Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Post below from Angry Harry. His comparison with British pornography law is interesting:

Muslim Cleric Causes Uproar Over Women's Clothing: Australia's most senior Muslim cleric has prompted an uproar by saying that some women are attracting sexual assault by the way they dress.

Of course, this uproar was caused by various women's groups who think that women should bear no responsibility for what they do. Well, in my view, Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali is correct in what he says - at least to some extent. Indeed, only recently, I wrote the following on my Your Emails page to a woman who seemed to think that women should be able to dress as they please without needing to take into account how others might respond.

"... if women behave stupidly, then they deserve less sympathy should something untoward happen. And if, for example, they wander about the place showing off all their bits then they should not be too surprised to find that some mentally dysfunctional male might respond to them. And the fact that women know that such unhappy events are more likely to occur if they are sexually provocative then the fact that they carry on regardless suggests that they are not very concerned about such events. That is the message that they are sending out.

As such, the law should reflect this lesser concern - this message - when deciding what level of negative impact any assault might have had, AND when deciding any punishment.

... Many women, however, seem to wish to take no responsibility for their behaviours. They seem to think that they should be able to flaunt their sexuality all over the place - in order to incite men - and then they think that they have the right to claim that they are victims when some men respond to them in a manner which is absolutely consistent with the message that they, themselves, have been sending out.

In my view, women who set out to entice men sexually bear more responsibility for sexual assaults against them than do women who do not set out to entice men sexually. And this should be reflected in the law.

... Are women such sluts that they think that they are entitled to foist their sexuality on to every passing member of the public? Are women so mind-boggling stupid that they cannot see that flagrantly enticing men sexually might bring about consequences? What makes women think that they have the right to overtly sexually stimulate men who happen to be in the vicinity whereas if men did a similar thing in response - perhaps with their hands - they could be prosecuted?

When women stick out their sexual organs uninvited into men's vision then this is not much different from men sticking out their hands uninvited for a grope. After all, in both cases they are merely trying to elicit a sexual response in the other party in the best way that they know how.

... Furthermore, we all have to accept that in order to safeguard our liberties, we have to tolerate many dysfunctional and/or unstable beings in our society, as well as those who are temporarily 'unbalanced' - for one reason or another. The alternative, in practice, is truly horrible. And, of course, some 20% of males have very low IQs. As such, I think that women are - as seems typical these days - being incredibly selfish if they believe that they are entitled to swirl up the passions of whomsoever they wish and then escape all responsibility for any negative consequences that might arise from ending up with the wrong kind of attention.

In a nutshell: People who go out of their way to provoke "an attack" are less deserving - should an attack materialise - than those who do not.

Most people would agree with this. But western women see themselves as so superior that they think they should be above such things. And they think that they should be able to provoke men - all men - as much as they like - and then take no responsibility! (And this is true not just in the area of sex. It is true in many other areas.) 'Ollocks, I say. Their own behaviour must be taken into account. And, take it from me, it soon will be!

And I stand by that view! I think I'll become a Muslim. And, while on this particular subject, I wish to make an interesting point!

Here, in the UK, we are soon going to outlaw certain types of pornography because some sex-offenders have claimed that "pornography made me do it". In other words, the government reckons that men can be 'enticed' into doing bad things by looking at pictures. Well, surely, if lofty people can accept the notion that men can be 'enticed' by pictures, then they should also accept the notion that men can be enticed by 'reality'!

And, if this is so, then women - who bring about their own reality - and who thrust it upon others - must also often be viewed as responsible for enticing men in much the same way that pornography allegedly does. So, how is it that women can escape all responsibility for enticing men, whereas pornography and pornographers cannot?

Well, of course, the answer is obvious. Women are nowadays held to be responsible for almost nothing that they do; not even for those situations in which they choose to place themselves. They are not held fully responsible when it comes to choosing to bear offspring, when it comes to their work choices, when it comes to whom they have sex with - especially when they are drunk - when it comes to child abuse, and even when it comes to murder.

And now we are simply being indoctrinated with the view that pornography can entice men to do bad things, but women, themselves, cannot. What hokum, eh? What lies!

Notice also that misleading women - especially younger women - into believing that their dress has no effect on the likelihood of being sexually-assaulted will simply lead to more women enticing more sexual assaults. In other words, more women will be hurt.

But, despite what they might say, most women do not actually care about this. So long as they can say and do as they damn well please, they do not actually care how many other women might be assaulted as a result.


Secret plans for a multi-billion-pound package of stealth taxes on fuel, cars, air travel and consumer goods have been drawn up by the Government to combat global warming. The proposals, leaked to The Mail on Sunday, show that the Government is considering introducing a raft of hard-hitting 'eco-taxes' that will have a devastating effect on the cost of living. Families with big cars could end up paying more than 1,000 pounds a year extra in tax. And nearly every household in Britain will be hit in the pocket.

Most controversial of all, the documents reveal the Government is planning to grab billions of pounds of extra revenue from motorists - without telling them. It is considering introducing a special mechanism so that whenever oil prices go down, the Government would get the cash in extra fuel tax - not the motorist. A leaked letter from Environment Secretary David Miliband to Chancellor Gordon Brown says the advantage of this is that the Government would gain billions of pounds 'without individual announcements on fuel-duty rises needing to be made'. The Government was immediately accused by the Conservatives of trying to introduce more 'stealth taxes' and failing to be honest with voters about the consequences of dealing with climate change.

The leak comes 24 hours before Tony Blair launches a major report warning that floods and other natural disasters caused by global warming will spark an economic catastrophe worse than the 1929 Wall Street Crash. But the report, by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, does not reveal what the Government plans to do about it. But a leaked letter written from Mr Miliband to Mr Brown on October 18 and obtained by The Mail on Sunday spells out the grim reality: wide-ranging tax rises that will have a dramatic impact on family incomes.

Mr Miliband calls for tough measures to combat 'car use and ownership' with a 'substantial increase' in road tax, which currently costs a maximum of 210 pounds a year. Mr Miliband says road tax should copy the 'success' of companycar taxes which forced people to switch to smaller vehicles with annual levies of up to 5,000 pounds. He also suggests a 'Treasury mechanism' allowing the Government to benefit from any fall in oil prices and reintroducing the 'fuel-duty escalator', which put up the duty on petrol by five per cent over inflation until Mr Brown ordered a freeze in 1999. Mr Miliband calls for a new 'pay-per-mile pollution tax' on motorists. And he urges VAT on air travel to EU destinations and new taxes on inefficient washing machines and light bulbs.

He also backs fresh laws to let town halls impose a 'rubbish tax' on households by using 'spies' placed in dustbins to weigh non-recyclable refuse. The letter says: 'Differential charging for waste at household level can have a significant role to play and local authorities should be given the powers to do so.' Mr Miliband also called for landfill tax - paid by businesses and local councils that bury rubbish - to be increased from 21 pounds a ton to 75. But one environmental expert said this could lead to more flytipping unless it is properly policed.

The letter to Mr Brown, marked ' Restricted', demands urgent and radical action in next month's public-spending review and next year's Budget. Changing people's behaviour can be achieved only by 'market forces and price signals', it says, adding: ' Marketbased instruments, including taxes, need to play a substantial role. As our understandings of climate change increases, it is clear more needs to be done.' The Government must 'increase the pace of existing tax measures, broaden them into sectors where incentives to cut carbon emissions are weak and identify new instruments to drive progress in tackling greenhouse gas'.

An aide to Mr Miliband said last night: 'We don't comment on leaked documents. These are ideas, not a package of measures.' An ally of Mr Brown added: 'The Chancellor does not approve of conducting Government business on the basis of leaks.'

Tory environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth said: 'No one is more committed to tackling climate change than the Conservatives. But if the Government wants to deal with it successfully, it must do so in an upfront way instead of bringing in stealth taxes by the back door. As with everything this Government does, the devil is in the detail. If motorists and consumers think all the Government wants to do is to slap taxes on everything, they may respond negatively. 'Tony Blair's Government has sat on its hands for ten years. Tackling the enormous challenge of climate change would have been much easier if they hadn't left it so late.'

Professor Julian Morris, environmental economist at Birmingham University and director of the International Policy Network, a free-market think-tank, called the new taxes 'underhand' and accused the Government of 'nannying'.



British business is this weekend fighting off calls for a raft of new green taxes that it fears will follow the publication of an influential government report tomorrow. The Stern Review is expected to warn that failure to address climate change could slash global economic growth by up to 20 per cent a year - a controversial view that will turn conventional thinking on climate change on its head. Businesses are worried that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will use the report by Sir Nicholas Stern, the respected economist, as an excuse to introduce a range of new anti-business pollution taxes.

David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: "We are very concerned that business is going to be made to pick up the tab for solving the world's environmental problems. "The fact is that families produce a lot of CO2 as well. It's vital the Government resists the temptation to introduce more taxes and regulations." Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses said: "There seems to be an all-party consensus that something needs to be done about the environment. We fear business may be thought of as a soft target. In reality, a lot of the increase in CO2 emissions is down to domestic use and greater use of transport. But it's consumers who vote - not businesses."

The Chancellor has a range of possible green taxes at his disposal. Options include raising fuel duty or increasing taxation on air travel. Nick Goulding of the Forum of Private Business said it was vital that any new regulations inspired by the report were not rushed through. "Business already pays too much tax," he said. "If new taxes are increased then the Government must slash other business taxes, ideally National Insurance contributions. If not, the economy will suffer."

Many businesses have already taken steps to improve their energy efficiency because of soaring fuel prices over the past two years. The BCC said 52.7 per cent of its members in a recent poll considered themselves "energy efficient", while a further 31.1 per cent were considering become more so. However, a hard core of about 20 per cent said it was too costly for them to consider becoming more energy efficient. The lobby groups maintain that the Government should do more to encourage businesses to go green.

The Forum of Private Business wants to see bigger tax breaks for firms that buy environmentally friendly machinery. Meanwhile, the BCC wants to see the Government beef up the Carbon Trust, the agency that works with businesses to lower carbon emissions.

The report by Stern stretches to 700 pages. An official close to the review said he would call for a dramatic boost in research and development spending on green energy and technology by government and businesses. Stern will say that global R&D spending by government and business will have to double from $10bn (œ5bn) to $20bn over the next five to ten years. "The report itself will not outline specific tax policies," said an official. "It will point out that becoming more energy efficient is also an opportunity to boost our economies."



