Azara Blog: January 2006 archive complete

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Date published: 2006/01/31

Blair defeated on Religious Hatred Bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has suffered two shock defeats over attempts to overturn Lords changes to the controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

In a blow to Tony Blair's authority, MPs voted by 288 votes to 278 to back a key Lords amendment to the bill.

The government lost by just one vote a further division over the changes.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke told MPs that the bill would now become law and he was delighted the legislation was being put in place.

The government has only suffered one defeat since 1997 before Tuesday night's vote and that was on the Terrorism Bill.

Earlier in the Commons, Home Office Minister Paul Goggins told MPs that moves to combat religious hatred would not damage freedom of speech.

Objectors, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, feared the proposals would limit artistic freedom.

The votes came after hundreds protested against the bill outside Parliament on Tuesday.

Unbelievable. Once upon a time Blair would easily have been able to get this through. But once upon a time he had some credibility. Unfortunately his administration has taken away more civil rights than perhaps any other administration in modern times, and this "hatred bill" (more like "hated bill") was just along this line. Blair and his ministers tried to claim that nobody would get caught up by this draconian bill for just expressing free speech. Unfortunately anti-terrorism laws have already been used to diminish free speech, including against that heckler at the 2005 Labour Party conference. And this law would no doubt have ended up being used similarly. A well-deserved bloody nose for Blair and a pat on the back for the Lords and for those few Labour MPs who stood up to Blair.

Council backs down on traveller site on Cowley Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Plans for a transit site for travellers at Cowley Road in Cambridge have been abandoned.

City council officers have been instructed to stop investigations into the controversial proposal because the site does not offer "value for money".

The site, close to a golf driving range, was first identified in November as being the only possible location within the city for travellers to stay temporarily.

But the proposals for a site where 10 caravans could stay for up to three months were opposed by several businesses in the Cowley Road area, including Stagecoach.

Now the council said it has become clear Cowley Road was unsuitable.
...
[ Coun Ian Nimmo-Smith, council leader, ] said the council remained committed to providing a transit site and would work with private landowners and other public bodies to identify alternative sites. He said: "By agreement with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister we are putting in a bid for the capital cost of creating a transit site without specifying where it will be."

Another stupidity by the Lib Dem council. But at least here they have backed down before making an even bigger mess of it. Now they are trying the classic local council trick of setting up a bid for another site "without specifying where it will be". Presumably this time they will try to dump the site in an area where the locals have less political clout than Stagecoach. Actually there is a perfect location already at hand: Lammas Land in Newnham. There is plenty of land there for caravans to park. Let the rich people who run Cambridge show some social solidarity with travellers in their own backyard.

Some local residents don't like that station area development plans (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Residents have slammed plans for a massive new office and housing scheme opposite the city's railway station.

Around 200 people packed into St Paul's Church, Hills Road, on Monday night to give their views on the proposals, which include 10 storey buildings and 1,400 flats.

Cambridge City Council officers admitted the scheme, put forward by Ashwell Plc, "departed substantially" from their development plan with the developers seeking more houses and higher buildings.

It has already granted permission for a historical resource and cultural centre for the county council in the converted mill silo building, along with 4,000 sq feet of office space for Ashwell Homes and some residential units.

But residents are concerned that if the remaining proposals get the goahead, the site could become a ghetto of commuter flats for people working in London rather than a transport interchange serving the whole city.
...
Ashwells is proposing to demolish all the existing office blocks in Station Road and double the space with seven new blocks from six to 10 storeys high. In addition, 18 blocks of flats up to seven storeys high will include a new hotel multi-deck car park and 50,000 square feet of new shops and cafes. About 30 per cent of the housing will be designated "affordable".

Well Ashwell Plc has no doubt done the sums and decided they can flog all those flats and all this office space. But of course the flats will largely be there for London commuters. All housing anywhere near the station is like that. And who are these residents kidding, the main reason the station is a "transport interchange" is because of London commuters.

The Cambridge hi-tech boom is largely over (there are some exceptions), and the city is stupidly asking one of it's largest companies (Marshalls) to get lost and replacing all those jobs with yet more housing. So soon Cambridge will be largely a university town and a dormitory for London commuters, with a large regional hospital. Wonderful. Thank your local Lib Dem council, who hate cars so much they think it is more "sustainable" that people commute 60 miles to work by train than 3 miles by car.

What is most astonishing about Ashwell's plans is that they want to demolish all the existing offices on Station Road, including (it seems) Kett House, which was completely refurbished (at no doubt great expense) only a few years ago. What an utter waste of resources. Build something and then smash it up. This is what people should be objecting to.

Date published: 2006/01/30

Yet another greenhouse gas report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rising concentrations of greenhouse gases may have more serious impacts than previously believed, a major new scientific report has said.

The report, published by the UK government, says there is only a small chance of greenhouse gas emissions being kept below "dangerous" levels.

It fears the Greenland ice sheet is likely to melt, leading sea levels to rise by seven metres over 1,000 years.

The poorest countries will be most vulnerable to these effects, it adds.

The report, "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change", collates evidence presented by scientists at a conference hosted by the UK Meteorological Office in February 2005.
...
A key task undertaken by some scientists contributing to the report was to calculate which greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere would be enough to cause these "dangerous" temperature increases.

Currently, the atmosphere contains about 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, compared to levels before the industrial revolution of about 275ppm.

"For achieving the two Celsius target with a probability of more than 60%, greenhouse gas concentrations need to be stabilised at 450 ppm CO2-equivalent or below," conclude Michel den Elzen from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and Malte Meinshausen of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"A stabilisation at 450 ppm CO2-equivalent requires global emissions to peak around 2015, followed by substantial overall reductions in the order of 30%-40% compared to 1990 levels in 2050."

But, speaking on Today, the UK government's chief scientific advisor Sir David King said that is unlikely to happen.

"We're going to be at 400 parts per million in 10 years time, I predict that without any delight in saying it," he said.

"But no country is going to turn off a power station which is providing much-desired energy for its population to tackle this problem - we have to accept that.

"To aim for 450 (ppm) would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible."

Another "end of the world" report. And nothing new, it seems, except to collate lots of things in one place, which is useful. And King probably has it right. It's important to spend more effort figuring out how to adapt to the inevitable increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rather than just complaining that the world is at an end.

The Lib Dems want to partly close down Victoria Avenue and Maid's Causeway (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

More views are being sought on ways to improve a major route through Cambridge.

Residents in the Victoria Avenue/Maid's Causeway area had their traffic concerns heard by members of the Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee.

Two-thirds of residents who replied to a survey felt there were problems on the route.

Brunswick and North Kite residents' association expressed concern over the volume of traffic and the problems with safety and pollution this caused.

A third of respondents to the survey backed a partial or tidal closure to traffic, such as already used in Silver Street.

Support for other measures of trafficcalming, safety improvements, improved pedestrian and cycle facilities or a combination of these ranged from 7 to 11 per cent, amounting to 44 per cent of responses.

Committee members agreed that further consultations needed to be carried out.

County councillor Julian Huppert, chairman of the committee, said: "There are obviously local concerns about traffic levels on this route but a mix of suggestions over what should be done.

"We must make sure that a reduction in traffic in one road does not bring other surrounding routes to a grinding halt."

The consultation is due to be held in April.

Another useless so-called public consultation, the council is ever so keen to waste money on these. The general problem is that the responses are heavily biased by activists, in particular by middle class (i.e. rich) activists, so are not representative of the public. Here this problem was compounded by having the initial survey only take in people who live near Victoria Avenue and Maid's Causeway (even more middle class than usual). The council does this again and again (e.g. the same happened with Mitcham's Corner a couple of years ago). They ask only the residents of an area whether they want a road closed. They do not ask all the other stakeholders in the road (in particular the people who drive up and down it).

As with all neighbourhoods, most people would be happy to have all roads in their immediate vicinity closed to all cars, except their own. This immediately biases the response, and the fact that only a third of respondents to the survey backed closure already says that the city has monumentally failed trying to push this, their latest pet project, successfully. But that will not stop them. The Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, and will continue to push their anti-car agenda. (The transport so-called planners also have to justify their existence by constantly widening their realm.)

It is particularly laughable that Huppert is allegedly concerned that closing one road causes problems elsewhere. One of the reasons that Victoria Avenue is busier than it used to be is that the city closed down Bridge Street to cars (except for taxis, because the rich get a free pass in Cambridge), and Victoria Avenue is now the most sensible approach route to the Park Street car park, and for deliveries to the centre of town. And Trumpington Street is much worse than it used to be because the city closed down Silver Street to cars during the day (except for taxis, because the rich get a free pass in Cambridge). And the city has made Newmarket Road a disaster area by introducing an idiotic bus lane, so restricting car flow and encouraging cars to rat run elsewhere. So the city has purposefully pushed an agenda which has resulted in exactly the problems Huppert claims to be worried about. We don't need crocodile tears from the Lib Dems who lord over Cambridge. We need some common sense. Sacking everyone who has anything to do with transport planning would be a good first step.

Date published: 2006/01/29

Almost half of women in UK allegedly want abortion 24-week limit reduced (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has said she is not in favour of introducing tougher UK abortion laws.

She said she was against reducing the 24-week limit, but wanted to try to cut the number of late terminations.

Her comments came after a survey in the Observer suggested that 47% of UK women wanted tougher abortion laws.

Anti-abortion campaigners welcomed the results of the survey of 1,790 adults, but pro-choice groups say women need access to late abortions.

Almost half of the women surveyed wanted the legal time limit for an abortion cut from 24 weeks, the Observer said.

Another 10% of women did not agree with abortion "under any circumstances" and only 2% wanted the limit to be extended, the study suggested.

It indicated that 35% of men and 31% of women thought the current time limit for having an abortion was "about right".

Only 2% of women and 5% of men thought the last possible date after which a woman can terminate a pregnancy should be increased from 24 weeks.

Well you have to take the alleged results of any survey with a pinch of salt, especially a survey about abortion. It's quite likely the limit will be reduced from 24 weeks in the not-too-distant future but this would be mitigated if at the same time it was made easier to get an abortion in the first place (i.e. with less interference from control freak doctors). And needless to say, the people who are most vocal about reducing the limit from 24 to (say) 20 or 16 weeks do not really want that but really want it to be reduced to 0 weeks. Fortunately abortion is not currently the big issue in the UK that it is in the States.

Date published: 2006/01/28

John Lloyd, the worst FT columnist? (permanent blog link)

The worst thing about most newspapers are the columnists, who almost invitably spew nonsense about the world. The Financial Times, perhaps the greatest newspaper in the world, is unfortunately not immune from this disease. Indeed most of their columnists are mediocre at best, even the financial ones. One of the worst is John Lloyd, who seems to hate the media but of course is part of the media. This weekend's example (subscription service) is fairly typical:

George Clooney, the latest Hollywood star to hate George W. Bush for overthrowing a genocidal dictator, has made a film about the broadcaster Ed Murrow...

Such insight. Considering Lloyd always tries to come across as the seasoned analyst, he is marvellously idiotic when it comes to the war in Iraq (as are most apologists for the war). George Bush did not launch his illegal invasion of Iraq mainly to overthrow a genocidal dictator. He did it for party political reasons (in particular to make himself look good). The fact that Saddam Hussein was genocidal was neither here nor there to the American government (including many in the current administration) for decades until he got uppity and tried to steal Kuwait from under the noses of the Americans. Plenty of people "hate" (more like despise) George Bush because he is a perfect example of how stupidity and arrogance are a lethal combination, especially when you have the world's largest arsenal at your beck and call, and are totally incompetent and corrupt and nasty to boot. The people of Iraq are a side show for George Bush.

Onto the next great Lloyd insight, when trying to claim that television was so much better in the good old days:

Channel 4 - established to raise television”s game in arts, films and, yes, current affairs - was broadcasting the latest episode of Celebrity Big Brother, in which the radically anti-American member of parliament, George Galloway, cavorts and gossips with faded celebrities.

Well Galloway is a bit of an idiot, but has anyone ever heard him be "radically anti-American"? Or is just that he is "radically anti-American government"? This "minor" distinction might be too subtle for Lloyd to grasp, or perhaps he made this "mistake" in his prose on purpose, to aid his black propaganda.

Then we go for the truly comic, when Lloyd tries to say that perhaps the modern world is not that bad after all:

We don”t seem to get any stupider. Schools and universities keep reporting better test results.

Well, we probably aren't getting "any stupider" (whatever that means). But the idea that "better test results" prove this is hilarious. All they prove is that grade inflation can be built into the system (and there is every incentive for it to happen).

Date published: 2006/01/27

Pointless UK quango report on the future of transport (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Car makers are not doing enough to develop green alternatives to petrol, an influential government adviser says.

Japanese companies had a better record than European or American ones, Professor Stephen Blythe said.

But the industry had still not grasped the urgency of the problem - despite promoting its green credentials.

A car industry spokesman said the government could do a lot more to encourage the development of alternative fuels such as hydrogen.

