Thursday, November 29, 2007

Benefit discs found

A man in his sixties has been detained for the disappearance of the two discs lost from HMRC holding information about every child in the UK. The man, described as portly, with a fluffy white beard and ruddy complexion, was originally stopped by officers responding to complaints about a man who had been taunting children that "I see you when you are sleeping, I know when you're awake".

When police searched the man's home at 1 North Pole Gardens, they found the lost discs, as well as a number of elves working illegally in his toy sweatshop.

Although the man didn't make the discs, police said they have evidence he has already checked the data twice, taking particular interest in the records titled "naughty" and "nice".

The Government has not responded to this news, but has pledged to no longer use Donner und Blitzen Couriers Ltd.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Room for vroom

An old friend from the International Standard of Comparative Measurement has returned to measure volume - the Wembley Stadium.

Researchers at Oxford Brookes University have calculated that enough vehicle scrap will be created over the next 25 years to fill 1,000 Wembleys. Nice to see all that Oxford intellect being used productively. However, the Guardian piece covering this news also remarks that this is the same university that gave professional oaf Jeremy Clarkson an honorary degree.

It's not clear in the article, but I presume that the unit of the Wembley has been re-assessed to take account of the size of the new stadium. Given that some folk are still stewing over metrication, I'm not sure how society will adjust to the new standard.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

GM genie

Professor Sir David King, the government's pet science monkey, has used his impending retirement from government to bring Genetically Modified food back onto the agenda, aping the GM industry's recent PR gambit - climate change. King, who is also an advocate of nuclear power, played the "it's climate change, stupid" card, arguing that we need GM to ensure there's plenty food for everyone.

He also claimed that "in many ways it is probably safer for you to eat GM products", without producing a shred of evidence to support his argument, only some unsubstantiated blurb about food sensitivities. GM nuts that won't kill those allergic to nut products won't save the world, although it might make a tidy profit for someone.

It's 'probably' not good for a scientist to make such claims without showing the evidence, instead staking his position with a reliance on utopian science. His post-1950s rosy confidence in science being the solution to the world's ills sounds familiar. Perhaps he can remember that old claim about nuclear power - "too cheap to meter".

Don't mistake me - I love science, me. But when someone who should know better gets lost in panacean speculation it's reasonable to expect that people will stop taking him seriously. Which is a pity, because the guy has been (and still is to a certain extent) a real champion for taking urgent action on climate change.

Let's not forget though, there is enough food for everyone, it's just that so many can't afford to buy enough of it. No matter the wonders of tuna-flavoured triffids or fart free beans that GM promises, if you can't afford it you're still going to go hungry. In reality GM foods aren't developed to feed the world, they are developed like any other modern product - to meet a marketing brief and make big fat wodges of dosh. GM development is now racing to get a bite of the biofuels market, so no bellies being filled there either.

The UK government's own farm scale trials into GM have so far proved at best inconclusive, with no benefits to the consumer or the environment over organic food. Industry and government proclaim GM as safe (and as King posits 'probably safer'), but if it really is safe, why isn't the GM industry willing to accept liability if it goes wrong, or pay organic farmers if their crops are contaminated with GM organisms? Why won't they put their money where their yaps are?

I do hope King enjoys his retirement. As is traditional for those retiring from government, perhaps some kindly soul in industry (like GM or nuclear possibly) could give him a nice part-time job or two to keep his hand in.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Flying in the ointment

A couple of days ago the media praised Gordon Brown for his vision for a low carbon economy. He warned of hard choices and the need to achieve severe reductions in CO2 emissions. So if Gordon is so worried about climate change, why did it take him four months to mention it?

Yet on the ground and in the air - it's business as usual. Brown wants to build more roads and runways, effectively encouraging growth in CO2 emissions in the transport sector, and today his low carbon vision crashed further with Ruth Kelly's backing of the expansion of Heathrow airport. In one undemocratic swoop, Kelly has prejudged the outcome of any public inquiry, as at the end of it all it will be her final decision that counts. Like the nuclear consultation, it seems to be in the bag, no doubt helped along by the fact that airport's owner, BAA, will be effectively managing the data going into the consultation.

They will ignore the environment, the climate change, the thousands of people slowly losing their sanity and health due to aircraft noise. The excuse, as ever, is that "it's the economy, stupid." To counter the environmental argument that the plans should be shelved, Kelly said:

"All it will do is shift capacity over the Channel. It will make us feel pure, but with no benefit to the rest of the planet."

This is a piss poor excuse as well as a morally corrupt argument - it's the same argument crack dealers and arms sellers use - if we don't do it, someone else will.

We need to replace the "it's the economy, stupid" with something like "if we don't sort climate change we're all fucked, stupid." I know, it's not as snappy as Clinton's quote, but you get my drift.

Anyway, so instead of trying to engineer mechanisms to start to limit flying, something we need to do to reduce our CO2 emissions, the government is actively encouraging the growth in aviation and increasing the likelihood of disaster. Carbon offsetting, trading or any other fairyland gimmick they can think of to try and avoid actually reducing emissions will not work. There's no magic technological solution around the corner. Reductions must be the aim.

