It's time to get out the thermal underwear and thickest pullovers - Britain is set for shockingly cold weather for at least the next couple of weeks. After a glorious Christmas, with not a hint of a snowflake, temperatures have been slipping steadily downwards, with minus 11C (12F) recorded in Aviemore, in the Highlands, on Saturday night. The plunge into a Siberian blast of cold will worsen in the coming week as raw easterlies freeze the country. "This coming week, maximum daytime temperatures will be between 2C (36F) and 4C (39F) but temperatures at night could be well below zero for many places," said Stephen Holman, forecaster at the Met Office.
The freezing conditions are being swept down from a strong high-pressure system anchored close to Scandinavia. Like a boulder firmly stuck in a river, this anticyclone is refusing to budge and sending our usual wet and windy winter weather on a wide detour, a system known as a blocking weather pattern.
Although it will feel bitterly cold, conditions will also largely be dry, at least for the next few days, and no significant snowfall is expected, although northern and eastern regions could experience some snow. Exactly how cold it will become largely depends on where the high pressure sits and how much cloud it drags off the North Sea. And cloudy skies are needed, because they act like a duvet cover, helping to prevent some of the heat loss from the ground. If the nights turn clear and winds are light, though, temperatures could plummet as low as minus 10C (14F) even in the South of England in the next fortnight.
In winter, low pressure tends to dominate over Iceland and high pressure to the south, over the Azores. These two pressure systems dance in tune with each other and drive our winter weather, in what is known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). When the Icelandic low and Azores high are strong, they steer wet and mild weather over the UK; but when they slacken off in a negative phase, that turns the UK bitterly cold. At present the NAO is turning negative, sending a powerful signal that the weather is set to continue cold.
How bad could this winter sink? The weather maps are a chilling reminder of some our most savage winters, such as the notorious 1962-63 winter, the coldest for 180 years. This was when the sea froze around the coast of southeast England and crops were dug out of frozen ground with pneumatic drills and blizzards paralysed the nation. Even if next month is freezing, the Met's long-range forecast predicts that the winter will melt away into warmer conditions in February.
Skeptical scientist profile: Dr. John Brignell
I've been wanting to do this for sometime, because I've linked to Dr. Brignell's warmlist page a countless number of times. From his CV:
Professor Emeritus (ESD) John Brignell was educated at Stationers' Company's School and began his career as an apprentice at STC. He studied at Northampton Engineering College (which became The City University, London) and took the degrees of BSc(Eng) and PhD of London University. He joined the staff at Northampton and was successively Research Assistant, Research Fellow and Lecturer. He worked in a number of areas including dielectric liquids and computer aided measurement, co-authoring a book "Laboratory on-line computing" in 1975.
He was for ten years Reader in Electronics at The City University and held the Chair in Industrial Instrumentation at Southampton for twenty years from 1980. He has researched and written extensively in the area of sensors and their applications, and in 1994 co-authored a book with Neil White on "Intelligent sensor systems". He had an extensive private consultancy practice for many years and has advised some of the larger international companies, as well as many small ones in the UK, on all aspects of industrial instrumentation. He pioneered the use of a number of technologies in sensing, such as thick film, and latterly turned his attention to the considerable possibilities of micro-engineering.
He was elected Fellow of IOP, InstMC, IEE and RSA. In 1994 he was awarded the Callendar Silver Medal by InstMC. He served on the ISAT Committee of IoP from its inception and was the founding chairman of the first joint professional group of the IEE (J1), having served on both its predecessors (E1 and C11).
What Dr. Brignell has done is simple genius--keep a linked list of actual media stories and articles that purport to show the horrors--both past, present, and future--associated with manmade global warming and climate change. Simply reading the mass of links is mind-boggling; in my opinion, visiting this one page is all that one needs to do to understand how stupid this global warming hoax is.
Dr. Brignell goes further with his entire Number Watch site--he's showing us how the media can misbehave when using numbers and statistics. Thank you, Dr. Brignell, for being brave enough to stick your neck out in this politically correct environment. As he says: Number Watch - All about the scares, scams, junk, panics, and flummery cooked up by the media, politicians, bureaucrats, so-called scientists and others who try to confuse you with wrong numbers.