"It is not just a question of manufacturers developing the technology. All of the parties involved in future fuel technology must play their part," said Nigel Wannacott, of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Mr Wannacott said Japanese manufacturers had led the way on hybrid electric and petrol cars but all major manufacturers were developing hydrogen and bio-fuel engines.

He urged the government to provide incentives and build infrastructure to encourage the take-up of hydrogen, which he said was about 15 to 20 years away.

But Professor Blythe, who is one of the key contributors to the government future transport strategy, claimed it was the manufacturers who were dragging their feet.

"We have had a lot of meetings with car companies, who promote their green credentials - but they say we are not going to do much for the next 20 to 30 years because our customers don't want to pay more.

"Japanese car manufacturers seem to be much more progressive than some of the European or American ones," he said.

He was speaking at the launch of a report on the long-term shape of UK transport policy.

The report includes four alternative scenarios of what life might be like in 50 years time to help industry and government plan future transport infrastructure.

The scenarios are:

Asked which of the scenarios would appeal to car manufacturers, Professor Blythe said: "I suspect they would not favour any of them."

Dear, oh dear. Why is Blythe allegedly "influential"? Why is this report (which Blythe is not one of the authors of) considered to be anything more than just a good laugh? You just have to look at the original report to see that this is why government should not waste money on such reports. The silly typical-consultant jargon gives the game away. As an example, just consider the names of the four scenarios considered, as listed above. As another example, here is a typical excerpt from the report (page 26):

The 'always on' loop stimulates demand and traps behaviour in a supply-and- demand escalation. The 'psychological stress' loop limits the pace of innovation and development, but the effect is delayed. Noticeably, the key enabler is the availability of clean low-cost energy. The logic of this system has been applied to provide structure to the scenario.

(Complete with a typical consultant's diagram with bubbles and arrows.) These people (over-paid and under-useful) are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The idea that they, of all people, have some magic view 50 years into the future is a joke. They also give the standard rant of the ruling elite that somehow (by definition, almost) cars are "high energy" but that so-called public transport is "low energy", which of course it is not if you include the total energy costs (e.g. including labour) and not just the direct energy costs (e.g. electricity). This prejudice in itself entirely discredits anything they might say, since they obviously have no interest in doing a proper analysis, just hand-waving in true consultant style. Close down www.foresight.gov.uk and give the money to someone useful, e.g. scientists and engineers who are doing real work, not producing vacuous documents.

Global sea levels rise possibly accelerating (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Global sea levels could rise by about 30cm during this century if current trends continue, a study warns.

Australian researchers found that sea levels rose by 19.5cm between 1870 and 2004, with accelerated rates in the final 50 years of that period.

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, used data from tide gauges around the world.

The findings fit within predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC's Third Assessment Report, published in 2001, projected that the global average sea level would rise by between 9 and 88cm between 1990 and 2100.

In an attempt to reduce the scale of uncertainty in this projection, the Australian researchers have analysed tidal records dating back to 1870.

The data was obtained from locations throughout the globe, although the number of tidal gauges increased and their locations changed over the 130-year period.

These records show that the sea level has risen, and suggest that the rate of rise is increasing.

Over the entire period from 1870 the average rate of rise was 1.44mm per year.

Over the 20th Century it averaged 1.7mm per year; while the figure for the period since 1950 is 1.75mm per year.

Although climate models predict that sea level rise should have accelerated, the scientists behind this study say they are the first to verify the trend using historical data.

If the acceleration continues at the current rate, the scientists warn that sea levels could rise during this century by between 28 and 34cm.

Let's see. 1.75mm per year from 1950 to 2000 and 1.7mm from 1900 to 2000 and 1.44mm from 1870 from 2004. So (with some simple arithmetic) 0.5-0.6mm from 1870 to 1900 and 1.65mm from 1900 to 1950. Now the difference between the figures of the first half and second half of the 20th century are not great (perhaps surprisingly). So the "acceleration" is almost all due to the low figure for 1870. Well this might be totally correct data, but it does rather ring alarm bells. But at the very least, it seems to give working figures for the current rate of sea level rise. If the rise held constant at the second half of the 20th century figure (and not many people would believe that) then that would be another 17.5cm by 2100, so if it really is accelerating then the quoted range of 28 to 34cm seems reasonable.

Survival of Culture (permanent blog link)

The second lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Edith Hall on the "Survival of Culture". Hall was an enthusiastic speaker if nothing else. The rough summary of her talk is that lots of people have put their (politically correct) spin on the (of course fictional) story of the cyclops from Homer's Odyssey. (Showing how empire is wonderful. Showing how empire is terrible. Showing how men -- as distinct from women -- are dreadful. Etc. So "politically correct" meant one thing in the 19th century and another thing today.) But why putting an arbitrary (and it is arbitrary) interpretation on one small part of a (fictional) story from a couple of thousands of years ago is considered worthy of so much study and comment is anyone's guess. (Perhaps these people have nothing more interesting to say for themselves.)

Date published: 2006/01/26

Much of the British public apparently doesn't like evolution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

More than half the British population does not accept the theory of evolution, according to a survey.

Furthermore, more than 40% of those questioned believe that creationism or intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons.

The survey was conducted by Ipsos MORI for the BBC's Horizon series.

Its latest programme, A War on Science, looks into the attempt to introduce intelligent design into science classes in the US.

Over 2000 participants took part in the survey, and were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life:

Intelligent design is the concept that certain features of living things are so complex that their existence is better explained by an "intelligent process" than natural selection.

Andrew Cohen, editor of Horizon, commented: "I think that this poll represents our first introduction to the British public's views on this issue.

"Most people would have expected the public to go for evolution theory, but it seems there are lots of people who appear to believe in an alternative theory for life's origins."

When given a choice of three theories, people were asked which ones they would like to see taught in science lessons in British schools:

Participants over 55 were less likely to choose evolution over other groups.

Well you should be suspicious of the results of any survey, since the wording strongly influences the outcome. But hey, it's Horizon, and they are honest, aren't they? So it seems that the average member of the British public is not a heck of a lot brighter than the average member of the American public. Even to recognise that "creationism" and "intelligent design" are one and the same thing. (But here is where the wording of the survey probably had an impact.)

Prince Charles wants people to walk and cycle more (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Prince of Wales has urged more people to walk and cycle in a bid to tackle unhealthy living.

He raised concerns Britain was closely following the US in the consumption of fast food and lack of exercise.

Speaking to a conference in London on design and health, he said: "We are perhaps not far behind our American cousins in the 'supersizing' epidemic."

Charles blamed the infrastructure of towns and cities for discouraging pedestrians and physical activity.

The prince questioned the role town planning had in promoting people's health.

"Research... suggests that walking or cycling for just half an hour a day can have a significant improvement on our state of health.

"But why don't we do it more?"

Referring to research by fellow speaker Dr Richard Jackson, the prince said it was often "because our towns and cities make it nearly impossible, and because it might help if the built environment was more attractive and appealing to the pedestrian".

More mumbling from Prince Charles, who gets driven or taken by train or flown everywhere. And in modern Britain most people do not live near enough to their workplace to walk or cycle to it. (Some people are willing to cycle ten miles to work, but they are in a minority.) The most exercise some people get is probably walking around a large shopping mall, and that is hardly an "attractive" built environment in any sense of the word that Prince Charles means. And food is much cheaper now than it used to be, so people quite naturally eat more. And cars are not just a plaything of the rich now, ordinary people can afford them, so people quite naturally go more places by car now than once upon a time. So the "attractiveness" or not (according to Prince Charles and his ilk) of the built environment is only one small part of a bigger picture. (Well, the way he normally speaks it seems he would be happy to ban cars for everybody but the rich like himself, as part of the "cure" for this alleged "problem".)

Date published: 2006/01/25

Coral reefs and mangroves are valuable (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Coral reefs and mangroves are worth protecting for economic reasons, contributing as much as $1m per sq km to tropical economies.

That is the conclusion of a new United Nations report which calculates the value of reefs and mangroves to fishing, tourism and coast protection.

Intact mangroves protected areas of coastline during the 2004 Asian tsunami, reducing the death toll.

Reefs are under threat from pollution, overfishing, and ocean acidification.

"Day in and day out, and across the oceans and seas of the world, nature is working to generate incomes and livelihoods for millions if not billions of people," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

"I hope the financial facts contained in this study will radically change the attitude and behaviour of governments, industry, local authorities and individuals so that they better prize and conserve these natural assets."

Pollution, climate change and insensitive development are not only damaging ecosystems but undermining the economic basis for coastal communities worldwide, Unep says.

The report concludes that the value of reefs and mangroves varies between different regions but is generally high. Overall, it finds, reefs are worth between $100,000 and $600,000 per sq km per year, rising to more than $1m in parts of southeast Asia where reef-based fisheries alone generate incomes of £2.5bn annually.

Mangroves can be even more valuable, it says, with their worth to Thailand estimated at $3.5m per sq km.

Coral and mangrove ecosystems act as fish nurseries and prevent waves from washing sand off beaches.

In some tropical countries including Indonesia reefs are quarried for building material, resulting in the need for ugly concrete breakwaters to protect the remaining beach.

Unep cites studies from Sri Lanka concluding that one sq km of reef can prevent 2,000 cubic metres of coastal material from being washed away each year.

Is this surprising? The only real news is the quantification. So-called environmentalists love economic arguments that "prove" that the environment is best left alone. Of course it all relies on valuing things which are hard to value. So it would not be surprising if the affected governments treat the claims with suspicion. And the report also offers a two-edged sword. If say, a hotel chain in Thailand offers to pay $4m per sq km for some mangrove beach, is Unep really going to say, go ahead and dig it all up? The main issue, which is not touched upon by the BBC at all, is that these are common goods, and those are extremely difficult to protect, because powerful individuals can come and wreck it all to their own benefit but to the harm of the rest of society. Ultimately it is down to the local and national governments to determine if they want to treat these things seriously or not.

Move to stop people scattering ashes on Scottish mountains (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mountaineers have warned of changes to the soil on Scottish summits because of an increase in people scattering the ashes of loved ones. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has asked bereaved relatives to avoid the most popular sites and even to bury ashes rather than scatter them.

However, it said scattering ashes may be environmentally better than erecting permanent memorials on remote summits.

Soil changes have had a significant effect on mountain plants, it added.

Well trampling all over a mountain also has a significant effect on mountain plants (just look at the wide ruts on the most popular mountains). It's hard to take these control freaks seriously. Humankind has been impacting the environment, directly and indirectly, even in "wilderness" areas, for millenia. The idea that you can freeze the ecology to be just the "right" sort if you don't breathe, is unbelievable. Let people scatter ashes, and if some plant takes nourishment from that, it's called Nature. (People also urinate on mountains, but the control freaks are not going to stop that either.)

Carbon Trust promotes wave power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Wave and tidal power can provide a fifth of the UK's electricity needs, according to a new report.

The Carbon Trust, which helps firms develop low-emission technologies, urges the government to increase support for wave and tidal concepts.

They are currently costly ways of generating electricity but the Trust's report says prices will come down.

Investment now could help Britain establish a global lead in these technologies, it says.

In its 18-month research programme the Trust has looked at wave and tidal stream generation, leaving out other approaches to tidal power such as barrages which it describes as "mature".

A barrage on the Rance estuary in northern France has been operating since the 1960s but the concept has been restricted by concerns over cost and local environmental impact.

Wave-based devices generate electricity from movements of the sea surface, whereas tidal stream installations sit on the sea floor and use the regular ebb and flow of tides.

"Wave and tidal stream technologies are at an earlier stage of development than solar and wind which are more mature," said the Carbon Trust's programme engineer, John Callaghan.

"It will cost more than other renewables for the first few hundred megawatts generated, but beyond that there is potential for costs to reduce," he told the BBC News website.

Despite Britain's long shoreline and the vast power contained in its breakers and tides, the Carbon Trust believes only about one fifth of the country's electricity could economically come from the sea.

It says that wave farms could generate 50 terawatt-hours (TWh - one thousand million kilowatt-hours) per year, and tidal stream installations a further 18TWh.

These figures compare to the current UK total consumption of 350TWh per year.

"You need a good site for wave or tidal energy, but you also need access to the site, you need a grid connection," said John Callaghan.

"There is particular potential in north-west Scotland and south-west England; about half of the total tidal stream resource is in the Pentland Firth [between the Scottish mainland and the Orkneys]."

The report says the government should increase support for these incipient technologies and develop "a clear long-term policy framework of support to the sector to give greater investment certainty".

While the Department of Trade and Industry does provide financial incentives, the government's energy review, launched on Monday, barely mentions marine technologies.

What a surprise, every Tom, Dick and Harry in the "renewable" energy business wants massive government subsidies to get it off the ground. But at least the Carbon Trust seems to be spending some money on some (potentially) useful reports rather than just the endless stream of glossy adverts they seem to waste much of their (taxpayer-funded) budget on. Unfortunately you have to take all these kinds of reports with a pinch of salt, they are largely (inevitably) based on guesswork. And there might indeed be some environmental downsides to such installations, or it might prove "beneficial" by some measure, nobody really knows. But the "solution" to the energy "problem" is almost certainly going to involve a wide range of technologies, and wave power could be part of the basket.

