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Gordon Brown does not like plastic bags (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Gordon Brown has warned retailers he will force them to cut down on plastic bag use if they do not act voluntarily.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he told stores that "If government compulsion is needed to make the change, we will take the necessary steps."
Campaigners say plastic bags, which take an estimated 1,000 years to decay, damage the environment.
Marks and Spencer has already announced that it will charge food shoppers 5p for each bag from 6 May.
The move follows a trial at 50 of its outlets in Northern Ireland and south-west England, which resulted in demand for polythene bags falling by more than 70%.
Mr Brown praised the chain - which says the money raised will go to environmental charities - as well as Ikea, which stopped providing single-use plastic bags from its branches in July 2007.
But he insisted that, if other stores did not follow suit, the government would be "ready to do what it can".
"We do not take such steps lightly - but the damage that single-use plastic bags inflict on the environment is such that strong action must be taken," he said.
Ideally, he said, any scheme to cut down on their use would also secure funds for environmental organisations.
Mr Brown added that carrier bags were one of the most visible and easily-reduced forms of waste and shoppers, supermarkets and the government all had to "accept our own responsibility for ending the environmental damage we are causing".
Brown says it all. Plastic bags are "visible" and the academic middle class do not like them, so have been waging this rather pathetic war on them the last few years. Brown may rather snear at "single-use plastic bags" but most ordinary people (unlike Brown, it seems) re-use their plastic bags as bin liners, and also to store junk. (And in that regard, they only seem to last ten or so years before disintegrating, so heaven knows where the 1000 year estimate came from.)
It would be interesting to compare the environmental damage from plastic bags versus the environmental damage from, say, newspapers. The latter are if anything more "single-use" than plastic bags, and serve much less purpose in life (with one or two notable exceptions). But of course the academic middle class like newspapers, so leave them alone. (And pick any other random source of waste in the world.)
And why should an (arbitrary) charge on plastic bags be "ideally" used to "secure funds for environmental organisations"? Why should the ordinary people of Britain be subsidising a bunch of unaccountable academic middle class control freaks? If M&S want to throw money from their plastic bag charge at some random organisation because they are pretending for marketing reasons to be do-gooders, then that of course is their right. Hopefully other, less middle class, shops, will spend any such money more wisely.
Energy Saving Day has no impact (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The UK's first Energy Saving Day has ended with no noticeable reduction in the country's electricity usage.
E-Day asked people to switch off electrical devices they did not need over a period of 24 hours, with the National Grid monitoring consumption.
It found that electricity usage was almost exactly what would have been expected without E-Day.
Colder weather than forecast in some regions may have led to higher use of heating, masking any small savings.
The event also received very little publicity, despite having backing from campaign groups such as Greenpeace, Christian Aid and the RSPB, and from major energy companies such as EDF, E.On and Scottish Power.
"I am afraid that E-Day did not achieve the scale of public awareness or participation needed to have a measurable effect," said E-Day's organiser Dr Matt Prescott in a message on his website.
The Grid's final figures showed national electricity consumption for the 24 hours (from 1800 Wednesday to 1800 Thursday) was 0.1% above the "business-as-usual" projection.
Dr Prescott had hoped E-Day might bring a small but measurable reduction in electricity use, perhaps in the order of 2-3%, equivalent to the output of one or two fossil fuel fired power stations.
The idea was to demonstrate that numerous small personal actions could make a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.
So not a big success. But even if this one day had reduced demand by 2-3%, it would have not proven very much except that a mass herd instinct could reduce demand on one day by that amount. Well, if everyone deemed this to be a major war effort then perhaps demand could be reduced by at least that much permanently (except that demand is always increasing, so this would be relatively speaking). But most people don't see it as a war, in spite of the perpetual hectoring lectures from the academic middle class like the BBC.
Of course another way to reduce demand is to have a carbon tax on all sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This would also have the beneficial side effect that energy sources like solar and wind would not have to be subsidised to be put on a "level playing field". Unfortunately the ruling elite only really want to have a carbon tax when it comes to cars and airplanes.
Number of UK female professors is creeping up (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The share of female professors has edged up slightly, but they are still out-numbered more than five to one by their male counterparts, figures show.
Some 17.5% of professors in the UK were women in 2006-7 - up from 16.7% the year before, the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows.
And 36.8% of senior lecturers and researchers were women.
The Universities and College Union said there was no reason why more women should not be in top university jobs.
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Fair, open and transparent recruitment and promotion procedures are in everyone's interests, not just women.
Nearly two-thirds (or 62.6%) of non-academic staff were female.
Well, it's a bit silly to look at one year's figure as indicating anything much about anything. But it also underestimates what is really going on. So say that a professor stays in the job on average 20 years. And suppose that the total number of professors stayed constant, so that new ones were just replacing old ones. And suppose that 10% of the old professors were women (since in the past, the number of women professors was even lower). Then the percentage of women amongst new professors turns out to be 26%. Of course the estimate of 20 years and 10% were made up, but they show the problem with looking merely at a long-term average, which almost by definition takes a long time to change.
Although the UCU asks for "fair, open and transparent" procedures, what they really mean is that more women better be hired or else. So you always have to wonder, how many of these new professors are hired because it was a "fair, open and transparent" procedure and how many because universities feel under pressure from organisations like UCU to hire more women? (Well, the general hiring procedure of universities is open to question. Cambridge has its fair share of people who were hired it seems more because they had a certain personality rather than any particular talent.)
The idea in the story is that of course we must have at least half the professors being women, otherwise it is blatant sexual discrimination against women. So does the BBC (or anyone else) consider that it is "good" or "bad" that over half the non-academic staff are female? So is this blatant sexual discrimination against men? Or is it again blatant sexual discrimination against women, since of course the academic middle class (like the BBC) look down their noses at non-academic staff and so consider these jobs to be negative, not positive like professorships? Well, it's pretty obvious which, since all such stories have to be anti-male, so of course there can be no sexual discrimination against men, only against women.
London "congestion" charge allegedly leads to a miniscule reduction in deaths (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
London's congestion charge may have delivered a small, unexpected health boost to the capital, say researchers.
The charge was introduced to cut traffic, but a study in Occupational and Environmental Medicine says reduced pollution has aided health as well.
Scientists from two London colleges calculated that since 2003, 1,888 extra years of life had been saved among the city's seven million residents.
The link between certain types of traffic pollution and health problems, including heart attack and breathing problems in children, are well-established, and Transport for London's own figures estimate that the capital's poor air quality is responsible for 1,000 premature deaths and 1,000 extra hospital admissions every year.
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and King's College London wanted to examine further if traffic reductions since 2003 could have had a direct impact on health.
They used a computer model to work out changes in air pollution based on the traffic figures, and looked for any relationship between this and death rates in areas in or near to the charging "zone".
Within the central charging area itself - where relatively few people actually live - the benefits seemed more significant, with an extra 183 years of life saved for every 100,000 residents.
This does not necessarily mean that every resident received an equal but tiny slice of this, as the benefits to certain people, such as those with existing heart or lung problems, are likely to be greater.
Outside the congestion charge areas, the benefits were far less, totalling an extra 18 years of life per 100,000 residents.
However, because the number of residents there was much higher, this added up to a total of 1,888 years spread across the whole of London.
While acknowledging that the benefits were fairly "modest" in size, the researchers said that traffic-cutting schemes could still be considered as potentially health-improving policies.
Surprise, cars cause pollution. Of course if miniscule (well, what they themselves call "modest") reductions in death from a reduction in pollution is deemed to be a worthwhile objective, then it is all very easy, just shut the world down.
Energy Saving Day in the UK (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Energy Saving Day, a 24-hour initiative aiming to reduce the UK's electricity use, begins on Wednesday evening.
A coalition of environmental groups, religious leaders and energy companies is asking people to curb climate change by turning off devices not in use.
The National Grid will monitor how much difference it makes to consumption, while power companies will identify customers wanting home insulation.
The BBC News website will be displaying results in close to real time.
E-Day started life as a Planet Relief, which was to have been an awareness-raising BBC TV programme with a large element of comedy.
But in September the BBC decided to pull the project, saying viewers preferred factual or documentary programmes about climate change.
The decision came after poor audiences for Live Earth, and public debate over whether it was the corporation's role to "save the planet".
This hardly got any publicity, until today, so most people are no doubt unaware of the event. And after five hours (so still nineteen hours to go), the actual consumption is slightly higher than the "business as usual" prediction of consumption. But the BBC does not give error bars on the prediction, so presumably we could well be in a statistical dead heat.
And the problem with the BBC's coverage of these events is not so much that the corporation should not be "saving the planet", but that the events are totally biased towards one viewpoint, specifically the academic middle class viewpoint that indeed always dominates the BBC's coverage of the world. So in this context, cars are bad, trains are good, Tesco is bad, farmers' markets are good, suburbs are bad, big cities are good, etc. Needless to say, most of the UK disagrees, but from the coverage on the BBC (and in many of the national newspapers) you would think otherwise.
The government wants to seize assets of suspects now (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Suspected drug dealers' assets could be seized on arrest rather than conviction under new plans for England and Wales.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said suspects found to be "completely innocent" would get their goods back.
Unbelievable. Presumably part of a grand Labour plan to eventually make everyone prove that they are innocent rather than having the State have to prove that you are guilty. And if the assets are physical goods, you can imagine how much damage the State will do to them while they are kindly looking after them. And for money, is the State going to give you the same return that you would have had for the same length of time? (You can bet your last pound that the answer is no.)
Space enthusiasts want to carefully map orbit of an asteroid (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
A US team has won a $50,000 (£25,000) competition to design a spacecraft to rendezvous with and track the path of an asteroid which may threaten Earth.
The winning entry, led by SpaceWorks Engineering, will shadow asteroid Apophis for 300 days.
The measurements it takes will be used to refine what is known about the orbit of this 300m-wide space rock.
Apophis will make a close pass of Earth in 2029 and there is a small but real possibility it could hit in 2036.
The competition was organised by the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group with its headquarters in Pasadena, California.
The idea behind the project was to "tag" Apophis and thereby plot its orbit accurately enough to determine whether it will strike our planet.
The contestants were tasked with designing a mission which would launch, rendezvous and collect enough data in time for governments to decide in 2017 whether or not to mount a mission to deflect the asteroid off its current course.
Planetary defence advocates say it is imperative to collect data on the asteroid's path as soon as possible to know whether it will strike our planet or not.
If it is found to be on a collision course, one option governments have is to mount a deflection mission. This would involve launching a spacecraft able to give the asteroid a nudge to change its orbit.
Leaving this too long would make it impossible to build a spacecraft powerful enough to move its out of harm's way.
Ideally, say advocates of such a mission, Apophis' orbit would need to be changed before 2025 to be sure it misses the Earth.
Hey, why not. But would anyone trust these scientists enough to risk giving the asteroid a "nudge"? It would be the supreme irony if the "nudge" was what finally pushed it into an eventual direct hit of the Earth. (The orbit is probably easy enough to get right, since it's just Newton's equations. The problem is more with the "nudge".)
There are too many flats being built in England (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Today's buy-to-let mortgage figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders suggest a booming market.
