Azara Blog: August 2007 archive complete

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Date published: 2007/08/31

Legal and General wants to use postcode to help determine pension annuity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

One of the UK's biggest private pension providers, insurer Legal & General (L&G), is starting to use postcodes to price its annuities.

Annuities are policies that provide an income in retirement and are usually bought with the proceeds of private pension plans.

L&G said someone's postcode was a good indicator of how long they will live.

It is using this information in a pilot project alongside data about a customer's gender, age and health.

"Postcodes are already accepted for risk profiling in other areas of insurance, such as motor and household," said Tom McPhail, from financial advisers Hargreaves Lansdown.

The general principle is that the longer you are expected to live, the smaller your annual pension will be, for any particular sum of money used to buy the annuity.
...
Figures supplied by the L&G suggest that people who are identical in all other respects may get an extra 1% added to their income each year if they live in a postcode area where people's average life expectancy is low.

The data about postcode areas has been drawn from official sources such as the census and the Office for National Statistics statistics on houses, incomes and marital status.

L&G is also using data from its own customer databank going back over many years.

This has been synthesised into a weighting for every postcode district in the UK.

The plan is that it will be used to improve the annuities offered to people in the areas of the country where life expectancy is reckoned to be the lowest.

But customers elsewhere will not have their annuity offers reduced, said a spokesman.

Well why not, they use everything else. But the idea that "customers elsewhere will not have their annuity offers reduced" is just plain rubbish. This is a zero sum game, and if someone gets (relatively) more, then someone else gets (relatively) less (well, corporate profits also enter into the equation, but you can bet those are not going to be reduced as part of this move). Of course rich people might now start to play the game of using a second address for their pension correspondence in order to be thought to be living in a poorer area than they really are. But if the difference in payout really is just 1%, nobody will bother.

Date published: 2007/08/30

Another pointless study on flying (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Britons are "addicted" to cheap flights and confused about the climate impact of flying, according to research.

In a government-funded study, even people living generally "green" lives said they were reluctant to fly less.

The Exeter University team that carried out the research says cheap flights have become a lifestyle choice.

Aviation accounts for about 7% of the UK's emissions, and research suggests Britain will not meet its climate targets without curbing the industry.

The government raised air passenger duty in February, and the European Union is set to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which could increase costs further.

But the Exeter research suggests price hikes would have a minimal impact.

"We found that flying is quite embedded in peoples' lifestyle choices," said Stewart Barr from the university's Department of Geography.

"And it's not people on lower incomes taking these flights, it's middle class people taking more flights to go on city breaks, and they can afford to pay higher prices."

The findings come from a series of focus groups run in Devon in 2005, and from a prior questionnaire.
...
Expansion plans are lodged for many airports including Heathrow, Stansted, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Liverpool and East Midlands.

"I certainly wouldn't advise expanding them," said Brenda Boardman from Oxford University, "because the more you build them, the more people will use them.
...
Dr Boardman's Environmental Change Institute (ECI) published research last year showing the government could not achieve its long-term goal of a 60% cut in national greenhouse gas emissions without curbing the aviation sector.

She also believes the increase in flying may be hurting the national economy, with Britons choosing to spend money holidaying overseas rather than in the UK.

Away from Britain, aviation is growing at spectacular rates, with India recently seeing a 45% increase in passenger numbers within a single year. It is the fastest-rising source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course you can't believe the results of any questionnaires or focus groups, because they can easily be biased in various ways. And anyone who uses the word "addicted" in this context obviously has an agenda, so anything they say cannot be taken at face value. But it does not take a genius to figure out that people like to fly. And it's the academic middle class, who have taken this capability for granted for decades, who want to make flying so expensive that the working class will no longer be able to afford it. Claiming that "it's middle class people taking more flights" is completely missing the point. When you go from 2 to 4 flights a year it's no big thing. When you go from 0 to 1 it is. What these academic middle class people are suggesting will hit the poor much more than it will hit the rich, and they should stop pretending otherwise. And for both the Exeter researchers and Boardman to show that they are not just anti-working class, they should immediately encourage Exeter and Oxford universities to ban all their academic employees from flying anywhere, ever (on university business or not). And of course they should volunteer first. Let the academic middle class take their own medicine.

Tories have no sensible housing policy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Government plans to build three million new homes by 2020 will create an "unsustainable urban sprawl", the Tories have warned.

Shadow planning minister Jacqui Lait said promises not to construct houses on green land were now "worthless".

The claim comes as a panel recommends the building of 32,000 new homes a year in south-east England.

But the government promised the green belt would continue to have "robust protections" from future developments.
...
Shadow planning minister Jacqui Lait said: "Gordon Brown's empty promise that he would protect the green belt has been exposed to be worthless.

"His own government officials are planning to let rip with the concrete mixer and add to unsustainable urban sprawl."

She added: "Local residents will be powerless to stop the unelected bureaucrats building the sink estates of the 21st century."

The Tories evidently think that the peasants should be forced to live in high density urban slums squeezed onto post-industrial waste land. This is more likely to result in the "sink estates of the 21st century" than building the low density suburban housing that most people in Britain want to live in. Pretty bland projections imply there should be at least three million new homes built by 2020 in the south of England. If the Tories believe otherwise they should put forward a sensible analysis providing an alternative view.

Date published: 2007/08/29

Lib Dems love the congestion charge and want to make it 24 hours (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

The proposed Cambridge congestion charge might be more effective if imposed throughout the day, rather than just in the morning.

And since city residents will benefit from its introduction, there is "no reason" why they should be exempt from paying it.

These are two of the views put forward by Coun David Jenkins, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Cambridgeshire County Council.

Coun Jenkins, who represents Cottenham, Histon and Impington, says the Conservative-controlled authority has failed to make clear what it is trying to do by bringing in a road toll scheme.

He believes that "an intelligently implemented scheme" could deliver major benefits, provided it is backed up by a top-notch public transport network.

The council's Tory leader, Coun Shona Johnstone, has revealed plans to charge drivers up to £5 for using their cars in the city between 7.30 and 9.30am from Mondays to Fridays, and has promised widespread Government-funded improvements in public transport to give people an alternative.

But Coun Jenkins said: "It's not really clear what the county is trying to do. Does it want to reduce Cambridgeshire's carbon footprint or improve the quality of life for people living in Cambridge?

"And what about the quality of life for those who work or otherwise visit the city? Or is reducing congestion an end in itself, when such simplistic objectives have a habit of resulting in undesired consequences?

"Or is it honestly a way of getting our hands on the Government money - and it's a small price to pay?

"If I were running the county council I would be clearer about my objectives and suggest they should be something along the lines of: 'Reduce the carbon footprint of those who live, work and otherwise visit Cambridge by a combination of improved local infrastructure and public transport on the one hand and fiscal measures on the other, and thereby improve their quality of life.'

"I would not shy away from the need for the 'stick' - but I would make it a lot clearer what I was trying to achieve and that there was a significant carrot."

Coun Jenkins said the council needed to spell out a "narrative" on exactly what sort of transport network the city and its surrounding area would have in five to 10 years' time.
...
He accused the council of being too "prescriptive" by having a single charge in the mornings.

He said: "I'm not sure why we have suddenly become fixated with a single charge in the morning period. Surely there are many parameters which we need to set, and to focus on one set at such an early stage suggests that our planning is further advanced than it really is. Or has the county council already decided, and is gambling everything on this one throw of the dice?

"Few would dispute that an intelligently implemented scheme which would deliver the improvements described would deliver value to Cambridge residents. There is therefore no reason why they should not pay for it, at least in part.

"But if we are trying to discourage car ownership as distinct from car use why not make an annual charge - and later in the day we might still want to keep traffic out so why not retain the flexibility to levy a charge throughout the day?"

The Lib Dem leader also feels there is too much talk about the pros and cons of travelling in and out of Cambridge - and not enough talk about the needs of the rest of the county.

He said the money councillors hoped to secure from the Government - up to £500 million has been mentioned - will be for the whole county, not just for the city.

The idea of road tolls being introduced throughout the day in Cambridge has aroused strong opposition from politicians and business leaders.

Councillor Shona Johnstone, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, which is looking at introducing a charge for just a couple of hours in the morning, five days a week, described the concept as a stealth tax.

She was responding to an idea by David Jenkins, Lib Dem county councillor, that the congestion charge should be introduced for other times of the day and not just the morning rush hour.

Coun Johnstone said: "So now we know that the Lib Dems are into raising money through stealth taxes rather than tackling one particular problem, which is what the Conservatives are doing.

"The Conservatives in Cambridgeshire want to tackle a particular problem, in a particular area, at a particular time of day. We don't want to penalise businesses and shoppers and those who come into Cambridge during the day when congestion is not a problem.

"I think that charging throughout the day would have a crippling effect on the economy of Cambridge."

Business leaders said the idea would have a negative impact.

Michael Wiseman, chairman of the Cambridge Retail and Commercial Association (CRACA), said: "Although we accept that to do nothing is not an option, if there is to be a congestion charge then I would be happier if it just covered peak times.

"The morning peak is more concentrated whereas in the evening it is more spread out. The congestion charge is a very contentious issue, but if it is to come in then we would prefer it to be kept to the morning."

John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce, said: "This would definitely affect the Cambridge shopping experience. People have just invested an awful lot of money in the centre of Cambridge. Of the four million visitors the city has each year more than two thirds of them are day visitors.

"It will make it more difficult to attract visitors if they have to pay."

The city's mayor, Jenny Bailey, called for a cautious approach to any plans for the charges, but backed a 24-hour fee.

She said: "In theory I think the congestion charge is great, I support it 100 per cent and would like to see it operating 24 hours.

"But in reality I don't think we have the information we need to make any of these decisions."

Not a single politician asks the obvious question of what drivers want. But of course the Cambridge ruling elite think that drivers are scum (excepting themselves of course) and that drivers should subsidise everybody else in life, in particular bus passengers and cyclists.

The Lib Dems seem to be the most disconnected from reality. Jenkins claims that "city residents will benefit" from a congestion charge. You have to wonder if he's bothered to ask any city residents, besides the rest of the academic middle class Lib Dems, whether they think they will benefit. Of course Jenkins (like Johnstone) does not represent the city, so to placate his own constitutency, he (and she) has to promise to screw city residents just as much as non-city residents. A man of principle. And Bailey is not much better. She says "the congestion charge is great". Has she asked any of her constituents (besides the usual academic middle class suspects) if they think it is "great"?

It is pathetic for Johnstone to say that the "Lib Dems are into raising money through stealth taxes". Is her proposal any less of a "stealth tax"? Drivers will pay a huge amount more in tax, and unfortunately most of it will go down a black hole (well, to some corporation) because of the cost of implementing and operating the scheme. It is pretty clear that the main reason the Tories want to introduce this new tax is not to raise money (because it will not raise much money, it might even lose money). The main reason is because central government has absurdly placed a requirement for a congestion charge to be introduced in order for local government to be given money for so-called public transport (in this case allegedly 500 million pounds). This is a stupid reason to introduce something so disruptive and with so many negative consequences. If Johnstone wants to introduce a congestion tax she should do so on its own merits and argue the case for this instead of making moronic statements about the Lib Dems.

The one reason the charge will not (initially) be introduced outside the morning rush hour is that the Tories know full well that business leaders would object. The Lib Dems haven't seemed to figure this one out, but being Lib Dems they are clueless about business. Of course even if the initial scheme were limited to the morning rush hour, you can guarantee that soon enough the whole day would be covered. So the idea of the Tories is almost certainly to keep business quiet at the start (after all, "something must be done"), and then hit them hard after it is too late for them to complain.

And in spite of what Wiseman says, the evening rush hour is not that different from the morning rush hour. And large parts of Cambridge are pretty congested even in the middle of the day, thanks to the last twenty years of the bureaucrats and politicians purposefully making the congestion in Cambridge worse. So the politicians and bureaucrats will have an easy time of it to extend the charge to the whole day (all for the "benefit" of drivers, you understand). Indeed, the Lib Dems already seem to be frothing at the mouth to do so.

Another reason why there might be increased flooding in future (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change may carry a higher risk of flooding than was previously thought, the journal Nature reports.

Researchers say efforts to calculate flooding risk from climate change do not take into account the effect carbon dioxide (CO2) has on vegetation.

Higher atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas reduce the ability of plants to suck water out of the ground and "breathe" out the excess.

Plants expel excess water through tiny pores, or stomata, in their leaves.

Their reduced ability to release water back into the atmosphere will result in the ground becoming saturated.

Areas with higher predicted rainfall have a greater risk of flooding. But this effect also reduces the severity of droughts.

A cute enough result to have made it into Nature. But they have added just one more factor into their model, no doubt there are plenty of other factors which have not yet been added which could negate or reinforce their conclusions.

Date published: 2007/08/28

Another consultancy wants more money thrown at microgeneration (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Households should receive council tax rebates to encourage them to install solar panels and wind turbines, an independent think tank claims.

The New Local Government Network says planning laws should be relaxed to increase the take-up of green energy.

It also suggests local authorities could offer interest-free loans towards the cost of installation.
...
Currently the government offers a grant of up to 30% towards the cost of installing wind turbines or solar panels.

It has also been consulting on whether they should be permitted without planning permission where the impact on neighbours is minimal.

But the New Local Government Network report, Finding the Energy, says ministers need to be bolder by allowing councils to be even less restrictive where there is public support.

It is calling for local councillors to be able to consult with residents on whether to reduce the amount of planning permission required to create eco-friendly homes.

James Macgregor, author of the report, said: "Listening to the voices of local people in this way would ensure that residential amenity was protected as defined by residents.

"Council tax rebates and capital loans for householders that install domestic microgeneration equipment would incentivise local people to engage in the process."

Chris Leslie, director of the New Local Government Network, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that planning laws should be changed.

"The tests about whether, for instance, a wind turbine on somebody's house has a detrimental impact in a town should actually be left to the neighbourhood to decide themselves," he said.

Solar and wind power are often inappropriate technologies at the level of single households. Microgeneration is all flavour-of-the-minute amongst so-called environmentalists (who of course hate anything corporate) but for now it largely does not make sense. The fact that the New Local Government Network (NLGN) wants even more subsidy of these technologies shows that the only way they can make the sums add up is by externalising a large fraction of the cost onto the taxpayers of Britain, so in fact the sums do not add up.