The British Government - the environmental equivalent of crack dealers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Darling's new northern bail out

In tonight's BBC Look North item on the Tyne Tunnel we witnessed the BBC becoming PR company to the second the Tyne road tunnel. Even the lead-in had a 'dynamic' soundtrack like some crappy company presentation. In this Tunnel-friendly puff piece, brought to us by reporter Damien Lewis, the BBC painted the tunnel as the only possible solution to crossing the Tyne and failed to mention anything about the opposition to the tunnel, the noise and particulate pollution and extra CO2 emissions.

So much for journalistic balance at the BBC.

There was however a startling revelation - that 50% of the money will come from government borrowing. The last press release from the Tunnel chiefs said that the 50 per cent borne by the PTA would be through so-called "Prudential Borrowing", which is a nice way of giving plain and simple borrowing a somehow less offensive appearance. If the new funding arrangement announced by the BBC is true, and not a journalistic error (what's the chances?), this means that the Tunnel may become another beneficiary of Alistair Darling's largesse, and in more ways than one.

When Alistair Darling was Secretary of State for Transport, he gave the go ahead for the tunnel, and in his justification he commented:

"...the Secretary of State is satisfied that the NTC scheme is reasonably capable of attracting the funds necessary to secure its implementation by means of the concession agreement proposed by the TWPTA."

No doubt based upon what the Inspector said in his final report:

"There is an active market for road and crossing PPPs [public private partnerships]. On this basis, and assuming that market conditions remain favourable for this type of project and that contractual negotiations proceed successfully, then the NTC is reasonably capable of attracting the necessary funding."

So the Inspector and Darling both agreed, even falling for the PTA's line that the tunnel would even make so much moolah that the Tunnel could also fund public transport initiatives elsewhere. So now we get to a sticky situation where things are not as rosy - a concessionaire which won't take the full bill, as first presented to the Inspector, and now a chill in the lending markets. Darling gave the go ahead for the tunnel, and if the report is right, he's going to be writing (at least) a £130m cheque for it too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Toilet humour

A letter from "Alfy Wells" in tonight's Shields Gazette is either a tour-de-force of comic genius, or a cry for help from seriously in need of psychiatric help. "Alfy", in Viz-esque style, imparted his wisdom:

"All the carry on about don't eat this and don't eat that could put you in your grave with worry. I've got a sure way to lose weight. All you do is to swallow two to three laxatives every other day. It's as simple as that. You should see a difference after a few days."

I'm surprised that he didn't throw in 40 fags a day as an extra insurance in shedding those pounds.

It's amazing that this got past the editorial, especially given the Gazette's habit of gutting all context from letters. I look forward to a letter from a concerned doctor admonishing the Gazette for it's irresponsible attitude, allowing any loon to advise readers on how to deal with their problems with habitual medication.

Perhaps we will see more medical advice from "Alfy", possibly even an "Ask Dr Alfy" spot.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Planning is boring

My previous post may have given the impression that there's little point in getting involved in consultations and planning. Despite my cynicism, I think they are an important way to try and influence development.

The Gypsies' Green campaigners would be in with a better chance if they had responded en masse to the South Shields and Town Centre Action Plan, outlining their preferences for the type of development on both the Gypsies' Green site. As it was, the action plan respondents were close to 50-50 between a hotel or recreational facilities for the site. A concerted campaign during that consultation could have clearly earmarked the Gypsies' Green site for public recreational facilities. The site is now designated as 'mixed use'.

Since the consultation fed into the Core Strategy, which forms the backbone of local planning guidance, you've got to find a pretty good reason, and strictly in planning terms, to stop a project which fits the criteria laid down in the Core Strategy.

Unless the Gypsies' Green campaigners can find a killer planning objection, coherently challenge the economic benefit claims or gain an unassailable level of public support that worries councillors, the development is likely to go ahead. However, Northumbrian Water's concerns about handling the additional sewerage requirements for all the new developments planned in the Action Plan may provide some faint possibilities.

Realistically though, planning is stuffy, boring and filled with terminology seemingly designed to put off the average citizen. Even councillors are put off - few councillors (sitting or prospective) have written responses to any of the Local Development Framework consultations.

It looks like the planning laws are going to be weakened by an increasingly neo-liberal government - taking power away from local people to put in the hands of the developers - so it's more important than ever to watch what's happening in planning terms and shout out if you don't like what you see.

The con-sultation trap

Curly's Corner Shop recently remarked on the waste of time that is the Downing Street e-petition website, and I agree. Most petitions are just a protest on paper, carry little weight and are easy to ignore. Perhaps reasonably so - they only represent the feelings of the core constituency affected by the issue at hand, and those people who could be bothered to put their name to paper and/or wish to show some solidarity with the petitioners' cause. As long as it doesn't take too much of the signatory's time of course.

Some consultations rely on this kind of apathy, and quite often you can tell by the questions asked which way the authors of the consultation want things to go. So it was with the consultation for the South Tyne and Wear Waste Management Partnership strategy. Some campaigners saw the pointed manipulation that was designed into the consultation response questionnaire so instead formed their own responses.

