Azara Blog: August 2008 archive complete

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Date published: 2008/08/29

Google's maps are allegedly not good enough (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Internet mapping is wiping the rich geography and history of Britain off the map, the president of the British Cartographic Society has said.

Mary Spence said internet maps such as Google and Multimap were good for driving but left out crucial data people need to understand a landscape.

Mrs Spence was speaking at the Institute of British Geographers conference in London.

Google said traditional landmarks were still mapped but must be searched for.

Ms Spence said landmarks such as churches, ancient woodlands and stately homes were in danger of being forgotten because many internet maps fail to include them.

How pathetic can you get. Google, and the others, provide bloody good mapping information pretty much for free (for usage by everyone, and for inclusion in non-commercial websites). Many landmarks (e.g. pubs, hotels, etc.) are there if you ask for them, they are just not drawn on the underlying raster map. Sure, the Ordnance Survey provides much better raster mapping, but the Ordnance Survey data costs an arm and a leg. If Mrs. Spence and the British Cartographic Society want Google to do better perhaps they should pay for the data to be included. Or perhaps they should start their own mapping company to show how it should be done. Meanwhile, the world will get on with using Google's maps. And no doubt the maps will get better in time. Needless to say, this is not the first, and it will not be the last time that a vacuous attack is made on the internet.

Hanley Grange "eco-town" bites the dust (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Proposals for an 8,000-home eco-town at a greenfield site in Cambridgeshire have been abandoned after supermarket giant Tesco pulled out.

The controversial development at Hanley Grange, near the A11 and Duxford, was one of 15 carbon neutral towns picked by the government earlier this year.

The scheme's other main landowner, the charity Wellcome Trust, pulled out in July.

Tesco said it had not ruled out future development of the land.

What a surprise, the academic middle class people who run Cambridge and South Cambs have gotten their way. No houses for the peasants in this green and pleasant land. But it's probably better for everyone that this "eco" proposal was shelved. Tesco was making the proposal worse and worse just to "prove" that it was "eco". As far as the academic middle class people who run Britain are concerned, "eco" means one thing and one thing alone: hatred of cars (at least those driven by the peasants). And the number one attraction of the site was its great transport links, in particular its great road links. But Tesco had to keep pretending that this was the worst attraction of the site, and to try and screw the drivers (i.e. people) who would have lived there more and more. Anyway, another bogus "eco" town proposal bites the dust. (And the BBC is unfortunately promulgating government propaganda when they say that these towns are "carbon neutral". They are not even close.)

Date published: 2008/08/28

Surprise, rich people live longer than poor people (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Social factors - rather than genetics - are to blame for huge variations in ill health and life expectancy around the world, a report concludes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has carried out a three-year analysis of the "social determinants" of health.

The report concludes "social injustice is killing people on a grand scale".

For instance, a boy living in the deprived Glasgow suburb of Calton will live on average 28 years less than a boy born in nearby affluent Lenzie.

Similarly, the average life expectancy in London's wealthy Hampstead was 11 years longer than in nearby St Pancras.

The research also shows that a girl in the African country of Lesotho is, on average, likely to live 42 years less than a girl in Japan.

Is this supposed to be news? Who would have thought it, rich people live longer than poor people. Shock, horror.

Arctic sea ice still shrinking (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Arctic sea ice has shrunk to the second smallest extent since satellite records began, US scientists have revealed.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says that the ice-covered area has fallen below its 2005 level, which was the second lowest on record.

Melting has occurred earlier in the year than usual, meaning that the iced area could become even smaller than last September, the lowest recorded.

Researchers say the Arctic is now at a climatic "tipping point".
...
A few years ago, scientists were predicting ice-free Arctic summers by about 2080.

Then computer models started projecting earlier dates, around 2030 to 2050; and some researchers now believe it could happen within five years.

That will bring economic opportunities, including the chance to drill for oil and gas. Burning that oil and gas would increase levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere still further.

Well you might as well say that last year, or pretty much any recent year, was a "tipping point". And if you believe it is a "tipping point" then there is no point worrying about it because it is going to happen.

Date published: 2008/08/27

UK will allegedly be the most populous in the EU by 2060 (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK population is set to become the largest in the European Union, according to a report.

It is expected to increase from its current figure of 61 million to almost 77 million in 2060 - a rise of 25%.

This would make it the largest population in the EU, ahead of the projections for France (72 million) and Germany (71 million).

The EU's statistical office Eurostat also predicts the EU population will be 506m in 2060, up from 495m in 2008.

It is expected to peak at 521m in 2035 but then decline.

If there is one thing that can be predicted about this prediction, it is that it is almost certainly completely wrong. So you can take recent population trends and easily enough extrapolate them off into the future for as long as you want. But it's just that, an extrapolation. The UK population has recently increased because of immigration from countries which joined the EU in 2005. That was a one-off, and could easily be reversed (nobody knows, least of all the EU). This makes any extrapolation dangerously unreliable. (And it's also quite possible that the UK will break up long before 2060, so by then nobody might care what the population of the ex-UK specifically is.) (And who knows, maybe Russia will join the EU by 2060, and it might then be the biggest.)