And on the planning permission front, the idea that local councils should "consult with residents" and that it "should actually be left to the neighbourhood to decide themselves" is fairly pointless. Which residents exactly? Well, no doubt they mean people just like themselves, i.e. the usual academic middle class suspects who already dominate so-called public consultations (which are not representative of the public exactly because they are dominated by the usual academic middle class suspects). And what is the "neighbourhood" which will "decide themselves"? The people most likely to object to planning permission are not the local council but the neighbours.

It looks like NLGN is just another one of the zillions of useless consultancies which plague the nation.

Lib Dems want to eliminate all petrol cars by 2040 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Petrol-powered cars should be phased out within decades to help fight climate change, say the Lib Dems.

Environment spokesman Chris Huhne says cars should use alternative fuel - like hydrogen fuel cells - by 2040 as part of plans to make the UK carbon-neutral.

"The EU acting together through the internal market can make sure that change happens," he said.
...
The Lib Dems say they want specific proposals to tackle climate change, including a major upgrade of the rail network, and a new north-south high-speed rail line, paid for through tolls on lorries using the motorways.

You never know, hydrogen fuel cells, or some alternative technology, might all be plausible by 2040. None of these technologies is that close to being plausible now (certainly not hydrogen fuel cells).

And why would Britain want to throw billions of pounds at a "new north-south high-speed rail line"? Do we want London commuters to live in Glasgow and Edinburgh, hugely subsidised by the rest of the country? London commuters have already taken over, and pushed up house prices in, towns anywhere near London and we do not need that to spread further.

Teenagers allegedly don't sleep enough (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Too many teenagers are damaging their health by not getting enough sleep and by falling asleep with electrical gadgets on, researchers say.

A third of 12 to 16-year-olds asked slept for between four to seven hours a night. Experts recommend eight hours.

The Sleep Council, which conducted the poll of 1,000 teenagers, says gadgets in bedrooms such as computers and TVs are fuelling poor quality "junk sleep".

Is this news? Has the situation ever been any different in the entire history of the world? Does the Sleep Council serve any useful purpose in life?

Date published: 2007/08/27

Transport 2000 produces another silly transport report (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Public transport has too many weak links making it difficult to switch from one mode to another, a report by an environmental group suggests.

Travellers polled for a Transport 2000 survey said buses did not connect with train times and stations had insecure cycle parking and poorly-lit footpaths.
...
Tara Melton, from the group, said: "Rail passengers need real travel choices. All stations should have good bus links, decent footpaths and secure cycle parking and must be accessible to all."

If the nation did not squander countless sums of money on useless organisations like Transport 2000 (who should really be called Transport 1950) then we would have plenty of money for decent transport. Of course Transport 2000 hates cars, so the one link they fail to mention is driving to the train station. But Transport 2000 doesn't believe we should have an integrated transport system, they believe we should have a transport system which works the way they, the academic middle class, think it should work. They don't believe in choice, they believe in forcing people to travel the way they think people should travel. And did they bother to ask any of the travellers whether they were willing to pay for all these wonderful things Transport 2000 wants (e.g. bus links in the middle of nowhere), or should it all be funded by someone else (of course). Funnily enough, car drivers are the only transport users who pay their own way.

Gonzales finally resigns as US Attorney General (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, embroiled in a row over the sacking of eight US attorneys, has formally announced his resignation.

In a brief news conference Mr Gonzales said he had met President George W Bush on Sunday to tender his resignation, which will take effect on 17 September.

Members of Congress have accused Mr Gonzales of abuse of office over the sacking of federal prosecutors.

He is the latest in a run of senior officials to leave the White House.

Paying tribute to Mr Gonzales, Mr Bush said on Monday that he had been subjected to "months of unfair treatment" and that "his good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons".

Poor Mr Gonzales, such "unfair" treatment he received. Imagine that Congress thought he should tell the truth, who the heck do they think they are. Surely King George is the one who sets the rules.

Gonzales was easily one of the worst Bush appointees, not only was he a liar but he was also stupid and arrogant, a lethal combination, and presumably this was the reason he was such a useful friend of Bush (there are not many people that make Bush look good in comparison).

Date published: 2007/08/26

Comparing exam results today versus the past is pointless (permanent blog link)

Mike Baker of the BBC says:

The award for the year's most pointless activity must surely go to those commentators who, this August like most others, tried to prove that today's exams are easier than they were in the past.

Why is it that we are so obsessed with asking whether today's exams match the standards of those taken 20 or 40 years ago?

I have not yet come across any other country that so regularly beats itself up in this way.

Well, an even more pointless activity is talking about the exam results in the first place. Is there any other country that is so obsessed about this kind of thing? Let's face it, the kids and teachers of today are no better and no worse than in the past. If exam results are "better" today it is either because teachers and students are getting better at playing the system, or because exams are getting easier. But who cares, the real problem is that exams get in the way of education.

Asthma and traffic pollution (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Traffic pollution may boost the risk of children getting asthma - if they have genes which make them vulnerable, a study says.

The University of Southern California team studied the health records and genetic profiles of 3,000 children.

Those with a gene variation were slightly more at risk but if they lived near a main road, the risk rose more, the Thorax journal reported.

But UK asthma experts said the link remained unclear.
...
There has been a long-running dispute about a link between asthma and exhaust fumes.

And Leanne Male, Asthma UK's assistant director of research, said more work was needed.

"This study is very promising as it is one of the first to look specifically at how genetic susceptibility to respiratory disease and environmental traffic fumes can cause childhood asthma.

"People with asthma tell us that traffic fumes make their asthma worse and although this research only looks at individuals with a certain genetic make-up, we await further robust research in this new and exciting area to help us find better ways to treat asthma."

This is a classic case where one can confuse correlation and causation. People who are poorer, and so have worse health generally, are more likely to live near busy roads. So is the road causing asthma or is the asthma just more likely in the first place. The only thing that makes this sound like more than just a correlation (and correlations in general prove nothing) is that of course one would expect traffic fumes not to be good for people who have breathing difficulties, and indeed Male claims that "people with asthma tell us that traffic fumes make their asthma worse". Assuming that is not just anecdotal evidence (and since people believe traffic fumes are bad they would certainly be willing to point that out as a problem), then perhaps the researchers are onto an important piece of evidence.

Date published: 2007/08/25

NICE should allegedly lower cost limit before approving new drugs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The body assessing new therapies and drugs for the NHS could be approving too many treatments, a report has said.

It claimed the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) judged "value for money" at a cost far higher than the NHS could afford.

New approved treatments could mean more effective ones were sacrificed, added The King's Fund and City University report in the British Medical Journal.

The report comes shortly after a row over a NICE decision on dementia drugs.

NICE uses a complex series of equations to work out whether the NHS should be spending money on new drugs.

The effectiveness of the drug, and its side-effects, are balanced with its cost to give a price per extra year of good health - called a Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY).

In approximate terms, if the new treatment can deliver one QALY for £20,000 or less, then it is deemed cost-effective and heading for NHS approval.

If the QALY costs up to £30,000, it may still be approved for NHS use by NICE.

However, the latest research, from think tank The Kings Fund and City University, suggested that this £30,000 threshold was far too high when compared with how the rest of the NHS worked out which treatments to fund.

Even in key areas such as circulatory disease, £12,000 was the limit a primary care trust would pay per QALY.

Reducing the NICE threshold to this level could mean rejection for many more therapies and drugs it assesses in future.

Professor Nancy Devlin, from City University, said that she would be in favour of NICE reducing its threshold to match the rest of the NHS.

She said: "It's all about value for money. There is no such thing as the correct threshold throughout time.

"Even if £20,000 to £30,000 was the right threshold when NICE was set up, in the current NHS, where there is far less money to spend, it doesn't appear to be now."

She said that primary care trusts told to fund a new drug approved by NICE under these criteria might end up sacrificing another treatment which actually offered better quality of life improvements for patients, for less money.

NICE are believed to be looking at the threshold levels, although Chairman Sir Michael Rawlins has hinted that it may go upwards, rather than downwards.

A spokesman for NICE confirmed that the limits were currently under review.

NICE is in am impossible situation. No matter what the threshold is, there will be some drugs that are deemed too expensive, and some special interest pressure group, possibly with the aid of the pharmaceutical industry, will get the media to show some weeping patient or family member who will say it is all unfair that tens of thousands of pounds are not being spent on this or that drug. (The BBC carries such stories all the time, on the radio, on TV and on its website.)

Date published: 2007/08/24

High-end property market in London allegedly going to fall (permanent blog link)

The Financial Times says:

Fears are growing that the fallout from the US subprime mortgage meltdown will hit house prices in central London, one of the world”s hottest high-end property markets.

Prices for "prime" homes in the most expensive streets of the capital have risen about 50 per cent in the past two years as a financial services boom has enriched bankers and other professionals in the City of London.

But the global market turmoil unleashed by the US subprime collapse is threatening activity levels at banks in the City, and London property agents are warning that high-end residential prices could suffer as result.

Why should we "fear" this "fallout"? Not only is the market irrelevant for 99.9% of the country, but prices have gone crazily up, so it would only be some sanity returning if they fell back somewhat. And should anyone care if some millionaires paid too much for their London mansion last year?

Date published: 2007/08/23

There is allegedly an "unprecedented" level of new diseases (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Infectious diseases are spreading faster than ever before, the World Health Organization annual report says.

With about 2.1 billion airline passengers flying each year, there is a high risk of another major epidemic such as Aids, Sars or Ebola fever.

The WHO urges increased efforts to combat disease outbreaks, and sharing of virus data to help develop vaccines.

Without this, it says, there could be devastating impacts on the global economy and international security.

In the report, A Safer Future, the WHO says new diseases are emerging at the "historically unprecedented" rate of one per year.

Since the 1970s, 39 new diseases have developed, and in the last five years alone, the WHO has identified more than 1,100 epidemics including cholera, polio and bird flu.

As usual with the ruling elite, they have to blame airline passengers (or motorists) for everything. No mention is made of the fact that the population of the planet has doubled since 1960. Obviously both factors are important.

UK unlikely to meet own emissions targets (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Further promises by the UK government to meet greenhouse gas targets look unlikely to be met, a think tank says.

Cambridge Econometrics was one of the first to forecast that the government would miss its target to cut CO2 by 20% for 2010.

Ministers rejected the think tank's claims for several years before finally conceding it was correct.

The latest report says at the current rate of progress this target will not even be reached by 2020.

By then, the government is theoretically striving to cut CO2 by a minimum of 26%.

The report says achieving this will need much stricter policies - particularly to tackle emissions from homes and from transport.

There is a gloomy forecast too on renewable energy - that the government will fail to meet its targets in both 2010 and 2015.

Is this news? It's hard to believe anyone in government believes in these targets. The targets are mainly spin to keep the so-called environmentalists from bleating even louder than they already bleat. Of course any forecast 13 years out is likely to be wrong. So who knows, the ruling elite might manage to trash the UK economy enough to make the government targets achievable.

Date published: 2007/08/22

Two-thirds of people allegedly support "pay-as-you-throw" waste collection (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Almost two-thirds of people would support a "pay-as-you-throw" system of collecting household waste, a Local Government Association survey suggests.

Its poll of 1,028 people found 64% in favour of lower council tax and charges according to how much rubbish people put out, with recyclers paying less.

The LGA has detailed three possible schemes for England and Wales.

The Conservatives said such schemes would not bring lower council tax bills and fly-tipping would increase.

Shadow Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said the overall burden of taxation would have to rise to cover administration and enforcement costs of waste charges.

"Bin taxes will lead to a huge increase in fly-tipping and backyard burning," he added.
...
The LGA said its survey showed public support for changing the law to allow councils to introduce waste charges.

It has set out three possible schemes for England and Wales:

The LGA said any scheme would be dependent on local circumstances and would have to be supported by residents.

Well any survey that just happens to support the policies of the organisation that paid for the survey can obviously be disregarded (and a non-scientific survey on the BBC website suggested a big majority against this idea).

Of course the real question is not whether the LGA can come up with survey results which support its position, the real question is whether any of this makes sense. And the Tories, unbelievably, have it just about right.

This will almost certainly not be tax neutral, not only because of the administration and enforcement costs, but also because if the idea actually works, people will throw out less waste, forcing local government to either live with a deficit or to continually jack up the unit cost. (Hmmm, which will they do?)

Of course nobody knows how much extra fly-tipping there will be, or how many people would actually start to try and burn trash (there's not much point to that one since most stuff you could burn you can recycle). But it's bound to get worse. Needless to say, most citizens in most places would follow the rules, it is a minority who would cause problems. And some citizens now clean up the mess left by others in front of their house, and in future that is a lot less likely to happen.

Of the three schemes, the first and third are based on volume, and the second on weight. Morally neither is better or worse (they are both arbitrary). The volume schemes seem to be cheaper to administer. But the big problem with charging by volume is that people will start to buy trash compactors (this already happens in the States), and think how much energy those use. The net "benefit" to the environment would almost certainly be negative if enough people started to use those. But needless to say, this whole proposal is not about the environment, it is about ticking boxes for the EU.

UN official suggests rich countries pay poor countries to cut emissions (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Rich nations should be absolved from the need to cut emissions if they pay developing countries to do it on their behalf, a senior UN official has said.

The controversial suggestion from Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has angered environmental groups.

They say climate change will not be solved unless rich and poor nations both cut emissions together.

But Mr de Boer said the challenge was so great that action was needed now.

The UN's binding global climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, currently requires industrialised nations to reduce the majority of emissions themselves.

But Mr de Boer said this was illogical, adding that the scale of the problem facing the world meant that countries should be allowed to invest in emission cuts wherever in the world it was cheapest.

"We have been reducing emissions and making energy use more efficient in industrialised countries for a long time," he told BBC News.

"So it is quite expensive in these nations to reduce emissions any more.

"But in developing nations, less has been done to reduce emissions and less has been done to address energy efficiency," Mr de Boer observed.

"So it actually becomes economically quite attractive for a company, for example in the UK, that has a target to achieve this goal by reducing emissions in China."

It's amazing how the so-called environmentalists get hysterical about such things. Well, their goal is to hammer the western economies by having them go cold turkey off of fossil fuels, so anything that avoids that happening is evidently considered to be bad news by them. But de Boer is just talking common sense. The goal is to reduce global emissions. Period. Either the so-called environmentalists support this goal or they do not.

Advertising Standards Authority bans Ryanair advert (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ryanair has been banned from claiming its flight from London to Brussels is faster and cheaper than making the journey by Eurostar.

