if BAA attempted to cross-subsidise.
...
Ed Winter, easyJet's chief operating officer and chairman of the Stansted Airport Consultative Committee, said: "BAA has announced the Great Consumer Rip-Off and it should send a shiver down the spine of every airline passenger in the UK.

"It is planning to build a folly on the grandest scale that is unnecessary and unwanted.

"Before sensible low airport charges attracted the likes of easyJet to Stansted, it was little more than a white elephant in an Essex field with a single runway; BAA seems determined to make it a white elephant in an Essex field with two runways."

Easyjet and Ryanair have a bit of influence in that they can move some operations from Stansted to Luton (the only major airport near London not in the clutches of BAA). Of course most people living near airports do not want any expansion (except near other airports, but the safest strategy is to oppose all) and it's amazing BAA has managed to convince the airlines of the same. The only way BAA will win on their current strategy is if they have some kind of undue influence with the government.

A nanotechnology citizens' jury is set up (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A panel made up of ordinary members of the public is to debate the pros and cons of emerging nanotechnologies.

The citizens' jury, called NanoJury UK, will spend five weeks from 25 May exploring the big issues around the tiny science, to help inform policy.

The UK government ordered a review of how the science, the fine control of materials, might impact our future.

Science minister, Lord Sainsbury, said the review, announced in February, should involve public consultations.

He explained the review was needed to ensure current regulations that safeguard the environment and people's health were robust, as the science evolves.

The 20 members of the citizens' jury, which will be based in Halifax, will hear evidence from a range of experts, "witnesses", about future potential applications, risks and benefits of the developing science.

The witnesses will be chosen by a panel of experts who will oversee the jury's activities, and a science advisory panel. Both comprise a mix of academic, industry, government, and not-for-profit, representatives.

The jury will discuss the pros and cons, and agree on a "verdict". Their thoughts will then be fed back into the government's Nanotechnology Co-ordination Group.

"We aim to promote transparency and ensure that our world-beating science is carried out in an environment where the broader societal issues surrounding technology exploitation are fully explored," said Professor Mark Welland from the University of Cambridge Nanoscience Centre.

He added that it was crucial that public understanding of complex scientific issues was based on fact and accurate information.

Government and nanotechnology experts are keen to avoid political and public conflicts over high-tech developments, which happened with genetically modified organisms (GMO).

"So many questions about GM technology went unasked in the early stages," explained Doug Parr from Greenpeace.

"We want to provide an opportunity for people to give their perspectives on nanotechnology at a time when we hope they can still make a difference.

"We may be able to harness nanotechnology for environmental and social good, not harm, but it will depend on decisions now."

A completely pointless exercise and a perfect indication of what happens when so-called environmentalists have too much influence on public policy. Do these 20 members of the panel (no doubt chosen with perfect political correctness) really represent the 60 million citizens of Britain in any meaningful way? And Greenpeace is being disingenous in their comments. GMO organisms can do plenty of "environmental and social good", only they were developed almost totally in an American commercial environment, which the chattering classes of Europe hate, which was the main reason they opposed that technology. The scientists and government this time around are trying to buy off the chattering classes with this pointless consultation exercise in which the chattering classes can let off steam. It's possible that will be enough to satisfy the so-called environmentalists, but don't count on it, since they will still have their religious objections to commercial technology, especially American commercial technology.

Date published: 2005/05/22

Housing in Britain a disaster story (permanent blog link)

Housing in Britain has hit the headlines again. The BBC says:

The number of places in which public sector key workers cannot afford to buy a house has almost doubled in three years, according to research.

Nurses are worst off, being priced out of the market in 93% of UK towns, said the Halifax.

Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, is the most unaffordable town, with the price of the average house now 26 times higher than the average nurse's salary.

The study also said problems were no longer confined to the South East.

The number of towns in the north where property is too expensive for nurses rose from 13% in 2001 to 79% in 2004, it suggested.

Firefighters struggle to buy in 85% of towns in the region, and in 90% of UK towns as a whole, according to the research.

For teachers, the number of unaffordable places nearly doubled from 34% to 77% since 2001.

Homes in nearly three quarters of towns are now beyond the salary of police officers.

In Scotland nurses could not get on the property ladder in 62% of towns at the end of last year, compared with just 5% three years ago.

Weybridge, Surrey, was found to be the second most unaffordable place, with property selling for an average of 20.4 times a nurse's salary, followed by Richmond, also in Surrey.

There are only two towns in Britain where nurses could buy a home with a mortgage of three times their salary - Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath, both in Fife, Scotland.

One of the regular bits of "research" by the Halifax, they seem to love this theme. It is amazing the BBC and the rest of the media give credence to such pathetic press releases. But of course the media loves to claim the world is at an end, and especially so if they can beat the government up at the same time.

Notice that Halifax tries to confuse the situation by throwing lots of apple and orange statistics around, as if that proves anything. The BBC story does not even give a definition as to what it means to "afford to buy a house" (perhaps the original Halifax press release does). Many single people in Britain cannot afford to buy a house but most couples can. So are they treating nurses as individuals or as part of a household, when they are quoting these statistics. And if the typical nurse household earns less than the average household then you would expect them not to be able to afford an average house. Is this strange?

And what is it about "key workers" (i.e. government workers who the general public supposedly like) that they deserve such special notice. House prices are high for everybody in Britain not just "key workers", and this phrase is one of the most obnoxious of the ones introduced by New Labour. We need a government for all the people, not just a select few politically correct categories.

Not surprisingly New Labour responded almost immediately to the Halifax report. The BBC says:

Struggling first-time home buyers could gain cheap mortgages funded by public money under plans revealed by Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Couples would have to raise as little as half the cost of homes sold on the open market, he told the Observer.

The remaining equity in the house would be shared by the government and the bank or building society.

Mr Brown said the scheme would help hundreds of thousands of people get on the property ladder.

"It means that people who couldn't afford the full price of a home can afford the partial price, and they can gradually ramp up their stake - it's putting home ownership within the reach of thousands of people who would not be able to do so," Mr Brown told the newspaper.

The Observer said the scheme would affect about 100,000 purchases and cost hundreds of millions of pounds over three years.

Mr Brown said many people felt home ownership was "beyond their grasp".

"This is part of our idea of helping people meet their aspirations for themselves: I have no doubt that more people want to be able to get a foot on the housing ladder earlier."

Under the new scheme, average monthly repayments on a £200,000 home could be cut by up to £372 a month.

The mortgage help will not be restricted to key public sector workers previously helped by the government, and there will be no means test.

However banks and building societies will have to sift out deserving applicants whose salaries simply will not stretch to the average-priced house, from those simply angling to buy dream homes well above their means, the Observer reported.

This is not the stupidest idea that New Labour has come up with, but it is not that far off. The problem with housing in Britain is with the supply. Throwing government money at the problem in this way does nothing to increase the supply, which is restricted mainly because of lack of building land. Even worse, this proposal represents a government subsidy of housing so its main effect will be to push up house prices. Surely someone in the Treasury told Gordon Brown this, so since he has chosen to ignore that advice it is obvious he has decided to play politics above running the country sensibly. The main winners will be the banks (e.g. the Halifax), who will get more business, and the developers, who will be able to charge higher prices for housing.

And the final paragraph illustrates perfectly well one of the other stupidities with this scheme. Who is going to decide who is eligible, and under what conditions. People on low salaries should not expect to "stretch to the average-priced house", they should expect to be on the bottom rung of the housing ladder, which is where everybody else in life starts out.

Heaven forbid when Gordon Brown takes over running the country, if this is the best he can do.

Date published: 2005/05/21

The UK is allegedly too centralised (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

David Howarth believes there is enough imagination and ability in Cambridge to tackle the city's problems - but the centralisation of power in Whitehall is stifling creativity and innovation.

The city's MP said he will use his time in Westminster to try and put power back into local hands.

He said: "People in Cambridge have the ability and ideas to solve our problems. What they lack is the means to do so because the system is so centralised.

"The main thing I can speak up for is to encourage the Government to decentralise power. We don't have enough local responsibility."

Public transport is one key areas that Mr Howarth, 46, will focus on. He describes it as central to Cambridge's problems, saying the system is that of a "small market town".

He said: "We need a system that can cope over the next 50 years. We are seeing 'bit by bit' change with schemes that cannot cope. It is vitally important to have public transport schemes planned and going in before there's a major increase in housing.

"National Government sees the A14 as part of a network that gets freight from the East coast to the Midlands and the North West," he added.

"They don't see it as part of the transport system for the area - Cambridge is 'in the way' of this national route. We need to change that emphasis, what is important is how the local transport system works."

Mr Howarth supports moving freight from road to rail plus more investment in public transport.

Infrastructure and affordable housing were also key problems. The MP blames the way local government is financed.

"The county council has to go cap in hand to central Government. Even though this area generates a huge amount of wealth we are not allowed to spend it. Central Government tries to manage everything from London."

Well quite a lot of that makes sense. But the idea that transfer of power from Whitehall to Cambridge is going to improve life in Cambridge is a joke. Cambridge is run by a Lib Dem clique, and they are not any more accountable to most citizens of Cambridge than is the national government. In particular they have very fixed ideas that favour the rich people who live near the centre of Cambridge at the expense of the non-rich who live elsewhere, and in particular people who live in north Cambridge and also the villages near Cambridge. At least national government treats all of Cambridge and the surrounding area as a single blob. And the idea that "even though this area generates a huge amount of wealth we are not allowed to spend it" is ridiculous. One of the points of national government is to redistribute money from rich to poor areas in the country, and the Lib Dems, of all people, ought to support that.

Half the world lives in a city (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than half of all humans will soon be living in cities, according to a prediction by the United Nations.

"Psychologically it is an important step for mankind," Hania Zlotnik, director of the United Nations Population Division, told the BBC.

There are concerns that, in developing countries, basic provisions in cities will lag behind population growth.

Observers will see increased pressure placed on resources and services as humankind becomes an urban species.

"It's an increasing trend that is becoming more obvious. People do not realise how rural the world was until recently. That is changing," Zlotnik said.

Despite almost four millennia as centres of civilisation, it was only fairly recently that cities attracted more than a small percentage of the global population. With hindsight, the 20th Century was the century of urbanisation.

In 1900, only 14% of humanity lived in cities. By the century's close, 47% of us did so. This change is revealed in the growth of the number of medium-sized cities. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; but by 2000, this had risen to 411.
...
Developing countries and medium-sized cities are the main contributor to increasing global urbanisation, according to Ms Zlotnik.