Almost every day produces another doom-filled warning about global warming: a report tomorrow predicts a worldwide recession as a result of climate change. But, as Ross Clark reports, where there is anxiety, there's also business opportunity... and taxes, of course

Tomorrow, when Sir Nicholas Stern, the head of the Government's Economic Service, publishes his 700-page report claiming that global warming could shrink the world economy by 20 per cent, Ru Hartwell will have some reason to feel optimistic. He has just taken out a 30,000 pound mortgage on his home in Tregaron, west Wales, in order to set up a business, treeflights.com, which helps airline passengers assuage their consciences by having a tree planted, at 10 pounds a time, every time they take to the sky. In the three months since he started his business he has already taken 600 orders on his website, plus another 200 to 300 through a link-up with several travel agencies.

Buyers are promised that their tree will be numbered and tagged, so that they can come and inspect the sapling planted in an attempt to counter the environmental vandalism of their fortnight in Marbella. "I have been planting trees for years to offset my carbon emissions," says Mr Hartwell, 48. "But I ran out of resources and thought, rather than just me making a contribution, why not get people who are polluting more than I am to make a contribution too?"

Mr Hartwell is one tiny part of a multi-million pound industry that has grown out of the guilt created by grim predictions of global warming. There are dozens of companies now offering to "offset" your carbon emissions by planting trees, contributing towards the construction of windfarms or paying for green energy schemes in the third world.

On the subject of whether planting a tree really will make up for the carbon emitted by an airline trip, Mr Hartwell, who has worked as a professional tree-planter for, among others, the Forestry Commission, is honest. "I have planted my land with trees and I heat my home with wood rather than fossil fuels. If anyone was carbon-neutral it would be me, but I'm still nowhere near. A tree stores carbon for the duration of its life, but then releases it when it starts to rot. "That is why I am thinking of setting up a trust which will harvest the trees in a hundred years, and then dump them at sea or bury them underground in anaerobic conditions where they will continue to store their carbon.

"I'm trying to do it right, but what some carbon offset companies have been doing is taking money from the public, then claiming more money for tree-planting under the Woodland Grant Scheme. They then plant their trees on land which they don't own. How secure is that? The landowner could harvest the trees well before they had offset your emissions."

Besides being invited to offset their carbon emissions, guilty consumers are being tempted with lorry loads of "carbon-neutral" gifts. "This year make your Xmas a little greener by giving gifts from our great selection," screams the website of the Carbon Neutral Company. "You could balance out the emissions from someone's flights, home or travel... We've got ecogifts and gadgets that you and your family are sure to love." Among them are a "water-powered calculator" at 14.99 and a "wind-up torch and phone-charger" at 11.99.

The Carbon Neutral Company began life as Future Forests Ltd, doing much the same as Mr Hartwell does now. Since then, it has branched out into consultancy work, advising companies such as Honda and the mobile phone operator O2 on how to promote a greener image. Honda, for example, was advised to come up with a wheeze offering customers "one month of carbon-neutral driving" - in other words it gave a small donation to carbon-offset schemes for every car sold.

Under a tab marked "evidence", the website of the Carbon Neutral Company does not offer proof of global warming or give any hint as to whether the company's activities will make any difference to the planet. What it does offer is a piece of research by something called the Institute of Business Ethics, claiming: "Companies with a public commitment to ethics perform better on three out of four measures than those without. These companies also have 18 per cent higher profits on average."

Another way to cash in on global warming, as The Sunday Telegraph revealed in July, is to take advantage of the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme, which set carbon emission targets for particular industries and then allowed those industries to "sell" emissions if they undershot their targets and forced them to "buy" emissions if they overshot their targets. A study by the think-tank Open Europe found that some companies have been making a fortune from undershooting extremely liberal targets: GlaxoSmithKline's plant in Dartford, for example, used only a fifth of its allocation, while the scheme boosted the profits of BP and Esso by 5 million and 5.8 million respectively. Perversely, some of that money came from NHS hospitals, which had overshot their targets and were forced to buy emission rights from oil companies.

But it is not just private enterprise that has found fear of global warming to be the route to a fortune. Public bodies are using global warming as an excuse for revenue-raising. Justifying his plan to charge drivers of 4x4s 300 pounds for a parking permit, Serge Lourie, the leader of Richmond-upon-Thames borough council, said last week: "Climate change is the single greatest challenge faced by the world today. We can no longer bury our head in the sand and pretend that it is not happening."

While the Government lowered petrol taxes in face of the protests of September 2000, it has used climate change as an excuse for levying charges on homeowners. From next June, all homeowners thinking of placing their homes on the market will be obliged first to obtain an "energy performance certificate" at a cost of around 150 pounds a time. Since 2002, homeowners replacing windows, much to the glee of the double-glazing industry, have been obliged to fit double-glazing, and to pay their local authority to inspect it.

A growing number of public servants owe their careers to global warming. The Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit company which advises industry on how to cut its carbon emissions, chomped its way through a grant of 73.7 million from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last year, paying its chief executive, Tom Delay, salary and bonuses of 200,478. Many of its functions are duplicated by the Energy Saving Trust, another not-for-profit company that spent 59 million worth of public grants last year. On top of that, there are the likes of the climate change co-ordinator recently appointed by the unelected North East Regional Assembly on a salary of 35,000.

There are also two Government-funded research units into climate change: the Hadley Centre, which is part of the Met Office, and the Tyndall Centre, which funds researchers at a number of universities, armed with a 10 million grant from the Government. Anyone wondering why British scientists appear often to present a united front on the issue of global warming may do well to study the Tyndall Centre's "objectives", which include "to seek, evaluate and facilitate sustainable solutions that will minimise the adverse effects of climate change and stimulate policy for the transition to a more benign energy and mobility regime". In other words, if you want public money to study climate at a British university, the answers are given upfront: the climate is changing, it is the fault of mankind and it can be alleviated by reducing energy use and travel.

It is an ill wind that blows no one any good. As the nation starts to digest Sir Nicholas's report tomorrow, it may care to reflect that some people are finding global warming quite profitable too.



For those who have a special affection for Scotland, there is a great article here by a Scotsman about the Scottish love of the bottle. He is trying to be censorious but cannot help celebrating Scottishness. A few excerpts:

The Buckfast fracas is emblematic of the ingrained, abusive and horribly destructive relationship between my countrymen and the bottle. We Scots make the best drink, and the best drinkers, in the world. No parties in the world can compare, in riotous enjoyment, with Hogmanay and Burns Night [Hear here!]. We just don't know when to stop...

Scottish humour and culture are soused in alcohol. Billy Connolly has long been sober, but his performance inevitably recalls, mocks and celebrates his legless days. Harry Lauder composed Glasgow's unofficial anthem as an ode to the city going "round and round" [That's from "I belong to Glasgow", which is usually attributed to Will Fife] on a Saturday night. John Reid, another reformed drinker, likes to tell a joke about how he found he was "allergic to leather" because he kept waking up with his shoes on and a splitting headache....

The drunken hero is a staple of Scots literature, and drinking has become culturally linked to the idea of liberty. Robert Louis Stevenson stated that "wine is bottled poetry" and Robert Burns himself wrote: "Freedom and whisky gang thegither." Somehow that sentiment has evolved into the freedom to get miserably blootered and die young....

The strange, miserablist tradition of Scottish drinking seems out of kilter with a nation that is increasingly self-confident, a country raking in money from tourists to spend on new livers. Today Scotland is wealthier, better educated and warmer than ever before. All dark, northern countries drink more deeply than those in the lighter south, [The French and the Italians might disagree with that] but now even Scottish weather seems to be improving. As I look outside the window, the rhododendrons are flowering for the third time, in late October.

As a child, I vividly remember the drunks lined up outside the hotel in our local village. Lurching, friendly men with wind-scoured faces, they would lean, patiently if unsteadily, against the wall between afternoon closing time and reopening in the evening regardless of the weather. My father insisted they were propping up the hotel.

Those drunks have long been gathered to the celestial tavern, but a new generation of Scottish drinkers is being pickled, with the freedom to drink all day, and alcohol comparatively cheaper than ever.

Monday, October 30, 2006


If they keep cutting back at their present rate there will soon be only bureaucrats left in the NHS...

Universities are being forced to cut staff and medical training programmes as strategic health authorities trim their budgets to reduce the NHS deficit, The Times has learnt. Nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy and radiography courses have all been severely depleted, as have community-care programmes. Vice-chancellors have given warning that the cuts are likely to cause a boom-and-bust cycle in healthcare provision that may later result in the closure of university departments.

In Central, South West and the East of England, student numbers have dropped this year by as much as a quarter. Overall they have dropped 13 per cent, as health authorities pull contracts.

England’s nursing and allied-health students are paid for via contracts between the strategic health authorities (SHAs) and the universities. Last year 97,000 students were taking such degrees. At the University of the West of England (UWE), a loss of 900,000 pounds in contracts has resulted in 114 fewer students this year, and the end of all conversion courses for nurses wanting to retrain either as midwives and health visitors or to work in the community. Avon, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire SHA made savings of 7.8 million pounds in training programmes in 2005-06 and is continuing to do so. The fear, says Steve West, UWE’s deputy vice-chancellor, is that the cuts will continue. “Our health-visiting, district-nursing and midwifery conversion courses have all been cut, gone, closed,” he said. “It’s becoming very difficult to sustain our commitment to the NHS when our budgets keep being cut.”

England’s SHAs made savings or “underspent” last year by 524 million, but they are now being asked to set aside a further minimum of 350 million for a contingency fund. Much of this money, argues the Council of Deans for Nursing and Health Professions, is coming out of their education and training budgets. This is resulting in the loss of academics and contracts for nurses and and other health professionals.

More here


A ripe pear is soft and squishy but that's still too dangerous for the soft and squishy people in charge of one British school

The laws of gravity might never have been revealed if Isaac Newton's apple tree had suffered the same fate as that of the Sacred Heart primary school's pear tree.

It may warm the hearts of health and safety commissioners across the country, but yesterday a move to cut down the tree was condemned elsewhere as madness. Governors and the head teacher at Sacred Heart Primary School, in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire sparked a furious reaction, when they decided to chop down the tree overhanging the playground. "A risk assessment was done on the tree and it was found necessary to have it removed. The risk was mainly from falling pears," said Geoffrey Fielding, chair of the governors. "We have a duty of care to the health and safety to people on this site, particularly the children and that's the decision that we have taken."