The claim was misleading because it ignored time taken travelling from city centres to airports, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said.

Ryanair's advert compared its 70-minute flight with a 131-minute train journey.

But travelling from the heart of London and Brussels would add one hour and 45 minutes to the journey, the ASA said.

And costs for those journeys to and from airports at both ends of the journey meant that claims Ryanair's service was cheaper were also misleading.

Ryanair defended its position, saying that time and costs involved in getting to an airport or railway station were "irrelevant" as they applied to both modes of transport.

In a statement, the airline added that "no stupid ruling" from the ASA could hide the success of the airline.

"Only the very rich or the very slow waste their time on Eurostar," it said.

Ryanair's main London base, Stansted airport, is about 25 miles outside the centre of the capital while Charleroi airport is some 28.5 miles outside of Brussels.

"We considered that many readers would not be aware of the locations of the airports and additional costs incurred," the ASA said.

Ryanair was also found to have made inaccurate claims when it said that Ryanair's flights on the route were more punctual than Eurostar's service.

The budget airline was told by the ASA to remove all the claims from its adverts.

The ASA is taking the piss. Everybody knows full well you need to get to and from airports, and that that is often the most expensive and most time-consuming part of the procedure. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons that people don't fly even more than they do already. Has the ASA managed to find a single (evidently very stupid) passenger who is unaware of this? And the ASA is taking a very London-centric view of the world. Sure, if you happen to live a couple of tube stops from Waterloo (or, from November, St Pancras) then the Eurostar option looks very attractive. But from East Anglia, for example, getting to Stansted is easier and quicker than getting to Waterloo (but that will change come St Pancras). All in all, this ruling from the ASA smacks more of political posturing than anything else (the UK ruling elite have decided that trains are holy and planes are unholy).

Date published: 2007/08/21

Cambridge is not Manchester (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridge's proposed road toll scheme has been accused of being badly thought out compared with the system planned for Manchester.

Like Cambridgeshire County Council, Manchester City Council is aiming to bar vehicles from its city centre during certain hours each day.

But the planned charge is lower than the fee of up to £5 proposed for Cambridge - and people driving within the congestion zone will not have to pay, says Coun Stuart Newbold, environment spokesman for the Labour group on Cambridge City Council.

Coun Newbold told the News: "Manchester's proposals involve a charge of between £1 and £2 for vehicles that enter the zone from 7am to 9.30am, and a charge of between £1 and £2 for vehicles that leave the zone between 4pm and 6.30pm.

"Huge transport improvements, about £3 billion of spending, are envisaged prior to a 2012 start date.

"Unlike Cambridgeshire, there is no charge for driving against congestion flow, and no charge for driving within the zone. Drivers incur a charge if they are travelling in the direction of congestion during the time that congestion is at its peak.

"And before implementation, Manchester is seeking more time to get the transport infrastructure completed."

Coun Newbold said he feared the county council was pursuing "objectives other than addressing congestion".

"Perhaps the promised consultation will provide the answer," he said. "I'm no fan of the status quo. I do not own a car and I like to think I'm environmentally responsible.

Unlike here, the Manchester scheme looks like a well thought through plan aimed purely at tackling congestion."

Unfortunately for Newbold, Cambridge is not Manchester. Manchester has certainly come up with the best (so-called) congestion charging scheme so far, certainly much better than what is in London. (But none of the schemes proposed so far involve congestion charges. A congestion charge should by definition be proportional to the congestion caused. These schemes just have access charges. Once you pay the tax you can cause as much or as little congestion as you want. And buses, a large source of congestion, pay no tax at all.)

Manchester is a big city and can propose a rational scheme because it has some economy of scale. Cambridge is a small city so has no economy of scale, so any scheme is bound to be dubious from the start. There is little point looking at what Manchester has proposed because it will not work in Cambridge.

Or course there is plenty wrong with what Cambridgeshire County Council is proposing. The fact that they can make these proposals without having a business plan (or at least one they are willing to place into the public domain), shows how amateurish they are. And the county has purposefully made the congestion worse with road closures, and wacky bus and cycle lanes, and the insistance that all retail needs to be in a few spots. The main reason that the county council seems to have come up with their crackpot scheme now is in order to (allegedly) get £500 million of central government money for so-called public transport. This is a very poor reason to introduce a "congestion" charge.

A virus might play a role in obesity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists believe a virus may play a role in obesity, raising the possibility that medication could be used to tackle the condition.

A team at Louisiana's Pennington Center found that a common virus could cause stem cells to change into fat cells in lab experiments.

Researchers told the American Chemical Society conference anti-viral treatments might be possible.

But UK experts said the idea of obesity as an infectious illness was unlikely.
...
Dr Magdalena Pasarica, who led the research, said: "We're not saying that a virus is the only cause of obesity, but this study provides stronger evidence that some obesity cases may involve viral infections.

"Not all infected people will develop obesity - we would ultimately like to identify the underlying factors that predispose some obese people to develop this virus and eventually find a way to treat it."

Not everyone is convinced, however. Dr Colin Waine, of the National Obesity Forum in the UK, said that while it was attractive to chase a "holy grail", more practical measures were the best way to tackle the western world's obesity epidemic.

"Basically, when energy consumed exceeds expenditure, that's when weight increases."

Dr Nick Finer, from the Centre for Obesity Research, said that while the virus was "interesting", the idea of an infectious cause of obesity was hard to accept ahead of far more convincing explanations.

"I just can't see how this explains the epidemic of obesity we are experiencing," he said.

Scientists, of all people, ought to be able to accept that there can be multiple factors influencing a natural phenomenon. So a virus could have some impact (even if that seems odd), although it is obviously commonly believed that energy excess explains more. Nobody is claiming that the virus "explains the [ alleged ] epidemic of obesity we are experiencing".

Date published: 2007/08/20

Prostate cancer and obesity (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Obese people may be less likely to develop prostate cancer but more likely to die of the disease, a study says.

Researchers found the cancer was much less likely to develop in people who are insulin resistant - a pre-diabetes condition linked to obesity.

But they were more likely to develop an aggressive form of the disease likely to spread to other parts of the body.
...
Lead researcher Dr Par Stattin said: "The suggestion that obese people are less likely to develop prostate cancer is provocative.
...
Dr Stattin said more research was needed to confirm the findings, and pin down the reasons.
...
Dr Greg Martin, of the World Cancer Research Fund, which funded the study, said the findings demonstrated just how closely obesity was related to cancer.

He said: "While this study suggests that obese people could be less likely to develop prostate cancer in the first place, it is important to remember that being overweight significantly increases your risk of developing a number of different cancers, and is bad for your overall cancer risk."

And Dr Chris Hiley, of the Prostate Cancer Charity, said: "Men should not get the impression that there is an up side to obesity because it looks as if it might prevent prostate cancer. This is not the story at all.

"Cancer and heart disease are the biggest causes of preventable deaths and getting your weight under control with a healthy diet and lifestyle cuts the risk of both."

Well why are these findings allegedly "provocative"? Presumably because the likes of Martin, Hiley and lots of other people spend all their time demonising obese people, and we can't possibly have anything where obesity might be deemed to be a plus, can we. So it is necessary to point out there are zillions of negatives to obesity. Of course nobody ever bothers to mention the obvious zero sum game, namely that everybody has to die, so if obese people are more likely to die of one cause, they must be less likely to die of something else. So this kind of numbers comparison is a bit pointless. More to the point is quality of life and (according to some people) longevity.

Ken Livingstone takes money from Venezuela to subsidise bus fares in London (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Londoners on income support will be required to pay only half the fare on buses, Mayor Ken Livingstone has said.

At least 250,000 people, including single parents, carers and disabled people, will benefit from the low fares costing 50p for a single journey.

The mayor said the low fares follow an oil deal with Venezuela which helped slash fuel expenses for buses by 20%.
...
London Assembly Conservative leader Angie Bray said Mr Livingstone should have appealed to the Treasury if he needed financial support.

"Most Londoners will reflect that the mayor of one of the richest cities in the world buying popularity off the backs of those in one of the poorest cities in the world beggars belief," she said.

Yes, Bray has it spot on, this beggars belief. Livingstone should be ashamed of himself, this is about as low as you can get. How many poor people in Venezuela are going to have to do without the very basics in life just so Livingstone can try and bribe his way to another election win? This is corruption worthy of Bush.

Date published: 2007/08/19

To be healthy you allegedly need to do lots of exercise (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

To be healthy, you really do need to break into a sweat when you exercise, say experts.

American College of Sports Medicine members are concerned official advice to do 30 minutes of gentle exercise each day is being misconstrued.

Some may take this to include a mere stroll to the car, Circulation reports.

People should do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week, or 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, like jogging, three days a week, they say.

There is confusion about what is the ideal amount and intensity of exercise to improve health.

All agree that regular exercise is essential. The World Health Organization has said 30 minutes of gentle exercise each day could be enough to sustain a minimum level of fitness.

Recently, researchers at Queen's University, Belfast, found walking for half an hour on just three days a week gave similar fitness and blood pressure benefits to walking for 30 minutes five times a week.

The sports scientists, however, say this advice is misleading and could encourage people to do too little exercise.

"There are people who have not accepted, and others who have misinterpreted, the original recommendation.

Of course it all depends what you mean by "gentle", "moderate" and "vigorous". And no doubt many people have not accepted the advice because probably many people have not actively heard the advice. Every day in the media there are countless pieces of advice on health issues from "experts", often contradictory from one day to the next, and the best way to deal with most of it is just to filter it out, in the same way as one does with advertising.

Date published: 2007/08/18

Cambridge Cycling Campaign puts out repeated propaganda about congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Critics of Cambridge's controversial congestion charge have been given a tough message from the city's cyclists - on yer bike.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign, the body which campaigns for better cycle facilities in and around the city, says opponents of the pay-as-you-drive proposal are "ignoring basic realities about the development of Cambridge".

In a statement to the News, the organisation said: "The proposal must be seen as part of an unprecedented £500 million up-front proposed package of public transport, Park and Ride and cycling improvements.

"Many opponents of the congestion charge seem to be unaware of these potential improvements."

Cambridge Cycling Campaign's co-ordinator, Martin Lucas-Smith, said: "Some 50,000 new dwellings are planned for the outskirts of Cambridge in the coming decade. That amounts to perhaps 125,000 new people, very many of whom are likely to want to travel in and around Cambridge.

"We already have huge traffic problems on major routes, and that's without the vast influx of new residents expected in the next 10 years. Radical measures are needed."

Jim Chisholm, the organisation's liaison officer, added: "There are two forms of demand management on the table.

"Either drivers can sit in total gridlock, or the city can potentially get an enormous £500 million of new transport investment.

"This would be coupled with a weekday morning-only peak congestion charge to make people think more carefully about how they travel.

"With 50,000 extra new dwellings around the edge of the city in the coming decade, a radical change simply has to be made. The reduced levels of congestion would make Cambridge a far more pleasant place to live, work, and play."

The cycling organisation is urging opponents of the congestion charge to spell out how they would deal with the "intolerable congestion" it claims extra housing will bring.

It says people should realise that the charge of up to £5 would be 7.30-9.30am only, Monday to Friday, so there would be little effect on people travelling for shopping.

Its statement adds: "The £500 million of transport investment would benefit all road users, including motorists, by vastly improving the alternatives to the car. But the Government is only offering this money on condition that congestion charging is introduced.

"The estimated £30 million which we understand would be raised annually from any charge would be ploughed back into local transport provision.

More propanada on behalf of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC). Indeed, this particular publicity piece is just a longer version of one that appeared in the Cambridge News only two weeks ago.

The CCC do not represent "the city's cyclists", they only represent a minority of the city's cyclists, and are a typical special interest pressure group who try and put their interests above the interests of society as a whole. Needless to say, they are no friend of the car driver, and much of their propaganda (e.g. in their newsletter) consists of trying to denigrate motorists as much as possible.

It should not be up to the CCC whether or not congestion charging is introduced into Cambridge. It should be up to the people of Cambridge and more specifically motorists. Motorists should be the ones who decide whether they pay this tax or instead sit in queues. It has nothing to do with cyclists, who should be grateful that motorists pay so much tax that cyclists get to use the roads for free.

Of course one of the problems with the congestion charge is that it is hugely expensive to collect, so hardly any of this tax money actually ends up doing any good. Instead, most of it ends up in the pockets of the company that runs the scheme. This is the case in London and will be even more of the case in Cambridge, given how small Cambridge is. And how does the CCC know that £30 million will allegedly be raised annually, given that the County Council has so far refused to divulge any business plan supporting (or not) the congestion charge. (At least that is what they tell you if you email them, perhaps the ruling elite like the CCC has access to more information.)

And how pathetic can you get to claim that a positive point of the congestion charge is that "there would be little effect on people travelling for shopping"? Yes, the congestion charge is going to hit the workers, not the consumers. What a brilliant concept. The congestion charge is a totally regressive tax which will kick the workers out of their cars for the benefit of the academic middle class. Does the CCC hate the working class?

And the CCC should be condemning the national government for insisting that this alleged £500 million which is allegedly forthcoming will only be handed over if Cambridge introduces a congestion charge, independently of whether or not a congestion charge makes any sense (financially or otherwise). This is just blatantly poor governance, and should be condemned by all. But the CCC so hates motorists that they are happy to see this second-rate bribery be used as an excuse to bring in the congestion charge.

The proponents of the congestion charge always get hysterical that "something must be done". But it is up to them to justify this massive change to life in Cambridge, it is not up to opponents to come up with a "solution" today to a far-off problem. But of course there are plenty of things that could be done to reduce congestion already, such as reverse most of the transport decisions made over the last twenty years. The Cambridge ruling elite have spent all that time reducing the capacity of the roads and so making the congestion worse. Not only have they closed several roads, they have also made the Newmarket Road area a complete disaster, not only by introducing a wacky bus lane (effectively reducing the capacity by half) but also allowing more and more retail to pile into the area. It would have been far more sensible to allow retail sites on the Arbury Camp (now Arbury Park) site next to the A14 and also where the Park-and-Ride site is in Trumpington next to the M11. But the ruling elite refused to allow that to happen. So the crocodile tears and patronising statements from the CCC (and others) cuts no slack. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Tories say inheritance tax might or might not be abolished (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A Conservative government should abolish inheritance tax because it penalises too many middle-income families, a policy group recommends.

It says rising property prices mean that estates of those "who could not in any sense be described as rich" are now above the £300,000 payment threshold.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne said he would look very closely at the idea.