Date published: 2006/01/24

Go to Switzerland if you want to die with dignity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A retired doctor has taken her own life with the help of doctors at a controversial Swiss clinic.

Dr Anne Turner, from Bath, had a progressive and incurable degenerative disease called supranuclear palsy.

She travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich on Tuesday, where doctors gave her drugs with which to end her life.

Dr Turner, 66, who invited the BBC to travel with her to Switzerland, could only walk with a stick and faced a future in a wheelchair.

Dismissing concerns that many people might argue that she was far from an invalid, she said that for her death would be a release.

But opponents of assisted suicide said it was wrong to take human life in this way - and argued that good quality palliative care was the right approach.
...
The Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend Richard Harries, told the BBC it was not right to always accede to a person's every request.

"We would not accede to the request of a teenager if they asked for help in killing themselves," he said.

"I know that if a person is old and debilitated and worried about the degenerative nature of their disease that is very difficult.

"But I would want to try to convince them that even if they got into a state where they were very dependent and felt very helpless and useless, their life was still precious."

Who are these sanctimonious control freaks who think they know better how other people should finish their time on Earth than the people themselves. It's unfortunate that people have to travel to Switzerland to end their lives, and that this is a big media story. Perhaps some day the UK (and most of the rest of Europe) will grow up and give power to the people and take it away from the control freaks.

Prelimianary report by Council of Europe on CIA torture flights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

European governments were almost certainly aware of the CIA's secret prisoner flights via European airspace or airports, a key report has said. The preliminary report comes from Swiss MP Dick Marty, for the human rights watchdog the Council of Europe.

The US admits picking up terrorism suspects but denies sending them to Arab nations to face torture.

Mr Marty said he could not be certain that the CIA used secret prisons in Europe to interrogate terror suspects.

The BBC's Tim Franks at the Council of Europe says the Swiss senator's report does not appear to reveal hard new facts.

Well nothing really new here. We all know the current American government has promoted torture (they pretty much admit it in all but name). But now that the Council of Europe has entered the fray, you just have to wonder if even now the Republican scum running America are getting ready to run their usual game plan and leak damaging stories (real or made up) about Marty (they certainly will have been tapping his phone and reading his emails). The UK and certain other governments of Europe might have been complicit in the American action, but hopefully most of Europe will say no to torture.

Date published: 2006/01/23

More mumblings about nuclear power (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

It is time to decide to "close... or open the door" to nuclear power, Trade Secretary Alan Johnson has said.

He said the 2003 Energy White Paper "had rightly" focused on boosting renewable energy and energy efficiency, but left the door "ajar" on nuclear.

But, as a public consultation into UK future energy needs begins, he said it was time to take a decision on nuclear.

Critics say nuclear power is too expensive, is a terror threat and creates much radioactive waste.

Mr Johnson spoke out as it emerged that ministers had asked the Health and Safety Executive to look at the safety, cost and suitability of existing nuclear plants.

Environmental campaigners fear the HSE study is a prelude to an expansion of Britain's nuclear network.

They believe the HSE review, set to take 18 months, has been requested to save time if the government does give the go-ahead for new power stations.

Mr Johnson says he still has an open mind, but adds that it is "crucial" to consider how Britain will meet its energy needs in the next 50 or 60 years.

He said the HSE would also look into the viability of other ways of generating power, such as wind turbines, gas transport and storage and carbon capture and storage.

And as he launched a three-month public consultation on the issue, he said: "We need to look at the risks to security of supply, our climate change commitments and, to the long term, to make sure we take the necessary action. There is not a do-nothing option."
...
Keith Taylor, the Green Party principal speaker, said nuclear power was "astronomically expensive", was "incredibly dangerous" and used fossil fuels at every stage in the process apart from fission itself.

What a great comment by Taylor that nuclear power "used fossil fuels at every stage in the process apart from fission itself". Gee whiz, the same could be said about solar and wind power (i.e. there is a massive amount of fossil fuel consumed up front in order to make and install solar and wind power facilities, and only then is there "carbon free" power generated, if you also ignore maintenance and de-commissioning). Funnily enough the so-called environmentalists always fail to mention this when pushing their propaganda for those energy sources. (But solar and wind power are at least less problematic than nuclear power for other reasons.)

National Express opposes bus station at Cambridge railway station (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

National Express bosses are refusing to shift Cambridge's long-distance coach stops to the railway station after saying they were being "railroaded" into the move.

The firm claimed members of the traffic management area joint committee did not fully consider its ideas for improving Drummer Street bus station to avoid relocating.

Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council say the move is part of a package of transport management proposals aimed at improving traffic conditions for local buses.

The committee voted this week to relocate the bus stops temporarily to Parkside, despite considerable opposition, until the station development is completed.

Mike Lambden, head of corporate affairs at National Express, said: "We feel our proposed solutions and the potential to both fulfil the needs of coach customers and local residents were dismissed as being too difficult.

"We believe councillors were railroading us into a move to the railway station and the so-called transport interchange.

"This is not something we are prepared to consider as it does not meet the needs of our customers."

But Coun Julian Huppert, the committee chairman, said alternative plans produced by National Express were submitted just days before the decisive meeting and were unworkable.

He said: "I find this absolutely astonishing. We have held lots of discussions over the past 18 months but National Express produced alternative plans just a few days before the meeting.

"The plans were completely and utterly unacceptable. They would have involved building on Christ's Pieces and digging up trees. We have tried to accommodate National Express but we've made it clear our priority is local buses."

Unbelievable, what a way to run a city. Presumably National Express will cave in, they have a business to run. Of course a natural extension to the Drummer Street station, as partly proposed all the way back in 1950, is to take over the Bradwell's Court site when it gets demolished this year, but that would involve the city paying some money for good reason, and it would never do that. (Far better to waste money on pointless public consultation exercises, and "recycling" plastic waste by spending a fortune picking it up and then shipping it to China.)

Date published: 2006/01/22

Grey squirrels to be killed to "save" red squirrels (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A massive cull of grey squirrels is to take place across Britain to try to halt declining numbers of the endangered native red population.

Biodiversity minister Jim Knight said "humane and targeted pest control" would cull greys in areas where red squirrels are being 'squeezed out'.

Most reds are confined to Cumbrian and Northumbrian conifer woods, the Isle of Wight and islands in Poole Harbour.

They are weaker than grey squirrels, which also carry the Squirrelpox virus.

Mr Knight said the aim was not to completely eradicate the greys, which have a population estimated at more than two million - outnumbering red squirrels by 66 to one.

But he said: "We must control them effectively now or there will be serious consequences."

Grey squirrels were introduced to Britain from North America in the 19th Century and have thrived in lowland areas.

It is thought the cull will use poison to reduce numbers over the next three years.

The cull is being jointly organised by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Forestry Commission, after consultation with various groups, including English Nature, the National Trust, the RSPCA and the European Squirrel Initiative.

Mr Knight added: "Many people love grey squirrels, but the reality is that they are a real problem for some of our most threatened native species.

Yes, more control freaks who think they know better how to control Nature than Mother Nature herself, and amazingly enough this control almost always consists of an attempted killing of some animal (or plant) in some area or other, which also often turns out to be an expensive exercise with unintended side effects (Mother Nature being a lot cleverer than the average human). Why is it that so many people who allegedly are pro-Nature think that fighting Nature is the way forward? And if only the grey squirrel had arrived a bit earlier in the UK then it would now be considered to be a "native" species (a rather artificial, hence meaningless label) and so sacrosanct (like the red squirrel) by the very same people who are instead happy to kill it. The fact that one of the agencies is willing to call themselves the "European Squirrel Initiative" says it all. Imagine the derision that would be heaped on anyone starting a "European Human Initiative" (it would probably even be illegal in most EU countries).

UK Child Commissioners want end to "smacking" (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has rejected calls by the UK's four child commissioners to introduce laws banning the smacking of children, saying parents should decide.

In a letter to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly the four said a law change was a matter of "fundamental principle".

Legislation which was tightened last year allows parents to hit their child mildly as a "reasonable punishment".

The Department for Education and Skills stressed it did not condone physical punishment for children.

In a statement the department said it was for parents to decide, adding: "They have to think carefully about the law on assault and make sure that chastisement does not get to that point. If not they will be prosecuted."

Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted smacking his older children. Other campaigners say smacking should not be confused with child abuse.

Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, told the BBC that the UK was failing to meet its obligations.

"We must insist on a total ban because this isn't an issue that's going to go away," she said.

"The smacking of children, the hitting of children in what in Scotland is called 'justifiable assault' is prohibited by international law.

"The United Nations and the council of Europe have both made it very clear that all physical punishment, all assaults on children, must be made illegal, and so we would be failing in our duty as children's commissioners if we did not say that we have to keep this on the agenda."

For once (and indeed rarely) the government seems to have told the control freaks to get lost. Of course the remit of "child commissioners" is to put the interests of children above the interests of society as a whole, so it is hardly surprising they put forward this stance. And it is also not surprising that the commissioner for Scotland says "this isn't an issue that's going to go away", since these people have to justify their existence by keeping some issue or other in the public eye. No doubt sooner or later they will get their way (the control freaks usually do) and then move onto the next "pressing" issue.

Date published: 2006/01/21

The UK leads the way in keeping DNA profiles of its citizens (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has defended storing the DNA profiles of about 24,000 children and young people aged 10 to 18.

The youngsters' details are held on the UK database, despite them never having been cautioned, charged or convicted of an offence, a Conservative MP found.

Grant Shapps obtained the figures in his campaign to have the DNA profile of a wrongly arrested teenager erased.

He fears a juvenile database is being created by "stealth". The Home Office said no-one lost out by being on it.

Suspects who are arrested over any imprisonable offence can have their DNA held even if they are acquitted.
...
Home Office minister Andy Burnham said no-one lost out through being on the database.

"It is not a criminal record to which public authorities and others have access.

"It is an investigative tool that the police can use according to their discretion."

He added there were "proper safeguards in place" as to how DNA information could be used.

The Home Office announced earlier this month that 7% of the UK population would be on the database in two years' time. It is already the biggest in the world and has so far cost £300m.

Just over 5% of UK residents currently have their DNA profile held, compared with an EU average of 1.13% and 0.5% in the US.

Of the three million samples held at present, 139,463 are from people never charged or cautioned.

Well about the most useful aspect of the article is to quantify yet another potential abuse of power by the Blair police state. It's rather touching that the Home Office trusts the police, but why should anyone else? And needless to say, the bigger the database, the more the mistakes (it would be interesting to get figures on that as well). The UK public is also the most videoed in the world. And cars will soon enough be permanently tracked.

Date published: 2006/01/20

Survival of Empires (permanent blog link)

The first lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2006 was by Paul Kennedy on the "Survival of Empires" ("survival" being the theme this year). Well it was rather disappointing, he didn't really say anything. He discussed four empires specifically: Rome, Spain, Britain and the US. But he didn't really give any reasons why they lasted as long as they did or why they fell when they did. Now in a one hour lecture you cannot give much depth to any subject, but you should at least give some ideas out. Being the Darwin lectures he insisted on mentioning "survival of the fittest" as applied to political systems. Well that might be a convenient political slogan for some, but it is now rather trite. About the only thing he did mention of any note was that logistics and communication are important to empires. But you don't really need a Ph.D. in history to figure that one out.

Mobile phone use allegedly does not lead to a greater risk of a brain tumour (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mobile phone use does not lead to a greater risk of brain tumour, the largest study on the issue has said. The study of 2,782 people across the UK found no link between the risk of glioma - the most common type of brain tumour - and length of mobile use. Among cancer sufferers the tumours were more likely to be reported on the side of the head where they held the phone.

But the British Medical Journal study said people over-reported phone use on the side their cancer developed.

The research, which was carried out by the British arm of an international project called Interphone, reiterates the findings of most earlier studies in saying that there is no connection between cancer and mobile phone use.
...
Research author Professor Patricia McKinney, Professor of Paediatric Epidemiology at the Leeds University, said: "For regular mobile phone users, there was no increased risk of developing a glioma associated with mobile phone use."

She acknowledged that there appeared to be an increased risk among brain cancer sufferers on the side of the head where they held the phone.

The team, however, did not put this down to a causal link, because almost exactly the same decreased risk was seen on the other side of the head, leaving no overall increase risk of tumours for mobile phone users.

Instead, they blamed biased reporting from brain tumour sufferers who knew what side of the head their tumours were on.

Interesting, but of course the anti-technology zealots will never accept any result which does not "prove" that technology is evil. (And since all technology has a downside, no doubt some day something real and negative will be found. The real question is whether the positive outweighs the negative.) The observation about brain cancer sufferers is particularly interesting. To prove their idea is correct, rather than just suggest it, the researchers would have to track peoples' usage before they got brain cancer. But this "recall" issue arises in various guises. Just listen to Radio 4 and you can hear someone who has gotten ill for some reason blaming some technology (injections, pills, mobile phones, etc.) for the problem. (Of course, sometimes it's true.)

