Wednesday, May 02, 2007

In preparation for an event that may possibly happen

I got the post below from Norm Geras. For an expert on Marx, Norm is a rather jocular soul. The point he makes below is a fun one but it assumes that you can read Italian. Being a bit of a language freak, I can (sort of) do that but very few denizens of the Anglosphere could. Assuming that readers have command of various foreign languages (from Greek to French) is an old trick of Britain's educated elite that I rather miss. Why? Because educational standards have so declined that younger writers would simply be unable to play that little one-upmanship game. The Italian below translates literally as "Ring only in case of necessity". Because I read the Italian first and thus understood what was intended, I did not get the point of Norm's post straight away but I eventually got it

Sign beneath a bell in a public lavatory at a tourist site in Florence:

Sonare solo in caso di necessita.

Underneath it, this English translation:

Please ring just in case of emergency

Which isn't quite the same thing, is it? Though 'just' can often be substituted for 'only', the substitution doesn't work for 'only in case'.

"Universal" healthcare not so universal

A ban on smokers and the obese getting certain NHS treatments in some parts of the country was defended by Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt today. She said it was "perfectly legitimate" for primary care trusts (PCTs) to set a collective policy to deny operations to certain patients. Ms Hewitt was responding to a Sky News survey which found nine PCTs refused joint replacements to obese patients and four blocked orthopaedic surgery for smokers.

The areas concerned cover six million people, but Ms Hewitt said it was common practice in individual cases in other parts of the country. Ms Hewitt told Sky's Sunday Live: "Primary care trusts are absolutely entitled to get together with their doctors on any particular area of clinical judgment and say `these are the guidelines we are putting in place for this particular kind of treatment'. "Those decisions are being made by individual doctors all over the country. In a few places doctors have come together collectively through the primary care trusts to put in place guidelines for all of their patients. "This isn't a matter for managers or indeed Government ministers to decide who gets what operation - it's a matter for doctors and always has been.

"The NHS will treat you with help to stop smoking if the doctor's advice is that you shouldn't have the operation until you've stopped smoking. "That is a perfectly legitimate clinical decision. I support doctors making clinical decisions in the interests of their patients."

Ms Hewitt - who will tomorrow appear alongside Prime Minister Tony Blair to celebrate 10 years of the Government's NHS policies - has faced a turbulent few weeks. Junior doctors yesterday backed a call for her to quit over botched training reforms and major industrial action is in the pipeline over moves to stagger a pay rise. But she insisted surveys of patients proved reforms were working.


EU threat to British universities

The independence of Britain's world-ranking universities is under threat from European Commission plans, MPs say. Moves to create an educational "eurozone" by 2010 risk undermining the institutions' autonomy and rendering one-year British masters and new fast-track degrees virtually worthless.

An investigation by the Commons Education Select Committtee into the so-called Bologna process also concludes that the European credit system, based on hours studied, not achievement, is "not fit for purpose". Barry Sheerman, the chairman of the committee, said: "I am deeply concerned about the expanding influence of the European Commission. The role of the Commission must be constrained if the Bologna process is to be successful." The MPs backed the aims of the process but said it must continue to be voluntary and should not standardise the European university system.


British education at work

Britons have a bewildering lack of knowledge about their country, a survey suggests. Stonehenge was built by the Romans, and Hadrian's Wall is in China - these are two of the misconceptions in the poll of 3,000 people commissioned by UKTV History. Nearly four in ten say that the bulldog is the animal that symbolises this country. That, of course, is the lion, part of the Royal Arms since the Plantagenets.

A quarter say that the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, are among the Seven Wonders of the World, confusing them with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to one in five, the Pennines are between France and Spain; and for 18 per cent, Stonehenge was built when the Romans were here - rather than dating back to three millennia previously.

Adrian Wills, of UKTV History, said that the survey showed how little people knew about Britain, "from traditions to landmarks". Viewers are being asked to vote for a favourite historical site.

Some popular erroneous beliefs:

1 Official UK animal is bulldog 39%
2 Leeds Castle is in Leeds 34%
3 White Cliffs of Dover made of sandstone 28%
4 Lost Gardens of Heligan, in Cornwall, are one of Seven Wonders of the World 23%
5 Pennines are between France and Spain 21%
6 Do not know who is on back of 10 pound note 20%
7 Stonehenge was built during Roman Empire 18%
8 Hadrian's Wall is not in UK 15%
9 Nelson's Column is not in Trafalgar Square 12%
10 Lake District has an entrance fee 7%


PC demands on the Queen

One hopes that the organizers realize that the Queen does not involve herself in politics

The Queen is being urged to apologise for the slaughter of American Indians and the introduction of slavery when she visits Virginia this week as guest of honour to mark the 400th anniversary of the first English settlement in the New World at Jamestown. She will be landing in the middle of a row over political correctness after officials in Virginia banned the use of the word "celebration" for the anniversary. It is being called a "commemoration" out of respect for the suffering of native Americans, who were attacked after the colonists arrived in 1607.