Lib Dems want to bail out property developers (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A mortgage rescue scheme, and local authorities being allowed to buy unused land are featured in a Liberal Democrat plan to revive the UK housing market.

Treasury spokesman Vince Cable said that changes were needed to stop the "downward spiral" of the market.

Among the proposals are plans for councils to buy empty properties and developers' land-banks to increase the amount of social housing.

The Council of Mortgage lenders said any plan needs to be properly targeted.

The housing market has seen annual price falls of more than 8%, a squeeze on the number of mortgages, especially for first-time buyers, and a slowdown in the number of homes being built.
...
Mr Cable said that the Liberal Democrat plan would assist the struggling housebuilders who were looking for cash to stabilise their positions.

He said councils could buy unused land owned by developers at a discount rate for use as social housing.
...
[The CML] said that if councils became more hands-on, even going as far as operating as mortgage lenders themselves, then they should be fully regulated in the same way as lenders in the private sector.

Any time goverment intervenes in the markets you can pretty much guarantee they will make the situation worse, not better. The main reason there is a "downward spiral" in the housing market is because of the credit crunch, and the main reason for that is because the country has just been through a house price bubble fueled by irresponsible lending. The Lib Dem proposals bear little relationship to the actual cause or the actual problem. And on the whole the recent price fall is a good thing, because house prices were way, way too high. If some developers get in trouble for a year or two that is not reason enough to have the government bail them out.

Date published: 2008/08/26

The NHS should allegedly be throwing more money at cancer drugs (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some of the UK's top cancer consultants warn that NHS drug "rationing" is forcing patients to remortgage their homes to pay for treatment.

The specialists accuse the government drugs advisory body of "rationing" too severely and call for a "radical change" in the way decisions are made.

Their letter to the Sunday Times also says research success is not being translated into modern treatments.

It follows a decision not to offer some drugs to NHS kidney cancer patients.

Earlier this month, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) published its draft guidelines on treatments for patients with advanced kidney cancer.

It concluded that the drugs - bevacizumab, sorafenib, sunitinib and temsirolimus - did not offer value for money.

But in their letter, the 26 cancer specialists say the decision shows how "poorly" NICE assesses new cancer treatments.

"Its economic formulas are simply not suitable for addressing cost-effectiveness in this area of medicine," they write.

They continue: "It is essential that NICE gets its sums right. We have seen distraught patients remortgaging their houses, giving up pensions and selling cars to buy drugs that are freely available to those using health services in countries of comparable wealth."

The consultants, who include the directors of oncology at Britain's two biggest cancer hospitals, the Royal Marsden in London and Christie Hospital in Manchester, say it is not right the NHS cannot find the money for the drugs.

"We now spend similar amounts to Europe on health generally and cancer care in particular, but less than two thirds of the European average on cancer drugs.

"It just can't be that everybody else around the world is wrong about access to innovative cancer care and the NHS right in rationing it so severely."

Find a single doctor anywhere who thinks the NHS spends too much money on his or her pet specialty. It is up to NICE to analyse whether these drugs really are value for money. These consultants do not seem to have any argument against the NICE analysis except that allegedly every other rich country has opted to throw money at these specific drugs. If the consultants think the NHS should throw money at these drugs then they should specify what part of the NHS budget should be cut back in compensation. (Perhaps their exhorbitant salaries, for a starter.) (The BBC should also report whether any of these doctors have any links with any pharmaceutical companies selling cancer drugs.)

Of course this is all part of the perpetual academic middle class complaint that the government should spend more and more money on everything, and let's not worry too much who is going to pay for it all. Indeed, this seems to be cancer propaganda week, because the BBC ran another story along the same lines:

Doctors are keeping cancer patients in the dark about expensive new drugs that could extend their lives, a poll shows.

A quarter of specialists polled by Myeloma UK said they hid facts about treatments for bone marrow cancer that may be difficult to obtain on the NHS.

Doctors said they did not want to "distress, upset or confuse" patients if drugs had not yet been approved by the NHS drugs watchdog NICE.

Primary Care Trusts can provide drugs ahead of NICE approval but many do not.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence is currently reviewing several treatments for myeloma, including the drug Revlimid (lenalidomide) which trials suggest could extend the life of patients by three years.

One in four of the 103 myeloma specialists in England, Wales and Scotland questioned confessed that they had avoided telling patients about licensed drugs still awaiting approval by NICE.

Again, the BBC offers no suggestion how any of this is supposed to work better. The implication is that NICE should just throw money at pretty much all drugs, and forget any cost benefit analysis.

Business premises are being demolished to avoid tax liability (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Buildings are being knocked down as businesses seek to avoid paying tax on empty properties, a government regeneration chief has warned.

In April, the government scrapped rate relief on empty industrial property such as warehouses.

The tax was aimed at landlords who kept premises empty in hope of better rents.

But John Nicholls, chief executive of the Urban Regeneration Companies, said the tax was leading to "pre-emptive demolitions" to avoid the tax bill.
...
Malcolm Holmes, associate director at property consultancy GL Hearn, said his company had advised an industrial landlord in Sunderland to demolish parts of the Alexandra Business Park to avoid an annual £120,000 tax bill.

"Before April 1, there was no rate payable. Their liability went from zero to £120,000 overnight."