That was the case for much of last year but looking forward, things are starting to look rather more shaky.
Finding tenants is apparently no more difficult than before in most of our towns and cities.
For investors hoping to sell their properties, however, there could be a struggle ahead as a glut of newly built flats drives down rents and prices.
Apartment blocks sprang up as developers tried to meet the demand from buy-to-let.
Back in 1997, just 16% of new housing projects were accounted for by flats and maisonettes.
A decade later, last year, that figure had shot up to 46% of all new residential building work.
The figures for the percentage of flats amongst new-build housing says it all. England was/is manifestly building way too many flats, and that sector of the market will get hit harder than most.
It's hard to know who is more to blame for the situation, developers or the government (including town planners). The government, egged on by the hysterical anti-suburban urban planning elite, decided that the peasants should live in high-density housing because it was more "sustainable" (and of course the peasants should not be able to live where and how they want to live). And the government, egged on by the academic middle class, refused to allow enough land to be used for housing, so this added to the need to stuff more and more on less and less. And the developors, egged on by the buy-to-let market, were happy to play along because they could make sack loads of money building this way, at least for awhile until the pyramid scheme caught up with everyone.
Funnily enough, much less than 46% of the population wants to live in flats. And in Cambridge, for example, you can buy an oldish house for what they charge for most of the new flats, so for most people it's a no-brainer. So the market for flats is now rather soft.
Of course the BBC, being part of the ruling elite that helped get us into this mess in the first place, has to entirely blame buy-to-let investors for the situation.
Government wants all UK housing to be designed for old people (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Every new home built in England will have to be designed to suit an ageing population, under plans being unveiled by the government.
Ministers want all new homes to include 16 features such as stairs wide enough for stairlifts, downstairs bathrooms, and room for wheelchairs to turn.
The government wants the standards to be adopted from April. If not taken up, they could become compulsory in 2013.
Builders called the plans "costly", but Help the Aged welcomed them.
Age Concern also welcomed the new standards, saying future housing must meet the needs of older people.
Housing minister Caroline Flint says the idea is to build homes which do not need costly adaptations as owners age.
All new social housing built from 2011 will have to be built to the new "lifetime homes" standard, and the hope is that private sector houses will also meet it.
This seems like a reasonable enough idea, but the proof is how it will work in practise. Houses have been getting smaller and smaller the last few decades, in particular with smaller and smaller rooms, and also smaller and smaller gardens, partly because the ruling elite have refused to allow enough land to be used for housing, so the price of land has shot up. And not only has everything gotten smaller and smaller but where once almost all homes were two storeys, these days a lot are three storeys, and that is also not good for old people. So hopefully the government will also ensure there is plenty of land available for housing (where people want to live). Meanwhile, these standards might at least ensure that houses do not keep getting smaller and smaller, which would be a worthwhile, if unintended, consequence.
Virgin Atlantic tests a biofuel (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The first flight by a commercial airline to be powered partly by biofuel has taken place.
A Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet has flown between London's Heathrow and Amsterdam using fuel derived from a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts.
Environmentalists have branded the flight a publicity stunt and claim biofuel cultivation is not sustainable.
Earlier this month, Airbus tested another alternative fuel - a synthetic mix of gas-to-liquid.
Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said the flight marked a "vital breakthrough" for the entire airline industry.
"This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future," he said.
But he said fully commercial biofuel flights were likely to use feedstocks such as algae rather than the mix used on the passenger-less flight.
Virgin's Boeing 747 had one of its four engines connected to an independent biofuel tank that it said could provide 20% of the engine's power.
One problem with flying planes using biofuel is that it is more likely to freeze at high altitude.
The technology is still being manufactured by companies GE and Boeing, but Virgin believes airlines could routinely be flying on plant power within 10 years.
It's good that the aviation industry is looking into this technology. Hopefully they will manage to find some fuel that does less harm than the current jet fuel, although pretty much all recent studies on biofuel shows this will not likely be the solution. On the other hand, the useless so-called environmentalists have nothing to contribute here. They just hate aviation (except of course when they fly around, which they do much more than the average citizen). Even if planes managed to miraculously fly on solar power, you can guarantee these people would still complain. One Richard Branson is worth a thousand so-called environmentalists.
Ralph Nader wants to run for president again (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Ralph Nader says he will run again as an independent for the US presidency.
The anti-establishment consumer advocate made the announcement in a televised interview on Sunday.
Mr Nader was accused by many Democrats of handing the presidency to George W Bush in the November 2000 elections. He ran again unsuccessfully in 2004.
Nearly three million Americans - more than 2% of the vote - backed Mr Nader when he stood as the Green Party candidate in the 2000 presidential election.
This ego-driven crankiness is ruining the Nader legacy. The BBC article mentions how well he did in 2000 but fails to mention that his vote in 2004 divided by seven, so was at around the same level as all the other crackpot fringe candidates. And in 2008 he will do no better.
The police think everyone should be on a DNA database (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Calls to put the DNA of every UK resident on a national database are impractical, the government has said.
A senior police officer has argued for a universal register, after two killers were convicted on DNA evidence.
Sally Anne Bowman's killer, Mark Dixie, and Suffolk serial murderer Steve Wright were both captured because their DNA was taken after unrelated offences.
But the Home Office said a mandatory database "would raise significant practical and ethical issues".
The DNA database, which covers England and Wales, currently contains around 4.5m profiles - routinely taken from criminal suspects after most arrests.
It is already the largest of its kind in the world but is controversial.
Since 2004, the data of everyone arrested for a recordable offence - all but the most minor offences - has remained on the system regardless of their age, the seriousness of their alleged offence, and whether or not they were prosecuted.
The police always want more powers to make their job easier, what a surprise. If solving crime were the only criterion under consideration then the government might as well force all its citizens to be permanently tracked with GPS devices (well, mobile phones are not too far off that already). In fact, why stop there. Make everyone wear permanent audio and omni-directional video recording devices whose output is automatically sent wirelessly to some police computer. That way we might even be able to "solve" some pre-crimes, never mind actual crimes. Welcome to Britain in the 21st century. (Fortunately, getting everyone onto the DNA database would be a rather expensive exercise, otherwise no doubt the government would have already done it.)
Some bigwigs caution against use of biofuels (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Biofuels should only be produced if they meet strict environmental standards, an international group of lawmakers have concluded.
The legislators said the fuels also had to deliver significant savings of greenhouse gas emissions.
If such criteria were met, they said there should be an urgent review of the tariffs that currently block imports into markets such as the EU and US.
Biofuels have become a highly controversial issue, with claims that the rapid expansion of energy crops could threaten global food security, and add further pressure to sensitive ecosystems including rainforests.
It is also argued that in some cases the benefits to the climate of burning plant material instead of fossil fuels are outweighed by the energy needed to produce and transport biofuels, and by the release of carbon from soils by changes in land use.
All standard fare these days. Biofuels could turn out to be one of the largest disasters ever to hit the planet. Unfortunately, the BBC fails to identify who was in this "international group of lawmakers", with the exception of "Lord Jay, the former head of the British Foreign Office" (so not exactly a lawmaker). One has to assume these are not people with any real power.
Risk of stroke linked with dozing off "unintentionally" (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Regular unintentional daytime dozing may be an early warning sign of stroke in elderly people, say US researchers.
For those who had a habit of nodding off, the risk of stroke was two to four times higher than for those who never fell asleep in the day, a study found.
Speaking at the International Stroke Conference, the team advised doctors to check out older people who found they were dropping off in front of the TV.
The study asked 2,000 people how often they dozed off in different situations.
These included while watching TV, sitting and talking to someone, sitting quietly after a lunch without alcohol and stopping briefly in traffic while driving.
The risk of stroke over the next two years was 2.6 times greater for people who reported "some dozing" compared to those with no dozing.
Among those who reported "significant dozing" the risk was 4.5 times higher.
The researchers also found the risk of heart attack or death from vascular disease was increased.
Surprise, people who are extremely tired are not as healthy as those who are not. Who would have thought it. But what is most interesting about this article is not this rather trivial observation (but at least it comes with some quantification) but rather that for once we are not presented with a confusion of correlation and causation.
So normally, in these kinds of cases, we would then be told that it is the sleep that is the implied cause of the ill health, and that if only these people slept less then they would not be so badly off. So it's curious why that incorrect argument is not made here.
Well, usually when this kind of incorrect deduction is made, it is because the action under consideration is considered wicked by the academic middle class. So things like smoking, drinking, eating too much, etc. Thus the natural inclination is for the academic middle class (chief cheerleader, the BBC) to say that the bad consequence is all just the fault of the people involved, if only they would change their wicked ways.
Here, nobody is going to want to blame the old dears for their "unintentional" dozing off. So we are not presented with any of this nonsense.
Although causation is a much more powerful conclusion than correlation, this specific article illustrates that correlations can indeed be useful, because here it might lead to early diagnosis of possible strokes (or whatever). One downside is that any time some poor old dear nods off, some over-anxious relative might whisk them off to hospital just in case.
Another way of looking at this is that the article does not give any details to allow one to estimate how many false positives (versus actual positives) there would be in the situation being discussed, and that really determines how useful this correlation will be in practise. There is no real point worrying about someone dozing off if (say) 99 times out of 100 this is a false positive, rather than an actual positive, indication of a future stroke.
Storm in a teacup over school visits to Auschwitz (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
A row has broken out over Conservative claims that Labour had not lived up to a promise of free educational visits to Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Conservatives included the Labour pledge in a list of 26 "gimmicks" it said the government failed to deliver.
Labour hit back by saying the reference to Auschwitz visits as a "gimmick" was "truly disgraceful" and offensive to the Jewish community.
But the Tories said there was genuine concern about the lack of funding.
The reference to Auschwitz visits was in briefing notes to a speech by Conservative leader David Cameron.
It said the government has promised funding for two pupils from every sixth form and college in the country to visit the Nazi concentration camp where millions of Jews were murdered during World War II.
But schools must find £100 towards the £350 cost of every sixth formers' trip.
A Conservative spokesman said: "There is no way we think that trips to Auschwitz are a gimmick.
"The gimmick is for the government to make an announcement without providing the means for it to happen."
But Schools Secretary Ed Balls said: "Anyone who has seen the horrors of Auschwitz at first-hand knows what a life-changing experience it is.
"To call the announcement I made of £4.65m to fund visits by school children over the next three years a 'gimmick' just beggars belief.
For once the Tories are correct. It "just beggars belief" how low the government can stoop in its attempt to play the Holocaust card. Mind you, the Tories should probably have been aware that the government (and other people with an interest in playing the Holocaust card) would stoop that low, and the Tories should have been more careful in the way they brought this up.
One of the dreadful legacies of the Labour government is its totally cynical approach to making announcements, where the headlines sound good but the unspoken details belie the actual cost (not to mention that the same policy, and alleged funding, is announced over and over again as if it were new). Given that Cameron's background is in PR, expect this, unbelievably, to become even worse with the next Tory government.
Ben van Berkel of UNStudio gives a talk in Cambridge (permanent blog link)
The Cambridge University Arcsoc society is running a series of lectures by Dutch architects this term, with sponsorship by the Dutch Embassy. The second lecture was by Ben van Berkel of UNStudio. It looks like all the talks are going to be about "recent projects", and van Berkel indeed spent most of the time doing that. This was weaved in with his architectural philosophy.