Kids think scientists are brainy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Teenagers value the role of science in society but feel scientists are "brainy people not like them", research suggests.

The Science Learning Centre in London asked 11,000 pupils for their views on science and scientists.

Around 70% of the 11-15 year olds questioned said they did not picture scientists as "normal young and attractive men and women".

The research examined why numbers of science exam entries are declining.

Researchers Roni Malek and Fani Stylianidou are completing their research in April but have analysed around half the responses so far.

They found around 80% of pupils thought scientists did "very important work" and 70% thought they worked "creatively and imaginatively". Only 40% said they agreed that scientists did "boring and repetitive work".

Over three quarters of the respondents thought scientists were "really brainy people".

More pointless "research". As usual, surveys ask questions in a specific way and insist on black and white answers in a grey world. But even ignoring that, you have to laugh with the slant the BBC puts on the story. Many kids believe scientists are "brainy people not like them". Well one would certainly hope that scientists are far smarter than the average public (and they are). You might as well be surprised that an average kid thinks that 100m runners are "athletic people not like me" or that priests are "religious people not like me". It's rather a requirement for the job.

Date published: 2006/01/19

Clarke leaves cannabis as class C drug (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The home secretary has decided against reversing the decision two years ago to downgrade cannabis to a class C drug.

Charles Clarke said he accepted the drug could trigger serious mental illness but pledged a publicity campaign to warn of the dangers.

He also announced a wholesale review of the way drugs are classified.

Whoa, what is happening here? Clarke, for once, does something sensible. Perhaps because the media are currently distracted by a witchhunt for sex offenders, so will not cause too much hysteria about this. Well, most ministers are of the era when practically everyone at university smoked cannabis, so looking around the Cabinet table perhaps Clarke didn't perceive enough mental illness to convince him it was really a big enough problem. And what will the publicity campaign say: "smoke cannabis and you too could become a government minister, beware the evils of cannabis".

Corruption in China (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

China has announced another rise in public disturbances in 2005, as rapid economic growth continued to spark social unrest.

The Public Security Ministry said it handled 87,000 public disturbances last year, a rise of more than 6% on 2004.

The figures come amid growing anger at official corruption and several high-profile land disputes between authorities and villagers.

China's leaders see social unrest as the biggest threat to their rule.

A ministry spokesman said the figure did not refer just to mass protests, but to all criminal cases linked to public disorder, including mob gatherings, obstruction of justice, fighting and trouble-making.

China's official statistics are unreliable.

Well a rather bold assertion from the BBC about China's statistics, how did that get past the BBC censors? But corruption certainly seems to be one of the big threats to China (along with sheer population size). Of course when money is at stake it is not very surprising that there is corruption. (Berlusconi, Bush, Chirac, Putin, etc., being other prime examples.) The rule of law is supposed to prevent such abuses, but the rule of law in China, as in the rest of the world, is skewed towards the government of the day.

Date published: 2006/01/18

Cambridge plumps for new bus stops on Parkside (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Parents and residents have slammed a decision to place long distance bus stops outside a school and a nursery saying it will cost lives.

Following a heated two-hour debate, Cambridge City councillors voted to move the long distance National Express bus services from the Drummer Street and Emmanuel Street area to Parkside.

Three bus stops and a taxi rank will be placed outside Parkside Community College and ACE Nursery School.

Paula Watson, head of ACE Nursery, said: "We are seriously concerned a child will be injured or killed as a result of this decision.

"We will continue to fight the decision which we view as outrageous. We really can't believe the council has decided to allow it."

Sheila Pollock, from the Stop the Bus campaign, said: "Nowhere else in the country would allow a bus stop outside a senior school and a nursery - both of which are for particularly vulnerable age groups. There is a heavy movement of children along the road at all times of the day."

Members of the Cambridge traffic area joint committee, which met on Monday, considered two possible options for relocation - Victoria Avenue and Parkside.

About 50 interested members of the public turned out to listen to the two-hour debate.

Councillors admitted it was a very difficult decision and that both options were very far from perfect.

Councillor Sian Reid, said: "My instinct is to ban buses from all green spaces. However, we must improve conditions for bus passengers - at the moment there are pitiful delays.

"To put bus stops on Parkside is unpalatable but preferable to Victoria Avenue, which is not a viable option."

Victoria Avenue was dismissed as unsafe and inconvenient.

Seven members of the committee voted in favour of the bus stop. They were Shona Johnston, Sian Reid, Colin Rosenstiel, Jenny Bailey, David White, Julian Huppert and Anne Kent.

Two councillors, Kevin Blencowe and Alan Baker voted against.

Hmmm, Victoria Avenue is allegedly "unsafe" but Parkside is not. The logic of Lib Dems. And Reid's comment about banning buses from "all green spaces" is bizarre, considering that the city not too long ago set up bus parking (which always causes problems) along Queens' Green. Anyway, it seems that the bus companies preferred Parkside over Victoria Avenue, and that presumably swung the vote. Of course if the people of Parkside do not like the result then they can vote against the Lib Dems at the next election, which would be no bad thing.

Date published: 2006/01/17

Lords defeat the government on terror laws (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Controversial plans for new anti-terrorism laws have suffered two defeats in the House of Lords.

Peers voted to ditch plans in the Terrorism Bill for a new offence of "glorifying" terror.

And they insisted on new safeguards on laws designed to stop the spread of terrorist publications.

Lord Lloyd of Berwick, an ex-law lord, said the glorification offence could put free speech at risk. Ministers will now ask MPs to reinstate the measure.

They stress that Labour's manifesto promised the glorification law - by convention, peers do not throw out manifesto commitments.
...
The Terrorism Bill was introduced following the London bombings of 7 July last year, in which four suicide bombers killed 52 people.

The government originally planned a separate offence outlawing glorification of terrorism but later decided to include it as part of a more general offence covering "indirect encouragement" of terrorism.

But in the report stage debate on the Terrorism Bill, Lord Lloyd said the glorification plan was still unworkable and incomprehensible.

Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights has also voiced concern that the offence of glorifying terrorism is "not sufficiently legally certain".

And peers voted by 270 to 144 to scrap the proposal.

The Lords to the rescue for the second day in a row. Unfortunately Labour will definitely push this measure through. Well, maybe it is not all bad, perhaps Blair could be gotten for "indirect encouragement" of terrorism because of his illegal invasion of Iraq: if that hasn't encouraged terrorism nothing has.

Incineration to be increased in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers are preparing to back a large increase in the amount of rubbish that is incinerated instead of being buried, according to documents seen by the BBC.

An environment department paper, to be published next month, suggests the proportion of burned waste could rise from 9% to 25% in the next 15 years.

It urges making "energy from waste", a process in which incinerators are used to power electricity generation plants.

Friends of the Earth labelled as "myth" claims refuse can provide green energy.

The BBC's rural affairs correspondent, Tom Heap, said ministers were keen to stress their priority was to minimise the amount of waste created in the first place.

He said government plans could be summed up as: "If you must [create waste] then preferably recycle it, failing that burn it to make electricity, and only bury what is left."

Ministers believed more burning was justified as it provided a green source of energy, reduced our dependence on foreign fuel, and health risks from emissions were small, our correspondent said.

But Michael Warhurst, of Friends of the Earth, said Britons should be concentrating on recycling more and burning less.

"Incinerators are extremely inefficient generators of energy, producing more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than an old-fashioned coal-fired power station.

"The government should tackle the UK's waste crisis by reducing the amount we generate and ensuring a huge expansion in recycling."

Hmmm, it's amusing to see FoE so keen on "recycling". Perhaps they could inform the public how much energy is wasted to do that, as a comparison with incineration. And you have to laugh, they always use the word "crisis" for everything. Their only sane comment is the one about "reducing the amount we generate". Recycling is a bogus concept adored by the middle classes (such as the FoE) because it means they can produce as much waste as they want as long as they then bundle it up tidily so that the State can take it off their hands and "recycle" it. (And in Cambridge, "recycling" plastic currently means shipping the stuff to China, and who knows what happens to it there. Perhaps incinerated. Perhaps just dumped in landfill.) Incineration is almost certainly one necessary part of the waste equation, and simple-minded dogma should not be allowed to get in the way. The government, for once, is on the right path. The one thing that will stop incineration are the NIMBYs of Britain.

Jim Skea gives talk in Cambridge about energy research (permanent blog link)

Jim Skea, the research director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), gave a talk in Cambridge this afternoon with title "The Renaissance of UK energy research?" The UKERC is a recent addition to UK energy research whose purpose seems to be to both conduct research and to coordinate other UK energy research (via the "National Energy Research Network" due to be launched in a few days time).

He started by showing a graph of UK R&D expenditure on energy research. Amazingly it was over one billion pounds in the 1970s (mostly spent on nuclear fission) but after Thatcher took over the money was slashed dramatically until it is only around 40 million pounds today (mostly split between nuclear fusion and renewable energy). Apparently the US and Japan each spend a couple of billion dollars per year, so the UK is seriously lagging (even per capita). Although, as Skea pointed out, the question is not so much how much you spend as what you get out of the money spent (in terms of innovation). (And he said that it would seem that some of the US R&D spend was just Congress showering its friends in industry with corporate welfare.) Apparently the UK will spend around 70 million pounds by 2007-8.

He then discussed what is going to happen in the forthcoming energy review which the UK government has announced. The UK media, egged on by the so-called environmentalists, have tended to call it a "nuclear" review rather than an "energy" review, but needless to say all aspects of energy will be looked at, with particular regard to seeing how the goals of the energy white paper from three years ago are coming along. Worryingly, apparently there might be public consulatations about this all. What a waste of time and money that is. The government did this with GM crops a couple of years ago and the meetings were just hijacked by ignorant so-called environmentalists, and the same would happen with these meetings. The middle class activists would pretend they represent the public where they most certainly do not.

Apparently there are four objectives of the review:

Apparently the International Energy Agency (IEA) is predicting that global emissions will rise by more than 60% by 2030 if we continue with "business as usual". And most of that increase will come from non-OECD countries. Of course the current mantra (from the comfortable middle classes) is that we cannot continue with "business as usual". Well any prediction for 2030 is bound to be wrong, and large energy price increases will obviously hit demand.

Skea said he thought research was needed both to improve technology (in energy supply, demand and infrastructure) and to "inform policies that promote behavioural change". Of course that last bit just means that the ordinary people of Britain should have their energy consumption hammered. No more holiday flights. Only the middle class (i.e. the rich) will have that privilege (and many others) in future.

Skea talked about an IEA workshop that was held at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (home of a US government research site). It sounds like the workshop was held so that Oak Ridge could try to get other people to use its facilities, so it could justify its (large) budget to Congress. But anyway, it seems that the number one problem most people agreed about in energy research was how to make energy storage (both electrical and chemical) more efficient and feasible. But there were other big problems: "intelligent" management of networks with distributed energy generation and intermittency (e.g. solar and wind power), improving catalysis, carbon capture and storage, "making the hydrogen economy economic", etc.

The storage problem is one reason the hydrogen economy is not economic. Unfortunately in this world, even in research, there are these dreadful bandwagons that catch the eye of government or the research council. Hydrogen seems to be one of those. The "hydrogen economy" is not anywhere near being feasible, and after all the hype turns sour people will no doubt turn to the next hype. (Apparently Downing Street was keen on hydrogen already for some time but the DTI and Department of Transport less so because they were more worried about current issues.) Apparently a cynical comment about hydrogen was that the best way to store it currently was to add carbon and convert it to petrol.

It seems that "whole systems" research was something else being plugged at Oak Ridge. And it seems that Skea is keen on this concept as well. It just seems to be a code phrase which means that technologists should not just be allowed to get on with it, we must throw in "environmental, social and economic challenges", i.e. let useless so-called environmental consultants (and other busy bodies) interfere with research to make it politically correct. (E.g. nuclear bad, wind good. By definition.) Unfortunately Skea implied that the research councils are jumping on this (yet another) bandwagon. You can almost guarantee this will lead to a lot of money wasted on useless "research".

Well, Skea tried to make a serious point here. He said, for example, that transport research is divided into multiple camps, most of which do not talk to each other. He mentioned, for example, car engine research and congestion research. But why should these people talk to each other, they are completely orthogonal concepts. We would like more efficient engines and less congestion on the roads. But they have nothing much to do with each other. (Well, if we assume that people are stuck in traffic half their journey, then that might skew how engines should be designed, but that is rather tenuous.) (Unlike engine work, in which everyone is a winner, congestion research is one of those horrid areas where the researchers have every incentive to cheer for congestion in order to justify their existence. Why would you want to build new roads when you can instead make money charging the victims of congestion for the effects of congestion.)

Much of energy research is obviously an important area of science and engineering. But is it sexy enough to attract the best young minds? It's hard to see how, when there is so much else out there to do, and given that much of energy research is political rather than technical (people who talk rather than do).