He said that the company had demolished 150,000 square feet of property and was due to raze a further 37,000 to 38,000 square feet.

There is hardly a tax change that Gordon Brown has recently brought in that is not a complete and utter disaster. You could easily argue that zero liability was wrong. But to go from zero to one hundred percent overnight is just too stupid for words. And, needless to say, businesses will respond to this (negative) incentive in the obvious way. Unfortunately the geniuses in the Treasury for some reason failed to grasp this simple lesson in Economics 101. (Or perhaps they own shares in demolition companies.)

Herds of grazing animals allegedly all face the same way (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Have you ever noticed that herds of grazing animals all face the same way?

Images from Google Earth have confirmed that cattle tend to align their bodies in a north-south direction.

Wild deer also display this behaviour - a phenomenon that has apparently gone unnoticed by herdsmen and hunters for thousands of years.

In the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, scientists say the Earth's magnetic fields may influence the behaviour of these animals.
...
The researchers surveyed Google Earth images of 8,510 grazing and resting cattle in 308 pasture plains across the globe.

"Sometimes it took hours and hours to find some pictures with good resolution," said Dr Begall.

The scientists were unable to distinguish between the head and rear of the cattle, but could tell that the animals tended to face either north or south.

This sounds like a bit of an April Fool's joke. Why bother spending "hours and hours" poring over the pretty crap resolution of Google Earth when you can actually go and visit grazing animals and see what they do close up? These scientists need to get out a bit more. In any case, a quick observation today of a cow herd in Cambridge (on the field at the end of Cranmer Road) shows that cows seem to eat perfectly happily in all directions, but with this particular sample biased towards east-west, not north-south:
Cows eating in Cambridge
(The direction of the photo is looking northwards.) Mind you, most of the cows are sitting, but of the two that are standing, one is facing west and the other east. Perhaps this is why this alleged phenomenon "has apparently gone unnoticed by herdsmen and hunters for thousands of years".

Date published: 2008/08/20

French birds are allegedly not moving fast enough in response to climate change (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

French birds are moving northwards in response to climate change, but not fast enough, scientists have found.

Their data came from a large survey in which volunteer ornithologists counted more than 105 species of bird.

In the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, researchers say that the birds are lagging some 182km behind the increases in temperature.

This lag may be of particular concern to rare birds or species that have very specific food requirements.

"The flora and fauna around us are shifting over time due to climate change," said Vincent Devictor, who led the research project from the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN) in Paris.

"The result is desynchronisation. If birds and the insects on which they depend do not react in the same way, we are headed for an upheaval in the interaction between species," he told the AFP news agency.

At its worst, this desynchronisation could result in species extinctions, he said.
...
This study did not examine whether the failure to "keep up" with rising temperatures was affecting the birds.

Evidence from other studies suggests it depends on the species involved, their habitat, how their prey are responding to climate change, and what other threats and constraints they face.

This kind of "desynchronisation" effect is bound to happen, so it is hardly surprising. The real question, which this study singularly failed to address, is whether this has any real impact. No doubt many birds, like lots of other species, will be perfectly capable of adjusting to a changed environment. But never let reality get in the way of an alarmist press story.

House of Lords committee concerned about business waste (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government needs to step up efforts to reduce waste from business, according to a parliamentary committee.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee recommends using variable VAT rates to cut unsustainable consumption of raw materials.

Its report says pressure has so far concentrated on householders, who account for only 9% of the UK's waste.

Environment minister Joan Ruddock said the government does have measures that are inducing businesses to cut waste.

Those measures include the landfill tax escalator under which the tax on landfill will rise by £8 per tonne each year until 2011.

The committee acknowledged that this had been effective in reducing the amount of waste dumped in landfill sites, but said other initiatives were needed.

"We would like to see the VAT regime reformed so that products that have a long life-cycle, or can be easily and cheaply repaired rather than replaced, are made economically more attractive," said Lord O'Neill, who chaired the sub-committee on waste.

"This would be an important step in turning away from the 'throwaway' consumer culture we currently have."

About one-third of the UK's waste is produced by construction and demolition, and a further third by mining and quarrying.

Nevertheless, the committee says, government action and media attention have concentrated on the much smaller contribution from households.

Gee whiz, someone in power has finally noticed that the academic middle class people who run Britain have been overly hysterical about waste produced by households. But this is because the academic middle class are puritanical, and are fixated with this bogus concept that the ordinary people of Britain have a "'throwaway' consumer culture". Unfortunately O'Neill falls into this same silly trap, but presumably he means to impugn businesses, and not just people. (The BBC should ask him if he has a "'throwaway' consumer culture"? Of course not, it's the other guy who does.)

Government incentives will have an effect. But government incentives will always be arbitrary and not proportionate to the alleged environmental impact of waste. In particular, the already existing landfill tax is just completely arbitrary and has nothing to do with anything except an attempt to get Britain to meet silly EU targets on recycling.

A lot of waste that the construction industry throws away is just rubble or earth, so a lot of it is environmentally neutral inorganic material. The real environmentally bad aspect of this waste is not the landfill used but the transport involved with bringing it to the landfill.