British schools reject assistance from parents
New theory-based and union-supported guidance discourages parents from going on school trips. For some schools it may mean no trips at all. But having parents present might dilute that wonderful CONTROL that Leftists get off on
Imagine the scenario. You're a mother who has volunteered to accompany your seven-year-old son's class on a trip to the Science Museum in west London and are in charge of a group of five boys, including your son. On the journey home, there's a problem. As you are waiting to board the Tube, the fire alarm sounds and there is an order to evacuate the station. What do you do? According to new government health and safety guidelines, there's a risk you'll snatch up your son and make a dash for the nearest emergency exit, neglecting the four other boys in the process. As a spokesman for the Department for Children, Families and Schools put it: "There is the potential for divided interest in the case of an emergency." By contrast, a teacher would try to look after the entire group.
Understandably, parents are outraged that they can no longer accompany their own children on school trips. "I loved taking my eldest daughter and her class on a school trip because it gave me a chance to see how the children interact together," says Tessa Park, a mother of two, who has accompanied class excursions to the London Aquarium in the past. Now, with parental involvement being scaled back, her volunteering days are in jeopardy. Just as ministers have published a manifesto calling for more "learning outside the classroom", Park has received a letter dissuading mothers and fathers from accompanying their own children on trips. "It's a very odd attitude," she says. "I'd like to see the evidence to support this claim that schoolchildren are less safe when they are looked after by a parent. Quite frankly, in the event of an accident I would feel safer if my children were in the hands of a mum who knows their names."
Park, whose children attend Bute House prep school in west London, is not alone in believing the government has taken a wrong turn. Another parent at the same school, who wished to remain anonymous, is even more vociferous. "Statistically, how many pupils have died on school trips because a parent has saved their child first?" she asks. "There is a greater chance of my child dying crossing Hammersmith Broadway. There are quite a few parents who think this is just the nanny state gone mad." She added: "Parents have been going on school trips since time immemorial. If you are a responsible parent, you will manage. This isn't white-water rafting down the Zambezi; it's a walk to a museum."
Bute House was one of several prep schools that attended a course on the issue run earlier this year by Roger Smith, a consultant who is a member of the government's outdoor education advisers panel. So far Smith has briefed about 600 private schools on the updated guidance. He says that while it is not yet statutory, it is already considered "best practice" not to include parents as supervisors on trips involving their children. "If a trip did go pear-shaped, a school would be asked why it had not complied with this advice," he says. Indeed, the consequences can be severe.
Fines and even manslaughter charges have been brought in the past against schools, councils and teachers who have failed to protect pupils on trips. In 2002 a teacher was jailed for manslaughter after an accident in Cumbria when a boy of 10 drowned in a river. In 2003 Leeds council was fined 30,000 pounds after admitting to flawed safety measures on a trip during which two teenage schoolgirls drowned. The turning point, however, was a tragedy more than a decade ago. In 1993 four sixth-formers died on a canoeing trip in Lyme Bay, in the West Country, in one of Britain's worst canoeing disasters. Peter Kite, the director of the outdoor centre responsible for the trip, was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for three years. After this, one teaching union, the NASUWT, told members to be wary of supervising trips for fear of being sued, and nationally the number of excursions fell drastically.
The union has now changed its stance, but insists that children be accompanied by teachers rather than parents. Longstanding guidelines suggest that one adult should be in charge of six seven-to-nine-year-olds on an outing; the ratio is one adult to three for children aged under five. Chris Keates, general secretary of the union, explains. "We have long had serious reservations about school trips. More and more schools were counting parents in the ratio of adults to children required for a trip, when they should really only be including trained staff. "While parents can be helpful, it can be hard for staff to get them to understand the safety aspects. Schools are taking a risk if they don't use qualified staff." Even on a trip to Kew gardens? To a museum? "On any outing," she says. Keates acknowledges that "some people might say that not counting parents as part of the adult-pupil ratio will jeopardise trips going ahead but we say that if you can't get enough qualified staff to accompany them, you shouldn't be going in the first place". [Translation: "We want more jobs for teachers"]
Several head teachers spoke out against the guidance last week. Dilys Hoffman, head of Beckford primary school, in north London, said: "I don't think it's okay for the government to be interfering with schools' practice. Sometimes it's quite a good thing for a parent to accompany their own child, especially if the child has special needs or behavioural issues. Children love having them there. "Provided parents are given guidance and have had police checks, I don't think it's a problem." Karen Coulthard, head of Berger primary school, in east London, agrees. "Today our nursery children are going to a pantomime and the ratio is 1:1, so we ask for one parent to accompany their child," she said. "It's very important to get the youngest children out and accessing the wealth of resources on our doorstep". For decades parents have helped schools to do just that.