The school said they had made the decision after witnessing parents being hit on the head by falling fruit as they waited for their children. Lizzie Summerwill, a mother, praised the tree cutters. "I think it's brilliant they cut it down because of the health and safety issues," she said. "In the summertime it was infested by wasps and the fruit stank."

But Gill Franklin, owner of Cross Lane Fruit Farm, Mapledurham, which has 400 pear trees, has never been hit on the head by the fruit in 29 years. She said removing damaged pears and picking the fruit before it became ripe would resolve the issue. "Fruit doesn't drop down for no reason. You never ripen a pear on a tree. We have gone mad on risk assessment," she said. "Environmentally the world needs more trees and the children need to eat fruit. Why didn't they pick the pears? It's a frightening thought they're not using their natural resources. They're probably buying fruit in and letting the pears go to waste."

The tree is thought to be at least 25 years old, but was not included in a tree preservation order served on the site. Adam Dawson, a tree preservation officer for South Oxfordshire District Council, said Mr. Fielding did not accept his recommendations for solving the perceived problems. He added: "On balancing up the issues, and bearing in mind the considerable number of other protected trees in the vicinity, I did not consider it expedient to dedicate resources to serving an emergency tree preservation order on this one tree."

Earlier this year the school filled in a pond claiming it was very dangerous for pupils and that the area was needed for a temporary classroom.



A ground-breaking report due on Monday will say that the impact of global poverty, conflict and mass migration due to climate change far outweighs the costs of taking urgent action to counter global warming. The report by chief British government economist Nicholas Stern will underpin efforts to reach a new global deal to combat climate change when the current Kyoto Protocol agreement ends in 2012.

The United States, the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases that cause climate change, pulled out of Kyoto saying taking action would too expensive and cost jobs.

The report, by the former World Bank chief economist, tackles US scepticism head-on by seeking to prove the costs of tackling global warming are small compared to the potentially enormous impact of runaway climate change in year's ahead. In his closely-argued 700-page review Mr Stern says action to curb the most dangerous effects of global warming will hold back growth in the world economy only slightly over the next 45 years, said a source who had seen a draft.

But the effects of uncontrolled climate change could be devastating, Mr Stern says in a report pitched at policymakers who gather next month to discuss extending Kyoto. "He will talk a lot in that report about the scale and urgency of what's required," said John Ashton, special representative for climate change at the British foreign office. "We are all (including Britain, Europe) going to have to do an awful lot better. There is no government which has in place the policies that will eat into this at the scale and with the urgency necessary at the moment," he said.

A scientific consensus is emerging that global greenhouse gas emissions, except from food production, will have to shrink to near-zero by mid-century, said Mr Ashton - requiring a huge leap given that emissions are rising in the European Union. "We need to get very close to a zero carbon global energy economy. This is the biggest structural shift in the way the global economy works that has ever been attempted by humanity, it's an enormous demand of any economy."

Mr Stern will stress that taking action on climate change offers benefits, given that a major way to cut greenhouse gas emissions is by burning fossil fuels more efficiently, offering huge cost-savings. To drive the necessary energy investment changes he will call for a global carbon price, whether through carbon taxes or carbon markets - affixing a clear cost to pollution.

This would build on rather isolated existing carbon markets, such as in the European Union and among countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and mooted markets in California and other US states. "We'll need to develop deep and liquid carbon markets," said a Treasury source. "The combination of price and trading schemes will be central to drive financial flows (investment in emissions cuts)."

Carbon markets set an overall cap on emissions of greenhouse gases but allow companies or countries to trade rights to emit. The idea is that businesses and countries that can cut emissions cheaply will over-achieve and sell their surplus rights to emit to others, cutting the overall cost of cuts. Mr Stern wants an expansion of carbon trading between rich and poor countries under Kyoto.

Britain has raised the alarm on climate change in the run-up to Mr Stern's review. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende said last week the world had just 10 to 15 years to take steps to avoid catastrophe.



Scientists have discovered why some people's brains are particularly vulnerable to food advertising and product packaging, putting them at risk of overeating and becoming overweight. The research provides fresh insight into one of the neurobiological factors underlying obesity by showing how some people are more attracted to the prospect of being rewarded with tasty food than others. The findings from a group of scientists at the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge led by Andy Calder and Andrew Lawrence are published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Different people have higher or lower reward sensitivity, a personality trait that reflects a general desire to pursue rewarding or pleasurable experiences. The research shows that individuals with higher reward sensitivity, show increased activity in the parts of the brain implicated in motivation or reward when simply looking at pictures of appetizing food.

Previous research has shown that people with high reward sensitivity have stronger food cravings and are more likely to be overweight, but until now, the biological basis of this effect was unknown. This new research identifies how this relationship operates in the human brain, resulting in greater susceptibility to food advertising.

The study used the latest technology in brain imaging. The researchers showed people pictures of highly appetizing foods (e.g. chocolate cakes), bland foods (e.g. broccoli), and disgusting foods (e.g. rotten meat) while measuring brain activity using an fMRI scanner. After testing, the study participants completed a questionnaire that assessed their general desire to pursue rewarding items or goals. The results showed that the participant's scores on the reward sensitivity questionnaire predicted the extent to which the appetizing food images activated their brain's reward network.

"Previous studies in this area have assumed that brain activation patterns are similar in all healthy individuals. But the new findings demonstrate that even in healthy individuals some peoples' brain reward centers are more sensitive to appetizing food cues. This helps explain why some individuals are more vulnerable to developing certain disorders like binge-eating," said Dr John Beaver, lead author of the study. "This is particularly pertinent in understanding the rapidly increasing prevalence of obesity, as people are constantly bombarded with images of appetizing food items in order to promote food intake through television advertising, vending machines, or product packaging."

According to Dr Beaver the findings may also have broader implications for understanding vulnerability to multiple forms of addiction and compulsive behaviors.

"Research demonstrates that an individual's reward sensitivity may also relate to their vulnerability to substance abuse, and the brain network we have identified is hyper-responsive to drug cues in addicts," he said.


Sunday, October 29, 2006


One of the most misguided ideas in any debate is the idea that the consensus view is usually, if not always, right. All too frequently the accepted wisdom has been completely and comprehensively wrong. We may react with disbelief that anyone believed, or indeed still believes, that ships would sail over the edge of earth, and possibly be gobbled up by monsters, because the earth was flat. But historically this has been an accepted wisdom. And we may be bemused, even a trifle alarmed, that Galileo was threatened with the torture because he supported Copernicus's revolutionary (no pun intended) theory that the earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa. But Copernicus's maverick theory challenged a consensus that was politically dangerous to challenge.

Economics, albeit more prosaically, has also been subject to fads, whims and consensus views to which history has not been kind. Twenty-five years ago Britain was at an economic crossroads. The credibility of the British economy was collapsing as inflation and unemployment soared, manufacturing output slumped and the national debt spiralled upwards. Margaret Thatcher and her Chancellor, Sir Geoffrey Howe, concluded that drastic action was required. Taxes were raised by £4bn (then a huge sum) in the 1981 Budget in order to provide scope for lower interest rates and tackle public sector borrowing. There was, unsurprisingly, substantial political opposition.

But, of more interest, 364 economists signed a letter to The Times stating that there was "no basis in economic theory or supporting evidence" for Sir Geoffrey's policy and that it threatened Britain's "social and political stability". An alternative course of action must be pursued, these savants insisted. Almost the entire academic economic establishment stood against the Government with a mere handful of brave "mavericks" dissenting from the consensus view. But, as we now know, the letter's signatories were wrong because they believed in the then ubiquitous, but faulty, Keynesian consensus of the time.

Moreover, not only did the economics establishment regard Sir Geoffrey's Budget as fundamentally flawed, they also took the same view of the mavericks' judgments. This is instructive. Many in academia seem to believe that "peer-reviewed" research guarantees impartial, sound and independent assessment. It does not. Mavericks can be marked down and dismissed by their consensus-minded peers. Dissension is rarely popular.

The story of the 364 economists should be a warning to all who give the impression that the consensus view is an impregnable fortress of truth. Yet only recently Sir David King, the Government's Chief Scientist, was again reassuring us that at a meeting in Monterrey, Mexico, there had been a "scientific consensus" about climate change. Man-made carbon emissions were the main drivers of global warming. But the meeting was organised by the British Government to discuss the climate change action plan agreed at Gleneagles last year and the main protagonists were G8 ministers, hardly independently minded free spirits.

By happy coincidence, as the G8 delegates were flying to and from Monterrey, liberally scattering carbon emissions into the ether, the Royal Society was publishing a paper by a team from the Danish National Space Center (DNSC) of the utmost scientific significance. Interestingly, the DNSC team leader, one Henrik Svensmark, has been impeded and persecuted by scientific and government establishments in recent years because his findings have been politically inconvenient. Politically inconvenient they are indeed.

Very briefly, the latest DNSC research shows how cosmic rays from exploding stars can encourage cloud formation in the earth's atmosphere. As the Sun's magnetic field, which shields the earth from cosmic rays, strengthened significantly during the 20th century the average influx of cosmic rays, and hence cloudiness, was reduced over this period. The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially low-altitude clouds which have an overall cooling effect, could, therefore, be a highly significant factor in the last century's global warming.

I am no climate scientist. But it is clear this research seriously challenges the current pseudo-consensus that global warming is largely caused by manmade carbon emissions. All the current carbon hysteria is a mistake - and a potentially costly one at that.

I have to admit I have some reservations about the Royal Society. They have sorely misrepresented me in the press at least twice. And they have frequently been accused of being the Government's mouthpiece on the science of global warming. After all, 67pc of their funding, some 30 million pounds, comes from Government. They have also, apparently, been accused of denying funding to any climate scientist who does not share their alarmist views. But, in publishing this research, they have added to a debate that has major economic and business implications for this country. They should be applauded.


Perfect smile dangerous

In the quest for the perfect Hollywood smile, they provide an instant and cheap makeover for the mouth. But the teeth-whitening kits used by thousands of Britons who want polished molars can cause permanent damage, according to dentists. Super-strength whitening kits that promise to create brighter smiles by bleaching teeth with high levels of hydrogen peroxide dye can lead to chemical burns and aggravated gum disease, the British Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry (BACD) announced yesterday. The do-it-yourself kits, on sale over the counter in Britain for as little as 10 pounds, are in demand as an alternative to surgical bleaching treatments offered by dental clinics at a cost of between 300 and 1,300 pounds.