Date published: 2006/01/16

Jack Straw reads from an old script when talking about Iran (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK, France and Germany plan to call for an emergency meeting of the UN's nuclear watchdog to discuss Iran, a possible first step towards sanctions.

After talks in London on Monday, the European powers said they would ask the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to meet on 2-3 February.

Key UN members have agreed Iran must stop nuclear research, the UK says.

Western countries fear Iran aims to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies it, saying it wants civilian nuclear power.

It sparked a crisis last week by breaking international seals on three of its nuclear research facilities.
...
After the meeting, the UK Foreign Office said the six had agreed Iran must stop nuclear research immediately.

Earlier, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had said it was up to Iran to reassure the international community about its intentions.

"The onus is on Iran to act to give the international community confidence that its nuclear programme has exclusively peaceful purposes," he said.

Mr Straw said Western trust had been "sorely undermined by its history of concealment and deception".

Well Iraq is looking more and more like Vietnam, and Iran is looking more and more like Iraq. The Blair and Bush governments said much the same thing about Iraq before they launched their illegal war, as Jack Straw is saying above. Almost every night on British television before the war the Iraqi government denied they had WMD, and almost every night the British government (often Jack Straw) said that the Iraqi government was lying and had to "prove" (whatever that means) that they were innocent. Of course we now know the Iraqi government was not lying. Instead the British and American governments were lying. Let them "prove" that Iran is lying this time around before they start another war (which is where they are heading). And let them "prove" it without embellishing the intelligence, like they did last time.

UK government does not want to publish cost of ID cards (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government has been defeated in the Lords as peers said its controversial ID cards scheme could not go ahead until its full costs were revealed.

Ministers say it will cost £584m a year to issue cards but say revealing costings for the full scheme could make it harder to get a good value deal.

Peers voted by 237 votes to 156 to block the scheme until the National Audit Office and MPs vet the figures.

The government is likely to try to overturn the defeat in the Commons.

Ministers say they will press ahead with the scheme.

Home Office Minister Andy Burnham said he would study the debate carefully but found it hard to believe the opposition amendment was sensible.

"People want us to keep the costs of the ID cards down but this amendment would limit the government's ability to do that," he said.

"It would require us to put into the public domain costs we want to keep back as we want to get the best possible deal for the taxpayers."

The defeat comes after a new report from the London School of Economics said the Home Office was relying on guesswork and had underestimated the costs.

Conservative peers were so determined to get at the real cost of the scheme that they proposed holding a rare secret session of the Lords to discuss the issue.

Shadow home affairs minister Lady Anelay said the government had rejected that offer.

As the Lords began the report stage of the Identity Bill, Conservative Baroness Noakes said the government had given "absolutely no information" about the scheme's start-up costs.

It was unprecedented that legislation with such major consequences should go forward without Parliament being able to scrutinise the financial impact, she said.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Lord Phillips of Sudbury said it would be "constitutionally wrong" not to insist on a full estimate of the costs across government. "At the moment we are being offered a pig-in-a-poke; the cart before the horse," he said..

The Home Office estimates the scheme will cost about £584m to run each year, with each combined biometric passport and identity card costing £93.

But it has not given full cost estimates for setting up the scheme and says its overall costs will depend on how government departments choose to use the card scheme.

In a new report, the LSE sticks by its claims that the scheme would cost between £10bn and £19bn over 10 years if the government followed its original plans.

Simon Davies, one of the academics involved in the scheme, said it was impossible to updates the costs because the government was "changing the goal posts", including making it less secure.

He complained there was a "culture of secrecy".

Ian Angell, head of the LSE Department of Information Systems, said: "Contradictions, guesswork and wishful thinking on the part of the Home Office make a mockery of any pretence that this scheme is based on serious reasoning."

But the Home Office says the LSE is using "fantasy figures".

The Lords: the last bastion between the citizens of Britain and an unaccountable executive. How pathetic can the government get that it cannot even publish estimated costs. Nobody with any sense would believe that the actual costs would be exactly the same as the current estimated costs, they never are. (Try multiplying by two.) But this does not mean the estimated costs should not be published, how else can people judge for themselves whether the Home Office is just making it all up. And for the Home Office to complain that the LSE is using "fantasy figures" is doubly pathetic. It's simple, set the record straight. Unfortunately, New Labour does not seem to believe it should be held accountable by Parliament. (Not that the Tories would have behaved any differently had they been in power.)

Changes in diet allegedly behind alleged increase in mental illness (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Changes to diets over the last 50 years may be playing a key role in the rise of mental illness, a study says.

Food campaigners Sustain and the Mental Health Foundation say the way food is now produced has altered the balance of key nutrients people consume.

The period has also seen the UK population eating less fresh food and more saturated fats and sugars.

They say this is leading to depression and memory problems, but food experts say the research is not conclusive.
...
The report said people were eating 34% less vegetables and two-thirds less fish - the main source of omega-3 fatty acids - than they were 50 years ago.

Such changes, the study said, could be linked to depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Alzheimer's disease.

The two groups urged people to adopt healthier diets, with more fresh vegetables, fruit and fish, and called on the government to raise awareness about the issue.
...
Rebecca Foster, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, said: "The evidence associating mental health and nutrient intake is in its infancy, this is a very difficult association to research and in many cases results are subjective.

"Therefore, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the association between mental illness and dietary intake at this point.

It's amazing with all these "end of the world" reports that the UK still functions as a society at all. Unfortunately some of the comfortable middle classes have nothing better to do with their lives then rue the passing of the alleged golden era from 50 (or name your random numer) years ago (with diet, transportation, education, crime, culture, you name it). No doubt in 50 years the same ilk will be publishing the same laments about the golden era of 2006, and no doubt 50 years ago the same happened about the golden era of 1906. And the government already spends money raising "awareness about the issue". (Perhaps the people who wrote this report are too superior to watch commercial television.) But nobody pays much attention to anything the government says.

Date published: 2006/01/15

Blair now wants to be able to bug MPs legally (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Cabinet is considering allowing the tapping of MPs' telephones, Defence Secretary John Reid has acknowledged.

The covert surveillance has been banned for 40 years under a convention known as the Wilson Doctrine.

Mr Reid told ITV1's Dimbleby that the proposal to lift the ban was suggested by the Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Swinton Thomas.
...
According to the Independent on Sunday, Tony Blair is preparing to announce the scrapping of the ban as part of an expansion of MI5 powers after the July 2005 London bombings.

New powers to monitor e-mail and other communications were brought in in 2000 as part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

Well you would have to be a pretty naive MP not to expect your phone calls already to be tapped (whether it is legal or not). Not to mention emails being read. But this idea of making it legal is all just part of the Blair dictatorship agenda. The executive is already far, far too powerful in the UK.

US Stardust probe lands back on Earth (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A capsule containing comet particles and interstellar dust has landed on Earth after a seven-year space mission.

The US Stardust probe released the capsule as it flew back to Earth after a 3 billion-mile (4.7 billion km) trip.

The capsule plunged through the atmosphere and touched down in the Utah desert at 0312 (1012 GMT).

Scientists believe the first cometary dust samples ever returned to Earth will shed light on the origins of the Solar System.

"We travelled about three billion miles in space, we visited a comet, grabbed a piece of it and it landed here on Earth this morning," Dr Don Brownlee, Stardust principal investigator, told reporters at a news briefing in Utah.

"I fully expect textbooks in the future will have a lot of new information from the samples that landed here this morning."

Congratulations to NASA and the JPL. Hopefully there will indeed be valuable information in the samples brought back.

Iran allegedly wants to hold a conference on the Holocaust (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Iran says it will hold a conference to assess the scale and consequences of the Holocaust, which its president recently described as a "myth".

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also sparked international condemnation by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map", or moved to Europe or the US.

An Iranian spokesman said the seminar would examine the "scientific evidence" supporting the Holocaust.

Six million Jews were killed in Nazi persecution during World War II.

Mr Ahmadinejad's comments received a sympathetic ear in some parts of the Muslim press, but resulted in two rebukes from the UN Security Council.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said debate of the issue should not be off limits.

"It is a strange world. It is possible to discuss everything except the Holocaust," he said.

"The foreign ministry plans to hold a conference on the scientific aspect of the issue to discuss and review its repercussions."

The Iranian government taking the piss, they are just making themselves look like even bigger idiots than they are. It would be like the current US administration holding a conference on the "scientific evidence" for evolution. Unfortunately for the nutters that run Iran, there are still plenty of people who lived through the Holocaust, and also their children. There are lots of places in Europe (e.g. Poland) where there was a thriving Jewish community before the war and practically nothing now, and all these people did not move to Palestine in between. Of course nobody really knows if the death total was six million, just like nobody knows how many Iraqis the Americans have killed since they invaded Iraq. Victims rarely get counted. Having said that, the Germans were rather fastidious at record keeping (how stupid can you get) so the six million figure is unlikely to be that far wrong. (And would it matter if it were "only" three million?) And the Germans killed lots of non-Jews as well, they should also not be forgotten. You have to pity the poor people of Iran having to put up with such stupid leaders.

Date published: 2006/01/14

Gordon Brown: patriot or scoundrel? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain should have a day to celebrate its national identity, Gordon Brown has proposed in a speech portraying Labour as a modern patriotic party.

The chancellor used his first major speech of 2006 to urge Labour supporters to "embrace the Union flag".

In an address to the Fabian Society in London, he said it is important the flag is recaptured from the far right.

Mr Brown said promoting integration had become even more important since the London bombings.

"We have to face uncomfortable facts that while the British response to July 7th was remarkable, they were British citizens, British born apparently integrated into our communities, who were prepared to maim and kill fellow British citizens irrespective of their religion.

"We have to be clearer now about how diverse cultures which inevitably contain differences can find the essential common purpose also without which no society can flourish."

He said society should not apply a narrow "cricket test" to ethnic minorities but needed a "united shared sense of purpose".

In the wide-ranging speech, Mr Brown said it is time for the modern Labour party and its supporters to be unashamedly patriotic as, for too long, such feelings have been caricatured as being tied up with right-wing beliefs, when in fact they encompass "progressive" ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility.

"Instead of the BNP using it as a symbol of racial division, the flag should be a symbol of unity and part of a modern expression of patriotism too," Mr Brown said.

"All the United Kingdom should honour it, not ignore it. We should assert that the Union flag by definition is a flag for tolerance and inclusion."

The speech to the left-of-centre think-tank included references to the July 4th celebrations in the US and the common practice of many citizens having a flag in their gardens.

"What is our equivalent for a national celebration of who we are and what we stand for?" Mr Brown said.

"And what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in the United States in every garden?"

As everyone knows, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. And United States politics has proven that again and again (Bush just being the latest example). Perhaps this all is just a cynical move by Brown to grab Tory ground. But the British national day is (or should be) Guy Fawkes Night. You can celebrate a typically botched British job (Parliament was not blown up) and even root for the underdog. The weather is usually cold and damp, perfect for a display of the British stiff upper lip. And at the end everybody can succumb to their inner love of pyromania (when the bonfire starts). And although symbols count for a lot in the US, over in the UK, grown ups believe that actions count for more than flag waving. Do we really want to take politics even further downhill in the UK? Evidently New Labour does. Presumably voters should not worry their little heads about policy, just vote for the politician who waves the flag longest and hardest (that's pretty much how Bush got re-elected).

Michael Palin likes to fly but apparently thinks nobody else should (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Environmental group Transport 2000 has denied reports that globe-trotting presenter Michael Palin is facing calls to step down as president.

The Times reported senior members of the group thought Palin's travelling set a bad example and he should go.

"It is nonsense on stilts and seemingly the work of a desperate journalist..," said Transport 2000 director Stephen Joseph.

Palin has made six TV travel shows, including Around the World in 80 days.

"Michael Palin brings popular appeal, wisdom and a sense of proportion to the transport problems we as a society face today," said Mr Joseph.

"Criticisms of the travelling he does as part of his job miss the point. After all, you can't make a travel series in a London studio unless you want it to turn out as an Ealing comedy.

Amazing hypocrisy from Transport 2000 (which should be called Transport 1950, since that is the era which they seem to love, with lots of buses and hardly any cars). Evidently it's ok for the rich and famous to go around the world causing endless carbon emissions, but if an ordinary British worker wants to drive to work or take a well-deserved holiday to Spain they should go to hell, the planet must be "saved". The fact that this endless travelling is part of Palin's "job" is irrelevant. He chose this as his "job", nobody forced it on him, so he has to account for the associated environmental damage. Palin is a funny enough chap, but the fact that he would even think to be associated with this group (especially given the amount he travels) does his reputation no good.

US launches attack inside Pakistan (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A missile strike apparently targeting al-Qaeda's deputy leader in a village in Pakistan has prompted Islamabad to protest to its American allies.

Ayman al-Zawahiri was not in the village on the border with Afghanistan, Pakistan officials said. But the attack left at least 18 local people dead.

The US military has denied knowledge of the attack, which US media reported had been carried out by the CIA.

But Islamabad condemned the strike and called the US ambassador to complain.

Pakistan's Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told a news conference the Pakistani government wanted "to assure the people we will not allow such incidents to reoccur".