The NHS will look after you -- as long as you are not a patient
Public money totalling 1.6 million pounds has been paid out in redundancy settlements to seven senior employees following a merger of NHS trusts in Staffordshire. South Staffordshire Primary Care Trust (PCT), which took over the functions of four previous trusts, has given the money to two chief executives, three directors, a deputy director and a senior manager during the shake-up. Had the money been given to support frontline services, it would be enough to pay the wages of 50 nurses at the average NHS nursing salary of 31,600 including overtime.
Stuart Poyner, chief executive of South Staffordshire PCT, said the payouts, revealed in a Freedom of Information request, were a legal requirement. Other health organisations making big payouts to former employees including NHS West Midlands, the strategic health authority which manages a budget of 7 billion. It spent 2.2 million paying off 97 staff in the two years to August 2008.
Health chiefs are spending 360,000 of public money in an attempt to reduce the high level of sickness and absenteeism among NHS workers in Scotland, where absence rates are 60 per cent higher than in the private sector and are still on the rise. Sick leave in the NHS in Scotland currently costs the taxpayer 222 million a year. However, critics said there was no guarantee that the campaign to combat the problem would produce results, and claimed that managers should be tackling absenteeism in the normal course of their work without incurring extra costs in doing so.
Mark Wallace, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Spending even more money on the problem is not a solution. If so many staff are taking sick leave, it is a sign that either people are getting away with sickies or they are being mismanaged to the point of illness." Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish health minister, said the funding of 360,000 from the government at Holyrood would help health boards to meet a target of reducing sickness rates to four per cent by April 2009.
Figures show that in 2007-08 there was a sickness absence rate of 5.28 per cent in the NHS in Scotland - equivalent to 12 days off a year per person - compared to a private sector average of 3.3 per cent, or seven and a half days. Low morale and overwork has been blamed for the problem, which cost the taxpayer 10m more than the previous year. The figures cover all NHS staff, from doctors and nurses to cleaners and porters.
A woman on every fire engine ... the latest demand from the British PC brigade
Fire chiefs will have to put at least one woman on each fire engine to meet diversity guidelines. New targets say that at least 15 per cent of those in operational roles should be female. That means they will fill one of the five or six places for crew on each engine. Officials at the Local Government Association, which is pressing the quotas on fire authorities, said that an increased number of women firemen is necessary 'to meet the needs of local people'.
But critics warn that they are placing their targets above the need for fitness and strength. Susie Squire, of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: 'Introducing this sort of quota to the fire service is a big mistake. If ever there was a job that should be awarded on merit and physical fitness, it is that of a firefighter. 'It is ludicrous that political correctness is being put above the ability to save lives.' She added: 'This quota system will not only cost taxpayers money by introducing additional and unnecessary administration, but could risk the safety of all of us in the long run.'
At present fewer than one in ten firemen are women even in the brigades with the highest proportion of females in operational jobs. Those with the least women employ proportions of around 3 per cent. In an attempt to address this, local councillors who are appointed to serve on the fire authorities will be asked to sign up to the 'diversity charter'. One of the pledges they are expected to make is to 'work to achieve recruitment targets of at least 15 per cent for women in operational roles'. They are also asked to work towards minority ethnic representation at the same level as that in the working age population of the area. At present just over 3 per cent of firemen are from ethnic minority groups.