UNStudio certainly seem to have done some interesting work, such as the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, a museum for Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart, and a couple of private houses (one in the Netherlands and one in upstate New York). And, unlike most architectural firms, the UNStudio website is very good, even listing details (dates, places, etc.) of all their (presumably not insignificant) projects, so it is easy to get a feel for their work. There are also links to articles and publiciations by and about the firm.
Like all architects with any international exposure, UNStudio seem required to have to build wackier and wackier buildings, just because with modern computers you can do lots of clever 3D modelling. Funnily enough, at the beginning of his talk van Berkel praised computers because they made it easier to show relationships (in space and time), but at the end of his talk he said computers were making it too easy to make wackier and wackier buildings ("if we are not careful we will build the same spaghetti everywhere").
Midsummer House in Cambridge stops selling foie gras (permanent blog link)
The Cambridge News says:
Foie gras is off the menu at the Midsummer House restaurant in Cambridge.
The Michelin-starred eatery had been targeted for months by animal rights protesters for serving the delicacy - as of yesterday it will be served no more.
Peaceful protests were carried out by Animal Rights Cambridge.
But an unrelated group attacked the venue at the weekend when the restaurant was sprayed with graffiti, door locks were glued, glass-etching fluid was used to damage the windows and paint stripper was used on window frames and the front door.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).
Daniel Clifford, the chef director and one of two partners who own the restaurant, says he has reluctantly bowed to the pressure.
He said that in the interests of his staff and customers he has taken foie gras off the menu with immediate effect.
Mr Clifford said foie gras had always been a popular dish on a customeroriented menu - and the protests actually helped to boost its popularity.
He said safety of the 26 staff had to be a key consideration, especially after a brick was thrown through a window just before dinner one Saturday at 7pm.
He also received an anonymous letter containing threats, which he has passed to police.
Mr Clifford, who has been at Midsummer House since 1998, said: "The police told me the lengths to which ALF would go to get foie gras off the menu.
"When it starts to affect the business and the health of my staff, I had to take this into account."
An anonymous email sent to the News on behalf of the ALF after the attack said:
"We hope this is the only action needed to persuade the restaurant to stop selling foie gras. It's a simple thing to do. If not, the direct action will continue."
Mr Clifford feels Midsummer House is not the only establishment serving foie gras in Cambridge, it was targeted because of its high profile and two Michelin stars.
It is unfortunate that the ALF terrorists have once again successfully used terrorism to get their way. Hopefully the police will catch them somehow (e.g. perhaps one of the other animal rights groups will shop them, because someone must know who they are). What is Animal Rights Cambridge going to make of the fact that their protests did absolutely no good (indeed, seem to have back-fired) and the terrorists succeeded? It's hardly going to promote legitimate debate.
Foie gras is disgusting and the Cambridge News should at the very least have asked Clifford to justify having it on the menu. But why just foie gras? Why not lobster? You might as well terrorise restaurants (and supermarkets) that sell chickens whose upbringing you happen not to approve of. Or you might as well terrorise anybody who sells any fish or meat product. Perhaps the ALF terrorists will turn their attention to these, or some other random product, next. These terrorists obviously think they are God and can decide what is and is not right in the world, just like all the other fundamentalist religious nutters in the world. They cannot win an argument, so have to resort to terrorism.
Gordon Brown sticks up two fingers to the world (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Immigrants who want to become British and settle permanently in the UK will need to pass more tests to "prove their worth" to the country under new plans.
Some migrants may also have to pay into a fund towards public services and have a period of "probationary citizenship".
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the UK should expect a "demonstration of commitment" and the process of becoming a citizen should be "more exacting".
Unveiling the proposals, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said future migrants would need to "earn" citizenship. This scraps the current system which allows people to apply for naturalisation on the basis of how long they have lived in the UK.
Ms Smith said migrants from outside the European Economic Area would be encouraged to "move on" through a system that leads to citizenship - or choose ultimately to leave the country.
The package of measures includes:
- Raising visa fees for a special "transitional impact" fund
- More English language testing ahead of nationality
- Requirements to prove integration into communities
- Increasing how long it takes to become British
Press reports suggest the transitional impact fund would raise £15m a year.
Unbelievable how pathetic these proposals are. What the British government is saying is that anyone wanting to immigrate to Britain from outside Europe should get lost. Well, talented people will just tell Britain to get lost. And Britain will be the main loser, as any backwards country is when it shuts its borders to the outside world. And of course this proposal will have no impact on immigration from Europe, which is what the xenophobic press has been mostly agitating about recently. So this policy, driven entirely by a need to appease the xenophobic press, will not even achieve its political goal.
Housewives should be paid £30000 pounds per year (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Housewives would be paid more than the average worker if they received the going rate for their household chores, a survey has suggested.
A poll of 4,000 housewives for networking website alljoinon.com suggested that the average mum worked for nearly nine hours a day every day.
The website said a housewife would earn almost £30,000 a year if she was employed to do all the same errands.
The average annual UK wage is £23,700, according to official figures.
It must be getting close to April Fools Day if this kind of article is appearing. It seems that alljoinon.com is a social networking site which wants, and has managed to get, some free publicity from the BBC. That is what this article is really about. (And if you go to the alljoinon.com website, you cannot get anywhere past the home page unless you register. So even the "about us" link does not work. That is how obnoxious they are.)
So, since the BBC kindly provides free publicity for a private company, does it bother doing any critical analysis? No, it just publishes what looks like a straight press release from alljoinon. They even laughingly classified it under "business" rather than "entertainment".
The first thing the BBC could have noted, for example, is that this press release is the result of a survey, so is not representative. But of course housewives do indeed do lots of work at home, so no matter how unreliable the survey, you can easily put a story together with similar claims.
And the BBC could have tried to answer the question as to who should pay for this work. Well, presumably the customer, i.e. the husband and the children. Well, that's silly, since of course children are not meant to pay for this work, and (presumably working) husbands do implicitly pay for this work by providing an income. The fact that the median UK wage would not cover the wage a housewife allegedly deserves just goes to show that most of her chores would not get done if they had to be contracted out to third parties.
Now if this had been a special interest pressure group providing the story, and not just a company out to get some free publicity, one might expect the story to meander into the idea that of course the customer (i.e. the family) should not pay for the work, the government should, since of course the government should always pay for everything. (Another silly idea, since every citizen would start to fabricate claims about how much unpaid work they were doing here, there and everywhere.) The BBC resisted the temptation to go down that road this particular time.
The BBC must get dozens of these silly press releases every day, how do they decide which to cover? Is there any connection between anyone in the BBC and alljoinon?
Smoking and drinking allegedly bad N generations into the future (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Sperm defects caused by exposure to environmental toxins can be passed down the generations, research suggests.
Scientists say fathers who smoke and drink should be aware they are potentially not just damaging themselves, but also their heirs.
Tests on rats showed sperm damage caused by exposure to garden chemicals remained up to four generations later.
It suggests that a father's health plays a greater role in the health of future generations than has been thought.
A team from the University of Idaho in Moscow tested the effects of a hormone-disrupting fungicide chemical called vinclozolin on embryonic rats.
The chemical altered genes in the sperm, including a number associated with human prostate cancer.
Rats exposed to it show signs of damage and overgrowth of the prostate, infertility and kidney problems.
The defects were also present in animals four generations on.
The scientists admitted that the rats were exposed to very high levels of vinclozolin.
Another poor BBC article on health. First we get the hysterical headline, including the implicit claim in the second paragraph that the research shows that "fathers who smoke and drink" are "damaging ... their heirs". Well, the academic middle class have been running a vitriolic campaign against smoking and drinking (and obesity) for quite some time, so perhaps the BBC thinks that no matter what the research is about, one has to mention smoking and drinking. (Somehow they left off obesity.)
The third paragraph is not much better, mentioning "garden chemicals" are also causing "damage ... up to four generations later". Which garden chemicals? Well the BBC is implying all of them of course, since the academic middle class also hate all chemicals (no doubt including the seriously dangerous H2O). So no matter what the research is about, one has to mention all chemicals in a sweeping statement.
It is only in the fifth paragraph that we find out that the research is only about one specific chemical, vinclozolin. And it was only tested on rats. Well obviously that means we can extrapolate to all garden chemicals and also smoking and drinking, and to humans willy nilly. Because according to the BBC, if one chemical is bad in one context, they are all bad in all contexts.
Then, even worse, we find out in the ninth paragraph that (surprise) "the rats were exposed to very high levels of vinclozolin". Unfortunately this is the standard way to text toxicity. If 100 times the normal does causes an X% problem, then of course a normal dose causes an X/100% problem. Only that only holds if the response is linear, which it almost certainly isn't. This is a fundamental flaw in the way all drugs are tested, but nobody likes to mention it.
All in all this is not a very important piece of research. And unfortunately the BBC has turned it into some kind of grand anti-chemical, anti-smoking, anti-drinking philosophical statement.
(The BBC does spend most of the rest of the article quoting two anti-smoking and anti-drinking scientists who say that yes, any man who smokes or drinks is causing the exact same sort of problems. Perhaps the reporter was desperate to write an anti-smoking and anti-drinking article but only had research about vinclozolin to report, so hey presto, just mix the two into one and hope nobody notices.)
Porsche says it will challenge new London £25 "congestion charge" band (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Luxury carmaker Porsche is to challenge plans to increase London's congestion charge to £25-a-day for some vehicles.
The firm said it intended to ask for a judicial review into the price changes, which come into force in October.
Porsche says the new rules, which affect the highest polluting vehicles, are "disproportionate" and will not decrease emissions in central London.
Transport for London (TfL) predicts up to 22,000 cars will no longer come into the zone when the new fee comes in.
Under the plans, which will be introduced on 27 October, cars with the lowest carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will get a 100% discount on the charge.
Most drivers will still pay the £8 road toll for entering the zone which covers parts of central and west London.
Porsche will write to the mayor's office informing him of their intention to seek a judicial review.
If it does not receive a satisfactory response, it will apply to the courts for an order to quash the new charge.
The mayor's advisor on climate change Mark Watts said "No-one needs to drive these really big polluting cars in central London.
"It's the 'polluter pays' principle - you will be allowed to carry on driving a big polluting car in central London, but what the new charge will mean is you have to pay for the cost of the pollution that you inflict upon everyone else."
Porsche are clearly correct. The new £25 band is indeed "disproportionate". It is just a vindictive tax put in place by the academic middle class because they hate cars (especially big ones). And the mayor's stooge, Mark Watts, is just taking the piss: "No-one needs to drive these really big polluting cars in central London." Well, no-one really needs to do anything in life (except die). That is not the question at hand. Indeed, one can imagine the Mark Watts of the world also just saying: "No-one really needs to drive in central London." And effectively, that is what the so-called congestion charge is all about. The academic middle class hate people being independently mobile. (Well, for some reason they excuse rich people who go around in taxis, because evidently rich people need to be able to do that.) Needless to say, just because Porsche are correct does not mean they will win their case. The judiciary is very academic middle class. But at least Porsche may force these dreadful bureaucrats to justify their decision with something more than the silly and patronising comments we get from Watts.