Well, all the details are not in, but this does not seem a good way to win friends and influence people, rather the actions of a rogue state. The least the US will have to do is compensate these people to the tune of millions of dollars. And imagine what would happen if any country pulled a similar stunt inside the US.

Date published: 2006/01/13

Norway sets up a seed bank (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Norway is planning to build a "doomsday vault" inside a mountain on an Arctic island to hold a seed bank of all known varieties of the world's crops.

The Norwegian government will hollow out a cave on the ice-bound island of Spitsbergen to hold the seed bank.

It will be designed to withstand global catastrophes like nuclear war or natural disasters that would destroy the planet's sources of food.

Seed collection is being organised by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"What will go into the cave is a copy of all the material that is currently in collections [spread] all around the world," Geoff Hawtin of the Trust told the BBC's Today programme.

Mr Hawtin said there were currently about 1,400 seed banks around the world, but a large number of these were located in countries that were either politically unstable or that faced threats from the natural environment.

"What we're trying to do is build a back-up to these, so that a sample of all the material in these gene banks can be kept in the gene bank in Spitsbergen," Mr Hawtin added.

The Norwegian government is due to start work on the seed vault next year, when it will drill into a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard archipelago, about 966km (600 miles) from the North Pole.

Permafrost will keep the vault below freezing point and the seeds will further be protected by metre-thick walls of reinforced concrete, two airlocks and high security blast-proof doors.

The number of seeds and types of plants in the bank would be determined by the countries wishing to use it.

Good on Norway for at least doing one thing useful for the world. Of course if the ecosystem in which the seeds have flourished has disappeared the seeds by themselves might not be that useful but for short-term problems (caused, for example, by war or drought) seed banks are ideal.

The UK government will continue to waste money on school milk (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ministers have said the government will continue to subsidise milk in England's primary schools, together with the EU.

They had been urged to reconsider the annual £1.5m subsidy after a study which said the milk could be bought more cheaply in supermarkets.

Parents usually pay the shortfall between the subsidies and the actual cost.

Ministers say continuing the subsidy will support efforts to make school meals more healthy.

There had been a question mark over the government subsidy after a report for the government by London Economics which said the scheme was inefficient.

The average price schools charged parents for subsidised milk - 11.4p for a third of a pint - exceeded the supermarket price for milk which was not subsidised - 8.4 to 10p.

The report was comissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has announced that the subsidy will stay.

Not very bright. But presumably the government is wasting money like this to avoid media criticism. Perhaps some day the British body politic will grow up.

Date published: 2006/01/12

Ordinary plants found to produce methane in the laboratory (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists in Germany have discovered that ordinary plants produce significant amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas which helps trap the sun's energy in the atmosphere.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature, have been described as "startling", and may force a rethink of the role played by forests in holding back the pace of global warming.

And the BBC News Website has learned that the research, based on observations in the laboratory, appears to be corroborated by unpublished observations of methane levels in the Brazilian Amazon.

Until now, it had been thought that natural sources of methane were mainly limited to environments where bacteria acted on vegetation in conditions of low oxygen levels, such as in swamps and rice paddies.

But a team led by Frank Keppler of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, stumbled upon this new effect when studying emissions from the leaves of trees and grasses in conditions similar to those they would encounter in the open air.

To their amazement, the scientists found that all the textbooks written on the biochemistry of plants had apparently overlooked the fact that methane is produced by a range of plants even when there is plenty of oxygen.

The amount of the gas produced increased when the air was warmer, and when there was more sunlight. The paper estimates that this unexplained phenomenon could account for 10-30% of the world's methane emissions.

The possible implications are set out in Nature by David Lowe of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, who writes: "We now have the spectre that new forests might increase greenhouse warming through methane emissions rather than decrease it by sequestering carbon dioxide."

If this turned out to be true, it would have major implications for the rules of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which allows countries and companies to offset emissions from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil by funding the planting of new forests or the restoration of deforested areas.

But some experts on climate change science and policy say it is far too early to come to this kind of conclusion.

Dr Halldor Thorgeirsson, deputy executive secretary to the UN Climate Change Secretariat, told the BBC News Website that while the study was interesting, the overall impact of this newly discovered source of methane was still speculative.

"We need to look at this, but this study does not for example look at measurements of direct methane emissions from forests, and that is what is needed to get a better handle on what forests do for the climate," said Dr Thorgeirsson.

He added that the system of calculating forestry "credits" under the Kyoto protocol allowed for updated scientific findings to be included in the assessment of the climate benefit of any particular project.

Obviously extremely interesting work, but it is way too early to say that this is definitive. Laboratory conditions are not the same as real world conditions. Presumably plant biochemists will soon enough figure out what the mechanism is, and understanding that will be when the real conclusions can start to be drawn. It is not very plausible that destroying forests is going to be shown to be good for the environment.

Global warming might be leading to decline in some frog populations (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The dramatic decline of some frog populations is directly connected to global warming, a new study claims.

The scientists looked at biodiversity hotspots in Central and South America, and found compelling links between frog extinctions and changes in temperature.

They believe the perfect conditions are being created for the spread of a fungus that is deadly to amphibians.

The international team, reporting its findings in Nature magazine, says the impact on biodiversity is "staggering".

Its research focused on the vividly coloured harlequin frogs (Atelopus) which are critically endangered.

Between the 1980s and 1990s, almost two-thirds of the 110 known species became extinct, and a chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) has been suggested as the prime suspect.

The scientists compared the last known sightings of the frogs with recorded sea and air temperatures, and discovered strong correlations.

They propose that climatic changes are leading to outbreaks of disease caused by the chytrid fungus.

The fate of amphibians has previously been connected with the chytrid fungus and climate change, but scientists were puzzled because the fungus is known as a more effective killer at lower temperatures rather than the higher temperatures usually associated with global warming.

But scientists now believe they have unravelled the mystery.

General warming is causing extra cloud cover over the tropical mountains favoured by the harlequin frogs. This means cooler days locally and warmer nights, providing the conditions in which the chytrid fungus thrives.

This was further confirmed by the fact that species of frog that live at very high altitudes where temperatures are very cold, or very low altitudes where they are very hot, have a much better chance of survival than the frogs that live half-way up the mountain.

"We have found evidence that global warming is causing widespread amphibian extinction by triggering outbreaks of disease," said lead author Dr Alan Pounds.

Well, the evidence and line of thinking is thin so far, but it sounds plausible and with further work ought to contribute to better population models.

Date published: 2006/01/11

Blair wants to refer Iran to the UN (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair says Iran's decision to resume its nuclear activities is likely to result in a referral to the UN Security Council.

He said Tehran's move had caused real and serious alarm across the world.

Speaking in parliament, Mr Blair said European ministers meeting in Berlin on Thursday would decide how to proceed.

But Iran's leader dismissed the threat. He said the research, which some fear is aimed at producing weapons, would go on despite the Western "fuss".

Tehran says it broke the United Nations seals on the Natanz nuclear research facility on Tuesday because it wants to produce electricity, not because it is pursuing nuclear weapons.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has said Tehran is about to start small-scale nuclear enrichment.

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons, Mr Blair described the current situation as "very serious indeed".

"I don't think there is any point in us hiding our deep dismay at what Iran has decided to do," he said.

"When taken in conjunction with their other comments about the state of Israel they cause real and serious alarm right across the world."

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said it was a personal disappointment giving him cause for alarm.

Only one country has ever used nuclear bombs in war. Only one country has invaded more countries than any other country the last hundred years. Only one country currently threatens more countries (e.g. Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria) than any other country. Why is Blair worried so much about Iran when he should be more worried about the US? Iran obviously wants a nuclear bomb, and why shouldn't they, given that both the US and Israel have nuclear bombs. Are the religious nutters that run Iran really that much more evil than the religious nutters that run the US and Israel? Obviously the only reason Iran can afford to make a bomb is because of oil, and that is also the reason they don't really care too much what the rest of the world thinks.

Gordon Brown is borrowing too much money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Chancellor Gordon Brown has been reprimanded by the European Commission for breaking targets on borrowing.

The UK has borrowed more than the EU's debt limit of 3% of national wealth for the second year running.

Officials in Brussels are worried the debt could rise further but cannot fine the UK as it has not adopted the euro.

They want EU finance ministers to set a deadline for Mr Brown to cut the UK's deficit. The chancellor continues to insist his plans are affordable.

He has often said the European growth and stability pact limit should not be applied too rigidly.

UK government borrowing is at 3.3% of national wealth and the commission thinks it could rise further.

The commission gave an early warning to Mr Brown last September and is now setting a deadline of the 2006/07 financial year to bring borrowing in line with the EU rules.

It has launched a formal "excessive deficit procedure".

The 25 European commissioners, including Trade Commissioner and former UK Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson, took the decision on Wednesday.

Why do people think Gordon Brown is such a wonderful chancellor? He is spending, and therefore borrowing, way too much money, and the EU is just telling it straight (for once). Sooner or later the markets will start to punish New Labour for their poor fiscal management. And the UK citizens of tomorrow will have to pick up the bill.

Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate meets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The private sector will solve the problem of climate change, according to the US Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman.

He told the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate that the job of governments was to help businesses take up clean technologies.

Critics say the talks are a way to avoid signing up to binding targets like those in the Kyoto Protocol.

The Partnership aims to develop ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through clean technology.

The meeting here in Sydney is its first ministerial gathering and is seen as a rival to the Kyoto process.

The Partnership's guiding principle is that technology alone, developed and exported to the growing economies of Asia, can reduce emissions without the need for binding targets as contained in the Kyoto treaty.

But many observers doubt that companies or governments will adopt these technologies if they cost more than conventional systems.

The Partnership does not envisage financial incentives such as the European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme, which rewards companies for reducing their carbon output.

Asked at a news conference why business would adopt more expensive technologies in the absence of financial incentives, Mr Bodman replied: "I believe that the people who run the private sector, who run these companies - they too have children, they too have grandchildren, they too live and breathe in the world.

"And they would like things dealt with effectively; and that's what this is all about."

The purpose of this meeting, he said, was for governments to listen to the concerns of the private sector and ask what prevented companies from moving to already available clean technologies.

"Those of us in government believe it is the job of government to create an environment such that the private sector can really do its work.

"It's really going to be the private sector, the companies... that are ultimately going to be the solvers of this problem."

His view was endorsed by Australian industry minister Ian Macfarlane, who told reporters: "The real emissions are coming from industry.

"And it's industry which needs to embrace the technology, it's industry which needs to be in a partnership with government to involve this new technology, to take up its corporate environmental community responsibility, to set about ensuring that in 50 years' time our emissions aren't 50% higher than now."
...
The Asia-Pacific Partnership brings together Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Unfortunately anyone who works for the current US administration has to be assumed to be stupid, or corrupt or both. And Bodman certainly seems to fit in that mould. It is obvious that industry and academia (and not government) will come up with most of the required technology but it is also obvious that government sets the rules which determines what industry will do. Of course you could try to argue that with emissions anything that government decides will just make matters worse, and so a hands-off approach is best. Not many people would believe that argument.

Date published: 2006/01/10

Blair deserves no respect (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

People could be evicted from their own homes for three months if they are nuisance neighbours, under a new action plan for Tony Blair's "respect agenda".

Police could also get new powers to deliver on-the-spot fines, and there would be more parenting orders.

The plan would also allow the public to grill police about anti-social behaviour and demand tougher action.

Mr Blair said the plans were not a "gimmick" but would help "take back the streets for the law-abiding majority".

Existing laws mean "crack houses" used by drug addicts can already be shut down.

Ministers are now consulting on extending the idea so people can be evicted from their homes for three months.

Eviction by court order would be a "last resort", says the government but it could, for example, be used against students who annoy their neighbours with loud music.

Fines for owner-occupiers and others not on housing benefit who persist with anti-social behaviour are also being considered.

Blair is just floundering right now, so it's hard to know whether anything much will come of this, or whether this is just an attempt to make headlines for the evening news. Blair is starting to make the word "respect" sound almost as sinister as Bush is the word "democracy". And one would have a lot more respect for Blair if he had shown some respect to the country by not lying to all of us before he started his illegal war in Iraq. But on the more substantive point, hopefully the courts, and not the police, will be the final arbiters on all these new powers, otherwise this will just be more creeping towards Blair's police state.

Cough medicine allegedly does not help (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Taking cough medicine does little to help recovery, US experts have said.

The American College of Chest Physicians has published guidelines for its members saying there was "no clinical evidence" they worked.

They suggest adults should use older non-prescription antihistamines and decongestants to stop the flow of mucus that causes the cough.

Children can be harmed by cough medicines, they warn, and they will usually get better without help.

It is possible children could be over-sedated with the medication, they said.

The guidance covers all aspects of treating cough. There is no equivalent guidance in the UK, but the British Thoracic Society is developing recommendations, due out at the end of this year.

Dr Richard Irwin of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who chaired the guidelines panel, said: "Cough is the number one reason why patients seek medical attention."

But he added: "There is no clinical evidence that over-the-counter cough expectorants or suppressants actually relieve cough."