Yet some kits available online are 250 times more concentrated than the legal limit and can cause damage or over-bleaching, resulting in so-called "fridge door teeth", clinicians claim. At worst, they may exacerbate gum disease, leading to tooth loss. Private dental clinics are burgeoning, with the market for cosmetic dentistry in Britain now said to be worth 1 billion. More than a quarter of Britons have had cosmetic dental work, including caps and braces. However, whitening treatments are the most popular, according to a recent survey. James Goolnik, a dentist and board member of the BACD, said that the kits offering a "cheap, quick fix" were ineffective and offered a false economy.

"Whitening is a bit like a facial in that it helps to unlock pores in your tooth so that stains are gently removed leaving teeth cleaner and brighter," he said. "All whitening is based on a hydrogen peroxide solution; the only difference in the hundreds of systems out there is the concentration and the way the solution is applied to your teeth. Not all of them are safe. "By law, shop-bought kits in the UK can't have a hydrogen peroxide concentration level more than 0.1 per cent. But other countries have no regulations at all."

Dr Goolnik said that take-home kits should be used with caution since they involved using poorly moulded mouth guards, often worn overnight, allowing leakage of gel or solutions containing hydrogen peroxide, a chemical typically associated with hair colourings, into the mouth. "If the gel goes on to the gums, it can cause blistering. In someone who has got irritation or decay, it can accelerate the process," he said. Dr Goolnik said that the kits with high levels of hydrogen peroxide were designed to be used by professional dentists, painted directly on to the teeth while the gums were protected. He said: "We are seeing more and more people coming in with damage caused by whitening kits . . . They go to the supermarket and see whitening toothpastes. There is no evidence they can actually whiten teeth and people might not see a difference, so they want the next thing up. At best they get no result, and at worst they get permanent sensitivity. "It is essential to invest, at a bare minimum, in going to see your dentist before you use one of these kits, but you don't want to spend money on whitening for no effect and only a dentist can get your teeth to the maximum whiteness."

A spokesman for the General Dental Council, which regulates dentistry in Britain, said: "Tooth-whitening products contain bleach and need to be handled with caution. Only registered dentists are permitted to apply materials and carry out procedures designed to improve the aesthetic appearance of teeth." Carmel McHenry, a spokeswoman for the British Dental Association said: "Liquids that discolour teeth will darken them again over time." She recommended a full dental assessment before the procedure.

A spokesman for Boots the Chemist, which sells its own brand of whitening kits, said: "People with sensitive teeth or gums are advised to talk to a dentist before using whitening kits, and all users are advised to pay careful attention to the detailed instructions on the packaging. Our own-brand kit uses a non-peroxide formula and has been extensively tested and passed as safe to use."


Saturday, October 28, 2006


Nearly a fifth of five-year-olds cannot write their own name and fewer than half have reached their expected level of learning, official figures show. An assessment of 535,000 five-year-olds in England found that, after a year of schooling, 91,000 could not write simple words such as “mum” or “cat” or hold a pencil correctly. The number of children who had mastered basic literacy and numeracy was much lower than last year, as was the number of children who reached expected levels of physical development. Boys proved worst at completing writing tasks, with 21 per cent unable to write key words compared with 11 per cent of girls.

About 21,420 children could not count to ten and 39 per cent could not hear or pronounce the short vowel sounds in words such as “pen”, “hat” and “dog”, while 17 per cent could not recognise or name all the letters of the alphabet. Overall, 44.6 per cent of five-year-olds reached the expected level of improvement after their first year of primary school, a drop of 3.2 percentage points on 2005.

The Department for Education and Skills has defined a “good level of development” as children achieving six or more points across 13 scales in areas such as personal, social and emotional development, reading, writing and maths. However, the figures suggest that the Government will fall short of its target of 53 per cent of five-year-olds in England reaching this level by 2008. Ministers blamed the fall in attainment on tougher marking while teachers said that comparisons between years were spurious.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Last year’s assessments were riddled with difficulties as teachers came to terms with the new scheme. “The assessments are qualitative judgments on such issues as a child’s personal development and cannot be presented as simple numerical results or in league table form.”

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said in April that the new targets would mean that 30,000 more children would reach expected levels. She said that the Government would like to see “faster gains in our most deprived communities” in England, but figures for local authorities were unavailable yesterday. The Education Department said that the public reaction to its curriculum for toddlers, the Early Years Foundation Stage, had been enthusiastic. The framework has a play-based approach that is designed to integrate quality learning and care. Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister, said that the framework would improve the learning abilities of five-year-olds and enable “them to reach their full potential, just as any good parent would seek to do at home”.


More Favoritism for Muslims in Britain

Police in Manchester have been told not to arrest Muslims wanted on warrants at prayer times during Ramadan. Greater Manchester Police confirmed it had asked detectives not to make planned arrests during those periods for reasons of religious sensitivity. The advice was emailed out to officers working in Moss Side, Hulme, Whalley Range, Rusholme, Fallowfield, Ardwick, Longsight, Gorton and Levenshulme. Police said it was not a blanket ban, just a "request for sensitivity". The email stressed the order did not apply to on-the-spot arrests, only the execution of arrest warrants.

The holy month of Ramadan began on 22 September and is due to end with the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr next week. The internal email was sent to staff listing the prayer times, but confusion arose and a second memo was sent clarifying it was not a total ban on arresting Muslims at these times. A GMP statement said: "The primary objective of Greater Manchester Police is to fight crime and protect people. "The month of Ramadan is an important time of the year for members of the Muslim community throughout the world. "It is important that normal, planned policing activities and operations are maintained, while ensuring that officers are professional and respectful to members of the community while going about their duties."

Liberal Democrat councillor Simon Ashley, who represents the city's Gorton South ward and leads the party on Manchester City Council, said: "This sounds odd but we would need to find out what impact rescheduling arrests had on police operations. "The police's first job is to police. "I understand they have a difficult task to do and need to do it sensitively, especially within minority communities, but that can't stop them policing serious crimes."


No arrests of Christians over Easter or Christmas/New Year too? That seems to have been overlooked

A Libertarian Archbishop?

There is not much that I agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury about (though he did support the Iraq intervention) and I regularly mock the Church of England but I agree with the following words of His Grace:

"So the ideal of a society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen - no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils - is a politically dangerous one. It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political "licensing authority", which has all the resource it needs to create a workable public morality.


As a libertarian, I think that there should be complete freedom of religion for both Muslims and Christians, unlike the absurd situation in the USA and UK at the moment where there seems to be more freedom for Muslims than for Christians. It is only the advocacy and practice of violence that should be penalized.

And it seems that the chief prelate of the Church of England has similar views. He clearly thinks that the wearing of Muslim veils and Christian crosses should both be allowed. Both have of course recently been penalized in England.

Friday, October 27, 2006

"Posts unfilled are not jobs lost"??

Good old British "fudging"

The one certainty is that jobs have been lost. But in the publicity fog surrounding the NHS, it is unclear how many. Take the Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust. Health Service Journal (Oct 19) quotes its chief executive: "We thought we would have to place just over 200 staff at risk of redundancy." In fact, just ten have taken voluntary redundancy and only four have been made redundant. But 200 is more likely to make headlines than four.

Another trust, in Worcestershire, identified more than 750 jobs at risk. In fact, says a trust spokesperson, only 11 have actually been lost. But pessimists can be forgiven for having expected worse. NHS Employers estimated that 20,000 posts were threatened. HSJ says that the reality is just 766 redundancies so far.

The important distinction is, it seems, between jobs lost and posts unfilled. Kevin Barron, the chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, says that he is "hoarse" from talking to organisations such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) which he says tell the media that thousands of jobs are being lost. "In my view, posts unfilled are not jobs lost," Barron says.

But that's little comfort to those who have been made redundant or who have completed their healthcare training and then found that they cannot get work. Commenting on a survey which found that barely half of student nurses expect to have jobs on qualifying, Susan Watts, the RCN's student adviser, says that new staff should be guaranteed a one-year contract. Failure to do so risks nursing shortages in a few years' time, she predicts.

Therapy Weekly (Oct 19) suggests that newly qualified physiotherapists are in a similar position. It says that a "staggering" 93 per cent of this year's graduates have still not found an NHS post.



So proposals for vast new spending on State education are greeted with skepticism even on the Left. They rightly fear that it would discredit all government spending

Gordon Brown's pledge to raise state school funding to the same level as that enjoyed by private schools has been criticised by a committee of MPs. The Education Select Committee's investigation of public expenditure in education also condemned a lack of transparency and cautioned that taxpayers might not wish to pay for state schools in future unless ministers can demonstrate that the resources are being used wisely. This lack of information, the Labour-dominated committee said, would not only be bad for taxpayers but could also "undermine the electorate's willingness to fund public services".

But the MPs reserved their harshest criticism for the Chancellor's commitment in this year's Budget to raise the level of funding per pupil in state schools from 5,000 to 8,000 pounds, the average spending per head in independent schools. Although Mr Brown was widely praised for his pledge in March, The Times quickly established from Treasury sources that this was only an aspiration. After questioning Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, and David Bell, his top official, the MPs said that it remained to be seen how the aspiration would be backed up with funding.

The select committee said that it was hard to judge when this pledge could ever be met. "Without a timescale it is hard to be certain when the target would be met," the report stated. "The debate on what is the appropriate level of per-pupil funding is important. Future policy announcements should have a more substantial basis."

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has since estimated that it would cost 17 billion to close the gap between the public and private sectors and that this would not be achieved until at least 2014.

The MPs also warned that there was no way to demonstrate whether the Government's increased funding for schools had been effective and had succeeded in providing better education or more highly qualified students. Since Labour came into office, public spending on education has risen from 21.43 billion in 1997-08 to 34.35 billion in 2005-06. But recent figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that only 41 per cent of pupils achieved five grades A* to C in English, maths and science and only 26 per cent of pupils got good grades in English, maths, science and a language - a fall of 4 percentage points from 2002.

Last night a spokesman said that the Government had invested record amounts in education, and "as a result we are seeing more schools with more teachers and better results". "Investment in education is a key priority for the Government. As the Chancellor said in his Budget speech, the Government's long-term aim is that we raise average investment per pupil to today's private school level. That position remains unchanged."