More shallow ideas from the Tories. If the (arbitrary) £300000 threshold is allegedly too low then just raise the threshold, and keep raising it in line with house prices. (You could even introduce regional variation, but that would be problematic to implement.) The real problem with inheritance tax, which no political party is willing to face up to, is that married people and gay civil partners do not have to pay the tax when their other half dies, and everybody else does. This is fundamentally unfair. Inheritance tax should be abolished for this reason and this reason alone.

Date published: 2007/08/17

Atlantic circulation has huge variability (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have painted the first detailed picture of Atlantic ocean currents crucial to Europe's climate.

Using instruments strung out across the Atlantic, a UK-led team shows that its circulation varies significantly over the course of a year.

Writing in the journal Science, they say it may now be possible to detect changes related to global warming.

The Atlantic circulation brings warm water to Europe, keeping the continent 4-6C warmer than it would be otherwise.

As the water reaches the cold Arctic, it sinks, returning southwards deeper in the ocean.

Some computer models of climate change predict this Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is the best-known component, could weaken severely or even stop completely as global temperatures rise, a scenario taken to extremes in the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow.

Last year the same UK-led team published evidence that the circulation may have weakened by about 30% over half a century.

But that was based on historical records from just five sampling expeditions, raising concerns that the data was not robust enough to provide a clear-cut conclusion.

The key for scientists, then, has been to measure and understand how the circulation varies naturally, making it much easier to pick out any changes related to man-made global warming.

This has been the goal of the Rapid/Mocha (Rapid Climate Change/Meridional Overturning Circulation and Heatflux Array) project; and its first results show that the circulation varies substantially, by a factor of eight, even during a single year.

"I think this is a major step forward for our understanding of ocean circulation," said Stuart Cunningham from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton, one of the project's senior scientists.

"The Atlantic Ocean carries a quarter of the global northwards heat flux, so having the information to plug into climate models will be a major adddition," he told the BBC News website.

But measuring long-term variation is, if anything, even more important. Man-made warming could drive the flow downwards, but so could natural climate cycles such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.

All five of the historical flow values documented in last year's paper, for example, fit within the range of variability measured here, making it very hard to argue that these observations found a long-term trend.

It just goes to show how silly it is to jump to hysterical conclusions based on little evidence. The factor of eight variability in one year is amazing, and will make figuring out long-term trends extremely difficult.

Another attack on the EU biofuel policy (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The EU target of ensuring 10% of petrol and diesel comes from renewable sources by 2020 is not an effective way to curb carbon emissions, researchers say.

A team of UK-based scientists suggested that reforestation and habitat protection was a better option.

Writing in Science, they said forests could absorb up to nine times more CO2 than the production of biofuels could achieve on the same area of land.

The growth of biofuels was also leading to more deforestation, they added.

"The prime reason for the renewables obligation was to mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions," said Renton Righelato, one of the study's co-authors.

"In our view this is a mistaken policy because it is less effective than reforesting," he told BBC News.

Dr Righelato, chairman of the World Land Trust, added that the policy could actually lead to more deforestation as nations turned to countries outside of the EU to meet the growing demand for biofuels.

It's only one study, and no doubt someone will be able to criticise some of the analysis, but it gives yet another indication that the (politically motivated) EU policy is misguided.

Fewer birds of some species over-wintering in the UK, allegedly because of climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Climate change is to blame for a drop in the number of some birds that visit Britain each winter, the RSPB says.

The charity said many wildfowl no longer needed to migrate as far as the UK from places like Greenland and Siberia because of warmer winters.

Numbers of seven regular visitors, including the shelduck, mallard and turnstone, are declining, it warned.

But the overall number of waterbirds wintering in the UK has doubled since the late 1970s, a report adds.

The State of the UK's Birds 2006 report, says in particular the number of wading birds including the black-tailed godwit and the avocet, had increased markedly, mainly due to action by conservationists.

Interesting that the RSPB claims that the lack of certain birds is all down to climate change, but the doubling of birds overall is all down to those brilliant conservationists. This is a bit too convenient a story. The zones of all birds should be getting pushed northwards, so if some birds are getting pushed off the top, some other birds should be entering from the bottom. And should anyone be that concerned that some birds are getting pushed off the top (as long as they are surviving above that)? The BBC of course uses the alarmist word "warned", since according to the BBC (and the RSPB) the end of the world is near.

Date published: 2007/08/16

How many new homes are needed by 2020? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Gordon Brown has made affordable housing a central plank of his new policy launch, promising to deliver 3 million new homes by 2020. It's an ambitious target, but even if it's met will it be enough to bring down house prices?

Not according to the Government's own chief advisor on affordable housing, Stephen Nickell, chairman of the National Housing & Planning Advice Unit.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's "Analysis" programme, he predicted that: "If you actually work it out, that 3 million new houses by 2020 is not in fact enough to provide for the increase in the number of households expected by 2020.

"Households are expected to increase by 223,000 a year on average; and if they increase at that rate until 2020, that comes to more than 3 million," he argued.

"If they're to make a real dent in the affordability problem and to make housing more affordable to a greater proportion of the population, then they're going to have to go beyond that," he said.

Demand for housing has increased because people are living longer, or are living alone or in smaller family units.

Even if the Government meets its new targets - and that is a big if - we will still be running in order to stand still.

It's a bit worrying when the "Government's own chief advisor on affordable housing" can not even do simple sums. It is less than 13 years until 2020. Now you can determine how many extra households there will be by 2020 if they are increasing at 223000 per year now, and you assume they increase at the same rate until 2020. But the exact figure depends how you interpret the word "rate".

If by "rate" you mean that there will be an extra 223000 households per year on average, then this gives 13*223000 = 2.9 million in 2020, which of course is (just) less than 3 million. If by "rate" you mean the same percentage increase on average, and if you assume 25 million households now, then that gives around 3.06 million extra households in 2020, so just (2%) over 3 million. Well the difference between 2.9 million and 3 million and 3.06 million in 13 years is lost in the noise. For one thing, this naive model of household growth is almost certainly wrong by a long way. For another, the idea that when the government says 3 million they mean exactly 3 million, and no more and no less, is not credible. So up to a huge error bar, it looks like you could assume there will be 3 million extra households in 2020, and so Nickell's reasoning is flawed.

On the other hand, Nickell completely misses the real problem. When the government says "3 million new homes" they probably do not mean "3 million extra homes". Currently about 20000 homes get demolished every year and some people want that increased to around 80000. Even if it stays at 20000, that represents 260000 houses demolished over 13 years. And there could be more second (holiday) home owners in 13 years compared with today (who knows), so many of the "new homes" may fall into that category. So in fact we might need more than "3 million new homes" just to "stand still", but not for the reason Nickell gives.

Children need some fat in their food (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

While parents may be increasingly worrying about childhood obesity, they must ensure their offspring eat enough fat, research from the US urges.

Concerns about their child becoming overweight means some parents put them on low-fat diets, but the Nutrition Journal study said this was misguided.

Researchers found children burned substantially more fat than adults relative to their calorie intake.

Youngsters needed that fat to grow and thrive, they argued.

Over a third of a child's energy intake should be made up of fat, the researchers at Pennsylvania State University said, a recommendation in line with UK requirements.

"Despite this, many parents and children restrict fat for health reasons," they said. "Sufficient fat must be included in the diet for children to support normal growth and development."

All pretty obvious stuff. But the media (including the BBC) has become hysterical the last few years about an alleged obesity "epidemic", and perhaps some parents have taken on board an unfortunate take-home message from this campaign of demonisation.

New online tool gives network address of people who edit Wikipedia pages (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An online tool that claims to reveal the identity of organisations that edit Wikipedia pages has revealed that the CIA was involved in editing entries.

Wikipedia Scanner allegedly shows that workers on the agency's computers made edits to the page of Iran's president.

It also purportedly shows that the Vatican has edited entries about Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

The tool, developed by US researchers, trawls a list of 5.3m edits and matches them to the net address of the editor.

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopaedia that can be created and edited by anyone.

Most of the edits detected by the scanner correct spelling mistakes or factual inaccuracies in profiles. However, others have been used to remove potentially damaging material or to deface sites.

This is a misleading article. For one thing, the Scanner did not show that "the CIA was involved in editing entries", or that "the Vatican has edited entries", etc. It just shows that someone inside these organisations (or someone clever enough to access their network or spoof their network address) edited entries. There is no way of knowing whether there was any official approval for this to happen. And indeed, someone inside the BBC itself edited the page for George Bush, changing his middle name from Walker to Wanker. But even if the BBC had been honest enough to mention this edited entry, they would not have said that "the BBC was involved in editing entries", because (one assumes) this is not the official BBC view of Bush (although most UK citizens view Bush that way).

(Not surprisingly, lots of people noticed that there were edited entries with a BBC address, and the BBC was forced to add a groveling statement at the bottom of the article saying "BBC News website users contacted the corporation to point out that the tool also revealed that people inside the BBC had made edits to Wikipedia pages", but singularly failed to give examples.)

Date published: 2007/08/15

Chernobyl area is allegedly not a haven for wildlife (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The idea that the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has created a wildlife haven is not scientifically justified, a study says.

Recent studies said rare species had thrived despite raised radiation levels as a result of no human activity.

But scientists who assessed the 1986 disaster's impact on birds said the ecological effects were "considerably greater than previously assumed".
...
The paper's authors, Anders Moller of University Pierre and Marie Curie, France, and Tim Mousseau from the University of South Carolina, US, said their research did not support the idea that low-level radiation was not affecting animals.

"Recent conclusions from the UN Chernobyl Forum and reports in the popular media concerning the effects of radiation from Chernobyl has left the impression that the exclusion zone is a thriving ecosystem, filled with an increasing number of rare species," they wrote.

Instead, they added: "Species richness, abundance and population density of breeding birds decreased with increasing levels of radiation."

The study, which recorded 1,570 birds from 57 species, found that the number of birds in the most contaminated areas declined by 66% compared with sites that had normal background radiation levels.

It also reported a decline of more than 50% in the range of species as radiation levels increase.
...
A recent paper published in the American Scientist magazine suggested that plants and animals were better off in the exclusion zone than specimens outside the 30km radius surrounding the site of the destroyed nuclear reactor.

One of the paper's co-authors, Robert Baker from the Texas Tech University, said that the benefits for wildlife from the lack of human activity outweighed the risks of low-level radiation.
...
Professor Mousseau acknowledged Professor Baker's description: "It is true that the Chernobyl region gives the appearance of a thriving ecosystem because of its protection from other human activities.

"However, when you do controlled ecological studies, what we see is a very clear signature of negative effects of contamination on diversity and abundance of organisms.

"We clearly need to be applying scientific method to ecological studies before we can conclude, based on anecdotal observations, that there are no consequences."

Well this argument seems set to run for awhile. But the BBC singularly fails to specify whether the latest research is using pre-disaster or post-disaster wildlife levels as the baseline. You would obviously have expected the disaster to have wiped out lots of wildlife. But if it is now recovering faster than it would have given a similar starting point somewhere else, then Baker is more correct than Mousseau.

About two million homes will allegedly have to be built on greenfield / greenbelt sites (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

About two million homes will have to be built on greenfield sites to meet the prime minister's plans to tackle the housing shortage, a think tank warns.

Gordon Brown has pledged three million homes will be built by 2020, mainly on previously developed brownfield sites.

But a Social Market Foundation study claims two million homes would have to be built on undeveloped countryside or green belt around cities and towns.

The government reiterated that it plans "robust protection" of the green belt.
...
The SMF also added that the green belt, which was planned to prevent urban sprawl, contains ex-industrial sites and scrubland and "was not as green as people believe".

The think tank suggests there may be a case for reconsidering the future of the green belt which often protects "neither wildlife nor areas of outstanding beauty".

Kate Barker (government consultant on housing) suggested on Radio 4 this morning that the SMF had gotten their sums wrong. On the other hand, the SMF is correct that much greenbelt is "not as green as people believe". (And not only are there "ex-industrial sites and scrubland" in greenbelt, but also lots of agricultural sites, which as far as the environment is concerned are not that different from other industrial sites.) This shows the power of words. You stick the word "green" on something and suddenly everybody thinks it must be preserved. Similarly you stick the word "brown" on something (i.e. "brownfield") and suddenly everbody thinks it should be developed. Most of the "greenbelt" near Cambridge is not worth preserving. And most of the "brownfield" sites (e.g. people's back gardens) are greener than the greenbelt. Every site should be considered on its own merits, but the ruling elite has trouble with that concept. So we are stuck with an antiquated planning system which is making development in the country worse, not better.

Junk food diet is allegedly passed from mother to child (at least in rats) (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Mothers who eat junk food during pregnancy may be condemning their children to crave the same diet, according to animal tests.

Royal Veterinary College researchers found that when pregnant rats were fed a diet of biscuits, crisps and sweets, their babies ate more unhealthy food.

They said the British Journal of Nutrition study showed the rats' behaviour was "programmed" in the womb.
...
The female rats used in the Wellcome Trust funded research were either given a balanced diet of "rat chow" - an unappealing but reasonably healthy diet - or access to as many doughnuts, biscuits, muffins, sweets and crisps as they could consume.

This diet was continued in some rats up to birth, and then during the breastfeeding period until weaning.

Unsurprisingly, the rats given free rein to eat sweets consumed more food overall.

Significantly, however, their babies showed marked differences in behaviour compared with the offspring of chow-fed rats.

The young rats were split into different groups - some of those from chow-fed mothers given nothing but their chow to eat, while the babies of junk-fed mothers, and the rest from chow-fed mothers, were given a mixture of chow and junk food to see which they chose.

Those in the chow-only group consumed the least food, while those from healthy-eating mothers given junk food again were tempted to eat more

However, the final group - babies of junk-food mothers given the option of an unhealthy diet - ate the most food, eating nine days worth of food for every seven days worth consumed by the other babies on the junk food or chow menu.

They ate roughly twice as much as those on the chow-only diets.

The researchers suggested that the "pleasure chemicals" released by the mother when eating fatty foods might have an effect on the developing brain of the foetus.

Professor Neil Stickland, who headed the research, said: "The government is trying to encourage healthier eating habits in school, but this shows that we need to start during the foetal and suckling life.

"Future mothers should be aware that pregnancy and lactation are not the time to over-indulge on fatty and sugary treats on the assumption that they are 'eating for two'."