Another person who claims obesity is as serious a problem as climate change (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Obesity needs to be tackled in the same way as climate change, a top nutritional scientist has said.
The chairman of the International Obesity Taskforce wants world leaders to agree a global pact to ensure that everyone is fed healthy food.
Professor Philip James said the challenge of obesity was so great that action was needed now, even without clear evidence of the best options.
He also called for stricter rules on marketing and food labelling.
The sky is falling, the sky is falling. But it is amusing how everyone who has an agenda to plug likes to compare their "crisis" with climate change. After all, climate change is the number one problem facing the planet, and if my problem is as bad as climate change, the whole world should consider my problem to be extremely important and give me lots of attention and lots of money for research.
Hopefully James has something real to contribute, and not just this rather pathetic party political message for his special interest pressure group.
Heavy mobile phone use linked with an obscure cancer (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Heavy mobile phone use may be linked to an increased risk of cancer of the salivary gland, a study suggests.
Researchers looked at 500 Israelis who had developed the condition and compared their mobile phone usage with 1,300 healthy controls.
Those who had used the phone against one side of the head for several hours a day were 50% more likely to have developed a salivary gland tumour.
Cancer of the salivary gland is a very rare condition. Of the 230,000 cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK for instance annually, only 550 relate to this area.
Dr Siegal Sadetzki, who led the research, said while mobile phone use in Israel was much heavier than in many other parts of the world, this gave an insight into what the long-term, cumulative impact could be.
One of the key findings of the study was that heavy users in rural areas had an even higher risk that those in cities, due, the team suggested, to the fact that mobile phones in areas without strong signals need to emit more radiation to work properly.
But Dr Sadetzki stressed one study was not enough to prove a link, and that further research was needed.
This seems to be one of the first bona fide studies which has actually claimed to find some effect. But at least Sadetzki pointed out this is only one study, although she failed to point out the extra caveat that correlation is not the same thing as causation. Sadetzki implies that it is the radiation that is at fault, not the physical pressing of the phone to the head, but this study seems not to have addressed that issue (so this is a specific example where a link could be misleading). And is there any physiological reason why salivary glands should be liable in this way? Also, it seems that Israelis are much heavier mobile phone users than elsewhere, and this is an extremely rare cancer even with the alleged extra 50% likelihood, so all in all this seems not to be that serious a concern. But no doubt the mobile phone haters will latch onto this as a reason to get hysterical about mobile phones (and in particular mobile phone masts, which had nothing to do with this study).
Unintended consequences of building design (permanent blog link)
The "new" Department of Biochemistry building in Cambridge opened in 1997 and is located up a set of stairs from Tennis Court Road. Originally these stairs just consisted of steps, with a ramp to one side. Did the architects or university bureaucrats ever forsee the unintended use that would be made of the steps and ramp?
There was some bicycle parking along Tennis Court Road, and some more underneath in the garage. There was also some parking behind the building, but this was removed in 2001 when the Gurdon Institute was starting to be built. At that time some "temporary" cycle parking was added next to Kellet Lodge. (The city wanted this removed in 2006 because they laughingly alleged that it wrecked the Grade II listed Kellet Lodge, but it has not been removed so presumably the city backed down.) And more cycle parking was added underneath by removing car parking spaces in 2004.
But the architects and university bureaucrats seem to have forgotten the first rule of cycling: "Don't park 50 foot from the front door if you can instead park 10 foot away". And cyclists not only parked right next to the building (a procedure which was formally recognised with a few parking stands) but also parked along the ramp leading up to the building. This only worked because there was a (stainless steel) handrail leading up the ramp, and the ramp was just wide enough that you could clamp your bike to the rail without causing too much obstruction (usually).
Meanwhile the skateboarders of Cambridge had discovered that you could have a bit of
fun by launching yourself off the stairs (in particular using the ramp to get going).
Somehow this deeply offended someone or other, and after various attempts to
discourage them, in 2007 the university added (no doubt at great expense) more
(stainless steel) handrails leading up the steps. Well, it didn't take long for
cyclists to discover that this provided yet more opportunity to park your bike,
as can be seen in the photo:
(At the back: Kellet Lodge at the left, Department of Biochemistry at the right, ramp in between the two.)
The law of unintended consequences in action. You have to wonder how long it will take the Health and Safety control freaks to insist that it all be cleared.
More AI hype by Ray Kurzweil (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029, a leading US inventor has predicted.
Humanity is on the brink of advances that will see tiny robots implanted in people's brains to make them more intelligent, said Ray Kurzweil.
The engineer believes machines and humans will eventually merge through devices implanted in the body to boost intelligence and health.
Kurzweil has been saying this kind of thing for ages, and he doesn't seem to have announced any advance to justify this hype, which has kindly been regurgitated by the BBC without any critical analysis.
The SDC publishes another vacuous report, this time on supermarkets (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
An over-arching policy on supermarkets is needed if the government is to meet targets on obesity, waste and climate change, an independent report has said.
The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) report suggests the food chain contributes about one-fifth of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.
It admits supermarkets are improving performance in many ways, but calls for clear government policy guidance.
The SDC blames stores for exacerbating global poverty and promoting unhealthy lifestyles.
More hand wringing from the academic middle class. The SDC is one of those dreadful quangos which serves absolutely no purpose in life, so has to constantly try and justify its existence by writing silly, vacuous reports. And being academic middle class, they of course have to blame most of the problems of the world on corporations, here supermarkets. Well one thing is sure, we need more "government policy guidance" like a hole in the head. And just think how much "waste and climate change" would be reduced if the government just abolished all these pointless quangos.
Surprise, global warming will impact Antarctica (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Unique marine life in Antarctica will be at risk from an invasion of sharks, crabs and other predators if global warming continues, scientists warn.
Crabs are poised to return to the Antarctic shallows, threatening creatures such as giant sea spiders and floppy ribbon worms, says a UK-US team.
Some have evolved without predators for tens of millions of years.
Bony fish and sharks would move in if waters warm further, threatening species with extinction, they say.
In the last 50 years, sea surface temperatures around Antarctica have risen by 1 to 2C, which is more than twice the global average.
Speaking in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the researchers said global warming could fundamentally change the ecosystem, leading to the loss of some species.
Boy, where would we be without these scientists to tell us these obvious facts. All ecosystems are going to "fundamentally change". Species that cannot adapt will disappear.
A pointless report on supermarkets from the Competition Commission (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Suppliers will get better protection in their dealings with big supermarkets to ensure fair competition.
An ombudsman will be appointed to resolve any disputes between retailers and their food suppliers, the Competition Commission recommends.
They will have the power to award compensation and will uphold a stronger supermarket code of practice (SCOP).
Proposed changes to the planning law could also give shoppers a wider choice of supermarkets in their local areas.
The proposals come after a two-year investigation into the UK's supermarket sector, which is dominated by four major chains - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, and Morrisons.
Local governments are recommended to implement a 'competition test' when deciding whether to give planning permission for new large supermarkets.
There is also a proposed five-year time limit on the exclusivity agreements between supermarkets and local authorities that prevent rivals setting up shop nearby.
However, the plans do not require supermarkets to sell land or stores.
The proposal to create an ombudsman "to resolve any disputes between retailers and their food suppliers" sounds like a reasonable enough idea but the question is will it work in practise. The ombudsman is almost certainly going to be a member of the academic middle class (pretty much all such quango appointments are) and so will almost certainly be biased against the supermarkets in attitude and intent. On the other hand, the ombudsman may not have much actual power. And many farmers might well decide to keep quiet rather than risk being labelled trouble makers, and so blacklisted by all the big supermarkets.
And the idea of using a "'competition test' when deciding whether to give planning permission for new large supermarkets" again sounds reasonable enough, only it will allow the academic middle class people who run the country to stop any supermarket from ever having more than one store in an area. For example, the academic middle class people who run Cambridge are trying to stop a Tesco planning application for a store on Mill Road. And if this rule were in place then the city would have this excuse to turn it down. Indeed, so far the city has failed to find any other plausible reason to turn it down, although of course the current favourite reason for turning anything down anywhere in the UK is that it will increase traffic in the area by some (in this case insignificant) amount, and that is the current tactic of the protestors, having failed to present any good arguments to date.
Using cells instead of animals for testing chemicals (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
US scientists are taking the first step towards testing potentially hazardous chemicals on cells grown in a laboratory, without using live animals.
Two government agencies are looking into the merits of using high-speed automated robots to carry out tests.
The long-term goal is to reduce the cost, time and number of animals used in screening everything from pesticides to household chemicals.
The move follows calls for scientists to rely less on animal studies.
Speaking in a live link-up, Dr Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institute of Health (NIH), said high throughput screening might provide a faster, cheaper method of testing environmental chemicals.
"Historically such toxicity has always been determined by injecting chemicals into laboratory animals, watching to see if the animals get sick, and then looking at their tissues under the microscope," he explained.
"Although that approach has given us valuable information, it is clearly quite expensive, it is time-consuming, it uses animals in large numbers and it doesn't always predict which chemicals will be harmful to humans."
The research collaboration between the NIH and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the potential to revolutionise the way that toxic chemicals are identified, he said.
"Ultimately, what you are looking for is, does this compound do damage to cells?" said Dr Collins.
"So could we, in fact, instead of looking at a whole animal as our first line of analysis, look at individual cells from different organisms of different animals with different concentrations of the compound?"
A reasonable enough idea, but although it is obvious that testing animals "doesn't always predict which chemicals will be harmful to humans", cells are almost certainly bound to be much worse predictors of anything. For now, this technology is pie in the sky.
Another end of the world report, this time on the world's seas (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Only about 4% of the world's oceans remain undamaged by human activity, according to the first detailed global map of human impacts on the seas.
A study in Science journal says climate change, fishing, pollution and other human factors have exacted a heavy toll on almost half of the marine waters.
Only remote icy areas near the poles are relatively pristine, but they face threats as ice sheets melt, they warn.
The authors say the data is a "wake-up call" to policymakers.
Surprise, humans dominate the world's ecosystem. Who would have thought. And what does "relatively pristine" mean? It means that humans can't usefully cope with the extreme environment there. But other animals can. So evidently when non-humans dominate a specific ecosystem it is "pristine" (they are all such nice cuddly creatures) but as soon as humans get anywhere near any ecosystem the world is deemed to be at an end. Well, if the scientists just want to make the claim that the way humans dominate some ecosystems is bad for the planet, then all fine and well. Are they going to suggest that six billion people is too many for the planet? Or do they instead want to make the richest two billion people as poor as the poorest four billion? Is their "wake-up call" anything more than gesture politics?
Another government defeat in the courts over "terrorism" (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
A pilot wrongly accused of training the 9/11 hijackers is entitled to claim damages, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
Judges said evidence suggested "serious defaults" in the decision to detain Lotfi Raissi in prison for nearly five months after a US extradition request.
The ruling means the government has to reconsider the 33-year-old's claim for compensation, which it had refused.
Mr Raissi wants an apology and says his claim may run into millions of pounds. The government has said it may appeal.