Unfortunately the academic middle class fixation with waste is unlikely to end any time soon.

Date published: 2008/08/19

City council wants to spend 2.5 million pounds on Jesus Green (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Plans for a £2.5 million revamp of Jesus Green - including a new cycle bridge, public square and cafe - have been unveiled.

The radical makeover was revealed by Cambridge City Council as it launched a public consultation on changes on the popular riverside park.

The proposals also include a new entrance for Jesus Green Swimming Pool facing onto the green accompanied by a café and new children's play area.

A new cycle bridge close to the footbridge leading to Chesterton Road could also be built, while the path intersection near the lock would be transformed into a piazza, with a modern toilet/kiosk building similar to the one on Parker's Piece.

The lock keepers cottage - currently rented to students - could also be transformed into a visitor information centre, while a new tree-lined path could be created between Victoria Avenue Bridge and the ditch running alongside Jesus College.

The council is applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £2 million to pay for the scheme. If successful, it will itself provide the extra £500,000 needed.
...
John Cooper, chairman of the Jesus Green Association, said:

"The broad outline of these plans is sensible. There are one or two things which worry us, however, such as the path and avenue of trees from Victoria Avenue, which breaks up the area of green space.

"It is used by a large number of people and we feel this path destroys the green's sense of openness. We do not want to see Jesus Green swallowed up by hard surfaces."

He said most members agreed some facilities were tired and need replacing.

Cooper has it right. Much of the proposal is sensible but the plans do indeed result in a significant loss of open space. In particular, the new tree-lined path mentioned cuts right across an area used by many events, e.g. the Cambridge Beer Festival. In some ways this plan looks like it was made to be as grandiose as possible in order to justify the whacking great price tag. And you have to wonder if this would be money well spent. As it happens, Jesus Green is one of the nicest parks in the city, and it really does not need 2.5 million pounds thrown at it. And in any case, should the Heritage Lottery Fund really be throwing this kind of money at Cambridge?

115 million animals allegedly used in lab experiments worldwide each year (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A new analysis claims the number of animals used worldwide in laboratory experiments is close to 115 million.

The annual figure is based on official statistics from 37 countries, but includes estimates for nations where data is unavailable.

The report hopes that better records will encourage more responsible policy-making and regulation.

Reported in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, the figure has been contested by pro-experiment groups.

The global estimate is the result of a joint venture between the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection and the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research.

They said it was the first estimate of global numbers of animals used in scientific research.
...
The research included animals that are used to maintain stocks, and also included animals deemed surplus and humanely killed.

In previous estimates, neither of these categories were included in national statistics.

"It is troubling that there are so many countries that appear not to record the lives of those animals suffering in their laboratories," said Wendy Higgins of the Trust.

"Knowing the number of animals used gives real ammunition for the general public to put pressure on their governments to play their part in the global reduction and replacement of animals in experiments," she told BBC News.

Given who funded the work, and given who published the work, and given the statement by Higgins, it is pretty clear that this was not a work of medical science so much as one of political science. These people hate animals being used in research and want to stop it, and want to use shock figures to try and accomplish their goal. But even if you want to accept their figures, is 115 million a big number? Sure, it sounds like a big number to Joe Public. But you can easily play the emotional blackmail game in the other direction. Ask Joe Public if they would rather have 115 million animals suffer or 115 million people (or pick some other semi-random number) suffer due to unsafe drugs coming on the market.

Date published: 2008/08/18

Allegedly non-native oak allegedly useful to birds (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

An ancient species of tree is helping Britain's birds survive the effects of climate change, scientists have found.

Frequent early spring weather means blue tits and great tits have been laying eggs ahead of schedule, making it difficult for them to find food.

However ecologists say birds have been feeding on gall wasps, which make their homes in Turkey oak trees, rather than the usual young caterpillars.

The discovery was made during a study by the University of Edinburgh.

It had been feared that the Turkey oak, reintroduced to Britain three centuries ago after an absence of thousands of years, may pose a threat to native plants and animals.

The species was native to northern Europe before the previous ice age, about 120,000 years ago.

But now it appears to be providing the country's birds with a food source.

Dr Graham Stone of the university said: "The reintroduction of Turkey oak and the re-invasion of gall wasps into northern Europe may simply represent restoration of a previous natural situation.

"As the Turkey oak re-asserts itself in its ancient home, it is helping to alleviate some of the effects of the very modern problem of climate change."

Needless to say, this is only looking at one effect in isolation. And any species that has been here three centuries is in effect "native" (by any usual definition). But it's nice to see one example where so-called ecologists have decided that mass extermination of an allegedly non-native species is not a good idea.

Government is going to allow parts of coastline to sink into the sea (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some parts of the British coastline are so badly eroded they are not worth protecting from the sea, the new head of the Environment Agency has said.

Lord Smith of Finsbury said work was already under way to identify areas of the east and south coast most at risk.

He told the Independent that the UK faced hard choices over which coasts to defend and which to leave to the sea.

Lord Smith said parts of north-east Norfolk and Suffolk were in the most immediate danger of collapse.
...
Lord Smith called on the government to assist families whose home will be lost, as ministers would not always be able to rely on insurance companies to cover them.

