Wednesday, August 01, 2007

For those who don't know much history, Israel is above being compared with Czechoslovakia before WWII. Thanks in part to the appeasement policy of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Czechoslovakia was eventually overrun by Hitler

The England Cricket Team

Just for a once-in-the blue-moon change, I would like to mention something amusing that refers to general correctness of usage rather than politically correct usage. It does refer to the world's most popular bat-and-ball game so perhaps it might even be worth knowing some day.

When the English cricket authorities send out a team to play matches (called "tests") in Australia, the team they send out is referred to as "the England cricket team". This puzzles some. They think it should be the English cricket team.

It is not really puzzling, however. There are many cricket teams in England and they are all English cricket teams but there is only one England cricket team -- comprised of the best players England can find -- and some of the players in it may in fact be Indians (etc.) rather than Englishmen.

So that is logical enough and one might conclude from it that a team representing Australia would be referred to as the "Australia cricket team". But it isn't. If you referred to the team in that way you would be thought to be either a foreigner or a bit of a nit. The team representing Australia is almost always referred to as "Australia" or "the Australians". "The Australian cricket team" is sometimes heard but it is rare.

Tricky, isn't it? Don't ask me why, though.


Once again we see that there's no such thing as a happy Greenie

In an age obsessed with environmental sustainability, Tony Wrench and his partner Jane Faith would appear to be beyond reproach. Their eco-home was made with local materials, its electricity supplied by solar and wind power and its heat kept in by a turf roof and straw insulation. They compost their sewage using a reed bed and make do without a fridge or washing machine. But the couple have been told to demolish their beloved home - because it isn't green enough.

The single-room roundhouse, based on a Celtic layout, is set in a protected part of the Pembrokeshire coast and has been refused planning permission because it "failed to make a positive environmental impact". The couple, who grow their own food and make a modest living from music and woodcraft, feel they are being victimised despite doing more than most to reduce their carbon footprint. The Hobbit House, as locals in Brithdir Mawr, near Newport, have dubbed it, is destined for demolition unless given a last-minute reprieve by the Welsh Assembly.

"You get the feeling that it does not matter what you do, they will always say `no'," Mr Wrench said. "We are doing everything we possibly can to reduce our carbon footprint. It is about as low as we can get and it demonstrates that an environmentally sustainable lifestyle is possible." He added: "This house is so beautiful to be in, and the garden so fruitful and bursting with life of all kinds, that I still cannot believe that in a world of such environmental spoilation and with spreading patches of such ugliness, there are still people paid to work on having this home demolished. What low impact proposal will ever withstand this level of nit-picking?" said Mr Wrench, a wood turner.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority ruled that the dwelling would have a negative impact on dormice, bats and invertebrates. An ecologist's report concluded that if permission were granted, the home would cause, "severe degradation of the National Park landscape".

Mr Wrench, 61, plans to appeal against the decision, the latest step in a ten-year legal battle. He spent 3,000 pounds building the home a decade ago using local materials and insulating it with straw. A study confirmed that their carbon footprint was just a fraction of the national average, but the park authority says that is still not good enough.

Ifor Jones, the authority's head of conservation, admitted that the rules were strict, but said that they applied to everyone. He said: "Yes, we do have high hurdles, but it is important that any development enhances the environment, rather than detracts from it. In this instance the location of the roundhouse and vegetable garden within an area of semi-natural vegetation, comprising woodland edge and unimproved wet grassland, is considered to have had negative impacts."


Environmentalist population growing out of control

Another lofty lecture for us peasants reported below. Post lifted from Bishop Hill. See the original for links

A couple of weeks ago a body calling itself the Optimum Population Trust called for families in the UK to limit themselves to a single child. The Times had this to say:

Britain's birthrate, growing at its fastest for nearly 30 years - at 1.87 children per couple - is, says the author of its report, Professor John Guillebaud, an environmental liability. "Each new UK birth, through the inevitable resource consumption and pollution that UK affluence generates, is responsible for about 160 times as much climate-related environmental damage as a new birth in Ethiopia."

Professor Guillebaud has three children. As does Sir Crispin Tickell, a patron of the Trust. The majority of the other patrons, and Prof Guillebaud's co-chair, Val Stevens, have two children each.