Another serious miscarriage of justice is laid bare for all to see. And unbelievably, if the same thing happened today, the outcome would be much worse, since thanks to Tony Blair signing over all rights of UK citizens to the US government in 2003, the US could now ask for the deportation of someone like Raissi just because they feel like it, without having to provide any evidence to a UK court, and then lock him up forever just because they feel like it, without having to provide any evidence to a US court.
Downloading "extremist" material deemed not to be a crime (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The convictions of five young Muslim men jailed over extremist literature have been quashed by the Appeal Court.
Freeing the men, the Lord Chief Justice said there was no proof of terrorist intent. The lawyer for one said they had been jailed for a "thought crime".
A jury convicted them in 2007 after hearing the men, of Bradford University and Ilford, London, became obsessed with jihadi websites and literature.
The Home Office said it would study the judgement carefully.
It said it understood the Crown Prosecution Service was considering whether to appeal against the ruling, which it must do within seven days.
Irfan Raja, Awaab Iqbal, Aitzaz Zafar, Usman Malik and Akbar Butt were jailed for between two and three years each by the Old Bailey for downloading and sharing extremist terrorism-related material, in what was one of the first cases of its kind.
But at the Court of Appeal, Lord Phillips said that while the men had downloaded such material, he doubted if there was evidence this was in relation to planning terrorist acts.
He said the prosecution had attempted to use the law for a purpose for which it was not intended.
One small victory for human rights over the dreadful "terror" laws Tony Blair attempted to foist on the nation. If Phillips could find no evidence that the downloads were "in relation to planning terrorist acts" then it's pretty clear that the prosecution offered no such evidence. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were dozens of trendy books telling you how to make bombs (etc.), and if the government at the time had been able to lock up people in this way then probably half the current government would have been put behind bars.
Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten gives a talk in Cambridge (permanent blog link)
The Cambridge University Arcsoc society is running a series of lectures by Dutch architects this term, with sponsorship by the Dutch Embassy. The first lecture was by Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecten. After a suitably sexist introduction by the head of department (about how it was good to have a woman speaker because it was supposed to be inspirational to women students), Houben spent over an hour going through some of the recent projects of the firm.
The title of her talk, "Dutch Mountains", refers to buildings, since these are the tallest features in the heart of Holland. Not surprisingly, much of Mecanoo's work is in Holland itself. She mentioned a library, an open air museum, a historic museum, a stadium extension, a new city hall and train station, and a tower called Fiftytwodegrees in Nijmegen (because that is the latitude of the city). And the work abroad included a theatre and a court in Spain, a folly in Japan, and a performing arts centre in Taiwan. And last, and perhaps least (she was not even going to mention it but was asked to), a housing development, Fox Hill, at the edge of a town near Sheffield.
They all look ok (well, many are not built yet so this is in virtual reality) but of course unless you are a user of a building, you cannot really tell whether any of it works. She mentioned a few times that her budgets were not great (and apparently on this score you always have to mention Norman Foster in comparison). At the end someone asked about the budget for the performing arts centre and she did not provide a figure.
English architects (and urban planners) always seem to drool at Dutch architecture and architects. Probably because Dutch architects seem to have a much bigger role to play in housing than English architects in England. And Houben was happy to play along (she admitted to being a Dutch nationalist) and said that she found housing in England (and Spain) to be pretty dreadfully uniform.
But almost the most interesting part of her talk was about "Mobility". Apparently she has a big thing about mobility, although she did not really clarify this very well. But she did mention that she looked at the highways between Amsterdam and Rotterdam and Utrecht, and as part of some Rotterdam Architecture Biennale that she organised, she got ten other cities around the world to look at similar highways. She had one odd view of Dutch highways, namely that apparently it was important to see "traditional" Dutch scenery from the highways, so ribbon development should not be allowed. But one of the points of transport links is that it is totally natural (and stupid not to allow) development alongside. This is not to say that there should not be thought about the development. But do people really need to see Dutch windmills as they drive along? If that is so important then get off the highway and travel the back roads.
Houben happens to live in Rotterdam and work in Delft, and she said her family was spread around Holland so she drove around a lot to visit them. So she can see the benefit of cars, and indeed the general benefit of mobility. At the end someone pointed out that this was completely the opposite approach to most English architects and urban planners, where hatred of the car is always the first, and practically the only, item on the agenda. Houben dismissed this by saying that Holland had gone down this approach in the seventies, where everyone was supposed to be forced to take public transport, and it was a failure. As she said, "you cannot say that 90% of the people are wrong". Unfortunately, in England, the ruling elite perpetually do say that 90% (well, more like 75%) of the people are wrong.
Another "soak the rich" scheme (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The "super rich" should pay 10% more tax on earnings over £150,000 or give the same amount to charity, senior Labour MP Frank Field has proposed.
Mr Field, MP for Birkenhead, said his proposals would fulfil Margaret Thatcher's dream of a "giving culture".
He said his hope was to "breathe life into this noble aspiration".
The former welfare minister suggests the move could raise £3.6bn a year.
Frank Field is the John McCain of England. He is supposed to be a "straight talker" who just says it like it is and is willing to speak the unspeakable. Unfortunately, just like McCain, Field mostly spouts random nonsense (which is generally why it is unspoken).
Like all people who want to "soak the rich", he just plucks a random figure from nowhere (here 150k pounds) and decrees that these people are "super rich" and should pay more tax. But all taxation is arbitrary like that, so he is no worse in this respect than anyone else.
The real problem here is that pretty much any organisation can call itself a charity. Indeed, rich people can set up their own charities and give money to that. Well, some rich people (e.g. Bill Gates) already do that. But it could easily be used as a way of not paying this extra tax (for a tax it is). Every charity has overheads, after all, and there is no reason why a rich person couldn't choose to have the charity's overheads just happen to be beneficial to the family of the rich person.
It is extremely unlikely that anywhere near the suggested 3.6bn a year would be "raised". In fact, like tax, it is not "raised" so much as shifted (it's not as if this money wasn't being used for something already).
Global warming might lead to fewer deaths due to weather in the UK (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The risk of a fatal heatwave in the UK within ten years is high, but overall global warming may mean fewer deaths due to temperature, a report says.
A seriously hot summer between now and 2017 could claim more than 6,000 lives, the Department of Health report warns.
But it also stresses that milder winters mean deaths during this time of year - which far outstrip heat-related mortality - will continue to decline.
The report is to help health services prepare for climate change effects.
Nevertheless, there is at present a 25% chance that by 2017 south-east England will see a severe heatwave which could cause 3,000 immediate deaths and the same number of heat-related deaths throughout the summer.
While the authors acknowledge that predicting heatwaves and their effects is difficult, the risk was nonetheless "high".
However, even 6,000 deaths pales in comparison with the number of cold-related deaths, which in the UK currently average about 20,000 per year.
All fairly well known (although the figure of 6000 seems to be just plucked from the air). Of course this kind of story doesn't get too much play because we all have to repeat over and over that global warming is a bad, bad thing. Indeed, we should not even call it global warming, because some people (e.g. Northern Europeans) might think this is a good thing. We must call it climate change and repeat over and over that it is a bad, bad thing.
Buying lottery tickets allegedly does not make sense (permanent blog link)
The BBC often runs stories which are basically just advertising for its own programs. Along this line, Garth Sundem says, apparently in relation to an upcoming Horizon program on BBC2:
Should you invest £2 a day or use it to buy lottery tickets?
Maths makes the decision obvious. Suppose you invest two quid every day at the reasonable rate of 10%. It will take you almost exactly 50 years to accumulate £1m. To earn this same £1m in the National Lottery, you would (on average) have to match five numbers and a bonus ball, at odds of 2,330,635-to-1.
If you spent two quid a day for 50 years you would total just over 36,500 tickets and would thus have only a 1-in-63 chance of making that million pounds. However, the available image of immediate wealth subverts this rationality.
Sundem might know his simple maths (and this is very simple maths). But he fails miserably as an economist. First of all, he must be a pretty rich person if he thinks that an average punter investing 2 pounds a day will earn a rate of 10%. And anyone rich enough to earn a rate of 10% on their investments is probably a higher rate taxpayer, so the interest would be charged tax at 40%, and the net rate would thus be 6%.
And Sundem completely ignores inflation. A million pounds in 50 years does not have the same value as a million pounds today. If the inflation rate was 2.8% then a million pounds in 50 years is worth around 250 thousand pounds today. Of course there is also an inflation rate associated with the lottery, but if you were one of the 1-in-63 theoretical people who won the lottery then you would on average have done so after 25 years, which means the million pounds would be worth around 500 thousand pounds today.
And Sundem completely ignores the discount factor. Everybody would rather have a million pounds today than a million pounds tomorrow (even adjusting for inflation).
Of course, no matter how you look at it, the "return" on the National Lottery is poor (since less than half the ticket revenue ends up being handed out in prizes). It's just that Sundem makes a very poor argument out of a trivial fact.
The fact that the "return" is poor does not mean that it is crazy for people to play the lottery. For ordinary people, it is the only chance they will ever have of being rich. For many people, that near negligible chance is worth a small weekly loss.
Horizon is not a very good "science" program these days.
In Iceland third and fourth cousins who marry have more children (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Marrying a distant relative could mean a larger family, according to Icelandic researchers who studied their nation's genetic record.
The Science journal study found third and fourth cousin couples had more children than those more distantly related.
These cousins may be biologically more compatible, the specialist genetics firm deCODE concluded.
However, there was no advantage in partnerships involving first cousins.
Evidence that related couples have more children has been found before, but there has always been doubt whether this is the result of similarities in their genetic makeup, or just the result of differences in the societies in which cousin marriages are common.
The deCODE team have access to a unique genetic record which allows them to unpick the interlocking family trees of Iceland.
In addition, Icelandic society and culture has been historically uniform across its population, making it easier to rule it out as an influence on the results.
This study does not really prove that the effect they have noticed is due to "similarities in their genetic makeup". It could easily be the result of social differences between people who might marry their third or fourth cousin and people who would not. Icelandic "society and culture" might have been "historically uniform" but that does not mean that all people wanted to breed exactly the same amount as everybody else. For example, rural people might be more likely to marry third or fourth cousins (there are fewer potential partners to choose from) but might also be more likely to want bigger families.
Hopefully the deCODE team will produce more interesting and useful results than this one.
Yet another "zero-carbon" new city being built (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Abu Dhabi has started to build what it says is the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste car-free city.
Masdar City will cost $22bn (£11.3bn), take eight years to build and be home to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses.
The city will be mostly powered by solar energy and residents will move in travel pods running on magnetic tracks.
Abu Dhabi has one of the world's biggest per capita carbon footprints and sceptics fear Masdar may be just a fig leaf for the oil-rich Gulf emirate.
Others fear Masdar City - on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi City - may become a luxury development for the rich.
The project is supported by global conservation charity, the WWF.
The city will make use of traditional Gulf architecture to create low-energy buildings, with natural air conditioning from wind towers.
Water will be provided through a solar-powered desalination plant, Masdar says. The city will need a quarter of the power required for a similar sized community, while its water needs will be 60% lower.