Freedom of speech is not a celebrated cause in the West today. While all right-thinking people are concerned about state censorship in China, or the imprisoning of poets by authoritarian regimes across the world, it seems self-indulgent or even hysterical to complain about `censorship' in the liberal West. Consequently, the demand for free speech is often seen as pedantic, eccentric even, the preserve of right-wing social inadequates who like to go on about `political correctness gone mad' or occasionally left-wing social inadequates who like to announce that democracy is being overthrown by neocon conspirators.

It is true that there are relatively few legal restraints on free speech in the West. However, with new and proposed restrictions associated with the `war on terror', formal and informal injunctions against `offensive' speech, and the continuing travesty that is libel law, especially in the UK, there is little reason for complacency. Nonetheless, freedom of speech is not an issue discussed with any urgency; all too readily it is trumped by other priorities. Indeed, more striking than any of the formal restrictions on free speech is the cultural climate, in which none of these restrictions provokes more than a half-hearted whimper of dissent. Free speech is simply not held to be especially important when weighed against security or the protection of minorities from abuse, for example. For the most part, then, it is enjoyed but not valued. It is not understood as a hard-won freedom at all, but taken for granted from day to day. Bizarrely, most of us, most of the time, have free speech in reality, but not in principle, in practice but not in theory.

The justification for this diminishment of free speech is far from clear, however. While detractors often present free speech as an `airy fairy', abstract ideal that must be compromised in the face of more complicated realities, in truth it is more often the critique of free speech that is hopelessly abstract. There are no really good arguments against free speech in principle, because to argue against free speech is to argue against reason itself, to put something beyond debate. Instead, censorship is justified with reference to hypothetical and often irrational suppositions about how people might respond to things, and a general anxiety about unrestrained expression.

The weakness of the case against free speech means debates too often go from outlandish examples proving that `there is no such thing as absolute free speech' to arguments for restricting speech at the drop of a hat. In this context, those of us who want to challenge particular instances of censorship - whether it is the suppression of dissent in authoritarian regimes overseas, or the UK law against `incitement to religious hatred' - must decide whether it is worth holding to a general principle of free speech such as that argued for by JS Mill, in his seminal On Liberty, or whether it is better to argue on a case-by-case basis. Should we accept that there are indeed limits to free speech, and make the debate about where they should be placed? If not, what is the case for free speech as a principle, and how does it differ today, if at all, from that made by Mill in 1859? .......

Free speech and other values

The most common case made for censorship today is not that unregulated speech might incite violence or disorder - though this remains the ostensible rationale behind much recent British legislation limiting freedom of speech - but that it is likely to cause offence. While the moral weight behind the government's bid to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, for example, comes from the idea that `religious hate speech' might provoke violence against Muslims, there is little, if any, evidence for this - in substance the law is about protecting the feelings of those who are upset by perceived insults to their religion.

The notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons published across Europe earlier this year did not incite anti-Muslim mobs, but only outrage among Muslims themselves, just as some Sikhs in Birmingham were offended by the play Behtzi in December 2004. Following that case, Christian protests against the BBC's decision to broadcast Jerry Springer: the Opera followed the same template, emphasising personal offence at the show's depiction of Jesus, rather than the old-fashioned, quasi-political offence of blasphemy against the established religion. In all of these cases, it was suggested that, freedom of speech not being absolute, a line should be drawn at offending religious sensibilities.

It is generally taken for granted that `the line has to be drawn somewhere'. In his polemic against free speech, Stanley Fish presents this commonsense assumption in more theoretical terms, arguing that it is `originary exclusion' that gives meaning to free speech. That is, free speech is defined in the first place by the exceptions to the rule. Fish cites the poet John Milton, who believed in free speech for everyone except Roman Catholics, and by implication other superstitious and impious types who would threaten the seventeenth century English Protestant `faith and manners' on whose behalf he did champion free speech. Fish's argument is not that Milton didn't really believe in free speech, because he excluded Catholics, but that it would have rendered his particular case for free speech meaningless if he had extended it to Catholics, because what he really meant was free speech for people like him.

But it is disingenuous to ignore the substance of Milton's argument for free speech on the grounds that, having discovered its true motive, and seen that Milton himself prized that motive more than free speech itself, we can now dismiss it as merely contingent, a rhetorical tactic. Milton's fear of `Popery' wasn't just a personal peccadillo, after all. Nor was it born of some irrational religious prejudice. At that time in much of Europe, free speech was almost synonymous with the right to criticise the all-powerful Catholic church, which brutally suppressed dissent (in Milton's words, `it extirpates all religious and civil supremacies'). Thus, for Milton, censoring Catholics in Protestant Britain was not about oppressing a minority, but upholding the liberty of all. If, for Milton, liberty was a means to a religious end, the lesson of history is that ultimately it was religious passion that served liberty. (Just as the long religious wars that followed the Reformation finally gave birth to the notion of religious toleration and a battle of ideas rather than arms.)

The lesson of Milton's case is that freedom of speech sooner or later comes into conflict with other principles, often those that inspire us to talk about freedom in the first place. One response to this is to abandon free speech in favour of other priorities. Another is to recognise it as a special kind of freedom, one that must be tolerated even when it does come into conflict with more passionately held principles. This has to do with the nature of speech itself, as something that is subject to rational argument as discussed above. Free speech is the means by which all other principles, convictions and values can be rationally debated. As such, it takes on special status as an end in itself, to be honoured even when it is used in the service of particular ideas we oppose.

Accordingly, hostility to free speech reflects a disavowal of reasoned argument, a belief that certain principles or values must be protected from opposing ideas. For example, when Frank Ellis, a lecturer at Leeds University made racist comments to a student paper earlier this year, it was widely argued that this posed a threat to the university's core values. The university secretary prepared the way for disciplinary action by explaining: `The University of Leeds is a diverse and multicultural community whose staff and students are proud to support our values, which include mutual respect, diversity and equal opportunity, and collegiality.'

Ellis was then suspended and eventually took early retirement. This was generally seen as a good result. As one student said to the Observer: `Knowing that he's a lecturer and that he holds views that black people are inferior and that women can't achieve the same as men, it's disgusting and certainly not conducive to an academic environment.' Of course it could be argued an academic environment implies academic freedom, the right, responsibility even, to speak one's mind and challenge conventional wisdom: hence free speech. Nonetheless, one can see what the student meant. For the most part there is an agreeable sense of shared values and common purpose in universities, within which students and lecturers alike find encouragement and support. While there are always intellectual disagreements and even rivalries, members of a university generally show mutual respect.

This liberal conviviality is undoubtedly threatened by unbridled free speech. Not only boringly racist views like those of Ellis, but, more importantly, original ideas of any kind, when passionately held and rigorously argued, can upset the delicate balance of a university community, making students and faculty alike uncomfortable. Whether or not one agrees with this model of the university, then, is it not reasonable that a university constituted on these grounds should limit speech in order to preserve that multicultural conviviality?

In fact, to the extent that any university limits freedom of speech, it diminishes its credibility as a university. Some institutions, such as religious ones, do have core values that are beyond rational debate. Such institutions routinely suppress freedom of speech in order to preserve their authority. Similarly, authoritarian political regimes resort to censorship in order to protect their `values' from criticism. In institutions committed to reason, however, free speech is defined not by `exceptions to the rule' as Stanley Fish would have it, but as places where those exceptions-to-the-rule do not apply. If there were not a censorious culture outside universities (with or without overt censorship), the `academic' in `academic freedom' would be redundant.

No doubt it would be a good thing if nobody ever talked about free speech because nobody ever threatened it: the term would be meaningless. Unfortunately, free speech is given an abundance of meaning by repeated attempts to stifle it. In censoring the expression of unsavoury opinions, a university is not dispensing with an accidental feature in the interests of its real purposes as a university; it is relinquishing a defining characteristic of any institution committed to the pursuit of knowledge. Without the freedom to think offensive thoughts, and to express them openly, a university cannot function as a university. The `diverse and multicultural community' celebrated by the university secretary at Leeds becomes an empty shell, not distinguishing the university from any other institution.

Old-fashioned racism such as that professed by Ellis has long since been discredited intellectually, and had he tried to put forward his opinions in properly academic contexts, at departmental seminars or in scholarly journals, they would quickly have been dismissed, not as forbidden thoughts, but simply as intellectually untenable ones. More often than we acknowledge, the collective pursuit of truth works. This process is actually short-circuited by attempts to police what can and cannot be said in the university, whether or not it is said in an academic context.

It was the campaign against Ellis that drew wider attention to his racism, and in such a way that misrepresented the nature of intellectual authority. As one of Ellis' Leeds University colleagues argued, `Yes, he has the right of freedom of speech to hold such views, but I strongly believe our university is not the platform from which he should promote them.' Instead of a place where ideas are debated, argued over and ultimately accepted or dismissed, the university is presented as a `platform' that lends legitimacy to anyone lucky enough to find himself there. That Ellis' racist ideas convinced nobody in the university - that the free exchange of ideas works - is not considered important. The fact that racism is intellectually untenable is presented as something that has to be artificially imposed on university life, rather than something that can be demonstrated again and again in the course of reasoned debate.

Worse than hounding someone out of his job for his views, then, this approach means obscuring and undermining the purpose of the university itself. Stifling free speech in keeping with prevailing ideas brings the university into line with the rest of society, rather than serving the distinct purpose of the university. And paradoxically, censorship within the university is justified with the suggestion that free speech belongs somewhere else. Ellis can have `free speech' in the abstract, but not as long as he is associated with the university. In the one situation where free speech is upheld in principle, it is denied in reality.

The politics of free speech

Free speech is not only essential to the pursuit of knowledge. It is also essential to the practice of democracy. This is because the principle of free speech is a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and thus a permanent challenge to authority.

In the political sphere, free speech is a principle independent of what is being expressed. The caricature is that people only fall back on `free speech' when they can't win the argument; it is a rhetorical sleight, the last refuge of the bigot. No doubt it is true that those who invoke free speech often do so in defence of racist and other opinions that have long ago been discredited in open debate. One of the more bizarre characteristics of the free speech debate today is that it is often members of far-right organisations that have nothing but contempt for freedom, who pose as champions of free speech. But this says more about the intellectual cowardice of those who want to censor them than about the merits of free speech. True supporters of free speech uphold it even for those with whom they profoundly disagree. Free speech is not a mere rhetorical device, but a political principle in its own right.

Rather than saying, `you can't ban that - it's against free speech', where the magic word `free speech' is used to actually close down argument, one can make the case as JS Mill did that bans impoverish debate and demean our rationality. This is very different from having to argue the merits of each case in terms of the content of what is being expressed. It means that even while arguing vehemently against what is being expressed, we can nonetheless insist on people's right to express it. In fact, it is only through open debate that an argument can truly be won.