Anthony Duggan, head of fire services at the Local Government Association, said: 'The fire service needs to be representative of the area it serves. It is important that the fire service attracts more women and ethnic minorities so that it can work more effectively in partnership with local authorities and other organisations to meet the needs of local people.' Mr Duggan called for a 'culture change' and said that asking authority members to sign the diversity charter 'will show that those who are making the strategic decisions are serious about getting a greater mix of people working in the service'.
Morally corrupt: Britain's bishops deplore Labour's scandalous rule
There is no denying the reality of what the Bishops describe
Leading Church of England bishops have accused the British Government of being "morally corrupt" and delivered a damning verdict on Labour's rule. Five of the church's most senior figures said the Government presided over a country suffering family breakdown, an unhealthy reliance on debt and a growing financial divide. The bishops of Durham, Winchester, Manchester, Carlisle and Hulme said government ministers had squandered their opportunity to transform society, introducing policies that exacerbated inequality and hardship. Labour had sacrificed principled politics and long-term solutions to win votes, they argued, describing the Government as tired and its policies as scandalous.
Meanwhile, the Opposition Leader, David Cameron, accused the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, of leading the country to the brink of bankruptcy, saying the "debt crisis", which he blamed solely on the Government, would serve as Mr Brown's political epitaph.
Although speaking independently in a series of newspaper interviews, the bishops' common criticisms reflect the deepening rift between the Government and the church on social and moral issues. Relations have become increasingly fractious following condemnation of Mr Brown's spending plans by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and a report accusing the Government of marginalising the church.
The Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Tom Wright, said ministers had not done enough to help the poor. "When a big bank or car company goes bankrupt, it gets bailed out, but no one seems to be bailing out the ordinary people who are losing their jobs and seeing their savings diminished."
A new twist on the free-radical craze
Trying to quash free radicals with vitamins turned out to be more counter-productive than anything else so I think the whole theory is flawed. This application of it should therefore fail
In a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks it down. He smiles. It's my turn. I put a spoonful of the liquid in my mouth and swallow. It tastes slightly sweet, which is a surprise. I was expecting it to be exactly like water since that, in fact, is what it is - heavy water to be precise, chemical formula D2O. The D stands for deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with an atomic mass of 2 instead of 1. Deuterium is what puts the heavy in heavy water. An ice cube made out of it would sink in normal water.
My sip of heavy water is the culmination of a long journey trying to get to the bottom of a remarkable claim that Shchepinov first made around 18 months ago. He believes he has discovered an elixir of youth, a way to drink (or more likely eat) your way to a longer life. You may think that makes Shchepinov sound like a snake-oil salesman. I thought so too, but the more I found out about his idea, the more it began to make sense.
The story began two years ago, while Shchepinov was working at a biotechology company in Oxford, UK, and using his spare time to read up on the latest ideas about what causes us to age. The most widely accepted idea is the free-radical theory. This holds that our slide into decrepitude is the result of irreversible damage to the biomolecules that make up our bodies. The main agents of this destruction are oxygen free radicals, aggressive chemical compounds that are an unavoidable by-product of metabolism.
The reason oxygen radicals are so dangerous is that they have a voracious appetite for electrons, which they rip out of anything they can lay their hands on - water, proteins, fats, DNA - leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. This damage gradually builds up over a lifetime and eventually leads the body's basic biochemical processes to fail.
One of the worst types of damage is something called protein carbonylation, in which an oxygen radical attacks vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds in a protein (see diagram). This has been linked to many of the worst diseases of old age, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, chronic renal failure and diabetes (The EMBO Journal, vol 24, p 1311). Other important targets of free-radical attack are DNA and the fatty acids in cell membranes. The human body produces legions of antioxidants, including vitamins and enzymes, that quench free radicals before they can do any harm. But over a lifetime these defence systems eventually fall victim to oxidative attack too, leading to an inevitable decline. Many anti-ageing medications are based on supplementing the body's own defences with antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, though there is scant evidence that this does any good (New Scientist, 5 August 2006, p 40).