"Most of the urbanisation is happening at the lower level. The growth is most rapid in cities of the range half to one million population. It seems that once a region becomes a megacity, it has limited growth potential - there is just not the room available to grow," she said.

"Our surveys and projections indicate that all urban growth over the next 25 years will be in developing countries. In developed countries, urbanisation will remain the same or decline."

The UN team says the milestone of more than half of all humans living in cities will be reached in the next few months.

Of course urbanisation is due to the fact that you can make more money in the city and there are (often) more services in the city. But hardly anybody really likes living in big cities. People, like cats with cats, prefer to not have other people too close by. This is why in the West the ideal is to work in a big city and live in a suburban city or village. Of course the urban planning elite in the West, ever since Le Corbusier, think that everybody should be forced to live in an urban highrise apartment, allegedly because this is more "sustainable". But the bottom line is that the human pressure on the planet is not really due to where people live, but more to the sheer number of humans. That is the problem that needs addressing.

The Lancet attacks the Royal Society (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Royal Society, the UK's academy of science, is lazy and rests on its historical laurels, a leading medical journal says.

A Lancet editorial said the oldest scientific academy in the world had done little in the fields of medical science and public health lately.

And the journal accused the Royal Society of being "self serving" and a "superficial cheerleader".

But the Royal Society said the attack was inaccurate and ill-informed.

The Royal Society was set up in 1660 to debate the fast-developing world of science, but is now the UK's academy of science, promoting excellence by funding research, and influencing policy and education.

The most eminent scientists of the day are elected to the fellowship, which in the past has included legendary figures such as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

But the Lancet said while the Royal Society began as a radical idea, it had now become a "lazy institution, resting on its historical laurels".
...
Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, a member of the Science and Technology Committee in the last parliament, said: "The Royal Society has produced a number of important and useful reports, but all institutions, including the Lancet, can probably improve their performance."

He also said the controversy over Oxford professor Baroness Greenfield who did not make it on to a shortlist last year to become a fellow of the Royal Society despite being one of the country's most senior scientists had shown it in a negative light.

"I think it is old fashioned and probably sexist."

But Royal Society executive secretary Stephen Cox said the attack was part of a personal campaign by Lancet editor Richard Horton.

What a bizarre editorial by the Lancet. What business is it theirs, one way or the other, to worry about the Royal Society. The Royal Society has not for many years been a focus of research in the UK, and there is nothing wrong with that. The world has moved on with how research is conducted since 1660. The research councils and the Wellcome Trust are the main drivers in the UK today. Everybody also knows the Royal Society journals are second rate but so what, the vast majority of scientific journals are second rate. The main purpose of the Royal Society now is to serve as a club for the best of UK scientists and a few world scientists, and as with most worthy clubs, people who are not members can suffer from petty jealousy. The fact that Greenfield was not elected as a fellow says perhaps more about her than about the Royal Society.

Date published: 2005/05/20

South Korean scientists make stem cell breakthrough (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

South Korean scientists say they have made stem cells tailored to match the individual for the first time.

Each of the 11 new stem cell lines that they made were created by taking genetic material from the patient and putting it into a donated egg.

The resultant cells were a perfect match for the individual and could mean treatments for diseases like diabetes without problems of rejection.

The study, published in Science, has been hailed as a major advance.

Meanwhile, UK scientists at Newcastle University announced they had successfully produced a cloned embryo using donated eggs and genetic material from stem cells.

Although a long way behind the Korean research, it was the first time a human cloned embryo had been created in Britain.

Critics said these "cloning" techniques are unethical.

Only time will tell how important all this work is, but it is certainly an advance in basic science, if not (yet) in medicine. Needless to say, the religious nutters will object to all this research, but as with most other scientific advances in the past, those who turn their back are left behind, and their society declines. It is a good example of Asia moving to the fore because of the all too influential sway of the religious nutters and other anti-scientific cliques (e.g. the so-called environmentalists) in the West.

Factors identified with obesity in children (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Three-year-old children who watch more than eight hours of TV a week are at a higher risk of obesity, a study says.

TV watching was one of eight factors, including lack of sleep and parental obesity, linked to an increased risk of weight problems in young children.

University of Glasgow and Bristol researchers said the findings supported the theory that early life environment could determine obesity.

The study of 9,000 children appeared in the British Medical Journal.

Child obesity levels have shot up in recent years.

Among two to four-year-olds obesity has doubled since the early 1990s, while the rate has trebled for six to 15-year-olds.

The eight key factors identified by the researchers were:

Researchers said the way these factors might increase risk were complex.

A lot of this is confusing correlation and causation, and the remainder is so obvious you have to wonder how anybody was paid to do such amazing research. For example, is anyone surprised that "rapid weight gain in the first year of life" is linked to obesity? If you are going to be fat it's not too unbelievable that there's a good chance you are going to be fat from early on. But pointing out that link is not only trivial, it is dangerous, because the way the media reports it, the implication is that if you prevent a baby from gaining weight in the first year, say by half-starving it to death, then it might not be (as) fat later. But half-starving a baby is almost certainly going to make things worse than being fat.

London Eye supposedly under threat of closure (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The London Eye could close down after being served an eviction notice after a £1m rent demand - an increase of more than 1500%.

Its landlords, the South Bank Centre (SBC), said they are not getting enough rent from the land that holds part of the wheel's supporting structure.

If the rent is not paid they say the Eye will have to be removed in a month.

None of the parties wished to comment but said negotiations are taking place in the hope of reaching a settlement.

According to a document seen by Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, SBC sent out the eviction notice after issuing a demand for the increased rent.

She told BBC Five Live: "The South Bank Centre, a public company, are just being very, very greedy.

"A tiny bit of the London Eye, one of the legs sits in the Jubilee Gardens which was given to the SBC for a pound when the Greater London Council broke up.

"I hope the secretary of state, who knows about this now, gets involved because it is true they [SBC] have sent a legal letter saying if the negotiations are not settled by 1 July the Eye will have to be removed.

"I think we all know this won't actually happen but it just seems amazing."

The 450-foot wheel, which is operated by British Airways, is one of London's top tourist attractions.

A good example of how property owners in Britain can get away with murder. There is a simple solution, the government should nationalise that piece of land, say for a pound. And people should boycott the South Bank Centre, if SBC are going to be obnoxious like that.

Date published: 2005/05/19

Lots of green stories in the news (permanent blog link)

Lots of "green" stories in the news today. On the wind front the BBC says:

Wind power must be made to work in the UK in order to combat climate change, a report by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) has said.

The report maintains it is possible to meet the government's target to have renewables provide 10% of the UK's electricity by 2010.

If wind farms take off, it claims, that figure may rise to 20% by 2020.
...
The report's authors accept wind farms will alter the British landscape, but probably not as much as climate change would.

"Climate change will have a devastating impact unless urgent action is taken to boost the contribution of renewables, alongside energy efficiency measures," said SDC chairman, Jonathon Porritt.
...
According to the report, wind is a prime candidate. The UK has the best and most geographically diverse wind resources in Europe, it says, more than enough to meet current renewable energy targets.

In addition, it is only modestly more expensive than "conventional" energy sources. Indeed, the report claims that as fossil fuel prices increase and wind turbines become cheaper to build, wind power may even become one of the cheapest forms of electricity over the next 15 years.
...
However the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) is dismayed at the report, believing too much focus on wind is a mistake.

"The report leads us to infer that wind turbines will avert climate change, but that is untrue," John Constable, head of policy at the REF, told the BBC News website. "They have something to offer but the question is whether we need to place as much reliance on what is actually a very high impact and costly means of emissions reduction.

"The UK's role globally is to offer a compelling economical example to the developing world. We want China and India to look at us and say: 'That was smart. They reduced their emissions and they stayed rich'. And wind farms are not going to do that."

Mr Constable believes the UK needs to take a broader approach to renewable energy by simultaneously investing in several sources.

"We need a broad basket approach to renewables - and we need to ensure that investment is spread across the entire package," he said. "So that includes tidal and biomass, which at the moment are getting no look-in because the cheapest ticket to the subsidy stream is wind."

Another problem with wind farms is that while many people support the idea of them, they do not want them in their local area.

The report says that although there is national support for wind farms, there is much local resistance. People feel they will spoil the landscape and there are also concerns they may kill birds.

The SDC is a pointless quango and this report seems to be particularly pointless, it's not as if it says anything that isn't widely known already. People near proposed windfarms often object to the proposals for the same reason people often object to other proposals: they are NIMBYs and they are not properly compensated for their financial loss. Buy out the houses of people who do not want the windfarm at over market value, and give a fraction of the income from the windfarm to the local government, and you will soon enough find people are not so opposed. In any case, as is pointed out above, wind is not the silver bullet that the SDC and others pretend it is.

Meanwhile on the nappy front, the BBC says:

Whether parents use disposable or cloth nappies makes little difference to the environment, a report has concluded. The Environment Agency studied the impact of three types of nappy from their manufacture to their disposal.

Disposable nappies, bought by 95% of parents, led to 400,000 tonnes of waste dumped mainly at landfill sites.

But re-usable nappies impacted on the environment in other ways, such as by the water and energy used for washing and drying them, it found.

The agency says it is the most independent and thorough study yet carried out in the UK.

It compared the environmental impact of disposable, home-laundered flat cloth nappies and commercially-laundered cloth nappies delivered to the home.

The study was supported by surveys of more than 2,000 parents who were questioned on factors such as the number of daily nappy changes and the size of washing machine loads.

Tricia Henton, director of Environmental Protection at the Environment Agency said: "Although there is no substantial difference between the environmental impacts of the three systems studied, it does show where each system can be improved."

She said parents using reusable nappies can improve their impact on the environment by looking at how they wash them, such as using a bigger load at a lower temperature.

The study found most people washed nappies at 60C.

Ms Henton added that it was hoped manufacturers would use the study to improve the environmental performance of their products and the quantities going into landfill.

Well one study is not definitive and no doubt someone could quibble with the assumptions behind the sums, but this is really not that surprising a result. The chattering classes and so-called environmentalists have, over the last few years, demonised parents who use disposable nappies, but this is because they are against the consumer society in general and like to attack "soft" targets. A good rule of thumb is to ignore any advice from the chattering classes.