Just the latest blockbusting new city around the world which will allegedly be "green". Assuming the quoted cost is split 50-50 between housing and offices, this equates to over 200k dollars per person for the housing. If there are (say) 2.5 people per house that means each house is costing 500k dollars. There is no quotation for the cost of the land, but since it is at the edge of the city, this is probably insignificant. So effectively the actual build cost of the housing and infrastructure to support the housing is indeed 500k dollars per house. That is a pretty high number, and would indicate this is indeed going to become a "luxury development for the rich" (but who cares if it does).
What this really means is that there are going to be an awful lot of up-front carbon emissions (well, 22 billion dollars in total) in order to then (allegedly) save future emissions. Of course, if there is anywhere where solar power is ever going to make sense, it has to be in hot countries like the Middle East.
The "pods running on magnetic tracks" looks to be one large source of up-front carbon emissions, since the implication is that this will magically remove the need for cars. Well, if this system is anywhere good enough to match the functionality of cars (and would any of the rich people this city is targetted at accept anything less?), then one might as well call these cars. They just might happen to run (indirectly) on electricity instead of petrol.
And the BBC unfortunately fails to mention in what way the WWF "supports" this project. Are they receiving any money for this "support"? The lack of critical analysis by the BBC here and elsewhere in the article makes the whole thing read just like a press release from the company behind the city, which is presumably what it was.
Nick Clegg claims that he does not want Cambridge road pricing (unless pigs fly) (permanent blog link)
The Cambridge Evening News says:
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has warned that Cambridge must not be used as "a guinea pig" to trial its nationwide plans for road pricing.
And he made clear any moves to bring in congestion charging to cut traffic and pollution in the historic city must be linked to immediate and major improvements to public transport.
Mr Clegg said: "In principle I'm in favour of road charging in all our great towns and cities like Cambridge, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds.
"But it only works, and is politically acceptable, if the schemes that are piloted are done in a way that shows demonstrable benefit to the public, in terms of improved public transport alternatives.
Councillor Keith Walters, leader of the county council, has said no decisions on introducing it had been made yet.
"We are in the consultation phase and no decisions have been taken yet, and we will listen to reasoned arguments as to why we should or should not continue with certain options."
Shorter Nick Clegg: "The Lib Dems are against road pricing when we might lose votes because of it".
Shorter Keith Walters: "We are wrong but we won't admit it."
Walters' patronising reference to "reasoned arguments" is unbelievable. Indeed, the only people in Cambridge who have made "reasoned arguments" about the proposed road pricing scheme are those people who oppose it. The people who are for road pricing are the ones who have made no "reasoned arguments" because theirs is purely a political decision. There are two aspects to this political decision. One, some of these people, especially the transport planners (and the Lib Dems and the Greens and the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and the other members of the academic middle class), hate cars and drivers. Two, central government is bribing local government to introduce road pricing, and some people evidently think that this kind of gross corruption is perfectly acceptable (this is where the Tories come in, but the Cambridge Cycling Campaign also falls into this camp). It's as simple as that. Not exactly a "reasoned argument".
MPs write a useless report on the gender pay gap (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The government must "take more seriously" efforts to eliminate the UK's gender pay gap, a Select Committee report has said.
The Women and Work Commission was set up in 2004 to tackle the pay gap which stood at 18% among full-time workers and 40% for those working part-time.
However the MPs said that though the commission put forward proposals, not enough had been done to implement them.
Occupational segregation is largely to blame for the pay gap, the report says.
Most women work in a relatively limited number of occupations with lower pay, or in part-time jobs, it points out.
Among the key reasons for the gender pay gap was the lack of quality part-time jobs, the committee said, which calling for more spending to tackle the problem.
Recommendations of the report include:
- The government considering making audits of firm's pay by gender - currently done only in the public sector - also mandatory at private firms if the pay gap fails to decline more quickly.
The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between women and men in the UK, said the report added to pressure on the government to adopt more radical approaches to achieving equal pay.
A typically useless report from the House of Commons. The fact that they believe that "more spending" (i.e. more government spending) is going to create "quality" part-time jobs just tells you how little they understand about the world. And they claim that "occupational segregation is largely to blame for the pay gap" but they want to force private companies to make audits of firm's pay by gender "if the pay gap fails to decline more quickly". So evidently private companies are supposed to magically sort out "occupational segregation" (hey, refuse to hire any women unless they are engineers, because obviously if they are secretaries they are betraying their gender). Needless to say, the House of Commons itself is one of the most gender biased organisations in the country. Let them sort out their own blatant "occupational segregation" before they lecture the rest of the country about the matter.
Another two damning studies on biofuels (permanent blog link)
The New York Times says:
Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these "green" fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have concluded.
The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy.
These studies for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development.
The destruction of natural ecosystems - whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America - not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.
Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.
"When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. "Previously there”s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis."
These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions - for refining and transport, for example.
The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years you”re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions."
the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated.
Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.
"This land use problem is not just a secondary effect - it was often just a footnote in prior papers,". "It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland."
Well, it's only two studies. And no doubt the analysis is extremely complex and lacking in various important regards. (And would one really trust any report whose lead author works for a speical interest pressure group like the Nature Conservancy? Princeton is a different matter.) But these are just the latest in a long line of studies pointing out the serious flaws in biofuels. Unfortunately the EU is still insisting on forcing biofuels into the EU energy equation, and the current US administration is following suit because it provides another, implicit rather than explicit, subsidy of their corporate friends in the agricultural industry.
Putin says Nato has started a new arms race (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Russia's President Vladimir Putin says the world is engaged in a new arms race and Nato is failing to accommodate Russia's concerns.
In a nationally-televised speech, he condemned Nato's expansion and the US plan to include Poland and the Czech Republic in a missile defence shield.
"It is already clear that a new phase in the arms race is unfolding in the world," Mr Putin said.
"It is not our fault, because we did not start it," he said.
All pretty obvious stuff, but of course it will if anything have the opposite effect of what is allegedly intended. The messianic nutters running America would be happy for an arms race (more corporate welfare for their friends). Further they will take any words from Putin as an alleged slight on their manhood, so will re-double their effort. After all, you don't want to appear to be "weak". They blew a trillion dollars on destroying Iraq just to prove they were "tough", with very little to show for it except for a (no doubt short-lived) theft of rights to Iraqi oil. They'll be perfectly happy to blow another N billion dollars on a "defence" system in Europe.
Government plans to tax foreigners might make London less attractive (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The Trade and Industry Minister Lord Jones said London's top role in the global finance could be damaged by plans to tax wealthy foreigners.
Lord Jones says the proposals will make it harder to attract top investors and business people to London.
The Treasury plans to charge foreigners who have claimed tax-exempt status on their overseas earnings for more than seven years, £30,000 ($58,400) a year.
This summarises everything that is wrong with the British media. Some minister makes a completely obvious remark and the media goes ballistic (as is made clear in the rest of the article). Digby didn't say it was a bad policy. As with every policy, there are positives and negatives. He just pointed out the obvious fact that some people see it as a bad policy. The fact that no government official or politician can ever mention a potential negative without the media going ballistic is a big problem. It means that every politician continuously has to lie to everyone about just about everything. Politicians perpetually have to pretend that all their policies have no downsides, only upsides (and of course their opponents' policies only have downsides and no upsides).
As it happens, this particular policy could easily end up with the UK being worse off. The Treasury claims otherwise but what do they know. For one thing, they only look at tax receipts, not the bigger picture. The government was goaded into this rather poor policy by the Tories (and the media), so the Tories are partly to blame.
Being overweight as child allegedly mostly down to genes not environment (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Becoming overweight as a child is more likely to be the result of your genes than your lifestyle, claims a study.
University College London researchers examined more than 5,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins.
Their American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found that differences in body mass index and waist size were 77% governed by genes.
An anti-obesity group said regardless of genes, a balanced diet and exercise were vital to good health.
It's only one study so as usual should be taken with a pinch of salt. But the result is interesting as far as it goes.
It's not just warm weather that led to ice shelf collapse (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Two scientists have claimed that climate change was not the only cause of the collapse of a 500bn tonne ice shelf in Antarctica six years ago.
The 656ft (200m) thick, 1,255 sq mile (3,250 sq km) Larsen B shelf broke apart in March 2002.
But Neil Glasser of Aberystwyth University and Ted Scambos of Colorado University claim in a new study that it had been on the brink for decades.
They argue that glaciological and atmospheric factors were also invoved.
He acknowledged that global warming had a major part to play in the collapse, but emphasised that it was only one of a number of contributory factors.
Did anyone ever claim there were no other "contributory factors"? This paper hardly seems like news.
Archbishop of Canterbury wants Sharia law in Britain (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Leading politicians have distanced themselves from the Archbishop of Canterbury's belief that some Sharia law in the UK seems "unavoidable".
Gordon Brown's spokesman said the prime minister "believes that British laws should be based on British values".
The Tories called the archbishop's remarks "unhelpful" and the Lib Dems said all must abide by the rule of law.
Dr Rowan Williams said the UK had to "face up to the fact" some citizens do not relate to the British legal system.
He said adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law could help social cohesion.
For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.
But the prime minister's official spokesman said Sharia law could never be used as a justification for committing a breach of English law, nor could the principle of Sharia law be applied in a civil case.
Dr Williams said Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty".
What an idiot. He even makes Prince Charles look good. His real agenda seems to be to allow all fundamentalist religious nutters, especially Christian ones like himself, to be able to pick which laws they agree to follow. Fortunately the political establishment seems to have told him where to get off. Why the Anglican church ever let itself be burdened with this backwards man as archbishop is a mystery.
Another scheme which claims we will get to Australia in five hours (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
A British firm claims to have designed a hypersonic passenger plane that could one day fly between Europe and Australia in less than five hours.
The A2 aeroplane, designed by Reaction Engines in Oxfordshire, would carry 300 passengers at a top speed of 4,000mph.
The company said the aircraft, which is still at the concept stage, could be operating within 25 years.
It said the A2 would be able to keep a sustained speed of 3,800mph, more than twice the speed of Concorde.
At 143m (156yds) long, the A2 is roughly twice the size of the biggest current jumbo jets.
It would run on a liquid hydrogen engine being developed by Reaction Engines, based at Culham near Abingdon.
How many times in the last forty years has the BBC run a story just like this one?
EU throws money at attempting to make planes more efficient (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Some of the biggest names in European industry have begun a public-private partnership with the EU to produce greener aircraft.
Airbus, Dassault, Saab and Rolls Royce are all taking part in the 1.6bn euro (£1.2bn) "clean sky" initiative.
Half the money will be raised by the European Union and half by industry.
EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik said the investment would keep Europe at the cutting edge and help combat climate change.
The use of public money for a project involving companies such as Airbus could cause friction with its US competitor, Boeing.
But Myriam Goldsztejn of Dassault Aviation told the BBC News website that a public-private partnership was the right approach.
"There is no other way," she said. "The programme is so huge that if we don't work with the European Commission we'll never succeed. It's too big for one company."
She said the project might not be an issue for the World Trade Organisation, as it was all about developing the technology rather than the product.
A spokesman for Boeing said he did not wish to comment at this stage.