However, Fiona Ford, a research nutritionist from the University of Sheffield, said that in the absence of strong evidence that the same effect was present in humans, it would be wrong to make women feel guilty about eating some unhealthy snacks during pregnancy.

She said: "A balanced diet is important during pregnancy. While this is interesting research, these mechanisms are so finely tuned that I don't think we understand them yet."

Dr Atul Singham, from the Institute of Child Health in London, also said that he was slightly sceptical about the likely scale of "foetal programming" in child diet until it could be proven in human studies.

An interesting study but, as Ford and Singham point out, the results have to be taken with a pinch of salt so far. It almost seems that Stickland is gleeful that he can tell mothers off for daring to eat sweets, which makes one wonder if he has an agenda and if the analysis was thus biased in any way. Until the someone can find a biochemical process which explains the results (and hand-waving statements about "pleasure chemicals" do not count) then it is not that useful.

Date published: 2007/08/14

More propaganda from the bureaucrat behind the Cambridge congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cambridge's controversial congestion charge will not be introduced until "huge improvements" in public transport have been put in place.

And every penny raised by the toll will be ploughed back into those improvements, including possibly subsidising bus fares.

The pledge comes from Brian Smith, the county council's deputy chief executive for Environment and Community Services, and the man with overall responsibility for traffic in Cambridgeshire.

Of course no definition of "huge improvements" is made. Nor is any reason given why drivers should subsidise bus fares. Indeed, each bus probably causes as much congestion as ten or twenty cars, because they are constantly stopping and starting and blocking traffic.

In an exclusive interview with the News, Mr Smith said he was keen to dispel "myths" about the scheme, which would involve charging people up to £5 for entering the city between 7.30 and 9.30am, Monday to Friday.

He also said he wanted to reassure people that nothing was cut and dried in terms of its introduction.

He said: "There has been a lot of misunderstanding since we announced our plans several weeks ago, and I want to set the record straight.

It's funny how the bureaucrats, when they introduce an arbitrary and disruptive policy, and everybody jumps up to point this out, then claim there are lots of "myths". Here one of the problems is the lack of details provided by the bureaucrats and politicians pushing this policy, which is astonishing given how disruptive it would be and how much money is involved. And to say that nothing is "cut and dried" is meaningless, these people always claim that and then proceed to do exactly what they wanted no matter what the argument is to the contrary.

"The first thing to say is that Cambridge is facing a problem we simply cannot ignore. At present there are 85,000 car trips into the city during the morning peak, and by 2021, given the growth in housing, we are expecting that figure will have risen by 32,000.

"Even with the improvement of the A14 and the introduction of the Guided Bus, our research tells us many of those car trips will take half as long again as they do now - for example, a 20- minute journey will take 30 minutes. Surely nobody can deny we must do something about that?

"We know where the pressure points are, which key junctions are already gummed up now, and which will be even more so in future years.

"If people feel we should try to do nothing about it, and they are prepared to sit in their cars for even longer than they do now, fine. But I know, and I think most people know, that our successors will not thank us for that. They will ask, and rightly so, why didn't the council see this coming and do something about it?

How touching, the bureaucrats are really only thinking of drivers. What Smith fails to point out is that over the last ten or twenty years, the bureaucrats and politicians have spent all their time and effort reducing the capacity of the city roads (e.g. closing down many roads, introducing wacky bus lanes on Newmarket Road, etc.). So he is a bigger part of the problem than he can ever hope to be part of the solution. Further, the bureaucrats now have every incentive to reduce capacity and make the congestion even worse, since it will justify a higher and higher congestion charge. (And we all know how addicted bureaucrats and politicians are to tax.) And nowhere does Smith actually suggest asking drivers if they would rather "sit in their cars for even longer than they do now", rather than pay this congestion charge. And you can guarantee he never will. (Of course he might ask cyclists, who of course are all falling over themselves to say what a jolly idea this is.) It is up to Smith and the other proponents of the congestion charge to justify their proposals, and in particular to prove to drivers that congestion charging is better than doing nothing.

"I believe a number of myths have sprung up since we first announced our plans for a congestion charge.

"The first is that a decision has already been taken to go ahead with it.

"That is not correct. Yes, a decision has been taken to bring proposals forward to the council's cabinet for discussion, but the essence of those proposals is that the Government would also have to accept the idea. If it doesn't, then we can forget the whole thing. It means that a decision about whether a congestion charge will be introduced in Cambridge is still at least a year away, possibly two years.

"The second myth is about lack of consultation. I can say quite clearly that there will be full consultation. We are not in any way pretending that we have done that yet. All we have had is early consultation with some of the key stakeholders in the area, but full public consultation is scheduled to begin in October and carry on until January next year. That consultation will not amount to asking people 'do you think it's a good thing, or not?' It needs to be more detailed and reflective than that, and we want to hear from people in detail.

"When we came to the News to explain our initial proposals, we realised we only had threequarters of the picture to tell people, but we felt it was important to start the debate. We are still putting information together, including the technical issues of how a scheme would work.

"Bringing in a charge is a big decision - and it's not a case of our minds already being made up."

Smith is rather taking the piss. Unbelievably there seems to be no business model to show that the congestion charge makes any sense. Or at least there is no business model they are willing to show to the public. This all seems to have been put together on the back of a fag packet. And these so-called consultations are always fatuous. The academic middle class who run Cambridge and who generally hate cars, will dominate the proceedings. And in all previous public consultations, practically no detailed information has been given to allow an informed analysis, and it's hard to see this time being any different. The city (county) always reduces everything to "do you think it's a good thing, or not?"

Countering criticism that Cambridge's park and ride sites are apparently situated within the proposed congestion zone - meaning that people using them would have to pay the congestion charge - Mr Smith said: "No one will have to pay to get to the park and ride sites. They will be outside the zone."

This claim is false. Anyone driving to the Park and Ride sites from inside the city will be charged. (But why you might want to do that is another question.)

He also urged local businesses not to have a "knee-jerk reaction" to the scheme.

"Some have suggested it will drive them out of the city, but I would ask them to ask themselves what value they place on their time? Is it good for business to be stuck in queues for three quarters of an hour each day?

Our aspiration for Cambridge, our vision for the future, is a Cambridge like it is now out of term-time - all the time."

Many retailers were "comfortable" with the scheme, he said, because they knew they could switch shopping hours, perhaps from 10am-7pm.

"Retailers are already looking at expanding the evening economy, and it will balance out the day better," Mr Smith said.

This is the one clever wheeze the bureaucrats and politicians have come up with. You reduce business opposition to the congestion charge by only making it occur from 7.30 to 9.30 AM. Not many stores are going to complain about that. On the other hand, once the bureaucrats and politicians have introduced the scheme, you can guarantee they will soon enough expand it to other hours of the day. But by then it will be too late for the stores to do anything about it. (Anybody who knows anything about Cambridge traffic knows that it is just about as bad during the whole day as it is during the rush hour.)

Under the council's proposals, residents would be charged for driving inside the zone or for leaving it.

Mr Smith said he understood why residents were upset about that, but said: "They must realise that if they use their cars, they are part of the congestion. Every junction they drive through means that they slow things up for cars coming in."

He said the question of who should be exempt from paying the charge was "something we have yet to come to a view on".

There are two reasons the bureaucrats and politicians want residents to pay the full charge. The first is that the county council (which is unbelievably in charge of Cambridge transport) is run by the Tories yet the city council has no Tories. Can you imagine any Tory allowing their own voters to pay something yet allow a bunch of Lib Dem and Labour voters not to pay the same? It would be electoral suicide. Also, the London congestion charge is barely economically feasible, and since Cambridge is so much smaller than London, there is no way the scheme would come even close to breaking even (never mind making money) if Cambridge residents were given a discount. But Smith is disingenuous when he says that all cars "are part of the congestion". If you want to take that statement literally then yes it is true. But it's like saying that airline passengers with ten suitcases should pay no more than airline passengers with one, because they all are adding weight to the airplane. It's true but blatantly misleading. When you drive north on Histon Road in the morning, you are not causing nearly as many problems as when you are driving south. (And vice-versa in the evening.)

He said the council had no intention of introducing tolls and then ramping up the charges.

"People have said that imposing a charge for two hours each day is the thin end of the wedge. But we do not see it that way. In 20 years, people might look at it and ask if the timing is right and whether it needs to be changed, but we are confident it is going to work as we have proposed at present."

He admitted the introduction of the bollards in Cambridge, which bar cars from entering some of the city centre's streets, had been unpopular at first, but he insisted that people now realised it had been "the right thing to do".

More disgenuous statements from Smith. The idea that the charge and the hours will not change in 20 years is ludicrous. Perhaps he would be willing to agree to lose his pension if it proves to be otherwise. And the bureaucrats always claimed that everybody loved the bollards, even "at first". Now he admits otherwise, but still makes the totally unsubstantiated claim that everybody thinks now it was "the right thing to do".

"If the congestion charge comes in, there will be some people against that too. Some of the letters to the News have been from unreformed car drivers, and there is not much we can do to persuade them to change their views.

"But we would not try to change their thinking. There are those who always try to travel in a way that does not damage the environment, and they too are not our target.

"It is the people in the middle, the people who are willing to consider changing, that we want to get to most.

The only "people who are willing to consider charging" are either rich (because £5 for them is mere change) or hate cars (e.g. Cambridge cyclists). This is a regressive tax, to be brought in by the academic middle class, and against the interests of the working class. The day Smith and the other bureaucrats have anything nice to say about drivers is the day drivers might believe that perhaps he has their best interest at heart.

And one thing that Smith conveniently doesn't bring up (perhaps he doesn't care) is that there is even a chance this new tax will hurt Cambridge commercially. Why would a company want to locate on the Cambridge Science Park when practically every single employee will end up paying this tax, when they could locate their premises on the other side of the A14 in Milton or Histon or Landbeach, and have only some of their employees (those who live in Cambridge) pay the tax.

Angkor Wat was allegedly one big urban sprawl (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The great medieval temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia was once at the centre of a sprawling urban settlement, according to a new, detailed map of the area.

Using Nasa satellites, an international team have discovered at least 74 new temples and complex irrigation systems.

The map, published in the journal PNAS, extends the known settlement by 1000 sq km, about the size of Los Angeles.

Analysis also lends weight to the theory that Angkor's residents were architects of the city's demise.

"The large-scale city engineered its own downfall by disrupting its local environment by expanding continuously into the surrounding forests," said Damian Evans of the University of Sydney and one of the authors of the paper and map.
...
The team believes it could have covered 3,000 sq km (1,150 sq miles), the largest pre-industrial complex of its kind.

Its nearest rival is Tikal, a Mayan city in Guatemala, which covers between 100 and 150 sq km (40-60 sq miles).
...
They also discovered that the city's water supply probably relied on a single complex channel that extended 20 to 25km out from Angkor city.

The researchers say that the system, until now thought to be purely decorative and ceremonial, was probably used to support farming, in particular intensive rice agriculture.

In all, the newly mapped terrain could have supported half a million people, the researchers believe.

The new analysis of the irrigation system also sheds light on the civilization's collapse in the 14th century.

"We saw signs that embankments had been breached and of ad hoc repairs to bridges and dams, suggesting that the system became unmanageable over time," Mr Evans told the AFP news agency.

In addition, deforestation, over population, topsoil erosion could have contributed to the population's sudden disappearance.

"Angkor was extensive enough, and the agricultural exploitation intensive enough, to have created a number of very serious environmental problems," he said.

No matter how much the chattering classes like to believe otherwise, almost everything they complain about in life has been seen all before, in this case urban sprawl. And you can just imagine the academic middle class in Angkor Wat devoting their entire lives to denouncing the urban sprawl (how dare the peasants ruin their beautiful city) and claiming that the end is nigh. Of course one of the advantages of continually claiming that the end is nigh, is that sooner or later you are bound to be proven to be correct.

Although the analysis of urban sprawl is interesting enough, the analysis of the causes of the downfall seems to be a bit woolly. In particular they say that certain things "could have contributed to the population's sudden disappearance". Well anybody can play that game, and it doesn't really prove very much. Of course if the downfall Angkor Wat did not happen via conquest, then about the only other plausible explanation is environmental, and needless to say, modern humans would always point the finger at human causes rather than natural ones.

Waist-to-hip ratios allegedly correlated with atherosclerosis (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Even a small pot belly can increase the risk of heart disease, scientists warn.

Research from the University of Texas found large waist measurements, relative to hip size, were linked to early signs of heart disease.

This confirms other research that waist size, rather than overall body weight, is a key indicator of heart disease.

The study of 2,744 people suggests that a waist size of 32ins (81cm) for a woman and 37ins (94cm) for a man represents a "significant" raised risk.

The authors looked at men and women who underwent medical tests and imaging scans to identify the early signs of atherosclerosis - the narrowing and hardening of the arteries linked to the development of cardiovascular disease.

They then examined the relationship between the participants' body shapes and the presence of atherosclerosis.

They found adding a few inches to the waist increased the risk of damage in the arteries, even if body weight remained within the normal range.

People with the largest waist-to-hip ratios (WHRs) were almost twice as likely to have calcium deposits, which indicate the onset of atherosclerosis, in the arteries of their hearts, as those with the smallest WHRs.

And even when other risk factors such as blood pressure, diabetes and age were taken into account, the link remained strong.

Professor James de Lemos, who led the research, said: "Fat that accumulates around your waist seems to be more biologically active as it secretes inflammatory proteins that contribute to atherosclerotic plaque build-up, whereas fat around your hips doesn't appear to increase risk for cardiovascular disease at all.

"We think the key message for people is to prevent accumulation of central fat early on in their lives.

"Even a small pot belly puts us at higher risk when compared to a flat tummy."

And waist-to-hip ratio was more closely linked to these early signs of heart disease than either body mass index (BMI) or waist circumference alone.

What a great time these health researchers have. You come up with arbitrary formulas based on lots of size and weight measurements, you check each of them for correlation with some property (here the onset of atherosclerosis), you pick out the formula which results in the greatest correlation and hey presto, you have a paper. This would all be harmless fun if it was just used to help identify people who are at risk from atherosclerosis. Unfortunately it goes beyond that and soon enough arrives at the author confusing correlation and causation. Thus, de Lemos says that people should "prevent accumulation of central fat", which implies he thinks there is a causation (i.e. central fat causes atherosclerosis) rather than just the correlation he has found. (And he also adds "early on in their lives", although the amount of "central fat early on their lives" seems not to have entered the study at all.)