Hurricanes: Another Royal Society beatup

They should be renamed the Propaganda Society. There's been a real desperation to link hurricanes with global warming but the facts have been pesky. But they keep trying

A study has found about twice as many Atlantic hurricanes form each year on average than a century ago, largely as a result of greenhouse warming. It also notes the proportion of major hurricanes to less intense systems has increased significantly. The study concludes that warmer seas and altered wind patterns are increasing the number of tropical systems. That differs from previous studies, which assert global warming is boosting the strength of hurricanes, but not necessarily the frequency. "Even a quiet year by today's standards would be considered normal or slightly active compared to the average year in the early part of the 20th century," said co-author Greg Holland, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.

The study was due to be published online late yesterday by the Royal Society of London, Britain's leading academy of science. Based on a statistical analysis, it shows that from 1900 to 1930 an average of six tropical systems formed in the Atlantic, including four hurricanes and two tropical storms. From 1930 to 1940, that increased to an average of 10 systems a year, including five hurricanes and five tropical storms. And from 1995 to 2005, that climbed to 15 systems, including eight hurricanes and seven tropical storms. Those increases correlate with sea surface temperatures, which have risen about 1.3C in the past 100 years, the study says.

Not everyone agrees with its findings. Many scientists say a natural cycle of warm waters in the Atlantic accounts for the surge in hurricanes since 1995. One argument against global warming fuelling more hurricanes is that prior to 1970, many storms were undetected, meaning the level of tropical activity could have been just as intense in previous decades. That is because 1970 was the first year satellites were used to monitor the globe. Even more hurricanes were probably missed prior to 1944, when hurricane-hunter aircraft were first dispatched to investigate storms.

But Dr Holland and co-author Peter Webster, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, dispute that incomplete data records alone explain the sharp increase in tropical activity during the three time periods they studied since 1900. They say tropical storm activity has increased by about 50 per cent from period to period, which they claim negates the natural cycle theory. "These numbers are a strong indication that climate change is a major factor in the increasing number of Atlantic hurricanes," Dr Holland said.


Shortsighted British attitude to IVF

If a country wants to keep its population up, it should promote IVF

INFERTILITY is normally seen as a private matter. If a couple are infertile and wish they were not, that is sad. But there is understandable resistance in many countries to the idea that treatments intended to deal with this sadness--known collectively as assisted reproductive technologies, or ARTs--should be paid for out of public funds. Such funds are scarce, and infertility is not a life-threatening condition.

However, two papers presented to the "State of the ART" conference held earlier this month in Lyon argue that in Europe, at least, there may be a public interest in promoting ARTs after all. The low fertility rate in many of that continent's more developed countries means their populations are ageing and shrinking. If governments want to change this, ARTs--most significantly in-vitro fertilisation (IVF)--could offer at least part of a way to do so.

As the conference heard, IVF does seem to be keeping up the numbers in at least one country. Tina Jensen of the University of Southern Denmark has just finished a study of more than 700,000 Danish women. She found that young women in Denmark have a significantly lower natural conception rate than in past decades. That is partly, but not entirely, because they are having their children later in life. The rest of the cause is unknown, though reduced sperm quality in men may be a factor.

Whatever the cause, she also found that the effect has been almost completely compensated for by an increasing use of ARTs. Denmark's native population is more or less stable, but some 3.9% of babies born there in 2003 (the most recent year for which figures are available) were the result of IVF. The comparable figure for another northern European country, Britain, was 1.5%. Without IVF, then, the number of Danes would be shrinking fast.

That it is not may have something to do with the fact that in Denmark the taxpayer will cover up to six cycles of IVF treatment. In Britain, by contrast, couples are supposed to be entitled to three cycles. In practice, many of the local trusts that dish the money out do not pay for any cycles at all.

Jonathan Grant, the head of the Cambridge branch of the Rand Corporation (an American think-tank), believes this is shortsighted. His paper showed that if Britain supported IVF at the Danish level then its birth rate would probably increase by about 10,000 a year. The cost of offering six cycles to couples (and doing so in practice, rather than just in theory) would be an extra GBP250m-430m ($500m-860m) a year. That is not trivial, but Dr Grant reckons it is cheaper than other ways of boosting the birth rate.

Some countries, for example, have tried to bribe women into having more children by increasing child benefits. According to his calculations, raising such benefits costs between GBP50,000 and GBP100,000 a year for each additional birth procured. Ten thousand extra births each year would thus cost between GBP500m and GBP1 billion. There are, of course, some disadvantages to promoting IVF. In particular, women who use it tend to be older than those who conceive naturally, and that can lead to congenital problems in their children. But if the countries of Europe do wish to keep their populations up, making IVF more widely available might be a good way of doing so.