Meanwhile 4x4s seem to be always in the news, because the chattering classes also hate those, for the same reasons. The BBC says:

Anti-4x4 fever is on the rise across Europe and in the USA, where 4x4s are more commonly referred to as SUVs - Sports Utility Vehicles.

Campaigners claim that 4x4s - big box-shaped vehicles that have four-wheel drive and look like a cross between a car and a minibus - produce more environment-degrading carbon emissions than the average family saloon.

And they argue that while 4x4s might come in handy in the countryside, where rural drivers have to negotiate messy, muddy, hilly terrain, they have no place in cities where they pose a potential threat to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers of smaller and humbler automobiles.

The UK-based campaign group Alliance Against Urban 4x4s wants to make driving them as socially unacceptable as drink-driving, and holds protests outside schools.

It is campaigning for higher road taxes and an increased congestion charge in London for what it calls the "bad guys" who drive 4x4s, and for a ban on 4x4 advertising in the mainstream media.

Even London Mayor Ken Livingstone has described parents who drive these big, bad cars - also known as Chelsea Tractors - to the school gates as "complete idiots". And they damage community spirit by making cities unwelcoming, says Sian Berry of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s.
...
The 4x4s might choke out more CO2 than other cars, but this needs to be put in perspective.

According to a report in the Daily Telegraph this week, household appliances produce more carbon emissions than a 4x4. One cycle of a kitchen dishwasher reportedly releases around 756g of CO2, more than double that produced by a short spin in a Range Rover Turbo Diesel, which releases 299g per kilometre.

An hour's use of a petrol lawnmower releases more than 1,000g of CO2, while a holiday for a family of four to Disneyworld in Florida, with all the travelling and consumption involved, releases a whopping 2,415,000g of CO2.
...
So why has this vehicle more than any other, and more than dishwashers, lawnmowers and buses, become a focus for anti-pollution campaigning?

Austin Williams, a writer on motoring matters, says some people dislike 4x4s simply because they are an expression of conspicuous consumption. "The crusade to make everyone drive smaller cars is premised on high moral contempt for what is deemed to be 'unnecessary' and 'irresponsible' consumption," he says.

Yes the control freaks are out in full force. The idea that 4x4s are ok in rural areas but not in cities is a joke. Most roads in cities are worse than those in rural areas these days, because of all the so-called traffic calming. And most cities are near rural areas, so are you going to firebomb a citizen of Cambridge who owns a 4x4, but not a citizen of one of the many nearby rural villages who decides to drive a 4x4 into Cambridge? As usual, just ignore the control freaks (including Ken Livingstone), they are clueless.

Meanwhile, the most important environmental story of the day is about the Amazon, far away from the control freaks of the UK. The BBC says:

The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed at near record levels, according to new figures released by the Brazilian government.

The environment ministry said 26,000 sq km of forest were chopped down in the 12 months prior to August 2004.

The figure is the second highest on record, 6% higher than the previous 12 months.

Deforestation was worst in the state of Mato Grosso where vast swathes of land have been cleared to grow crops.

The loss of 26,000 sq km means almost a fifth of the entire Amazon has now been chopped down.

On this occasion, just under half of the deforestation occurred in Mato Grosso, where trees have been replaced with soya fields.

Last year exports of soya, mostly to China and Europe, propelled Brazil to a record trade surplus.

Europe long ago chopped down most of its forests, for exactly the same economic reasons as Brazil is doing so now, so it carries little moral weight on the matter. But if Europe wants to stop this deforestation of the Amazon then Europe, and the rest of the rich world, is going to have to massively compensate Brazil in return, preferably through an inverse carbon tax. If the Amazon were wiped out it is not clear that would be the end of the world, but it does not look like a good scenario.

Dolphins to be tracked via radio (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Dusky dolphins living off the coast of Cape Town are about to be issued with mobile phone technology.

It will not be handsets though and, despite their sophisticated ability to communicate, they will not be chatting or texting each other.

Instead they will have collars imbedded with a mobile phone SIM card to keep track of their movements.

Mobile phone technology is revolutionising the way animals - both on land and sea - are tracked.

Some 200 animals in Africa, including elephants, zebras and baboons, are now tracked via SIM cards, which is a much cheaper technology than using a satellite system.

Is this obnoxious or what? How would the scientists like a collar permanently around their necks? And do they know the collar and the radio signals aren't affecting the way dolphins move about?

Date published: 2005/05/18

Harvard throws some money at women (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Harvard University is to spend $50m (£27m) on women scientists over the next decade after its president sparked anger by questioning their aptitude.

Lawrence Summers said the money would be used to reform the way women in engineering and science are treated.

The recommendations came from two task forces set up by Dr Summers at the height of anger over his comments in January, for which he has apologised.

He suggested women had less "intrinsic aptitude" than men for science.

The recommendations include appointing a senior vice provost to promote diversity and faculty development, as well as mentoring, child care and late-night transport.

Dr Summer's office said reforms would be made for women "at every point along the pipeline", from undergraduates to faculty ranks.

"Universities like Harvard were designed a long time ago, in many respects, by men for men," he told a news conference.

"To fully succeed on these issues we're going to have to address issues of culture."

What an expensive goof his remarks have turned out to be. If only he had suggested that men had less "intrinsic aptitude" than women in some subject, or that more men than women should obviously be in prison, then nobody would have batted an eyelid. And how about child care and late-night transport for men, why is it that women deserve that kind of perk but not men? (Well hopefully it will be non-sexist in application, but you never know.) And the statement "universities were designed by men for men" is the kind of sexist drivel you would expect to come out of a second-rate gender (i.e. anti-male) studies department.

In academics, as in everything else in life (except for the presidency of the United States), the people who are going to come out on top are those who are most talented and put in the most hours. If you can do great work on thirty or forty hours a week then more power to you, otherwise you should not expect plaudits.

Papua New Guinea makes carbon proposal (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rainforest protection should be added to measures to prevent global warming, a seminar of climate experts from more than 150 countries has heard in Bonn.

The proposal, from Papua New Guinea, could open the way to a major expansion of the attempts to limit climate change.

The German meeting, organised by the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is the first international attempt to look into what to do when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

Plush red armchairs on the podium, for TV-style question and answer sessions after each clutch of presentations, underline the deliberately informal style of discussions here.

It is all part of the effort to avoid the diplomatic rancour that usually seems to afflict such get-togethers.

The forestry proposal from Papua New Guinea ran counter to the pattern of most of the discussions.

While other developing countries rejected any spreading of responsibilities beyond the industrialised countries already signed up to the Kyoto Protocol - "you caused the problem, so you show us how to fix it first" being the essence of the argument - Papua New Guinea actively welcomed the chance to be held accountable for greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the destruction of its rainforest.

Its position comes down, in part, to the success of the carbon emissions trading scheme launched in Europe earlier this year.

A tonne of carbon saved from the atmosphere now comes with a price tag - and Papua New Guinea argues that its rainforest carbon is as good as any coal or oil burnt in the West.

"A tonne is a tonne is a tonne," declared the Papuan ambassador to the UN. But at the moment, there is no way developing countries can trade avoided rainforest destruction on the international market.

When the rich people of the rich world get together with the rich people of the poor world you expect a certain amount of sanctimonious humbug to be expressed (the meeting itself just by taking place is causing a massive amount of environmental damage), but here for once it sounds like someone is at least trying to make a sensible proposal.

Addenbrooke's Hospital radio masts (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Addenbrooke's Hospital has been condemned for having too many mobile phone masts on its roof.

Thirty masts and dishes are on the roof of the main ward block. The hospital says there is no risk to patients or staff from the equipment, but pressure group Mast Sanity disagrees.

Communications director, Karen Barratt, said: "Thirty is a lot of masts and, given the sensitivity of the site, on a hospital, that is completely unacceptable.

"There is increasing evidence to suggest there are serious health implications from this technology . . . they should be looking to find ways to have masts removed from the premises."
...
Anti-mast campaigners say the hospital could be charging up to £100,000 a year to allow the masts to be sited there.

All part of the rampant anti-commercial and anti-technology attitude prevelant amongst the chattering classes of Britain. Why are thirty masts too many? Where do they suggest these masts get removed to? Is it wrong that the hospital is perhaps making 100k per year from the masts, would 50k or 200k be better?

Date published: 2005/05/17

Galloway gives the US Senate a bloody nose (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

British MP George Galloway has told US senators who accused him of profiting from Iraq oil dealings their claims were the "mother of all smokescreens".

In a combative performance before a Senate committee, the Respect Coalition MP accused the US lawmakers of being "cavalier" with justice.

He said: "I am not now nor have I ever been an oil trader and neither has anyone on my behalf."

The senators say he was given credits to buy Iraqi oil by Saddam Hussein.

Mr Galloway travelled to Washington to clear his name before the Senate sub-committee on investigations.

He claims the evidence against him is false. He says forged documents had been used to make claims about him before.

Mr Galloway went on the offensive from the start of his testimony, saying the committee had "traduced" his name around the world without asking him a single question.

He told committee chairman Senator Norm Coleman: "I know that standards have slipped over the last few years in Washington but for a lawyer you are remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice."

Mr Galloway said he had met Saddam Hussein on two occasions - the same number of times as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"The difference is Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and maps - the better to target those guns. I met him to try to bring about an end to sanctions, suffering and war," he said.

The biggest sanctions busters were American companies "with the connivance" of the US Government, he argued.

And he denied being an "apologist" for Saddam.

He said he had been a long-term opponent of the former Iraqi leader, and had a much better record of opposition to his regime than members of the American or British governments.

Mr Galloway, a leading anti-war campaigner, was expelled from the Labour Party for his comments on Iraq.

He is not accused of any criminal act and is not thought likely to face court action as a result of the committee's hearings but he has said he is anxious to clear his name.

Well you have to hope Galloway is above board or he is going to eventually be caught out in a big way. But you have to love it when someone tells those dreadful people who now run America to get stuffed. Saddam Hussein was America's puppet, although Bush and Co. now try and pretend otherwise. And the war in Iraq was illegal by almost any definition, and the US political establishment needs to be reminded of this again and again.

Government reorganisation of rural agencies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Plans to better protect and manage wildlife and habitats and to increase support for rural communities have been unveiled in the Queen's Speech.

These will be contained in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities bill.

Landscapes will also be enhanced and conserved to build thriving rural towns and villages - plans outlined last year in the government's Rural Strategy.

Under the bill, a single body, called Natural England, will be created to manage the environment.