The consultation document asked things like whether ‘obtaining benefit from rubbish by modern treatment facilities’ was a good idea - but didn't state what ‘modern treatment facilities’ people would be supporting. Hence the interpretation of the results to the consultation assumes that respondents would be happy with any ‘modern treatment facilities’ - irrespective of cost - financial or environmental.

Today's meeting of the exclusively Labour cabinet of South Tyneside Council will discuss/rubber stamp the future of the waste strategy, drawing on the interpretation of results of the recent consultation. The review of responses to the consultation holds no surprises for those with some experience of consultations.

But I suppose at least the council appeared to attempt some level of openness.

Now we discover that the councils which are part of the partnership - South Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland, are trying to keep us all in the dark about what is really being planned.

Initially, there were nine treatment options to deal with residual waste, but this has recently narrowed to three options:

Mechanical biological treatment (MBT) of waste through aerobic digestion
A combination of mechanical recovery of recyclable materials with a biological treatment to produce a soil conditioner/compost.

Recovery of recyclable materials, sterilising biological waste and producing a material that can be used as a refuse derived fuel (RDF or secondary incineration).

Energy from Waste with Combined Heat and Power
Recovering recyclable materials before burning the residual waste to generate energy in the form of electricity and/or heat (otherwise known as incineration - and Councillor Capstick's preferred option).

It's assumed that one of these options will be put forward as part of a PFI project.

A reasonable assumption, because in July 2007, DEFRA approved the initial ‘expression of interest’ for a PFI bid for cash to build a mega waste facility somewhere in the South Tyne area. The expression of interest was originally submitted by the Partnership to DEFRA in March 2007.

Remember, this was all before the consultation ended in August. So it would be nice to know what type of treatment infrastructure was in the expression of interest.

Back in September local waste campaign group BAN Waste asked DEFRA what type of waste treatment infrastructure was being proposed as part of the PFI bid. After six weeks of wrangling DEFRA refused to grant a Freedom of Information request, on the grounds that "the councils involved do not wish this type of information to be made public".

Wow. It's worth saying that again.

"the councils involved do not wish this type of information to be made public."

That's right - our councils want to keep us all in the dark about a policy which will affect us and our children for at least the next thirty years.

What are they concealing?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Playing the odds

US science teacher and youtube contributor wonderingmind42 has demonstrated an intelligent approach to assess the risk of global heating and climate change mitigation - one which I'm unable (yet) to challenge.

It seems too good to be true. At first I thought it was the climate change version of Pascal's Wager, but the more I've examined it the more I've become convinced of the logic of the argument.

True, it's based upon a simple set of parameters, but it works. When you drill down into more detail, applying weightings to the risks based upon the likelihood vs benefits, the position becomes even more convincing.

Even when you add in a third so far unconsidered scenario: climate change is real but not anthropogenic; doing something still provides a better outcome than doing little or nothing.

I'm keeping an open mind though, so I'm open to any sensible suggestions which will break the test or bring a reasonable cause for re-evaluation.

To really take effective action on climate change it must be driven by policy.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

When cows fly

Did it jump or was it pushed? Suicide because it was in a bad moo-d?

From the Register:

"A US couple had a lucky escape when a 600lb cow unexpectedly landed on the bonnet of their minivan, unsurprisingly causing "heavy damage".

According to AP, Michigan-based Charles and Linda Everson were visiting the area around Lake Chelan, Washington, to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. On their way back to the hotel near Manson on Sunday, the bovine in question decided to plummet from a 200ft cliff and impact without warning against the vehicle.

Charles Everson admitted he "didn't see the cow falling and didn't know what happened until afterward". He added he'd been reduced to repeating: "I don't believe this. I don't believe this."

Chelan County fire chief Arnold Baker said the pair had missed being killed by a matter of inches. The cow wasn't so lucky, and was quickly "euthanised". "


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

No more 99's

It's sad to see a local business go, especially one that holds so many good memories for me, but to stoop to the conceit that the smoking ban 'forced' Minchella's to sell up the business at the Nook is just pathetic.

The truth is that Minchella's at the Nook has for a long time deteriorated and had begun to look tired and need of a good makeover. Also, despite the great ice cream, milk shakes and (adequate) coffee, the range of food was boring. Cheese toasties are hardly inspiring, especially considering when successful places like Cafe Nero can serve a range of delicious food along with excellent coffee - all without whingeing about the smoking ban.

Trevor Minchella said, "The smoking ban killed off this cafe." He's wrong. Apathy killed off the cafe. Of course some smokers stopped going into Minchella's, but he failed to bring in new custom, which he acknowledged when he said, "most of my customers were from a generation who frowned at the thought of having to stand outside in the street just to smoke".

The cafe has an air of neglect, most of the time has only a skeleton staff and has also become frequented by some with a vocabulary you don't want your children to hear.

To claim that the smoking ban was responsible for the business failure is disingenuous and just provides ammunition to pro smoking lobby group FOREST.

Without the secret Minchella ice cream formula I think it's unlikely that it can carry on as an ice cream parlour.

But I do hope that some enterprising soul can take the business on and make a success of it as the Nook needs a good coffee shop, although at £325,000 it's likely to be bought by a local property developer and split up.