The key point is whether these families will be given full compensation. The government is basically abandoning them, and as a result, the government should give them full compensation. Needless to say, that is extremely unlikely to happen.

Date published: 2008/08/17

Health minister wants to soak the super rich (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A minister has called on the government to consider a tax on high earners to help the middle classes through the economic slowdown.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Health Minister Ivan Lewis said introducing practical measures to boost morale at this difficult time was vital.

He warns that Labour will lose the next election if it does not take tough tax decisions to bail out core voters.
...
"Our duty is to act decisively and make tax and spending decisions that show we understand what it is like to cope with rising food, fuel and utility bills," Mr Lewis said.

"If as a result of the current economic situation the only way to help hard-pressed middle-class families is to ask the higher earners to pay more, then serious consideration should be given to that," he added.

He does not specify how much one has to earn to fall within this bracket, but it is thought to be aimed at people earning £250,000 and more, according to the newspaper.

If Mr Lewis wants voters to see that minsters "understand what it is like to cope with rising food, fuel and utility bills" then the government should do what voters have to do, i.e. cut back. But instead of that, he proposes the age old miracle cure of soaking the (super) rich. And for some reason the spin seems to be about helping the "middle classes" (i.e. the rich), who (on average) are the least affected by the downturn, after the super rich.

Unfortunately for Mr Lewis and New Labour, all this posturing is pointless. The people of Britain want a change at the top. (The people will soon enough discover that the new lot is no better than the current lot, just posher and more arrogant.)

Environment minister says Prince Charles should put up or shut up (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The environment minister has challenged Prince Charles to prove his claim that GM crops could cause a global environmental disaster.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Phil Woolas said it was now down to the opponents of genetically modified food to prove it was unsafe.

"If it has been a disaster then please provide the evidence," he said.

On Wednesday Prince Charles said firms developing GM crops risked the biggest environmental disaster "of all time".

The government's initial response to the prince's comments in sister paper the Daily Telegraph was to say that it welcomed all voices in the "important" debate and that safety was a priority.

However, on Sunday Mr Woolas went further, saying it was the government's "moral responsibility" to investigate whether genetically modified crops could help provide a solution to hunger in the developing world.

"We see this as part of our Africa strategy," he said.

"It's easy for those of us with plentiful food supplies to ignore the issue but we have a responsibility to use science to help the less well off where we can.

"I'm grateful to Prince Charles for raising the issue. He raises some very important doubts that are held by many people.

Well, Prince Charles should not have to "prove" anything, but he should certainly "provide the evidence" (which does not exist) that his hysterical claim has some basis in reality. And it is not just people in poor countries that will benefit from GM, it is also ordinary people in rich countries. British people are already paying higher food bills because of they hysterical anti-GM requirements of British food. And that is going to get worse the next few years, not better. But needless to say, Prince Charles, and his fellow travellers (most of whom are academic middle class), are not the ones who are going to suffer as a result.

Date published: 2008/08/13

Some consultancy wants mass migration from the north to the south of England (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Cities in northern England such as Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford are "beyond revival" and residents should move south, a think tank has argued.

Policy Exchange said current regeneration policies were "failing" the people they were supposed to help.

A mass migration to London, Cambridge and Oxford would stop them becoming "trapped" in poorer areas, it said.

The think tank is seen as being close to David Cameron but the Tory leader branded its findings "insane".

Another pointless bunch of academic middle class theoreticians (these kinds of consultancies plague the nation). Although there is enough empty land in the London, Cambridge, Oxford triangle to fit zillions of people, and although plenty of people up north would be happy to move south, no doubt most people up north are happy to be there, and most people down south would not want to see an extra few million people on their doorstep. And the Tory Party is the main political party that tries to prevent pretty much any housebuilding in the southern half of England, so it's pretty obvious what Cameron's response was going to be. Mind you, Cameron could well use this report to justify starving cities in the north of England of funds (which he will do in any case, since these cities are not Tory supporting).

Surprise, Charles hates so-called GM crops (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Companies developing genetically modified crops risk creating the biggest environmental disaster "of all time", Prince Charles has warned.

GM crops were damaging Earth's soil and were an experiment "gone seriously wrong", he told the Daily Telegraph.

A future reliance on corporations to mass-produce food would drive millions of farmers off their land, he said.

So speaks the "voice of reason". Unfortunately Charles has shown time and again that he lives in the 18th century, when everyone else (pretty much) lives in the 21st. And in the 18th century he would have been railing against steam power. Of course theoretically so-called GM crops could "risk creating the biggest environmental disaster of all time". But theoretically CERN could run an experiment which wipes out the entire universe in a blink of an instance (which many would deem to be an "environmental disaster"). And theoretically so-called organic farming could spell disaster for the world (since zillions of acres of land that could be used for forests, etc., could be converted to food production, since so-called organic farming is very land inefficient). Meanwhile back on Planet Earth, only hysterical academic middle class so-called environmentalists will support Charles in his diatribe.

Date published: 2008/08/10

Some scientists want to grow so-called GM trees (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Scientists have applied to plant a group of genetically modified trees on land owned by the Forestry Commission.

University of Southampton researchers want to establish a settlement of GM poplar trees for biofuel research.