This is a great idea in theory. But in practise, will these companies be able to deliver, or is this just going to be used as an excuse for the companies to be given a nice subsidy? Hopefully the former. An accompanying table suggests the aim is to cut carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 40% over forty years, which is certainly a worthwhile goal. But there is also the small matter of the WTO.
France launches the AGV, the successor to the TGV (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has attended the launch of a new high-speed train made by engineering giant Alstom.
The AGV (Automotrice Grande Vitesse) train will travel at up to 360km/h (224mph), powered by motors placed under each carriage, the company says.
The absence of locomotives at either end allows it to carry more passengers.
Alstom compares the AGV - successor to the TGV - to the world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, in terms of importance and innovation.
The new AGV trains are set to travel 1,000km (600 miles) in three hours, which is "a new stage in the competition with the airlines", said Alstom's Executive Chairman, Patrick Kron, at the ceremony.
With a motor under each carriage, the AGV - which translates as "high-speed railcar" - is unlike the TGV, which has motors only at the back and front.
It was also built using Alstom's own funds rather than as a joint venture with the state rail firm SNCF as the TGV was.
The TGV's maximum speed currently is 320km/h. But a modified TGV achieved a world rail speed record for a train on conventional rails last April, reaching 574.8km/h.
The AGV's new motors are more energy-efficient and the innovative multiple-unit design allows more passenger space, Alstom says.
An accompanying figure has a caption which claims that the AGV "consumes 30% less energy than a TGV" (presumably per passenger mile). If so, this is all very good news all around. One of the problems with going faster and faster is that it takes more and more energy (and often disproportionately). So if some clever engineering has meant that the AGV really is much more energy efficient (per passenger mile) than the TGV then Alstom deserves great praise. This is a significant step forward for high-speed train travel.
Another end-of-the-world report on climate change (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Many of Earth's climate systems will undergo a series of sudden shifts this century as a result of human-induced climate change, a study suggests.
A number of these shifts could occur this century, say the report's authors.
They argue that society should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that climate change will be a gradual process.
In a formal survey the researchers said that a number of systems that influence the Earth's weather patterns could begin to collapse suddenly if there's even a slight increase in global temperatures.
The researchers have listed and ranked nine ecological systems that they say could be lost this century as a result of global warming. The nine tipping elements and the time it will take them to undergo a major transition are:
- Melting of Arctic sea-ice (about 10 years)
- Decay of the Greenland ice sheet (about 300 years)
- Collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (about 300 years)
- Collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (about 100 years)
- Increase in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (about 100 years)
- Collapse of the Indian summer monsoon (about 1 year)
- Greening of the Sahara/Sahel and disruption of the West African monsoon (about 10 years)
- Dieback of the Amazon rainforest (about 50 years)
- Dieback of the Boreal Forest (about 50 years)
The paper also demonstrates how, in principle, early warning systems could be established using real-time monitoring and modelling to detect the proximity of certain tipping points.
It's rather amusing to read that "society should not be lulled into a false sense of security by the idea that climate change will be a gradual process". The international media is full of doom and gloom stories on climate change (such as this specific article) and a lot of them emphasize the tipping point issues. Indeed, Hollywood was so enamoured with this idea that they made a blockbuster film ('The Day After Tomorrow') about it. These scientists need to get out a bit more, and read the news a bit more, and watch TV a bit more.
And it's amazing that with global warming only bad things can happen. Sure, you can easily make an argument that the rate of change of the climate is extremely bad for the planet. But the idea that the change itself is extremely bad for the planet is bizarre. The temperature of the planet has never been constant. The global ecosystem has survived the highs and the lows perfectly happily. Some specific ecosystems might do worse, but others almost certainly will do better. On the other hand, the issue of the rate of change might mean that more bad things are likely than good things. And if the specific mechanism causes runaway temperature change then that is another issue. But this research was not about the rate of change. Just the change itself. And this research was not about a really large temperature change. Just about "a slight increase in global temperatures". And in spite of this, they could only find (or mention) bad things because they only know how (or want) to find bad things.
Some rich businessman says cars should be forced to be more efficient (permanent blog link)
Mark Moody-Stuart, ex-chairman of Shell and a chairman or director of loads of other companies, says on the BBC:
To address the climate challenge we need to reduce the carbon content of our energy by at least half.
But at the same time we must learn to generate a unit of GDP for about half the energy which we use at present.
Energy efficiency and carbon content of energy are equally important, but they require different approaches to achieve them.
I am a great believer in both the power of consumer choice and the market. As we come to understand the consequences, we do tend to make greener choices.
But most of us will only make those choices if they deliver the convenience and utility to which we are used or aspire; and if they do not cost more (or we can afford the luxury of choice).
For carbon content, we need a mechanism which forces energy supplies in the right direction. This means putting a price on carbon for major producers (and large-scale users) of energy through a carbon cap and trade system, such as we already have in Europe.
Unfortunately, this system has been initially subject to government and business special pleading and gaming. Or it means a carbon tax.
Both are complex and should only be applied to major producers or users. Trading encourages carbon-avoiding investment where it has the most impact. It also allows the transfer, through market mechanisms, of financial resources to China and India.
I do not think we will get a more global agreement without such transfer. Taxation has the great merit that it provides a clear floor price of carbon.
So for me the preferred option is a combination - a tax, but with the ability to reduce it through trading, getting the best combination of a floor price and efficiency of investment.
Most people think that a price of something around 40 dollars a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) to producers would do the trick.
Before you panic about the cost to you and industrial transport, that is only about 5p a litre on fuel - within the noise of oil price variations.
On the other hand, for efficiency we need regulatory frameworks - very tough efficiency standards on buildings, on lighting and on personal transport.
That means banning the manufacture or import of old fashioned light bulbs.
It means very tough standards on buildings. This is already having an effect in London where to achieve highly valuable planning permission, developments are already achieving energy efficiency which we thought we would not achieve for a decade or more.
And for personal transportation? That means banning "gas guzzlers" and steadily increasing the total efficiency of any vehicle sold.
You can buy the roomiest, vroomiest car, as long as it meets the efficiency standard.
There is nothing that controversial here. But needless to say, the devil is in the detail. And when he mentions that his proposed carbon tax level "is only about 5p a litre on fuel" (others would double or triple it), he completely fails to mention that car drivers already pay around 59p a litre of tax on fuel (and that is for petrol, diesel is higher still). So drivers already pay a whacking great carbon tax, but the ruling elite are never happy and want to screw drivers ever more, in order that other people (e.g. train passengers) can pay no (or indeed, even a negative) carbon tax. Nowhere in his article does Moody-Stuart mention this small matter.
(And is he going to ban race cars? They of course get pathetic mileage. Or is it ok to drive inefficent cars as long as you are doing it in an extremely expensive way?)
Meanwhile Roger Harrabin, a BBC environment "analyst", in response to this article, writes an accompanying article:
The EU should ban the sale of cars that do under 35 miles to the gallon, the ex-chairman of oil giant Shell says.
Sir Mark Moody-Stuart told BBC News the motor industry would adapt to cope with stricter environmental rules.
The UK Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders opposes the idea, saying drivers of the most polluting cars pay extra through road tax and petrol duty.
But Sir Mark said this simply let rich people avoid taking responsibility for tackling climate change.
Sir Mark says that with a growing world demand for cars, jobs lost in one polluting part of the industry will be more than replaced by jobs in a newer, cleaner part of industry.
His remarks may chime well with many of the public.
Opinion polls consistently show that people are prepared to change their ways to tackle climate change - but only if their neighbours are forced to do the same.
This fact is regularly ignored by politicians fearing a potential backlash.
They may find in future that it is less controversial for them to impose tough rules on everyone rather than to seek compromises to accommodate minorities.
Well, after clarifying what Moody-Stuart failed to clarify in his own article (that the arbitrary limit of what is an "efficient" car is 35 mpg), Harrabin launches a political diatribe at the end. For "minorities" read "the 75% of the country that gets to work by car". And the BBC wonders why some people think it has a very academic middle class agenda? Harrabin consistently produces just about the most biased BBC website articles, and given that the BBC (laughingly) claims it is impartial, they really should sack him.
London has a new "low emission zone" for lorries (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Many London motorists have noticed the new banks of cameras appearing on major roads around the city and wondered whether they are part of some new extension of CCTV Britain.
They are in fact for the new London low emission zone, said to be the biggest urban environmental control in the world.
To enter the new zone, lorries will have to meet the so-called European Category Three standard for airborne pollutants and nitrogen oxides - most modern vehicles now meet this requirement, but those with vehicles which do not will have to pay £200 a day to enter central London.
The new restrictions and charges currently only cover 12-tonne lorries with diesel engines, but buses and coaches weighing 3.5 tonnes will be included from July, and other vehicles from 2010.
Only cars and motorcycles will be exempt, and London's transport authority insists there are no plans to bring them into the scheme.
The controversial aspect of this policy relates to the cost to businesses forced to comply with the new restrictions.
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) estimates 10,000 lorries may breach the minimum standard.
Some companies are fitting "pollution traps" to their exhausts; others will replace old vehicles with newer ones.
Both are expensive options, and the FTA believes the haulage industry will spend £100m adapting to the new system.
The St John Ambulance service believes it could be facing a bill for £4m if it has to replace its non-compliant mobile treatment centres.
The Mayor of London believes there are still 1,000 people a year at risk of premature death due to smog, particularly those with existing lung or heart conditions.
Ken Livingstone says seven out of 10 Londoners are worried about the air they breathe, and that this justifies the new system.
It all starts today and apparently (in spite of all the signs) lots of people were unaware of what was going on. So the BBC decided to run several stories today about the new rules. Unfortunately the stories were mostly propaganda and not that informative. Indeed, none of the stories even bothered to give a map of the zone. (Apparently the BBC believes that if you mention the zone is 610 square miles in size then that is good enough.)
The real question, as always, is the cost versus the benefit. The cost of 100 million pounds estimated by the FTA is probably an exaggeration (it's part of the game: industry organisations always exaggerate). On the other hand the St John Ambulance (not part of the FTA, of course) just by itself is claiming a high cost of compliance (the BBC provided two figures on this front, 1 million and 4 million pounds, so take your pick). And we have buses and other vehicles still to come. So 100 million might actually be a low estimate. This is not to mention the cost of implementation of the scheme, which the BBC claimed was 57 million pounds. And there is the running cost (which perhaps Livingstone will try to meet via the fines for non-compliance). So the scheme could easily cost at least 150 million pounds in total.
On the benefit side, Ken Livingstone provides absolutely no analysis. So he "believes" that "1,000 people a year [are] at risk of premature death due to smog" (but how much will change with these new rules?). And he says, as a joke, that "seven out of 10 Londoners are worried about the air they breathe, and that this justifies the new system". Evidently this is what passes for a cost-benefit analysis amongst today's politicians. You make up some survey which asks Mom and apple pie questions ("do you want free education?", "do you want it to be sunny every day?", "do you want less pollution?") without providing any context or suggesting any cost for implementing some unspecified policy, and then, hey presto, people opt for the obvious "free cake" alternatives. What a surprise. Some day in the primary schools of London they will read about how Livingstone the great hero managed to overcome the laws of economics and provide something for nothing to the eternally grateful citizens of London. (It will have to be in the primary schools because by the time kids are in secondary school they will know that anything government tells them is at best a misrepresentation and at worst a blatant lie.)