Africans begin to appear in the English settlement's records as indentured servants in 1619 and were later codified in Virginia's statutes as slaves. Virginia passed a resolution earlier this year expressing "profound regret" for the enslavement of millions of Africans. "Leaders and heads of state have a responsibility to set the tone and it would be a welcome move for the Queen to express regret," said Virginia state representative Donald McEachin, a descendant of slaves, who sponsored the resolution. The Queen is to meet survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre in Richmond, and will refer to the shootings of 32 students and teachers in her speech to the state assembly on Thursday.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said she would also meet "native Americans and representatives of the African American community to recognise that they formed part of the early history of America and not necessarily in a particularly constructive way". He added: "It is not an entirely backwards looking gesture but is one that recognises the diversity of Virginia today."

From Richmond, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh will travel to the Jamestown settlement where Captain John Smith's life was saved by Pocahontas, the daughter of an Indian chief who was portrayed in a Disney film. Dr Linwood Custalow, author of The True Story of Pocahontas and a descendent of Indian chiefs from the Mattaponi tribe - part of the Powhatan nation - hopes to be introduced to the Queen. "She should definitely apologise," he said. "The first Americans were very welcoming to the colonists, but they launched a war against them." Mary Wade, a native American member of the Virginia Council on Indians, said: "You can't celebrate an invasion. Whole tribes were annihilated."

The Jamestown exhibition portrays the Indians as "in harmony with the life that surrounds them" while Britain is described as a land of "limited opportunity" ravaged by unemployment and low wages and run by a "small elite" of aristocrats. The first 107 colonists arrived in three small ships in the midst of a drought. By the end of a year, disease and starvation had reduced their numbers to 38 and they fought the native Americans for scarce resources. By 1609, full-scale war had broken out.

Jim Horn, a British historian at Colonial Williamsburg, who helped to organise the exhibition, said: "The English wanted to develop fair trade with the Indians but they quickly resorted to violence when they needed to." Rex Ellis, vice-president of Colonial Williamsburg, added: "Jamestown is the birthplace for America and the birthplace for chattel slavery in America."


Motherhood trumps feminism in Britain

The first evidence of an end to the "have-it-all" generation of women emerges today with thousands of nursery places empty because mothers are choosing to care for young children themselves. Almost a quarter of nursery places are now vacant. The ideal of a woman juggling a full-time career with the demands of motherhood is going out of fashion as a new era of flexible parenting rights takes root.

At least a million parents have taken up their "right to request" part-time work instead of leaving their babies to return to the work-place full-time after it was introduced four years ago. The trend is expected to develop as mothers take advantage of their new right to a year's maternity leave.

The first concrete evidence that parents are choosing to care for babies themselves emerges in a report about nurseries by the leading market analysts Laing & Buisson. Their study showed that there were 160,000 vacancies in nurseries last year. That amounts to 22.5 per cent of all places, compared with a vacancy rate of 11 per cent in 2002. The total number of nursery places has nearly doubled over the same period as demand was overanticipated. The Government still plans to create thousands more. The soaring vacancies are all the more striking as the birthrate has risen to its highest level since 1992, with 1.79 children per woman.

The term "have-it-all woman" is attributed to Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, in her 1982 book Having It All. The aspiration for women to juggle their lives came from Nicola Horlick, the financial expert, who explained her superwoman philosophy in a 1997 book. "I timed the conception of my children so that my maternity leave could include the Christmas holidays," she explained.

Susan Anderson, director of human resources policy at the CBI, pointed to a new culture of flexible working introduced by employers over the past decade. "There are certainly far more choices for women now," she said. "Previously you were either at home full-time or at work. Women can now have longer periods off when the child is first born. "Employers should claim the credit because they are providing a lot of flexitime, nine-day fortnights and teleworking [using computers to work away from the office]. There has been a long-term shift towards women having a choice." Ninety per cent of requests for part-time work are being accepted.

The days of mothers rushing back to work the moment that a child is born are over. Only 18 per cent of nursery places are full time and only 7 per cent of children in day care are now under a year old.

As well as better maternity packages, parents have been alarmed by warnings that putting young children in full-time nursery care can make them antisocial and anxious. A government evaluation of nurseries found that toddlers spending more than seven hours a day in daycare were more likely to be bossy, tease other children, stamp their feet, and get anxious when toys or refreshments were handed round.

Despite surplus places, however, the Government plans to create thousands more [How unsurprising!] as it nears its goal of building 3,500 children's centres for the under5s by 2010. Laing & Buisson found that fees remained stubbornly high for parents, especially in London and the Home Counties, where they are charged an average of 168 pounds a week.


Oxfam coffee 'harms' poor farmers

Some Australian conservatives are copying Leftist tactics and getting the legal system into the act

TWO Melbourne academics have lodged formal complaints against Oxfam Australia over the sale of Fairtrade coffee, saying it should not be promoted as helping to lift Third World producers out of poverty because growers are paid very little for their beans. Tim Wilson, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, and Sinclair Davidson, professor of institutional economics at RMIT University, have asked the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to investigate Oxfam, saying it is guilty of misleading or deceptive conduct under the Trade Practices Act.