Shchepinov realised there was another way to defeat free radicals. While he was familiarising himself with research on ageing, his day job involved a well-established - if slightly obscure - bit of chemistry called the isotope effect. On Christmas day 2006, it dawned on him that putting the two together could lead to a new way of postponing the ravages of time. The basic concept of the isotope effect is that the presence of heavy isotopes in a molecule can slow down its chemical reactions. This is because heavy isotopes form stronger covalent bonds than their lighter counterparts; for example, a carbon-deuterium bond is stronger than a carbon-hydrogen bond. While the effect applies to all heavy isotopes, including carbon-13, nitrogen-15 and oxygen-18 (see chart), it is most marked with deuterium as it is proportionally so much heavier than hydrogen. Deuterated bonds can be up to 80 times stronger than those containing hydrogen.
All of this is conventional chemistry: the isotope effect was discovered back in the 1930s and its mechanism explained in the 1940s. The effect has a long pedigree as a research tool in basic chemistry for probing the mechanisms of complex reactions.
Shchepinov, however, is the first researcher to link the effect with ageing. It dawned on him that if ageing is caused by free radicals trashing covalent bonds, and if those same bonds can be strengthened using the isotope effect, why not use it to make vulnerable biomolecules more resistant to attack? All you would have to do is judiciously place deuterium or carbon-13 in the bonds that are most vulnerable to attack, and chemistry should take care of the rest.
In early 2007 Shchepinov wrote up his idea and submitted it to a journal called Rejuvenation Research. Unbeknown to him, the journal's editor is controversial gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation in Lorton, Virginia, who is well known for supporting ideas other gerontologists consider outlandish. De Grey sent the paper out for review and eventually accepted it (Rejuvenation Research, vol 10, p 47).
In the paper, Shchepinov points out that there is masses of existing science backing up his ideas. Dozens of experiments have proved that proteins, fatty acids and DNA can be helped to resist oxidative damage using the isotope effect. Shchepinov's paper brought the idea to a wider audience, including successful biotechnology entrepreneurs Charles Cantor and Robert Molinari. Impressed, they teamed up with Shchepinov to set up a company called Retrotope, with de Grey as a scientific advisor.
It was around this time that I first got in touch with Shchepinov. I'd never heard of the isotope effect, and de Grey's involvement made me cautious. But there was something in the idea that intrigued me, and I kept on coming back to it. There were obvious objections to the idea. For one, how do you get the isotopes to exactly the sites where you want them? After all, the human body contains trillions upon trillions of chemical bonds, but relatively few are vulnerable to free-radical damage. And what about safety - swallowing mouthfuls of heavy isotopes surely can't be good for you, can it? That, of course, is how I ended up sharing a teaspoon of heavy water with Shchepinov.
Neither, it turns out, is a big problem. Some heavy isotopes are radioactive so are obviously ruled out on safety grounds - hydrogen-3 (tritium) and carbon-14, for example. Others, notably deuterium and carbon-13, are just as stable as hydrogen and carbon-12. Both occur in small amounts in nature and are a natural component of some biomolecules in our bodies (see "Heavy babies"). Deuterium and carbon-13 also appear to be essentially non-toxic. Baby mice weaned on a highly enriched carbon-13 diet are completely normal, even when 60 per cent of the carbon atoms in their body are carbon-13. Deuterium also has a clean bill of health as long as you don't go overboard. Decades of experiments in which animals were fed heavy water suggest that up to a fifth of the water in your body can be replaced with heavy water with no ill effects.
Similar experiments have been done on humans, albeit with lower levels of deuterium. One recent experiment kept humans on a low-level heavy-water diet for 10 weeks, during which their heavy-water levels were raised to around 2.5 per cent of body water, with no adverse effects (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, vol 1760, p 730). The researchers also found that some deuterium became incorporated into proteins.
Heavy water, however, isn't completely safe. In mammals, toxic effects start to kick in around the 20 per cent mark, and at 35 per cent it is lethal. This is largely down to the isotope effect itself: any protein in your body has the potential to take up deuterium atoms from heavy water, and eventually this radically alters your entire biochemistry. You'd have to drink a vast amount to suffer any ill effects - my 5 millilitres did me no harm whatsoever - but even so, Retrotope is not advocating heavy water as an elixir of youth.