NHS tells woman of 108 told to wait 18 months for hearing aid

A woman aged 108 has been told she must wait 18 months before the Health Service will give her the hearing aid she needs. Former piano teacher Olive Beal, one of the oldest people in Britain, has poor eyesight and uses a wheelchair. The delay could mean she will be unable to communicate and listen to the music she loves.

Now her family have said that realistically Mrs Beal is unlikely ever to receive the digital hearing aid that will save her from isolation. The one-time suffragette is one of hundreds of thousands of older people made to wait up to two years and sometimes more for modern digital hearing aids that make a dramatic difference to their ability to hear and communicate.

The case of Mrs Beal comes just a few days after the Mail revealed how another centenarian, Esme Collins, has been threatened with eviction from the nursing home where she has lived for ten years in a dispute between home owners and the local council over her fees. The Daily Mail's Dignity for the Elderly campaign has highlighted the way the elderly are made to pay high bills while their needs and interests are sidelined in the system meant to care for them.

Mrs Beal, who lives in a care home in Deal in Kent, has used an old-fashioned analogue hearing aid for the last five years. She has now been assessed as needing a more modern digital hearing aid which cuts out background noise and makes it easier to hear conversation or music. These cost around 1,000 pounds on the private market. But Eastern and Coastal Kent Primary Care Trust have told her family she must wait 18 months before she gets one on the NHS. By then Mrs Beal will be aged 110. She said yesterday: 'I could be dead by then.'

Her grand- daughter Maria Scott, 52, said: 'I spoke to her doctor some time ago about getting her a new hearing aid, as the existing one did not seem to be working for her. 'After a hearing test they said, "Yes, she does need a digital hearing aid, but there is an 18-month waiting list". 'I would have thought they would take her age into account as she probably has not got 18 months to wait. 'Olive worked hard from the age of 16 to her late 60s and paid taxes. She has been healthy all her life and lived with her daughter until 15 years ago - she has never sponged off the state. 'Her eyesight is falling, and if she cannot hear then she will be isolated from the outside world. 'Her analogue hearing aid does not filter out background noise so it makes it very difficult for her to hear clearly. But the digital one would allow her to hear people talking to her and to CDs. She loves music hall numbers.'

Mrs Beal went to school in London with Christabel Pankhurst, daughter of suffragette leader Emily, and helped at suffragette demonstrations. She brought up four children but only her eldest son, now in his eighties, survives. Her youngest son was a World War Two soldier killed in Normandy on the day after the D-Day landings. She was widowed 45 years ago.

Donna Tipping of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf said: 'I am afraid this is a common problem. 'In some parts of the country waiting times are more than two years, which is shocking. 'The new digital hearing aids can really transform people's lives. 'It is an issue of quality of life, with isolation, frustration and withdrawing from society caused by loss of hearing, and it is sad because this is reversible.'

A spokesman for Eastern and Coastal Kent Primary Care Trust said: 'We are reducing waiting times. 'The priority is given to patients who do not have an existing hearing aid, but we accept our service needs improving. We apologise to any patient kept waiting for a new or replacement hearing aid.'


New TB vaccine

One of the most feared diseases in the world is making an alarming comeback in the UK. Cases of tuberculosis increased by 10 per cent in 2005, with 8,494 cases, and are set to continue rising, as the bug becomes increasingly resistant to drugs, and international travel extends its global reach. TB kills about 1.6 million people a year, largely in developing countries, and experts believe that its global resurgence goes hand in hand with the Aids pandemic. However, Helen McShane, a British scientist, announced today that a groundbreaking new vaccine - the first in 80 years, which has taken ten years to develop - is being tested in human clinical trials for the first time.

The areas most affected by the disease in Britain are cities such as London, Birmingham and Leicester, with immigrant communities from areas where the disease is still common: Pakistan, Bangladesh and parts of Africa. One in five cases of TB is found in new arrivals into the country. However, the disease is not something you could simply catch on a train; only frequent or prolonged contact with someone with TB puts a person at risk (hence why it's passed within families), and it can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed quickly. Nevertheless, the Government is so concerned at the growing number of people with TB that it is considering screening visitors to the UK from countries such as China and India, it was revealed this week.