This will be created by fusing English Nature, parts of the Countryside Agency and most of the Rural Development Service. The new organisation will be established by January 2007, subject to parliamentary agreement.

The government says this would establish a powerful champion for landscape and conservation working "for people, places and nature" and will be responsible for issues of access, recreation and quality of life.

The bill will also establish a new Commission for Rural Communities to act as an advocate and watchdog for rural people and to ensure government policy delivers improvements for them.

This reads like a memo from "Yes Minister", how can anyone write this kind of drivel (e.g. "Natural England") without laughing. And they forgot to mention cricket and warm beer.

Date published: 2005/05/16

Corporate manslaughter bill might be introduced (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Fresh from an election victory, the Labour government is widely expected to introduce a corporate manslaughter bill.

The government has invited consultation and comment on a proposed bill by 17 June 2005.

Under English law, there are two general homicide offences:

If someone kills without intending to cause death or serious injury, but was blameworthy in some other way, then this is often referred to as involuntary manslaughter.

Within the various categories of manslaughter, there is also the concept of gross negligence manslaughter. According to the Crown Prosecution Service, it has to be established that:

However, the problem lies in that for a company to be prosecuted for manslaughter, including gross negligence manslaughter, it is necessary to identify a "controlling mind" who is also personally guilty of manslaughter.

It is not possible under the present law to add up the negligence of several individuals to show the company as grossly negligent. A specific individual has to be identified as a controlling mind for corporate manslaughter to be proven.

After nearly five years of talking about it, the Home Office this spring finally published a document entitled "Corporate Manslaughter: The Government's Draft Bill for Reform".

Under the proposed legislation, an organisation is guilty of the offence of corporate manslaughter if the way in which any of the organisation's activities are managed or organised by the senior managers a) causes a person's death; and b) amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased.

A person is a "senior manager" of an organisation if he plays a significant role in the making of decisions about how the whole or a substantial part of its activities is to be managed or organised; or the actual manager or organiser of the whole or a substantial part of those activities.

A gross breach is a breach of a duty of care by an organisation that falls far below what can reasonably be expected of the organisation in the circumstances.

To decide that question, the jury must consider whether the evidence shows that the organisation failed to comply with any relevant health and safety legislation or guidance.

The Draft Bill does set out a number of other factors which the jury will also have to consider, such as whether or not senior managers sought to cause the organisation to profit from its failure, ie that they deliberately cut corners to reduce costs or boost profits.

Needless to say one could substitute the word "corporate" with "goverment" and arrive at an equally valid analysis. For example, many deaths on the A14 are a direct result of a "gross breach" by the government and the reason nothing has been done is that the government has "deliberately cut corners to reduce costs". If the government is so keen to lock up company officials then let's also lock up government ministers and senior civil servants for similar offenses.

Another Greenpeace publicity stunt (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A number of Greenpeace protesters have been arrested after a protest that has disrupted production at a Land Rover factory in the West Midlands.

Some 35 members of the environmental action group breached security at the plant in Solihull on Monday morning.

Greenpeace said the action was in protest at what it claims are the "climate-wrecking" emissions from Range Rovers, Land Rover's premium model.

Land Rover said only a "small part" of the plant had been affected.

Two senior Greenpeace officers are understood to be among those arrested.

"The action taken by Greenpeace... is both regrettable and damaging - Land Rover is a leading British business and exports over 70% of its production, and contributes significantly to the country's wealth creation," a company spokesman said.
...
Greenpeace said that although "climate change is the greatest threat the planet is facing" Land Rover "continues to make gas-guzzling vehicles, most of which will tackle nothing steeper than a speed bump".

"Making cars like this for urban use is crazy when 150,000 people are dying every year from climate change," said Greenpeace's Ben Stewart.
...
The Transport and General Workers' Union (T&G) criticised Greenpeace's action at the Land Rover plant, describing it as "insensitive and potentially dangerous".

The comfortable middle class in action. When the youth of the country behave like this the prime minister talks about the "yob culture". But when the middle class do the same, somehow it's all ok. Perhaps Greenpeace will next target the commuter trains running from, say, Bristol to London, imagine wasting all that energy every day just going to and from work every day, how "crazy" can you get.

And in fact using a car like a Land Rover in most towns makes more sense than in most rural settings, because, thanks to the very same middle class, the roads in towns have been seriously downgraded because of "traffic calming" devices like speed bumps, which wreck suspensions on ordinary cars.

And needless to say, Greenpeace would be perfectly happy if most of British business went bust, and we all went back to living in caves. Throw these pests in prison, where they belong.

Date published: 2005/05/15

The Fog of War (permanent blog link)

The BBC tonight had the network premiere in the UK of "The Fog of War" (Errol Morris, 2003), the half-interview with and half-documentary about Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. Needless to say the camera can easily lie, so you don't know how much Morris has distorted the real views of McNamara, who was 85 at the time of the interviews.

McNamara is often blamed for the Vietnam War, and to some extent that is true, although as McNamara points out the buck must stop with the president, in particular Johnson. Needless to say it is the Vietnam War that is the main focus of the film, although the First and Second World Wars and the Cuban Missile Crisis also get some discussion. And McNamara obviously feels fairly guilty about the Vietnam War. The film implies he had real doubts about it in private even at the time, but as Secretary of Defence of course had to support it in public.

Although Iraq is not Vietnam (for one thing the US outguns their opponents by 1000 to 1 in Iraq instead of the 100 to 1 in Vietnam) the film does make lots of implicit comparisons between the American policy in Vietnam and in Iraq, including the public statements by Johnson that Vietnam was all about the fight for freedom in the world.

If only more lucid 85 year olds with a story to tell were put in front of the camera. You have to wonder if anyone in the Bush administration will be featured in 30 or 40 years, or are they all such second-rate robotniks that they are incapable of worthwhile reflection.

Boxworth windfarm decision appealed (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The firm behind plans for a major windfarm next to the A14 is trying to resurrect the controversial project after it was turned down by planners.

When nearby residents heard that the planning application for 16 wind turbines on farmland between Boxworth and Connington had been turned down by South Cambridgeshire District Council, they thought they had heard the last of the plan.

But Your Energy, the company behind the plan, has now decided to appeal against the council's decision. A public inquiry will have to be held and a Government inspector will decide whether to overturn the decision.

This is not very surprising. Many developers put in lots of planning applications, many of those get turned down by local planning committees, and then those decisions get appealed to central government. If a reasonable fraction of the appeals succeed (and it is a lottery) then the developer gets to cash in his chips and the locals in the affected areas get shafted. It's the same with housing estates as with windfarms.

Date published: 2005/05/14

Nuclear power back on the agenda in the UK (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Alan Johnson, the new trade and industry secretary, raised the prospect of an early a commitment to build a new generation of nuclear power stations as he set a shorter than expected deadline for the government to complete a review of energy policy.

While stressing that no decision had yet been taken, Mr Johnson told the Financial Times the government would examine its options "some time this year". A verdict would have to be reached "in plenty of time" to replace Britain's ageing fleet of nuclear stations, all but one of which will have reached the end of their lives by 2023.

During the general election campaign ministers refused to be drawn on the issue of a new tranche of reactors. But days after victory, Tony Blair acknowledged that a decision would need to be taken at some point in this parliament.

Outlining a case for new nuclear stations, Mr Johnson said the energy market had "moved significantly" since the white paper of 2003, which had left the door open to a role for nuclear power. The paper had said priority should be given to developing renewable energy, such as wind and wave power, to meet ambitious targets for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Ministers conceded this year these targets would be missed without a change of policy.

Mr Johnson said the government could decide the loss of the 20 per cent of electricity provided by nuclear's "clean fuel . . . can't be made up by renewables". "If we were to come to the conclusion that we weren't making any progress [without new nuclear], we have to make that decision in plenty of time [the stations] have a 10 year lead-in," he said.

The Department of Trade and Industry would move the discussion forward by issuing a review of where we stand, "some time this year", Mr Johnson said.

The new trade and industry secretary did not commit himself to a new tranche of nuclear power stations. But his comments suggest he is more supportive than Patricia Hewitt, his predecessor. Any move would still trigger a cabinet row. But Mr Blair has signalled he may be losing patience with the case that renewable energy is the answer to climate change.

This is not really a surprise, Blair made it pretty obvious during the election campaign that he was interested in nuclear power. The nuclear industry has never shown that it can produce power at a reasonable price, when the full life-cycle costs are included. Of course the Blair generation can do what previous generation has done, and let the next generation (and on into the future) worry about paying for the clean up. Well, so-called renewable energy sources will also no doubt end up with huge unforseen costs in the future, it's just that there is not enough experience with these yet on an industrial scale to know what these costs will be.

EU considering new air travel tax (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new air travel tax to fund aid for the world's poor will be among the proposals discussed at the European finance ministers' meeting.
...
The Franco-German proposal for an aviation tax comes in two versions - either as a tax on jet fuel or tickets.

The two-day meeting "is not a decision making forum", an EU spokesman said.

The tax was "one of number of proposals" for ways to meet the EU's anti-poverty pledges under the Millennium Development Goals, he told the BBC News website.

The Millennium goals set the target of halving poverty worldwide by 2015.
...
The EU has promised any aviation tax would be passed only after full consultation with airlines to avoid hurting competitiveness.

Airlines believe a jet fuel tax, in particular, could hurt profits at a time when they are already struggling with high oil prices.

At present, the fuel used by airlines enjoys either a very low tax rate or is untaxed in EU member states.

Although airline fuel should be taxed, it should not be taxed specifically because of some completely unrelated EU policy goal, and so one can only conclude that they are hiding behind poverty in order to introduce a fuel tax with the minimum of fuss (the idea being that nobody could possibly oppose throwing money at poor countries). Of course air tickets themselves are already taxed, for the usual reason (governments are addicted to tax).

Date published: 2005/05/13

Cambridge Architects 2005 (permanent blog link)

Architecture Week 2005 is 17-26 June, and as part of that Cambridge architects are putting on an exhibition 13-25 June of work by local practises at the Michaelhouse Centre on Trinity Street, Cambridge. The latter itself is a wonderful conversion of a church into a café and exhibition space, with a chapel remaining behind glass doors. (If only conversions of other disused churches in Cambridge, e.g. All Saints and St Peter's, were contemplated.)

Fish moving home because of global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many fish species in the North Sea are steadily moving northwards to escape warming waters, researchers report.