Instead, it wants to package up heavy isotopes in what Shchepinov calls "iFood". This method has huge advantages, not least because it allows the heavy isotopes to be targeted to the most vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds. Of the 20 amino acids used by humans, 10 cannot be made by the body and must be present in the diet. That means if you supplement your diet with essential amino acids that have already had their vulnerable bonds strengthened, your body's proteins will have these reinforced amino acids incorporated into them. Some of the building blocks of fats and DNA can also only be acquired via your diet, which means they too can be targeted using the iFood approach.
What's more, this approach ought to be completely safe, says Shchepinov. Deuterium atoms bound to carbon in amino acids are "non-exchangeable" and so don't leak into body water. Another possibility is to produce meat, eggs or milk enriched with deuterium or carbon-13 by feeding deuterated water or isotope-enriched amino acids to farm animals. For now, though, iFood remains on the drawing board as nobody manufactures the right compounds. To solve that problem, Retrotope has signed up the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry in Moscow, Russia and Minsk State University in Belarus to make customised amino acids and fatty acids. "There are a lot of good isotope chemists in Russia," says Cantor.
Another hurdle Retrotope will have to overcome is cost. At current prices, a litre of heavy water will set you back $300. "Isotopes are expensive," says Shchepinov. "But there's no need for them to be. Methods are there to extract them, but nobody wants them." Unless demand rises, there is no incentive to produce them in bulk, and this keeps the price high.
These obstacles haven't stopped Retrotope launching a research programme to test Shchepinov's big idea. A team at the Institute for the Biology of Ageing in Moscow recently fed various amounts of heavy water to fruit flies to see if it had any effect on longevity. Though large amounts were deadly, smaller quantities increased lifespans by up to 30 per cent. It's a promising start, but it's too early to say whether the human lifespan can also be extended in this way, or how much deuterium-enriched food you would have to eat to get a beneficial effect. "This is preliminary and needs to be reproduced under a variety of conditions," says Shchepinov. "It's possible that the flies don't like the diet, and what we're seeing is the effects of caloric restriction [the only proven strategy for extending lifespan in experimental animals]. We need to do a lot more experiments. But still..."
Retrotope has signed up some heavyweight gerontologists to join de Grey as scientific advisors, including Jan Vijg of the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine in New York and Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco. Kenyon recently started work on Retrotope's second round of experiments, giving a deuterium-enriched diet to nematode worms. "It's a beautiful idea," says Vijg. "It gives us a serious chance of retarding ageing." He cautions, however, that Shchepinov's ideas hinge on free radicals being at the root of ageing. While this is still the leading theory in the field, many researchers argue that free-radical damage alone cannot account for all the biological changes that happen as we get old (Nature, vol 451, p 644).
UK: Web sites could be given "cinema-style age ratings"
The first step to government control and censorship?
"In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Andy Burnham says he believes that new standards of decency need to be applied to the web. He is planning to negotiate with Barack Obama's incoming American administration to draw up new international rules for English language websites. The Cabinet minister describes the internet as `quite a dangerous place' and says he wants internet-service providers (ISPs) to offer parents `child-safe' web services."
Pornography is already being used by the Australian government as an excuse for a proposed new internet censorship system. Looks like the Brits are following suit.
Another reason why NOBODY should trust the British government with personal information: "More than one Government computer goes missing every day, ministers have admitted. Since the start of 2002 nearly 3,000 computers have been lost or stolen across Whitehall, which equates to eight every week. In total 1,774 laptop computers and 1,035 desktop computers have been lost or stolen, a rate of nearly five a week and three a week respectively. This year alone 238 laptops and 40 desktops have gone missing. The past seven years have also seen 676 mobile phones, 202 hard drives and 195 memory sticks lost or stolen. The worst offender is the Ministry of Defence, which handles some of the most sensitive information in Government. It has had 866 laptops stolen and has lost 178 - more than half the total of missing laptops. The MoD is losing laptops at a rate of nearly three a week and has also had 157 desktops stolen and lost seven. The Department of Work and Pensions, which processes details of millions of bank accounts, national insurance contributions and benefit and pension payments, is not far behind. The DWP has had 828 desktops mislaid or stolen - 80 per cent of all those lost to the Government since 2002 - as well as 271 laptops."