The Forestry Commission confirmed the application, but said no decision had been taken yet.

The plantation would be the first attempt to cultivate GM trees in the UK since 1999, when activists destroyed 115 plants in Berkshire.

Campaigners warned that allowing the move to go ahead would be "an unknown and worrying risk" for Britain's ecosystems.

Clare Oxborrow, a GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "Our concerns with GM trees are even more serious than crops because trees are very long lived.

"They are inherently geared up for spreading seeds and pollen because of they way the reproduce. There's a huge potential for cross-pollination."

In some sense all new crops should be examined for possible risks. Unfortunately the FoE, and their fellow travellers, are hysterical about so-called GM crops, so will always exaggerate the risk here (and often completely ignore it elsewhere). And since this hysteria has a serious negative consequence for humans (much useful science is stopped), FoE should be considered to be not so much Friends of the Earth as Enemies of the People.

Some MPs want the UK to adopt a Bill of Rights (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The government should adopt a Bill of Rights for the UK, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers has urged.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said the bill should go further than current human rights legislation.

The bill should give greater protection to groups such as children, the elderly and those with learning difficulties, it said in a report.

Labour and the Conservatives agree on the need for a new Bill of Rights, but differ on what areas it should cover.

The Conservatives have said they would bring in such a bill to replace the Human Rights Act.

The committee said the bill should include rights to housing, education and a healthy environment.

Its report referred to a survey conducted in 2006 when more than three-quarters of the people polled agreed that "Britain needs a Bill of Rights to protect the liberty of the individual".
...
The Bill would also encompass Britons' social and economic rights, including the right to health, housing, education and an adequate standard of living, the report said.

The committee said these elements would help to distinguish the Bill of Rights from current human rights legislation.

"Rights such as the right to adequate healthcare, to education and to protection against the worst extremes of poverty touch the substance of people's everyday lives.

"And it would help to correct the popular misconception that human rights are a charter for criminals and terrorists," it went on.

Andrew Dismore, chairman of the joint committee, said a Bill of Rights would be a "constitutional landmark".

"It would provide a framework both for protecting the liberty of the individual against the intrusion of state power, and for protecting the 'little person' against powerful interests," he said.

The Human Rights Act is not so much a "charter for criminals and terrorists" as a way for random pushy individuals (often with the help of NGOs) to try and achieve things through the legal system that they cannot acheive through elected assemblies. And there is no indication that this proposed Bill of Rights would be any different. For example, what does it mean to have a right to a "healthy environment"? If you want to take this literally then, for example, pretty much all cars should be banned (since they pollute), thousands of factories (if not all of them) should be closed down, all coal/oil/gas/nuclear power stations should be closed down, etc. And most of the other rights can be similarly broadly interpreted. The main beneficiary of the proposed act will not be the "little person" but lawyers and NGOs.

Date published: 2008/08/08

Regional Development Agencies are allegedly a waste of money (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Quangos set up to improve the fortunes of the English regions have been branded a costly and ineffectual waste of money by a pressure group.

The Taxpayers' Alliance says local economies did better before Regional Development Agencies came into force.

The group claims RDAs have failed to reduce inequalities between regions and should be abolished.

But a government spokesman said RDAs had helped create 125,000 jobs since they were set up in 1999.
...
The pressure group claims they have cost £15bn - nearly £600 per household. If they were abolished, the saving could allow a 4p cut in corporation tax for small firms.

The claim that "local economies did better before Regional Development Agencies came into force" is irrelevant in isolation, because it's quite possible that regional economies would have done even worse without the RDAs. Equally, the claim that the "RDAs had helped create 125,000 jobs since they were set up" is also irrelevant in isolation, because the question is how much it cost to "create" these jobs (assuming the figure is even correct). The real question is whether the RDAs are good value for money, and there is little evidence of that.

Ryanair cancels bookings of customers who did not book via their website (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Ryanair is to cancel thousands of its own customers' bookings after they were made through internet travel agents whose activities it says are illegal.

The airline is targeting price comparison websites on which you can buy Ryanair flights without having to go directly to the Irish firm's site.

Ryanair says this is against its terms and conditions, and the technology used slows down its site for other users.

But travel agents said the move was "foolish" and "unreasonable".

Consumer groups said they were "stunned" by the move.

So-called "screenscraping" websites account for about 0.5% of Ryanair's bookings, equivalent to about a thousand a day.
...
Ryanair has taken legal action against Italian company BravoFly to force it to stop screen scraping the airline's website, having earlier taken similar steps against German firm V-tours.

Ryanair defended its decision to cancel bookings made this way for trips from Monday onwards, saying it was "a quicker and more effective way of discouraging this unlawful activity".
...
Passengers whose bookings have been cancelled will be compensated.

However, if the price comparison websites fail to tell passengers that their flights have been cancelled, there is little to prevent those affected turning up at airports all over Europe without a seat on a plane.

Ryanair did not get to where it is today by being a shrinking violet. It would be interesting to see what percentage of load on the Ryanair website is caused by these other websites, presumably much higher than 0.5% or Ryanair would not be acting like this. In any case, they are fully within their rights to do so, and this seems as good a method as any to get these other websites to desist. But presumably the academic middle class people who run the EU could well attempt to make this behaviour illegal, given their general anti-private-corporate and specific anti-Ryanair mentality.