Commercially important fish such as cod, whiting and anglerfish have shifted significantly north, while some other species moved to colder depths.

Scientists warn in Science magazine that some fish may disappear from the North Sea by 2050.

They say commercial fisheries will have to take account of global warming as well as dwindling fish stocks.

"Some of these species are already depleted and this is yet another challenge that they face," Allison Perry, of the University of East Anglia, told the BBC News website.

Dr Perry and her team have studied data on 36 species of fish going back to the 1970s. Of those species, 21 have moved northwards, some by hundreds of kilometres.

Since the 70s, the average winter temperature at the bottom of the North Sea has risen by around one degree Celsius, and the researchers believe that rise, which they say is attributable to global warming, is forcing populations to shift.
...
The scientists say further research is needed, but as a precaution, greater protection should be put in place for stocks already threatened by over fishing.

"This research adds more weight to what scientists are advising in terms of the need to reduce fishing pressure," Dr Perry said.

Scientists of course are happy to prevent fishing "as a precaution" because it is not their jobs at stake. And you could argue that if a fish species is going to go extinct anyway in a matter of years because of global warming you might as well fish it to death before Mother Nature does so on your behalf. Of course we don't know which species are going to suffer that fate and nobody would believe the models of the scientists enough to go down that route although the very same results are being used to stop fishing.

Date published: 2005/05/12

Simple replicating robots (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US researchers have devised a simple robot that can make copies of itself from spare parts.

Writing in Nature, the robot's creators say their experiment shows the ability to reproduce is not unique to biology.

Their long-term plan is to design robots made from hundreds or thousands of identical basic modules.

These could repair themselves if parts fail, reconfigure themselves to better perform the task they have been set, or even to make extra helpers.

So far, the robots, if they can be called that, consist of just three or four mobile cubes.

Each unit comes with a small computer code carrying a blueprint for the layout of the robot, electrical contacts to let it communicate with its neighbours, and magnets to let them stick together.

By turning and moving, the cubes can pick up new units, decide where they belong, and stack them alongside each other to make new devices.

In a little more than a minute, a simple three-cube robot can make a copy of itself.

That offspring version can then make further copies. It is only a toy demonstration of the idea, but lead researcher Hod Lipson, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has bold plans for these intelligent modular machines.

"Space applications clearly come to mind. If you're sending a robot to one of Jupiter's moons, and the robot breaks, then the mission is over," Dr Lipson told the BBC.

"So you would like to have a robotic system that can adapt, or to repair itself, remotely. So that would be one clear application."

Other applications could be down mines or in nuclear facilities. The researchers have previously used aspects of evolution to help them design robots.

Combining this with the biology of self-repair and of replication would make huge changes to the field of robotics.

A good advance. The one additional thing to note is that the replication here relies on an external source (e.g. a human) providing the raw materials. Robots are still a long way from being able to go out and exploit nature and find novel solutions to problems in the way that humans can.

Possible new aquarium in Bedfordshire (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government is backing plans for the world's largest freshwater aquarium to be built in Bedfordshire.

It has given the go-ahead for the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) to provide loans for the £250m project.

The money would help the National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats (NIRAH) develop a business plan and seek planning permission.

The bio-domed research complex and aquarium, four times the size of the Eden Project, would be at Stewartby.

The 40-hectare complex in an old brickworks is the brainchild of an international team of biologists and conservationists.

It would be designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, who was responsible for the Eden Project in Cornwall.

The world's largest aquarium would be stocked with tropical trees and plants and populated by thousands of species of freshwater fish, amphibians and reptiles.
...
It is hoped the centre, funded by the revenue from scientific research and development as well as visitor income, would boost understanding of the earth's freshwater system and the animals that rely on it.

If plans are approved the centre could be running by 2010.

Sounds good, and a lot closer to the centre of gravity of the country than the Eden Project. The latter somehow managed to generate lots of good publicity (although it is little more than a glorified greenhouse) which has made it very successful. So hopefully this project will also be able to excel in marketing. Stewartby is near the M1, which should help getting to and from the site, assuming the access roads are upgraded (a big "if" in England, where planning disconnect is the normal rule).

Date published: 2005/05/11

The Newmarket Road area of Cambridge is a complete mess (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

One of Cambridge's busiest roads could have a much-needed facelift.

Consultants have been called in to tackle the Newmarket Road traffic nightmare.

The news is a welcome boost for residents, traders and shoppers in the area who have become increasingly frustrated with the often gridlocked road.

A preliminary study has been launched as a former Cambridge mayor has called on council traffic chiefs to act now to reduce "ridiculous" traffic congestion.

John Durrant, city councillor for the Abbey ward, is calling on Cambridgeshire County Council to bring an end to the "chaotic" situation.

Mr Durrant said: "The highways committee have allowed a situation to happen that really should not have happened and changes are needed to improve traffic flow.

Mr Durrant wants the council to look at issues such as traffic light re-adjustments and the pedestrian crossing sequences on the road, to reduce the build up of traffic and improve traffic flow.

The East Cambridge road is one of the city's busiest areas after a Tesco superstore was opened in 2002 and the recent development of the Coral Park Shopping area.

Changes were made to the layout of the road system in 2004 and since then the road has descended into chaos.

A bus lane introduced last year between River Lane and the entrance to the Tesco superstore has caused much confusion.

Drivers have been ignoring clearly-marked lane restrictions where the road has been reduced from two traffic lanes to one, and a bus lane, and it has become a dangerous flashpoint as cars change lanes erratically.

Traders in the area have also complained of losing money because of a lack of parking and the increased congestion.

Brian Stinton, Traffic Engineer for the Cambridge project, said consultants have completed small scale research into the traffic flows in Newmarket Road.

He said: "Without doubt there is something of an issue so the first thing was to look at the problem and to see what the causes of the problem were and to see if we can put them right."

They looked at "typical weekday and weekend flows" and at the layout of the roads linking the area.

"The road has got a lot of traffic on it at the moment and it is struggling to cope. With the retail parks which have opened relatively recently adding to the flow we have to find a way of altering them," he said.

Mr Stinton said depending on the results of the survey more research may be carried out.

There are two obvious sources of the problem, as mentioned in the article.

First, the council allowed the near doubling (or more) of the amount of retail capacity in the Newmarket Road area without adding any road capacity. This is because some clever consultants decided that all Cambridge retail should either be in the centre of the city, or in the Newmarket Road area, or in the Grafton Centre area (almost) connecting the two. This forces the entire world to go there to buy pretty much anything. In particular there are no major shopping areas west of the Cam, which forces all those people who live west of the river to cross it to shop, already a big bottleneck. (The city could, for example, have put a retail park in Arbury Camp next to the A14, but interested parties managed to stop that.)

Secondly instead of adding road capacity they introduced some ridiculous and wacky bus lanes on Newmarket Road which vastly reduced the road capacity, including introducing turbulence into the remaining car traffic flow. The bus lanes start and stop in the most bizarre fashion every few meters, and in some cases to turn into a retail park you need to be in the bus lane, and it's also not even obvious if the bus lanes apply all the time (they ought not to, but the Cambridge traffic planners have put no signs up indicating so one way or the other).

The Cambridge ruling elite has only itself to blame for the current situation.

Wollemi pine trees introduced into Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A rare species of tree dating back millions of years has been planted at Kew's Royal Botanical Gardens by wildlife expert Sir David Attenborough.

The Wollemi pine, once thought to have been extinct for 200 million years, was recently discovered in Australia, sparking a major conservation project.

It is thought the pines populated the ancient supercontinent Gondwana when dinosaurs walked the Earth.

The tree will also be displayed at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London.
...
On the same day Actor Kenneth Branagh was to plant a Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) at Wakehurst Place, Kew's country garden in Sussex, where seeds are already preserved in the Millennium Seed Bank.

A tall conifer, it is closely related to the monkey puzzle tree, and has an unusual pattern of branching, with the mature foliage having two ranks of leaves along the branches.

Fewer than 100 adult trees are known to exist in the wild and the exact location of Wollemi groves remain a secret.

Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew, is one of the few people who have been allowed to see the tree in their natural habitat.

"It's important to show this tree to people outside of Australia - to highlight its importance," he told BBC News. "We are doing a hardiness trial for the Australians.

"We've got 30 trees planted out here at Kew and at Wakehurst Place, and we'll run them for 18 months to see how they adapt to our climate.

"They've experienced minus 12 Celsius in North America this winter and, certainly, minus five in Sydney. So, they should be OK here."

From next year Wollemi pine saplings will go on sale to the public, and some of the revenue will be sent to Australia to help fund future conservation efforts.

It's amazing that the chattering classes get over-excited about GM food because it introduces a few odd bits of DNA into the UK environment, yet you can introduce an entirely new species (so huge amounts of foreign DNA) into the country without any comparable checks (certainly not years of carefully monitored field trials, with massive public consultation) and nobody so much as raises a whisper. Is Greenpeace going to stage one of their usual publicity stunts to demolish random Wollemi saplings? What if Wollemi pine turns out to be a rampant weed in the UK?

Date published: 2005/05/10

Russia and EU reach an agreement (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Russia has reached an agreement with the European Union on closer co-operation in key policy areas including the economy and security.

The comprehensive deal was reached ahead of a Moscow summit attended by top EU and Russian officials.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped the pact would help create a Europe "without dividing lines".
...
The deal, due to published in greater detail later on Tuesday, aims to ensure Russia and the EU can build closer trade ties and improve political relations.

The pact also seeks to improve collaboration in the areas of energy, transport and regional conflict resolution, to narrow the gap between existing legal standards, and promote trade and investment between the two sides.
...
The EU and Russia have also agreed to hold further talks on issues on which they were not able to reach full agreement.

These include softening visa regulations to eventually allow travel without visas between the two blocs, and whether Russia should take back migrants who have entered Western Europe illegally.
...
The EU is Russia's biggest trading partner, while Russia supplies more than one third of Europe's gas and oil.

Russia is a tricky one to call right now, it is not exactly a shining light of democracy. Hopefully it will progress and not regress further, because good relations between the EU and Russia are essential, if nothing else as a strategic bloc to counter the US and China.

Foreigners shunning British private schools (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

An education at a pretigious British private school, once regarded as an essential preparation for the ruling elites of developing countries, has lost some of its lustre, according to figures released on Monday.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents 60 per cent of Britain's private schools, including famous names such as Harrow and Eton, said its annual census showed they were losing out to competition from other overseas education markets, including Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Despite the high regard in which Britain's private schools are held around the world, and after several years of increases in foreign recruitment, the number of pupils in 2004 was 8,602 9.8 per cent lower than the previous year's census findings.