Date published: 2007/08/13

EU renewable energy target looks set to be missed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Downing St has said its climate change targets are "ambitious" but it remains fully committed to renewable energy.

It was responding to a report in the Guardian that officials had told ministers the UK would miss EU targets by a wide margin.

Gordon Brown's official spokesman said: "It will be a major challenge not just for the UK but for the EU."

Tony Blair signed up to the EU targets in March - before he resigned as prime minister in June.

They include a 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 1990 levels, or 30% if other developed nations agree to take similar action.

The targets also include an increase in the use of renewable energy, to 20% of all energy consumed, and a 20% increase in energy efficiency.

Mr Brown's spokesman said the EU's aims were "ambitious", but added that the UK was "on course to meet" its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, which it ratified in 2002.

He added: "It is now for the EU Commission to propose how EU-wide targets should be met by member states."

However, the Guardian reported that it had seen an internal briefing paper for ministers from officials at the recently renamed Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

This reportedly said that, under current policies, it would be "challenging" for Britain to reach a target of 9% for energy renewables such as wind, solar or hydropower - well short of the EU's 2020 target of 20%, but up from the current 2%.

According to the Guardian, the briefing paper said the UK had "achieved little so far on renewables".

The officials suggested ministers lobby other countries to get more flexible ways of reaching the targets, such as including nuclear power, the newspaper said.

But Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks strongly rejected claims that the government was not committed to renewables, saying various proposals to meet the targets had been drawn up for discussion.

"At the moment, about 4 to 5% of our electricity comes from renewables. We're on course for that to be three times as much - 15% by 2015.

"We've now got this more demanding European target, in other words, not just electricity, but fuel we need for our cars and our heating as well, and the issue is how do we get there?"

Well the targets are for the EU overall, not for each country individually, so it is not directly relevant that "the UK would miss EU targets by a wide margin", as the Guardian knows full well. On the other hand, the EU overall seems set to "miss EU targets by a wide margin", unless the rules are bent (e.g. to include nuclear power). One has the impression that when ministers signed up to the 20% renewable target they thought it was for electricity, and then discovered later it was for all energy consumption. Next time they should read the fine print a bit better.

Children should be forced to walk to school (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Exclusion zones should be set up around schools to force parents and children to walk to class, a report suggests.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy blames over-use of cars for fuelling the "twin crises" of global warming and an obesity epidemic.

More control freakery from the academic middle class (who are responsible for far more global warming than the average UK citizen), in this case from one of the zillions of consultancies which plague the nation (and it seems, Europe). Is this the first generation of ruling elite to actively campaign to make the lives of its citizens worse? And of course why stop at schools. We should force everybody to walk to work. And walk to the shops. And walk to the seaside for the annual holiday. Heck, let's just ban cars completely (or at least for the peasants, needless to say the ruling elite need to get around). The only advantage of having these useless consultancies fritter their time away on such silliness is that it leaves them less time to cause even more damage somewhere else. But needless to say, what would be best is if these people got a real job and stopped wasting the resources of the world peddling their control freakery.

The latest attempt to stigmatise women who don't breastfeed their babies (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

New child growth charts which reflect the slower weight gain associated with breastfeeding could be soon be adopted in England.

Current UK growth charts are based on predominantly formula-fed babies, which tend to grow more quickly.

The new charts have been drawn up by the World Health Organization.

They have been backed in a report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

It is hoped that adopting the new standards could stop breastfeeding mothers being worried about their babies apparently failing to put on weight fast enough.

The expert report recommends that the WHO charts are used for babies aged two weeks to 24 months.

Although the charts are based on breastfed babies, they are designed to assess and monitor the growth of all babies.

Most experts agree that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for babies and the Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to the age of six months.

The WHO charts aim to show how breastfed babies "should grow" - rather than how most babies do grow.

They are based on a select group of 8,000 babies from six cities around the world, who were entirely breastfed for six months, with continued breastfeeding into their second year, and where none of the families smoked.

Babies who are breastfed gain weight at a slower rate than their formula-fed peers.

Current evidence suggests that such a pattern of growth could potentially reduce the risk of later obesity.

It is estimated that if the new charts are adopted in the UK a quarter of all babies will be redefined as heavier than the norm.
...
Currently, only about 20% of mothers in the UK breastfeed their babies, and many of these also give their babies some formula.

Only the ruling elite could come up with such nonsense. At the stroke of a pen, they will use charts that don't reflect how the vast majority of babies are raised, and so arbitrarily "a quarter of all babies will be redefined as heavier than the norm". You would have thought that in an age when we have computers, they could have two charts, one for formula-fed babies and one for breastfed ones, and if some woman says she breastfeeds her child x% of the time then the appropriate weighted sum is done. But of course that would be common sense, and the ruling elite sorely lacks that. What the real purpose of the exercise seems to be is to stigmatise women who don't breastfeed their babies. No doubt we will soon enough be told that these women are guilty of child abuse.

Date published: 2007/08/12

Eight million year old tree trunks found in Hungary (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An ancient forest of cypress trees, estimated to be eight million years old, has been discovered in Hungary.

Archaeologists found the 16 preserved trunks in an open cast coal mine in the north-eastern city of Bukkabrany.

The specimens were preserved intact while most of the forest turned to coal thanks to a casing of sand, which was perhaps the result of a sandstorm.

It is hoped the trees may offer experts a valuable insight into Earth's climate eight million years ago.

The massive trunks are of a species known as swamp cypresses, which grew for 200-300 years.

Amazing that such discoveries can still be made. But although the trees might provide some "insight into Earth's climate eight million years ago", it should obviously be remembered that these trees only provide a sample with an extremely narrow geographic spread.

Tories laughingly claim they will cut red tape for business (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Tory leader David Cameron is looking at plans to cut £14bn in red tape and regulation for UK businesses.

The plans have been put forward by John Redwood - one of the most senior figures on the Tory right - who called them "a tax cut by any other name".

The focus is on easing regulation such as data protection laws, rules on hours, and health and safety regimes.

Labour claims the proposals show the party is lurching back to the right in the face of disappointing polls.

Mr Redwood told the BBC's Sunday programme the proposals were aimed at improving Britain's "ability to compete".

You have to wonder why the Tories are bothering to espouse such policies. No business person will believe them (every opposition party always claims they will cut red tape and every government makes the red tape worse, not better). And ordinary voters could care less about this. So who exactly is this supposed to appeal to?

Date published: 2007/08/11

National Aids Trust wants sex clinic visitors to be all but coerced to have an HIV test (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Too many people are refusing HIV tests at sex health clinics - and a key government target could be missed as a result, says an Aids charity.

The target aimed to halve the number of people whose HIV infection is missed when they visit a sexual health clinic for another reason.

The National Aids Trust said that making an HIV test automatic could solve the problem.

The Department of Health said it was reviewing policy on testing.

Many people who have contracted HIV remain unaware of this, as it may be some time before symptoms begin to appear - it is estimated that a third of HIV-positive men and women in the UK don't know they have the virus.

However, during this period, they may be able to pass the virus on to others through unprotected sex or sharing drug needles.

The government's National Strategy for Sexual Health pledged, by the end of this year, to cut by 50% the proportion of people infected with HIV who remain unaware of their infection even after a visit to a sexual health clinic for another reason.

Experts can work this out because the Health Protection Agency tests random, anonymous blood samples, even where the patient has refused an HIV test, providing a figure for the underlying rate of infection among people visiting clinics.

In 2001, 55% of gay men with undiagnosed HIV visited a sexual health clinic, and left without a diagnosis.

In the latest figures taken in 2005, this had fallen to 43%, well short of the target of 27.5%.

The target is likely to be met among heterosexual patients, with the figure falling from 48% in 2001 to 27% by the end of 2005.

At the moment while people are offered and encouraged to take an HIV test, unless they actively "opt in", the test won't take place.

The National Aids Trust now wants an "opt-out" system for HIV testing, with the presumption that the test will go ahead unless the patient actively refuses.

If people are "offered and encouraged to take an HIV test" and refusing, then that should be the end of the story. If the clinics were honest, then the current pro-active opt-in system should be no different than an opt-out system where the patients were also "offered and encouraged to take an HIV test". You give patients an informed choice and they say yes or no. So what the National Aids Trust seems to be relying on is that clinics in future would either surreptitiously not mention to patients that they are doing an HIV test, or perhaps instead forcefully bully patients into acquiescence. So the proposed policy is fundamentally dishonest in intent. It might even discourage people from attending sex clinics.

It is also ridiculous for such a policy to be introduced just because some random government target is not being met. And note the BBC completely distorts the real impact of the proposed change by just quoting how many people with HIV refuse a test, but not stating how many people who visit a sex clinic have HIV. That figure is probably quite low, so once again the majority is having dreadful policies foisted on them allegedly in order to protect some small minority. This figure would also determine how much money is being wasted on null tests in order to find the needle in the haystack.

Schools are allegedly drilling children to pass national tests (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Many schools spend too long drilling children to pass national tests instead of giving them a proper education, the government's exams watchdog has warned.

Chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority Ken Boston said tests should not be used to achieve growth, but to measure it.

What a surprise. The government and the media obsess on test results. And how schools are treated by the government and the community is largedly determined by test results. So it is not surprising that schools and teachers teach to the test. This has been the case to some extent for a long time in English education (e.g. the maths tripos exam in Cambridge University has for a long time been biased towards regurgitation of notes, and this is at university, not school, level). But it is much worse now, thanks to the national obsession with school tests as an indication of success and failure.

Date published: 2007/08/10

More wireless toys for the boys (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A wireless technology that could hasten the arrival of the connected digital home has been give the green light by media regulator Ofcom.

Ultra-Wideband (UWB), as it is known, can be used to connect devices such as PCs, mp3 players and digital cameras.

New legislation will mean UK users will not need a licence to use UWB devices when they hits shelves in the future.

UWB uses part of the radio spectrum to transfer large amounts of data, such as media files, over short distances.

Data can be shifted over distances of around 30m at up to 2 gigabits per second. However, its main use will be over much shorter distances for wireless USB, enabling a host of devices to connect to a PC without cables.
...
The introduction of the Wireless Telegraphy (Ultra Wideband Equipment Exemption) Regulations 2007 on 13 August will allow the use of approved UWB equipment without a license.

Ofcom's decision to deregulate UWB was made in response to European negotiations for a common set of UWB technical standards.

Other EU members are expected to introduce similar legislation in coming months.

Wireless is obviously the way to go (but you can already hear the technophobes claiming UWB is causing cancer, etc.).

Scientists have developed an allegedly more accurate ten-year temperature forecast (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists say they have developed a model to predict how ocean currents, as well as human activities, will affect temperatures over the next decade.

By including short-term natural events, such as El Nino, a UK team says it is able to offer 10-year projections.

Models have previously focused on how the globe will warm over a century.

Writing in Science, Met Office researchers project that at least half of the years between 2009 and 2014 are likely to exceed existing records.

However, the Hadley Centre researchers said that the influence of natural climatic variations were likely to dampen the effects of emissions from human activities between now and 2009.

But over the decade as a whole, they project the global average temperature in 2014 to be 0.3C warmer than 2004.

Currently, 1998 is the warmest year on record, when the global mean surface temperature was 14.54C (58.17F).

Doug Smith, a climate scientist at the Hadley Centre, explained how the new model differed from existing ones.

"On a 10-year timescale, both natural internal variability and the global warming signal (human induced climate change) are important; whereas looking out to 2100, only the global warming signal will dominate."

The latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that human activity was "very likely" causing the world to warm, and predicted the global average temperature were probably going to increase by 1.8-4.0C (3.2-7.2F) by the end of the century.

"It is the same model as used in the latest IPCC report's predictions for the coming century, but the difference is that it starts from the real observed status of the ocean and the atmosphere," Dr Smith, the paper's lead author, explained.

"Greenhouse gases and aerosols are also included, but it is really trying to predict any [natural] variability on top of that.

"We start with the present state of the ocean, and we try to predict how it is going to evolve," he told BBC News.

The model, called the Decadal Climate Prediction System (DePreSys), is based on a well established climate model already used by Hadley Centre scientists.

But in order to offer a projection for the coming decade rather than a century ahead, it also assesses the current state of the oceans and atmosphere.

This allows the researchers to predict how natural shifts, such as the El Nino phenomenon in the eastern Pacific and the North Atlantic Oscillation, will affect the global climate system.

They hope this data, when combined with projections of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions from fossil fuels and volcanic eruptions, will present one of the most detailed outlooks to date.

"One reason why the 10-year projection has not been done before is because the ocean has traditionally had very poor observational coverage," Dr Smith said.

"They been very sparse and a little bit "noisy" so they have been difficult to interpret what the real temperatures were over large parts of the ocean."

However, recent improvements in data collection from satellites and in-situ instruments have allowed climatologists to improve their understanding of how ocean dynamics influence the climate system.

Interesting stuff, and hopefully they have put their money where their mouths are, and placed some bets. Of course it does not take a rocket scientist to predict that half the years in the near future "are likely to exceed existing records", but they have predicted a bit more than that.

Date published: 2007/08/09

Why are there so few female maths and physics professors? (permanent blog link)

The BBC says (to give publicity to a Radio 4 programme on the subject):

If you've worked your way to the top in a university maths, physics or engineering department - you're very unlikely to be a woman.

But why should this be?

In 2005, Harvard University president Larry Summers provoked a storm of protest when he suggested that at least part of the reason for the dearth of women in these fields was biological - in other words, the result of innate differences in tastes and aptitudes between the sexes.
...
Despite changing attitudes, there are still very few women at the highest levels in certain fields.

In 2005/6, while more than half of all UK students in higher education were female, just 3% of maths and 2% of civil engineering professors were women, a recent study revealed.

Professor David Geary, of the University of Missouri in the US, suggests there are two key difference between the sexes that might account for the disparity in numbers.

The first is a difference in spatial abilities - the capacity to visualise things, particularly in three dimensions.

The second is an increased interest in objects and how things work.

According to Professor Geary: "Males are better in both of those areas, and both areas contribute to interest in maths and engineering, and performance in some areas."

But how can we be sure that these differences are genuinely innate and not a result of upbringing and the culture that surrounds us?

Professor Geary says: "These differences are found very early on in life.

"If you look at interest in toy cars or mechanical objects, boys like those much more from the pre-school years.