Mr Wilson said there was evidence that Fairtrade products could do more harm than good for coffee producers in undeveloped nations. He cited reports alleging producers had been charged thousands of dollars to become certified Fairtrade providers and some labourers received as little as $3 a day. In order to lodge the complaint, Mr Wilson purchased a 250g pack of Fairtrade organic decaf ground coffee from the online Oxfam shop. "We purchased this product in good faith, with the aim of lifting people out of poverty while enjoying our favourite brew," Mr Wilson said, in his letter to ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel.

Mr Wilson and Professor Davidson have long held doubts about whether Fairtrade products help coffee, tea and cocoa producers in undeveloped nations. Sales of such products in Australia total about $8million. The complaint to the ACCC refers to an article published in the Financial Times last September, which said Fairtrade coffee beans were "picked by workers paid below minimum wage". It claimed workers received the equivalent of $3 a day. The coffee is sold at a premium to people concerned about Third World poverty.

The academics quote an analysis of Fairtrade, published in the US-based Cato journal, which says coffee producers in poor nations are charged $3200 to become certified Fairtrade providers. The producers' costs are therefore higher than on the open market. The Fairtrade campaign aims to manage the international coffee trade by fixing prices at $US1.26 ($1.64) per pound (454g) and eventually fixing supply.

"Oxfam says the Fairtrade coffee allows growers in developing countries to sell coffee 'at a decent price' but we don't accept that the Fairtrade system can work," Mr Wilson said. "Our primary complaint is that this is an unsustainable system. The only sustainable mechanism is through free trade. They are artificially cooking up the international coffee trade, to promote the interests of the Fairtrade brand and the people who sign up to it." Fairtrade coffee is stocked by Coles and the Hudson coffee chain. Origin Energy and Orica make Fairtrade coffee available to staff in their Australian offices.

Oxfam rejected the academics' claims. It is this week promoting a Fairtrade Fortnight. To mark the event, Oxfam Australia invited Costa Rican coffee farmer Guillermo Vargas to a series of lectures on Fairtrade. Oxfam's Neil Bowker rejected criticism of the Fairtrade coffee project, saying: "It's all audited and monitored, from beginning to end, and we've got no doubts about the effectiveness."



Companies and individuals rushing to go green have been spending millions on "carbon credit" projects that yield few if any environmental benefits. A Financial Times investigation has uncovered widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organisations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place. Others are meanwhile making big profits from carbon trading for very small expenditure and in some cases for clean-ups that they would have made anyway.

The growing political salience of environmental politics has sparked a "green gold rush", which has seen a dramatic expansion in the number of businesses offering both companies and individuals the chance to go "carbon neutral", offsetting their own energy use by buying carbon credits that cancel out their contribution to global warming. The burgeoning regulated market for carbon credits is expected to more than double in size to about $68.2bn by 2010, with the unregulated voluntary sector rising to $4bn in the same period.

The FT investigation found:

* Widespread instances of people and organisations buying worthless credits that do not yield any reductions in carbon emissions.

* Industrial companies profiting from doing very little - or from gaining carbon credits on the basis of efficiency gains from which they have already benefited substantially.

* Brokers providing services of questionable or no value.

* A shortage of verification, making it difficult for buyers to assess the true value of carbon credits.

* Companies and individuals being charged over the odds for the private purchase of European Union carbon permits that have plummeted in value because they do not result in emissions cuts.

Francis Sullivan, environment adviser at HSBC, the UK's biggest bank that went carbon-neutral in 2005, said he found "serious credibility concerns" in the offsetting market after evaluating it for several months. "The police, the fraud squad and trading standards need to be looking into this. Otherwise people will lose faith in it," he said. These concerns led the bank to ignore the market and fund its own carbon reduction projects directly.

Some companies are benefiting by asking "green" consumers to pay them for cleaning up their own pollution. For instance, DuPont, the chemicals company, invites consumers to pay $4 to eliminate a tonne of carbon dioxide from its plant in Kentucky that produces a potent greenhouse gas called HFC-23. But the equipment required to reduce such gases is relatively cheap. DuPont refused to comment and declined to specify its earnings from the project, saying it was at too early a stage to discuss.

The FT has also found examples of companies setting up as carbon offsetters without appearing to have a clear idea of how the markets operate. In response to FT inquiries about its sourcing of carbon credits, one company,, said it had not taken payments for offsets. Blue Source, a US offsetting company, invites consumers to offset carbon emissions by investing in enhanced oil recovery, which pumps carbon dioxide into depleted oil wells to bring up the remaining oil. However, Blue Source said that because of the high price of oil, this process was often profitable in itself, meaning operators were making extra revenues from selling "carbon credits" for burying the carbon.

There is nothing illegal in these practices. However, some companies that are offsetting their emissions have avoided such projects because customers may find them controversial. BP said it would not buy credits resulting from improvements in industrial efficiency or from most renewable energy projects in developed countries.


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