Dr Irwin advised: "There is considerable evidence that older type antihistamines help to reduce cough, so, unless there are contraindications to using these medicines, why not take something that has been proven to work?"

He said coughs in children were worrisome and annoying, but added cough syrup was not the answer.

"Cough is very common in children. However, cough and cold medicines are not useful in children and can actually be harmful.

"In most cases, a cough that is unrelated to chronic lung conditions, environmental influences, or other specific factors, will resolve on its own."

Several studies have suggested that over-the-counter cough medicine do little more than offer comfort to patients.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics in 2004 suggested dextromethorphan, often listed on labels as DM, or diphenhydramine, an antihistamine, did not offer any more relief to children suffering from cough than sugar water.

But Francis Sullivan, a spokesman for Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, which makes the cough treatment Robitussin, said he did not expect the US guidelines to affect sales.

He said: "The US Food and Drug Administration has concluded that these drugs are safe and they work."

Dr Richard Russell, of the British Thoracic Society, said: "The number of people with undiagnosed chronic cough is rising in this country and we need more effective treatments to help treat this condition, which can be really distressing.

"Over-the-counter (OTC) sales for acute cough medicines currently reach approximately £100m a year in the UK - money that is being spent on remedies, where evidence regarding their effectiveness is inconclusive."

Well it's only one study, but it's an amazing conclusion. And you have to wonder how many other drugs are relatively pointless.

Vegetables allegedly reduce blood pressure (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A vegetable-rich diet can help to reduce blood pressure, researchers say.

A team led by Imperial College London, which studied 4,680 people aged 40-59, said it was not clear why eating more vegetable protein had such an effect.

But amino acids - the building blocks of protein - or vegetable components, like magnesium, may be key, they said.

However, they found no strong evidence that high meat consumption is linked to high blood pressure. The study features in Archives of Internal Medicine.

All very well. But did a vegetable-rich diet have any downsides? The problem with all studies like this is that they look at one thing in isolation. The best advice on diet for most people is just to ignore all studies on diet, and eat whatever you want, in moderation.

Date published: 2006/01/09

New planning application for Simoco site (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Developers have reignited residents' fury over plans to build hundreds of homes on flood-prone land.

After buying the former Simoco site in Chesterton, Cambridge, from Countryside Properties - which fought a long battle in 2003 with residents to gain permission for a £20 million development - Redeham Homes has resubmitted a planning application.

Stunned locals say they are shocked at the plans to build 329 homes instead of the original 224.

After finally accepting Countryside's plans in 2003, they fear the extra 100 properties will cause traffic chaos around the site, which is close to St Andrew's Road and Church Street, Chesterton.

Redeham says it is following Government guidelines and satisfying demand.

Michael Bond, of High Street, Chesterton, secretary of Old Chesterton Residents' Association, said: "Countryside had two goes at it before they came up with something we could accept.

"This increase comes on top of what was already considered by many to be an excessively high density of development in a location poorly served by public transport and at a significant distance from most local facilities.

"We just want to see high- quality developments future generations will thank us for."

Redeham want to replace 72 planned homes, mainly four-bedroom ones, with 177 replacements, made up of mainly one and two-bedroom flats and houses.

Gerry Mangan, for Redeham, said: "The submission is in line with Government policy and is supported by our planning and traffic consultants' assessments.

"The original units were too large and there was no real demand for them."

Mr Mangan said the design would encourage cycling and walking using the new £1.8 million pedestrian and cycle bridge at Riverside.

Redeham will exhibit the proposals at St Andrews Hall, St Andrew's Road, from 7-9pm on Wednesday.

The former factory site hit the headlines in 2001 when the area was completely covered in water after some of the worst flooding ever seen in Cambridge. Building work began on the site last month.

Well, it does not sound like they are crowding too many more people on the site, just moving the housing downmarket. The main problem with this site is the potential for flooding. It flooded twice in 2001 (February and October) and once in 2003 (January). (See here for photos.) Of course you can build on raised beds or on stilts, but that is just likely to move the flooding problem somewhere else. It is totally irresponsible of the city to allow such a massive building programme on this site.

Violent video games allegedly make people more aggressive (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Violent computer games may make people more likely to act aggressively, a study says.

Previous research has found people who play such games are more likely to be aggressive but some say this just shows violent people gravitate towards them.

But a team from the University of Missouri-Columbia said their study which monitored the brain activity of 39 game players suggests a causal link.

The findings were published on the New Scientist website.

The researchers measured a type of brain activity called the P300 response which reflects the emotional impact of an image.

When shown images of real-life violence, people who played violent video games were found to have a diminished response.

However, when the same group were shown other disturbing images such as dead animals or ill children they had a much more natural response.

When the game players were given the opportunity to punish a pretend opponent those with the greatest reduction in P300 meted out the severest punishments.

Psychologist Bruce Bartholow, the lead researcher of the study which will be published in full in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology later this year, said: "As far as I'm aware, this is the first study to show that exposure to violent games has effects on the brain that predict aggressive behaviour.

"People who play a lot of violent video games didn't see them as much different from neutral.

"They become desensitised. However, their responses are still normal for the non-violent negative scenes."

The findings will back up what many have argued over recent years with the growth in games with scenes of graphic violence.
...
But some experts still remain unconvinced of a link.

Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist from the University of Toronto in Canada, said: "All we are really getting is desensitisation to images. There's no way to show that this relates to real-life aggression."

And Professor David Buckingham, an expert on the media and children at the Institute of Education, added there was still no consensus on whether violent games caused aggressive behaviour or were just played by violent people.

"The debate we are seeing is very similar to the one that has raged for years about TV. The truth is there are many factors that can lead to violence, such as being withdrawn and isolated, so it is hard to say it is because of one thing.

"In the absence of any proof, I think we have to be agnostic about it. However, I think there is an argument about the morality of some games.

"Some actually encourage amoral behaviour to win the game and I think parents should be talking to their children to make sure they realise this is a joke. Children are generally good at telling fantasy from reality, but parents should be discussing this."

As the other experts note, the study is not really conclusive about anything significant. The sample size was also rather paltry (and the 39 were not a random selection). All in all, more "research" which is probably best just filed in the nearest bin.

Date published: 2006/01/08

Anti-depressants allegedly do not increase risk of suicide (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The risk of suicide attempts does not increase when people start taking anti-depressants, a US study suggests.

The conclusion, in an American Journal of Psychiatry study, challenges concerns about the drugs' effects.

The team from Seattle's Group Health Co-operative looked at 65,000 people who were prescribed the drugs.

They say unnecessary concerns over the drugs may mean people with depression are not taking drugs which could benefit them.

The researchers claim this is the first published analysis to compare the risk of suicide attempts before treatment with the risks following treatment.

They looked at medical and pharmacy records for the patients, who collected prescriptions for antidepressants from 1992 to 2003.

Deaths by suicide were determined from death certificates and suicide attempts were identified from hospital discharge data.

Because the organisation has computerised data for its patients, it was also able to look at suicidal behaviour in the months before they were prescribed the drugs.

There were 76 suicide attempts in that period, compared with 73 in the three months before the prescription being issued.

The highest risk of an attempt was in the month before the drug was given.

There were 31 deaths from suicide in the six months following the antidepressant prescription, with no initial peak in the rate.

And adolescents were significantly more likely to attempt suicide than adults in their first six months of taking the drugs.

The study also found that newer antidepressants - SSRIs, or Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors, which include commonly prescribed drugs such as Prozac and Seroxat - were associated with a faster decline in rates of suicidal behaviour than older drugs.

As with adults, the rate was highest in the month before treatment and declined by about 60% after treatment began.

Dr Greg Simon, who led the research, said: "Our findings show that, fortunately, suicide attempts and death by suicide are rare following the initiation of antidepressants.

"The period right after people start taking antidepressant medication is not a period of increased risk. In fact, risk after starting medication is lower than before."

He said recent concerns over the possible impact of antidepressants may mean people mistakenly believe suicidal behaviour is common after taking antidepressant medications.

He added: "There may be subgroups of people who become more agitated or suicidal after taking these drugs, and those people should seek help from a doctor or therapist right away if that happens.

"But our study showed that on average, the risk of suicide actually goes down after people start taking the antidepressant."

However, he agreed people who have just begun taking the drugs need careful monitoring, but to ensure they are getting the right dose - rather than because he drugs are especially dangerous.

Margery Wallace of the mental health group Sane said: "We know and accept there are concerns for some.

"But these should not deprive the majority. This research is helpful in giving a perspective."

The UK's Committee on Safety of Medicines, which has considered the safety of SSRIs, concluded there may be an increased risk of suicidal behaviour with any antidepressant, and anyone prescribed the drugs should be closely monitored.

It's only one study and this is a complex subject so more work would need to be done to confirm or not. But with any drug there are bound to be some people who react badly to it. Hopefully with a drug the benefits on average outweigh the negatives, that is the real question (along with the cost effectiveness). Unfortunately in the modern media age the world is painted as black and white, and the idea of risk is not allowed, and the (few or not) people who suffer are the ones who get the attention. Because of this alone, this (one) study will certainly not be the end of the story.

Date published: 2006/01/07

Charles Kennedy throws in the towel (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Charles Kennedy has resigned as Liberal Democrat leader.

In a statement at Lib Dem HQ, Mr Kennedy said he had been "inundated" with support from party members since admitting having a drink problem.

But he had decided to quit immediately because it had become clear he did not have strong enough support among MPs.

Deputy leader Sir Menzies Campbell has said he intends to stand in the leadership race. Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten could be among his rivals.

Mr Kennedy's resignation comes after 25 MPs delivered an ultimatum saying they would refuse to serve on the Lib Dem front bench unless he resigned by Monday.

Poor Charles Kennedy. But his position had certainly become untenable, there is no way you can be leader when a large number of your MPs do not want you to be leader. Evidently they had had enough covering up for his drink problem. Campbell is by far and away the most credible LibDem, and will probably be the next leader, but he is too old to be a future Prime Minister (of course, the LibDems will not be providing a Prime Minister any time soon, so it is less of an issue).

Tom DeLay throws in the towel (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Embattled Republican politician Tom DeLay will not attempt to reclaim his post as majority leader of the US House of Representatives, officials say.

Mr DeLay was forced to step aside temporarily after he was indicted in Texas on a campaign finance case.

The politician is accused of laundering corporate contributions for use in Republican campaigns in the state.

He has maintained his innocence and had until now said he intended to resume his leadership post once cleared.

His decision to quit clears the way for Republicans to choose a new leader to represent them in the House of Representatives.

Mr DeLay, a close ally of President George W Bush, was one of the most powerful politicians in Washington before his indictment in September.

In a letter to Republicans he said he "had always acted in an ethical manner".

But he could not "allow our adversaries to divide and distract our attention," he wrote, quoted by the Associated Press new agency.

Mr DeLay's spokesman said the politician would retain his seat in the House, Reuters news agency reported.

The current Republican scum running Congress are even more corrupt than the previous generation of Democrats who ran Congress for decades. And DeLay is perhaps the worst of all of them, so it's particularly amusing for him to claim he "had always acted in an ethical manner". These people belong in prison, not on Capitol Hill.

Date published: 2006/01/06

There are too many people on the planet (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Solving the Earth's environmental problems means addressing the size of its human population, says the head of the UK's Antarctic research agency.

Professor Chris Rapley argues that the current global population of six billion is unsustainably high.

Writing for the BBC News website, he says population is the "Cinderella" issue of the environmental movement.

But unless it is addressed, the welfare and quality of life of future generations will suffer, he adds.

Population is the number one problem on the planet (leading to all the other problems). Unfortunately governments in the West usually encourage their citizens to have more children. And the medical establishment spends too much time trying to extend life span, exacerbating the problem. Of course we don't really know what a "sustainable" population level is, it could well be six billion, but that seems unlikely. (Lots of people make estimates, but they are generally just finger waving Malthusians.)

Vitamin D in mothers helps children grow stronger bones (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Giving pregnant women vitamin D could mean their babies grow stronger bones in later life, a study suggests.

A study of 198 mothers indicated the children of those who lacked the vitamin, crucial for calcium absorption, had weaker bones at nine.

Those who took supplements or were exposed to more sunlight, which helps the body grow its own vitamin D, had children with greater bone densities.

The research from Southampton General Hospital is published in the Lancet.
...
Professor James Walker of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said the study demonstrated the importance of having adequate levels of vitamin D in pregnancy, both for the mother and her baby.

But he said it demonstrated that women who had adequate vitamin D levels were fine, and it was "only when levels were deficient that there was a problem".

"More vitamin D is not necessarily good," he said. "Therefore, no woman should take extra vitamin D in pregnancy unless recommended by their doctor."

Is this supposed to be surprising? And unfortunately the spin put on this story, as exemplified by the first paragraph, might end up doing more harm than good, as is made clear in the last paragraph. These "health" stories get far too much prominence in the media.

Date published: 2006/01/05

Charles Kennedy at the abyss (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy has called a leadership contest after admitting he has been battling with a drink problem.