Date published: 2008/08/07

Many household wind turbines might be net carbon emitters (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Grants for homeowners who want to install small wind turbines should assess whether the structure saves carbon emissions, a report has said.

The Carbon Trust study says turbines in urban homes may not generate enough electricity to counter CO2 emissions created by their manufacture and use.

It said grant schemes should consider whether the likely carbon savings of small wind turbines are "reasonable".

Homeowners can apply for a grant of up to £2,500 to install the technology.

Not-for-profit and public sector organisations can apply for up to half the installation costs.
...
Cathy Durston, head of consulting at the Met Office, said the research had "shed new light on the best locations for turbines to be installed".

The conclusion is obvious but the explicit quantification they have done is useful. And needless to say, the academic middle class people who buy wind turbines, on the assumption that they are allegedly "saving the world", will not like this research at all. The subsidy should certainly not exist for them, and it is questionable if the subsidy should exist at all. The whole point of energy should be that people should pay its true cost, without externalising any of the cost onto the rest of society.

Date published: 2008/08/03

Microsoft analysis linkages between people using instant messaging (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A US study of instant messaging suggests the theory that it takes only six steps to link everyone may be right - though seven seems more accurate.

Microsoft researchers studied the addresses of 30bn instant messages sent during a single month in 2006.

Any two people on average are linked by seven or fewer acquaintances, they say.
...
The database used by Mr Horvitz and his colleague Jure Leskovec covered all of the Microsoft Messenger instant-messaging network, or roughly half of the world's instant-messaging traffic, in June 2006.

For the purposes of the study, two people were considered to be acquaintances if they had sent one another an instant message.

Examining the minimum chain lengths it would take to connect all the users in the database, they found the average length was 6.6 steps and that 78% of the pairs could be connected in seven links or fewer.

The number of steps of "separation" is bound to be not that high a number. Say that each person's friends has on average 25 friends who are not the first person's friends, so that each step out you are getting an (approximate) increase in the number of people covered by 25. (This is not quite true for various reasons.) Well, 25 to the power 7 is around 6 billion, which is the population of the planet, so that means 7 steps. If the 25 were instead only 5 then it would still take only 14 steps. That is the power of the exponential.

And of course the Microsoft sample is seriously biased because it consists of (relatively) rich people (compared with the world average), who not only have a geographic bias but who also might have more connectivity.

Still, it was a cute enough computer science exercise.

More EU land is allegedly being farmed (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

...
In less than a year, 5% more of the EU's countryside is being farmed - 1.3m extra hectares. Quite suddenly, Europe is growing around 14% more food, because there is a market for it and a profit in it.

The changes are visible. The view from the car window on the drive across Belgium is one of intensive cultivation.

Fields tend to be ploughed right up to the edges of roads, woods and rivers. It is very rare to see anything resembling a meadow.

And across the EU, the picture is becoming similar. It is not that farmers have lost their subsidy for set-aside land - that has been incorporated into other areas of their grant income - it is that they are now also allowed to bring disused pieces of land back into production.

And, thanks to the increase in prices, for the first time in many years, they can do this profitably.

Alarm bells have been sounding among conservationists. Set-aside was designed to protect the farmers, not the environment, but the accidental benefits to plant, animal and bird species have been significant.

The non-use of fertilisers and pesticides on disused land has meant an improvement in ground-water quality. The aesthetics of the countryside, it has been argued, have been improved.

Ariel Brunner, who monitors the changes in European Agriculture for Birdlife International, one of the more influential environmental lobby groups in Brussels, says the bureaucrats have made big mistakes.

"Basically, what we are seeing is a big drive towards intensification which will put huge strains on the environment," he says.

"Set-aside has been abolished with hardly any thought to the implications. We are predicting a threat to many wild species. Biodiversity will feel the heat from this.

"One of the most important issues will be water quality. We are already facing very severe ground water and river pollution problems in Europe's most heavily-cultivated regions.
...
Pekka Pensonen, general secretary of Copa-Cogeca, which represents farming unions across the EU, is candid about the situation.

"The pressures are quite controversial for farmers", he says.

"We are asked to deliver food for reasonable prices and, at the same time, we are asked to maintain biodiversity.

"And it's a difficult question; should we do the biodiversity thing or should we respond to the market requirements? I don't think we can do both.

Pensonen has it about right. There are six billion people on the planet, heading upwards to nine billion within a few decades. These people need to be fed, and the increasingly wealthy people outside the developed countries want to eat as well as the citizens of the developed countries. There is also the (unfortunate) trend towards using food crops for biofuels, which is adding further pressure. Basically, humans are occupying more and more of the planet's ecosystem. There are two ways to reduce that fraction: make humans effectively poorer (e.g. force everyone to be a vegetarian, or make it illegal to own a car or fly), or have fewer humans. Since the so-called environmentalists (e.g. Brunner) decry this increased occupation, they should make it clear which option of decrease they support.