This is not to suggest that all objectionable opinions are susceptible to rational debate. Some things are not worth arguing against - Holocaust denial, loopy conspiracy theories etc - in most contexts, it is enough to acknowledge what is being said to dismiss it. Unfortunately this has become a stock response to far more serious arguments that demand a proper response, from the defence of fast food to the rejection (from either side) of a `two-state solution' for Israel-Palestine. Those who dissent against the respectable line on such issues are dismissed as cranks, and often have their motives questioned. The principle of free speech is a challenge to this unimaginative and conformist way of thinking as much as it is a challenge to old-fashioned authority. Genuinely free speech requires a climate in which people are allowed to think out loud, and not shouted down for saying the `wrong' thing.

In September of this year, the pre-eminent British science institution the Royal Society issued something akin to a Papal Bull against dissenting views on climate change, seeking to establish the current scientific consensus as beyond dispute. Nobody is being officially censored or locked up, but the intervention serves to reinforce informal limits on what it is acceptable to say in public or even in respectable company - crucially, not by dismissing errant ideas through rational argument, but simply by mobilising the weight of majority opinion. `You can't say that,' is the prevailing sentiment.

Anyone who does voice the wrong opinions is assumed to be up to no good, or simply nuts - in any case, not to be listened to. In cases like this, it is not that particular ideas are considered offensive as such, so much as that they mark people out as less respectable. Rather than bans or legal prohibition of certain ideas, a subtle or not-so-subtle taboo grows up around such issues, demarcating the decent majority (or would-be majority) from unsavoury dissenters. As JS Mill himself noted, the effect of such informal taboos can be even more restrictive in practice than official censorship.

These kinds of restrictions on free speech today are rarely justified in terms of upholding authority or maintaining the social order in some old-fashioned way, however. It is not the consequences of free speech that are feared so much as freedom itself - unfettered, unbridled, unrestrained activity, `irresponsible' opinions or arguments that jar with accepted orthodoxies. In this context, censoriousness is seen as a generally `civilising' influence rather than a check on specific dangers. Often, it is not so much particular ideas that are seen as a threat, as wild or unchecked attitudes and feelings in general.

This is true even of laws against `incitement', and even when national security is invoked. The much-debated British law against incitement to religious hatred, for example, is not a response to widespread attacks on Muslims or any other religious group. Rather, it expresses anxiety about embarrassing sentiments that might be held by some members of society, and a desire to impose a more respectable, well-mannered attitude to other people's religions. Similarly, attempts to silence Muslim clerics who support terrorism, as if terrorism were a virus spread through sermons, are based not on evidence that such clerics have inspired terror attacks, but on an almost existential panic about `the threat within'. Rather than being a credible strategy to prevent future attacks, the UK ban on `glorifying' terrorism is a desperate gesture. Willingness to sacrifice free speech is presented as a sign of hard-headed realism when in fact it is a pathetic substitute for an intellectual rebuttal of `radical Islamist' ideas. In both cases, censorship is more symbolic than instrumental, but no less pernicious for that.

In this context, to argue for free speech is to make the case for free-thinking, reasoned debate and genuine tolerance. It is also to put forward a particular understanding of how society functions and the role of individual and collective agency, which is very different from the fearful and conservative worldview that gives birth to censorship and taboos. Instead, it is a worldview that allows for the possibility that things could be very different, and that human beings could be the authors of our own destinies. Rather than seeing change as a threat and seeking to contain discord, we can talk openly about the future, exchange ideas and argue over them rather than trying to suppress those that make us uncomfortable. Freedom of speech is not merely a means to an end, then, or a rhetorical trick. It is an invitation to live a free life.

More here


George Monbiot writes below:

In seeking to work out how a 90% cut in carbon emissions could be achieved in the rich nations by 2030, I have made many surprising findings. But none has shocked me as much as the discovery that renewable micro generation has been grossly overhyped. Those who maintain that our own homes can produce all the renewable electricity and heat they need have harmed the campaign to stop climate chaos, by sowing complacency and misdirecting our efforts.

Bill Dunster, who designed the famous BedZed zero-carbon development outside London, published a brochure claiming that “up to half of your annual electric needs can be met by a near silent micro wind turbine.”...To provide the 50% Bill Dunster advertises, you would need a machine 4 metres in diameter. The lateral thrust it exerted would rip your house to bits.

[Converting to rooftop solar] would be staggeringly and pointlessly expensive – there are far better ways of spending the same money. The International Energy Agency’s MARKAL model gives a cost per tonne of carbon saved by solar electricity in 2020 of between 2200 and 3300 pounds. Onshore macro wind power, by contrast, varies between a saving of 40 and a cost of 130 pounds a tonne.

Similar constraints affect all micro renewables: a report by a team at Imperial College shows that if 50% of our homes were fitted with solar water heaters, they would produce 0.056 exajoules of heat, or 2.3% of our total demand; while AEA Technology suggests that domestic heat pumps could supply only 0.022 eJ of the UK’s current heat consumption, or under 1%. This doesn’t mean they are not worth installing, just that they can’t solve the problem by themselves.

Far from shutting down the national grid, as the Green MEP Caroline Lucas has suggested, we should be greatly expanding it, in order to produce electricity where renewable energy is most abundant. This means, above all, a massive investment in offshore windfarms. A recent government report suggests there is a potential offshore wind resource off the coast of England and Wales of 3,200TWh. High voltage direct current cables, which lose much less electricity in transmission than an AC network, would allow us to make use of a larger area of the continental shelf than before. This means we can generate more electricity more reliably, avoid any visual impact from the land and keep out of the routes taken by migratory birds. Much bigger turbines would realise economies of scale hitherto unavailable. [And don't forget nukes, George!]



I recently went to a mobile phone mast protest meeting. The local church was full of well-heeled people poring over leaflets about the possible dangers of electromagnetic radiation. Then something started to ring. The man on my right calmly pulled his Nokia out of his Paul Smith jacket and started yabbering into it. “Do you all have mobiles?” I asked the group I had joined. Yes. “Er, don’t you think you need a mast to get a signal?”

They hadn’t thought. Didn’t really want to. They were much readier to sign a petition and express outrage over a cup of coffee than actually to tackle their own contribution to the problem. Like the people who drive around the country expleting at wind turbines, oblivious to the pollution streaming out behind them. Like those who campaign against incinerators — the health risks of which are far clearer, and more alarming, than those of phone masts — without apparently asking themselves whether they could stop chucking away the vast amounts of unwanted plastic that they insist on purchasing.

If you really thought mobile phones were irradiating your children, surely you would jack them in and stick to the landline? If you think wind turbines are damaging the landscape, why don’t you reduce your energy use? If can’t be bothered to compost your rubbish or give usable stuff you don’t want to someone who does via www.freecycle.com (an activity, incidentally, that I highly recommend for offsetting both carbon and guilt), who are you to argue when an ugly great dioxin-emitting chimney comes to perch on your doorstep? Our budding consciences have led to a lot of soul-searching, but not yet to much personal action.

Part of the problem, of course, is the fear that any minuscule step one takes to do good will simply be exploited by someone else. Why should I endure the rain at the bus stop with my four-year-old every morning when some other mother is just going to use the road space I have vacated? I do, because my conscience dictates it. But I wouldn’t mind Ken Livingstone extending the congestion charge. My decision not to drive would be backed up with penalties for those who do, and the proceeds invested in alternatives that I use.

Now I want someone to back up my other principles. I am fed up of feeling like a criminal when I prowl around the office at night switching off colleagues’ computers; of feeling pressured to buy a new handbag (or five) when my old one hasn’t worn out; of taking holidays that do not involve flying, only to be looked at strangely by friends who have started to apologise for taking so many planes, but who still flaunt their tans when they get back.

The greatest objection to the wider use of environmental taxes is their regressive nature: they tend to hit the poor hardest. The fuel protests are still uppermost in ministerial minds, which is why cross-party support for the climate change Bill has been so vital. The other problem, less discussed, is that such taxes will have the least impact on the rich, who have the most impact on the planet. Richmond upon Thames council’s decision, much publicised yesterday, to slam gas-guzzling cars with high parking fees provoked howls of predictable outrage from the AA. But what will an extra £200 a year mean to someone who can afford to buy a Jaguar X-Type or a BMW X5 in the first place? Not much.

The Richmond councillors have become evangelical about SUVs since they discovered, through a British Gas survey of local authorities, that the people in their borough consume more energy and emit more carbon dioxide than anyone else in Britain. British Gas found that people living in the richest areas use three times more energy than the rest. It stands to reason: they drive more, they heat larger homes, they buy more stuff.

To price the rich out of polluting activities would either mean prohibitive tax burdens for everyone else, or slanting the burden so much the other way that you would get a revolution by the chauffeur-driven classes. So the answer must also lie in cultural change. We all crave the status symbols that the rich create. But while Hollywood celebrities sport their caring credentials on unbleached hemp sleeves, the new rich ethical mafia is in serious danger of jumping on the wrong bandwagon.

We cannot save the planet by shopping. “Fairtrade” and “Green”, for example, which are mentioned in the same breathless breath, are almost wholly contradictory. The one encourages the importation of consumer goods from halfway round the globe, which contributes to the climate change that will hit the poorest countries first and hardest. The other dictates that we buy locally, if at all.

Since “ethical lifestyle” became the hottest new trend, a lot of rubbish is being peddled as eco-chic. Despite heroic attempts by some travel editors, “eco” and “tourism” are a non sequitur. While sales of the hybrid Toyota Prius are helping to kick-start a new market, the bog-standard Honda Insight has better mileage. Even recycling, the great guilt-absolver, puts diesel-powered trucks on every street to collect mountains of glass that cannot be used and shipping plastic bottles off to China to be burnt, when the water we drank from them could have come a lot cheaper from the tap.

Which brings me back to phones. Why do people rush to protest about the infinitesimally small risk posed by a mobile phone mast, but seem unable to feel anything about the much greater risk of climate change? It is partly because the potential impact of one is much more local and immediate. It may also be because the mast company is a more clearly defined enemy. But in both cases we are actually both victims and perpetrators.

Righteous indignation is easy. If we can’t face taking personal action, we can at least back the Government to give us some incentives. And the fashionistas could also do me a personal favour, by designing a hair shirt that I can wear every season and look cool.