"Also, girls who have been exposed to a testosterone-like hormone in the womb show boy-like toy preferences."

But Helen Haste [a psychologist at the University of Bath] thinks the evidence on spatial skills is overplayed.

She says: "This is one of these things that's done to death.

"Even if we found a subject for which it was an absolutely crucial skill, we would expect 60% of the people taking that subject to be male and 40% to be female.

"More importantly, we're only surmising that spatial reasoning is such a crucial element in say engineering or physics that it would cause the kind of differences that we've found in the past."
...
According to Dr [Helena] Cronin, [who studies evolutionary theory and sex difference at the London School of Economics,] it's the numbers of men at the extremes of ability that are most telling: "For males, the difference between the worst and the best is far, far greater.

"This is a very important aspect of male-female differences.

"One way of looking at this is that among males there are more dumbbells, but there are also more Nobels."

The statement "In 2005/6, while more than half of all UK students in higher education were female, just 3% of maths and 2% of civil engineering professors were women, a recent study revealed" is typical of how you can easily distort a story by typical journalist sleight of hand. First of all, the BBC carefully fails to mention how many maths and civil engineering students are female, which is more relevant when considering the ratio of professors than the composition of the student body as a whole. The also fail to mention that of course professors were students (generally) twenty or thirty years ago, and the percentage of female maths and civil engineering students then would have been even lower than today. And the BBC singularly fails to mention the numbers for physics or non-civil engineering, which tends to indicate they are not so bad. All in all, the BBC is trying to make the story sound more dramatic than it is.

(And the statement by Haste that "Even if we found a subject for which it was an absolutely crucial skill, we would expect 60% of the people taking that subject to be male and 40% to be female" is truly bizarre. It would be interesting to see her "proof" of this "theorem". She is more sensible when she points out that the alleged spatial reasoning skill of men is probably a red herring.)

As Cronin points out, if you are looking at extremes (and professors are at the extremes), then the standard deviation of the distribution matters (more than the average). So if you believe that the male distribution has a higher standard deviation in some subject than the female distribution, then you could easily have more males at the top even if the female average is higher than the male average (it all depends on the exact distributions and what you mean by "at the top", i.e. how many standard deviations above the average you are looking at). Whether the male standard deviation is indeed higher is of course another question.

Another cancer scare story (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Too much food, alcohol and sun has fuelled a massive rise in some forms of cancer, warn UK experts.

Cases of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, have risen by 40% in the past decade, figures from Cancer Research UK show.

And mouth cancer, which is associated with smoking and drinking, has risen by almost a quarter.

Research has suggested that around half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle.

Rates of kidney cancer and womb cancer - both linked to obesity - have also shown rapid increases over the past 10 years.

Overweight and obese women are twice as likely to develop womb cancer as women of a healthy weight due to higher than normal exposure to the hormone oestrogen.

The charity is particularly concerned about rates of malignant melanoma which have doubled in women and tripled in men since the mid-80s.

In 2004 there were 8,939 cases of malignant melanoma compared with 5,783 in 1995.

They said heavy sun exposure accounted for the vast majority of cases.

However, the figures from the UK Association of Cancer Registries show rates of cervical cancers are falling as a result of the national screening programme.

And due to fewer people smoking, lung cancer rates are continuing to decrease, especially in men.
...
[Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of health information, said:] "Everyone can help reduce their risk of cancer by avoiding smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fibre and taking regular exercise".

Another "end of the world" story. The BBC tries to (partly) blame smoking for mouth cancer in the third paragraph and then manages to point out later that in fact fewer people are smoking now. But why let a little contradiction get in the way of a good story.

And the numbers quoted are not that dramatic. The "8939 cases of malignant melanoma" represents about 1 in 6700 people, i.e. about 0.015%. Multiply by 70 years to get around a one percent chance of having a malignant melanoma in your lifetime (which of course is not necessarily lethal). Should society really be getting hysterical about this? (And they of course do not mention that there are benefits from getting some sun.)

Part of the reason for more malignant melanomas might be that more people are going on holiday abroad, to sunny countries like Spain, and even Britain is warmer these days, so perhaps people are spending more time outdoors. Most people would no doubt rather have this lifestyle and put up with a small risk of getting a malignant melanoma, than the alternative lifestyle that Cancer Research UK and the other members of the ruling elite seem to want to foist on ordinary people.

Obesity is one thing that has increased recently, and that could be resulting in more cancers. But everybody already knows that being fat is not good for you, we don't really need patronising advice from the ruling elite to confirm it.

Date published: 2007/08/08

Coral reefs allegedly declining faster than previously thought (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian oceans are disappearing faster than had previously been thought, a scientific study has shown.

Nearly 1,554 sq km (600 sq miles) of reef have disappeared each year since the 1960s - twice the speed at which rainforest is being lost.

The corals are vanishing at a rate of 1% per year, a decline that has begun decades earlier than expected.

Historically, coral cover, a measure of reef health hovered around 50%. Today, only about 2% of reefs in the region looked at by the study have coral cover close to this historical level.

John Bruno and Elizabeth Selig from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, US, and colleagues, looked at reefs in a large area of ocean stretching from western Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean, to French Polynesia, in the Pacific.

The Indo-Pacific region, comprising the Indian and Pacific oceans, contains 75% of the world's coral reefs.

The researchers analysed the results of some 6,000 surveys carried out on more than 2,600 reefs.

The findings show that average coral cover declined from 40% in the early 1980s to about 20% by 2003.

One of the most surprising results was that there seemed to be little difference between reefs maintained by conservationists and those left unprotected.

Dr Bruno and Ms Selig argue that the consistent pattern of decline across the study region adds to mounting evidence that coral loss is a global phenomenon.

Interesting, although it's only one study and you have to wonder how consistent the analysis was done across all the surveys. Hopefully the authors will make all their data publicly available so others can look for themselves. And they seem to be effectively claiming that there is no point trying to do anything specifically to protect coral, and this will not please the so-called conservationists.

Surprise, giving pupils fruit helps their diet (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A national scheme giving primary school children in England a free piece of fruit each day has improved their diet, a study of 5,000 pupils has found.

The number of children who ate fruit every day rose from 46% to 65% as a result of the initiative, researchers at Nottingham University discovered.

The school fruit and vegetable scheme was rolled out nationally in 2002, amid concerns about healthy eating.

It provides a piece of fruit to all those in the first three primary years.

What a shock. Next they will tell us that giving children books helps them to read, and giving them balls encourages them to play. Of course what they don't say is whether the cost of the scheme is justified given the benefit. Throwing money at something is always great for the recipients, but the money has to come from somewhere.

Date published: 2007/08/07

Some groups think baby milk should be treated like tobacco (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A coalition of charities is demanding baby milk be treated like tobacco and subjected to a total advertising ban.

The National Childbirth Trust, Save The Children and Unicef blame adverts for many mothers abandoning breast feeding before the recommended six months.

They want the government to extend a ban on infant milk adverts to include "follow-on" milks for older babies.

England's policy on the promotion of formula milk is currently being reviewed by the Food Standards Agency.

At present, companies are not allowed to advertise formula milk for babies under six months.

But they are allowed to promote so-called follow-on milks, a range for children aged between six months and two years.

The charities accuse baby milk companies of using their follow-on milks to promote their products for younger infants by giving them the same name and logo so as to make them "virtually indistinguishable" to parents.
...
But Dr Ellie Lee of the University of Kent who has researched women's experiences of infant feeding said the impact of advertising on the decision to switch from breast to bottle was "negligible".

In a study of mothers commissioned by The Infant and Dietetic Foods Association (IDFA), Dr Lee found that the decision to bottle feed was a "pragmatic decision based on personal circumstances".

The middle class control freaks in action yet again. How patronising can you get to assert that women are so stupid that they need to be protected against advertising in this way. Of course the middle class control freaks always think that they know best about how the world should be run. And usually they are wrong. And the idea that baby milk is as harmful as tobacco is ridiculous (and there was no great reason for tobacco advertising to be banned either). Next they will want to ban ads for crisps, chocolate, etc. Heck, just ban all ads, how dare companies try to sell us anything.

Caffeine allegedly helps older women mentally (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Caffeine may help older women ward off mental decline, research suggests. French researchers compared women aged 65 and older who drank more than three cups of coffee per day with those who drank one cup or less per day.

Those who drank more caffeine showed less decline in memory tests over a four year period.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, raises the possibility that caffeine may even protect against the development of dementia.

The results held up even after factors such as education, high blood pressure and disease were taken into account.

Caffeine is a known psychostimulant, but this study appears to suggest its effects may be more profound.

However, lead researcher Dr Karen Ritchie of the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research warned against jumping to premature conclusions.
...
She said it was not clear why the protective effect did not seem to apply to men.

The way this study should have been done is to randomly select some of the women to drink more than three cups per day and some women to drink one or less. Since it was not done this way, there is every chance they are confusing correlation and causation, although they seem to have tried to protect against that to some extent, and also it is curious why this effect should be noted in women but not in men. And unfortunately, as with all health studies, they are looking at one thing in isolation. Although caffeine might be correlated with this, positive, effect, it could also easily be correlated with other, not so positive, effects.

Date published: 2007/08/06

Another foolish prediction of future UK house prices (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The average cost of a house in England will break through the £300,000 mark in the next five years, research suggests.

The National Housing Federation (NHF) warned prices were now almost 11 times the average wage and may rise by 40% as supplies fall further behind demand.

To avoid a looming crisis the NHF urged the government to act on its promise to build three million homes by 2020.

Recent rising interest rates and repossessions have led other analysts to forecast falls in house prices.

The NHF said a housing crash was unlikely despite first-time buyers finding it tougher to afford a home.

According to the report many of those priced out of the housing market are now turning to the social housing sector - as a result housing waiting lists have grown by 57% over the past five years to 1.6 million households - or four million people.

This is a report by a special interest pressure group, in this case an umbrella organisation of housing associations. So of course the aim of any report by them will be to push their special interest, in this case the social housing sector. Unfortunately the housing problem is a problem for everyone, not just the people at the bottom of the ladder. And the only way to solve the problem is indeed to build more (decent) houses where people want to live. If there were enough houses we wouldn't need much of a social housing sector. Unfortunately not many decent houses are being built. (In Cambridge, most money is being thrown at flats, which is not what most people want to live in. And what new houses there are have been pretty horrid on the whole.)

However predicting house prices, even just five years into the future, is a mug's game. You can say whatever you want, and give plenty of credible reasons why your forecast is brilliant. Fortunately five years into the future nobody will remember any of your forecasts. Here, in the UK housing sector, prices are overblown right now, and inflation is not obviously contained so interest rates might remain high(ish) for some time, so house prices could just as easily fall by 20% as rise by 40% by 2012.

BAA wins some kind of court order over Heathrow protests (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

BAA has won a High Court ruling banning certain protesters from Heathrow during a week-long climate change camp.

The injunction applies to Plane Stupid, which has a history of "direct action", and protesters from two other groups.

But organisers say the ruling is a setback for the airport operator, as it originally sought bans against 15 groups, covering five million people.

BAA said its injunction was aimed at protesters acting unlawfully, and was not aimed at stopping peaceful protest.

The ban will not apply to AirportWatch, an umbrella group covering five million people including members of the RSPB and National Trust, because it is too large to define.

But it will cover Plane Stupid and certain members of two other groups - Hacan Clearskies and the No Third Runway Action Group - if they were intent on unlawful action.

Thousands of people are expected to join the Camp for Climate Action between 14 and 21 August - which organisers say opposes the "lunacy of the government's airport expansion plans".

Unbelievably the judge seems to have gotten it just about right. And now hopefully the police will do their part, and make sure the protesters can protest, but not allow them to harrass anyone or impede the running of the airport. Now if they volunteer to improve the service at the airport (which would not be hard, given how dreadful Heathrow is) then no doubt BAA would welcome a few extra people, with nothing better to do with their time, to help shift luggage. And perhaps the protestors will volunteer how many air miles they have made over the course of their lives. These are the academic middle class, after all, so fly far more on average than the typical British citizen.

Date published: 2007/08/05

Heatwaves allegedly double in duration now than in the 19th century in Western Europe (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The duration of heatwaves in Western Europe has doubled since 1880, a study has shown.

The authors of the research also discovered that the frequency of extremely hot days has nearly tripled in the past century.

The study shows that many previous assessments of daily summer temperature change underestimated heatwaves in Western Europe by about 30%.
...
The team found that heatwaves lasted an average of three days now, with some lasting up to 13 days. This compares with an average of about 1.5 days in 1880.

Paul Della-Marta, from MeteoSwiss in Zurich, Switzerland, and colleagues analysed daily maximum temperature data from 54 recording stations across Europe.

Forty-six hold records dating back to the 19th Century; others go back to the early 1900s. The data sets come from as far north as Finland, as far south as Spain and as far east as Croatia.

In the past, however, thermometers were not kept in modern Stevenson screens.

These wooden shelters protect thermometers from direct sunlight and indirect radiation coming from the ground, both of which distort temperature readings.

Once the researchers had corrected for these effects, they found a "warm bias" in observations made prior to the introduction of these screens. In other words, temperatures were recorded as being hotter than they really were.

This in turn meant the increase in temperature over time appeared to be smaller than it actually was.

The authors of the latest study also corrected for other biases in the variability of summer temperatures.

Interesting. Of course it relies on the researchers having correctly modified the alleged bias in the early recorded temperature measurements, and that is no doubt open to dispute.

UK universities should set up projects overseas (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

MPs are telling universities in the UK they need to collaborate more with others overseas if they are to continue to attract foreign students.

The Commons education select committee said the key to continued success was to maintain high standards.

But they could lose their appeal to students from India and China as their own higher education systems grow.

It also said the government and private sector should fund prestigious scholarships and fellowships.

The committee said foreign students brought some £4m a year into the UK in tuition fees and spending while studying here.

About half as much again came from those who chose to stay on to work.

But it said there was growing competition from those students' home countries and from other nations in Europe.

It noted existing efforts to develop projects with India and recommended similar approaches be made to China.

The committee's report quotes Professor Lan Xue of Tsinghua University in China as having told it that UK universities had been aiming largely at attracting students to the UK rather than developing collaborative programmes.

"The UK was not in the top five of countries whose [higher education] institutions were involved in joint programmes with Chinese universities."

Committee chairman Barry Sheerman said such collaborations were vitally important.