He said he was determined to carry on as leader but wanted to give party members the "final say".

Mr Kennedy - who has previously denied a drink problem - admitted seeking "professional help" to beat the bottle.

He has faced growing calls to quit as leader with 11 frontbenchers reportedly saying they had lost confidence in him.

Deputy leader Menzies Campbell, who had been favourite to take over the top job, said he would not run against Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy is believed to have called a press conference to admit his drink problem "within an hour" of being confronted with detailed allegations by reporters.

In a personal statement at Lib Dem HQ in Westminster, he said he had not had a drink for two months and did not intend to have another one.

He said: "Over the past 18 months I've been coming to terms with and seeking to cope with a drink problem, and I've come to learn through that process that a drink problem is a serious problem indeed.
...
The BBC has learnt that just under half of Mr Kennedy's front bench team has signed a letter saying they no longer have confidence in him.
...
Home Affairs Spokesman Mark Oaten - one of the men expected to challenge for the leadership - has confirmed to the BBC that he will not stand against Mr Kennedy.

He called on party members and MPs to get behind Mr Kennedy, saying they should "recognise and reward the courage he has shown".

So perhaps Kennedy will get the sympathy vote and survive to fight another day. But it's more likely there will be a real challenge and if so it's likely Kennedy will get the boot. So at the next election David Cameron might be the longest serving party leader. Bizarre indeed. (Of course Blair might find a convenient excuse to stay on. Like launch a war on Iran or whatever.)

Date published: 2006/01/04

Hotter summers will allegedly cause health problems in Britain (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britain could see a dramatic increase in food poisoning cases and waterborne disease as the warmer, wetter weather linked to climate change takes hold.

Hotter summers could lead to more salmonella cases as people opt for more barbecues but leave food out of the fridge, Professor Paul Hunter warned.

Heavy rain may also lead to more cases of diarrhoea-inducing cryptosporidium.

The University of East Anglia expert said Britain may also see some malaria cases - but is likely to cope.

This is because unlike most areas of the world badly affected by the disease, Britain has a public health system which could tackle any outbreaks, he said.

Professor Hunter said: "It's fairly accepted that most of the changes are going to be around hotter summers and more frequency heavy rainfall.

"We already know that food poisoning is related to temperature. This is because if you leave food outside the fridge at warm temperatures germs grow."

If people did not change their behaviour, and continued to leave food out at the hotter "ambient temperatures", food poisoning was likely to cases were likely to increase, he said.

"There's an interesting area around climate that's how is it going to impact on human behaviour - people have more barbecues when it's hot."

Poorly cooked meat on home barbecues has long been associated with food poisoning.

Professor Hunter also warned that heavy downpours could lead to an increase in outbreaks of the water-borne bug cryptosporidium which causes diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach cramps.

This was especially likely in the "periphery of water supply", such as in farms and holiday cottages, where water facilities were not supplied from the main network," he said.

"There's still an unbelievably high proportion of people that drink private water supplies.

"There's evidence to show that these particular supplies are very susceptible to heavy rainfalls."

He also warned that people swimming in the sea could be more likely to suffer from diarrhoea as recreational water supply becomes increasingly affected.

This was likely to be through muck being washed off fields, onto roads, into rivers and into the sea, rather than by the sewage that has previously caused problems.

Professor Hunter also warned that higher temperatures may lead to a few cases of malaria before the end of the century.

But he said that unless the UK suffered a severe economic crisis, the public health system would be likely to cope.

Isn't it amazing that almost everything written about climate change (certainly that makes it onto the BBC website) is about how it's going to make everything worse, never anything better. Well, the media of course loves "end of the world" stories, since that makes for a better read. And what a great slogan for so-called environmentalists: "stop driving and flying now or in future get sick from all those barbecues you'll have in the wonderful British summer". Ok, maybe people should be thinking about future trends (and evidently some people have nothing better to do with their lives), but this particular variant is veering towards the silly. Most countries of the world have hotter summers than in Britain and unbelievably most of them cope.

People who live in rural areas allegedly have better mental health (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Living in the country is better for your mental health than being a city-dweller, scientists have said.

There have previously been mixed reports on whether the rural or urban living was more beneficial.

Some studies showed higher rates of depression and suicides in urban areas, while others raised concerns over the effects of rural isolation.

But this British Journal of Psychiatry study found people in the countryside do have slightly better mental health.

The team, from Warwick Medical School, Portsmouth University and Bristol University, used information from the British Household Panel Survey, which began in 1991.

Rates of both newly diagnosed and existing mental health problems were found to be lower in rural areas.

And those who did have a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, had a higher chance of remission if they lived in a less densely populated area.

The researchers looked at data for 7,659 adults in England, Wales and Scotland, taking into account factors such as age, marital status, employment, financial strain and physical health problems.

What is the point of this "research"? You would think that there was something better to spend money on than trawling through (not always reliable) surveys looking for correlations. The BBC headline to the story, "Countryside boosts mental health", makes the matter worse, by confusing correlation and causation.

Palmer, Persia and Rousseau exhibitions in London (permanent blog link)

As usual, lots of nice exhibitions are on in London. At the British Museum there are two exhibitions that are soon to finish. One (finishing 22 January) is on the nineteenth century British painter, Samuel Palmer. (The exhibition will then go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Palmer was a wunderkind (exhibiting at the Royal Academy Summer Show at age 14), but in his lifetime (and since) never seemed to reach superstar status, perhaps because much of his work veered a bit too much to the "chocolate box" variety. But this retrospective shows a good collection of his work and is worth seeing.

Also on at the British Museum is an exhibition on ancient Persia entitled "Forgotten Empire" (finishing 8 January). Not surprisingly, this mainly contains artifacts from the British Museum itself, although there are also significant pieces from both the Louvre and the National Museum of Iran (so it's good to know that in the world of culture there are some worthy relationships between the UK and Iran, even as the leader of the former seems to want to edge towards war and the leader of the latter just seems to be an out and out nutter). Unfortunately this exhibition had poor signage which often made it difficult to figure out what was what. And the cramped space with the large crowd did not help.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern there is an exhibition of work by Henri Rousseau (finishing at the Tate on 5 February, followed by stints at the Grand Palais in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington). Apparently Rousseau did not really start painting in a big way until he was in his 40s, and was mainly self-taught. So there is hope for everyone. But this is also probably why his work is so naive. Of course his most famous pieces are his "jungle" ones, and the exhibition had a good selection of those. But the exhibition also had many of his more pedestrian (one would say "suburban") paintings, and if it were only for those he would not be remembered at all. The one "non-jungle" painting of note was called "War". It was in definite Rousseau style, and just showed a generic battle scene with dead men everywhere. Of most note is the wild-haired woman riding bareback on a horse, which dominates the scene, with the horse being a worthy precursor of Picasso's Guernica horse.

Date published: 2006/01/03

Top UK universities allegedly racist (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Top universities must make greater efforts to recruit more ethnic minority students, warns Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality. "We need to stop pretending that segregation isn't happening," says Mr Phillips.

Writing in the Guardian, Mr Phillips challenged leading universities to examine why they were so likely to be "disproportionately white".

But he warned that efforts must not be "happy-clappy tokenism".

Mr Phillips was responding to reports that students from ethnic minorities were much more likely to be concentrated in the new universities rather than the most prestigious institutions.

Unfortunately Phillips seems to spend most of his media time trying to justify his existence with spurious allusions to alleged racism. Needless to say, the real differentiator with university admissions, as with all else in life, is income, and of course "minority" students come from poorer families on average. The UK should stop wasting money on the CRE (in particular on Phillips) and instead spend the money on something useful (e.g. bursaries for poorer university students).

Muslim leader doesn't like gays (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A British Muslim leader has told the BBC he believes homosexuality is "not acceptable" and denounced new same-sex civil partnerships as "harmful".

Head of the Muslim Council of Britain Sir Iqbal Sacranie said bringing in 'gay marriage' did "not augur well" for building the foundations of society.

Nevertheless, he told BBC Radio 4's PM programme, everyone should be tolerant.

Well most religious organisations believe the same. This is just one of the problems with organised religion. Needless to say, these people can never say what is particularly "not acceptable" about homosexuality or "harmful" about civil partnerships. (To be fair to Sacranie, he was goaded into this answer by the Radio 4 presenter, who was obviously just looking for a soundbite. But the view is still wrong.)

Date published: 2006/01/02

Rail passenger groups cry over increases in rail fares (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rail passenger groups have criticised above-inflation increases in train fares which have just come into effect.

Regulated fares, which cover season tickets and saver tickets, are going up by an average of 3.9%.

Unregulated fares, including cheap day returns, are rising by an average of 4.5% - but by 8.8% on one line.

The rail companies say they need the extra money for investment but passenger groups and unions say some of the higher fares are "eye-watering".

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling said nobody could be happy about putting fares up but there had been improvements to the railway infrastructure, with nearly a third of the rolling stock having been replaced in the last few years.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It has all got to be paid for and we've got to strike a balance between the amount of money that the taxpayer puts in and the amount that the fare-payer puts in as well."

And why shouldn't the fare rises be even higher? The principle should be that the polluter pays. So why are rail fares subsidised by the taxpayer at all? Car drivers pay way over the odds on a carbon tax (i.e. the petrol tax). And so should rail (and bus) passengers, who don't even pay for the operational costs of their journeys, never mind the environmental costs. Unfortunately most of the people in Britain that matter are London commuters, so of course they think the rest of the country should subsidise their unsustainable transport journey. (Anything that needs a whacking great government subsidy in order to be sustained is unsustainable almost by definition.)

Pizza Hut allegedly should not be allowed on Mill Road (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

A new Pizza Hut store has sparked a campaign by people to protect their street's "unique" identity.

People living in the Mill Road area fear the opening of a multi-national on their "multi-cultural" street will push local traders out of business.

The new pizza shop opened for business before Christmas at number 83, the site of the old Chariots of Fire pub which burned down in 2002.

But, a group of 20-30 "like-minded young people" have been distributing flyers in the area asking people to "say yes to local independent business and no to multi-national chains".

Helen Flinders, of Catharine Street, Romsey, Cambridge, on behalf of the group, said: "Mill Road is a great, close-knit community and such a diverse and unique bit of town.

"You build up close relationships with the people you see in the shops and I didn't really realise how much I liked Mill Road until I thought about how it could change.

"We don't want it to and we want people to continue using local traders."

The group's aims have the backing of the Cambridge Action Network, the Mill Road Traders' Association and the Romsey Action Group.

Yes, the middle class have spoken. The Mill Road area is rather a dump (not uniquely) but for some reason the middle class folks (those who cannot afford Newnham or somewhere more central in Cambridge) seem to think it is great, perhaps because they can pretend they are still living in 1960s Britain, with small non-chain shops dominating the street. Needless to say, if most residents (and not just the middle class snobs) really don't like Pizza Hut then it will close.

Date published: 2006/01/01

UK postal service delivery monopoly broken (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new era in UK postal deliveries has come into effect with the end of the Royal Mail's 350-year monopoly.

For the first time since the reign of Charles II, rival firms are able to collect, sort and deliver mail.

Yet, households are unlikely to see any change for quite some time, as the 14 new providers are likely to stick to the lucrative business mail sector.

The Royal Mail will be the only firm that has to provide a service for every address in the UK.

The main postal union, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), has opposed the opening up of the mail market, saying it risks the future of the universal mail provision.

It points to the fact that the Royal Mail currently uses the profitable business delivery sector - in which it is now going to inevitably lose market share - to subsidise the loss-making domestic postal service.

State-owned Royal Mail currently loses 5 pence for every first-class letter delivered and 8p for every second-class letter.

Yet postal regulator Postcomm says competition in the UK market will give customers choice and create a more efficient and reliable service.

Watchdog Postwatch has also backed the change.

For once a trade union is not speaking total rubbish. This move indeed threatens universal mail provision (i.e. mail at the same price for everyone). But that is no doubt what the economists who promoted this change want. (Perhaps the same geniuses who promoted the competition and hence screw-up of directory enquiries.) So the Tory New Labour government is destroying a postal service which is now reasonably good and reasonably cheap. In future we can pretty much guarantee it will be reasonably bad and reasonably expensive.

Government allegedly gives patients more choice (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Health unions say the government's efforts to give patients more choice could have the opposite effect.

A radical shake-up of the NHS in England means patients are able to choose between at least four hospitals for non-emergency operations.

Ministers say the Patient Choice reforms will cut waiting times and drive up standards of care.

But union leaders fear it could force unpopular hospitals to close and that patients could make wrong choices.

The director of nursing at the Royal College of Nursing, Alison Kitson, said nurses advocated the principle of choice but in reality GPs had insufficient time to research the information required for patients to make the right choices.

And unpopular hospitals could eventually be forced to close, she said.

Another idiotic Tory New Labour idea. (Who needs the real Tories when you have Tory Blair?) Rather than "drive up standards of care" this is more likely to drive up fiddled statistics by hospitals. And as Alison Kitson points out, this does not even provide a real choice.

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