Youth is Offensive in Britain

We read:

"A television advert for shower gel which featured a young-looking model has been banned after the industry watchdog ruled it "offensive". A naked woman sitting under a lemon tree is featured in the PZ Cussons advert for Original Source shower gel. Some 29 people complained because the model appeared to be under 16 and was depicted in a sexually provocative way.


Another violent peacenik: "A smirking peace activist who left a rising rock star fighting for his life after a row over his girlfriend was jailed for eight months today. Christiaan Briggs, 30, attacked 19-year-old singer Billy Leeson and left him in a coma, after Mr Leeson asked him to stop staring at his girlfriend on a late night number 29 bus. After punching the teenager Briggs, who went to Iraq as a peace activist in 2003, walked away "smirking". Mr Leeson fell into a coma when he hit his head in the pavement and the judge at Snaresbrook Crown Court said: "It was obviously a miracle that he lived." .... New Zealand-born Briggs, a technician at a major firm of chartered surveyors who turned himself in to police following publicity about Mr Leeson's injuries, had previously acted as a human shield in Iraq in 2003 in the hope of warding off a US attack. He pleaded guilty to inflicting grievous bodly harm when he appeared at Snaresbrook Crown Court in East London on September 25. The East London court heard Briggs was staring at Mr Leeson's girlfriend and was confronted by the musician on June 22 last year.... William Leeson was walking away when, without warning, the defendant punched him on his left cheek. He walked off and was described by two witnesses as smirking as he walked away." Mr Leeson crashed to the pavement "with a really loud crack" and was in a coma by the time a London Ambulance arrived."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

British pupils 'cannot locate UK'

One in five British children cannot find the UK on a map of the world, a magazine's research suggests. National Geographic Kids said it also found fewer than two thirds of children were able to correctly locate the US. The magazine, which questioned more than 1,000 six to 14-year-olds, said it found several London children did not know they lived in England's capital.

Teachers' union the NASUWT said the findings were "nonsense" and did not reflect staff and pupils' hard work.

National Geographic Kids also discovered 86% of the children interviewed failed to identify Iraq and one in 10 could not name a single continent. Boys seemed to show a slightly better geographical knowledge than girls, with 65% able to locate a number of countries around the world compared with 63% of girls.

Scottish children appeared to be the most geographically aware with 67% able to point out the most countries, out of England, the US, France, China and Iraq, on a world map.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said the findings were "rather frightening". "These results underline the need for education to concentrate on the essentials. "How are children going to be able to get as much out of their life if they fail to have an understanding of the shape of the world?"

The Department for Education and Skills said geography was a compulsory subject on the National Curriculum for five to 14-year-olds. A spokesman said all 14-year-olds should be taught to use atlases and globes, as well as learning about places and environments in the world.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "The constant desire for groups to produce statistics to do down the English education system is quite appalling and does nothing to recognise the excellent work of children and staff."

The magazine carried out the study to mark its UK launch and highlight "gaps in children's geographical knowledge". Environmentalist David Bellamy said the world was still an undiscovered place for many children. "Making geography fun and exciting is so important because it makes children aware of the importance of caring for the environment and, by learning about the world, it helps bring other people's worlds and cultures closer to their own."


Bishop attacks British faith schools plan

Plans for new faith schools in England to admit up to 25% of pupils from other religions "must be resisted", the Archbishop of Birmingham has said. The most Rev Vincent Nichols described the plans as "insulting" and "divisive" and has urged the head teachers of Catholic schools to voice their fears.

The plans were introduced in an amendment to the Education and Inspections Bill last week. The government has said schools are in a position to prevent social division.

Education Secretary Alan Johnson met with representatives from the UK's major religious groups on Monday for a so-called "inclusion summit" to discuss the role faith schools can play in improving relations between the faiths. The Department for Education and Skills said the meeting had been productive and Mr Johnson had made it clear that the amendment would only apply to new faith schools. He also explained that where there is local opposition, a local authority will need the consent of the education secretary to approve a new faith school with fewer than 25% of non-faith admissions.

The Church of England has said its new schools will admit up to 25% of pupils from outside the faith - but said other religions should not be expected to offer the same commitment. But the amendment has met with opposition from Muslim, Jewish and Catholic groups.

Writing in the Telegraph newspaper, the archbishop said coercive measures by the government would not win co-operation and branded them "ill-thought out, unworkable and contradictory of empirical evidence". He said Catholic schools on average welcome 30% of pupils from other faiths or none, and they were likely to have better academic records and less likely to encounter bullying or racism. He added that the government appears to hold the view that, left to themselves, Catholic schools would be divisive. "Since the evidence suggests the opposite, I can only assume that this view rises from muddled thinking or prejudice," he wrote. He warned: "The introduction of 'admissions requirements' is a Trojan horse, bringing into Catholic schools those who may not only reject its central vision but soon seek to oppose it." The way forward, he said, was a "mutually respectful co-operation" between faith groups and authorities. But this amendment, he warned "seems to signal an alternative and deeply divisive step. It has to be resisted."

Last week, he wrote to the head teachers of 2,075 secondary and primary Roman Catholic schools urging them to write to their MPs to voice their concerns. He has also called for talks between the government and the Catholic church.

Rabbi James Kennard, head teacher at King Solomon High School in Ilford, Essex, shared his view, saying Jewish schools had not been able to explain their position. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said: "The Jewish school is the traditional institution where a youngster's Jewish identity is shaped, through an all-embracing ethos that runs alongside, and integrates with, the educational requirements of the country where Jews are living. "The Jewish community is small, needs to maintain its distinct identity and ethos and has no interest in spreading its message to others." He added that when people have a good grounding in their religion, they tend to be able to participate in wider society.

The Department for Education said it welcomed the steps faith groups have already taken to improve community cohesion and said they were talking to them about how to build on this


"Naughty" Wrong

We read:

"Parents should not call their youngsters 'naughty' because it damages their self-confidence, a childcare expert controversially claimed.

Annette Mountford, chief executive of the parenting organisation, Family Links, said that children's self-esteem is run down by such branding, even if they are behaving badly.


Scottish disgrace: "We must thank the University of St Andrews for that rare opportunity - the chance to employ with a straight face the clich‚ "it's like Caligula appointing his horse as consul". How so? Because Scotland's oldest university has decided to award an honorary doctorate of law to former President Khatami of Iran "in recognition of his efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue". I kid you not. No less a person than Sir Menzies Campbell, the university's Chancellor, will bestow the accolade on the acceptable face of violent, arbitrary clerical rule. It will come to be seen as one of the most shameful days in the university's history - on a par with the honorary degrees granted by the University of Edinburgh to Robert Mugabe, of Zimbabwe, or the Central London Polytechnic to Elena Ceaucescu, of Romania. They, too, were once fashionable items among the appeasing classes, of which Sir Menzies is the contemporary personification."

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Terms of Endearment Forbidden in Scotland

In much of Britain and quite often in Australia, it is customary for women to address others and be addressed by others as "love" or some other form of endearment, even if the parties are hardly known to one another. For instance, if I order a sandwich in a sandwich shop, the lady making the sandwich will often ask me "do you want pepper and salt with that, love?"

I guess it is in one sense old-fashioned and silly but I personally think it makes life pleasanter for everyone. Though some of the terms used in the North of England are a bit amusing: "duck", "hen" etc. In much of the American South "Hun" and "Sugar" are used similarly, of course.

There have been attempts to limit such speech in England (See my post of August 17) and the poison has now spread to Scotland. The Glasgow City Council has instructed its employees as follows:

"Don't assume it is acceptable to address women by endearments such as 'dear', 'pet' and 'love' when you would not address men in such a way," the guide instructs. "Don't refer to women as 'girls', for example, 'the girls in the office'."

It adds: "The term 'ladies' should only be used in situations where the parallel term 'gentlemen' is used."


And there is much more idiocy of the same kind. Why it "oppresses" women to call them "Love" defies my imagination. Maybe it is felt to oppress lesbians and that leads to the objections from feminists, many of whom seem to be of the lesbian persuasion.


I remember vividly the first time I offended an American. I was living in New York at the time and feeling a bit homesick, so I dragged the US citizen in question to an expat fish’n’chip shop in Greenwich Village. There, I ordered the homesick Northerner special: a chip butty, smothered in a thick curry sauce — just like the butties I used to inhale at the bus stop in Alnwick on a school night.

My friend thought this was all very cute and, like, totally British, until she realised exactly what I was eating. “You put the French fries . . . in a bread roll?” she asked, her throat tightening. “And then you pour Indian sauce all over it?”

Through molten, brownish-green mouthfuls, I mumbled something about the Queen. “That might be okay in Britain, but it’s definitely not okay here,” she choked. “You have to get rid of it. Now.” When I realised she wasn’t joking — she began to dry retch loudly — I threw the butty away, half eaten.

It’s been a hard few years for us butty lovers in America. Not only have we had to contend with the Americans’ general lack of respect for British food — they’ll happily eat a Spanish empanada, but will vomit on command at the thought of a Cornish pasty — but we’ve also had to deal with the low-carb fad that has essentially outlawed the very staples of the British diet. Fancy a pub lunch of lasagne and chips? Not a chance.

A move from New York to Los Angeles simply made it worse. I found myself eating soyburgers with alfalfa sprouts, and drinking low-calorie lager, which, to quote the great Eric Idle, is like making love in a canoe: f*****g close to water.

It is, therefore, with a happy (but not necessarily healthy) heart that I bring you news of a breakthrough. Yes, carbs are back. A nutritionist from New Zealand has found that feasting on potatoes, rice and white bread at bedtime does not necessarily make you put on weight. Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture has tweaked its food pyramid to allow 9oz of various grains per day (and 3.5oz of veggies, which can include white potatoes). What’s more, the return of the carb has been trumpeted on this season’s trend-setting television show, Ugly Betty. Bread consumption, which suffered a 7.5 per cent decline between 1997 and 2003, is already on the rise.

The press, naturally, has gone wild. Profiles have been written about John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who created the British lunch when he was too busy gambling to stop for a meal (he asked instead to be served roast beef between two hunks of bread). Other publications have invited Americans to dust off their bread-making machines and start baking their own carbs, using everything from leftover vegetables to overripe fruit for extra flavour.