ISC cited a number of factors for the decrease including sterling's strength and the added financial burden of new visa charges, which started in August 2003 and have already damaged the recruitment of overseas students by British universities.

Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of ISC, said an increase of the existing £255 charge to £500 ($945, 738 Euros) this month would damage the wider UK economy. "Overseas students are not of primary importance to our sector but to UK plc generally. It is in our interests of the country as a whole to encourage students from overseas to join higher education courses. Therefore, we need to get them into the British curriculum as soon as possible."

The drop in numbers was also affected by cheaper alternatives to international education closer to home. Some of Britain's best-known public schools have been offering British-style education at local costs through franchise arrangements and purpose-built campuses abroad.

Harrow and Dulwich, for example, operate schools in both China and Thailand. Thailand saw a 26 per cent drop in the number of students coming to Britain.

China, the second biggest market for British education, also fell 8 per cent to 1,020 students in 2004. The ISC said it was aware of "negative propaganda" by the Chinese government designed to dissuade students from leaving the country.

There is less demand among continental Europeans for British education although the ISC said it was delighted by a 9.5 per cent growth in students from France. It put this down to curriculum reforms and the encouragement of European section schools that specialise in teaching English.

Well it's obviously a complex set of factors at work, but education is one of the most important British exports, and the crazy visa charges are dissuading university applicants as well. Ultimately you have to blame the Blair government.

Date published: 2005/05/09

Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain has made good progress in trying to preserve some of its rarest wild plants, but it has largely failed to halt widespread species decline.

That is one key message to come out of the new Vascular Plant Red Data List for Great Britain, published by a coalition of botanists.

The report represents the most comprehensive assessment to date of the state of the UK's flora.

Of 1,756 plant types, about 20% are currently threatened with extinction.

The analysis laments the near-disappearance from large areas of the country of arable "weeds", such as the prickly poppy.

This population of wild flowers that once proliferated in field margins has seen perhaps the steepest decline of all plant groups in the past 40 years.

They have been pushed out by highly intensive methods of crop production that give little opportunity for competing seeds to flourish on farmland.
...
Some botanists are hopeful that many plants currently classified as threatened can make strong returns under new agri-environment initiatives, such as the Entry-Level Stewardship scheme which pays farmers to restore habitats.

Conservation groups and agencies, too, are sponsoring more plant-friendly approaches to land management, including the re-flooding of drained wetlands and the re-introduction of gentle livestock grazing.

Nothing new here except for quantification (always worthwhile). But it seems that every generation thinks the attempts of previous generations vis-à-vis the environment are rubbish and that new initiatives are always needed to conserve (i.e. "save") the world. No doubt the next generation will think our methods are equally risible. And with global warming the environment is changing rather quickly, so Mother Nature will have other ideas than the botanists about which species will survive where.

Extra exam marks for personal trauma (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A system giving students extra marks if they have suffered personal trauma is being defended by an exams authority.

GCSE and A-level pupils in England are given 5% more if a parent dies close to exam day or 4% for a distant relative.

They get 2% more if a pet dies or 1% if they get a headache. Critics say the system panders to an "excuse for everything" attitude.

But the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) says taking such events into consideration is "nothing new".

What sounds like a good idea in theory is a bit ridiculous in practise. Why 5% for the death of a parent? Why 2% for the death of a pet (on the exam day itself, 1% ahead of time)? It's all completely arbitrary. And you can just imagine all the time (and so money) wasted coming up with this system. More education bureaucrats who need to be sacked.

Date published: 2005/05/08

US supposedly losing billions of tourist dollars (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

The US is losing billions of dollars as international tourists are deterred from visiting the US because of a tarnished image overseas and more bureaucratic visa policies, travel industry leaders have warned.

"It's an economic imperative to address these problems," said Roger Dow, chief executive of the Travel Industry Association of America, tourism's main trade body, which concluded its annual convention this weekend in New York.

Mr Dow stressed that tourism contributed to a positive perception of the US, which spread across to business. "If we don't address these issues in tourism, the long-term impact for American brands Coca-Cola, General Motors, McDonald's could be very damaging," he said.

The plea echoed that of other industry trade organisations which say bureaucratic visa procedures and stringent security after the September 11 terrorist attacks have deterred business travellers and foreign students. "The idea has gotten out that we've pulled in the welcome mat," said Rick Webster, the association's director of government affairs.

The number of international visitors last year rose 12 per cent, compared to 2003, to 46.1m, according to the US Commerce Department. They spent $93.7bn, or 17 per cent more than their counterparts the previous year. However, US market share of foreign visitors is still down 38 per cent since 1992, according to the TIA. The number of global travellers has grown by 2 per cent to 770m since 2000, but US market share has not kept pace. "Our piece of the pie has shrunk by 5m visitors," said Mr Dow.

The weak US dollar has boosted the number of international visitors, but given favourable currency rates for many foreigners, those numbers should be far higher.

"The weak US dollar is masking some of the problems," said Mr Webster. "And the dollar won't remain weak forever."

Mr Dow said rising anti-Americanism has created a feeling that the US is inhospitable and difficult to visit. "There's a perception of “Fortress America' that is much worse than it really is," he said. Mr Dow added that more competition from other destinations such as Australia, South Africa, Spain and Asia had siphoned off tourism to the US. The TIA urged US policymakers to facilitate various security measures. An October 26 deadline that requires some foreign passports to have biometric facial-recognition technology is unrealistic and must be extended, according to the TIA.

It also wants problems resolved with the US-Visit programme, an initiative requiring photos and fingerprints of some visitors, which is scheduled to be in place at land borders and ports-of-entry by end the end of the year.

It's hard to imagine that foreign tourism makes a big enough impact in America for anyone to care much even if no foreign tourists showed up. And Bush fueled the Fortress America mentality and paranoia about the rest of the world in order to make himself look good (one reason being to win re-election), and there's no reason for him to change course now (he might have to admit it was mostly a charade all along). He has done America no favours (but we already knew that). Why would people want to visit America in these circumstances (other than the cheap dollar), it seems loud and clear that America has definitely "pulled in the welcome mat", the biometric requirements being the most blatant example.

Date published: 2005/05/07

Asia is the future (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times has a weekend edition and one of the regular sections of that (for the last few years) is a magazine, which is actually one of the better versions of that kind of thing amongst the British newspaper industry. (But the FT in general is miles better.) One of the regular columns is a review of a lecture. This week's column features a lecture by Tom Peters and Richard Scase in London. The article says:

Their gist is this: there is not much we make or do that they (India and China) soon won't for a tenth of the price; those who moaned when call centres disappeared in that direction ain't seen nothing yet; China will have 100 million people in its middle class within five years, so the big research jobs are next. Meanwhile, the US, unlike Europe, has been quick to embed its companies to take advantage of the cheap labour. More than 350,000 of the 500,000 foreign firms now in the People's Republic are US-owned.

Pretty standard stuff, and the US and especially Europe are largely sleep-walking on this. Further:

India, Scase notes, already has more graduates in information and communication technology than the entire population of Britain and is turning them out at the rate of one million a year. "We're producing graduates in media studies, sociology and those sorts of highly relevant, useful activities," he says, ("media" becoming a pointed "meejah" on his lips). The reason? "We have a celebrity culture which is distorting aspirations, distorting the focus from wealth-creating activities."

A bit rich criticising the media culture when he is one beneficiary of this. Media studies is rather ridiculous as a university subject, but, for example, the BBC is highly valued in many parts of the world and, UK Plc should be able to parlay that into some wealth creation, which means more jobs in the media (that English is currently the lingua franca of the world helps). And since the claim is that India is shortly going to wipe us out in IT, why bother training too many people in that. Further:

Peters argues that companies must shift their emphasis from cost-cutting: "The only way to deal with an Indian software designer who's making 10 per cent of what you make is to be more creative and innovative." It's the only edge left, he says. But there is a greater truth we need to understand: "Anglo-Saxon" dominance of economic matters is finished. "The simple fact of the matter is that the 21st century is the Asian century, so get used to it."

Being "more creative and innovative" is relatively trite advice. It would be a bit more convincing if Peters himself actually did something for a living other than just talk about other people doing things. And of course not long ago it was Japan that was going to take over the world, and that never happened. Needless to say Asia has a big advantage in terms of population, but that is also its biggest handicap. There are so many poor people that one can easily imagine large social unrest as the rich get very rich and the poor get left in the mud. This is a smaller problem in Europe and the US although they both have a quasi-permanent underclass (especially the US).

The bicycle comes top in a survey (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The humble bicycle has won a UK national survey of people's favourite inventions.

Listeners to BBC Radio 4's You and Yours programme were invited to vote in an online poll looking at the most significant innovations since 1800.

It was an easy victory for the bicycle which won more than half of the vote.

The transistor came second with 8% of the vote, and the electro-magnetic induction ring - the means to harness electricity - came third.

Despite their ubiquity, computers gained just 6% of the vote and the internet trailed behind with only 4% of all votes cast. There were more than 4,500 votes cast in total.

People chose the bicycle for its simplicity of design, universal use, and because it is an ecologically sound means of transport.

The survey also asked participants which innovation they would most like to disinvent.

GM foods came top of this poll with 26% of the vote, followed by nuclear power with 19%.

By contrast, the technology most would like to see invented was an Aids vaccine.

These kinds of surveys are a bit ridiculous, but what the heck. For those who do not know, Radio 4 is the station for the middle class. "You and Yours" is one of the worst programmes on Radio 4 (with the "Archers" and the "Food Programme" being worse), whose main purpose in life seems to be financial pleading on behalf of various special interest groups (some deserving, most not). It is on at midday and that right away tells you who listens to it: the non-working middle class (e.g. lots of "Tory housewives"). So a fairly narrow view of the world. As confirmed by the opinion that GM foods are bad but an Aids vaccine is good. It's much the same technology being applied in both cases, although the so-called environmentalists have managed to demonise its application for food but not (yet) for medicine (they know they would be on a public relations loser there, although one disaster could change views).

Anne Campbell speaks about the election (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Defeated Labour MP Anne Campbell said Iraq had cost her her seat - even though she opposed the war.

The outgoing Cambridge MP admitted yesterday (Friday, 06 May) that she had realised a week ago she would be ousted in favour of Liberal Democrat David Howarth.