Date published: 2008/08/02

Tesco loses latest planning application for Mill Road store (permanent blog link)

The Cambridge News says:

Tesco has vowed to continue the fight to open a store in Mill Road, Cambridge - despite the latest setback in the planning process.
...
The supermarket giant was rebuffed by councillors on Thursday night when the East Area Committee rejected its application for planning permission for three air conditioning units and a refrigeration unit.
...
But Tesco had previously gained permission for signs and a cash machine and the site is designated as Class A1 land use, for a shop.
...
Planning officers had recommended approval for the air conditioning units and a refrigeration unit. Only two councillors voted against the application - three were absent, three decided not to take part in the decision-making and four abstained.

The votes of Cllr Catherine Smart, Lib Dem, and the Green Party's Cllr Margaret Wright proved decisive.

How bizarre is this? Ten politicians refused to vote, presumably because they knew there was no reason to refuse the planning application except for academic middle class prejudice against Tesco. Of course the Lib Dems and Greens represent the academic middle class, so the fact that two of them decided to vote against this latest planning application is not that surprising. It is the non-voting of the others that is surprising. If this planning application was crucial for Tesco (and it might well not be) then hopefully they will appeal, because it is hard to believe the city has a leg to stand on with this decision, given the way in which it was taken.

Some estate agents are allegedly not ordering Hips up front (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Some estate agents in England and Wales are breaking the law by marketing properties without ordering a Home Information Pack, the BBC has learned.

The Law Society says in some cases, Hips are not available until weeks after the property goes on the market.

It believes sellers are reluctant to pay for the pack when the housing market is slowing.

The packs, which can cost up to £400 and contain information such as deeds and searches, were launched a year ago.

Hips also contain other information useful to any potential buyer such as any recent planning permission or building consent given on the property, and an energy performance certificate.

The idea was they would give buyers more upfront information about the property before they made an offer, and reduce chances of a sale falling through.

However, in the current troubled housing market, it seems some estate agents are not commissioning Hips when the property goes on the market, something which by law they are supposed to do.

Paul Marsh, president of the Law Society, says the practice is common across England and Wales.

"The evidence we're receiving from right across the country, be it Cornwall, London or the North East of England, is that solicitors are not receiving a Hip when the deal is struck.

"You would have expected that the Hip would be available immediately the agreement [to accept an offer] is reached.

"We're not getting a Hip until three to four weeks later, sometimes not until exchange of contracts."
...
Nick Salmon, is a member of the board of the National Association of Estate Agents, and heads the Splinta campaign against Hips.

"I have never yet had a buyer ask to see a Hip on a property," he said.

"They ignore it. It is usually when the solicitor asks to see if there is a pack there that we provide it. The pack is of no interest to buyers and is considered to be a stealth tax by sellers."

But the government says that Hips are already bringing down the price of property searches by improving transparency in the house buying process.

Blaming the apparent reluctance of some sellers to provide Hips on the collapse of the housing market is at best dubious. It's just that nobody really believes in Hips except for organisations with a self-interest in having Hips and also the government (who accepted the advice of the former rather than anyone else). There indeed seems to be little point in Hips other than to make it more expensive to sell a home and perhaps slightly cheaper to buy one.

Date published: 2008/08/01

UK emissions are allegedly a lot higher than the government pretends (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

The UK has been living under a delusion over its claim to be cutting greenhouse gases, according to two reports that will shake the climate change debate.

They show that instead of falling since the 1990s, UK greenhouse emissions have been growing in line with the economy.

This is dependent on emissions from aviation, shipping and imported goods being counted.

At the moment they are excluded under the internationally-agreed system for carbon accounts.

Both reports are from the respected Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) based at the University of York.
...
An SEI report to be published shortly by the campaign group WWF will suggest that the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions are 49% higher than reported emissions.

And a recent little-publicised report for the government department Defra showed that rather than going down 5% as ministers claimed, CO2 emissions have gone up 18% between 1992 and 2004 when all emissions are counted.

The government sat on the Defra SEI report since February, tested its calculations, then published it in an obscure press release on 2 July.

This confirms, as BBC News pointed out last year, that the UK's apparently virtuous carbon cuts have only been achieved because we are getting countries like China to do our dirty work.
...
John Barrett, author of the SEI reports to both Defra and WWF, said they could have implications for any post-Kyoto global climate deal.

"Holding China and India responsible for emissions from manufactured goods they sell to us is going to prove very hard to negotiate.

"It would be much easier to base any future deal on emissions at the point of consumption. That feeds into the equity debate in which poor countries will be allowed to increase their CO2.

"It's at the very least misleading for the UK government to claim reductions while we export our emissions. This is a problem no government wants to face.

"In emissions terms, we are constantly battling against increases of wealth. Every year, we don't even manage to improve our energy efficiency to keep up with wealth increases, let alone to cut emissions.

"There's a very fundamental problem here that no-one really wants to talk about."

All very obvious stuff, although the attempt at quantification is extremely useful (although one should never even come close to accepting the estimates of any one person or organisation). Funnily enough, it was the so-called environmentalists who first spread the myth that emissions growth could be decoupled from economic growth (all other factors being equal, which they never are, since the price of oil goes up and down). On the contrary, if you have more money, you will spend that money on what is effectively increased energy consumption, which means increased emissions (all other factors being equal). Money = Energy (to a reasonable approximation).

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