All pretty obvious. On the other hand, one of the big problems currently is with the British immigration service, which treats all foreign students (and foreigners generally) like scum. If MPs really want to do something, they should first insist that the immigration service be reformed, so that foreign students feel like they are actually appreciated by Britain, rather than considered to be just a money pot and to be treated like third-class citizens.

Date published: 2007/08/04

Teenagers allegedly feel at risk of bullying (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The majority of teenagers left by their parents to fend for themselves over the holidays feel at risk of bullying, according to a charity.

Charity 4Children found that 70% of full-time working parents continue their jobs over the summer break.

The survey, which questioned 16,000 children aged 11-16, found the break is when many fear being a victim of crime, anti-social behaviour, and bullying.

Seventy-two per cent had witnessed anti-social behaviour in the past year.

In the past year 66% have been bullied, the survey found, many outside of school.

Yet again the BBC publishes what reads just like a press release for a special interest pressure group. Most surveys are worthless (you get the results you want by skewing the questions and/or the sample), and there is no indication here how the results were arrived at, so the numbers quoted are meaningless. And even if the numbers were accurate, are they any better or worse than at any other time in the past hundred (or thousand) years?

Cambridge Cycling Campaign supports congestion charge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Cycling campaigners reckon Cambridge residents would be missing a golden opportunity if they threw a spoke in the county council's pay-as-you-drive scheme.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign says that refusing a package combining millions of pounds of Government money for transport with a weekday morning-only congestion charge would be "a huge lost opportunity".

The proposed charge is part of a £500 million package for boosting public transport, including bus, train, cycling and walking schemes, plus new and expanded park and rides sites.

The campaign's co-ordinator, Martin Lucas-Smith, said: "Do Cambridgeshire residents really want to throw away £500 million of funding, which would give them genuine, high-quality alternatives to being stuck in traffic queues? This level of funding would totally dwarf current levels of investment. It would be free money on the table from the Government, assuming a bid would be accepted, as seems likely."

The group's liaison officer, Jim Chisholm, added: "Many motorists, particularly those coming in from outside Cambridge, would ironically be the biggest winners of this scheme. The improved public transport would get many city-dwellers out of their cars. Public transport users would see huge benefits and the current level of around 25 per cent of commuter journeys by bike would rise."

The Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) is a typical special interest pressure group, trying to promote their interests above the interests of society as a whole. So anything they say about drivers or driving has to be taken with a pinch of salt. It is not very surprising that they support the congestion charge, since it is anti-car. But their arguments are poor. (And notice they don't even mention the cost of implementation of the scheme, which is probably going to be the biggest argument against it.)

Firstly, this £500 million is not "free money". Someone has to pay for it, and it is the UK taxpayer. Up and down the UK, there are similarly economically illiterate people making the same claim, that if only the local government would cave into national government pressure to introduce congestion charging, they would be given bucket loads of "free money". Instead of celebrating this dreadful bribery (which ultimately we all will indeed pay for), the CCC should be denouncing it. It is poor governance.

Secondly, drivers are not "the biggest winners of this scheme". Many drivers, in particular poorer drivers, would be forced out of their optimal transport choice (i.e. their car) into a sub-optimal transport choice (i.e. the bus). Of course those drivers rich enough to pay the charge would be better off, all other things being equal, but you can guarantee that local government will reduce the capacity of Cambridge roads further (as they have done over and over the last few years) so that even rich drivers would end up no better off.

Unfortunately, the CCC has far too big an influence in Cambridge, because there is no counterweight from either a drivers' lobby or a pedestrians' lobby, and the local government is run by people with the same academic middle class mentality as the CCC (in particular the Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, except for those they themselves use). The only way these kinds of proposals ever get shut down is if the commercial lobby manages to threaten local government sufficiently. Otherwise, Cambridge would already be a completely car free zone (except for the ruling elite, who of course need to get around).

And if the CCC has this much influence with their (claimed) 25% of work journeys being done by cycling, imagine how obnoxious they would become if that percentage ever climbs close to half or more.

Date published: 2007/08/03

Lib Dems want the UK to subsidise London train commuters even more (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The Liberal Democrats say they would put an extra £10 tax per ticket on internal flights in Britain to help fund improvements to the rail network.

They are also proposing to put a toll on road freight, while encouraging private investment in railways.

The party says it would generate £12bn in five years and be a temporary measure, without specifying how long.

The proposals are part of a package aimed at making Britain's transport system carbon neutral by 2050.

The Lib Dems will discuss the proposals at their annual conference in September.

So-called "lifeline" air routes, such as links between the Orkneys and Shetland and the mainland where travel options are limited, would not be taxed.

The flight charge would generate £150m a year, and the freight toll could raise £600m annually to be put in a "Future Transport Fund".

Lib Dem environment spokesman Chris Huhne said the flight tax would curb the growth in the internal flights and shift freight from road to rail, potentially cutting the UK's carbon emissions by more than 2.6 million tonnes a year.
...
Mr Huhne said the air market in France and Germany had been "killed" when high-speed rail alternatives were introduced, and he hoped the tax would prevent the expected growth in UK domestic flights.

The freight tax would follow similar schemes used in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, with truckers paying on average 11p a mile, although the charge depends on vehicle emissions.

Mr Huhne said: "Plans to improve the railways must not be scuppered yet again by public spending constraints.

"The Future Transport Fund will provide ring-fenced funding for the improvements that future generations need if we are to cut our carbon emissions."

The fund would be used for high-speed rail links connecting London with Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Tyneside and Scotland in the north and Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter in the west.

It would be used to cut passenger fares; remove bottlenecks in the system at locations like Reading and Swindon; contribute to relief schemes like London's Crossrail; increase train lengths; and reopen some closed lines, such as the Oxford-Cambridge link.

More Lib Dem nonsense. The fact that the measures are allegedly "temporary" already tells you that they are up to no good. Perhaps Huhne (who was happy to fly all over Britain rather than use the railways when he was campaigning to be Lib Dem leader) would tell us why he thinks railways are allegedly so environmentally friendly. (When he talks about emissions he is only talking about direct emissions, without considering all the indirect emissions due to labour costs, etc.) If the railways are allegedly so "sustainable" then why do they need such a whacking great subsidy in order to be sustained?

Further, it is not that surprising that "lifeline" air routes will conveniently be defined to be ones where the Lib Dems have MPs (e.g. in the far reaches of Scotland). Perhaps Huhne will kindly produce a list of which routes exactly he wants to put this arbitrary tax on. Perhaps Huhne will kindly offer never to fly inside Britain ever again.

And why does he want a high-speed rail link between London and other major cities far away? And why does he want to subsidise rail fares even more than happens already? All it will do is encourage London commuters to live further and further from London. Huhne might think this is a good idea, but it is not. One of the problems in most towns near London is that London commuters price out local workers from housing. And Huhne's proposals will just make the situation far, far worse, and in towns further and further from London.

So-called environmentalists always go on about how evil it is that certain economic activities manage to externalise their costs onto other people. What Huhne is proposing is this writ large. If rail passengers are willing to pay for a high-speed link then one should be provided (and would be by the private sector), otherwise one should not.

Parliamentary committee produces report on climate change bill (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government's proposals to tackle climate change need to be tougher and legally enforceable, say MPs and peers.

Their report said the target of a minimum 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2050 may not be adequate.

International aviation emissions should be included in targets and there should be a cap on the use of "carbon credits" to meet them, the joint committee said.

Friends of the Earth said the prime minister should set a higher target for cutting carbon emissions.

The report backed the government's five-yearly carbon targets, but said there should be annual "milestones" and reports. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems have called for annual carbon targets.

The joint committee on climate change was examining the government's draft Climate Change Bill - which ministers say shows Britain is "leading by example".

It sets out plans to reduce carbon emissions by a minimum of 60%, from the 1990 base level, by 2050 - and sets an interim target of "at least 26% but not more than 32%" by 2020.

The committee said that the 32% upper limit on carbon reductions should be removed, as there was no "compelling reason" for it.

And it expressed "surprise" that the government intended to buy foreign carbon credits to meet 70% of its emission savings under the EU emissions trading scheme.

It says there should be an "absolute cap" on their use, saying: "The bill as currently drafted would still theoretically allow all the savings to be made externally to the UK, notably in developing countries, and thereby postponing the decarbonisation of the UK economy."

The joint committee said it was a "serious weakness" that emissions from international aviation were not included in the targets and says the government is not taking sufficient account of predicted growth in aviation emissions.

"Further thinking" on legal enforceability of targets and budgets is needed, it said and it stressed the need for sufficient powers, resources and independence for the proposed oversight body, the Committee on Climate Change.

And the report says the government must give a higher priority to changing the behaviour of individuals with major public information campaigns.

The committee's chairman, Labour's Lord Puttnam, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme there would have to be a "quite significant shift in behaviour change".

Great, let the people on the committee show the way and volunteer to undergo a "quite significant shift in behaviour change". It's easy. Step number one is for all MPs and peers to take a sizeable pay cut, and to take a sizeable pension cut. Then they can start to lecture everybody else on "behaviour change". Of course what they really mean is that the ruling elite, like themselves, should continue to enjoy all privileges in life (such as flying abroad) and the ordinary people should not. This is the first generation of politicians to actively campaign to make the living conditions of their citizens worse.

At least the committee is correct that buying foreign carbon credits is a bit of a sham. But the UK already lives that sham (as does the rest of Europe). If you buy steel from China then it is deemed that China is responsible for the carbon emissions produced when making that steel, but of course you are. So as long as the UK can substitute service industry for manufacturing industry, it can continue to emit as much (if not more) than in the past, and still claim otherwise under Kyoto-style accounting.

Date published: 2007/08/02

Asian pollution quantified as a source of global warming (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Clouds of pollution over the Indian Ocean appear to cause as much warming as greenhouse gases released by human activity, a study has suggested.

US researchers used unmanned aircraft to measure the effects of the "brown clouds" on the surrounding area.

Writing in Nature, they said the tiny particles increased the solar heating of the lower atmosphere by about 50%.

The warming could be enough to explain the retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas, the scientists proposed.

The clouds contain a mixture of light absorbing aerosols and light scattering aerosols, which cause the atmosphere to warm and the surface of the Earth to cool.

The main sources of the pollutants came from wood burning and fossil fuels, the team added.
...
The scientists, from the University of California San Diego and the Nasa Langley Research Center, said there remained a degree of uncertainty because, until now, estimates had largely been derived from computer models.

For their study, the team of researchers used three unmanned aircraft, fitted with miniaturised instruments that were able to measure aerosol concentrations, soot amounts and the flow of energy from the Sun.

The crafts flew over the polluted region of the Indian Ocean at varying heights between 500m (1,640ft) and 3,000m (9,840ft).

"During 18 flight missions, the three unmanned aerial vehicles were flown with a separation of tens of metres or less and less than 10 seconds (apart), which made it possible to measure the atmospheric solar heating rates directly," they wrote.

"We found that atmospheric brown clouds enhanced lower atmospheric solar heating by about 50%.

"[The pollution] contributes as much as the recent increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gases to regional lower atmospheric warming trends," they suggested.

"We propose that the combined warming trend of 0.25 Kelvin per decade may be sufficient to account for the observed retreat of the Himalayan glaciers."

Interesting, especially since the results were obtained via observation rather than just computer models. Of course the so-called environmentalists and the developing world NGOs won't like the result, since they like to pedal the line that people in the developed world (except themselves, of course) are all environmental sinners (in particular, consume too much, and should be made poorer), and that people in the developing world are all environmental saints.

Yet another large block of flats is proposed for Cambridge (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge Evening News says:

Only London commuters will be able to afford flats being planned for Cambridge city centre, a local councillor has claimed.

Tariq Sadiq, who represents Coleridge on the city council, warned local residents would be priced even further out of the city, with only London workers and wealthy investors able to afford the flats.

Highland Homes want to create a 10-storey residential and retail development called Living Screens on the site of two former garages on the corner of Cherry Hinton Road and Hills Road.

The proposed development on the Marshall garage site and Shell petrol garage, opposite Cambridge Leisure park, could include up to 133 flats, shops, a cafe, residents' gym and 99 underground parking spaces.

It is thought a two-bedroom flat will go on the market for around £300,000, with 30 per cent of the scheme classed as affordable housing.

But Labour councillors say more affordable housing needs to be built - not exclusive luxury apartments.

Coun Sadiq said: "Cambridge is at crisis point. There are too many expensive flats shooting up in the city centre and the people that keep the city running - the teachers, nurses and college workers - are being forced out so London commuters and wealthy investors can buy a place in the city.

"The council isn't meeting its affordable housing targets - developers have a moral and social obligation to provide at least 40 per cent affordable housing in each development."

Jay Gort, architect for the Living Screens development, has admitted he would not be able to afford one of the flats himself.

Coun Sadiq said: "It is quite something when even the architect for the development can't afford to live there.

"If more of these developments go up, the impact on community spirit will be huge. Commuters who just sleep in a flat have no investment in the city.

"They have no reason to be a part of the community and to make an effort to make Cambridge a better place for everyone.

"The city council needs to take its responsibility to provide affordable housing seriously and should not keep sanctioning expensive flats which are totally unsuitable for families and totally unaffordable for people who are on average incomes."

Well, some of this is obvious. London commuters are going to fill much of any housing near Cambridge city centre. So housing built near the city centre is largely irrelevant for the needs of Cambridge. And unfortunately a large chunk of new housing in Cambridge consists of flats, not houses, and certainly hardly any decent family housing is being built. Unfortunately, the urban planners, the so-called environmentalists, and most of the rest of the ruling elite have all decided this is the way the world should be. So, the ordinary residents of Cambridge have to pay extra taxes so that London commuters can enjoy a subsidised train ride to work (since trains are allegedly a holier-than-holy form of transport, which of course is false), and this encourages London commuters to live further from London than they otherwise would. And on top of this London commuters earn more (on average) so can afford to pay more for housing.

On the other hand, most London commuters don't just "sleep in a flat", they move around Cambridge on evenings and weekends just like Cambridge residents do, and also, many London commuters have partners who work in Cambridge. Further, the idea that a higher percentage of "affordable" housing will make things better is dubious, at best. The only way a developer can sell some housing in a development for less is if they also sell the remaining housing for more. So the more "affordable" housing there is, the more extortionate the "non-affordable" housing needs to be, in compensation.

And the real objection to the Living Screens development is that it is too tall. The city let the Belvedere apartments get away with it, but to keep pushing taller and taller buildings further and further from the centre of the city is stupid.

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