Nothing, however, prepared me for the reaction of The Los Angeles Times, which put together a full-page feature telling gourmands where to find the most carbtastic British treats. It recommended no fewer than 36 British themed pubs across LA, including joints called Scotland Yard, the Beckham Grill (it has wing back chairs!) and Lucky Baldwin’s, which is patronised by the rocket scientists of Nasa’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena.

The best-known pubs of the bunch, however, are Ye Olde King’s Head in Santa Monica, where the paparazzi go drinking, and the Cat & Fiddle on Sunset Boulevard, where the same Ladies and Gentlemen of the British press play darts and eat Yorkshire puddings. The LA Times declared the Fiddle’s Scotch egg to be “iconic” and “hilarious but delicious with beer”. It also raved about the English bangers and the meat-filled pies. What it should have said, of course, is that it all tastes better when you’re cross-eyed and dribbling.

I’m hoping this is the start of a wider trend. After carbs, what else can make a comeback? Cigarettes? Snuff? Tinned meatballs? But I fear that our culinary heritage will be forever changed by the embrace of the carb loving Americans. The Whale & Ale pub in Long Beach, for example, is already serving a bastardised version of steak pie, filled instead with oysters. Inevitably, we will soon have to call this kind of thing “British-American” food.

As for the chip butty, I remain confident that there is absolutely nothing about this delicious abomination that can be tweaked to make it acceptable to LA yuppies. Which is probably why I haven’t been able to buy one since leaving New York.


The veiled conceit of multiculturalism

A misinformed tolerance finally hits its limits in Britain

How tolerant must a free society be of those who are intolerant of the values it holds dear? This question is at the heart of a controversy that has flared up in Britain over the past fortnight concerning Muslim women who wear nikabs, burkas and other face coverings that allow little more than the eyes to be seen. Two weeks ago, former British foreign minister Jack Straw, writing in his local newspaper, criticised Muslim women who covered their faces, saying the practice maked "better, positive relations" between communities "more difficult". He added that the veil was a "visible statement of separation and of difference". And although his remarks were sensationalised, in pointing out that the multicultural emperor is wearing not too few clothes but too many Mr Straw largely won applause. Senior Labour politicians rushed to echo his concerns. Newspapers cheered the opening of debate and Tony Blair himself offered his support, calling the veil a "mark of separation". Not long afterwards, a Muslim teaching assistant in a British school was suspended for wearing a veil that allowed only her eyes to be seen, on the grounds that hiding her face hurt her communication with students. In this case as well, reaction to the school's decision has been largely positive. Many Britons are concerned that multicultural policies that have discouraged assimilation have divided their society and created what one commentator called a "voluntary apartheid". In the age of terrorism, this is a worrisome trend, especially considering that a recent survey of British Muslims suggested 100,000 of them felt the 7/7 attacks were justified and that one in five felt little or no loyalty to Britain.

The debate over the veil is not confined to Britain. It is an important one for any Western country with a sizeable community of Islamic immigrants, including Australia - though we have, happily, been far more successful at integrating Muslim newcomers than many other Western European nations and the veil is not the feature of public life here that it is there. But when women wear headcoverings that hide the face, they are committing a powerful act that has political as well as religious overtones and which sends a message that many people find threatening.

Many justifications have been offered for the veil. Speaking recently in Sydney, Munira Mirza, a young British Muslim woman, told The Australian that schoolgirls were wearing head coverings as a statement about Western oppression. On the other side of the spectrum, the veil can be worn as a mark of superiority that makes women who dress less modestly by the standards of the veil-wearer seem less moral, or as a way for men to control their wives and other women in their families. At its most dangerous, this thinking can be seen in the Sydney gang-rapes crisis, when Muslim youths felt their victims deserved their fates because of the way they dressed and behaved. It can even be used as a justification for terrorism. The philosophical basis for groups such as al-Qa'ida largely hinges on the idea that non-Muslims must convert or die to hasten the advent of an entire world under Islam, and veils are one way of indicating who is in the elect. Finally, some Muslim women claim that the veil is a liberating force, or that it is an inherent part of their cultural identity. But no matter the justification, the question remains whether a practice with its roots and justification in medieval Arabia has a place in a postmodern secular society such as Australia. Religious beliefs are by definition sacred, and as much as possible they should be a private matter. But when an individual or a community feels that their personal practices should trump widely held values while also setting themselves apart, the question arises as to whether those people would not be more comfortable in a place where such behaviour is the norm.

At its heart is the question of where tolerance should end and the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans", should kick in. While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it values eroded. And radical Islam knows this. Just as an Australian wouldn't go to Saudi Arabia to wear a bikini on the beach and drink beer in the corner pub, those who see the proper role of women as subservient, anonymous and under cover should not expect a postmodern secular democracy such as Britain or Australia to accommodate these beliefs. Australians, who quite properly want their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers to be able to achieve anything, are right to feel uncomfortable about religiously mandated coverings and the limits they imply. We do not allow practices such as female genital mutilation simply because they are practiced by an immigrant "other". Disappointingly, those who have traditionally been a positive force for the liberation of women against oppression in other spheres have here largely been silent on the question of Islam's beliefs concerning half of humanity.

If it is true that the past is another country, then what confronts the West today is not so much a clash of civilisations as a clash of centuries. The jumbo jets that have enabled the mass immigration from Muslim countries to the West are, in effect, time machines that have brought millions of people from a pre-Enlightenment world - where men are the unquestioned bosses, stoning and forced amputation are punishments rather than crimes, and sectarian differences are worth dying over - to secular, liberal and postmodern democracies such as ours. Integration in such circumstances will be difficult but should not be shied away from, even if it means newcomers will have to adapt. Mainstream British politicians have done a great service by opening a debate on this subject. Government-supported ethnic essentialism ultimately leads to segregation - anathema to an immigrant nation such as ours whose success lies in the adoption of common values rather than the preservation of divisive behaviours. In the debate over values, far better that we appeal to our shared humanity rather than encourage behaviours that seek to demonstrate separateness and superiority


British conservatives argue for "urban sprawl"

Though they are not calling it that, of course

Fewer small flats and more bungalows and houses with gardens should be built to make it easier for elderly people to avoid going into care, the Conservatives said yesterday. David Cameron, the party leader, told an Age Concern conference that houses should be designed to be suitable for every stage of life. "We must think in a new way about housing design and urban planning. Housing in Britain never seems to be built with a whole lifetime in mind," he said.

New homes tend to be either small flats, which are not suitable when people have children, or tall houses, which aren't suitable when people become old and less mobile. Although only a quarter of people say they want to live in flats, more than half of all new properties are flats. "We're sqeezing more and more housing into smaller and smaller spaces. This means less room for elderly parents. We're disrupting the generational relationship. "We need to change the planning rules so that we get fewer small flats and more homes with gardens. Fewer homes designed for young single people, and more designed for life - universal design," Mr Cameron said.

The new homes, also called lifetime homes, would be designed to ensure that people never had the need to move. Rather than being tall and thin with winding staircases, which are bad for elderly people, they would be flatter and wider, and even bungalows. They would tend to be more spacious to cope with wheelchairs, with gardens for the family stage of life.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundationhas proposed 16 detailed requirements, many of which are already legal stipulations for public buildings, which must be fulfilled before a house can be categorised as a "lifetime home". These adaptations would ensure that old people could carry on living in the house.

Michael Gove, the Tories' housing spokesman, said: "Thought has to be given so that people aren't trapped in one or two rooms in multi-storey houses. It means more bungalow living, as opposed to less flexible vertical houses."

A spokeswoman for Age Concern said that as the number of elderly people grew, it would be increasingly important that their needs were incorporated into the designs. "The problem is that not enough homes are built to last a lifetime. Many people find living in their home more difficult as they grow older and often have to make the difficult decision to move on, for example to a retirement flat. The concept of a lifetime home addresses the changing needs of people as they age and is a very welcome one."

Far from costing money, the foundation suggests that it would save taxpayers 5.5 billion pounds over 60 years in reducing the need for adaptations to existing houses and moving people to care homes. However, it would mean houses occupying larger plots of land, compared with thinking that encourages high-density housing. Mr Gove insisted that the Conservatives would protect the green belt around cities, but that more greenfield land would be used. "The future lies in allowing communities to expand outwards not just upwards. We recognise that if we are to meet future housing need, you will have some currently undeveloped land which will have to be developed," he said.



What happens when erring doctors get little more than a slap on the wrist

Patients got a record 1 million pounds in payouts last year after docs operated on the WRONG body part. The NHS compensation went to 40 people.

Healthy ears, legs and hips were operated on - and in 35 cases wrong teeth were removed. One patient got 327,076 pounds - the biggest payout by the NHS Litigation Authority. Experts believe it is likely a good lung was removed.

In 2004 there were 27 claims for "wrong site surgery" - costing the NHS 447,000 pounds. But the figure has jumped 100 per cent in two years to 1,098,000. The authority was forced to disclose the payouts under the Freedom of Information Act.

A separate study found the wrong set of lungs were transplanted into a patient, another had a healthy testicle removed and a hysterectomy was carried out on the wrong woman. A Patients Association spokesman said: "Doctors must take care."


Muslim brutality in Britain: "Hundreds of young girls in Britain are suffering genital mutilation at the hands of women paid to come to Britain by their families. African immigrants are clubbing together to pay for practitioners to fly to Britain and circumcise their daughters in highly secretive rituals. Police believe that the trend has developed among parents who do not have passports or cannot afford to return to their home countries to have their daughters circumcised, a brutal practice that remains commonplace throughout Africa. The procedure is generally performed by elderly women, in unsterilised conditions with no anaesthetic. Children as young as five have parts or all of their clitoris or labia removed. Some have their vaginas sewn up or the flesh shrunk with corrosives... The procedure is highly dangerous and leaves many of its victims with health problems throughout their lives. Infections and cysts are commonplace, as are complications during childbirth, endangering both mother and baby. Women who have suffered genital mutilation are twice as likely to die in childbirth and three times as likely to give birth to a stillborn child. Despite the dangers, many African Muslim communities prize the ritual and ostracise women who are not circumcised. It is common in a band stretching from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia on the East coast and in many areas uncircumcised women cannot find a husband.

Britain closes the door slightly: "Tough curbs banning tens of thousands of unskilled workers from Bulgaria and Romania coming to Britain are to be unveiled by ministers this week. The move comes as new government figures show that four out of every five existing east European immigrants earn little more than the minimum wage and pay on average half the amount Britons pay in taxes. The report claims they may not be as much of a boon to the economy as some have suggested"