She said local opposition to the war in Iraq had cost her a significant number of votes, which she said was personally frustrating as she had resigned from a senior Government position in protest over the conflict.

Mr Howarth was gracious in victory yesterday (Friday, 06 May) and praised Mrs Campbell for her work as an MP but said that national Government policies had put her in an impossible situation.

Mrs Campbell said: "The big issue on the doorsteps has been Iraq. I have pointed out to the people that I did not vote for the war and it is difficult to see what else I could have done to better represent the views of people in Cambridge.

"The thing people have been saying to me is 'I want to vote for you, but I don't want to vote for Tony Blair'. It is frustrating for me.

"People were prepared to sacrifice me in order to show Tony Blair they are angry. This is how people feel."

She added that the defeat was not a surprise and she had not decided whether to carry on as Labour parliamentary candidate for Cambridge or step aside to make way for a younger challenger.

It was the war that cost her dear, the point being that Labour MPs did not take their chance to remove Blair from office last year, so it was up to the country to remove a few Labour MPs in order to try and force the issue. But student fees also would have cost her some votes in Cambridge. It's a thankless job representing any constituency and Cambridge is particularly bad because there are so many clever dicks in town (if only half of them were as clever as they believed). Howarth, being an opposition MP, will be able to speak and act without any broader responsibility, so will probably offend less people.

Date published: 2005/05/06

UK general election results are in (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tony Blair has won a historic third term in government for Labour but with a drastically reduced majority.

Mr Blair pledged to respond "sensibly and wisely" to the result, which the BBC predicts will see his majority cut from 167 in 2001 to 66.

The Conservatives have mounted a strong challenge but their overall share of the vote will be similar to 2001.

The Lib Dems have made big inroads into Labour majorities and look set to end up with an estimated 60 seats.

The current tally is Labour 355, Tories 197, Lib Dems 62 and others (mainly the regional parties) 30. There are two more seats: Staffordshire South, which will have a bye-election because the Lib Dem candidate (who would not have won) died shortly before the election; and Harlow, which is still due a recount. The Tories will probably win Staffordshire South and Labour or the Tories Harlow.

In some sense all the three main parties were winners and losers. And the outcome was fairly ideal, a Labour victory with a much reduced majority. The LibDems are crowing the most, but most of their 4% gain from the 2001 election was because of the Iraq war, and they are deluding themselves if they think otherwise. In 2009 they will most likely be back to square one. Charles Kennedy appears to be a nice enough chap but he is obviously not bright enough to be running the country (this is not the US).

For once the opinion polls and exit polls were fairly accurate. Perhaps this is because the polls were so stable for the whole campaign, perhaps this is because people who vote Tory are now willing to admit as such (unlike back in the dark days of Thatcherism), or perhaps this is because the pollsters now know how to fiddle their surveys to give a more accurate result.

In Cambridge there was a 15% swing to the Lib Dems from Labour and so the final result was not that close and Anne Campbell indeed lost her job to David Howarth because of Tony Blair. As well as being the highwater mark for the Lib Dems in the country, this is near the highwater mark for the Lib Dems in Cambridge. And not too soon. The final Cambridge count was:

partycountpercentage
LibDem1915244.0%
Labour1481334.0%
Conservative719316.5%
Green12452.9%
UKIP5691.3%
Respect4771.1%
Independent 1600.1%
Independent 2600.1%

One of the bizarre things about British elections is that the pundits obsess about votes, rather than about percentages. So they will say that the LibDems have a majority of 4339, but of course that is meaningless if you don't know what the total count was (43569) and in some sense you also need to know what the other parties got (over 1 vote in 5).

So David Howarth will now have to represent Cambridge, and it will be interesting to see how much he puts his own and his party's interest above the interests of the city. Perhaps the most important issue for the city (going forward) is student fees, introduced by Labour. These are bad for students but good for the university (at least according to the people who run the university, many of the staff believe otherwise). Howarth himself works for the university (for the Department of Land Economy, a joke department) so has a personal interest. The Lib Dems have always opposed student fees.

Another issue for the city is Marshall's Airport. Howarth has been one of those clamouring for it to be shut down, and the Lib Dems are hostile to the air transport industry. Anne Campbell (in some sense) supported Marshall's, but it's hard to see Howarth doing the same. If the IT and biotech industries don't flourish then Cambridge will go back to being a provincial university town, largely thanks to the dreadfully provincial Lib Dems who now run the town.

East Anglia is becoming a Labour free zone. So don't expect any favours to the region from the government. The only reason we have any influence is because of the university.

Solar radiation at surface of Earth increasing (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface is increasing, two new studies in Science magazine suggest.

Using different methods, they find that solar radiation at the surface has risen for at least the last decade.

Previous work had found the opposite trend, leading to a popular theory known as "global dimming".

But the latest Swiss and US research indicates the dimming in the past has now been reversed, possibly because of reduced atmospheric pollution.

The idea of global dimming holds that tiny particles - aerosols - in the atmosphere are reflecting sunlight back into space, and the effect is to cool the Earth's surface.

The aerosols - a large proportion of which come from human activities - are therefore acting against any human-induced greenhouse effect. And only when societies clean up the production of aerosols will the true extent of global warming become apparent.
...
If global dimming was masking the true scale of the human-induced greenhouse effect, and that dimming has now been superseded by global brightening, what does it all mean for the climate?

"We need to understand the basis of this," observed Dr Highwood, "and see what types of aerosol particles might be involved.

"If it's due to changes in soot-type aerosols, which absorb radiation, it might not affect things very much; but if it's changes in particles which scatter sunlight, such as sulphate aerosols, then we might not have the computer models of climate change right.

"But there is a third possibility here, which is changes in cloud cover. Until we can sort this out, we're going to struggle."

Once again, then, a conclusion arrived at by decades of painstaking observation raises a host of further questions, which can only be answered by yet more decades of painstaking observation and the expensive instruments needed to make them.

It's obviously too early to tell what any of this means, but it does illustrate perfectly well how complex this all is (not very surprising, but for political reasons, scientists and so-called environmentalists often pretend it is all black and white).

Date published: 2005/05/05

Road pricing is going to be introduced in the UK (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

A national system of road pricing that would replace taxes on motorists with charges for each journey could be approved halfway through a third Labour term, the transport secretary said yesterday.

Alistair Darling told the Financial Times that Labour would be "taking this forward" early in the next parliament, even though a nationwide scheme would not come into force before 2014.

"There has to be a strategic decision in the next two to three years as to whether this works," he said. Mr Darling used the interview to stress his support for road pricing as a means of tackling increasing traffic congestion. "I very strongly take the view . . . there is no way we can build our way out of the problems we face," he said.

The chances of a scheme going ahead had been improved by a change in the Westminster climate, Mr Darling said. The Tories had dropped their opposition to a national road pricing scheme.

Tim Yeo, shadow transport secretary, said yesterday there was a good case in principle for such a scheme. "I would certainly engage with Labour - either as a government or in opposition - to achieve bipartisan consensus," Mr Yeo told the FT. The Liberal Democrats also support road pricing.

In the past, politicians have been wary of offending the motorists' lobby, particularly after the highly disruptive fuel protests in 2000. Mr Darling said: "There is no way one party could do this in the teeth of [political] opposition. You are changing something fundamental."

Should the consensus survive the election, the next step towards a scheme would be a pilot study in which motorists would receive tax rebates in return for paying charges. Mr Darling said a number of local authorities had expressed interest in such a trial, which would need primary legislation.

Is this news? But you have to laugh when the ruling elite talk about "offending the motorists' lobby", given that motorists are the biggest suckers in the country, paying far more in tax than they receive in return.

It is also interesting to know which taxes the government would "replace". Road pricing is expensive to implement so the overall tax burden is almost certain to go up (someone has to pay for it). If they removed the annual road license tax then that would be reasonable, although that is likely to be only a fraction of what road pricing will take in. If they reduce the petrol (gasoline) tax then they are asking for trouble.

The big advantage of the petrol tax is that it is (obviously) proportional to how much petrol you use, so is an ideal reflection of the environmental damage you are causing. (It is also relatively cheap to collect.) With road pricing it does not matter whether you drive a thirsty Jaguar or a lean Toyota, you pay the same. Of course a small part of the reason for taxes on cars is to pay for the road network, so some part of that amount could reasonably be raised by road pricing (if it wasn't for the ridiculous costs of implementation).

If road pricing was being introduced solely to improve the efficiency of the road network and if it was cheap to introduce it would just about make sense. But of course the real reason to introduce road pricing is because the ruling elite hate motorists and want to screw them for every penny they are worth. And who cares if billions of pounds are being burned every year in the implementation.

Alan Sokal is giving a physics lecture in Cambridge (permanent blog link)

Alan Sokal is giving a lecture "Fermionic field theory for trees and forests" at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences on 12 May at 4 PM. He is known less for his physics than for his pretend article "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" which was published in the journal "Social Text" and allows us all to mercilessly take the piss out of the crackpot social "scientists" who use pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to try and hide their complete lack of anything useful to say. This kind of posturing seems to have largely started in France but apparently many American humanities departments have been hijacked by these people (and Cambridge is not immune).

It is therefore interesting to read the lecture abstract:

"We prove a generalization of Kirchhoff's matrix-tree theorem in which a large class of combinatorial objects are represented by non-Gaussian Grassmann integrals. As a special case, we show that unrooted spanning forests, which arise as a q --> 0 limit of the Potts model, can be represented by a Grassmann theory involving a Gaussian term and a particular bilocal four-fermion term. We show that this latter model can be mapped, to all orders in perturbation theory, onto the N-vector model at N=-1 or, equivalently, onto the sigma-model taking values in the unit supersphere in R^{1|2}. It follows that, in two dimensions, this fermionic model is perturbatively asymptotically free."

Compare that with a typical paragraph from his joke article:

"In string theory, the quantum-mechanical amplitude for the interaction of n closed or open strings is represented by a functional integral (basically, a sum) over fields living on a two-dimensional manifold with boundary. In quantum gravity, we may expect that a similar representation will hold, except that the two-dimensional manifold with boundary will be replaced by a multidimensional one. Unfortunately, multidimensionality goes against the grain of conventional linear mathematical thought, and despite a recent broadening of attitudes (notably associated with the study of multidimensional nonlinear phenomena in chaos theory), the theory of multidimensional manifolds with boundary remains somewhat underdeveloped. Nevertheless, physicists' work on the functional-integral approach to quantum gravity continues apace, and this work is likely to stimulate the attention of mathematicians."