If the new TB vaccine passes its trials, as it is expected to do, it could be available in your GP's practice by 2015, when it would work as a booster for the childhood BCG injection (now given only to children in high-risk groups), conferring long-lasting immunity on all adults and thus preventing the spread of this disease.

Symptoms include a persistent cough, weight loss and fever. Before the First World War there were more than 100,000 UK cases a year, but numbers have fallen steadily since the BCG vaccination was introduced in 1953.

Dr McShane, the scientist behind this latest booster vaccine, is a 40-year-old medical doctor-turned-vaccinologist. It's impossible not to share her excitement, particularly when she describes the day in her Oxford University laboratory when she realised she was on to something. "It was a little tense," says Dr McShane, who was then 35 and five years into a project that she had started as a PhD student in 1997. "I went into the lab to check blood tests taken the day before, looked at the plates and couldn't believe my eyes. The results were excellent. We knew the vaccine would stimulate the production of some antibodies but there were ten times the number we had predicted. I ran down the corridor to show my professor immediately." Dr McShane knew she had created a vaccine that could potentially save two million lives a year worldwide. The Wellcome Trust will today announce her project as the first new vaccine for TB in 80 years.

There are two main reasons why a new vaccine has taken so long to develop. The first is that it's a difficult bug to vaccinate against as it disguises itself efficiently in the body. There are different strains of the bug, but Dr McShane believes that they are similar enough for the vaccine to be effective against them all. The other reason for the delay, according to the charity TB Alert, is that there wasn't any funding. Until recently TB was prevalent only in the developing world and so drug companies were reluctant to plough money into a vaccine.

A potential vaccine is an achievement that Dr McShane would not have dared to imagine when she first joined Professor Adrian Hill at the Nuffield Department of Medicine in Oxford to begin a PhD. "Most students were working on a malaria project; no one was looking at a TB vaccine, so I thought it would be a good idea," she says. Dr McShane had first started to study the tuberculosis bacterium when, as a young doctor, she was working in an HIV clinic in London. The two diseases often present hand-in-hand because TB is an opportunistic infection and finds the weakened immune system of an HIV-infected person an easy way in. Dr McShane says she found it frustrating that she could offer the latest antiretrovirals for the HIV infection but she had nothing to prescribe except traditional antibiotics for the TB. She could see that as different strains of TB bacteria became resistant to these drugs, her armoury was looking more and more depleted. Surely something could be done?

She decided to take her curiosity into the laboratory. Most contagious diseases can be vaccinated against by priming the immune system to recognise the pathogen and building armies of immune cells to attack it if it invades the body. A vaccine against measles, for example, introduces a highly weakened strain of the disease into the body. This allows the immune system to target the responsible bacteria, deal with them, and prepare defences for attacks in the future. But TB is more complicated as it is able to hide inside cells and avoid normal antibodies. Instead it requires a subgroup of white blood cells, called T cells, to be activated, which are better at seeking out the bug to destroy it.

Immunologists have begun to use recombinant viruses to teach the body how to recognise TB bacteria and prepare its T cells correspondingly. These are modified viruses that carry cloned genes containing a simple protein, harvested from the disease to be fought. The "tweaked" virus is harmless to human beings. It arrives in the body, unloads the cloned protein, and dies. The protein, however, is spotted by the immune system, which prepares T cells for attack. Afterwards, the patient's body is left ready for further invasion.

Dr McShane found that her vaccine worked particularly well at boosting the weak immune response primed by the traditional BCG. "It would be fantastic if this vaccine was proven to work and became available," she says. "It's been a huge team effort with units in The Gambia and South Africa and Oxford working to a common end. The real challenges now are to see if it really does stop people getting TB, and if it does, to make sure that it gets to the people who need it."


British airport screening adds inconvenience but no security: "Britain's airport screening policies inconvenience passengers without boosting security according to the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). "Harmonised security measures across borders are more important than ever," IATA General Director Giovanni Bisignani said in a ciritical statement on first half civil aviation statistics. He said "governments must focus much more on further harmonisation to ensure that effective security is also convenient for passengers." "A particular focus will be the UK, where unique screening policies inconvenience passengers with no improvement in security. "The only beneficiary is the airport operator - BAA - that continues to deliver embarrassingly low service levels by failing to invest in appropriate equipment and staff to meet demand. This must stop."

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