Unfortunately the BBC completely fails its public service duty and just lets Livingstone get away without providing any justification for his policy.
Royal Academy exhibition 'From Russia' (permanent blog link)
The Royal Academy has an exhibition "From Russia" (until 18 April 2008; before London it was in Düsseldorf at the Museum Kunst Palast). Other than the cute title, the main publicity for the exhibition before it opened was over whether Russia would allow it to be shown at all at the last minute, because of a fear (real or imagined) that some of the paintings might be seized over a dispute of ownership. (The Russian government stole the paintings after the revolution and the descendants of the original owners would like to be compensated.) (There was never any discussion in the media whether any of the paintings in the exhibition were stolen from the Nazis, who in turn of course stole art from various people all over the place.)
Fortunately this dispute was settled (not before the British government made a fool of itself with various patronising lectures to the Russians). So what might have been a financial disaster for the Royal Academy turned into a bonanza of free publicity. And on the second Sunday the exhibition was packed far more than one might have expected, and indeed it was difficult to even see some of the paintings it was so crowded.
The exhibition was a mixture of paintings by French and Russian artists, covering the period 1870-1925, featuring in particular the (stolen) works of art by the Russian collectors Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin. The selection of French artists was mostly as one would expect (Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, etc.). And not surprisingly the quality of the art was high, but because the artists are so familiar the exhibition would have been pointless if it only contained these works. Having said that, the exhibition contained some fine early Matisse works. Not only 'The Dance', which is featured on the poster for the exhibition (and another version hangs in MOMA in New York, so this is known in the West) but also a wonderful portrait 'Nude (Black and Gold)'. And there was one Van Gogh ('Portrait of Dr Felix Rey').
The real point of the exhibition was the work by the Russian artists, most of whom are largely unknown in the West, with the exception of Kandinsky and Chagall, who emigrated to France after the revolution. Needless to say, not all the work stands the test of time. But there was some pretty good stuff on display. For example, 'Portrait of Sophia Botkina' by Valentin Serov; 'September Snow' by Igor Grabar, 'Peasant Woman Dancing' by Philipp Malyavin, 'Portrait of Theatre Director Vsevolod Meyerhold' by Boris Grigoriev, three works by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and perhaps best of all, two portraits by Nathan Altman, especially one of Anna Akhmatova, which graces the exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition catalogue has pretty good reproductions on the whole, and is well worth buying.
A few hundred people protest against an "eco" town (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Protesters gathered near the site of a proposed eco-town planned for a former Army camp.
The scheme, for 6,000 new homes at Long Marston, Warwickshire, is one of 50 similar projects across the UK aiming to create carbon-neutral communities.
The government has said it wants at least 10 such towns by 2020.
Protesters argue there has not been enough consultation and say the schemes will be an excuse for building houses in inappropriate places.
Residents from communities near the proposed sites are among those concerned about the impact they might have.
About 200 demonstrators turned up near the proposed site of the Long Marston eco-town on Sunday, carrying placards opposing the site.
Gee whiz, a whole 200 demonstrators. Obviously very academic middle class, because the BBC gave them lots of publicity. They are basically just NIMBYs, no more and no less. Of course they are correct in one sense. The "eco" label is just made up. You cannot go by a building site today where there are not placards proclaiming that such and such a company is doing "sustainable" work. And the government likes the marketing spin it can get from pretending that it cares about the environment. (And the next Tory government will be the same, if not worse.) It is crazy to allow a developer or the government just to put the "eco" label on something and pretend that everything else can be ignored. On the other hand, the country does need housing, and these houses have to go somewhere. It would be better if new houses could be integrated better into existing communities, or at very low density in the countryside, rather than just dumped in one big lot in an empty field somewhere. But Britain is hopeless at urban planning.
UK government wants fluoride to be added to water supplies (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Health Secretary Alan Johnson is to call this week for fluoride to be added to Britain's water supplies.
Mr Johnson will say that fluoridation is an "effective and relatively easy way" to reduce tooth decay among children in poorer areas.
Critics say excessive fluoride can cause discolouring of the teeth and pitting of the enamel.
Six million people in England, mainly in the North-east and Midlands, receive water with added fluoride.
But the government is keen to expand that across the country.
It has the support of the British Dental Association, which has argued that targeted water fluoridation would, at a stroke, dramatically improve oral health among the needy.
In 2003, MPs approved legislation to make it easier for fluoride to be added to drinking water in England and Wales.
Few water companies have done so for fear of legal action by anti-fluoride campaigners.
Opponents point to studies which have linked high levels of fluoride to bone cancer and brittle bone disease.
They also argue that too much fluoride can be counter-productive, damaging and discolouring enamel in a condition known as fluorosis.
They say reducing sugar intake and regular brushing is far more effective.
Great, the entire country is going to be mass medicated just because a bunch of "needy" people might benefit and are incapable of looking after their own health. As the article manages to point out right at the end, reducing sugar intake is a far more sensible idea.
Cloned embryos from tissues donated "for research" (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
The government may allow scientists to clone embryos from tissues donated for research without the need for donors' "express" consent, the BBC has learned.
Health officials say they have accepted that the requirement, currently in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, would hamper vital research.
Scientists believe they can learn more about the development of many currently incurable illnesses by creating cloned embryos from diseased tissues.
They say the specific consent requirement would stop them using tissues already donated for general medical research by people who are dead or cannot be contacted.
If the government does drop the requirement from the bill, it is expected to insist stringent safeguards are put in place instead.
If these tissues really were "donated for general medical research", then it is fair enough to use them for creating cloned embryos, since this is "medical research" (a vast encompassing term). But you have to wonder how many of the people whose tissues have been taken over the years really realised what was going to happen far into the future to cells taken from their tissues, and without their families being given any compensation should the cells lead to a major discovery and large financial rewards for the researcher, university and/or company. (So this is akin to drug companies going into a country and just walking away with plant material which leads to a new drug.)
Derek Conway thinks that 40000 pounds is a storm in a teacup (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Tory MP Derek Conway has defended parliamentary payments to his son, for which he was censured and suspended, saying: "I am not a crook."
A Commons standards committee said there was no record of Freddie, a student, doing work at Westminster in return for £40,000 of taxpayers' money.
The MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup told the Mail on Sunday: "I still believe I have done nothing wrong."
Mr Conway said his son travelled from Newcastle to help him with his MP work.
He told the paper: "I know many MPs with family members who have different names registered, so they are not so obviously spotted. Some spouses work under maiden names."
Mr Conway insisted both Freddie, 22, and elder son, Henry 25, who he employed earlier, did the work they were paid for.
"A lot of students do part-time work. He was working for his father rather than working in McDonald's," he said.
Well, indeed, "a lot of students do part-time work". But they don't generally don't get paid (anywhere near) 40000 pounds for doing so. You can understand why perhaps spouses should be allowed to work for their MP partners (for one thing, it's a good way to make sure the MP doesn't meet their next fling in the office), although this would not be tolerated in any other profession. But as for other family members, it's a different matter, and with these sons it just seems like a convenient excuse to have given them a huge amount of money courtesy of the tax payer. If only all young people were able to have a 40000 pound start in life.
A link found between fructose and gout (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Sugary drinks have been blamed for a surge in cases of the painful joint disease gout.
Men who consume two or more sugary soft drinks a day have an 85% higher risk of gout compared with those who drink less than one a month, a study suggests.
Cases in the US have doubled in recent decades and it seems fructose, a type of sugar, may be to blame, the British Medical Journal study reports.
UK experts said those with gout would be advised to cut out sugary drinks.
About 1.5% of the UK population currently suffers from gout and there has been an increase in numbers over the last 30 years - although the condition is more associated with Victorian times.
The symptoms of painful, swollen joints, mainly in the lower limbs, are caused when uric acid crystallises out of the blood into the joints.
US and Canadian researchers said the increase in cases had coincided with a substantial rise in the consumption of soft drinks.
Previous research had also shown that fructose increases levels of uric acid in the bloodstream.
To look in more detail, the team carried out a 12-year study of 46,000 men aged 40 years and over with no history of gout, asking them regular questionnaires about their diet.
Over the period, 755 newly diagnosed cases of gout were reported.
The risk of developing the condition was significantly increased with an intake level of five to six servings of sugary soft drink per week.
This link was independent of other risk factors for gout such as body mass index, age, high blood pressure and alcohol intake.
Diet soft drinks did not increase the risk of gout but fruit juice and fructose rich fruits (apples and oranges) were associated with a higher risk, the researchers said.
But this finding needs to be balanced against the benefit of fruit and vegetables in preventing other chronic disorders like heart disease and stroke.
Potentially a classic confusion between correlation and causation. But here they have independent reasons for looking at fructose, so they are on somewhat safer ground. As usual, though, the question is whether the dis-benefit towards one disease outweighs potential benefits towards other diseases. The message, as always, is to consume everything in moderation (and here at least they have quantified what that means, to some extent). And to put the numbers in context, less than 2% of the 46000 men in the study had newly diagnosed cases of gout. As usual, these health studies focus on small minorities and end up trying to scare everyone into changing the way they live.
New coal-fired power station in Kent might not have CCS (permanent blog link)
The BBC says:
Environmental campaigners have accused the government of giving in to pressure from the energy company that wants to build a new coal-fired power station.
Greenpeace claims e-mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the government dropped carbon emission conditions for Kingsnorth.
E.ON UK wants to build two coal-fired units at the site near Rochester, Kent.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business said it was standard practice to explore conditions with companies.
The e-mails obtained by Greenpeace concern capture and storage (CCS) technology to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
CCS would store CO2 as a liquid, but is still being developed.
A e-mail from E.ON to business secretary John Hutton asks that there should not be a condition on Kingsnorth that it should have CCS.
E.ON says it would be possible to draw up proposals to fit CCS technology once it was commercially viable.
The reply from the Department for Business said: "Thanks. I won't include [the conditions]".
Greenpeace said the e-mails showed the government's climate and energy policy being reversed in the face of pressure from E.ON.
A spokesman for E.ON said the CCS technology did not currently exist, and the company was in constant contact with the department to discuss different issues.
A very poor article from the BBC. They (courtesy of Greenpeace) selectively quote from some emails and do not give any context. But hey, if you can bash the government because you have found one group to complain about something, then it must be a good thing, as far as the BBC is concerned. Unfortunately it is not very informative. And Greenpeace is having a laugh. They are complaining about the alleged influence of E.ON on government policy, but the entire purpose of their press release (kindly regurgitated by the BBC) is to influence government policy. Oh, but of course, it's ok when they do it, because they do it using the BBC as their mouthpiece, it's just that people they don't like shouldn't do it directly with the government.
CCS technology is not currently there (in a commercially viable way), that much is true, but the question the UK should be asking is whether new coal-fired power plants should be allowed before CCS technology is viable. The article is just dealing with hypotheticals and in particular does not state (presumably because the BBC does not know) what conditions will be attached to planning permission for these power plants about installing CCS in future.
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