A naive observer might be forgiven for thinking that the first paragraph is more of a joke than the second one. But a theoretical physicist will tell you that the first paragraph makes perfect sense, it just so happens that modern theoretical physics is far removed from the ordinary concepts of life.

Date published: 2005/05/04

Oil demand not increasing medium term supply (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

Investment in new capacity by oil-producing nations and energy companies is too small to meet future growth in demand, the developed world's energy watchdog warned on Tuesday.

Claude Mandil, head of the International Energy Agency, said even though energy prices were near record levels, the world was not investing enough in oil and gas production, refining, power generation and transmission.

Mr Mandil's comments, at the IEA's biennial ministerial meeting, highlight growing concern about energy industry strategies.

Global investment in the sector remained below the IEA's 2003 estimate of the $16 trillion needed by 2030 to meet projected demand, Mr Mandil said.
...
Many analysts echo Mr Mandil's comments, fearing that the world's biggest listed oil companies are basing their plans on a low oil price. Lehman Brothers and Citigroup say private oil companies' investment in exploration will rise by less than 6 per cent in 2005, against 12 per cent last year.

In spite of the sharp rise in crude prices over the past four years, large oil companies still decide on their projects based on in an oil price of $20 to $25 a barrel and are returning cash to shareholders rather than investing.

But Lord Browne, BP chief executive, last week dismissed the idea that his company was underinvesting, arguing his responsibility lay in ensuring sustainable growth.

BP and ExxonMobil, the two biggest listed oil groups, say that when making investments that may last for 25 years they will assume only a $20 per barrel.

It's hard to believe that oil will ever again be $20 per barrel, unless the world economy nosedives. But the oil (and gas) companies (and suppliers) are in a win-win situation until the world finds a plausible alternative source.

Stansted needs another runway (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Campaign group Stop Stansted Expansion claims the airport's existing runway could cope with demand for at least the next 10 years, because of a slowdown in growth.

Stop Stansted Expansion said passenger numbers grew by 9 per cent during the year ended March 31 compared to 16 per cent in the previous 12 months.

It added that Stansted was not expected to reach the current planning limit of 25 million passengers a year until 2008/09.

SSE chairman Peter Sanders said: "The slowdown at Stansted is further evidence that it is regional airports which are now seeing the most rapid growth in air travel.

"This allows much-needed breathing space at Stansted and there is now ample time for BAA to produce a detailed airport master plan and a full environmental impact assessment before submitting any further planning applications."

A spokeswoman for Stansted Airport said there was a natural decrease in growth following a rapid boom.

"The larger the figures get, the smaller the percentage increase," she said.

She said the Government wanted the second runway at Stansted to be up and running by 2012 and the airport is expected to reach around 35 million - the capacity for a single runway - by the period 2014/15.

A disingenuous argument from SSE, since 2008 is tomorrow in airport planning terms. It will take a decade or more to get another runway up and running, because of the endless dragging out of the planning application by the opponents of expansion. The planning process in the UK is a joke. Of course nobody really knows how many passengers there will be in 2015, especially given that airplane fuel will eventually be taxed (it's hard to believe it has not happened already, given how addicted politicans are to tax) and that will reduce the possible numbers.

Date published: 2005/05/03

Europe's soil quality allegedly under threat (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European farming is being threatened by declining soil quality, particularly in eastern states, according to a report.

More than 16% of EU land is affected by soil degradation but more than a third is affected in eastern countries.

Costly measures to boost soil fertility put pressure on the Common Agricultural Policy, the EU's farming subsidy system, says the Soil Atlas of Europe.

Urbanisation, climate change, pollution and poor farming practices contribute to declining soil quality, it says.

The atlas, produced by the EU's Joint Research Centre, is the first full assessment of Europe's soil.
...
The major threats to soil quality identified by the atlas are erosion, the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides, the loss of organic content, pollution from industry, the loss of biodiversity, salinity, the compacting of soil by agricultural vehicles, landslides and flooding.

Authors of the report say farmers have failed to exercise simple measures to protect soil quality, such as composting it.

"We definitely undervalue the contribution of soil to our biodiversity, but unless we protect it better we will soon realise its importance in the worst possible way - by seeing the problems caused by its loss," said Janez Potocnik, the EU commissioner for science and research.

The study will form the basis of an EU soil framework directive which is intended to shield Europe's soil from further damage.

Who knows, this might be a real problem, but the last paragraph rather gives the game away, it's all about the Eurocrats foisting even more regulation on Europe. And you always have to worry when a bunch of academics believes that "farmers have failed to exercise simple measures". What do these patronising academics think, farmers are stupid and lazy? And how about "we definitely undervalue the contribution of soil to our biodiversity". You could say "we definitely undervalue XXX" for just about any XXX that you care about that the rest of the world does not equally worry about night and day. And the equally bleak "if we don't do YYY then the world will end". What would most help Europe is the sacking of the EU-rocracy.

A washing machine for morons (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A Spanish designer has come up with what could be the perfect solution for the woman who feels frustrated that she has to do all the house chores.

It is a washing machine called "Your Turn", which will not let the same person use it twice in a row.

It uses fingerprint recognition technology to ensure the job of loading is not dumped on just one individual.

Who would be stupid enough to buy this? Only someone with more money than sense. Imagine that your partner is on a business trip for a week and you need to do some laundry. Better cram it all into one load or else. And meanwhile don't spill any wine on anything. And if your partner dies, the first thing you will have to do is buy a new washing machine (apparently it is difficult to hack around the system). May the company making this go bankrupt. And why does the BBC give positive publicity to this idiotic idea? Is their political correctness so overwhelming as to disengage any brain function? (The story is anti-men, they would never run such a story if it were anti-women.)

Date published: 2005/05/02

Greg Dyke sticks the knife into Tony Blair (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Another Blair government would be a danger to democracy, former BBC director general Greg Dyke has said at a Lib Dem campaign news conference.

Mr Dyke said he had switched from Labour to the Lib Dems because he could not support a party led by Tony Blair.

Charles Kennedy said Iraq had "polluted the body politic" and that Britain would judge Mr Blair on Thursday.

Mr Blair insists he acted in good faith over Iraq. The Tories accuse him of lying over the case for the war.

Mr Dyke, who lost his job over a BBC report on the argument for the Iraq war, said it was now clear that Mr Blair and his Downing Street staff "did the same to the legal advice on the war in Iraq as they did to the intelligence".

"They chose parts that suited their case and conveniently failed to tell Parliament or the nation about the rest.

"In doing this they have undermined trust in our whole political system.

"After eight years of Mr Blair one can only conclude that our democratic system is in crisis as a result of his style of government."

Mr Dyke also likened the Labour government during the Iraq period to the Nixon Whitehouse.

"If you were a journalist and you didn't support their side, they tried to get you. If you supported them, they gave you stories.

"That's a very dangerous position for a democratic party to get into. You're either on our side, or you're the enemy."

Et tu, Brute? It's not that surprising that Dyke has turned on Blair, given the dreadful way in which Whitehall and the Blair spin machine managed to force his unwarranted resignation from the BBC. But the ferocity of his comments are amazing. And well aimed. Perhaps with all the sustained assault on his character, Blair will think twice about misbehaving further after the election (but unlikely, given his plans for further assaults on civil liberties).

Although most voters do not (seem to) care (much) about Iraq, it has been the big issue of the campaign. Usually the big issues in campaigns are about government spending, directly or indirectly. Some special interest group wants more money spent on something and manages to make a splash in the media pleading their case. This often happens with health issues. An aggrieved relative lambasts the government minister for not spending enough on the NHS, or more specifically, the disease (or whatever) that afflicts their loved one. The media lap this up, but of course never bother to ask the person whether they are willing to have their own taxes doubled to pay for it. Of course not, someone else should pay for it (the slogan of the modern political era).

This morning on the Today Programme on Radio 4 we had sculptor Antony (or Anthony, depending on the source) Gormley pleading his special interest, an "arts manifesto", i.e. more money for the arts. He said that arts spending had doubled under Labour from 200 to 400 million pounds, but that the next few years the budget would be frozen. How dreadful. He said he was not asking for the State to subsidise the arts but instead to act as a patron. New Labour should hire this guy, what a master of spin. Unfortunately to be a patron you need to spend your own money, and government is only spending other people's money, so it is a subsidy. Of course Britain is largely lacking patrons (universities also suffer from this problem) so without government subsidy many arts facilities would close up. However it would be nice if occasionally the BBC would give these special interests more of a hard time. If you added up all the money which the Today Programme thinks the government should spend on behalf of all the special interests of the world, the country would be bankrupt twice over.

Date published: 2005/05/01

Head teachers think parents should be nannied (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Head teachers are calling for new mothers to attend weekly sessions to learn how to bring up their children.

David Gray, a head teacher from Devon, said they would learn to teach a child the difference between "yes" and "no".

Research showed that parents who played and talked with their babies improved their chances in life, he added.
...
"How much better then it would be if the local education authority provided weekly sessions which mothers and babies from all social levels would be expected to attend."

Experts could be on hand to discuss any concerns.

Mothers who did not attend should lose their child benefit, he went on.

Wow, children do better if they are stimulated, who would have thought that. Give those researchers a bonus.

The proposal for parenting lessons is a logical outcome of parents expecting more and more handouts from the State. The State in return is liable to ask for more in return. But you can just imagine the dreadfully patronising advice the "experts" will give the parents (and these consultants will no doubt each charge a thousand pounds per day, since they are so "expert"). Control Freak Britain writ large.

UK general election to be monitored by international observers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The general election will be the first ever poll in the UK to be monitored by a team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Kare Vollan, who will head the OSCE assessment mission, said his team would report on the "total election process", including postal voting. The OSCE usually monitors elections in transition democracies, but is now starting to look at traditional ones.

And so they should. It is worth monitoring all national elections, even in so-called democracies. It is particularly important to do so in the US, where the last two presidential elections have had notorious problems (and previous ones have not been ideal). The main problem in Britain is expected to be with postal voting, and perhaps an international organisation can embarrass the next government into doing something to improve the process.

Meanwhile, with the election drawing near, the LibDems tonight had the most amusing of the television election broadcasts. It was all about the boy who cried wolf (car registration plate "WMD 0").

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